Repetition, Innovation, Class War

“The history is unendurable, its contents need to be concealed, therefore myth appears inseparable from revolutionary crisis. Given the compulsion to create ‘something entirely new’ the nightmare of dead generations will overpower the consciousness, ghosts will walk, and whatever novelty comes into existence will be the unwilled and unpredicted effect of time’s ironical victory.” — Harold Rosenberg, “The Resurrected Romans”


Xenogoth and Meta-Nomad have a new seminar course coming up on the topic of accelerationism. I caught the hour-long ‘trailer’ yesterday, and thought it was very interesting to hear how the differing approaches taken to the question of acceleration—XG via politics, MN via philosophy (of time)—nonetheless convergence in a common territory. XG’s archaeological survey into the origins of accelerationism in the mid-2000s blogosphere highlights how the concept, prior to being retroactively inscribed as a line running through Marx-Deleuze/Guattari-Lyotard-CCRU, emerged in response to Badiou’s idea of the ‘crisis of negation’: the stagnation-state in which the lumbering movement of the capitalist mode of production has delivered us to a situation where the old is continually destroyed, but the new never emerges. With its focus on negation—and the breakdown of the ‘negation of negation’—this points to a dialectical root to accelerationism which had now been obscured.

MN, for his part, points out a potential relationship between this crisis of negation and the two forms of repetition identified by Deleuze: the ‘repetition of the same’ and the ‘repetition of difference’. Whereas the former is the repeatable coming back and again (perhaps even wearing a new guise), the latter is the production of the ‘new’ proper; in Deleuze’s temporal schema, it takes the form of third ‘time synthesis’, the empty form of time rupturing the present and making possible a future. MN points out (rightfully, I think) that this rupture is basis for Land’s enigmatic time-spiral: the third synthesis, the ‘eternal return of difference-in-itself’, cuts cyclical, repetitive time. The curving line of the circle or cycle becomes ‘decentered’, making possible the time-form of the spiral.

(It’s interesting to note then, given the non-dialectical nature of both Deleuze and Land’s accounts, that Lenin himself articulated the dialectical unfolding of history as a developmental spiral of repetitions, reversals and breaks. “…a development that repeats, as it were, stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis (‘the negation of the negation’), a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; ‘breaks in continuity’; the transformation of quantity into quality”…)

There’s an intriguing point buried deep within Difference and Repetitiona book often treated as lacking the political content that would flourish during and after Deleuze’s encounter with Guattari—that tries to think through the relationship between the production of the new and political revolution, precisely on the grounds of a Marx purged of untoward Hegelian baggage. Beginning with his work on Bergson, Deleuze came to develop an idea of the new, the ‘genuine creation’ as a moment of differenciation—’the actualization of [the] virtual’. Quick to banish the negative, differenciation is treated as the “constitution of solutions”, the emergence of which is “conditioned by a problematic field”. This allows Deleuze to link his discussion to that of the great Bergsonian historian Arnold Toynbee, who posed a model of historical development that follows the differentiation of civilizations as resulting from challenges (problems) and the cultivation of responses.

“On the ‘problem-differenciation’ schema as historical category”, says Deleuze in a D&R foonote, “see Arnold Toynbee, who, it is true, is little suspected of Marxism”. This odd pairing is a little clue to what Benjamin Noys has described as Deleuze’s “alchemical marriage” between Marxism and a Bergsonian vitalism. The nature of this marriage becomes clearer when Deleuze turns to the preface of Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, which he sees as evidence for a parallel discovery of this problem/differenciation or challenge/response dynamic:

Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation. In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society. The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation.

Later, Deleuze takes up Marx’s account of fetishism and identifies it as a ‘false problem'”—not a false problem in the sense that it is an erroneous line of analysis or a simple non-sequitur, but a false problem that manifests on the societal level, as a dominant ‘common sense’ directly connected to the conditioning of the social field (in other words, it is a “transcendental illusion”). This false problem, in turn, is a ‘reflection’ of the problem itself, acting as a shroud over the solutions—differenciation—to this more primary problem, which in this case is that of “abstract labor” (Deleuze, by this point, has jettisoned the concept from Marx’s analysis; how he is able to identify abstract labor as a problem without contradiction is a mystery to me, and it certainly isn’t clarified anywhere in D&R).

Revolution is the combustion which overturns the false problem and problem alike in the name of the higher solution:

Social problems can only be grasped by means of a “rectification” which occurs when the faculty of sociability is raised to its transcendent exercise and breaks the unity of fetishistic common sense. The transcendent object of the faculty of sociability is revolution. In this sense, revolution is the social power of difference, the paradox of society, the particular wrath of the social Idea.

