Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Empirical Questions

As part of my attempt to recover and recharge from the term, I’ve been very casually reading through Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. I was struck by the following passage, which I will reproduce here as a sort of bookmark, without making any assumptions about whether Deleuze intends the passage in the sense that it struck me:

A book of philosophy should be in part a very particular species of detective novel, in part a kind of science fiction. By detective novel we mean that concepts, with their zones of presence, should intervene to resolve local situations. They themselves change along with the problems. They have spheres of influence where, as we shall see, they operate in relation to ‘dramas’ and by means of ‘cruelty’. They must have a coherence among themselves, but that coherence must not come from themselves. They must receive their coherence from elsewhere.

This is the secret of empiricism. Empiricism is by no means a reaction against concepts, nor a simple appeal to lived experience. On the contrary, it undertakes the most insane creation of concepts ever seen or heard. Empiricism is a mysticism and a mathematicism of concepts, but precisely one which treats the concept as object of an encounter, as a here-and-now, or rather as an Erewhon from which emerge inexhaustibly ever new, differently distributed ‘heres’ and ‘nows’. Only an empiricist could say: concepts are indeed things, but things in their free and wild state, beyond ‘anthropological predicates’. I make, remake and unmake my concepts along a moving horizon, from an always decentred centre, from an always displaced periphery which repeats and differenciates them. The task of modern philosophy is to overcome the alternatives temporal/non-temporal, historical/eternal and particular/universal. Following Nietzsche we discover, as more profound than time and eternity, the untimely: philosophy is neither a philosophy of history, nor a philosophy of the eternal, but untimely, always and only untimely – that is to say, ‘acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time and, let us hope, for the benefit of a time to come’. Following Samuel Butler, we discover Erewhon, signifying at once the originary ‘nowhere’ and the displaced, disguised, modified and always re-created ‘here-and-now’. Neither empirical particularities nor abstract universals: a Cogito for a dissolved self. We believe in a world in which individuations are impersonal, and singularities are pre-individual: the splendour of the pronoun ‘one’ – whence the science-fiction aspect, which necessarily derives from this Erewhon. What this book should therefore have made apparent is the advent of a coherence which is no more our own, that of mankind, than that of God or the world. (pp.xx-xxi)

Many things strike me about this passage. Deleuze may not mean any of them… ;-P The notion that concepts should be understood as having a relational coherence with other concepts, but that this relational coherence must simultaneously be understood as coming from “elsewhere” – as pointing back to a “local situation” in which those concepts intervene – reminds me of some of the things I’ve occasionally written on Marx’s passing suggestions about logical deduction: Marx implies, particularly in his reflections on Aristotle and the labour theory of value in the first volume of Capital, that certain “logical” relationships become so only once a given local situation can be presupposed – only once a context has been constituted that renders a particular conceptual leap intuitive. The implication is that even the operations of logic – when these are applied to determinate content, when “deductive” reasoning is applied to phenomena in the world – cannot be understood in terms of the operation of an abstract and instrumental procedure, but instead owe their plausibility to the ways in which they incorporate substantive contents that lie ready-to-hand only in very specific situations.

The focus on the mystical nature of empiricism also reminds me of Marx – specifically, Marx’s discussions of the fetish, which revolve precisely around trying to understand how social determination in capitalism presents itself in the historically distinctive shape of an absence of social determination – in the shape of a kind of empiricist sensibility, a “view from nowhere” – Deleuze’s “free and wild state”. Marx suggests that forms of perception and thought that are qualitatively specific to capitalism appear not to be social – not to be historical, even if they are self-evidently historically-emergent – because their distinctive social character consists precisely in their claim to be devoid of social character – in their claim to be devoid of “anthropological predicates”. Thus Marx speaks of political economy as evaluating social institutions from a standpoint in which “there has been history, but there no longer is any”: as simultaneously expressing the corrosive recognition that social determinations exist, that forms of thought and practice can arise and fade away, but also veiling this recognition, by failing to apply this insight self-reflexively to thematise how this recognition itself expresses a distinctive social determination – and therefore failing to ask the pivotal question of how our “empiricist” concepts themselves manifest determinate potentials constituted in particular ways in our local situation.

Marx views political economy as a non-self-reflexive form of thought – and therefore as a form of thought limited to applying its insights negatively and in a backward-looking fashion, to other targets of critique, rather than to itself. For Marx, this means that political economy can recognise the “artificiality” of the institutions and beliefs of other times and places – and can therefore engage in an unmasking and debunking critique that declares this artificiality, that brings this artificiality “to light”. These negative and backward-looking critiques are offered, however, as if from a standpoint free of “anthropological determinations” – and, more importantly, as if the concept of a standpoint free of anthropological determinations were not itself the product of qualitatively distinctive anthropological determinations.

To move beyond this kind of negative, backward-looking critique requires, for Marx, a self-reflexive move that seeks to identify and understand the anthropological determinations that underlie the emergence of the concept of a standpoint free from anthropological determinations. The object of this kind of self-reflexive critique is precisely not to “unmask and debunk”: Marx isn’t seeking simply to point out that political economic thought is itself “guilty” of the same artificiality it discovers in competing forms of thought. The object is instead to link particular kinds of critical insights to the determinate forms of practice constitutive of a “local situation” – and thus to open that situation to a critical exploration of the generative and creative potentials the situation itself possesses.

From this perspective, the distinctive forms of perception and thought associated with empiricism can be recognised and valued for their corrosive and creative potentials – for the ways in which they prime and open us for an appreciation of dimensions of a broader natural world decentred from the human community, for how they sensitise us to the potential for the transformation of human institutions and beliefs. At the same time, we can self-reflexively remain aware that these critical insights do not themselves mean that we have stepped “outside”, into a position of neutrality or asociality – instead, these insights are themselves expressions of a determinate form of social imbrication. Understanding the determinate characteristics of our social – the distinctive forms of practice and interconnection – that open us to such critical forms of perception and thought, will help us understand and cultivate the immanent potentials for transcendence that our context generates.

I offer all of this, of course, more in the spirit of free association, than as anything substantively connected with Deleuze. While I found the passage striking for the thoughts it provoked, I am not trying here to suggest anything about Deleuze’s position – to which perhaps I can return in a more informed way, once I have read in much greater depth.

2 responses to “Empirical Questions

  1. Pingback: ~/tychoish: like a tycho, but not @

  2. Pingback: » Critique by Necessity: More Random Reflections on Marx and Deleuze

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