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  • The Becoming of the “Event”: A Deleuzian Approach to Understanding the Production of Social and Political “Events”1

In this paper I seek to explore further some of the issues raised by Paul Patton in his article “The World Seen From Within: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Events”, published in the first issue of this journal in 1997.2 In this article Patton discusses Deleuze and Guattari’s idea about philosophy becoming “worthy of the event” by examining “Deleuze’s concept of the event” and “how this might apply to present social and political events”.3 In a similar way to Patton I draw upon Deleuze’s idea of the event as having a “pure” or virtual dimension as well as being actualized in “particular states of affairs”. This is what Deleuze refers to as the “double structure” of the event. I use this idea in combination with Deleuze and Guattari’s approach to the role of language in A Thousand Plateaus. In doing this I try to take Patton’s discussion of Deleuze’s concept of the event further by focusing on the question of how it can be used in order to understand the production of social and political “events”. I argue that this production can be understood in terms of a continuous and ongoing process of becoming, which lacks a final point of completion as well as an absolute presence or being.

When developing this understanding of the production of social and political “events” my aim is to move away from the idea of “representing” the meaning of “events” through the use of language and concepts. According to this idea, the “event”, or the name that is given to an “event”, functions as a sign or a symbol that refers to what has happened in a particular moment in time. This sign or symbol provides a common denominator to which various aspects of what has happened can be linked. As such, the name of the “event” is assumed to represent a kind of unity of what has happened that locates various dimensions and aspects of what has happened within some conceived whole. For Deleuze, however, the idea of representation is merely a form of “illusion”, which is based on the transcendent notions of “an identical thinking subject” and the “identity for concepts”.4 As an effect of this illusion ideas about for example the One, the Whole, and the Subject tend to be taken for granted, providing a natural starting point for understanding reality. In contrast to such a view, Deleuze’s “transcendental empiricism” provides an entirely different starting point. At one point Deleuze says that the aim of this form of empiricism “is not to rediscover the eternal or the universal, but to find the conditions under which something new is produced (creativeness)”.5 And to do this we should never begin with ideas about some abstract unity, such as the One, the Whole, the Subject, which then is given the task of explaining. Instead of letting the abstract explain, Deleuze argues, the abstract “must itself be explained”.6

One way of doing so is to begin with examining the processes through which the abstract is produced. And it is the very nature of these processes, as something that is constantly moving rather than static that needs to be analysed. By examining these processes it might then be possible to understand how different kinds of ideas emerge, and how notions of the One, the Whole, and the Subject are produced. So, rather than taking these notions for granted, Deleuze’s transcendental form of empiricism can be said to provoke an examination of how they are produced and made possible in the first place. For this reason it can also be seen as an interesting alternative to a representational mode of thinking about social and political “events”. As abstract wholes, the problem is not how to represent them but to understand how they are produced and how they are made possible in the first place. In this paper I develop one possible way of thinking about this problem, drawing upon Deleuze’s concept of a “double structure” of the event as well as Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas about language and the relationship between expression and content.

The Singularity of the Event

In The Logic of Sense Deleuze articulates the basic idea of a “double structure” of the event in the following way:

With every event, there is indeed the present moment of its actualization, the moment in which the event is embodied in a state of affairs, an individual, or a person, the moment we designate by saying “here, the moment has come.” The future and the past of the event are evaluated only with respect to this definitive present, and from the point of view of that which embodies it. But on the other hand, there is the future and the past of the event considered in itself, sidestepping each present, being free of the limitations of a state of affairs, impersonal and pre-individual, neutral, neither general nor particular.7

Following this “double structure” of the event there are two interrelated sides of the event: the actualization of events and the singularity of events. Beginning with the latter side, the event can be referred to as something that happens immediately, without being linked to a present moment in time, a pre-established subject, or an external background. As such, the event can also be analysed in terms of different movements, which elude the present as well as the being of the subject. One of the ways in which Deleuze develops this idea of the event is through a reading of time in Stoic philosophy. This philosophy, Deleuze explains, contains two main conceptions of time: “Chronos” and “Aion”. Whereas Chronos consists of the present as the constitutive element of time, Aion can be said to escape the present and only let movements of past and future remain.

In accordance with Aion, only the past and future inhere or subsist in time. Instead of a present which absorbs the past and future, a future and past divide the present at every instant and subdivide it ad infinitum into past and future, in both directions at once.8

Aion thus escapes the present as a central reference point in time. Between past and future there is no present because every instant subdivides the present into past and future. So, rather than the “now” of the present there is the “instant” of Aion. In this way, Aion does not have a present, which can envelop the past and the future in accordance with a fixed point of reference. The implication of this reading of time for thinking about the event is that the event cannot be located in the present, but only in relation to the past and the future. As such, Deleuze points out that the event often takes the form of a “double question”: the questions of “what is going to happen, and what has just happened”.9 There is no underlying purpose of this double question, and it is not raised because it requires a particular answer. Rather, it can be seen as an expression of the “agonizing aspect of the pure event”, which highlights the difficulty of grasping what has happened but also knowing what is going to happen. This difficulty can be explained by the lack of a stable and present “now” as a point from which the subject can reflect upon the past and make predictions about the future. The time of Aion, referring to what is always already past and eternally yet to come, destabilises the notion of a pure present and frees the event from a static location in time.

