Life is Production: On Deleuze’s Vitalism I

(What follows below is a formative paper I have written for my MA. I’ll be posting it in two parts.)

‘Philosophos does not mean “wise man” but “friend of wisdom.” But “friend” must be interpreted in a strange way; the friend, says Zarathustra, is always a third person in between “I” and “me” who pushes me to overcome myself and to be overcome in order to live.’
-Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy.

In Plato’s Phaedo Socrates says that philosophy is training for death , thereby making death the object of philosophy. If Deleuze’s philosophy of difference is a reversal of Platonism, as he is well-known for commenting, then we should expect that he will reject this conception of philosophy. Indeed the purpose of this paper will be to argue that for Deleuze philosophy becomes a fight for life, a preparation for living in this world for the creation of the same world, but differently. Deleuze creates his philosophy by working through other philosophers (Hume, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Nietzsche, Bergson, Foucault), artists (Sade, Proust, Bacon, and nearly the entire history of Cinema up to his time), science (Riemann, von Uexküll) and with others (he is perhaps best known for his work with Félix Guattari) – undeniably Deleuze’s philosophy is far from autonomous, as he merely constitutes a kind of workshop for the production of concepts. Therefore, rather than focusing our attention on whether or not Deleuze re-presents those whom he thinks with and through in an accurate and scholarly fashion, we will instead take Deleuze’s word for it and treat these works as an attempt to take these thinkers beyond themselves, as if Deleuze had picked up an arrow of thought and shot it to some other place, to some other unthought thought.

In an interview Deleuze remarked that ‘everything I’ve written is vitalistic’. For someone like Deleuze, whose writings show a familiarity with contemporary biology and the other life sciences, this remark is shocking. Vitalism has been almost universally rejected as pseudo-science with perhaps one of the strongest expressions of this given voice by Daniel Dennett in his Kinds of Minds where he states:

“Dualism (the view that minds are composed of some nonphysical and utterly mysterious stuff) and vitalism (the view that living things contain some special physical but equally mysterious stuff – élan vital) have been relegated to the trash heap of history, along with alchemy and astrology. Unless you are also prepared to declare that the world is flat and the sun is a fiery chariot pulled by winged horses – unless, in other words, your defiance of modern science is quite complete – you won’t find any place to stand and fight for these obsolete ideas.”

As Deleuze appears to affirm both a round world and a sun unmoored to any horses (winged or otherwise) we must ask what then does Deleuze’s vitalism consist of? To answer this question we will first look at his reading of Bergson’s conception of the élan vital and then move to the vital-ethical imperative he drives forward from this in his reading of the Nietzsche’s Overman developed in his book on Nietzsche and his book on Foucault.

In Deleuze’s Bergsonism he delineates how Bergson validly uses both dualistic and monistic concepts in his philosophy, even though the chronology of his work could be read as moving definitely from dualism to monism. However, this is not a contradiction or a casting off of his early philosophy. To show how both are valid Deleuze turns to the Bergsonian scheme of the actual and the virtual. Deleuze tells us that ‘All the degrees coexist in a single Nature that is expressed, on the one hand, in difference in kind, and on the other, in difference in degree.’ Dualism is valid between actual tendencies or differences in kind. Monism is valid at the level where all the virtuals virtually coexist and unify. The élan vital is a monistic concept that makes of the monism a dualism. Deleuze defines it this way, ‘[The élan vital] is always a case of a virtuality in the process of being actualized, a simplicity in the process of differentiating, a totality in the process of dividing up: Proceeding “by dissociation and division,” by “dichotomy,” is the essence of life.’ We can say then that the élan vital then names the non-third third term between the actual and the virtual. This notion of the élan vital as non-third third comes from Deleuze’s statement that differentiation is an actualization that ‘presupposes a unity, a virtual primordial totality that is dissociated according to the lines of differentiation, but that still shows its subsisting unity and totality in each line.’ The élan vital is thus both actual and virtual or, more importantly, the actual and the virtual constitute the élan vital in a kind of disjunctive synthesis.

