[The following is material for my presentation at the International Deleuze Studies conference]
Melodies of Time:
Deleuze’s Anti-Husserlian Theory of Phenomena
Many great minds of the 20th century mark their start in Husserl’s phenomenology, Heidegger, Derrida, Levinas are but a few. Deleuze follows an alternate philosophical lineage. His theory of phenomenal temporality bypasses Husserl. He does so in part by finding the concept of intensity to implicitly underlie Spinoza’s, Hume’s, and Bergson’s notions of duration. And for that reason, I think Deleuze was more able than Husserl to explain intensely phenomenal experiences. To distinguish the different theories of phenomenal time, I employ the following distinctions.
1) Continuous vs. discrete.
Does time flow as an unbroken continuum? Or is it made of discrete atomic instants that fall in succession?
2) Intensive vs. extensive.
Do we experience the now moment as extending outward towards the past and future? Or is the present an indivisible limit marking the definitive boundary between the past and future?
3) The Law vs. the Wild.
Do lawful regularities govern what consciousness will next experience? Or do phenomena forever journey into the unpredictable wild?
Hume, Bergson, Husserl and Deleuze all evoke the experience of a melody to illustrate their theories of time-consciousness. And as well, Deleuze characterizes Spinoza’s duration as melodic. So we will compare their melodies to illustrate their theories.
My final aim is to portray Deleuze’s wild, intense, and splintered temporality as a critical alternative to Husserl’s continuous, extensive, and law-abiding time-consciousness.
We find these traits of Husserlian time in the smooth forward flow of his melody. The passage between tones is an unbroken continuity. When we perceive the melody, we direct our awareness into the present instant of the current tone. So in the first place, consciousness has this tendency to tend-inward into the present moment. We intend the current tone, in Husserl’s terminology. But one tone does not a melody make. Our awareness tends-backwards as well. It retends the notes that have passed, and retains them in our primary memory. Also, we feel the melody pulling us along. We anticipate the general direction of its flowing changes. So our awareness of the melody tends-forward as well. We protend what is to come. These three interweaving tendencies – tending backward, tending inward, and tending forward – together endow us with the experience of the melody as a temporal object. And they provide the grounds for us to unify the melody’s tones into one identifiable tune. In geometrical terms, Husserl’s time forms a line. It continually tends outward. Hence, it is extensive. Yet, Husserl does speak of an instantaneous now that is an indivisible ideal limit. It is inextensive, so he calls it the “limit of intensity.” In a sense, time passes through an infinity of these limits. But the tone is continuously changing. And change needs duration. So Husserl says we never experience any such instant of the tone. The present moment for us is a slightly extended temporal field. And it is continuously connected to the broader line of time.
Husserl’s time-flow is unbroken, because moments overlap each other. Thus at any given instant you will find two moments that coincide simultaneously, even though one moment follows the other. The first fades-out just while the next fades-in. It is for this reason that we can never experience a completely discontinuous change. Melodic note A might bend gradually into B. It is a continuous qualitative change.
But, says Husserl, this is just a change in species. One note changes to another note. So the qualitative transition from A to B remained within the same genus, pitch. All such temporal connections are continuous in this way. Husserl calls this the “law of transformation” and also the “lawful regularity of immanent genesis.” He writes: “discontinuity is not possible in every time-point.” So, like an analog record album, there is but one continuous groove of time.
By contrast, Hume’s time is like digital. It is a series of discrete moments, like how a digital image is made-up of separate pixels. One moment is distinct from its neighbors. So none overlap continuously. No matter how contiguous moments might be, they can never co-exist, like Husserl’s do. Hume writes: “the year cannot concur with the present year Seventeen Thirty Eight. Every moment must be distinct from [...] another.”
And Hume’s time does not extend. Spatial objects are extensive, because their parts simultaneously coexist. But, because moments never coincide, time can never extend beyond the present instant. So then how does Hume explain our experience of duration?
Like with Husserl, tendencies are what produce our sense of time, in Hume’s theory. Consider this. Some cannot resist fire's seduction. What power does this beauty possess? We reach into it. And we burn. Yet we try again. Touch & Burn. Touch & Burn. Touch & Burn. Soon our hands become disinclined to touch the fire. As they near it, our minds cannot but invoke the past impressions of heat. With each repetition of the pairing, the connected impressions become more vivid in our minds. The tendency to associate fire with heat increases every time. All the previous instances contract into the present one, which is why we withdraw our hands as they near the flame. And it is by the same process that we experience time.