Lacking a pure present, Aion can also be said to express an “incorporeal” form of time. In other words, time as Aion cannot be directly linked to either movements or actions of bodies that are already present. The movements of Aion do not rely upon a relationship with the Self or the being of a superior “I”. Without a present corporeal content, Aion expresses an “empty form of time”: “Always already passed and eternally yet to come, Aion is the eternal truth of time: pure empty form of time, which has freed itself of its present corporeal content and has thereby unwound its own circle, stretching itself out in a straight line”.10 Following the incorporeal time of Aion, there is no “being” of the subject, which can be located in a present “now”. Instead of such a being, the empty form of time has to be grasped in terms of a becoming of the subject. This becoming has neither an identity, nor does it exist in one place or at one time. It is a movement “by which the line frees itself from the point, and renders points indiscernible”.11 Deleuze describes this idea of becoming in his reading of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass:

When I say “Alice becomes larger,” I mean that she becomes larger than she was. By the same token, however, she becomes smaller than she is now. Certainly, she is not bigger and smaller at the same time. She is larger now; she was smaller before. But it is at the same moment that one becomes larger than one was and smaller than one becomes. This is the simultaneity of a becoming whose characteristic is to elude the present.12

This idea of becoming implies that there is no middle point, or a present, in which the subject can be located. Becoming consists of an unlimited movement that “produces nothing but itself”.13 In this way, the event does not fall back on an already existing identity of the subject and is not imprisoned within an individual or personal self. Rather, as a singularity, the event only allows “the dissolved self, the cracked I, the lost identity” to remain.14 And even if there is an “I” that figures in discourse it is an “I” that is cracked or fractured, as it seems to lack the necessary tools to comprehend what happens. In this case, as Deleuze writes in reference to Maurice Blanchot,

it is I who am too weak for life, it is life which overwhelms me, scattering its singularities all about, in no relation to me, nor to a moment determinable as the present, except an impersonal instant which is divided into still-future and already-past.15

Following this “impersonal instant” the event can be read as an expression of a becoming that escapes the present moment in time as well as the corporeal content of the subject. As such, the event also has to be freed from an external point of view, from which it is possible to reflect upon the meaning of what has happened as something that exists externally to the subject.

Moreover, the event can be understood as constitutive and active rather than representational and reactive.16 In other words, the event is not an “object” or a “thing”, which can be represented, but rather a force that creates. Examples of this force can be related to “thought” and “sense”, which are not ways of representing but rather active events that create. As Claire Colebrook notes, “sense is not a faithful double of what is (not a representation) but a cut, fissure, fibrillation or ungrounded difference – not a difference from, nor a difference of, but an event of difference”.17 The idea of sense as an event is important in Deleuze’s philosophy precisely because it can be seen as an expression of the productive and creative element of the event. As an event, sense cannot for example be explained by the objects of perception. That would simply result in a statement that tries to determine the qualities of an object by locating it in an external metaphysical realm. So, instead of stating that “the tree is green”, the sense event belongs to the active processes: “to green” and “to tree”.18 And the reason for this, as Colebrook explains, is that “we see not just what actually is, but also the seen as it might be remembered, imagined, recalled, repeated, hallucinated”.19 Sense, then, is “an incorporeal, complex, and irreducible entity”, or a singularity, which can be expressed in a multiplicity of ways without being linked to some kind of whole or “common sense”.20

Following this understanding of the event, as a force of ungrounded difference, there is also a potential for change and transformation inherent in the event. For example, as an event, thought involves a process of change and transformation, which always has the potential to bring something new. As Deleuze and Guattari point out, “all of thought is a becoming, a double becoming, rather than the attribute of a Subject and the representation of a Whole”.21 As something that is active and creative “thinking” highlights the idea of becoming as an unlimited movement without beginning or end. Becoming, in this sense, does not have a pre-determined goal. It presents only a “flow of life” that can take on new paths and create new ways of thinking and perceiving. For Deleuze, then, the task is to articulate and make thinkable this process by which there is an event of difference that does not fall back on identity and similarity but affirms the creative and productive elements of the event.22

This is also what Deleuze and Guattari try to do when they introduce the concepts of “deterritorialization” and “lines of flight”. According to Deleuze and Guattari, these concepts do not refer to ways of decoding movements and becomings by extracting them from their context. “Deterritorialization” and “lines of flight” refer to movements and becomings as processes without an external background or context.23 As such, they cannot be connected with any oppositional terms or systems of representation, according to which movements and becomings are fixed. There are no oppositions, or beginnings and ends, only the between:

Between things does not designate a localizable relation going from one thing to the other and back again, but a perpendicular direction, a transversal movement that sweeps one and the other away, a stream without beginning or end that undermines its banks and picks up speed in the middle.24

Following this idea of movements there is, for example, no “thing” that then transforms into something else, resulting in an identifiable difference between one “thing” and another “thing”. Transformation can only be understood in terms of a movement without a pre-established content or agency. Deterritorialization and lines of flight are expressions of this kind of transformation. And as movements without a predetermined goal they can take on various directions, go in unpredictable ways and create possible worlds. The event is always marked by these kinds of movements and transformations. As such, it also escapes the idea of a predetermined goal and stays open to different forms of creations and transformations.

Following this view of the singularity of the event, the event cannot simply be attributed to the “being” of things. As impersonal and pre-individual instants, events occur through a series of paradoxes, illustrated by questions about what has happened and what is going to happen, and the unlimited movements of past and future. Lacking a determinable “being”, events cannot be identified in terms of what is, nor can they be linked to a fixed centre of convergence. Hence, it is necessary to point out that events do not connect through a synthesis of unification, according to which different events are placed in a systematic relationship with one another. The connection between events is rather one that is based on “divergence” and “disjunction”, where any kind of ideational centre is “perpetually decentred”.25 Instead of a unity of events there is thus a multiplicity of events, in which the different relates to the different and never to the same.26

The Actualization of the Event

So far I have discussed Deleuze’s concept of the event as a singularity, mainly by pointing to its relation to time and subjectivity, and change and transformation. In this context, the event can be understood as a singular force of difference, which is active and creative rather than reactive and representational. As such, it is also a force that comes “before” distinctions between for example subject and object, the internal and external. However, thinking about the event as something that comes “before” such distinctions, the question then is how those distinctions are produced and made possible in the first place. In other words, how is it possible to explain the emergence or production of different kinds of distinctions such as subject/object, internal/external? Here, I will address this question by looking at the other side of the “double structure” of the event, namely the “actualization” of the event, referring to the process by which the event is translated into a “state of affairs” or what is.

