The Hermetic Critique of Deleuze

This post is by Daniel Whistler responding to Joshua Ramey’s  The Hermetic Deleuze. - APS

I’ve struggled with what follows a lot: not just because of my affection and respect for Joshua, but also because The Hermetic Deleuze is a book of such rigour, subtlety and (perhaps most of all) extensity that whatever I have written seems to be engaging with a pale parody of Ramey’s prose. Nevertheless, my jumping-off point is a comment Ramey made recently on AUFS: ‘I would be the first to aver that Deleuze’s vitalist turn is problematic and incompletely conceived.’ The context to which is a few dense sentences that simultaneously cling on to Deleuze’s later thought as productively hermetic, while also recognising the need to redeploy ‘Deleuze’s work as something of a touchstone, something to move beyond’. There is complexity and ambiguity here worthy of The Hermetic Deleuze itself. And this is what I want to explore: the extent to which Ramey’s first book, while obviously post-Deleuzian, is also haunted by an anti-Deleuzianism – a spectral dissatisfaction with Deleuze’s published statements and the beginnings of a ‘hermetic critique of Deleuze’ as well as a ‘hermetic Deleuze’.

The Hermetic Deleuze very deliberately positions Deleuze in the Renaissance (221). From this the consequence: Deleuzian ontology is an ontology of sign, a ‘being in signs’. Via Foucault, Ramey envisages ‘a vital transcription of immanence as an open set of enigmatic yet adequate signs’ (89), vectors for the mind to think that unthought intensity in which ‘life’ consists. While Ramey is quick to point out a Spinozan ambivalence that continues to haunt Deleuze on language, the intensification of ‘a language of intense, intuitive, and spiritual apprehensions’ (7) is still for Ramey’s Deleuze the task of thinking. But nothing is set in stone: the identification of success in this regard is only possible in an a posteriori, ‘improvisatory’ manner (30), for Deleuze is very much a pragmatist: what matters are configurations of signs that work.

It is here that a perspective on Deleuze as well as a Deleuzian perspective opens up – and this becomes clearer by taking a step back to consider the operation of which semiosis is a subset: mediation, or the articulation of mediators that are able to incarnate the intensity of the thought-unthought in a sustained, healthy manner. Here is the moment in the book where Ramey points most clearly to a post- and even anti-Deleuzian philosophy of mediators, as a response to Goodchild’s criticisms (which push him furthest). Ramey writes in what is for me the most important passage in the book,

As I have tried to suggest, there are intimations in Deleuze’s thought that particular diagrams and figures emerge as more than mere effects of a ceaseless abstract shuffling between chaos and immanence. Some kind of mediation may play a genuinely constitutive role in his system, even if the redemptive function of such mediators is not something Deleuze explicitly theorises… Rogues and outliers… form irreplaceable figures on the plan(e) of immanence, and those who belong to this series of humorous avatars would index the contours of a viable experimental life… The future of immanent thought, and the future of belief, would then have to be a kind of typology of unforgettable characters. Such a transcendence of singular spirits rather than simply the forces of abstract materiality might better ground a perspective from which to evaluate experimentation. (215-6)

Deleuzian mediators – Bartleby, Friday, Riderhood, Zarathustra – haunt the closing pages of The Hermetic Deleuze, but as failures standing in need of supplementation by a new ‘mode of mediumship’ (167).

But how tell a successful mediation from a failure? With such a question we arrive at a further concern: the elucidation of more robust criteria for distinguishing good from bad experiments in the expression of life – that is, metapragmatic conditions for a Critique of Experimental Reason, where the possibility of effective (rather than legitimate) experiments are delimited. And once again there can be no a priori formulae, but only summary rules. Ramey labels this, ‘a pragmatics of the intense’ (30), the manifesto for which reads as follows, ‘It is necessary to discover a set of metapragmatic criteria on which to cultivate nonfatal immersions of immanence, and to discover a teleology proper to immanent vocations… to cultivate the criteria of a truly “practical” philosophy of the absolute.’ (181) This, then, is what I take to be the crux of the book – a call for new criteria that distinguish successful mediations from unsuccessful ones. And it is here, moreover, that Deleuze fails: he might vaguely point the way forward, but when it comes to definitively locating robust criteria for determinate mediators, he runs scared or (as I want to think about in a second) he falls into vitalist hand-waving.

For Ramey, if I understand him correctly, these conditions for post-Deleuzian mediation are ultimately going to cluster around the idea of crystallisation. And to refer back to a discussion emerging around Dan Barber’s contribution, it strikes me that at this point Deleuzian incarnation goes beyond actualization to become a problem of articulation too, particularly a problem of crystallisation. In other words, these metapragmatic criteria concern time – and, specifically, being brutal with time, determining what’s happening in the quickest possible time. This is a recurrent motif in Deleuze, of course, and in The Hermetic Deleuze Ramey draws attention to it (107), but I want to quote from a more recent piece of Ramey’s (“The Physics of Sense”, which was co-written with me but this passage is very much Joshua’s!), for I think that this ideal of crystallisation is becoming ever more central to Ramey’s divination project:

What is at stake—affectively, ethically, physically—in the perversion of sense?… To oversimplify, this is a matter of selective interpretation: one selects the most limited possible present within which to entertain a maximum of sense (and nonsense)… [This], effectively, is to allow the mind to focus. The whole point, ethically speaking, is to occupy the instant and prevent it from overflowing. Divination is not a matter of selecting among possible meanings, possible senses, but grasping sense itself… Metaphysics becomes ethics as divination. The physics of sense names the selective and transforming power of a word that has become adequate to a present moment, an instant which that word alone can grasp.

