An Eel Eating a Sea Urchin!
A summary of Gilles Deleuze’s book Difference and Repetition. Try not to throw up.
We’ve got a huge selection here (~150 pgs, in the Continuum edition). I don’t really have a sense of what to emphasize, but I’ve got a feeling that the words ‘difference’ and ‘repetition’ are going to be important. We’ll see.
From the preface to the English edition Deleuze remarks, much to my sadness and consternation, that it is the third chapter (which we don’t read) that ‘seems to me the most necessary and the most concrete’ (xv), because it above the others presents a ‘new image of thought’. The project here, though we won’t get to explore it at length in this post, is to allow difference and repetition to liberate thought from those images that imprison it, to ‘force us to think’. Cool.
Introduction: Repetition and Difference (pgs. 1-35)
Deleuze, as usual, wastes little time. He immediately distinguishes repetition from generality, the distinction consisting primarily in the fact that what constitutes a generality can, in its parts, be completely interchanged one for the other, whereas
we can see that repetition is a necessary and justified conduct only in relation to that which cannot be replaced. Repetition as a conduct and as a point of view concerns non-exchangeable and non-substitutable singularities (1).
What can be exchanged is general, but the gift and the theft are criterion of repetition.
But the distinction here is pretty fine, perhaps because, in some ways, it seems weird to conflate generality and repetition in the first place. Deleuze, to make the connection clearer, appeals to the notion of Law as that which makes generalization possible, though it still allows for particularity and even change. Law is what takes of a collection of particulars – citizens, transgressions, natural phenomena, etc – and unites them, thereby unstringing the possibility of repetition at the knees since the law has made one of many, and one needs many to repeat. ‘If repetition exists’, on the other hand, writes Deleuze,
it expresses at once a singularity opposed to the general, a universality opposed to the particular, a distinctive opposed to the ordinary, an instantaneity opposed to variation and an eternity opposed to permanence (3).
The eternal returns and is dynamic, the permanent remains and is static.
What relation, again, do they bear to one another and, more importantly, how can repetition unsettle or crack generality? Deleuze sees two possibilities, both of which belong to the forces of repetition. One can either ascend to the heights of the general laws and overturn them on the grounds of principle, by pointing out the arbitrariness or secondarity of its presumed ‘binding’ authority. The second is to follow the consequences of the law downward to their most absurd conclusions The first path is the path of irony (when the child exposes the groundlessness of the authority of the parent), the second is the path of humor (when wars are waged over the cracking of hard-boiled eggs). Deleuze writes,
repetition belongs to humour and irony; it is by nature transgression or exception, always revealing a singularity opposed to the particulars subsumed under laws, a universal opposed to the generalities which give rise to laws’ (6).
His examples are Job and Abraham, the former questioning the authority of God to have the right simply to say ‘I’m a mushroom-cloud laying motherfucker, motherfucker’, the latter submitting humourously (or absurdly) to the authority of God even unto murdering the child that God sent him as a proof of God’s own power. Oi…
Repetition is beyond any exterior authority (natural or legal, cosmic or civil), and as such repetition is amoral, beyond good and evil, and, moreover, solitary. Repetition is what the thinker may achieve only as the world about her changes perpetually and she wills repetition in the face of it. ‘Repetition,’ according to Deleuze, ‘appers as the logos of the solitary and the singular, the logos of the “private thinker”’ (7). Thinking, perhaps, is the process to be ever repeated since, after all, thinking is much more difficult than generalizing, moralizing, and second-handedly mediating already existing thought.
***WARNING: WE’RE ABOUT TO EMBARK ON SOME GNARLY THEORY EXPOSITION***
So, if we’ve managed to distinguished between repetition and generality along the axes of conduct and law, we have left to make this distinction, according to Deleuze, along the third axis of concepts or representation. The question here concerns the relation the concept bears to its representability. Of any given object we can say that its concept is infinitely comprehensible. What does this mean? The concept to which this particular object attests can be attested to by any number of other particular objects that are united, by the concept, in generality. Deleuze writes,
it is very important that this infinity of comprehension be supposed actual, not virtual or simply indefinite. It is on this condition that predicates in the form of moments of concepts are preserved, and have an effect on the subject to which they are attributed (13).
