Saturday, February 5, 2011


     In the last entry of this blog I had promised an elaboration of what I am calling a critical theory of the imagination, that is to say a theory of how to evaluate the proliferation of images that constitutes humanity’s contemporary historical condition, given the fact that they can neither be dismissed as ‘spectacle’ nor differentiated on the basis of their truth or falsity. This is what I intend to begin doing here by looking at Gilles Deleuze’s interpretation of the work of Friedrick Nietzsche in his 1962 book, Nietzsche and Philosophy. I begin with this book because I see at its core an amazingly powerful theory of the relation between power and imagination, one that is not systematized in it, but which I mean to make quite explicit here. And as the title of this entry indicates my commentary eventually takes me directly to the question of the communist decision, that is to say the decision to become a communist.
     Let us therefore begin directly with the question that concerns us: what is the relationship between image and force in Nietzsche according to Deleuze’s interpretation? At first sight it looks as thought the image were what Deleuze calls a fiction or a projection of reactive forces, the purpose of which is to separate active forces from their power:
Forces are not separable from the differential element from which their quality derives. But reactive forces give an inverted image of that element: the difference between forces becomes the opposition of reactive forces to active ones. It would then suffice for the reactive forces to have the occasion to develop or to project that image for the relation of forces and the values which correspond to this relation to become itself inverted. But this occasion the reactive forces find it at the same time that they find a way to escape from activity. Ceasing to be acted, the reactive forces project the reactive image. It is this reactive projection that Nietzsche calls a fiction: fiction of a super-sensible world that is opposed to this world, fiction of a God in contradiction with life. (p. 143)
A few reminders are in order here. When Deleuze says in the first sentence of this passage that a force cannot be separated from the differential element that qualifies it he is referring to one of the foundational points of his interpretation of Nietzsche. A force exists always in relation to another force. That relation—immanent to the concept of force—is always one of domination or subordination. This is the “differential element” inherent to any manifestation of force to which Deleuze is referring: “Every force is… involved in an essential relation with another force.” (p. 7) There is thus no such thing as “naked force” (and, therefore, since all life is force, no such thing as “naked life”). Furthermore, in every relation of force the differential element is not, or at least not primarily, a quantitative relation: the issue is not so much that there is more of one force on one side of the equation and less of the other force on the other side. Rather the difference seems always to be between active and reactive forces. The question then is whether the differential element that brings the two kinds of force together is a will to “power” or a “will to nothingness.” In other words, are the forces at hand in the service of “affirmation” or in the service of negation (pp. 60-61)?     But how is it even possible for a will to nothingness to ever gain the upper hand over a will to power, since the will to nothingness actively desires nothing but its own disappearance whereas the will to power cannot but affirm life itself? Another way to pose this question, one which brings us back to the vocabulary of force is to point out that by definition the active forces are the ones that dominate, while the reactive forces are subordinate since to react is always to obey (p. 45). And yet, who can deny that reactive forces seem to be in charge everywhere we look? Every philosophical “freedom” is an inevitable path to servitude: obedience to the philosopher king in Plato, to God in Augustine, to reason in Kant, to the State in Hegel. Today, even more so, if that is possible, to obey is the order of the day: all of the values put forward by popular culture as worthy of being embraced—“flexibility,” the pursuit of wealth, satisfaction—are values of obedience (pp. 67, 135). This is perhaps the central problem that Deleuze’s book wrestles with: how is it possible for that which is essentially obedient to trump that which essentially commands?
     And this is where, it seems, the concept of ‘image’ finally comes into the picture. The reactive forces cannot win over the active forces since they are subordinate to the latter; they cannot overpower the active forces since they are, once again by definition, inferior to them. What they can do is give “an inverted image” of the “differential element” that articulates the two—i.e. of the will to power itself. What does this mean? Deleuze writes that the only way for the reactive forces to triumph is for them to “separate” the active ones:
…he [Nietzsche] will show that in each case reactive forces do not triumph by composing a superior force, but by ‘separating’ the active force. And in each case this separation rests on a fiction, a mystification or a falsification. It is the will to nothingness that develops the negative, inverted image, it is this will to nothingness that subtracts. But in this operation of subtraction there is always something imaginary that the negative use of numbers testifies to. (p. 65)
     The reactive forces project an inverted image of the differential element (between active and reactive forces) and thereby transform the will to power into will to nothingness. But what is it that is separated in the active force? What is subtracted from it? And finally, what exactly is that powerful image, that fiction which is powerful enough to transform the will to power into a will to nothing?
