Dark Reflections

Samuel Delany’s beautiful new book, Dark Reflections, is something like the inverse of a “pornotopic” book like The Mad Man (see also here), or a metapornographic one like Phallos. For Dark Reflections tells the story of a black gay poet, Arnold Hawley, who cannot come to terms (until far too late) with his sexuality, and whose sexual life is therefore largely unconsummated. It’s about a lot of other things as well: the ironies and disappointments of the literary life, the dubious nature of the publishing industry, the extremely marginal status of poets (and of poetry) in American society today, and the way that race intersects with gender and sexuality. And it is also about loneliness, and madness, and having to come to terms with one’s own mortality. But the book’s sharpest focus is on sexual desire, and on being afraid.

I suppose the lament for a life half lived is itself some sort of literary genre. But Delany, as always, has a unique take on what might seem a common theme. For Arnold is not “repressed,” in any psychoanalytic sense of this term. He is fully aware, throughout, of his desires; and he doesn’t disavow them, so much as he is first afraid of them, and later wearied by the prospect of trying to act on them. “Internalized homophobia” is also not quite the right term for Arnold’s condition. He doesn’t hate himself, or hate what he is, or feel himself driven by impulses that he dares not avow, or that he thinks will damn him. It is just that he feels, well, uncomfortable: uncomfortable in coming out of the closet at a time when there are real dangers in doing so; and later, when the existence of an active (and sometimes activist) public gay culture offers some defense against those dangers, uncomfortable with living his life in public, as a kind of spectacle.

Arnold also cannot be diagnosed as lacking the courage to live fully — in the manner of T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, “do I dare to eat a peach?” (and remember that Eliot himself was something of a closet case). Rather, at times Arnold is (if anything) too generous and impulsive, as is dramatized in the middle section of this three-part novel (it moves backward in time, from an opening account of Arnold’s middle and old age, to a final section which goes back to his youth, his formative experiences, his sexual awakening). The middle section contains some of the most harrowing writing of Delany’s entire career: it narrates how Arnold agrees to marry a young homeless white woman whom he hardly knows, and who (as it turns out) really is crazy — or has been driven crazy, as “the pure products of America” always are (to quote another great American poet). The consequences of this impulsive, and non-sexual, marriage are calamitous — though they also provide the material for much of Arnold’s best poetry. Art is often nourished by horror and tragedy, though it certainly does not “redeem” or “ennoble” or “compensate for” such tragedy.

If anything, Dark Reflections is about the sad consequences of an exacerbated self-consciousness — although, in contrast to traditional (19th century) treatments of this theme, the problem is not intrinsic to self-consciousness itself, but determined by its social, cultural, and political surroundings. Arnold is hyper-aware both of being gay, and of being black, in America, and of the discrimination that has customarily attached to both. This is only heightened by the fact that he is as cultivated and sensitive as he is — which is a stereotype often applied to gay men, and the exact opposite of a stereotype often applied to black men and women. The book is haunted by a vile racist remark that Wallace Stevens made at the Pulitzer Prize banquet in 1950, responding to Gwendolyn Brooks’ winning of the poetry prize; Delany writes in a concluding “Historical Note” that this remark is “a refrain not only throughout this tale but in the mind of any black writer contemplating his or her possibility for reward or recognition in America.”

Indeed, Arnold is preoccupied with the question of recognition; he somewhat vainly and pompously tends to imagine himself as the object of a future biographer’s scrutiny, the result and reward of his becoming famous as a poet. But of course poets in America today do not become famous — and Arnold has to face the fact that his works have only been published in small editions, mostly by small presses, and that they are generally not to be found in any library. In his old age — described in the first section of the book — Arnold is poor and largely companionless. He is so alone that he even misses out on Nine Eleven entirely (despite living in lower Manhattan; but he has neither friends nor a television, so he doesn’t even find out about the attacks until the following day). Years earlier, as recounted in the final section of the novel, Arnold also misses out on the Stonewall “riots” or protests of 1969 — he had been a habitue of that bar the previous year, but he entirely misses the events that give Stonewall its historical significance. (Delany does remind us, however, that the Stonewall was largely a “black and Hispanic gay bar” — a fact that is often omitted from the official gay histories).

The sense of a “missed encounter” is crucial to Arnold’s history, and is the best key to his failure to live the life he might have lived. In the book’s last third, we do see Arnold in the Stonewall, with black, gay male friends and at least a nascent sense of community; but one that seems to slip away as Arnold grows older, and more private an circumspect. And the book ends with an epiphany, which is both aesthetic and erotic in import: it brings Arnold back to a crucial turning point, from early adulthood, when (an understandable) fear and an aggravated sense of isolation proved more powerful than desire, setting him on the path to his later loneliness and frustration. It’s almost a Sartrean moment of existential choice: and Arnold makes the “wrong” choice, condemning himself to subsequent ill-at-ease-ness and unfreedom. It’s as if Arnold had been offered a glimpse of a Delanyesque “pornotopia” — but was too freaked out by it, in a late-1950s social climate far different from the bohemian one that Delany himself (as recounted in his memoir The Motion of Light in Water) found just several years later in the East Village. In any case, Arnold’s aesthetico-erotic epiphany, with which the book ends, recovers the past in an almost Proustian sense — but (unlike Proust) without thereby redeeming it. It’s the missed encounter itself that returns, with its real sense of potentiality and hope, but also with the mortal awareness that such potentiality and hope have themselves been squandered.