Daniella Voss describes this fairly esoteric object ‘transcendent object’ in terms of “each faculty discover[ing] at its extreme limit something which it cannot grasp… but which it is forced to grasp nonetheless”. Revolution understood in this manner clearly anticipates the sort of communist schizophrenia hinted at in Deleuze’s works with Guattari, while also recalling the ecstatic excessiveness, the (non)politics of the limit, of Bataille—if not also Marx’s own ambiguous entangling of the proletariat struggle and the relentless hammer-blows of mechanical overproduction. But this passage also seems to pose a problem. Meta-nomad notes that when he reads Capitalism and Schizophrenia, what the dynamics of creation are clear—but what isn’t clear is what one does. Unlike Land, Deleuze (and Guattari) aren’t too keen on discarding agency—there is far too much Spinoza in the mix for that—but how agency works is vague. In a similar sense, Noys notes that in these passages in D&R, the role of agency, the who or the what, in engendering the ‘transcendent exercise’ remains murky.

This is perhaps clarified just a bit in the way that Deleuze ultimately acts to preserve all the functions of the negative by transferring them into the domain of affirmation. “Revolution never proceeds by way of the negative”; the negative is the “shadow of the problem as such”. Why does Deleuze labor so over this problem (no pun intended)? Because in the passages that immediately proceeds these, he acknowledges the threat that his philosophy of affirmation risk: the danger of slipping into the hazy romanticism of the ‘beautiful souls’ who see nothing but “differences, nothing but differences, in a peaceful co-existence…” “[T]he name of Marx”, he suggests, “is sufficient to save it [or us?] from this danger”. While I’m very attracted to some of the moves that Deleuze makes—namely, chaining together Marx and Toynbee via the ‘challenge-response’ model—I’m not convinced that Deleuze has successfully dispensed with the negative. The more he pushes it away, the more he must preserve it in inverted form; it seems to haunt him the way that he would later describe capital as haunting all pre-capitalist societies, as their “nightmare”. Perhaps it is for this reason that in his essay on Bartleby, one of Deleuze’s most deceptively political pieces, a “logic of negative preference, a negativism beyond all negation” is invoked.


The production of the new, particularly when we approach it from the repetition of the same/repetition of difference schema, is intimately bound to questions of imitation or mimesis, which is emblematic of the new’s contrary. I’ve written before [here and here]  about how for Peter Thiel (in a strange twist on Rene Girard), the horizontalism of the market is that zone that generates imitation, while non-market verticality allows the true realization of innovation or the new. A way to understand the recent explosion of discourse around industrial policy [1, 2, 3] can be routed through this prism when we take the mimetic nature of the market as inexorably tugging the economy towards a stagnant state; flip this into left-wing perspective and we arrive immediately and precisely at left-accelerationism, as formalized in the original manifesto by Srnicek and Williams.

The notion of imitation/mimesis also opens up other ways to read D&R as a socially-relevant text, through a comparison with key points in A Thousand Plateaus (I’ve always read ATP as much a direct ‘sequel’ and clarification/revision of D&R as it is for Anti-Oedipus). In D&R, Deleuze provides an overview of Gabriel Tarde’s ‘microsociology’:

The philosophy of Gabriel Tarde is one of the last great philosophies of nature, in the tradition of Leibniz. It unfolds on two levels. On the first level it deploys three fundamental categories which govern all phenomena: repetition, opposition, and adaption… Opposition… is the only figure by means of which a difference is distributed throughout repetition in order to limit it and to open up a new order or new infinity… Adaptation itself is the figure by means of which the repetitive currents meet and become integrated into superior repetitions…

Compare this with the discussion of Tarde given in ATP:

…the little imitations, oppositions, and inventions [constitute] an entire realm of subrepresenative matter… Imitation is a propagation of a flow; opposition is its binarization, the making binary of flows, invention is the conjugation or connection of different flows. What, according to Tarde, is a flow? It is belief or desire (the two aspects of every assemblage); a flow is always of belief and desire. Beliefs and desires are the basis of every society…

The ‘microsociology’ of Tarde, then, is a sociology of the ‘molecular’ instead of the ‘molar’, an exploration of ‘libidinal economy’ that underpins social order (and, in the case of capitalism, is captured or ‘hijacked’ in order to bind the subject in a particular order of time and space: the production-addiction machine of capitalist consciousness). In the transit from D&R to ATP, repetition of the same becomes plugged together with the mimetic repetition of particular ‘beliefs and desires’ that undergo stratification. But this also illustrates the capacity for slippages or breaks in and with strata—after all, if beliefs and desire are “the two aspects of every assemblages”, and assemblages are “produced in the strata, but operate in zones where milieus become decoded”, then what was previously regarded as solid becomes porous, full of potential escape paths. Perhaps we’re not so far from Marx here when he wrote in 1856 that “everything seems pregnant with its contrary”.

None of these, however, are exactly equivalent to the ‘repetition of difference’ or the ‘eternal return’. Flipping back to D&R, Deleuze writes that “neither opposition nor even adaptation [or ‘invention’] presents the free figure of difference”. ATP is far more amicable to positions outside pure difference than D&Ror AO, for that matterever was, which mutes some of the problems that arose when considering agency’s role in the revolution/solution to the (social-capitalist) problem. But it’s worth considering the affinity between the eternal return of difference and Nietzsche’s ‘transvaluation of values’: in D&R, the proper response to the eternal return is regarded as the overcoming of the old value-form and the formation of new values. It seems important, then, that when clarifying what the ‘new’ or ‘innovative’ is, Boris Groys also reaches for the transvaluation of values:

“The revaluation of values is the general form of innovation: here the true or the refined that is regarded as valuable is devalorized, while that which was formerly considered profane, alien, primitive, or vulgar, and therefore valueless, is valorized…”

The exemplary work of art, to which Groys would return again and again throughout his oeuvre, is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). What Duchamp did, after all, was not to invent something that was not there before, but to place something from the domain of the profane in the domain of the sacred. In retrospect, argues Groys, this was what art and artists have always done. Duchamp, by stripping the act of artistic transformation down to almost nothing, shows us what innovation comes down to: cultural revaluation.

