The Third (Conjunctive) Synthesis

The connective synthesis of production is presubjective or transsubjective; the disjunctive synthesis of recording is estranging and asubjective. It is only in the third synthesis, the conjunctive synthesis of consumption, that “something on the order of a subject can be discerned” for the first time. This subject is not the traditional philosophical one. It is too insubstantial, too fleeting and transitory. It emerges abruptly and unexpectedly; and it dissolves just as quickly. When feeling swells beyond a certain point, so that a threshold is crossed, a subject is precipitated into existence. It comes forth with an exhilarating cry: “So that’s what it was… So it’s me! … It’s me, and so it’s mine…” Describing the jubilation of this me, Deleuze and Guattari replace the Cartesian cogito with a more fundamental sentio: “the basic phenomenon of hallucination (I see, I hear) and the basic phenomenon of delirium (I think…) presuppose an I feel on an even deeper level, which gives hallucinations their object and thought delirium its content.” Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) is a logical deduction, giving rise to a necessary, eternal truth: my act of thinking proves that I really exist. But Deleuze and Guattari’s sentio ergo sum (“I feel, therefore I am”) registers a contingent, ephemeral process of emergence: I only exist to the extent that I feel, and in the very instant that I feel. The subject is not a stable, persistent entity, but a momentary flash of self-enjoyment, an ecstatic tremor of jouissance.

The subject of the conjunctive synthesis is therefore “a strange subject\ldots with no fixed identity, wandering about over the body without organs, but always remaining peripheral to the desiring-machines.” That is to say, this subject is a product of its experiences, rather than being their ground or their precondition. Here Deleuze and Guattari are thinking less of Descartes than of Kant, whose formulations they both extend and invert. In Kant’s subtle revision of Cartesianism, the cogito no longer refers to a substantial entity. Instead, it designates a formal condition of all experience, “the original synthetic unity of apperception.” Kant says that my various experiences hang together by virtue of the fact that I am able, at least in principle, to claim them all as mine. No matter what particular “ideas” or “presentations” fill my mind, and no matter what I perceive or feel, “the I think must be capable of accompanying all my presentations.” This cogito need not refer to a thinking substance, as it does in Descartes. It need not even imply an actual psychological process; the possibility of there being such a process is enough. My presentations still necessarily belong to me, “even if I am not conscious of them as being mine.” The formal possibility of adding an I think to the contents of my thought, whatever they may be, is thus the basis for the “synthesis” of “everything manifold in intuition” into a “thoroughgoing identity.” This “combination” of presentations into a conjunctive unity is something that “cannot be given through objects, but — being an act of the subject’s self-activity — can be performed only by the subject himself.”

For Deleuze and Guattari, in contrast, the subject is the outcome of the conjunctive synthesis, rather than its underlying principle. It is not what drives the synthesis, but what gets synthesized. “For Kant, the world emerges from the subject”; but for Deleuze and Guattari, as for Whitehead, “the subject emerges from the world.” The conjunctive synthesis is therefore not a fait accompli, but a process that needs to be renewed at every moment. Experience first happens, as it were, without me; it is only afterwards that I am able to claim it as “mine.” And my sense of being a “self” is not the basis for this claim, but rather a consequence of it. The I think — or better, the I feel — indeed accompanies each of my presentations; but for Deleuze and Guattari, this means that it comes after them, emerges from each of them, and extracts “a residual share” of their content as a sort of “recompense” for its perpetual dispossession. The subject is a supplement, a marginal epiphenomenon, a “mere residuum.” It is “a spare part adjacent to the machine,” a byproduct of processes that both precede it and go beyond it. It remains “peripheral” to the breaks and flows of the connective synthesis of production, even though it is impelled by the energy of these breaks and flows. And it is continually displaced along the “fluid and slippery” surfaces of the disjunctive synthesis of distribution, even as it “can situate itself only in terms of the[se] disjunctions.” The subject of the conjunctive synthesis neither makes anything, nor accumulates anything. All it can do is consume, dissipating both its objects and itself in a process somewhat like what Georges Bataille calls sumptuary, nonproductive expenditure.