In order to understand this process it is useful to first look at how Deleuze elaborates on the second Stoic conception of time: “Chronos”. One way of explaining this form of time is by thinking in terms of a succession of instants, or cases. This succession refers to the way in which instants are repeated in the present, to which both a past and a future belong. Here, the past and the future do not exist independently of the present, but can rather be seen as parts of the present. The present connects different instants, or cases, by weaving them together in order to form the impression of a homogenous movement, which always goes from the past to the future: “Chronos is the present which alone exists. It makes of the past and future its two oriented dimensions, so that one goes always from the past to the future – but only to the degree that presents follow one another inside partial worlds or partial systems”.27 Chronos is thus not representing a universal order of time, but is always expressed within particular systems. According to these systems, the present can be said to “regularize” time, by connecting the future and the past into a seemingly coherent movement. It is a regularization of time that “measures the movement of bodies” as it fills and limits them by inscribing a particular content or matter.28 In this way, time is no longer “empty” but rather “embodied”, and instead of being “incorporeal” it is “corporeal”.

The process by which the future and the past are linked to a present, and an incorporeal or singular becoming is translated into a corporeal or personalised form of “being”, is also what Deleuze refers to as actualization. To begin with, actualization should not be confused with resemblance and representation, but rather has to be seen as a creative process:

Actualisation breaks with resemblance as a process no less than it does with identity as a principle. Actual terms never resemble the singularities they incarnate. In this sense, actualisation or differenciation is always a genuine creation. It does not result from any limitation of pre-existing possibility. (…) For a potential or virtual object, to be actualised is to create divergent lines which correspond to – without resembling – a virtual multiplicity.29

So, in order to escape the limits that are imposed by identity and resemblance, actualization has to be understood in terms of a genuine creation. And according to Deleuze, it is the potential that exists in the “virtual” that enables this creation to take place. The virtual in Deleuze’s philosophy is not opposed to the “real”, and neither is it something artificial or simulated. On the contrary, the virtual is more real than anything else. And the main reason for this is that the virtual does not suppress difference in favour of identity, but refers only to the indeterminate relations between differences, which escape the confinements of identity. As it expresses a freer role of difference, the virtual does not fall back on the illusions of transcendence and representation, according to which singularities are imprisoned within the “limits of worlds, individuals, and persons”.30 Also, the reality of the virtual always continues to exist, or subsist, despite different attempts to grasp it through a process of actualization. In this way, actualization never leads to anything final or complete, which can be said to exist independently of the processes from which it emerges. As Deleuze and Guattari note: “The actual is not what we are but, rather, what we become, what we are in the process of becoming”.31

It is therefore important to emphasise that the relationship between the actual and the virtual is always to some extent mutual. This means that in addition to the movement from the virtual to the actual, there is also a movement that goes in the opposite direction: “from virtuals we descend to actual states of affairs, and from states of affairs we ascend to virtuals, without being able to isolate one from the other”.32 The name of this latter process is “counter-actualization”. Actualization and counter-actualization can be said to move between the event and a “state of affairs”, or between the virtual and the actual, but without being clearly separable from one another:

No doubt, the event is not only made up from inseparable variations, it is itself inseparable from the state of affairs, bodies, and lived reality in which it is actualized or brought about. But we can also say the converse: the state of affairs is no more separable from the event that nonetheless goes beyond its actualization in every respect.33

Actualization and counter-actualization are thus relative processes. As such, they render the two sides of the event both independent and inseparable at the same time. And this is precisely the reason why the event always has to be grasped in terms of a “double structure”. Without actualization, the event would never come into effect. And without counter-actualization, there would be no force that makes the event continue to exist, or subsist, as a potential for change and transformation. “To the extent that the pure event is each time imprisoned forever in its actualization, counter-actualization liberates it, always for other times.”34 So, rather than simply operating on its own, the process of actualization is doubled by the potential of counter-actualization, which in turn opens up the possibility for more actualizations still to come.

This double process can also be understood in terms of an ambiguous relationship between the impersonal and the personal. In one case “it is I who am too weak for life, it is life which overwhelms me, scattering its singularities all about”, and in the other case “it is my life, which seems too weak for me and slips away at a point which, in a determined relation to me, has become present”.35 What this ambiguity shows is that there is always one part of the event that remains impersonal and therefore ungraspable. It cannot be grasped, actualized or realized because it appears to have no relation to me as a person. At the same time, however, there is the other part of the event that clearly seems to belong to me as a person since it is “I” who embody it. To illustrate this point Deleuze often refers Blanchot’s example of “death” as an event. On the one hand death “has an extreme and definite relation to me and my body and is grounded in me, but it also has no relation to me at all – it is incorporeal and infinitive, impersonal, grounded only in itself”.36 Apart from having a strong connection to my body, death is a force that appears to have no relation to me at all. It is not “I” who dies but rather an impersonal “they” or “it”. This ambiguous relation between the impersonal and the personal is crucial when trying to understand the importance of events. It shows how the event is not something that “I” as a subject simply can control but rather something in which “I” both disappear and then again appear. In this way, Deleuze notes that: “Every event is like death. Double and impersonal in its double.”37

