Slow Reading (1.24): Deleuze DR (pp. 26-27)

In this post, I will be finishing up my “slow reading” of the introduction to Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (a project I began last summer!). In the coming months, I will continue working my way through DR and its meaty opening chapters, though I will also be commencing a second slow reading project that will work paragraph-by-paragraph through Virginia Woolf’s 1938 ethical treatise, Three Guineas. Far from slowing down my work on Deleuze, my sense is that this parallel project will help sustain, inspire, and regulate it. We’ll see . . .


The first paragraph of this final section poses some straightforward questions: “Are there repetitions—yes or no?” What becomes of repetition when we insist on the primacy of non-conceptual difference? What becomes of repetition when we acknowledge, regardless of their conceptual identity, that “no two grains of dust are absolutely identical, no two hands have the same distinctive points, no two typewriters have the same strike, no two revolvers score their bullets in the same manner” (DR 26)? Does not this radical non-identity between things make repetition impossible? Aren’t we doomed to be confused about the nature of and relationship between difference and repetition? Only, Deleuze argues, “so long as we” continue to “look for the criterion of a principium individuationis“—the gears of individuation, of the making and unmaking of individual things—”in the facts,” which is to say, in the observations and determinations we make in accordance with schemata, categories, concepts, and other readymade grids of intelligibility. As long as we continue to rely on the order of generality in order to pin down what makes a thing that thing—the Same as or different from other things because of certain determined “facts”—this thing will never be understood as a singularity, never experienced as a difference. And, accordingly, the singularity will never be seen as a repeating thing. If we remain within the order of generality, repetition will only ever be an approximation, a way to make sense of the “extrinsic difference between objects represented by the same concept.”

For Deleuze, difference and repetition do not concern the relation between objects or subjects; rather, together they comprise the mode of existence of all singular things. The difference that repeats is distinct, for Deleuze, from the determination of facts, from the representation of an object (which is to say the empirical construction of an object). The radical difference that repeats has to do with the unfolding of a singularity through “dynamic space,” a space to which “an observer [is] tied” and outside of which no “external position” is possible. (We’ll come back to this point.) The unfolding of difference, Deleuze claims, echoing his earlier comments about the stylistic introduction of theater into philosophy, constitutes the dramatization of “an Idea.” (We’ll come back to this point as well.) This repeating difference may be external to representation and its concepts, but it remains internal to Ideas; it is the very mechanism by which an Idea emits its signs; its signals; its sensuous, sensible, and sensual hooks. It is the very mechanism by which it emits “space” itself. (See below.) In later chapters Deleuze will expand this notion of dramatization. Indeed, a transcript of a talk he gave in 1967 on “the method of dramatization” appears in the Semiotext(e) collection Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953-1974. But here in the introduction to Difference and Repetition Deleuze does not really give us enough to explicate this process satisfactorily . . .

But Deleuze does make an interesting and befuddling claim about halfway through this paragraph: namely, that G.W. Leibniz (the philosopher of the monad, one of the inventors of the calculus) and Immanuel Kant are not all that far apart on the related issues of space, difference, repetition, and the limitations of representation. In SR 1.15, which struggles to explicate Deleuze’s notion of “Natural Concepts,” I attempt to explain his take on Kant’s theory of space in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (which is cited in note 16, pg. 308 of DR). For Kant, you may recall, space and time are extra-conceptual schema; they are not part of the representational content of the objects that we encounter/construct in the world. Whether a hand is a left hand or right hand (for example) has no bearing on whether or not I understand it to be a hand. Whether a building is in front of or behind or beside or around me has no bearing on my understanding of it as a building. Its spatial orientation has no conceptual bearing, in other words, no influence over my understanding of it as an object—a hand, a building—in the world. If we press Kant a little further on this point, Deleuze argues, and follow

certain neo-Kantian interpretations, there [must be] a step-by-step, internal, dynamic construction of space which must precede the ‘representation’ of the whole [of space] as a form of exteriority. The element of this internal genesis seems to us to consist of intensive quantity rather than schema, and to be related to Ideas rather than to concepts of the understanding. If the spatial order of extrinsic differences and the conceptual order of intrinsic differences are finally in harmony [in Kant], as the schema shows they are, this is ultimately due to this intensive differential element, this synthesis of continuity at a given moment which, in the form of a continua repetitio, first gives rise internally to the space corresponding to Ideas. With Leibniz, the affinity between extrinsic differences and intrinsic conceptual differences already appealed to the internal process of a continua repetitio, grounded upon an intensive differential element which ensures the synthesis of continuity at a point in order to engender space from within. (DR 26)

And just when I think I’m following Deleuze’s logic, he throws something like “the synthesis of continuity” or the “engender[ing of] space” at me. Goodness . . .

