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time, the future & politics Arrow vol 3 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 1, 2004


Derrida and Deleuze on time, the future, and politics

Jack Reynolds
University of Tasmania


1. In much of their work, Derrida and Deleuze invoke the importance of the futural dimension of time. Derrida argues that an event can only occur when time is ‘out of joint’ (PF 10-24), and he asserts that it is this aspect of the radical singularity of any event that needs to be emphasised as a counterbalance to conceptions of time in which the future is treated as known and demarcated according to the expectations of the present.

2. In this respect, his work moves closer to the concerns of Deleuze, whose own valorisations of the future often occur, perhaps surprisingly, in association with Nietzsche’s famous thought of the eternal return of the same. Deleuze endorses Nietzsche’s suggestion that the thought of the eternal return can be an aide to a revaluation of values, but he also transforms it and argues that the eternal return (of difference) represents the time of the future, rather than history repeating itself. His arguments for this will be considered in what follows, but for both Derrida and Deleuze there is an ethico-political impetus accorded to this interruption to the temporal order that opens upon the future, and that cannot be treated as simply a future that will one day become present.

3. Many questions need to be pursued about their conceptions of the future, but this apparent proximity between them is interesting, not least because there has been very little explicit interaction between these two French philosophers over the course of their long careers. Derrida’s eulogy for Deleuze is powerful and evocative (WM), and they consistently express respect for one another, but there is no philosophical interaction between them that merits the name. This seems to attest to some important philosophical differences between them, and in a recent essay Gordon Bearn has suggested that, "the difference between Derrida and Deleuze is simple and deep: it is the difference between No and Yes" (Bearn, 2000, 467). Without wanting to go quite this far, it can also be coherently argued that Derrida rejects empiricism (cf. WD 126–30), whereas Deleuze endorses a new form of it (cf. DR, PI).

4. More relevantly for the purposes of this essay, there also seems to be one important asymmetry involved in their respective understandings of the temporal. Deleuze’s descriptions of the time of the eternal return appear to challenge Derrida’s famous early suggestion that there is no concept of time other than the metaphysical one (MP). For Deleuze, there is something important about the time of the eternal return of difference (which for him is more than merely an abstract thought experiment) that might be said to elide the metaphysics of presence, or the tacit insistence upon a temporal ‘now’ moment that Derrida, following Heidegger, has associated with much of the Western philosophical tradition (SP 104). For Derrida, or at least for the early Derrida, this kind of temporality outside of metaphysics is unattainable, and there hence seems to be an obvious tension between his and Deleuze’s respective thoughts.

5. At the same time, Derrida’s recent work also increasingly emphasises a conception of futural time that cannot be integrated within the horizons of a subject, and he makes these kind of temporal points in relation to the structure that he terms the ‘messianic’, as well as his somewhat synonymous emphasis on that which is ‘to come’ in relation to democracy and justice – themes that will soon be examined. Do Derrida and Deleuze refer to similar things when they talk of the future in this way? If so, does this mean that Derrida’s increasingly prophetic philosophy abandons, or at least challenges, his earlier formulation regarding time necessarily being metaphysical? After all, if this radical future is that which breaks open time, then it seems that it cannot be subsumed under metaphysical conceptions of time. It becomes more like a quasi-transcendental condition for time, and this, according to my understanding, also brings Derrida closer to the work of Deleuze. Have the respective philosophies of Derrida and Deleuze become closer since Deleuze’s death, or since Derrida’s post Gift of Death insistence upon the messianic, the ‘perhaps’, the ‘to come’, the singularity of the event, and the revelation of his "religion without religion"? It is to these questions, and their political consequences, that this essay will return.

Derrida on the Time of the Future

a) Friendship

6. There are many themes from Derrida’s recent work that unremittingly emphasise the future. In Politics of Friendship, he argues that the thought of the perhaps is the only responsible thought of the event, and of the future. In fact, Derrida declares that the perhaps is the only just category of the future (PF 29), and this is because it respects the unknown rather than circumscribing it in any particular direction.