The relationship between the personal and impersonal, the actual and the virtual can also be explained by the relationship between the two forms of time, Aion and Chronos. In the same way as the virtual cannot be clearly separated from the actual, the temporal actualization of the event (Chronos) cannot be clearly separated from the future-past of the event (Aion). And according to Deleuze, it is always the latter that interferes and refigures the former. Consequently, the present moment of a particular actualization is never present as such but is constantly dislocated and displaced by Aion. This means that instead of seeing them as separate, the two forms of time must be understood in relation to each other. For this reason, Deleuze points out that the present “does not contradict the Aion”. Rather,

it is the present as being of reason which is subdivided ad infinitum into something that has just happened and something that is going to happen, always flying in both directions at once. The other present, the living present, happens and brings about the event. But the event nonetheless retains an eternal truth upon the line of Aion, which divides it eternally into a proximate past and an imminent future. The Aion endlessly subdivides the event and pushes away past as well as future, without ever rendering them less urgent.38

So, instead of being a separate form of time, Chronos is always linked to Aion, with the latter constantly dispersing and refiguring the former without ever letting it remain the same. This is also the “agonizing aspect” of the event that Deleuze often returns to – the fact that movements of past and future cannot be fixed in a temporal present or a separate moment in time. Accordingly, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine what has happened in the past and predict what is going to happen in the future purely on the basis of something that is happening in the present. The event, in this sense, is “always and at the same time something which has just happened and something about to happen; never something happening”.39 Before it even appears as a separate moment in time, this “something” is pushed away by the movements of past and future. Nothing remains static and nothing remains the same. Ideas about what has happened might be repeated an endless number of times. But these repetitions can neither be cemented, nor result in a static conception of one and the same “thing”. Repetitions ultimately have the effect of displacing any such conceptions, revealing the free play of differences without a determinable centre.

In this way, the singularity of the event, as a movement towards the past and the future, can also be seen as a potentially disruptive force. An example of such a force is “sense” as an event, which has the potential to disrupt or undermine notions of “common sense” or “good sense”. Whereas the latter are based on the idea of subordinating sense to a shared understanding of what everyone is supposed to “know” or “recognise”, sense as an event unleashes a singular force of difference that disrupts the shared understanding of “common sense” or “good sense”. The latter notions are thereby “undermined by the principle of their production, and are overthrown from within by paradox”.40 This paradox, then, can be explained by the way in which the event always goes in two different directions at once:

“Which way, which way?” asks Alice. The question has no answer, since it is the characteristic of sense not to have any direction or “good sense”. Rather, sense always goes to both directions at once, in the infinitely subdivided and elongated past-future.41

Even if there are attempts to provide generalizations of “good sense” or “common sense”, the paradox of sense makes them impossible to sustain as static elements of truth and certainty. Hence, there is no full or complete actualization or translation of the event into a “state of affairs” or what is. And the reason for this is that notions of what is do not exist independently or simply on their own, but are always accompanied with a trace of that from which they emerge, the singularity of the event and the virtual. For this reason the event can also be understood as a “vapour” or a “reserve”, implying that it always remains in the background of actualization.42

In this context, the important task is to show how the event can be “counter-effectuated” and thereby “abstracted from a state of affairs”.43 And this is also how philosophy’s aim to “become worthy of the event” can be interpreted.44 It is an aim that is specific to philosophy as a practice of creating concepts. This practice has nothing to do with representation, information or communication. Rather, it is a practice that aims to show the contingency of life itself and that life is not simply made up of an illusion of transcendence and being, in which everything is limited to thinking in terms of actualized states of affairs. The creation of concepts concerns the virtual and incorporeal dimensions of life - as movements of becoming that cannot be actualized or translated into what is. It is philosophy’s task to open up ways of thinking about this dimension of life, to become worthy of the events that cannot be fixed or controlled and which for that very reason play a crucial part in our continuous processes of becoming.

The Becoming of the “Event”

Returning to the question of how to understand the production of social and political “events”, one way of addressing this question is to analyse the “event” in terms of the “actual”, or as a product of actualization. The “event” can then be referred to as “the moment in which the event is embodied in a state of affairs, an individual, or a person, the moment we designate by saying ‘here, the moment has come’”.45 Moreover, as a way of bringing the multiplicity of events together, the “event” can also be related to the idea of an independently existing object or a coherent whole. The relationship between the singularity of events and the “event” is then determined by the ways in which the former becomes actualized in the latter by connecting it with a subjective point of view as well as with the being of an object. There is a movement, then, from the singularity of events towards an actualization of those events, the outcome of which is a particular understanding of the “event” as an “object” or a “thing”.

