More Power, Virtuality, Thought

So I’ve been spending some time with the Power (Strategies or the Non-stratified) chapter of Foucault, and I keep going back and forth between feeling like the debate that we got embroiled in last class (or at least my persistence in it) was super helpful, and thinking it might have been more off-base. On the one hand, I think we touched on some questions that seem exceptionally important, at least to me—in particular some of the nitty-gritty of the relationship of power to knowledge and power’s virtuality/actuality axis. On the other hand, the question of primacy seems relatively secondary, and there are several points at which Deleuze seems almost tempted to back off of it. There’s even a remarkable passage in which he might be ditching it all together, in his discussion of the way in which Foucault’s dualism (in this case between the visible and the articulable) is in fact a “preliminary distribution operating at the heart of a pluralism (83).” Either way, I think part of why our debate was paradoxically useful is because it did an excellent job articulating why it felt so uncomfortable to have primacy and an even heuristic dualism within Deleuze’s thought! Square peg in a round hole indeed!

Anyhow, I do want to discuss a bit more of virtuality and power, because in my reread I think there’s a lot of nuance but also a great amount of detail in Deleuze’s discussion of power and its forces, relations, and affects. There are two bits that come early in the chapter that I want to look at and start to unpack a bit. The first is the relation of power to function, and the second is power’s relationship to the state. “the power to affect is like a function of force.” writes Deleuze, “But it is a pure function, that is to say a non-formalized function, independent of the concrete forms it assumes, the aims it serves, and the means it employs.” Further down the page, discussing the Panopticon, he writes “No account is taken either of the forms which give the function ends and means…or of the formed substances acted upon by the function.”

This seems crucial to understanding the role of power in Deleuze’s work. A few pages earlier, Deleuze says that “power is not a form.” So when power becomes pure function, it is already akin to the Panopticon (and for the record, to the diagram) in the sense that it exists as a structure without particular effects, that is, as Foucault has it, ‘detached from any specific use’ and ‘specified substance. So when power exists in the form of a pure function, it has already begun to pull away from virtuality – it has begun to assume shape, in the abstract terms of the diagram, or the abstract machine itself. It would seem that power does exist without the structure the diagram or pure function gives it, but it is only through the diagram that it can begin to affect.

On the other hand, it is not as though power has become fully actualized. It still remains within the realm of the diagram. Within the diagram “power relations…simultaneously local, unstable, and diffuse, do not emanate form a central point or unique locus of sovereignty, but at each moment move ‘from one point to another’ in a field of forces…they evade all stable forms of the visible and articulable (73).” Later in this same paragraph, Deleuze indicates that these characteristics of power are due to its reference to ‘microphysics,’ cautioning that this means a wholly different dimension or realm, “irreducible to knowledge (74).”

Power, then, is a funny beast. It shares the domain of its existence with concepts like Deleuze’s expanded definition of the Image—both potentially virtual and partially actualized, power is like the two halves of the symbol: one half dipped in the virtual, the other flowing, unstable, into the actual. Finally, like the image, power is always constituted relationally. Power lacks form or essence of it own, but is instead defined by the forces or situations through which it flows.

This relationality is brought out a bit more clearly in Deleuze’s analysis of how power can become integrated, in particular by institutions. For Delueze, relations of force remain without their full power unless they are “carried out” by forms of knowledge. These forms of knowledge participate in a process of integration: “an operation which consists of tracing a ‘line of general force,’ linking, aligning, and homogenizing particular features (75).” This process of integration involved not only forms of knowledge, but institutions, such as the State, the Family, Art and Morality, who are the “agents of stratification.” However, what’s so crucial about these integrating factors is that they are not sources or essences—they are only the networks that “fix” power, not the structures from which power issues. “There is no State, only state power,” writes Deleuze; power is presupposed by the state, and power exceeds it and all institutions.

If we’re going to talk about primacy here, then we can at least say that power has primacy over the institutions that fix it, as power runs through all institutions and, just as importantly, also bubbles up beneath them. Although without institutions of any kind and without forms of knowledge and knowledge relations, power would remain “embryonic,” it is this very lack of structure that gives it the ability to power structures themselves. As Deleuze has it, power is blind and deaf, but robbed of sight and hearing, it is the only thing that can make us see and hear. The power of power, then, comes from its nature to exceed the structures it requires to become influence and actualization, to always flow back out, against, and through the inflexibility of specific structures like the Panopticon or the State.