7. To provide this Nietzschean-inspired emphasis upon the perhaps with more context, in Politics of Friendship Derrida is at pains to insist that genuine friendship requires due recognition of the unstable. Derrida points out that "it takes time to do without time", which is to suggest that the apparent stability of a long friendship must always have been tested over time (PF 17). Any friendship must have experienced this futural recognition that whatever arrangements may now be in place (eg. meeting for a beer each Friday afternoon, being open and honest with one another, etc.), they must have passed through an ordeal of time – and one never completely passes through this ordeal – in which these arrangements were subject to revision and to contestation. In other words, in order to have a reasonably stable friendship, one must first have had some kind of experience of the future as unlimited and of nothing dictating that the friendship will continue.

8. Moreover, not only does a stable friendship need to traverse this unstable order of time in which this openness towards the future is experienced unabated – and this is why Derrida describes friendship as involving a "contretemporal habitus", an untimely habitus (PF 16) – but he also intimates that even after having endured this trial of friendship, we still need to think friendship with an "open heart", open to the perhaps, and to the chance of an irreducible event. Contrary to the famous Aristotelean account of friendship, Derrida hence argues that friendship should not be too stable, and should not railroad the future into its habitual expectations, which is to deny not only the difference of the other person, but also the more radical difference that time insinuates into any and every friendship. This is not only an ethical injunction that Derrida is making. Rather, it is also a quasi-transcendental argument that in friendship this stable aspect of time is always broken open by this radical future.

9. In relation to this essay’s comparison of Derrida and Deleuze, it is important to note that, for Derrida, these dimensions of time are intertwined (PF 15, 37), and this kind of radical futurity is hence only experienced as an interruption, or as a discontinuity, within the habitual present. This raises significant questions about whether Derrida thinks that pure difference itself, or pure futurity, can be experienced, or even ‘encountered’, to invoke the terminology of Deleuze’s Anti-Oedipus, but we will return to this question below.

b) Democracy-to-Come

10. In a lot of his recent work, and particularly in Politics of Friendship and Spectres of Marx, Derrida has also frequently discussed the idea of a democracy ‘to come’. Derrida’s point in this regard is relatively simple. A genuine democracy is supposed to be about facilitating difference and facilitating the exposure to multiple perspectives and outlooks. But if democracy is the name for this openness to what is to come, then there is a paradoxical sense in which democracy itself can never actually arrive – democracy is impossible, at least in the peculiar sense that Derrida imbues the notion of impossibility with (PF 22).

11. After all, it seems clear enough that to declare that democracy has finally arrived, once and for all, in a particular contingent historical format such as the Westminster System, is contrary to the spirit of democracy. Similarly, to suggest that a particular government instantiates democracy, even an altogether admirable kind of government, is contrary to the spirit of democracy; it is to perpetuate a kind of fascism in that it closes off the future, and involves shutting one’s eyes to that which might, and will, force us to re-evaluate. Democracy then, is impossible, because it is about an openness to the future (difference) that cannot become present.

12. But Derrida would also want to claim that the notion of a democracy-to-come cannot simply function as a Kantian regulative ideal either, because we cannot know exactly what kind of difference the future will bring with it. There is not, Derrida suggests, an ideal form of democracy, comprised of a list of finite characteristics, that we aspire to, and can get closer and closer to.

13. Any such regulative ideal treats the future as partially given, in that there is an expectation that our current aspirations will be contiguous with our future aspirations. Derrida resists this move precisely because that would be to domesticate genuine futurity and genuine otherness. It would be tantamount to the subjective anticipation of the future that, as we will see, Deleuze argues is involved in both habitual and memorial time.

14. Finally, Derrida also resists this kind of regulative ideal because of the ethico-political exclusions that it can help to legitimate, ensuring that there is no place at the table for the wholly other, the foreigner, or whatever resists our current (and hence finite) understandings of democracy and its subjects. Although a responsible democracy is never unambiguously assumable, there is a suggestion that a more responsible government would be open to the future in this way, open to the democracy to come.

c) Justice-to-Come

15. Similar themes are raised in Derrida’s many discussions of justice, which he also argues must be constitutively ‘to come’. In ‘Force of Law’, Derrida emphasises that every deconstruction is undertaken in the name of something that is undeconstructible – eg. justice, openness to difference, the wholly other, the marginalized, the ‘to come’, or the future (DPJ 25). These are all roughly synonymous, and Derrida makes clear that without the undeconstructible, deconstruction would be without motivation. But what motivates deconstruction is neither something specific, nor a vague utopian outline of an ideal world. On the contrary, it is motivated by something that is ‘desertified’ and abstracted of all concrete content: something that is unforeseeable and ‘to come’. We might say simply that deconstruction is motivated by the future.

