Friday, June 13, 2014

Deleuze & Process Thought

My summer so far has largely consisted of digging into (mostly) secondary sources on the French poststructuralist philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) - specifically those that address recent theological appropriations of his thought. As readers of this blog would likely expect, I'm particularly interested in relating him to Whiteheadian process thought. I've mentioned him before on the blog as a thinker who has revived interest in speculative philosophy/cosmology/metaphysics amongst certain postmodern thinkers. While post-Heideggerian philosophers like Derrida were convinced that all metaphysics are inescapably totalizing and essentializing ways of thinking, which thereby subordinate difference to a higher/transcendent unity, Deleuze called himself a "pure metaphysician" - albeit one who attempted to think difference without any underlying principle of absolute unity or ultimate foundation. So while the poststructuralist tradition of Derrida and Foucault rejected ontology because it supposedly always makes us think that what appears to us is the natural order of things (rather than contingent, constructed, an effect of difference, etc), a Deleuzian poststructuralism calls for an alternative ontology. As Todd May explains, although Deleuze agreed with Derrida and Foucault in their view that difference must not be repressed by ontological identification - as it so often has been in the history of philosophy - he did not agree "with their [anti-ontological] cure" to this perennial problem.

His metaphysics of difference are in a sense a radicalization of Spinoza, who Deleuze called "the Christ of philosophers" because he "revealed" (so to speak) a philosophy of immanence without transcendence more than any other Western philosopher. Yet Deleuze rejects Spinoza's reliance on substance metaphysics and develops a neo-Spinozan pluralistic monism. Spinoza's one absolute substance is dissolved by Deleuze into a pluralized "plane of immanence." He developed a complex metaphysical system that prioritizes difference over unity, becoming over being, and immanence over transcendence. Deleuze offers a truly experimental metaphysics, an "anti-systematic," "open-ended," "acentered," and radically "uncertain" system. He carefully developed his concepts with the goal of affirming this life over any "super-sensible" or transcendent world. In short, he argues that the plane of immanence is filled with innumerable virtual events, constantly coming in and going out of existence, that become actualized on the plane of organization. This is very much like the traditional philosophical distinction between nature naturing and nature natured (as in Robert Corrington's "ecstatic" or "aesthetic" naturalism).

The plane of immanence is like a "chaos" of seething potentialities moving at infinite speed - fully real while neither ideal nor actual. Virtual events on the plane of immanence are also called by Deleuze "pure singularities," "mad particles," "free intensities," and "nomadic singularities." These "molecular" potentialities become actualized into "molar aggregates" or layered "strata" on the plane of organization as what we experience as sensible matter and identities. So like anything else, we as humans are constituted by these dynamic and self-creative molecular events. In the Deleuzian nondual "chaosmology," there is no sharp line between mind and matter, nature and culture, human and non-human, or any other traditional ontological dualism. Identities are only "effects" of difference. Subjects are only relatively stable repetitions of differential relations. Nothing is static. Everything is in constant becoming. No transcendence, absolute presence, representations, hierarchies, dualisms, or clear identities. Everything is immanent, heterogeneous, dynamic processes of becoming, self-creative, and relationally constituted. This is Deleuze "in a nutshell" - if there is such a thing!

If you know Whitehead's philosophy of organism, you're probably sensing a lot of parallel concepts here. In fact, I agree with commentators like Catherine Keller, Roland Faber, Steven Shaviro, and Luke Higgins that the metaphysics of Deleuze and Whitehead are extremely close. This is not entirely surprising since Deleuze believed that Whitehead's Process and Reality was one of the greatest works of philosophy in the 20th century. But where do they disconnect? I'm still working on this question (I plan to work through Deleuze's primary sources more thoroughly this fall), but here are my initial observations:

1) Deleuze seems to reject Whitehead's affirmation of the radically new: although virtual events appear to be similar to Whitehead's eternal objects or "pure potentiality", Roland Faber argues that the virtual is more like Whitehead's "real potentiality." This is defined as the self-transcendence of the beginningless past, the energized potentialities of Whitehead's "extensive continuum" that give rise to the "pluriverse." Both Keller and Faber also connect Whitehead's "creativity" to Deleuze's plane of immanence and the virtual. While Whitehead affirmed a type of novelty beyond the accomplishments of immanent creative processes - the absolute futures of the world - Deleuze only affirmed a type of novelty that was always emerging in large part out of and through actual processes. Whitehead affirms this as "real potentiality", but goes further with his "pure potentiality" - which are grounded in God. This takes us to the second difference...

