Advancing toward Nothing

Diagram: Asymmetry, Not Complexity

“The ‘nothing’ (Heidegger), the ‘trace’ or ‘différance’ (Derrida), the ‘surplus always exterior to the totality’ (Levinas), the ‘differend’ (Lyotard), ‘the invisible’ (Althusser),” and “the ‘pariah’ (Arendt), ‘the jew’ (Lyotard), the ‘migrant’ (Virilio), the ‘nomad’ (Deleuze and Guattari), the ‘hybrid’ (Bhabha), the ‘catachrestic remainder’ (Spivak), the ‘non-being’ (Dussel), the ‘refugee’ (Agamben), and, most resonantly, the ‘émigré’ (Said),” are the terms literary theorist William Spanos uses to describe the fleeting figures of the late twentieth century (“Question of Philosophy,” 173). Each term names a conflict between differences in kind, mapping lines of flight to the outside and those who dwell there. They speak of effects not equal to their cause. The generic term for this relation is asymmetry, which expresses difference as formal inequivalence. Asymmetry works to impede reciprocal relations and prevent reversibility. It diagrammatically starts by constituting two formally distinct terms as contrary asymmetry. It is maintained by concretely establishing a relationship of incommensurability between their sets of forces.

Complexity is snake oil in the age of singularity—everyone and everything is a unique snowflake, what relations they can establish is not predetermined, and what they can become is limited most by how well they apply themselves! Any criticism of complexity must take into account its three levels: complexity as a fact, complexity as a resource, and complexity as deferral. As a fact, it culminates in a “flat ontology” that stitches together difference into a strange alliance of philosophy and science (Delanda, Intensive Science, 46–47). Though offering some provocative insights, this flattening still often leads to “a uniformization of diversity” and “equalization of inequality” (DR, 223). As a resource, the labyrinthine structure of complex systems can both mobilize and impair forces. Such complexity multiplies paths, which stocks one’s arsenal with either a range of new options (as in de Certeau’s “tactics”) or a trap to bog down their opponents (Kafka’s The Trial). It is this second aspect that contributes to the third dimension of complexity: deferral. A matter’s “complexity” has become a way to defer a sufficient answer (“it is too complex for me to give a complete answer now . . .”). The trouble with deferral is its collusion with capitalist time, which delays the arrival of the proletarian revolution (Balibar, Philosophy of Marx, 101). Just ask complexity progenitor Stuart Kauffman, who now speaks in a mixture of religious mysticism and computational entrepreneurship (Reinventing the Sacred; Kauffman et al., “Economic Opportunity”).

Deleuze outlines his case for asymmetry in Difference and Repetition. Everything we know is the work of a calculating god whose numbers fail to add up, he says (DR, 222). The effect is a basic injustice, an “irreducible inequality,” that is “the world” (222). “If the calculations were exact there would be no world,” Deleuze argues, that makes the world itself the “remainder” that is “the real in the world understood in terms of fractional or even incommensurable numbers” (222). This asymmetry is not meant as a refutation of the dubious hypothesis of the computational universe, though he does thoroughly show how the “partial truth” of energetics (e.g., the thermodynamics of entropy) is a “transcendental physical illusion” that should not be applied to the rest of the world (225, 229). The wider significance of asymmetry is an alternative to dialectics. A dialectical framing of gender, for instance, would establish an intrinsic relation between masculinity and femininity, hopelessly entangling each within each other. Extracted from dialectics, Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker note in their media theory of the exploit that “it is not simply that feminism is opposed to patriarchy, but that they are asymmetrically opposed; racism and antiracism are not just opposed but exist in a relationship of asymmetry” (The Exploit, 14). The result is a formal mechanism for political antagonism that draws on the powers of the outside.

Asymmetry is ultimately a question of combat, even if it is formally established diagrammatically. Its best realization was the twentieth-century guerrilla. The guerilla demonstrates two things about asymmetry: first, each side is opposed in terms of its strategic imperatives, but second, as each side varies in orientation, it also varies in type. As Henry Kissinger writes about the American strategy in “The Vietnam Negotiations” for Foreign Affairs,

we fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win. The North Vietnamese used their armed forces the way a bull-fighter uses his cape—to keep us lunging in areas of marginal political importance. (214)

Fact: while the United States was fighting a war, Vietnam was engaged in combat; one for domination, the other for freedom (ECC, 132–35). This is how Marxist struggles for national liberation raised formal asymmetry as a resource for world-historical proportions. Mao defeated the national army of China with guerrillas who “move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” Che helped Castro’s rebels flood the countryside so that they could spark a revolution that would eventually consume the cities. We must find ways to avoid complexity from deferring our own “full guerrilla warfare” (LS, 156–57).

