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Force and Form

An Essay on the Dialectics of the Living


Thomas Khurana
Around 1800, the notion of life began to attract an astonishing degree of attention and
to attain the status of a fundamental concept. This is not only true of the proto-biological
discourses of this period that strived to articulate a synthetic theory of life under such
titles as general zoology, organology, or biology1 ; remarkably enough, it is equally
true of the philosophy of the time, even if the term Lebensphilosophie has come to designate
a distinctly later period of thought. A philosophical notion of life appeared indispensable
and fundamental to the emerging aesthetics of the 18th century and the idealist discourses
following Kants Critique of Judgment. They introduced a philosophical object, which, under
headings like living being and natural purpose, lay somewhere in between mere objects,
which are intelligible in purely mechanical terms, and self-conscious subjects, who inhabit
the realm of freedom. Compared to the mere objects of dead nature, living beings seem to
possess a form of organization and an element of spontaneity reminiscent of the mind. In
comparison with self-conscious subjects, however, the form of order manifested by merely
living beings nevertheless lacks the full and conscious grasp on itself which is characteristic
of the mind.
Life consequently came to be defined as a decisive threshold in the emergence of the
mind. Thus, life is not accorded such prominence merely on account of being an object of
a certain sort, but because it is the proximate other of the mind and can thereby elucidate the
minds structure. The structure of the mind is, at least implicitly, articulated with reference to
this threshold: the living might either appear as a preliminary stage to the order of the mind,
and thus define the essential features distinctive of the minds fully constituted form that the
merely living lacks; or it might appear as an underlying infrastructure, that remains operative
in one way or another in the structure of the mind. I am interested here in the way in which
the concept of the living as a threshold sheds light on structural features of the mind and in
the way in which the mind itself might appear in these philosophical discourses of modernity
to have the mode of a living process. In what follows, I will therefore begin to delineate a
very basic trait of this concept of the living: a dialectics of force and form operative in the
living. The following remarks will not deal with a definition of the living as a certain type
of substance or as a class of beings; the living rather figures as a type of process and a
mode of order in the light of which and against which the order and process of the mind is
articulated.

I. Life as Force, Life as Form


In conceiving of the mind and meaningful practices with reference to the living, one relates
them to a mode or being that is simultaneously the other of the mind and its most proximate
neighbor. Living processes and beings in their materiality, their specific structure and natural
determination can appear to be the other of the mind in its free and normative order. At the
same time, however, life is the very process and mode of being that a mind can encounter in
the outer world which most closely approximates its own structure. Machines of nature, as
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Leibniz calls the living beings in order to distinguish them from artificial machines, are the
only entities that possess a form of unity that comes close to what in us is the I.2 In Hegels
Phenomenology of Spirit life is the name of the object of consciousness that appears on stage
at the turning point, exactly at the moment before consciousness grasps itself in the form
of a doubled self-consciousness and gets a glimpse of its own structure as the I that is
We and We that is I.3 In the relation between individual and species, life manifests,
according to Hegel, this very structure in itself , though not for itself as it is the case in
self-consciousness.
This coincidence of proximity and opposition of life and mind, of living processes
and meaningful practices, opens up diverging possibilities of relating mind and life. One
might presume, on the one hand, that life is the name of the structure that has to be superseded and resolved into the structure of mind. On the other hand, one might try to
show that life might be the irreducible infrastructure of meaningful practices. No matter
which of these strategies one pursues, the content of the respective thesis the remaining deficiency or the irreducibility of the living depends on the marks and features
that are distinctive of the living. There are two systematic options that present themselves when one searches for such a structural trait of the living: life as form or life as
force.
On the one hand, it might seem distinctive of living phenomena that they possess form in an
eminent sense. Seen from the viewpoint of form, a specific unity and directedness of the living
comes to the fore: the way in which it reaches and sustains a complex form that possesses
a compelling inherent necessity, although it seems in the highest degree contingent,4 if
we only have recourse to mechanical explanation alone. Living beings seem to manifest
themselves in a specific form that pertains even to their smallest parts, shapes them through
and through and turns them into wholes of a peculiar kind. The elements of the living entity
are not parts, properly speaking, but rather moments of an overall and pervasive form. The
living not only possesses this form, but maintains and even regenerates it when it is harmed or
changed by external influences. The living phenomena are thus considered to be governed by
a teleological form that determines the living entity in all its phases, from beginning to end,
and in each of its moments. It is essential to this perspective on the character of the living that
it is conceived as realizing itself in the form of a being reproducing its boundaries and forming
a unit of its own. The paradigm of this view of the living is, thus, the organized integrity of the
organism.
On the other hand, however, a second systematic intuition suggests itself that seems
opposed to this formal idea of life: living processes as manifestations of force. Seen
under the aspect of force, life can appear, in contrast to the first view, to be marked by
a generative and excessive nature. Living processes as such seem to have a generative
productivity, an openness and undirectedness, that not only generates forms but supercedes
and transgresses them in the course of development. In their generative and excessive nature,
the living processes seem to exceed law-like realms just as much as rule-governed orders.
Living processes generate, transgress, dissolve, and re-generate forms not fully anticipated
by program or prediction and not ordered by pre-given norms that might determine the forms
that actually emerge as proper or improper. Rather than being subject to pre-given norms,
living processes seem to be subjects of their own norms they are themselves, to use Georges
Canguilhems expression, normative.5 From the viewpoint of force, the living seems to
be marked by a transgressive character. It seems to possess the quality of being something
unpredictable or unforeseeable, to employ a remark of Wittgensteins.6 From this angle,
one might think of a living process as something that exhibits an undirected and overabundant

