Experimental Life and Ordeal’s Necessity

“How would the eschatological ethos of a transformed people be, per impossible, the ‘lived reality’ of immanence?” (25)

“Some kind of mediation may play a genuinely constitutive role in [Deleuze’s] system, even if the redemptive function of such mediators is not something Deleuze explicitly theorizes. … those who belong to this series of humorous avatars would index the contours of viable experimental life.” (215)

There is no such thing as a philosophy without a practice of reading. This is to say not only that philosophies, in being received, are bound to a reading practice, but also that philosophies themselves, insofar as they are produced, have reading practices as part of their causal nexus. This may be obvious, but it is something worth reflecting on given that our image of thought—where this thought is imagined as being philosophical—tends not to include reading practices. Or, at the very least, it tends not to include reading practices in the way that other images tend to include them. Consider, for instance, the differentiation of philosophy and religion: it is much easier to imagine religion as including reading practices than it is to imagine philosophy as including them. I would even venture that part of the reason for the occlusion of the constitutive role of reading practices in philosophy has to do with philosophy’s interest in differentiating itself from religion.

The implications of these initial comments are much broader than I can here indicate. Yet they are, at the very least, explicitly relevant insofar as the viability of Ramey’s argument for a “hermetic” Deleuze is inseparable from his practice of reading Deleuze. If reading practices are necessary to philosophy, then we must say from the beginning that Ramey’s approach is not strange, or that whatever strangeness it may have is relative to those who want to disavow the necessity of reading practices. We could say, in fact, that much of Ramey’s argument depends on refusing to disavow—and refusing to repeat Deleuze’s own disavowal of—Deleuze’s very early practice of reading Malfatti. And this refusal to disavow reading practices, I would add, is what allows Ramey to open up a religious aspect in Deleuze’s thought—for the refusal to disavow reading practices is also the refusal of the difference, produced by this disavowal, between philosophy and religion. Finally, Ramey’s own affirmation of theurgy, or ritual, can be seen as an affirmation of reading practices, which no doubt name a kind of ritual. In this regard, I find myself compelled to say that Ramey performs what he theorizes; his reading of Deleuze is “vocal-graphic” rather than “despotic” (193-4).

All this is to say that Ramey’s practice of reading Deleuze as hermetic is made possible by his prior affirmation of reading practices, or of ritual. I am not sure whether this puts Ramey’s book outside the domain of philosophy. Nor am I sure whether it is precisely this affirmation that makes the book nonphilosophical. I am, however, sure that it is what makes this a powerful, extremely important book.

To insist on the necessity of reading practices, however, raises a difficult issue. This is because we find ourselves compelled to admit that there are many practices of reading, which then seems to compel us to imagine these practices in terms of contingency. What you find, or produce, is contingent on your reading practice, of which there are many. Does this then make it impossible to insist on the necessity of reading Deleuze (among other things) in a certain way? Does the necessity of reading practices make it necessary to give up on the notion of necessity? This would especially seem to be the case insofar as Ramey’s treatment of Deleuze rightly presses us to see that there are various ways of enacting events—would this amount to saying that it is necessary to live contingently? And even the word “live,” or the notion of a “viable” reading, which I have already invoked … what is the relation between them? Should we say that what renders Ramey’s reading viable is that it accords with life? And is such accordance necessary?

I am probably getting a bit enigmatic, but if so, this is not on purpose. In other words, if I pose these questions, it is not because I am hinting at answers I already possess, but because they are the horizon made possible by Ramey’s excellent text. They are questions of, or for, maybe even from, the future. They are also, however, questions motivated by my own reading practices, which have an allegiance to a statement from Spinoza: “In so far as the mind understands all things as necessary, so far it has a greater power over the emotions, or, it suffers less from them” (VP6). This is one voice in a larger chorus of the Ethics, which calls, again and again, for us to affirm necessity against contingency. I follow this affirmation, and I am wondering what it would mean to affirm, at the same time, the necessity of reading practices, which seem to open up a contingency that makes possible the experimental life that is so central to and so powerfully advocated by Ramey’s argument. To put it otherwise: is it possible to (contingently) experiment with this world while believing in (the necessity of) this world, i.e. while not believing in a better world?  Furthermore, how might an answer to this question already be implied in Ramey’s practice of reading Deleuze in “eschatological” terms? (And would it make a difference if we replaced “eschatological” with “prophetic”?)

