Difference and Repetition by Gilles Deleuze
Originally published in 1968
Translated by Paul Patton – Columbia University Press, 1994
This is my second time reading this book. I think the first time I found the first two chapters mind blowing, but the rest of the book mostly escaped me. Now, over ten years later, I revisit Deleuze’s text in order to uncover what I’ve missed, but also to relearn what we all already know but often forget when we look at philosophy.
This time around, the other chapters seem even more amazing than the first two, as Deleuze leads us from his conception of singularity as its own difference to recalibrating what an idea is and then returning to difference as the first articulation necessary to developing sensibility. At first glance, at fifty pages a chapter, Deleuze’s overall pacing seems about right. But his paragraphs are long and the density of his text can get quickly out of hand. Fifty pages of Deleuze’s relentless pacing and his tackling of new and familiar problems in thick, luscious paragraphs of astounding conciseness and complexity is actually two or three times that number of pages for other writers.
Given the arrangement above, the skeleton of Difference and Repetition may not appear to be so difficult. Yet, when we dive into the book, the depth may quickly become overwhelming. In chapter three, “Image of Thought,” Deleuze sets us up for an intense journey through many deep readings of so many familiar philosophers, all the while drawing from them aspects which align and are aligned by understanding identity as its own difference rather than in relation to a transcendental core. Like much post-structuralist thought, Deleuze does not take the contents of various systems of thought to mean much more than their larger formalistic apparatuses. Starting with Descartes and jumping into Hegel and Kant, Deleuze shows us that modern philosophy was already contingent on unspoken parameters that did not allow “philosophy [. . . ] to begin, or indeed authentically to repeat.” Like in many of other his books, Deleuze then meticulously shows us how to extract the core tenants of his subject matter from the silent mass of other thinkers’ writings.
Although Deleuze inherits the rich tradition of European philosophy, he defines the problem of ideation as having non-ideational roots, material conditions that focus thought for thought, rather than remaining immanent to thought. I won’t requote his lengthy but concise list of the various seeds for thought, but instead note that for Deleuze, thought should look for its immanent internal structure as a way to understand itself rather than philosophizing on the terms of its non-philosophical origins:
[C]onceptual philosophical thought has as its implicit presupposition a pre-philosophical and natural Image of thought, borrowed from the pure element of common sense. According to this image, thought has an affinity with the true; it formally posses true and materially wants the true. It is in terms of this image that everybody knows and is presumed to know what it means to think. Therefore it matters little whether philosophy begins with the object or subject, with Being or with beings, as long as thought remains subject to this Image which already prejudges everything (original italics).
In other words, philosophy is an encounter with stupidity (unthinking acceptance) in the sense that stupidity frames the moves of philosophy. Deleuze also explicitly tells us that a formalized reading of philosophy will yield this Image of thought, and show us the pure conceptual apparatus as it determines what legal moves are allowed within the tradition which is informed by this Image.
In order to abstract away from this image, Deleuze builds off of the conception of the pure multiplicity as the harvesting of difference. From the first point that “Ideas are multiplicities” over the course of a very tight fifty pages, Deleuze notes that the view of difference from the point of One is moot:
We can say ‘the one is multiple, the multiple one’ for ever: we speak like Plato’s young men who did not spare the farmyard. Contraries may be combined, contradictions established, but at no point has the essential been raised.
Taking this indeterminacy as the originary fertile ground of thought, Deleuze eventually turns Plato on his head, showing us that Platonism with its “what is X” seeds the tradition so that everyone from Plato to Hegel (who is the “culmination” of this “farmyard speak”) is tripped with this reliance on a transcendental essence that is only namable as not-X. This reliance on essence is the condition that necessitizes the Kantian transcendental “categorical imperatives,” but also renders its subject matter too vacuous to be definite but also too particular to be applicable. The quote below gives a sample of the range of Deleuze’s impressive ordering:
It is not illegitimate, therefore, to summarise in this way the movement of philosophy from Plato to Fichte or Hegel by way of Descartes, whatever the diversity of the initial hypothesis or the final apodicities. There is at least something in common: namely the point of departure found in a ‘hypothesis’ or proposition of consciousness affected by a coefficient of uncertainty (as with Cartesian doubt) and the point of arrival found in an eminently moral apodicity or imperative (Plato’s One-Good, the non-deceiving God of the Cartesian Cogito, Leibniz’s principle of the best of all possible worlds, Kant’s categorical imperatives, Fichte’s Self, Hegel’s ‘Science’). However while this procedure maximally approximates the real movement of thought, it also maximally betrays and distorts this movement: this conjoint hypotheticism and moralism, this scientistic hypotheticism and this rationalist moralism, render unrecognizable what they approximate.
