5 May 2016

Terence Blake on Deleuze’s Eternal Return

Corry Shores

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[Bracketed commentary is mine.]

Terence Blake consistently writes very interesting and important posts, but I wanted to focus on this one:




He explains that Deleuze’s problematic in Difference and Repetition and in the Logic of Sense evolved over time, and “so not only did his terminology evolve but also his concepts.” He continues, “Particular cases of this are the relative importance of the concepts of difference and of the eternal return in his later philosophy” (from Blake, and the following quotes and paraphrase are also from this source).


Because Deleuze moved away from his earlier way of conceptualizing the eternal return, Blake sees “no reason to insist on the Eternal Return as a central Deleuzian concept”. He gives a couple reasons why he thinks so. The first is that we rarely see the term eternal return appear after Difference and Repetition and the Logic of Sense. [The second reason I will misconstrue. **See Blake’s clarification in the comments and ignore the following**  The idea seems to be that the notion of the eternal return from Deleuze’s earlier thinking was later absorbed into Deleuze’s and Guattari’s notion of rhizome. I am not certain, but it seems one point is that there is an important feature of the eternal return, namely, that it somehow lacks an obvious unity although it does have a unity at a higher level. I assume the higher level has to do with its eternal structure. This feature can be found as well in rhizomatic thinking. I do not understand this material enough to explicate it. The idea might be that a rhizomatic pattern of concept-relations may seem at first to have no coherence or unity. However, somehow on a higher level such unity can be found. I am not sure how. Perhaps the unity is found as an interconnected totality that is apparent not when looking at the parts but only when seeing the whole network of concepts. Or perhaps the unity is to be understood in terms of the dynamics of the connections, and the eternal return of rhizomatic thinking would have something to do with how concepts form connections non-linearly in an ongoing fashion. Let me quote, as I will only misrepresent Blake’s ideas:]

Secondly, in RHIZOME it [the eternal return] is assimilated to the fascicular system aborting explicit unity but maintaining it at a higher level:

“Nietzsche’s aphorisms shatter the linear unity of knowledge, only to invoke the cyclic unity of the eternal return, present as the nonknown in thought” (ATP,6).

(Blake, bracketed insertion mine)


Blake then concludes that he does not “think it correct to treat Deleuze’s later philosophy as a philosophy of difference (but rather of multiplicity) nor a philosophy of Return (but rather of consistence)” (Blake). [I highly recommend also his post on Deleuze’s later philosophy being more a philosophy of multiplicity than a philosophy of difference. Blake’s excellent post here. I mention it also here.] [I am also very interested in this idea of Deleuze’s later philosophy being a philosophy of consistence. I would love to learn more!]


Blake then makes the interesting point that Deleuze’s move away from eternal return is a sort of progress in his thinking, because this earlier notion of a return of difference is incoherent and not what Nietzsche had in mind anyway.

In the later work, all the mystagogical mantras about a “return” of difference have been jettisoned. Which is just as well as they were incoherent, and a falsification of Nietzsche. The terminology has changed, but so has the concept, and I think this is an improvement.


[I would be curious to know more why the earlier notion of eternal return of difference is incoherent. Perhaps it has to do with the conceptual tension between the notions of return and difference. For, how can something new or different return, since in order to be different or new, it would need to have never happened or existed before?]


Blake further offers some criticism of this notion.

Changing the name of a concept is not an empty gesture but changes its dimensions as well the concept. The “return” is a bad name and DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION is full of inflated empty rhetoric to get across the notion of a “return of difference”, an ultimately incoherent idea, and an unnecessary part of the concept of a deterritorialised time. So the usage is quite different. Both these concepts of difference and return came under attack from Badiou and Laruelle, and rightly so, but Deleuze had already moved on. It would be a rather strange affair if the philosopher of becoming and transformation always had the same ideas, and never changed.


[Like with Blake’s other post about Deleuze’s philosophy of difference, I find these observations to be very important for understanding and interpreting Deleuze. I have little comment of my own on the concept of eternal return, because I never grasped its meaning well enough to know if I could make any use of it. If Blake is right, then we need not give this notion too much weight when trying to understand Deleuze’s philosophy on the whole. But if someone will disagree with Blake’s assessment, then I would kindly request a clear and coherent explanation of the meaning and philosophical importance of Deleuze’s concept of an eternal return of difference. For example, is the idea merely that change is always happening? ...that what returns and is the same is simply the structure of renewal? If so, why would it be a “return” and not an ongoing status? Is Deleuze’s point that there are breaks of some kind between each renewal? What Deleuze is trying to do with this concept is not entirely clear to me. Even when I encounter certain convincing explanations of the notion, I still wonder why Deleuze could not have found a more effective way to formulate it.]







  1. Thanks for your analysis and comments. I do not in fact treat the rhizome as configuring a concealed unity. Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between the a-centric rhizome and figures that apparently renounce unity but that re-constitute it at a higher level. This is their analysis of the "fascicular" system as opposed to the rhizome. In this book they read the "eternal return" as belonging to the the fascicular mode rather than to the rhizome. Similarly, they consider Burroughs' "cut-up" as being fascicular, involving a "supplementary dimension" of folding where a spiritual unity persists. In DIALOGUES Deleuze contrasts Burroughs' cut-up technique with his own "pick-up" method, which involves consistences arising out of contingent encounters.

    1. Thanks Terence! I made a note in the post to refer to your comment and to forgo my mistaken interpretation.