I’ve looked at (and used) several introductory textbooks to literary and cultural theory over the years.

Most of them approach this subject matter in the same way: once there was undisciplined “Old Criticism,” then there was “New Criticism,” then all hell broke loose and literary studies disaggregated into schools, lenses, movements, approaches, etc.

The textbooks do what they can to organize this disaggregation into manageable chunks (Structuralism, Deconstruction, Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, Queer Theory, Postcolonial Theory, etc.). The most recent textbooks or most recent editions even try to include Eco-criticism, Cognitive Approaches, Animal Studies, Affect Theory, Disability Studies, Posthumanism, and so on.

No matter how inclusive a textbook appears to be, however, there is consensus that the best way to teach theory is from the beginning.

First there was formalism.
Then a bunch of French theory.
And then things get political, ethical, and historical.

But what if one begins elsewhere?

What if one doesn’t begin with the intentional fallacy or with the signifier and signified but with intersectional feminism?

What then?

Perhaps someone might say: students need to know what later branches of literary study were reacting to.

They need to know New Criticism before Feminist Literary Criticism makes any sense.

But if Sara Ahmed is correct that learning theory is like learning any language, then it follows that the best way to learn theory is not necessarily through a linear, chronological method but, rather, through immersion in what might (initially) seem a foreign tongue.

Immersion in queer feminist of color theory.

My graduate students are spending five weeks on feminist theory before we rewind on Week 6 and begin the normative move through the history of theory and criticism.

What will it be like to read Wimsatt and Beardsley, Saussure, Derrida, Freud, Marx and Engels after already having spent so much time with Wollstonecraft, Woolf, Gilbert and Gubar, de Beauvoir, Cixous, Wittig, Zimmerman, Rubin, Halberstam, Mulvey, B. Smith, Bordo, and Ahmed?

I can’t wait.


The final sentence of Deleuze’s Aristotle section asks, “. . . does not difference as catastrophe precisely bear witness to an irreducible ground which continues to act under the apparent equilibrium of organic representation?” (DR 35).

Implication: if philosophers want to conceptualize “Difference in Itself,” perhaps they should start with/on/around this ground.

I. One More Rehearsal

Without rehearsing in too much detail the many steps of Deleuze’s engagement with Aristotle (which took me far too long to unravel and which I’m too untrained to access accurately), I want to remind myself of a few conclusions he comes to about Aristotelian difference:

1. “Specific difference”—which Aristotle identifies as the greatest kind of difference—”refers only to an entirely relative maximum” (32, emphasis added). It’s clear, for instance, that a greater difference exists between a rock and a bird (generic difference) than between a bird and a lizard (specific difference). Thus, specific difference fails to provide material necessary for “a universal concept” or “an Idea” that expresses “a differenciator of difference” (31-32).

2. The logic of specific difference “rests upon the condition of the identity or univocity of concepts in general taken as genera” (32-33). In other words, species A and species B can be said to belong to a single genus in one and the same sense. The logic of generic difference, however, is wholly other. While related species require the identity of the genus that encompass them, genera do not require a super-genus that encompasses them; they “are not subject to the condition that they share an identical concept or a common genus” (32). The only possible super-genus would be Being. However, in Aristotle, there is no univocal concept of Being but, rather, an “equivocity” best illustrated by the categories (substance, quantity, quality, etc.). The categories provide us with classes of entities (beings) that can be said to be but not in one and the same sense. 

3. For Deleuze, the univocity of the genus that characterizes its species and the equivocity of Being that characterizes diverse genera do not constitute a “fracture” in Aristotle’s thought (33) but comprise a “complementary double inscription” of difference within organic representation (34). Skipping a few steps of Deleuze’s argument, difference is thus “fully subject to the identity of the concept, the opposition of predicates, the analogy of judgement and the resemblance of perception”—the “quadripartite character of representation” (34-35).

So Aristotle’s Metaphysics crafts four unbreakable chains for difference.

Deleuze response? “In effect, difference . . . recovers an effectively real concept only to the extent that it designates catastrophes” (35). Difference and Repetition aims to unleash this catastrophe—”difference is monstrous” (29)—to bring us face-to-void with the Being that Aristotle had suppressed and dispersed into equivocal beings.

