July 19, 2024

Politics And Its Double – Deleuze And Political Ontology, Part 1 (Borna Radnik)

The following is the first of a four-part series. 

Is the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze directly political? There are essentially three possible answers to such a question. First, if the answer to the question is yes, then it is expected that the philosophy either deals explicitly with political concepts, or expresses a certain view regarding the social and political order of society. Second, if the answer is no—that is, the philosophy in question is in no way directly political—then it could be the case that the philosophy is indirectly political. That is to say, although Deleuze’s work does not explicitly engage with political concepts or ideas, it can nevertheless indirectly be used in political thinking or activism. Third, Deleuze may be outright indifferent to politics and therefore considered apolitical.

 Yet, what does it mean for a philosophy or theory to be directly political rather than indirectly? An example of something that is directly political, is the famous opening to Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes. In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations. The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.(158-9)

We can consider this passage to be directly political, because it explicitly deals with the historical circumstances that have generated social antagonisms that have caused human societies to change over time. That is to say, it is precisely because the discussion of the oppressor and the oppressed is the main theme running through the entire Manifesto that the work itself is directly political rather than indirectly. So we can assert that something is directly political when it engages with politically charged issues, ideas or concepts such as class struggle, inequality, economic exploitation and so on. Conversely, something can be indirectly political when it does not explicitly deal with political issues yet nevertheless can be used to think through problems such as racism, economic inequality, human rights, and sexism.

The question of Deleuze’s political import has been the subject of much debate not only in Deleuze studies but also in recent political theory (for example, the work of Toni Negri and Micheal Hardt). There are some scholars of Deleuze such as Ian Buchanan and Nicholas Thoburn, who maintain that there is a continuous political thread running from Deleuze’s solo works right through to his co-authored books with Felix Guattari.  Paul Patton, in his book Deleuze and the Political, is of this view, asserting: “Despite his lack of engagement with issues of normative political theory, Deleuze is a profoundly political philosopher.”(1)

Yet critics of Deleuze have argued that there is a decisive break or split between on the one hand Deleuze’s early historical monographs on Hume, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bergson, and Kant as well as Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense and on the other hand the works with Guattari.  Slavoj Žižek claims that this break defines a “before and after” of Deleuze’s political engagement.

According to Žižek, Deleuze only became political when he met Guattari, and as such Deleuze’s early works such as Logic of Sense and Difference and Repetition, are considered to be unabashedly apolitical. As Žižek puts it: “It is crucial to note that not a single one of Deleuze’s own texts is in any way directly political; Deleuze ‘in himself’ is a highly elitist author, indifferent towards politics.”(20)  Our main concern is to address the contentious issue surrounding the political import of Deleuze’s univocal ontology of difference as established in Difference and Repetition and Logic of Sense.

Is there a break or not in the work before and after the collaboration with Guattari? The debate has not ended and it is my view that both sides have failed to take into account a fundamental aspect surrounding the whole dispute, namely, what is meant by the term ‘political’. To the best of my knowledge, neither the proponents of Deleuze’s supposed political philosophy nor his critics rightly define what they mean by ‘political’. The definition of what makes something political remains somewhat of a presupposition on both sides of the argument, which renders their respective answers to the problem ambiguous. So a clarification of the term political is needed if we are to adequately address the problem of Deleuze’s political import. Such clarification can be found in the recent ontological turn in political theory, specifically their distinction between politics and the political.

The Ontological Turn in Political Theory

 Traditionally, ontology has concerned itself with the study of being (i.e., what does it mean for something to be, or exist?). Although ontologies differ from thinker to thinker in their attempt to explain being, the traditional approach to ontology employs categories to explain reality, such as subject and object, necessity and contingency, quantity, quality, space and time, appearance and essence, identity and difference, according to Nathan Widder . The recent and ongoing turn towards ontology in political theory diverges from traditional metaphysics in that it is primarily concerned with the human being.

While some maintain that there is a distinction between what has traditionally been referred to as “metaphysics” and “ontology”, I will not go into the reasons for upholding this terminological difference. For our purposes, it is sufficient to use the term ‘ontology’ to talk about being qua being. The ‘ontological turn’ emphasizes the various aspects pertaining to human life and existence, such as  ‘metaphysics’ and ‘ontology’, relations to others, the self, the unconscious, culture, language, art, and so on.

