Organs without Bodies – Gilles Deleuze 
. . . . . . . . The Reality of the Virtual

. . . . . . . .Slavoj Zizek

The measure of the true love for a philosopher is that one recognizes traces of his concepts all around in one’s daily experience. Recently, while watching again Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, I noticed a wonderful detail in the coronation scene at the beginning of the first part: when the two (for the time being) closest friends of Ivan pour golden coins from the large plates onto his newly anointed head, this veritable rain of gold cannot but surprise the spectator by its magically excessive character – even after we see the two plates almost empty, we cut to Ivan’s head on which golden coins “nonrealistically” continue to pour in a continuing flow.

Is this excess not very ‘Deleuzian’?
Is it not the excess of the pure flow of becoming over its corporeal cause, of the virtual over the actual?

The first determination that comes to mind apropos of Deleuze is that he is the philosopher of the Virtual – and the first reaction to it should be to oppose Deleuze’s notion of the Virtual to the’all-pervasive topic of virtual reality: what matters to Deleuze is not virtual reality, but the reality of the virtual (which, in Lacanian terms, is the Real.”

Virtual Reality in itself is a rather miserable idea: that of imitating reality, of reproducing its experience in an artificial medium.

The reality of the Virtual, on the other hand, stands for the reality of the Virtual as such, for its real effects and consequences.

Let us take an attractor in mathematics: all positive lines or points in its sphere of attraction only approach it in an endless fashion, never reaching its form – the existence of this form is purely virtual, being nothing more than the shape towards which lines and points tend.

However, precisely as such, the virtual is the Real of this field: the immovable focal point around which all elements circulate.

Is not this Virtual ultimately the Symbolic as such? Let us take symbolic authority: in order to function as an effective authority, it has to remain not- fully-actualized, an eternal threat.

Perhaps, the ontological difference between the Virtual and the Actual is best captured by the shift in the way quantum physics conceives of the relationship between particles and their interactions: in an initial moment, it appears as if first (ontologically, at least) there are particles interacting in the mode of waves, oscillations, etc.; then, in a second moment, we are forced to enact a radical shift of perspective – the primordial ontological fact are the waves themselves (trajectories, oscillations), and particles are nothing but the nodal points in which different waves intersect. [1]

This brings us to the constitutive ambiguity of the relationship between actual and virtual:

(1) the human eye REDUCES the perception of light; it actualizes light in a certain way (perceiving certain colors, etc.), a rose in a different way, a bat in a different way… The flow of light “in itself” is nothing actual, but, rather, the pure virtuality of infinite possibilities actualized in a multitude of ways;

(2) on the other hand, the human eye EXPANDS perception – it inscribes what it “really sees” into the intricate network of memories and anticipations (like Proust with the taste of madeleine), it can develop new perceptions, etc. [2]

The genius of Deleuze resides in his notion of “transcendental empiricism“: in contrast to the standard notion of the transcendental as the formal conceptual network which structures the rich flow of empirical data, the Deleuzian “transcendental” is infinitely RICHER than reality – it is the infinite potential field of virtualities out of which reality is actualized.

The term “transcendental” is here used in the strict philosophical sense of the a priori conditions of possibility of our experience of constituted reality. The paradoxical coupling of opposites (transcendental + empirical) points towards a field of experience beyond (or, rather, beneath) the experience of constituted/perceived reality. We remain here within the field of consciousness – Deleuze defines the field of transcendental empiricism as “a pure a-subjective current of consciousness, an impersonal prereflexive consciousness, a qualitative duration of consciousness without self.” [3]

No wonder that (one of) his reference(s) here is the late Fichte, who tried to think the absolute process of self-positing as a flow of Life beyond the opposites of subject and object:

A life is the immanence of immanence, – absolute immanence: it is sheer power, utter beatitude. Insofar as he overcomes the aporias of the subject and the object Fichte, in his later philosophy, presents the transcendental field as a life which does not depend on a Being and is not subjected to an Act: an absolute immediate consciousness whose very activity no longer refers back to a being but ceaselessly posits itself in a life[4]

Perhaps Jackson Pollock is the ultimate “Deleuzian painter”: does his action-painting not directly render this flow of pure becoming, the impersonal-unconscious life-energy, the encompassing field of virtuality out of which determinate paintings can actualize themselves, this field of pure intensities with no meaning to be unearthed by interpretation?

