Levi R. Bryant

The Democracy of Objects

    3. Virtual Proper Being 3. Virtual Proper Being > 3.2. Deleuze's Schizophrenia: Between Monism and Pluralism

    3.2. Deleuze's Schizophrenia: Between Monism and Pluralism

    No one has explored this anterior side of substance—in the transcendental, not the temporal, sense—more profoundly than Gilles Deleuze. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze names this dimension of substance that is formatted or structured without possessing qualities the virtual. Here the virtual is not to be confused with virtual reality. The latter is generally treated as a simulacrum of reality, as a sort of false or computer generated reality. By contrast, the virtual is entirely real without, for all that, being actual. The term “virtuality” comes from the Latin virtus, which has connotations of potency and efficacy. As such, the virtual, as virtus, refers to powers and capacities belonging to an entity. And in order for an entity to have powers or capacities, it must actually exist. In this connection, while the virtual refers to potentiality, it would be a mistake to conflate this potentiality with the concept of a potential object. A potential object is an object that does not exist but which could come to exist. By contrast, the virtual is strictly a part of a real and existing object. The virtual consists of the volcanic powers coiled within an object. It is that substantiality, that structure and those singularities that endure as the object undergoes qualitative transformations at the level of local manifestations.

    However, in evoking Deleuze's concept of the virtual, we must proceed with caution for two deeply opposed tendencies animate Deleuze's discussions of the virtual. On the one hand, Deleuze often speaks of the virtual in terms of an ontological monism that suggests he is committed to the thesis that there is only one substance that is then broken up into discrete entities through a process of actualization. Monism tends to come in one of two variants. One variant of monism has it that only a single substance exists and that everything that exists is a property or quality of that one substance. Spinoza's monism, for example, argues that only a single substance exists and that all entities (modes) are expressions of this one substance. Another variant of monism has it that there is only a single type of being, but that being is populated by numerically distinct entities of this type. Lucretius, for example, could be construed as a monist of this sort, as he holds that only atoms and their combinations exist, not two distinct ontological types such as Plato's world of the forms and the fallen world of entities or appearances.

    Deleuze often appears to advocate this former sort of monism, while object-oriented ontology and onticology might appear to be committed to the latter type. Throughout Deleuze's work, we find the theme of a single substance that somehow comes to be formatted into discrete entities. By contrast, object-oriented ontology advocates the thesis that being is composed only of discrete entities or substances. DeLanda articulates this variant of Deleuze nicely when he remarks that,

    Deleuze distinguishes the progressive unfolding of a multiplicity through broken symmetries (differentiation), from the progressive specification of the continuous space formed by multiplicities as it gives rise to our world of discontinuous spatial structures (differenciation). Unlike a transcendent heaven which exists as a separate dimension from reality, Deleuze asks us to imagine a continuum of multiplicities which differentiates itself into our familiar three-dimensional space as well as its spatially structured contents. [81]

    I will discuss Deleuze's concept of multiplicity momentarily, but for the moment it is important to note that “multiplicity” is among Deleuze's terms for the virtual. The suggestion here is that the virtual seems to consist of a single continuum, such that there is only one virtual, one substance, that is then partitioned into apparently distinct entities. And indeed, as Deleuze remarks, “all [multiplicities] coexist, but they do so at points, on the edges”. [82] Moreover, Deleuze's constant references to the virtual as the pre-individual suggests this reading as well, for it implies a transition from an undifferentiated state to a differenciated individual. If the virtual is pre-individual, then it cannot be composed of discrete individual unities or substances. Here the individual would be an effect of the virtual, not primary being itself.

    On the other hand, Deleuze speaks of the virtual as a part of the real object. Here Deleuze seems to move in the direction of the second sense of the monism, where monism entails that being is composed of a pluralism of distinct entities, all of the same type. As Deleuze remarks, “the virtual must be defined as strictly a part of the real object—as though the object had one part of itself plunged as though into an objective dimension”. [83] Deleuze goes on to ask,

    How, then, can we speak simultaneously of both complete determination and only a part of the object? The determination must be a complete determination of the object, yet form only a part of it. Following suggestions made by Descartes in his Replies to Arnauld, we must carefully distinguish the object in so far as it is complete and the object in so far as it is whole. What is complete is only the [virtual] part of the object, which participates with other parts of objects in the [Multiplicity] (other relations, other singular points), but never constitutes an integral whole as such. What the complete determination lacks is the whole set of relations belonging to actual existence. An object may be ens, or rather (non)-ens omni modo determinatum, without being entirely determined or actually existing. [84]

    In treating the virtual as a part of the object and as completely determined (structured), Deleuze seems to suggest that the virtual—far from constituting a pre-individual continuum that is then parceled up into discrete entities—is, in fact, purely discrete and individual. Under this reading, multiplicities or endo-relational structures would be discrete, existing individuals. Here there would be no transition from the pre-individual virtual to the individual actual, but rather the relation between endo-structure and actuality would be a transition between unexercised power and actualized quality within an individual.

