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François Zourabichvili’s “Deleuze and the Possible:
on Involuntarism in Politics”

Translators’ Preface

First published in 1998, the following article presents French philosopher François Zourabichvili’s (1965–2006) most sustained reflection on the Deleuzian concept of political rupture. In it, he argues that it is not the realization but rather the exhaustion of the possible that hatches new modes of living. The living ground of politics lies not in the program or the party but in the visionary and involuntary mutation of our experience by encounters that render this world insufferable. In an epoch marked by the obsolescence of the Left’s imagination of revolution, Zourabichvili calls for an ethics of situated rupture, wherein the destitution of the possible enables the elaboration of experimental collectives oriented around convergent perceptions of the intolerable.

What follows aims to take up the political stakes of Deleuze’s thought, in a manner that is at once provisional and restricted. It is not immediately evident which leftism can be said to characterize Deleuze. Regardless of the variant one considers, the left is generally defined by its voluntarism. Deleuze, on the other hand, developed the least voluntarist philosophy imaginable: he celebrates the ‘ill will’ of the Idiot in the Russian style, and the ‘nothingness of the will’ of the Eccentric in the American style.1 He has always insisted on the fundamentally involuntary character of all true thought, of all becoming. Nothing could be more foreign to Deleuze, therefore, than the enterprise of transforming the world according to a plan, or in view of an end. At the same time, he never ceased to celebrate, to remain on the lookout for, and if need be, to accompany what he calls ‘revolutionary-becomings.’

The space of ordinary political perception is completely occupied by the dualism of conservation / transformation, to such an extent that it is difficult to even conceive of a political attitude that aims neither to conserve nor to transform, nor—as with reformism—to transform what is conserved or to conserve what is transformed, which is to say, [End Page 152] to adapt. As soon as we begin to harbor doubts about certain political organizations and their intentions, we will immediately be asked what we ‘propose.’ Deleuze always refrained from proposing anything, though this serene abstention implied no lacuna or deficiency in his eyes. In politics as in art (or in philosophy), he regarded a certain kind of disappointment as being a subjective condition conducive of something positive [effectif] (a ‘becoming,’ a ‘process’).2

Anyone can see that the Left no longer believes in programs. That it nonetheless continues to be identified with the realization of programs would appear to leave it no other choice than to repudiate itself, or else to attempt to believe in what it no longer believes: renunciation or denial. In this sense, the voluntarism at issue here no longer even concerns action per se, but the very belief in action. Meanwhile, leftist philosophers receive vague reproaches for not producing an ideal in which the Left can once again believe, as if a certain weakness or excessive complexity led them to an inadequate or failed survey of the possible.

The last great text Deleuze wrote, published in 1992, is called ‘The Exhausted.’ It is not a political essay, in that it is devoted to Beckett. Yet it appears less than three years after the fall of the Berlin wall, at a time when self-satisfied discourses proliferated about the death of utopias and the illusion of any alternative to the market economy; and its theme is the exhaustion of the possible.

“There is no more possibility: a relentless Spinozism.”3 With Deleuze, it would be highly unlikely for the invocation of Spinoza to be a sign of affliction, although this does not exclude the possibility of its being sarcastic. At first glance, therefore, we might reassure ourselves that there is nothing political at stake here. Except that Deleuze attributes to the personae of the exhausted the famous formula of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, to which he had only recently dedicated a text with expressly political content.4 Still, one does not rejoice in the extinction of the possible without a certain touch of perversity.

Let us therefore attempt to attune ourselves to the political harmonics of ‘The Exhausted,’ even if the text addresses itself to an altogether different matter. To the Left, who despair of the possible, Deleuze seems to say: the exhaustion of the possible is a good thing; and above all do not believe that the exhausted is simply tired, and that the possible persists beneath the present impotency to realize it. “Being exhausted is much more than being tired.”5 And if this makes him suddenly appear a bit too close to the Right, in whose nature it is to rejoice in the absence of the possible, to them he specifies: to have exhausted the possible is not at all what you think it is. While the essay begins with the duality of the exhausted and the tired, it quickly shifts, and the statement ‘exhausting the possible’ is itself split depending on [End Page 153] whether the possible is understood as an alternative or a potentiality. The multiplication of doubles: perhaps it is in this that its perversity consists, considering the humorous effects that ensue (surprise or disappointment). The Left must in any event challenge the statement; but the Right cannot take it up either, except on the condition of misunderstanding it (or understanding it in its own manner: ‘the possible never existed anyway…’). If Deleuze generally arouses the irritation of the Left, given his attacks on the possible, free speech, the rights of man, etc., on the Right he elicits rather a suspicion of perversity (at least the latter grasp something, if only negatively).

Two apparently opposed discourses coexist in Deleuze: exhausting the possible / creating the possible. Too obvious to be real, the contradictions of great philosophers are generally quite interesting, in that they signal a moment of extreme tension in their thought, a difficult affirmation rather than a difficulty to affirm.

1. The Creation of the Possible and Possibilities of Life

Deleuze inverts the habitual relation between the possible and the event. The possible is what can take place, actually or logically. ‘We mustn’t give up, the situation is full of possibilities, we haven’t tried everything’: we wager on an actual alternative. Following Bergson, Deleuze says to the contrary: you do not have the possible in advance; you do not have it until you have created it.6 What is possible is to create the possible. Here we pass into a different regime of possibility, which no longer has anything to do with the availability of a realizable project, or with the vulgar acceptation of the word ‘utopia’ (the image of a new situation to be brutally substituted for the actual state of affairs, the hope that we can depart from the imagination in order to reconquer the real: an operation upon the real, rather than of the real itself). The possible arises from the event and not the reverse; the political event par excellence –revolution—is not the realization of a possibility, but an opening of the possible.

