‘Theory and Practice are but the attributes of an Anti-social Substance’: notes on Deleuze’s periodization of the theory-practice relation

NOTE: What follows are a set of incomplete notes drafted in the lead up to the Quiver Reading Group organized around the theme of ‘new weapons for thought’, and whose first meeting will read Deleuze and Foucault’s ‘Intellectuals & Power’ alongside Deleuze and Guattari’s reflections on weapons, tools, and the nomadic war machine in the 12th chapter of A Thousand Plateaus

We’re in the process of experiencing a new relationship between theory and practice. At one time, practice was considered an application of theory, a consequence; at other times, it had an opposite sense and it was thought to inspire theory, to be indispensable for the creation of future theoretical forms. In any event, their relationship was understood in terms of a process of totalization. For us, however, the question is seen in a different light. The relationship between theory and practice are far more partial and fragmentary. On one side, theory is always local and related to a limited field, and it is applied in another space, more or less distant from it. The relationship which holds in the application of a theory is never one of resemblance. Moreover, from the moment a theory moves into its proper domain, it begins to encounter obstacles…which require its relay by another type of discourse…Practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another.” [Deleuze, ‘Intellectuals and Power’]

It is with this taxonomy of the relationship between theory and practice, that Deleuze begins his rather infamous 1977 conversation with Foucault. However, neither Foucault nor Deleuze would return to these remarks in their interview, leaving readers with the impression that such a cursory and incomplete periodization was sufficient for establishing the constraints of the conversation itself. And it is this impression of the merely cursory or inconsequential status of these comments that interest us here. This interest, however, is not to be confused with some search for a specifically “Deleuzian” or “Foucauldian” theory of the theory-practice relation, but rather seeks to test the following thesis: Deleuze’s suggestion harbors within itself some (if not all) of the necessary elements for a fully developed periodization of theory’s relation to practice; the requisite elements of a framework that would be capable of grasping the various transformations the theory-practice relation has undergone and in terms of the historical conditions and milieus that correspond to each of its respective determinations (i.e. an immanent account of this particular relation, as opposed to its transcendent reification). It is this thesis that we seek to test.

1. Deleuze’s Tripartite Periodization of the Theory-Practice Relation

Given the above epigraph, we can say that, for Deleuze, the singular and unique determinations that characterize the relationship between theory and practice are (1) relations of consequence, (2) relations of formalizable content, and (3) relations of non-totalizing activity, which are defined in the following manner:

  • (1) Relations of Consequence: within relations of consequence, practice functions as the application of theory, that is simultaneously guided/regulated by theory itself; practice is realized as the consequence of the work of theory (e.g. Kant’s notion of the public use of Reason, or the figure of the revolutionary vanguard, or even the Party, as understood in specific instances, as the intellectual (i.e. non-manual) organ of the proletariat).
  • (2) Relations of Formalizable Content: relations of formalizable content are those in which practice serves as the particular/material/empirical phenomena upon which thought operates; where practice is defined as the necessary material for theoretization in general, regardless of its critical or conservative tendencies. Thus, we can say that under such relations practice is made into the object of the theorizing subject. Practice, here, is said to “inspire theory, to be indispensable for the creation of future theoretical forms” (e.g. liberal sociology, certain Maoist uses of the method of workers-inquiry that required the theorizing subject to get as close as possible to the practical object, which would be, in these cases, the workers themselves, etc.).
  • (3) Relations of Non-Totalizing Activity: relations of non-totalizing activity mutually determines theory and practice as two modes of activity, whose distinction is not formal but real, and where each modes relationship to the other takes the form of, as Deleuze characterizes it, a “network” or “relay” whose processes of actualization, counter-actualization, and singularization result in non-totalizable effects, products, interventions, objects, images, concepts, etc.

But what becomes of theory and practice alike, insofar as they are determined according to relations of consequence? What does it mean to say that practice is the consequence of theory? What is implied when practice becomes the precondition for  theory’s rebirth without sharing in the possibility of reinventing itself as well? And can we say that Deleuze’s claim (that post-68, theory is now defined by relations of (non-totalizing) activity) applies to theory today, after the crisis of 2008 and the global pandemics and rebellions of 2018-2020?

