Deleuze has long been described, along with Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, Irigaray, Lyotard and others, as a philosopher of difference. The work of these French philosophers is often assimilated to the ‘politics of difference’ which characterises a number of ‘minority’ social groups and interests: feminists, racial minorities, gay and lesbian movements have all demanded the recognition of differences that were previously assimilated, denied or simply unknown. In some cases, elements of the philosophy of difference have even contributed to the formulation and theoretical expression of such a politics of difference.1 Our ultimate concern in this chapter is the relationship between the ‘politics of difference’ and Deleuze’s approach to the concept of difference. We shall return to the relations between philosophy and politics of difference at the end of the chapter, but we must first ask in what sense may Deleuze be described as a philosopher of difference?
The answer to this question may be found in the concern throughout his work with the nature of multiplicity. Deleuze never claimed to abandon or overthrow the concepts of identity, sameness, the One, etc. Rather, he was concerned with the question of how identity is constituted and what forms it takes. The real question is not whether or not there is unity but what form this takes: ‘what is the form of unification?’ (Mengue 1994:11–12). In particular, the problem to which he returns over and over again is the problem of how to conceive of a form of identity or unity which is not identical to itself. In this context he insists on the importance of the concept of multiplicity, on condition that this is understood as a substantive and independently of any relation to identity:
It was created precisely in order to escape the abstract opposition between the multiple and the one, to escape dialectics, to succeed in conceiving the multiple in the pure state, to cease treating it as a numerical fragment of a lost Unity or Totality or as the organic
element of a Unity or Totality yet to come, and instead distinguish between different types of multiplicity.
(Deleuze and Guattari 1987:32)
Deleuze’s distinctive contribution to the philosophy of difference lies in his elaboration of a philosophical theory of multiplicities. This concept provides a key to the structure of the concepts invented with Guattari, and thereby to the ethico-political implications of their collaborative work.
In the chapter of his Modern French Philosophy (1980) entitled ‘Difference’, Vincent Descombes argues that, with the work of Deleuze and Derrida, ‘We come finally to that remarkable point of modern metaphysics which all preceding discourse had indicated like a flickering compass.’ This point was the attempt to elaborate ‘a non-contradictory, non-dialectical consideration of difference, which would not envisage it as the simple contrary of identity, nor be obliged to see itself as ‘‘dialectically” identical with identity’ (Descombes 1980:136).2 As Descombes’ remark suggests, the revaluation of difference by many French philosophers of the 1960s and 1970s was bound up with a reaction against the prevailing Hegelianism of the preceding decades. Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy (1983) was both a significant contribution and a stimulus to this reaction.3 It offered an interpretation of Nietzsche as a philosopher of difference in terms that subsequently became the hallmark of much poststructuralist theory.
For Deleuze, Nietzsche’s metaphysics of the will to power is the basis of a profoundly anti-Hegelian ontology and an ethics, at the heart of which lies difference: ‘For the speculative element of negation, opposition, or contradiction, Nietzsche substitutes the practical element of difference, the object of affirmation and enjoyment’ (Deleuze 1983:9). In this account, Nietzsche’s theory that in all events a will to power is operating is based upon a concept of force, where forces are defined by their differences from other forces, both in quantity and in quality: ‘We must remember that every force has an essential relation to other forces, that the essence of force is its quantitative difference from other forces and that this difference is expressed as the force’s quality’ (Deleuze 1983:50).
Deleuze defines the will to power as the genetic and differential element which produces the difference in quantity and subsequent difference in quality between forces. He draws on Nietzsche’s description of the modes of evaluation characteristic of masters and slaves in order to distinguish between active and reactive forces, and to align the denial of difference with reactive force and the affirmation of difference with active force: ‘only active force asserts itself, it affirms its difference and makes its difference an object of affirmation’ (Deleuze 1983:55–6). Nietzsche’s characterisation of master and slave morality already dramatises this order of priority: the master affirms himself and his difference from the slave, while the slave negates the values of the other, and affirms himself
only by negating those negated values in turn. This is the strange syllogism of the slave: he needs two negations in order to produce the appearance of affirmation’ (Deleuze 1983:121).