In historical phenomena such as the revolution of 1789, the Commune, the revolution of 1917, there is always one part of the event that is irreducible to any social determinism, or to causal chains. Historians are not very fond of this aspect: they restore causality after the fact. Yet the event itself is a splitting off from, a breaking with causality; it is a bifurcation, a deviation with respect to laws, an unstable condition which opens up a new field of the possible.7

In its positivity, a revolution is no more the causal consequence or mechanism of a given situation than it is the realization of a project or of a plan (even if reference to plans is a feature of action therein). By [End Page 154] ‘opening a new field of the possible,’ are we to understand that something previously unrealizable becomes so? that everything is possible or realizable in an insurrectionary situation? that the ordinary limits of the possible are in fact only the result of an inhibition or a submission, rather than real constraints? The voluntarist idea according to which the secret of power [pouvoir] lies in the will cannot be attributed to Deleuze, even if two dense passages in Anti-Oedipus—which we will clarify shortly—appear at first blush to move in this direction, in spite of clearly distancing themselves from the possible understood as an instance of realization:

The real is not impossible; on the contrary, within the real everything is possible, everything becomes possible. Desire does not express a molar lack within the subject; rather, the molar organization deprives desire of its objective being. Revolutionaries, artists, and seers are content to be objective, merely objective: they know that desire clasps life in its powerfully productive embrace, and reproduces it in a way that is all the more intense because it has so few needs.8

The actualization of a revolutionary potentiality is explained less by the preconscious state of causality in which it is nonetheless included, than by the efficacy of a libidinal break at a precise moment, a schiz whose sole cause is desire—which is to say the rupture with causality that forces a rewriting of history on a level with the real, and produces this strangely polyvocal moment when everything is possible.9

What is a ‘new field of the possible’? Is it the horizon of everything that can be imagined, conceived of, planned, and hoped for in a given epoch? According to this view, a revolution already has the character of a subjective mutation, and would itself render void the very projects that inaugurated it, since they would still belong to the previous field of possibility. Or is it a redistribution of roles and functions, an upheaval of the sum of all possible social positions? This would be a mutation of another order, affecting capitalism itself. For example, Deleuze describes the passage from ‘disciplinary society’ to a ‘society of control’: here we witness not the opening of a new field of the possible, but the installation of a new regime of domination. Such an upheaval affects rather the historical conditions according to which a political event could emerge.

A ‘new field of the possible’ must therefore mean something else: the word possible no longer designates the series of real and imagined alternatives (either … or … or …), the ensemble of exclusive disjunctions characterizing a certain epoch and society. It now concerns the dynamic emergence of the new. This is the Bergsonian inspiration of [End Page 155] Deleuze’s political thought. Realizing a project brings nothing new into the world, since there is no conceptual difference between the possible as a project and its realization, there is only the leap into existence. And to those who would transform reality according to a previously conceived image, the moment of transformation itself ends up counting for nothing. There is a difference in status between the possible that one realizes and the possible one creates. The event does not open a new field of the realizable, and the ‘field of the possible’ is not to be confused with the boundaries of the realizable in a given society (even if it marks them out and redistributes them).

Is the opening of the possible therefore a goal in itself, the problem being less to construct the future than to sustain its prospects? Are we urged to live on hope? Taking up Kierkegaard’s desperate cry, Deleuze summarizes May ‘68 as a phenomenon of, “give me the possible, or else I will suffocate!” Hope remains dependent on a logic of realization, and Deleuze never wagered much on any such thing.10 He saw in May ‘68 an eruption of the real and not of dreams: an emergence of the possible, but certainly not in the form of an image of what might be.

What then is the possible, the ‘possible as such’? Deleuze tells us: what is to be created are new possibilities of life.11 A possibility of life is not an ensemble of realizable acts, nor the choice of this or that profession or recreation, this or that taste or idiosyncratic interest. “The ignominy of the possibilities of life that we are offered” issues from the alternatives that define a society, or the sum of concrete modes of existence that are possible in a given society.12 But, more profoundly, a possibility of life expresses a mode of existence: it is the ‘expressed’ of a concrete assemblage of life. For Deleuze the expressed is never a signification or a collection of significations. It is an evaluation: not simply the evaluation of the possibilities of life, once we have already apprehended them as such; but the possibility of life itself as evaluation, a singular manner of evaluating or apportioning the good and the bad, the distribution of affects. A possibility of life is always a difference.13

The invention of new possibilities of life therefore presupposes a new way of being affected. Deleuze insists on the Spinozist concept of a “capacity to affect and to be affected,” which he aligns with the Nietzschean ‘will to power’ understood as a pathos, the instrument of a typology of immanent modes of existence, of concrete ways of living and thinking. In both cases, the possible is tied to capacity [puissance]. It might appear paradoxical to invoke Spinoza with regard to the possible; moreover, the etymological kinship is insufficient to identify power with the possible, not to mention the plural and differentiable character of the concept of power. But let us content ourselves for the moment with defining the concept of the possibility of life as a differential distribution of affects (alluring / repugnant, etc.). [End Page 156]

These affective mutations induce a new distribution of good and bad, of the delectable and the intolerable. This may transpire in one and “the same” person (who, from that point on, is at a loss to identify the past she has lived as hers), at other times in a collective. The “Many Politics” chapter of Dialogues begins by evocating such a mutation, drawing on a famous short story by Fitzgerald. Beyond the ‘cuts’ [coupures] by which one becomes famous, ruined, old, etc., there are transformations of another type, ‘cracks’:

The crack happens on this new line—secret, imperceptible, marking a threshold of lowered resistance, or the rise of a threshold of exigency: you can no longer stand what you put up with before, even yesterday; the distribution of desires has changed in us, our relationships of speed and slowness have been modified, a new type of anxiety comes upon us, but also a new serenity…14

It is the same with political events: a new distribution of affects, a new delimitation of the intolerable. Such a subjective mutation cannot simply call itself into being, and it is not a question of wishing for it or not: the for and against intervene only at the stage of the response or reaction, depending on whether we choose to assume the consequences of the event, or else to pretend that nothing has happened. This, for Deleuze, would be the living ground of the Right-Left division, which is never embodied in existing political organizations.

