Life is Production: On Deleuze’s Vitalism III

In Foucault, Deleuze’s conception of life changes from something to be resisted for to life as resistance. In Foucault’s own work there was a shift from thinking of resistance in terms of a tactical reversal, where the resistances built into all power-relationships can be exploited to thwart oppressive relationships of power, to a conception of resistance as aesthetics of existence, which hoped for the cultivation of an autonomous self. This can help us to think about Deleuze’s own shift, as it runs somewhat parallel. For Nietzsche the goal of critique that Deleuze shares is a transvaluation of values, or what Deleuze calls a transmutation of values. This transmutation hopes to overcome nihilism, or the victory of reactive forces (Bergsonian closed organisms), through nihilism itself. Such a destruction of nihilism will lead to the Overman; a higher actual life than “reactive man”. As such, the only way to resist the structures is through the structures themselves in the hopes of a higher life. In Foucault, Deleuze presents us with a complex topology of life through a series of folds. These folds are like the folds of a map that shows a flattened history of man as a history of force-relations. These forces that rage through the human body and human culture can be folded over onto other forces, the past can be folded onto the present in order to resist the past and hope for the future. It is these folds that make up a new subjectivation that resists being subject to any judicial outside forces. We should note that this parallels Foucault’s preferred form of resistance, self-governance, that he adapts in his later work. There may still be a difference between these two conceptions for in Deleuze, this fold is the place where life itself happens. Deleuze says it quite well:

The most distant point becomes interior, by being converted into the nearest: life within the folds. This is the central chamber, which one need no longer fear is empty since one fills it with oneself. Here one becomes a master of one’s speed and, relatively speaking, a master of one’s molecules and particular features, in this zone of subjectivation: the boat as interior of the exterior.

This is how Deleuze understands Foucault’s making autonomous life the form of resistance par excellence.

As with Foucault we are right to question what the ethical implication of such autonomy is, but it should be noted that Deleuze sees in this a new vitalism. To fully understand it we have to consider more explicitly the Overman. Again following Nietzsche, Deleuze presents the Overman as something that can only come after the passing away of the highest man. This is explicitly against the Hegelian understanding of “God is Dead, God has become Man, Man has become God.” Indeed, Deleuze posits that the Overman will be outside of any such dialectic. This lies in the fact that man, and man’s conception of God, is essentially “becoming-reactive” in seeking to devalue life. Contrary to what Deleuze tells us Bergson held, all of man has, essentially, either missed the goal of the Overman or set themselves to achieving a false goal. While it is tempting to read this negatively, that is that man is unable to reach this higher goal, it seems more in the spirit of Deleuze’s vitalism to read this as a positive conception of the future life as a life that is more joyous (creative) than one that we can currently conceive. Through his work on Foucault, Deleuze also examines the “God-form” and “Man-form”. The God-form represents the idea of the unfold, that is it opens up life to infinity. However, this does not represent freedom of any kind, as the clinic is one example of this formation in actuality. Much like the societies of control, the God-form represents an infinite movement without rest, or an infinite search for sickness. The Man-form is different in that it folds finitude into life. This is the introduction of the finitude of life in man, though maybe not ultimately the finitude of life itself.

This then puts Deleuze in a position to explain the advent of the Overman. Explicating on Foucault’s ‘profound Nietzscheanism’, Deleuze explains that what truly interests Nietzsche was not the death of God, but the death of man. For Nietzsche, as long as God existed man could not, but as soon as God dies then the death of man is already foretold since the birth of man comes about through finitude. Foucault becomes the philosopher of the death of man, and proclaims that this death is a good death because it opens to the possibility of a future form. This possible form of the future comes about through what Deleuze calls a Superfold. The Superfold is the fold that creates the life of the Overman, as it neither relies on raising life to infinity (the unfold of the God-form) or finitude (the fold of the Man-form) but, and the resonances with his discussion of the virtual should be noted, ‘an unlimited finity, thereby evoking every situation of force in which a finite number of components yields a practically unlimited diversity of combinations.’ This no longer lies in an indeterminate future as it did in Deleuze’s work on Nietzsche. Now the Overman becomes possible within humanity, as long as man finds a way to live in the fold discussed above and thus free life “within himself.” The Overman, however, is different in that he is not merely autonomous but “in charge of” the animals, rocks (and other inorganic matter such as silicon), and the very being of language. Rather than being something that comes after the death of man, ‘the [Overman] is much less than the disappearance of living men, and much more than a change of concept: it is the advent of a new form that is neither God nor man and which, it is hoped, will not prove worse than its two previous forms.’