I’ve written before about how Delany, almost uniquely among writers of the last half-century (or more), presents a vision of sexuality, and sexual “excess,” involving both real bodily expenditures and the projection, beyond possibility, of extravagant sexual fantasies, that is nonetheless not organized around the tiresome themes of “transgression” and “impossibility.” In Dark Reflections, Delany in effect writes correlatively about the denial of such a vision, or the failure to attain it, which nonetheless is not organized around the usual themes of hysterical repression and a puritanical thirst for denial (or “obscene superego jouissance”) with which libertines have baited their opponents for the last two centuries. This is not only to say (rather obviously) that Arnold is no T. S. Eliot, but also to register how deeply the personal is implicated in the transpersonal, or the social. It is not that selfhood is generic, or stereotypical, or a mere byproduct or epiphenomenon or structural effect of some sort of social “conditioning” or (more sophisticatedly) “coding”; but rather that the most deeply singular, private, and unsharable depth of ones own being is the place where one is most profoundly marked by one’s past encounters with others (both contingent, personal encounters, and more generally social ones that have to do with the priority of parents, of language, of mores and prejudices, etc.). This sort of precedence cannot really be described either in Sartrean terms of being condemned to freedom, or in Lacanian terms of the big Other — though both of these theories refer to aspects of it. Dark Reflections does indeed offer us a sophisticated account of the genesis and the maintenance of subjectivity, and of how things like gender, sexuality, race, and class impact upon it at the deepest level (without thereby “determining” it) — except that this “theory” cannot be abstracted away from the contingencies and particularities of Arnold Hawley himself, the fictive protagonist who, in Delany’s narrative construction, inhabits and projects it. Which is, of course, what makes the book a work of fiction rather than of theory, something that is larger than, and irreducible to, what it exemplifies — which is, I think, what we really look for in great works of fiction.

Eternal Objects

This is from the same chapter-in-progress as my previous post. It’s an attempt to work through Whitehead’s concept of “eternal objects,” and show how this concept is related to Deleuze’s notion of the virtual. I kind of feel this is not much more than “Whitehead 101,” but it is only by working things out as slowly and painfully as I am doing here, that I am able to get the concept straight in my own mind. Page numbers refer to Process and Reality. Footnotes omitted.

Alongside events or actual entities, Whitehead also posits what he calls “eternal objects.” These are “Pure Potentials” (22), or “potentials for the process of becoming” (29). If actual entities are singular “occasions” of becoming, then eternal objects provide “the ‘qualities’ and ‘relations’ ” (191) that enter into, and help to define, these occasions. When “the potentiality of an eternal object is realized in a particular actual entity,” it “contribute[es] to the definiteness of that actual entity” (23). It gives it a particular character. Eternal objects thus take on something of the role that universals (48; 158), predicates (186), Platonic forms (44), and ideas (52; 149) played in older metaphysical systems. But we have already seen that, for Whitehead, “concrete particular fact” cannot simply “be built up out of universals”; it is more the other way around. Universals, or “things which are eternal,” can and must be abstracted from “things which are temporal” (40). But they cannot be conceived by themselves, in the absence of the empirical, temporal entities that they inform. Eternal objects, therefore, are neither a priori logical structures, nor Platonic essences, nor constitutive rational ideas. They are adverbial, rather than substantive; they determine and express how actual entities relate to one another, take one another up, and “enter into each others’ constitutions” (148-149). Like Kantian and Deleuzian ideas, eternal objects work regulatively, or problematically.

To be more precise, Whitehead defines eternal objects as follows: “any entity whose conceptual recognition does not involve a necessary reference to any definite actual entities of the temporal world is called an ‘eternal object’ ” (44). This means that eternal objects include sensory qualities, like colors (blueness or greenness) and tactile sensations (softness or roughness), conceptual abstractions like shapes (a helix, or a dodecahedron) and numbers (seven, or the square root of minus two), moral qualities (like bravery or cowardice), physical fundamentals (like gravitational attraction or electric charge), and much more besides. An eternal object can also be “a determinate way in which a feeling can feel. . . an emotion, or an intensity, or an adversion, or an aversion, or a pleasure, or a pain” (291). “Sensa” – or what today are more commonly called “qualia” – are eternal objects; so are affects or emotions; and so are “contrasts, or patterns,” or anything else that can “express a manner of relatedness between other eternal objects” (114). There is, in fact, “an indefinite progression of categories, as we proceed from ‘contrasts’ to ‘contrasts of contrasts,’ and on indefinitely to higher grades of contrasts” (22). The levels and complexities proliferate, without limit. But regardless of level, eternal objects are ideal abstractions that nevertheless (unlike Platonic forms) can only be encountered within experience, when they are “selected” and “felt” by particular actual occasions. For this reason, they are well described as “empirico-ideal notions.”

