Slow Reading (1.32): Deleuze’s DR (pp. 29-33)

How do I speed up a slow reading which has come to a full stop?

How do I find a place to begin again?

How do I find the slow lane of the track I’ve lost?

Over the past two years, I’ve only posted four entries on Difference and Repetition, a book that has obsessed me for the better part of eight years. I had originally envisioned “slow reading” as a project I might take to other books (even composing a few entries on Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas), but now I begin to wonder: Have I, without knowing it, given my life to this book?

I imagine Deleuze would be horrified that I’ve spent so much time with it.

Or perhaps, upon learning I’m a nonphilosopher, he’d be delighted…

… whether or not he’d feel joy or sadness, I need to remind myself what I’ve “slow read” thus far (at least in Chapter 1).

Part One: Pages 28-29

The first two paragraphs of Chapter 1, “Difference in Itself,” offer

  1. a provocative re-articulation of difference “in itself” and
  2. a critical account of the history of the philosophy of difference.

The second paragraph construes “the project of [this] philosophy” as a reaction against the problem posed in the first paragraph (30).

Deleuze’s task, it seems, is to imagine a way to conceptualize a difference outside “the coherent medium of an organic representation” (29). He wants to think difference as repeatable, non-substitutable singularity (1).

He invites us to

imagine something which distinguishes itself – and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it. Lightning, for example, distinguishes itself from the black sky but must also trail it behind, as though it were distinguishing itself from that which does not distinguish itself from it. It is as if the ground rose to the surface, without ceasing to be ground. (28)

As I’ve written before, this somewhat clumsy articulation of difference-as-lightning is distinct from Jacques Derrida’s différance, a concept that requires (even as it seeks to undo) the opposition of identity and difference.

Différance operates according to traces, that is, to the structural necessity of absence at the heart of all structures of presence. This is to say that:

Absence infiltrates presence from the start (conditioning its possibility and securing its impossibility).

Nothingness conditions being (differing and deferring it).

Difference contaminates the self-same (thus giving an ontological condition to paradoxes and paranoias).

But Deleuze aligns presence and being with difference (rather than the self-same), and he aligns absence or nothingness with indifference (rather than difference).

Which is to say he wants jettisons the self-same from his project altogether.

Singularities emerge against backgrounds of indeterminacy or “nothingness” (28). Against such backgrounds, difference is a “moment of presence” in “the form of a unilateral distinction.”

The indifferent sky is not in opposition to the lightning.

It is not overcome or affected.

It is an immanent nothing. A figure for pure, empty indeterminacy.

So what’s the problem to which the history of philosophy responds?

When the [indifferent] ground rises to the surface [with the differential bolt], the human face decomposes in this mirror in which both determinations and the indeterminate combine in a single determination which ‘makes’ the difference. . . . We should not be surprised that difference should appear accursed, that it should be error, sin or the figure of evil for which there must be expiation. (28–29)

A human perspective develops here.

One might encounter difference, see the flash of lightning and the darkness set behind it. This “human face” encounters difference not as an opposition—lord and bondsman, human and animal—but as a formal distortion.

The one who encounters difference encounters it as an extremity that distinguishes itself from pre-existing forms, a difference that discloses a groundlessness, a difference that differentiates itself and the one who encounters it.

Thus, difference emerges (ontologically?) as a problem.

And problems—the unknown, the unrecognizable, the out-of-sync, the unqualified—have long constituted sins, monsters, and evils that threaten “form,” faith, and even “reason.”

Difference as a vampire? Witch? Creature? Demon?

Look into these mirrors, and become undone:

Goya. The Sleep of Reason Produces Mosnters (1799). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. [credit: ARTstor]
Odilon Redon. Pegasus and Bellerophon (1888). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. [credit: ARTstor]
To  Francis Bacon. Three Figures & a Portrait (1975). ARTstor Slide Gallery. [credit: ARTstor]
It should not surprise us that Deleuze is drawn to Goya, Odilon Redon, and Francis Bacon.

Part Two: pp. 29-30

Philosophy has historically botched the response to this difference, shackling it with variations of representation or mediation. Deleuze writes,

To rescue difference from its maledictory state seems . . . to be the project of a philosophy of difference. . . . Difference must leave its cave and cease to be a monster; or at least only that which escapes the propitious moment [of philosophizing] must persist as a monster, that which constitutes only a bad encounter, a bad occasion. (29)

Philosophy mediates the difference of a thing in itself through making a concept of that thing—an “organic representation”—which has its (ideal?) form, its relations, and its objectivity. To mediate difference, philosophers of difference position themselves at just the right moment (think of the stagings of Platonic dialogues), asking, Is this detail too “Large [or] Small” to be part of this thing’s organic concept (29)? 

Deleuze wants to rewind this response to difference and to develop a metaphysics that privileges neither reason nor representation.

Difference need not be mediated by the system of representation in order to be conceptualized.

It need not be seen as evil or monstrous, though it might still have the effect of distorting—difference as activity; differentiation; differentiating.

Part Three: Pages 30-31

To earn this criticism of philosophy, Deleuze must find an example (this is his dissertation, after all!), and so in the next section, he shows how Aristotle’s Metaphysics fails to develop a concept of difference.

While difference might resemble various types of Aristotelian opposition—contradiction, privation, relation, and contrariety—the greatest and most perfect difference requires, for Aristotle, some sort of a commonality between two things (DR 131).

Regarding the types of opposition that do not illustrate the greatest concept of difference, we might say:

Contradictory things cannot be compared because they cannot co-exist. The gap between them is too Large to illustrate a concept of difference.

