To live fulfillment, we must release identity and embrace difference.
To grasp what might be meant by leading a fulfilling life, to experience it and feel it, we have to have an understanding of our environment. Otherwise, we have no bearings.
Our lives unfold and connect with everything around us, and everything inside. We dream and fantasize at times, and sometimes spend long hours interpreting events in our lives, but we always come back to our relationship with this place where we exist, our universe.
Our reality, what we consider to be real, is a cornerstone of our understanding of how to live fulfillment.
We forget this sometimes. We fall into a routine of selective perception of our surroundings, and sometimes fail to see and hear the remarkable — that we could connect with, if only we noticed. How might we change this way of being?
For the idea or concept of a fulfilling life to substantively make a difference in the life we live, it cannot be just that: an idea or concept that we read about in a book or article. That idea or concept, or that ethos, must be embraceable and be embraced. It must reverberate deep within. It must cause a door to open within that changes sensibility, feelings, thought and action.
This can only happen if we access powers or forces that drive us to seek out and explore the vibrant and vital in our surroundings.
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.―Heraclitus
One idea or concept from philosophy that resonates for me, and empowers me to embrace a revitalized vision of reality, is that put forth by Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995). Deleuze was a French continental and post-structuralist philosopher who posited that difference is prior to identity. In his book, Difference and Repetition, he expressed this assertion as follows:
That identity not be first, that it exist as a principle but as a second principle, as a principle become; that it revolve around the Different: such would be the nature of a Copernican revolution which opens up the possibility of difference having its own concept, rather than being maintained under the domination of a concept in general already understood as identical.
Deleuze argues that “difference” is not the difference between two prior identities, but instead, difference produces identity. All things, and the universe as a whole, are in a constant state of flux and evolution produced by a difference that is internal to each thing and that permeates all that there is.
We might label something and give it an identity, but this is nothing more than a snapshot that covers over a much deeper reality that is in a continual state of becoming. Identities are contingent at best, and can never obtain to a transcendent objective truth.
Why should it matter us if we view identity or difference as primary? What does it matter to us personally whether we see the world in terms of identity or difference? And why is any of this important to the question of how we might live a fulfilling life?
To appreciate why Deleuze’s thesis is of such importance, we first need to understand how transcendence and identity have been conceived in western philosophy.
The first elaborate explication of identity is found in Plato’s theory of transcendent Forms. Plato’s theory of Forms posits that there are two worlds: the apparent world of concrete objects, grasped by the senses, never constant, always changing; and the abstract world of pure Forms, grasped by reason only, unseen and unchanging, the true world.
The Forms are immutable, perfect, eternal, outside of space and time. The Forms are universal, stand outside of human experience, and transcend this world. There are imperfect examples of any “thing” we find in this world, eg., a tree or a chair, but the Form of tree or chair is perfect and is not of this world.
A similar transcendence is found in the notion of a transcendent god: omniscient, omnipotent, perfect, standing outside and above the world, not subject to its laws. And another example of transcendence developed during the Enlightenment: the ascendency of human subjectivity, human reason, standing again outside of the world, commanding an objective view of the world, and never subject to its change and imperfections.
Deleuze’s critique of transcendence is the starting point for his philosophy of difference. In order to develop his concept of difference-in-itself as primary, he questioned Plato’s theory of Forms, and other philosophies that set apart a substance that is transcendent of this world.
Plato in fact posits two images in the world of appearances: copies and simulacra. Copies are true likenesses of the perfect Form, a faithful reproduction of the original. Simulacra on the other hand are intentionally distorted, malformed, imitations intended to deceive.
It is here that Deleuze finds a weakness in Plato’s vision: it relies on a concept of identity that enables one to differentiate between copies and simulacra. Deleuze objects that simulacra point to a deficiency in, and an instability inherent to, the concept of identity.
The notion of a Form that is perfect relies on an ability to identify the qualities of that Form; an ability to eliminate all but the essence of a thing, forming the boundaries of a stable concept. But if Plato can admit to a world of true and false copies, how can the concept of identity ever be stable or primary?
The duality of Form and copy is undermined by the simulacrum.
Taking this notion to the limit, when reality is in fact infinite variations on an isolated identity, does this not suggest that it is the infinite variations that are primary, and not a concept of identity elevated as the perfect Form?
Deleuze interprets simulacra as:
Those systems in which different relates to different by means of difference itself. What is essential is that we find in these systems no prior identity, no internal resemblance. (Difference and Repetition)
That is, simulacra exist without reference to the model Form or true copy, watering down any possible concept of identity as primary.
At best, identity is an effect, an abstraction from reality.
Opening our eyes to the actual world, identity bleeds away and leaves only difference. When examined more closely, the idea of an essence or identity becomes empty, hollow, contains nothing real.
No Face Behind the Mask
The only illusion is that of unmasking something or someone. — Gilles Deleuze
The illusion is that there is an original behind the copy, a true world beyond the apparent. But identity does not unmask the face behind the mask when:
Difference is behind everything, but behind difference there is nothing. — Gilles Deleuze
At the limit, identity falls away completely as a concept, and we can no longer posit even an infinitesimal difference between two things. There is just difference that is internal to the thing itself. Difference produces the thing; identity is an abstraction from this process, neither essential nor meaningful.