Whitehead’s use of the word “eternal” might seem to be a strange move, in the context of a philosophy grounded in events, becomings, and continual change and novelty. And indeed, as if acknowledging this, he remarks that, “if the term ‘eternal objects’ is disliked, the term “potentials’ would be suitable” instead (149). But if Whitehead prefers to retain the appellation “eternal objects,” this is precisely because he seeks – like Nietzsche, Bergson, and Deleuze – to reject the Platonic separation between eternity and time, the binary opposition that sets a higher world of permanence and perfection (“a static, spiritual heaven”) against an imperfect lower world of flux (209). The two instead must continually interpenetrate. For “permanence can be snatched only out of flux; and the passing moment can find its adequate intensity only by its submission to permanence. Those who would disjoin the two elements can find no interpretation of patent facts” (338). Actual entities continually perish; but the relations between them, or the patterns that they make, tend to recur, or endure. Thus “it is not ‘substance’ which is permanent, but ‘form.’ ” And even forms do not subsist absolutely, but continually “suffer changing relations” (29). In asserting this, Whitehead converts Plato from idealism to empiricism, just as he similarly converts Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, and Kant

When Whitehead says that forms as well as substances, or eternal objects as well as actual entities, must be accepted as real, he is arguing very much in the spirit of the radical empiricism of William James. For James, experience is the sole criterion of reality; we live in “a world of pure experience.” Classical empiricism has great difficultly in making sense of relations, as well as of emotions, contrasts and patterns, and all the other phenomena that Whitehead classifies as “eternal objects.” Since these cannot be recognized as “things,” or as direct “impressions of sensation,” they are relegated to the status of mental fictions (habits, derivatives, secondary qualities, and so on). But James says that, in a world of pure experience, “relations” are every bit as real as “things”: “the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system.” Whitehead argues, by the same logic, that eternal objects must be accounted as real as the actual entities which they qualify, and which select them, include them, and incarnate them. Eternal objects are real, because they are themselves “experienced relations,” or primordial elements of experience.

But even though eternal objects are altogether real, they are not the same thing as actual entities. Like Deleuze’s virtualities, they are precisely not actual. This is because, in themselves, they are not causally determined, and they cannot make anything happen. Eternal objects “involve in their own natures indecision” and “indetermination” (29); they always imply alternatives, contingencies, situations that could have been otherwise. This patch of wall is yellow, but it might have been blue. This means that their role is essentially passive. “An eternal object is always a potentiality for actual entities; but in itself, as conceptually felt, it is neutral as to the fact of its physical ingression in any particular actual entity of the temporal world” (44). You might say that yellowness “in itself,” understood as a pure potentiality, is utterly indifferent to the actual yellow color of this particular patch of wall. Yellowness per se has no causal efficacy, and no influence over the “decision” by which it is admitted (or not) into any particular actual state of affairs. Eternal objects, like Deleuze’s quasi-causes, are neutral, sterile, and inefficacious, as powerless as they are indifferent.

At the same time, every event, every actual occasion, involves the actualization of certain of these mere potentialities. Each actual entity is determined by what Whitehead calls the ingression of specific eternal objects into it. “The term ‘ingression’ refers to the particular mode in which the potentiality of an eternal object is realized in a particular actual entity, contributing to the definiteness of that actual entity” (23). Each actual entity creates itself, in a process of decision, by making a selection among the potentialities offered to it by eternal objects. The concrescence of each actual entity involves the rejection of some eternal objects, and the active “entertainment,” or “admi[ssion] into feeling” (188), of others. And by a kind of circular process, the eternal objects thus admitted or entertained serve to define and determine the entity that selected them. That is why – or better, how – this particular patch of wall actually is yellow. By offering themselves for actualization, and by determining the very entities that select and actualize them, eternal objects play a transcendental, quasi-causal role in the constitution of the actual world.

Whitehead also explains the difference, and the relation, between eternal objects and actual entities by noting that the former “can be dismissed” at any moment, while the latter always “have to be felt” (239). Potentialities are optional; they may or may not be fulfilled. But actualities cannot be avoided. Indeed, “an actual entity in the actual world of a subject must enter into the concrescence of that subject by some simple causal feeling, however vague, trivial, and submerged” (239). An actual entity can, in fact, be rejected or excluded, by the process of what Whitehead calls a negative prehension: “the definite exclusion of [a given] item from positive contribution to the subject’s own real internal constituion” (41). But even this is a sort of backhanded acknowledgement, an active response to something that cannot just be ignored. Even “the negative prehension of an entity is a positive fact with its emotional subjective form” (41-42). An actual entity has causal efficacy, because in itself it is entirely determined; it is empirically “given,” and this “givenness” means Necessity (42-43). Once actual entities have completed their process, once the ingression of eternal objects into them has been fixed, they “are devoid of all indetermination. . . They are complete and determinate. . . devoid of all indecision” (29). Every event thus culminates in a “stubborn matter of fact” (239), a state of affairs that has no potential left, and that cannot be otherwise than it is. An event consists precisely in this movement from potentiality (and indeterminacy) into actuality (and complete determination). The process of actualization follows a trajectory from the mere, disinterested (aesthetic) “envisagement” of eternal objects (44) to a pragmatic interest in some of these objects, and their incorporation within “stubborn fact which cannot be evaded” (43).