However, to understand the “event” as an “outcome” of actualization can be seen as problematic if this implies that the “outcome” itself exists independently of the processes from which it emerges, i.e. the singularity of events. To avoid this problem it is therefore necessary to take the mutual interaction between the singularity of events and the actualization of events seriously. In this way, the “event” has to be seen as intimately linked to the singularity of events rather than separated from it. The implication of this view is that the “event” never represents an independently existing object or a complete whole, the meaning of which can be determined by a pre-established subject and located in an external background or context. These categories might of course exist, but only as effects of actualization. As such, they do not exist independently of the singularity of events, but can rather be said to emerge from the processes of actualizing those events. Brian Massumi has elaborated on this in the following way:

The separately recognizable, speakable identities of the objects and subjects involved in the unfolding event come into definition only retrospectively. In the event, they are inseparable from the immediacy of the relation. Their coming-together precedes their definition. And it is their definition that culminates the event: only after it has run its course can the situation be fully contextualized, accurately determined to have been a particular case of a certain general class of happening. Coming-together, or belonging-together, takes logical or ontological precedence over discreteness of components and, in particular, over the subject-object separation. Subject and object are imbedded in the situational relation in a way that cannot be fully determined in advance. As long as the event is ongoing, its outcome even slightly uncertain, their contextual identity is open to amendment. In other words, they are embedded in the relation as the real potential to be exactly what they will have effectively become when the event will have run its course. Their identities figure virtually.46

According to Massumi, the relations we perceive, between subject, object, and a particular context can only be determined retrospectively, after the event “has run its course”. Does this mean, then, that the relations we perceive have been fully determined, and thereby cemented into what is? And does it mean that it is possible to recognise the point at which this happens, i.e. the point at which “the event has run its course”? If the answer is a simple and straightforward “yes” to both of these questions it would seem that only one of the processes discussed earlier is taken into account, the process of actualization. But if the process of counter-actualization is also taken into account everything changes. Following the latter process there is no full or complete actualization or translation into what is. And the reason for this is that any kind of perceivable relation does not exist simply on its own, but is always accompanied by a trace of that from which it emerges, the singularity of the event or the virtual. Therefore, it could be argued that the “event” is neither a complete whole, nor a static entity that exists independently of the subject, and against an established background or context. Rather than being static, the “event” remains open to movements and processes, according to which it is refigured and recreated in different ways. Hence, to think about the “event” as a static and independently existing object or a “thing” becomes increasingly problematic. Massumi develops this point by suggesting:

When we speak of “an” object or thing, what we are referring to is a complex interweaving of attributes and contents as subsumed under a nominal identity (a name). “An” object subsumes a multiplicity that evolves situationally. Every object is an evolving differential: a snow balling, open-ended variation on itself.47

So, instead of understanding the “event” as a determinable “object” or a “thing” I want to argue that it has to be understood as a part of an ongoing production. Consequently, instead of a “being” of the “event” as this particular “thing”, it is more useful to think in terms of a becoming of the “event”. Within this becoming there are two interdependent processes involved, actualization and counter-actualization, working both with and against the notion of the “event” as an object or a whole. So despite processes of actualization there cannot be a final point of completion, according to which the “event” has become an independently existing object or a coherent whole. To move away from an understanding of the “event” in terms of a static being thus implies that there is always the possibility for change and transformation. This means that the “event” as an object is never coherent in and of itself. Instead, the “event” can be understood as an illusory object or whole, which seeks to incorporate the singularity and multiplicity of events but without ever fully succeeding in doing so. The “event”, in this sense, is produced through a never-ending encounter with change, difference and transformation.

Language and “Events”

Whilst change has to be understood in relation to the singularity of the event and forces of difference, it could also be argued that there is another aspect of change that needs to be considered when thinking about the production of social and political “events”. This aspect relates to the notion of “events” as “breaking points”, which constitute a temporal order that separates between “before” and “after”. Useful examples of this can be thought of in relation to so called “grand” political “events” such as “9/11” or the “fall of the Berlin Wall”. With both of these “events” there is a common view that everything suddenly changed, and that this change resulted in a new world order that was different from what had been. The ways in which this kind of connection is made, between the “event” and a fundamental social and political change may come in different forms, depending on the conditions that determine a particular understanding of the “event” to emerge in the first place. An important question, therefore, is how certain conditions are created, and how they help produce a particular understanding of the “event” in the social field. In order to address this question I will shift focus slightly and see how Deleuze and Guattari explain the role of language in the social field. Particularly interesting here is how they discuss a specific function of language, which they call “order-words”.

Order-words refer to the ways in which language compels “obedience”, “gives life orders” and forces a particular “corporeal modification” to take place. As an example of this, Deleuze and Guattari refer to how different age categories are imposed through statements such as “you are no longer a child”. Although the transformation from being a child into something else is attributed to the body, the transformation itself does not depend upon an essence within the body. This kind of transformation therefore has to be understood as incorporeal. In other words, what makes the child suddenly stop being a child and become something else does not come down to any explicit corporeal factors, but rather to the power of language in the social field to attribute the body a particular content and meaning. And it is the order-word that performs this task, through its immediate effect on the body. “The instantaneousness of the order-word, its immediacy, gives it a power of variation in relation to the bodies to which the transformation is attributed.”48 The order-word states that things are no longer the same as they once were, and that consequently the content of the body has changed and taken on a new form as well.49 In this way, Deleuze and Guattari point out that there are two different “formalizations” at work: “If in a social field we distinguish the set of corporeal modifications and the set of incorporeal transformations, we are presented, despite the variety in each of the sets, with two formalizations, one of content, the other of expression.50

By stressing that “content” and “expression” take on different “forms”, Deleuze and Guattari seek to show how those forms belong to different modes of dispersion. Here they refer to Foucault’s claim that “it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say”.51 As two different modes of dispersion, what is seen (content) and what is said (expression) have no immediate connection or resemblance.52 Moreover, the form of content never exists prior to the form of expression, which means that content should not be regarded as a signified, no less than expression should be regarded as a signifier. It is rather the case that they interact with one another in order to produce different mixtures or “assemblages”.53

Belonging to two separate forms as different modes of dispersion, the relationship between content and expression is conditioned by mutual interaction. In this way, for example, the form of expression can intervene and interact with the content, making the form of the latter modify in certain ways:

