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Univocal ontology, part II

How should we balance the dualism between the natural and the supernatural, reason and faith, or philosophy and theology? Or from the metaphysicians standpoint, how is being different from Being, yet shares in it at the same time. Some, such as Ockham and Scotus, explicitly argue that Being and beings must be on one and the same plane. Others, such as Augustine and Aquinas in the theological tradition, defend the analogical-participatory world-view in which beings participate in Being, the position that John Milbank in Theology and Social Theory and the corresponding Radical Orthodoxy tradition take.

Taking to task Duns Scotus in particular, Milbank argues that a univocal ontology in which being is conflated with Being, or the finite with the infinite, is fundamentally or ontologically violent. Given that finite and infinite being is univocal under the Scotist tradition, one looks to God by looking at nature. In other words, since the origins of society rest in God, then one must merely study society in order to know God, according to Milbank’s hermeneutic of univocal ontology. Or again, by studying society (such as literature, art, families, politics, economics, etc.) we in effect know God. When society is read as a natural occurrence in this way, revelation is conflated with science and a form of natural law theory emerges. With the integration of natural and revealed theology, an ontology grounded in violence quickly appears.

What do we discover, after all, when we inquire into the nature of society? Individuals are primarily self-interested and self-conservative, even in purportedly altruistic gestures. Society on a whole exhibits this character as well: nations war with each other over scarce resources and so on. In order to mediate between the disagreements of differing individuals, therefore, a supervening or sovereign arbitrary power must be established to preserve society from tumbling towards its dissolution. More interesting still, it is unmistakable that capitalism takes full advantage of and promotes such an ontology of conflict (for an exceptionally well-written articulation of this notion see here).

This sort of positivism which conflates being with the Good, according to Milbank, is a distortion of Christianity. More specifically, it is a refusal to see beyond the material with clarity. As an alternative, Christianity can replace the genealogy of violence and fictional power with a story that shows the “perfect infinite peaceful power’ of the Good interrupting the archeology of violence, what Milbank refers to as “an improved genealogy”. The alternative Milbank has in mind is a mythos or narrative more fundamental than reason itself which sees creation as an analogy of the Creator. In this precise sense, art, labor, sexuality, and language are all acts of participating in creation. More significantly still, Milbank’s analogical ontology is one of peace wherein it is possible for a community to share a common good, an ontology of relation and mutuality rather than a working out of partisan interests through violence. For as Milbank notes, the expressively ‘open’ and ‘accepting’ ethos of neoliberalism is one played with money and guns.

In Milbank’s more recent work, The Future of Love, the same theme is held. Again citing Duns Scouts for the failure, Milbank notes that “around 1300 or so, theology itself perversely invented the possibility of an entirely non-theological mode of knowledge. Duns Scotus and his successors through Suarez and Descartes to Kant elaborated the notion that it was possible adequately to think of Being as such apart from its instantiation as the infinite actuality of God” (p. 307). Indeed, following Scotus, it was perfectly legitimate to accept the earthly exercise of power as divinely ordered. It was the way of the world, after all, that which was created and sanctioned by God.

Theology responded in the course of the nineteenth century to this newfound univocal ontology through its multifarious attempts at gaining respectability in terms of enlightenment neutrality. That is, it too desired to objectively show its own truth. Thus, according to Milbank, theology “acquired wholly questionable sub-disciplines which were no longer expected to participate in God’s self-knowledge, but were instead expected simply to establish the foundational facts with pure historical neutrality (on which the Church as department of state depends): biblical criticism, Church history (as no longer a reflection on divine providence), historical theology, and so forth” (p. 312). The crucial point for Milbank is that theology at this time assumed an implicitly violent and meaningless ontology that conflated the way things are with the will of God. And again, the improved alternative that Milbank finds in theology, specifically with Augustine and Aquinas, is the recovery of analogy and participation in God’s self-knowledge.

Rather than view finite reality as “nature”, Milbank hopes to reinstate the Christian tradition’s understanding of reality as “creation”. As such, all created things participate in the divine creative power that generates human culture and human history in a way that is mutually beneficial for all, rather than a select few. This is a far stretch from the ontology of Milbank’s Duns Scotus, who he considers to treat Being as adequately grasped prior to theology and participation in the othewordly.

I do not think, however, that Milbank’s critical account of univocal ontology adequately applies to that of Deleuze’s. More profoundly still, I do think that Milbank’s Duns Scotus is equally matched to Deleuze’s Duns Scotus. For as Deleuze says, “There has only ever been one ontological position: Being is univocal. There has only ever been one ontology, that of Duns Scotus, which gave being a single voice… A single voice raises the clamour of being” (Difference and Repetition, p. 35).

