Life and mentality

I want to second Graham Harman’s point about the usefulness of Shaviro’s most recent post. I am intrigued in particular by Shaviro’s following claim:

Whitehead is not a vitalist — he doesn’t believe everything is alive. But he does argue that everything has mentality, at least incipiently. Mentality, rather than aliveness, is the requisite for things having agential force. Indeed, mentality is a requisite for aliveness, rather than the reverse.

Shaviro adds that this turn to discussing ‘mentality’ can provide a helpful antidote to the “current mania for theorizing ‘life’,” and as a result he adopts a Whiteheadian understanding of mentality as “conceptual feeling.” I don’t want to engage in the ongoing debate Shaviro has had with OOO but would add a brief comment regarding what I see as the tendency to too strongly associate Deleuze with being one who theorizes life, or who merely recapitulates and expands upon Bergsonian vitalism. There is no doubt Deleuze does theorize life and endorses a form of vitalism – the fact that it was a focus of his from his early works on Bergson up to his late essay “Immanence: a life” is clear evidence for this – but this emphasis needs in turn to be understood in the context of Deleuze’s theorizations regarding concepts. Philosophy itself is defined by Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari as the creation of concepts, and concepts are not, in sharp contrast to Bergson, intuitions whereby one seizes, as Bergson put it, the ‘one reality…from within.’ To the contrary, concepts are for Deleuze assemblages that are at best to be understood as filtered selected assemblages that stave off an excess that would be the undoing of concepts, and this excess is not to be confused with a ‘pure vitality,’ a Bergsonian flux. I am led to this conclusion from my reading of the closing lines of A Thousand Plateaus:

Every abstract machine is linked to other abstract machines, not only because they are inseparably political, economic, scientific, artistic, ecological, cosmic–perceptive, affective, active, thinking, physical, and semiotic–but because their various types are as intertwined as their operation are convergent. Mechanosphere.

Rather than a pure flux, there is a ‘mechanosphere,’ an assemblage of abstract machines that forever risk being undermined by relations that exceed them (since the relations are external to their terms), and it is this excess or exteriority of relations that would be the undoing of concepts and assemblages rather than a pure Bergsonian flux. For Deleuze, then, rather than a mystical intuition that grasps the one reality, we have the effort to create an assemblage of heterogeneous elements, or a composition to use Latour’s terms, and this effort is an experimental effort that is not guaranteed of success. It is, simply put, what makes philosophy distinctive, and understood in this way it is not subject to some of the faults that have been rightly identified with those who ‘theorize life’ (in addition to Bergson I also have Agamben in mind). This is at least part of what I’ll be arguing in my paper at the Metaphysics and Things conference which should be, based on Shaviro’s post and Graham’s reply, a good event where much discussion is had.

One response to “Life and mentality

  • Christian Evensen

    I find this topic interesting. Working on Spinoza (master student) I’ve always felt something’s not right in much contemporary readings of him, especially in the more political readings. For instance, Hardt’s and Negri’s politicization of ‘life’; there’s something perverse going on there, something really wrong (Agamben I can respect, because he first of all has a critique of this politicization). A lot of these thinkers, with this “mania for theorizing ‘life’,” seem to have some inspiration from Deleuze, and especially the Nietzschean and Bergsonian strains in Deleuze (Ansell-Pearson, Hardt, Protevi, Grosz, Colebrook, etc.), though I agree with you that the question of life and vitalism in Deleuze is not that easy. And these are really important questions. A lot of contemporary philosophy diverges on just these questions, both theoretically and politically. In a way Badiou’s and Zizek’s critiques of Deleuze are symetrical with Hardt’s and Negri’s more affirmative readings; they find the same thing in his writings, but one side thinks of this as a “bad” thing, while the other thinks of it as “good”. An alternative reading, which still is concerned with these questions of life and vitalism, should counter both these sides (which we might call the German Idealist side and the Neo-Spinozist side). Just my thoughts…

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