Immanence and the Social Sciences

Now that the Deleuzian insistence on thinking immanence has made significant inroads (even in the social sciences!) it’s time to consider trends of use.

On one side, “immanence critique” has become a popular epistemological method. For instance, the ‘scale’ debate in geography that proposes a ‘flat ontology’ argues that epistemological considerations can no longer remain agnostic to ontology (Foucault is often cited in this instance). Rather, ontology an epistemology can be co-constitutive if they’re placed in immanent relation. An example I heard yesterday was a recent geography paper written on mosquito management in Arizona that used characteristics of the mosquitos ‘ontology’ (their terms, not mine) to determine management techniques best suited to the ‘singularity’ of the mosquito. Herein lies what I consider a set of elisions that makes “immanence critique” simply a stand-in for ‘attention to detail’ or ‘relative autonomy’ without any of the benefits of immanence in its full philosophical force.

What “immanence critique” does is a priori limit out typological analysis. This mirrors the strong anti-positivism of American Post-Modernism that pushes the tired maxim “there is no master-narrative” to extreme proportions. In ‘identity politics’ disputes the claim is that strong anti-essentialism entails eliminating all identity-talk. In ‘cultural studies’ it insists that there is no such thing as culture. Etc etc. The problem is that such thinking succumbs to the same problems as transcendental thinking, only in reverse. Vulgar immanence critique posits the source of transcendence as error or illusion. It doesn’t offer an immanent explanation for the specific transcendent thinking it wants to critique, but rather a generalized condemnation of its use.

As Levi Bryant notes on page 4 of “Difference and Givenness”, “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.” Or in drawing out the political implications in a post to the post-autonomia list-serv, Andrew Robinson explains

People who go picking fights with “[transcendence]”, as if this ideational spook is somehow the root of all evil, and are even prepared to drop their guard about fascist and authoritarian ideas to do so, are fighting phantoms instead of social forces. One should always remember that the real point isn’t to criticise “[transcendence]” (or any other belief-system) for its own sake, but to struggle against oppression which occurs in actual social apparatuses. People who think that the real point is to smash “[transcendence]” are actually falling back into a naive positivism because they think that there is an overarching truth independent of power-relations (i.e. the truth of the statement “transcendentalism is false”) which should come before one’s political commitments.

The most important Deleuzian/Nietzschean/Foucauldian point is NOT that “[transcendence]” is “wrong” but that it is a power-apparatus serving to maintain particular social relations; in which case, the question about any critique of this apparatus is not merely, “is it right?” (in some abstract sense), but how does it alter social relations? What are the social relations which are instituted if the alternative perspective is adopted instead of “[transcendence]”?**

The rest of the post is excellent at showing what’s at stake between philosophies of immanence (Foucault, Deleuze, Agamben, Benjamin) and their adversaries (Schmitt, Zizek).


Let’s quickly rehearse some moves I’m borrowing from Marx’s Theses On Feuerbach. It’s not enough to overturn German Idealism with a restrictive materialism (favoring concreteness over abstraction, practices over spirits). More importantly, materialism has to be powerful enough to explain material phenomenon, but also how the phenomenon of Idealism have a material basis. Or to use the Deleuzian quote: “The rational is always the rationality of an irrational”. It is only out of the BwO/chaosmosis that transcendent logics are carved out – the value-added is that immanence encompasses transcendent phenomena, and then phenomena that transcendence does not (everything that is immanent without being transcendent — a venn diagram would put a circle of ‘transcendence’ completely nested within a larger circle ‘immanence’). As a side note, Althusser’s work did a lot of the trailblazing for this in relation to both Marxist materialism, philosophy, and social theory. Within philosophies of immanence, then, transcendence isn’t a priori excluded but explained via materialism. At the bottom, the point is not to ignore transcendent phenomenon, or to dismiss it as an error or illusion, but to show 1) its material conditions of emergence and 2) its material effects.

The result is an acknowledgement that both transcendent and immanent approaches (in this case, let’s say politics) both have real material effects. Transcendence is no less ‘effective’ than immanence. But rather, the logics of transcendent are limited, less rich, and included within the possible logics of immanence. In the Infinite Contradiction, Etienne Balibar argues that most approaches to subjection are a mixed approach — community, for instance, both appeals to transcendent identity (indeed, recalling Benedict Andersen’s imagined communities, some argue that all contemporary communities are in part imagined and transcendent), but also seek to mobilize relations of immanence. In some instances, transcendent approaches may provide more valuable payoffs in terms of political cost (providing services to a limited or exclusive constituency, ie: a particular nation-state and its citizens), might be required because of one’s political positionality (Cesar Chavez or other so-called “Left Turn” Presidents who stratify their domestic economy through nationalizing sectors in order to prevent the influx of foreign investment), or a multiplicity of other conjunctural demands.