In the present section it will be argued that the particular unfailing presumption cutting through Deleuze’s supporting project is that “being is creativity” (Peter Hallward, Out of This World, p. 1). Situated behind all particular manifestations or beings, fundamental to all existing things, there is a deep unlimited creativity: a power or force that creates all that there is or can be. Moreover, an actual individual entity is only insofar as it is sustained by this dynamic creativity. As such, this primordial dynamic activity of creating is, for Deleuze, primary. That is to say, no contingent creature exists prior to or independent of this infinite creative force. In short, all entities are acts or events of creation, created by a limitless pure creativity. All individuating identities, in fact, are produced and limited things arising from this absolute power. By the same token, as will become evident, created entities must loosen their bounded limits in order to be inundated and animated by this virtual process.    

This fundamental creative activity is precisely, as specified, an altogether virtual dimension. As a general rule, this ‘spiritual’ sphere mediates all actual things, but the virtual dimension as such is unrepresentable itself. It remains indiscernible. Although the point of reference of virtual creating is “out of this world” or “extra-worldly”, it is not, as Peter Hallward argues, “other-worldly” or transcendent per se. Or rather, Deleuze is engaged with subtractive thought, that is, oriented towards “dis-embodiment and de-materialization” (p. 2). An actual individual, accordingly, participates in being or creativity by forfeiting one’s identity, disappearing, becoming unknown or, as Deleuze puts it, “becoming imperceptible”, which is not annihilation by and of itself, but rather an opening to the dynamic activity of radical creativity. More specifically, the peculiar charge of every creature is to render oneself a passable repository for the creative force immanent and vital to it.

Such self-suppressing or self-overcoming logic is continuous with, as Hallward maintains and correct in my estimation, ascetic or mystic traditions, which are characterized by methods of self-denial for the purpose of expressing or manifesting the radical power of God more fully. However, with Deleuze’s Spinoza, for instance, this is a wholly panentheistic conception: God is manifested in the various multiplicities of creation, but is nonetheless indistinct from them—that is to say, the creator is the creatings, albeit in varying degrees. In other words, in Deleuze’s secularized or immanent approach, the single creative force is in no way distanced, indifferent or detached from its distinct expressions. The creator is not beyond creation but saturated within it. Or, what is the same, the virtual is integral to the actual. As we have already seen, Deleuze’s ontology is specifically univocal.

Significantly central to Deleuze’s ontology or cosmology is the fact that singular identities are in no way dependent upon mediation to subsist as individuals in their own right. Differentiation does not occur as a result of dialectic or representational styles of individuation, as though some underlying unity or identity supported the sheer multiplicity of being. On the contrary, “An individual is only truly unique, according to this conception of things, if its individuation is the manifestation of an unlimited individuating power” (p. 5). Although all singular and unique individuals are animated and sustained in this fashion, it is not always the case that such recognition is affirmed in quotidian or even philosophical thought. The dominant image of thought, rather, is preoccupied with representing the things of the world through categorization, conceptualization and so forth, as though reality was simply given and merely required the discovery of more or less accurate mental counterparts. All of this suggests, as Deleuze makes strikingly clear in his overall project, that the exigent task accorded to philosophy is not to represent reality, but to participate in it (emblematically performed by the schizophrenic, as it were).

Ontology or being, to recap briefly, is an unlimited productive energy and, as such, all differentiated beings or actual creatings are distinct yet diverse expressions of this infinitely creative force. The most significant and extensive conclusion according to this notion is a univocal ontology in which being is flat. Traditional metaphysics, for its part, has generally presumed the inverse: a fundamental gulf separates Being from beings, most profoundly exhibited in the great divide between immanence and transcendence or God and the world. For Deleuze, on the other hand, creatings are precisely the creator in numerous facets. What is more, there is irreducible only one reality: all particular entities are simply a mode of this singular substance. In principle, therefore, the more a being opens itself up to this “infinitely powerful or creative being”, the more intense that being becomes (p. 10).

This univocal ontology, as Hallward points out, has further implications regarding our knowledgeable access of being.  As with Kant, critical modern philosophy has conventionally limited knowledge to the representational apprehension of the world, that is, by way of the mind’s constitution of the phenomenal domain. Stated differently, we experience objects through the arrangement of those very objects. Given this paradigmatic metaphysical gesture, all noumenal objects—things-in-themselves—are exiled beyond the pale to the no man’s land of faith. As such, ontological questions are severally narrowed to what is immediately intuited. Even with Heidegger, although the question of being is revalorized and subsequently privileged as an insightful performance of though, Being continues to remain veiled in a certain sense. But with Deleuze, it is noteworthy, this exact sort of absolute knowledge is immediately intelligible once again: to say that being is univocal is to imply that all particular entities directly and effectively know the infinite creative power that upholds them. With Hallward the case is stated in this way—“What we know or think, we know as it is in itself” (p. 12). The virtual activity of pure creativity is not, on this basis, an enigmatic puzzle aloof from the things of the world, but immediately grasped in the plain nature of things.