Hume has us imagine a flute playing five notes. With each note, we experience duration. But we do not experience it as something in addition to the note we hear.
Thus when we arrive upon the fifth note, we do not experience time as an additional sixth impression. Rather, with each transition from note-to-note, we experience a succession. Everything else we have ever experienced also fell in succession. So at each instant, we have a strong tendency to associate the current succession of notes with every other succession we ever experienced. Our feeling of duration results from the power of our mind’s tendency to evoke every other impression of succession that we ever had. But this phenomenon of duration does not itself have a duration. It is instantaneous. All our impressions of successions contract into that one discrete moment. But, we feel this tendency every instant. So we are endlessly reminded of succession. This gives us the feeling that time proceeds continuously when in fact it is made of discrete parts.
Bergson’s duration also involves a similar sort of contraction. He has us consider present perceptions in the following manner. We hear the first instant of the melody’s tone. Our senses send an image of the sound to our minds. But just as soon as our minds receive it, they send it back to our ears. In the mean-time, the tone’s qualities changed somewhat. Nonetheless, we contract the sound from a moment ago with the sound as we hear it now. This new modified contraction of the past and present sounds is then sent as one impression back to the mind. And again, the mind sends this new modified memory-image back to the next present sensation, whose qualities have changed once more. This feedback circulation never ceases. So gradually, our memories broaden, and our present perceptions become increasingly enriched by the past. Because every perception is contracted with past memories, perception is always recollection. To perceive something, it is necessary that we superpose all our past memories onto our current experience. Hence, the past never comes after the present. The two must always coincide. They crystallize together.
When a musician learns a melody, she might repeatedly run through it. Each additional repetition contracts with the rest. This forms a habit rather than a distinct recollection. So when she finally plays it by heart, she does not explicitly recall previous repetitions. Rather, her body automatically plays all at once the prior repetitions, which have contracted into the given instant of their performance.
But habitual contraction is not a pure and simple tendency. We might tend instead to relax our past memories so that they expand more explicitly in our minds. If we ask the musician to describe how she learned the melody, explicit images will extend out in her mind as she contemplates individual occurrences. There is still an element of contraction, because the whole past never stops reinserting itself in the present. However, certain parts of our memories will come to our attention when circumstances make them useful. So to explain how she learned the melody, the musician will not tell us much by playing it again in its habitually contracted form. Rather, she will take more distance to her body’s contractions, and contemplate the expanding imagery in her memory. Bergson illustrates these tendencies with his famous cone diagram. If we are living in the moment, so to speak, then all our memories are contracted down to the bottom point of the cone. But if we pause more to reflect and contemplate, our memories expand before our explicit awareness. So the cone expands upward and outward. As it expands even higher, the cone’s top circle will expand even wider. However, the rest of the contraction does not go away. Still part of us is living in the moment, down at the tip of the cone. But another part of us has taken a step back from our automatic bodily habits.
Now even though part of us is always contracting memories down into the present moment, we never really experience a pure instantaneous present. In this sense, Bergson’s duration is continuous like Hussserl’s. But it is not a linear continuum, for Bergson. Time cannot be spatialized. Moments of duration succeed one another, but not along a line. For Husserl, some quality of the tone, like volume, can continuously change more-or-less, while still being the same quality. But for Bergson, sensations never change quantitatively. We do not hear a pitch as being higher or lower than another. We think so, because we use muscles higher or lower in our throats to make them.
But really all states are quantitatively the same. However, each state is qualitatively different. And the qualities change continuously. Every instant is different in kind from every other instant. So there is no grounds for placing moments alongside each other according to a common axis of change, like variations in volume or pitch. Contrary to Husserl’s continuum, not only is qualitative discontinuity possible at every time-point, it is in fact necessary. Bergson’s duration is pure heterogeneity. Each successive note of the melody contracts with the rest, which changes the whole character of the entire melody. It was a different melody just a moment ago, and it will be another new melody just an instant from now. But how can duration be constantly different and yet still continuous?