2. Theory, Practice, Activity

In his 1784 essay, Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?, which was written as a response to the Berlinische Monatsschrift‘s commercial solicitation of responses from the broader intellectual and public readership, Kant developed a notion of what he called the ‘Public Use of Reason’, which would delimit the bounds of one’s justifiable and legitimate exercise of practical reason insofar as it addresses the general public and specific social problems. And while Kant’s is a theory of the legitimate and therefore morally just exercise of one’s critical faculties, it remains an account of critical and practical reasoning that is bound to a very specific example whose figure is none other than the bourgeois intellectual of the Enlightenment who, in times of social and political upheaval, assumes this role insofar as it is simultaneously their own most moral duty. Ever familiar, not only with Kant’s seminal essay but with the logical and transcendental structure that defined Kant’s approach to the question of ‘What is Man?’, Foucault aptly describes the existence of the bourgeois intellectual in the following terms:

the political involvement of the intellectual was traditionally the product of two different aspects of his activity: his position as an intellectual in bourgeois society…and his proper discourse to the extent that it revealed a particular truth…These two forms of politicization did not exclude each other, but, being of a different order, neither did they coincide…During moments of violent reaction on the part of the authorities, these two positions were readily fused: after 1848, after the Commune, after 1940…The intellectual spoke truth to those who had yet to see it, in the name of those who were forbidden to speak the truth: he was conscience, consciousness, and eloquence. (Intellectuals and Power, 207)

Alternatively, we find a similar relation of application at work in a figure from an altogether different historical period: that of the revolutionary intellectual whose function, whether as part of the vanguard or as cadre member, is to give liberatory form to what is still history’s shapeless and self-contradictory content. It is perhaps in Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? where we find the clearest and most succinct Bolshevik articulation of relations of application: “freedom of debate, unity of action.” The freedom of debate pertained to all, but all were obliged to abide by the decisions reached via the mechanisms of democratic centralism, where the party served as guarantor of both correct ideas and their revolutionary application, that is to say, practice. And yet…

Whether it is with respect to the bourgeois intellectual of eighteenth century Europe, or certain variants of Marxist theory, or the various currents belonging to the history of the workers movement; from public intellectual to the Party-as-intellectual-organ of the proletariat, practice is conceived as having been given its ‘correct’ application, via the theoretical formalization of the idea or maxim and its subsequent prosecution as a mode of living and acting in the world. What is more, with respect to relations of formalizable content, which defines praxis as the privileged, epistemic, site wherein theory may undertake its work, it is perhaps no surprise for a Maoist to find Deleuze’s position perplexing insofar as various Maoist and left-communist groups remained, prior to the events of 68, committed to a notion of revolutionary activity which consisted of bourgeois intellectuals and students “going to the workers” in order to let the proletariat speak for itself, whether this be achieved via the establishment of journals that would publish the voices of workers alongside those of intellectuals and students, thereby ostensibly overcoming the division of manual from intellectual labour insofar as this division divides the working-class from itself (e.g. Socialisme ou Barbarisme, La Voie Communiste, L’Union des communistes de France marxiste-léniniste (UCF-ML)).

Contra relations of consequence or relations of formalizable content, Deleuze and Foucault’s assertion is that the current relationship between theory and practice is necessarily defined as a relation of action. Deleuze:

For us, however, the question is seen in a different light. The relationships between theory and practice are far more partial and fragmentary…a theory is always local and related to a limited field, and it is applied in another sphere, more or less distant from it. The relationship which holds in the application of theory is action—theoretical action and practical action which serve as relays and form networks. (Intellectuals and Power, 206-207)

