On the notion of the political in postmarxist theory.
The practise of doing nothing
Miguel Abensour as reader of Spinoza
Spinoza, Marx, Moses Hess
Agamben and Nancy as readers of Spinoza
Feminist readings of Spinoza
Deleuze on Spinoza's theory of affects
From the ontological to the affective
Spinoza with Deleuze
The underground current of the philosophy of immanence
Ontology of multiplicity or materialist dialectic?
Althusser's concept of immanent causality - Seminar
Marx with Spinoza
Being out of class (Deleuze)
What is an inoperativity that consists in contemplating one's own potentiality to act?
The messianic class
Sharing the inappropriatable
The retreating class
The political capacity of the proletariat
The subtractive class II
The political capacity of the proletariat
The subtractive class
Disrupting the logic of division
The supplementary class
The antinomies of proletarian politics
The paradoxical class
Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe on political difference
Retreating the political
Lars T. Lih as Reader of Lenin
What Is to be Done? and Bolshevism
The concept of capitalism in "Anti-Oedipus"
Deleuze, Guattari, Lacan
An impossible encounter I
An impossible encounter: Deleuze, Guattari and Lacan
Micropolitics in "A thousand plateaus"
Molecular Politics I
On affectivity and potentiality
Spinoza with Deleuze
Nietzsche with Deleuze
The negative in the positive
The notion of becoming in Deleuze and Guattari
On Esposito's concept of bio/politics
Rancière's farewell to Althusserian Marxism
La leçon d'Althusser
Debating Althusser's philosophy of the encounter
What is aleatory materialism?
Negri on materialism
Kairos, Alma Venus, Multitudo
Tronti and Cacciari's concept of the political
The autonomy of the political
"From Capital-Labor to Capital-Life" by M. Lazzarato
Nancy on the singularity of death
Agamben and Deleuze on pure immanence
Workshop: becoming-major, becoming-minor
Foucault with Deleuze
The force of the outside II
Superimposing diagrams: discipline and governmentality
The force of the outside
Reading Jacques Rancière's "Dis-agreement"
Reading Balibar's "The Vacillation of Ideology in Marxism"
The non-totalizable complexity of the historical process
Reading Jacques Derrida's "Specters of Marx"
Deconstructing Value Theory
Reading Moishe Postone's "Time, Labor and Social Domination"
Value and Capitalist Capacities
Debating "The mirror of production" by Jean Baudrillard
Marx with Bataille
The coming communities of commons
Feminist comments on the relation between politics and labor
The arcane of reproduction
Virno on Marx's "Fragments on machines"
Notes on the general intellect
Virno on the concept of bio-politics in Postoperaism
What is living and what is dead in Marx's philosophy? II
Jason Read on abstract and living labor
What is living and what is dead in Marx's philosophy?
Reading Negri's "Twenty Theses on Marx"
The autonomy of living labor
Class composition in Italian autonomist Marxism
The emergence of the socialised worker II
Class composition in Italian autonomist Marxism
The emergence of the socialised worker
On Badiou's concept of truth procedure
Assigning a measure to the excessive power of the state
Reading Jacques Ranciere's "Ten theses on politics"
The supplementary part that disconnects the people from itself
Deleuze and Guattari on the concept of minoritarian struggle
On class composition and radical negativity
Domestic work and class struggle within the class II
On class composition and radical negativity
Domestic work and class struggle within the class
From class to minority
The relationship of Marxism and Post-Structuralism III
On the concept of the concrete universal
The relationship of Marxism and Post-Structuralism II
On Marx and Foucault
The relationship of Marxism and Post-Structuralism
Dictatorship of the proletariat and council movement
The Soviet experience II
Rosa Luxemburg on the Russian Revolution
The Soviet experience
Negri on Lenin
Democracy beyond law II
Lenin's concept of the dictatorship of protetariat
Democracy beyond law
Benjamin's concept of mysthic and divine violence
To bring about the real state of exception II
Agamben's reading of Benjamin
To bring about the real state of exception
Agamben's sovereign theoretical turn in thinking potentiality
Potentiality of impotentiality II
Agamben's theory of autonomous potentiality
Potentiality of impotentiality
— Agamben, ‘Absolute Immanence', in Potentialities, University of Stanford Pr, 1999, pp. 220- 239
—Nancy, ‘Imm/Trans', in Polygraph No. 15/16, 2004, pp. 11-12
Agamben’s ‘Absolute Immanence’ published in the journal aut-aut in 1996 is a philosophical manifesto that suggests the concept of life to have to be the subject of a coming philosophy. This manifesto is a very peculiar one. It does not demonstrate its theoretical hypotheses but puts forth a single question that will not be answered but postponed to a research project to come.
