Difference and Giveness by Levi R. Bryant

Reviews of Bryant, L. R. (2008) Difference and Giveness: Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence, Northwestern University Press: Evanston, pp. 352.

PDF Versions:  Review by Jeremy Dunham, Review by Mark Edward, Review by Nick SrnicekReply by Levi R. Bryant.

Review by Jeremy Dunham (Jeremy2.Dunham@uwe.ac.uk)

Jeremy Dunham is PhD candidate in Philosophy at the University of West of England

In 2008 Deleuze was inaugurated into Daniel Dennett’s The Philosophical Lexicon – a set of often humorous satirical dictionary definitions based on philosophers’ names. His entry reads: ‘deleuzion, n. A false, persistent philosophical belief, unsubstantiated by evidence or argument. “He suffered from the deleuzion that Spinoza could be used to clarify Lacanian psychoanalysis”’ (2008). If this entry into the lexicon smarts a little it is because those interested in Deleuze are well aware that this is exactly how he is viewed by the broader intellectual community. Admired by many but hated by even more. There are of course reasons why this view of Deleuze as a twentieth century dogmatist free from evidence and argumentation has become so widely spread. Firstly, Deleuze’s works are extremely difficult to read. The most important argumentation and defence of his position are found in his major works Difference and Repetition and Logic of Sense and these two in particular are tough mountains to climb. It is in these works that the groundwork is constructed for his later more political, and marginally easier to read, works such as Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. When the importance of these earlier works is ignored, the interpretations and discussions of these later works suffer immensely.

Despite the enormous amount of work that has been written on Deleuze in the past couple of decades, a decent introduction to his philosophy is not easy to find[1]. There has been a general failure in the literature surrounding Deleuze’s thought to highlight exactly what the philosophical problems are that he investigated and exactly how he argued for the philosophical conclusions which he arrived at. There seems to be no problem explicating his conclusions but decent discussions of how he got to those conclusions are much harder to find. Given this void in the literature and the difficulty of the primary sources it is unsurprising that such a view of Deleuze has been promulgated throughout the philosophical community. However, there continues to be many of us that believe such a view of Deleuze to be a huge misunderstanding and that there is much at stake in Deleuze’s philosophical investigation which can contribute to many contemporary discussions from which his thought is currently excluded. If Deleuze is, as James Williams is fond of saying, ‘the Kant of the twentieth century’, something has got to change.

In the 1850s the attitude to Hegel shared by most British Philosophers was similar to the attitude to Deleuze shared by most Anglo-American philosophers today and in 1854 the Scottish Philosopher James Ferrier exclaimed that no intelligible word had been written by any of Hegel’s followers nor by Hegel himself. However, in 1865 James Hutchinson Stirling changed everything by publishing the era-defining The Secret of Hegel. What Stirling did was present far more clearly than any other prior exactly what the problems of Hegel’s philosophy were and how he came to argue for the position that he did. It is immensely difficult to review a work which you admire and appreciate as much as Difference and Givenness because it is hard not to come across sounding like an hysterical child, overwhelmingly pleased by a new toy, but at the risk of sounding like such an excited adolescent, Difference and Givenness could be considered the most important book written on Deleuze’s philosophy for exactly the same reasons that Stirling’s book on Hegel was considered so important over a hundred years earlier. It is the first book published in English to really show what Deleuze is doing philosophically and to present a clear and reliable guide to how he argues for his philosophical position.

In the introduction to Difference and Givenness Bryant is mercilessly clear about what the book is about. It is a book on Deleuze – it is not a book on Deleuze and Guattari – or Spinoza, Hume, Bergson etc… Specifically, it is a philosophical book on Deleuze’s metaphysics. Bryant’s book is a book on Deleuze’s metaphysics alone because, he argues, Deleuze’s ethics and politics follow from his metaphysics. Yet the all to common tendency has been to treat his ethics and politics almost as if they were primary – or worse – completely separate from his metaphysics. What must be emphasised, if we are to understand Deleuze at all, is that Deleuze does not construct this system of metaphysics because of his ethical or political views, but rather his politics and ethics follow from his metaphysics. Bryant seeks to start from an examination of the problems which informed Deleuze’s thought and follow the construction of his metaphysics from these initial problems. Deleuze does not attempt to critique representation because of its political or ethical problems but rather because it is a philosophically ungrounded problematic and he believes that his own philosophical methodology ‘transcendental empiricism’ is capable of offering us a better way of working through this problematic. The main aim of Difference and Givenness is to explicate exactly what Deleuze means and aims to do by this introduction of a new philosophical methodology ‘transcendental empiricism’ – and show why such a methodology is not an impossible paradox.