It is this infinite comprehensibility that makes memory, for example, possible (that is, we can make from disparate impressions judgments or associations that are deemed ‘the same’ only by their passing through the concept that unites them). Recognition, likewise, depends on this infinite comprehensibility (I make a judgment about a particular moose, that it is a moose, because I recognize it in a photo that I have seen before). Deleuze concludes,
the relation of a concept to its object under this double aspect, in the form that it assumes in this memory and this self-consciousness, is called representation’ (ibid.)
From here he makes the following points:
1) every determination is conceptual in the last instance (or actually belongs to the comprehension of an object, i.e. when we make a determination that an x is the x that it is, we’re not talking about the object in front of us, we’re talking about the concept of which the particular object is an instance of x.
2) there is always one concept per particular thing (meaning, I think, that every particular thing, to be a thing, needs a concept. No things without concepts, as the American Revolutionaries might has said).
3) there is one and only one thing per concept.
And this last one is the kicker because it introduces us to the possibility, and necessity, of a theory of difference.
But if ‘animal’, for example, is a concept, then what are we to make of the fact that this concept predicates very different particular things (for example, horse sometimes, man at others)? Deleuze calls this dilemma a blockage, or an instance where the concept becomes other to itself. He writes,
this is why the comprehension of the concept is infinite; having become other in the thing, the predicate is like the object of another predicate in the concept. But this is also why each determination remains general or defines a resemblance, to the extent that it remains fixed in the concept and applicable by right to an infinity of things (ibid.).
We’re meant to take from this the fact that, ‘in its real use’ a concept always extends to infinity, but in its logical use, the concept is exploded to a generality to which no possible object(s) could correspond. The concept becomes blocked artificially, but it is a blockage that does not indicate a shortage or insufficiency, as if the concept were lacking in some sense, but rather an excess (of cheese) in the (digestive) system of real objects. Gross.
WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT THIS?!
we wish to indicate the difference between this type of artificial blockage and a quite different type which must be called a natural blockage of the concept. One refers to logic pure and simple, but the other refers to a transcendental logic or dialectic of existence (14).
Okay, real objects are predicates of infinite concepts, and infinite objects (of logical generalization) are sort of aconceptual, exceeding the relation the concept bears to an(y) object. But let’s imagine the possibility of forcibly assigning this excess into existence. Then we would have a plurality of objects ‘absolutely identical in respect of their concept, and participating in the same singularity in existence’ (ibid.). That is, doubles or twins. Deleuze concludes,
this phenomenon of discrete extension implies a natural blockage of the concept, different in kind from a logical blockage: it forms a true repetition in existence rather than an order of resemblance in thought…. Repetition is the pure fact of a concept with finite comprehension being forced to pass as such into existence: can we find examples of such a passage (ibid.)?
***GNARLY THEORY EXPOSITION OVER***
Deleuze’s example, by the way, is words. He writes,
words possess a comprehension which is necessarily finite, since they are by nature the objects of a merely nominal definition. We have here a reason why the comprehension of the concept cannot extend to infinity: we define a word by only a finite number of words. Nevertheless, speech and writing, from which words are inseparable, give them an existence hic et nunc; a genus thereby passes into existence as such; and here again extension is made up for in dispersion, in discreteness, under the sign of a repetition which forms the real power of language in speech and writing (15).
In the case of a plurality of objects that cannot be distinguished conceptually (words or twins), we have no recourse by which to distinguish them, and their opposition in space does not help us distinguish them, but rather helps us identify them as repetitions. Let me quote Deleuze here to add a little authority to what at this point is pretty much pure guessing on my part:
it is Kant who best indicates the correlation between objects endowed with only an indefinite specification, and purely spatio-temporal or oppositional, non-conceptual determinations (the paradox of symmetrical objects). However, these determinations are precisely only the figures of repetition…a repetition reduced to two, echoing and returning on itself; a repetition which has found the means to define itself (ibid.).
Repetition, then, is difference without a concept. Repetition resists every conceptual specification.
There remains one other form of repetition to consider here, and it’s probably the most famous form: Freud’s compulsion to repeat. Deleuze likens the knowledge that inspires this variety of repetition to playing a part one does not completely understand. He writes,
when the consciousness of knowledge or the working through of memory is missing, 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 appears here as the unconscious of the free concept, of knowledge or of memory, the unconscious of representation (16).