The question is, in how far the idea of an impersonal life that Deleuze conceives of expressing the movements of immanence can be distinguished from the bare life that has been produced in the course of western history by sovereign power through separating the form-of-life from life itself. Agamben considers, wether the ‘spark of life’ that Dickens in his last novel Our mutual friend tells to persist in a dying man’s body—a figure taken up by the late Deleuze—is conceptualised in form of a separable biological function in the sense of the nutritive capacity through which all living beings are said to be living in Aristotle.
You might remember that this question is the structuring question of the Homo sacer project, the first volume of which has been published the year before the present manifesto appeared in aut-aut. Agamben departs in this project from the hypothesis that the individual body—I quote from the closing pages of Homo sacer — ‘is always already a biopolitical body and bare life, and nothing in it or in the economy of its pleasure seems to allow us to find solid ground on which to oppose the demands of sovereign power’ (p. 187).
Agamben keeps the question about the difference between preindividual and bare life in suspension. What he does in his text is to reconstruct Deleuze’s idea of immanence as life while simultaneously pinpointing both its distances and proximities to the idea of the isolation of bare life in Aristotle, Bichat and Foucault. While doing so, Agamben succeeds in presenting an exceptionally precise reconstruction of Deleuze’s idea of immanence that he presents to hinge on the absolutisation of the principle of immanence and to be opposed to the Aristotelian principle of ground, that consists of asking ‘through what thing (dia ti) does something belong to something else?’ (p.231).
The absolutisation of immanence is detected by Agamben in the principle of self-belonging through which immanence neither refers to an object nor belongs to a subject but only belongs to itself. It is thought as a plane of preextensive and preindividual relations co-varying in itself and being expressed in spatio-temporal terms through acts of self-affirmation which are without any reference to a transcendent telos, subject or sense. In other words at stake, in this concept of life, is an immanent individuation of the infinite that Agamben puts in the extraordinary formula of ‘the desire desiring self-constitution of being’.
Agamben proceeds in this manifesto by an asymmetric co-reading of two texts, which are the last articles Foucault and Deleuze authorised to be published.
Firstly, Foucault’s ‘Life: Experience and Science’ printed in 1985 in a special issue of the Revue de metaphysique et de morale dedicated to Georges Canguilhem. Due to his progressing HIV infection, Foucault wasn’t ablt to contribute an entirely new text as he had initially planned but a revised version of the introduction written in 1978 to the American edition of Canguilhem’s Le normale et le pathologique;
secondly, Deleuze’s ‘Immanence: a life...’ that appeared in September 1995 in the journal Philosophie two months before Deleuze took his own life presenting a very ellipitical meditation about the self-belonging of immanence that in What is philosophy? had been put in the following terms: ‘Immanence is immanent only to itself and consequently captures everything, absorbs All-One, and leaves nothing remaining to which it could be immanent. In any case, whenever immanence is interpreted as immanent to Something, we can be sure that this Something reintroduces the transcendent.’
The asymmetry of Agamben’s co-reading of these two texts cannot be emphasised enough, since he engages with Foucault’s text only in the introducing paragraph, while the reading of Deleuze’s text stretches over the essay’s remaining ten chapters. The major part of the article is a reconstruction of Deleuze’s idea of immanence revisiting not only the 1995 text ‘Immanence: a life...’, but also the chapter ‘The plane of immanence’ in What is philosophy? and the third and eleventh chapter of the 1968 monograph on Spinoza, Expressionism in philosophy. The wager of the co-reading of Foucault with Deleuze is strong and decisive though and this in a double sense:
It serves to introduce to the text the dramatic call to assume the split heritage of two philosophers at the end of their lives, whose respective definitions of life Agamben forces into the opposition of a dark and a serene figure: Foucault presenting life by drawing on Bichat and Canguilhem as domain of error, Deleuze conceiving of life as individuation of difference that allows for the bliss of the knowledge of the third kind as Spinoza has called it, when a thing reaches the limit of its potentiality and gives itself all the capacities it is capable of simultaneously thinking its singularity in the context of the concatanation of all other things.