The cult of Pollock’s personality (heavy drinking American macho) is secondary with regard to this fundamental feature: far from “expressing” his personality, his works “sublate”/cancel it. [5]

The first example that comes to mind in the domain of cinema is Sergei Eisenstein: if his early silent films are remembered primarily on account of their practice of montage in its different guises, from the “montage of attractions” to “intellectual montage” (i.e., if their accent is on cuts), then his “mature” sound films shift the focus onto the continuous proliferation of what Lacan called sinthomes, of the traces of affective intensities. Recall, throughout both parts of Ivan the Terrible, the motif of the thunderous explosion of rage which is continuously morphed and thus assumes different guises, from the thunderstorm itself to the explosions of uncontrolled fury: although it may at first appear to be an expression of Ivan’s psyche, its sound detaches itself from Ivan and starts to float around, passing from one to another person or to a state not attributable to any diegetic person. This motif should NOT be interpreted as an “allegory” with a fixed “deeper meaning,” but as a pure “mechanic” intensity beyond meaning (this is what Eisenstein aimed at in his idiosyncratic use of the term “operational”). Other such motives echo and reverse each other, or, in what Eisenstein called “naked transfer,” jump from one to another expressive medium (say, when an intensity gets too strong in the visual medium of mere shapes, it jumps and explodes in movement – then in sound, or in color…)

For example, Kirstin Thompson points out how the motif of a single eye in Ivan is a “floating motif,” in itself strictly meaningless, but a repeated element that can, according to context, acquire a range of expressive implications (joy, suspicion, surveillance, quasi-godlike omniscience). [6] And, the most interesting moments in Ivan occur when such motifs seem to explode their preordained space: not only do they acquire a multitude of ambiguous meanings no longer covered by an encompassing thematic or ideological agenda; in the most excessive moments, such a motif seems even to have no meaning at all, instead just floating there as a provocation, as a challenge to find the meaning that would tame its sheer provocative power…

Among contemporary filmmakers, the one who lends himself ideally to a Deleuzian reading is Robert Altman, whose universe, best exemplified by his masterpiece Short Cuts, is effectively that of contingent encounters between a multitude of series, a universe in which different series communicate and resonate at the level of what Altman himself refers to as “subliminal reality” (meaningless mechanic shocks, encounters, and impersonal intensities which precede the level of social meaning). [7] So, when, in Nashville, violence explodes at the end (the murder of Barbara Jean at the concert), this explosion, although unprepared and unaccounted for at the level of the explicit narrative line, is nonetheless experienced as fully justified, since the ground for it was laid at the level of signs circulating in the film’s “subliminal reality.” And, is it not that, when we hear the songs in Nashville, Altman directly mobilizes what Brian Massumi calls the “autonomy of affect”? [8] That is to say, we totally misread Nashville if we locate the songs within the global horizon of the ironico-critical depiction of the vacuity and ritualized commercial alienation of the universe of American country music: on the contrary, we are allowed – even seduced into – fully enjoying the music on its own, in its affective intensity, independently of Altman’s obvious critico-ideological project. (And, incidentally, the same goes for the songs from Brecht’s great pieces: their musical pleasure is independent of their ideological message.) What this means is also that one should avoid the temptation of reducing Altman to a poet of American alienation, rendering the silent despair of everyday lives: there is another Altman, that of opening oneself to joyful contigent encounters. Along the same lines as Deleuze and Guattari’s reading of Kafka’s universe of the Absence of the inaccessible and elusive transcendent Center (Castle, Court, God) as the Presence of multiple passages and transformations, one is tempted to read the Altmanian “despair and anxiety” as the deceiving obverse of the more affirmative immersion into the multitude of subliminal intensities. Of course, this underlying plane can also contain the obscene superego subtext of the “official” ideological message – recall the notoroius “Uncle Sam” recruiting poster for the US Army:

This is an image whose demands, if not desires, seem absolutely clear, focussed on a determinate object: it wants “you,” that is, the young men of the proper age for military service. The immediate aim of the picture looks like a version of the Medusa effect: that is, it “hails” the viewer, verbally, and tries to transfix him with the directness of its gaze and (its most wonderful pictorial feature) the foreshortened pointing hand and finger that single out the viewer, accusing, designating, and commanding the viewer. But the desire to transfix is only a transitory and momentary goal. The longer-range motive is to move and mobilize the viewer, to send the beholder on to ‘the nearest recruiting station, and ultimately overseas to fight and possibly die for his country.

/…/ Here the contrast with the German and Italian posters is clarifying. These are posters in which young soldiers hail their brothers, call them to the brotherhood of honourable death in battle. Uncle Sam, as his name indicates, has a more tenuous, indirect relation to the potential recruit. He is an older man who lacks the youthful vigour for combat, and perhaps even more important, lacks the direct blood connection that a figure of the fatherland would evoke. He asks young men to go fight and die in a war in which neither he nor his sons will participate. There are no “sons” of Uncle Sam

/…/ Uncle Sam himself is sterile, a kind of abstract, pasteboard figure who has no body, no blood, but who impersonates the nation and calls for other men’s sons to donate their bodies and their blood.

So what does this picture want? A full analysis would take us deep into the political unconscious of a nation that is nominally imagined as a disembodied abstraction, an Enlightenment polity of laws and not men, principles and not blood relationships, and actually embodied as a place where old white men send young men and women of all races (including a disproportionately high number of colored people) to fight their wars. What this real and imagined nation lacks is meat – bodies and blood – and what it sends to obtain them is a hollow man, a meat supplier, or perhaps just an artist. [8]

The first thing to do here is to add to this series the famous Soviet poster “Motherland is Calling You,” in which the interpellator is a mature strong woman. We thus move from the American imperialist Uncle through European Brothers to the Communist Mother… – Here we have the split, constitutive of interpellation, between law and superego (or want and desire).

motherland is calling you

What a picture like this wants is not the same as what it desires: while it wants us to participate in the noble struggle for freedom, it desires blood, the proverbial pound of our flesh (no wonder the elder sterile “Uncle (not Father) Sam” can be deciphered as a Jewish figure, along the lines of the Nazi reading of American military interventions: “the Jewish plutocracy wants the blood of the innocent Americans to feed their interests”).

In short, it would be ridiculous to say that “Uncle Sam desires you”: Uncle Sam wants you, but it desires the partial object in you, your pound of flesh…

When a superego call WANTS (and enjoins) you to do it, to gather the strength and succeed, the secret message of DESIRE is: “I know you will not be able to achieve it, so I desire you to fail and to gloat in your failure!”

This superego character, confirmed by the Yankee Doodle association (recall the fact that superego figures inextricably mix obscene ferocity and clownish comedy), is further sustained by the contradictory character of its call: it first wants to arrest our movement and fixate our gaze, so that, surprised, we stare at it; in a second moment, it wants us to follow its call and go to the nearest conscription office – as if, after stopping us, it mockingly addresses us: “Why do you stare at me like an idiot? Didn’t you get my point? Go to the nearest conscription post!”

In the arrogant gesture typical of the mocking characteristics of the superego, it laughs at our very act of taking seriously its first call. [10]

When Eric Santner told me about a game his father played with him when he was a small boy (the father showed, opened up in front of him, his palm, in which there were a dozen or so of different coins; the father then closed his palm after a couple of seconds and asked the boy how much money there was in his palm – if the small Eric guessed the exact sum, the father gave him the money), this anecdote provoked in me an explosion of deep and uncontrollable anti-Semitic satisfaction expressed in wild laughter:

“You see, this is how Jews really teach their children!
Is this not a perfect case of your own theory of a proto-history which accompanies the explicit symbolic history? At the level of explicit history, your father was probably telling you noble stories about Jewish suffering and the universal horizon of humanity, but his true secret teaching was contained in those practical jokes about how to quickly deal with money.”
Anti-Semitism effectively IS part of the ideologocal obscene underside of most of us.