Still to be worked out:

  • The genesis of temporality in the process of actualization. Whitehead describes the future as “merely real, without being actual” (238) — the same phrasing that Deleuze uses to describe the virtual.
  • Eternal objects as the focus of Whitehead’s own version of Kant’s transcendental argument. Like Kant, Whitehead seeks to critique positivist empiricism on the one hand, and dogmatic idealism on the other.
  • Part of the way that both Whitehead and Deleuze convert Kant is that, where Kant’s transcendental argument is devised to answer the epistemological question What can we know? (and also the questions What ought we to do? and, For what might we hope?), Whitehead and Deleuze instead found their transcendental reflection on trying to answer the question How are novelty and change possible? How can we account for a future that is different from the past?
  • Double causality: In The Logic of Sense, Deleuze writes of the Stoic split in causality; there is real causality — causes relate to other causes in the depths of bodies, and quasi-causality — effects relate to other effects on the surfaces. In Anti-Oedipus, the distinction between depths and surfaces is abandoned; but we still have a distinction between desiring production and the quasi-causal anti-production of the Body without Organs. How does Deleuze’s split causality relate to the double causality in Whitehead, where causal efficacy or efficient causality refers to the inheritance of conditions and orientations from the past, and final causality is the entity’s “decision,” or creative self-actualization in the final concrescence? Both Deleuze and Whitehead thus posit a second causality that has to do with the virtual, in opposition to the linear cause-and-effect of the entirely actual. Can this be related in any meaningful way to Kant’s distinction, in the 2nd Critique, between “causality as natural mechanism” and “causality as freedom”?
  • Whitehead’s concept of God, and Deleuze (or rather, Deleuze Guattari’s) Body without Organs. This is the comparison that I started out trying to get to. Both God and the BwO are non-totalizable “wholes” in which all potential is contained; both can be regarded as a “quasi-cause” and “surface of inscription” for all events, in such a way that it does not determine these events, but allows precisely for their indeterminacy and continuing openness to difference in the future. Both God and BwO need to be posited as a consequence of the very logic of multiplicity and open totalities with which Whithead and Deleuze/Guattari are working. Both God and BwO are traversed by similar dualities (the primordial vs the consequent nature of God in ; the BwO as body of Capital in Anti-Oedipus and the emphasis on constructing a “full” BwO in A Thousand Plateaus).

Kant, Deleuze, and the virtual

What follows is an extract from the chapter I am in the middle of writing now — about “Deleuze’s Encounter with Whitehead,'” and the relations of both Deleuze and Whitehead to Kant. This passage doesn’t have much to do with Whitehead; it is mostly my endeavor to think about what Deleuze means by the ‘virtual’, and how this can be understood in Kantian terms. Still to be written is the part in which I relate all this back to Whitehead’s interest in potentiality, and his concept of potentials as what he calls “eternal objects.”

Deleuze’s own “transcendental empiricism” centers on his notion of the virtual. I think that this much-disputed concept can best be understood in Kantian terms. The virtual is the transcendental condition of all experience. And Ideas in the virtual, which are always “problematic or problematizing,” are Deleuze’s equivalent of “regulative ideas” in Kant (DR, 168ff.). For Kant, as Deleuze points out, “problematic Ideas are both objective and undetermined.” They cannot be presented directly, or re-presented; but their very indeterminacy “is a perfectly positive, objective structure which acts as a focus or horizon within perception.” The error of metaphysical dogmatism is to use these Ideas constitutively: to take their objects as determinate, transcendent entities. This is to forget that such objects “can be neither given nor known.” The correlative error of skepticism is to think that, since the Ideas are indeterminate and unrepresentable, they are thereby merely subjective, and their objects merely fictive. This is to forget that “problems have an objective value,” and that “problematic does not mean only a particularly important species of subjective acts, but a dimension of objectivity as such which is occupied by these acts.” Against both of these errors, Kant upholds the regulative and transcendental use of the Ideas. A regulative idea does not determine any particular solution in advance. But operating as a guideline, or as a frame of reference, the regulative idea works problematically, to establish the conditions out of which solutions, or “decisions,” can emerge. In positing a process of this sort, Kant invents the notion of the transcendental realm, or of what Deleuze will call the virtual.