Affect: Cruelty, Not Intensity

The story of a tyrant: finding his cruelty mollified, God burdens the world with infinite debt. Before him, memories were written on the body in a “terrible alphabet” so as never to forget them (AO, 145). This system was cruel but finite, which allowed it to form elaborate crisscrossing systems that warded off the centralization of power, such as potlatches (190). A paranoid despot arrives from the outside, as described by Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morality, installing history “just like lightning appears, too terrible, sudden,” with the founding of the state to redirect the horizontal lines of alliance up and toward himself. Finite is made infinite—“everything is owed to the king” (AO, 192). Against the infinite torture of unlimited debt, cruelty combats both history and the judgment of God with “a writing of blood and life that is opposed to the writing of the book” (ECC, 128). Cruelty returns as language written on flesh—“terrible signs that lacerate bodies and stain them” as “the incisions and pigments” that reveal “what they owe and are owed” (AO, 128). Only then does the eternal collapse into the finitude of our existence.

Ours is “the most cruel of all worlds” (DI, 108). Cruelty has a lighter cousin, intensity, which induces the event of individuation that “affirms difference” without resorting to extension’s depth (DR, 233). The definition of intensity as “felt” has been the source of incredible confusion. Having reduced intensity to a special kind of feeling, practitioners of “affect studies” perform autoethnographies of the ineffable. This is quite peculiar given the antiphenomenology of Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism, which is explicitly nonhuman, prepersonal, and asubjective. Instead of intensity as “a strong feeling,” cruelty more aptly describes the “being of the sensible” as “the demons, the sign-bearers,” who bring thought to us (266). Consider how Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition opens with lightning streaking through the black sky and ends with all the drops of the world swelling into a single ocean of excess (28, 304). Toward the end, he tells us that history presides over every determination since the birth of the world (219). Even though it may not progress “by its bad side,” as Marx would have it through his critique of Proudhon, history is not “any less bloody or cruel as a result” (268).

Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty gives shape to the way forward. He would be amused by the cinematic experiment of A Clockwork Orange. His theatrical cruelty targets those who see themselves as Alex—those who complain, “I can no longer think what I want, the moving images-are-substituted for my own thoughts” (C2, 166). The resulting theater is not for telling stories but to “empower,” to implant images in the brains of those powerless to stop it (174, 166). The cruel force of these images strikes something in the skull but not the mind (a nerve? brain matter?) (167). But the only thought it allows us to ponder is “the fact that we are not yet thinking,” that we are “powerless to think the whole and to think oneself,” a “thought which is always fossilized, dislocated, collapsed” (167). Cruelty here is “a dissociative force,” “a figure of nothingness,” and “a hole in appearance” good only for unlinking us from ourselves (167).

Organization: Unfolding, Not Rhizome

Enough with rhizomes. Although they were a suggestive image of thought thirty-five years ago, our present is dominated by the Cold War technology of the Internet that was made as a rhizomatic network for surviving nuclear war. The rhizome was a convincing snapshot of things to come, but Deleuze and Guattari left out a few things, most notably the question of movement. How does a rhizome advance, except in the crawl of the blob that slowly takes over everything? This is probably why connectivists have come to revere it—the alleged open ecology of the network specifies nothing except the bluster of its own inevitability. We know better than to think that a rhizome is enough to save us. Even something as rhizomatic as the Internet is still governed by a set of decentralized protocols that helps it maintain its consistency—the drawback being that these forms of control are diffuse, not immediately apparent, and difficult to resist (Galloway, Protocol, 61–72).