Here, then, repetition is a matter of compulsion and makes itself felt as a problem for freedom. Repetition is the result of a refusal to remember – the habits that we repeat to prevent our becoming fixated, for instance, on our impending death are a result of our ritual of burial, our compartmentalizing of remembrance and removal of all objects that inspire memories of death. We must play through our repressions, in whatever form they take, until this repetition produces recognition and the knowledge becomes apparent.
Repetition appears as a difference (activities repeated on different days, under different circumstances, etc.), but these differences are nevertheless leveled by the fact that they share a common concept (the neurosis, for example), and therefore the difference distinguishing them is itself indifferent to this difference – an ‘indifference difference’ (17). But, even if we’re satisfied with this depiction of the different kinds of repetition, we still have no answer, which Deleuze proposes to find, as to why the blockage we’ve observed culminates in repetition, of all things.
The answer, in a psychoanalytic context, is the death instinct and in the way death is related to mystery, a mystery that resists in the real by masking it in fantasy. Deleuze writes,
take an uncovered or bare repetition such as an obsessional ceremony or a schizophrenic stereotype: the mechanical element in the repetition, the element of action apparently repeated, serves as a cover for a more profound repetition, which is played in another dimension, a secret verticality in which the roles and masks are furnished by the death instinct’ (20).
Deleuze reverses the traditional notion that repetition is caused by repression and asserts instead that it is repetition that allows and perpetuates repression.
In the final pages of the introduction Deleuze continues to elaborate, with some fascinating moments, the various features and kinds of repetition but, due to my own laziness and armed with the excuse that this post will be 10,000 if I don’t cool it a bit, I’m bypassing a few pages and jumping ahead to the first chapter. I will, however, let Deleuze bring us home with a helpful – and somewhat summary-ish – quotation:
in every case repetition is difference without a concept. But in one case, the difference is taken to be only external to the concept; it is a difference between objects represented by the same concept, falling into the indifference of space and time. In the other case, the difference is internal to the Idea; it unfolds as pure movement, creative of a dynamic space and time which correspond to the Idea (27).
Chapter 1: Difference in Itself (pgs. 36-89)
Deleuze argues, at the outset of this chapter, that difference is the only thing that can possibly mediate the two poles of what he sees as ‘indifference’: the black nothingness on one hand and the white nothingness on the other. Difference is what punctuates this spectrum and allows for the possibility of determination: difference precedes differentiation. Like lightning, which emerges violently out of an undifferentiated sky only to erase itself therein, difference differentiates itself from an indifference that does not bother returning the favour, differentiating indifference from difference. Difference is cruel; it makes itself known without allowing the indifferent the same luxury. The project, though, is not to develop a philosophy based on the dynamics of difference (as Saussure’s linguistics are a linguistics based on difference), but rather a philosophy of difference itself. Deleuze writes,
to rescue difference from its maledictory state seems, therefore, to be the project of the philosophy of difference. Cannot difference become a harmonious organism and relate determination to other determinations within a form – that is to say, within the coherent medium of an organic representation (37)?
That is, can we envision and develop a philosophy of difference that does not allow reason to mediate difference by reducing it to the forms of identity, analogy, opposition, or resemblance?
To begin answering this question Deleuze walks us through a philosophical history of difference, beginning with Aristotle and Aristotle’s insight that difference, strangely, admits of varying degrees. Some differences, that is, are more different-like than others. This is an important claim and seems to be true – we can sum it up with the phrase ‘like apples and oranges’. This phrase indicates a difference that somehow exceeds difference and moves into the realm of diversity or otherness. We use this phrase when the things we’re attempting to compare, and often to judge between, don’t allow for a comparison. Not, however, because they’re not different, but because they’re too different – they belong to different genii. The ‘greatest’ difference, according to Aristotle, is that which makes species-level distinctions possible. It is at the level of the specific where difference makes itself most perfectly felt.
Erm…well the problem here for Deleuze is that this notion of difference relies on a reflexivity that would make difference the accomplice to itself – that is, not different from itself as well. Using the example of species classification Deleuze notes that what constitutes difference at the generic level is analogy, whereas at the species level it is identity. Difference, seen from this Aristotelian perspective, therefore bifurcates differently depending on whether one is differentiating ‘up’ or differentiating ‘down’. Deleuze writes,
Difference [here] appears only as a reflexive concept. In effect, the difference allows the passage from similar neighbouring species to the identity of a genus which subsumes them – that is, the extraction or cutting out of generic identities from the flux of a continuous perceptible series. At the other pole, it allows the passage from respectively identical genera to the relations of analogy which obtain between them in the intelligible. As a concept of reflection, difference testifies to its full submission to all the requirements of representation…in the concept of reflection, mediating and mediated difference is in effect fully subject to the identity of the concept, the opposition of predicates, the analogy of judgment and the resemblance of perception (43-44, emphasis mine).
