Conscious Complicity at the Crossroads: A Response to Jacob Sherman’s “What’s at Stake in Hermetic Reterritorialization”

Unlike explanation, the symbol is the identity, the encounter, of the sensible object and the object of thought.  The sensible object is called symbol, and the object of thought, losing all signification, is a hieroglyph or a cipher.  In their identity, they form the concept.  The symbol is its extension, the hieroglyph its comprehension.  Whereupon the word “initiated” takes on its full sense:  According to Malfatti, the mysterious character of mathesis is not directed against the profane in an exclusive, mystical sense, but simply indicates the necessity of grasping the concept in the minimum of time, and that physical incarnations take place in the smallest possible space—unity within diversity, general life within particular life.  At the limit, we could even say that the notion of the initiate is rationalized to the extreme.  If vocation defines itself through the creation of a sensible object as the result of a knowledge, then mathesis qua living art of medicine is the vocation par excellence, the vocation of vocations, since it transforms knowledge itself into sensible object.  Thus we shall see mathesis insist upon the correspondences between material and spiritual creation.

Gilles Deleuze, “Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy” (Collapse III, Ed. Robin Mackay, Falmouth:  Urbanomic, 2007, p. 151)


What happens when a tradition has to be radically modified, and immediately modified?   A certain ancient tradition of initiation calls for a fire, but the land on which the initiation must take place is suffering from drought and the danger of wildfire is too great.  Yet the initiation must take place.  Those leading the ritual process discern that the initiation will take place, this time by water.  On what basis is this discernment made?   What principle legitimates the change?   The very fact of having to make such a decision seems to violate the tradition, to place oneself outside its gift, to alienate one from its power.  What is the passage, the “pass” (Latour’s term) by which such a tradition others itself, differentiates itself, becomes more itself as it becomes more than itself?   I do not have a direct answer to this question, which is somehow, between the lines, what I suspect Jacob Sherman has asked of me.  I suspect that my confrere Matthew Haar Farris, who conveyed to me this problem in painstaking detail, may have more to say directly about it, than I can.  All I can say, here, is that such crossroads increasingly define tradition, for me, rather than being seen as in any sense external to traditions—philosophical, religious, aesthetic, magical, or simply democratic.

I want to say, also, that my book is written not about the crossroads (Deleuze-Spiritual Science) but from it.  And I didn’t “decide” to try to “apply” Deleuze to problems of spiritual ordeal, or “force” him into it, as some alien and exotic metaphysic come to devour or mutate the native species, but because many of my own experiences and the experiences of many around me—our collective and personal spiritual ordeals—didn’t seem to have, and in many ways still do not seem to have anything like an adequate metaphysics.  And I thought there were, and I still think there are, clues in Deleuze’s own terse relation to hermeticism for how to begin to think these problems, problems of change in relation to continuity, contingency in relation to actuality, principle in relation to practice, and so on.

This is not “a way of reading Deleuze.”  It is the excavation of tendencies in Deleuze’s thought, tendencies that are incompletely realized but that point in certain directions, directions Deleuze himself did not, or could not yet take.  So I am interested neither in whether Deleuze does not break hard enough with a traditional perspective (as Dan Whistler wondered) or breaks too much from it (as I think Sherman implies) to be meaningfully connected to it.  I am interested, rather, in the tense, conflicted character of relations between putatively pure reason and spiritual ordeals, and the way that Deleuze’s work is symptomatic of an ongoing conflict within a rhetoric of utopian, egalitarian ideals (open rationality) that seem to be available only on the basis of certain intense transformative experiences (esoteric authority).

Because Jacob’s reservations seem to be both about textual exegesis and conceptual invention, and about some tension between those two in The Hermetic Deleuze, I feel compelled to engage in both some exegesis and some conceptual invention, here.