2. Encounters and Potentialities

Politics is therefore first of all an affair of perception:

May ‘68 is more of the order of a pure event, free of all normal, or normative causalities. Its history is a ‘series of amplified instabilities and fluctuations.’ There were a lot of agitations, gesticulations, slogans, idiocies, illusions in ‘68, but this is not what counts. What counts is what amounted to a visionary phenomenon, as if a society suddenly saw what was intolerable in it and also saw the possibility for something else. It is a collective phenomenon in the form of: ‘Give me the possible, or else I’ll suffocate.’15

Here the seer or the visionary is not the one who can see the distant future; on the contrary, he neither sees, nor foresees any future at all. The visionary seizes the intolerable in a situation; he has ‘visions,’ by which should be understood perceptions in their becoming, or ‘percepts,’ which envelop an affective mutation collapsing the ordinary conditions of perception. The opening of a new field of the possible is linked to these new conditions of perception: the expressible of a situation suddenly irrupts. [End Page 157]

What is the condition of such a subjective mutation? If the percept distinguishes itself from a simple perception, this is because it envelops an encounter, a relation with the outside. There is an event or vision when we encounter our own conditions of existence, or those of others; what we call ‘struggles,’ at least in their ascendant and living phase, are therefore less the expression of a coming-to-consciousness than the hatching of a new sensibility. In 68, the perceptive and affective mutation consisted of “new relations of the body, time, sexuality, place, culture, work…” Granted that each of our subjectivities is constituted by a synthesis of just such relations, we see here how they can change, or else how new relations can emerge from the same themes, the same fields. And given that for Deleuze relations are always external, these new relations comprise so many encounters. We brutally encounter what lies daily before our eyes.16

The visionary seizes what is unactualizable in the situation, the element that exceeds the actuality of the situation: the ‘possible as such.’ The seer sees the possible, and in doing so accedes to a new possibility of life that demands fulfillment. However, seeing the possible does not consist of elaborating a plan: we seize the actual situation in its potentiality, as a ‘field of the possible.’ We seize in the actual situation the potentialities that it actualizes, but which can be actualized otherwise since they differ by nature from their actualization: again inspired by Bergson, the dualism of free will and determinism here dissolves in favor of the excluded middle, the new. The positivity of the virtual (real) takes over from the realization of the (imaginary) possible.

Potentialities are pure capacities [puissances], pure dynamisms seized independently of all spatiotemporal coordinates (language envelops them in the infinitive form of the verb, singularities of sense and of the event).17 It is a question of the different forces or aptitudes at work in a situation, which now must evolve: aptitudes of men, of the milieu, technological aptitudes, etc. Under a concrete mode of existence we perceive the possibilities of life that it offers to us as so many affective possibilities: these possibilities of life are the way in which potentialities are distributed and condensed in a given epoch and social field. A situation, therefore, expresses an open ensemble of potentialities, divided, distributed, joined, condensed as they are (a revisable ensemble of possibilities of life). When we seize the situation as pure possibility or in its potentiality, we evaluate these possibilities of life (or these condensations), and they are consequently redistributed differently. It is then up to us to invent the concrete connections or material, spatiotemporal assemblage that will actualize these new possibilities of life, instead of abandoning them to suffocate in the old assemblage.

To suddenly see these potentialities as such, and not actualized in a determined manner: this is the event, which sweeps its mutating [End Page 158] subject into a revolutionary-becoming. The vision is necessarily fleeting, since the manifestation of a potential merges with its dissipation. What is paradoxically glimpsed by the revolutionary-seer is intensity, in an image that is itself intensive, and which fades precisely as it becomes extended, since intensity dissipates as it becomes image. Birth and death coincide in this image, which can only be repeated.18 We experience the possible as such, or the possible as capacity [puissance] only in its collapse, in its exhaustion: what matters, therefore, is “to exhaust the possible.”19

This perception of the pure possible implies a distinctive space-time, one deprived of coordinates, a pure potential exposing capacities and singularities independently of all actualization in the states of affairs or milieus: a ‘pure locus of the possible.’20 We can now see in what sense ‘everything becomes possible’: the conditions have aligned for a new mapping, yet without any routes being imposed in advance. Creation operates in the space of a general redistribution of singularities, venturing new concrete assemblages, under the injunction of a new sensibility: the space of desire as such, peopled not with forms and individuals, but with events and affects. Guided by affective exploration, creation maps a new spatio-temporal assemblage, an assemblage of space and of time and not simply in space and time; the question is no longer to know how to fill ordinary space-time, but to recompose the space-time that deploys us as much as we deploy ourselves in it. The assemblage is a new division, a new striation, a new distribution that implicates an operation in a space and a time that are themselves unique, intensive, and not given in advance. Hence the ‘axes’ invoked by Deleuze to define the new field of the possible opened up by May 68: pacifism along the West-East axis, a new form of internationalism along the North-South axis.21 Vectorial, directional, problematic, the field of the possible has the consistency of movement, political organization as movement. Strictly speaking, a revolutionary movement does not realize an image, it produces the image, not unlike the character in Beckett who exclaims, “It’s done I’ve done the image.”22 Can one witness a revolt? Or is it the revolt that sees, and is the witness of itself? The image is fragmentary, and dissipates here and there, adequate to the possible as such (as opposed to the possible understood as an image of the real).23

If suddenly ‘everything is possible,’ or ‘everything becomes possible,’ this is to the extent that the component parts of the situation, as grasped by the visionary, are not already connected in advance: they are so many pure events that problematically compose one single event (the situation), and it belongs to events to resonate with each other, each one within all the others, chaotically.24 That everything is possible but nothing is yet given fits with the new definition of the possible, since it remains to be created: the possible is what becomes, [End Page 159] and capacity or potentiality merits the name of the possible for as long as it opens the field of creation (from which point everything remains to be done). The possible is the virtual: it is that which the Right denies, and the Left denatures in representing it as a project.