Honestly, I don’t have the training to evaluate Deleuze’s attempt to reconcile Immanuel Kant and G.W. Leibniz. So what can I say? It seems to me that what concerns our philosopher here is a “process” that precedes the schemata and intensive concepts of the imagination as well as the extensive concepts of the understanding. For Deleuze, though he does say so here, before the intuition of a homogeneous space there is a pre-individual field of “spatio-temporal dynamisms: that is to say, agitations of [heterogeneous] space, holes of time, pure syntheses of space, direction, and rhythms” (Desert Islands 96). If what we intuit as “space” is the condition of all bare repetitions (as Deleuze claims earlier in his introduction [pg. 13]), this intensive field of shifting degrees and densities and rhythms is the more radical condition of this homogeneous “space,” which (for Kant) is not space in itself but a necessary mental construct that enables us to understand two non-identical objects (left hand and right hand) as extrinsically different but intrinsically (which is to say, conceptually) the same. In other words, “space” is the a priori condition of all empirical concepts, categories, and representations, but it too is a concept (an intensive concept of the imagination rather than an extensive concept of the understanding).

According to this difficult passage from the penultimate page of Deleuze’s introduction our intuited concept “space” itself is generated in the cauldron of Ideas. Before we intuit it, “space” is secreted, stretched out, rolled out by the “intensive differential element” at the heart of an Idea. Ideas, we might surmise, are not pure forms, then, but synthesized points in Deleuze’s primordial, pre-spatial, intensive field. These points—which take on a singular continuity in the ontological flux around them—exist by repeating their difference. They are a continual repetition that generates a “space” in which our minds begin to categorize, conceptualize, and naturalize them into objects that—according to our orders of generality—fit into a scale, grid, or taxonomy of resemblances. For Deleuze, this is the case with the formation (or deformation) of cellular organisms, geological layerings, historical events, and aesthetic productions. Monet’s first water lily—like the fall of the Bastille—is an Idea that emerges (both consciously and nonconsciously) out of a primordial flux, which literally exists through the repetition of its difference not only through all subsequent water lilies but from the very start. The first water lily—just like Proust’s narrator’s first love—is already a repetition, the differential expression of an Idea that generates a space in which it continues to exist, to differ, and to repeat. The space that connects these lilies, then, enables us to compare, contrast, read, and admire them all (with or without a consideration of the other lilies or flowers that populate the history of visual art).

I think . . .

Claude Monet’s The Water Lily Pond (1899)

Let’s tackle (at last) Deleuze’s last paragraph in its (near) entirety:

There are repetitions which are not only extrinsic differences, just as there are internal differences which are neither intrinsic nor conceptual [. . .] [W]e do not yet know what is the essence of repetition, what is positively denoted by the expression ‘difference without concept’, or the nature of the interiority it may imply [. . .] [W]e [also] have no idea of difference, no concept of difference as such. Perhaps the mistake of the philosophy of difference, from Aristotle to Hegel via Leibniz, lay in confusing the concept of difference with a merely conceptual difference, in remaining content to inscribe difference in the concept in general. In reality, so long as we inscribe difference in the concept in general we have no singular Idea of difference, we remain only with a difference already mediated by representation. We therefore find ourselves confronted by two questions: what is the concept of difference—one which is not reducible to simple conceptual difference but demands its own Idea, its own singularity at the level of Ideas? On the other hand, what is the essence of repetition—one which is not reducible to difference without concept, and cannot be confused with the apparent character of objects represented by the same concept, but bears witness to singularity as a power of Ideas? The meeting between these two notions, difference and repetition, can no longer be assumed: it must come about as a result of interferences and intersections between these two lines: one concerning the essence of repetition, the other the idea of difference. (DR 27)