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productivity, that challenges and subverts ordering forms: it is that which must overcome
itself again and again.7
I am describing these two opposed intuitions concerning what is distinctive about living
processes as displaying a productive force or as having an eminent form in such a sketchy
and eclectic way because I do not want to uphold either intuition against the other. My
assumption is rather that it is no accident that both opposed intuitions come up with regard
to the specificity of living processes. The reason they recur is that the processes that we
following the philosophical discourses around 1800 call living are processes inherently
marked by a polarity of force and form. Living is what takes place within this polarity: a
dialectics of force and form. It is neither the sheer productive force nor the mere resulting
form but a certain interrelation, to be more precise, a tension of force and form. That the
distinctive quality of the living depends on an interrelation of force and form can already be
sensed with regard to the intuitions I indicated above: the living forces I alluded to are forces
productive of form; the organic form, on the other hand, is typically understood as being
engendered by and as disposing of forces.
In the following, I shall begin to explore the inner tension of living processes by investigating what I will provisionally call a positive and a negative dialectics of force and
form. What guides this investigation is the question as to how these dialectics succeed in
accounting for the irreducible tension of force and form that seems characteristic of the living
on my hypothesis. In order to give a paradigmatic expression of a positive dialectics and
to highlight the fundamental danger that such a dialectics is confronted with, I will turn to a
basic concept that was very prominent in the proto-biological and philosophical discourses
around 1800: Johann Friedrich Blumenbachs concept of a nisus formativus, first introduced
in writings around 1780. This formative drive is supposed to elucidate the peculiar form
of living beings by postulating a force that lies at the ground of the actualization and maintenance of organic form. The relation of force and form that is implied in this proto-biological
conception can be characterized as a positive dialectics to the extent that the formative
drive is aiming at a convergence of force and form. On account of this convergence and due
to an insufficient understanding of the inherent precariousness of living forms, this biological
concept faces the danger of reducing the dialectics between force and form to such an extent
that the specific living quality that resides in their tension is occluded.
I will therefore turn to a second paradigmatic articulation of the dialectics of force and
form that is formulated at a much later point and with reference to a different field: Derridas
conception of a force of meaning that is meant to elucidate the living character of poetic
practices. In his account, Derrida explicitly refers to the debate on preformationism and
epigenesis into which Blumenbachs hypothesis of a formative drive intervened. He analyses
how poetic practices are understood by contemporary structuralists in the organicist terms
introduced around 1800 and criticizes the way in which the complex economy of force and
form which is distinctive of the living is neglected in these descriptions. In contradistinction to
the positive dialectics epitomized by Blumenbach and still vital in contemporary aesthetic
discourses, Derrida delineates a negative and tense dialectics of force and form that is
necessary in order to grasp the peculiar living character of meaningful practices.
Although we will be dealing with two paradigms that seem to be historically and materially
distant, I want to demonstrate that these paradigms are in fact marked by a shared conceptual
problem: the problem of accounting for the living dialectics between force and form. The
negative dialectics, that can be drawn from Derridas account, can be understood as a
reflective rearticulation of the positive dialectics, exemplified by Blumenbachs conception:
the negative dialectics relates to poetic practices and poetological discourses that reflect and

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transpose the proto-biological conceptions, and it deepens the tension between force and
form that is already implied and at the same time occluded by the positive dialectics.8

II. Nisus Formativus: Blumenbachs Positive Dialectics


An essential source for the widespread intuition that life is to be thought of in terms of a
productive force is the idea of vital forces common among biologists around 1800.9 One
famous protagonist, already acknowledged and paid tribute to in the Critique of Judgment
( 81), is Johann Friedrich Blumenbach with his influential concept of Bildungstrieb, a
concept with great repercussions in philosophical discourses and the aesthetics of his time.10
This force, not only moving but productive, is also called nisus formativus, a formative
drive or impulse: it designates a vital force acting upon and imparting to matter a regular
and definite form.11 It is consequently not a formless or transgressive force, but a force that
is internally related to form from the very beginning: it is the very source of organic forms,
a postulated force supposed to render intelligible the generation, the maintenance and the
regeneration of organic form.
It is astonishing how intimately force and form are connected in Blumenbachs definition,
if one takes into account the intuitions tied to later philosophical and cultural appropriations
of vital forces as that which transgresses and overcomes form. The Bildungstrieb is