The independence of the two kinds of forms, forms of expression and forms of content, is not contradicted but confirmed by the fact that the expressions or expresseds are inserted into or intervene in contents, not to represent them but to anticipate them or move them back, slow them down or speed them up, separate or combine them, delimit them in a different way. The warp of the instantaneous transformations is always inserted into the woof of continuous modifications.54

When referring to “modifications” here, Deleuze and Guattari are not simply suggesting that expression constitutes or constructs the content. Rather, by “modifications” they are referring to the ways in which content and expression interact with and intervene in one another. To illustrate this point Deleuze and Guattari use Foucault’s work on the prison as an example. The prison, they point out, is a form of content. And within this content, the bodies of prisoners enter as a substance, just like the bodies of guards and visitors. However, the prisoners are not prisoners unless they have first passed through sentencing by a judge. The sentence itself is carried out as a form of expression, for example by using concepts such as “delinquency” or “delinquent”, which in this case, “express a new way of classifying, stating, translating, and even committing criminal acts”.55 The term “delinquency” as a form of expression interacts with the “prison” as a form of content, but without representing or signifying it. There is no pre-established connection between “delinquency” as a form of expression and the “prison” as a form of content. Rather, the connection between the two has to be produced, through different processes and forces at work in the social field.

Having no pre-established connection, and belonging to two separate forms, “delinquency” and “prison” can also enter new relations with other parts of society, through the production of new connections. These connections emerge from the historical formation that defines the conditions for knowledge or the conditions for seeing and speaking in particular ways. Such conditions, however, do not rely on a prior ground, and they never result in a coherent and single “entity”:

The conclusion we can draw is that each historical formation sees and reveals all it can within the conditions laid down for visibility, just as it says all it can within the conditions relating to statements. (…) [I]n both cases the conditions do not meet deep within a consciousness of a subject, any more than they compose a single Entity: they are two forms of exteriority within which dispersion and dissemination take place, sometimes of statements, sometimes of visibilities.56

Content and expression, or the visible and the articulable, can thus be related to seeing and speaking as two different modes of dispersion. Accordingly, seeing and speaking have their own internal differences, which can be related neither to a complete whole, nor to a preestablished subject. As such, content and expression are not static forms but constantly caught up in different movements, constituting a world that is in an ongoing process of becoming, where becoming applies to the meaning of objects as well as to subject-positions. However, in the attempts to capture movements of becoming, expression and content can also take on more established forms by constituting a “collective assemblage of enunciation”.57 The relationship between expression and content is thereby formalized in a certain way and given a specific character in the social field. Language is then given a purely pragmatic function to articulate the relationship between expression and content. However, this does not mean that language should be understood simply as the means for communication or information. Not even the formalization of language comes down to communication or information, since expression never re-presents the content. Trying to combine content and expression, the visible and the articulable, the formalization of language is merely an attempt to bridge the unbridgeable gap or the “non-relation” between their respective forms.58

So, how can Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas about the social function of language be used in order to think further about the production of “events”? Or more specifically, how can these ideas be used in order to think about the relationship between the singularity of events and the “event”? It has already been noted that the “event” can be analysed as the outcome of a process of actualization. But in addition to this it can be argued that the “event” also has to be filled with a particular “content”. This content can for example be related to ideas about what has happened in a particular moment in time and how that moment is attributed to the corporeal presence of a body, where the body might be an individual as well as a collective. But it can also be linked to the function of the order-word, which states that no longer are things the way they used to be and so “we” have changed as well. Something has happened but we do not know exactly what or how to describe it. Its singularity escapes any pre-fixed notions of a general type of “events”. It requires a response, a form of expression that can establish a new form of content. In this context, the order-word emerges as a function that seeks to bring the two forms together and thereby establish a form of content that eventually becomes familiar to us.

To illustrate this point it is useful to return to the example of “9/11” as a “breaking point”. In the production of this “event” a multiplicity of movements such as planes flying into buildings, people falling, and people running on the streets without any sense of direction is eventually reduced to a determinable and complete whole. This happens in many different ways but arguably the most dominant one is by referring to a “terrorist attack” and “an act of war”. These expressions were also used frequently by President George W. Bush in his many speeches during the weeks following September 11, 2001. In those speeches Bush put a lot of emphasis on the significance of what had happened, highlighting its uniqueness as well as its impact on the “American people” and the rest of the “world”. For example, in his “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People”, on September 20, 2001, he made the following description of what had happened:

On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known wars – but for the past 136 years, they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941. Americans have known the casualties of war – but not at the center of a great city on a peaceful morning. Americans have known surprise attacks – but never before on thousands of civilians. All of this was brought upon us in a single day – and night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack.59

Apart from using the expression “act of war” Bush is also suggesting that this “act” is fundamentally different from what “Americans have known” about previous wars and attacks. And because of its impact, it is also made clear that this “event” has changed both America and the world. Americans must therefore acknowledge that “we’ve entered into a new day”60, with a new kind of threat against our everyday lives. A transformation has thus taken place, a transformation that is primarily expressed by the ways in which it has affected “America” or the “American people” as a collective “body”. This particular transformation, even though it obviously has an intimate connection with what has happened, can neither be reduced to the actions of bodies, nor to an essence of those bodies. This means, for example, that it cannot simply be explained by the actions of planes flying into the World Trade Center or the mixture of bodies interacting on the streets. Rather, the incorporeal transformation that occurs here has to be linked to the ways in which this transformation is attributed to the body of the “American people” and the bodies of American “citizens”.

