Deleuze and Interventionism

The work of many sociologists reflects, at some level, a commitment to universal normative propositions. Bringing the metaethical foundations of these propositions forward for critical investigation has not been the general practice. A self-reflexive examination of their own foundational metaethical beliefs and a consideration of other approaches would seem to be the ethical thing to do. The philosophy of Gilles Deleuze offers a contrasting set of metaethical commitments.

Deleuze is suspicious of universal and sedentary moral principles. For example, he questions how we use the concept of human rights in the contemporary world. Deleuze is not opposed to rights as such, but only to the idea that there exists a definitive set of human rights grounded in some rights-bearing feature of human nature. He sees specifications of human rights as empty universals, useless because the codified rights are fixed and ahistorical, unable to evolve in accordance with the requirements of a particular case.

He argues that universal coordinates such as “rights” explain nothing; what needs to be analyzed in a concrete assemblage are the processes by which rights are both created and critiqued. It is not a question of universal rights; it is a question of a situation, and a situation that is evolving. Deleuze takes up the concept of jurisprudence as a model for the creation of rights that are not universal, but always linked to a given assemblage and the particularity of specific cases or singularities.

Human rights are axioms. Axiomatic systems of laws, once established, are fraught with undecidable cases. The law thus operates on two registers: legislators create laws and decide on axioms, rules; while the judiciary moves from case to case, from singularity to singularity. Cases that resist the imposition of axioms wind up in the courts, before a judge, who in the end must make a judgment in the absence of any rule. This is similar to moral particularism as suggested by the Apache and Aristotle.

Jurisprudence is an ongoing and open-ended creative process that leads to the modification of existing laws and the invention of new rights. Deleuze argues that situations which are targeted for intervention must be considered as cases to be decided, rather than simply subsumed under what he sees as sedentary universal codes of laws. “To act for freedom, becoming revolutionary, is to operate in jurisprudence when one turns to the justice system . . . that’s what the invention of law is. . . . It’s not a question of applying ‘the rights of man’ but rather of inventing new forms of jurisprudence.”

Sociologists do not carry guns in the front lines, nor are they asked to participate in the executions of terrorists. This is not to say that sociology has eschewed all pretensions of moral interventionism. However, if sociology seeks to oppose oppression, basing the campaign on a commitment to moral realism leaves one armed with universal, immutable, and thus “oppressive” codes.

2 thoughts on “Deleuze and Interventionism

    1. father time Post author

      Here is a response that is as short and non-technical as I can make it. Even at that, it exceeds my arbitrary limit of 500 words. It is the view of a reader with limited training in philosophy from 10,000 feet. It tries to explain three problems Deleuze has with the CI.

      Kant’s categorical imperative (CI): “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

      1) Deleuze considers metaphysics as first philosophy. But his metaphysics does not allow for the uniform entities needed to prove or enforce universal laws. He begins with a commitment to the contingent event or ‘instanteneous becoming’ as his ontological simple: the ultimate building blocks of the world. Becomings are haecceities: in Deleuze’s definition, degrees of intensity in each unique event. His is an ontology of change, transformation, relations, and ‘difference’ (a key term for D). He rejects the privileged model of representations in Western philosophy. Deleuze argues that each unique entity, or moment of instantaneous becoming, has a unique set of properties and relations that set it apart from any other entity, any other becoming. For Deleuze, accidental properties are not experimental ‘noise’ but the ‘essence’ of that haecceity.

      His magnum opus, Difference and Repetition (D&R), is firmly based on his ontological model. In it he attacks the notion of universal scientific and moral laws. He opens with the claim that “Repetition is not generality.” Our common sense of experimental repetition seems to require two objects, identical with one another, otherwise we do not have repetition of the experiment but two different objects, thus no general category. Identical entities have sharply defined boundaries and exist in all circumstances in the same state. While the physical world may be full of innumerable resemblances, experiments rely on the active constitution of an experimental context. We choose the factors we want to analyze and exclude others. This requires that all factors under review are determinable discretely. If they are not, the experiment generates a law of the form, ‘given the same circumstances’, i.e. a hypothetical law.

      As opposed to absolute laws, universal laws can be adjusted according to the context of their application. Applying Deleuze’s claims to Kant’s moral laws we recognize that there are always different circumstances than those that guided the original self-legislation of the autonomous agent. Therefore the ‘universal’ laws produced by the CI cannot be repeated or applied in a universal fashion. This comes into play when an individual or group uses the CI to determine universal laws and apply them to other individuals or groups who are not in the same circumstances. This is the basis for his appeal to jurisprudence in moral judgments.

      2) In an earlier work, Kant’s Critical Philosophy (KCP), Deleuze is critical of Kant’s extension of the model of causal laws of the sensible world to moral laws of the suprasensible world. He claims that Kant sees the sensible world as governed by universal laws of deterministic causality and available to Kantian understanding and reason. On the other hand, the suprasensible world require laws that are indeterminate in order to allow for the autonomy of the moral agent. In much of the KCP, D puts a fine point on the problems Kant faces in his use of the faculties of understanding and reason to determine discrete factors in the suprasensible world needed to form a law by repetition (as developed later in D&R). He also questions Kant’s claim that we can understand the suprasensible world through an ‘analogy’ with the sensible. He claims that these problems all undermine Kant’s argument for the CI. The explication of KCP and its arguments would require a series of blogs. Fred, it is a short book (75 pages) and very accessible to someone with your background. Father Time would be glad to loan you his copy.

      3) Finally, Deleuze’s metaethical commitment is to ethics rather than morality. For Deleuze, morality is a set of constraining rules that judge actions and intentions in relation to transcendent values of good and evil. On the other hand, ethics is a way of assessing what we do in terms of ways of existing in the world. Morality implies that we judge ourselves and others on the basis of what we are and should be, whereas ethics implies that we do not yet know what we might become.

      D admires the American pragmatist model that substitutes experimentation for salvation. D sets the ideal of this pragmatism – a world which is ‘in process’ – against the ’European morality’ of salvation. The pragmatist ideal rejects the search for moral consensus and the construction of transcendent values and their use as a weapon against those who have not yet progressed to their own conclusions. It conceives of society as experiment rather than contract: a community of inquirers with an experimental spirit, individuals as a contingent series of becomings.

      I hope this short reading is satisfactory. We can always discuss it over a rice bowl. Thanks for commenting.


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