Exploring the postmodern legacy of productive difference.
Difference as production, instead of a negation of identity, is a central theme in postmodern philosophy. Deleuze explores this very centrally in his book Nietzsche and Philosophy (1962). In this work Deleuze uses Nietzsche to address the regimes of thinking inherent within Kant and Hegel. He proposes to think in defiance against reason and specifically the self-justifying absolutions of such a structure. He proposes that reason is not thinking itself but a culture before it, that it is a certain sensibility towards the world that is cultivated through the philosophical tradition. He further proposes that thought itself is inert, and so a certain violence must be enacted to it to produce its development. In this way the evolution of thinking must involve experiment and transformation beyond the confines of logic and reason.
In Difference and Repitition (1968), Deleuze develops this idea to include two interlocking concepts: firstly difference without negation and secondly repetition which is non-identical. In this work he formulates an unrelenting critique of representational thinking and proposes that appearances are sensory intensities, free from subjective or objective identities. In this way appearances are simulacra of an on-going differentiation, which he names the difference-in-itself; a paradox of paradoxes, which is not identical to the sensible nor too itself, but is wholly irreducible such that it forces us to accept the sensible as given.
Derrida was in many ways a contemporary of Deleuze, and pursued a philosophical programme in proximity of the Deleuzian ontology. Of Grammatology is the most comprehensive of his early works in mapping out the basic background of deconstruction. In this work he contemplates Heidegger’s call for the end of philosophy and the creation of a new way of thinking based on the non-presence of Being. However where Heidegger places Nietzsche still within the metaphysics of presence, Derrida places Nietzsche at the ‘closure’, a closure which he believes liberates writing from an orthodox notion of writing as traditional logos. In Derrida’s reading, Nietzsche liberates writing in its realisation as sign (physical word) for another sign (speech).
Derrida (like Heidegger) claims that the evolution of modern thought, particularly in the fields of linguistics, human sciences, mathematics and cybernetics has completed the work of the metaphysics of presence; in this way the written word has become a purely technical device — a matter of function and not meaning.
Heidegger in his essay On the Question of Being, crosses the word ‘being’ leaving it visible nonetheless (he puts it under erasure). We recall that Heidegger initially aims to show that Being is the presupposition behind any definition, that before we may ask the question of being we must at first acknowledge that a thing can exist at all. However he identifies the metaphysicality of the word as utterly entwined with presence, or the metaphysics of origin. In a movement of revolt Heidegger puts the word under erasure, meaning he prints the word as deleted. This is a paradoxical expression, but shows that the word is incorrect, but that simultaneously it is necessary — for Heidegger the concept remains inscribed and it is particularly the negation of being which Heidegger is interested in here. In this way Heidegger brings attention to the non-affirming negative of Being — the possibility of being, which paradoxically can only be found in its forgetting (the negation of being).
In the mood of Derrida, we can see that there is a certain similarity between the concept of Dasein in Heidegger’s philosophy and the signified in the philosophy of Levi Strauss. In structuralism all signifiers are connected with the extra-lingual signified, that is to mean anything that is a signifier must presuppose an endless set of signifiers outside it — the transcendental signified. He calls this joining and separating of the sign, différance. Deconstruction as a system traces the repetitions of the same, which is not identical, the ‘trajectories’ of différance. Therefore deconstruction does not impose meaning but traces the integrity of the structure of signifiers — which is undoubtedly incomplete. Therefor we see in Heidegger’s concept of Dasein as that which is presupposed in every being, similarly the trace is presupposed in any signifier. However the trace is very different to Being, because it is not an affirmation but a difference, moreover it is the difference of differences. So Derrida similarly puts the word trace under erasure, like Heidegger with Dasein; however it means something different. We could grasp trace as already being the absence of presence (the original meaning of Dasein under erasure); so to put it under erasure again is to understand it as the absence of the absence itself– or the simulacrum of the différance.
As we will see later with Deleuze, there is at first glance a similarity between différance and difference-in-itself. However there are some significant differences in their approach, which are worth exploring. For Derrida, in the true tradition of Husserl and Heidegger, the difference is relational and in essence transcendent — it is based on a sameness, which is not identical. For Deleuze, difference is the matter of immanence, that difference is the productive mechanism of reality. This is no trivial accordance but is the attempt to resolve the problem, “at the end of philosophy’ as Heidegger called it. This brings both schools of thought in close proximity to both, Heidegger’s ‘’matter itself’ and also Nietzsche’s ‘eternal return’.
This central concern may be understood in Heidegger’s reading of the Nietzschean eternal return (Kuiken, 2005). Heidegger says of the Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence:
“The way Nietzsche here patterns the first communication of the thought of the ‘greatest burden’ [of eternal recurrence] makes it clear that this ‘thought of thoughts’ is at the same time ‘the most burdensome thought’.” (Heidegger, 1984, p. 25)
In his paper, Towards an Almost Imperceptible Difference, Kuiken (2005) attempts to define a relationship between these two philosophers through their shared reading of Heidegger’s critique of Nietzsche. This is truly a kind of a poetic unto itself.
The beauty of this inquiry is that it attempts to unite through differences a recurring problem in philosophy, which is centrally concerned with difference and recursion in the production of reality. This may seem like an obscure and absurd task, but represents a true dedication to the Phenomenological, Existential and Post Structuralist traditions.
It would be fair to say that this tradition began with Nietzsche, but we find the traces of reduction ad absurdum can be traced to Pre-Socratic philosophers and of course to Socrates himself. This form of logical argumentation, which very much in line with Derrida’s Deconstruction seeks to find the points of instability in propositions and reduce them to the absurd. So too here, in this tradition of thinkers, in their deconstruction of philosophies before them, describe a central quality of irreducibity. For Deleuze this is the difference-in-itself, for Derrida it is Différance and for Heidegger it is the matter itself. The question at hand, is asking, how similar or how different are these notions, and what do they actually mean for philosophical inquiry, and thinking itself.
