Life is Production: On Deleuze’s Vitalism II

(Part three will be coming tomorrow. It was simply too long to be split into just two parts.)

The virtual and the actual are both real and we must think them in order to understand the mechanism of difference and the mechanism of creation. Deleuze’s Bergsonian vitalism is an attempt to understand these two mechanisms, for he sees evolution as taking place from virtuals to actuals – ‘Evolution is actualization, actualization is creation.’ This is the thesis that he advances against two misconceptions in evolutionary theory: interpreting biological or living evolution in terms of the “possible” that is actualized or interpreting it in terms of pure actuals. The first misconception is found in traditional theories of vitalism, here named “preformism”, where the real is merely an image of a possible telos. Deleuze tell us that ‘contrary to preformism, evolutionism will always have the merit of reminding us that life is production, creation of differences.’ This insight, while valuable, comes against the problem of the nature and cause of these differences. Against the view that the vital differences or variations (the process of the élan vital) are purely accidental Deleuze offers three objections: 1) if these variations are due to chance they would remain external, or “indifferent”, to each other, 2) this externality would mean they could not logically be anything but associated or added to one another, and 3) their indifference would mean they would not even have the means to enter into these relations of association or addition. This all leads to the final conclusion that ‘The mistake of evolutionism is, thus, to conceive of vital variations as so many actual determination that should then combine on a single line.’

This is where Deleuze makes clear what a ‘philosophy of life’ would appear as. It should be noted that the German for philosophy of life [lebensphilosophie] is often translated as vitalism. When Deleuze gives us the three Bergsonian requirements for a ‘philosophy of life’ he is explicating the shape of his own vitalistic thought: 1) the vital difference is an internal difference, in accord with the way it is experienced and thought and only in this way are they not accidental, 2) these variations do not constitute an associate or additive relationship, but enter into relationships of dissociation or divistion, and 3) by virtue of the former two these variations involve a virtuality that is actualized according to the lines of divergence; ‘so that evolution does not move from one actual term to another actual term in a homogeneous unilinear series, but from a virtual term to the heterogeneous terms that actualize it along a ramified series.’ These three requirements are interconnected by their emphasis on difference, divergence, and heterogeneity. But this heterogeneity comes from the reality of the virtual or the way the divergent lines belong to a single Time, coexist in a Unity, are enclosed in a Simplicity, form parts of a Whole – in other words the actualization of these divergent lines are held together in the virtuality of a ‘gigantic memory, a universal cone in which everything coexists with itself, except for the differences of level.’ The actuals present differences in degree, or fundamental opposition between plant, animal, and man that leads one to see only deteriorations. However when one experiences the movement that produces them one sees the virtuality actualized in the actuals, or the creative act of life itself. Life is not purely virtual; life as movement arrests itself in the material form that it creates. The living being turns on itself and closes itself as an actual. This isn’t a negation of the virtual, for life cannot be otherwise if the Whole or All-One [Tout] is only virtual it has to divide itself by being acted out as actual – ‘[The Whole] cannot assemble its atual parts that remains external to each other: The Whole is never “given.”’ Though this leads to individual closures, we must also be delighted, in the name of creativity, that the Whole is not given. For if the Whole were given, once and for all, the mistakes of mechanism and finalism would be true – life would be only determination. So against traditional vitalism Deleuze posits that there is no “goal” to life, even if there is finality due to the fact that life does operate without directions. The consequence of the élan vital is that these differences do not pre-exist ready-made, but are ‘created “along with” the act that runs through them.’ In this way life is in principle memory, consciousness, and freedom, but ‘in principle’ means virtually. Bergson argued that it is in humanity that life actually comes to power as memory, consciousness, and freedom. In the sense that the élan vital finally actualizes successfully the virtuality of life humanity can be said to be the “purpose” of evolution. ‘It could be said that in man, and only in man, the actual becomes adequate to the virtual.’ However, this conception of ‘man’ is complicated in Deleuze’s later work on Nietzsche and Foucault and his thinking of the Overman. Below I argue that this thinking of the Overman is the ethical and political import of Deleuze’s vitalistic philosophy.

Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche restores the philosophical power of Nietzsche’s thought by excavating a coherent metaphysics. Nietzsche’s philosophy is a challenge to the optimism in Bergson’s confidence that in humanity the actual becomes adequate to the virtual. Deleuze seems to accept in large part Nietzsche’s genealogy of marls and follows Nietzsche in thinking that life at one time was not in need of redemption and furthermore that life was ultimately just and innocent. However, through the “cunning of priests and slaves” the dual ideas of guilt and debt are introduced, causing ressentiment to arise and make life heavy. Life is then subjugated to the dialectic, or more clearly, subjugated to history as a line of past events that lead to the present and determine the future. This creates societies that do not want to be overcome, that see themselves and their laws as the final end of history and who can no longer imagine or think of anything superior than themselves. Nature, the site where life plays out, is striving to go beyond humanity as he who is guilty to past debts, to a person who make promises to the future, but humanity as becoming-reactive strives against such nature. This is essentially in line with Deleuze’s reading of Bergson, except at the level of society instead of species. Effectively, since humanity creates societies and is constituted as a society, humanity has, in its current condition, failed to make the actual adequate to the virtual.

9 thoughts on “Life is Production: On Deleuze’s Vitalism II

  1. So Deleuze proposes that creation is the actualization of a potential that already exists virtually. All conceivable potentialities exist virtually; a specific creative act brings just one of those potentialities from the virtual into the actual. The question that comes to mind is this: how is it possible to know that these countless virtual potentials are real? Does God know them? There was a 16th century Jesuit philosopher named Luis de Molina who proposed this idea about God’s omniscience. Molina contended that God knows all potential future worlds and what will happen if any one of them is actualized. But it’s man’s choice as to which future world gets actualized. Do you know Molina? Isn’t this similar to Deleuze’s idea of the virtual as a pre-existing set of all conceivable possibilities of which at most one can be actualized in human creation?

  2. You’re confusing the terms here. It’s not that creation is the actualization of a potential that already exist virtually. Further it is not a question, in Deleuze’s philosophy at this stage, of how we know that the countless ‘virtual potentials’ (for there is no such thing) are real. Rather we know that the real is both actual and virtual. You’re confusing, I think, the possible with the virtual here. The virtual is ideal, but we don’t know it until it is actual, and further we have to say, both reasonably and sensibly, that the virtual, if it is not pregiven, is the response of life to matter in so far as non-organic life is held back by matter, or compromised. See the first part of this essay for this discussion.

    So, again, it is not a question of whether or not the virtual is real, for it is real but not actual. Can we say that the virtual is in part then the limit of the actual? In that virtual, as a response to matter, takes the actual as far as it will go.

    Now there are resonances with what you are suggesting with regard to his relationship to Leibniz. But, I’m not really prepared to comment on them at length right now. Would you agree that your Jesuit sounds a good deal like Leibniz?

  3. I look forward to your third installment. I also acknowledge my confusion between possible and virtual. So actualizing a possible results in the elimination of some or all other possibilities: when option A is realized from among multiple possible options the other possibilities are rendered forfeit thereby. Whereas virtuals are more like perceptual psychologist JJ Gibson’s affordances: a horizontal surface might afford standing on or running across or building on, depending on the situation and the intentionality of the being that encounters the surface. Actualizing the surface in any particular way doesn’t exhaust that or any of the other virtualities: they’re still available the next time somebody encounters that surface. And also, actualizing the virtual is an interaction between the thing and the being who wants to perform some action that involves the thing. Would you say that’s close?

    I don’t know much about Molina, but I’d say yes, he’s a predecessor of Leibniz (by about a hundred years) in the trajectory of possible-worlds theorists. For Molina the best-possible is actualized not just through divine fiat but also through the participation of countless acts of human free will. The human will sort of resonates with the possibilities that God is simultaneously decreeing, as if the choices offer the optimal affordances for specific decisions of humans as they go about acting in the world. But as you note, Molina is about possible worlds rather than virtual worlds. The unfolding of the world becomes a continual pruning of the Bayesian decision tree, eliminating more and more possible worlds until you get to the end of time when there’s only one possible world that wins the lottery.