This is problematic for Deleuze because he is wondering whether, under the apocalypse of its articulation, difference hasn’t managed to lose its concept and its reality. The particularly fatal feature here is that of analogy, which operates by having its proverbial cake and eating it as well. By this I mean that analogy finds itself in the unresolvable difficulty of ‘relating being to particular existents, but at the same time [analogy] cannot say what constitutes their individuality’ (47). Deleuze formulates his problem thus:
we must show not only how individuating difference differs in kind from specific difference, but primarily and above all how individuation properly precedes matter and form, species and parts, and every other element of the constituted individual (48).
The question of difference, that is, is going to be a question also of being.
No deft ontologist myself I’ll leave the interrogation of these philosophical particulars to those who are better able to handle them and less likely to mangle them. I’ll try my best, in what follows, to keep to the broad strokes, if broad strokes there be.
Deleuze takes us through the ontologies of Duns Scotus and Spinoza, highlighting the advances each made with respect to the relation Being bears to the Difference that produces entities. Univocal being, the being that each thing, so far as it exists, exists by virtue of, is said to be (by Duns Scotus) immune to distinction – indifferent or neutral as concerns the distinction of, say, finite or infinite, or singular or universal. Spinoza complicates this picture by pressing Being from the realm of the neutral to the realm of the affirmative (50), and Nietzsche goes one step further by demanding that the eternal return be predicated only on a world in which all previous identities have dissolved, thus displacing the identity of entities onto the identity of their becoming, which is also their return. Deleuze claims: ‘returning is being, but only the being of becoming’ (ibid.). Further, he claims that ‘such an identity, produced by difference, is determined as “repetition”. Repetition in the eternal return, therefore, consists in conceiving the same on the basis of the different’ (51).
I know that you’re thinking: ‘but what would Hegel say about all this?’ Lucky for us, Deleuze elaborates. He writes,
difference is the only problem. The criticism that Hegel addresses to his predecessors is that they stopped at a purely relative maximum without reaching the absolute maximum of difference, namely contradiction; they stopped before reaching the infinite (as infinitely large) of contradiction. They dared not go all the way (54).
Hegel pushed difference to its infinite extreme in the form of pure contradiction, in the form of the negative that both annuls and affirms the positive. ‘The negative,’ writes Deleuze, ‘is now at once both the becoming of the positive when the positive is denied, and the return of the positive when it denies or excludes itself’ (55). At this stage, where the negative and positive are always simultaneously producing one another, indifference cannot subsist, and difference ceases to be an interruption of an otherwise undifferentiated indifference but, rather, the whole kit and caboodle.
WHOA THIS BOOK GETS REALLY HARD I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S GOING ON! HOW ARE THERE SO MANY DELEUZIANS WHEN HIS BOOKS ARE SO CONFUSING?!
So, something happens where Deleuze criticizes Hegel for some things, then talks about Leibniz for a long time, then decides that Hegel, for all he accomplished, never manages to escape the clutches of identity, which is always an obstacle to any philosophy of difference. In Hegel’s philosophy, writes Deleuze,
difference is the ground, but only the ground for the demonstration of the identical. Hegel’s circle is not the eternal return, only the infinite circulation of the identical by means of negativity’ (61).
I think the big idea here is that no matter how difference is represented (either finitely or infinitely), in the philosophies of these thinkers, there has still not yet been an actual escape from the modes of representation that depend on notions of identity, analogy, opposition, or resemblance. Before switching gears to his own analysis, Deleuze concludes of his predecessors’ work,
infinite representation, therefore, suffers from the same defect as finite representation: that of confusing the concept of difference in itself with the inscription of difference in the identity of the concept in general’ (ibid.).
Okay, glad we cleared that up. Now Deleuze can just jam. He writes,
what is missing [in all these philosophies] is the original, intensive depth which is the matrix of the entire space and the first affirmation of difference: here, that which only afterwards appears as linear limitation and flat opposition lives and simmers in the form of free differences…. Everywhere, the depth of difference is primary. It is no use rediscovering depth as a third dimension unless it has already been installed at the beginning, enveloping the other two and enveloping itself as third (62).
