Deleuze and the new (revisited)
One of the most important places Deleuze discusses the new is in the section on the third synthesis of time in Difference and Repetition. His study has been considered by, among many others, Daniel W. Smith, and Simon O’Sullivan and Stephen Zepke in their collection Deleuze, Guattari and the Production of the New. Much of the work to date has been about what Deleuze means by the new: a fiercely difficult question because the section on the third synthesis of time brings together different and unfamiliar themes.
I was asked recently through this website how Deleuze’s philosophy of the new might serve as a ‘fruitful methodological frame’ for reflecting on innovation in education. The question fell at the right moment. I was also reading forthcoming work by Jeffrey A. Bell considering the new through the construction of a metaphysics built around the function of paradoxical ideas, following his recent work on What is Philosophy? I’m always uneasy about questions on Deleuze and method, but I will try to connect the passages from Difference and Repetition to ideas about educational practice.
For Deleuze, the self is fractured by time. This means any self – anything that can be said to have a self-identity – is always pulled apart and glued together along cracks and fractures. Our activities are reflections of this passive condition. We are all suffering from a crack-up. Except suffering is too negative. We are all enjoying and suffering from many fault lines: intimations of endings and dissolutions but also promises and hopes for novel departures.
Deleuze calls this ‘the prolonged fracturing of I and the passion constitutive of Me.’ (Différence et répétition, p 118, all translations mine) By ‘prolonged’ he means ongoing and inevitable. By ‘constitutive passion’ he means that we are made passively and that this is the source of our passions, of our desires and energies. By ‘I’ he means an active subject. And by ‘Me’ he means who we are becoming over time. What does this imply for teaching and learning?It means we learn with others as unstable, shaky and fragile surfaces. It also means we are involved in making new surfaces, recombining fragments, cracks, pieces and fault lines, not only from our own selves, but from those around us.
Think of the work of the new as the evolution of a music collection, unsatisfactory and incomplete, shared with friends and lovers, prone to boredom and embarrassment, re-intensified by new discoveries and returns to past glories intersected by new music, sometimes fatefully transformed by novel trends, turned into a barren record of the past, yet released again, through a new sample, a new style, a change in circumstances, a new tune, beat, instrument, voice, player, language, land, or technology. Let’s play it all more slowly, listening more closely, out here, on this.
In this philosophy of time past, present and future depend on each other, in the sense of completing one another, filling gaps and responding to problems. The technical term is that times are always dimensions of each other. Each time is only a synthesis of other times; the past is a synthesis and dimension of the present and vice versa. The future, as the ‘empty time’ of the new, completes the past by resolving the problem of how the past is always more than an inert reservoir of past presents. As dimension, the future synthesises the past thanks to the new, thereby transforming the past and ensuring it is not simply a record of present events that have passed away but rather a source of future potential. It’s why we can keep on going, despite and with the past.
A good way of looking at this is the handover between teachers at the end of the school year. The past year is always more than its record. As it passed the pupils changed. They continue to change, altering the sense and potential of the past. Each record of a past present is insufficient compared to everything that happened and continues to happen. This explains why marks and comments from former years are scandalous: distortions of the pupils they pin down. Earlier teachers should say that whatever they pass on is not what happened; all they can transmit are piecemeal and redundant representations. So what’s the point of saying anything? The temptation is to remain silent and let the class and the new teacher renegotiate everything to avoid miring pupils in a false past.
The past as representation is incomplete unless we think of it in relation to a future that changes everything. That’s why the future is empty. The point of a handover is not to communicate past presents, but to try to help the past to become something different. The best handovers aren’t restricted to marks and records. They express how pupils were changing over the year. Teachers have to try to divine how the new was already at work in the past. Deleuze calls this ‘the erotic effect of memory itself’. By which he means memory releases new desires around past events. They have been quarrelsome and jealous over the year, but I sense new friendships forming as they come to depend on each other more.
Though the future is empty it is not without form. The future as dimension of the past and present is a formal process. Deleuze describes it as an ordering, assembly and seriation of time. These processes give us a better grasp of the new. The ordering follows from the effect of the future on the past and present as fractured. The line of time is cut by each present event into before and after. This is not the usual sense of a line of history divided by instants. Instead, every event is cut into a changeable ‘before’ and an empty ‘after’.