One of the most pleasing aspects of Difference and Givenness is how well Bryant explicates Deleuze’s engagement with the Kantian critical project. Deleuze does not simply reject the critical project out of hand and return to dogmatism but rather tackles the critical project head on and attempts to push it one step further in order to go beyond the internal conditions of possible experience towards the genetic conditions of real experience. As a result, Deleuze produces a metaphysics which is not anti-critical but rather hyper-critical. Deleuze finds the leaking pipe in Kant’s system in the conception of time and the core of Bryant’s book (chapters 4-6) is an exquisite exegesis of Deleuze’s philosophy of time and the encounter. Preceding this section, the first three chapters discuss Deleuze’s philosophical methodology and what exactly is meant by ‘transcendental empiricism’ and the final section of the book discusses the genesis of extensities and individuation. One of the key difficulties of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition is that the structure of the book is particularly difficult to follow. While many of the key metaphysical assertions are outlined in the early chapters of the book, their tone of certainty – ‘There has only ever been one ontological proposition: Being is univocal’[2] – is not supported until later in the book and the keys to understanding Deleuze’s epistemology and methodology are found scattered throughout the text rather than being explicitly stated early on in the book: Again, aiding the assertion that Deleuze’s work is a return to pre-critical dogmatism.  The structure of Bryant’s Difference and Givenness is far more reader friendly and sets out the methodology and epistemology before guiding us through the intricacies of Deleuze’s metaphysical arguments.

Bryant’s work is far from being simply an introduction to Deleuze’s thought and presents challenging and controversial interpretations of a number of Deleuze’s key philosophical arguments which will be of interest for experienced scholars. Perhaps most controversial and at the same time most important is Bryant’s insistence that the transcendental in Deleuze’s ‘transcendental empiricism’ is not underestimated. One of the key errors in the interpretation of Deleuze is to claim that his proclamation that we must overturn Plato is a form of anti-Platonism – a rejection of  Plato’s transcendentalism. The same is true of the picture of Deleuze as ‘anti-Kantian’. Contrary to traditional interpretation, Bryant argues, Deleuze is not anti the transcendentalism in either philosopher; rather, the problem is that these two philosophers are not transcendental enough. Both thinkers fail to truly philosophise the transcendental because their picture of the transcendental is ‘traced’ from the empirical. Both therefore fail to account for the genesis of the forms or categories which they present us with. This leads us to the second controversial claim which is that Deleuze is not an anti-essentialist philosopher. Deleuzian essences are ‘real, independent of subjectivity, and their intelligibility has a universality proper to it that is every bit as binding as that found in Platonic forms’ (2008:13). Again the claim is not that essences are an illegitimate move into transcendental philosophy but rather that this move is traced from our traditional empirical models of recognition. This is as true of the ‘new-essentialisms’ found in contemporary analytic philosophy as in the traditional Platonic essentialism. ‘New’ essences ‘include the basic kinds of physical and chemical substances, such as the various species of atoms, molecules and subatomic particles’ (2002:17). An electron is an example of the new essentialist’s natural kind because it is necessarily disposed to act a certain way. Its necessary charge is what makes it essentially what it is, and without this necessary characteristic, it would not be an electron. Not only are there natural kinds of substances and objects but there are also natural kinds of events and processes (such as the laws of energy transmission or of particle interaction). While new essentialists claim that their work is ‘twentieth century’ essentialism, they nevertheless repeat the errors of the old essentialism. They trace new essences from the current discoveries of science but fail to recognise that these may soon appear as lacking in fundamental necessity as Aristotle’s plant and animal essentialism. Any claim for certainty of fundamental essences drawn from the discoveries of a particular eras contemporary science seems a perilous endeavour. Deleuze’s triumph is not to reject essences tout court but rather to turn essences into singularities, to replace Platonic essences with Leibnizian essences. The essences Deleuze discovers are particular, individual and individualising. While the terminology of essences disappears in Difference and Repetition the job that they do does not. The so called ‘new essentialists’ will always be old essentialists for as long as they continue to trace the idea of what essences should be from the empirical. This is the true mark of ‘old essentialism’. Deleuze argues that we can keep hold of the term essence, but only if we recognise that essences are accidents, events, sense. Deleuze understands that nature is dynamic and that the role which essences play cannot be merely eliminated and he therefore replaces these essences with a theory of dynamic Ideas free from the problems of traditional natural kinds.

What Levi Bryant’s work shows is that claims that Deleuze dogmatically asserts his conclusions uncritically can no longer be tolerated. Bryant presents Deleuze’s metaphysics as a serious challenge to Kant’s critical philosophy. Not because Deleuze is a ‘belligerent anti-Kantian’ but because Deleuze’s philosophy seriously engages with the Kantian project and produces a systematic metaphysics which is ‘hyper-critical’ rather than ‘anti-critical’. If this is a book about ‘Deleuze’s metaphysics’ then what is really important here is ‘metaphysics’ and its potential future given the important arguments and radical methodologies employed by Deleuze. The key question for Deleuzian scholarship should now be: how do we begin to introduce Deleuze’s metaphysical arguments into the broader metaphysical discussions developed by both continental and analytic philosophers? If Deleuze’s ‘hyper-critical’ development of the Kantian project is as successful as Bryant suggests then Difference and Repetition represents an extremely important moment for metaphysical speculation – the consequences of which, thanks to Bryant’s work, should now begin to be fully appreciated.

