language, ontology

Deleuze/Foucault’s Ontology of the Statement and the Visible

Language, Rarity, Reality

What theory of language emerges in Gilles Deleuze’s reading of friend and fellow “French philosopher” Michel Foucault in Foucault (1986)? Foucault, Deleuze claims, “deals only with statements” (1), which are distinguished from propositions and phrases as “essentially rare,” de facto and de jure (2). Propositions (undefined; defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as the information content expressed by linguistic elements) are “stacked on top of one another” and “can be thought of in any number of ways [… in which ] the differences between types [… can be used] to express any one in terms of the others” (2). This vertical hierarchy of propositions compose a “typology [… that] lays itself open to abstraction, creat[ing] a type for each level that is in fact superior to its constituent elements” (2), presumably by which a proposition gains value or makes sense. A proposition is thus understood from above (perhaps in terms of its information content or truth value), explained by a higher “type.” Phrases, implicitly defined as “what is really said” (2), are on the other hand characterized by a “horizontal relationship […] in which each seems to respond to another” (1) yet “one phrase denies the existence of others” (2). This foreclosure makes the phrase de facto rare, yet implies “virtual or latent content [that, perhaps through horizontal reference,] multiplies meaning and opens itself up to interpretation, creating a ‘hidden discourse’ that de jure is a source of great richness” (2). Both rare and rich, phrases are thus almost but not quite statements. In fact, this richness subjects phrases to “a dialectic [… that] is always open to contradiction” (2), which, ironically, is yet another avenue for multiplication. “Contradiction and abstraction are the means by which phrases and propositions are multiplied, since one phrase can always be opposed to another, or one proposition formed on the basis of another” (2-3).

In contrast, “statements […] inhabit a general realm of rarity [… where there is] no sense of possibility or potentiality”: “everything in them is real and all reality is manifestly present” (3). As such, given a statement, there are no other statements implied (even if there are other statements, they are of the same status as, not merely implied by, the first) and there is no higher type that, while not manifest, abstractly lends it reality. It seems that Deleuze is talking about a statement at a particular time/place, i.e. a particular statement: “All that counts is what has been formulated at a given moment, including any blanks and gaps” (3). In fact, however, what is contingently characteristic is ontologically definitive: “Statements can be opposed to one another, and placed in hierarchical order,” but these “contradictions” and “comparisons” are located “within this space of rarity” (the space of statements) “linked to a mobile diagonal line” by which statements are related (3). Thus what seems like a characterization of a statement at the moment of its utterance turns out to be the definition of the statement (what makes it a statement, what defines statements in general). This definition, as Deleuze/Foucault assert, hinges on rarity: “statements are essentially rare” (2). This implies “not only [that] few things are said, but [that] ‘few things can be said [or stated]’” (3). This is a matter not of originality (“no originality is needed in order to produce [statements as] a statement always represents a transmission of particular elements distributed in a corresponding space” [3]), but of regularity, the statement “associated not with the transmission of particular elements presupposed by it but with the shape of the whole curve to which they are related, and more generally with the rules governing the particular field in which they are distributed and reproduced” (4). Thus rather than produced by or referring to a particular subject or context (“there are many places from which any subject can produce the same statement”), “a statement accumulates into a specific object which then becomes preserved, transmitted or repeated” (4).

Three Realms that Encircle the Realm, Repetition and Difference, Identity and the Subject

Elaborating, Deleuze notes the “three different realms of space which encircle any statement [posited in its own realm of rarity]” corresponding to three different functions of the statement, three senses of its regularity (4). “There is collateral space […] formed from other statements that are part of the same group” on the basis of “rules of formation [that] cannot be reduced either to axioms, as in the case of propositions, or to a single context, as in the case of phrases” (4-5). Whereas axioms are higher types that “determine certain constant and intrinsic factors and define a homogeneous system” and a particular context is one among many systems delimited according to “extrinsic variable factors,” rules of formation are immanent, “found on the same level as” the statement, which “is inseparable from an inherent variant” and “operates neither laterally nor vertically but transversally” (5). With statements, “we never remain wholly within a single system but are continually passing from one to the other (even within a single language)” and “a group […] is […] ‘formed’ by rules of change or variation to be found on the same level, and these rules make the ‘family’ a medium for dispersion and heterogeneity” (5). For instance, “even when they seem to operate within the same language, statements of a discursive formation move from description to observation, calculation, institution and prescription, and use several systems or languages in the process” (5). As such, this space is characterized by adjacency or association in which “each statement is inseparable [from a multiplicity] via certain rules of change (vectors)” and “each statement is itself a multiplicity, not a structure or a system”—a topology rather than a typology or dialectic (6).

