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.

‘June, 1972 & A chief who does not command:’ Clastres/Deleuze/Guattari

welcome to the struggle

(part I of an on going research project on political anthropology, D&G, Clastres, etc.)

“Primitive society has always been considered a place of absolute difference in relation to western society, a strange and unthinkable space of absence – absence of all that constitutes the observers’ socio-cultural universe: a world without hierarchy, people who obey no one, a society indifferent to possession of wealth, chiefs who do not command, cultures without morals for they are unaware of sin, classless societies, societies without a State, etc. In short, what the writings of ancient travelers or modern scholars constantly cry out and yet never manage to say in that primitive society is, in its being, undivided.” – Pierre Clastres, ‘Archaeology of Violence: War in Primitive Societies’ p. 259

/0/. ‘The Permanent Exercise of the Decolonization of Thought’

In June of 1972, Pierre Clastres participated in a roundtable discussion on Anti-Oedipus, where Deleuze and Guattari were present as respondents. After a long period of questions and criticisms from other participants (through which Clastres remained silent) he interrupted the conversation with this striking claim: “Deleuze and Guattari have written about Savages and Barbarians what ethnologists up to now have not” (Desert Islands, p.226). Now, given the ethos of the French philosophical scene at this time such laudatory remarks tend to suggest a tinge of irony if not a complete lack of seriousness (cf. Foucault’s comment that perhaps, one day, the century will be called Deleuzean). However, if there is something serious intended by this claim it is due to a shared assumption by Clastres and D&G; namely, and to borrow its formulation from the Deleuzean anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, true philosophical and anthropological thinking must become a “permanent exercise in the decolonization of thought” (Cannibal Metaphysics, p. 48).

For Clastres, this means acknowledging and addressing the covert forms of eurocentrism that persist within the epistemic framework of anthropology. Thus, what was signaled by the remark with which we began is something like the truth of the socio-political embeddedness of the knowing-subject: it is the ethnographer’s and anthropologist’s subject matter that obliges them to enter into a relation with that ‘unthinkable space of absence’; the absence of all those social cues and normative values that render European social life as an intelligible and lived reality. If the ethnographer can successfully excise these dogmatic presuppositions, as Clastres thinks is possible and as we will see below, they wouldn’t merely benefit from a certain level of epistemic certainty about their subject matter. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, one would understand the positive reason for why certain societies are without States: namely, that non-State societies have intentionally constructed an entire way of living that is antithetical to State capture. In Clastres’ words, they are societies against the State.

For Deleuze (with and without Guattari) we see a similar notion as early as Difference and Repetition regarding the nature of ‘social Ideas’ and constructing a Thought that is adequate to Ideas themselves: “In short, the economic is…the totality of the problems posed to a given society. In all rigour, there are only economic social problems, even though the solutions may be juridical, political, or ideological, and the problems may be expressed in these fields of resolvability…Not that the observer can draw the least optimism from this, for these ‘solutions’, may involve stupidity or cruelty, the horror of war or ‘the solution of the Jewish problem’.” (DR, 186)

For Clastres, as with Deleuze and Guattari, attaining a Thought that is adequate to its Idea does not guarantee the moral virtue, or constitute the innocence and objectivity, of the thinker: the Idea may clarify the various fields of resolution to the economic problem but the Idea does not legislate its outcomes due to some innate moralizing logic of establishing an equivalence between a problem and its resolution. Thus, in order to understand the points of convergence between these thinkers we’ll begin with an explication of Clastres’ analysis of the function of war and violence in what he calls ‘Primitive’ societies. Then, we will turn to D&G’s Nomadology chapter in order to see how Clastres’ ideas inform their understanding of the nomadic war machine and the State. Finally, we will conclude by showing how D&G extend and modify Clastres’ initial insights on the relationship between the war machine, the State, and the modification of this relationship effectuated by capitalism.

/1/. War Is ‘The Pure and Social Form of Violence’

In order to address the limits and errors of anthropology, Pierre Clastres resurrects the question of the role of the violence of warfare in non-State societies. For Clastres, the question of war has marked the internal limit of various anthropological accounts – where this limit is constituted by the inability to understand warfare from the perspective of non-State groups. Thus, war in societies without a State has continuously been ‘accounted for’ by its reduction to something other than itself: whether as a mere doubling of biological aggression, as the struggle over the scarcity of resources, or as the symptom of an unsuccessful transaction between two different social formations. These three ways of understanding war in ‘primitive’ societies are categorized under the headings of a naturalistevolutionist, and exchangist framework. 