According to Deleuze, under some circumstances reactive forces are capable of separating an active force from what it can do. Deleuze gives a particularly compelling example of this phenomenon in his discussion of the Nietzschean concept of ressentiment. Ressenetiment according to Deleuze’s Nietzsche is the first emotion of the slave (the figure representing reactive forces in Nietzsche’s thought, not to be confused with the actual historical instances of the institution of slavery), a defensive reflex of the “bleating lamb,” who declares in a stunning syllogism: “Birds of prey are mean…I am, however, the contrary of a bird of prey. Therefore I am good.”(p. 140) Ressentiment is the primary emotion of reaction because it is structured as a reaction; it gains its momentum from saying “no”. It assigns blame to others, not so much because they are not like it, but because it is not like them. It assigns them guilt for what they are, and it praises itself for what it is not.
     How does ressentiment achieve this feat? By projecting “an abstract and neutralized image of force: such a force, separated from its effects will be guilty if it acts and meritorious, on the contrary, if it does not.”(p. 141) This, of course, is the old myth of free will. The Nietzschean critique of it, which Deleuze carefully reconstitutes, should be fairly straightforward to gather: since every force is always already qualified—as active or reactive (p. 49)—it can never be separated from its consequences: the active force acts, just as the bird of prey preys, while the reactive force reacts, in the same exact way the bleating lamb flees. The lamb’s complaint in the syllogism above is thus absurd since it, in essence, accuses the bird of prey of being what it is.
     Let us come back for a moment, however, on the concept of image that is being presented here: the image that is projected by the reactive forces is that of the “differential element,” the will that organizes the relations between different kinds of force in a given object (or individual, or ensemble). Somehow reactive forces are capable of projecting an inverted image of the will to power onto it in such a way as to transform it into its opposite, the will to nothingness. But how does an image transform anything? How, in other words, do images act? And finally, are images fundamentally reactive, or are there some active images?
     Perhaps taking a step back for a moment will enable us to go forward. The imaginary projection of reactive forces does not transform anything in general, but a very particular kind of thing: a will. Discovering how Deleuze understands the concept of will may help move the investigation forward. He does discuss the question in a rather dense passage that will require some unpacking: “To interpret is to determine the force that gives its meaning to a thing. To evaluate is to determine the will to power that gives the thing its value… The will to power as genealogical element is that from which derives the signification of meaning and the value of values.” (p. 61) Whereas interpretation is what enables us to say whether it is the active or the passive forces that dominate in a given thing, the “will to power”—which here seems to refer to the will in general rather than to one of the elements in the opposition between will-to-power and will-to-nothingness Deleuze draws elsewhere—is what determines the value of values. As such it must always take a stand by either affirming action—what Nietzsche sometimes calls “life”, or creation, or falsehood—or by negating it in favor of something outside it—a supra-sensible world beyond life, ‘better than’ life, or Truth understood as a sort of objective representational exactitude.
     As evaluation the will is a purely subjective gesture, a decision without any objective ground. For it to claim such an objective ground as a justification for the stand it takes is for it to already reveal itself as will-to-nothingness. The will to power properly so-called, then, is both intangible and without any shadow or trace that would connect its existence to the objective world of truth and of things-in-themselves. To place a mirror in front of it, to present it with an image of itself would be immediately to destroy it. And the more ‘accurate’ or ‘truthful’ that image might be the more certain and complete would be its destruction since the image would implicitly impose upon it the values of the opposite type of evaluation. Nietzsche’s concept of image here could profitably be likened to Descartes’ notion of representation. It is precisely the truth content of the representation of the will to power that inescapably inverts its evaluative stand, just as the mirror image inverts the object it reflects (the right being reflected as the left and vice versa). By claiming its epistemological superiority the image of the will to power projected by reactive forces reveals its own slavishness, its idolatrous worship of “Truth” as a supreme value, a value which is in fact nothing but the secularized translation of God. This worship of truth is a denial of life’s supreme attempt to “‘lead astray, to dupe, to dissimulate, to dazzle, to blind.’” (p. 109, originally quoted from The Gay Science) As such it stands in an otherworldly opposition to the world.