What is there really to say about this final paragraph? He begins with the premise of his entire book: that repetition is more than “extrinisic difference” between conceptually identical objects; that difference is more than conceptual resemblance (or lack thereof). He then explicitly states the two unknowns of which he hopes to give a positive account: “the essence of repetition” and “the idea of difference.” Which amounts to saying that he aims to create two concepts: a pre-/non-conceptual difference and a pre-/non-conceptual repetition. Though Deleuze’s introduction does not explicitly define terms like “singularity” or “Idea,” he makes it clear that these terms comprise the important philosophical content of his chapters ahead, chapters which purport to redress “the mistake of the philosophy of difference, from Aristotle to Hegel via Leibniz.” The introduction lays the groundwork of this work of redress, setting up a system of radical distinctions between repetition and generality, law, and concept; between a radical, literal, and spiritual repetition connected to the dynamic formation of space, that expresses itself through the theatrical play of masks, roles, and disguises which it creates. Though Deleuze focuses almost exclusively on the problem of repetition in his introduction, a related problem of difference (of intensity, singularity, deformation) remains immanent to it. On this groundwork he will build his account of difference and repetition. He will pursue a radical metaphysics. He will do ontology in an age of philosophy that so often refutes ontology and aims to overthrow metaphysics. According to Todd May, Deleuze’s ontology does not hope to discover “the nature or essence of what is” (Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction 18) but to “creat[e] a perspective on what there is” (22). His pursuit of an ontological account of a primordial difference and repetition is a first step toward a non-humanistic metaphysics, “a way of seeing this world in which we live that disturbs the verities we are presented with, that opens up new ways of seeing and of conceiving this world that, rather than true or false, are interesting, remarkable, or important” (May 22). May brings us back to an issue I touch on above: that our position as readers of Deleuze (or as lay philosophers) is not external to the fields his philosophy purports to see. Rather, in the very style of his writing, in the difficulty and obtuseness of his concepts, he constructs a perspective among the rhythms and folds of this field. Perhaps we cannot aim to understand Deleuze from a position of safety; perhaps we can only understand it from within, planting ourselves in the very space its Ideas engender.

And how will I do this? Will I end up agreeing with May’s assessment of Deleuze’s work, that we should not turn to it “to settle old questions or old scores but instead to become unsettled” (25)? I’ll have to keep reading to find out. Slowly.


  1. How on earth can Deleuze just assert something like “before the intuition of a homogeneous space there is a pre-individual field of “spatio-temporal dynamisms: that is to say, agitations of [heterogeneous] space, holes of time, pure syntheses of space, direction, and rhythms”.

    I mean if one was to read a sentence like that in text book of visual cognition it would usually be accompanied by tests which would demonstrate why such an assertion is likely to be true.

    I am still wondering what are the sources for positing intensive differential elements as grounds of internal processes of a continua repetition, since its not just enough to say Leibniz as he was living in 20th century and an assertion of that sort is really the business of natural science of rather than a philosopher’s choice or preference. Unless there is some fundamental advantage to such a construct which would shed light on something which is obscured by existing theories.

  2. As for
    “a way of seeing this world in which we live that disturbs the verities we are presented with, that opens up new ways of seeing and of conceiving this world that, rather than true or false, are interesting, remarkable, or important”
    isn’t that way called Physics? Even when some of this makes sense through reading Manuel De Landa, one wonders given that concepts such as phase space and singularities or attractors exist in those accounts of the world, how useful is it to just inject them in sentences on Proust?

    1. Again, my answers will probably be unsatisfying. I’ll be thinking about your comments all day, though!

      Why would this “way” have to be called physics? Doesn’t chemistry or biology also tell us something about “this world”? It seems other sciences and other arts could also serve similar purposes. That’s why Deleuze insists that the science, art, and philosophy are all creative activities.

      I’ll admit I’m something of a relativist when it comes to “usefulness.” If the concepts don’t resonate with Proust’s work for someone, they might resonate for someone else. It is certainly the case that Deleuze found Proust just as “useful” as he found Nietzsche or the mathematical / scientific sources from which he drew. Others who are empirically minded would probably want – as you put it in your other post – tests or experiments.

  3. Great response. However, any answer I could give to your concerns will probably be unsatisfying. Here are a few responses:

    1). I am working through Deleuze’s introduction, not the chapters in which he attempts to “prove” his assertions. To insist that he include tests in his introduction would be like insisting that a visual cognition textbook include all empirical data in its preface. The point of these posts is really just to explore and understand Deleuze’s claims, not (necessarily) their validity. (Though, I will admit, I find them attractive and intuitively convincing.)

    2). Deleuze’s own understanding of philosophy’s relation to empirical verification is slippery. He sees it as a creative enterprise that offers us optics/concepts through which to think the world and its components differently. Different philosophies give different optics, some more empirically valid than others (especially when read in conjunction with empirical science).

    3). With that said, Deleuze was relatively well read in the natural sciences. I’m not an expert on his scientific background – hell, I’m a layperson when it comes to his philosophical sources! – but the research behind this book is a bit more rigorous, I’d say, than just personal “preference.” Until his death he was fascinated by the natural sciences – biology, physics, chemistry – and especially in neuroscience. Any info that he gives about scientific sources will probably be in his endnotes. I do know that there is plenty of scholarship out there about Deleuze’s relationship to the sciences (I just haven’t read much of it).

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