To emphasise the cleavage and the tension between a Foucauldian dark vitalism and a Deleuzian joyful one, Agamben claims that in Foucault’s last text ‘Life: Experience and science’ a sudden inversion would have taken place of what has been Foucault’s earlier understanding of the idea of life. To my view Agamben is mistaken to state that the idea of life as errancy would replace the idea that life is ‘the set of functions that resist death’, an idea inspired by Xavier Bichat, an 18th century anatomist and founder of the morphological diagnosis in pathology about whom Foucault speaks at length in The Birth of the Clinic. To understand life as domain of error does exactly correspond to Canguilhelm’s generalised interpretation of what Bichat meant when he defined life as permanent reaction against death. Already in his early archeological writings Foucault has been influenced by Canguilhem’s work on Bichat and the identification of the livliness of life with its encounter with death, an identification that leads to the definition of life as permanent capacity of reaction in a milieu, in particular in relation to its negative values (illness, crises, death). While Canguilhem emphasised Bichat’s significance for the distinction between biology and mechanical physics, between the sciences of nature and the sciences of life, Foucault in particular discussed the role of mortality in Bichat’s science of life. If we want to speak of inversions in Foucault’s work, one could point to the early 1970s, when for Foucault it became less important, in an epistemological perspective, to stress the factor of mortality as index of livlines and instead more decisive to analyse, in a genealogical perspective, the enhancement of life in modern biopolitics, in which death, killing and internment persist as very functions of this enhancement executed in the defense of life.
Basically without discussing Deleuze’s reply to this hypothesis of the co-implication of biopower and life, one that is to be found in the letter ‘Desire and pleasure’ sent to Foucault after the breach of their friendship due to strong disagreement on the question of communism after the French publication of Solshenitzyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in 1974, Agamben proceeds in a different direction: Into the reconstruction of Deleuze’s idea of immanence he inscribes his own interpretation of Spinoza’s notion of conatus in terms of a ‘potentiality without act’ and the contemplation of one’s being at rest, one’s own inactivity, an interpretation that draws on Heidegger’s reading of Aristotle’s category of dynamis as adynamía (of potentiality as impotentiality). Agamben defines the force of such an im/potentiality as interruption and punctuation of all juridical and factual rules; it is capable of tearing apart the indistinction between life and sovereign power that can be detected in a law that is able of its own exception, of not applying while still staying in place. According to Agamben, the exceptionalist logic of the law is based on its capacity to rule through self-suspension, a capacity it owns, because it has included the antinomian, illegal force of life itself in its own practice. Correspondingly, the potentiality without act (the potentiality that does nothing than contemplating its adynamía) is thought as force that destroys the inclusion of life into law – a negative dialectics of rupture and deactivation that is not compatible with Deleuze’s idea of potentiality as life.
We will discuss Agamben’s ‘Absolute Immanence’, in which he basically works through Deleuze’s idea of immanence while grafting on it a dialectics of deactivation, in three steps: Alexi Kukuljevic will comment on Agamben’s reconstruction of the notion of immanence in Deleuze presented as principle functioning antithetically to Aristotle’s principle of the ground. Jon Short will trace the Heideggerian inspirations in Agamben’s idea of immanence and I would like to close with a couple of remarks on Agamben’s interpretation of conatus or striving in Spinoza.
Conatus or gift
The key argument, why Agamben has a problem or a certain unease with Deleuze’s idea of life that at the limit seems to become indistinguishable from bare life, is to be found in the paragraph entitled A life, on the pages 229 and 230. All hinges on the concept of separation that Agamben introduces into Deleuze’s idea of impersonal life. Agamben points to the two figures of life that are used by Deleue in his last text ‘Immanence: a life...’: on one hand Riderhood, a literary figure out of Dickens’s last novel Our mutual friend, on the other hand the preindividual expressions to be found in the smallest infants. Riderhood is a dying man whom no one liked during his life-time because he played a lot of dirty tricks on too many people. But the moment he dies there is a certain tender attention that isn’t paid to Riderhood as person but, as Dickens has put it, to ‘the spark of life within him’ that is, as Dickens continuous, ‘curiously separable from himself now, and they have a deep interest in it, probably because it is life and they are living and must die’(p. 229). The second figure that Agambens mentions to be used by Deleuze to examplify how immanence appears as life are very young children ‘that all resemble each other and have no individuality, but they have singularities, a smile, a gesture, a grimace, events that are not subjective characters. The smallest infants are traversed by an immanent life that is pure potentiality, even beatitude through suffering and weaknesses’ (p. 230).
