Universal history of capitalism, or, what the virtual can do 1

Colebrook, “Introduction: Deleuze and History”

In Deleuze and History (2009)

 “[t]he radical nature of Deleuze’s materialism lies in it capacity to account for the genesis of the virtual, the incorporeal and the eternal in matter” (7). Matter creates virtual, incorporeal, and sense (cf Colebrook (2005) on spaces of sense that emerge (virtual) alongside actual events).

We must distinguish between bodies and matter, the latter of which is “potentiality for the assemblage of bodies” and:

  1. real: not generated by anything else and relies on nothing else ‘to be’
  2. virtual: no intrinsic body/predetermined relations and that from which actual bodies, relations and spatio-temporal coordinates emerge.

7-8) four theses on history (bookmark)

8) The question to ask is: “what is life such that the present is possible?” (which sounds much like a Foucauldian history of the present) or perhaps more precisely (9) “how such a form emerged, what that emergence can tell us about the life from which any actuality has taken shape, and how such a life – beyond its already created possibilities – might yield other potentials?” (which sounds distinctively Deleuzian). Rather than taking given terms (man, polis, family, whatever) as point of departure, history must instead account for the assemblages’ entangled geneses.

9) Of course, explore any such assemblage, we must be looking at something, which for D is “time as such and not the temporal change of any object.” In C&S: the “subject whom we take to be the agent of history is himself an event within history, and we want to talk about that broader history beyond man we are really talking about life: ‘Hence it is at the level of a generalized theory of flows that one is able to reply to the question: how does one come to desire strength while also desiring one’s own impotence?’” (AO, 239).

10) traditional vitalism (generative purposive force, typ anthropomorphic, that flows through matter)  vs. mechanism (real composed solely of random material collisions) (AO, 234; more below on this distinction); D&G carve a path between these two concepts by redefining the concept of death, which they see as dominating capitalism and obscuring our view of “the radical forces in capitalism that expose a genuine, virtualist, radically historical and micropolitical vitalism.”

In cap, death is understood as death instinct, or exhaustion of all of forces (AO, 334); for D&G, we should instead be thinking about the experience of death (becoming imperceptible, becoming a body without organs), imagining our forces/actualized capacities (seeing, hearing, loving, etc) diminution to degree zero (no intensity), and asking at what threshold we would become radically other. In political terms, rather than seeing terrorism or global warming as part of a death instinct enacted by agents, we could see them as challenges of the experience of death, and experiment with alternatives that reduce the forces (de-actualizing, returning them to the virtual).

11) To be clear, D&G’s “passive vitalism” is situated between vitalism and mechanism; whereas traditional vitalism acts through matter as an organizing principle directed toward some end (molar), D&G claim vital tendency toward difference/creation/becoming is molecular: not toward a particular form but rather toward variation. Using the idea of a machine, D&G can both explain the maintenance of systems/structures/etc (mechanism) but can also account for their emergence; machines are formed through the establishment of relations between matter, which has a tendency of desire: “this means that it is oriented beyond itself, not to something it lacks…but towards other intensities of forces of desire.”

Relations are external; desires connect, and actualize a relation/machine, but they could always enter into different relations and actualize different machines. In mechanism, matter is extensive/actualized (as in ANT), and new connections are made in time/space. In the machinic (virtual and passive vitalism), matter is intensive and differential, and is actualized into a body when at least two intensities connect (12).

12) Three syntheses:

            1. connective: relation of material capacities or powers across a space

            2. disjunctive: connections create possible divergences/distinctions between potentials

(together, these produce wholes; to see history as relation among bodies is therefore illegitimate. “In the beginning are functions…”)

3. conjunctive: all bodies are taken as parts of a created whole (14)


13) for D&G, the body of capitalist man comes from such a global (illegitimate) use of the first synthesis – connections btwn parts rather than creation of parts – and an exclusive use of the disjunctive (AO, 67). Instead, we must push for an inclusive use of the latter (And…and…and).


14) illegitimate use of conjunctive is taking whole as pre-existent (~Holland on being stuck to one ‘recording’ on BwO).


In order to write a universal history, D&G must therefore rely on the distinction between capitalism as a virtual tendency and as an actual body. With the former perspective, we can see actual capital relations (laborers and cap, etc) AND the potentiality of capitalism. (15) Actual cap can only exist b/c it is a tendency (to produce via differential relations btwn labor and cap) in life as such. This tendency (the differential as such) is seen in cap’s tendency to liberate all flows from a single organizing body (AO, 254). The transcendent is dissolved and the flows are axiomatized, or measured through a specific differential btwn labor and cap (AO, 223). D&G’s history of cap seeks to open up “the difference between capitalism as a potential for the production of desires through differential relations, and capitalism as an actual social formation that has reduced all potential differentials to relations between bodies as powers of labor and production as production of capital” (16). So bodies/machines are product of an encounter of differential intensities, and bear potentials for other relations (since all relations are external there are overflows of intensity; see pg 11).

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5 Responses to Universal history of capitalism, or, what the virtual can do 1

  1. anthony says:

    Hey! Sweet! Have you seen DeLanda’s talk about the origins of capitalism and how he basically strongly disagrees with Deleuze & Guatarri as well as other Marxists? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQNfNbES9oA
    Its not quite as elaborate as what you have discussed here, but is an interesting tangent.

    • Keith Harris says:

      I haven’t seen that but I’ll check it out…thanks! I’m a little down on DeLanda these days but I have A New Philosophy of Society on order, so that should either recuperate him for me or push me further away…we’ll see!

      • anthony says:

        I’m still new to DeLanda but I was interested to see how he uses Deleuze in his work… I’ll have to read more soon. I hope us PSU folks can get our shit together soon to make some reading groups happen more regularly.

  2. Keith Harris says:

    that would be great. let us know if anyone wants to read ATP or Protevi’s Political Affect!

    • anthony says:

      I’m definitely interested in reading and discussing ATP. I haven’t read any by Protevi yet, so I’m unsure how that will flow in with my other readings. I will try to scrap together the non-summer-stricken pieces of graduate students that are motivated and have time to participate.

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