3. Fulfilling or Foreclosing the Possible: Actualization

The possible as such should not, therefore, be understood solely as a possibility of life, in the sense of it being possible to evaluate or be affected otherwise (differentiation of the concept of capacity or of life, the possible as alternative): the conditions are there for existence to change, for a mutation of the real itself. Subjective mutation is definitely real, but it demands to be accomplished, and it can be accomplished only by actualizing itself.

The possible does not preexist, it is created by the event. It is a matter of life. The event creates a new existence, it produces a new subjectivity (new relations with the body, with time, sexuality, the immediate surroundings, with culture, work). When a social mutation appears, it is not enough to draw the consequences or effects according to lines of economic or political causality. Society must be capable of forming collective agencies of enunciation that match the new subjectivity, in such a way that it desires its own mutation. It’s a veritable ‘redeployment.’25

At this point, the idea of the creation of the possible splits in two complementary aspects. On the one hand, the event provokes the emergence of a new sense of the intolerable (a virtual mutation); on the other hand, this new sense of the intolerable calls forth an act of creation that responds to the mutation, that maps a new image, and literally creates the possible (an actualizing mutation). To create the possible is to create a new collective spatio-temporal assemblage, that responds to the new possibility of life itself created by the event, or which serves as its expression. An effective modification of the situation does not take the form of a project to be realized, since what is it stake is the invention of concrete social forms corresponding to the new sensibility, and the inspiration for this can only come from the latter. The new sensibility does not have at its disposal any concrete image that could be adequate to it: from this point of view there is only creative action, guided not by an image or a project prefiguring the future, but by affective signs that, according to a leitmotif-formula, ‘do not resemble’ that which actualizes them. To move from the virtual to the real following a process that is real from the outset, not to move from the imaginary to the real along a trajectory that is from the outset already actual.26

The event demands a response: “Men’s only hope lies in a revolutionary becoming: the only way of casting off their shame or responding [End Page 160] to what is intolerable.”27 There is nothing voluntarist about such an imperative: it is no longer a question of reconquering being by departing from what should-be, of submitting the real to an extrinsic, transcendent judgment, that is in any case arbitrary and powerless; the will no longer precedes the event, dissension no longer operates between this world and another, but within the world (the immanence invoked by Deleuze means that exteriority has ceased to be positioned somewhere beyond the world: the infinity of possible worlds are henceforth deciphered directly from the world [à même le monde], as so many signs of its heterogeneity). One cannot but respond to the event, because we cannot live in a world that has become intolerable, insofar as we can no longer bear it.28 Here we discover a peculiar sort of responsibility completely foreign to that of governments and major subjects, a properly revolutionary responsibility. In it, one is not responsible for any particular thing, or to anyone; we represent neither a project nor the interests of a collectivity (since these interests are precisely in the process of changing and we cannot say yet in which direction). We are responsible before the event.

Henceforth, the notion of realization must be replaced by two words: to actualize [actualiser] and to accomplish/fulfill [accomplir]. To actualize the virtual, or to accomplish the possible. Anti-Oedipus closes with these words: “completing the process and not arresting it, not making it turn about in the void, not assigning it a goal,”29 it being understood that the process “is always and already complete as it proceeds.”30 The Exhausted states: “we no longer realize, even though we accomplish something,” and then later: “the protagonists become tired depending on the number of realizations.31 But the possible is accomplished, independently of this number, by the exhausted characters who exhaust it.”32 Distinct from all present alternatives and future projects, the possible qua novelty is something to be accomplished, not to be realized Accomplishment entails an act of creation, and is henceforth inseparable from an actualization.33

To accomplish the possible as such means to affirm the new sensibility, to enable it to affirm itself. This is why a society in the grips of an event must be capable of creating the corresponding assemblages, “in such a way that it desires its own mutation.” For it is always possible to deny and to combat that which affirms itself within us. Here we return, once again, to the living ground of the cleavage between Left-Right: are we capable of affirming what we are in any case becoming, what affirms itself in us regardless? One cannot at the same time deny becoming and ask that people ‘progress’ [deviennent]: the French Right busies itself ‘foreclosing the possible’, and then deploring the fact that people shrivel up into archaic positions, overidentifying with their present situations.34 It is noteworthy that the Right has exactly the attitude for which it reproaches the Left: it would like to be able to [End Page 161] choose the future, it would like for people to change, all the while it goes about stifling all of the real outlets by which they might positively do so; it remains, like the Left, fixated on the idea that change arises from a coming to consciousness.35 Foreclosing the possible has nothing whatsoever to do with exhausting it: it is to violently reduce the future [le devenir] to nothingness. Two effects can follow from this: that the people learn to fear the future, for it glimmers only of nothingness, is itself only a nothingness (an archaistic refolding), or that they are left with only a nothingness to desire (whether it be rioters [casseurs] or terrorists). Violence then becomes paramount, an end in itself, the will having nothing left to desire except what lays before it, which is to say, nothing: a will to nothingness.