defined, according to a passage from Uber


den Bildungstrieb (Nisus formativus) und seinen
Einflu auf die Generation und Reproduction the short first presentation of Blumenbachs
concept from 1780 in the following way: Blumenbach states, there exists in all living
creatures from men to maggots and from cedar trees to mold a particular inborn, lifelong
active drive (Trieb) to initially take on their determinate form (Gestalt), to preserve it and, if
they become injured, to restore their form where possible.12 Defined in these terms, we can
see, that this drive or force is not the antagonist of form, but its source or generative medium.
This postulated force unifies generation, nutrition and reproduction and reduces them to one
common force,13 which is in its very source unknown, but can be inferred from its effects.14
Attractive as it might be that force and form are not to be understood in terms of an external
opposition, Blumenbachs account runs the danger of reducing their internal tension to such
a degree, that they begin to cover and occlude each other. I cannot do justice, at this
point, to the way in which Blumenbach himself constantly reworks his concept and embeds
it in a network of other vital forces. I just want to highlight a certain tendency that seems
problematic in Blumenbach and his reception, especially with respect to the generalization
of the concept of a formative force with regard to the living character of the mind. In the
way in which Blumenbach integrates force and form, there is the problematic tendency to
conceive of this formative force (i) only with regard to its positive side, not with regard to the
way it can be destructive of certain forms as a side effect of building others and (ii) as in itself
totally determinate, that is, as itself nearly a form. Due to the fact that the formative force
was postulated a posteriori in order to make sense of existent forms one has encountered and
which might seem inexplicable by means of mechanical laws alone, only existent, positive
forms are appraised as the effect of this force, not forms that have been excluded by it
or forms that have been destroyed in transforming one form into another in the course of
development. Selectivity and metamorphosis, that is, are only developed and highlighted
with respect to their positive side. The process of life does not appear, as in Hegels wording,
to be just as much an imparting of shape as a supersession of it.15 The specificity of the
living processes, thus, is not recognized in its quality of producing and transcending forms,
form and its abandonment.

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The second restrictive tendency present in Blumenbachs entanglement of force and form
and its reception by other authors the determinateness of the formative force becomes
evident in the way Blumenbach deals with deviation from an expected form. I am referring
here particularly to his writings from 1780 and 1781 later on Blumenbach modified his view
more and more, emphasized an inherent changeability of nature and accentuated the ways
in which the formative drive can alter its direction.16 In the original formulation from 1780,
however, Blumenbach writes: Even deformed animals do not derogate the determinateness
of this drive, as there is no reason, why it could not be displaced by accidental causes like
any other force and driven to take a deviating course.17 Even the production of variants
Spielarten und Varietaten are explained by Blumenbach as due to external causes and not
as an expression of the generative and productive force of his nisus formativus. Living
bodies, wrote Alexander von Humboldt along these lines, are those which in spite of
incessant attempts to alter their form, are hindered by a certain inner force from abandoning
their first characteristic form.18 Re-stabilization, not variation, is the pre-eminent task of
this formative force variations are left to other, outer forces and their forcible or violent
efficacy.19 The conceptualization of the formative force, it seems, cannot comprise the whole
aspect of force present in the living processes and one pays a price for intimately connecting
force and form: a convergence of both that can come close to the mere tautology of the
explication of a phenomenon by a force.20
This problem is of interest to Blumenbachs endeavor insofar as the formative drive is
supposed to offer a new account of generation, opposing the preformationist ideas dominant
in Blumenbachs time. Blumenbach, himself previously a preformationist, now comes to
oppose the idea that preformed germs pre-exist which contain, en miniature, all the living
organisms from the beginning of time. Instead his hypothesis is that in the raw, unorganized
matter of generation after having reached maturity and its place of destination, a . . . drive
becomes active, to initially take on its form.21 In order to account for the form of an
organism, Blumenbach does not want to take recourse to a germ that already contains this
form in an encapsulated manner that has merely to be developed and evolved. Instead the
assumption of a formative drive is supposed to account for the way in which an organism
epigenetically takes on its form. Against this background, it seems essential that the formative
force is not identical with the mere shape that the specific organism eventually takes on
otherwise the formative force is just another name for an unobservable preformed germ.
My question consequently is, how and to what extent is Blumenbachs epigenetic thinking
in danger of being nothing more than a different form of preformationism, say, virtual
preformationism. Kant, astonishingly, uses this term of virtual preformation in order to
characterize epigenetic thinking as such.22 On his account, the idea of epigenesis contains the
idea of preformed species or stocks,23 so that the living beings are, although not individually
preformed, still preformed virtualiter. Epigenetic thinking thereby stops postulating an
actual presence of every single future form in the first moment, but argues for their generic or
virtual presence. Of course, much depends on how one reads the virtual and its implicated
virtus or force that is substituted for a pre-given catalogue of forms. The expression virtually
preformed on the one hand suggests that in some mode the forms are still thought to be
pre-given; if one accentuates the virtuality of their putative pre-givenness on the other hand,
all that seems to be given is a certain productive force.
However one chooses to read this virtual preformation, the decisive point for an epigenetic approach will be that the character of the living form being produced by a productive
force has to be different from the type of form invoked by preformationist thought, if the
new conception is really to make a difference. It is of great importance especially if one

