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Toward a Post-Human Political Theory: Deleuze, Guattari, and Disability Studies – Pt. 1

Deleuze and Deleuze-Guattari as Virtualists?

Thinking over the above discussion of the rhizomatic flight of desiring-production and about “chaosmic creation,” may provoke one to wonder how any stability or sustained creation could be effected by schizophrenia. Peter Hallward has critically taken this paradox to the conclusion that while Deleuze’s philosophy is creational it is only creational in flight “out of this world.” In the final sentences of his otherwise very insightful work on Deleuze and Deleuze-Guattari, Hallward states:

As Deleuze understands it, living contemplation proceeds at an immeasurable distance from what is merely lived, known or decided. Life lives and creation creates on a virtual plane that leads forever out of our actual world. Few philosophers have been as inspiring as Deleuze. But those of us who still seek to change our world and to empower its inhabitants will need to look for our inspiration elsewhere (Hallward, Out of this World, 164).

Hallward’s criticisms fit well into his entire political schema. One of Hallward’s primary goals is to develop a voluntarist reading of Marxism that will empower the will of the people for revolutionary change (see his articles “Will of the People” and “Prescriptive Politics”). Only through a “prescriptive politics,” does Hallward believe that change will occur in the world. Thus said, the most integral and illuminating aspect of the Hallward quote above is his remark that “those of us who still seek to change our world and to empower its inhabitants will need to look for our inspiration elsewhere [emphasis added].” It is this idea of empowering the world’s inhabitants that must be addressed.

There is an internal debate among Deleuze and Deleuze-Guattari scholars regarding the nature of the virtual and actual. On one side, there are those, like Hallward, who insist that Deleuze and Deleuze-Guattari are philosophers of the virtual. These scholars claim that Deleuze and Deleuze-Guattari place a secondary importance on the actual. For support they cite those passages that insinuate that the actual is merely a level of confusion, a level of identity, a level captured by the illusion of transcendence. Thus, these scholars contend, the driving impetus of Deleuze’s and Deleuze-Guattari’s work is to treat the actual as that level of ontology that stifles the desiring-flow of virtual Life. And in many ways, this assessment does follow. Did we not just note above that molarity does in fact stifle the creative impulse of desire? Did we not note above how habitual thinking is confined to a representational image of thought? Does this not indicate that the actual is of secondary importance and ultimately something to be despised in favor of virtual Life? While this conclusion does indeed have some merit, I contend that even though there is a large emphasis placed on the free flow of virtual intensities there is in no way a complete denigration of the actual. In fact, I contend that in order for Deleuze and Deleuze-Guattari to be consistent in their immanental philosophy they must not be Virtualists at all; but rather Actualists — and so they are.

An Actualist Reading of Deleuze and Deleuze-Guattari

In their article “Actual and Virtual” one gets the impression that Deleuze and Guattari were addressing this very debate. The opening lines:

Philosophy is the theory of multiplicities, each of which is composed of actual and virtual elements. Purely actual objects do not exist. Every actual surrounds itself with a cloud of virtual images. This cloud is composed of a series of more or less extensive coexisting circuits, along which the virtual images are distributed, and around which they run. These virtuals vary in kind as well as in their degree of proximity from the actual particles by which they are both emitted and absorbed (Deleuze-Guattari, “Actual and Virtual,” 148).

Here we plainly see that both actual and virtual are ever-related to one another. The actual is never understood as autonomous, and neither is the virtual. Rather, they are indispensable from one another, as the virtual surrounds the actual like an electron cloud surrounding the nucleus of an atom. Further in the article, they write: “It is by virtue of their mutual inextricability that virtual images are able to react upon actual objects [emphasis added] (“Actual and Virtual,” 149).” And again: “The plane of immanence includes both the virtual and its actualization simultaneously, without there being any assignable limit between the two [emphasis added] ((Actual and Virtual,” 149).” So, does this demonstrate my point that Deleuze and Guattari are indeed Actualists? Not quite. More unpacking is needed.

In the above quotations, it was clear that the relationship between the actual and the virtual is one of mutual dependence. However, the Virtualist would not assert otherwise. Rather, the Virtualist’s claim is that it is possible to make a clear delineation between the actual and the virtual in that one can be addressed to the exclusion of the other and that the virtual is considered superior. For example, consider Levi Bryant’s essay “Politics of the Virtual” in which he attempts to distinguish between the politics of the virtual and the actual:

[It] is the politics of the virtual that truly aims at the transformation of the configuration of power. For what the politics of the virtual seeks is the destruction of the very tablets of the law, or, put less dramatically, it seeks symbolic reconfiguration. This is something that is inconceivable from the perspective of the politics of the actual, which is entirely ignorant of or entirely ignores the dimension of the virtual (341).

