The State as a Virtual Object


PS: after discussing it w/ Gregg Flaxman, I’ve decided to “deontologize” the whole paper to sharpen the ontology/virtuality divide.

Returning to Foucault’s critique nearly thirty years later, we can reassess whether or not Marxist and Anarchist scholarship should remain condemned to hanging. Should Foucault’s arguments against state phobia be repeated, that it enables neo-liberalism and lacks singularity, or can Marxist and Anarchist state theory be rescued? Of course there are already numerous scholars who have squared Foucault with Marxist and Anarchist thought, and that such scholarship offers exemplary critiques of actually existing neoliberalism (one being our respondent today). Already in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Foucault’s work was incorporated into Structuralist Marxim and Italian Autonomist Marxisms, and more recently, Foucault’s theory of power has inspired the creation of Post-Anarchism.[1] In fact, Foucaultian scholarship is so thoroughly disseminated today that among Marxists and Anarchists, perhaps Fredric Jameson is the last holdout.

Instead of saving Marxism and Anarchism, then, what may be called for is a renewed defense of two things: state phobia, and non-empiricism. My defense of state phobia is political. While governmentality studies describe power well, they lack external grounds for critiquing that power. A study of governmentality can of course analyze power according to its own self-professed aims, but without something like Derridean deconstruction or Adornian immanent critique, the study is not political but descriptive.[2] Leading scholars says this themselves, expressing that studies of government “are not hardwired to any political perspective” but “are compatible with other methods” (Rose, O’Malley, Valverde, “Governmentality,” 101). Marxism, anarchism, or another other critique of power thus offers the external ground to challenge actually existing governmentalization, and state phobia provides the point of condensation for common struggles that share an anti-authoritarian critique of power. My defense of non-empiricism, which is less commensurate with the study of governmentality and is the focus of the rest of this paper, is methodological. Methodologically, I disagree with those scholars within governmentality studies who argue for a shallow definition of the state, which they justify through ‘brute’ empiricism. For these scholars, governmentality is a strictly “an empirical mapping of governmental rationalities and techniques” that “turn away from grand theory, the state, globalization, reflexive individualization, and the like” (99; 101). I contend that this empiricism leaves no place for the state as an abstraction, and the project of amending the study of governmentality to include abstraction requires revising its methodology.

Contrary to Foucault’s shallow definition of the state, French Marxists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari treat the state as a ‘virtual object’ that is neither an ideological effect nor solely repressive – thus avoiding the crude terms of Foucault’s brief argument from the classic governmentality lecture. Through a broader typological survey of the State in the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari show that the state is evinced in more than its institutions but rather in a whole cultural history of sovereignty that constitutes a philosophical anthropology of becoming. The state, Deleuze and Guattari hold, is an apparatus of capture that is not only actualized in its state-effects, as studied by Foucault, but also as a virtual abstraction of power. The ontology of the state is not an empirical object of study, as studies of governmentality would have it, but a philosophical concept. I am not the first to suggest this – Mitchell Dean suggests the importance of the Deleuzian concept in the new introduction to the second edition of the popular book Governmentality, yet he calls for empirical concepts and not philosophical ones (13-14). For that reason, the philosophical concept of the state remains beyond the purview of governmentality studies; this is because philosophy is not studied “through structure, or linguistics or psychoanalysis, through science or even through history,” for it “has its own raw material that allows it to enter into more fundamental external relations with these other disciplines” (Deleuze, Negotiations, 89).

Ontologizing the state as a virtual object requires an explanation of the virtual in Deleuze’s work. By ‘the virtual,’ Deleuze does not mean simulated, as in virtual reality, but the really-existing potentials of the world and the things that inhabit it and their potential to differ. Both science and philosophy create images of the virtual, images that they make by intersecting it, much like a plane sections a cone, to isolate a workable sections. Science descends, clarifying the virtual by isolating variables and laying out patterns that predict change – so if I use physics to determine the potential changes in a physical system, I am using scientific functions to describe an actual state of affairs and its virtual potential to transform.


Philosophy, on the other hand, ascends from a concrete present to the concepts residing in the virtual. Philosophy does not represent reality, but provides a fresh orientation to the problems of this world that, in part, points toward a new world. In this way, contemporary philosophy connects “with what is real here and now in the struggle against capitalism” for the purpose of “relaunching new struggles whenever the earlier one is betrayed” (Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 100). Yet, while philosophy is practical, it does not deal with any particular historical event. In fact, the philosophical concept “does not refer to the lived” but consists “in setting up an event that surveys the whole of the lived no less than every state of affairs” (33-4). Therefore, if philosophy can leave behind the certainty of science and open up the world “without losing anything of the infinite,” then it succeeds at something science cannot do: renew the drive for creation (42). The ultimate aim of philosophy is therefore utopian, whereby creation breaks through the limits of this world and “turns it back against itself so as to summon forth a new earth, a new people” (99).

