An Ontology of Joy

Examination of Gilles Deleuze Ontology


7/23/202315 min read

An Ontology of Joy

In this essay, I will outline the philosophical history where Deleuze’s thought is situated and what he responds to, then go deep into his magnum opus „Difference and Repetition“ and try to capture the essence of this work. Subsequently, I will connect his main book with his two later published books, the first „Anti-Oedipus; Capitalism and Schizophrenia 1“ and the second „Thousand Plateaus - Capitalism and Schizophrenia 2“. This will round up Deleuze’s main ideas and link them to their political and psychoanalytical applications with Felix Guattari.

Historically speaking, there were three big thought movements, especially in France.
The first one was Existentialism with its heydays in the 40s to the 50s. Existentialism was more or less dealing with the death of god, the absurdity of life, meaninglessness, and of course nihilism. This thought movement gave the individual subject a privileged role. You are an individual and as an individual, you are the author of your own values and therefore life. The human is the creator. However, this privileged role of the subject removes people from the influences of society. Well-known existentialists at that time were e.g. Jean-Paul Satre and Albert Camus.
The second movement, Structuralism, argued strongly against the existentialist notion that individuals are the people that create. People are products of the structures we find ourselves in. The individual does not create meaning. It is more that they are created by something they do not control. We are the product, not the creator. This idea developed and build on Ferdinand de Saussures's concept of language theory, especially semiotics. Most structuralists thought that we are a product of one key identity. For example, Jaques Lacan thought that we are the product of the structures of our unconscious, whereas Levy-Strauss thought we are the product of fundamental kinship structures and Luis Althusser thought that we are the product of the economic arrangements. They all agreed that there is one key identity on which we are a product, but they all differed in their answers. The third movement, Post-Structuralism, denied that we are reducible to this particular key identity. There are identities, but those identities are not essential to what that thing is.
Post-Structualism is predominantly a critique of identities and essences. The most prominent figures of this movement are Jaques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze.

Foucault, for instance, works from a more historical perspective. He thinks that we, our surface identities, are the product of history in which we are immersed. We are produced in ways that take away our powers. There is nothing that is inside of us, nothing essential, just the world unfolding in time in front of us. Therefore we can conclude that if there are no essences and just histories, that this realization opens up a field of contingency. Things do not need to be that way, they can be changed, hence we do not need to be who we are. From an unchangeable essence to a changeable world. Deleuze on the other hand does not work through history but through ontology. Which at first seems kind of an odd choice, because ontology is fundamentally about what there ultimately is in this world, also known as essences. However, Deleuze develops this idea in his book „Difference and Repetition“, where an ontology is not built on identities, but on difference itself. This ontology will give rise to new ways of thinking, ethics, and politics.

In his book „Difference and Repetition“ his main goal is to develop an ontology of difference. Normally we think about difference as secondary and identity as primary. For instance, you have two things, Thing A and Thing B. Difference just appears and leaves in the moment when we compare Thing A to Thing B. These two identities give rise to differences, by distinguishing themselves from one another. This is for Deleuze an Ontology of Identity.

Deleuze on the other hand wants to make Differences primary and Identities secondary. The Difference gives rise to Identities, not the other way around. Identities are rooted in something, but that something is not an identity.
Let’s think of an infant's brain. We cannot think about an infant's brain as an identity or a set of possible identities, one of which gets chosen over time. An essential identity would restrict the development of a brain too much, which would mean we could only develop in one way, but in reality, there are so many ways to develop. On the other hand, it can’t be that there are a bunch of potential „me’s“ in my brain, and through connecting synapses they build one „me“ instead of the other „me“. This would presuppose that there is a „me“ before a „me“ was ever developed. Furthermore, Deleuze also discards the idea that you are a blank slate and become anything. For instance, the development of your brain cannot turn you into a literal cat or an elephant. Therefore the infant's brain has a structure, but the structure is not a structure of any possibilities. Instead, for Deleuze, it is a field of difference or what he calls the virtual.
Regarding the second word in the title „Repetition“ it seems at first odd for Deleuze to put such emphasis on repetition by creating an ontology of difference. Normally we think about repetition as recurring identities that come over and over again e.g. a perfectly manufactured Pepsi can, sitting on the assembly line with all the other Pepsi cans. A perfect copy of an identity of a corporate idea mass produced. However, this is not the repetition Deleuze talked about. He thought that everything repeats, but what repeats is not an identity, but a difference itself. As we go through life everything that we are facing repeats difference. The thing that we find in the future is not the same thing over and over again, it is difference.