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wants to understand the irreducible dialectics of force and form that the form resulting
from a productive force cannot be an educt any longer, it has to be a product instead; it
cannot be the instantiation of a pre-given type, it has to be a contingent form founded on
its own having been produced, dependent on its own ability of instituting and reproducing
itself. This peculiar type of form ought to find reflection in the sort of judgment adequate to
grasp it. In this way, we might take Kants thought that the unifying form of a living being
is graspable only in a specific mode of cognition, the mode of a reflective judgment, as an
indication of its peculiar character its being the effect of a formative force and not the
actualization of a pregiven type.
If one entangles force and form and determines a force under the aspect of the form it
produces, one has to avoid representing the force itself in the guise of a form and one has
to be careful not to leave the notion of form untouched. Otherwise, one runs the risk that
the dialectic disappears or remains external. Kants Critique of Judgment is instructive with
respect to the changed character of form. A natural purpose (Naturzweck), i.e. a living
being seen as a purposeful product of nature, is, in Kants description, an organized and
self-organizing being organized insofar as the parts seem to be possible only through
their relation to the whole, and self-organizing insofar as its parts are combined into a
whole by being reciprocally the cause and effect of their form. In this sense, the idea of the
whole determines the form and the relation of all parts not as a cause that is external to
the living being, given in the mind of its creator. [F]or then, Kant suggests, it would be
a product of art. The wholeness of the living being rather seems to be given immanently
in the self-organizing interaction of its parts. If we take recourse to the idea of the whole
as that which conversely determines the form and relation of the parts we should employ
this idea only as a ground for the cognition of the systematic unity of the form and the
combination of all of the manifold.24 The idea of the whole is not in a way that we can
establish by experience or reason given as a guiding plan in advance that, as such, can be
regarded as the objective cause. We rather impute this idea of the whole in order to approach
the self-referential unity of the organized being that we have problems to account for on
its own terms: our discursive understanding is not equipped to adequately grasp the way
in which the parts are reciprocally cause and effect of one another and thereby produce a
whole that determines them conversely a whole, as it were, that we can neither demonstrate
to be a product of mere mechanical necessity, nor to be a function of a preceding idea in
an understanding external to the living being. Kant is, thus, eager to make clear that the
teleological model of a purposive production is only to be employed as a regulative principle
for our limited form of cognition and does not possess the status of a constitutive principle.
To say it in a certain post-Kantian idiom, the idea of the whole, which is presupposed by
our appraisal of something as a living organized unity, is a necessary theoretical fiction. This
theoretical fiction is necessary inasmuch as the type of self-referential organization of the
living beings escapes our mechanical explanation and can only be approximated by treating
them as if they were purposively created. This way of reflecting upon them, however, only
gives us an approximation of the lawfulness of the contingent25 that they exhibit. On Kants
account, the living being is in this sense marked by a surplus or excess of form beyond what
discursive thinking can accommodate, to take up a characterization by Jay Bernstein.26 My
contention is that any form that is the effect of a formative force is marked by such an excess
or surplus of form. The formative force is not to be equated with a preceding idea of the
whole, but rather a title for the self-organizing process of formation. In the surplus or excess
of form and the difficulties in grasping it, a trace of the subversive potential of the force
remains that never just coincides with or terminates in a single thing-like form.

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Such a tense relation of force and form, that is, according to my hypothesis, a structural
feature of modern philosophical notions of the living, is also the subject of an essay by
Jacques Derrida called Force and Signification. This essay reconstructs such a dialectics not
with regard to processes of biological formation, but with reference to poetic practices, a
certain type of particularly living meaningful practices.

III. The Force of Meaning: Derridas Negative Dialectics


Derridas 1963 essay Force and Signification, a critique of Jean Roussets Forme et signification,27 first published in Critique and included as the opening essay in Lecriture et

la difference, might seem to be an unlikely companion piece for Blumenbachs Uber


den
Bildungstrieb. As we will see in the following, however, it presents an account of meaningful practices, paradigmatically poetic practices, in terms of the living and in terms
of a complex relation of force and form. Derrida makes explicit use of the notions of organism, preformationism, and epigenesis in order to characterize the dialectics of force
and form, implied in the linguistic practices under investigation which thereby appear to
be something living. The analysis of this relation does not start from a force that is
observed under the aspect of form (as it was the case with the formative drive); it reverses the perspective and observes form under the aspect of force. What is more, the
nature of the relation of both sides is different from Blumenbachs positive dialectics in
which form and force eventually tend to converge. It is a negative dialectics, instead, that
presents a very specific account of what living might mean in the case of meaningful
practices.
Derrida elaborates this dialectics by means of a two-fold critique of a structuralist approach
towards poetic articulations which takes recourse to models of organic unity and form. On
the one hand, Derrida rejects this structuralism on account of its neglect of a qualitative force
and an inherent temporality; on the other hand, he simultaneously defends the necessity and
rigor of the formalist ideas presented in this structuralism against any positivism of force.
By means of this two-fold strategy, he presents a tense negative dialectics of force and form
that renders poetic production to be the product of a very specific modality of life. Not of
a life in which a formative force realizes itself perfectly in its form for which the life of
Blumenbachs Bildungstrieb has become exemplary and not a life in which the positive
force leaves every form behind the life of some kind of dionysic Nietzscheanism (or rather,
its misunderstanding). It is a life in which the excess of form hints at a force that escapes our
grasp and makes itself known primarily in the form of negative experiences. The practice of
meaning is to be called living to the extent that it is subject to such a dialectics of force
and form. It is alive to the extent that its life is opened up to the experience of lifes other
a life not merely opposed to its other (an experience of what Derrida has termed infinite
finitude28 ). This might seem enigmatic, yet I will try to elucidate it by outlining the path
whereby Derrida tries to reach this conclusion.
The first move is, as I have indicated, a head-on critique of formalism. Jean Roussets
Forme et signification is the main object of attack. In this work, Rousset presents structuralist
readings of Corneille, Marivaux, Proust, Claudel, and others, intending to present the formal
autonomy of the[ir] work[s] an independent, absolute organism that is self-sufficient.29
Derrida exposes the neglect of force in this structuralist analysis of poetic works that becomes
apparent in its organicist and formalistic approach. One could say that this structuralist
project shares the intuition of the first option of delineating the living that I presented at
the beginning: that the signature of life is a special type of closed and self-referential form.