     This resolution of the problem of the relation between force and image is only partial, however. For if reactive forces can project a viciously annihilating image onto the will to power, the latter also has an image up its sleeve. The “power of the false,” or art is not to be underestimated: “[A]rt is the highest power of the false, it magnifies ‘the world as error,’ it sanctifies the lie, it makes of the will to mislead into a superior ideal.”(p.117) The political significance of art is that it always disrupts the status quo; it ruptures the normative continuity of the given. Truth, on the other hand, is always on the side of the establishment: “The fact is that the established order and the values of the day always find in it [truth] their most committed supporter.”(p.119) The order of representation always corresponds to the social and political order. To break the former is the task of the work of art. To break the latter is the role of a certain image of philosophical critique. Deleuze writes:
The image of the philosopher is obscured by all its necessary disguises, but also by all the treasons that make of him (sic) the philosopher of religion, the philosopher of the state, the collector of existing values, the functionary of history. The authentic image of the philosopher does not survive the one who knew how to incarnate it for a time, in his time. It must be recaptured, reanimated; it must find a new field of activity in the next epoch. If the critical task of philosophy is not actively recaptured in each epoch, philosophy dies, and with it the image of the philosopher, the image of the free man (sic). (p. 122)
The philosopher is not a figure of eternity, but on the contrary, a figure of his or her times. There are no ‘perennial’ philosophical questions for Deleuze, but only the questions or problems that are singular to a particular epoch, and which it is the role of the philosopher to take up. So historically defined is the role of the philosopher that there can only be an “authentic image” of philosophy, which changes from one epoch to another, no philosophy as such. In other words, philosophy must reinvent itself from scratch from one epoch to the next. Philosophy as will-to-power, or philosophy from the perspective of an affirmative will that elevates active forces to their rightful place must be invented anew in every new historical situation. The specific invention of philosophy is a philosophical critique of the status quo: “To denounce all the fictions without which reactive forces would lose. To denounce in mystification this mixture of baseness and stupidity, which forms just as much the astounding complicity of victims and authors. To make of thought finally something aggressive, active, affirmative. To make free men (sic), that is to say men (sic) who do not confuse the ends of culture with the profit of the State, morality, religion.”(p. 121) These can be the only aims of an authentic philosophical critique: to overthrow reactionary forces and the slavish passions behind which they hide, to bring into question the institutional pillars of this order. Philosophical critique must not be understood in its modern, ultimately Kantian sense, as an operation aiming at reinforcing the limits of ‘all possible thought’, but quite to the contrary, it must be reinterpreted as an attempt to break down the limits of existing thought in order to invent something else:
Instead of a knowledge that is opposed to life, a thought which would affirm life. Life would be the active force of thought, but thought would be the affirmative power of life. Both would work in the same direction, would drive each other and would break limits, one step for one, one step for the other, in an effort of extraordinary creation. To think would signify: to discover, to invent new possibilities of life. (p.115)
The kind of philosophical critique Deleuze has in mind here (or at least Deleuze’s Nietzsche) is affirmative rather than negative: it opens up possibilities for being, rather than closing down possibilities for thinking. The image of philosophy ruptures the status quo by inventing a new way of being, a kind of life that cannot be grasped by existing structures and norms.