With these two figures, the child and the dying man, Agamben criticises Deleuze to have produced two cyphers of bare biological life that are defined through their separability from the political life of the city and thus can be excluded from its rules and laws. In other word, Agamben asks wether the limit-figures of the dying man and the child turn out to be Deleuze’s homines sacri. As hinting at this direction, Agamben emphasises that Dickens uses the word ‘abeyance’ to define ‘the spark of life’ in Riderhood, a term originating in legal parlance and thus indicating the supension of rights that start to oscillate between validity and invalidity.
By introducing the category of separation into Deleuze’s idea of the individuation of immanence, Agamben is able to relate Deleuze’s philosophy of life to the three instances in the history of philosophy, science and politics, which to his view are decisive, in order to grasp the isolation of bare biological life in the West:
—firstly, Aristotle’s definition of the category of the nutritive capacity as the principle that grounds life by presenting the very force through which life belongs to a thing;
—secondly, Bichat’s distinction between animal life defined by its relation to an external word and organic life, which is nothing else than a habitual succession of assimilation and excretion, later called vegetative life;
—thirdly, Foucault’s definition of biopower the object and process of which is grasped by Agamben as the generalised making and administering of what has been categorised as nutritive and vegetative life in Aristotle and Bichat.
Though Agamben pinpoints the distances separating Deleuze from the Aristotelian discourse of nutritive life—he mentions the idea of desubjectification and the rejection of hierarchic divisions that partition life in series of oppositions like nutritive life and relational life, animal life and organic life, zoe and bios—the real distance between Deleuze’s idea of impersonal life and bare life is disguised by Agamben. This has to do with the fact that Agamben defines Deleuze’s impersonal life as a separated and separable biological bare instance. While Agamben takes this formulation from Dickens’s text—the spark of life curiously separable from himself now—, Deleuze uses another formulation in ‘Immanence: a life...’: ‘Between his life and his death’, Deleuze writes about Riderhood, ‘there is a moment that is only that of a life playing with death.’ That what is in-between is defined by Deleuze as difference in itself; it presents the non-separable itself, the articulation of an interval between two or more terms of a series of relations.
We have to turn to Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza’s concepts of the individual and the conatus to understand this. The individual in Spinoza is an entirely transindividual category. Each individual body is a composite. In the rudimentary sketch of physics in the second book of the Ethics, Spinoza defines each body to be composed by an infinity of most simple bodies. An individual is nothing else than a provisionary entity in which infinite multiplicities of most simple bodies are subsumed under a certain relation of movement. Drawing on Gueroult’s interpretation Deleuze emphasises that Spinoza rejects the notion of atoms in this context. The most simple bodies each individual is composed of aren’t atoms in the sense of indivisible last elements but infinite sets of bodies. They are infinitely small or vanishing terms that occur in infinite sets. The category of the infinitely small is the tool used in the 17th century to think actual infinity, that is to say the existence of the infinite in the finite. There is not enough time to discuss this in detail, but important for our discussion today is to realise that in Spinoza individuals do constantly exchange elements among each other. They reproduce, change, increase or diminish their individuality by subsuming and resubsuming infinite sets of entities under a certain ratio. This mechanical causality of bodies encountering and displacing eachother, building bigger entities or decomposing into smaller ones is supplemented by a causality that is defined as expression and explication of the potentiality of these composites conceived by Deleuze as the individuation not of extensive but intensive differences. To both types of causality—the de/composition of infinite multiplicities of bodies and the explication of intensive differences—the logic of separation is foreign to. That is why for Deleuze and Spinoza, there is no separable ‘spark of life’ characterising the force of an individual. The conatus is nothing else than the potentiality to act immanent to each provisional individual through which it is capable of expressing and explicating the differential relations of which it is composed between a minimal and a maximal threshold.