Political theory’s turn to ontology has its origins in the early 1980s, within the Anglo-Saxon tradition, when theorists first began to discuss the uses and abuses of ontological categories for thinking through political problems.  More recently, efforts have been made to question the very need for ontological considerations. But why turn to ontology? One reason has been the limitations of political theory after the Second World War.

As Widder points out, proponents of contemporary political thought have generally avoided any engagement with ontology: “Dominant forms of postwar liberal political thought have frequently conceived the human self in minimalist terms, often justifying this move on grounds that is avoids controversial, baseless and ultimately metaphysical speculations about human nature or the good life.”(2) Widder discusses John Rawls and Isaiah Berlin as two examples of ‘liberal political thought’ that have sought to think about justice and politics while dismissing any ontological claims. While these forms of political theory do have their uses, theirs is a very narrow definition of thinking about politics and does not begin to take into account the numerous power relations and difference which proliferate within human societies.

 Another reason for the “ontological turn” is that the rise and fall of twentieth- century communism (whether its Soviet or Chinese variant) and the triumph of consumer capitalist culture in the West (and beyond) has left many political theorists wondering if we have truly arrived at what Francis Fukuyama famously refers to as the “end of history”, the idea that liberal-democratic capitalism is the last social order of human history.

Has human society entered its final historical and logical conclusion in the contemporary incarnation of the capitalist economic system, or is it still possible to claim to have what Habermas calls utopian energies directed toward a new form of society?  A possible answer to this apparent deadlock is the “ontological turn” in political theory.  This kind of ontology has found its theoretical inspiration in what in the terminology of Dominique Janicaud has become known as Left Heideggerianism, after Martin Heidegger.

It must be noted that the debate surrounding political theory’s need for ontology is still ongoing, as is evident, for instance, in the collection of essays that make up A Leftist Ontology, which is partly influenced by Deleuze’s philosophy.  The inquiry into an ontological justification for certain political aspirations has been the subject of interrogation for a number of political thinkers, including William Connolly, Stephen K. White, Oliver Marchart, among others. We briefly gave the definition of political ontology as the influence of political principles from ontological ones.

Although the thinkers working in the ontological turn all seek, albeit in their own specific way, to articulate the ontological dimension in political thought and practice, there has not been a consistent, standard definition of “political ontology”. Despite this inconsistency, our definition of political ontology is justified because this process remains implicit in the thinkers who contribute to the ontological turn. To demonstrate this, let’s consider two examples.

 Our first example is what William Connolly’s calls “ontopolitical interpretation.” Connolly says “every political interpretation invokes a set of fundaments about necessities and possibilities of human being,” and that “every interpretation of political events, no matter how deeply it is sunk in a specific historical context or how high the pile of data upon which it sits, contains an ontopolitical dimension.”

On Connolly’s model, the “ontopolitical”, as he writes in A Leftist Ontology, is meant to address this “dimension” of human life that traditional political science (the science of forms of governance) cannot account for, that is, the “set of fundaments” about what it means to be a human being. It is in this respect that Connolly turns to ontology, and by extension implies that his ontological considerations filter into politics “so that it would be a mistake to say that ontology has no influence on politics.”(x)  Although Connolly does not elaborate on this point, it remains an implication that ontology affects politics and it is this relationship that we define as “political ontology”.

 Another example is the position of Stephen White. White distinguishes between what he calls “weak” and “strong” ontologies that influence politics. According to White, a strong ontology is one that describes the world either by evoking God, or referring to human nature. strong ontologies maintain a degree of certainty about their principles, which they treat as necessary for an adequate description of reality. For White, strong ontologies “carry an underlying assumption of certainty that guides the whole problem of moving from the ontological level to the moral-political.”(7)

By contrast, weak ontologies maintain the contestability of any claim or principle about the self, the world, and so on. weak ontologies, on White’s account, seek to problematize foundational principles, and hold that these principles are subject to revision.  Both weak and strong models, for White, assert the importance of ontology’s role in affecting political considerations. On White’s model, then, what we call political ontology is clearly present.