There are, of course, important differences between Kant’s transcendental argument and Deleuze’s invocation of the virtual. For one thing, Kant’s stance is legislative and juridical: he seeks to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate uses of reason. Deleuze seeks rather (citing Artaud) “to have done with the judgment of God”; his criterion is constructivist rather than juridical, concerned with pushing forces to the limits of what they can do, rather than with evaluating their legitimacy. Also, Kant’s transcendental realm determines the necessary form – but only the form – of all possible experience. Deleuze’s virtual, in contrast, is “genetic and productive” of actual experience (NP, 51-52). Finally, Kant’s transcendental realm has the structure of a subjectivity; at the very least, it takes on the bare form of the “I” in the “transcendental unity of apperception.” But Deleuze’s virtual is an “impersonal and pre-individual transcendental field” (LS, 102); it does not have the form of a consciousness. In making these corrections to Kant, Deleuze himself does what he credits Nietzsche with doing: he “stands [Kantian] critique on its feet, just as Marx does with the [Hegelian] dialectic” (NP, 89).

To convert Kant from transcendental idealism to transcendental empircism, and from a juridico-legislative project to a constructivist one, means to move from the possible to the virtual, and from merely formal conditions of possibility to concrete conditions of actualization. Deleuze’s transformation of Kant thus leads directly to his famous distinction between the virtual and the possible. For Deleuze, the possible is an empty form, defined only by the principle of non-contradiction. To say that something is possible is to say nothing more than that its concept cannot be excluded a priori, on logical grounds alone. This means that possibility is a purely negative category; it lacks any proper being of its own. Mere possibility is not generative or productive; it is not enough to make anything happen. It does not satisfy the principle of sufficient reason. This is why Deleuze says that “the possible is opposed to the real” (DR 211). Something that is merely possible has no claim to existence, and no intrinsic mode of being. Its only positive characteristics are those that it borrows from the real that it is not. The possible “refers to the form of identity in the concept”; it “is understood as an image of the real, while the real is supposed to resemble the possible” (211-212). That is to say, the possible is exactly like the real, except for the contingency that it does not, in fact, exist. And the real is nothing more than the the working-out of what was already prefigured and envisioned as possible. In this mirror play of resemblances, there can be nothing new or unexpected. When a possibility is realized – when it does come into existence – no actual creation has taken place. As Deleuze says, “it is difficult to understand what existence adds to the concept when all it does is double like with like” (212).

The virtual, on the other hand, is altogether real in its own right; it “possesses a full reality by itself” (211). It is just that this reality is not actual. The virtual is like a field of energies that have not yet been expended, or a reservoir of potentialities that have not yet been tapped. That is to say, the virtual is not composed of actual entities; but the potential for change that it offers is real in its own way. In the Proustian formulation so frequently used by Deleuze, the virtual is “real without being actual, ideal without being abstract” (208). One can in fact explain the virtual in entirely physicalist terms: as Gilbert Simondon did in work that greatly influenced Deleuze, and as Manuel Delanda has more recently done. But Deleuze most often describes the virtual as a transcendental field or structure, conditioning and generating the actual. The virtual is a principle of emergence, or of creation. As such, it does not prefigure or predetermine the actualities that emerge from it. Rather, it is the impelling force, or the principle, that allows each actual entity to appear (to manifest itself) as something new, something without precedence or resemblance, something that has never existed in the universe in quite that way before. That is why the virtual is entirely distinct from the possible. If anything, it is closer to Nietzsche’s will-to-power, or Bergson’s élan vital. All of these must be understood, not as inner essences, but as post-Kantian “syntheses” of difference: transcendental conditions for dynamic becoming, rather than for static being (cf. NP 51-52).

The virtual works as a transcendental condition for the actual by providing a sufficient reason for whatever happens. This brings us back to the distinction, or the gap, between sufficient reason and ordinary causality. Linear causality, of the sort that physical science traces, is always, and only, a relation among bodies. It is a matter, as Deleuze puts it in The Logic of Sense, of “bodies with their tensions, physical qualities, actions and passions, and the corresponding ‘states of affairs.’ These states of affairs, actions and passions, are determined by the mixtures of bodies. . . all bodies are causes – causes in relation to each other and for each other” (4). Everything in the world is determined by such physical causes; they consitute a necessary condition – but not a sufficient one – for whatever happens.

This linear causality is what Kant sought to guarantee against Hume’s skepticism. But if we accept Whitehead’s critique of Hume, then we will have to conclude that Kant’s very search for such a guarantee is superfluous. Causal efficacy is always already at work in the depths of bodies. Kant never questions Hume’s initial error: the idea that causality can never be found out there, and that consequently it can only be located in the mind of the perceiver. Where Hume appeals to habit as the empirical basis of the mind’s ascription of causality to things, Kant’s transcendental argument converts this into an a priori necessity. But Kant still accepts what Whitehead calls the subjectivist and sensationalist principles derived from Locke and Hume (PR, 157). In consequence, Kant’s transcendental deduction remains caught within “a logic of tracing and reproduction” (ATP, 12). Kant transfers causal efficacy from the world to the subject apprehending the world; but he does not thereby explain causality, or add anything to it. In Kant’s transcendental argument, the possible merely doubles the real.