What Deleuze then shows us is that the past tradition of philosophy, in its search for the essence, has posited an unnameable term of pure presence within its focus. Another way to say this is simply: “Questions are imperatives – or rather, questions express the relation between problems and the imperatives from which they proceed (original italics).” While we can understand that philosophy is the repetition of the originary difference qua pure multiplicity or even repetition of identity qua pure presence, we can also understand that the material conditions of solutions to problems only shuffle the originary inequality of the problem to another domain that isn’t recognized as problematic. Deleuze refocuses philosophy as the domain of recognizing immanent sensibility, and in that way brings us to the fount of history, as a series of problems whose solutions are successor problems when deloyed in different areas. How we deploy those domains in relation to each other creates the conditions for what we can understand as being problematic or not.
The materialization of problems is the condition that selects from multiplicity so that multiplicity gives way to difference. At this point it’s significant to note the translator distinguishes between two kinds of difference—differentiation and differenciation so as to preserve the different connotations of difference that was in Deleuze’s original French (but not natural to English). So to clarify, difference that has been differentiated (that is, acknowledged as a different type) can be repeated just like differenciation (which is similar to Badiou’s being-as-countable or different tokens of a type) can also be repeated. This latter differenciation is a condition of difference that supports various formalizations of mathematics and science as ways of intensifying differentiation once differentiation is selected as a metric for unit-hood. Ultimately, while Deleuze draws upon such diverse fields outside of philosophy (such as calculus and embryonic autopoiesis), his main concern is always to reflect back from the pure immanence of thought the material conditions inherent in the actualization of thought. This acknowledgement of the material border of thought brings Deleuze to the very edge of sensibility:
There are those for whom the whole of differenciated social existence is tied to the false problems which enable them to live, and others for whom social existence is entirely contained in the false problems which they occupy the fraudulent positions, and from which they suffer. All the figures of non-sense appear in the objective field of the false problem: that is, all the counterfeit forms of affirmation, distortions of elements and relations, and confusions of the distinctive with the ordinary. That is why history is no less the locus of non-sense and stupidity than it is the process of sense or meaning.
We can see here that falsehood is a condition of thought forged entirely by stupidity. Stupidity is the condition that creates problems that are not really problems. An extension of stupidity is the appearance of figures that appear in the object field but do not address the conditions of a problem sensibly. An extension of this line reveals that history can only been seen as nonsensical because the multiplicity offers an overwhelming abundance of difference for which there are innumerable problems but for which there is no central locus, no essential X which is repeated. This is tantamount to saying that, in terms of Platonic essence, for Deleuze there is no One, there is only indeterminate multiplicity.
For Deleuze, the basic question in philosophy is what is sensible? From this thin line, Deleuze reflects us back onto materiality as the primary mode of thought, rather than allowing thought to subsist on an incestuous formulation of the Image of the Idea, in which its essence is highlighted, questioned and returned back to itself as a shadow of the Idea:
The negative is both shadow of the problem and false problem par excellence. Practical struggle never proceeds by way of the negative but by way of difference and its power of affirmation, and the war of the righteous is for the conquest of the highest power, that of deciding problems by restoring them to their truth, by evacuating the truth beyond the representations of consciousness and the forms of the negative, and by acceding at last to the imperatives on which they depend.
With the same breath, Deleuze takes us from the philosophical quandary of essence to historic struggle by which the power of social consciousness is the trophy for victors: not just to decide the solution to real problems, but also to have the ability to transform the material conditions that define problems.