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Poetic articulations, that is, have an organic character exceeding the instances of everyday
meaning on account of their specific form and wholeness. Derrida analyzes and criticizes
this organicist account of poetic articulations by relating it to the living forces apparently
absent in this account.
Roussets attempt to characterize the work as an organism, as a formal totality, presents
itself in the form of three guiding paradigms: geometrism, teleologism and preformationism,
in Derridas terms. With regard to geometrism Derrida describes the ways in which Rousset
tries to find totality and organization in the works by neutralizing the thematic content and
reducing the works to a set of figures and movements. Rousset confines himself to the
mechanics of meaning and never supplements it by means of an energetics.30 In looking
for the formal unity of the work, in searching for its organism-like autonomy, in searching
for its life, that is, Rousset stays with the geometry of the work, occluding any relevance of
force in the qualitative or intensive sense.
The second trait of this formal analysis that aims to establish the autonomous unity of the
work is a kind of teleologism manifestly apparent in Roussets analysis of Marivaux. He tries
to identify the structural fact of a double register proper to what he calls the true Marivaux
and describes this organizing principle as a constant in his work. Every incident that does
not harmonize with this essential structure is described counterfactually as not being proper
to the work. In Marivauxs early works, the true Marivaux is nearly totally absent, writes
Rousset.31 The disharmonious and disparate life of Marivauxs work, his peculiar force, as
Derrida contends, is reduced by setting a teleological state of perfection and propriety that
generates the possibility of disregarding large parts of his meaning making practices as mere
deviation.
The third face of Roussets specific biopoetics is preformationism. It becomes apparent,
according to Derrida, in Roussets analysis of Proust, in which he tries to demonstrate the
way in which beginning and end are encapsulated in each other and converge. Derrida aims
at the neglect of any kind of open becoming, of duration in Bergsons sense, when he calls
Roussets approach preformationist and emphasizes that he borrows from the biological
model: opposed to epigenesis, according to which the totality of hereditary characteristics
is enveloped in the germ, and is already in action in reduced dimensions that nevertheless
respect the forms and the proportions of the future adult.32 By means of this already-beingin-action, any duration is reduced and the force of the meaningful articulation is neutralized:
time and becoming are annihilated in the convergence of beginning and end, while the
productive force is reduced to a simple actualization of a form given from the start.
The fundamental substructure of geometrism, teleologism and preformationism in this
sense, is a certain metaphysics of time, in which the truth of temporality is not temporal,
as Derrida writes. Simultaneity and eternity are the two main figures of the temporality
aimed at and implicit in the preformationist, the teleological and the geometric paradigms.
The temps retrouvee in the Proustian constellation, for example, if interpreted as guided
by a preformationist ideal, is the attempt to get access to a former time and to bring out,
through recollection, what is eternal in time. The search for the proper structure of the work,
understood to be a constant throughout all the diverse temporal articulations of a work,
shares this dream of atemporal forms. And the perspective adopted by the structuralist who
tries to gain insight into the formal geometric unity of the work orients itself towards the
ideal of simultaneity, gathering all moments into one. This quest for the simultaneity of all
parts of a work in fact not present on a simultaneous plane, but dispersed across time,
growing out of each other and disappearing in one another explains Roussets fascination
with spatial, topographical models for representing the unity of the work. He neglects what

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Derrida assumes to be the temporality proper to living meaningful practices: the way in
which they are articulated in irreducibly temporal forms.33
In insisting on the energy of meaning, its force, its undirected development and a complex
temporality, Derrida seems to be straightforwardly criticizing Roussets idea of the life of
poetic works as form. In his emphasis on intensity and force, on dispersion and becoming, one
might sense a model diametrically opposed to Roussets account. The life of the poetic work
is force, he seems to say, not form. Derrida insists, however, that [o]ur intention. . .is not,
through the simple motions of balancing, equilibration or overturning, to oppose duration
to space, quality to quantity, force to form, the depth of meaning or value to the surface
of figure.34 What he is after, is a new economy that eludes this system of metaphysic
oppositions. This complex new economy is the attempt to think the life of poetic works as
a process in which force can neither be reduced to form, nor can form be just consumed by
force. It is an economy of an irreducible and negative dialectics that produces an astonishing
vitalism foreign to what one might expect of an emphasis on life commonly attributed to
Lebensphilosophie. I will try to give some hints as to the basic structure of this economy
and try to elucidate in which way this vitalism thinks an essential lack of force that turns the
seemingly stubborn structuralists under attack into authors allowing for essential insights.
The Derridean economy of force and form that characterizes meaningful practices worthy
of the qualification living, is articulated in such a way, that force and form have an
asymmetrical relation without belonging to different orders. The force Derrida talks about
in this sense is the force of meaning,35 the energy is the living energy of meaning.36
That is to say, Derridas project in relating meaningful forms to a momentum of force is not
aiming at relating meaning and mind structurally or genealogically to bodily structures or
forces heterogeneous to the order of meaning; instead, he describes the meaningful processes
and events themselves in terms of something living. Derrida has described the process of
ongoing articulation and institution of such a living meaningful practice, never closed
and never coming to terms, by means of the quasi-concepts of differential articulation and
iterability. This account is often understood to result in rendering determinate meaning
merely impossible: in accentuating a permanent displacement of meaning, there is a slide or
sliding of signification, so to speak. If that were the case, Derrida would accentuate meaning
as having the character of force at the cost of negating its instituting and reproducing of
forms. I take Derrida, however, to be aiming at an account of the precariousness and inherent
productivity of meaningful forms, not intent on showing that they are ultimately prone to
drown and to dissolve in the flux of differences. The essential move in this account of the
precarious and productive mode of being of forms is of course his concept of iterability.
The elementary forms as well as the rules of composition of meaningful practices are not
related to ideal types existing above or beyond the meaningful practices. The types and rules
are, to say it quite simply, dependent on actual operations of repetition: ideality originates
from possible repetition of a productive act,37 it depends on the possibilities of acts
of repetition.38 That means that the types and rules are the immanent correlate of the
meaningful practices themselves. The forms are consequently understood to be produced by
the acts of articulation. They are not educts, but products of a generative process.
The question now is, how is this process of articulation to be related to force. Is the process
of articulation to be traced back to some kind of living force animating these practices? In a
very specific sense an ultra-transcendental one, according to the early Derrida one can talk
of an infrastructural level of forces articulated in the differentiating and differing movement
of differance. But one misses the gist of this description if one thinks of substantial, agentlike forces that can be grasped or signified just like forms: By its very articulation force