To illustrate this point more, let's think about leaves. Every year in autumn the leaves fall from the trees and lay on the ground. This process repeats every year. However, in this repetition of the four seasons, we discover that every leaf that ever fell from a tree is unique. Every leaf is different from every leaf that has ever existed. Therefore we encounter always differences as repetition in our lives. The day always unfolds differently even if it is a repetition.

This thinking of Deleuze is in strong contrast to the Western philosophical tradition, which puts identities first and difference second.
The first one he targets in his book is Aristotle. Aristotle proposes in his thought what he calls the „Law of Identity“ and what we would call „Accidental Difference“. A man is a man and a man is not a woman, but a woman is a woman and all men are men and all women are women. For Aristotle an identity is always self-referential, each thing is identical with itself. Furthermore, these identities have categories, species and can be formed as an individual. For example, you have two categories like color and animal. These categories split themselves into species like the color green or black and the animal's cat or elephant. Through the combinations with each other, a black cat, and an individual cat is created. However, as we discover difference appears just between those identities e.g. the black cat is different from the green elephant, because of categories and species. Difference appears in one second and reappears in the next second.
For Hegel, on the other hand, the problem with this thought is that every identity also exists in time. Identities are not self-identical, because in those identities there is difference itself. This difference in identity is for Hegel's opposition. You start with a situation and that situation generates opposition. These unstable relationships of conflict need to be resolved and then become a new situation and that new situation is again unstable. For instance, think about the concept of freedom. The concept of freedom is not a stable identity, it changes over time. First, we have the concept of freedom only applied to mighty people like kings and monarchs. This concept then expanded to the more minor nobility than the common man and then to women. This opposition in itself calls Hegel famously dialectic. This form of „Relative Difference“ works through negation and opposition and not pure difference as Deleuze tries to map out.

For all of these philosophers, difference becomes secondary to identity, except for Nietzsche. Deleuze wrote in 1962 a book about Nietzsche called „Nietzsche and Philosophy“, where one of his key ideas is developed and then finalized in „Difference and Repetition“. Here Deleuze maps out an Anti-Dialectical way of thinking via the concepts of Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, the concept of negation does not exist in nature, only in the imposition of logic. However, what Hegel got wrong for Deleuze is that there is only an A and a not A ( ¬A). The problem with that is that difference is relative. By negating the opposition, Difference appears so that it can disappear and does not allow to stay. But for Deleuze and Nietzsche there are many forces playing at the same time e.g. desiring forces or evolving forces, all striving to exist. Or as Deleuze puts it in his book on Nietzsche:

„In Nietzsche, the essential relation of one force to another is never conceived of as a negative element in the essence. In its relation with the other force, which makes itself obeyed, it does not deny the other or that which it is not, it affirms its own difference and enjoys difference. The negative is not present... on the contrary, it is a result of activity, of the existence of an active and the affirmation of its difference.“ (Deleuze, Gilles: Nietzsche and Philosophy (1962); s.145ff.)

Deleuze’s Nietzsche establishes two forms of forces. One is called active force and the other is reactive force. The active force, what could be understood as Nietzsches's will to power, is pure affirmation of difference. Active forces create things. Active forces also do not fight or are in conflict with reactive forces. Reactive forces on the other hand try to stop the active force, but does not try to negate it. The reactive force could be understood as Nietzsches „ressentiment“ for example slave morality. This field of forces and play of forces allows difference to stay. A politician would say „what there is, it is all there is“. A poet on the other hand would say „what more is there to create?“. And exactly this affirmation of difference, embracing active, or for a better term, creative forces, is the guiding thread of all Deleuze’s work.

To elaborate more on this thought of affirming pure difference, by creating we should examine on of the chapter in his book „Difference and Repetition“ - The Dogmatic Image of Thought.
Deleuze argues in this chapter that most Western philosophy was dominated by the dogmatic image of thought. That image is holding us in its grip and does not allow to think otherwise - we are trapped. The dogmatic image of thought always starts with something that everybody knows. However an interesting thought, in contrast to the dogmatic thought, occurs when there is an encounter and something forces us to think. This thought could be triggered by anything e.g. Socrates, who wanders around in old Greece challenges what everybody knows or affections like wonder, love hatred and suffering. From that point on we do not take things as given and try to recognize them in our own dogmatic image thought. For Deleuze by not recognising a thing anymore and sensing that there is something beyond that recognition, we can start to think outside the dogmatic image of thought. In this chapter the interesting thought is the active force, whereas the dogmatic image of thought is the reactive force.