 The proposed definition of political ontology is something which is simply implied by Connolly, but asserted more explicitly in White’s work. It is this conception that we will use to derive a notion of the political from Deleuze’s ontology. Another crucial element to keep mind is that within the ‘ontological turn’, various thinkers have formulated the problem of an ontological foundation for a new concept of politics (i.e., “the political”) in different ways, drawing upon various philosophies. Setting aside the intricate details of the debate, it is more productive for us to take a closer look at political ontology. We will consider White’s formulation of the “strong/weak” distinction as a heuristic tool to better understand how Deleuze’s ontology fits into the ‘ontological turn’.

 For White a strong ontology is one that maintains a degree of certainty about its principles. In this sense, a strong ontology can be said to provide sufficient reasons to justify its assertions. The principle of sufficient reason states that nothing can be what it is without there being an explanation or reason for it.

Or to put it more formally: if x exists, then there is a sufficient explanation (or cause) for why x exists. Insofar as the explanation of x is said to justify its existence, that explanation ‘grounds’ or provides a foundation for x. strong ontologies are those that subscribe to foundations, and in this sense are foundational.(6-7) If strong ontologies are foundational, then weak ontologies, on White’s account, are post-foundational, insofar as they contest foundational principles. But what is the difference between foundationalism, post- foundationalism, and anti-foundationalism?

 Foundationalist ontologies (or strong ontologies) affirm ontological principles that are deemed to be uncontestable and immune to revision. On the foundationalist model, the primary ontological principles are necessary. On a foundational model, the necessary ontological principles determine and produce political prescriptions. Post-foundationalism (weak in White’s terms), does not reject foundational ontological principles, but rather deems them to be problematic if taken to be uncontestable and therefore claims they are subject to revision.

Rather than being necessary, post-foundationalism claims ontological principles to be contingent; this means that the principles are open to alteration. On a post-foundational model, the ontological principles influence political prescriptions. Anti-foundationalism is an outright rejection of any foundational ontological principles, and therefore the immediate difference between the three positions is that anti-foundationalism is completely unproductive for those seeking to justify a form of politics by turning towards ontology, as it does not affirm any ontological foundational principles.

 For Marchart, the anti-foundationalist model is not a position that is commonly held in the ontological turn in political theory.(12) Nevertheless considering “anti- foundationalism” is useful to understand the differences between foundationalism and post-foundationalism. This leaves foundationalism and post-foundationalism. What White calls strong ontologies are foundational insofar as they subscribe to secured ontological claims. White’s weak ontologies are post-foundational insofar as they aim to contest or problematize foundational principles.

Although Deleuze’s ontology defies White’s strong/weak categorization, it nevertheless exhibits traits of both. On the one hand, Deleuze critiques the dominant foundational assumptions of Western metaphysics, which is analogous to the post-foundational model; on the other hand, he advances an ontology of difference and becoming that affirms uncertainty and indeterminacy.

 To better illustrate the differences between foundationalism and post- foundationalism let us use an analogy. Any architectural structure constructed on the surface of the Earth (i.e., literally on the ground, such as a house) is supported by a foundation built directly upon the earth. This foundation is necessary for the structure to stand; without it, the house will collapse. The house is analogous to foundational ontologies that ‘base’ or justify their ontological claims by reference to an infallible foundation (e.g., God).

By contrast, a space station floating in deep outer space literally has no structural foundation in the same way a house does. So, a free-floating structure in outer space such as the International Space Station is analogous to the post-foundational model if we consider that the space station may require foundational support in certain situations (e.g., if by chance it were to land on the surface of the earth), but that the foundation is not necessary.

 The core element in the relationship between ontological description and political prescription is one of causality. That is, given the manner in which an ontology describes the world, that description, in turn, is what determines political principles or political action(s). But as we shall see in regards to Deleuze’s ontology, things are not as simple as declaring a direct causality between ontology and political prescriptions. On the strong model, the “truth” of the ontological claims is justified by sufficient reason(s). This justification serves as the guarantor of the ontology, or its foundation.

