Subtle Doctors for Subtle Differences, Research Time, 29/01/2018

Pretty much everyone who writes on Gilles Deleuze as a scholar ends up engaging somehow with the ideas of Hegel. Not because Deleuze was a Hegelian in any way,* but because his work was threaded with profound and cutting critiques of the whole Hegelian way of thinking.

When I set out to write Utopias, it was early 2014. I put the outline
together, in a very rough form. That gave me my research guide. I
knew and I know that I'd never have been able to be comprehensive
enough to satisfy everyone – that no one would be able to ask a
question like, "What about what X has to say?" An inescapable
question. I gave myself eight years – I'm now at the halfway
mark, and I have this blog. Manuscript drafted by 2022.
* But if I were ever to come across an academician’s argument that Deleuze actually was a Hegelian, I’d be impressed by its daring and desperation. Daring because it stands against so many of Deleuze’s most explicit motives and goals. Desperate because the scholarship must be overflowing with so many disparate takes that only derangement can distinguish you. Unless it’s character assassination.

I want to see if I can get a very quick but accurate assessment of the Deleuze–Hegel relationship in the next few hundred words of this blog. It’ll be an exercise in the kind of fast yet insightful writing required when philosophy’s history is a tool for a more creative purpose.

When Deleuze’s work was first blowing up in French intellectual circles – the mid-late-1960s – damn near everyone had some element of Hegelian thinking in their philosophy. What does that mean?

A typical mainstream philosophical thinker in France – whether linguist, psychiatrist, social scientist, or socialist – considered the most critical dynamic in any situation the contradiction. Real developments hinged on contradictions – perfectly opposed conflicts, as intractable as A + not-A.

In the marxist politics of the era, for example, contradictions were seen as the engine of revolutions – all the constituents of an industrial society came together in the contradiction of the owner-capitalists and the worker-labourers. The conflict between those two classes determined every other aspect of a society – all other relationships and dynamics depended on how that opposition played out.

Sometimes, I feel constrained by that timeline. As though I could never
squeeze enough work into that time period to achieve a book with the
creative potential I think Utopias can have. The blog has kept my
research on track, and kept it organized. This was unexpected, but a
great benefit – it's helped keep me in step with the times too. Even
the most prestigious professors can't devote all their time to
research and writing – they have teaching, administration, and
promotional work to do. At least my own years conceiving of
Utopias were spent in the chaos of today's contingent labour.
I didn't have to work too hard at keeping my feet in the real world.
All the subtle differences in a society are functions of that contradiction. So if you understand the contradiction’s own dynamics, you’ll be able to understand all the subtler differences in your society. You just deduce the subtle and complex from the simple contradiction.

How do you find the contradiction? Two steps. First, identify the dominant trend in society – its most ascendant feature, if you can follow the analogy. Then, work out what a precisely opposing force would be. If you’re thinking sociologically, it might be a very small, underdeveloped phenomenon.

An example. Think back to marxism. The Shropshire farm boys first coming to the city for the freedom of making good money on those factory floors had no idea they – or at least their class of people – would be so historically pivotal. But those underpaid, spat-upon factory workers were the other half of the dynamic whose back-and-forth would determine how all of English society would develop.

The story itself is inspiring. But that’s not actually how society develops. Same goes for any process – the differences that make a difference aren’t contradictions. They could be contradictions – but contradictions are just one among a vast number of kinds of difference. No by their nature more important than any other.

There might not even be a society whose conflicts have any common theme at all – no less a society for all that messiness.

That said, I knew one thing from the beginning – I was not a
marxist. And I'm still not. Because so much of the marxist
tradition was dominated by the rigidity of Hegelian
thinking that marxist politics became disastrous. Antonio
Gramsci's critiques of his own radical movement haven't
been heard by people today on the front lines. Union
leaders today think solidarity will come naturally from
every group in society outside the masters. But some
interests matter more than others
, and what might look
like a glaring, powerful contradiction is really a play of
ineffective surfaces.
Go back to that example of England, where Karl Marx did his first sociological and economic research – that dedicated scientific Hegelian. He found a society whose values were dominated by class superiority – the alliance of landed aristocrats and industry millionaires whose political compromise was to keep the poor in their place.

Not only did the rich dominate the lives of the poor, but popular moral dogma – in informal culture and formal education – taught that such an order was right. Marx saw that same dynamic inspiring absolutist racism in the colonial economy.

The rich have right over the poor – so the poor Englishman would always feel rich compared to the colonized and enslaved African. So racial dynamism is determined by the structure of the fundamental contradiction.

The society perpetuated the very division that would tear it down. The conflict between rich and poor becomes irreconcilable, sparking a revolution that would be humanity’s aufheben. The contradictions are preserved, but transformed so that they reconcile.

The procedure makes perfect sense in conventional logic. And Hegel’s book Logic too. But it isn’t actually how real differences in the world work.

That was Deleuze’s contribution – Hegel put simplification first, because formal logic proceeded in simple functions. But logic is a tool, which we invented. What’s primary is the material mess from which we emerged. That a tool helps you understand the world better in the best places to use it, doesn’t mean that tool is how you see the world’s essence.

Our universe is one of contingency, complexity, feedback loops, interference, chaotic collisions where small, innocuous events can explode in their significance through nothing in their own makeup.

Look at imperialist England. Yes, you can reduce the racist culture of white supremacy to a symptom of the rich-owner/poor-worker dynamic – and our current culture of white supremacy was an ideology designed to make the poor European worker accept his own slavery by making him master of another kind of slave.

But once assembled, the cultural process of white supremacy can develop through the dynamics of its own components and affects. Its relationship to the economic dynamic of centre-periphery is no longer as its function, but as a participant in feedback.

Whether an event or a dynamic ends up having world-shattering significance isn’t a matter of logic, but luck. That’s Deleuze’s rebuttal to the Hegelian way of thinking. Embrace our contingency, our fragility. Build an ethic for fragility.

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