Deleuze also raised the topic of „problems“ in this chapter. For him, there are problems generated by the dogmatic image of thought and interesting problems. The dogmatic problems, are problems where you have already a solution you just need to find it. For example, „When did Christoph Columbus first discover America?“. The answer that you need to find is 1492 in order to be correct or else you are wrong. This form of problem presupposes that there is a truth, a solution, just to be found. On the other hand, an interesting problem does not have a ready made solution, but instead has different ways in which they might arise. For instance, what would happen if we would rewind the history of evolution back to its origin? What would from then on happen? Will there be a human or elephant? Or will there be different forms of animals and humans that never have come to existence? For Deleuze, the elephant has to be one possible solution for the tensions and problems of the enviroment, but not the only solution. Any interesting problem will have a multitude of different possible solutions. In contrast the dogmatic problem has one ready made solution. When something goes wrong with a dogmatic problem, it is an error. When something goes wrong with an interesting problem it is through your own stupidity. These problems are a form of crisis or shock that can trigger interesting thought. You open up to a problematic field, where the answers are not given. From this point on active forces can be unleashed.

Furthermore, this problematic field has two sides - actual and virtual. The actual is what you see and what is in front of you. Whereas the virtual is what you do not see, but is inside the actual, which allows it to move to new creations in different ways. For instance, imagine a football game with a bunch of players running around. That would be the actual. However, that field can evolve in all kinds of ways. Even in ways nobody thought about. That field of football players also contains in it a virtual field that can actualize in all different ways.

This Actual/Virtual dichotomy is in clear contrast to the Real/Possible dichotomy, which is generated by the dogmatic image of thought. The Possible is some identity that does not exist but could exist. The Possible becomes realized in the Real, but itself is not real. Whereas the Virtual is as real as the Actual. The Possible is never real but could become realized. In addition to that, every actualization affects the structure of the Virtual. The Actual helps the structure of what the Virtual is. Rather than viewing reality as a set of actual structures that have their own possibilities, actualities are woven into a virtual field or for a better term the field of difference. What we see are identities and these carry the field of difference in them, so that difference can emerge in different identities. Furthermore, the Virtual does not resemble the Actual, whereas the Possible does resemble the Real. The Possible exists in the image of the Real and is like the Real, but is not itself realized.
Deleuze’s concept is in strong contrast to any idea that builds upon the transcendent. The virtual implies pure immanence through the field of difference. Everything is connected. Deleuze rejects all forms of transcendence which is for him a denial of life. We put either heaven or Plato’s forms over the earth we live in. We deny ourselves so that we achieve transcendence. Rather than denying the world on the basis of transcendence that builds arbitrary hierarchies and that judges you, we could celebrate the world by experimenting with it, because its structure,
virtual and actual dichotomy, permits all kinds of creativity. Deleuze proposition is not just an ontology of difference, but also an ontology of joy.
However, this raises still an important question: How does difference actualize itself?
The virtual actualizes itself through intensities. In the virtual reality of difference, you have no identities. You have only relations without any particular identity. But relations have always more or less intense connections.
For example, Deleuze brings an example about the measurement of temperature. Temperature measures relations of energy between things. The relations themselves are not things, but the energy they create is something that happens between them. If there is enough energy between of certain things you may get a change of state. Water molecules are introduced to a lot of energy, they then develop intense relationships and at some point the relationships can occur in such a way that there is a change of state. Water becomes vapour. Therefore a molecule is a field characterised by more or less intensity and when there is enough intensity, a change of state will emerge.
So we can summarise that the virtual field is a field of greater or lesser intensities - always in flux. Something happens in the actual, that can either turn down or up the intensity in the virtual. However, the virtual is not dependant on the actual, it can change by itself.
In principle we do not know what the virtual is capable of. This means that every intervention you make in the course of discussion with someone has got to be an experiment.

In the two books written with Felix Guattari „Anti-Oedipus - Capitalism and Schizophrenia 1“ and „A Thousand Plateaus - Capitalism and Schizophrenia 2“ this new form of thinking, this new form of ontology is applied to a wide variety of contents for example politics and psychoanalysis. I will emphasise those plateaus which are the most inspired by „Difference and Repetition“.

The first plateau in a thousand plateaus is the rhizome. The rhizome is a plant with many different upshots pointing in different directions. There is no root at all, it is all the middle. This idea of the rhizome as a concept is opposed to the traditional arborescent way of thinking. You have a tree and it only grows in one direction with various branches. This structure can only yield a certain identity and can only happen in a certain space and a certain way. Most philosophies have foundations and then they build their theories on top of it.

