24 Jun 2016

James Williams (5.1) Gilles Deleuze's Philosophy of Time, 'Only Difference Returns and Never the Same'

[The following is summary of Williams, with boldface and bracketed commentary being my own additions. Note, I drafted this four years ago so it may seem discontinuous with current entries. For example, I do not in brackets here try to clear up what is said or note what I failed to understand.

Summary of

James Williams

Gilles Deleuze's Philosophy of Time: A Critical Introduction and Guid

Chapter 5: Time and Eternal Return

5.1 Only Difference Returns and Never the Same

Brief Summary:
Deleuze's three syntheses of time are processes not in the sense of input/output production but rather in the sense of each operating on all the others in a non-hierarchical fashion. For this reason, although the eternal return might be construed in terms of something that is timeless, Williams will consider it instead as an ongoing process. For Deleuze, what returns is not the same but is rather always difference. This notion might at first seem incoherent, but it is important to grasp for the sake of a thorough comprehension of Deleuze's philosophy of time.


Deleuze's interactive syntheses of time are processes not so much in the sense of input/output production but rather in the sense of operating transformatively on one another.

All these syntheses are processes, where process means a transformation of events and their relations. This is unlike a familiar sense of process taken from production, where a machine processes a material input and produces a product. In the syntheses of time the process is transformation across all parts such that any notion of independence is rendered obsolete. The machine is itself ‘processed’. The syntheses of time are not processes by something, but in and involving something, for instance, a transformation of the past and the future in the living present when habit transforms a series of events.
(Williams 113c)

Also there is no hierarchy of the syntheses because "each one has a moment where it is prior to the others and because even when there is a relation of priority, this depends on other such relations" (114a).

Williams will explain the eternal return as a process rather than an unchanging circle of time (114).

Deleuze formulates the eternal return as the return of pure difference.
The same does not return, the similar does not return, but the Same is the return of that which returns, that is, of the Different, the similar is the return of that which returns, that is, of the Dissimilar’ (DRf, 384). The capitals on ‘Same’, ‘Different’ and ‘Dissimilar’ indicate the universal idea of each rather than a correspondence to particular cases or instances. Thus anything that is the same is the return of pure difference, rather than any identified difference. Any similarity is the return of pure difference.
(Williams 115b)
Difference is "not a difference between two identities or the negation of an identity" (115c). For, "Any identified or comparable ‘this’ or ‘that’ will never return and has only appeared thanks to differences we cannot identify" (115d). So nothing that is the same on account of identity or resemblance can return: "the only thing that remains the same is the return of difference and the only thing that remains similar is the return of dissimilarity" (115d). This means that Deleuze's eternal return temporality does not portray time as a circle or as a redundant recurrence of same or similar things (116a). So when hammers pound metal, they seem to do so in a way that is similar to long-past occurrences and to others in distant parts of the world. That is not the repetition. The repetition is what makes each instance differ from the others through the eternal return of pure difference. (116-117) [It is only on the basis of the situation being again new that it may secondarily be regarded as similar to prior events.] What is also different are the syntheses involved.
These are not only differences within each new stroke of the hammer, but rather differences in syntheses running back through every living present, through every past blow. They are differences in syntheses in the relations between the differences introduced in every past blow, in the whole of the past as pure past, or store of past differences. They are syntheses destined to return in the future differently within any new blow, new edge and new resounding clang. It is not that we cannot compare such blows or even the tipping point when a blow and reverberation trigger the return of an unbearable migraine. It is rather that when we do so we miss the complete process unless we also take account of the return of difference. It is not that we have to abandon regularity, patterns, statistical rules or probabilities. It is that these are only ever a partial representation of real processes and, if they are taken as the best or only way of relating to future events, they lead to a fundamental misunderstanding of the open nature of the future. The same and the similar are only the necessary media through which difference works and is expressed each time in a new drama encompassing all that has come before and all that will come later.
[The following is added June 2016]

Williams continues  by asking a series of questions. Should we go along with what Deleuze is claiming? How does Deleuze's philosophy of time here fit in with others in the history of philosophy? "If only difference returns, is there any identity through time at all? If there is no such identity, is there anything at all in any meaningful sense?" (117cd). In fact, are we even the same moment to moment? [As we will see in the following question, Williams here seems to be calling into question the coherence and relative philosophical worth of Deleuze's notion of the eternal return.]

Williams further wonders if we can ignore Deleuze's philosophy of the eternal return. "Does eternal return matter within Deleuze’s philosophy, or could we simply bracket off these claims about the return of difference from those points where Deleuze makes more sense or runs in a consistent way alongside contemporary science?" (117d). [I recommend reading Terence Blake's discussion of the place Deleuze's notion of the eternal return takes in his broader philosophical development. See Blake's post. I reference it here.]

Williams claims that we must take this notion into account in order to maintain the overall richness and coherence of Deleuze's philosophy of time.

This last question at least can be easily answered. If we choose to discount the work on eternal return as in some way aberrant or unimportant, we will be | severing off large parts of his philosophy, to be left with no doubt interesting and productive remarks, but with no consistent system and with many gaps and lacunae. We can see this through the interdependence of the syntheses of time. If we remove eternal return, then we also neuter Deleuze’s accounts of habit as repetition and memory as repetition; in fact, we turn his novel definition of repetition into a mild conjecture mapped onto a series of observations. For an interpretation of Deleuze that seeks to give the strongest and most consistent version of his philosophy, there is no alternative to a full investigation and explanation of eternal return.
(Williams 117-118)

Williams, James. Gilles Deleuze's Philosophy of Time: A Critical Introduction and Guide. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011.

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