The pure Form of tree or chair is not prior to, but an abstraction from, a world of infinitely different things we call trees or chairs, each an independent production of a process of difference.
The ideal Form is an abstract wraith occupying no place in the universe, an image or effect of thought only.
The Problem with Transcendent Identity
The problem with transcendence is its exclusive focus on the essence of things. The project is dedicated to discovering the essential qualities constituting one Form or another, qualities that are frozen, pure, the “what is this” that never changes.
Life in this world loses its flow, becomes inferior to another world that can never be experienced here and now. Transcendence abstracts beyond the reality we experience and in so doing rules out as inferior all of the imperfections, the differentials from the perfect Form, the infinite change we encounter in this world.
And as long as the Forms or a god or the soul or mind or human reason is transcendent and superior to life, life is no longer of central concern.
Life itself is denigrated and devalued, abstraction elevated and more highly valued.
Transcendence is Authoritarian
As Todd May argues in his book, Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction, transcendence in fact relies on two commitments: that there are two ontological substances in the universe, and that the transcendent substance is superior.
Contemplation of the transcendent completes the world. The Forms, gods, the mind, human reason, the human subject, create the order of the world. Without any of these transcendent foundations, there are only appearances and chaos.
The idea of a transcendent substance draws us away from this world. Transcendence places the power and force of the creation of the universe beyond the universe, beyond our experience of it.
But there is only this universe that need be contemplated.
And there is no reason to believe that a substance that is not wholly of this universe is real or could ever be superior to the substance of the universe itself.
Nietzsche put it succinctly:
The idea at issue in this struggle is the value which the ascetic priests ascribe to our life: they juxtapose this life (along with what belongs to it, ‘nature’, ‘world’, the whole sphere of becoming and the ephemeral) to a completely different form of existence, which it opposes and excludes, unless it somehow turns itself against itself, denies itself. (On the Genealogy of Morals)
The notion of transcendent identities creates rules for the universe that are not of this universe, are apart from this universe, are supernatural.
The universe must conform to a priori principles (of reason) which are not subject to actual experience. The concrete, the physical, the dynamic and chaotic, is what is turned against itself and denied.
Order and Conformity
The notion of a transcendent substance, possible only on an assumption that identity is primary and difference derivative, not only fails to provide a view of the universe that intuitively coincides with our experience of it, but succeeds in diverting our attention away from the universe.
Transcendence leads us down a path to conformity of thought and knowledge.
Order is installed via identity: identity is the vehicle for installing stability and conformity in to life itself, where in fact there is only change. Identity covers over and hides pure difference from view.
Under the weight of transcendent identity, we lose sight of diversity in the universe. We lose sight of the beauty and wonder, the spontaneity, of pure difference.
Identity creeps into every aspect of our lives. Our brains work to distinguish things, one from another. And taken to extremes, we become positional and judgmental, our creativity and spontaneity crushed by a transcendent objectivity.
A world of judgement replaces a world of pure creativity.
Ascension of the transcendent rule of identity leads us to a world of authority and enslavement. We forget who we are, the unique qualities we each possess. We rebel in the name of romance and symbol, but time and again the forces of transcendence quell the revolution and restore order.
Separation from the Force of Life
Transcendence separates us from the universe, and from ourselves. We convince ourselves we have one foot in transcendence and one in this world, but our daily life reminds us we live in this world. And this world becomes a cold and uncaring place to be.
As long as transcendent identity retains an omnipotent, supernatural dominance over us, the universe becomes inferior and meaningless. We are forced to consider our life, this life, as of no consequence or importance. We aspire to the timeless transcendent reason we are told we can attain by the priests of transcendence, but remain trapped in our bodies, that have been drained of all life, meaning and wonder.
Difference as Perspective
Difference, when freed from the illusionary shackles of identity, the superficiality of a moment’s observation, becomes the primary ontological principle for empirical diversity.
What does this mean? Does it mean that difference itself, internal difference, is a transcendent identity, beyond this world?
Deleuze argues no. Difference is of this world, moves through it, flows; informs and permeates this world.
Difference is a becoming, a process, a force or energy within everything.
To live a fulfilling life we must take off the blinders of transcendent identity and embrace the pure difference that runs through everything. The universe and our self in constant flux.
The universe and the self participate in the same process of becoming.
Difference-in-itself opens our eyes to a reality in which we participate creatively with the universe in everything we do.
If we can absorb this perspective in relation to all things in our environment, and in relation to our own sensations, feelings, thoughts and intuitions, we become radically free to imagine and create anything and everything we might ever want in this life. A never-ending journey of pure change and adventure. The pathless path of fulfillment.
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Excerpt from my forthcoming book, Becoming: A Life of Pure Difference (Gilles Deleuze and the Philosophy of the New) Copyright © 2021 by Tomas Byrne.