Whereas with the rhizome can emerge from anywhere, they do not happen in a particular way. There is no particular route in which a rhizome must grow as opposed to the arborescent way of thinking.
In fact Deleuze and Guattari actually emphasised that you should not read „A Thousand Plateaus“ sequentially from chapter one to chapter two. It is written so that you can open any chapter and start reading. The rhizome is the practical concept of which is developed on the idea of the virtual. Where everything can connect, is in flux and it can emerge everything.

In one of the last chapter of „A Thousand Plateaus“ called „The Smooth and the Striated“ , Deleuze and Guattari talks about different kinds of spaces. A smooth space is a space where nothing is on e.g. an infant brain. What you do over your lifetime is to create lanes where things can run through or connect e.g. synapses. This is also called the striated space. If you make cuts in a smooth space, things start flowing in certain places and no others. In a smooth space there are not any particular ways in which the water is going to flow. In a striated space there are particular paths in which a thing is going to flow. The smooth spaces are here the virtual space and the striated spaces are the actual space. Deleuze and Guattari also emphasised that if you want to re-striate the space, you have to work with the striates which are already established. You cannot just go back to the smooth space.

In another plateau called „Postulates of Linguistics“, Deleuze and Guattari are trying to rethink linguistics in their own way.
The first language is for them, not a means to communicate and send information to others. The foundation of language is a command or imperative. It is not descriptive, but only prescriptive. For this reason, they bring up the speech-act-theorist J.L. Austin. Language can be used to impose order onto this world for instance in 1984 by George Orwell. When you control language you can control actions. Prescriptive statements are like literal spells. For instance, if you say „Women belong in the kitchen!“ and a lot of people are saying that, it will manifest onto the physical layer. Words mold the reality, the physical. They create identities, demographics, and nations. In contrast to the traditional linguistic belief, language does not describe the world, it tells it what to do. Even if you try to describe the world, you change the world.

Secondly, language does not describe reality it does not even work through reality. Language will never be separate from the physical world. As Spinoza said, that mind and matter are always together. Language does not drive a different realm of existence. In addition to that people like Noam Chomsky think that we have a universal arborescent grammar and we use this universal grammar to filter the world. However, in reality, we are also creating the world when we speak. Language is physical.

Last but not least, for Deleuze and Guattari is it impossible to think of logical atoms in language like „and“, „or“, and „not“, because language cannot be a homogenous system. By talking about language, the language gets heterogeneous. You cannot talk about logical atoms without contaminating them. You change the outcome by looking at it. Language is for them more an active force or for a better term a creative force than a science with concrete atoms.

In the first book Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari try to challenge the current psychoanalytical conception. Their focus is on this book on desire.
In the traditional Oedipal story by Freud, a boy is sexually attracted to his mother, but his father stands in his way. The boy worries about castration, because the penis of the mother was already off. So the boy has to put his fantasy somewhere that even the boy self cannot find. This is called primary repression and this follows with the creation of the unconscious.

What the Oedipal complex fundamentally means is that the fantasy becomes the guiding fantasy for everything he does in life. Therefore humans are fundamentally characterised by desire that can never be fulfilled. Hence, desire is characterized by lack.
If the desire is constituted by lack, our lives are a process of trying to make up this lack and come to turns with it, but you never really can.

For Deleuze and Guattari, desire is not about lack, it is about production. Desire is everywhere and everywhere productive. It is not about what desire lacks instead it is about what desire produces. Desire becomes for them the fundamental productive concept. Everything is a force of desire or for a better term - intensity. The virtual acts here as a productive and creative force.

In summary, it can be said, that Deleuze builds a new way of philosophical thinking, which distinguishes itself strongly from old traditional Western philosophy. Through concepts like the actual/virtual dichotomy or the image of thought and many more concepts in his book „Difference and Repetition“, we can look, understand and build things differently. We are not bound anymore to an essence or an arborescent hierarchy that restricts our thoughts. It animates to create new concepts and use them as tools to experiment. This ontology of difference or ontology of joy is an emancipatory flow that always finds new lines of flight. In his two other books, you find good applications of his concepts which create new concepts. From the rhizome to the smooth and striated spaces to the desire for production, there is so much substance to elaborate them even more. His philosophy is closest to Nietzsche than any other philosopher. His affirmation of life is unparalleled. Maybe this century, as Michel Foucault predicted, will become Deleuzian.


Difference and Repetition by Deleuze
Nietzsche and Philosophy by Deleuze
Anti-Oedipus - Capitalism and Schizophrenia 1
A Thousand Plateaus - Capitalism and Schizophrenia 2 Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction by Todd May. Gilles Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism: From Tradition to Difference by Marc Rölli Stanford Encyclopedia