There are two exegetical generalities that Jacob proposes, about Deleuze, that with all due respect I feel would need to be reversed, if I am to make my own perspective clearer.  In the first place, after looking back at my own pages 205-206, I would characterize my own characterization of Deleuze’s relationship to spiritual science not as “formally hermeticist, but substantively immanentist,” but as formally, methodologically immanentist, and substantively hermeticist.  I am tempted to say that, in a way there is no substance to Deleuze’s work that is not occult, esoteric, or in some way obscure.  There is almost no direct reference in Deleuze’s work to anything like “ordinary,” “normal,” “commonsense,” “average” experiences, objects, persons, places, or things, other than to denigrate philosophers and artists who pay those regularities too much attention.  Even the animals he writes about are weird, from tics and rats to werewolves.  At the level of content, there is almost nothing in Deleuze’s work except exceptional, obscure, bizarre, unusual, paradoxical, uncanny, traumatic, visionary, apocalyptically intense realities.  Not only are the artists and their artworks found only at the outlying edges of sense and sensibility, from Masoch’s ordeals to Proust’s involuntary memories to the impossible temporality of Last Year at Marienbad, but even the scientists, historians, and mathematicians Deleuze is devoted to are undeniably fringe, nomadic, heretical characters.  So I simply can’t recognize the idea that Deleuze’s thought is substantively immanentist.

Rather, I would say, his thought is immanentist precisely at a formal or methodological level, and that is the level at which I find it the most problematic.

I have always been convinced, by the likes of John Milbank, Philip Goodchild, and François Laruelle (an unholy trinity, that), that it is symptomatic of any attempt at a perfectly, purely, absolutely immanentist system (such as Spinoza’s explicit thought, and to a certain extent Bergson’s) that at the level of methodology it is inadvertently, performatively dualist.  At the level of conceptual presentation, Deleuze is almost hypnotically “dualizing” (not to be confused with Laruelle’s dualysis).  Actual and virtual, extensive and intensive, bodies and sense-events, sedentary and nomadic, organs and BwO’s, chaos and the plane of immanence itself.  One could go on.  However, I read this dualism as symptomatic not so much of immanentism but of philosophical discourse, insofar as philosophy attempts to be, but cannot be persuasive by remaining at the level of the sign (in my work sign figured as also symbol and also arcane and hieroglyph).  In other words, of what is Deleuze’s dualistic refrain symptomatic?

Here is where my perspective differs from Milbank, who chalks it up to a failure to think transcendence (figured as Trinitarian participationism); Goodchild, who attributes it to a failure to think the absolute (figured as perfect attention to suffering); and Laruelle, who attributes it to philosophical syntax (mistaking discourse “of” the One for discourse “from” the One in the last instance).  There is something (believe it or not) that I affirm in all three of these critiques, which are related in important ways to my own.  But my specific difference from these three criticisms is that the methodological dualism in Deleuze (the failure of the dualism is that it wants to be a realism but has to settle for a formalism) is symptomatic of a specific, historically contingent antagonism between rationality (which I stipulate here as abstract philosophical discourse, concepts, metaphysics) and “spiritual discipline” (figured in my work as a spiritual ordeal that remains in and of signs).

Before I go further, I have to say that Jacob’s characterization of why I did not make use of the Hadot-Foucault approach to the historical relation between philosophy and spiritual sciences is absolutely on mark, and I wish I had thought to include that argument explicitly in the book.  But the difference is not only the difference Jacob points out between making oneself creative peculiar to the alchemical-magical-cosmic/artisanal focus of Deleuze’s uptake of hermeticism versus the focus of Hadot-Foucault upon “making oneself receptive” to the conditions of truth (clearly and uncontroversially an exercise necessary for philosophy at least since Plato, to say nothing of its nearly-exhaustive role in Vedantist, Buddhist, and Taoist schools).  The difference is also, and crucially for my own thinking, the difference between a spiritual ordeal whose focus is primarily individual, personal, and even private (even if undertaken with a master or a brotherhood), and ordeals which are in some as yet unrealized sense collective, distributed, and even “impersonal.”