X is exemplary of Y … X is like Y … X is a metaphor for Y. Reading practices that proceed according to any of these strategies are rejected by Ramey. I agree, and the reasons I agree—which I don’t want to assume are identical to Ramey’s, though there is certainly a resonance—have to do with my antagonism toward analogy, which happens to be central to standard Christianity. All of these strategies are analogical, which is to say that they want to keep difference from being essential. What is sometimes overlooked about analogy is that it is, at its core, a reading practice. When it is advocated by Aquinas, for instance, it is presented as a way of avoiding the affirmation of equivocity and univocity. It is as if he is telling us, yes, things are both different and similar, but we should avoid (or redeem?) both of these facts by saying that things are analogical, i.e. they are differentiated and yet like, or exemplary of, one another. (For my part, I would like to say that things are simultaneously equivocal and univocal.)

Of course, there is one rather prominent example that belongs to this Christian tradition, and it is an example that Ramey opposes at various points, though rather notably in his discussion of Bruno. He tells us that, “The reasoning behind Bruno’s objection to the notion of a God incarnate in the man Jesus is … that it arbitrarily degrades the entirely of the rest of the cosmos” (63). Christ becomes exemplary for the cosmos, such that the highest aim, or the highest degree of viability, belonging to the cosmos is to imitate, or to become analogous to, this example. The life of Christ becomes exemplary of, or for, all of life. We could say, then, that what is being rejected by Ramey’s reading practice is the standard (Christological, incarnational, analogical) reading practice of standard Christianity.

I would add that the reading practice being rejected is also one that makes existence (at least as it exists outside the existence of “the man Jesus”) contingent. In other words, this rejected reading practice trains one to recognize one’s existence as contingently capable of being oriented toward or away from the Christological exemplar. Ramey—at least insofar as he follows Bruno—notes that the problem with this Christological exemplarity is its “antiexperimental character” (64). My question, then, concerns the relation between experimentality and contingency. If experimentality is bound up with contingency, and if experimentality is precluded by standard Christology, what should we make of the fact that the very same Christology produces contingency? Should we affirm Christology’s contingency (which is bound up with experimentality) while opposing its antiexperimentality? Or should we be suspicious of contingency insofar as it comes from the same source that precludes experimentality?

I take Spinoza’s insistence on necessity, over against contingency, as an antagonism toward standard Christianity, with its themes of exemplarity and incarnation. Nothing can be an example of anything else because everything is equivocal; nothing can be prior to anything else because everything is univocal. The univocity of every different thing thus stems not from a muting of difference’s equivocity, but from an affirmation of the necessity of everything in its difference. In other words, univocity has to do with necessity; the refusal of analogy, with its contingency, is inseparable from the affirmation of necessity. In fact, we might think of this insistence on necessity as forming its own kind of reading practice: one must read whatever happens as necessary; if one reads what happens as contingent, then one has failed to understand what happens.

Where does this leave experimentation? Is there a difference between experimentation as a reading practice formed by necessity and experimentation in itself (or contingency as such)? Put otherwise, if an experiment fails, how should we read the failure: as necessary, or as something that belongs to a larger project of experimentation in itself? (And if we choose the latter, are we not in danger of reading the failed experiment in terms of an analogy with experimentation in itself?) All of these questions emerge, for instance, when Ramey contends, “Deleuze’s affirmation of experimentation is never reducible to the successes or failures of a particular experiment, a single living being, but to virtual aspects incarnate in a life” (179).

What is in no doubt, what is without doubt necessarily the case, is that experimentation is—as Ramey brilliant describes it throughout the book—an “ordeal.” It seems also to be the case that what makes the ordeal an ordeal is that there is, as Lee Edelman puts it, “no future” outside of the ordeal: one cannot address the ordeal by way of analogy with the future. In this sense, there is a certain “melancholia” involved in the ordeal. The ordeal is that the end of our world is necessary. Or, to use anti-Christological language, what makes the ordeal an ordeal is that there is nothing for it to incarnate. Or—to rephrase one more time, and to make use of a concept that Ramey is now working on—what makes the ordeal an ordeal is that it is inseparable from an “occasion.” There is no ordeal without an occasion, or every occasion is an ordeal, by necessity.

