A Koan is not a Riddle

The following is a break from my Marginally Acceptable series. Venkatesh asked for a review of Gilles Deleuze’s Difference & Repetition. This is what he got instead.

Philosophy has long had two distinct approaches, embodied in the approaches of ancient Mediterranean, China, and India. The first, and most commonly recognized, is that of positing answers to elusive questions, an approach that has given birth to religions and the sciences. The second, however, is oriented towards the transformation of the disciple, sometimes radically so. In many cases the two are conjoined: Socrates’ questions about the order of the world were entwined with questions about how to live; Buddha’s wheel of becoming was implicated in his guide to right living; the metaphysics of the Stoics grounded their prescriptions.

In later centuries, these two functions were less closely coupled. The success of the sciences after the Baconian revolution and Boyle’s experimentalism led to frantic, productive activities in the former philosophical method. The latter wasn’t simply left to the moralists, however, but was intellectualized. Kant’s writings on deontological ethics were intended primarily to persuade, rather than form. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that a philosopher explicitly privileged formation over intellectualization: Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of all values” was communicated in aphorisms and parables in part to make the reader complicit in the idea’s expression.

In the late twentieth century, Deleuze’s concerns and methods are likewise complicit; his method the embodiment of the ideas he hoped to make manifest.

Too young to have fought in the resistance, Gilles Deleuze’s memories of the war were blackened by the memory of his brother’s capture and death en route to Auschwitz. His post-war studies focused on philosophy, and his writings in the fifties and sixties were close examinations and subtle reworkings of classic philosophers: Hume, Nietzsche, Spinoza, Kant, Bergson as well as the authors Proust and Sacher-Masoch.

1960s French intellectual life was dominated by structuralism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and a strong undercurrent of political radicalism, including a vocal fringe of Maoists. Events came to a head in the upheavals of 1968, and Deleuze defended his doctorat d’etat under threat of incoming student protesters. His two theses (Published as Difference and Repetition and Expressionism in Philosophy) formed his first works that broke from the model of philosophical profiles in favour of developing his own ideas in depth.

In the wake of the widespread political protests of 1968, Deleuze met Guattari, another Marxist and highly regarded Lacanian psychoanalyst. The two collaborated on Anti-Oedipus, which shook the French intellectual world at the time with its refusal of structuralism and psychoanalytic familialism, and resulted in Lacan’s severing of ties (a process already underway with Guattari). The duo later followed up with A Thousand Plateaus, an experiment in philosophy that cut across numerous disciplines as it attempted to embody new ways of thinking the world, and ways of thinking philosophy in conversation with the sciences.

These collaborative works are what first made that transit across the Atlantic, and have worked their way into numerous humanities programs in the United States and Canada, as well as Japan, Australia, and Chile. Overwhelmingly, casual references to Deleuze are referencing these collaborative works, and the tendency outside the humanities is to classify his work, pejoratively, as needlessly obscurantist, or po-mo (post-modernist). However, doing so fails to to recognize his method, or the concern that drove his projects throughout his life.

First his method. Reading Nietzsche was formative for Deleuze, as Nietzsche was not satisfied to simply communicate specific arguments to his readers, but strove to affect his readers in ways that would lead them to share his concerns. Difference and Repetition in particular crosses disciplinary boundaries, and its style embodies its content. The closest analogue is Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, which blends distinct disciplines in the service of ideas that cut orthogonally. However, Hofstadter’s clever meta-games in his book’s structure and style are made explicit, a pedagogical magician who explains each step of the trick as she performs it. Deleuze doesn’t explain his method, but rather assumes that you will be affected by his magic trick. Within a single chapter he switches from the language of philosophy to that of psychology and psychoanalysis, and again to physics and physical systems. It takes a moment to recognize that he’s repeating the same concept in the technical jargon of three different disciplines; a pedagogical tool, and a way of breaking his ideas out of a merely ‘philosophical’ frame.

Also like Nietzsche, Deleuze is uninterested in simply listing propositions. He intends for his work to shape the reader, and to lead the reader to share his concerns. Unlike a riddle to which either one does or does not know the answer, Deleuze’s ouevre, and Difference and Repetition in particular, is like a koan. When koans becomes cliches they lose their capacity to transform the adept: there’s no purpose in knowing “the answer” to the question “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” This is in part the reason for the shift in vocabulary that Deleuze effects throughout his work; his ideas are constantly on the move, catching readers off-guard and slipping past rote defences. This is dense writing, in the sense that Venkatesh explored in Seeking Density in the Gonzo Theater. To the extent that the secondary literature fetishizes Deleuzian terminology (smooth/striated, rhizome, molar/molecular, nomadic) it is completely misunderstanding this aspect of his method. Elie During said that you can’t merely refer to ‘the multiple’; ‘the multiple’ still had to be done.