And one finds a similar obscene subtext even where one would not expect it – in some texts which are commonly perceived as feminist. In order to confront this obscene “plague of fantasies” which persists at the level of “subliminal reality” at its most radical, suffice it to (re)read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the distopia about the “Republic of Gilead,” a new state on the East Coast of the US which emerged when the Moral Majority took over.

The ambiguity of the novel is radical: its “official” aim is, of course, to present as actually realized the darkest conservative tendencies in order to warn us about the threats of Christian fundamentalism – the evoked vision is expected to give rise to horror in us. However, what strikes the eye is the utter fascination with this imagined universe and its invented rules. Fertile woman are allocated to those privileged members of the newnomenklatura whose wives cannot bear children – forbidden to read, deprived of their names (they are called after the man to whom they belong: the heroine is Offred – “of Fred”), they serve as receptacles of insemination. The more we read the novel, the more it becomes clear that the fantasy we are reading is not that of the Moral Majority, but that of feminist liberalism itself: an exact mirror-image of the fantasies about the sexual degeneration in our megalopolises which haunts members of the Moral Majority. So, what the novel displays is desire – not of the Moral Majority, but the hidden desire of feminist liberalism itself.


[1] The genealogy of Deleuze’s concepts is often strange and unexpected – say, his assertion of the Anglo-Saxon notion of external relations is clearly indebted to the religious problematic of grace. The missing link is here Alfred Hitchcock, the English Catholic, in whose films a change in relations between persons, in no way rooted in their characters, totally external to them, changes everything, deeply affects them (say, when, at the beginning of North by Northwest, Thornhill is wrongly identified as Kaplan). Chabrol’s and Rohmer’s Catholic reading of Hitchcock (in their Hitchcock, 1954) deeply influenced Deleuze, since, in the Jansenist tradition, it focuses precisely on “grace” as a contingent divine intervention which has nothing to do with the inherent virtues and qualities of the affected characters.

[2] And is this ambiguity not homologous to the ontological paradox of quantum physics? The very “hard reality” which emerges out of the fluctuation through the collapse of the wave-function, is the outcome of observation, i.e. of the intervention of consciousness. Consciousness is thus not the domain of potentiality, multiple options, etc., as opposed to hard single reality – reality PREVIOUS to its perception is fluid-multiple-open, and conscious perception reduces this spectral, pre-ontological, multiplicity to one ontologically fully constituted reality.

[3] Gilles Deleuze, “Immanence: une vie…,” quoted from John Marks, Gilles Deleuze, London: Pluto Press 1998, p. 29..

[4] Deleuze, op.cit., p. 30. – One is tempted to oppose to this Deleuzian absolute immanence of the flow of Life, as the presubjectlve consciousness, the Freudo-Lacanian unconscious subject ($) as the agency of the death drive.

[5] So what about the opposition Pollock-Rothko? Does it not correspond to the opposition of Deleuze versus Freud/Lacan? The virtual field of potentialities versus the minimal difference, the gap between background and figure?

[6] Kirstin Thompson, Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible”: A Neoformalist Analysis, Princeton: Princeton University Press 1981.

[7] Robert T. Self, Robert Altman’s Subliminal Reality, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press 2002.

[8] Brian Massumi, “The Autonomy of Affect,” in Deleuze: A Critical Reader, edited by Paul Patton, Oxford: Blackwell 1996.

[9] Tom Mitchell, “What Do Pictures Really Want?” in October 77 (Summer 1996), p. 64-66.

[10] What, then, more generally, does a picture want? One is tempted to apply here the good old Lacanian triad of ISR: at the level of the Imaginary, it is a lure which wants to seduce us into aesthetic pleasure; at the level of the Symbolic, it calls for its interpretation; at the level of the Real, it endeavors to shock us, to cause us to avert our eyes and/or to fixate our gaze.


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