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is already phenomenon,39 that is, an instance of form. The force, the absence of which
Derrida has so vividly criticized in the account of Rousset, cannot appear as such. It is, again,
as was the unified purposive whole in the case of Kant, a theoretical fiction, that leads us
astray if we substantialize and reify it in too simple a manner. The strength of the structuralist
account Derrida has dealt with in Force and Signification resides precisely in the fact that
by excluding force it refrains from reifying it and assimilating it to the realm of form. That
is why it is Derridas starting point for his elaboration of an alternate economy of force and
form. In presenting a totality abandoned by force, it can give a sense of the heterogeneity of
force and the difficulty of thinking it properly. It can do this precisely to the extent, that it
grasps meaning by losing its force. To comprehend the structure of a becoming, the form
of a force, is to lose meaning by gaining it.40
What, then, is this force, so irreducibly necessary to meaningful practices, and yet always
so elusive when we remain on the level of forms? The force inheres in the precariousness and
productivity of the forms, that is, in their complex temporality. That implies that we cannot
get hold of the force in the instant or the present but always only in what relates a present
to other times: in the way in which a present form is in excess of itself, differentially related
to the other forms, preceding and following it and related to its own instances of actual or
possible repetition.
There are numerous ways in which the temporal excess can be marked in a present, but they
converge in that they imply an element of negativity: a moment resisting the attempt to gather
the excess in a closed and full present. Expositions of force of preeminent importance to
Derridas notion of force are accordingly moments of withdrawal and remnants of its activity
the remains or ruins of force. Paradoxically then, the force of meaning, indispensable for
meaningful practices to be living, discloses itself, at least in part, in dead forms: in forms
deprived of clear meaning, either interrupted in their coming to action or abandoned leftovers,
divested of force. Derrida suggests that the enigmatic quality of the concept of life has
to do with the fact that liveliness is internally linked to the nonlife. . .of the living.41 The
realm of the aesthetic, especially in its suspension and dissolution of forms of everyday life,
in its intimate relation to sur-vival and afterlife, is one pre-eminent medium of reflection of
this polarity of the living.

IV. Concluding Remark


Instead of further exploring the way in which under the heading of life or the living
a dialectics of force and form has unfolded in philosophical discourses from the 18th century
onward, up to the poststructuralist discourses of the past century, let me conclude with an
attempt to formalize the constellation of these two paradigms.
If I am right in assuming that processes which we call living are characterized by a genuine
dialectics of force and form, it is of the utmost importance that, on the one hand, the tension
between force and form is never completely eliminated and that, on the other hand, both sides
remain internal to each other and leave their mark on either side: that the form is the form
of forces (produced by forces and organizing forces) and that the force cannot be thought of
independently from form, but rather is a force of forms (producing forms and being itself
formed). Dialectics in this sense means essentially a relation of an intimate tension. In order
to grasp this dialectics one has to think the relation of force and form: the way in which the
force articulates itself in forms and the way in which the forms refer back to the potential of
a productive force. Taken as structural models, the virtual preformationism of Blumenbach

