8 Aug 2015

Somers-Hall, (2.11), Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, ‘2.11 Freud’s Second Synthesis (98–111/122–35)’, summary

Corry Shores
[Search Blog Here. Index-tags are found on the bottom of the left column.]

[Central Entry Directory]
[Deleuze Entry Directory]
[Henry Somers-Hall, Entry Directory]
[Henry Somers-Hall’s Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, Entry Directory]


[The following is summary. All boldface, underlining, and bracketed commentary are my own. Proofreading is incomplete, so please forgive my typos and other distracting mistakes. Somers-Hall is abbreviated SH and Difference and Repetition as DR.]

Summary of

Henry Somers-Hall

Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition:
An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide

Part 1
A Guide to the Text


Chapter 2. Repetition for Itself

2.11 Freud’s Second Synthesis (98–111/122–35)

Brief summary:
The pleasure principle is what makes our inner workings manage surplus excitations, trying to minimize their harmful effect. But sometimes doing so blindly leads to more damage to the system. A hungry child without its mother present might become traumatized by the distress of concluding that they will die. So the active syntheses that manage the excitations need a further principle to govern them more effectively. They need the reality principle, which defers gratification. But this requires an active interaction with the external world of objects. The child must recognize that the mother comes and goes. So her breast will arrive at some point in the future. In the meantime, the child sucks its fingers. This is a virtual object which provides excitations that lessen the inner distress. Because it is linked to a past experience of breast-feeding that it substitutes, it is a shred of the past. This past is pure, because there never was a real event when the fingers provided the nourishment they are substituting. Also, virtual objects are what link past and present “associatively,” since what is shared by such linked events of different times is not resemblances each have to the others but rather that all somehow share the same virtual object.



We previously examined the first synthesis in Freud, which is the habitual contraction of external surplus energies into the internal organic system. We now note that there is more to the story, because organisms do more than merely deal with their own inner workings. They behave in ways that are directed outwardly to the world. This means that there could be as well an active synthesis. SH says that in fact the second synthesis has both an active and a passive synthesis, and he begins with the active since it is more straightforward.

[Recall Kant’s complicated theory of active synthesis. An object is given in a manifold over a series of distinct moments. What allows it to become unified in our cognitions is that we have an active transcendental ego whose a priori unity provides the basis for the temporally distributed manifold to become unified. However, we cannot cognize our transcendental ego. We can only cognize our empirical ego, since it is given in intuition, which is necessary for cognition. I am not exactly sure, however, if this is what SH is saying in the following sentence:] “We can start by recalling one of the central axioms of Kant’s model of active synthesis, which was that the subject makes the object possible, and vice versa” (91). Deleuze also thinks that since we interact with external objects, this necessitates a subject or ego. For Deleuze, our ego actively unifies all our composing passive egos. In Freud’s model,

Sometimes one drive may seek satisfaction in a way which threatens the integrity of the organism. Freud therefore supplements the pleasure principle with the reality principle, which overrides the interests of the particular satisfaction of drives in favour of the pleasure (and survival) of the organism as a whole. This in turn leads to the constitution of the represented subject

The reality principle, then, postpones gratification and temporarily tolerates unpleasure as a means to later obtain pleasure (91).

SH writes, “As well as the extension of active synthesis, we also have an extension of a passive synthesis” [Although I am not entirely certain what is meant by “extension”, it seems that the pleasure principle is already a sort of active synthesis, since it operates on the passively synthesized energies, and the reality principle is an extension of it, since it governs and manages the ways this is done. The passive synthesis again is the contraction, but we will see there is an extension of it as it will be also mediated through signs.] This extension of the passive synthesis involves “the somewhat obscure notion of a virtual object” (SH 91), with the example from Deleuze being, it seems, that the child in the absence of the mother’s breast places several fingers in its mouth, thereby relating to the virtual object of its “virtual mother” (SH 91-92, referencing DR 99/123).

So, to deal with passive synthesis, we need “a separate conception of an object” (SH 92) [I am not sure but it seems SH is saying we have one concept of the object, as for example the mother, being the source of external excitations, and another separate concept of an object, the virtual object, being some sort of significatory substitute for that original object.] SH then explains why we need this other concept. His first point is “if the child is going to continue to be able to bind excitations, then clearly it needs to relate in some way to a source for those excitations” (92) [I am not exactly sure why the child cannot merely operate internally by managing the contracted excitations. Perhaps this is because of the problem mentioned before where doing so blindly can be bad for the organism, and so it needs the reality principle, which necessitates an active governing ego. And this ego needs to be aware of external objects in order to do its job. It would be nice to have an illustration. Perhaps the idea with the child is that in the absence of the mother, it will be distressed that it is not being nourished. Were it only operating internally on contracted excitations, it would not know how to deal with that distress, since it would seem to be possibly a permanent condition and thus it will die. However, by being aware of the external world where the mother is sometimes there and sometimes not, and also that the fingers are always there, it can suck on the fingers to lessen its internal distress.] Since the child needs to relate to its external excitations in order to manage its inner workings, it must have a relation to the outside. [The next point builds from an idea I did not understand from the prior section. Let me quote it again:

The pleasure principle therefore rests on the integration of excitations that are originally unbound. It’s helpful here to note that there are parallels with the first synthesis of time. Just as there the contraction of impressions led to the constitution of a subject, here the binding of free flowing energy leads to the constitution of a system capable of supporting the pleasure principle. The binding of energy is, therefore, for Deleuze, a process actually constitutive of a subject with the pleasure principle operating as an active synthesis on top of this process: ‘an animal forms an eye for itself by causing scattered and diffuse luminous excitations to be reproduced on a privileged surface of its body. The eye binds light, it is itself a bound light. (DR 96/120). Deleuze’s point is also that as the self is constituted by the integration or contraction of excitations, it simply is these excitations. This gives us the reason why Deleuze calls these contracting egos ‘narcissistic’. What they relate to is, in a sense, themselves, or an image of themselves, in the form of the excitations | that they bind. The movement of binding therefore finds satisfaction in a narcissistic relation to its own image. In this sense, the fact that the egos constituted by the binding process are narcissistic parallels the way in which the selves that were contracted habits in the first synthesis of time related not to objects, but to signs. So just as a heartbeat appears as a sign in our world that doesn’t resemble the movement of the heart itself, the binding of excitations constitutes egos that do not relate directly to objects, but to images of themselves.

This refers to a prior section. Let me quote it too:

Deleuze has said that the heart contemplates, and obviously, the heart is a part of us. What is the relation between us and our heart, and all of the other organs and constituents of organs that make us up? We ourselves, according to Deleuze, are systems of syntheses [the following up to citation is Deleuze quotation]:

The self, therefore, is by no means simple: it is not enough to relativise or pluralise the self, all the while retaining for it a simple attenuated form. Selves are larval subjects; the world of passive syntheses constitutes the system of the self, under conditions yet to be determined, but it is the system of a dissolved self. (DR 78/100)

The notion of sign is important here, because the relations between levels of the self cannot be understood as if the self were a series of distinct elements brought into relation with one another. We don’t have interactions between different substances, but interactions between levels of the same substance. Rather than a causal interaction between entities, we therefore have signals between levels. Our heartbeat appears as a ‘sign’ in our world, but this sign does not resemble the movement of the heart itself. The signs transmitted between levels are different in kind from the selves that generate them.

I still do not understand what SH means by sign here. My best guess is that we are first to understand our body as being made of many parts each doing their own sorts of habitual contractions. Our heart habitually contracts muscular movements and blood pulses. Our brain contracts nervous signals. But our brain is not contracting blood, and our hearts are not contracting nervous signals. So they are not interacting on the same level with each other. But they are communicating. The brain does not know what it is like to contract blood, but it can read the signals coming from the heart as signs of certain properties of its operation, like speed and intensity. The heart also receives information in the form of triggers that change its workings. This cannot be the correct interpretation, but I am unable to conceptualize very clearly what SH means by a sign in these contexts. At any rate, returning to the current section, his next point seems to be that since the inner and outer worlds are on different levels, they can only relate by means of signs. The point that follows seems a bit more complicated. It appears to be something like the following. The child’s passive synthesis of contraction can only deal with external excitations. When it sucks the mother’s breast, it is dealing with the excitations resulting from that process. In absence of the breast, the child’s inner active syntheses compel it to place its fingers in its mouth. But this does not mean that the child is dealing with a representation of the breast. The fingers only replicate the action of sucking. Since that action is not an object that can be represented, the excitations are contracted by a sub-representational passive synthesis. SH might really be saying something a bit different, so I will quote.]

Why might we need a separate conception of an object to deal with passive syntheses? Well, the first point to note is that if the child is going to continue to be able to bind excitations, then clearly it needs to relate in some way to a source for those excitations. This implies some kind of relationship to the outside (it needs to relate to some kind of object that generates excitations). Now, as we noted, binding does not relate to objects, but rather to signs – binding is an integration of excitations rather than a relation to a representation. This means that the kind of external object that allows for the generation of excitations will be different in kind from the actual objects of representation ( just as the heartbeat doesn’t resemble the motion of the heart). Bearing this in mind, we can understand Deleuze’s claim that ‘sucking occurs only in order to provide a virtual object to contemplate in the context of extending the passive synthesis’ (DR 99/123). Here we find a similar situation, since in sucking its thumb, the child is not interested in the actual object it relates to (the thumb), but rather in providing virtual signs for a passive synthesis. Thus, the thumb takes the place of the mother’s breast as providing excitations for the organism. Now, given that passive syntheses do not operate with representations, the child does not take the thumb to be the breast, but rather that aspect of the breast which satisfied the original binding process. This aspect is an action, or an image of an action. The thumb therefore provides a series of excitations that can be bound by a sub-representational passive synthesis.

