The Vitality of Vitalism

Let me put my claim simply: The “new materialism” is neither new nor materialism. It is, in fact, the old vitalism. Now I don’t mean to disparage the new materialism when I say this, or to position myself as some old Wise One who goes around proclaiming that there is nothing new under the sun. What I want to do is actually make a point that the historian of science Georges Canguilhem makes in his book,  Knowledge of Life (Fordham 2008, orig. 1965). He says that vitalism’s great flaw is its “excessive modesty.” Instead of arguing for the “originality of the biological phenomenon” as a sort of “islet” within the larger empire of the inorganic, vitalism should rather situate the “science of matter” within “the activity of the living.” So what I want to say is, let’s call the “new materialism” the “new vitalism.” When someone like Karen Barad says that matter is a “congealing of agency,” she is returning to the vitalist tradition. Everyone knows that Henri Bergson is one of the great theorists of vitalism, but there are others who have been undeservedly forgotten. There is Hans Driesch, a great embryologist who gave up research for  philosophy around 1900 and was one of the very first thinkers to link Husserlian phenomenology to a vitalist philosophy of the organic body (decades before Merleau-Ponty).  There is Helmuth Plessner, another largely forgotten figure who wrote a “philosophical anthropology” that drew on Driesch and phenomenology for an analysis of the fundamental structures of human “positionality.” And there is Hedwig Conrad-Martius, a student of Husserl who did some of the most interesting work in a phenomenological ontology of life.

So, what is my bigger point? That the new materialism is deliberately running away from its vitalist origins and therefore failing to fulfill the mission that Canguilhem held out for vitalism, which was to assert the claim of life against the machine. Canguilhem thought that “knowledge of life” had a political significance that includes but is not limited to disrupting the techno-scientific power that capitalism exploits. He says, and you can hear how Foucault was influenced by him, that vitalism is a knowledge that expresses “life’s permanent distrust of the mechanization of life.” Vitalism is a response to a “biological crisis within the human species.” Vitalism is a knowledge with revolutionary power. The new materialism runs away from this revolutionary power and embraces instead desubjectified agential matter. Barad certainly is in favor of practices that disrupt the capitalist exploitation of human biopower, but there is a danger that she thinks that matter by itself is already revolutionary. What the old vitalism of Driesch, Plessner, Conrad-Martius and Canguilhem knew was that consciousness matters. To say this is not to endorse the idea that humans are the telos of life. It is to say that the knowledge of life (in both the objective and subjective senses of “of”) is not only about unpredictable forms of  “intra-activity” but about how to release life from what Driesch called “the suffering brought on by embodiment,” the suffering of the living conscious being. Driesch spoke about the inherent yearning of all life for redemption. It is one thing to proclaim the agency of matter. It is another thing to seek redemption for the passion of the body.

Barth on the Attributes of God

With my post-Agamben eyes, and more recently in light of Anthony’s suggestion at the AAR that “God” should be aligned with the “never-living,” I took particular note of the places in Barth’s (rather laborious) exposition of the attributes of God where he talks about God’s life. In the section on God’s constancy, the main move that Barth makes to distance his concept of God from the traditional notion of impassibility is to understand God’s constancy as his life. We can’t think of God’s impassibility as a lack of movement, since that would mean that God is dead. He also wraps up the section on God’s eternity by saying that we must understand God’s life as eternal, to keep us from veering back into an abstract concept of eternity, etc. (I haven’t read the “glory” section yet — the end of the eternity section is what prompted this post.)

My question: Why not treat God’s “life” as a separate attribute?

The Damp Earth – The Mother of God

I’m linking to a paper I wrote second semester looking for some feedback. It forms, in part, a response to certain articles in Collapse II through some issues surrounding vitalism I’ve been tarrying with for some time. It has already been turned down from one journal but I wasn’t very happy with the readers notes. Any specific issues you see I would appreciate, though I do ask we stay away from the meta levels.

I should also warn you that it is a pdf.

A Sophic Phenomenology of Invariant Vitalism

Frédéric Worms: ‘What is “vital”?’

I came across this rather excellent lecture on Bergson, life, and most importantly, the vital*. Frédéric Worms is a professor at l’Université de Lille III and l’Ecole normale supérieure as well as Director of the Centre International d’Étude de la Philosophie Française Contemporaine (founded and presided over by Alain Badiou). He is, as far as I can tell, the foremost living expert in French on Bergson (the honor in English likely goes to John Mullarkey) and I’m currently reading his very excellent Bergson ou les deux sens de la vie [Bergson and the Two Meanings of Life]. Very valuable because it focuses explicitly on the question of life in Bergson’s philosophy and provides an excellent reading of Bergson’s The Two Sources of Religion and Morality. (In my view, and I recognize that this is somewhat controversial amongst those who care about such things, this is one of the most ignored but important books in the philosophy of religion written in the 20th Century and it should be read by those interested in political and social questions.)

*I should warn you that though his English is quite good, I am sure it is better than most of our French, it can be somewhat halting.

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.

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.

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.