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and the radically epigenetic approach of Derrida present two opposing models of thinking
this relation: a relation of potential and actual as well as of general and particular.
(1) As indicated above, the force in Blumenbachs account seems to be assimilated to a
certain type of form. If one is to characterize this force, one will determine a prototype
or archetype of the form implied in this force: the form it strives to realize. The eventual
form is, in this sense, virtually preformed in the force. This preformation is thought in
such a way that the force remains the same conserves its own form throughout
all of its actualizations; and the content of any actual form is totally dependent on its
accordance with the prototype or archetype implied in the formative force. The general
force determines the common element that all specific forms that are their products
share. The general force explains them and makes them intelligible precisely insofar
they share these common features. The specificity of this approach, with regard to
similar concepts of the relation of potential/actual and general/particular, resides only
in the fact that the general (the set of common features) is in this case not understood
as a mere type, a mere possibility, but rather as an active force (in Leibniz sense):
[A]ctive force involves an entelechy, or an activity; it is half-way between a faculty
and an action,42 it includes a certain effort or striving (conatus) and is led by
itself to action without any need of assistance from the outside. Of course, everything
depends on how to understand this striving and how this striving affects what is striven
for. In the dominant understanding of the formative drive, the relation seems only
instrumental: the striving seems to be just a means to realize a pregiven form. Depicted
in a crude way, the formative drive seems to be the mere sum of a) a general form and
b) an inherent energy actualizing it.
(2) Derridas account of the force of meaning presents a different conception: a force that
cannot be reduced in its essential content to a form or type. The force, being that which
propagates the articulation of forms, is radically different from its products. The forms
are correspondingly not only of relevance in their being identical to an archetype or
prototype, but in giving to a force a specific expression that can never be its final
form. That there is a force is demonstrated in the chain of generative acts, producing
iterations and alterations of forms. The force does not remain one and the same through
all its actualizations; it ties a chain of forms together, but not by exposing a set of
common features, but by the differential articulation of forms.43 The force does not
make itself known as a prototype or archetype, as a common form, but as the differance
of forms. The specificity of this approach lies in the peculiar form of unity that it tries
to grasp and a distinct explanatory concern. It not only attempts to make intelligible
each singular form in its vertical relation to some form of generality, but to elucidate
the horizontal relations between these forms of how one gives way to the other.44
The sort of unity that bears the title of force is not the unity of a form, an abstract or
formal generality, but the unity of an articulation. With the name force a certain type
of elusive and nevertheless decisive unity is to be thought: the unity of a formative and
transformative process. Why should this form of unity be decisive? Because it is the
form of a productive or generative unity that is an analogue of the unity of the mind.
Depicted in these formal terms, the two paradigms I have presented imply two opposing
models of living processes that have imposed themselves as analogues of performances of
the mind. Structurally speaking, both models can be described to be open to complementary
dangers. The positive dialectics, exposed in Blumenbachs concept of a formative drive,


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runs the risk of assimilating force to form and of bringing them into complete congruence.
The negative dialectics seems open to the danger of radicalizing the tension in thinking
force only as the absence of form and form only as the disappearance of force to such a
degree that it might appear like an external relation of force and form. In order to attain a
living conception of life, however, both sides have to be held together, precisely in their
very tension. In the above remarks, I have claimed that the first model in Blumenbachs
version falls prey to its danger, whereas the second model in its Derridean version seems to
be in a more reflected position: by taking into account the danger of a positive dialectics,
the negative dialectics brings out the tension that the first model tends to efface, without
separating force and form totally. Thereby, it enables a deeper conception of the living: it
accounts for the irreducibility of the dialectics of force and form and the intimacy of their
tension.45

NOTES
1. See Timothy Lenoir, The Strategy of Life. Teleology and Mechanics in Nineteenth Century German
Biology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), 1; for the emergence of a new type of life science
see also Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences (London & New
York: Routledge, 2002), especially 245ff.
2. See G.W. Leibniz, New System and Associated Contemporary Texts, trans. and ed. R. S. Woolhouse and Richard Francks (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), especially 16, 48. For the complex
and historically varying relations between machine and organism see Georges Canguilhem, Machine and
Organism, Incorporations, ed. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter (New York: Zone, 1992), 4569.
3. See G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1977), 104ff.
4. Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. P. Guyer (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge
University Press, 2000), 61, 5:360.
5. Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological (New York: Zone Books, 1991), especially
Part II, 115ff.
6. Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), 559.
7. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. A Book for All and None, ed. by Adrian del Caro
and Robert Pippin (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 88ff.

8. For a conception of art as a form of reflective life see my Reflexives Leben: Biologie und Asthetik
um 1800, Texte zur Kunst 20 (2010), 177182 and Vita aesthetica. Szenarien a sthetischer Lebendigkeit,
ed. A. Avanessian, W. Menninghaus, and J. Volker (Berlin: diaphanes, 2009).
9. See James L. Larson, Vital Forces: Regulative Principles or Constitutive Agents? A Strategy in
German Physiology, 17861802, ISIS 70 (1979), 235249.
10. Blumenbachs concept is explicitly taken up by Herder, Kant, Schelling, and Hegel as well as
Holderlin, Goethe and Moritz. For an overview of the scope of the repercussions of Blumenbachs epigenetic
thinking see Helmut Muller-Sievers, Self-Generation. Biology, Philosophy, and Literature Around 1800
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997) and Robert J. Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life.
Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002).
11. Larson, Vital Forces, 240.
12. J. F. Blumenbach, Prof. Blumenbach u ber den Bildungstrieb (Nisus formativus) und seinen Einflu auf die Generation und Reproduction, Gottingisches Magazin der Wissenschaften und der Litteratur,
1. Jg. (1780), 247266.
13. See J. F. Blumenbach, Prof. Blumenbach u ber den Bildungstrieb, 252.
14. The word formative drive shall designate, as Blumenbach explains in the third edition of

Uber
den Bildungstrieb (1789), a force. . .whose constant effect is known from experience, whose cause

however. . . for us is qualitas occulta (J. F. Blumenbach, Uber


den Bildungstrieb (Gottingen: Dieterich,
1789), 26). It is an object of debate, if Blumenbach himself understands this force as an heuristic and
regulative principle or as a constitutive agent for this question see on the one hand Larson (Vital Forces)
and Lenoir (Strategy of Life) and for the competing view, Robert Richards (Romantic Conception of Life,
216ff.).
15. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 108.