A contrary path: cast a line to the outside! These lines are found in folds, which are what connects a world where “relations are external to their terms” (H, 101). It is through the external bridge of the fold that “a world where terms exist like veritable atoms” communicates through their irreducible exteriority (DI, 163). More importantly, folding is movement. The inside is not erased from this world; rather, the interior is an operation of the outside (F, 97). Such “in-folding” is a structuration, “the folding back on itself of the fiber to form a compact structure” that transforms mere sedimentation into hardened strata (TP, 42). It is in this way that we can understand folding as a double-relation of force enveloping itself (and not of some forces’ relation to others) as found in inorganic life, biological evolution, art, and thought (N, 92). But folding only accounts for one moment in the rhythm of movement; it is complemented by unfolding—“to unfold is to increase to grow; whereas to fold is to diminish, to reduce, ‘to withdraw into the recesses of a world’” (L, 8–9).

Although called joyous by some, the great unfolding sparks an experience of terror driven by the question, “how far can we unfold the line without falling into a breathless void, into death, and how can we fold it, but without losing touch with it, to produce an inside copresent with the outside, corresponding to the outside?” (N, 113). A boring biological example is an animal’s deterritorialization of its milieu by in-folding a function by way of an organ that enables it to escape to form new relations with a new outside, such as a tetrapod’s water retrainment, which enabled it to carry the sea with it on land. The most exciting version of unfolding operates purely in time. As a narrative device, unfolding builds tension until it suddenly “bursts open like a spring” (N, 151). Expectation, anticipation, climax, release. Modern Times is a masterful piece of unfolding. At a certain point (“the moment Charlie Chaplin makes the board fall on his head for a second time”), the film unfolds with the “short-circuits of a disconnected piece of machinery” (AO, 317). We cease to identify with the main character and instead envelop his events, surprises, premonitions, and habits. There is no more to unfold at dawn as the couple, “seen from the back, all black, whose shadows are not projected by any sun, advance toward nothing” (317). A line of telegraph poles on the left and pathetic trees on the right, the two fade into an empty road with no horizon—disappearing as they unfold into the void.

Unfolding operates through conduction, not communication—at least according to Jean-François Lyotard in Libidinal Economy (254–62). As a conductor of affects, unfolding does not build capacities through the accumulative logic of rhizomes, which changes through addition or subtraction. Unfolding’s disconnection is not the dampening of power but the buildup of charges that jump across the divide. This operation is so vital that Deleuze elevates unfolding to the absolute of unfolding substance itself (S, 310). Yet this process always takes place through a body, which stands at the limit of wild unfolding. The body staves off the “operation of vertigo” that comes from chasing after the “tiny and moving folds that waft me along at excessive speed” (L, 93). Seen from its slower speed, we see that unfolding generates force. Consider Lyotard’s project of an “invulnerable conspiracy, headless, homeless, with neither programme nor project,” which begins by “deploying a thousand cancerous tensors” (262) across the body’s “great ephemeral skin”:

Open the so-called body and spread out all its surfaces: not only the skin with each of its folds, wrinkles, scars, with its great velvety planes, and contiguous to that, the scalp and its mane of hair, the tender pubic fur, nipples, hair, hard transparent skin under the heel, the light frills of the eyelids, set with lashes—but open and spread, expose the labia majora, so also the labia minora with their blue network bathed in mucus, dilate the diaphragm of the anal sphincter, longitudinally cut and flatten out the black conduit of the rectum, then the colon, then the caecum, now a ribbon with its surface all striated and polluted with shit; as though your dressmaker’s scissors were opening the leg of an old pair of trousers, go on, expose the small intestines’ alleged interior, the jejunum, the ileum, the duodenum, or else, at the other end, undo the mouth at its comers, pull out the tongue at its most distant roots and split it. Spread out the bats’ wings of the palate and its damp basements, open the trachea and make it the skeleton of a boat under construction; armed with scalpels and tweezers, dismantle and lay out the bundles and bodies of the encephalon; and then the whole network of veins and arteries, intact, on an immense mattress, and then the lymphatic network, and the fine bony pieces of the wrist, the ankle, take them apart and put them end to end with all the layers of nerve tissue which surround the aqueous humours and the cavernous body of the penis, and extract the great muscles, the great dorsal nets, spread them out like smooth sleeping dolphins. (1–2)

Though Lyotard’s account is compelling, we must remain more vigilant. For what is it that fuels capitalism if not the massive energy generated through the unfolding of bodies? This is what inspires the famous line of The Manifesto of the Communist Party, whereby the constant revolutionizing of the forces of production leads to an “uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation” summarized in the phrase “all that is solid melts into air” (chapter 1). But to be clear: communism is revolutionary because it too believes in the process of dissolution. Capitalism is to be criticized for falling short—it pairs the conductive power of unfolding with the rhizomatic logic of accumulation. A communism worthy of its name pushes unfolding to its limit.

