Concept: Using a Deleuzian Axiom as Heuristic
“The foundation can never resemble what it founds”
(Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, p.112, 2004)
This is a critical axiom of Deleuze’s philosophy, concerning the relationship between the virtual and the actual. In that context it is a metaphysical premise.
However, we will not argue for this concept as a metaphysical premise here, rather we will describe how it can be of use to us in a more pragmatic sense as a useful heuristic for looking at accounts of genesis.
Deleuze opposes the exposition of genesis, on the one hand, to the exposition of the conditions of possibility, on the other. For example, he critiques Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason on the grounds that it only gives the conditions of possibility of experience (what must be the case for there to be experience at all), but cannot account for its genesis (how and why these conditions, and not others?).
Be that as it may, how are we to use this concept of the foundation (ground) not resembling the founded in a more limited way as a heuristic? Well, when presented with any account of the genesis of something, of how it came to be from out of a context in which it wasn’t, we first proceed by analyzing what is to be grounded in relation to its purported ground. If we uncover certain similarities in the terms of the two, we know we should proceed with suspicion. Why? Because, despite all possible appearances, we will, no doubt, discover a circularity somewhere within the presentation. Not only just that, we will also have good reason to believe that it is the conditions of possibility themselves that have been snuck into the ground.
This is what makes it a useful heuristic, beyond what we may think of it as a binding metaphysical or ontological premise, as it allows us to quickly identify a possibly problematic account, and have a good idea as to what its problem is. Ideally, what an account of genesis should embody is the logical, causal movement from one state to another, with the two states being radically separated by a wall of fundamental difference. That is to say, the conditions of possibility for the grounded state should differ radically from the conditions of possibility of the grounding state.
Let’s look at it one more time, with this added point:
The foundation can never resemble what it founds. It does not suffice to say of the foundation that it is another matter — it is also another geography, without being another world (ibid).
This is all a bit abstract, so let’s try it out on a familiar example:
The Origins of Money
There is a cute little story about the origins of money told by economists, and featured in textbooks. We’ve all no doubt considered it or heard it at one stage or another, and perhaps thought that it made perfect sense. The story goes something like this:
Once upon a time there was no money. People directly bartered goods with one another with the goods they themselves produced. Say, one farmer grows grapes, another pine nuts, another sheep, another pears, another chickens, and another collects deposits of iron. We will call this the Barter Farmer world.
Let’s say the Chicken Farmer feels like eating pear. In this “once upon a time” time, he’d gather up a chicken and head over to Pear Farm to trade with the Pear Farmer for 9 or 10 pears, both agreeing through past trades that the single chicken was worth a small basket of the fruit. However, on this particular day there is a problem: Pear Farmer doesn’t want any chickens, so is not willing to barter with Chicken Farmer. He informs Chicken Farmer that he really needs a sheep. Chicken farmer nods, wipes his brow, walks back to his farm, collects 9 more chickens, and goes to Sheep Farm. There he manages to trade the 10 chickens for a single sheep from Sheep Farmer, both agreeing that a single sheep is worth two small cartloads of chickens. Chicken Farmer takes the sheep to Pear Farmer who thanks him and gives him 100 pears — so many because Chicken Farmer argues that he had to give 10 chickens to sheep farmer, and they had previously agreed a single chicken is worth a small basket of pears. Chicken Farmer arrives home exhausted, and with many more pears than he needed.
“If only there was some better way! One that didn’t hinge on the coincidence of wants!” he laments.
And it is into this context, these problems, that money was invented by some clever individual, such that bartering could be simplified through a universal medium of exchange and abstract value.
The Barter Farmer world in the story, with its bartering economy and its problems, form the ground from which money emerges. So, let’s apply our heuristic to ascertain whether enough fundamental difference exists between our pre-money state, and the state post-money.
So what are the conditions of possibility of the world of the Barter Farmers and their Barter Farmer Problems?
- Isolated producer/consumers as actors.
- A network to connect them up (a market place — roads, doorways, barns, etc).
- The concept of exchange that can abstract value (here, desire for) from one concrete object to another, or via another: chickens for pears, chickens for sheep, chickens for pine nuts, chickens [for sheep] for pears.