We arrive at a double distinction: (1) realization / actualization—what is real or effective in struggles is always of the order of a creation whose operation is a function of a field of the possible (in the sense previously defined); and, (2) actualization / inactualisable part—this designates the expressed of struggles or of processes of actualization, or that which is itself accomplished : the “evental part”, “the event as possible that no longer even has to realize itself.”36

4. Clichés, or a Merely Possible Politics

Politics therefore commences or recommences each time a collectivity encounters its own conditions of existence (it is already in play from the moment an individual encounters his or her own conditions, or those of others). Such a requirement, according to Deleuze, surfaces only in modern circumstances: it was necessary that we cease to believe in the possible as an instance of realization; it was necessary that the alternatives, whether present or still to come, appear to us as clichés. A ‘rupture of sensory-motor schemas,’ whose romantic or post-romantic germs flourished post-war (and not post-Berlin Wall). It is a question of having done with clichés.

‘To exhaust the possible’ thus has two meanings, conforming to the two regimes of the possible: attaining the pure possible that the Image exhausts (2) having done with clichés (1). Whence the theme of a ‘nothingness of will’ and its disintegrating force37. Bartleby is in this respect the character most emblematic of a Deleuzian politics: the Resister par excellence, or even the Survivor (in whom the minimum and the maximum of life coincide: a sur-vival as in surplus-life [sur-vie], the way Nietzsche will speak of an overman [surhomme]).38 Bartleby ‘prefers not to’: abdicating every preference afforded by the given situation, he impugns the regime of alternatives and exclusive disjunctions that assure the closure of the situation. Bartleby’s interiority appears to be a mystery (and perhaps it is empty, stupid): it is merely a signal that affects and effects are of another order—an incredible, contagious [End Page 162] disturbance of everyone around him. Melville’s short story offers us nothing beyond this, nor does Deleuze take it any further, except to describe and celebrate the great American Dream, which finishes no better than Bartleby. But what is essential is the moment this dream [espérance] takes on a local consistency, not as hope but as reality, in the future that the attorney momentarily accepts and that tears from him the final cry: O Bartleby! O humanity! Deleuze calls for a literal reading, and this applies to his own commentary as well as to the text. Bartleby’s attitude is therefore not the symbol or the allegory of a political activism to come, glimpsed through the fog. There is no mystery to it: the short-story describes a process, not so much of transformation as of social deformation (in this regard it matters little that the hero is an individual as opposed to a crowd, since what is essential in rebellion is less its reasons than its effects, a way of enacting [effectuant], so to speak, the central question of the community). Melville’s story is not symbolic, it is exemplary: Deleuze extracts from it a whole set of political categories.

To foster in oneself and one’s milieu the growth of a nothingness of will is to engage with the situation as a potentiality, a capacity for encounter. This is not a voluntarist formula—what it offers is not a set of practical means by which we could attain vision (the encounter), but their correlate. The nothingness of will is a modern fact. Nietzsche diagnosed it already, as nihilism’s point of no return, as well as the chance of a reversal. At the same moment, Dostoevsky and Melville each produce corresponding characters: the Idiot, who can no longer respond to the exigencies of a situation because he is seized by an even more urgent question, and the Eccentric (Bartleby) who prefers not to have to pronounce on the situation at all.39 What they share is the fact of having seen something that exceeded the givens of the situation, and which rendered any reaction to it not only derisory and inappropriate, but intolerable.

This nothingness of the will, this disaffection with regard to all recognized stakes, is the result of an encounter with the world. We have ‘seen’ not only the situation, but also all of the sensory-motor schemas that ordinarily attach us to the world—we have seen that they have grasped nothing of this world, that they are nothing but clichés. “A pitiful faculty then emerges in their minds, that of being able to see stupidity and no longer tolerate it…”40 Our ordinary relations with the world are revealed to be arbitrary conventions, that shelter us from the world and render it tolerable: this is the intolerable compromise, a compromise with powers that maintain and propagate poverty of every kind. Our best interests always tend toward the side of subservience.41 Sensory-motor schemas offer ready-made responses to situations of suffering that are themselves singular and evolving, and in this testify to an interiorization of repression (it is not for nothing that [End Page 163] we sometimes say of the Left, with its clichéd words and actions—its same old songs of indignation and protest, its stereotyped forms of militancy—that it serves as the indispensable auxiliary of the Right). The clichés of struggle or of compassion seem to be reaching a paroxysm these days, all the more shameful in that they display a fantastic capacity to adapt to the odious and its causes (shame on us as well, since this is our world no less). The Idiot is therefore the one who does not react, not due to insensitivity but because he does not manage “to know what everybody knows” and “modestly denies what everybody is supposed to recognize.”42

The modern epoch is doubtlessly characterized by a deficit of will, a certain ‘ill will,’ even if the evil we suffer be of a different nature. No longer believing in the possible, we have lost both the taste for it as well as the will to realize it: such is our fatigue, our lassitude. But if we have lost faith, this is because our sensory-motor schemas appear henceforth as what they are: clichés. All that we see, say, live, even imagine and feel, is always already recognizable, it bears in advance the mark of recognition, the form of an already-seen [déjà-vu] or already-heard [déjà-entendu]. An ironic distance separates us from ourselves, and we no longer believe in what befalls us, because it seems as though nothing could ever happen: from the outset, everything takes the form of the already-there [déja-là], the already-done [tout fait], of preexistence.

The real in the image of the possible remains so confined within an irreducible possibility that it attains neither positivity nor necessity. Clichés have the form of the possible, in the exact sense critiqued by Bergson: we give ourselves a ready-made reality, “pre-existent to itself.”43 “Everything is already completely given: all of the real in the image, in the pseudo-actuality of the possible”44 The real is thus preceded by its own image qua possible and, resembling the possible, it ends up becoming confused with it. Which results in an epoch in which we no longer perceive the real except as déjà-vu, an object of recognition; no longer distinguishing it from the possible, we are invaded by clichés as by simple possibilities. The world has lost all reality. Once both revolution and the people are conceived of in the mode of an already-there or as preexisting themselves, it is inevitable that they eventually appear to us as “paper revolutionaries” and a “cardboard people.”45 What connects us to the world is nothing but clichés, simple possibilities. We give ourselves the world in advance, and the people and ourselves. Everything is possible now, that is to say, confined to mere possibility. But, equally, nothing is possible: the future is pre-formed, entirely hackneyed in the form of the already-there. Necessity has deserted this world, and we persist in moving about within the horizon of preference, yet without believing in it.