Ethics: Conspiratorial Communism, Not Processual Democracy

Democracy should be abolished. Spinozist champions of democracy, such as Antonio Negri, consider Deleuze a fellow traveler. Some Deleuzians have even tried to smuggle democracy back into his metaphysics, some even pervert him into a liberal. Yet Deleuze lumps nothing but hatred upon democracy—summarized by his mocking of the phrases “Everything is equal!” and “Everything returns!” at the beginning and end of Difference and Repetition. Against the principle of equivalence implied in the first, he agrees with Nietzsche, who criticizes contract, consensus, and communication. Against the principle of continuity implied in the second, he agrees with Marx, who rejects the liberal proceduralism that underwrites rights as an obfuscation of power. More than enough ink has been spilled to support both of these positions. But to get the tenor pitch perfect, it is worth mentioning that Deleuze and Guattari viciously criticize democracy in their collaborations, usually by calling it the cousin of totalitarianism. They discuss democracy, fascism, and socialism as all related in Anti-Oedipus (261). In A Thousand Plateaus, they discuss “military democracy” (394), “social democracy” as the complementary pole of the State to “totalitarianism” (462), “totalitarian-social democracy” (463), and a poverty-stricken “Third World social democracy” (468). In What Is Philosophy?, they speak of Athenian “colonizing democracy” (97), hegemonic democracy (98), democracy being caught up with dictatorial states (106), a social democracy that “has given the order to fire when the poor come out of their territory or ghetto” (107), and a Nazi democracy (108), which all lead them to conclude that their utopian “new people and a new earth . . . will not be found in our democracies” (108). Together, they can be neatly summarized: no matter how perfect, democracy always relies on a transcendent sovereign judgment backed by the threat of force. Only twice is Deleuze caught with his pants down in regard to democracy, both in moments of pandering—once in a letter to Antonio Negri’s jailers that appeals through self-distance to “everyone committed to democracy,” and again when discussing America’s “virile and popular loves” in a brief paean to Walt Whitman (TR, 169; ECC, 60). All other “democratic” Deleuzes are the inventions of his commentators.

Deleuze happily embraces a Marxism so anti-State that it refuses the project of democracy. It is up to us to render his Marxism in darker terms than Rancière, who would rather break down the state through the democratic dissensus of aesthesis acting as “the power of an ontological difference between two orders of reality” (Dissensus, 180). Outright, darkness begins by subverting Negri’s joyous celebration of democracy, which offers a productivist composition of forces as both the conditions of and resolution to capitalism (Ruddick, “Politics of Affect”). If Negriism was true, the only thing left for us to do is to “dump the bosses off our backs” (Hardt, “Common in Communism”). But the balance of power is far too ambivalent to make the epochal declaration that a revolutionary subject, such as the multitude, has already been produced and merely needs to be found. Our mad black communism is not a reworking of Marx’s universalism, which is the seamless unity of thought and action that can be found in productivist appeals to immanence as immediate and unmediated, that is to say, automatic (PI, 29; DR, 29). On this account, an a priori communism is too dangerously close to Kant (DI, 60). We have no use for the judgment of a communist natura, which comes from the Joyous Deleuzians’ confusion of metaphysics for politics. Neither automatic or automated, our communism is not tempted by the fully automated luxury communism of cybernetics, which is a temptation only from the perspective of control societies. Our communism is nothing but the conspiracy of communism (against ontology). It is the conspiracy to destroy the factory of production. As a conspiracy, communism is a war machine that turns the autoproductive processes of the Real into weapons for destroying any project built on metaphysical consistency. It targets the collusion between the creation of concepts and the reproduction of this world. In this sense, it wages a guerilla struggle against those who joyfully affirm “the ontology of Deleuze.” It is a conspiracy for at least two reasons: first, it has a penchant for negativity that makes its revolutionary force appear as a conspiracy against everything that the joyful take as a given; second, its inclination toward collective forms of asymmetric struggle sets it wholly at odds with scholarly common sense. It dares any communism worth its name to wage a war of annihilation against God, Man, and the World itself.