What Bryant argues is that there is indeed a significant difference between the politics of the virtual and the actual. However, as one can tell from the above quotation, the primary difference between Bryant’s view and Hallward’s is that the former favors the politics of the virtual to the actual for the former’s ability to reshape the symbolic structure (a la Lacan) that comprises the social field, whereas Hallward wants to scrap Deleuzian political philosophy altogether in favor of a voluntarist Marxism. However, the similarities between Hallward and Bryant lie in their Virtualist reading of Deleuze.

So what are we to make of this? Perhaps no Deleuze scholar argues more forcefully for an Actualist reading of Deleuze than John Mullarkey. Arguing against Virtualists like Keith Ansell Pearson and Brian Massumi, Mullarkey states that:

The virtual’ exists only virtually within a virtual ontology, and by that I mean that it is a performative concept, it is produced from our point of view or frame of reference as an ‘image’… [One] can virtualise without anything existing other than what we call and see as ‘the virtual’. It is a frame or system of reference for ‘seeing as’, for taking up the actual world (Mullarkey, Post-Continental Philosophy, 28).

This idea of “the virtual” being a “frame of reference for taking up the world” is not the same as Bryant’s claim that the virtual is “the symbolic structure that gives objects their sense or value within a system (Bryant, 340).” The key difference between the Actualist reading of Mullarkey and the Virtualist reading is that for the latter the virtual has supremecy (as the symbolic structure or the totality of past, present, and future potentiality), whereas for Mullarkey the virtual is that which is conceived as a “retrospective [illusion] of the present reality projected into futures already past (Mullarkey, 40).” In other words, the actual is the passage of the present, whereas the virtual is the preservation of the past. The latter however is not potentiality. There is no “capacity” harbored away in a “virtual realm.” Rather, the present actuality is simultaneously surrounded (remember the electron cloud) by virtual intensities at every given moment. Although there is much similarity with this reading and the work of Bergson (as Mullarkey highlights), I see much more consonance with Spinoza’s idea’s pertaining to substance and its attributes. For Spinoza, there are an infinite amount of attributes of substance. However, only two are known by human beings: thought and extension. Although the specifics are different, the general idea remains: for Deleuze, the virtual, as that which is comprised by “a life,” is not known through extension or knowledge (the actual). Rather, it has only indefinite intension, much like the infinity of attributes of Spinoza’s substance. Therefore, the virtual is present everywhere, ontologically indistinguishable from the actual. And the actual is not indefinite intension like the virtual but rather the definite extensive attribute of the plane of immanence.

So, reconsidering Hallward’s critique of Deleuze and Deleuze-Guattari we must now address how an actualist reading of Deleuze would differ. Hallward’s primary complaint orbited around the idea that Deleuze and Deleuze-Guattari’s philosophy is not capable of empowering the world’s inhabitants to effect socio-political change. He arrives at this conclusion because of his mystico-Virtualist reading of Deleuze. However, as we’ve seen, Deleuze and Deleuze-Guattari are better identified as Actualists. Thus, the lines of flight and the constant flows of deterritorialization must not be viewed as intensities that “escape” out of this world. Rather, this flow of desire must be understood as identical to the molar level, inhering in it as the latter’s very intensity. The only way to make a distinction between them is through the “power” of the unifying image that claims to control and/or “know” the world. This latter limitation of the world of desiring-production is that which stifles the flow of desire within a social field. However, the flows do not cease in any definite or “actual” sense. Rather, the flux is merely ignored: whether through the suppression of over-coding under the despotic system or through the axiomatizing capitalist system.

Therefore, contra Hallward, I do assert that Deleuze and Deleuze-Guattari provide an ample framework for effecting socio-political change. By drawing out how human habit, despotism, and capitalism suppress the flow of Life, they have prepared the table for the inhabitants of the world to properly assess the situation. And by devising a way to release unconscious desire, through schizoanalysis, they have placed the carving knife into the hands of machines. In order to act it will not take a prescriptive politic or voluntarism. It will only take a connection.

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