What was the concern that drove Deleuze’s work in Difference and Repetition and that pervaded his subsequent works? In short, pure immanence. Difference and Repetition takes Kant’s question, “What are the conditions for knowledge” seriously, but bristles at Kant’s presumption of an external frame and an external guarantor. Instead, following in the steps of Leibniz, Einstein and Riemann, Deleuze proposes an alternative metaphysics that eschews any transcendence in favor of what he terms a ‘transcendental empiricism’; a metaphysics of immanence.

Prior to Einstein, Isaac Newton’s dimensions provided the ‘box’ in which the universe played; even extended to four dimensions, every element had an absolute coordinate. In the wake of Einstein’s theories of relativity, it became possible to think a universe where objects ‘space’ and ‘time’; where spacetime is a consequence of the universe’s contents rather than a pre-existing, transcendental container in which they reside.

Riemann manifolds did the same thing for geometry. Cartesian plots had long been understood, and extended to the nth dimension. But it was with Riemann that the ability to describe shapes without defining a containing coordinate field became possible. Manifold in French is multiplicitie, and while English translations of Deleuze have translated it multiplicity, the reference to Riemann was intentional.

None of this would have been possible without the calculus. Deleuze spends a substantial amount of time discussing differential calculus in Difference and Repetition, because it is the ability to describe speeds and slowness of vectors relative to one another that made the description of Riemann manifolds possible. He radicalizes the notion, and develops in Difference and Repetition a theory of immanence: where difference precedes identity, where becoming precedes being, where the dialectic loses symmetry. As he develops an analogy around dx and dy, he returns to some of the metaphysical difficulties that Leibniz encountered through his development of the infinitesimal.

For those unfamiliar with or uncaring about Kantian metaphysics, the rigour with which Deleuze disassembles transcendental idealism seems unnecessary and overwhelming. But the need for such a critique and its replacement by a living alternative is evidenced by our continued reliance on ideas such as a “box” spacetime universe, the normativity of species, the stability and unity of self identity, and moralism. It’s inadequate and insufficient to simply name ‘immanence’ and expect one’s audience, steeped in identitarian concepts their entire lives, to suddenly be capable of thinking the world through difference and generativity; to imagine the individuation processes that constitute the ‘becoming’ of an individual, instead of the conformance of the individual to a type, a ‘being’.

Our reliance on moralism in particular is a damning indictment of our stunted conceptualizations. Deleuze evades the challenge of deriving an “ought” from an “is” by instead seeking to find the problematic that describes a system and finding ‘lines of flight’ that indicate potential disequilibria. He relies here upon Spinoza’s Ethics, second only to Nietzsche as his strongest influence. In the Ethics, Spinoza proposed a world in which power, specifically power to affect and be affected, was primary. Rather than drawing moralistic binaries, he envisioned a world in which all beings were simply modes of the same God-Nature substance, differing in degrees of power (puissance). Relations were to be understood in terms of a being’s capacity to act (affect others) and be affected. Later, these ideas would be reframed in the terms of autopoieitic systems, as Guattari engaged with Maturana and Varela’s work in systems theory.

Spinoza’s ethic of joy, of increasing one’s power to affect and be affected, was joined by Deleuze with Nietzsche’s will to power and a reformulated eternal return, in which what is returned is difference. Some, seeking a philosophical or scientific grounding for their political platforms, saw Deleuze’s systems-oriented approach as a betrayal of his espoused Marxism and activist history and to some extent, they’re correct; even the apparent fetishization of nomads-against-the-State in A Thousand Plateaus is tempered by its conditionality; there is no prescription that is advisable without regard to the problematic, the objective situation. This is quite opposite to the contemporary approach by Sam Harris and others who have instead attempted an unself-aware scientistic moralism.

Difference and Repetition, and Deleuze’s ouevre more generally, are demanding and, to a small extent, dated works, and I hesitate to recommend them unreservedly. However, his influence has been diffuse, and his ideas have been used in contexts far beyond academic philosophy (for instance, Islamic law, IDF tactics, Buzzfeed). Deleuze continually shifted his vocabulary, and was less interested in developing a perfect body of work than in embodying a method he wanted to see philosophers (and thinkers more generally) adopt.