The Naturalist interpretation accounts for violence/war by reducing its social manifestations to biological necessity: humans are naturally aggressive and in pre-state societies the use of violence is a means for the survival of hunter-gatherers (the hunter does violence, and kills, the hunted animal). The problem here is that war, then, is seen as the mere double of the necessary violence of the hunter. So war, if it is this very same violence, is the hunting of other humans with the aim of satisfying hunger. However, says Clastres, even the phenomena of cannibalism isn’t sufficiently explained by this naturalist framework since it would be easier in the life of non-state societies to hunt non-human animals. The Economist interpretation accounts for violence/war by interpreting war as indicative of the poverty of ‘primitive’ life; where, due to the underdevelopment of the productive forces (e.g., the lack of technological means for things such as agriculture), war is fought over the scarcity of resources. The Economist position asserts a metaphysical economy of scarcity as the natural precondition of non-state social life. For Clastres, this idea appears to be disproven by the research of Marshall Sahlins whose field work proposes that life in pre-state societies was actually predicated on an economy of an abundance of resources; where the majority of time is understood as leisure-time since the labor-time is reduced to a minimum. The Exchangist framework, which is developed above, is attributed to Lévi-Strauss’s thesis that “exchanges are peacefully resolved wars, and wars are the result of unsuccessful transactions.”

While each account of war is historically significant for Clastres, it is the exchangist framework of Lévi-Strauss that is given the closest treatment since it is via structural anthropology that we are closest to, and yet farthest from, alleviating ourselves of the eurocentric horizon of anthropological study. Thus, Clastres cites the following passage from the Elementary Structures of Kinship as emblematic of this exchangist perspective: “…in Lévi-Strauss’s great sociological work, Elementary Structures of Kinship, at the end of one of the most important chapters, “The Principle of Reciprocity”: [Lévi-Strauss writes] “There is a link, a continuity, between hostile relations and the provision of reciprocal prestations: exchanges are peacefully resolved wars, and wars are the result of unsuccessful transactions.” (Archaeology of Violence, 252-3).

Thus, according to Lévi-Strauss, war in pre-State societies is what happens when the diplomatic exchange between autonomous social groups fails. However, says Clastres, Lévi-Strauss’s assertion that exchange is logically prior to war cannot obtain for two main reasons. First, drawing on the work of anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, exchange does not precede war in pre-State societies due to Sahlins’ discovery that the true economic structure of non-state societies was predicated on an abundance of natural resources. Given this economic relationship between non-state societies and their territorial milieu the logical relationship between exchange and violence appears as suspicious; if for no other reason than the unquestioned assumptions Clastres finds at the heart of the the exchangist hypothesis: “One would assume, all things being equal for all local groups, a general absence of violence: it could only arise in rare cases of territorial violation; it would only be defensive, and thus never produce itself, each group relying on its own territory which it has no reason to leave.” (AV, 258).

Thus, Clastres wonders, what motivates the exchange among social groups when each group, due to abundance and surplus, is materially and economically self-sufficient? That is, how can Lévi-Strauss posit the logical priority of exchange over war if exchange appears as superfluous from the perspective of each social groups relative autonomy and natural condition of affluence? It is for this reason, says Clastres, that we need to understand that it is not exchange that explains war, but it is war that gives rise to exchange among different non-State social groups. In other words, war is not the negative side of the positive determinations of non-State societies. Rather, war constitutes one of the fundamental and positive features of non-State societies as such. If war is given logical priority over exchange it is not simply because war comes before peace; rather, war is given logical priority due to the autonomous, autarkic, and self-sufficient desire of societies without a State. As Clastres writes

“At its actual level of existence…primitive society presents two essential sociological properties that touch upon its very being: the social being that determines the reason for being and the principle of the intelligibility of war. The primitive community is at once a totality and a unity. A totality in that it is a complete, autonomous, whole ensemble, ceaselessly attentive to preserving its autonomy: a society in the full sense of the word. A unity in that its homogenous being continues to refuse social division, to exclude inequality, to forbid alienation. Primitive society is a single totality in that the principle of its unity is not exterior to it: it does not allow any configuration of One to detach itself from the social body in order to represent it, in order to embody it as unity. This is why the criterion of non-division is fundamentally political: if the savage chief is powerless, it is because society does not accept power separated from its being, division, established between those who command and those who obey” (AV, 261).