I will return to that problem, as Deleuze encounters it in Malfatti, at the end.  But in anticipation, I will say that in a way what we are arriving at is a kind of esoteric, non-theological (or, I use the term under advisement, secular) version of the “church vs. world” problem.  The dualism that concerns Deleuze, and perhaps why he feels forced to leave the esoteric texts and hermetic vestiges behind (or leave them to animate his texts indirectly), is that he does not yet see a way to overcome this problem—not the problem of how the individual integrates into the cosmos or vice versa (this, in fact is not a “problem” at all, but is precisely the lived reality of creation), and not even the problem of how one recognizes the limits and conditions of philosophical discourse over and against the hierophantic, mantic discourse of the revealed sign.  (Here I am not sure there is any resistance to the idea of revelation in Deleuze, only to the theology of revelation as he understands it—I’m inclined to say there is nothing but revelation in Deleuze, but it is in his own inability to think revelation without remainder that perhaps the problems begin, and yet short of some kind of eschaton, this remains our problem, as well).  Rather, the “problem” or rather the antagonism Deleuze discovers in reading Malfatti (“Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy”) is the persistent duality between a group or groups of initiates and “everyone or everything else.”  (The problem at which my book arrives, and with which it inconclusively concludes, is a political one, for just this reason).

We might say—this is conjecture—that Deleuze falls back upon rationalism, upon philosophy, upon argumentation and conceptual analysis (no matter how gnomic his discourse remains, at the level of syntax and semantics), precisely by default, short of an “eschatological” relationship to the sign/symbol—lived directly by all, and not by those initiate (in the traditional sense).  Such an eschaton/utopia would, in the last instance, obviate the need for the explication of the symbol, that is, eliminate the need for descriptive or conceptual meta-language in which to describe/explain/justify the sign (figured as arcana, hieroglyph).  There is no clear criterion for the evaluation of experimentation in Deleuze because his thought is a vision of the partially-lived reality of an eschaton in which such evaluation is moot.  Short of that, we have a gap between knowing and being, immanence and a discourse of immanence, a magic formula that is monism and pluralism rather than the identity-in-the-last instance of the two.

Again, I in some sense think this is what Laruelle realizes about philosophical discourse in general, whereas my focus here is on a specific “dualysis.”  This is why I keep insisting that Deleuze has an eschatological or apocalyptic relationship to the hermetic “tradition.”  Deleuze does not “actually” mutate the tradition, and he does not “actually” ultimately belong to it.  There is something much more interesting, compelling, and necessary going on, both actually and virtually.  Like his “failing” heroes and heroines (and animals and rocks), Deleuze does not yet occupy the perspective from which all dualism (conceptual and lived) finally dissolves.  Deleuze’s name for that perspective was “immanence.”  And now we might be ready to comprehend why, as Christian Kerslake has explored with painstaking detail, Deleuze’s explicit conceptions of immanence remain split or divided, and why the thoughts that point to immanence remain less than immanent thoughts.

What Deleuze seemed to know, especially in his early works on signs and symbols, was that a language of sign-symbols (arcana) without remainder would be the only immanence worth calling by the name.  Unfolding a rationalist metaphysics animated by hermetic experience, Deleuze neither succeeds in mutating the tradition (which I take to be Sherman’s concern), nor fails in moving fully beyond it (Whistler’s question about sentimentalism).  Taking a hermeneutic risk, I would claim that neither of these were his “authorial intention” (even though what his intentions might have been are of extremely limited value for us, today).  What Deleuze’s texts perform and fail to perform is what interests me, because they are persuasive or fail to be persuasive based only on whether his readers desire to perform something on their own terms and in their own way, that either resonates or does not resonate with Deleuze’s peformance.  From this perspective, I come finally to my second exegetical disagreement with Jacob’s nevertheless deeply-thought assessment.

Deleuze’s intellectual work does stand in a highly specific lineage of a tense, terse, and inconclusive antagonism between rationality and spirituality that animates an entire series of thinkers in the West (and I limit myself to that point of view for historical and political reasons since I am convinced that there is power at stake here, and that somehow the speculative power of capital is somehow related to the dialectical remainder of the continuing dialectical antagonism of reason and spirit in this our “Western” –now putatively global—world).  And this lineage of antagonism precisely contains figures like Spinoza and Bergson, as well as Leibniz, Kant, Nietzsche, and a whole cast of modernist (avant-garde) artists who, often with more honesty and vulnerability than the philosophers, found their work utterly beholden to cosmic forces and spiritual ordeals which they understood little better than they managed to survive them.  But what they made!