In a rather Thiel-ian declaration, Groys remarks that “A new iPhone is not an innovation. It is repetition”. There is no greater way than this to highlight the relationship between imitation/repetition (of the same)/memesis and contemporary capitalist stagnation, with its crisis of negation, than this. The identification of the incremental development of the iPhone as the cutting-edge of innovation is itself an absurd mystification, cemented as a common-sensical notion.

Another figure for this weird pantheon: Georges Sorel. In 1898, Sorel explicitly invoked the transvaluation of values as the great work to which the proletariat was tasked. There was, on the horizon, a “moral catastrophe resulting from the new evaluation of all moral values by the militant proletariat”. Paradoxically, it was not only the proletariat that was capable of carrying out this work; elsewhere, he suggests that a similar function could  be found in the ranks of American capitalists, who had not achieved the sort of retrograde, decadent state of European capital. This suggests an occult connection between, on the one hand, the new moral order of a revolutionary proletariat (decades later he would describe socialism as a “moral question”) and the productive dimensions of industrial capitalism. Today, we can clearly see how the capitalist class as a whole is lodged in a retrograde state of affairs: from the 70s onward, we’re locked into the same kind of degradation that characterized the period in which Sorel was writing.

The relationship between class struggle and advancing innovation is fully laid out in Reflections on Violenceand extrapolating outwards, maybe we see how the fundamental non-existence of class struggle, which throws into impossibility a transvaluation of values, can be catalyst for the protracted regime of repetition and mimesis that characterizes postmodern society. The link forged between these two sides is not unique to Sorel; Andrew Ure, the author of The Philosophy of Manufacture (cited by Marx whenever he turned his attention to industrialization and mechanization), suggested that if the worker wanted to avoid the technological augmentation of their labor, they simply should not go on strike. In a similar vein, Marx made a few scattered comments to the same effect. For example: the great shift from the regime of formal subsumption to real subsumption, the world of mechanized, frenetic development, was precipitated by the victory of the working class struggle for the eight hour work day.

It was the Italian workerist Mario Tronti who picked up on this dynamic and helped develop it into the theory of the cycle of struggles: capitalist development proceeds, it seems, in at least partial response to proletarian militancy. The composition, the form, of the struggle congeals in the context of particular mode of capitalist militancy—for example: the mass unionism of Fordism and its shadow-side: subterfuge—to which capital responds by re-organizing its very organizational logic. A movement of decomposition and recomposition is set in motion.

From this point of view, the ‘post-Fordist’ maneuver of pushing brutal exploitation to the global ‘peripheral’ zones, the ascendancy of cybernetic, financialized capital, the annihilation of labor in the core and the precarity of the world of service work is treated as the response to the gains made by labor across the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. Postmodernism, the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’, with its evisceration of historical consciousness and experience, emerges in precisely this context. Yet for all of its seductive glimmer, the glossy sheen of the networked ideology, the poverty of this age is felt both in the real conditions of those who are living through it and in its lack of real ‘innovation’ (the breakdown of historical coordinates, alongside the now-cliched ‘no future’ mantra indexing this double face).

According to data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, official work-stoppages involving a thousand or more workers have undergone a precipitous decline. In 1950, there were four-hundred and twenty-four work stoppages. In 1972, the year of the infamous Nixon Shock, this had declined to two-hundred and fifties. The year of Reagan, 1981, saw one-hundred and forty-five. By 2008, ground zero of the Great Recession, this had dropped fifteen. A year later it was only five.

Michael Roberts has argued that during the heyday of Fordism, businesses tended to eliminate their financial holdings in order free up money for productive investments. By the 1970s and 80s this started to change: the swollen of mass of capital was not pumped into the ‘productive’ sectors of the economies, which were rapidly being dismantled (despite the constant rhetoric from Washington that the focus on tax-cutting and deregulation more make productive investments more widespread), but socked in a litany of evermore esoteric financial assets and instrumentincrimentals. Combined with the ideology of ‘shareholder maximization’, the result has been the ballooning wealth of the ruling class and the immiseration of the rest.

Perhaps we should do well to think these two trendlines together: the post-Fordist turn was the destruction of labor, but it also served to undercut the vital driver of development itself. The formless nebula of the eternal now, with its soft technocracy and vicious cycles of modulation and incremental, mostly pointless change, is the poisoned condition created by this trap. To escape it—which is the precondition for the realization of the new—turns about on the re-activation of the impossible class war, and the rekindling of the transvaluation on the horizon.

5 thoughts on “Repetition, Innovation, Class War

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