Deleuze focuses on elucidating the concept of the virtual, leading some readers to claim he gives ultimate priority to the virtual at the ethical and political expense of giving up any claim to changing this world. However, we need not go this far. Deleuze points to the confusion between the possible and the virtual amongst biologists when they posit that an organic virtual can be actualized by a simple limitation of their global capacity. In so far as creation is a crucial aspect of Deleuze’s philosophy the notion of the virtual is important because in order to be actualized it ‘must create its own lines of actualization in positive acts’ rather than proceeding by elimination or limitation. Creation then takes place within the real, not the possible. This follows if, as Deleuze tells us, the virtual is not opposed to the real, it is opposed to the actual, while the possible is opposed to the real. The possible is “realized” in resemblance, in that the real is in the image of the possible that it realizes, and limitation, where the realization repulses some possibles. But the virtual is real without being actual and proceeds not by repulsing other virtuals but by creating new lines of differentiation in its actualization. Furthermore the virtual is purely creative or positive for it doesn’t limit the actual by making the actual conform to its image. This technical point is crucial for understanding Deleuze’s ethical and political philosophy for it means that, against readings like Peter Hallward’s, the virtual is not opposed to the reality of our lives but is the very subsisting of life through matter. In fact, in so far as one can argue that Deleuze agrees with Bergson that the possible is a “false notion” propagating false problems then Deleuze himself gives priority to the real rather than to the possible. This priority of the real is given precisely in the name of creativity and against a kind of Aristotelian vitalism of “preformism”. In philosophies that emphasize the possible they are emphasizing the idea that everything is pre-given, which follows from the idea that the real is the image of the possible. But the possible, in reality, resembles the real in so far as it is, in experience, abstracted from the real once made.

14 thoughts on “Life is Production: On Deleuze’s Vitalism I

  1. Is it just my utter ignorance of 20th Century French thought–with the exception of Derrida–that I have never come across the concept of the ‘virtual’? Can you provide a more introductory explanation of this concept, perhaps contrasted with similar but more ‘traditional’ concepts? Any Derridean parallels would be helpful. This is one of those times where I think I’m following the text, but when it’s over I feel less knowledgeable rather than more.

    From what I do understand, it seems Deleuze is practicing a pretty solid esotericism, even by using the term vitalism, which has significance in the history of science. Not that I have anything against esotericism, quite the contrary, but one of its principle attributes is that evaluation is a long process that requires a stubborn perseverance. Thus I have always admired Gadamer more than Derrida, even though I suspect Derrida was at least the better writer if not the more ingenious philosopher.

  2. I doubt it has anything to do with your ignorance. Near as I can tell Deleuze picks up the notion of the virtual from Bergson alone. The main thrust of it is to resist the possible, which is often used in the principle of sufficient reason (“Why is there something rather than nothing? Let’s posit possible worlds to figure it out…”), which for Bergson is a “false problem”. So, the possible is opposed to the real, and the virtual is opposed to the actual (not opposed in an antagonistic sense, just in the sense that they are not confused). The possible has to be realized and, traditionally, this realization is in the image of the possible. The virtual, however, must be actualized, but the actual is not a limitation but the creative acting out of the virtual as creation. The formula Deleuze repeats often actually comes from Proust and is something along the lines of “the virtual is real without being actual; ideal without being abstract”. I’m really sorry but I don’t really know if this corresponds to any Derridean concepts. I’m tempted to say this is somewhat like the trace, or that trace would be a virtual, but I’m not sure about that.

    I’m somewhat with you on the esotericism, but with a few caveats. Bergson’s whole philosophy was an attempt to provide science with the metaphysics it needed to make sense. I’m pretty convinced by the philosophical account of vitalism in these thinkers, but they aren’t vitalists in the traditional modernist sense. And Bergson’s major methodological grounding is what is called the turn to experience. In this way he isn’t a strict materialist, but calling him a spiritualist (which isn’t the same as the occult movement in the US, it’s an old philosophical position concerning the nature of the mind or soul) doesn’t quite fit either. We don’t experience the world only as mechanism, so why should we accept that it is?

  3. Ironically, if there is a Derridean trace nestled in the Deleuzian system, it is probably in the concept of the “possible” rather than anywhere else. Deleuze’s writing is astonishingly free from absence or lack, unless one were to unsympathetically read such things into his plenitude and states of differentiation. That puts him at odds with Derrida.

    Still, since the possible has to remain an entirely “open” category, and cannot be verbalized or cognized at all without passing over into virtuality, it does resemble the originary trace: it is the condition of possibility for the virtual, but it is also erased by what it engenders, and is displaced to “elsewhere.”

    I’m curious about the relationship between determination/negation here, which divides and reorganizes the existent real by introducing discontinuities, and creation pure and simple, which makes somewhere where nothing was before. Another way of putting this is to ask by what medium the virtual passes into an actual; one assumes that the actual must have some kind of materiality if it is to surpass the subject towards any sort of shared experience. How does Deleuze deal with Hegel’s theories of the Master/Slave dialectic, and how does he deal with Hegel’s theories about determinate being?