Bibliography

Bogue, R. Deleuze and Guattari. (New York: Routledge, 1989)

Byrant, L.R. Difference and Givenness: Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence (Evanston; Northwestern University Press, 2008)

Deleuze, G. Difference and Repetition translated by Paul Patton (London; Continuum, 2004)

Deleuze, G. Logic of Sense translated by Mark Lester with Charles Stivale (London; Continuum, 2004)

Dennett, D (ed.) The Philosophical Lexicon [online] available at: http://www.philosophicallexicon.com/ accessed on 12.12.2008

Ellis, B. (2002) The Philosophy of Nature: A Guide to the New Essentialism. Chesham: Acumen

Ferrier, J.F. Institutes of Metaphysics. (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1854)

Stirling, J.H. The Secret of Hegel: Being the Hegelian System in Origin, Principle, Form and Matter. (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1865)

Williams, J. Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition: A Critical Introduction and Guide. (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2003)

Williams, J. Gilles Deleuze’s Logic of Sense: A Critical Introduction and Guide. (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2008)


[1] James Williams’ important introductions to Difference and Repetition (2003) and Logic of Sense (2008) and Ronald Bogue’s Deleuze and Guattari (1989) are notable exceptions.

[2] Deleuze, G. (1994:35) Difference and Repetition. London: The Athlone Press

Review by Mark Edward (m.d.edward@ncl.ac.uk)

Mark Edward is a PhD candidate at Newcastle University

Introduction

In a reading group two years ago a colleague stated ‘I do not know much about that Deleuze, but I do know that I do not like him!’ Their presumptive dismissal was constructed on the false premise that Gilles Deleuze was just another French postmodern philosopher. If Difference and Givenness was published at this point, Levi R. Bryant’s analysis of Deleuze would have been a more than adequate response to my colleague’s dismissal; a book that carefully, and convincingly, argues that Deleuze is more appropriately classified as a hyper-rationalist (ix).

In this review I have set myself the objective of considering how the non-philosopher can approach Byrant’s Difference and Givenness. The review is unable to provide the in-depth critical analysis that Difference and Givenness deserves, yet it will highlight its interdisciplinary relevance. The review is composed of three sections. In the first section I provide a general outline of Gilles Deleuze and discuss the main goals of Bryant’s Difference and Givenness. The second section considers if Deleuze’s “transcendental empiricism” is important for non-philosophers. The concluding section is some brief political questions that arise from Bryant’s tragic classification of Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism and ontology of immanence.

Deleuze and Philosophy

Arguable, Deleuze is a misunderstood philosopher in the Anglophone world, partly a result of the excessive and rhetorical language of Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, leading his classification by some scholars as another postmodern philosopher.[1] However, since the English translations of Difference and Repetition (1994) and Logic of Sense (1991) there has been the emergence of another Deleuze that challenges his connection to postmodern philosophy. Difference and Givenness is a welcome addition in the reinterpretation of Deleuze, one that engages with Deleuze’s magnum-opus Difference and Repetition. Byrant does not take long to separate Deleuze from postmoderisn, claiming that Deleuze does not accept the postmodern positions that remained tied to the premise of the primacy of a subject or culture as foundational (p18). However, the reinterpretation is no easy task and has even led some commentators (e.g. Slajov Zizek) to argue for a Deleuze removed of the ‘bad-Guattarian’ influence.

The benefit of Bryant’s Difference and Givenness is that we find a different Deleuze, a Deleuze more at ‘home’ in the traditional canon of philosophy and one influenced from German idealism, especially Kant. This influence has functioned as catalysis for Deleuze to create transcendental empiricism, even if this catalysis has led Deleuze to overturn Kant in a similar fashion to Marx’s overturning of Hegel. Overall, it is Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism that is the focus of Difference and Givenness, which provides an in-depth critical outline and analysis of what Deleuze is aiming to achieve from transcendental empiricism.

On the whole, Bryant focuses on Deleuze’s singularly authored publications and the most influential are: Difference and Repetition; Logic of Sense; How to Recognise Structuralism; Cinema 1 & 2; and Kant’s Critical Philosophy. From a close reading of these texts, and others, Bryant carefully takes the reader through transcendental empiricism, explaining the philosophical problem that it aims to solve. However, Bryant is aware that the appearance of transcendental next to empiricism is a strange combination that sounds contradictory. Bryant explains why Deleuze produces the strange combination for a non-representational ontology:

One does not adopt the position of transcendental empiricism because it is against representation. Rather one adopts the position because something is wrong with the philosophy of representation and transcendental empiricism is able to solve this problem (p4)

It is here that Bryant identifies the purpose of Difference and Givenness that avoids a romanticisation of Deleuze to understand the rationale of Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism. Accordingly, Bryant situates Deleuze’s creation of transcendental empiricism in relation to a specific philosophical problem, when philosophy falls into insoluble problems when identity and representation are taken as metaphysical a priori. A problem, I claim, that is not limited to philosophy and evident in different academic disciplines and everyday life. The solution of transcendental empiricism is that it critiques the image of thought contingent throughout different academic disciplines and various aspects of life in general.