Presumably, this is where Deleuze is taking us in the remaining pages of this chapter. If we couldn’t already see this coming, Deleuze will maintain that not only is difference independent of contradiction or opposition, but it is the condition of their possibility, that difference is more profound than either. Difference, as Deleuze intimated earlier, will prove to have little to do with limitation, privation, opacity, negation, or silence. Instead, difference ‘is the object of affirmation or affirmation itself’ (63). The danger, here, is letting this claim sink into weakness or naivety. Deleuze writes,
at this point, does the philosophy of difference not risk appearing as a new version of the beautiful soul? The beautiful soul is in effect the one who sees differences everywhere and appeals to them only as respectable, reconcilable or federative difference, while history continues to be made through bloody contradictions…conversely, it is not enough to harden oneself and invoke the well-known complementarities between affirmation and negation, life and death, creation and destruction…. In very general terms, we claim that there are two ways to appeal to ‘necessary destruction’: that of the poet…and that of the politician’ (64).
I typed out this quotation because I liked it, but I don’t really know why Deleuze says this because he just goes on to say some things about Nietzsche and Zarathustra and an ass and the eternal return. Well, we can at least take from this that part of what interests Deleuze about Nietzsche’s eternal return is that it is an affirmation that operates on repetition while at the same time demanding that whatever returns be absolutely new, superior to itself.
The eternal return functions as a movement, and movement implies a constellation of forces, perspectives, temporalities, etc. Our relation to the immediate world, an immediacy from which one presumes to be able to discover difference, ceases to be determined completely by the myth of infinite perspectives (as is sometimes the case in Husserl’s philosophy), but instead by making the point of view itself the object. ‘The immediate,’ writes Deleuze,
is therefore not attained by multiplying representation and points of view. On the contrary, each composing representation must be distorted, diverted and torn from its centre. Each point of view itself by the object, or the object must belong to the point of view…. Difference must become the element, the ultimate unity; it must therefore refer to other differences which never identify it but rather differenciate it (68).
Modern art, according to Deleuze, is capable of this, and empiricism ought to aspire to it.
But isn’t this pretty much what Plato does in the Sophist and the Statesman? Plato, via Socrates and Theaetetus, attempts to arrive at a perfect difference (a definition) of objects by serially differentiating them until they arrive at their destined definition. But what governs this process of differentiation, asks Deleuze. Plato answers this question with his typical coyness, letting an inscrutable and seemingly irrelevant myth stand in as the guarantor of Socrates’ method. Deleuze writes,
in what, exactly, does the grounding test consist? Myth tells us that it always involves a further task to be performed, an enigma to be resolved (75).
Deleuze carries this strategy of Plato’s to a fascinating conclusion, claiming that the ground is the problem. That is, Socrates can proceed only by asking questions and relating the problem to the being that is sought. ‘In this relation,’ writes Deleuze,
being is difference itself. Being is also non-being but non-being is not the being of the negative; rather, it is the being of the problematic, the being of problem and question. Difference is not the negative; on the contrary, non-being is Difference: heteron, not enantion. For this reason non-being should rather be written (non)-being or, better still ?-being (76-77).
We leave the realm of identity not to embark directly on the realm of difference, but on the realm of the problematic and the question.
There’s a note here on Heidegger, but I’m not going to write about it. I’m sure it’s excellent, but don’t take my word for it!
This seems enough to suffice:
Difference is not and cannot be thought in itself, so long as it is subject to the requirements of representation (330).
Why go on? This is at least comprehensible. Plus this post is too long and too terrible to justify distorting things any more than I already have. I’m sorry. Someone please fix this.
 A position I’ve seen overly zealous and perhaps idiotic vegans or rifle-heads occupy, almost accidentally, when they discover their commitment to their laws of conduct lead them to eating dirt or arming children. Deleuze, of course, is not exhorting us to do this……or is he?!
 To the veracity of this I can attest, given that I’m checking my stocks, making holiday-related donations to my favourite local charities, reading the New York Times, drinking fairly traded coffee and reading Nabakov all while generalizing and moralizing and second-handedly mediating the already existing thought of Deleuze. It is quite easy.