And so, according to the periodization outlined here, the theory-praxis relation, says Deleuze, no longer operates according to a separation of intellectual from manual labour, of the mind from the body. Rather, theory and practice are themselves modes of ‘activity’ and whose relationship to each other takes the form of a network or relay. Thus, and unlike the period of the Enlightenment, the historically significant political sequence that corresponds to the rise and fall of the workers movement and various Statist approaches to communism (Lenin being its most notable figurehead), or the rehabilitation of the method of workers-inquiry via various political/local groups (e.g. Socialisme ou Barbarisme, Operaismo and Quaderna Rosi), in the wake of what is so often simply referred to as ‘the events of May,’ the theory-practice relation takes on the nature of a relation of action, insofar as the traditional place occupied by the figure of the intellectual was made redundant. As Foucault puts it, 

In the most recent upheavals [May 68], the intellectual discovered that the masses no longer need him to gain knowledge: they know perfectly well, without illusion; they know far better than he and they are certainly capable of expressing themselves […] The intellectuals role is no longer to place himself “somewhat ahead and to the side” in order to express the stifled truth of the collectivity; rather, it is to struggle against the forms of power that transform him into its object and instrument in the sphere of “knowledge,” “truth,” “consciousness,” and “discourse.” (Intellectuals and Power, 207-208)

Unlike previous determinations, the relation of action that defines the theory-practice relation in the wake of the events of 68, determines thinking and acting (intellectual labour and manual labour?) as two distinct modalities of action/activity, where what is implied is the assertion that neither theory nor practice can function, and be understood to function, as the completion or resolution of its complementary opposite. And it is precisely for this reason that Deleuze will say at the outset of the interview, “theory is always local and related to a limited field, and it is applied in another sphere, more or less distant from it”(205). And it is for this reason that Deleuze can go on to assert that “A theory does not totalize; it is an instrument for multiplication and it also multiplies itself. It is in the nature of power to totalize and…theory is by nature opposed to power” (208). Thus, says Deleuze, theory must now be understood for what it is: not simply as a set of non-totalizing cognitive acts, but as anti-totalizing cognitive activity (e.g. counter-actualization and diagrammatization). 

3. To Think is to Struggle against Morality (the alibi of Power)

Absent the conditions, which render either thought or action capable of utilizing the other for its own ends (e.g. the public exercise of Reason as Practical Reason’s utilization of Pure Reason for its own, specific, ends); absent the historical and logical conditions that define thought as the logical completion of practice and vice versa (e.g. Lukácsian inspired theories of class consciousness that neglect the fact that struggling for one’s class interests does not necessarily exclude this struggle assuming the form of a defense and preservation of the working-class, and hence of class society in general); and after the experience of the intellectual during 68, who bore witness to the realization of a non-alienated form of life where thought and act, theory and practice, were no longer separated and whose reintegration required, neither external organization or institution, and simply the social groups own self-activity; thought finds itself without the necessary conditions that attribute to its existence the characteristics of finality, necessity, and completeness (telos).

Theory and practice find themselves without the possibility of any final consummation, whether in and through themselves or via their other. For Deleuze, it is the absent ground that frees theory and practice from the dogmatic assumption that treats finality and completion as something essential to thinking and acting themselves. This is the a-moral/anti-moral dimension of Deleuze’s notion of theoretical activity. And so it comes as no surprise to read, in the latter parts of the interview, Foucault take up the fact of the absent ground confronted by Thought, insofar as it invariably places theory on the side of those who struggle, either against power or attempt to wrest their power (i.e. capacities) back from the organizing act that conditions their self-activity. Moreover, Foucault’s fascination with prisons stems precisely from the fact that it is there where power, not only unmasks itself, but reveals its innate link to the framework of morality. As Foucault puts it, prison constitutes a region/locality where power “…reveals itself as the tyranny pursued into the tiniest details; it is cynical and at the same time pure and entirely “justified”, because its practice can be totally formulated within the framework of morality. Its brutal tyranny consequently appears as the serene domination of Good over Evil, of order over disorder” (210, emphasis mine).