One of the main effects of this transformation is that “we” are expected to relate to what has happened in a particular way. Accordingly, the impersonal and pre-individual movements of what happens to the people involved, as well as to the ones watching it on TV, are translated into something personal through the inscription of a collective point of view. Within this translation, movements of planes crashing into buildings, buildings collapsing, people falling and people running on the streets suddenly become part of something to which they now belong, a homogenous series that links different elements or cases together. Images are repeated endlessly, as are the texts on the TV-screens, eventually making the connection between the images and the texts seem natural.

In the singularity of events, however, there is no such connection. Images and words do not seem to bear any kind of resemblance. What is seen cannot be articulated in a satisfactory way as words suddenly become inadequate when trying to make sense of what has happened. There is a crack between words and images, and between content and expression, which leaves the reality of what has happened in the background, as a paradox or as something overwhelming that cannot fit with our social and conceptual frameworks. But for that very reason it can also be understood as the most real there is, precisely because it has not yet been actualized or translated into a state of affairs. Still remaining in the background, the virtual real is the potential of what has not yet been determined or articulated. It hides in the background as an unanswered question, or as something that has not yet found a way to become actualized. This is the impersonal side of the event, which disembody the event and thereby forces the illusion of a superior “I” to disappear in a cloud of uncertainty, leaving only the impersonal and pre-individual instants.

There are, then, two sides of the event. Whereas one is actualized in a state of affairs the other is impersonal and figures only virtually. In this context, attempts to produce the “event” as an independently existing object or a coherent whole can be interpreted as a way of trying to resolve the ambiguous relationship between these two sides of the event. And inherent in this process there is a formalization of expression, which, by assuming a direct correspondence to the content of what has happened amounts to sameness and identity. However, because there is no direct resemblance or correspondence between expression and content the “event” can never be fully determined, regardless of how many attempts there are to do so. This could perhaps give us some hope since it suggests that there is always the possibility that a new understanding of the “event” will emerge, an understanding that breaks with the dominant way of framing the “event” as this particular “thing”.

In Deleuze and Guattari’s semiotics this kind of resistance to a determinable form of being can be linked to what they refer to as the “revolutionary potentiality of the order-word”. This potentiality involves, not so much an ability to escape the order-word, as “to elude the death-sentence it envelops”.61 It is therefore important not to treat the order-word as definite or real, but only as an undetermined “actual”. Again, the actual is never “real”. The only “real” is the virtual, which expresses the potentiality of something new to emerge: “‘Potential’ and ‘virtual’ are not at all in opposition to ‘real’; on the contrary, the reality of the creative, or the placing-in-continuous variation of variables, is in opposition only to the actual determination of their constant relations.”62

The potentiality of the order-word can thus be said to exist within its own variations. This means that instead of merely understanding the order-word as a function of language that has the power to formalize content and expression it must also be understood in relation to the potentiality of drawing out new connections and new variations. In this sense, it might for example be possible to show how the connections between images and words break down and thereby alter the dominant views on how they are supposed to fit together as parts of one and the same thing. It might also be possible to show how the paradox of sense, expressed by the uncertainty of how to feel or how to react, disrupts the perceptions of how “we” are supposed recognise the meaning of the “event” against the background of a “common sense” truth.

In this context, the role of philosophy is to experiment with concepts or invent new ones, in order to show how it is possible to draw out new connections and new variations of expression and content. By doing so the aim is to counter-effectuate events, releasing their suppressed singularities from particular actualizations and from particular understandings of the “event” as one and the same “thing”. Moreover, in doing this the aim should be to retain the ambiguous relationship between the personal and the impersonal, which often gets lost in the production of the “event” as an object or a whole.

However, the implication of the potential to refigure the content of the “event” could also be said to have a different and perhaps more violent effect. Because the content of the “event” lacks a static form it is also possible to change it for different purposes and in order to legitimize various political decisions and actions to be taken. There is a politics of the “event”, which seeks to inscribe meaning on what has happened by making it into a seemingly coherent whole and by placing it in accordance with a particular narrative. This kind politics of the “event” does not depend on “representing” something that is already present but can rather be understood as a way of actualizing and thereby producing the meaning of the “event”. As Patton notes, “event attributions do not simply describe or report pre-existing events, they help to actualize particular events in the social field. That is why politics frequently takes the form of struggle over the appropriate description of events.”63

Actualization can thus be seen as an integral part of the politics of producing the “event”. Hence, the politics of the “event” is not so much a politics of representation as a politics of creation and “experimentation”.64 According to this experimentation there is nothing predetermined about the ways in which an “event” will be produced. Lacking a pre-determined goal as well as a fixed content the production of “events” is always filled with a degree of uncertainty and ambiguity regarding its content as well as direction. “9/11”, for example, has no concrete being but only a becoming, according to which the content of this supposed “event” can change and take on new forms.

Moreover, the politics of the “event” should not be seen as external to the broader political imaginaries in which different kinds of “events” are located. Rather, the production of “events” can be seen as an essential part of creating those imaginaries. For example, when the “event” is produced as a breaking point that separates what has been from what is to come it is the “event” that can be said to provide the necessary coordinates upon which the creation of a new political imaginary is based. Accordingly, the ways in which a particular “event” is produced can also be said to have crucial implications for how those imaginaries are produced. For example, to talk about “9/11” as an “attack against freedom” and an “act of war” has to be seen as crucial in shaping the political imaginary informed by a “war on terror”. “9/11” is not just some abstract background against which this imaginary plays out but has to be seen as playing an active and crucial role in creating and re-creating that imaginary. In this way, the production of “events” can be said to have an effect, not only on how to relate oneself to “what has happened”, but also on the limits that are imposed on thought within a political imaginary, constituting the frameworks in which we are supposed to act as political subjects.