Deleuze converts Kant’s argument from possibility to virtuality, and from the role of guaranteeing causal efficacy to one of providing sufficient reasons, by positing a different sort of transcendental logic. Alongside the actual, material “connection” of physical causes to one another, there is also a virtual relation, or a “bond,” linking “effects or incorporeal events” among themselves (LS, 6). The virtual is the realm of effects separated from their causes: “effects in the causal sense, but also sonorous, optical, or linguistic ‘effects’ ” (7), or what in the movies are called ‘special effects.’ Effects come after causes, of course, in the physical world of bodies. But transcendentally, these incorporeal special effects establish a strange precedence. Considered apart from their physical causes, and independently of any bodily instantiation, they are something like the generative conditions – the ‘meanings’ and the ‘reasons’ – for the very processes that physically produce them. Deleuze calls such generative after-effects “quasi-causes” (6). Quasi-causality is “an unreal and ghostly causality” (33), more an insinuation than a determination. The quasi-cause “is nothing outside of its effect”; but “it haunts the effect… it maintains with the effect an immanent relation which turns the product, the moment that it is produced, into something productive” (95). The virtual thus induces the productivity of the actual. But in itself, it partakes only of “extra-being”; it is “sterile, inefficacious, and on the surface of things” (7). This paradoxical, ghostly quasi-causality, rather than linear physical causality, is the proper content of a transcendental that neither copies the real, nor prefigures it.

More on negation, affirmation, and desire

Part of the problem with discussions of affirmation and negation is that the words are being used in too many different senses. On the one hand, for instance, there is Herbert Marcuse’s prescient critique of “affirmative culture” (prescient, since what he meant is something that is more obnoxiously and oppressively ubiquitous today than it was in Marcuse’s own time) and (echoing Adorno, and ultimately a certain side of Hegel) his call for a practice of negativity to expose what is lacking in these social affirmations. In many ways, although he is in a certain sense out of date, and although he was criticizing the managed fordist society of the 1950s and 1960s, which ironically now seems both freer and more egalitarian than the neoliberal society we live in today — despite all this, Marcuse’s arguments for negativity in certain ways seem fresher than ZIzek’s.

On the other hand, there is Deleuze’s critique of the negative, which is really an criticism of Kojeve’s reading of Hegel as being about the “labor of the negative,” the idea that negation is a form — indeed the form — of work and creativity and the movement of history. (When a carpenter makes a chair, he/she is “negating” the piece of wood out of which the chair is made. The French revolution “negated” the monarchy. Etc.). Deleuze’s argument against negation is really an argument that this “negation” is an extremely impoverished way to look at creativity (which Deleuze describes rather as the actualization of the virtual, a process in which something New is created). It is also an argument against the related Kojeve/Lacan idea that desire equals lack, so that the movement of desire would be the same as the work of negation throughout history. Deleuze programatically rejects this on both the personal and the social/historical levels. (I will return to this in a moment).

So the Adorno/Marcuse version of negativity is really rather different from the negativity that Deleuze rejects — they come out of very different ways of reading Hegel, and they refer to very different processes. Deleuze rejects the Kojeve/Hegel view of negativity as the proper form of production; but the negativity of Adorno and Marcuse is not a form of production or of labor; to the contrary, it is something that resists the capitalist world’s relentless drive to production. (This role of negativity as resistance corresponds to the Body without Organs in Deleuze and Guattari’s thought: the BwO is their attempt to think non-production or anti-production in an alternative way to that of negativity).

Now, Zizek’s negative, I think, fuses elements of both of the strains that I have just described. Via Lacan, Zizek goes back to Kojeve’s labor of the negative, which Lacan transforms into the idea that desire equals lack. But Zizek, unlike Lacan, also wants this negative to work socially/historically/politically in the ways that Adorno and Marcuse want it to, as something that disrupts and subverts the facade of “false totality” and “affirmative culture” we are faced with today. Both of these strands come out of Hegel, but do they really fit together?

I am inclined to think that they do not. Because, once you have defined desire as lack, you are committed to a whole metaphysics of (economic) scarcity and (psychological) unfulfillment. These end up being conceived (as they are by Zizek) as bedrock conditions that will exist in any social formation whatsoever; anything that says otherwise is condemned as delusive fantasy, as a denial of the fundamental antagonism of the Real, or a denial of the knot of castration, or what have you.

Now, I tend to be as leery as anyone of utopian thought (at least, insofar as “utopian” means a vision of static perfection, without any sort of tension or difficulty or dissatisfaction — the actual use of the idea of “utopia,” in a theorist like Ernst Bloch, is actually much more complex than this). But I think that Zizek’s militant anti-utopianism goes further than this, and that it makes difficult, or impossible, the very sort of negativity, with its critical and transformative function, that we find in Adorno and Marcuse. This is why — as per the discussions on this blog, and others, over the last week or so, in regard to Zizek’s reading of 300 — the only negativity Zizek can think of in the current political context is a fetishization of “discipline” and “sacrifice” in opposition to the alleged hegemony, in our neoliberal culture, of “hedonistic permissivity [sic]”. For all Marcuse’s criticisms of the pseudo-satisfactions of consumer society, and even for all his advocacy of a dose of straightforward political repression in order to oppose the “repressive tolerance” and “repressive desublimation” of American bourgeois society — for all of this, I cannot imagine Marcuse finding the jouissance that Zizek does in discipline and sacrifice. This is because he has a more sharply honed vision of Hegelian negativity than Zizek does.