In fact I am a little surprised that Jacob insists that Deleuze’s relation is not to an esoteric Spinoza or Bergson, when the opening of the Spinoza:  Practical Philosophy (1981) and the closing of the Bergsonism (1966) book are drenched, absolutely saturated in visionary, hierophantic, esoteric language.  Spinoza:  Practical Philosophy begins with the eroticist, bum, misogynist and mystic Henry Miller’s re-definition of philosophy itself as the attempt—however failed, however eternally doomed—to develop visionary states.  The first sentence of the book is a reference to Nietzsche, who knew “having lived it himself, what constitutes the mystery of the philosopher’s life” (3).  Is it not to the mystery of what Spinoza lived (in, as his thought) that Deleuze was dedicated, and not to Spinoza’s conceptual-rational elucidation of that life?   Then at the climax of the introduction, we are given the words of Miller as a eulogy to Spinoza, lens-grinder of the spirit:

The geometric method, the profession of polishing lenses, and the life of Spinoza should be understood as constituting a whole.  For Spinoza is one of the vivants-voyants.  He expresses this precisely when he says that demonstrations are “the eyes of the mind” . . . Spinoza did not believe in hope or even in courage; he believed only in joy, and in vision.  He let others live, provided they let him live.  He wanted only to inspire, to awaken, to reveal.  The purpose of demonstration functioning as the third eye is not to command, or even to convince, but only to shape the glass or polish the lens for this inspired free vision.  “You see, to me it seems as though the artists, the scientists, the philosophers were grinding lenses.  It’s all a grand preparation for something that never really comes off.  Someday the lens is going to be perfect and then we’re all going to see clearly, see what a staggering, wonderful, beautiful world it is.  (14)

And in the final pages of Bergsonism:

It could be said that in man, and only in man, the actual becomes adequate to the virtual.  It could be said that man is capable of rediscovering all the levels, all the degrees of expansion (détente) and contraction that co-exist in the virtual Whole.  As if he were capable of all the frenzies and brought about in himself successively everything that, elsewhere, can only be embodied in different species.  Even in his dreams he rediscovers or prepares matter.  And durations that are inferior or superior to him are still internal to him.  Man therefore creates a differentiation which is valid for the Whole, and he alone traces out an open direction that is able to express a whole that is itself open.  Whereas the other directions are closed and go round in circles, whereas a distinct “plane” of nature corresponds to each one, man is capable of scrambling the planes, of going beyond his own plane as his own condition, in order finally to express naturing Nature. (107) 

The usage Deleuze intends to make of Spinoza, in the last instance, is precisely to situate immanence as the vision of the world sub specie aeternitatis, and of Bergson to affirm—far beyond what Bergson himself was willing to—the role of creative memory in the very refashioning of the élan vital, pushing Bergson’s contemplative mystic toward the exploits, and the profound vulnerability, of the sorcerer.  But here we arrive, finally, at Deleuze’s rather strange, oblique “humanism,” an affirmation of humanity that is as disturbing to the cozy gurus of new cosmologies as it is to the inhumanist rationalism and posthumanist accelerationism slouching about in the digital urban dank (I here duly confess my undead love for all three tribes).  It was probably Deleuze’s strange, almost incomprehensible affirmation of the human as the “transhuman” (from A Thousand Plateaus) that most deeply moved me to try to connect Deleuze in some way to Renaissance humanism, especially to Pico della Mirandola’s conception of the human as a being-without-essence (eerily similar, as Anthony Paul Smith notice in correspondence with me, to Laruelle’s own conception).