Deleuze has always pursued another analysis of the possible in addition to the one inspired by Bergson: we cannot base ourselves on [End Page 164] a preconceived image of thought without simultaneously depriving thought of its necessity, and condemning it to indefinitely ruminating in an impassible possibility.46 To pre-form the transcendental, to make it reliant on an originary form, can give us the conditions of a possible experience, but not a real one. To trace the transcendental from the empirical, to conceive of it in the image of the actual or of representation, immediately evacuates the new or the event from the field of thought: we know in advance that nothing will happen in thought other than a pseudo-experience whose form we possess in advance, and that never questions the image that such thought has of itself. Everything we manage to think confirms that we have the possibility of thinking, without testifying to any positive act of thinking. To the contrary, a real experience implies the affirmation of a radical relation to what we do not yet think (following the expression Deleuze inherits from Heidegger). It is the same in politics, where the people are in a situation of having never yet existed: in each case, it is a question of affirming a relation of exteriority or an encounter between thought and what it thinks, between the people and themselves.47

What then becomes of political action? Positivity and necessity: this is what is lacking from realization. Not only the State but also activist structures have to deal with the popular forms of ‘ill will’ which—in line with the clinical definition of perversion—keep diverting off course from the goal, not believing in what we tell them to. Nonetheless, the Image that lies beyond clichés appears to lack any motor for extending itself: vision can very well be momentary, without being any less endless by right. Only imperatives of action, which arise when we are assigned interests, can circumscribe the image and bend it to the conditions of a possible experience (for interests require a stable and non-mutating subject). Politics is born at last, but enters the world as a paralytic, leaving us to choose between a phantasm of action and a petrified fascination. In what respect does the encounter offer the chance for a revolutionary becoming? What sort of leftism characterizes Deleuze?

Firstly, it consists in challenging every form of voluntarism. But this would not be worth much, and would certainly not constitute a leftism, if the plea in favor of the involuntary concluded with the vanity of all action. It is true that there is such a tendency of leftism, one that Lenin explained as a refusal of all compromise. But is this the right way to formulate the problem? For Deleuze, compromises are both shameful and always already over before they begin [passé d’avance]: they are schemas forcing us to accept the very thing that appalls us. Furthermore, the theory of the good compromise reserves by nature the right to denounce the bad ones, preferably the one made by others: an impure alliance, a betrayal. Such that ‘grown up’ activists and leftists are loath to apprehend the event, owing to its necessary disorder. [End Page 165] And while it is certainly true that themes like the line of flight, the nothingness of the will, and disaffection (‘to remain disinterested’) indicate a refusal to compromise, the problem is no longer at all one of determining the means to achieve an already-agreed-upon goal. To the tribunal of the good and the bad compromise, Deleuze responds with the distinction between the traitor and the trickster. The latter temporarily hides his true identity under a borrowed one: he can be flushed out, because it is only a factual identity that escapes us, which we mistake for another (for years we said ‘hello Theodorus’ to Theatetus: Kautsky, Plekhanov...).48 But the traitor does not hide another identity: in becoming a traitor, they escape by right any possible identification.49 The procedure itself becomes inadequate, it confronts its own impossibility (to which Bolshevism responded with a judicial rage unequalled in history). Lenin saw only good and bad tricksters, and justified his own ploys; he had no feeling for treason, no revolutionary becoming. The intolerable is precisely that upsurge of the ‘impossible’ wherein reality no longer corresponds to its clichés, to its sensory-motor anchorings.

We no longer have much faith in being able to act upon situations or react to situations, but it doesn’t make us at all passive, it allows us to catch or reveal something intolerable, unbearable, even in the most everyday things.50

No possible reactions, does that mean everything becomes lifeless? No, not at all. We get purely optical and aural situations, which give rise to completely novel ways of understanding and resisting.51

It is true that, in cinema, characters of the ballad are unconcerned, even by what happens to them…but it is precisely the weakness of the motor-linkages, the weak connections, that are capable of freeing up great forces of disintegration.52

The rupture of schemas or the escape from clichés certainly does not lead to a state of resignation, or an entirely interior revolt: resistance is not the same as reaction. Resistance belongs to a will that is drawn from the event, and nourished by the intolerable. The event is ‘revolutionary potential’ itself, which dries up when it is thrown back upon ready-made images (clichés of suffering, of demands).

As the chance for a new Health rather than a morbid symptom, the nothingness of the will destitutes a false problem: the system of alternatives. Its other side, which makes up the positive consistency of politics, is the experimental elaboration of new concrete assemblages, and the struggle to affirm their corresponding rights. It is true that ‘creativity’ has today become a cliché, but only provided it is everywhere [End Page 166] misunderstood, and that we hear in it nothing more than a voluntarist slogan (as we wear ourselves out producing our own unique clichés, living out our own existence as a cliché: the realization of fantasies, etc.). The traitor is forced to create under the compulsion of a love or an encounter, whereas the trickster must force himself to create. For Deleuze and Guattari, experimentation has nothing to do with those games of existence in which the role of chance is slim to none. Groping, discreet, partly unconscious, and tethered to collective struggles for the new rights that will enable its accomplishment, it merges with existence itself, an existence in the grips of a profound reorganization of its conditions of perception, and of the affective imperatives that ensue from it.

