Slowing Reading (1.16): Deleuze’s DR (pp. 14-15)

As I read and reread the final two paragraphs of this third section of DR‘s introduction, it struck me that I never explained Deleuze’s association of “alienation” with “concepts of Nature.” Though I’m not sure I am able to explain it, it is clear that this sense of alienation has to do with Deleuze’s allusion to Leibniz: “The question is asked why Nature repeats: because it is partes extra partes, mens momentanea” (DR 14). Meaning what? Meaning that our concepts of Nature—which are (naturally) blocked with indefinite extension and indefinite comprehension—become the doubles, echoes, reflections, or commemorations of objects that are utterly separated from one another: bodies without minds, singular bodies that touch one another without the recollection of touch, pure bodies that are alienated from one another by an unbridgeable gulf, even when they draw near to one another.

In this last blog post on “repetition and concepts,” we move on to a different sense of the natural blockage that has nothing to do with alienation but, rather, with repression. Here we are in the realm of minds and memories . . .

Natural Blockage (Part 3): Repression and Concepts of Freedom

Deleuze writes,

Take an individual notion or a particular representation with infinite comprehension, endowed with memory but lacking self-consciousness. The comprehensive representation is indeed in-itself, the memory is there, embracing all the particularity of an act, a scene, an event, or a being. What is missing, however, for a determinate natural reason, is the for-itself of consciousness or recognition. What is missing in the memory is remembrance—or rather, the working through of memory. (DR 14)

In-itself, for-itself, self-consciousness—these dialectical coordinates move us from the pure bodies of Nature (partes extra partes, mens momentanea) to the problem of minds and their memories, that is, to the concept neither of a word [nominal concept] nor of an object [concept of Nature] but of a lived moment—”an act, a scene, an event, or a being.” Corresponding respectively, I believe, to Jean-Paul Sartre’s dialectic between facticity (the inert solidity of existing things and their environments) and transcendence (the dynamic fluidity of accidents and exceptions and evolutions), Deleuze brings Hegel’s “in-itself” and “for-itself” to the seemingly unrelated distinction between memory (our unreflective and solidified sense of events as we presume they occurred) and remembrance (the active construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of our relation to the past and to our own lives). A particular memory of mine has infinite comprehension, Deleuze suggests, for if I were to study it, I would never exhaust its details (just as I would never be able to exhaust a concept of Virginia Woolf or the planet Jupiter; there would always be more predicates, more determinations, more dimensions to uncover and formulate). The important word in my previous sentence is “if”: if I were to study it. In most cases, I do not do this with my memories. They are simply there, as Deleuze puts it; they operate and affect me and my sense of the world through which I move and in which I have a multiplicity of personal and impersonal relations. However, most memories lack what Deleuze calls the “for-itself of consciousness or recognition,” that is, the active “working through of memory” that might very well disrupt or (at the very least) complicate my initial sense of “an act, a scene, an event, or a being,” making me conscious not only of my own self in such instances but also of a past that I may have never actually experienced as a present. The natural blockage, in this third case, is a “determinate natural” process that keeps the in-itself of my memory from matching up to the in-itself of the past as it happened to me, to others, and to the world. Something is missing from my memories, something is (naturally) substracted without my consent in the conceptual formation of my memories, my individual notions, and my particular representations of past events.

But what does any of this have to do with repetition? Or freedom for that matter?

Deleuze continues,

Consciousness establishes between the I and the representation [of an act or event or scene or being] a relation much more profound than that which appears in the expression ‘I have a representation’: it relates the representation to the I as if to a free faculty which does not allow itself to be confined within any one of its products, but for which each product is already thought and recognised as past, the occasion of a determinant change in inner meaning. When the consciousness of knowledge or the working through of memory is missing [as it usually is in our day-to-day lives], the knowledge in itself is only the repetition of its object: it is played, that is to say repeated, enacted instead of being known. Repetition here appears as the unconscious of the free concept, of knowledge or of memory, the unconscious of representation. It fell to Freud to assign the natural reason for such a blockage: repression or resistance [. . .] [T]he less one remembers, the less one is conscious of remembering one’s past, the more one repeats—remember and work through the memory in order not to repeat it. Self-consciousness in recognition appears as the faculty of the future or the function of the future, the function of the new. Is it not true that the only dead who return are those whom one has buried too quickly and too deeply, without paying them the necessary respects, and that remorse testifies less to an excess of memory than to a powerlessness or to a failure in the working through of a memory? (DR 14-15)

This reference and later references to Freud in the coming pages have always interested me, especially given how violently Deleuze opposes Freud (and Melanie Klein) in his collaborations with Guattari. What draws him to Freud here is (perhaps) not altogether different from what draws Jacques Derrida to Freud again and again in the Grammatology (and other works too): namely, Freud’s insight into the temporal structure of the psyche (a structure Derrida adopts, in part, for the operation of différance). Whether or not Deleuze or Derrida buy into the fundamental role of repression in clinical psychoanalysis, they are piqued by the general theoretical structure of repression: namely, how it describes some sort of relationship between conscious and unconscious elements; how these two elements correspond to a second (fraught) relation between memories and some sort of unconscious, inaccessible record of the past that continues to haunt the present; how it serves as a rather useful, even if “negative,” model of repetition (DR 306).