This gets back to a point I was trying to make before, in the previous post; which is that the critique of desire-as-lack in Deleuze should not mean a regime, instead, of unlimited affirmation — while Deleuze opposes affirmation to negation in his Nietzsche book, his later work gives the critique of negation without posing affirmation per se as its alternative.

Metastable Equilibrium sheds useful light on this whole question by quoting Dan Smith on desire and ethics in Deleuze:

Your drives have been constructed, assembled, and arranged in such a manner that your desire is positively invested in the system that allows you to have this particular interest. This is why Deleuze can say that desire as such is always positive. Normally, we tend to think of desire in terms of lack: if we desire something, it is because we lack it. But Deleuze reconfigures the concept of desire: what we desire, what we invest our desire in, is a social formation, and in this sense desire is always positive. Lack appears only at the level of interest, because the social formation, the infrastructure in which we have already invested our desire has in turn produced that lack. The result of this analysis is that we can now determine the proper object of a purely immanent ethics, which is neither my conscious will, or my conscious decisions, but neither is it my pre-conscious interests (say, my class interest, in the Marxist sense). The true object of an immanent ethics is the drives, and thus it entails, as both Spinoza and Nietzsche know, an entire theory of affectivity at the basis of any theory of ethics.

To all which, I would add that the whole issue really goes back to Kant, and to Kant’s understanding of desire, which is very different from the Hegelian account of desire as lack or negativity with which we are so familiar. Kant defines desire as “the power of being the cause, through one’s presentations, of the actuality of the objects of these presentations.” That is to say, desire, for Kant, is what determines the will. It cannot be understood in terms of negativity and absence, for it is an active, autonomous power of the mind. The ‘object of desire’ is not something that the subject lacks; to the contrary, it is what the subject imagines and creates. The act of desiring is the cause, and the existence of the desired object is the effect. This means that, as Deleuze and Guattari put it, desire produces the real. Anti-Oedipus is, in this respect, a rigorously Kantian book, and Deleuze’s critique of desire-as-negativity is really an elaboration of what you might call Kant’s implicit response to the way that Hegel hijacked and assimilated his work.

Now, of course most of our desires are not fulfilled. But Kant insists that the empirical existence of failed and unfulfilled desires does not contradict his formulation of desire as productive. For even when a desire turns out to be “insufficient,” so that the corporeal forces it calls on are unable to fully actualize its object, there is still a positive “causal relation” between the desire as a mobilization of force, and the effect towards which it was striving. It is only in this sense that there is “lack”; and this is why Deleuze and Guattari insist that lack only exists insofar as it is “counter-produced” by the social system in which our positive desires are invested. Capitalism, for instance, creates abundance on an unprecedented scale. But capitalism also needs to produce lack — to deny that very abundance it produces to the very people who produce it — in order to perpetuate itself, since its entire logic (what Deleuze and Guattari call its “axiomatics”) is grounded in the notion of perpetual competition over perpetually scarce resources. That a tiny capitalist class thus gets to appropriate the surplus that is taken away from everyone else is only a sort of side-benefit; it’s what happens when the supreme goal of a society is capital accumulation rather than expenditure or even just pleasure. This is also why consumer society, no matter how vehemently it exhorts us to spend money, or to “enjoy,” is never so fully hedonistic as Zizek seems to think. Zizek’s notion of the superego imperative to enjoy does capture something of the way that consumer spending is in fact deeply “disciplinary” and disciplined, as Roger says in his comments on my previous post. But the superego theory is utterly unable to illuminate the deeper, productivist logic of capitalism that stands behind this compulsion — for that we need, dare I say, Marx rather than Freud or Lacan, and a Kantian/Deleuzian understanding of the structure of desire rather than a Hegelian/Lacanian one.

The remaining question, for me, is this. If we accept, as I think we should, Deleuze’s critique of Hegelian negativity in the forms of desire-as-lack and the Kojevian labor-of-the-negative, to what extent can we still deploy negativity in the Adorno and Marcuse sense? I think that this is possible — which is also to say that the Frankfurt School’s version of Hegel can be reconciled with Kant in a way that Kojeve’s version of Hegel cannot — but the way of doing this is still something that needs to be worked out. (And, though I know that my current tendency to drag Whitehead into everything must be wearying to some people, I can’t help wondering if Whitehead’s logic of relations — which is very different from Hegel’s logic — isn’t a good place to start).

Negative or oblique?

K-punk, summarizes and responds to both my last post and antigram’s somewhat parallel critique of Zizek on 300.