If we can no longer speak here of action in the traditional sense of the term, this is because the situation has literally become impossible. To say it is unmasterable can sometimes serve as a malevolent excuse. It has not ‘become’ unmasterable, however complex modern socio-economic mechanisms may be; it is so by right, in as much as the future obeys no cliché. When our sensory-motor links to the world are revealed to be clichés, the situation loses its global or totalizable character, shattering into singular processes. It is no longer traversed by a major contradiction, the ultimate figure of unity beyond which there is only divergence and conflict, but by local lines of flight at every level, that communicate only where necessary, and from singular to singular, from minority to minority (children, workers, women, Blacks, peasants, prisoners, homosexuals …).

The only utopia to which Deleuze ever consented, based on the ephemeral solidarities of his 60’s and 70’s, would be premised on the emergence of a ‘universal minoritarian consciousness.’ This is only justified to the extent that the becoming of a minority in principle involves everybody, “affecting all of humankind”, being each time a singular manner of problematizing existence.53 People undergoing a process of becoming are not concerned with existing alternatives: nothing matters to them except what they themselves encounter, or what the others encounter, even in contexts far off from one’s own.—“strangely indifferent and for this very reason…in the right frame of mind.”54 Is it not a similar dream that reverberates at the end of the commentary on Bartleby, that of a “community of celibates” comparable to a “wall of loose, uncemented stones.”55

Be that as it may, we can only reconnect with the positivity of politics by ridding ourselves of the mirage represented by a conquest of power, and an extrinsic, demiurgic fashioning of society. To be a leftist henceforth means to accompany lines of flight wherever they draw us, to try by all means to connect them to those already at work within us, shaking us loose from ourselves; and thereby to foster the accomplishment of the possible wherever it emerges. The intellectual ceases [End Page 167] to function as a guide or a conscience: she proposes nothing, and is ahead of no one. Her capacities and attention are directed toward the involuntary, or the emergence of new fields of the possible.

The sickness of clichés leaves us in an agonizing in-between: we no longer believe in another world, but nor do we yet believe in this world, in the chance that an encounter with it represents.56 We are poised to have done with the possible, without seeing that this is the very condition of a positive possible, without yet abandoning the habit of associating the possible with a preconceived notion of a better world to be realized. It is by exhausting the possible that we create it: it should now be clear that the apparent contradiction here is nothing but the negative shadow of a paradoxical coherence (because it includes time).

To believe, not in a different world, but in a link between man and the world, in love or life, to believe in this as in the impossible, the unthinkable, which none the less cannot but be thought: ‘something possible, otherwise I will suffocate.’57

To attain the future by way of the possible, such is Deleuze’s route. To arrive at the identity of the possible and of necessity, where the will is no longer anything but a false problem, or born of the event as of its own auto-affirmation; while the possible changes status and recovers its authentic figure, that of the positive and virtual not-yet, in place of the unreal projection into the future of the already-there. A strange perception of the world, Deleuze said, one that is completely Spinozist: we learn to breathe without oxygen, having realized, in the final analysis, that it was this that oppressed us. “There is no longer any possible: a relentless Spinozism”. Or again: “the true visionary is a Spinoza in the garb of a Neapolitan revolutionary.”58 Thus it could be said that Deleuze is a pervert, and his leftism—an admirable perversion. For,

The perverse world is a world in which the category of the necessary has completely replaced that of the possible. This is a strange Spinozism from which ‘oxygen’ is lacking, to the benefit of a more elementary energy and a more rarefied air

Kieran Aarons

Kieran Aarons is the translator of François Zourabichvili’s Deleuze: A Philosophy of the Event and his Vocabulary of Deleuze (Edinburgh, 2012). He teaches philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago, where is completing a dissertation on the relationship between concepts of private property, emergency, and life in Western political thought. Kieran can be reached at kieranaarons@gmail.com

Caitlyn Doyle

Caitlyn Doyle is a doctoral candidate in the Comparative Literary Studies Program at Northwestern University, and the managing editor of Modernism/modernity. Her work explores the relation between aesthetics and politics, focusing particularly on 20th century French literature and theory, and on world cinema. Caitlyn’s current project explores the figure of the fugitive in the works of Marcel Proust, Samuel Beckett, and Chantal Akerman, drawing on the idea of ‘exhausting the possible,’ as it appears in the work of Gilles Deleuze. Caitlyn can be reached at caitlyn.p.doyle@gmail.com


1. Cf. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994),130, and Essays Critical and the Clinical. trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 71.

2. Gilles Deleuze, Proust and Signs, trans. Richard Howard (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 34; Difference and Repetition, 200.

3. Deleuze, “The Exhausted,” in Essays Critical and Clinical, 152–174, 152. [End Page 168]

4. Ibid., 154. “I would prefer not to, following Bartleby’s Beckettian formula.”

5. Ibid., 152.

6. Henri Bergson, La pensée et le mouvant (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2013), 14, 113. English translation as The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Mabel L. Andison (New York: Dover Publications, 1946).

7. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “May 68 Did Not Take Place,” in Two Regimes of Madness, trans. Ames Hodges and Mike Taormina (New York: Semiotext(e), 2007), 233– 237, 233.

8. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 29.

9. Ibid., 378.

10. Perhaps this is the moment to distinguish hope [espoir] from expectation [espérance]. In this respect, Jacques Rancière has evoked the desperate messianism of the last pages of Bartleby. More generally, the philosophy of immanence implies expectation in its base clauses: “We can’t know in advance” (cf. Difference and Repetition, 187; Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987], 250–251).

11. Cf. for example Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson (New York: Continuum, 1986), 101–3; Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, 4.

12. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy? trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 108.

13. We may note in this respect that the notions of “possibility of life” and “possible world” are for Deleuze quasi-synonymous, in that both are of the order of the expressed, and both are defined as difference (e.g. in Proust and Signs: Combray as difference, or the Méséglise way or Guermantes way as expressing heterogeneous possibilities of life, incompatible affective distributions).