II. Back to Being

Best not to start with beings, then, when conceptualizing difference in itself. 

Best start with—best risk—Being.

“There has only ever been one ontological proposition: Being is univocal” (35). Whether one looks to Parmenides, Duns Scotus, or Heidegger, Deleuze asserts, “it is the same voice which is taken up, in an echo which itself forms the whole deployment of the univocal. A single voice raises the clamour of being” (35). For these philosophers, in other words, all of whom sought to articulate something about the “irreducible ground” of beings, all beings have to be said to exist in one and the same sense.

III. A Propositional (not Analogical) Illustration of Univocal Being

By insisting on Being’s univocity, Deleuze is not claiming that it must be understood (contra Aristotle) as a genus. (This would loop difference back into the representational logic of identity.) Rather, he seeks to displace the model of analogy and judgment altogether—i.e., the model that distributes Being into categorical entities—and to replace it “with that of the proposition” (35).

What does this mean?

To illustrate Being’s univocity, Deleuze will use the model of a single proposition (particularly an ontological proposition, like X is Y) to replace Aristotle’s analogical model (which illustrated Being’s equivocity).

So what are the components parts of a proposition?

  1. The Sense: “what is expressed in the proposition”
  2. The Designated: “what expressed itself in the proposition”
  3. The Expressors or Designators: “differential factors characterising the elements endowed with sense and designation”

(Think of “sense” as “meaning.” Think of “the designated” as the thing to which X refers in the proposition X is Y. Think of “the expressers or designators” as the particular Xes and Ys in the proposition X is Y. )

I’m not entirely sure what the origin of Deleuze’s terminology is here, but he does try to clarify these terms by offering some examples of how ontological propositions model the univocity of Being. (It is important to note that Deleuze is not yet attempting to justify his position; only to clarify and illustrate it.) 

He writes:

We can conceive that names or propositions do not have the same sense even while they designate exactly the same thing (as in the case of the celebrated examples: morning star—evening star, Israel—Jacob, plan—blanc). The distinction between these senses is indeed a real distinction [distinctio realis], but there is nothing numerical—much less ontological—about it: it is a formal, qualitative or semiological distinction. . . . What is important [here] is that we can conceive of several formally distinct senses which none the less refer to being as if to a single designated entity, ontologically one. It is true that such a point of view is not sufficient to prevent us from considering these senses as analogues and this unity of being as analogy. We must add that being, this common designated, in so far as it expresses itself, is said in turn in a single and same sense of all the numerically distinct designators and expressers. In the ontological proposition, not only is that which is designated ontologically the same for qualitatively distinct senses, but also the sense is ontologically the same for individuating modes, for numerically distinct designators or expressers: the ontological proposition involves a circulation of this kind (expression as a whole).


So what might we make of this?

A different sense/meaning is conveyed when I identify the “morning star” or “evening star.” There is the star that appears in the morningThere is the star that appears in the evening

However, it is the same star that I am designating. The sense is different, but I am designating the same planetary body (Venus, which appears in the morning and the evening).

There is nothing numerically or ontologically distinct between Venus as evening star or Venus as morning star. There is a real distinction in sense/meaning, but the morning star and the evening star exist—they are—in the same way. The being(ness) of Venus, “this common designated” (as Deleuze puts it), always is in “in a single and same sense” no matter what expressers or designators one uses (35).

Moreover, the is in any ontological proposition involving the evening star or morning star would convey that being(ness) “in a single and same sense.”

But what sense is that?

How do things exist? How are they?

They differ and repeat.

They repeat and differ.

The ontological proposition does not designate a static entity—this would, again, return us to the shackles of organic representation. Rather, it designates an entity that exists in perpetual individuation/becoming.

Beings express themselves as circulations—repetitions—of differences that continue to differentiate. The univocity of being, then, is a chorus, “a single and same voice for the whole thousand-voiced multiple” that is every being (304, emphasis added).

Deleuze’s formula is: Univocity = Multiplicity.