  4. ‘Still, since the possible has to remain an entirely “open” category, and cannot be verbalized or cognized at all without passing over into virtuality, it does resemble the originary trace: it is the condition of possibility for the virtual, but it is also erased by what it engenders, and is displaced to “elsewhere.”’

    I don’t know if this is quite what the possible is, at least not in his book on Bergson. Granted, this particular essay is limited because, as I say in the first paragraph, I’m looking at the way he writes through other figures first. My MA will deal with Difference and Repetition where he starts to write more explicitly in his own voice. Though, I think it is important to take him at his word with regard to his works on other philosophers. These are his kind of co-creations.

    Anyway, the possible, doesn’t seem to be an open category at all. If anything the concept of the possible produces the mistake of thinking that the Whole is “given”. There is a Whole but only a virtual Whole – so an ideal Whole, real but not actual, ideal without being abstract. This is the critique of the negative (which, incidentally, Merleau-Ponty also uses in his criticisms of Husserl and, to a greater degree, Sartre), because the Whole as possible is already given, determined, and the only way anything can become real and actual is by limiting the possible.

    Now I think, and this might be a contentious reading, that dividing up and reorganizing the existent real, or more accurately the virtual Whole, is a meontic operation. It’s not replacing something for nothing, but there is no nothing as such. When you insert the nothing into Deleuze’s philosophy, and at points when he does, I think it becomes rather incoherent in this way. I don’t know that I understand the question of ‘the medium’. The virtual and the actual are two parts of the real, so reality itself is the medium. Of course it is material, but it is also memory, it is also dark matter, dark energy, food webs, or all sorts of other things that challenge our understanding of what matter actually means. I don’t know enough or have enough interest to know much about Deleuze’s relationship with him. He does have criticisms in his Nietzsche book, but they are Nietzsche’s. There is an interview with him in the Desert Islands text where he says in response to a question about why he hates Hegel so much, “Every story needs a villain.” So, I’ve always just taken Hegel to be a personae for Deleuze to work against, rather than a figure he is producing a study thereof. One other tangential remark on this, in Anti-Oedipus they make the claim that there is no longer any human master, only two orders of slaves. Ask Sinthome, that guy gets into this part of Deleuze studies and he seems to know what the hell he is talking about with it too.

  5. This technical point is crucial for understanding Deleuze’s ethical and political philosophy for it means that, against readings like Peter Hallward’s, the virtual is not opposed to the reality of our lives but is the very subsisting of life through matter

    Anthony I think this is also the thesis of Christian Orthodoxy.

  6. Joseph,
    In response to your question about determination, I just recently started reading Simon Duffy’s “The Logic of Expression” where he argues, in the 1st chapter, against determination by negation. While Duffy focuses on Spinoza in this chapter, he uses it to counter precisely what you are talking about – the idea that all determination requires negation – and in doing so opens up the stage for a concept of determination by affirmation. He sets up a reading of Spinoza and Hegel and shows how Hegel misreads Spinoza on the nature of the infinite and determination. It’s a rather dense section, and I’m a little too tired to work through the material myself right now, but I’d highly recommend checking it out if you are interested. The critique that Duffy borrows from Pierre Macherey though, might help to offer a sample. After making a distinction between the ‘understanding’ which grasps the finite thing as an expression of the actual infinite substance, and the ‘imagination’ which grasps the thing as it exists in opposition to other things, Duffy says “The rational point of view of the understanding is essentially affirmative: such that all negativity is imputed to the point of view of the imagination, which is incapable of comprehending the positive expression of substance itself. Macherey argues that contrary to the Hegelian dialectical logic, to determine a thing positively is to perceive it in its physical, singular, reality, after the immanent necessity which engenders it in substance.” (35) The rest of the book appears to be an explication of the ‘logic of expression’ as opposed to the ‘logic of the dialectic’, but I haven’t yet made it that far. Hope that helps!

  7. Nick, this is plenty helpful, cheers.

    One question. Here’s Duffy:

    Macherey argues that contrary to the Hegelian dialectical logic, to determine a thing positively is to perceive it in its physical, singular, reality, after the immanent necessity which engenders it in substance.

    The problem I’m having here is the after. That means that there an original moment of more or less objective genesis, and the belatedness of the subjective determination suggests that other things, also objectively created, are also invisibly present and thus negated. That is, negated insofar as they do not “shine forth” (to borrow Heidegger’s term) to the subject in their singularity.