What gives non-State societies their ‘reason for being’ is simultaneously the relative abundance of nature and the political aim of the autonomous self-determination of each social group for-themselves. Thus, we encounter an economic and political reason for constructing a society without a State: not only is non-State society self-sufficient economically but it is also self-determinant politically. Implicit in Clastres’ analysis is not only the necessary corrective to the eurocentric practices of anthropology and ethnography (i.e., societies without a State are not in some state of nature but are social wholes that attain a certain degree of economic and political autonomy); in addition, implied here is the existence of a socio-political intentionality on the part of non-State social formations. It is not enough to say the nomads lacks a State, and thus lack civilization. What Clastres shows us is that the nomad finds nothing of value in becoming assimilated into the State apparatus itself; and this lack of value attributed to assimilation from the perspective of non-State social groups is, in itself, a socio-political prescription. Hence Clastres’ well known formula of non-State societies as not simply being without a State; rather, they are social wholes fundamentally against the State. Thus, one of the fundamental features of non-State societies; one of their positive definitions; is the intentional organization of a society that seeks to ward off the State.

/2/. Societies Against The State

So what does this mean for war as the other positive determination of societies against the State? Given what has been said, war must now be understood as the social and political mechanism by which each autonomous social group ensures its autonomy relative to all neighboring groups. When Clastres characterizes war in non-State societies as the ‘pure and social form of violence’ we must understand two things: the function of war, as pure form of violence, is oriented toward the continuous guarantee of each social groups autonomy and self-determination relative to all other groups. War, in its pure form, is never something embarked upon for-itself or for the purposes of simply eliminating a rival group; war is not the object of nomadic society. Rather, it is the means by which the autarkic principle (the true object of nomadic society) is preserved at each step of the way. War, as the social form of violence, responds to the problems we encountered with Lévi-Strauss’s exchangist account. If war in its pure form is understood to be the means to secure the political desire for autonomy respective to all rivalling non-State groups, war in its social form is the cause of, or the sufficient reason for, exchange to take place. Why? Because, says Clastres, one never wages war without acquiring the means for a successful campaign. For non-State societies the means for success are not simply economic or technological; rather, each social group

“is resigned to alliance because it would be too dangerous to engage in military operations alone, and that, if one could, one would gladly do without allies who are never absolutely reliable. There is, as a result, an essential property of international life in primitive society: war relates first to alliance; war as an institution determines alliance as a tactic […] We see now that seeking an alliance depends on actual war: there is sociological priority of war over alliance. Here, the true relationship between exchange and war emerges. Indeed, where are relations of exchange established, which socio-political units assume a principle of reciprocity? These are precisely the groups implicated in the networks of alliance; exchange partners are allies, the sphere of exchange is that of alliance. This does not mean, of course that were it not for alliance, there would no longer be exchange; exchange would simply find itself circumscribed within the space of the autonomous community at the heart of which it never ceases to operate; it would be strictly intra-communal. Thus, one exchanges with allies; there is exchange, because there is alliance” (AV, 267).

War as ‘the pure and social form of violence’ is finally revealed as it exists within non-State societies: as the means by which each rival group ensures their relative autonomy from all other groups and as the basis on which alliances are formed and exchanges made. Thus Clastres writes, and in a manner reminiscent of Deleuze and Guattari, that to understand the function of war and violence in non-State societies necessarily means to understand that “[A]s long as there is war, there is autonomy: this is why war cannot cease, why it must not cease, why it is permanent…the logic of primitive society is a centrifugal logic, a logic of the multiple. The Savages want the multiplication of the multiple” (AV, 274). At this point it is worth recalling Deleuze and Guattari’s own attempt to properly pose the question of what defines the nomad/nomadic existence in-itself: “The nomad has a territory; he follows customary paths…But the question is what in nomad life is a principle and what is only a consequence” (ATP, 380). War is the principle on which nomadic life is predicated; of life in societies against the State; and exchange is merely the consequence of the tactical alliances established in this permanent war of ‘multiplying the multiple’, or of ensuring the relative autarky of nomadic social groups as such. And in line with Clastres’ positive determination of war in non-State societies, Deleuze and Guattari write, “Primitive war does not produce the State any more than it derives from it. And it is no better explained by exchange than by the State…war is what limits exchange, maintains them in the framework of “alliances”; it is what prevents them from becoming a State factor, from fusing groups” (ATP, 358).

In contrast to the nomadic war machine of societies against the State, and for Deleuze and Guattari, the State ‘captures’ nomadic life; the State is the reorganization of the political and economic relations of nomadic society and transforms the nomad into an organ for aims established by the State-as-Organism. Thus, States capture the nomads in order to transform them into an organ of power and exploit the nomad-as-organ for the ends of the preservation of State based sovereignty. And it is on the basis of these contrasting features of non-State and State societies that we can understand Deleuze and Guattari’s remark from the Faciality chapter regarding the role of racism in the construction of the European nation-state: “European racism as the white man’s claim has never operated by exclusion, or by the designation of someone as Other: it is instead primitive societies that the stranger is grasped as an “Other”…From the viewpoint of racism, there is no exterior, there are no people on the outside. There are only people who should be like us and whose crime it is not to be” (ATP, 178).