But my interest as always been less in the ontological prospects of a neo-Renaissance conception of “humanity” in Deleuze (or in the last instance, in Laruelle), than in the semiotics attendant to Renaissance thought, and especially the insistence upon the irreducibly rhetorical dimension of reason itself—the notion, in Bruno, for instance, that in dealing with Nature we are in a relationship of persuasion, and deal only with shadows.  For Bruno, thought (even heroically frenzied thought) carries us to the threshold of ideas, not into ideas themselves.  Here, I must diverge (with Deleuze I think) from any vision of hermeticism that would collapse ontology and epistemology, not because such an identity never arrives, but because it has in some sense always already come to pass, for all of us, and yet that “collapse” of being in signs has come to be in a way that has also always already “surpassed” us (there is an idea of transcendence that I would aver).  Our signs always outstrip us or cast us beyond ourselves, over the threshold of ideas.  As Christian Kerlsake put this in recent correspondence, this is precisely what keeps “esoteric” experience inherently democratic.  But this is also why, or how, the way in which we are marked by various discourses (metaphysics, theology, poetry, imagery, even the diversity of language, as such) cannot and should not be “unified,” either in theory or in practice.  Perhaps part of the problem with some traditional “schools” of hermeticism or esotericism generally is homologous to the problem with philosophical systems, in that they posit the unification of knowledge (and more, the unification of knowledge and being) as some goal to be arrived at and for the sake of which much must be sacrificed.  And we are all too familiar with what groups obsessed with such certainty are willing to sacrifice:  generally, anything that stands in the way of their goals.

It was these problems that Deleuze confronted, I think, in his work on Malfatti, and it is these problems that remain symptomatically unresolved not only within Deleuze but within the history of philosophy and of hermeticism, simultaneously.  And yet Deleuze gives us some clues, I think, as to how to continue to work through this problem of the polarity between democracy and authority, between the perspective from which there is only persuasion and that from which persuasive discourse originates.

In “Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy,” Deleuze writes:

Thus we see that unity comes about at the level of concrete man; very far from transcending the human condition, it is its exact description.  It must simply be remarked that such a description must position man in relation to the infinite, the universal.  Each individual exists only by virtue of denying the universal; but in so far as man’s existence refers to plurality, the negation is carried out universally under the exhaustive form of each and every one—so that it is but the human way of affirming what it denies.  We have called this mode of affirmation conscious complicity.  And initiation is nothing other than this.  Initiation does not have a mystical sense:  it is the thought of life and the only possible way of thinking life.  Initiation is mysterious only in the sense that the knowledge that it represents must be acquired by each person on their own account.  The initiate is living man in his relationship with the infinite.  And the key notion of mathesis—not at all mystical—is that individuality never separates itself from the universal, that between the living and life one finds the same relation as between life as species, and divinity. (146)

Giambattista Vico’s famous formula was verum factum:  the true is the made.  Humans can only know with certainty what they make—only the social world, the cultural world, can be known with certainty.  And metaphysical truth, the language of the philosophers, is somehow paradoxically the “rhetoric” of democracy, because its persuasive power derives from an appeal to the putatively universal ability of all to reason.  And yet the very words with which we reason, for Vico, remain ineluctably empowered by their gigantic, heroic genesis in unique experiences of time and place, geography and climate, bodily morphology and systemic affect peculiar to irreducibly local series of experiences.  Thus, philosophical rhetoric, putatively universal, is undone from within, as is democracy itself by the irreducible particularity of interests.  Short of the arrival of a single ideal monarch (a philosopher-king), who would know how (and be able) to educate the very affective dispositions of the populace, everyone must take upon herself the task of the emendation of the affects.  Because by definition such an emendation (re-making, verum factum) defines humanity as such, the question is not how to convince people that some “peaceful quest for ultimate truth” is what they want, but how and why contingent arrangements of power and prestige inhibit almost everyone from pursuing the full implications of the truth they already know, and already are.  For me it is Laruelle who has seen this situation, at least formally, with the most clarity, at lest among contemporary philosophers.  And it is perhaps also why, methodologically, my own project has something more in common with Adornian constellation and immanent critique than I would like to admit.  I do not share Adorno’s nostalgia, however (even if I have been at times touched by his melancholy), since with Vico I locate human reality not in a past irrecoverably lost but in a future as unforeseeable as it is remaining to be made.