Reading on . . .


Gilles Deleuze’s preoccupation with (and reverence for) Spinoza is well known among theory heads and students of contemporary philosophy, as is his frequent quotation or paraphrase of a sentence from the Ethics: “No one has yet determined what the Body can do” (III, 2, scholium). “This declaration of ignorance,” he writes in Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (1970, 1981), “is a provocation. We speak of consciousness and its decrees, of the will and its effects, of the thousand ways of moving the body, of dominating the body and the passions—but we do not even know what a body can do. Lacking this knowledge, we engage in idle talk” (17-18).

It has never occurred to me before that Spinoza’s provocation—which has become something of a refrain or rallying cry for Deleuzian affect studies—prefigures Deleuze’s modest intervention in the history of pedagogy and the philosophy of education.

In his favorite chapter of Difference and Repetition (1968) Deleuze writes, “We never know in advance how someone will learn: by means of what loves someone becomes good at Latin, what encounters make them a philosopher, or in what dictionaries they learn to think . . . There is no more a method for learning than there is a method for finding treasures” (136).

We do not know what the body can do.
We do not know how someone will learn.

In his later essay, “Spinoza and the Three ‘Ethics'” (1993), Deleuze explicitly joins these provocative declarations of ignorance.

He writes, “If I learn to swim or dance, my movements and pauses, my speeds and slownesses, must take on a rhythm common to that of the sea or my partner, maintaining a more or less durable adjustment. The structure [of learning? of bodies?] always has several bodies in common, and refers to a concept of the object, that is, to a common notion. The structure or object is formed by at least two bodies, each of which in turn is formed by two or more bodies, to infinity, while in the other direction they are united into ever larger and more composite bodies, until one reaches the unique object of Nature in its entirety, an infinitely transformable an deformable structure, universal rhythm, Facies totius Naturae, infinite mode” (Essays Critical and Clinical 142).

What can bodies do? How do we learn?

For Deleuze—and perhaps for Spinoza—these questions are bound up with one another, and they are also bound up with the problem (or is it the function?) of ignorance.

Reading on . . .

The Best of School
D.H. Lawrence

The blinds are drawn because of the sun,
And the boys and the room in a colourless gloom
Of underwater float: bright ripples run
Across the walls as the blinds are blown
To let the sunlight in; and I,
As I sit on the shores of the class, alone,
Watch the boys in their summer blouses
As they write, their round heads busily bowed:
And one after another rouses
His face to look at me,
To ponder very quietly,
As seeing, he does not see.

And then he turns again, with a little, glad
Thrill of his work he turns again from me,
Having found what he wanted, having got what was to be had.

And very sweet it is, while the sunlight waves
In the ripening morning, to sit alone with the class
And feel the stream of awakening ripple and pass
From me to the boys, whose brightening souls it laves
For this little hour.

                               This morning, sweet it is
To feel the lads’ looks light on me,
Then back in a swift, bright flutter to work;
Each one darting away with his
Discovery, like birds that steal and flee.

Touch after touch I feel on me
As their eyes glance at me for the grain
Of rigour they taste delightedly.

As tendrils reach out yearningly,
Slowly rotate till they touch the tree
That they cleave unto, and up which they climb
Up to their lives—so they to me.

I feel them cling and cleave to me
As vines going eagerly up; they twine
My life with other leaves, my time
Is hidden in theirs, their thrills are mine.

I. Epigraphs and Titles

“And as Eddie’s picture of what It was began to fade, It began promptly to change into something else.” —Stephen King, It (1986)

“It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats.” —Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus (1972)

“All too often in the relations between the ego and the id [das Es, the It] we find the picture of a less ideal situation in which the rider is obliged to guide his horse in the direction it itself wants to go.” —Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1932)

It (1990)

It Follows (2015)

It Comes at Night (2017) 

It Devours! (2017)

It (2017)

Didn’t they see it at the end as it really was, with all its masks cast aside?” —Stephen King, It (1986)

II. Teaching Poetry

A few weeks ago, I talked with my online students about the importance of tracking pronouns through lyric poems. My example: William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (included in their textbook).

