Defining the Virtual Concept: An Idea that “Does Not Refer to the Lived”

state-conceptThis 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.

Defining the state as a virtual concept requires an explanation of the virtual in Deleuze’s work. Deleuze does not mean simulated, as in ‘virtual reality’, in fact: ‘the virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual’.[1] The virtual and the actual together make up two mutually-exclusive sides of the real.[2] The actual is a given states of affairs that is populated by bodies. The virtual is a ‘pure past’ of incorporeal events and singularities that have never been present, which have ‘the capacity to bring about x, without (in being actualized) ever coming to coincide or identify itself with x, or to be depleted and exhausted in x’ while ‘without being or resembling an actual x’.[3] In this sense, the virtual includes all potential worlds, everything that inhabits them, all of their really-existing potentials, and their every potential to differ that coexists with he actual.[4] To illustrate the complex character of the virtual, Deleuze is fond of quoting Jorge Luis Borges, whose ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ includes a fictional book of Chinese philosophy that creates an opening ‘to various future times, but not to all’. [5] ‘In all fiction, when a man is faced with alternatives he chooses one at the expense of others’, he writes, ‘in the almost unfathomable Ts’ui Pên, he chooses – simultaneously – all of them’ and thus ‘creates various futures, various times which start others that will in their turn branch out and bifurcate in other times’.[6] In fiction, the book is able to depict the virtual as ‘an infinite series of times, in a dizzily growing, ever spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times’ that creates a ‘web of time’ – ‘the strands of which approach another, bifurcate, intersect, or ignore each other through the centuries’ and thus ‘embraces every possibility’.[7]

Just as the fictional book The Garden of Forking Paths is ‘a picture, incomplete yet not false, of the universe’, science and philosophy also create images of the virtual.[8] These images are made by intersecting the virtual, much like a plane sections a cone, to isolate a workable section. Science and philosophy, however, differ in their approaches. Science descends, which it does by isolating variables and laying out patterns that predict change – so when physics is used to determine the potential changes in a physical system, scientific functions are used to describe an actual state of affairs and its virtual potential to transform.

Philosophy ascends. This ascension starts from a concrete present and ends at concepts that reside in the virtual. Philosophy is not a representation of reality but a fresh orientation that poses new problems about this world that open up other possible worlds that are already present in the contemporary moment. Philosophy, like utopia, thus 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’.[9] This philosophy may be practical, but it does not address any particular historical event, for 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’.[10] Philosophy therefore undoes the certainty of science by thinking the world ‘without losing anything of the infinite’, in the service of renewing the drive for creation.[11] Unlike science, philosophy remains utopian as it breaks through the limits of this world and ‘turns it back against itself so as to summon forth a new earth, a new people’.[12] Philosophy is thought as the act of creation. It is not reality reflecting back on itself – this becoming like that – but thought speeding beyond the present, whereby the future is introduced into the present to undo the past.

Many of Foucault’s most respected contributions do not ‘pay the price of reality’ because they are philosophical.[13] Two well-known examples are the concepts of the archive and the diagram. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault proposes the archive as ‘the general system of the formation and transformation of statements’.[14] The archive is not a crudely empirical object, and 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’.[15] Foucault goes on to explain archaeology, the method for studying the archive, as an abstraction. Archaeology is, in sum, the philosophical activity of mapping the virtual structure of a system that exist at the boundary of thought. Foucault’s subsequently developed method, genealogy, is similarly a virtual mapping. In completing his genealogy of modern power, Foucault creates the concept of the diagram. The diagram appears in Discipline and Punish, where Foucault describes Bentham’s panopticon as a diagram of power.[16] 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’.[17] In other words, the diagram is too abstract to be a model because it combines two things: 1) a function – the anonymous and immanent observation of subjects to individualize and classify them without their knowledge, independent of any particular spatial arrangement, and 2) matter – any human multiplicity made countable or controllable by confinement, independent of their qualification.[18] Each of these philosophical concepts, the archive and the diagram, are virtual and 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 approaching power through virtual concepts, as he granted them a philosophical existence independent of their actualization.

[1] Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, pp. 208.

[2] I borrow this formulation from Constantin V. Boundas, ‘What Difference does Deleuze’s Difference Make?’, Symposium, 10:1 (2006), pp 397-423.

[3] Boundas, ‘What Difference does Deleuze’s Difference Make?’, pp 399.

[4] Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, pp. 81-82.

[5] Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, in Ficciones, trans. Helen Temple and Ruthven Todd (New York, NY: Grove, 1962), pp. 98.

[6] Borges, ‘Garden’, pp. 98.

[7] Borges, ‘Garden’, pp. 100.

[8] Borges, ‘Garden’, pp. 100.

[9] Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, pp. 100.

[10] Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, pp. 33-34.

[11] [11] Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, pp. 42.

[12] [12] Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, pp. 99.

[13] To be absolutely clear, philosophy is real. The point is that reality does not exact the same toll from philosophy as it does from science.

[14] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge [1969], trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, NY: Pantheon 1972), pp. 130.

[15] Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, pp. 130.

[16] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish [1975], trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, NY: Vintage, 1977), pp. 205. Earlier, on page 171, he also describes the camp as a ‘diagram of power that acts by means of general visibility’.

[17] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, pp. 205. It should also be noted that Deleuze makes this comparison in Gilles Deleuze, Foucault [1986], trans. Sean Hand (Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press, 1988), p 31-34.

[18] Deleuze, Foucault, pp. 72. 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; see Deleuze, Foucault, pp. 33. For more on this, as it defines an abstract machine, see Ronald Bogue, Deleuze and Guattari (London and New York, NY: Routledge, 1989), pp. 130-35.


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