On Virtuality: Deleuze, Bergson, Simondon
“Philosophy is the theory of multiplicities. Every multiplicity implies actual elements and virtual elements. There is no purely actual object. Every actuality surrounds itself with a fog of virtual images.”
— Deleuze, The Actual and the Virtual, 19.6
This quote taken from a late text published posthumously from a reedition of Deleuze’s Dialogues with Claire Parnet summarises, in brief, the importance of the terms ‘virtual’ and ‘actual’ in Deleuze’s work. The modern conception of a ‘virtual reality’ which simulates and replicates our visual experiences might be the first thought that comes to mind when considering how reality can be ‘virtual.’ However, in Deleuze’s work, these terms take up unique and innovative meanings. To think of a ‘fog’ of virtual images surrounding an actual object instead suggests the notion of a non-individual, or preindividual reality which is separate from, yet interacts with, what might typically be called ‘the real.’ However, to Henri Bergson the notion of the real became problematic when considering the metaphysics of time. Both Bergson and Deleuze want to move away from the subjectivist understanding of time, which gained popularity due to the increasing influence of phenomenology (Husserl during Bergson’s era, and Heidegger during Deleuze’s), towards a theory that is non-reliant on subjective interpretation. Both Bergson and Deleuze, much like Simondon, were concerned with developing a philosophy that was compatible with the science of their time, and it was this insistence that partly attributed to Bergson’s rapid decline in popularity.1placeholder However, in Bergson’s notion of the virtual Deleuze saw a novel ontological conception that would allow him to move away from phenomenology towards a metaphysical understanding of time as something contemporaneous with the experiencing subject. Deleuze would later expand this notion of the virtual to serve as the basis for his entire philosophy in Difference and Repetition. However, to truly understand this concept we must take a detour through the work of Bergson and Deleuze’s later reimagining of Bergsonsian ideas in Bergsonism.
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Throughout his work, Deleuze places a significant importance on Bergson’s distinction between the virtual and the actual in opposition to the possible and the real2placeholder Bergson’s critique of the possible is grounded in his view that philosophy has tended to make a mistake in analysing the nature of possibility by assuming that there is ‘less’ in the notion of the possible than the real. In The Creative Mind he claims that “the possible is only the real with the addition of an act of mind that throws its image back into the past once it has been enacted” (Bergson, 1941, 118). In other words, the possible is only thought of as less than the real because we conceptualise the negation of the real and project it into a past where the real did not exist. For instance, we can perceive the shape of a particular tree and imagine how the branches of that tree could have possibly grown in different directions which would have changed its shape. We are thereby negating the reality of the real tree and imagining a different possible reality that could have been. The real, therefore, is mistakenly seen as the possible with the additional quality of existence, implying that the real has ‘more’ in it than the possible. The real tree has been ‘realised’ by one of the possibilities coming into reality. For Bergson, this implies a fundamental contradiction which must be overcome by removing our reliance on the concept of the possible. Instead of possibility and reality, we must think in terms of virtuality and actuality.
To Deleuze, this marks one of the crucial insights in Bergson’s work. He argues that we cannot understand virtuality merely in terms of possibility because, unlike the possible, the virtual is itself fully real. It is not merely a rephrasing of possibility, but a novel conception of a part of reality upon which we can ground a whole theory of both experience and the genesis of objects. That is to say, the virtual cannot be opposed to the real or else we fall into tautology. It must therefore be understood in opposition to the actual: the world of real extended objects. As Deleuze states: “The virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual. Exactly what Proust said of states of resonance must be said of the virtual: ‘Real without being actual, ideal without being abstract’” (DR, 272). In summary, we can understand the virtual as a realm of differential relations which become ‘actualised’ in their transition into the actual realm. The virtual therefore comes to serve as a foundational notion in both the work of Bergson and Deleuze. However, the operation of the virtual and its subsequent actualisation must be understood in the work of Bergson if we are to see its importance for Deleuze. To do this, we must first see how Bergson introduces the concept of ‘pure memory’ and uses it to bring forth a novel conception of time.