From problems we get to individuation and identity. I do want to emphasize that material conditions matter, not simply airy thought substantiated only by itself. Thus, before thought even arrives on the scene, a given material field as multiplicity is not a vacuous nothing but a nothing that is pre-philosophical. Deleuze draws on Gilbert Simondon to show that
[i]ndividuation presupposes a prior metastable state—in other words, the existence of a ‘disparateness’ such that [. . .] potentials are distributed. Such a pre-individuated state does not lack singularities: the distinctive or singular points are defined by the existence and distribution of potentials. [. . .] Individuation emerges like the act of solving a problem, or –what amounts to the same thing—like the actualization of a potential and the establishing of communication between disparates. The act of individuation consists not in suppressing the problem, but in integrating the elements of the disparateness into a state of coupling which ensures its internal resonance.
From here, Deleuze draws on differentiation in nature, that “an embryo does not reproduce ancestral adult forms” but “epigenesis proceeds from more or less general—in other words, from the most general types to generic and specific determinations.” The solving of a problem is the selection of a particular disparate potential immanent to the field. This means that each individuation is originally itself, solving its own issues within its embryonic form. While we grasp the generic as a specific differentiation, Deleuze tells us that the theoretical apex of differentiation is only an organizing principle within our own thought. Using the formulation of species and genus, Deleuze writes “It is not the individual which is an illusion in relation to the genus of the species, but the species which is an illusion [. . .] in relation to the play of the individual and individuation.” Repeating his work in terms of autopoiesis for biological creatures, Deleuze tells us that difference is the original point, and that materiality does not attempt to reproduce according to transcendental categories but only along its own immanence:
Individuation always governs actualization: the organic parts are induced only on the basis of the gradients of their intensive environment; the types determined in their species only by virtue of the individuating intensity. [. . .] Notions such as ‘morphogenetic potential’, ‘field-gradient-threshold’ put forward by Dalcq, which essentially concern the relations of intensity as such, account for this complex essemble. This is why the question of the comparative role of the nucleus and the cytoplasm, in the eggs as the world, is not easily solved. The nucleus and the genes designate only the differentiated matter—in other words, the differential relations which constitute the pre-individuated field to be actualized; but their actualization is determined only by cytoplasm, with its gradients and its fields of individuation.
Abstracted to the point of speaking not only biology but also differentiation of the world as egg, Deleuze in one swift stroke aligns difference as the primary point of difference without reference to essence, identity (representationalism) or Kantian transcendentalism. This is where Deleuze turns Plato on his head. He makes Platonic forms simply another differentiation, an illusionary copy of material actualization. Thus, with this, Deleuze brings us back to the actualization of world on its own intensities, so that thought is tied not to an Image of the Idea but to the potential actualizations of the world as its own virtual plateau, a theme to be later expanded on in his joint opus with Felix Guattari.
At this point we can now understand that in this work, Deleuze’s aesthetic is a reinstatement of Nietzsche’s eternal return, as a return of differentiation. For this reason, while much of his chapter on repetition focuses on different kinds of synthesizes that repetition affords us (as understandings of time), Deleuze’s main grasp of difference relies the eternal return of the same problem: the actualization of the indeterminate multiplicity from which difference can be individuated. This individuation is the material reality of thought itself. Although acknowledged as key in the development of his philosophy, this early book of Deleuze has yet to fully embody his method, named as a transcendental empiricism. Yet even in this early work, translator, Paul Patton, has noted that Deleuze has already established the fullness of
his own distinctive style of philosophizing—which combines an extreme sobriety in the use of language with an extraordinary vitality in the use of concepts—Deleuze often draws upon existing words to create a terminology for concepts of his own making.
This strange but exciting style yields a hurricane of activity that when read, leads us to bifurcate new realizations all the while Deleuze’s language remains concise, packed and focused. If retooling the philosophical tradition, reworking science and math as forms of thought, or the encounter of truly novel formulations for thought do not appeal to you, then perhaps Deleuze’s intensity of language might. Whether you are an artist, a philosopher, an academic, a student, a scientist or someone who just wants to understand how sense making happens, this button-down intensity embedded in some very serious philosophical inquiry is one of the very rare pleasures of reading Deleuze.