2) Deleuze implicitly rejects Whitehead's panentheistic God in favor of something more like a pluralistic pantheism: while Whitehead tends to be interpreted as a type of panentheist, it is difficult to read Deleuze along these lines - even though Deleuze looked quite favorably upon Whitehead's notion of God in his late work The Fold. Like Spinoza, Deleuze is more adequately interpreted as a kind of pantheist. When he is appropriated in a theological way by thinkers like Clayton Crockett, Luke Higgins, and Kristien Justaert, "God" is interpreted in close relation to the Deleuzian plane of immanence: the infinite creative forces or unconsciously differentiating multiplicities that the world "expresses." Yet for Whitehead, "God" names the advent of a more radical novelty (the primordial nature), as well as the relationality of all differences (the consequent nature). God is therefore an "actual entity" in Whitehead's thinking as the "ground of [radical] novelty."

For more on this topic, check out these seven good resources:

Deleuze and Theology, by Christopher Ben Simpson
Theology after Deleuze, by Kristien Justaert
Process and Difference, edited by Catherine Keller and Anne Daniell 
God as Poet of the World, by Roland Faber
Without Criteria by Steven Shaviro 
Gilles Deleuze (Routledge Critical Thinkers) by Claire Colbrook
Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction by Todd May


  1. Thanks for this post, Austin. It's so interesting that one of the main differences between these two amazing thinkers is the whole transcendence thing, or pantheism vs. panentheism.

    I'm curious, Austin, what do you think is the source of the vehement opposition towards transcendence, besides the tendency to drift toward the obviously flawed fundamentalist "escape plan theology" type of thinking, for example? In other words, why is panentheism ruled out for Deleuze? I mean, when I tell people I'm a panentheist, what I want them to hear is that my theology/philosophy is deeply Earthy and grounded, but yet also leaves room for mystery...I guess, for me, "unknown" is a good synonym for "transcendence".

    Anyway, Deleuze looks awesome in the photo above--love that hat, baller!

  2. Thanks Jesse. It seems to me that for Deleuze, transcendence is an effect of immanence rather than the other way around. So it's not so much that he has absolutely no place for it but that he believes that thought cannot begin with transcendence as the absolute and can never make transcendence into a foundation - which it tends to do, thereby justifying unjust political relations. But mystery is certainly a part of his system: the swarms of virtual singularities are (as in Whitehead's relational atomism) mutually transcendent to one another. So everything is transcendent to everything else while there is no One transcendent principle/being/entity. Multiplicity is the true mystery for Deleuze. Immanence (as the true absolute) is radically mysterious and open-ended as an infinite process of becoming toward the future.

    He also mentions an immanent and mysterious principle (actual entity?) that he calls "the dark precursor" that works "between" the multiplicities on the plane of immanence to ensure their mutual and relational "communication" so that his chaosmology does not dissolve into pure chaos of disjointed singularities. There is a sense amongst some theologians that this dark precursor is somewhat similar to Whitehead's God (especially in the function of "the principle of limitation"), although in a diminished way to be sure.