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Bergson argues that there is a fundamental difference between sensations and memory that has been absent from many philosophical and psychological explorations of the subject. He states that, “philosophers insist on regarding the difference between actual sensations and pure memory as a mere difference in degree, and not in kind. In our view the difference is radical” (Bergson, 1991, 139). In other words, Bergson is claiming that pure memory is not merely of the same kind as other human actions like perception which are reliant on sensation and matter, it refers to an impersonal realm of memory which has not been lived by the experiencing subject and therefore exists beyond the limits of psychological recollection.3placeholder Pure memory does not exist in the brain, or indeed in any kind of physical space, it exists purely as the non-actual realm in which past events and actions are stored as soon as they move beyond the present moment. In other words, pure memory can be understood as impersonal in that it is “the preservation of the past in and for itself, that is, independent of its actualization in a present” (Ansell-Pearson, 2002, 173). Here Bergson is introducing an ontological distinction between the world of matter and the realm of memory which leads Deleuze to claim that the introduction of ‘pure memory’ implies something beyond subjective psychology; it implies “a ‘past in general’ that is not the particular past of a particular present but that is like an ontological element, a past that is eternal and for all time” (B, 56). So, in summary, Bergson is operating under the conclusion that pure memory is an ontological totality which implies a ‘past in general’ that exists independently from the experiencing subject. Therefore, we must conclude that pure memory, insofar as it exists, does not exist actually, it exists virtually.
It is following this discussion where Deleuze highlights the novelty of Bergson’s ideas. He states that we mischaracterise both the past and present by claiming that a present only becomes past when it is replaced by another present. In other words, thinking of the relation between present and past purely as a succession brings up a host of issues that he will try to address. He asks the question: “How would a new present come about if the old present did not pass at the same time that it is present? How would any present whatsoever pass, if it were not past at the same time as present?” (B, 58). To Deleuze this represents a fundamental paradox concerning the nature of time which lies at the heart of Bergson’s question of memory, and one that implies the notion of virtuality which he will explore later: “The past is ‘contemporaneous’ with the present that it has been. … The past and the present do not denote two successive moments, but two elements which coexist” (B, 58–59). The implication of this contemporaneity is that there must exist a past in general, a pure past, that is the whole past (and thus constitutes all of our pasts), which coexists with the present moment as it is experienced by the individual perceiver. The past cannot merely follow on from the present, it must be the condition which allows the present to exist insofar as it is defined by a movement into the past. The past is therefore presupposed by the present, for if it weren’t no present could exist: “The virtual object is never past in relation to a new present, any more than it is past in relation to a present which it was. It is past as the contemporary of the present” (DR, 132). In short, we are all determined by a past that exists externally to, but at the same time constitutes, our experience.
Here we encounter Bergson’s famous metaphor of the cone which he describes thusly:
“At S is the present perception which I have of my body, that is to say, of a certain sensori-motor equilibrium. Over the surface of the base AB are spread, we may say, my recollections in their totality. Within the cone so determined, the general idea oscillates continually between the summit S and the base AB” (Bergson, 1991, 161).
What is crucial here in terms of our understanding of the virtual is that the past, represented by AB, must coexist with the present S, but it must also include within itself every subsection of the cone marked A’B’ or A’’B’’ etc. These subsections measure the degree to which the past exists in relation to our sensation in the present. “Each of these sections is itself virtual, belonging to the being in itself of the past. Each of these sections or these levels includes not particular elements of the past but always the totality of the past. … Bergsonian duration is … defined less by succession than by coexistence” (B, 60). So, the importance of this coexistence is that it is inherently virtual in nature (as implied by Deleuze’s chapter heading). In other words, when we place ourselves into the past, we are not merely delving into a particular region which contains certain recollections, one which differs from another region containing other recollections, we are instead interacting with the past as a whole which contains distinct levels or subsections that encapsulate the whole past in a varying states of contraction (as it is brought down the cone towards sensation).4placeholder As Deleuze states, the whole of our past
“is played, restarts, repeats itself, at the same time, on all the levels that it sketches out … It is in this sense that one can speak of the regions of Being itself, the ontological regions of the past ‘in general,’ all coexisting, all ‘repeating’ one another” (ibid.).
