Bergson with “Deleuze’s Grounding Heuristic”
Through the dialogue that this piece, published in last months issue, has been a catalyst to, I’ve been fortunate enough to have my attention drawn to a number of interesting arguments that work alongside or underneath the one I have presented.
The first of these is contained in a short essay by Henri Bergson entitled The Possible and The Real from his 1946 essay collection, The Creative Mind. Deleuze’s admiration and indebtedness to Bergson is no secret, and in this essay Bergson presents an account of “possibility” that perfectly pre-figures the Deleuzian concept that formed the center of my piece.
In Bergson’s view we have a deficient understanding of possibility. This deficient idea is based on the following conceit of “intelligence” (which he opposes to thought):
“our intelligence thinks of the origin and the evolution of all this (world) as an arrangement and rearrangement of parts that would be doing nothing more than changing places. Therefore it could, in theory, anticipate any state of arrangement and assembly; by starting with a definite number of stable elements, one is implicitly furnishing oneself in advance with all possible combinations.” (Bergson)
In other words, the determinist, mechanistic, vision that sees the events of the past as inevitable, and the events of the future as predictable and devoid of novelty.
Most importantly for us is his further argument concerning how the birth of thing is prefigured by intelligence as an absence of the thing, of a void or nothingness. It would be, as Žižek would say, a “positively charged void”. Here the void is charged with all of it possible occupants, and then one is realized. The possibilities are ordered via the structural logic of the arrangements of parts. Thus, certain occupants, in their possibility, are more possible than others. This makes it possible to predict the arrival of the “next thing”. Where this breaks down, he argues, is when we ask the supreme metaphysical question of the origin of Being itself, or the universe; the classic “why is there something rather than nothing?”. However, the error in this line of reasoning (of a void preceding the thing) can be seen in even simpler cases: “How ever did we manage before x?”. What this question presupposes is that there was a time before x that featured the absence of x, and thus x as pure possibility, which x came to fill in its realization. In truth, we managed fine before x, there was no void in the heart of the world, just as right now, there is no void, y, in the heart of our lives, and we manage just fine.
In opposition to this Bergson puts forward the image of Being devoid of absence — everywhere and always full. For example, when we search for something and do not find it, it is not the case we find the absence of the thing, but we find something not sought for, which we then actively suppress. I look for my keys and find some coins, thus, I conclude, my keys are missing. Truthfully (and frustratingly) my keys are exactly where they are (where ever that is), and the coins are perfectly here. The absence is created by the fact that, right now, I am not concerned with coins, but with keys. There is here some oblique connection to the old joke: “Why do you always find something in the very last place you look? — Because you stop looking once you find it.”
This is why the question of the origin of Being is misfounded. In that time before time, there seems to be an absence (one does not find the universe), but what is it that one finds there, that one then suppresses such that a void or absence can appear (the way the coins are suppressed to create the absence of the keys)? Absence is always a dual phenomenon, “suppression” is always, in fact, a “substitution” (keys for coins). The “void” that precedes the universe is, then, an absurdity.
Furthermore, he argues, the very order upon which knowledge is founded works in a similar fashion. Order is opposed to disorder, but disorder is just another order which is not well suited to us. For example, a room is only messy relative to the certain ways of using it. The papers and books on my desk do not need to be vaporized into the void in order to create a more ordered environment, it is enough that I simply transform their current arrangement into one that makes it easier for me to use my desk (by placing the books into the bookshelf, and the papers into the bin, for example). Likewise with the order in nature — for example our infatuation with the absolute beginning of self-replicating chemical evolution. This sudden arise of order out of the primordial soup astounds us, until we realize that the primordial soup had its own order, just one that doesn’t interest us as much. In this uninteresting “disorder”, we see a void of life, or order, but in fact we’re just not finding the thing we are looking for. Self replicating chemical life is, thus, just another order among many, but one that interests us immensely. When we think of all of the possible “dis-ordered” arrangements (without self-replicating chemicals), we are dizzyed and astounded that just this particular one should arise. However, the world just churns out its novelty, and we seize upon those few arrangements, in line with our concerns, that are of interest to us here in the present.
“For the possible is merely the real with, in addition, an act of the mind which propels therefrom the image into the past the moment it is produced.” (Bergson)
Possibility is nothing substantial, nothing that precedes the existence of a thing as a void, but is an act within the present to retro-fit an inevitable causal narrative to the thing that states that just prior to its realization it was possible. But this is merely a way of speaking and does not contain any knowledge. We merely say that the obstacles to the arrival of the thing, once surmounted, are seen to be surmountable. Possibility is the name for a historical narrative that sequences a causal chain. Really existing things, though, admit for many historical narratives, and the same historical narrative can admit for many things. The “conditions that were just right” for the realization of the thing are multitudinous, and are the conditions for multitudinous things. Things don’t happen because they are possible, things happen, then possibility is our act of privileging a few key elements at the site of genesis along with the positing of a void (through suppression) that the thing fills.