Though largely agreeing with my points (and especially with antigram’s crucial insistence that the “discipline and spirit of sacrifice” lauded by Zizek only make sense as “strategic/organizational principles” for a left movement, not as the “values” in themselves Zizek seemingly wants them to be), k-punk also says, responding to my (overly formulaic, perhaps) discussion of the tiresomeness and impoverishment of Zizek’s rhetoric of negativity, that “it is unhelpful to reject Zizek’s mechanical ‘labour of the negative’, as Steve does, in the name of the Deleuzean interdiction on negativity. Deleuze’s abjuring of the negative is surely equally as wearisome as Zizek’s brandishing of dialectical negativity.” Any mere celebration of the positive, k-punk adds, “remains in thrall to a dreary and reductive model of Good Health, which it prosecutes with all the zeal of a happy-clappy Anglicanism.”

Actually I largely agree with this. Deleuze himself is at his least convincing when, as in the early Nietzsche book, he seeks to expel the negative, converting it to affirmation, via a process that itself seems just as ‘dialectical’ as anything ever dreamed up by the epigones of Hegel (the negative magically turns into the positive, when it goes to the extreme of what it can do, and becomes “active destruction”). Affirmation is at best a merely ethical stance; it doesn’t work either as an aesthetics or as a politics. And at its worst, affirmation is just as hideously and insidiously new-agey happy-faced as k-punk says. While I am inclined (for reasons I have written about before) to prefer the pluralism of William James to the labor of the negative in Hegel, I do take Zizek’s point (and Jodi Dean’s) that such pluralism, in its evasion of real antagonism (or of what the Lacanians would call the antagonism of the Real) always threatens to end up preaching “turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream…”

And so, to the extent that I merely recycled this sort of critique of the negative, I was evidently being sloppy and taking some dubious shortcuts.

However, I’d still defend my main point, which was about obliqueness. The crucial point is not to affirm, but to move in new directions. To create.* We need to get out of the trap of merely reversing, or giving the exact opposite of, a dominant discourse. The important thing is not to reverse direction, but to move in another dimension altogether. Any three points describe a plane, a flat field upon which vectors of antagonism may be locked in battle (excuse the mixed metaphors). Obliqueness means, not staying on the plane, but moving off along another axis, in a third spatial dimension. (This has little to do with “affirmation.” It probably does have something to do with what Deleuze calls “transversality,” but I don’t want to base my own argument on a call to the authority of Deleuze).

To put this in political terms. I am unhappy with the alternatives we seem to be offered on the Left today. On the one hand, there is Hardt/Negri’s vision of a spontaneous rising of the multitude, or Gibson-Graham‘s cheerful sense that lots of inventive practices already exist, so that we have already somehow reached “the end of capitalism as we know it.” On the other hand, we get pseudo-Leninist calls to discipline and sacrifice and a ruthless rupture with everything already existing, so that we may emulate the Khmer Rouge, and enforce the new order with “terror (ruthless punishment of all who violate the imposed protective measures, inclusive of severe limitations of liberal ‘freedoms’).” These equally seem like fantasies to me (fantasies precisely in the Freudian/Lacanian/Zizekian sense of mechanisms devised to cover over and disavow the intolerable contradictions of the real). It’s not that I have any solutions to offer (I am essentially clueless), and a prospective solution will most likely have nothing whatsoever to do with Nietzschean/Deleuzian affirmation. But isn’t there something wrong, and painfully constricted, with Zizek’s fantasy of negativity and terror as the only riposte to Hardt/Negri’s implausible utopianism? Isn’t this a situation where we most need to move obliquely? Isn’t the problem, perhaps, that both negativity and obliqueness strike us as little more than clever advertising slogans? (“obey your thirst”; “think different”). I’m all to aware that we have reached the point where positivity and affirmation are all too comfortably ensconced in the business schools; but negativity (whether in ZIzek’s version, or that of Adorno, or that of the Situationists) is ensconced there also.

So the solution is ?????

*Reading and rereading Whitehead lately has gotten me over my phobia towards the words “create” and “creativity,” my shuddering sense that they are arts-and-crafts-speak, which I have a perhaps snobbish repulsion towards, or Montessori-child-rearing-speak, which — now that I have small children — I tend to reject, because, in the guise of encouraging independence of thought and individual development, it in fact seems to me to be geared to reproducing and reinforcing the obnoxious sense of entitlement that well-do-do people in this society already have way too much of. [I’m aware of Whitehead’s interest in educational reform, and I believe he had some interest in Montessori; but that is a subject for more research, and for another discussion altogether]. One of the things I am hoping to get around to writing about this summer is the way in which “creativity” works in Whitehead (Steven Meyer says that Whitehead in fact invented this word, or at least introduced it into common usage in the English language). For Whitehead, creativity is neither the sturm und drang of Romantic genius (of which Montessori-style promotion of the child’s innate inventiveness would be the baby version), nor the restless cycle of fashion, the continual flood of “innovation” without any greater purpose that is so familiar to us in consumerist society. Rather, it has something to do with how we can negotiate the given — “stubborn fact” — without either merely submitting to it, or imagining that we can just think it away. Whitehead’s notion of creativity has much in common with the aesthetics of sampling and remixing, that we see expressed in so much “postmodern” art, that is theorized by people like Paul Miller/DJ Spooky, and that stands in a very ambiguous relationship to the ubiquitous market; and also with Marx’s sense that “men [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please.”