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16. See Blumenbach, Beytrage zur Naturgeschichte (Gottingen: Dieterich, 1790), 31. The 1789

edition of Uber
den Bildungstrieb is also of interest: Blumenbach names three aberrations of the formative
drive that (i) might produce in one species forms proper to an other species, that (ii) might produce the
sexual organs of one sex in the other and (iii) that might also take on a tendency wholly against nature and
produce monstrosities. Blumenbach remains confident, however, that even in these monstrous cases, nothing
amorphous takes place: Whomever had the opportunity to compare a considerable number of deformed
beings cannot fail to acknowledge the conspicuous uniformity with which this or that monstrosity remains
similar to itself except minor variations, so that the exemplars of such a kind seem to be formed from the

same mold (Blumenbach, Uber


den Bildungstrieb, 104).
17. Blumenbach, Prof. Blumenbach u ber den Bildungstrieb, 257.
18. A. v. Humboldt, Aphorismen aus der chemischen Physiologie der Pflanzen (Leipzig: Voss 1794),
3 (See Larson, Vital Forces, 24344).
19. See Blumenbach, Prof. Blumenbach u ber den Bildungstrieb, 259.
20. As Derrida formulates the point in connection with Hegel, in: Jacques Derrida, Force and
Signification, Writing and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 27.

21. Blumenbach, Uber


den Bildungstrieb, 24.
22. The system of generatings as mere educts is called that of individual preformation or the theory
of evolution; the system of generatings as products is called the system of epigenesis. The latter can also be
called the system of generic preformation, since the productive capacity of the progenitor is still preformed
in accordance with the internally purposive predispositions that were imparted to its stock, and thus the
specific form was preformed virtualiter (Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, 81).
23. Peter McLaughlin argues that Blumenbachs theory of epigenesis also depends on the idea of the
preformation of the species see P. McLaughlin, Blumenbach und der Bildungstrieb. Zum Verhaltnis von
epigenetischer Embryologie und typologischem Artbegriff, Medizinhistorisches Journal 17, no. 4 (1982):
357372.
24. Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, 65, 5:373.
25. Ibid., 20:217.
26. Jay M. Bernstein, Judging Life: From Beauty to Experience, from Kant to Chaim Soutine,
Constellations 7, no. 2, (2000): 157177.
27. Jean Rousset, Forme et signification. Essais sur les structure litteraires de Corneille a` Claudel
(Paris: Libraire Jose Corti, 1962).
28. See Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserls Theory of Signs
(Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 99104; Jacques Derrida, H. C. for Life, That Is to Say . . .
(Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 2006), 48 passim: [L]ife, which is undecidable, is also, in its
very finitude, infinite. What has only one side a single edge without an opposite edge is in-finite. Finite
because it has an edge on one side, but infinite because it has no opposable edge.
29. Derrida citing Rousset, in: Derrida, Force and Signification, 13; see Rousset, Forme et signification, xx: Madame Bovary constitue un organisme independant, un absolu qui se suffit a` lui-meme.
30. Derrida, Force and Signification, 16.
31. Ibid., 21.
32. Ibid., 23
33. For an extended account on the temporality of meaning in Derrida, see Thomas Khurana, Sinn
und Gedachtnis. Die Zeitlichkeit des Sinns und die Figuren ihrer Reflexion (Munchen: Fink, 2007).
34. Derrida, Force and Signification, 19.
35. Ibid., 25: its [i.e.: meanings] force.
36. Ibid., 5.
37. Derrida, Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserls Theory of Signs, 6, my emphasis.
38. Ibid., 52, my emphasis.
39. Derrida, Force and Signification, 2627, (French version: Quand elle est dite, la force est dej`a
phenom`ene.) See Derrida, Differance, in Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: The University of Chicago
Press, 1982), 1718: Force itself is never present; it is only a play of differences and quantities. There
would be no force in general without the difference between forces . . . [D]ifferance is the name we might
give to the active, moving discord of different forces, and of differences of forces.
40. Ibid., 26, translation modified (French version: Comprendre la structure dun devenir, la forme
dune force, cest perdre le sens en le gagnant).
41. Derrida, Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserls Theory of Signs, 7.
42. Leibniz, New System and Associated Contemporary Texts, 3233.
43. For this type of unity without generality compare Christoph Menkes reconstruction of an
aesthetic concept of force in Herder: Christoph Menke, Kraft. Ein Grundbegriff a sthetischer Anthropologie


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(Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2008), 46ff.; see also Christoph Menke, Force. Toward an Aesthetic Concept
of Life, Modern Language Notes, Vol. 125, No. 3 (2010), 552570.
44. The price to pay for attending to this horizontal dimension is, of course, a certain complication
with regard to the vertical dimension: the force cannot be determined by a set of common elements shared
by various singular forms which it produces. The generality implied in the force seems to be more of a
family resemblance: a twine that is made of a number of threads without any of them needing to go through
the whole: And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the
strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in
the overlapping of many fibres, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell,
2003), 67.
45. I would like to thank Matthias Haase, Andrea Kern, Len Lawlor, Christoph Menke, Dirk Quadflieg, Francesca Raimondi, Juliane Rebentisch and Dirk Setton for their helpful comments on an earlier
draft of this paper. I am indebted to Daniel Smyth for helping me with what is not my first language.

Thomas Khurana is assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and in the Cluster
of Excellence The Formation of Normative Orders at the Goethe-University, Frankfurt
am Main. His publications include Die Dispersion des Unbewussten (Gieen, 2002); Latenz
(Berlin, 2007; co-edited with S. Diekmann) and Sinn und Gedachtnis (Munchen, 2007).


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