12 thoughts on “Experimental Life and Ordeal’s Necessity

  1. “I would even venture that part of the reason for the occlusion of the constitutive role of reading practices in philosophy has to do with philosophy’s interest in differentiating itself from religion.” This is a great insight. I started my “philosophy and theology” class at Shimer by trying to emphasize the text-centered nature of philosophical practice, precisely to try to blur the preconceived boundaries between the two. I wonder, too, if the contemporary disdain for “commentary” in continental circles stems in part from this concern to differentiate philosophy from religion.

  2. This is brilliant Dan! Ramey performs what he’s writing, which is what makes it so powerful, and it captures something absolutely essential about Deleuze.

  3. Have you read Simpson’s Deleuze and Theology? He references Barber, APS, Goodchild, Kerslake, and me, but he ultimately tries to deliver Delueze over to the analogical Christian reading you’re rightly opposing here.

  4. Clayton, i’m glad you liked the post. I haven’t read the Simpson book, though i’m intrigued by it and read a bit on the amazon preview. I figured that the reading would be directed from the vantage of analogy

  5. Simpson tries to give the other theological engagement with Deleuze more space than RO typically does, but at the end of the day, Desmond’s analogical theology triumphs. One of the things that is interesting is that he positions a theology of radical immanence and a Christian theology of analogy as sharing the desire to oppose a more gnostic Deleuze, via Hallward and Kerslake, making Deleuze part of what O’Regan calls a “gnostic return of modernity.” And the book was finished before Ramey’s book was published, but Ramey’s work actually explodes this project, in my mind, and according to the logic of your post.

  6. Not having yet read the whole book, this is of course a very partial appreciation, though an earnest one:

    The work of both Ramey and Barber underscore the crucial relations of lexis and lexicon (diction and dictionary), gnosis and anagnosis (knowing and reading out loud or recognizing) as a structuration of logos, and the attendant link in Latin between lectio and intellectus (< inter + lego). Even in English to read, also to understand, was first to talk through and advise (< reden in ME, cf. the German reden and raten). Descartes was among the first philosophers since Aristotle, the first fully “reading” philosopher, to pretend not to read at all, and thus disallow and -avow the “affection” of philosophical piety (Cusanus is perhaps a significant antecedent – what with his studied ignorance and all, and Bruno another, the Pegasus-ass that he was – though that too was but a disguised reading of the Mohammedan Mi’raj). Ramey’s Deleuzean excavations here of philosophical modernity and its relation to hermeticism help us understand what Deleuze was trying to reverse by (atelic) conversion – hence the ordeal.

    About analogy, let’s not forget that analogia had the sense of mathematical and quantitative proportion (first used in architecture and geometry), which was also arithmetically derived. The analogia entis was thus about the quantitative extent of attributes in God and in creatures, and thus LENDS itself to the univocity of being qua being, though not to the univocity of attributes. The development of the calculus from Cusanus to Leibniz and Newton rendered analogia obsolete because it dispensed with fixed quantities and relations and replaced them with differential ones. Deleuze’s philosophy vacillates between this differentiality and indenumerability altogether. Is this because he wants to affirm the reworked Stoic doctrine of necessity in Spinoza alongside Leibniz’s notion incompossibility? If so, he seems to immanentize the latter to bolster the former. In any case, what results is singularity, which resists both reduction/subsumption and quantification. Spinoza’s rejection of contingency had been, inter alia, a rejection of Ockhamist Aristotelianism, which then
    allowed him to reconceive God immanently, as self-unfolding process (natura as physis rather than the sum of all things). Deleuze’s achievement is to have reform(ulat)ed and synthesized in one stroke both Spinozan necessity and immanence and Ockhamist contingency and individuality. This, Deleuze’s (indenumerable) singularity, is what Dan calls the “necessity of everything in its difference,” and the hermetic impulse, with its endless divine possibility, is what drives this radical transformation.