The repetition that exists within the past is a repetition of planes, or subsections of the past i.e. A’B’ and A’’B’’. It is not a repetition of ‘the same’ expressed through identity, but a repetition of an analogical difference in which the subsections share a similarity through their shared difference. Each plane is both similar to, and different from each other plane. Our leap into the past through recollection implies an interaction with the virtual nature of these planes, as Bergson’s theory suggests a form of movement within a realm that cannot be physical and therefore actual, but must be virtual. This point is well summarised by Steven Maraz, who claims “it is as if Bergson is suggesting that ‘virtuality’ is not uniform, nor localized to one plane of consciousness, but layered, heterogeneous, and not without consistency” (Maraz, 1998, 57).
Here we start to see the first formulations of the notion of repetition as it exists in Deleuze’s magnum opus. Yet, it is also in this respect that we start to see the similarities between Simondon’s preindividual and the virtual past of Bergson as presented by Deleuze. Both of these concepts contain the paradoxical notion of being something that exists without existing in actuality.5placeholder The preindividual realm is a realm of potentialities which serves as the basis of an internal resonance that is necessary for the transductive operation of individuation. This operation is the primary driving force through which all individuals come into being. Similarly, Bergson’s virtual realm of pure past is a totality made up of differing distinct levels and regions which, paradoxically, contains the whole of the past in its entirety, and serves as the necessary condition which allows the present to come into being. Both of these concepts therefore serve as a post-subjectivist ontological grounding for the processes of perception and individuation that define life (in general) and the human being (in particular).
To understand how actualisation operates we must turn to Deleuze’s distinction between the virtual/actual and possible/real. To Deleuze, the virtual and the actual are both fully real, whereas the possible is not real. Just as virtuality is opposed to actuality, possibility is opposed to reality. Actualisation is therefore not the becoming-real of possibilities, but the becoming-actual of the virtual which coexists alongside it. Indeed, this highlights a nuanced distinction between Simondon and Deleuze. I claimed in an earlier article that for Simondon, the preindividual exists as a realm of potentialities within an individuated being which serves as the source of all future individuations. However, for Deleuze, the framing of individuation purely within the realm of potentiality or possibility6placeholder misses a key feature of the differential nature of a virtual reality. In Deleuze’s thought, this confusion raises a serious concern regarding the nature of the preindividual. As he makes clear:
“The only danger in all this is that the virtual could be confused with the possible. The possible is opposed to the real; the process undergone by the possible is therefore a ‘realisation’. By contrast, the virtual is not opposed to the real; it possesses a full reality by itself. The process it undergoes is that of actualisation. It would be wrong to see only a verbal dispute here: it is a question of existence itself” (DR, 275).
Without viewing it in this way, the preindividual realm cannot serve as the creative/genetic condition for what will be defined as actualisation through individuation. Thus, we are confronted with two questions: how does realisation of the possible differ from actualisation of the virtual? And how can we understand this difference as concerning existence itself? In essence, we are looking to see how the virtual can provide us with the essential grounding that is necessary for the genesis of objects or ideas. If we are to answer these questions, we must return to Deleuze’s discussion of Bergson.
In the final chapter of Bergsonism Deleuze claims that realisation is defined by two rules: the rule of resemblance and the rule of limitation. The rule of resemblance states that the real is supposed to be in the image or likeness of the possible that it realises. In other words, the rule of resemblance involves the ‘false problem’ of projecting a negation of the real into a past in which it did not exist, thus retroactively creating a possibility from a present image (as we saw earlier in the example of the tree). Therefore, the real does not resemble the possible, but the possible resembles the real. Similarly, the rule of limitation shows us that not every possibility can be realised; realisation necessarily involves a ‘limitation’ which prevents some possibilities from coming to be. This limitation shows us which possibilities were realised from the point of view of the present, thus inherently limiting what it is to be possible. To continue with our tree example, we might say that the real tree has only been realised into a particular shape due to the limitation of all other possible variations in direction of the branches, size of the leaves, and so on. However, this can only be understood from the perspective of the present in which the real tree exists.