[The next paragraph is also a bit complicated. The first point is that we see we have both an actual object and a virtual object. The next point is that the virtual object is dealing with “shreds” of the pure past. I am not exactly sure how. Perhaps in the case of the finger sucking, the child is dealing with part of their past experience of feeding. So when it does suck the breast, it is actual and present, but when it sucks the fingers, it is virtual and past. The third point is trickier. The idea seems to be that on the one hand, our virtual objects are fragments of real things. The fingers are not as complete as the breasts, since they only substitute for the action of the breast and not for all its other features. But on the other hand, we need that representation to be complete, thus we incorporate it “in the series of reals”. The reason the virtual object needs to be complete is that “a representation has to be a coherent object separate from the particular perspective from which it is presented, the process of subtraction actually changes its nature (a gesture without a gesturer is incoherent as a representational object, for instance)” (93). But I do not know why it needs to be coherent. What would go wrong if it were incoherent? Would the child for example lose the sense of an overall coherent reality? The other thing I do not understand is how the virtual object is incorporated into the series of reals. Is it by regarding it really as a food source? Or is it by regarding it really as fingers but virtually as nourishment? I will quote.]

Once we accept this account of the nature of the virtual object, we can start to piece together Deleuze’s analysis of it. The fact that we have two types of objects, one of which is actual, and one of which is virtual, should put us in mind of the notion of the pure past that Deleuze introduced in his discussions of the syntheses of time, and in fact, he characterises virtual objects as ‘shreds of pure past’ (DR 101/126). So how are they constituted? Deleuze gives the following description of the constitution of the virtual object [the following up to citation is Deleuze quotation]:

We see both that the virtuals are deducted from the series of reals and that they are incorporated in the series of reals. This derivation implies, first, an isolation or suspension which freezes the real in order to extract a pose, an aspect or a part. This isolation, however, is qualitative: it does not consist simply in subtracting a part of the real object, since the subtracted part acquires a new nature in functioning as a virtual object. (DR 100/125) |

When we are dealing with an object of representation that we intend towards, we cannot help but think of the object as a totality. We cannot help but think that if we walked around the object then we would continue to be presented with different perspectives on it. Now, the binding process isn’t concerned with the totality of the object, but only with those aspects of the object which are capable of generating excitations. It thus subtracts from the total object those aspects that are capable of creating excitations in it. It is only interested in a particular gesture, motion or aspect, and not, for instance, the object which actually moves to create the gesture. But as a representation has to be a coherent object separate from the particular perspective from which it is presented, the process of subtraction actually changes its nature (a gesture without a gesturer is incoherent as a representational object, for instance). Virtual objects are then incorporated in the series of reals. Virtual objects have to in some sense motivate behaviour – they have to be found in the world somewhere. So when the child sucks his thumb, it is relating to a virtual object, but only on the basis that this is incorporated into, or supervenient on, an actual object.

[So the first function of the virtual object is that it helps maintain the homeostasis of the organism’s inner workings.] The virtual object also has another function. First recall the problem of association that we discussed before. Supposedly a new present has a resemblance to a former present, and on the basis of that resemblance, we recall the former present experience. But all experiences bear some resemblance to many others. So on what basis do we say the present experience recalls some certain other one rather than any of the others it is similar to? The answer SH seems to be saying that Deleuze now gives is that the past and present moment share the same virtual object. I am not sure how to exemplify this, as the child-fingers example might not apply. SH gives the example that we see similar actions of a person in different situations. Perhaps an example would be something like the following. The child, instead of seeking out the mother or crying out for her, instead substitutes the fingers. That child later in life deals with their problems passively rather than taking actions to meet their needs. This is because in all situations of needs not being met, they share the same virtual object of the breast substitution. But I am not sure, so I quote again.]

The virtual object performs a second function, which is that, once again, positing a non-actual series paralleling the actual world allows us to explain the notion of association. Deleuze poses the following question [the following up to citation is Deleuze quotation]:

The difficulties in conceptualising repetition have often been emphasised. Consider the two presents, the two scenes or the two events (infantile and adult) in their reality, separated by time; how can the former present act at a distance upon the present one? How can it provide a model for it, when all its effectiveness is retrospectively received from the later present? (DR 129)

When we looked at the syntheses of time, the problem with understanding association as operating purely in terms of actual memory was that everything was like everything else in some way. That meant that it was impossible to explain why a particular experience conjured up this memory. For Deleuze, what ties together two series of events is that the same virtual object is at play (incorporated) in both series. This explains why a past event can still influence the present, not because of the actual events themselves, but because of the virtual object incorporated into them. This also explains why it is the case that we can see, for instance, in someone’s character, a repetition of the same relationships, or the same actions, in different situations. The subject does not reason by | analogy on the basis of their past responses, but is reacting to the same event incorporated into a different state of affairs.

[The fingers as really nourishing was never an actual, present experience for the child. They were only ever experienced as a substitute.]

In this sense, we can say that what is repeated is something that has never actually been present, but rather that the ‘same’ virtual object is present in disguise in the various states of affairs that make up the repetition. There is no first term to the series itself, however, as repetition takes place in response to the drives rather than the ego and its object.


Citations from:

Somers-Hall, Henry. Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University, 2013.

Or if otherwise noted:

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994/London: Continuum, 2004.



No comments:

Post a Comment