    It is not my aim here to provide a commentary on Deleuze's ontology nor to remain true to his thought, but rather to determine how it is possible for substance to be formatted without this formatting consisting of substance's qualities. My contention is that the transcendental condition (in the transcendental realist sense) under which it is possible for an object to be out of phase with its qualities lies in a formatted structure that is not itself qualitative. It is only in this way that the bare substratum problem can be avoided and Aristotle's insight that substances are capable of carrying contrary qualities can be vindicated. However, paraphrasing Karen Barad in her discussion of Niels Bohr, “I propose an ontology that I believe to be consistent with [a number of Deleuze's] views, although I make no claim that this is what he necessarily had in mind”. [85] Consequently, Deleuze's thought is only relevant here insofar as it advances our understanding of the split-nature of substance. In chapter 1, I take it that I have demonstrated the ontological necessity for the existence of discrete or individual substances. Contra Deleuze's Spinozist monism and his continuum hypothesis with respect to the virtual, this necessity follows above all from the requirement that objects be separable from their relations to other objects if experimental activity is to be intelligible. In order for experiment to be possible, it is necessary that it be possible to form closed systems in which objects can express their powers. If objects or generative mechanisms were merely expressions of a continuum that is itself one, then it is difficult to see how this condition could ever be met. Yet given that it seems that this condition is regularly met, it seems that Deleuze's monism must clearly be mistaken.

    Approaching Deleuze's thought more directly, two difficulties seem to besiege his monist continuum hypothesis. First, if the virtual is a single substance that is then partitioned into discrete entities, it is difficult to understand why the virtual ever departs from itself to become “alienated” in individuals at all. Deleuze's tendency is to speak of the actual, of the individuated, as that which contributes no differences of its own but which is merely a sort of sterile secretion of the virtual. As Deleuze puts it,

    [d]ifference is explicated, but in systems in which it tends to be cancelled; this means only that difference is essentially implicated, that its being is implication. For difference, to be explicated is to be cancelled or to dispel the inequality which constitutes it. The formula according to which 'to explicate is to identify' is a tautology. We cannot conclude from this that difference is cancelled out, or at least that it is cancelled in itself. It is cancelled in so far as it is drawn outside itself, in extensity and in the quality which fills that extensity. However, difference creates both this extensity and this quality. [86]

    The terms “implication” and “explication” should be read etymologically here, rather than literally. “Explication” denotes not the activity of explanation, but rather “to unfold”. Here, then, the emphasis should be placed on the term “plication”, which indicates that which is folded. Consequently, the term “implication” should be read not in the sense of a possible logical inference from a given fact, but rather as denoting that which is enfolded or hidden in something else. From this we can derive the following table:

    Implication Explication
    Virtual Potent, yet unactualized difference/Cause of beings/Pre-Individual Canceled Difference/Formation of Quality/Sterile Being
    Actual Condition/Cause of the Actual Product/Individual being without causal efficacy/Completion or end of Process
    Table 2

    Following Simondon, Deleuze arrives at this conception of being and the relationship between the virtual and the actual on the grounds that “[i]t is notable that extensity does not account for the individuations which occur within it”. [87] When Deleuze refers to an extensity, he is referring to an entity with qualities situated in time and space. Returning to the example of my blue coffee mug, simply by examining my coffee mug here and now, I cannot determine how it came to have the shape it has, the color that it has, why it is sitting here on my desk, etc.

    Deleuze's suggestion is thus that because extensity does not account for the individuations that occur within it (the qualities and structure that make it this individual), we must refer to another dimension, the implicit, the virtual, to account for these individuations. Furthermore, since the extensive consists of individual or individuated entities, Deleuze concludes that this supplementary dimension must be pre-individual. As Deleuze remarks, “[t]he individuating is not the simple individual”. [88] However, in making this move, Deleuze renders the motivating grounds of individuation thoroughly mysterious. If the virtual is, as Deleuze suggests, a continuum and a whole populated by potent yet unactualized differences, and if the actual is merely a secretion or excresence of the virtual, what is it that leads the virtual to ever ex-plicate itself, to unfold itself, or to leave itself and fall into the sterile, actual individual? Difference comes from the domain of the virtual, not the actual, for the actual is precisely that domain where difference is canceled. Here, then, we encounter a problem similar to the one that haunted Plato's theory of the forms, where we are left to wonder why the world of imperfect creatures ever comes into being and why the world of the perfect forms doesn't simply reside in tranquil and unmoving eternal existence.