On the other hand, in the actualisation of the virtual the rules are instead of ‘difference or divergence’ and ‘creation.’ For Deleuze, the mechanism of creation arises out of the mechanism of difference, meaning that creation can only happen through difference. Since the actual and the virtual do not resemble each other in the same way that the real and the possible do, the virtual must “create its own lines of actualization in positive acts” (B, 97). In other words, since the virtual and the actual both exist in reality, the transition from one to the other implies a change in kind; a differential change from one mode of reality to another i.e. a creative act. We can therefore understand that the lack of resemblance between the virtual and the actual implies a primary difference in the process of actualisation; a difference that is inherently creative in nature. As Deleuze summarises: “In short, the characteristic of virtuality is to exist in such a way that it is actualized by being differentiated and is forced to differentiate itself, to create its lines of differentiation in order to be actualized” (ibid.). Thus, in a similar way to Simondon, we can understand creation as the resolution of a problematic between two states which are different in nature from one another yet are connected through their disparation. Realisation can therefore not be creative since reality is not capable of adding anything to possibility due to the false problem of the ‘less’ in the nature of possibility (as we explored earlier). Thus, actualisation of the virtual is creation, and creation is determined by difference.
Bergson’s concept of élan vital (vital force or vital impetus) is used by Deleuze as an example of the creative nature of actualisation through difference. But how can we understand this speculative concept? In its most basic form, we might say élan vital can be seen as the common tendency of life to diverge, create, and adapt to its environment in such a way that doesn’t need to rely on any mechanistic or teleological explanations.7placeholder Deleuze states that élan vital is “always a case of virtuality in the process of being actualized, a simplicity in the process of differentiating, a totality in the process of dividing up” (B, 94). In Creative Evolution, Bergson uses the analogy of an artillery shell to exemplify the operation of this ‘dividing up’: “when a shell bursts, the particular way it breaks is explained both by the explosive force of the powder it contains and by the resistance of the metal. So, of the way life breaks into individuals and species” (Bergson, 1944, 98). Here the unexploded shell represents the virtual unity that dissociates and actualises itself in an explosion. The fragments, which can also be seen as shells in themselves, thus contain a part of the whole shell from which they came, and as they explode, they create a further differentiation which actualises their ‘virtual half’ but still carries part of the virtual whole within them. What is important here is that Bergson sees virtuality as a whole which is simultaneously a part of the actual object. The virtual half of an object coexists with its actual half.
Here the emphasis on analogical thinking exposes parallels between Bergson’s élan vital as creative life force and Simondon’s individuation through transduction. Both Simondon and Bergson’s utilisation of the analogical method suggests that ontogenetic structures must be understood through their operations, not vice versa. If we recall Simondon’s statement that “every operation, and every relation within an operation, [is] an individuation that divides, or dephases, the preindividual being” (Simondon, 2009, 5) we see undeniable comparisons to the creative process of actualisation of the virtual that Deleuze presents in Bergsonism. Indeed, the metaphor of the shell which Bergson uses to describe how élan vital operates is echoed in Simondon’s claim that the individual-environment pair “is accompanied by a perpetuated individuation, which is life itself, according to the fundamental mode of becoming: the living conserves within itself a permanent activity of individuation” (Simondon, 2009, 7). The analogies used by both thinkers therefore have value if “the transfer of a logical operation is the transfer of an operation that reproduces the operative schema of the being known” (Simondon, 1995, 264–265). Thus, for both philosophers, an account of the process of ontogenesis is given primary importance, and it is here that we start to see the basis of how Deleuze combines his influences from Bergson and Simondon together in his later work to provide a theory of creative actualisation which can be understood with the addition of the process of individuation.8placeholder
Abbreviations and Works Cited
B — Bergsonism
DR — Difference and Repetition
Ansell-Pearson, K. (2002). Philosophy and the Adventure of the Virtual: Bergson and the Time of Life. London: Routledge.
Bergson, H. (1941). The Creative Mind. Trans. M. Andison. Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
Bergson, H. (1944). Creative Evolution. Trans. A. Mitchell. New York: Random House.
Bergson, H. (1991). Matter and Memory. Trans. N. M. Paul and W. S. Palmer. New York: Zone.