    Dan’s remark that there is “‘no future’ outside the ordeal” reminds me of Simone Weil’s reinterpretation of “heaven” in the Lord’s Prayer as that which is hidden – a translation of the late medieval Deus Absconditus. This “hidden” would seem coterminous with Deleuze’s “virtual,” his own word for the future (which he takes virtually), and his way of being utopian and affirmative without subscribing necessarily to the Marxist eschaton. Thus again the ordeal of uncontrollable thought.

    This unforeseeable, uncontrollable thought is thus an experiment, from the Latin sense of experience, as what Michel Henry called éprouver soi-même, or what Simone Weil, again, expressed as living experimentally. Deleuze extrematized such experimental life in what Josh so aptly dubs, in his fluent reading and rendering of Gilles, the “pragmatics of the intense” (30). It stands in opposition to what modern science has sought to monopolize as a trial without a self, and a desire to know (and manipulate) things without transfiguring their cosmos – the bane also of the so-called experimental philosophy. Josh, by highlighting Deleuze’s hermetic apertures, shows us another way to traverse a universe that is no longer countable (in any sense) because neither it nor the self is any longer identical to itself.

  7. Many thanks to Anthony and the AUFS team for making this discussion possible.

    Dan Barber’s subtle meditations on reading contain allusions to some huge metaphysical issues. I think that the way he is drawn to the problem of incarnation allows one of the key themes in Joshua’s book to come into focus: the difference between ‘Hermetic’ and Christian religion. Dan’s remarks on incarnation refer to the second chapter of the book, where Joshua charts the progressive break with Christology that one finds in the Renaissance revival of Hermeticism. Giordano Bruno is the one who finally completes the break (HD 61).

    Dan seems to reject the idea of incarnation, because he takes it to imply the kind of exemplarity that is instanced in Christianity. He allies exemplarity with contingency, and opposes them both to the Spinozist affirmation of necessity. Then he goes from the observation that ordeals involve the occlusion of the future to a kind of explanation or justification of such occlusion. “The ordeal is that the end of our world is necessary. Or, to use anti-Christological language, what makes the ordeal an ordeal is that there is nothing for it to incarnate.”

    I may be misreading Dan here, but I’ll stick with it because what he says seems to touch on a very important metaphysico-religious knot, linking the themes of incarnation and ‘Hermeticism’ (in its broadest sense). First thing: incarnationism. One of the things Joshua and I spontaneously agreed about the first time we met was the presence of some kind of incarnationism in Deleuze. The passage Joshua cites at HD 29 is perhaps the central one: “Every body … expresses an Idea the actualisation of which it determines” (Difference and Repetition 254 Athlone ed). Seen from the kind of perspective Deleuze wants us to adopt, every thing is an incarnation of an Idea, and such incarnations can occur at different levels of intensity. Now, whenever Deleuze talks about this, he usually mentions the idea of metempsychosis, in a way that suggests some missing set of implications. Why does he do this?

    Surely the deepest reasons must be related to the metaphysical issues Dan touches on. Dan says: “the ordeal is that the end of the world is necessary”, and (consequently?) that “there is nothing to incarnate”. Let’s take this straight to the metaphysical level. Does the necessity of the end of the world imply that there is nothing to incarnate? Not for a Christian, but also not for a Hermeticist (again, taking this in a broad sense for the moment). For the Hermeticist, we could say, it’s not possible to stipulate that the world will be finally destroyed. As long as it is not possible to definitively exclude the cyclical repetition of the birth and destruction of worlds, the vantage point of eternity remains open.