- Units of exchange (produced goods), value (here, desire) bearers.
- The capriciousness of agents within the market network to enter or refuse exchanges or change the terms of exchange day to day, causing the “non-coincidence of wants”.
Now, conditions 1–4 are the necessary and sufficient conditions for the Barter Farmer economy, whereas condition 5, in addition to the others, is a necessary condition for the creation of the problem that causes the genesis of Money. If the agents weren’t capricious in how they entered exchanges, then the Barter Farmer economy would function seamlessly.
Now, here is the grounding issue: the necessary and sufficient conditions for the Barter Farmer economy are looking strikingly like the necessary and sufficient conditions for modern, moneyed economies on the small scale. That is to say, if this Barter Farmer economy existed in the way it is told in the story (with the above necessary and sufficient conditions) then the transition to a moneyed economy is absolutely trivial. Nothing about the Barter Farmer economy is affected by the transformation of goods, as bearers of value in exchange, into bean counters, shells, silver coins, or bank notes as the bearers of this value.
Let’s return to our Chicken Farmer. The value of his enterprise within the Barter Farmer world is not so much that he can freely enjoy the intrinsic value and companionship of the chickens he has produced through his labor, but, on the contrary, that the chickens can be used to exchange for a plethora of goods on the virtual market network within which he is embedded (the series of paths and communicative affinities between the various farms and farmers).
The existence of this virtual market network (condition 2) is essential to the story: money as a solution is only of use to a community of isolated producer/consumers. Nomads may be traded with on the terms of the intrinsic value of the goods, but the capriciousness of these nomads is not solved one iota by money: even after its invention in the story, these economic agents extraneous to the market network still need to be “bartered” with in the old way (unless they relinquish their nomadic status and become part of this network, or merchants between networks). That is to say, conditions 1 and 2 require a curious relationship whereby the two farmers are related to one another enough that money can solve their problem (they trust that debts embodied by money can be repaid) yet they are simultaneously isolated insofar that they are unwilling to help or trust each other without the immediate remuneration through fair exchange.
Furthermore, the “fetch-quest” section of the Barter Farmer story shows how value can be transmuted from one vessel to the other (condition 3). The Chicken Farmer doesn’t want the sheep for its intrinsic properties (those properties currently desired by the Pear Farmer) but as an abstract unit of exchange. There is no difference in this situation with the traveler who must change her cash to local currency upon arrival in a new country; a second trip to be able to access the things she wants within the network of isolated consumer/producers she now finds herself in.
What does it mean to say that within the mythical Barter Farmer world the invention of money is trivial? We accept too easily the plight of the Chicken Farmer and his pre-money naivety. Wouldn’t the obvious thing for him to do be to pick up a stone from the earth, crack it in half, give half to the Pear Farmer and say:
“Here, at any time in the future you want a chicken, bring this half of the stone to me, whereupon I will match it with my half, and give you a chicken.”
And then, in this world, this half-stone easily becomes a possible unit of exchange from the Pear Farmer to others — it functions like the sheep to the Chicken Farmer as a value bearer just as well as a produced good (condition 4).
So, the Barter Farmer story does not depict a world where the invention of money is some great innovation, some new way of working, because the logic of money is already instantiated within the conditions of possibility of the world itself. It is an identical geography. So, here we discover that the conditions of possibility have been snuck into the account of genesis — that the foundation resembles that which it purports to found, and the story explains nothing: it is a myth immanent to money itself. This is not to say that bartering didn’t exist, but merely that it couldn’t have existed in the way depicted in the story without money being instantly invented on the spot. The Barter Farmers, in their relations and trades and understandings, are already thinking in terms of money. As David Graeber puts it in Debt: The First 5000 Years:
In fact, our standard account of monetary history is precisely backwards. We did not begin with barter, discover money, and then eventually develop credit systems. It happened precisely the other way around (2011, p.48).