We can even look to Foucault for concepts that do the philosophical work of virtual mapping. Two well-known examples are the concepts of the archive and diagram. In Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault proposes the archive as “the general system of the formation and transformation of statements” (130). The archive is not empirical, however, it is not a sum of texts – it is an image of the surface of discourse that “reveals the rules of a practice that enables statements both to survive and to undergo regular modification” (130). Foucault goes on to explain archaeology, the method for studying the archive. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes the Bentham’s panopticon as a diagram of power (205).[3] He carefully outlines what he means by diagram, writing that it is “a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form,” “abstracted from friction” to become a representation, “a figure of political technology… detached from any specific use” (205).[4] Said otherwise: the diagram is too abstract to be a model because it combines two things: a function, the anonymous and immanent observation of subjects to individualize and classify them without their knowledge, independent of any particular spatial arrangement, and matter, any human multiplicity made countable or controllable by confinement, independent of their qualification (Deleuze, Foucault, 72).[5] Each of these philosophical concepts are virtual objects and they have corresponding actual states of affairs: the archive and the statement, the panopticon and disciplinary institutions. From this, it seems clear that Foucault himself was not allergic to ontologizing systems and power as virtual objects, and he granted them a philosophical existence independent of their actualization.

How might we then ontologize the state as real but not actual? If it continues in the same way that Deleuze and Guattari ontologize capitalism, then the creation of the state as a virtual object begins with a negative move. This move is to ‘do away with the judgment of God,’ which means giving the state a specific not universal existence – tearing it down from the heavens of natural fact and show how it is a thing of this world, though without denying that it may be a nearly omnipresent figure today (Deleuze, “To Have Done With Judgment”). The method they specify for this task is a détournement of Marx’s universal history that is retrospective, contingent, singular, ironic, and critical (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, 163-4; Read, “A Universal History of Contingency”). And on this point, such an approach is not in conflict with the study of governmentality, which similarly disarticulates the state through critical history. Where we part ways is in the positive task: construct a virtual ontology of the state. In particular, I contend that the state is an abstraction capable of producing incorporeal transformations. [6]  As an abstraction, it is “what is not actualized or of what remains indifferent to actualization” that includes but exceeds the material state effects, “since its reality does not depend on it” (What is Philosophy?, 156). And the state is capable of producing incorporeal transformations, which are qualitative transformations (in kind not in quantity) not directly accessible through experience but have effects that are. The classic example of an incorporeal transformation is the performative speech act, for instance ‘I pronounce you husband and wife,’ which transforms two people from being engaged to married without changing their bodies (Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 5).  These incorporeal transformations may appear as natural attributes, as they lie at the heart of social segmentations – “gender, race, class, work, family” and now “debt and credit” – though as much as we feel them, these transformations are not themselves material, only their effects are (Buchanan, “Deleuze and the Internet,” P2; P7). Ontologically, then, Deleuze suggests that we say virtual objects ‘insist,’ ‘subsist,’ or ‘persist’, while it is only in their effects that anything exists (Deleuze, Logic of Sense, 52-54).

[1] In regards to structuralist Marxism, Althusser’s students cite Foucault generally favorably from the 1970s onward, in particular Balibar, Macherey, Lecourt, Pêcheux, and Rancière. The Italian reception is less clear, as Franco Berardi and others claim that Foucault’s work was not widely circulated within Potere Operaismo until the 1978 translation of The History of Sexuality, although there was a small group of scholars associated with the movement who had read Foucault, including Antonio Negri, who cites Foucault in the famous 1977 essay “Domination and Sabotage;” for that essay and Berardi’s reflections, see Autonomia: Post-Political Politics. Post-Anarchism was founded as the union of post-structuralism philosophy and contemporary anarchism, making the works of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and Jacques Lacan canonical.

[2] In responding to this criticism, Rose, O’Malley, and Valverde argue that, “Empirical studies and genealogies of government are full of accounts of conflicts and struggles, although resistance seldom takes the form of a heroic meta-subject. Thus, Rose’s (1996b) account of the emergence of advanced liberal rationalities is at pains to stress the role of those who opposed government through the social; but there was, here as elsewhere, no single movement of resistance to power, but rather a conflict of rival programs and strategies (Rose 1996b).” (“Governmentality,” 100). Absent from their defense is the Nietzschean spirit of writing untimely histories against the present that would give life to new becomings, and for this, they avoid playing the most persistent note of Foucault’s politics.

[3] Earlier, he also describes the camp as a “diagram of power that acts by means of general visibility” (171).

[4] As an interesting aside to telegraph a future distinction: Hardt and Negri make this same argument in Empire in pages 329-330. It should also be noted that Deleuze makes this comparison in Foucault, pages 31-34.

[5] An additional reason why it must be an abstraction and not a model, according to Deleuze, is that the actualized content and expression bear neither resemblance nor correspondence, and so must have a common immanent cause (Deleuze, Foucault, 33). For more on this, as it defines an abstract machine, see Ronald Bogue’s Deleuze and Guattari, 130-135.

[6] Foucault explicitly describes his philosophy as ‘incorporeal materialism’ in two places: his inaugural Collège de France lecture, “The Order of Discourse,” which is included as an appendix to the American version of The Archaeology of Knowledge, and in his book review of Deleuze’s Logic of Sense, “Theatrum Philosophicum,” which is collected in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice.


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