When Deleuze says that ontology is univocal, by that he does not mean that it is homogenous. Univocity, by contrast, is difference in itself, an unlimited, inventive and differentiated dynamism. In this precise sense Deleuze makes difference or self-differing absolute: every distinct creature is a creative flight or trajectory from the primordial process of creative difference. In the same way, given that being is above all univocal, it necessarily follows that the production of difference is its own self-cause, without any separation of the creator from the creating. As such, the unlimited self-creative force underlying and animating all actual individuals is wholly immanent to those very entities, thereby eliminating all notions of transcendence.

Deleuze’s univocity of being, as a result, implies that the self-enabling activity of creation belongs entirely to the creatings it produces, even if it nevertheless exceeds the infinite diversity of its creatings. Self-causing creation, in this respect, is completely unlike the criteria of difference for Aristotle, for example. With Aristotle difference is stated in this way: two terms differ only insofar as they share some underlying unity or identity in common. Consequently, Aristotle and the legacy inherited from him by metaphysics have for the most part rendered difference secondary to sameness—that is, difference depends on and proceeds from something beside itself. Or again, which amounts to the same thing, difference is a relative concept. For Deleuze, on the other hand, being or difference itself is not mediated externally but differs internally only with itself. In a word, being is continuous self-generating difference or infinite self-differentiation.

To state briefly what was argued earlier, being is uninterupted creativity and, as such, an immense immaterial, imperceptible surge that is always in a process of becoming, neither static nor inert. And, as we know, every actual individual is an aspect or mode of this unqualified and boundless energy. All of this suggests that the producing impulse that generates, sustains and transforms distinct producings is itself unrepresentable. To put it more generally, an actualization is merely an event or facet of the primordial unlimited creative flux, which is why in the present case it is utterly virtual. But Deleuze goes further when he argues that it is to the virtual ‘plane of immanence’ or ‘plane of consistency’ that every actual multiplicity of being will eventually return.  It should be noted at this point, however, that Deleuze does not mean by this that the One or singular is thereby privileged above the multiple. It remains the case that neither unity nor multiplicity is displaced in favor of the other, for both are equally privileged in what Deleuze refers to as the ‘one-all’. In this respect, the one is internal multiplicity or absolute difference itself.

Concrete particulars in the world are, nevertheless, expressed as divisible, measurable and isolated things, ostensibly represented by distinct identities in fidelity to reality. The practical motive for pursuing this reduction or division of continuous change into quantifiable segments, Deleuze tells us, is for the purpose of controlling reality. More specifically, the indivisible flow of creation is rendered calculable and therefore predictable in some sense in order to better manage the things of the world. But as Deleuze emphatically argues, such perception or representation of distinct objects is in no way reality itself. By treating indivisible movements as though they were divisible moments doubtless permits us to handle nature in calculable ways, but it simultaneously prevents us from fully understanding or participating in being. It is for this very reason that theorists of science have amiably embraced the differential ontology of Deleuze in their attempts to theorize domains or events of great unpredictability, complexity and instability. This, however, bypasses Deleuze’s real preoccupation, ontology and cosmology, in which all of reality is understood to be in continuous movement and all seemingly settled things are mere events of this indivisible continuity.

Although, as we have seen, every particular entity is a moment of the absolute creative force, this does not mean that all creatings are in equal proximity to this pure intensity. Rather, all beings approach or participate in the infinite creative power to certain degrees; thereby expressing the virtual to differing impoverished extents. Or again, given that this single virtual being is difference, all existent things are necessarily varying scales of difference itself. On this basis, for instance, all subsisting individuals are produced on a sliding scale of creativity, the more complex forms requiring a greater degree of creative energy to be produced. All of this suggests, the further a given mode of life is overwhelmed by this univocal creativity, the better it is capable of conveying the intensive power vital to it. Consequently, if every existent individual is a particular facet of the creative becoming, then every individual also provides a distinct vantage point of the virtual as a whole. That is to say, all particular entities offer some scale of clarity on the real. These differing perspectives of being on the whole, however, can stubbornly be denied. Taken in a general sense, this means closing oneself off from the imperceptible creativity underlying all actual entities and focusing solely on material being instead. Despite this being an illusory mistake, it is a legitimate misunderstanding nonetheless. It goes without saying, the exigent task of philosophy is to traverse this tendency by introducing a little anarchy to thought.

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