Deleuze’s “Superior Empiricism”

In a clear and concise conclusion Byrant is able to explain why Deleuze is both critical of empiricism and views empiricism as the ‘saviour’ of philosophy. There are three specific problems with empiricism. First, it only recognises external differences; second, it traces the transcendental from the empirical; and third, there is a privileging of recognition. These three problems all culminate in producing what Deleuze refers to as the image of thought. However, despite empiricism having these problems, Bryant is able to argue why Deleuze still self-identifies himself and transcendental empiricism as empiricism. Byrant writes,

The empiricism of Hume, as Deleuze articulates it, begins not with the question of how a subject can know an object, nor with how subjects produce objects or objects produce subjects, but rather with the question of how both subjects and objects can be produced out of a field that does not assume them in advance. It is here that we can begin to see how “superior empiricism” avoids the fallacy of empiricism. Transcendental empiricism does not assume in advance what subjects and objects ought to be in the sense of formal essences, but instead sees them as productions out of a field of immanence where is immanence is immanent to nothing save itself (p265)

Bryant’s accurate description of Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism is of political significance and something that requires attention. Too often scholars and political decisions in the ‘real world’ assume the presence of some formed subject as a pre-given entity. The problem is that their emergence is not accounted for. This image of thought becomes an unreflected assumption that enters into their ontological preferences and serves to produce knowledge and/or political decisions. For example, despite micro-economics bottom-up credentials in terms of its analysis it still assumes a pre-given subject as the condition of its knowledge. While micro-economics largely avoids top-down structuralism their narrative of agency comes from a rational-subject that makes decisions in the market-place. The problem of the rational-subject explanation is that it becomes something that is used to explain economic-decisions and the subject is not in-itself explained. A common-sense assumption is universalised to the effect of proclaiming “all subjects are rational, subject x is human and therefore rational in the market.” The advantage of Deleuze’s “superior empiricism” is that this type of subject would not be enough for explaining the dynamics of the market. The emergence of the subject out of a field of immanence would become the important phenomenon for transcendental empiricism. If this explanation is not provided, then immanence would become immanent to the rational subject, generating a conditioned centre from what a subject ought to be. The solution of Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism is that the field of immanence is pre-individual and impersonal, composed of singularities that can, or cannot, be actualised. The task of the researcher is therefore is reveal what intensive processes are producing these actualisations that form objects and subjects.

A Tragic Deleuze


Bryant’s assessment of Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism is one that stresses a tragic interpretation, where the subject is not master of events and a form of stoicism is advantageous: “Being is not, for Deleuze, our creation” (p12). Deleuze, unlike Kant, does not assume the presence of a subject (i.e. Kant’s transcendental subject) and, contentiously, is able to free himself from correlationisn, the view that it is impossible to conceptualise a world without humans and humans apart from the world. However, Bryant argues the subject is not completely dead, and the illusion of the subject is something that Deleuze maintains. The issue is what sort of politics, and political action, can emerge from Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism?

Despite the shortcomings of deconstructive textual analysis, its political effectiveness comes from the capacity to identify dominant and repressive discourses that construct our life and shape identities. If transcendental empiricism and its transcendental field of singularities are accepted then what type of politics emerges? I ask because the possibility of Deleuzian politics should emerge from his ontology. My own hesitant answer would be to turn to A Thousand Plateaus without forgetting Difference and Repetition and Logic of Sense.[2] Specifically, the main interest would be in Deleuze and Guattari’s third major type of strata: alloplastic strata. This consists of two emergent properties of humans (technology and language) that represent the hand-tool symbiosis and the capacity for translatable expression. Importantly, Deleuze and Guattari do not view these as transcendental conditions, but within time. It is the properties of alloplastic strata that represent the capacity to modify the ‘external’ environment to construct new realities – and not only the construction of new meanings. However, the ‘political agency’ of alloplastic strata cannot be an anthropocentric and must consider the reality of non-human agents. As Deleuze and Guattari write,

It is difficult to elucidate the system of the strata without seeming to introduce a kind of cosmic or even spiritual evolution from one to the other, as if they were arranged in stages and ascended degrees of perfection. Nothing of this sort. The different figures of content and expression are not stages. There is no biosphere or noosphere, but everywhere the same Mechanosphere (Deleuze and Guattari; 2004, p77).

The issue is whether Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism is compatible with the political and constructivist agency they outline in A Thousand Plateaus, or, is Zizek correct to negate the Guattarian influenced Deleuze?

Conclusion

Difference and Givenness will deservedly become one of the finest analyses of Deleuze. It is a book I look forward to re-reading and assume there is much I have missed out in my first reading. In reviewing Difference and Givenness from a non-philosophical background I hope that I have not unjustly placed it outside its designed audience. Instead, the purpose of the review was to indicate that Difference and Givenness has interdisciplinary merits that make it a worthwhile read for all academics.

Bibliography

Levi R. Byrant, Difference and Givenness: Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence (Evanston; Northwestern University Press, 2008)

Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition translated by Paul Patton (London; Continuum, 2004)

Gilles Deleuze, Logic of Sense translated by Mark Lester with Charles Stivale (London; Continuum, 2004)

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus translated by Brian Massumi (London; Continuum 2004)

Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency translated by Ray Brassier (London; Continuum, 2008

Paul Patton & John Protevi, eds., Between Deleuze and Derrida (London: Continuum, 2003)

John Protevi, Political Physics: Deleuze, Derrida, and the Body Politic (London; Continuum, 2001)

Slavoj Zizek, Organs Without Bodies: Deleuze and Consequences (London; Routledge, 2003)


[1] Defining postmodernism is a difficult and somewhat impossible exercise. If, for the sake of this review, we regard postmodernism as being connected to textual analysis, the linguistic turn, and the intertextuality of floating signs then we can safely state that Deleuze is not a postmodern philosopher. However, this does not mean he has nothing in common with other French philosophers during that period. For the similarities and differences of Deleuze and Derrida see John Protevi & Paul Patton, eds.,  Between Deleuze and Derrida

[2] One of the main thinkers who have done the most with the connection between Difference and Repetition is John Protevi. See especially John Protevi, Political Physics: Deleuze, Derrida, and the Body Politic

Review by Nick Srnicek

Nick Srnicek is an independent scholar.

