To the extent that he outlines a conception of a world whose basic structure is that of a system of representation, Plato is both a source and a privileged example of the subordination of difference to identity and resemblance. In the Platonic world, only the Forms are ultimately and absolutely real, while the earthly manifestations of qualities or material objects are mere copies or imitations of the Forms. Difference is here a derivative term, coming in third place behind the exemplary identity of the Forms
and the resemblance of copies: ‘Difference is only understood in terms of the comparative play of two similitudes: the exemplary similitude of an identical original and the imitative similitude of a more or less alike copy’ (Deleuze 1994:127). Yet, Deleuze argues, even within Plato’s dialogues, the ordered and hierarchical world of representation is constantly threatened by another kind of figure whose essence lies not in resemblance to the real nature of things but in its capacity to simulate such natures. Figures of this kind appear in a variety of guises throughout the dialogues. They include the Sophist, who is described as ‘a sort of wizard, an imitator of real things’ (Sophist, 235a); writing, which is ‘a kind of image’ of living discourse that does not produce true wisdom but only its semblance (Phaedrus, 275b, 276a); and the ‘imitative poets’ in Book X of The Republic, who do not produce imitations of the true nature of things, but only imitations of their appearances. However, the paradigm of such figures is the mere ‘semblances’ or simulacra which Plato distinguishes in the Sophist from true ‘likenesses’ of things. In the case of such likenesses, the difference between original and copy is a difference within resemblance, a difference between things that are, in the essential respects, the same. By contrast, the simulacrum is not in essential respects the same as what it simulates: it reproduces the appearance of the original, but only as an effect. This effect is produced on the basis of internal differences between the simulacrum and the object it resembles. The simulacrum ‘is built upon a disparity or upon a difference. It internalises a dissimilarity’ (Deleuze 1990:258). With simulacra, in other words, the priority of identity and sameness over difference that characterises the world of representation is reversed: it is difference which is primary, while the appearance of identity or resemblance is a secondary and derived relation.
Deleuze argues that the crucial task of Platonism is to establish the distinction between copies and simulacra: ‘Platonism as a whole is erected on the basis of this wish to hunt down the phantasms or simulacra which are identified with the Sophist himself, that devil, that insinuator or simulator, that always disguised and displaced false pretender’ (Deleuze 1994:127).4 The underlying motivation is to establish the priority of the well-founded copy and to exclude the ‘false claimant’ or simulacrum. It is in the hostility towards these figures, Deleuze argues, that we perceive the moral choice embedded in Platonism. This is a preference for a stable and hierarchical world where neither persons nor things appear as other than they are. Platonism represents a preference for the calm, ordered life of the soul governed by reason to the disorderly and passionate life of the soul moved by poetry. ‘What appears then, in its purest state, before the logic of representation could be deployed, is a moral vision of the world. It is in the first instance for these moral reasons that simulacra must be exorcised and difference thereby subordinated to the same and the similar’ (Deleuze 1994:127). However, the victory is by no means assured.
Deleuze’s deconstructive reading of Platonism argues that it offers both the elements of a representational conception of the world, albeit in the meagre resources of the theory of Forms, and the means to overturn that conception. To the extent that simulacra are defined in terms of their power successfully to imitate the appearances of things, their existence threatens to undermine the very possibility of distinguishing between real things and mere illusions. Deleuze suggests that this is what occurs at the end of the Sophist, where the Eleatic Stranger offers a definition of the Sophist such that he can no longer be distinguished from Socrates himself: ‘Socrates distinguishes himself from the sophist, but the sophist does not distinguish himself from Socrates and places the legitimacy of such a distinction in question’ (Deleuze 1994:128). Simulacra therefore provide the means to overturn Platonism, where ‘overturning’ means ‘denying the primacy of original over copy, of model over image; glorifying the reign of simulacra and reflections’ (Deleuze 1994:66). Deleuze’s analysis of the overturning of Platonism prefigures his own account of a world in which the play of difference rather than the relations of identity and resemblance expresses the ultimate nature of things. To assert the primacy of simulacra is to affirm a world in which difference rather than sameness is the primary relation. In such a world, there are no ultimate foundations or original identities: everything becomes simulation where this refers not to copying, nor even to copying copies, but to ‘the act by which the very idea of a model or privileged position is challenged and overturned’ (Deleuze 1994:69).
In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze seeks a concept of pure difference or difference ‘in itself that would not be subject to the structure of representation first laid down in Platonism. The production of a concept of difference ‘in itself’ goes hand in hand with the elaboration of an ontology in which disparity or difference is the fundamental principle and the identity of objects is understood as something produced from the differences of which they are composed. In effect, the logic and ontology of pure difference are two sides of one and the same project. Deleuze argues for a
categorical reversal according to which being is said of becoming, identity of that which is different, the one of the multiple, etc. That identity not be first, that it exist as a principle but as a second principle, as a principle become; that it revolve around the Different: such would be the nature of a Copernican revolution which opens up the possibility of difference having its own concept.
The characterisation of a such a world in which difference rather than identity is primary necessarily affects other related concepts. Thus, in accordance with the interpretation of Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal
return put forward in Nietzsche and Philosophy (1983), Deleuze argues that repetition must not be taken to mean the return of the same but rather the production of sameness through the returning of that which differs. He treats the doctrine of eternal return as Nietzsche’s formulation of a principle of the univocity of being which presupposes the ontological primacy of difference: ‘Returning is being but only the being of becoming’ (Deleuze 1994:41).
From the outset, this project is aligned with the conception of a world of simulacra in which identities are only produced as effects by ‘the more profound game of difference and repetition’ (Deleuze 1994:ix). Ultimately, however, the importance of the concept of simulacra is limited to the predominantly negative phase of Deleuze’s project, namely the deconstruction of the world of representation. In a letter published in 1993, Deleuze commented that he had ‘completely abandoned the notion of simulacra, which was not worth very much’ (Deleuze 1993b:8). His choice of words suggests that he did not regard ‘simulacra’ as a well-formed philosophical concept, despite the fact that it was widely taken up and employed to considerable effect, not only in philosophy but in the analysis of social media and contemporary visual art.5 In Deleuze’s own work, the sphere of influence of this concept is largely confined to his analysis of Platonism. As we shall see in the remainder of this chapter, the positive task of producing a new concept of difference relies upon other concepts, the most important of which for his later work with Guattari are the concepts of multiplicity and virtuality. Both of these components of Deleuze’s concept of difference are introduced in his 1966 account of Bergsonism.