Canales, J. (2016). The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate that Changed our Understanding of Time. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Deleuze, G. (1991). Bergsonism. Trans. H. Tomlinson and B. Habberjam. New York: Zone Books.
Deleuze, G. (1997). The Actual and the Virtual. ANY: Architecture New York. 19/20, 19.6–19.7.
Deleuze, G. (2014). Difference and Repetition. Trans. P. Patton. London: Bloomsbury.
Maraz, S. (1998). The Bergsonian Model of Actualization. SubStance 27(1), 48–70.
Simondon, G. (1995). L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique. Paris: Millon.
Simondon, G. (2009). The Position of the Problem of Ontogenesis. Parrhesia 7(1), 4–16.
Bergson’s apparent loss in his debate with Einstein in 1922 being a contributing factor. See Canales (2016).
Although this distinction is adopted from Bergson, it is given much more prevalence in Deleuze’s own work, especially in regards to the importance of actualisation through difference.
Here Bersgon makes the distinction between two separate types of memory: habit memory and recollection memory. Habit memory is seen as the functional memory of the body which is situated in the sensori-motor mechanisms that allow it to operate. Habit is ingrained in our behaviour by means of practice and repetition and it is through this operation that we form a connection to the past. On the other hand, recollection memory operates “through an intellectual effort when we place ourselves directly in the past and contract elements of it to suit a present requirement” (Ansell Pearson, 2002, 172). In other words, recollection memory represents an action taken by the human subject in which we use our recollection of the past to inform our present. In Difference and Repetition Deleuze also adopts a third kind of memory which he sees as present in Proust and Freud: involuntary memory. This form of memory comes to us unexpectedly, not through voluntary recollection. “How can we save [the past] for ourselves? Proust intervenes, taking up the baton from Bergson. Moreover, it seems that the response has long been known: reminiscence. In effect, this designates a passive synthesis, an involuntary memory which differs in kind from any active synthesis” (DR, 111). However, as we have noted, pure memory exists in a different realm to that of sensations and matter.
The ideas of contraction-memory and recollection-memory are discussed in more detail by Deleuze during this chapter, but for the purposes of this essay we will skip over these for now.
We could say that Bergson’s form of memory draws parallels to the unconscious as developed by Schelling and later famously expanded on by Freud. The unconscious exists, but we can only become aware of it through its effects in actuality. It thus serves as the partial determination for our conscious and actual actions.
Deleuze shifts his language from the discussion of possibility in the first three chapters of Difference and Repetition to a focus on potentiality in the latter three. That is not to say Deleuze does not discuss possibility, but merely to infer that potentiality has a specific meaning which is exemplified in the relation to the virtual/actual distinction. In fact, the world potentiality [potentialité] is only mentioned once before Deleuze’s discussion of ‘Ideas and the Synthesis of Difference.’
Here philosophers such as Schelling would be critical of Bergson’s conception. In Schelling’s estimation, this notion of life force is self-contradictory due to his claim that a force can only be thought of in terms of its own finitude. Yet to Schelling, no force is finite unless its limited by another force. However, Bergson criticises the post-Kantian tradition for too easily falling into the trap of mechanistic thinking that he wishes to move away from: “The post-Kantian philosophy, severe as it may have been on mechanistic theories, accepts from mechanism the idea of a science that is one and the same for all kinds of reality. And it is nearer to mechanism than it imagines; for although, in the consideration of matter, of life and of thought, it replaces the successive degrees of complexity, that mechanism supposed by degrees of the realization of an Idea or by degrees of the objectification of the Will, it still speaks of degrees, and these degrees are those of a scale which Being traverses in a single direction. In short, it makes out the same articulations in nature that mechanism does. Of mechanism it retains the whole design; it merely gives it a different colouring. But it is the design itself, or at least one half of the design, that needs to be re-made” (Bergson, 1944, 362).
We should note that Deleuze’s Bergsonism was published in 1966 and Simondon’s IGPB was published in 1964. Deleuze’s review of Simondon’s work was published the same year as Bergsonism so it is likely that this similarity did not go unnoticed by Deleuze.