It is in this latter sense, therefore, that I see ribbonfarm as exemplifying a sort of ‘Deleuzian’ method and concern, despite there having been no connection between the two until now. Both provide alternatives to irresponsible ‘transcendental’ frames of reference, and Deleuze himself is less an evil twin than an ‘alien soulmate’, a parallel figure casting a semi-overlapping shadow.

In closing and as evidence, let me point you to a few of ribbonfarm’s more ‘Deleuzian’ posts:

For those interested in exploring Deleuze’s work further, a gentle introduction may be Chris Reid’s notes on Manuel DeLanda’s Deleuze-inspired Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (Parts 1, 2, 3 , 4), François Dosse’s stellar biography Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives (reviewed by Adam Shatz in the London Review of Books), or Deleuze’s last major work, What Is Philosophy?.

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About Jordan Peacock

Jordan Peacock is a Minneapolis-based technologist. His ribbonfarm posts ask what the gap between what is promised and what is delivers tells us: about technologies and the organizations of which they are a part. He lurks on Twitter as @hewhocutsdown.


  1. How can one discern Deleuze’s writings from bullshit?

    After Venkat wrote his information age glossary he mentioned in a comment section discussion that bullshit has its value as a fertilizer. So it isn’t pure negativity but coexists with the truth in a “plane of immanence” or a “smooth space”. Note when I say “bullshit coexists with the truth” I don’t add any relevant determination when I place them in a “smooth space” or a “plane of immanence”. This is an observation with Deleuzianisms one can make. Instead of treating them as riddles, and ask what Deleuze actually meant and understood about Riemannian manifolds when he watched neorealist movies, just strip them off. I give a full example from the introductory paragraph of Anti-Oedipus:

    An organ-machine is plugged into an energy-source-machine: the one produces a flow that the other interrupts. The breast is a machine that produces milk, and the mouth is a machine coupled to it. The mouth of the anorexic wavers between several functions: its possessor is uncertain as to whether it is an eating-machine, an anal machine, a talking-machine, or a breathing machine (asthma attacks). Hence we are all handymen: each with his little machines. For every organ-machine, an energy-machine.

    Now strip off the word “machine” and where necessary insert a more concrete term e.g. “lung” for “breathing-machine”. Here is the refactoring:

    An organ is plugged into an energy-source: the one produces a flow that the other interrupts. The breast produces milk, and the mouth is coupled to it. The mouth of the anorexic wavers between several functions: its possessor is uncertain as to whether it is a mouth, an anus, or a lung (asthma attacks). Hence we are all handymen. For every organ, an energy-source.

    So organ + energy source is “machinic” and you can easily infer it yourself. No accidental complexity. You nowhere need to insert an additional abstraction. There is a lot of distracting “philosophical” overhead which can be removed without a loss.

    • Agreed: my biggest beef is with needless complexity. Terminological changes can be useful when the shift allows for a new perspective on something you thought you understood already, but now see in new light; absent that, it’s simply disruptive and confusing.

      There’s also a difference between bullshit and ‘needlessly complex’. Bullshit, in the Frankfurtian sense, is where one speaks without regard for the truth or falsity of one’s speech. Deleuze (and Guattari, since you’re working with Anti-Oedipus) tends to be quite polemical; the entirety of Difference & Repetition is basically a rejoinder to the Platonic ‘image of thought’ and an attempt at an alternative; Anti-Oedipus is the same for Lacanian psychoanalysis. To the extent that the pursuit of truth suffers in his (their) work, it’s largely due to punches pulled when it comes to Marxism, rather than bullshit.

      • Perhaps the biggest challenge as philosophers attempt to engage in other disciplines is to aim lower: rather than sweeping gestures that ignore nuance, or pedantic critiques of models that have the benefit of working, however poorly, there’s a potentially productive middle ground to be struck. I see some people approaching that (lately been reading Thomas Metzinger and Catherine Malabou, both of whom have significant engagement with the brain sciences in their philosophical projects), but that hasn’t been the typical approach of the philosophical community.

  2. Good overview of Deleuze’s thought, Jordan. The link between Deleuze and Douglas Hofstadter is very intriguing, although perhaps better exemplified in Hofstadter’s later collection Mathemagical Themas, where he discusses difference and identity with regard to patterns, and also strange attractors (cf. singularities).