    These observations lead to a second problem. As Hallward notes in his controversial study, Out of This World, Deleuze's ontology essentially conceives being in terms of creativity and creating. This, according to Hallward, leads Deleuze to distinguish between the creating and the creature, the individuating and the individual, with the creature and the individual being granted a derivative status to that of the creating and individuating. As Hallward puts it,

    Almost every aspect of Deleuze's philosophy is caught up with the consequences of this initial correlation of being, creativity and thought. Roughly speaking, it implies: (a) that all existent things or processes exist in just one way, as so many distinct acts of creation or so many individual creatings; (b) that these creatings are themselves aspects of a limitless and consequently singular creative power, a power that is most adequately expressed in the medium of pure thought; (c) that every creating gives rise to a derivative creature or created thing, whose own power or creativity is limited by its material organisation, its situation, its actual capacities and relations with other creatures, and so on; (d) that the main task facing any such creature is to loosen and then dissolve these limitations in order to become a more adequate or immaterial vehicle for that virtual creating which alone individuates it. [89]

    Hallward's third point here is particularly salient. In treating difference, the virtual, the implicit, as that which is responsible for individuation, and the explicate, the actual, the individual as the product of individuation, Deleuze inevitably grants the creature or the individual a derivative place within being. The individual becomes a product of being, an effect of virtual difference, but certainly cannot be treated as a motor of difference in the world. Like the trail of slime left behind in the wake of a snail or slug, the individual is merely the remainder or excresence of a differential process of individuation that has already moved on.

    What we thus get in Deleuze's thought is a sort of vertical ontology of the depths. Rather than entities or substances interacting with each other laterally or horizontally, we instead get an ontology where difference arises vertically from the depths of the virtual. As a consequence, the individual takes on a secondary status as a mere effect of the genuine processes that all occur at the level of the virtual.

    In a philosophically rich review of Hallward's book, John Protevi contends that Hallward illicitly flattens the complexity of Deleuze's ontology. As Protevi remarks,

    The relations among actual, virtual and intensive form the most important issue in explicating Deleuze's ontology. I would argue that we should consider the intensive as an independent ontological register, one that mediates the virtual and actual, which are its limits. Even if one doesn't accept this and insists on a dualism of the virtual and actual, one would have to say that the intensive belongs with the actual. [90]

    Protevi goes on to argue that,

    Spatio-temporal dynamisms, that is, morphogenetic processes exhibiting intensive properties, are processes of individuation, of emergence from pre-individual fields. The paradigm cases for Deleuze are embryos and weather systems. In the biological register, the "field" of individuation (the gradients of which are laden with pre-individual singularities) is the egg, while the process of individuation is embryonic morphogenesis; in the meteorological register, the field of individuation is the pre-condition (the bands of different temperature and pressure in air and water) to the formation of wind currents or storms, which are the spatio-temporal dynamisms. [...]. Any resident of Louisiana will be able to locate hurricanes for you in terms of their spatio-temporal co-ordinates. To be fair, we do have to distinguish between the location of a hurricane as embedded in a geographic co-ordinate system—its extensive properties—and the thresholds proper to its intensive properties. It's only at certain singular points in the differential relations among air and water temperature and wind currents that thunderstorms, tropical depressions, tropical storms, and hurricanes form. Nonetheless, the point is that the weather system itself is the intensive process by which those singularities are actualized, and that this intensive process operates here, in this world. [91]

    Quite right. What Protevi doesn't seem to notice, however, is that this treatment of the relationship between the virtual, the actual, and the intensive requires a significant revision of Deleuze's ontology. In his reading of Deleuze's ontology, we note that Protevi perpetually refers to discrete and actual substances or individuals that interact with one another and perturb each other in a variety of ways. Far from a monistic virtual continuum that is then cut up into discrete entities, Protevi's parsing of Deleuze's ontology requires the existence of discrete substances or entities that interact with one another and evoke virtual powers within one another through these interactions. And here, in passing, we should recall Deleuze's constant polemics against the concept of causality. As Deleuze remarks,

    It is sufficient to understand that the genesis takes place in time not between one actual term, however small, and another actual term, but between the virtual and its actualisation—in other words, it goes from the structure to its incarnation, from the conditions of a problem to the cases of solution, from the differential elements and their ideal connections to actual terms and diverse real relations which constitute at each moment the actuality of time. [92]

    If Deleuze is so quick to reject the notion of causality, then this is because causality works laterally or horizontally, from object to object, whereas the virtual works vertically from the implicate to the explicate. It is precisely this thesis that must be rejected under Protevi's account. If Deleuze's account of time in the relation between the virtual and the actual is here embraced, it is difficult to see how the actual terms evoked in Protevi's characterization of Deleuze's thought can have the sort of causal efficacy Protevi attributes to them. Rather, under Deleuze's model of virtual time, any causal relation between actual terms can only be apparent or a sort of transcendental illusion. My point here is not that Protevi is mistaken in his account of the relation between the virtual, the actual, and the intensive, but rather that Deleuze's account of virtual time, of the time of actualization, must be abandoned if something like Protevi's account is to remain coherent. It must be possible for actual terms to causally interact with one another and for the actual to affect the virtual.