At the end of ‘Absolute Immanence’ Agamben attempts at identifying nutritive life in Aristotle and impersonal life in Deleuze through the figure of self-preservation, particularily drawing on Benveniste’s definition of nutrition. He states that ‘[i]t is worth noting that when Aristotle defines the characteristic functions of the nutritive soul in De anima, he makes use of an expression that closely recalls Spinoza’s determination of conatus sese conservandi. Aristotle writes: nutritivity preserves its substance. This principle of the soul is a potentiality capable of preserving whoever possesses it as such’(p. 236).
This analogy is significant for Agamben’s displacement of Spinoza’s categories by Aristotelian ones. When Spinoza starts to formulate the idea of the conatus, he first articulates it in physical terms following Galilei’s law of intertia according to which an entity remains in movement until it is encountered by another movement. This formulation rejects the model of causality that was to be found in Aristotelian physics in which each movement was caused by an unmoved mover. It equally rejects the teleology of natural places in Aristotle, to which each thing strives according to its own materiality, in order to come to a rest. While writing the Ethics, Spinoza changes the concept of conatus liberating it from the context of Galilean physics and turning it into an ontological notion of an immanent excess each provisional thing is capable of. The formulation of the principle of the conatus in the third book of the Ethics, proposition 6, reads: ‘Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being.’ It has been Matheron who emphasised in ‘Le problème de l’évolution de Spinoza du Traité Théologico-Politique au Traité Politique’ that in the Ethics Spinoza stops to use the formulation that each thing strives to perservere in its state and favors the formulation to perservere in its being. Replacing ‘state’ by ‘being’ indicates that Spinoza stops conceptualising conatus in conservative terms in the sense of a thing protecting its condition and instead defining it as practical and practisising affirmation of the thing’s essence that is actualised in the course of this affirmation itself. To perservere in one’s being does not mean to not die, to conserve oneself, to nourish, but to give oneself all affections one is possible of and thus explicating the singularity one is by becoming it. At stake in this process of creative determination is at the limit a partial teleology without telos that is not totalising the plane of immanence, because, as André Tosel has put it in Du matérialisme de Spinoza, ‘[l]’excentration et l’intériorité tout à la fois du mode à la substance désignent simplement l’objectivité d’un processus qui produit pour nous une fin immanente (la causalité par soi) mais qui n’a pas pour fin en soi cette causalité’ (p. 34). Hence, we can conclude that neither the idea of conservatio nor the idea proposed by Agamben at a later point in the text—a thing striving into its letting-be, its self-giving gift or taking-place—agree with Spinoza’s definition of conatus.
That is why, the definition of nutritive life that Agamben finally finds in Benveniste in the figure of the curdling of milk—‘the natural growth of milk to let it attain the state toward which it is tending’ (p. 237)—misses the key operation of striving: the production of a difference that processualy actualises the relation existing between at least two series of causes and has been described in Difference and Repetition by Deleuze as unilateral distinction: ‘Instead of something distinguished from something else, imagine something which distinguishes itself—and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it .... We must therefore say that difference is made, or makes itself, as in the expression “make the difference”.’ For our discussion we should also have in mind that the curdling of milk is the expression used by Althusser in ‘The underground current of the materialism of the encounter’ to designate the fixation of structures happening after the event.
Furthermore, it is important in this context to recall that Spinoza and Hobbes use the notion of conatus to finally and absolutely break with the scholastic problem of contingency which stemmed from the antinomies immanent to the idea of a creatio ex nihilio. At the limit, the scholastic philosophers arrived at the idea that this world can only be conserved in its regularity through God’s continued activity, his creatio continua. If we turn to Agamben’s article on Bartleby, we will see that in his thinking of potentiality he doesn’t draw on Spinoza’s thinking of necessity in which the the category of the im/possible is completely destroyed but on kabbalist and neoplatonic ideas of the contingency of the world vis à vis a God of absolute potentiality, a God who incorporates the nihil and is capable of not being and not acting. Hence, Agamben’s article on Bartleby culminates in the questioning of the principle of sufficient reason. For Deleuze, however Spinoza is singular in the history of philosophy, because in him he finds an idea of the ground that does not lead to a privative, emanationist or negative model of the determination of things. Let us put it this way: if to ground means to determine the indeterminate, Deleuze searches in Spinoza for a type of ‘determination which is not opposed to the indeterminate and does not limit it’. Deleuze proposed that this type of determination can be found in Spinoza’s idea of immanent causality.