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Agamben and Deleuze on pure immanence

In a dense, hermetic and allusive way, Deleuze's text "Immanence: a life ..." poses
the question of immanence, conceived as immanent not to a subject or an object but
to itself. This text is an enigmatic short version of what Deleuze and Guattari noted
about the problem of immanence in the chapter "The plane of immanence" in "What
is philosophy?". It presents the last reformulation of a series of reformulations of the
concept of immanence by Deleuze that he understood as one of the most dangerous
and urgent questions in philosophy that never stopped haunting his thinking.
What does the question of immanence mean for Deleuze and Guattari? And what
does it mean to understand absolute immanence as an impersonal life? In his
commentary of Deleuze's text, Agamben solely deals with the second question by
problematizing the idea of immanence at the very point where it is presented as a
life. Thereby, Agamben leaves the ontological terrain of absolute immanence
Deleuze and Guattari aim at constructing and passes to the terrain of the relation of
impotentiality and sovereignty by consulting language in the words of which,
Agamben assumes with Heidegger, a forgotten insight is enclosed. In this sense,
Aristotle's determination of the nutritive faculty as the principle through which all
living things have life (cf. "De anima") is used by Agamben to analyze the relation of
sovereignty and bare life which he started to examine at the time the text "Absolute
immanence" was published:
"Yet one may legitimately ask if this concept [resistance as a force of life] truly
suffices to master the ambivalence of today's biopolitical conflict in which the
freedom and happiness of beings is played out on the very terrain – bare life – that
marks their subjection to power". (p. 232)
Agamben problematizes that immanence thought as a life shares with power the
same matter and the same plane of intervention: "But what, then, separates this pure
vegetative life [of institutional biopolitics] from the 'spark of life' in Riderhood and the
'impersonal life' of which Deleuze speaks?" (p. 232)
In a striking way, his critique misses Deleuze's conceptual decisions. Though
Agamben restricts the validity of Aristotle's determination of nutritive capacity as the
founding principle of life for a critique of Deleuze in two ways – firstly, in Aristotle
nutritive life functions "as the principle allowing for the attribution of life to a subject",
while in Deleuze, conversely, a life, "as the figure of absolute immanence, is
precisely what can never be attributed to a subject"(p. 232), and secondly, Aristotle
introduces the principle of nutritive faculty in the course of a series of divisions
distributing life in vegetative life/ relational life, animal on the inside/ animal on the
outside, zoe/ bios, etc., while in Deleuze a life "marks the radical impossibility of
establishing hierarchies and separations" (p. 233) – he sticks to the strategy of
questioning immanence through the problematic of biopolitical sovereignty that he
grounds in Aristotle's principle of life. He does so without giving this argument any
further specification in relation to Deleuze's thinking.
At the end of his text "Absolute immanence", Agamben summarizes the probem of
Deleuze's concept of the plane of immanence as problem of virtual indetermination
(p. 233) that would already be present in Spinoza's idea of the conatus. For a second
time, he analogizes nutritive life with immanence conceived as a life and defined by
the Spinozian concept of conatus (the desire to persevere in one's own being) (cf. p.
235). His sole argument for this analogy is that both, nutritive capacity and desire,
are characterized by self-preservation (cf. p. 236). Hence, he overwrites Deleuze's
problematic with the problematic he himself is dealing with: the constitution of
sovereign being through the suspension of its own impotentiality, and the
indistinction that is established between bare and political life after having separated
Agamben does ignore a series of decisive conceptual elements of the idea of the
plane of immanence in Deleuze and Guattari, especially the relation of virtual
indetermination and singular determination, the infinite movement of the two
potentialities constituting the plane of immanence (potentiality of thinking, potentiality
of being), and the transformations of the planes of immanence in the discontinous
time of becoming which leads to the difficult question of micropolitics and of how the
actual can effect the virtual.
Due to his references to Heidegger and especially to Nancy, Agamben comes from a
tradition to think being in a transcendent perspective as ecstatic being exposed to
the unthinkable and unsharable event of singular death that brings sharing in to play.
In his critique of Deleuze's idea of immanence, he misses the theoretical demands
as a consequence of which Deleuze invented the concept of an immanence that is
only immanent to itself:
Deleuze, partly together with Guattari, aims at constructing an ontology with which it
is able to articulate infinity, transformation and multiplicity beyond transcendence,
representation, subject-object relationality, mediation, and the work of the negative.
Deleuze departs from Spinoza's concept of the substance as the One-All, an
immanent cause, that is expressed by infinite attributes (we only know two, thought
and extension), which again are themselves modified by the modes that are to be
understood as affections of the substance: "A substance is conceived through itself";
"Attributes are what the intellect perceives of a substance as constituting its
essence." (Spinoza, Ethics 1D4)
At stake is not a One above or beyond difference and multiplicity but a One-All that
"takes what is expressed as involved, implicit, wound up, in its expression ... or
explicates, unwinds expression so as to restore what is expressed" (Deleuze,
Spinoza, p. 333).