14. Gilles Deleuze with Claire Parnet, Dialogues, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 126.

15. Deleuze and Guattari, “May 68,” 233–34.

16. Cf. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: Athlone Press, 1989), 8. And if, in another register, Deleuze and Guattari will claim that even women must become-woman, this is because femininity is not a fixed essence but an event, the object of an encounter.

17. The terms ‘potentiality’ (or ‘potential’) and ‘singularity’ are equivalent here.

18. Consequently, every revolution is stillborn, but not in the way this is normally understood: the precarious continuance of the vanishing depends on its incessant reprisal, so that revolutions die from the inability to repeat, or the suffocation of repetition (under the forces of subservience that denounce it as ‘treason’). It is not by chance that the theme of the traitor (as opposed to that of the trickster) is for Deleuze aligned with becoming and lines of flight: every creative mapping [tracé createur] is of necessity treason.

19. Hence also the ambiguity: a will that envelops its own abolition.

20. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Athlone, 1986), 109. [End Page 169]

21. Deleuze, “May 68,” 236.

22. “The Exhausted,” 158.

23. On the dissipative image of revolt, the perception of the intolerable and the response to it, as well as the desert as any-space-whatever [une espace quelconque], cf. Essays Critical and Clinical (Chapter 14 on Laurence of Arabia).

24. A constant theme of Deleuze’s Logic of Sense.

25. Deleuze, “May 68,” 234.

26. It would seem that this schema of actualization already characterizes Marxism, in its opposition to utopian socialism. In accordance with a famous passage from the German Ideology, “Communism is…not a state of affairs which is to be established, [nor] an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.” Marx & Engels, The German Ideology. marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm (italics are those of Marx and Engels). Strictly speaking, communism is not ‘to come,’ it is already at work as a tendency inscribed in the contradictions of the present situation. What authorizes us to speak of the future without having recourse to the arbitrary or to dreams, is the possibility of deciphering it within a present that is itself in becoming. Yet here as well, the structure of realization has not been sufficiently resisted: we still possess an image of the future in advance, thanks to the device of dialectics: the realizable has simply been elevated to the status of the necessary, while the virtual retains the anticipatory form of an end (thus does the future continue to be anticipated within the present). Which is why the operator of revolution par excellence is consciousness, which presupposes its own content and paradoxically gives to the future the logical form of the past, as opposed to the emergence of a new sensibility. The concept that has historically been opposed to this—spontaneism—does not for its part escape anticipation, since spontaneity is nothing but the unconscious perception of the end. The whole opposition remains imprisoned within the schema of realization, as is seen in Lenin’s essay “What is to be done?”; the actualization of the virtual is never accorded the character of creation.

27. Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, trans. Martin Joughin, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 171.

28. In this respect, Anti-Oedipus proposes the alternative of psychotic collapse and revolutionary becoming. See Deleuze and Guattari, Anti Oedipus, 341.

29. Ibid., 382.

30. Ibid., The theme is present right from the outset of the book.

31. Ibid., 153, translation modified.

32. Ibid., 162.

33. This is not strictly true of “The Exhausted,” but precisely because it is at once what both draws together and separates politics and art.

34. Deleuze, “May 68,” 235: “The population of Longwy cling to their steel”, etc.

35. And like the Bolcheviks after 1917, liberals today deplore the archaic Russian mentality (except that instead of forced reeducation, we have the most policed form of IMF-orchestrated misery).

36. Cf. respectively, Deleuze, “May 68,” and “The Exhausted,” 168.. [End Page 170]

37. Notably in Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon. The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith (New York: Continuum, 2003), 60—after having precisely asked how to free ourselves from clichés, how to erect a figure that would not be a cliché.

38. In French, “sur-vie plays off la survie (‘survival’, but also ‘afterlife’), while the split prefix (sur-), emphasizes excess, as is heard in the English term ‘surplus.’ —Trans.

39. Both the notion of clichés and the theme of the Idiot surface at the end of Deleuze, Movement-Image, 189–92, and are elaborated afresh in the Time Image, 167, 176–177.

40. Flaubert, Bouvard and Pécuchet, cited in Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 152.

41. On the relation between the sensory-motor schema, the cliché, interest and obedience, see Movement Image, 209, and Time Image, 20–21.

42. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 130.

43. Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 98.

44. Ibid.

45. Deleuze, Time Image, 219; Essays Critical and Clinical, 88.

46. Proust and Signs, 41, 116; Difference and Repetition, 93–95 and 173–192.

47. Cf. Chapters 7 and 8 of Deleuze, Time Image, especially 215

48. cf. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 150. —Trans.

49. “It is difficult to be a traitor; it is to create. One has to lose one’s identity, one’s face, in it. One has to disappear, to become unknown.” Deleuze, Dialogues, 45.

50. Deleuze, Negotiations, 51.

51. Ibid., 123.

52. Deleuze, Time Image, 19 translation modified.

53. Deleuze, Thousand Plateaus, 105–106 and 469–471 (becoming-minoritarian and the power of problematization).

54. Deleuze, “May 68,” 235.

55. See Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, 84–90. This requirement, that of a collection of lateral, federative, non-hierarchical, and non-representative liaisons, which make up a revolutionary movement with “multiple centers,” animates all of Deleuze’s remarks in his conversation with Foucault in L’arc no. 49. English translation: “Intellectuals and Power,” in Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953–1974, trans. Michael Taormina (New York: Semiotext(e), 2004), 206–213.

56. Deleuze, Time Image, 168–173.

57. Ibid., 170.

58. Deleuze, Anti-Oedipus, 28.

59. Deleuze, Logic of Sense, 320. [End Page 171]