“How does one not see that if the event is always explained after the fact by such and such preceding events, a completely different event would also be explained well, in the same circumstances, … Ultimately by the same antecedents cut differently, distributed differently, perceived differently in retrospect? From the front backwards a constant remodeling of the past by the present, of the cause by the effect.” (Bergson)
This transformation of the past by the present is perhaps most easily seen in the case of a person: “For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a musician” says a famous musician. “I’ve always been good with numbers, maths was always my favorite subject” says the physicist. Nothing is stopping these two people being the same person, with the same history, but with two different outcomes. It’s a question of, in our attempting to understand the present, pouring over the multitudinous elements of our history, where we find material enough to build any story we need, and draw forward those elements best suited to be organized in a narrative that can bestow an inevitability upon our current position. Truthfully, there was nothing inevitable about it, because if we were somewhere else, were someone else, we would look at this same history differently; arranging its parts into a different narrative.
This is why, in the case of the Wolf-Man, Freud admits that it is not important that the “primal scene”, which provides the key to the Wolf-Man’s entire illness, have actually occurred in his past (as it indeed presents itself to him as having done). It could be entirely a product of the analysis, a fantasy scene that Freud has inferred from the pregnant gaps between the elements and inserted into the history of the patient. Freud thinks the question unanswerable (whether or not it did actually occur), but merely points to its efficaciousness in the present for organizing the patient’s experience, for situating them advantageously vis-a-vis their symptoms. Psychoanalysis, then, is not completely characterized by an archaeology digging into the subject’s history, but also takes note of how exactly, in the present, the subject does this digging and how they are affected by it. The way we see and tell our past, from the position of the present, says more about our present than it does our past.
To tie this back to the original article on Deleuze’s concept and its application to the origin story of Money, we can now see how the ideological component of the narrative, that would normalize and naturalize the thing being accounted for, operates: a particular causal account situates the present as the inevitable possibility of its antecedents. In the Barter Farmer economy, the palpable void of the absence of money weighs heavily upon them all — yet all of the conditions and elements are there to be assembled to fill this void. But, in truth, there was no void. Our construction of inevitable causal chains of antecedents tells us just as much about our concerns and aims now as they do those of the past. The fictional Barter Farmers of the story could have solved their problems just as easily by transforming their society into a Feudal one, a constant state of war, or a communist utopia, the invention or rulers, weapons, or community over the invention of money. But, we are not looking for that.
It could be objected that this leads to an absurd relativism, whereby any collection of causes can be substituted for another, and we can never get any understanding of the past. This is taking things too far, though. It’s not the case every collection of antecedents is equal in our intellectual endeavours, because, as we have said, the forming of a historical explanation is relative to a concern. The tidied desk is the arrangement most suited to me working at my desk, but, and this is Bergson’s point, it is not some transcendental “truth” of the desk. Likewise, “butterfly effects” make us intuit that seemingly irrelevant antecedents can be organized into substantial causal accounts (a butterfly flapping its wings in Missouri can cause a cyclone in Darwin) but the advantage of Bergson’s account is that we can turn around and ask “to what concern is this account best suited?” If we believe in the inevitability of a given cogent causal account, we are left scratching our heads at the butterfly hypothesis, but Bergson has us reply “what are you doing by cutting things in this way, what are you trying to accomplish?”.
In this way, we see how fertile the exploration of actually existing things is. I recall an argument once where my interlocutor affirmed that music, its history and content, is all perfectly explicable in terms of economics and the “music market”. In a way it is. That is to say, an interesting and useful account of the phenomenon can be divined from seeing it in this way. In another way, this explanation blinds us to other aspects of the phenomenon. It, for example, sees the social aspects of music (i.e. a family singing around a piano) as being marginal or epiphenomenal. Meanwhile, a purely cultural or social account of music sees the role that economics plays as marginal. The Bergsonian point (although, perhaps, we are “Deleuzifying” Bergson a little here) is that any actually existing thing admits for a myriad of intellectual dissections, each of these affording us different insights by suspending and rearranging the significance of elements. But this is all the play of intelligence. This play, no matter how confidently it has “mapped” the phenomenon in relation to its concern, thus being in a position to extrapolate models with which to predict the future, is always vulnerable to “Black Swans” that, perhaps under a different regime of description, with different, incompatible, models, were more expected.
So, to conclude, when given an account of a phenomenon, a regime of description that purports to map it in its entirety, we should not forget to ask “to what ends, relative to what concerns, does this account appear?” We should also be wary of those models that purport to give us the future, if their constant failure has not already made us wary (weather forecasts and election results, for example). In a way, the 2017 US Presidential election provides the perfect case for Bergson’s arguments: the over-confidence prior afforded by the models and expectations, and then the mad struggle to understand what happened, the competition of totalitizing causal explanations. However, as many commentators also pointed out, we shouldn’t be too hasty to accept a single generalization. That is, to see that prior to the election there was some void or lack that a hidden desire was orbiting, that a “Trump like thing” was always there as a possibility waiting to be realized. Rather, we should see that all of these explanations, and voids that are thereby retroactively posited, are so many attempts to tame the present by prioritizing certain elements within 2016. However, the truth is these accounts, all with ample evidence from 2016, even the null account that these is no meaning in it at all, are only of concern to what we do next, how we situate ourselves to the present situation (thus making the null account highly suspect). If, however, they serve only to produce further probabilistic models then the metaphysical mistake that Bergson identified is only being repeated. What is needful, in this climate of so much intelligence, is more thought.