The subject of the conjunctive synthesis is nomadic and intermittent. It neither endures through time, nor remains fixed in space. It is always in process, always in passage, always dying and being reborn. As it moves over the monstrous body of capital, it passes through “an unlimited number of stationary metastable states… and the subject is born of each state in the series, is continually reborn of the following state that determines it at a given moment, consuming-consummating all these states that cause it to be born and reborn (the lived state coming first, in relation to the subject that lives it).” Each of these “lived states” is a different manner of being, a different model of selfhood, a different fashion or style. Each of them involves different “phenomena of individualization and sexualization”: different “civilizations” or “races,” or what Foucault would call different modes of subjectification and self-cultivation, and different aesthetics of existence. The conjunctive subject passes through these states, one after the other. It never remains in any single configuration for long. It scavenges and exhausts whatever resources it can find in a given state, and then resumes its search elsewhere. Through all this, it is engaged in a desperate struggle for survival; it is rarely more than one step away (or one paycheck away) from foundering for good. Much like one of Paul Di Filippo’s “neohumans,” the conjunctive subject lives in the interstices of the monstrous body that serves as its host, dodging macrophages and lymphocytes as it “walk[s] through mazed passages crimson as blood, and [rides] the sticky turbid currents through large arteries.”

And yet, there is something splendid and glorious about the subject of the conjunctive synthesis — despite its marginality and its transience. For it lives an “experience of intensive quantities in their pure state, to a point that is almost unbearable — a celibate misery and glory experienced to the fullest, like a cry suspended between life and death, an intense feeling of transition, states of pure, naked intensity stripped of all shape and form.” In other words, it lives a purely aesthetic condition. The existence of the conjunctive subject, with its strange euphoria, is absolute, unconditonal, and intransitive — or, if you prefer, autistic, auto-affecting, and solipsistic. This subject exhibits what Whitehead (characterizing living things in general) calls “a certain absoluteness of self-enjoyment.” It does not recognize, or relate to, anything beyond itself — not even the occasion that provokes it, and that it consumes. The sentio, Deleuze and Guattari say, is “a pleasure that can rightly be called autoerotic, or rather automatic.” In this condition, I relish the feeling aroused by a “presentation” in itself and for its own sake, “no matter how indifferent I may be about the existence of the object of this presentation” — which is precisely Kant’s definition of the “pure disinterested liking” that is required for any “judgment of [aesthetic] taste.” And it is of no consequence whether the feeling in question be pleasant or painful, positive or negative; the intensity is all that matters. For “even suffering, as Marx says, is a form of self-enjoyment” (Deleuze and Guattari are citing the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, in which Marx says that, in a fully emancipated world, even “suffering, humanly conceived, is an enjoyment of the self for man”).

This is why, in the world of aesthetic capitalism, we are free exclusively — and quite precisely — as consumers. The conjunctive synthesis of consumption is the only one of the three syntheses in which we are able to make free, or formally unconstrained, choices. For as Kant tells us, “only the liking involved in taste for the beautiful is disinterested and free, since we are not compelled to give our approval by any interest, whether of sense or of reason.” The first (connective) synthesis, the production of production, is something like a physics, or a mechanics, of bodies and their energies. Roughly speaking, it corresponds to the phenomenal world of Kant’s First Critique, and to what Kant calls the “interests of sense.” For the world of production is driven by sheer material need: we are compelled to sell our labor-power, simply in order to survive. The second (disjunctive) synthesis, the production of recording, is something like an ethics, or a politics, of social organization and distribution. Roughly speaking, it corresponds to the noumenal, moral world of Kant’s Second Critique and to what Kant calls the “interests of reason.” The world of distribution and circulation is driven by the constraints of the market. These constraints appear to us as ineluctable laws in the face of which there is No Alternative — so that (as Kant says of the moral law) “we are objectively no longer free to select what we must do.” But the third (conjunctive) synthesis, the production of consumption, stands apart from both of these sets of interests or compulsions. Therefore it corresponds, roughly speaking, to Kant’s Third Critique, with its aesthetics of sensibility and enjoyment. The world of consumption is the only one that “leaves us the freedom to make an object of pleasure for ourselves out of something or other.”

5 thoughts on “The Third (Conjunctive) Synthesis”

  1. These discussions of the various synthesis in Deleuze and Guattari are very interesting. What strikes me is how little discussion they get, they are covered in some of the introductory texts on Anti-Oedipus, but rarely make it in the larger discussions of DGs theory of society and subjectivity. This is too bad, because the synthesis are not only fundamental to AO, but are also rich in a very polyvocal way, connecting to Kant and Marx etc.