Privation is more of an incapacity of one thing rather than a matter of two. Without two things or two concepts, how could one illustrate difference? Privation is too Small to illustrate a concept of difference.

“[R]elated terms” (DR 30) are too harmonious. The commonality between them is too Large to illustrate a concept of difference.

Aristotle concludes, then, that contrariety best captures difference, since contrarieties can co-exist under the umbrella of a genus that encompasses many species. Switching over to new terms, this is to say that differences between species of a single genus—what Deleuze calls “specific difference”—captures a balanced, perfect difference.

It seems to me this is what Deleuze means when he summarizes:

In short, contrariety [with]in the genus is the perfect and maximal difference, and contrariety [with]in the genus is specific difference [i.e., difference between species of a genus]. Above and below that, difference tends to become simple otherness and almost to escape the identity of the concept: generic difference [i.e., difference between genres or genuses] is too large, being established between uncombinable objects which do not enter into relations of contrariety; while individual difference [i.e., difference between this and that member of a single species] is too small, being between indivisible objects which have no contrariety either. (30–31)

Remember, this is a summary of Aristotle’s theory of difference. It is an account of his attempt to match difference with a type of opposition best suited to it (neither too Large nor too Small).

In the second paragraph of this section, Deleuze makes a positive case for Aristotle’s specific difference:

It seems indeed . . . that specific difference meets all the requirements of a harmonious concept and an organic representation [cf. 29]. It is pure . . . intrinsic . . . qualitative . . . synthetic . . . mediated . . . productive . . . caus[al] . . . predicat[ive] . . . It is thus the nature of genera to remain the same in themselves while becoming other in the [specific] differences which divide them. (31)

This reading is quite lovely in its own way.

A genus becomes a kaleidoscopic proliferation of contrarieties (“wing/foot,” “reason/non-reason,” “fur/scale”) that, in turn, complicate and morph and differentiate the self-same genus (e.g., “animal”), which grows ever more variable, capacious, vibrant, even if a common denominator (the lowest species, representative of all) serves as the propitious moment and “chosen direction” according to which one might develop a concept (neither too Large nor too Small) of the genus.

It would seem, then, that “the determination of species ensures coherence and continuity in the comprehension of the concept [of a genus like ‘animal’]” (31).

Part Four: pp. 31-33

But now Deleuze launches his criticism. While specific difference / contrariety might be a compelling instance of difference, it “in no way represents a universal concept (that is to say, an Idea) encompassing all the singularities and the turnings of difference” (31-32).

Shouldn’t the greatest difference include all
those categories of opposition that Aristotle discards?

“Specific difference refers only to an entirely relative maximum,” Deleuze claims, “a point of accommodation . . . for the Greek eye which sees the mean and has lost the sense of Dionysian transports and metamorphoses” (32).

What about differentiations that do not obey “the form of identity in the generic concept” (31)? Look back to the paintings above . . .

To read more about Deleuze’s criticism of Aristotle’s selection of contrariety as the most perfect and greatest difference, see my much more thorough account here.

In the next paragraph—the one which brought my “Slow Reading” of Difference and Repetition to a grinding halt so many months ago—Deleuze raises a question about the intermingling of specific difference and generic differences in Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

(Recall, from the block quote above, that generic differences were too Large . . .)

While Deleuze’s earlier summaries of the Metaphysics focused almost exclusively on Book X (Iota), his allusion here to Aristotle’s argument that “Being itself is not a genus” alludes to Book III (Beta). In this book, Aristotle argues that the highest genera in his system (Categories like “substance,” “quality,” “quantity,” etc.) cannot be grouped together under a yet higher genus called “Being” or “Unity.”

Why not?

Because Being applies not only to categories (like “substance”) or lower genera (like “animal”) or even to species within a genus (like “human”) but also to specific differences themselves (contrarieties like “reason/non-reason,” “wing/foot,” “walking/swimming”).

These contrarieties (what Aristotle will later call the greatest differences) must also have an ontological unity of their own (just as the category “substance” must have a unity of its own).

So what?

This all suggests that the highest generic differences (differences between, say, substance and quality) operate differently from specific differences (which belong to and cluster under a higher genus). “It is as though,” Deleuze writes, “there were two ‘Logoi’, differing in nature but intermingled with one another” (32).

On the one hand, there is a kind of species-level logic of difference—a differentiation that presumes the self-sameness and unity of the umbrella-like generic concept. (E.g., “wing/foot” presumes the identity of the genus “animal” and helps situate and compare various species that fall in this genus.)

On the other hand, there is a generic logic—a sense of difference that does not (cannot!) presume the self-sameness and unity of a higher category. (E.g., the difference between “substance” and “quality” express the “equivocity of Being and . . . the diversity of” Aristotle’s “most general concepts” [33]. They are “ultimate determinable concepts” that are “not subject to the condition that they share an identical concept or a common genus” [32].)

Again: so what?

I’m trying to pull myself out of these deep Aristotelian weeds . . .

Deleuze sees a promising “fracture introduced into” (33) the massive edifice of Aristotle’s Metaphysics and its notion of “the greatest difference” (31). One approach to difference locks it within representation. The other remains unqualified, “an absolute concept . . . liberated from the condition which made [specific] difference an entirely relative maximum” (33).

Perhaps one can learn something from this fracture, conceptualize it, make it the ground of a better Idea that can encompass “all the singularities and turnings of difference” (32).


Though “[n]othing of the kind . . . occurs with Aristotle,” this is precisely the task Deleuze will take up.

And his approach has everything to do with Being.

(Slowly) reading on . . .


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