Bergsonian Science-Fiction: Deleuze, Eshun, and Thinking the Reality of Time

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“To be more precise, science fiction is neither forward-looking nor utopian. Rather, in William Gibson’s phrase, science fiction is a means through which to preprogram the present […] Science fiction operates through the power of falsification, the drive to rewrite reality, and the will to deny plausibility, while the scenario operates through the control and prediction of plausible alternative tomorrows.”

– Kodwo Eshun, ‘Further Considerations on Afrofuturism’

“A book of philosophy should be in part a very particular species of detective novel, in part a kind of science fiction…What this book should therefore have made apparent is the advent of a coherence which is no more our own, that of mankind, than that of God or the world. In this sense, it should have been an apocalyptic book (the third time in the series of times).”

– Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition

This short essay aims to draw a single connection, along the theme of time, between Kodwo Eshun, Gilles Deleuze, via their shared Bergsonian premises. To do this, we will begin with Bergson’s account of the correct and misguided ways of understanding the structure and nature of Time in and of itself. Additionally, we’ll see how there is an implicit connection between Deleuze’s remarks in Difference and Repetition regarding the ‘powers of the false,’ simulacra, and the constitution of time as being ‘out of joint’ in Deleuze’s Third Synthesis, with Eshun’s description of Afrofuturism and its relationship to dramatization, the exaggeration of features of the present to contest the present, and so forth.

Thus, we begin with their shared Bergsonian premises regarding the individual, historical, and metaphysical aspects of temporality in order illustrate that the primary illusion, which we must disabuse ourselves of in order to grasp the philosophical and political import of the reality of Time, is the assumption that Kodwo Eshun’s Afrofuturism and Deleuze’s philosophy of Difference remain preoccupied with the future as such; with novelty and the accelerated proliferation of differences for their own sake.

I). Bergson – Geometrical vs. Vital Time

For Bergson the problem that we face in understanding Life, duration, etc., is imposing what he called the ‘geometric’ order onto the ‘vital’ order of Life (cf. Creative Evolution). Bergson maintains that the intelligibility of Life-itself is never grasped, as Aristotle thought, through the assumption that time is the measure of movement in space, and thus asserting that the nature and existence of Time depends on the nature and existence of Space for its own reality. If Time is not ontologically dependent on space; and if time is not reducible to the linear progression of the measure of movement; then this conception of Time-itself requires us to reconceptualize the very lexicon of temporality: the past, present, and future.

In Creative Evolution, Bergson gives his refutation of interpreting Life in terms of finality/final causes. Here, Bergson offers the means for a transvaluation of our temporal lexicon. On the ‘Finalist’ account, the future finds its reality in the past and present, follows a certain order, and is guaranteed due to first principles. Thus, for the finalists, the future remains fixed and dependent upon the linear progression of time.For Bergson (as it is for Deleuze and Eshun, as we will see), the future is precisely that which does not depend on the linear progression of time for its own reality.

From the ‘vitalist’ perspective (contra the finalists), Bergson writes, “we see…that which subsists of the direct movement in the inverted movement, a reality which is making itself in a reality which is unmaking itself…” (CE, 248). Just as the epigraph of Eshun’s notes that Afrofuturism was never concerned with the future as such but with the relation between the alternate futures the present world makes possible; and just as Deleuze notes that the science fiction aspects of a ‘good’ book mirror his reading of Nietzsche’s untimeliness as wresting from the present a future which does not repeat the violence of the past and present; Bergson could be seen here as giving this vital theorization of Time in its most ‘pure’ or theoretical way. The vital, as opposed to geometric, comprehension of the reality and structure of time supplants its linear definition (that renders the future as pre-determined and existentially dependent upon the iron laws of the past) with an understanding of the mutual conditioning of the ‘is not/no longer’ of the past and the ‘immediate past/immediate future’ of the present as the means by which multiple (and virtual) futures are prized from the reality of Time by the nature and structure of Time-as-such. 

II). Deleuze’s Third Synthesis of Time & Eshun’s Afrofuturism

Thus, when Deleuze offers his Third and final Synthesis of Time; the ‘static and ordinal’ synthesis where time exists ‘out of joint’ and thus gives a new order/meaning to how we understand time cosmologically, historically, cultural, and individually; what constitutes Time’s ‘out-of-jointness’ is precisely this revaluation of the past, present, and future understood on the finalist/linear/geometrical conception of time (as measure of movement) where what is understood is that time’s ontological existence; time as it exists independent of human agency; has no concern for the future.

For Deleuze, the temporal development of life taken in its broadest sense does not care about the preservation of species or even the preservation of its own natural processes. Time, as it is constituted by Life itself, must be understood as continuously producing various possible futures that are left up to the contingency of the other evolutionary, biological, chemical, etc., processes of Life itself. We might say that Time understood in this (vitalist) manner means that Life is the continual superabundance of an excess that Life can neither control nor wants to control (here, we should note that it is Deleuze who gets furthest from anthropomorphizing Life, the will to power, etc., and understands life in terms of the impersonal conditions of human existence as such, in contrast to the key thinkers he draws on for this synthesis-namely, Nietzsche and Bergson). It is the vitalist, according to Deleuze, who gives us access to Differences-themselves in their free and untamed state.