Just as the task of the metaphysical word is to crystallise sense in ‘the most limited possible present’, so too something like this must be true of the mediator. It is a matter of being cruel with sense (bearing in mind that how to be cruel remains a pragmatic, a posteriori decision). As Deleuze puts it in Negotiations and Ramey quotes (105), ‘To imagine is to construct crystal-images, to make the image behave like a crystal.’ A crystal mediator is a successful one – or this is how I read Ramey.

But if this is so, we can now return to my opening quotation: ‘I would be the first to aver that Deleuze’s vitalist turn is problematic and incompletely conceived’ to discern precisely how fundamentally opposed this crystal mediator is to the mediators of the late Deleuze. Riderhood is a convenient, if well-worn example. As we all know, he lies dying in the Jolly Porters tavern and, through a process of de-individualisation that is also a process of singularisation, he becomes an exemplary mediator of life – Deleuze insists ‘no one has described [this process] better than Charles Dickens’. Nevertheless, this choice of mediator seems prima facie surprising. There seems little reason to differentiate this episode from all the countless spirituo-moral redemption tableaus in Dickens’ novels: Paul Dombey’s cloying death (‘Look upon us, angels of young children… when the swift river bears us to the ocean!’) or Riah’s sickly-sweet premonition in Our Mutual Friend itself (‘He saw the face of the little creature looking down out of a Glory of her long bright radiant hair, and musically repeating to him, like a vision: “Come up and be dead!’”). There is a word for this sort of thing, sentimental. And does Deleuze really think that somehow Riderhood’s flirtation with death escapes sentimentality? That is, I want to suggest that ‘sentimentality’ here names a criterion for failed experiments in life, the very opposite of crystallisation. Sentimentality is the criterion by which the late, vitalist Deleuze fails (this once at least).

Central here is the fact that Riderhood’s manifestation of the spark of life takes place in signs – and the intensity (or otherwise) of these signs determine the success of the mediation. But the discursive conditions that make this episode possible remain the twin vectors of Dickensian sentimentality: moralism and comic slang. The Riderhood episode is permeated by cliché (the very enemy of Deleuzian experimentation):

“Many a better man,” moralises Tom Tootle with a gloomy shake of the head, “ain’t had his luck.” “It’s to be hoped he’ll make a better use of his life,” says Bob Glamour, “than I expect he will.” “Or than he done afore,” adds Williams Williams. “But no, not he,” says Jonathan of the no surname, clinching the quartet.

This juxtaposition of moralism and comedy forms the pragmatic configuration of what Deleuze insists is the best ‘description of a life’.

And yet Deleuze may still be onto something, for there may yet be a trace of a sign that escapes this overcoding. Cliché does not exhaust the text: the signs do struggle to transcend themselves and leave open a place for redemptive meaning. But such meaning is always to-come; for now it is left empty. ‘The spark of life’ never has-been-determined. Indeed, considering that ‘Immanence: A Life’ is so insistent on the need for transcendental determination and empirical indetermination, nothing could be further from what is going on here: the empirical doxa is determined repeatedly, while the place of transcendental life is left void. This is just one more symptom of sentimentality, which consists (to temporalise the terms) in both the overcoding of the empirical present by past doxa and the underdetermination of the transcendental present in the name of future decision.

And here it becomes clear what sentimentality lacks and so why it is a criterion for failed experiments – it lacks cruelty, and specifically it fails to be brutal with time. While crystallisation articulates in the quickest possible time, sentimentality is too slow: too slow to break out of cliché and too slow to close down the infinite options of the future of interpretation. The sentimental symbol refuses to decide; it lacks the brutality by which cliché is thrown aside and the future closed down. Such a procedure is unjust, it is cruel – but it is the only means of crystallising the mediation. And such a procedure is precisely what Dickens’ writing of ‘a life’ lacks. Dickens lacks cruelty; the ordeal to which he subjects language is not brutal enough; it does not crystallise a life. And maybe it is no surprise to find the late Deleuze siding with sentimentality: does not the distinction between empirical and transcendental determination of this final essay necessitate experiments that are ‘out of this world’, prone to become empty, vacuous and thus quickly re-populated by cliché? Is this not the ‘sentimental Deleuze’ who hovers on the edges of moralism, slang and an underdetermined virtual?

And if to this extent Deleuzian experiments are prone to sentimentality, then Ramey’s post-Deleuzian call for more robust, more crystal mediators is anti-Deleuzian – a call for more cruelty and brutality in theory. And for me at least this raises a further question, despite and because of the brilliance of the book: is Ramey sufficiently cruel to Deleuze? In tarrying with a mentor from whom he has long parted company, might Ramey’s The Hermetic Deleuze verge on sentimentality too?

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