  8. Anthony,

    You write:

    Anyway, the possible, doesn’t seem to be an open category at all. If anything the concept of the possible produces the mistake of thinking that the Whole is “given”.

    My question is whether, if I agree that the Whole is never “given,” that doesn’t necessarily make the possible something not given, not determined, still existent, and thus “open” in the sense of ineffable, indescribable except through a series of negations, though logically necessary.

  9. Nick,

    Yes thanks. That is some serious heavy lifting you’ve invited us to do.


    I’m having some trouble parsing your question, apologies for that. I hope this answers your question, but if not feel free to restate it.

    I think the argument from Bergson and Deleuze would be that the main trends in philosophy explicitly or implicitly argued for the possible being an already existent whole (think Aristotle), such that the real was always just representing the possible that it realized. So, it’s important for the virtual Whole to not be given, because that would cause all sorts of problems for thinking about the real and the actual. The whole is real, but it is not actual, that’s the thrust of their work on the virtual.

    Memory isn’t purely virtual, but yes, we should say that it tends more towards pure virtuality than matter, which tends more towards pure actuality. My point in the passage you quote is that the real is both actual and virtual, a kind of mixture or interplay or mutual construction or something along these lines. If it were purely actual then it would be pure determination and if it were purely virtual it would be undifferentiated flux. There is some lines of convergence with certain Eastern religious philosophies here, as well as with Russian sophiological theology. Peter Hallward, of course, would love that. Not that you need the dogmatic baggage to make these arguments, I’m just pointing out that they might sound familiar because there are versions of them around.

  10. parodycenter,

    I’m just curious what you mean by saying “this is the thesis of Christian Orthodoxy,” i.e., that “the virtual is not opposed to the reality of our lives but is the very subsisting of life through matter.” Or, a side question that would also help my curiosity: “What precisely do you understand ‘the virtual’ to be in Christian orthodoxy?” Thanks.

  11. Dave,

    I’m not Dejan, but I do think the virtual has some interesting congruence with Sophia’s sophia. I don’t really have the time to spell that out, so I’m hoping just throwing it out there brings something out for you.

  12. I suppose I will have to wait to see if Dejan has the time to respond…I am aware of this kind of connection (especially in Milbank’s most recent theology), but I find it ultimately incoherent (and this could be because I just don’t understand it, I admit). I still have no idea what it would mean for “this” (which I’m still not exactly clear on) to be “the” thesis of Christian orthodoxy. I understand that the virtual and the actual must be conceived as two poles (or at least two different thought-axes) within “the Real,” and that without their interrelation, we would end up with either pure determination, or “undifferentiated flux”; and I can guess that the correlation here is between “Divine Sophia” [the actual] and “creaturely sophia” [the virtual], right? And I can further guess that there is a correlation with the anti-Aristotelian move (with regards to the possible-actual) happening in Deleuze to Bulgakov’s refusal of the “Western” Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of causality (with the further correlation of a re-shaping of the Western notions of “natural/supernatural” and “creation/grace” in terms of an evolutionary vitalism). I see all that. I just don’t see the connection with the gospel narrative at all. And this is why I can’t understand how this is exactly “the” thesis of Christian orhtodoxy. But, I will wait patiently! Thanks again.

  13. Joseph,

    I completely agree with your point about the ‘after’. I think, in part, the problem has to do with the fact that the important, latter section of the sentence you cite is actually a quote from Macherey (I forgot to add in the quotations). It is his contention that both determination by negation and by affirmation are, on their own, devoid of content. They don’t actually grasp the thing/mode itself. Macherey, therefore, tries to bridge the gap by arguing that both negation (a thing’s reciprocal limitation from other things) and affirmation (its production as an expression of infinite substance) are required to determine the content of a mode (both being two sides of the same coin). In that sense, there may be an original positive moment of partial determination, with another moment completing the determination afterwards from the point of view of the imagination. Alternatively, I think we could read it simply as some form of residual subjectivism in Macherey, like the criticism you raise. Macherey, perhaps unwittingly, still requires a moment of subjective determination. Finally, it may just be a poor translation, unnoticed by Duffy (obviously, someone would have to look at the original French to see if that’s the case). Regardless, it is Deleuze and Duffy’s intention, however, to show that determination does not require negation at all; that a logic of expression can fully determine a mode in its immanent necessity. As I read more of the book, I’ll have to get back to you on how exactly Duffy proposes to resolve the problem you note though.

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