Zizek’s complaints about Deleuze pertained more to the ‘later’ Deleuze (especially his collaborations with Guattari, in particular Anti Oedipus which Zizek declared is Deleuze worst book) than the ‘earlier’ one (that of Difference & Repetition and the Logic of Sense).

Zizek claims that Deleuze ‘chickened out’ and turned away from his earlier insights on how the virtual (also identified as sense-events, flows, intensities, affects, etc.) existed without existing and only secondarily and partially impacted the actual world. The virtual was thus a pseudo-world of pure difference, not connected to some One Big Idea (e.g. Life) and NOT necessarily begetting of reality as we know it although certainly containing the potential to transform our world.

“The starting point (of Deleuze’s earlier work) is that there is always a hidden virtual aspect to any given determined/actual object or process: actual things are not ontologically “complete”; in order to get a complete view of them, we must add to it its virtual supplement. This move from an actual given thing to its virtual conditions is the transcendental move, the deployment of the transcendental conditions of the given. However, this does not mean that the virtual somehow produces, causes, or generates, the actual.“ (from Deleuze’s Platonism)

Put simply, the earlier Deleuze philosophised about (and thus acknowledge) a non-reality which this reality couldn’t quite symbolize to which it couldn’t be reduced to but without which it couldn’t arise. In popular Zizekian terms, it’s as if this Deleuzian “pure difference” was a spectral component which exists by insisting i.e. it EX-ists on the actual.

Now comes the critical part. Zizek claims that the later Deleuze (especially in his work with Guattari) inexcusably negated this earlier radical view by replacing it with a bland duality between Being and Becoming. This is to say that Deleuze forfeited the promise of a reality which possessed a ghostly component by settling for the straight-forward Idealism-in-disguise philosophy whereby reality is generated by and is composed of a flux of events, forever in the flow of becoming.

The earlier Deleuze believes that what IS (Being/Identity) will always be “haunted” by, yet ironically reflects, what MAY BE (Becoming/Difference). On the other hand, the later Deleuze states that what IS is nothing but the result of what MAY BE. The earlier Deleuze, in other words, respected and refused to dispense with an element within reality which couldn’t be explained away. But the later Deleuze “settled” and simply subordinated our reality to the flow of reality-forming sub-realities.

These two ontologies could be summarised as follows:

  • Early D — Becoming as quasi-related in an aberrant way to Being, the virtual ‘atoms’ of life co-exist awkwardly and mysteriously with the organisms, structures and institutions of our world
  • Late D — Becoming as productive of Being, the virtual ‘atoms’ of life beget the organisms, structures and institutions of our world

To use a chemical example, the Deleuze of Difference & Repetition held that molecules revealed (ghostly) traces of atoms, which both had the capacity to transform molecules even whilst they depended on their pseudo-existence on the molecules themselves. The Deleuze of Anti-Oedipus, however, took the easy way out by stating that molecules were simply the products of atoms and atoms were united by a common drive towards, well, life.

What’s the relevance of this dispute on the nature of reality, this tale of two ontologies? Why does Zizek bother? It all boils down to the political significance of the two views.

Why did Zizek see more promise in the early framework and lamented Deleuze’s “compromise” in the form of his later collaboration with Guattari? Zizek writes:

“(This) tension between the two ontologies in Deleuze clearly translates into two different political logics and practices. The ontology of productive Becoming (late D) clearly leads to the Leftist topic of the self-organization of the multitude of molecular groups which resist and undermine the molar, totalizing systems of power — the old notion of the spontaneous, non-hierarchical, living multitude opposing the oppressive, reified System, the exemplary case of Leftist radicalism linked to philosophical idealist subjectivism. The problem is that this is the only model of the politicization of Deleuze’s thought available: the other ontology, that of the sterility of the Sense-Event, appears “apolitical.” However, what if this other ontology also involves a political logic and practice of its own, of which Deleuze himself was unaware?“ (extracted from article at Lacan.com, emphasis mine)

Zizek, in other words, is skeptical and dismissive of the consequences of later Deleuzian theory i.e. the view that effective political resistance can arise from the spontaneous creation of activist groups ‘on the margins’ which gradually subvert the ‘main State apparatus’. Imagine an oppressive government being like a table. According to Zizek, late Deleuzianism leads to political action akin to the table’s legs and board gradually re-arranging themselves and re-thinking their role as constitutive of the table, thereby undermining the power of the table itself i.e. the government.

But Zizek doesn’t like this way of thinking politically — why? A few reasons:

  • this paradigm ignores the Lacanian Real which is more easily reconciled with the early Deleuze
  • this paradigm usually refuses the active seizure of State power, preferring instead to incite change ‘from below’, at the margins, and so on
  • this paradigm ignores class struggle, by privileging other sites of contention / discrimination e.g. feminism, ethnicity, (homo)-sexuality, environmentalism, etc.

In contrast, Zizek holds to the Lacanian idea that true change comes by focusing on the symptoms of society i.e. those aspects which cannot be smoothly integrated into the existing order and are thus usually discarded or dismissed as the ‘part of no part’. In this sense, the (early) Deleuzian Virtual is the gap, the wound, the abyss, the exception, the crack of the Actual and NOT merely its productive genesis. In a word, the virtual is the symptom of reality.

And, socio-politically speaking, Marxist themes come to the fore here because Zizek would hold that ultimate emancipation comes NOT spontaneously ‘from below’ but only when the society becomes identified with the symptom — when that group of people who are seen as ‘not belonging to society’ yet whose destiny and objective is inseparable from it takes power and re-identify themselves as that which characterises society. Zizek is of course insinuating nothing less than a political revolution in which the (new) proletariat take power and thus redefine the world they were formerly not a part of yet which this world couldn’t do without.

This was like the cracks in the table actively rising up to destroy the existing table and building new one in its place!

To conclude, according to Zizek the later Deleuze could never incite a political revolution because of its spotlighting of natural flows and fluxes, the inherent creativity of the micro-conceptual units of life with its virtually directionless play of de-territorialisation (i.e. the ‘loosening’ and shaking up of existing concepts, institutions and ways of thought) and re-territorialisation. This Deleuze was more concerned with creativity than transforming the world order, a task better facilitated when reflected upon in conjunction with the earlier Deleuze of pure difference and absolute immanence which hinted at a shadowy (but potentially revolutionizing) side to reality.


Written by

Edu-trainer, Žižek studies, amateur theologian, columnist.

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