Now, applying the heuristic points us to a particular circularity in the account that can delegitimize it. However, what’s gained by this demonstration? Surely nobody took the story seriously as a historical, archaeological, anthropological account of an actual series of events in an actual place at an actual time in the past. This is true. Yet still the story pervades, so we have to question why this is. Is it just the laziness of thought that would, when pressed by the question of genesis, merely reposit the conditions of possibility in a kind of self-plagiarism? The innocence of laziness is appealing only up to the point that we realize that the story serves a sublime ideological function: if, prior to money, the world consisted of these malfunctioning Barter Farmer economies, then it is only natural and good that money should exist.
What sneaking the conditions of possibility back into the account of genesis accomplishes is to present the necessity, naturalness, and inevitability of the grounded object as a fait accompli. How? When something is used to ground itself, the horizon beyond it closes into impossibility. Imagine the disappearance of money, or a world beyond it, or before it, and one finds oneself still thinking in the terms and conditions of money. It is not until we discover the foundation that does not resemble the founded, an entirely different geography within the same world, that the object can be seen in terms of contingency.
What would that look like in our example of money? Possibilities abound, but it is beyond the scope of the present discussion, being an introduction to a heuristic tool, to examine all candidates for the grounding of money. For the sake of completeness, however, we will quote Marx, from Grundrisse, where he points to a different picture:
The less social power the medium of exchange possesses … the greater must be the power of the community which binds the individuals together, the patriarchal relation, the community of antiquity, feudalism and the guild system. …
Patriarchal as well as ancient conditions (feudal, also) thus disintegrate with the development of commerce, of luxury, of money, of exchange value, while modern society arises and grows in the same measure.
(Marx, Grundrisse, p.98, 2002)
The account implied by this passage is preferable because moneyed interactions in a market network are being grounded on social relations that precede the market in radically different forms (patriarchy, class system, communal farming village, etc) that mediate the social relations of actors with entirely different conditions of possibility. The introduction of money begins to create, alongside “modern society”, those very conditions of possibility that we discovered for the Barter Farmer world, where before, in actuality, they were not needed to structure the distribution of goods. Imagine a society in which all produced goods were distributed in terms of percentage relative to rank, enforced under penalty of death. In such a society money is not only useless, it is unthinkable. The problems faced by the actors in this society are those of rank (whatever this is founded on), not commerce.
On the Marxean account above, therefore, the key term that is snuck into the Barter Farmer story is the term of isolated consumer/producers — rather, the isolation (technically, alienation) of these producers relative to one another is the product of a medium of exchange interjecting to govern social relations, whereas, prior, these were mediated by the power imbued in the social community, its rules, roles, and mores, itself. The Barter Farmers find themselves in a world already transformed by money, their goods performing the function of the medium of exchange that isolate them from one another and individually give them power (so the social structure itself is emptied of all power, evident in the complete absence of said socio-cultural structure from the Barter Farmer story).
This is not to say that the Marxean reckoning of the development of the market is the only show in town. Rather, we use it in order to show what, in the given case of money, an account of genesis that differentiates ground from grounded would look like. The Deleuzian heuristic cannot help us identify correct accounts, merely the incorrect, as well as giving (1) the form of the error (the positing of conditions of possibility back into the account of genesis) as well as (2) the danger of the error (the naturalization of the thing).
The heuristic can be applied to any account of genesis — the genesis of the sovereign state, of language, of industry, of writing, etc, for example — and can remind us that the arrival of a truly new thing, a genuine event, effectively transforms the structure within which it occurs, changing its conditions of possibility. It creates a new geography, albeit in the same world.
So, we can quickly see, for example, that language doesn’t emerge among frustrated mute human ancestors desperate to express their opinions, it creates the conditions for “opinions” in the first place. Likewise, the history of technology is not a linear series of problem solving: technology creates the problems it solves the moment it becomes integrated. The speed with which I can type is not solving the issue of the cumbersomeness of the pen, it is retroactively creating it. This retroactive creation is in a manner akin to how our present economic relations retroactively posit the myth of the Barter Farmer world.
One more time, just for good measure:
“The foundation can never resemble what it founds”
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Deleuze, G., Patton, P. (2011) Difference and Repetition. London: Continuum.
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