  2. Echoing unemployed negativity’s comment, the three passive syntheses go to the heart of Deleuze’s project. As I read them, they stand as a refutation of Kant’s transcendental deduction and the central role he gives to the transcendental unity of apperception. Here the subject is an effect of syntheses that occur of their own accord and that precede any unity of apperception, rather than a pre-condition of such synthesis. Following Pippen’s reading of Hegel where it is argued that the transcendental deduction is the secret cypher of Hegel’s dialectic, Deleuze’s account of the passive syntheses would mark the front line in his attack on dialectic. Moreover, these syntheses play a central role in undermining the opposition between realism and idealism by occurring at a level beneath the subject and emerging from material processes. Not nearly enough attention has been devoted to Deleuze’s distinction between the transcendental conditions for the production of sensibility (indeed, this is the whole reason behind his investigation of various artists and his work on cinema can be read as an exploration of material, non-subjective, reality vis a vis Bergson) and the sensible or givens of consciousness.

  3. Isn’t to say that the subject is the pre-condition for synthesis kind of a reduction of the issue of subject formation in Kant. It’s not that the subject precededs synthesis, but it is the necessary corollary for the production of thought itself. To say the subject precedes synthesis seems to imply locating the subject somewhere in the noumenal realm, but for Kant, the noumenal is a limit on thought not a territory. Thus the subject emerges simultaneous to the production of thought thanks to the totalizing work of the faculty of Reason. In this way Deleuze and Kant seem similar, where Deleuze sees the mixing of bodies on the side of causes that cannot be accessed (effects then fall back on quasi-causes in the production of the virtual), Kant locates the unthinkable noumenal realm that necessitates synthesis out of its manifold. Deleuze’s conjunctive synthesis replaces the moment of the Kantian subject’s production of the concept – both require a the simultaneous production of the subject for the production of the “aha!”. The difference in this case seems to be that Deleuze makes the subject interact with two other synthetic procedures over an impenetrable surface of sense that exists outside of the work of the faculty of reason whereas Kant makes this moment of apriori synthesis the limit for thinking thought. Here the difference between them almost mirrors the difference between Badiou and Deleuze. Where Deleuze (as characterized by Badiou) is accused of “grounding” all production on a univocity of being, Badiou poses a mathematical ontology of multiplicity (the multiple of multiples as the limit of knowledge taking up the place of Kant’s manifold) as the limit on thinking thought. It’s an interesting intervention on Badiou’s behalf (though I’m not completely convinced his mathematical ontology provides the best alternative, if indeed an alternative is necessary) since it displaces Deleuze’s criticism of lack, and brings to the foreground a possible limit on Deleuze’s ability to think the limit on thought itself (though, seen differently, this is not a limit for Deleuze, but possibly the emancipatory moment for thought itself). The stakes from here, especially on the side of the political, are fairly high, and this may be the site from which alot of Deleuzian capitalists are finding their validation. By making the three syntheses thinkable (though not intuitively), Deleuze inadvertently opens up the possibility of producing subjectivations that can plot subjectivation. That is, he has opened up a way for mis-reading his work from the site of a subjectivated and immanent non-site that can produce the production of productions (in the same manner he himself produces the production of productions just by writing them) without leaving a means for guarding against this reading. Joy becomes the only injunction to be followed and suddenly capitalism can unhook itself from the burden of centralized subjectivities while simultaneously keeping its hold on the production of subjectivation.
    In a similar manner (though with less politically egregious results), he also opens up the possibility for locating himself in the nominal form at this point of production to the third power. Thus, in a terrible misreading of Foucault’s ironic assertion, the 21st Century is becoming somewhat Deleuzian. I mean, as much as I love how much work is being done on Deleuze, doesn’t it seem a bit anti-Deleuzional to fetishize “Deleuze” to the point of having conferences organized around the reproduction of his name. He becomes the aha! of his own work! Books are sold, joy is achieved, hierarchies re-established based on one’s ability to plug into Deleuze in the “appropriate” manner (this coming from an experience of going to a Deleuze conference, thinking the title was written somewhat ironically and discovering it was not; this compounded by the general lack of papers addressing the political).

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