    What I think Deleuze does to a Whiteheadian process theology is blur the line between pantheism and panentheism. Keller in her "Face of the Deep" made this clear when she wrote about apophatically "smudging" the line between the two categories. For her, Whitehead's God ("Elohim") emerges out of the Tehom - which she relates to the Deleuzian plane of immanence. So "God" (the lure and relation of all creatures) is an "effect" of Tehom (just like everything else!), which is *not* God, but is more like "God before God" or Eckhart's Godhead in her thinking. So I think she likes the apophatic undecidability that the plane of immanence introduces into pan(en)theistic theology. If we call it divine, it's unconscious, nonpersonal, etc. She will usually defend panentheism, not because of a concern to save God's greater transcendence, as the One beyond the creaturely Many (indeed, she rejects that notion). For her, the 'en' of pan-en-theism simply denotes that God is *different* from other singularities, not that God is more powerful, real, foundational, or whatever. In some contexts, she can comfortably claim a pluralistic pantheism (as distinct from Spinoza's pantheism in which there is no difference between God and creatures).

    Oh, and yes - I think that is my favorite photo of Deleuze!

  3. Great reply!. This really helps me. I can get on board with thought not beginning with transcendence as the absolute, but, at the same time, sometimes it can, no? I'm reminded of what Caputo says in "Philosophy and Theology" that both disciplines seek truth but start in different places: philosophy from the bottom, theology from the top...

    Anyway, as for pantheism vs. panentheism, I like the postmodern/meta-modern blurring/oscillation thing, but it does seem to me like the word "panentheism" is a more holistic term embodying both the transcendent and imminent ideas already...which seems to be the ultimate goal of this oscillation activity, right? I dunno.

    ...which brings to mind another question for you, I'd love to hear what your criticisms are of holistic approaches in general, i.e. I know you're skeptical of holism. Again, I really appreciate the dialogue!

  4. Great questions. As for the "from above" or "from below" issue, that's a methodological choice that I don't see any way to decisively resolve. It seems to me to be based on one's prior experiences and religious heritage. Radical theology begins and ends from below on the plane of immanence; Barthian theology begins and ends from above in reception of the divinely initiated event of revelation. These are incommensurable ways of doing theology. Mediating positions are more typical, as Cobb, Pannenberg, and Clayton have illustrated, but that doesn't mean they necessarily get us out of this dilemma. They simply say that we can do a lot more from the plane of immanence than Barth thinks while they also appeal to transcendent revelation (in some sense) against the perspective Radical Theology.

    On panentheism being a better word than pantheism, I think that's another profound dilemma contemporary theologians find themselves in. Keller typically prefers panentheism (God is different from creatures, but not as the Absolute One, but as the Manyone), but not if this means that God is *more* transcendent. The key is, as Whitehead writes at the end of Process and Reality, God and the World are contrasted opposites and *mutually* transcendent. As Derrida similarly said, "every other is wholly other."

    On holism, I'm not quite an anti-holist, but you're right that I'm suspicious of it. I think it quickly becomes totalizing and essentializing, but I also think that we need to account for our relatively stable identities somehow. I think without a "critical holism", one's worldview is pure chaos. I like Joseph Bracken's semi-holistic notion of "fields of activity" that provide a relatively stable sense of unity/identity to the multiplicity of experiences.

    Faber's wrote a great article a few years ago that addresses a lot of this (holism, multiplicity, essentialism, etc). It gives a great reading of Whitehead in relation to postmodern themes (including Deleuze):

  5. Seriously, I really appreciate your thoughtful replies. Bracken keeps coming up, I've got to read him. Faber too, although I hear he's really hard to understand, or that is to say, he may not be for novices like me...I'm going to look at that paper though.

    Anyway, yeah, for me--on a general top level sort of analysis--integral types of holism, pluralistic monisms, pan-experientialisms and pan-emergentisms are all basically headed in the same direction, and I'm fine with identifying with any or all of them :)

    1. Bracken is quite straight-forward (especially in his intro book, Christianity and Process Thought) while Faber is probably the most difficult process philosopher to read and understand. That article that I linked to above is probably the only thing I can recommend of his to folks who aren't studying philosophical theology in graduate school. It's actually a presentation that he gave at Claremont a few years ago, so it's an especially clear summary of his approach.

      As always, I'm more than happy to engage your thoughts or questions on this blog! Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my posts so frequently.