    But if this is the case, then we can no longer say that the virtual is the pre-individual and the actual is the individual. The virtual is not something that produces the individual, but rather must strictly be a dimension of the individual. It is precisely the individual that precedes the virtual—transcendentally, not temporally—not the virtual that precedes the individual. If it is to be possible for substances or individuals to perturb each other, then being cannot consist of a whole or a continuum, but must instead come in discrete packets or substances. Moreover, it follows that the actual dimension of the entity cannot mark the erasure or cancellation of difference, but must instead itself be an instigator of difference in other entities and one of the mechanisms by which the volcanic, yet unactualized, powers of the virtual are released and set forth in the world. And here I note that when outstanding commentators on Deleuze such as Protevi and DeLanda set out to analyze the world, it is precisely in these terms that they speak. Far from treating the actual and substances as derivative, they instead display a profound attentiveness to the differences that individual substances make. Here the ontology of theoretical practice belies the ontology espoused when striving to describe what they're doing in their practice.

    In an interview Deleuze once remarked that,

    Philosophers introduce new concepts, they explain them, but they don't tell us, not completely anyway, the problems to which those concepts are a response. Hume, for example, set out a novel concept of belief, but he doesn't tell us how and why the problem of knowledge presents itself in such a way that knowledge is seen as a particular kind of belief. The history of philosophy, rather than repeating what a philosopher says, has to say what he must have taken for granted, what he didn't say but is nonetheless present in what he did say. [93]

    It is in this way, I believe, that we should approach Deleuze's deployment of the concept of the virtual. In short, what is the problem to which Deleuze's concept of the virtual responds? However dimly Deleuze might have discerned the problem himself, the problem to which the concept of the virtual seems to respond is that of the split in objects between withdrawn being and qualities, coupled with the problem of the bare substratum. It appears that Deleuze clearly recognized that the being of substance cannot be identified with its qualities and actualized structure. Because substance changes, because it is capable of carrying contrary qualities, substance, in its proper being, must differ from its qualities. However, if substance is to differ from its qualities, then it requires a form of structure that is formatted without being qualitative. Without this other dimension of substances, we fall into the bare substratum problem discussed in the last chapter, where substances are completely blank, completely indifferent, and therefore, absurdly, all identical to one another.

    It is precisely this domain of being that the virtual names, for the virtual is structure and potency without quality. However, having dimly glimpsed this problem, Deleuze immediately falls into a set of errors that lead his account of the virtual into incoherence. Oddly, these problems seem to arise from conceding far too much to actualism. Having recognized that the domain of the actual or qualities and extensities is incapable of accounting for the individuality of the individual or the substantiality of substance, Deleuze nonetheless treats the actual as the sole domain of the individual or primary substance. As a consequence, he's led to characterize the domain of the virtual as the pre-individual, when he should instead treat the domain of the virtual as the domain of the individual, the substantial, or that which persists through change. The consequences of this decision are profound. By treating the domain of the virtual as the pre-individual and the domain of the actual as an effect of the virtual, Deleuze is left without an account of why the virtual actualizes itself at all (despite his impressive efforts to the contrary), and is led to treat the actual as a mere product, an excresence, that itself has no efficacy within being. What is required, by contrast, is an account of the virtual that treats it as a dimension of primary substances or discrete individuals, where substance precedes the virtual (transcendentally, not temporally) not the reverse, and where actual entities are capable of interacting with one another. It is to this account of the virtual that I now turn.


    1. Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy (New York: Continuum, 2002) p. 23.return to text
    2. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, pp. 186–187. Modified.return to text
    3. Ibid., pp. 208–209.return to text
    4. Ibid., p. 209.return to text
    5. Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, p. 69.return to text
    6. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p. 228.return to text
    7. Ibid., p. 229.return to text
    8. Ibid., p. 38.return to text
    9. Peter Hallward, Out of This World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation (New York: Verso, 2006) p. 2.return to text
    10. John Protevi, “Out of This World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation,” Notre Dame Philosophy Reviews, August 3, 2007.return to text
    11. Ibid.return to text
    12. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p. 183.return to text
    13. Deleuze, Negotiations, trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995) p. 136.return to text