Everything has to be different over time because each event is a fracture between a past that must be reworked and an open future. Deleuze call the fracture a ‘caesura,’ a break or interruption, in a verse, for instance: ‘It’s the caesura and the before and after that it puts in order once and for all that constitutes the fracture in the I (the caesura is exactly where the fault line is born).’ Every event is subject to this interruption by the future, where time is ordered into before and after.
The ordering of time does not mean everything is possible. That’s a mistake following from the representation of a limited ‘before’ and an ‘after’ constituted by all possibilities. The future would not be empty but full of the representations of all possibilities. For Deleuze, this makes no sense since it negates change in the past, present and future other than a rearrangement of possible paths. Against this, he is trying to evoke the event familiar to all teachers and pupils where learning is held in suspense and all participants feel for an as yet unknown new way. This could be different, if only we knew how…
The future is more than openness, more than a cliff-edge over an abyss. The future doesn’t only hold the past and the present in abeyance. It joins them to the new, gathering the whole of time. To explain how the future can be both caesura and assembly Deleuze draws on two ideas. First, the caesura does not only happen passively. It is a call to act such that before and after are brought together. Second, since this action bears the weight of assembling the whole of time, it is symbolic, ‘a unique and formidable event, adequate to the whole of time.’ A symbol gathers two unequal parts, like a coin twisted into jagged halves, a past where the action is too hard, ‘too great for me’, and a present and future where we become equal to the demands of action, bringing about a future inconceivable in the past yet adequate to it: ‘the present of metamorphosis, of becoming-equal to the action.’
For education, this gathering of two unequal parts is the moment of creative transformation in teaching and learning, Whitehead’s ‘stage of romance’. An act attuned to the aims of education invites a novel adaptation, tentatively transforming pupil and teacher into different actors in response to the rigidity and failures of the past. This experimentation is always under threat, not only from the repressiveness of states and universal measures, but also from our conservative hankering for permanence. The important critical point is that identity and permanence are doomed. They have to pass; we are always fractured.
The symbolic image proper to the future and to the new is an uncommon addition to the philosophy of time. Even if we accept that time brings together two unequal parts, why are they symbolic in any deeper sense? The answer is in the seriation of time, where the new weaves past and present events into series.
Time is made whole in an act drawing both sides together by repeating past events in a new way. The past is full, heavy and gloomy, yet also restless and unhappy. It is already the product of many repetitions. So many lessons, so many centuries… The task is too great and calls for acts forgeting the past while making it into something new. In these acts, the known and identified self is necessarily insufficient. It is part of the failed past. The actor must make something quite different: a symbol for all events, drawing past, present and future together.
‘Everything is repetition in the series of time in relation to this symbolic image. The past itself is repetition by default, and prepares for that other repetition constituted by metamorphosis in the present.’ The second sentence must be read as a continuation of the first. As inert and blocked the past is a repetition by default. It lacks a symbolic image to draw it into present and future. The past sets the scene for metamorphosis as great transformation.
When we try to teach in a time of crisis we return to patterns of events from the past and recast them thanks to symbolic images. Simon Critchley is doing this in his Athens in Pieces essays. A metamorphosis in the present comes from a default of the past and must be responded to through innovations that release the potential of the past by changing it. Critchley’s essays are an invitation to alter how we think and act in the present in relation to events, practices and values we have inherited from Athens: memory, places of learning, knowledge and funding and democracy and immigration.
Deleuze closes his study of the new with another version of his interpretation of Nietzsche’s eternal return. It is because only difference returns and never the same that the past as sameness must be elevated in new and sublime creations. There are two disastrous misunderstandings latent in this. First, the sublimity is not in the creator but the creation. Second (perhaps in a departure from Critchley’s reading of the Greeks where there is still a hankering for greatness) actors for the future cannot be rare heroes – this would be vain celebration of identity. Teachers and pupils for the future must be nobody and everybody, never somebody. Only their acts carry the past into a new future: ‘… without name or family, without qualities, with no self or ‘I’, a plebeian with a secret, already beyond human, a body fractured into parts, gravitating around a sublime image.’