Deleuze suggests a solution when relating Spinoza’s and Bergson’s durations. According to Spinoza, something’s power will rise and fall continuously throughout its duration. These variations are determined by the ways we are affected at any given instant. Imagine we see our charming friend Peter. He makes us feel self-assured. Then we turn our head and see our intimidating enemy Paul. He makes us too afraid to act. Each affects us differently. So we experienced a continuous decline in our power as our heads turned gradually from Peter to Paul, like a note bending to a lower pitch. Deleuze calls this the melodic line of continuous affective variation. But duration is not an extent of this variation. Nor is it to be found in one instantaneous cut within it. Rather, duration is the phenomenon of passage that we experience when transiting from one moment to the next. Just as we might find an instantaneous velocity in physics, there are instantaneous changes of affection at each moment. Yet change cannot actualize in just an instant, so it is more like a tendency towards variation. Our experience of duration is the feeling of passing from one level of affection to another level, as we move from one discrete tendency to the next.
Deleuze illustrates with Scotus’s white wall. If we were to draw shapes on a white wall, then we could distinguish one extensive region from the rest.
But there are intensive distinctions as well. There are different degrees of whiteness. And the rate of change from one point to the next also varies continuously.
Deleuze draws the following conclusion: Because Bergson’s duration is qualitatively different at each instant, like the white wall is qualitatively different at each point, really duration is more fundamentally made-up of quantitative intensive changes. There is a more-or-less qualitative variation from one moment to the next. Deleuze writes, “Certainly, a qualitative difference does not reproduce or express a difference of intensity. However, in the passage from one quality to another, even where there is a maximum of resemblance or continuity, there are phenomena of delay and plateau, shocks of difference, distances, a whole play of conjunctions and disjunctions, a whole depth which forms a graduated scale rather than a properly qualitative duration.” (DR 238)
So Deleuze rejects Bergson’s polemic against intensity. As we pass from state to state, we undergo a radical change, even though no extent of time spans between these unique moments. The transition does not tend outward extensively through time, but rather inward, deeply. It is intense. Its intensive depth produces the different levels of change from one moment to the next. And so we also see, that before we arrive into the next qualitative state, we first must undergo the phenomenon of passage through the intensive depth in between instants. So first we experience the phenomenon of a quantitative transition, and only afterwards do we discover the qualitative differences that have undergone the alteration. So we cannot know what the next instant will be like, based on the current one. Like Hume’s temporality, Bergson’s duration wanders wild. But for Deleuze, this is because chance governs phenomenal changes. From one instant to the next, the fate of phenomena is decided by a cast of dice. And every new phenomenal experience modifies our habits. So these unpredictable changes alter who we are. Hence, we repeatedly leap the depths between one instant and the next, ever arriving in completely new worlds as unexpected selves.
So how then might we characterize Deleuze’s phenomenal temporality? It is like Hume’s time, where moments are discretely distinct. Deleuze calls this the "rule of discontinuity or instantaneity in repetition." He writes, “the present does not stop moving by leaps and bounds which encroach upon one another.’ (DR79) And it is qualitatively discontinuous and unpredictable, like Bergson’s duration. We experience the phenomenon of time as a procession of intensities. We leap great depths from one instant to the next. So Deleuze’s time is discrete, intense, and unpredictable, unlike Husserl’s continuous, extensive, and lawful flow of phenomena.
So chance decides the way phenomena change. And phenomenal changes determine our habits of contraction. But if that is so, then are we merely passive players in our lives, like a sound-system that merely plays-back the recorded music that is fed into it? Deleuze turns back to Bergson’s levels of contraction and expansion to explain why this is not so.
Recall how we continually swing between two poles of the cone, from living moment-to-moment in our bodily habits at the instantaneous tip of the cone, all the way up to a dream-like state where we step-back from our body’s activity, so that memories can expand and be contemplated more distinctly. In between these two extremes are an infinity of other levels of contraction and relaxation. Now, it seems that we do not have much control over which phenomena will appear to us, and how they will do so. In a sense, this means we do not choose very much of the contents that will enter our lives. However, there is one thing that is always a creation of our free choice. We decide for ourselves how much or how little to contract our memories at any given moment. Deleuze says that a succession of present moments expresses a destiny when they “play out the same thing, the same story, but at different levels: here more or less relaxed, there more or less contracted.” We are continually fluctuating our states between living in the moment and stepping back into daydream. This melodic line of continuous variation is the living tune that we write for ourselves.
Deleuze explains, “Each chooses his pitch or his tone, perhaps even his lyrics, but the tune remains the same, and underneath all the lyrics the same tra-la-la, in all possible tones and pitches.” So this is Deleuze’s melody of destiny. Chance calls the tune of our lives. But we choose how to play it.