“It” is important here:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when IT alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! IT is an ever-fixéd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
IT is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come; 
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, 
But bears IT out even to the edge of doom. 
If this be error and upon me prov’d, 
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

As I told my students, if a reader misses that the IT of lines 3, 5, and 7 refers to “Love,” the first two quatrains would be horribly confusing. Identifying the antecedent is crucial to following Shakespeare’s sense, even if his sound is itself delicious (as in line 11: “Within his bending sickle’s compass come”). Indeed, IT is to blame, I imagine, for a great deal of anxiety for students of poetry who have not yet learned to accept that a poem’s meaning (or even its prose sense) need not be immediately apparent…

…but to what does the IT of line 12 refer? Does Love bear itself to the edge of doom? Does the “his” of line 11 also refer to Love or to Time? Is Love a he and an IT? Has IT become something else—something Love bears “even to the edge of doom”?

III. Thinking Horror

Pronoun-antecedent anxiety and its mobilization—the mobilization of IT—seems to be fundamental, elemental not only to lyric poetry but also to genre horror. I have nothing novel to say about IT in horror fiction or films, but I feel compelled all the same to note that a certain pattern has been emerging in my life, and I’d like (simply) to note it and to give it the faintest sketch. 

This summer, I’ve been reading Stephen King for the first time and have been drawn to contemporary horror films for a few years.

I’ve also been feeling the lure of philosophical pessimism—dark ontologies, “a coherence which is no more our own, that of mankind, than that of God or the world” (Deleuze, Difference and Repetition xxi).

This might not be very good for me.

I find myself toying with a few observations (none of which will be new to fans, lovers, philosophers, or critics of horror):

  1. The moment when IT is given an antecedent—when the horror reveals ITSELF—is a tricky one that often leaves me as a reader or a viewer disappointed.
  2. The best horror seems to strike a balance between stoking the reader’s or viewer’s expectation of a reveal and withholding a clear sense of what IT wants, what IT might look like, what IT (the IT that haunts, stalks, eats, kills) actually is.
  3. There is not an IT. There is just us. There is simply the material world and there are good explanations for why I might feel haunted or followed.
  4. This truth, that there is no IT, is often disappointing.
  5. This truth, as a fiction podcast like The Black Tapes dramatizes, can feel more unsatisfying than a lame reveal.
  6. We want there to be portals and possessions.
  7. Evidence of evil gives us chills but also gives us comfort.
  8. If the disappointment of the desire for evil is thought through to the end, as it is in the film It Comes at Night (2017), then we are left with a rather grim, bleak, and boring world indifferent to our survival.
  9. Nothing is coming for me.
  10. Whether or not the revelation of a monster or a demon or a serial killer or a zombie or an alien or an evil neighbor is satisfying, there is some comfort in the idea that there is an IT out there on which to blame our pain and fear and around which we can gather and fight collectively—at which we can throw our stones, unleash our silver dollars, collectivize and oppose and unmask the source of our dismay, terror, and anger.
  11. There’s a lesson here about how we demonize one another—how easy it is to mobilize groups of people after identifying for them the antecedent to the IT that comes at night, that follows, that breathes and heats and eats.

None of this quite gets at what I want to say. But perhaps it’s a start. Perhaps it’s something that connects quite a few of my preoccupations.

Reading on . . .



In the final paragraph of this section on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Deleuze seeks to clarify the point he has just made. Generic / categorical difference and specific difference are not identical, he repeats, but they are, nevertheless, co-constitutive; “the univocity of species in a common genus,” he writes, “refers back to the equivocity of being in the various genera: the one reflects the other” (DR 34).

It might be worth noting that Deleuze anticipates here his and Guattari’s extensive account of philosophical creation (What Is Philosophy?). He approaches Aristotle simultaneously as a creator of concepts and as a constructor of a plane of immanence (an Aristotelianism) on which these concepts co-exist, reinforce, and resonate with one another (WIP 35).

Despite the conceptual difference between specific and generic difference, they nevertheless make sense together and work together in the Metaphysics. They are “tied together by their complicity in representation” (DR 34). Continue reading