Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism: “There is no ontology of Deleuze”

cosmic-decayThis is an excerpt from my forthcoming essay in parallax that provides a Deleuzian theory of the State by way of cinema, cultural studies, and rhetorical theory.

At stake for me is a method that proceeds by way of the “powers of the false” outlined in Deleuze’s Cinema 2. I find Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism to be fundamentally methodological, as it offers an analytic for distinguishing between those who use Deleuzian concepts (which must ‘maintain consistency’ even in transportation) and those who simply appropriate insights of his thought (e.g. the target of the essays, the sociologists of the Governmentality School, who are effectively postpositivists).

My defense of the false 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 strictly ‘an empirical mapping of governmental rationalities and techniques’ to ‘turn away from grand theory, the state, globalization, reflexive individualization, and the like’.[1] The type of empiricism they invoke is associated with social scientific research methods that use sample surveys, number crunching, and the statistical subject. Even as they are critical of the governmental techniques that result from similar methods, Governmentality Studies participates in a larger disciplinary project within sociology that relies on a particular configuration of realism, empiricism, and scientificity.[2]

Deleuze himself uses a reworked version of philosophical empiricism whereby ‘empiricism is a philosophy of the imagination and not a philosophy of the senses’.[3] Demonstrating the importance of the imagination, Deleuze readily draws on the literary works of Anglo-American writers to demonstrate the principles of his empiricism.[4] In his strictly philosophical work, it appears as the paradoxical formulation of a ‘transcendental empiricism’ as a philosophical alternative to Kant’s transcendental idealism, in which Deleuze separates the transcendental field from its empirical givenness to bypass the personal, individuated world of the subject.[5]

The exact status of Deleuze’s empiricism is a point of contention in the secondary literature between objects and concepts. In the object camp, the social scientific approach has strong humanities-based allies within a strand of contemporary philosophical realists that draw on Deleuze.[6] Echoing the concerns of Ōshima’s character R and Governmentality Studies, ‘object-oriented’ thinkers are similarly skeptical of abstractions.[7] Objects, they hold, are slices of the real world that gives rise to qualities, relations, events, and powers that are independent of humans’ ability to perceive them.[8] A common move is modeled by Manuel DeLanda, who suggests that concepts such as ‘the state’ or ‘the market’ are mere reified expressions of concrete entities, as in ‘market-places or bazaars’ located in ‘a physical locale such as a small town or a countryside.’[9] The object-oriented approach also shares in Governmentality Studies’ penchant for reality, as both of which turn to ontology for the origin of thought. The associated ‘political ontology’, such as that outlined by Jane Bennett and William Connolly, proposes a project of re-enchantment with the matter and things already of this world.[10]

In the concept camp, there are those who follow Deleuze’s claim that his empiricism ‘treats the concept as object of an encounter’.[11] They clarify that Deleuze’s empiricism is strictly concerned with the real conditions of thought and thus fundamentally disinterested with empirical trackings of the habits of thought expressed in lived experience [vécu].[12] Taking serious Deleuze’s separation of the transcendental from the empirical, these thinkers focus on concepts and not ethnography or personal reflection (‘for the data of empirical lived experience doesn’t inform thought about what it can do’).[13] Shifting the focus to concepts is part of their wider move to claim that ‘there is no “ontology of Deleuze”’.[14] They appeal to Deleuze and Guattari’s suggestion in the introduction of A Thousand Plateaus to ‘overthrow ontology’ by substituting what ‘is’ for Hume’s ongoing series of interacting exterior relations ‘and… and… and…’.[15] The philosophical consequence of the concept-based approach is an engagement with the outside as a relative exteriority beyond sensory givens.[16] Interestingly, this is also how Foucault defines the experience of thought.[17]

There are specific political stakes for the disagreement over objects and concepts. Governmentality Studies, Object-Oriented Ontology, and political ontology suffer from the self-imposed limitation of the imagination invoked by Foucault: the ‘price of reality.’ Concepts do not always pay such a price; utopia does not exist as such, as discussed above, but is necessary for politics – conservative, revolutionary, and otherwise. The historical consequence of this limitation is specific, as state phobia is an anticipation-prevention mechanism that stateless peoples have used to anticipate the real potentials of an emergent state and prevent its arrival.[18] Key here is that which is anticipated. Deleuze and Guattari do not theorize the state as arriving through a perverse internal transformation of forces, but they instead follow Nietzsche’s claim that the state is brought from the outside by conquering beasts.[19] For prevention to be possible, empiricism must provide more than the experience of an object and its potential transformations, it somehow must anticipate threats from the outside that have not yet materialized. Deleuze provides one such ‘image with two sides’ in the duality of the ‘actual and virtual’.[20] I argue that the project of amending the study of governmentality to include abstractions of the outside requires revising its methodology to focus on philosophical concepts and not just objects.

[1] O’Malley, Rose, and Valverde, ‘Governmentality’, pp. 101

[2] Patricia Ticiento Clough, ‘The Case of Sociology: Governmentality and Methodology’, Critical Inquiry, 36:4 (2010), pp. 627-641.

[3] Gilles Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature [1953], trans. Constantin V. Boundas (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 110.

[4] An excellent demonstration of the wider constellation of thought can be found in Gregory Flaxman, “A More Radical Empiricism,” in Deleuze and Pragmatism, ed. Sean Bowden, Simone Bignall, and Paul Patton (New York, NY: Routledge, 2015), pp. 55-72.

[5] Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, pp. 143, 143.

[6] The loose collection of philosophers associated with ‘Speculative Realism’ share a starting point: the rapport between the givenness of the world (‘the real’) and the thought of that givenness (‘truth’).

[7] Numerous object-oriented approaches are included in The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, ed. Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman (Melbourne:, 2011).

[8] Graham Harman, ‘On the Undermining of Objects: Grant, Bruno, and Radical Philosophy’, in The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, ed. Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman (Melbourne:, 2011). pp. 24.

[9] Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (New York, NY: Continuum, 2006), pp. 17-18.

[10] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), and William Connolly, The Frailty of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Action (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013). Andrew Cole puts forth a rather convincing argument that these object-based approaches mirror the idealism of Fichte because ‘these newer philosophies exhibits a very strong humanism and a rather traditional ontology in that they claim to hear things “speak,” recording things’ voices, registering their presence, and heeding their indifference.’ For more, see his ‘The Call of Things: A Critique of Object-Oriented Ontologies’, the minnesota review, 80 (2013), pp. 106-118.

[11] Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, pp. xx.

[12] François Zourabichvili, Deleuze: A Philosophy of the Event [1994], trans. Kieran Aarons (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), pp. 130.

[13] Zourabichvili, Deleuze, pp. 211.

[14] Zourabichvili, Deleuze, pp. 36.

[15] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [1980], trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), pp. 25.

[16] Gregory Flaxman, ‘Coda’, Gilles Deleuze and the Fabulation of Philosophy (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), pp 292-324.

[17] Michel Foucault, ‘Maurice Blanchot: The Thought From Outside’ [1966], in Foucault/Blanchot, trans. Brian Massumi (New York, NY: Zone Books, 1987), pp. 7-60.

[18] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 431, 437, 437-448.

[19] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [1972], trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), pp. 163-64; Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 351-356.

[20] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image [1983], trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), pp. 68. It is also worth noting that the encounters with the ‘non-external outside’ are not simply to ward off threats, but is the motor of utopian fabulation necessary for art, science, and philosophy.


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