Zeno’s Paradoxes are insightful here, particularly his most well known paradoxes of motion. This roughly states that to travel a length, any object must first travel half that length. Then similarly to travel half the length, an object must first travel half of that, and so on. In this way the length can never be crossed. This is the epitome the problem within the metaphysics of presence in that it assumes the length to be self-existing - that it exists in some ideal way. It is this very fundamental axiomatic assertion, which is false — it is impossible for any length to exist as it does in a text book, for example. Therefor this paradox always emerges when we discuss something that is assumed to be self-evident, self-existing or inherently existing. The understanding that all things are relational, that reality emerges from a shared and interwoven history, is the crucial insight here and later with the advent of differential calculus, modern science finally understood in a rigorous way how this was possible. However the paradox is even more deeply meaningful, because we have to accept things as self-existing to act in the world. The error we make is not that the system exists, but that it exists in a wholly truthful way, rather it is incomplete, open and relational.
This articulation, points to Heidegger’s assertion that what Nietzsche is trying to understand is the paradox of multiplicities, which is central to Heidegger’s later work. In Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche, he makes two propositions about the eternal return. Firstly he claims that Nietzsche is ‘the last metaphysician’ because he attempts an overthrowing of the Platonic tradition, which Heidegger believes is a true necessity (Kuiken, 2005). Secondly he proposes that the ‘eternal return’ is a fundamental doctrine of Nietzsche’s philosophy because it is centrally about the ontological difference, which is the difference between Being and beings (Kuiken, 2005).
In his lectures Heidegger begins by inquiring into the unity or configuration (gestalt) of the doctrine — in this he means to ask the question, what is prefigured in the doctrine. He asserts that the central configuration of the doctrine is in the determination that Being is becoming (Kuiken, 2005). Proposing in this way Heidegger believes that this determination continues to think of Being under the conception of as and in this way in effect forgets difference.
Deleuze in the second chapter of Difference and Repetition shows an affinity with Heidegger’s stance and in particular to the problem of irreducibility between the question of difference and questioning itself. He however differs from Heidegger, in that he believes that because metaphysics cannot think of this difference ‘in itself’, it repeats something already occurred. And so for Deleuze, there is no ontological difference, but a unity in differentiation. We may call this a key differentiator between Deleuze and Heidegger in this respect, however we may also say that it is merely a matter of emphasis of the difference within an ineffable difference. With Heidegger, Nietzsche’s eternal return is rooted in his call for the end of philosophy and of metaphysics and it is precisely because it is launched from this critique, that Deleuze believes Heidegger does not free himself from Platonic metaphysics. Deleuze’s fundamental claim is that being is of one nature — that of differentiation. Further Heidegger’s conception of this, is not radical enough because it does not think difference beyond the epoch of representation.
It is clear that Deleuze’s strategy here moves beyond a determinate view of Heidegger’s propositions, but rather articulates his own determination for a far more radical understanding of the eternal return. Firstly for Deleuze, this notion is founded on an affirmation of chance. This means that the doctrine of the eternal return is selective — that in this eternal becoming it is the role of the will to affirm and repeat. Secondly Deleuze is concerned with unifying Being and Becoming into exclusively differentiation. What this hopes to achieve is to eradicate the notion of difference as one that differs between things and simulacra, ground and grounded, models and copies. Rather it is the difference of the becoming of being itself — the difference of difference. In this way that which returns and the fact of returning are two distinct characteristics here. The evidence of the eternal becoming is found in the simulacrum, which by its nature implies the eternal returning.
This is a key area of proximity between Deleuze and Derrida, in their reading of Heidegger’s critique on Nietzsche’s eternal return. In, Of Grammatology Derrida attempts to uncover the basic disposition of Heidegger in his reading. He particular notes that the doctrine is not at first about totalities, but that Heidegger makes it distinctly so, in his reading. In this way Derrida aims to unearth the trace of this différance prior to the ontological difference and in so doing aims to locate Heidegger’s inquiry. Derrida aims to circumscribe Heidegger within the trace of the ontological difference, and so encircles Heidegger’s own circumscription of Nietzsche as the ‘last metaphysician’.’ In so doing he follows the trace as it defers and redoubles on itself, the double dissimulation — the simulacrum itself.
In this way both Deleuze and Derrida, reading Nietzsche not only explore the absence of presence as Heidegger had, but the simulacrum of that absence. In Deleuze we find the difference and with Derrida différance- both these being non-affirming negatives. Furthermore, for both Deleuze and Derrida this differentiation does not produces identities or beings, but a simulacrum. Further in both the Deleuzian ontology and Deconstruction we have at its centre a paradox so complete, that as it conceals as it discloses or what Heidegger called ‘the clearing that shelters’. For Deleuze this is the difference-in-itself and for Derrida this is the trace under erasure (or erasure without return). So in this way, we reveal a certain isomorphism between these traditions, which remain as a difference, which is the same but not identical.
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Derrida, J. (2001). Writing and Difference. New York: Routledge.
Derrida, J. (2001). The Theory of Difference: Readings in Contemporary Continental Thought. In D. L. Donkel. New York: State University of New York Press.
Derrida, J. (1997). Of Grammatology. Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press.
Kuiken, K. (2005). Deleuze/Derrida: Towards and almost imperceptible difference. Research in Phenomenology (35), 290–308.
Heidegger, M. (1984). Nietzche. Volume 2: The eternal return of the same . (D. F. Krell, Ed.) 25.