Against the increasingly repetitive recitations of Deleuzian concepts, and the endless introductory works, Levi Bryant is bold enough to finally take Deleuze at his word – as a metaphysician through and through.[1] The greatness of Bryant’s Difference and Givenness is to restore Deleuze to his true habitat, to the grand tradition of philosophical questions that have been raised since Descartes, Hume, Leibniz and Kant. Classical questions about topics such as the intelligible and the sensible, empiricism and rationalism, the noumenal and the phenomenal. Moreover, Bryant channels his piercing and articulate focus on the most difficult and most important of Deleuze’s works – Difference and Repetition.

It is my contention here, however, that Bryant’s makes two important contributions above and beyond placing Deleuze directly in debate with classical philosophical concerns. The first of these is to signal the specifically realist aspects of Deleuze. Against phenomenology, “social constructivism or anti-realism”, Bryant will argue that the “Ideas uncovered in the encounter are real, independent of subjectivity”. (13) It is this realist aspect which ultimately distinguishes Deleuze both from German idealism and the postmodern doxa, making him an untimely philosopher for his era. It is only recently, with the emergence of speculative realism, that Deleuze’s constant insistence on the importance of ontology can be fully appreciated.

Bryant’s other significant contribution is to argue for Deleuze as a “hyper-rationalist”. (ix) Contra the readings of Deleuze which focus on the empirical aspects taking ‘transcendental empiricism’ to simply be some odd conjunction of Hume and Kant, and contra Nietzschean affirmationist readings which believe Deleuze’s critique of the image of thought to license willful obscurity and wild speculation, Bryant reveals the hard critical core of Deleuze’s thought. Prior to the non-sense of The Logic of Sense and prior to the free play of desiring-machines in Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze first had to pass through the critical rigors of the Kantian and post-Kantian tradition. It is in Difference & Repetition that Deleuze sparred most explicitly with these philosophical heavyweights, and as such, any philosophical understanding of Deleuze must come to terms with the difficulties this text presents.

In arguing for both a realist and rationalist interpretation of Deleuze, however, Bryant simultaneously brings Deleuze into direct debate with contemporary work in speculative realism. Before raising these issues, though, we must first examine the claim that Deleuze is a rationalist realist.

As Bryant notes, one of the persistent themes of Deleuze’s work is the claim that his approach is a search for the conditions of real, not possible, experience. Against the standard Kantian approach which delineates the formal conditions that make any experience possible, Deleuze will search for conditions that are no greater than that which they condition. At issue here is more than just the specificity of the approach. Rather, the shift from possible to real conditions effectively overturns one of the key Kantian divisions: that between concepts and intuitions. For Kant, the external difference between these two poses all sorts of (ultimately irresolvable) problems. For if our experience is always a concrete mixture of the two, we need to be able to explain how these two independent functions can coalesce into the unity we find in experience. Ultimately, though, Kant is unable to resolve this dilemma. The resulting problem is that we have no account within Kant’s system of how concepts could condition intuitions. As Bryant makes clear, the only solution to this difficulty is to efface the external difference between concepts and intuitions, and “discover intelligibility in the aesthetic itself, in the very fabric of the given”. (ix-x) From a formal conditioning between concepts external to intuitions, we now have a genesis of concepts out of intelligible intuitions. “Here we see elements of Deleuze’s rationalism as opposed to his alleged empiricism in that Deleuze is led to rationalize intuitions themselves. For Deleuze, the difference between a concept and an intuition is the difference between a clear intuition and a confused perception.” (28)

The question then, is what do we find if we search for intelligibility within the sensible? Bryant is quick to answer that:

“Deleuze, following Maïmon, locates these [transcendental] conditions in the differentials (in the sense of calculus) of experience, which allows him to (1) pose a continuity between the sensible and the intelligible such that the sensible is the intelligible and the intelligible the sensible; (2) posit a real genesis of experience capable of going all the way to the singular individual without a gap between concepts and intuitions; and (3) undermine the opposition between the finite and the infinite.” (41)

It is the concept of differentials (the pure relation between dynamic infinitesimals) which allows Deleuze to overcome the problems of Kantian conditioning, and to account for the genesis of real experience, while also avoiding the constraint of finitude. A set of these differentials comprise what Bryant will call a “morphological, topological or genetic essence [that] contains within them all the possible variations of the phenomena in question on the basis of a sort of topological diagram capable of expressing the becoming of the essence”. (44-5)