We will see in Chapter 3 how the distinction between active and reative force points to an ethical hierarchy among the kinds of interaction possible between bodies of different powers and capacities and how, according to Deleuze, this hierarchy is expressed in Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return. Deleuze interprets eternal return as a selective conception of being which functions both as an ethical and a physical doctrine. As an ethical doctrine it favours those forms of interaction associated with productive, affirmative modes of interaction at the expense of restrictive, negative modes. In contrast to a Hegelian world oriented towards the reunification of absolute spirit or species being which has become divided or alienated from itself, the outcome is a world in which reactive forces do not return but only the active, excessive and life-enhancing modes of being. This is a world in which ‘multiplicity, becoming and chance are adequate objects of joy by themselves and…only joy returns’ (Deleuze 1983:190). As a physical principle too, eternal return implies the primacy of difference over identity. Deleuze points out that, for Nietzsche, natural science seeks to deny difference in favour of logical identity, mathematical equality and thermodynamic equilibrium. To the extent that it denies difference in these ways, Nietzsche considers science to be bound up with the more general enterprise of denying life and depreciating existence that constitutes the nihilism of modern thought (Deleuze 1983:45). By contrast, eternal return allows us to understand the world not as being or the permanence of the same but as becoming or the repetition of the different. We misinterpret Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return, Deleuze argues, if we take it to mean the return of the same:
It is not being that returns but rather returning itself that constitutes being insofar as it is affirmed of becoming and of that which passes. It is not some one thing which returns but rather returning is the one thing which is affirmed of diversity or multiplicity. In other words, identity in the eternal return does not describe the nature of that which returns, but, on the contrary, the fact of returning for that which differs.
In Difference and Repetition (1994) Deleuze sought to elaborate a concept of difference which involves no necessary connection with the negative or with negation. He rejects the link which Hegel forged between difference and contradiction, arguing that contradiction is not the condition or ground of difference but the contrary: ‘It is not difference which presupposes opposition but opposition which presupposes difference, and far
from resolving difference by tracing it back to a foundation, opposition betrays and distorts it’ (Deleuze 1994:51). Limitation or opposition is a distortion of difference, according to Deleuze, because difference in itself implies ‘a swarm of differences, a pluralism of free, wild or untamed differences’ (Deleuze 1994:50). However, the notion of a primary field of differences is only the point of departure for Deleuze’s concept of difference. He suggests that further conceptual articulation is required in order to speak of oppositions or limitations, and that these presuppose a more complex play of divergence and disparity as well as overlap and communication between the multiple formations of difference. In particular, ‘a more profound real element must be defined…one which is determined as an abstract and potential multiplicity’ (Deleuze 1994:50). The importance of this figure of abstract multiplicity for Deleuze’s concept of difference will be examined below.
For Deleuze, as for other philosophers of difference such as Derrida, Hegel was a focus of criticism because he represented the culmination of a metaphysical tradition which treated identity as primary and difference as the derivative or secondary term. A philosophy that seeks to make difference an object of affirmation, and to produce a concept of difference in itself, must therefore overturn the traditional hierarchy between identity and difference. But the mere inversion of hierarchy does not change the fundamental relation between the elements involved, nor does it change the nature of those elements: ‘A slave does not cease to be a slave by taking power’ (Deleuze 1994:54). For this reason, deconstruction always envisaged a further stage after the initial hierarchy has been overturned. This would involve ‘the irruptive emergence of a new “concept”, a concept that can no longer be, and never could be, included in the previous regime’ (Derrida 1981:42). In this manner, the philosophical concept of différance enabled Derrida to evoke the movement of deferral and differentiation which underlies all production of meaning (Derrida 1976:56–65). For Deleuze, the concept of simulacra played a similar role in relation to the structure of representation first laid down by Plato. It served to evoke the movement within Platonism by which the primacy of identity and the idea of a model are overthrown.