4 thoughts on “Conscious Complicity at the Crossroads: A Response to Jacob Sherman’s “What’s at Stake in Hermetic Reterritorialization”

  1. I appreciate your honesty. Having thoroughly enjoyed your work I find it fascinating that you combine spiritual ordeal with the philosophical pursuit of truth. Of late it seems that many are moving toward certain spiritual practices (i.e., Pierre Hadot, Michael Foucault, Peter Sloterdijk, etc.). Although Hadot returns to a specific set of spiritual practices by which he means “”practices … intended to effect a modification and a transformation in the subject who practice them.” Sloterdijk seems moving toward a secularization of certain ascetic practices, etc.

    It seems you’re reviving, or – more pointedly, working within the ongoing hermetic tradition which never really stopped influencing aspects of both our spiritual and philosophical traditions as its undercurrent or shadow side. You have found this to be true in Deleuze from his early work on, and teased out of his own spiritual ordeals some of the contradictions at the heart of his conceptuality. This is what makes philosophy great. It will never be a finished work, and in fact will always be renewed with each philosopher who is chosen by and initiated in the traditions that choose him. To me that is what is unique in Deleuze is that he acknowledge philosophy as an unfinished program, one that could never be finished, that it would remain open to the future that was always and forever coming toward it.

  2. Very nice thoughts, Joshua, especially regarding Spinoza and “the failure of the dualism is that it wants to be a realism but has to settle for a formalism”.

    I recently was having a discussion on Spinoza with some friends, and I accidentally said his name to be “Baroque Spinoza”. This slip-of-tongue led me down the path which you articulated in my recent post. I had to, at that point in conversation, confess or otherwise admit a certain weakness for the natural theology of Aquinas. I had spent a significant amount of time struggling with St. Thomas before ultimately moving on to study Barthian-style “revelations”, with the idea that I had been thinking or rationalizing too much in lieu of, well, “faith”. In Barth’s thought, we have this geometrical imagery consisting of lines of revelation whereupon that of “unknown (primal) history” intersects with “known history” at certain points (for Barth, this point was is the Jesus-event; though he does not deny the validity of Buddhist and other Eastern revelations, too) in space and time, “from above” as it were.

    It seems that after I had finished my posts on what I called “revelatory anchoring” — in which I looked at modern interpretations of Barth (McCormack, Hunsinger, etc.), and of which I had vaguely encountered while my mom was studying at Princeton Theological Seminary but I was too young to understand — I proceeded to move with-and-beyond some of Barth’s conceptual framework and was still repressing a Thomist anxiety, which could now re-emerge. It was then that I began to consider Spinoza, and made that terrible slip.

    Yet, it led to a period of creativity on my behalf, wherein I tried to re-work some of Aquinas’ assumptions into a Spinozist trajectory such that they were unified despite their differences (i.e. Spinoza by and large rejecting any use of “final causes”, modern Thomists suggesting Spinoza’s arguments were stupid/baseless/arbitrary, that Spinoza is ultimately inconsistent and that is bad, etc.) Here, I came across the work of Xavier Zubiri (I think Harman also makes use of his thought in _Tool-Being_), who was likewise influenced by Aquinas in this way. I ultimately used his idea of “sentient intelligence”, and carried on my meditation in that direction.

    I’m not sure what I accomplished, but I am led to believe that your notion of “the failure of the dualism is that it wants to be a realism but has to settle for a formalism” definitely applies to my recent experience. My question would thus come along the line of flight regarding the seeming proximity of Zubiri and Deleuze. Where, most noticeably, do you see them as departing from one another? In particular, I’m most interested in an answer relating in some way to your closing meditations on conscious complicity. I hope this fragment helps a bit in your struggle. Best wishes, David.

  3. David,

    Unfortunately I do not know Zubiri’s work, at all. But I will take your line, intersecting so strongly as it does with mine, to be pointing me in that direction. Maybe you could put your question in terms of a particular problem or concept, rather than in terms of names (Deleuze-Zubiri), and maybe I would have something more to say. Thanks for this and a such a series of strong contributions to this event!

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