     Coming back for a moment to the original question that inaugurated this discussion of Deleuze’s interpretation of Nietzscsche, we can say that there are two concepts of image, and therefore two conceptions of imagination, in Deleuze’s understanding of Nietzsche: on the one hand there is the reactive imagination—we might call it the imagined imagination. This is the kind of imagination described by cultural theorists like Edward Said, Enrique Dussel, or Stuart Hall: the imagination understood as an undynamic repository or archive of stereotypical images that present themselves both as scientific representations of the other and as normative models for how others and ourselves should behave. But while these thinkers tend to grope for an epistemologically or structurally grounded critique of the imagined imagination, the Deleuzo-Nietzschean conception opens the path to a genealogical and directly ethical critique: the problem of the imagined imagination is not that it fails to meet scientific, metaphysical, or theological criteria of truth, but that it appeals to them in the first place. The imagined imagination is driven by passive affects, by an awful ressentiment, an overwhelming will-to-nothingness. Whether one turns to the imaginary of Conquest analyzed by Hall in his brilliant essay “The West and the Rest” or to the 19th century colonial imaginary critiqued by Said in his classic Orientalism this insane nihilism is clear, and the ambivalence of the imaginary representations it produced is but proof of its resentful affect: the Noble Savage can only be completed by the Cannibal as the two sides of European representations of native Americans because both aspects reflect the slavishness of the European conquistadors, on the one hand in the form of envy for the freedom of the savage, and on other in the form of fear of his or her power (what greater power could one attribute to another than the capacity of eating one’s own flesh?). If Native Americans had to be murdered by Europeans in an orgiastic holocaust, it is not because the latter were more advanced—technologically or otherwise—than the former, but because they were imagined as other or less than human by their conquerors (whether they were so or not is irrelevant here, of course).
     On the other hand the imagination in what Nietzsche might call a “healthy soul” functions as the virtual invention of new forms of life, and even more fundamentally new forms of evaluation. But more than being novel in the sense of unusual or even unprecedented, the creations of the active or imagining imagination are structured on the basis of different affects and disclose an unprecedented “power of being affected” (p. 69). If ressentiment and bad conscience are the emotional pillars of the imagined imagination, joy and desire are those of the active imagination. And while the former two obey the syllogism of the “bleating lamb” according to Deleuze (you are bad, therefore I am good), the latter follow a rather different logic, one in accordance with the force field that characterizes the will-to-power, one that asserts first and foremost its own goodness. The imagining imagination produces first and foremost the image of the good or the good under the form of image. Its syllogism is “I am good; but you are mediocre.” The active imagination valorizes this life rather than a life outside of life. It is thus a utopian imagination, and this dimension of it has been explored in great depth by Ernst Bloch. But the utopian imagination should not be taken as dictating the “right” way to live, the path to truth. It is but literature, after all, and makes no such claims. The only souls who can find art enslaving are already slaves! Rather, it is utopian in the sense of proposing or inventing images as fantasies without referent, non-representational images, so to speak, works of art that articulate freedom as a permanent alternative to the status quo.
     I will end this entry with a series of conclusions that follow directly on the lines of thought I’ve developed above. On the side of the imagining or utopian imagination there stands the power of decision. The only decision that can be made is the decision to be free, the decision to become a master--and even an absolute master, in the sense of one who does not need a slave in order to be what he or she is. Slavery, on the contrary, always appears as a necessity, as the only thing one can do, in fact precisely not as a ‘doing’ but as obedience to forces outside oneself. If there is one law to which all are called forth to obey in the contemporary world, it is the law of the market, the law of profit and greed. Institutionally, this law manifests itself as parliamentary liberalism in some places, theocracy in others, or secular dictatorship in yet others. In all of those different settings, the principle of obedience remains the same. What, then, can the philosopher do in the contemporary world? Or perhaps, I should rephrase my question: what else can the philosopher do today than make a communist decision, that is to say, to make the decision of being a communist? Today, the power of philosophical critique can only be that of opening up the possibility of an alternative to the liberal parliamentary status quo. To be free today means to dream, to imagine worlds in which the ‘impossible’ named by the forces of serfdom is the norm: social equality, direct participation and expression in the political process by all. The universality of capitalist inequality and subordination requisition the communist idea and give it its universal significance as the properly philosophical critique of the status quo.
     Today, only communists can be properly called philosophers. The name adequate for those who claim to be philosophers but are not communists is very old indeed. It is: sophist.