But facing up to the critical problem, how do we come to know these topological essences? Our everyday experience appears well-ordered and as subjects, we experience unified objects acting in a predictable manner. But the question is poorly posed since ‘knowledge’ suggests applying a formal concept to recognize an intuition as content; i.e. precisely what we’re trying to escape from. Knowledge in its standard sense must take on a secondary and derivative role. As Christian Kerslake concisely notes, “Knowledge itself is preceded by the posing of questions, that is, by thought.”[2] Therefore instead of knowledge, “Deleuze contrasts [it with] an existential conception of thought based on a startling encounter of an amorous or violent nature”. (76) It is in the encounter that we face up to the differentials typically covered over by the constraints of recognition. In line with Deleuze’s amorous or violent conception of thought, Bryant will say, “the object of the encounter is the occasion of thought, but not that which is to be thought” (93) – a formulation which also makes clear the necessary immanence of thought to being. Rather than thought operating externally to being and appropriating it in a representational structure, thought is pushed or forced by being to think. Bryant clearly illustrates the entire passage of this encounter, from its initial moment as a sentiendum announcing the differential that problematizes habitual experience, to the memorandum through which the problem (the virtual differentials) is posed in its positivity, to the cogitandum as the explication of the problem as a topological essence.

At this point, it is clear that we don’t “know” the problematic Ideas or topological essences in any standard sense. Rather, as Bryant argues, they are presupposed by knowledge and experienced through a method of learning. By being forced to undergo the experience of the encounter, thought undergoes an apprenticeship through which both thought and the Ideas are transformed. In this regard, in an important section, Bryant notes:

“it is not that the Ideas are independent of the faculties, that they are an existence apart from the faculties which the faculties which the faculties strive to represent; rather, the Ideas are produced by the disjunctive or disharmonious play of the faculties. In short, ideas are not an object or referent thought by the faculties, but are instead the very process the faculties undergo in being problematized. Consequently, we must not think ideas preexist thought. Rather, they only emerge in and through thought”. (148)

The importance of this section is that it (1) makes clear the ways in which being and thought are intertwined in Deleuze’s work, and as a result, (2) makes clear the problems such a relation brings for Deleuze’s realism. If real Ideas are indissociable from thought, then what Deleuze offers is a continuum between being and thought.

This conception of thought that Deleuze and Bryant refer to is clearly not the property of an individuated subject. As Bryant will reiterate through Difference and Givenness, subjects are themselves individuated out of topological essences. It is the Ideas’ independence from subjects that ultimately lends them their realist status. The problematic question that remains, however, is whether or not the continuum between being and thought that lies at the basis of Deleuze’s project is sustainable in the face of recent speculative realist work. Is there not an irresolvable contradiction between Deleuze’s continuum and the apparently basic definition of realism as an ontology independent of thought? The risk with a continuity between being and thought is that we end up importing all the vitalist and subjective prejudices we have as human beings into the properly inhuman world of objects and ancestral events. As with Hegel, Deleuze believes that his notion of a non-representational, non-empirical field of difference articulates the logic of being. Yet it’s not clear that being need be intelligible in this way. Or in other words, while we can unequivocally support the thesis that it is being that thinks (and not a subject, for example), it is not at all clear that thought is co-extensive with being. The key question here, then, is whether the death of the subject is sufficient, or whether we need to work towards an understanding of the death of thought as such.

On the other hand, it is perhaps the case that Deleuze offers an alternative way forward for speculative realism. Rather than offering an irresolvable disjunction between being and thought (one that, for example, Quentin Meillassoux has had to overcome by invoking ex nihilo emergence), the continuum may offer a path towards the progressive purging of thought’s influence. That is to say, if the continuum extends between the two poles of being and thought, then a method that progressively subtracted thought could attain the real, while still maintaining an important path for the reverse movement – from the non-phenomenal ancestral realm to the phenomenology of intelligible experience.[3] The key question in this case is to what extent can a realist ontology be expressed by thought?

Any future project in this Deleuzian vein would need to uncover a realist temporality untethered from the syntheses of consciousness, as well as the syntheses of life (as Martin Hägglund’s excellent book on Derrida implicitly makes clear[4]). A realist temporality disconnected from the neurological (that is to say, evolutionarily contingent) production of folk temporality: the linear, continuous, and flowing sense of time (which is the presupposition and ultimate object of explanation for both Deleuze and Derrida’s foundational accounts of time). If consciously experienced time is a mere function of neurological constraints,[5] then speculative conclusions about a realist ontology cannot legitimately be extracted from conscious time as a basis. A new foundation needs to be constructed.

Regardless of which way one eventually proceeds though – with or against Deleuze – it is certain that Bryant’s book forms one of the central texts for coming to terms with Deleuze’s unique variation on rationalist realism.


[1] “I feel I am a pure metaphysician.” Deleuze, Gilles. “Response to a Series of Questions”, Collapse, Vol. III, 42.

[2] Kerslake, Christian. “The Vertigo of Philosophy: Deleuze and the Problem of Immanence.” Radical Philosophy 118: 10.

[3] To prevent any misunderstanding, the continuum evoked here can and should be analytically distinguished from the correlation that Meillassoux has brought to light. Whereas the correlation requires that being and thought necessarily occur together at all times, the continuum merely offers their mixture as the in-between of the two poles.

[4] My thanks goes to Nathan Brown for pointing out this residual problem in Hägglund’s work. The notion of finite being that Hägglund extracts from Derrida’s writings is focused centrally on living beings, without being able to account for the ‘absolute death’ involved in the inhuman realm.