    Kant had an incredible vision of this in the seventh chapter of the Universal Natural History of the Heavens, where he talks of planets and solar systems being swallowed up in the abyss of eternity. In this early work (1755), he argues that apprehending the “phoenix of nature” being born and reborn across an infinity of space and time somehow stands to put us in “companionship” with the Infinite Being. Worlds may come into being and pass away, but between the worlds there is not just infinite time, but also the continuous activity of some kind of infinite being. Perhaps Kant’s ordeal occurred when he appealed to Swedenborg’s philosophy for some kind of confirmation of the existence of a ‘spiritual world’ beyond space and time, found it wanting, and then crashed back down to Earth. The 1766 Dreams of a Spirit Seer is a thoroughly ambivalent, almost schizoid work, and the problems it generates can be seen as the catalyst for the eventual shift to the ‘critical’ project proper. Kant ended up finding no answer to his deep desire to find confirmation of the existence of an Infinite Being between the worlds, but – and from this perspective, perhaps he still finds a way to sublimate the impulse that led him to Swedenborg – he did continue to maintain that it was impossible to rule out the eternity of the universe.

    One can understand Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence as starting from the same point. “What is the being inseparable from that which is becoming? Return is the being of that which becomes” (Nietzsche and Philosophy, 24). We are not necessarily just stuck here waiting for the universe to fizzle out. It could all come back, again and again. That it is not possible to rule out eternal recurrence changes everything for Nietzsche and Deleuze. We exist in the light of eternal recurrence, whether we like it or not; it is the measure of our existence, and brings with it its own demands. There is a lot more to say about this, not least because the one place that Deleuze repeatedly uses the word ‘esoteric’ is in his remarks on eternal recurrence. But this issue also impacts on the theme of incarnation. Factoring in the possible eternity of the universe changes the meaning of incarnation. The incarnation of Christ is totally different to the incarnations in Indian religion, which are not only many, but which are each accompanied by avatars and part of a cyclical process. If eternity is factored in and incarnation becomes multiple, the whole framework starts to shift. Deleuze’s interest in types is related to this. His reading of Thus Spake Zarathustra presents a kind of spiritual typology, where there is not one incarnation, but many. And his references to metempsychosis suggest that we are not doomed to exist as incarnations of one type, but that we can undergo transformations not just between worlds, but also, if we somehow bring about the correct kind of ontological short-circuit, in the course of one lifetime.

    Is it right to present this as Hermetic? One of the questions I have for Joshua is about the use of the word Hermetic. On p. 26, he suggests that he takes Hermeticism to be exchangeable with Western esotericism. But in the wonderful second chapter on ‘The Hermetic Tradition’, he makes a case for the centrality of Hermeticism per se in the history of Western thought (with the path from Cusa to Bruno being the ultimate secret ‘thread’ leading to the discovery of immanence). I tend to think that the kind of esotericism that influenced Deleuze was not specifically Hermetic, but that it is a specific kind of body-oriented esotericism he is drawn to. Malfatti’s esotericism is inseparable from his reconception of circulatory processes and rhythms in the body (in this he echoes Swedenborg, whose 1740 Economy of the Animal Kingdom goes into meticulous if not obsessive detail about the rhythms of the heart and lungs). Understanding Deleuze’s precise relation to ‘esotericism’ would mean understanding what the latter is in the first place, and then determining its various types or classes. Malfatti’s kind of esotericism seems quite distinctive. It also seems to make sense to use ‘Esotericism’ as the wider category, due to the various Indian, Iranian, and Greek (Pythagorean) sources that co-exist historically with the Egyptian and Hermetic sources.

    Joshua and I hit upon the esoteric currents in Deleuze at the same time, and have developed our thinking about it in parallel. He has knowledge of Hermeticism and Renaissance thought, and of all sorts of areas (like music-making), that I don’t have. One of the most stimulating things I’m finding to think about in his book is his choice of starting point in Chapter 1. This raises some separate issues, so perhaps I should stop here. But I’ll just try to state the central issue briefly and somewhat inchoately. It seems to me that, logically speaking, he starts with the classical epistemological problem of knowledge put forward by Descartes in the Meditations (cf. HD 18, on the justification of belief). The first problem is to do with knowledge and its limits. But here there are some intriguing links between Descartes and Gnosticism. Descartes gets us to think that our mental representations might be produced by an evil demon, and we arrive at the cogito only after he has led us through that ‘ordeal’. Modern philosophy therefore begins with a preliminary exposure to a demon. If modern philosophy involves an ordeal, one could say that it is founded on the ordeal of confronting the demon of radical skepticism. Now, at the beginning of his first chapter, Joshua rightly points to the fact that for Deleuze, the idea of God is somehow a necessary thought, which one must arrive at as quickly as possible when doing metaphysics. My question is: what is the relation between the spiralling infinity of radical skepticism and the infinity implicit in the idea of God? Does infinity belong to the demon first of all? Is it then that God seizes infinity back from the demon, by virtue of the very logic and metaphysics of infinity? Or is that the attributes of the demon, or demiurge, can be rigorously distinguished at every stage from the attributes of God? To put the same question in a different way: are there two starting points – an epistemological one and a metaphysical one?