In the course of the intense rereading of Spinoza in Germany in the 1790s initiated
by Jacobis's "Über die Lehre des Spinoza, dargestellt in Briefen an Herrn Moses
Mendelssohn" (1785) – Hegel adopts the idea of a genetic self-differentiation of the
substance while at the same time he criticizes Spinoza of having conceptualized a
substance that is non-dynamic, lifeless and abstract. What he rejects, is the idea of
an infinite inner positive differentiation of an immanent cause, the effects of which
never leave the cause, but modify its intellectual and material being. Instead Hegel
thinks an explication of the logicity of being through negation, determination, self-
reflexivity. To be is to be something for Hegel. The dynamic genesis, he conceives, is
moved by the negativity of difference, realizing the telos of the explication of the
absolute.For Deleuze, this idea of a genesis moved by the work of the negative
destroys the thinking of difference by reducing it to contradiction. The teleological
explication of the logicity of being destroys the thinking of event and evental
transformation in time. The centrality of consciousness destroys the possibility to
think consciousness without self, not-attributable to a subject. In opposition to
Hegel's logicitiy of being, the plane of immanence is defined by Deleuze and Guattari
as "the non-thought within thought" (DG, What is philosophy?, p. 59). Immanence is
what cannot be thought, but has to be thought, a "vertigo" (p. 48), constituted by the
simultaneity of the outside and inside of thought, of the "not-external outside" with
the "not-internal inside of thought". For Deleuze and Guattari, on the plane of
immanence the empirical, the object, the subject remain indeterminate while the
singular occurs fully determinate. This indetermination of the person and the
simultaenous determination of the singular is expressed in "Immanence: a life ..." by
Dickens' figure of Riderhood who, dying, oscillating between life and death, opens
himself to impersonal singularisations of a life: a gesture, a smile, a grimace.
Simultaneously, in Deleuze's and Guattari's concept of immanence, we find the
cernel of an attempt to think a materialist theory of radical transformation beyond
subject-object-relations and the primacy of contradiction and negativity. Deleuze and
Guattari point out, that the infinite differentiation happening on the plane of
immanence is not continous. The infinite movement of potentiality is selective. It
allows for a passage, it constitutes transformation. When Deleuze and Guattari
explain that the plane of immanence as a fold of the potentiality of being and the
potentiality of thought is transformative, they pose the very question of how change,
how the passage from one plane of immanence to another is to be thought. That is
to say, immanence is a plane of infinite specification that transforms in time. In his
letter to Foucault Deleuze explains this specification of the virtual:
"I would say for my own part: a society, a social field does not contradict itself, but
what is primary is that it flees, it flees first from all sides, the lines of flight are primary
(even if 'primary' isn't chronological). Far from being outside of the social field or
leaving it, the lines of flight constitute its rhizome or cartography. The lines of flight
are more or less the same thing as the movements of deterritorialisation: they imply
no return to nature, they are the points of deterritorialisation in the desiring-
assemblages. What is primary in feudalism are the lines of flight that it presupposes;
as also for the 10th-12th centuries; as also for the formation of capitalism. Lines of
flight are not necessarily 'revolutionary', but they are what the systems of power will
plug and bind. Around the 11th century, all the lines of deterritorialisation which
accelerate: the last invasions, the pillaging hordes, the deterritorialisation of the
Church, the peasant emigrations, the transformation of knighthood, the
transformation of the cities which abandon territorial models more and more, the
transformation of currency which injects itself into new circuits, the change in the
condition of women with the themes of courtly love which even deterritorialises
knightly love, etc. The strategy could only be second in relation to lines of flight, to
their conjugations, orientations, convergences or divergences." (Deleuze, Desire and
pleasure, p. 127)
At this point two difficult problematics for a materialist theory of radical transformation
Firstly, how to think the effect, strategies of dissidence can have on the conjugation
of the lines of flight, i.e. the virtual, and thereby on the plane of immanence? In the
"Micropolitics"-chapter in "A thousand plateaus" Deleuze and Guattari negotiate this
question stating that the political occurs inbetween the virtual and the molar, in the
micro-texture of social relations, in which both, power and dissidence embed and
anchor their procedures.
Secondly, the question occurs, what does the one strong axiomatic (the
presupposition of the primacy of an impersonal, positive and creative desire) on
which Deleuze's and Guattari's concept of immanence is founded make impossible
to think? We can see how the impossibility to think archi-passivity, inoperative
negativity, and impotentiality disturbs the conceptual development of immanence in
"What is philosophy?" itself.
In the chapter "The plane of immanence" Deleuze and Guattari claim that the plane
of immanence is twofold, a fold of thought and being, of the image of thought and the
matter of being. In this sense, it is built by the coexistence of two potentialities, the
potentiality of being and potentiality of thought (cf. p. 57). That is to say, being and
thought are the two sides of the same, thought is fully expressed by being (cf. p. 46).
At this point, for a brief moment, it becomes obvious, to which extent Deleuze and
Guattari oscillate between a Blanchotian idea of outside and the primacy of
impotentiality and the Spinozian idea of the knowledge of the third kind wich allows
to a life a maximum intensity of potentiality to the extent it has an adequate idea of
its own singular essence which is its own degree of potential.
This idea of maximizing the intensive quality of a life overwrites the idea of
impotentiality Deleuze finds in Blanchot. When he and Guattari describe three
characteristics of the plane of immanence as image of thought, they mention:-
Thinking is not related to truth.-Thought is a potentiality to think that does not define
a thinker but desubjectifies. That is to say, with Blanchot and Levinas, Deleuze and
Guattari state that thinking is to be conceived as the potentiality not to think. - And,
simultaneously, they claim that thinking is conceived as the becoming of active
The Blanchotian ontology of impotentiality is overwritten by an Spinozian ontology of
For a further discussion of Deleuze's idea of affection and the three kinds of
knowledge in Spinoza see his courses on Spinoza's theory of affects at Vincennes at
the end of the 1970s.
— Agamben: Absolute Immanence, in "Potentialities", Univ of Stanford Pr, 1999, pp.
220- 239 — Deleuze: Immanence: a Life ... , in John Rachjman (ed.): "Pure
Immanence", Zone Books, 2005, pp. 25-33