[5] See Thomas Metzinger’s Being No One for an excellent analysis of how the ‘now’ is produced as a result of various brain processes.

For a Realist Ontology

Author’s Reply by Levi R. Bryant

18 September 2009

At the outset I would like to say that I am profoundly grateful, and even overwhelmed, by the fine reviews of Difference and Givenness written by Mark Edward, Jeremy Dunham, and Nick Srnicek.  In the Preface to Difference and Repetition Deleuze writes, “[h]ow else can one write but of those things which one doesn’t know, or knows badly?  It is precisely there that we imagine having something to say.  We write only at the frontiers of our knowledge, at the border which separates our knowledge from our ignorance and transforms the one into the other” (xxi).  This, I believe, was certainly true of Difference and Givenness.  I do not think that I knew what it was that first attracted me to Deleuze, or why I chose to write a dissertation on his thought.  What was it that I was seeking?  What motivated me?  Why this fascination with Deleuze?  Today I am still unsure as there are many respects in which I feel distant from this book.

As I look back in retrospect, I think that I was looking for a way out, for, to use the Deleuzian cliché, a line a flight.  Written in the late 90’s, Difference and Givenness found itself confronted with a particular academic situation, where “situation” should be understood in Badiou’s sense of the term.  On the one hand, philosophy departments in the United States were dominated by the primacy of phenomenology.  Here you could analyze the structure of lived experience– though not really as that was a right only reserved from the French and Germans –or write commentaries on the great phenomenologists.  Nonetheless, phenomenology was restricted to the primacy of the human, whether in the form of Husserl’s cogito, Sartre’s nihilating consciousness, Heidegger’s Dasein, or Merleau-Ponty’s lived body.  On the other hand, you could take the linguistic turn and analyze the manner in which language structured the world through the work of Derrida, Habermas, Lyotard, Wittgenstein, Foucault, Butler, and Gadamer.

I played with all of these movements and was, at one time or another, an incarnation of all these movements.  However, evoking the title of Nietzsche’s book, all of them shared the common feature of being human, all too human.  In each case, being, the real, was to be thought in relation to the human, regardless of how split and alienation that human became.  Deleuze was alone among the Continental thinkers I encountered in truly articulating a metaphysics, entirely decoupled from the human.  I suppose, then, what I was searching for was, as Nick Srnicek notes, a realist metaphysics that was genuinely “anti-humanist” or decoupled from the primacy of the human.  It was not enough for such a metaphysics to split the subject through the play of the signifier, or to affirm the primacy of the body over the cogito.  No, as Meillassoux has recently remarked in his brilliant After Finitude, this metaphysic had to discover the “great outdoors” or being unshackled from anything remotely human.  It had to fulfill the Husserlian promise of genuinely getting at “the things themselves” and not simply the “things for-us”, and had to do so in a way that would open a space of thought independent of the signifier, the cultural, power, signs, and so on.  However, unlike an eliminative materialism, it had to open a space of thought that would allow this new clearing for thought to make room for signs, the signifier, culture, and power.  In other words, it had to avoid the eliminative idealism of the phenomenological and linguistic turn, while also preserving the genuine insights of these philosophical developments.  Deleuze was the only thinker that did this.

Yet, it wasn’t enough simply assert the existence of such a metaphysic.  In a move that now looks uncannily prescient in relation to certain philosophical developments surrounding the speculative realists, such a metaphysic first had to pass through Kant to articulate itself.  And if this was the case, then it was because Kant was the origin, the foundation, the ground, of the eliminative idealisms that came to dominate subsequent Continental thought.  The point here is not that all Continental thought endorses Kant’s particular philosophy.  Were we to distinguish between the spirit and the letter of Continental thought, subsequent Continental thought would clearly fall on the side of the spirit of Kant’s Copernican Revolution.  What was important was not whether or not objects conform to mind or mind to objects, but rather whether being conforms to the human, whether in the form of language, signs, Dasein, the lived body, power, social forces, or whatever else the thinker might dream up.  All of these hypotheses are, in one way or another, were “Copernican” in form.  And so long as philosophy remains in this Copernican framework it necessarily remains at the level of epistemology, failing to genuinely reach a metaphysic or ontology.  One can protest all they like, but so long as questions of access maintain pride of place, so long as beings are shackled to the human in some manner, shape, or form, philosophy necessarily remains within the framework of eliminative idealism and is an apologist of doxa.  As both Plato and Deleuze observe, here philosophy fails to rise to its vocation of breaking with doxa.

Nonetheless, philosophy requires arguments.  The Copernican argument, whether in its Kantian, Derridean, Lacanian, or phenomenological form is a compelling argument.  Supposing that we only have access to ourselves, supposing that what is immanent is our consciousness, language, signs, history, culture, and so on, the question arises of how it is possible to pass beyond this lobster trap of immanence to the transcendence of the real.  In presuming to speak of the things themselves, independent of the things for us, do we not fall into the worst sort of speculative dogmatism?  My hypothesis was that we must first pass through the Kantian hypothesis, the Kantian transcendental argument, to show how this Kantian wager, so convincing by founding itself on a foundation of immanence, was itself a form of speculative dogmatism.  To put the matter poorly, I set out to “deconstruct” the Copernican move from within, showing that we do not possess the immediacy to consciousness or the subject required for the Copernican strategy to effect itself.  If this could be shown, then it would have been demonstrated that the distinction between critical thought and dogmatic thought, between the transcendental project and the pre-critical project, was indiscernible.  Otherwise put, it would have been shown that the Copernican turn, common to all contemporary Continental thought, was based on a false premise about immanence.  In this respect, my strategy resembled Meillassoux’s strategy in After Finitude, where “correlationism” was to be exploded from within.