To give this a little concreteness, there are a lot of analogies that occur to me here, but actually the first one that comes to mind is maybe a little lame, but also kind of satisfying. In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort spends much of his time in an ethereal, bodiless form. He is pure power, that is to say, continually weak, until he finds a structure (actually a few structures) that can give him shape. These structures have varying levels of ability to affect, until Voldemort reaches his final form sometime in the last few books, in which his ethereal form finds a structure that can handle/fix quite a bit of power flowing through it. Structures, institutions and forms of knowledge in the world can fix varying sets of forces and capacities to affect—in large historical terms, Religion is perhaps a structure that has a waning capacity to affect, whereas capitalism has only an ever-increasing influence.

Finally, this links up with the one thing we didn’t end up talking about much in class, which is the Outside. Personally, I was so overwhelmed by the first half of the chapter that I didn’t read the second half near closely enough before our class discussion. But on my re-read, it struck me as perhaps some of the most radical material we’ve seen from Deleuze so far. It reminds me quite a bit of the section on Artuad from Cinema 2, i.e. section 2 of chapter 7, where Deleuze articulates the power of being powerless to think. I don’t have a ton of space left in this journal to gloss the section, but I think the crucial point is that the Outside, like, in a way, the virtual, is the dimension from which mutation and change emerge.

The diagram “stems from the outside,” but is not coextensive with it. Nor does the diagram structurally maintain a connection with the Outside. Instead, it is the forces that traverse the diagram that maintain a connection with the outside. The outside is the realm of Force, and all forces that traverse the diagram maintain a connection with the outside, an irreducible realm in which all forces share. Because the outside lacks stable definition, it appears to be always in flux, and the forces that emerge from it, the composing forces that make up other structures or articulations, are what shift within structures. Structures, according to Deleuze, do not themselves shift, but their composing forces, retaining a connection to the Outside, rearrange, recompose, and reorganize themselves, which in turns alters the composition of the structures. As Deleuze has it: “Emergence, change and mutation affect composing forces, not composed forms.” The “death of Man” occurs because the forces that composed the historical structure of “Man,” have begun to rearrange, giving the forces previously contained by the structure the freedom to find a new arrangement.

This radical potentiality, this freedom of the Outside, is what I find most exciting about this chapter. In particular, the way in which Deleuze defines the Outside in relation to thought is, frankly incredible: “Thinking does not depend on a beautiful interiority that would reunite the visible and the articulable elements, but is carried under the intrusion of an outside that eats into the interval and forces or dismembers the internal.” This seems to me to be the most radical yet detailed and clear conception of the power of Thought that we’ve come across so far. Thought, true thought, the difficult thinking, thought-without-image, etc. is a form of contact with an outside that is uncontained, irreducible, limitless and eternal, and therefore a dimension of radical potentiality, difference and newness. Thought’s power is its contact with that which can reconfigure structures, can reorganize the compositions of forces that are the State or the Panopticon. Thought is contact with a dimension that is unbounded—forms of knowledge or institutions may constitute power and force’s actualization, but the Outside touches thought to the possibility of remaking all that has ever been actualized.

One thought on “More Power, Virtuality, Thought

  1. We’re having fun with examples in the third notebooks: from Humpty-Dumpty to Valdemort! I kid, but I quite like the Valdemort example. How does power gain a body or a structure through which it has the capacity to affect? How many varied diagrams must it call upon? This seems to be the main theme of your argument, and the relation of power to force is argued very clearly. And in turn, the way you connect force to the Outside is very clarifying. Just as power is force and not form, the Outside can be thought of as something like a pure virtuality through which forms gain their intensity but which always express form in relation to flux and deterritorialization. This helps me think about another formula of Deleuze through Foucault: that in relation to power resistance comes first. This might sound like another “primacy,” but as you point out, it is rather another “preliminary distribution operating at the heart of a pluralism.” And in both your notebook and Taylor’s, I like you attention to the ways in which form and force, matter and sensation, are inseparably connected in processes that are always decomposing and recomposing in new arrangements.

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