For example, a strong ontology that describes the way the world is by reference to God as the creator justifies its description of the world by evoking God and nothing more. God is a sufficient reason for the being of the world. Developing our example a little further, a hypothetical political ontology that seeks to derive political principles or demands from an ontology that has God as its basis would, by extension, justify those political principles through God.  Strong ontologies all assume the truth, validity, and certainty of that which provides adequate justification or sufficient reason. weak ontologies, by contrast, maintain that any foundational claim is contestable, fallible, and ultimately problematic.

Despite the acknowledgement that foundations are problematic, weak ontologies, according to White, still claim that for any political principles to be derived from an ontology, the ontology’s assertions need some sort of basis. While weak ontologies contest the infallibility of ontological foundations, they nevertheless assert their unavoidability in drawing political and ethical implications. If strong ontologies claim that foundations are unerring and therefore logically necessary, then weak ontologies problematize this infallibility and hold that foundations are logically contingent..

That is to say, the post-foundationalist position does not reject foundations (this would be anti- foundationalism), rather it claims that foundational ontological principles are subject to revision and reconsideration. Post-foundationalism acknowledges foundational principles, but is quick to revise them if need be. In this sense, if strong ontologies are said to be foundational, then weak ontologies are post-foundational.

White’s strong/weak distinction and the foundational/post-foundational ontological models seem ambiguous when it comes to their implications for politics. If a strong model purports to base ethical and political principles on a foundation, then this process seems to lead to a form of dogmatism where what constitutes the political is wholly determined by an ontological foundation. White does mention that within the ontological turn, thinkers are more interested in the weak model, whereby the ontological foundation does not absolutely determine ethical and political principles, but influence them.

There exists a direct causal link between the foundational principles inherent in a strong ontology and its political implications. The foundational principles guarantee and determine the conception of politics one derives from it. For example, if an ontology asserts that a transcendent divine God created the world—thereby causing it to be and exist the way it does—then the political implications are also determined by God’s will. By contrast, a weak ontology that maintains the contingency of foundational ontological principles in order to acknowledge their changeability cannot determine political principles in the same manner that a strong model does.

It is precisely because the weak model’s foundational principles are always subject to alteration that it cannot maintain a direct causal link between the ontology and its political implications. This does not mean that weak ontological models have nothing to contribute to politics, but rather that it is their ever-changing nature, their contingency, that allows those interested in political ontology to constantly construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct ontological principles which affirms political aspirations. In this sense, if strong ontologies directly determine political prescriptions, then weak ontologies ‘influence’, rather than directly determine.

 White’s distinction between weak and strong ontologies, while helpful for our investigation into Deleuze’s political ontology, is not sufficient. Widder has pointed out that White’s strong/weak division is a somewhat strained, reductive framework that does not clearly differentiate between an ontology’s content and the way that content is presented. Widder articulates the ambiguity of White’s thesis by pointing out that,

…the history of Western thought is full of metaphysical ontologies that refuse to derive political and ethical certainties in this [White’s strong model] way, just as anti-metaphysical and anti- foundationalist political philosophies can be extremely dogmatic. Moreover, it seems perfectly possible for a political ontology to make strong claims that reject metaphysical or transcendent foundations, or to articulate ‘foundations’ that make it impossible to derive clear-cut moral and political principles. Such an ontology would differ from those weak ones that affirm but also constantly problematize their claims and signal their limits.(10)

The type of ontology that Widder has in mind here is the type that manages to make strong ontological claims without descending into a dogmatic, foundational paradigm, Widder’s prime example of this is Deleuze’s ontology. This kind of ontology, according to Widder, does not readily fit into White’s weak/strong distinction, since “it would be a strong ontology of uncertainty and indeterminacy, one that, in exploring rich ontological depths, demonstrates how political and ethical principles can only be contoured but never determined by considerations of human (and extra-human) being […] It is the kind Deleuze offers.”(10)

Borna Radnik is a Ph.D. Candidate in philosophy at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University, London, England..  His research focuses on the dialectical relation between necessity and freedom in Hegel’s metaphysics.

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