However, as Srnicek tacitly notes, I think Difference and Givenness goes astray in accepting the Parmenidean wager that being must be identical to thought.  The reasoning was as follows:  If being and thought are not identical, then 1) being is unthinkable by virtue of being infinitely transcendent to thought, and 2) there is something other than being, such that we encounter the question of how this other and its other can ever relate to one another.  Here I was responding to the thought of Hegel, Husserl, and Badiou.  In the case of Hegel it is necessary to establish the identity of substance and subject.  Husserl, without knowing it, takes Nietzsche’s critique of the distinction between the real and apparent world at its world and chooses the world of appearance as exhaustive of the domain of what is.  And finally Badiou takes up the Parmenidean torch, arguing that what is, must be thinkable if we are to establish true immanence.  If, then, we are to escape the eliminative idealism of Continental thought that would shackle all being to the human, I reasoned, then we must a) establish the identity of being and thought, and b) de-suture or decouple thought from the human.  As a result, I arrived at a reading of Deleuze not unlike that of Plotinus’ neo-Platonic emanationism, or Schelling’s idealism.  The thesis was that it is not subjects or humans that think, but being itself that thinks and emanates being through the activity of its thought.  Given this, there would no longer be a distinction between being and thought, the rational and the intelligible, concepts and intuitions.

Subsequently I have come to share Srnicek’s thesis that being must be de-sutured from thought, but on very different grounds.  Where Srnicek adopts the eliminative materialist thesis that the “really real” or being consists of material and physical beings, thereby dooming himself to endless epistemological debates about how minds relate to objects and perpetually finding himself, like Ray Brassier, ensnared in questions of how the domain of thought is to be related to the domain of real beings, I have come to advocate the position of a flat ontology where all entities, be they entities of thought like signs or fictions, or physical entities like quarks and black holes, are to be placed on equal ontological footing.  In other words, the proper move is not the Parmenidean gesture of establishing the identity of thought and being, nor is it, as Brassier-Srnicek argues, that of de-suturing thought and being through the work of Laruelle.

The proper move is an object-oriented ontology that places all entities on equal footing.  The question then shifts from that of how thought is capable of reaching a being that is infinitely transcendent to thought (Srnicek-Brassier-Laruelle), thereby continuing the modernist wager of a de-suturing of nature and society.  No, the question now becomes that of how heterogeneous, real entities, ranging from the material and physical, to the semiotic and fictional, form assemblages with one another as real entities.  It is here, not in reductive or scientistic-positivistic reductivism where we reach the true plane of immanence and reset the game of philosophy from the start, undermining the representational assumptions that have guided modernity.    Rather than the question of how one thing represents another thing, we instead investigate the manner in which assemblages are formed, between different entities.

No longer do we fall into the facile sociobiology and neurological reductivism of the eliminative materialist crowd among the speculative realists.  Instead, we get to have our neurology and biology and our semiotics too, as a sign is every bit as much an object or a real entity as a neuron or a quark.  Here our ontology has become truly immanent, for just as little as we treat a child as less of a being because it issued from parents, just as little as we treat an ecosystem as unreal because it is governed by a singular logos governed only by the relations of that system, do we treat subjects and signs as less real than quarks because they are dependent on particular systems of objects.  Rather than asking which object is the true object, we instead investigate, as Ian Bogost does, the relations among a host of objects ranging from the strictly material, to the technological, to the economic and semiotic, all placed on equal footing as differences that make a difference in the mess within which they participate.  I owe these insights to my encounter with Graham Harman, without sharing all the details of his ontology.

These remarks, I believe, begin to respond to Mark Edward’s cogent questions about politics.  So long as we remain at the level of an ontology that conceptualizes entities as either epiphenomenal products of a One-All as in the case of early Deleuze, are as constituted by their relations, it is difficult to imagine how a politics is possible.  Here any agency is simply an effect of this “pre-individual” domain of being out of which it is actualized or individuated.  Everything changes, by contrast, when we theorize an object-oriented ontology, an onticology, wherein being is not a whole or a totality or a One or a system of relations, but rather composed of discrete objects of all sorts.  In the preface to Difference and Givenness, I claim that it is only possible to evaluate the work of Deleuze and Guattari, by first investigating Deleuze’s independent work.  What is it that we witness between Deleuze’s early work and his collaborative work with Guattari?  We witness a shift from a suffocating holism where vertical being reigns supreme in the movement from the virtual whole to epiphenomenal actualizations.  In the later work with Guattari, we encounter an ontology of discrete objects and assemblages.  If politics is to be possible, if there is to be agency, it will only be in a system where entities are granted full autonomy and are not simple epiphenomena of a virtual Spinozist One-All.

Advertisements