But, again: what does this have to do with “freedom”? In the passage above, Deleuze suggests that repression is the operation of some sort of “free faculty” of the mind (free because it exceeds the control of consciousness and operates without our consent or our will). This operation constitutes the production of memories by way of a primary mode of forgetting. This arche-forgetting (or what Freud terms repression) is an example of the natural blockage Deleuze is sketching out here, for the production of memories is the production of representations (or concepts) of events or scenes or acts. Memories, then, are examples of what Deleuze calls here (and quite ironically at that) “concepts of freedom”; these concepts are produced by this purportedly free faculty; they belong to it and not to “me” (DR 14). That which is forgotten or repressed (that which haunts the concept as its own unconscious) is precisely that which might one day repeat. The return, that is, of the repressed, the forgotten, the past that was never quite experienced as a present of my own.

What model of “the I” (DR 14) does Deleuze’s speculative notion of a “free faculty” intimate? If “the I” is distinct from consciousness, from memories, from the concepts that it produces by way of repression, then “the I” is also distinct from classical notions of the will, consent, rationality, and common sense. The freedom “the I” enjoys is not free will. Rather, it is an unnerving radical freedom of a faculty that protects, produces, constrains, and compulses the I that I think I am. The I that I think I am is the powerless failure who cannot work through a memory, who cannot remember an act, an event, a scene, or a being. Yet Deleuze suggests that the potential encounter between “the I” and the I that I think I am is not just an instance of uncanny repetition (the dead as the living dead, the return of the repressed) but also the operation of the “free faculty” itself as “the faculty of the future or [. . . ] the function of the new” (DR 15). Repetition here is not just an echo of the past, then, but the encounter with the difference (the pure novelty) of a singularity that exceeds memory and representation. To what degree is psychoanalysis an apprehension of singularities? To what degree does “the working through of a memory” commemorate that singularity in a different way, orienting the I that I think I am toward the future (DR 15)? If anything, it seems that repetition is precisely what psychoanalysis strives to make impossible through an aggressive activity of remembrance. Is there an alternative? An affirmation of returns and repetitions? An affirmation of non-conceptual difference that the free faculty leaves out of our memories? These are questions that will have to wait until the later pages of Difference and Repetition.

In the last paragraph of this section, Deleuze develops his statement, “[the free faculty] is played, that is to say repeated, enacted instead of being known” (DR 14), by returning to his earlier reflections on the tragicomic theater (see SR 1.10). He writes,

There is a tragic and a comic repetition [. . .] In the theatre, the hero repeats precisely because he is separated from an essential, infinite knowledge. This knowledge is in him, it is immerse in him and acts in him, but acts like something hidden, like a blocked representation [. . .] In general the practical problem consists in this: this unknown knowledge must be represented as bathing the whole scene, impregnating all the elements of the play and comprising in itself all the powers of mind and nature, but at the same time the hero cannot represent it to himself—on the contrary, he must enact it, play it and repeat it until the acute moment that Aristotle called ‘recognition’. At this point, repetition and representation confront one another and merge without, however, confusing their two levels, the one reflecting itself in and being sustained by the other, the knowledge as it is represented on stage and as repeated by the actor then being recognised as the same. (DR 15)

I’m not altogther concerned with the distinction between the tragic and the comic here. But what does interest me is the sense of repetition’s immanence to the I that I think I am. The free faculty—free of consciousness, an expression of “an essential, infinite knowledge,” the collusion of a repressed past and an uncertain future—is not some inner, hidden, deeper secret mind; it is not some presiding genius. Rather, it is an impersonal operation in which the tragicomic hero is embedded, feeding every activity, choice, scene, affect, and element. This free faculty is played, enacted, and repeated without being known; it is “the I” as singularity, affecting and being affected by other singularities, until the accidental, serendipitous moment of recognition in which “the I” and the I that I think I am (my concept of myself) stumble into one another. Deleuze is clear that this is not simply a moment of self-realization or self-actualization or self-maturation; it is, rather, a confrontation between two very different temporal registers, two onto-epistemological registers that neither merge nor synthesize but that give rise to the repetition of a difference. The I that I think I am suddenly becomes the reflection, the soul, or the echo that steals or betrays the singular “I” in which it has always already been embedded (the “I” that Deleuze and Guattari will later call a “body without organs”).

Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2012)

What does any of this mean? Is there an example? It might be worthwhile to venture into Sheila Heti’s divisive novel How Should a Person Be? (2012). “For years and years,” the narrator begins, “I asked [how should a person be?] of everyone I met [. . .] I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too” (1). This compulsion to find an exterior model for how she should be operates as a sort of reaction to a rather unsettling event in which her “high school boyfriend,” jealous of a crush that she has on a photographer from New York, writes “an outline for a play about [her] life” (24). The outline goes the way one might presume: the boyfriend has loads of success in the play; Sheila (the novel’s narrator) is a miserable failure, “loveless and alone” (25). The final scene of the boyfriend’s outline is explicit but important insofar as it anticipates Sheila’s moment of recognition in the final “act” of the novel itself:

In the final scene I kneeled in a dumpster—a used-up whore, toothless, with a pussy as sour as sour milk—weakly giving a Nazi a blow job, the final bit of love I could squeeze from the world. I asked the Nazi, the last bubble of hope in my heart floating up, Are you mine? to which he replied, Sure, baby, then turned around and, using his hand, cruelly stuck my nose in his hairy ass and shat. The end. (25)

Ludicrous and unflattering and juvenile to be sure, but the experience of reading such a scene produced by the hand of an intimate one “seared [the play] into [Sheila’s] heart [. . .] lodged [it] like a seed that [she] was already watching take root and grow into [her] life.” It isn’t that her boyfriend’s outline was clever. Rather, the experience of reading it has so great an effect on her because of its “conviction.” Indeed, the novel does not really follow the entirety of Sheila’s life thereafter, but it is clear that the form of the novel itself (broken into five acts, many of its pages taking the form of an awkward dramatic script) expresses the shards of life we are shown as enactments, repetitions of the boyfriend’s crude vision, which remains the immanent riposte to any exterior model that the narrator effortfully attempts to adopt for her own life. Indeed, Heti’s meta-fictional play with ideas of destiny, free will, identity, love, friendship, and devastation in How Should a Person Be? all develop in accordance with this immanent and foreboding sense of “an essential, infinite knowledge” (DR 15) that Sheila can only rarely represent to herself as the future which she must do anything to escape. Since this novel is comic (rather than tragic), her instance of recognition, during her last night (several years later) with a rather sadistic new boyfriend (provocatively named Israel!), brings with it a moment of serendipitous fulfillment.

Driven to face and embrace the worst that her first boyfriend had envisioned for her, Sheila tells Israel,

“I want to sleep beside your cock.” I slithered down there and lay, my lips soft up against his dick. I felt his legs grow tense. “Get up,” he said. “No.” “Come up here,” he said, more forcefully this time. But I knew that if I did, his desire for me might remain, and I wanted none of it left. I had to be so ugly that the humiliate him, too. I would have to strip every last filament of gold from my skin [. . .] and strip the gold from his skin, so that none of the gold on him would reflect onto me, and so none of the gold on me would reflect on him, so we would be in utter darkness together [. . .] A few minutes passed. Then he turned his back on me. My nose went into his ass, and I felt its tiny hairs on my skin. A heat glanced my cheeks and my soul, but I remained there, stoic.

I had gone down, gone under, and when several minutes later I surfaced from beneath the hot, stuffy sheets, it felt truly like I was emerging into a new world entirely. (271-72)

There’s really too much to explicate to do this passage justice here (especially within the rich contextual layers of Heti’s chapters and the historico-biblical allusions that she scatters throughout the whole novel). However, it is clear to me that what the character, the author, and the reader all encounter here is precisely the moment of Aristotelian recognition to which Deleuze refers in the final paragraph of his introduction’s third section. Sheila’s “free faculty” (caricaturized by her high school boyfriend and actively repressed or forgotten throughout her life) actively fashions her memories and her concepts of friends, her ex-husband, her mother, and strangers; she cannot represent this free faculty to herself; she cannot do so even when she confronts it under Israel’s covers. Yet she seems to take something from it at that moment. Recognition and representation converge even as they remain distinct, opening up some sort of “new world,” some sort of new project, some sort of futural orientation that enables the narrator to transcend Israel, her first boyfriend, the vision of the Nazi in the dumpster, as well as the concern for how a person should be. She steals freedom from her free faculty and uses these grotesque visions freely, by transforming them into objects of indifference (“Who cares?” [274]) as well as into the material for her creative project of self-(trans)formation: “I threw the shit and the trash and the sand, and for years and years I just threw it. And I began to light up my soul with scenes. / I made what I could with what I had. And I finally became a real girl” (277).

What we have at the end of Heti’s novel is not self-actualization, I contend, but, rather, the formation of a vital trajectory and territory. And this trajectory and territory are made not by an act of will but by the return of the repressed (as Deleuze signifies it in DR), the encounter with the immanent “free faculty” that has been there all along, the dark precursor that not only blocks my memories and regulates the I that I think I am but that also possibilizes the transformation of this “I that I think I am” by way of the double unfolding of repetition and difference.

In the next installment of “Slow Reading,” we move on to the fourth section! We’re over halfway through Deleuze’s introduction.

One comment

  1. Hi there
    I am reading your posts with interest especially as I am also working on a project with Difference and Repetition. As a visual artist my work is focused on visual exploration of the text and ‘Drawing Out Deleuze’. The work has been on hold for a bit as life has taken some tangents but I will be picking up the threads in the coming year. Anyway, I thought that you might find it interesting:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s