Properly immanent critique would therefore require the hard work of excavating the alternatives hidden by the ‘necessity’ of transcendent approaches in order to reveal the possibility for real movement available. Of course one could argue that transcendent politics is without value, but that only seems possible if Deleuze and Guattari’s polemic is taken too far. First, a weak defense is the Piercian “indexicality” of transcendent categories, found most specifically in the plateau on ‘micro-politics and segmentarity’. According to this account, “molar” categories are a particular crystallization of immanent relations. Like a sieve, molar categories only articulate specific types of relations that “count” (in the broad positivist sense, and more specifically in the Badiouian sense). There is the possibility that certain micro-political/immanent strategies never register as molar phenomena, it should be a matter of strategic choice whether or not such a politics is preferable, not an a priori consideration. For instance, Deleuze and Guattari defend the women’s movement with it’s molar demands of abortion rights, laws against domestic violence, etc. Perspectives like Tiqqun argue that ‘zones of opacity’ are necessary to remain unintelligible to institutional dispositifs that utilize techniques capture/re-deployment that only register phenomenon molarly (the Law, ab/normal, properly biopolitical population management, etc).

The risk of the politics of “un-indexability” is that it could throw out the baby with the bathwater. What is invisible to the state may still be visible to the family, the tribe, the gang, the mafia. Informalism is potentially no better than the state unless its development is accompanied by complementary techniques attentive to the risk of micro-fascism. This in part explains the shift in Deleuze and Guattari from a vigorous endorsement of de-territorialization in “Anti-Oedipus” to a much more careful approach to the risks of micro-fascism in “A Thousand Plateaus.” “Never believe that a smooth space is enough to save us” is one of the key imperatives of the text. As distance grew from the revolutionary potential of ’68, former militants and radicals were swept up into all kinds of opaque practices that were ‘lines of flight’ gone bad. Rumor has it, some of Deleuze’s students died from heavy drug use. To play on a worn cliche, informal networks can turn into black holes. Once down the rabbit hole, they can be almost impossible to come back out. Just look at cults.

The second argument for molar politics follows from the philosophical argument developed above. If transcendence can be explained through emergent properties of immanence, then in a sense, transcendence is a sub-set of immanence. Mapped on to the terms of molarity: molar politics is a sub-set of micro-politics. Though I won’t go into detail here, a schizo-analytic critique via the terms developed in “Anti-Oedipus” would beautifully draw out why vulgar immanence critique falls into the same traps as transcendent Freudo-Marxism. Here’s a quick rehearsal. Following the third synthesis critique of the sovereign subject, the conjunctive synthesis of consumption-consummation, molarity (much like subjectivity) is an after-effect of inter-play of connection/disjunction on the BwO which consumes the surplus produced by micro-politics and mis-attributes ownership for the production of micro-politics as its own. Or, going through the five paralogisms.

Displacement (Critique of Representation (I) / Lack) : What gets repressed by the ‘legal prohibition’ against transcendent thinking? Is desire really displaced by the ‘legal prohibition’, repressing a “falsified apparent image that is meant to trap itself” and actually produce transcendent thinking? (I haven’t thought through this enough to conclude one way or another)

Application (Illegit use of Conjunctive Synthesis / Us/Them) : Us/Them thinking. Not sure it applies here.

Double-Bind (Illegit use of Disjunctive Synthesis / Remainder) : A vulgar critique of transcendence reduces it to a forced choice between them (“double impasse”). The legitimate use would understand the mutually-reciprocal determination of immanence/transcendence. Later developed in ATP as ‘double articulation’ via Hjemslev’s semiotics.

Extrapolation (Illegit use of Connective Synthesis / Part-Objects) : This is possibly relevant — vulgar immanence critique might both provide extreme sensitivity to not generalizing particular parts (in the example of ethnographic subjects who are white blue-collar workers being reduced to a the general interpretant terms “white” and “blue-collar”) while still searching for a basis for casual connections (in the case of the mosquito management, ‘local’ or ‘de-centralized’ management techniques were argued to be ‘more specific to mosquito ontology’ because they isolated the variety of local causes for mosquito reproduction, like water at the bottom of plant potters or pools of standing water) base on generalities that without acknowledging its ‘mixed immanence-transcendence’ (the vanishing mediator of the ‘institutional object’ esp. the state, the third ecology, etc), or if they are problematized, the restrictive “anti-generalization” is still strategically selective despite its alleged commitment to complete anti-transcendence.

After (Critique of Representation (II) / ‘Whole Persons’) : The AO critique is of psychoanalysis’s secondary attribution of social repression to the inabilities of a whole person. In this case, I would argue that vulgar immanence critique attributes transcendent reason to bath methodology rather than social repression. Schizo-analysis would invert the relation, providing a reasons why transcendent reason prevails in social science – for instance, its complicity in retaining a base for social relations of power. The result is a different set of reasons for immanence critique: rather being more “correct”, the effects produce are attune to critiquing social repression.

I’ve grown bored of this argument. Therefore, I’ll include a few loose ends that I never connected, and promise to finish the argument later…

The problem with macro-politics isn’t that they’re ineffective, but they de-demphasize or even efface the importance of the micro-politics. In fact, in an interview with Antonio Negri, Deleuze argues that assemblages shouldn’t be characterized by their molar content but by their lines of flight (alternative, their lines of potential).

Contrary to Ranciere, who thinks that politics is rare because struggle in and between relations that “count” is administrative policing and doesn’t produce transformations…

It might be easy to confuse this with Said/Spivak’s “strategic essentialism”, but

**Robinson conflates transcedence with transcendentalism. An easy task to do, given how well “transcendentalism” rolls of the tongue. The two categories are very importantly opposed in Kant, however, one being appealing to an Outside (transcendent), the other pointing toward immanence (transcendental). I have replaced Robinson’s use of “transcendentalism” with “transcendence”.

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