    The very first lines of the first chapter of Corpus Hermeticum in a way foreshadow the Cartesian ascesis: “Once, when my thought came to me of the things that are, and my thinking soared high and my bodily senses were restrained […] an enormous being completely unbounded in size seemed to appear to me and say […]: ‘What do you want to learn from your understanding?’”. Is it the essentially the same procedure? First, separate the mind from the body, and conceive of the former as independent of the latter; second, conceive of a mind greater than your own. Is there a common procedure to the first stages of ‘spiritual ordeal’ to be found in the Corpus Hermeticum and in the Meditations? Or is there something fundamentally different between them?

  8. Just wanted to say thanks to David and Christian for the comments. They are quite rich, too much so for me to adequately reply at the moment — and the same goes for Joshua’s response. I will say quickly that i take Christian’s reading of my concerns to be correct. My only point of questioning, though, is whether incarnationism is equivalent to Deleuze’s actualization — my sense is that this is not the case, but this of course is open an entirely alternative discussion.

  9. Dan – yes, the passage I referred to doesn’t mention incarnation, only actualisation; and there is more in the concept of incarnation than there is in the concept of actualisation. Perhaps clearer examples of incarnationism are to be found in The Logic of Sensation, the book on Francis Bacon, and in the book Bergsonism. Take chapter 4 of the book on Bacon, on ‘Body, Meat and Spirit, Becoming-Animal’. Deleuze talks about the subject matter of Bacon’s paintings as “spirit in bodily form, a corporeal and vital breath, an animal spirit. It is the animal spirit of man: a pig-spirit, a buffalo-spirit, a dog-spirit, a bat-spirit” (p. 20). He discusses Bacon’s fascination with the Crucifixion, but says that what Bacon is targeting is “that extreme moment … when [a human] is nothing but a beast”. He then qualifies that being nothing but a beast in this context also in turn involves apprehending beasts themselves as participating in something strangely ‘human’. At the moment that “the man that suffers is a beast, the beast that suffers is [also] a man”. He tells us that “this is the reality of becoming”. He cannot be talking about anything simple here. If you were to explain Deleuze’s concept of becoming through a passage like this (there is a similar passage in A Thousand Plateaus), you would be moving far away from the usual pre-Socratic sources for discussing becoming. It seems that for Deleuze, the true ‘reality’ of becoming is most vividly expressed by what he calls ‘becoming-animal’, which in turn involves some kind of two-way process between human and animal. Obviously his thinking here is complex, as to talk about suffering animals “becoming human” can’t involve any ascription of objective properties to animals. So it’s up to us to work out what level he is thinking at here. Nevertheless, it seems clear that he sees in Bacon’s work a sort of primal depiction of the incarnation of ‘spirit’ in bodily form.

    The other ‘incarnationist’ moment that comes to mind is in the book Bergsonism, which culminates in a chapter explaining and developing Bergson’s theory of human emotion as a vehicle for the sublimation of the elan vital. Humans, by virtue of the special properties of their memory, end up developing a channel for a universalised sympathy that, according to Deleuze, opens up Nature as a whole for them. They transcend their natural, particular sympathies, and through the emergence of the subtle field of ‘emotion’, are able to universalize their sympathy, so that they can in principle identify with any life form. Therefore they don’t just actualise the elan vital, but could be said to incarnate the elan vital as such, in its pure state.

    I’m pointing to sources that could help to clarify the possible distinction between actualisation and incarnation in Deleuze, if that’s what one wanted to do.

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