Agency Continued


It seems curious to me in many ways that we’ve spent a significant amount of time thus far on the concept of agency in Deleuze’s thought, without really investigating why it is that this might matter, or even, what it is we mean when we use the word. There is, I suppose, the obvious reason that a philosophy dedicated to decreasing the agential power of the subject comes as a bit of a shock, and potential a threat—if Deleuze is arguing for a conception of human agency that removes us from the pilot seat of our own lives, how are we to behave? How are we to act? What is the point of striving for a particular goal or state of affairs if we lack the ability to bring them about? What, especially, might be the point of “learning”? The ramifications for this are diverse, but I think Deleuze’s claims are subtle and complex, attentive to the diversity present in forms of agency, and also possibly less restrictive than they initially appear.

The most obvious point of possible disjunction in the material that we’ve discussed comes between Deleuze’s evocation of the philosopher’s duty to create concepts, his general reverence for the act of creation, and his apparent doubt in an autonomous human subject. When he discusses the history of philosophy as the history of concepts, as the history of concepts being produced, Deleuze also seems inclined to tie these to the subjects that are conventionally thought to have produced them – Aristotle’s Substance, Descartes’s Cogito, etc. Deleuze’s very definition of philosophy requires an understanding of the philosophical act as a “constructivism,” as an act of building, erecting edifices of actualized or stabilized thought. And yet, he also complicates this constructivism, replaces the unified subject with the “ non-totalizable complexity, ‘non-representable by a single individual (Cinema 2, 254),’” of the automaton; shifting the relationship of philosopher to concept from one of claimant or possessor to that of friend (WIP, 1-4); and self-identifying not as a person, but rather a stream of events (Negotiations, 141). However, this disjunction, that of week one of class takes place over an array of different texts with a number of different agendas, and it seems overly speculative to dive deeper into the issue without finding another resource, one with perhaps a little more detail.

There are any number of places in Difference and Repetition that could prod this discussion further along, but the distinction that Deleuze draws between learning and knowledge is particularly thought provoking for me. On pages 164-167 of Difference and Repetition Deleuze distinguishes learning as a continuous process, engaged with the problems that provoke it in a way that proliferates more problems, as well as more ideas, concepts, etc. He contrasts this to knowledge, which although it invokes the learning process, renders it “an empirical figure, a simple result which continually falls back into knowledge (Difference and Repetition, 166).” Knowledge limits learning by closing off further self-reproduction in the satisfaction of its goals resolution. Learning, on the other hand, is characterized as a mode of being that does not end in the production of knowledge, but rather recursively produces new avenues of thought to be followed as it confronts and multiplies problems.

Although it might not be clear what this has to do with agency, I think the status of learning in Deleuze’s thought is an example in which the reader can glean some insight into a subjective process; one that is produced by the subject while it is also produced in or through it. Deleuze initially defines learning as “the appropriate name for the subjective acts carried out when one is confronted with the objecticity of a problem (Idea)… (164).” Further on, when he defines the task of the apprentice, Deleuze claims “The apprentice…attempts to give birth to that second power which grasps that which can only be sensed (165).” The learning subject is confronted with problems beyond her control, will, or agency—ideas are to be “entered into,” and “conjugated” rather than mastered and resolved. However, this same subject and her agency are not written out of the process of learning – she must attempt to learn, act deliberately when she is confronted with the idea, and resist the call to a subjugation of knowledge.

Deleuze seems to be making the claim that agency is not unidirectional or founded within the subject, the site in which thought takes place. But this does not mean that the subject’s agency is entirely withheld. Agency, defined as sometimes conscious will—is instead shared, networked, re-registered amongst the total field of thought. Which brings me back to the beginning again – what do we mean when we use the word agency? It seems as though generally what we mean is the ability to control what happens within our subjectivity, and the ability to shape and interact with the world around “under our own steam.” Deleuze’s framework seems to threaten this conception of autonomy, by introducing the way in which the things that previously appeared to us as parts of ourselves or capacities that were ours are somehow other, with their own form of autonomy and their own, inscrutable motivations and engines. The more I think about this conception, however, the more I wonder if Deleuze’s project necessarily requires a diminution of our own agency.

Rather than propose a conception of agency that diminishes the more that it is shared, I think Deleuze would rather us consider a conception of control, authority, autonomy that retains its ability to act in the world but refuses to consider itself as sovereign, or unique. In his examination of the concept of the Other, that for Deleuze is the “structure which grounds and ensures the overall functioning of this world as a whole (281),” he also proposes following this logic to its necessary dénouement, “far from the objects and subjects that it conditions, where singularities are free to be deployed or distributed within pure ideas, and individuating factors to be distributed in pure intensity (282).” Or perhaps, even more striking, consider Deleuze’s definition of erewhons, his conception of an genuinely open structure of categories: “complexes of space and time, no doubt transportable but on condition that they impose their own scenery, that they set up camp there where they rest momentarily: they are therefore the objects of an essential encounter rather than of recognition (285).” These definitions of other structures contain a form of agency, that while possibly still alien to our own, shares with it the ability to force the encounter that sparks the production of problems and ideas. These structures are just a few of the many that Deleuze defines throughout D&R, but their common linking thread seems to be an ability to act, encounter, challenge, and force.

When we talked about this in class, one of the ideas floated around was that Deleuze wants to delink the concept of agency as a human capacity. I think this is right, but it would seem that this takes a different form than reducing the concept to include other forms of sovereignty. To me, it almost appears that Deleuze wants us to retain our conception of human agency, but then extend it to all other singularities that participate in our networks – ideas, beings, objects, etc. What would a mastery over the self look like if all the things we had mastery over also had mastery over themselves? It seems baldy contradictory in terms, a paradox, which is part of the reason that, to me at least, it intuitively seems to fit into Deleuze’s schema.

To put it briefly, while reading Deleuze, I don’t often get the idea that he wants to di-/de- (diminish, dilute, demystify etc.) anything. Rather, he wants to extend, multiply, recomplicate, replicate, etc. So when he talks about agency, my feeling for his work thus far encourages me to find a formula that, while it appears to impact our ability to shape thought, to act, does so only in the terms that it extends those abilities to other actors. Which doesn’t seem to necessarily involve having less than they started with.

This rubs up against another part of the Deleuzian project that I want to ponder over as a final thought. A semi-revelation about Deleuze’s project accompanied the readings and discussion for last week, one that is constantly rewriting my understanding of his work as I read through it. Maybe it’s obvious to others, but it seems to me like what Deleuze is attempting is not a normative, prescriptive project, but rather a descriptive one. That is to say, Deleuze is not attempting to usher in a new realm of thought, but rather describe the way thought has always operated. He’s not offering a conception of thought that would challenge Plato, Descartes, etc. as models to be worked towards and achieved, but instead attempting to describe the way they, and we, actually already think. The Image of Thought covered up the way that thinking actually works, rather than operating as its own (failing) process of thought. If Deleuze’s project has political and ethical implications, it’s not because he’s offering us a new way to think that’s different from how we already think. Rather, he’s encouraging us to realize or understand the way we already think—if we do so, we can’t avoid the radical political, ethical, epistemological conclusions that follow. Understanding Deleuze’s version of the thought without image would change the way we encounter the Other and the world. However, it would do so only because we would encounter it in the new light of how we operate: as regimes of variation amongst an always-shifting multiplicity.

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