  4. Anthony, since it appears that for others beside me, who perhaps have not read Deleuze but are interested in the ideas you are discussing in his terms, I will ask that you provide a further aid to clarification in terms of an example. If the virtual is a category of real things which are not actual, what is an example? Perhaps I should suggest ‘sovereignty’; I think this discussion thread could use your help:

  5. From the Wikipedia entry:

    ‘While Deleuze’s virtual ideas superficially resemble Plato’s forms and Kant’s ideas of pure reason, they are not originals or models, nor do they transcend possible experience; instead they are the conditions of actual experience, the internal difference in itself. “The concept they [the conditions] form is identical to its object.” A Deleuzean idea or concept of difference is not a wraith-like abstraction of an experienced thing, it is a real system of differential relations that creates actual spaces, times, and sensations.’

    So, one example would be nature. There is nothing we can point at and say, ‘There, that’s nature’, but only ‘There, that is natural.’ But nature, it seems, does actually exist without being actualized. Does that help? Sovereignty would be a bit trickier, I’m not sure how to deal with it. It would seem to be a kind of mistake or failure in actualization because it doesn’t faciliate further creation of itself. (What I’m saying here is that sovereignty is actual, not virtual, but we can say that it was a process of actualization in society.)

  6. Yes, that is very clear, but I’m a little confused now how that’s not an abstraction, at least in the sense that, say, Hume discusses it. After all, the thing I apprehend which I judge to be natural must have contained some qualities which distinguished it from things outside the category of the descriptor. However, now I understand the concept you’re applying here, so I’ll reserve any criticism at that level for the primary source.

  7. Good work, Anthony. I’ve struggled a good deal with Deleuze’s account of the virtual and continue to struggle with it. In vulgar terms, I think the virtual can be productively thought as the “genetic conditions” of an individual thing… “Those energetic factors by which this individual thing comes to be.” This, I take it, is why Deleuze later refers to the virtual as composed of “problems”. So first, in order to understand Deleuze here, it’s necessary to think of entities in their concrete, situated becomings in the world– hence the constant references to the real and his deep hostility to the category of “possibility” which he associates with forms and universals, such that we lose the concreteness of existence –and second we need to think the manner in which the entity “resolves” the context (problem) out of which it emerges (Deleuze often speaks of “integration” in this connection).

    To give an unhappy example of what he’s getting at, perhaps we could think of a fetus developing in the womb. We have the genes and the cell production, of course, but the fetus is always developing in a very specific environment. This relation, I think, is what Deleuze refers to as the “problem”. It would refer to the mothers diet, her own bodily chemistry, sleep schedule, environmental conditions outside the womb, and so on. All of this would be a unique situation that interacts with how the cells will develop and what their final actuality will be.

    I say this example is “unhappy” because the point I keep returning to is that all these things seem actual to me, so I must be missing something in Deleuze’s account. I think something else is missing here too. Joseph, in the first post, brought up the issue of determination. In Difference and Repetition Deleuze will also speak of determination in chapter 4, when talking about the ontology of problems and the virtual, speaking of the undetermined, the determinable, and the completely determined. The undetermined will be dy in relation to y, the determinable will be dy/dx or the codetermination of differentials, and the completely determined will be the singularity that this relation precipitates. Deleuze will continue his critique of negation and determination by negation in much the same way he does in Bergsonism. I think ultimately what Deleuze is looking for is a conception of difference where difference is affirmative and introduces something new into the world. I have a good deal of trouble expressing this or getting at what this means. The problem with my fetus example is that all the determination seems to come from an interrelationship with the environment about it as it develops. But there’s still the question of the differences that make up the genetic sequence itself: a potent affirmative difference that cannot be reduced to these environmental factors and that introduces something into the world that wasn’t there before. At the beginning of Creative Evolution, Bergson gives an analogy to help us think about such a thing. He tells us to imagine vital difference or the elan vital in terms of a hand thrust into a pile of iron filings or something. After the hand is removed it leaves a furrow or trace of its passage. The scientist later comes along and notices this odd configuration and searches all about in the filings themselves for some account of how this phenomenon came to be, but can come up with nothing. This analogy seems to touch on something like what Deleuze is referring to by affirmative difference or potent difference, though I have difficulty articulating it. Anyway, just some random thoughts in response to your essay here.

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