Keith Ansell-Pearson explains that this conception of man is not ‘the “king of creation”, but rather […] the “being” who is intimately related to the “profound life of all forms or types of being”, and who is thus said to be “responsible” for “even the stars and animal life” since he is the “eternal custodian of the machines of the universe”.’ Life presents itself on a plane of immanence which reveals itself as ‘the unity of humanity and nature, subject and object, spirit and matter, society and individual, so as to increase “compassion for reality, for the world, and for time”.’ The Overman is a persona of vitalism for it says that the actual is not yet adequate to the virtual. The task is not to give up on humanity, for the Overman can come about through humanity. Philosophy’s choice is still the one given by Marx – to contemplate or change the world. ‘If man accedes to the open creative totality, it is therefore by acting, by creating rather than by contemplating.’ The task for philosophy is to become an act of creation rather than mere contemplation. Such is the vital movement facilitated by philosophy attending to life.

8 thoughts on “Life is Production: On Deleuze’s Vitalism III

  1. Sri Aurobindo’s ontology as delineated in his magnum opus, “The Life Divine” was spurred by the conception of Overman enunciated by Nietzsche. No wonder, he was involved in fighting Hitler from his retreat in Puducherry through his inner forces subsequently. Sri Aurobindo foresees a race of supermen endowed with divine potencies rather than vitalistic beings as speculated by Nietzsche.

  2. Anthony, this was terrific, particularly towards the end in the discussion of the Overman, and the vitalism of infinite, combinatory possibilities within finitude.

    One note about The Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche does not hypothesize a Golden Age. He simply hypothesizes an age of warrior aristocrats, who had a mass of commoners beneath them and no qualms about labeling these commoners “bad” and “untruthful.”

    However, because of the simplicity of these divisions, it was a somewhat less sophisticated, more literal society. It also contained the seeds of its overcoming:

    One will have divined already how easily the priestly mode of valuation can branch off from the knightly-aristocratic and then develop into its opposite; this is particularly likely when the priestly caste and the warrior caste are in jealous opposition to one another and are unwilling to come to terms. (I.7)

    In other words, not a just or innocent age, but rather an age that made goodness wait upon power, instead of the priestly opposite, which re-interpreted goodness in order to compensate for “impotence.”

  3. Joseph,

    Of course you are correct. It is sometimes strange to think what the French philosophers of 68 did with Nietzsche. Deleuze actually does excavate a coherent metaphysics from Nietzsche’s writings, including these bizarre right-wing political stances. I know most historians of philosophy have moved on from this interesting little chapter in French philosophy (most seem to be doing Spinoza and French philosophy now), but I never quite understood what was at work there.

    With regard to the vitalism of the infinite (good coinage, by the way), did you notice this ‘unlimited finite’? It’s interesting, I can’t pretend to understand it, but I find it really interesting. Deleuze is intelligent enough to not confuse this with infinity, so it must mean something different. It’s almost Kierkegaardian. I need to check the original though, as Massuami has said that the Foucault book is very poorly translated. I doubt Hand would have made such a blunder as to mistranslate this particular section, since Massuami’s criticisms mainly had to do with Hand’s lack of familiarity with Deleuzian concepts and vocabulary, but it has always given me pause when saying anything about this wonderful little book.

  4. Anthony,
    Don’t know if you’ll end up seeing this, but I stumbled upon this blog and saw that your a student at nottingham. I’ve applied there (ma in philosophy and theology) and am going to be there for an interview in less than two weeks. I would love to talk with a current student about their experience there, so if you see this and have time, shoot me an email at

    Thanks and hopefully I’ll hear from you.

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