And yet, theory finds a task set for itself. Namely, to deprive power of its capacity to ‘act upon the actions of others’ and organize social relations and refers to these collective acts of depriving power of its capacity for subjectification, and in a manner that aids all other struggles that seek to wrest back their capacity for self-activity from the dispositifs that correspond to a specific regime of social relations. It is amidst this discourse on theory’s struggle as the deprivation of power’s functions that Deleuze–in response to Foucault’s remark that the activity of theory “is a struggle against power, a struggle aimed at…undermining power where it is most invisible and insidious […] it is an activity conducted alongside those who struggle for power…A ‘theory’ is the regional system of this struggle” (208, emphasis mine)–offers the oft-cited remark: “A theory is exactly like a box of tools…It must be useful. It must function. And not for itself” (208). A tool box though it may be, it is not as simple as thinkers such as Brian Massumi make it out to be: while concepts can be the many sided weapon akin to the riot brick, the act of selecting elements from the toolbox of theory is an act compelled by necessity. If theory is akin to a toolbox, its acts of selection is not founded upon the transient and accidental whims of the thinker. Rather, one must select elements that would render thought functional and useful precisely because what makes theory into a virtue is external to theory itself. Just as theoretical virtues are no longer located within itself as the self-sufficiency inherent to theoretical activity, theory persists in its foreclosure from every possibility of the consummation of a purpose or task for which it was assumed to be originarily predisposed (i.e. totalization). No longer with any particular necessary function or purpose to be internally deduced, and absent the conditions required for justifying theoretical action as self-grounding ground, there is no longer anything that can be said to be innately proper to theory that would simultaneously ensure its reasonable usage in accordance with either good sense or common sense. In place of the totalizing function of theory’s relation to practice (relations of consequence, relations of formalizable content), says Deleuze, post-68 theory operates as an instrument of multiplication and exists insofar as it is itself implicated in the process: “A theory does not totalize; it is an instrument of multiplication and it also multiplies itself” (208).

4. Multiplication function; Counter-discursive operation

That said, just as the contemporary status of theory is defined by its multiplication function, practice is now understood in terms of its counter-discursive operations. As Foucault puts it in his commentary on the self-activity of prisoners:

[W]hen the prisoner began to speak, they possessed an individual theory of prisons, the penal system, and justice. It is this form of discourse which ultimately matters, a discourse against power, the counter-discourse of prisoners and those we call delinquents–and not a theory about delinquency. (209, emphasis mine) 

Multiplication and counter-discursivity, however, relate to one another insofar as each are qualitatively differentiated modes of activity in general, and struggle in particular. Their difference being less a question of the intrinsic capacities of individual persons or subjects, and more of the set of acts/capacities proper to specific subject-positions in a given organization of social existence. Moreover, theory, here, does not refer to a predicate of individual subjects but to an attribute of the intellectual-as-social-position. As Deleuze puts it: “A theorising intellectual, for us, is no longer a subject, a representing or representative consciousness. Those who act and struggle are no longer represented…It is always a multiplicity…All of us are ‘groupuscules.’ Representation no longer exists; there’s only action–theoretical action and practical action which serve as relays and form networks” (206-07, emphasis mine).

Now, if it is the intellectual who undertakes the activity of theory while the agency of the prisoner (or even the proletariat, as Foucault outlines in the interviews final remarks) is defined in terms of its counter-discursive acts, this is not to repeat the banal separation between intellectual and manual activity within political struggles. Rather, both theory and practice, with their respective figures of the intellectual and the prisoner/worker, are capacities proper to the determinate relation that defines an individuals relation to the dispositifs of power. To define any action as multiplying or counter-discursive is to determine to what extent one’s mode of existence is deemed to be tolerable or intolerable from the vantage point of power itself. Thus what emerges from Deleuze and Foucault’s conversation regarding the function of the public intellectual and the status of prisoners, the proletariat, and the subjects of power, is that the relationship between theory and practice is a relationship between dispositifs and the subjects/functionaries that individuals have been made to become. The relationship between theory and practice is no longer a relation between the faculties of the individual or between the dual functions of the subject of history, but between the attributes of a decidedly anti-social substance of various social groups resisting, evade, or confront power’s dispositifs (and as opposed to the social substance of which capital and labour are its attributes).

One thought on “‘Theory and Practice are but the attributes of an Anti-social Substance’: notes on Deleuze’s periodization of the theory-practice relation

  1. ok but how/what does this allow us to do anything different that makes a difference, and what would be a concrete example I could test?
    thanks

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