There is “correlative space,” “concerned with the link which a statement entertains […] with its subjects, objects and concepts” (6). Rather than the “linguistic ‘I,’” the subject of enunciation that links the phrase to “the intrinsic constant (the form of the ‘I’) and the extrinsic variables (where he who says ‘I’ creates a sense of form),” the statement refers “to certain intrinsic positions which are extremely variable and form part of the statement itself” (6). “The same statement can [for example] offer several different positions for the speaking subject” and be stated in different contexts for various reasons, with the “positions stem[ming] from the statement itself” (7). Rather than the external referent (“information content” in the SEP) that predicates a proposition’s intrinsic purpose on something “extrinsic and variable,” “a statement has a ‘discursive object’ which does not derive in any sense from a particular state of things, but stems from the statement itself” (7-8). Rather than a signified, “an extrinsic variable to which [a word] is related by virtue of its signifiers (an intrinsic constant),” statements “possess their own discursive concepts or ‘schemata’ […] to be found at the intersection of different systems and are cut across by the statement” that account, for example, for “the groupings and contrasts which medical statements make between various different symptoms at any particular age of discursive formation” (8). “If statements can be distinguished from words, phrases or propositions, it is because they contain their own functions of subject, object, and concept in the form of ‘derivatives’” such that “what seems accidental from the viewpoint of words, phrases and propositions becomes the rule from the viewpoint of statements” (9). In short, subject, object, and concept, according to Deleuze/Foucault, derive from the statement itself, and intrinsically rather than contingently.

This does not mean, however, that the statement is closed in on itself. There is, finally, “the complementary space of non-discursive formations ([Deleuze’s translation of Foucault’s] ‘instructions, political events, economic practices and processes’)” (9). This, Deleuze implies, is the space of institutions extrinsic to yet connected to discourse in a relation of mutual implication: “Any institution implies the existence of statements such as a constitution, charter, contracts, registrations and enrolments. Conversely, statements refer back to an institutional milieu which is necessary for the formation both of the objects which arise in such examples of the statement and of the subject who speaks from this position” (9). Importantly, Deleuze argues that the relation “between the non-discursive formations of institutions and the discursive formations of statements” is not one of expression (“a sort of vertical parallelism [… in which] two expressions symboliz[e] one another”) or reflection (“a horizontal causality in which events and institutions would determine the nature of the supposed author of the statement”) (9-10). Rather, “non-discursive milieux, which are not in themselves situated either inside or outside the group of statements […,] form the above-mentioned limit [of discursive relations], the specific horizon without which these objects could neither appear nor be assigned a place in the statement itself” (10). Thus the relation between them is one of repetition (“only ‘the statement may be repeated’”), but under strict conditions: “The area of the distribution, the allocation of unique elements, the sequence of place and event, the link established with an instituted milieu—in each case, all these must be the same in order to give the statement a ‘materiality’ that makes it repeatable” (10).

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political economy

Enclosure, Reversal, Restoration

(An earlier version of this post came out in Common Rhetoric in 6/2014.)

In a collection of essays on the commons called Stop, Thief! (2014), historian Peter Linebaugh begins by citing an anonymous English poem. It goes:

The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common,

But lets the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from the goose.

How is this quatrain potentially revolutionary, but also problematic? What does it point to? What is it doing? The poem performs the classic Marxist move of demystification, even though its composer may not have self-identified as Marxist. First, what is happening, at least apparently? “The man or woman […] steals the goose”—a criminal act justly punished by “the law” that “locks up” this man or woman. This is what it looks like. This is what is seen. As the chant goes on, however, something else takes place: a call for reversal that, as hinted at, is more just than the law owing to the fact that the relation was reversed to begin with; as such, only a subsequent reversal, the one invoked by the last two lines, would set things right.

It looked as though the unqualified “man or woman,” i.e. the common man or woman, was stealing goose from off the common, that this man or woman was taking what’s not his, what she has no right to, from “the common” protected by the law. But this is contradictory: How can the common be designated by the law? How can the common be guarded by the law? The common is prior to the law, and, in many ways, is the opposite of the law. In fact, this contradictory enclosure of the common by the law is the act of the “greater villain” or, more precisely, the greater and more villainous act that “steals the common from the goose,” an act sanctioned precisely because it is done by means of the law.

As it turns out, it is not the man or woman who steals, but the greater villain behind the law, through the law. It is not the common who steals the goose from off the common, but the law that steals the common from the goose. What looked like the primary theft of the goose turns out to be secondary to the primal theft of the common, rendering the subsequent theft just, the truly just act that is the only thing that can set right the original and greater theft. As the common is stolen from the goose, it looks as though the man or woman is stealing the goose from off the common when, in fact, the goose is merely recovering the goose (nothing to do with goods), putting herself back in the common, in which he belongs. At the same time, this process, the poem suggests, involves difficulty and incommensurability. Something is irreparably lost in the original theft that cannot be recovered, as the common has become goose, dupe, fool, which, it seems, is the subjectivity given to man or woman in the theft of the common, and which s/he has to take in taking back the common.

What the quatrain points to, then, is the enclosure of the commons, done legally but unjustly through the expropriation of the common and the containment and disempowerment of the commoner, what in the neoliberal phase of capitalism, as Linebaugh points out, takes the form of privatization and incarceration. The quatrain likewise directs attention to duplicity, that is, the doubleness that marks every rhetorical move, in this case criminal, namely: (1). the act itself (theft); and (2). the discourse (law) that, by imposing the perpetrator’s point of view (position, presuppositions, and frame) and reversing the original relation, justifies the act; in the law’s own terms, the crime and the cover-up. What does this imply? What solution to the injustice and its legitimation is proposed by the quatrain, if only indirectly? In positing the primal theft as a duplicitous move, the quatrain implies that dupes can only and must reverse enclosure to restore the commons.

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