When thinking about the production of “events” in terms of a becoming of the “event” the main point is to understand the “event” in relation to different processes and movements. These processes and movements have neither a pre-determined goal, nor can they be said to signify something that is static or fully present. Moreover, their aim is not to uncover something that is hidden, but rather to create and produce, drawing their power from the virtual and the singularity of the event. The latter is a productive force, but it also has the potential to disrupt that which has been produced. As such, the “event” is never static or definite, but always part of an ongoing process of becoming.

In this way, the content of the “event” remains open, which means that a new form of expression always has the potential to intervene and thereby refigure the content. Such an intervention might take on different forms. The main task, however, should be to avoid getting stuck in a representational illusion that is produced by the dominant political frameworks for understanding the reality of what has happened. To do so, the aim must be to create new concepts that can liberate thought from the limits of representation and the limits that are constantly produced and re-produced in the politics of the “event”. As Patton concludes his essay: “A practice of philosophy which would be ‘worthy’ of the event does not simply respond to social events as they appear: it creates new concepts in the attempt to give expression to the underlying problems or pure events.”65

This relates, then, to Deleuze and Guattari’s idea about philosophy, the aim of which is to become “worthy” of the event. It is an aim that can be seen as increasingly important given the significance of “events” in the discourses and practices that shape current political imaginaries. The radical potential of Deleuze’s philosophy in this context might be explored in many different ways. But it would have to start with some kind of appreciation of the ways in which the singularity of events and the politics of producing “events” interact with one another, and that separating one from the other is not in any way easy or straightforward.

Tom Lundborg

Tom Lundborg recently completed his PhD in international politics at Aberystwyth University, UK. His PhD dissertation addressed the problem of understanding the role and meaning of events in international politics. He can be reached at


1. I would like to thank Susanna Karlsson and one anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay.

2. Paul Patton, “The World Seen From Within: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Events”, Theory & Event, 1:1, (1997).

3. Ibid., paragraph 2.

4. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, (London: Continuum, 2004), p. 334.

5. Gilles Deleuze, Dialogues II: Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, trans. Hugh Tomlinson & Barbara Habberjam, (London: Continuum, 2006), p. vi.

6. Ibid., p. vi.

7. Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale, ed. by Constantin V. Boundas, (London: Continuum, 2004), p. 172.

8. Ibid., p. 188.

9. Ibid., p. 73.

10. Ibid., p. 189.

11. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, (London: Continuum, 2004), p. 324.

12. Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, p. 8.

13. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 262.

14. Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, p. 159.

15. Ibid., p. 172.

16. Ibid., p. 164.

17. Claire Colebrook, Philosophy and Post-structuralist Theory: from Kant to Deleuze, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), p. 175.

18. Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, p. 8.

19. Claire Colebrook, “The Space of Man: On the Specificity of Affect”, in Deleuze and Space, I. Buchanan and G. Lambert (eds.), (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), p. 191.

20. Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, p. 23.

21. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 419.

22. John Rajchman, The Deleuze Connections, (London: The MIT Press 2000), p. 67.

23. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 305.

24. Ibid., p. 28.

25. Ibid., p. 199.

26. According to Deleuze, “multiplicity must not designate a combination of the many and the one, but rather an organisation belonging to the many as such, which has no need whatsoever of unity in order to form a system”, Difference and Repetition, p. 230. This idea of multiplicity can also be linked to Deleuze’s concept of difference “in itself”, according to which there is nothing essential that binds differences together in order to form a unity.

27. Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, p. 89.

28. Ibid., p. 73.

29. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p. 264.

30. Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, p. 191.

31. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, (London: Verso, 1994), p. 112.

32. Ibid., p. 160.

33. Ibid., p. 159.

34. Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, p. 182.

35. Ibid., p. 172.

36. Ibid., p. 172.

37. Ibid., p. 172.

38. Ibid., p. 74.

39. Ibid., p. 73.

40. Ibid., p. 133.

41. Ibid., pp. 88–89.

42. “[T]he event is pure immanence of what is not actualized or of what remains indifferent to actualization, since its reality does not depend upon it. The event is immaterial, incorporeal, unlivable: pure reserve.” Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, p. 156.

43. Ibid., p. 159.

44. Ibid., p. 160.

45. Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, p. 172.

46. Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 231.

47. Ibid., p. 216.

48. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 91.

49. Here, the “body” can refer not only to individual bodies but also to for example society or classes.

50. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 95.

51. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, (New York: Routledge Classics, 2002), p. 10.

52. “Precisely because content, like expression, has a form of its own, one can never assign the form of expression the function of simply representing, describing, or averring a corresponding content: there is neither correspondence nor conformity.” Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 95.

53. “Content is not a signified nor expression a signifier; rather, both are variables of the assemblage.” Ibid., p. 101.

54. Ibid., p. 96.

55. Ibid., p. 74.

56. Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, trans. Seán Hand, (London: Continuum, 2006), p. 51.

57. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 89.

58. Deleuze, Foucault, p. 90.

59. President George W. Bush, “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People”, September 20, 2001, available at: , accessed on November 30, 2007.

60. President George W. Bush, “Remarks by the President at Photo Opportunity with House and Senate Leadership”, September 19, 2001, available at: , accessed on November 30, 2007.

61. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 121.

62. Ibid., p. 109.

63. Patton, ‘The World Seen From Within’, paragraph 7.

64. According to Deleuze and Guattari: “Politics is by no means an apodictic science. It proceeds by experimentation, grouping in the dark, injection, withdrawal, advances, retreats.” A Thousand Plateaus, p. 509.

65. Patton, “The World Seen From Within”, paragraph 21.

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