Thus, the Third Synthesis of Time as engendering time as out-of-joint and constitutes the ‘dissolved Self’ as one who acts against one’s time, can be seen through Eshun’s idea of science fiction’s activity as one of capitalizing on the ‘powers of falsification, the drive to rewrite reality, and the will to deny plausibility;’ against one’s time and, in the hope of a time to-come. Now, this future ‘to-come’ cannot be understood as utopian (in the pejorative sense) or an appeal to some variation of Messianic-time. Here, Eshun’s clarity is useful:

“it would be naïve to understand science fiction, located within the expanded field of the futures industry, as merely prediction into the far future, or as a utopian project for imagining alternative social realities. Science fiction might better be understood, in Samuel R. Delany’s statement, as offering “a significant distortion of the present.” To be more precise, science fiction is neither forward-looking nor utopian. Rather, in William Gibson’s phrase, science fiction is a means through which to preprogram the present. Looking back at the genre, it becomes apparent that science fiction was never concerned with the future, but rather with engineering feedback between its preferred future and its becoming present” (‘Further Considerations,’ 290).

The future as conceived by Deleuze and Eshun is incommensurable with, and the exact opposite of, either Utopian or Messianic time; these latter two conceptions of a future-to-come locate the determining temporal factor in the future while Deleuze and Eshun, following Bergson, locate the element that determines and actualizes a future as the relationship between the past and the present.

III). Possible Conclusions//Possible Futures

In What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari define philosophy as the creation of concepts; an activity that requires the engendering of Thought in a subject, in order for that thinking-subject to fabricate a concept that is adequate to the Idea-Problem of their time. It is this tripartite criteria – Thinking; (posing) Problems; and (creating) Concepts – given by Deleuze (and Guattari) for the genesis and constitution of the praxis of philosophy that was already formulated in Difference and Repetition:

The famous phrase of the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, ‘mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve’, does not mean that the problems are only apparent or that they are already solved, but, on the contrary, that the economic conditions of a problem determine or give rise to the manner in which it finds a solution within the framework of the real relations of the society. Not that the observer can draw the least optimism from this, for these ‘solutions’ may involved stupidity or cruelty, the horror of war or ‘the solution of the Jewish problem’. More precisely, the solution is always that which a society deserves or gives rise to as a consequence of the manner in which, given its real relations, it is able to pose the problems set within it and to it by the differential relations it incarnates” (DR, 186).

What is significant regarding the equation ‘philosophy = concept creation,’ and the subsequent annihilation of any guarantee that the thinking-subject will be rewarded with optimism in their search for truth, is that these three elements that constitute the practice of Philosophy do not operate according to the linear/finalist conception of temporality.

That is, the thinker cannot hope for any optimism insofar as they are thinking precisely because what is given in a thought that adequately poses problems and creates concepts are the multiple solutions, or futures, that are harbored within every problem posed and concept created. Thus, philosophy properly understood according to Deleuze stands against the linear conception of time, where the reality of the future is fixed and furnished by the internal and originary principles of the past. And among his generation (though it perhaps needs no emphasis) it is Deleuze who takes the Bergsonian injunction with the most seriousness and gravity; the assertion that we must do violence to our habituated forms of cognition (Identity, Recognition, Reflection, Analogy) in order to sinew the order of philosophical practice to an actualized overcoming of the all-too-human qualities of our present.  As Bergson writes,

The duty of philosophy should be to intervene here actively, to examine the living without any reservation as to practical utility, by freeing itself from forms and habits that are strictly intellectual. Its own special project is to speculate, that is to say, to see; its attitude toward the living should not be that of science, which aims only at action, and which, being able to act only by means of inert matter, presents itself to the rest of reality in this single respect” (CE, 196).

And it is precisely through this Bergsonian theoretico-practical operation we apprehend a Deleuzean and Eshunian transvaluation of the time proper to the human. For the former, the overcoming of humanity means freeing oneself from the bad habits of cognition that we have been socialized into taking as synonymous with Thinking as such. For the latter, the overcoming of humanity means freeing oneself from the ongoing effects of the determination and construction of a global future that continues to exclude ever growing swaths of humanity; a logic already present the past of human history. To free oneself from what we have been acculturated to identify as philosophy (thought as commensurate with the aims of either the Church, the State, or Capitalist Democracy) and from the repetition of a Future than is the exacerbation of the past; this would be sufficient to throw time out of joint and to construct a ground from which a new ordering of time becomes possible.

Thus, philosophical activity (Deleuze) and Afrofuturism (Eshun) aren’t simply against their own socio-historical situatedness, or concerned with the future for its own sake. As we saw with Bergson in terms of Life, and as we apprehend implicitly in Eshun, we are not concerned with the theorization and determination of time because time (Life, History) has a concern for itself and its future. To the contrary: it is precisely because the past and the present, taken in themselves, have neither a concern for their own future nor the future of human existence that a thought and politics of the future is not one that is infatuated and enamored with the blind and intensifying processes of our present.

The Third Synthesis of Time is the science-fiction moment in Difference and Repetition, the books ‘apocalyptic’ moment when the I and Self are both fractured and dissolved in the reordering of Time; it’s what Eshun talks about when he says that sci-fi was never really about the future in the first place. To merely be ‘about the future’… such an interpretation is only possible if we take the reality of time to be founded upon the reality of space; a perspectival-position that revokes any philosophical and/or political potential for the existence of multiple futures within a single future-time from the current present of terrestrial life defined by its terrestrially instantiated death-drive.

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