16. But to return to the issue at hand, justice then is also ‘to come’, deferred, and can never finally arrive, as was the case with democracy, but this does not commit Derrida to an ineffectual pessimism. Rather, it means that every time the law, or a rule of conduct, folds in upon itself and becomes overly legalistic, such as a government responding in a populist way to their electorate and initiating a "three strikes and you are out" policy (three breaks of the law and you are incarcerated regardless of circumstance), then the law needs deconstruction in order to give justice a chance. The point is that justice and the law require each other, and further, that the one without the other is useless. Justice and the law are not supposed to be opposites, but to interweave with one another; as John Caputo puts it, "laws ought to be just, otherwise they are monsters, justice requires the force of the law, otherwise it is a wimp" (Caputo, 1997, 136).

17. In order to understand this mutual implication of justice and the law, it is helpful to think about Derrida’s suggestion that a judge needs to invent the law, for otherwise we could simply get a computer to dispense judicial punishments, paying no attention to the singularity of the participants and the event of transgression. In an important sense, a judge needs to exceed the letter of the law in order to be just (DPJ 26), and this is the case even where mercy provisions are themselves enshrined in law, because those particular supplements to the law are also permanently susceptible to revision. At the same time, it remains the case that a judge cannot completely ignore the law, but must negotiate this tension and must, as Derrida enigmatically suggests, "negotiate the unnegotiable" (N 11–40).

18. It should be clear from this that to deconstruct does not mean to destroy. Rather, to deconstruct the law (and remember that Derrida means the law in its most general sense) is to open it up to alternative meanings, such that revision is possible, and such that there can be a space for justice. There is no end to this deconstruction, however, and justice does not arrive. Justice cannot finally arrive, but is instead the radical future that haunts the time of the present (SM 125–72). The logic of this ‘hauntology’, as Derrida puns in Spectres of Marx, means that justice is impossible in an important sense. You cannot claim that this or that social organization is just, as justice is not a present thing. It is an openness towards difference (the future) that is always both betrothed to the law, while simultaneously interrupting the calculations of the law, and undermining any attempt to compulsively stick with the law, or to take any social organization as self-legitimated. Again, the implication is that a judicial or governmental policy, in order to be just (insofar as this is possible) needs to keep the future open and permanently revisable.

d) Messianic

19. In order to understand what Derrida is getting at with these various invocations of the ‘to come’, it is also worth explicating a term that Derrida has borrowed from Walter Benjamin and the Judaic tradition more generally. That term is the messianic and it relies upon a distinction with messianisms.

20. According to Derrida, the term messianism refers predominantly to the religions of the Messiahs – ie. the Muslim, Judaic and Christian religions – although he also suggests that there are philosophical messianisms, as we will see. These religions proffer a Messiah of known characteristics (as described in the respective religious texts and oral traditions), and often one who is expected to arrive at a particular time and place. The important point is that the coming messiah of the future is known, and his characteristics – maleness is almost inevitably one such characteristic – are foreseen. In an obvious sense, this futural messiah is hence not acknowledged as wholly other, or beyond human comprehension, but rather is anticipated as conforming to certain spatio-temporal characteristics according to the (phallocentric) expectations of the present.

21. Now, Derrida is not simplistically disparaging religion and the messianisms they propound (Caputo, Kevin Hart, and others, have illustrated this at length), but Derrida’s desertification of the messianisms puts a decidedly different spin on things. His call to the wholly other, his invocation for the wholly other ‘to come’, is not a call for a fixed or identifiable other of known characteristics, as is arguably the case in the average religious experience. On the contrary, his wholly other (tout autre) is indeterminable and can never actually arrive.

22. Derrida more than once recounts a story of Maurice Blanchot’s where the Messiah was actually at the gates to a city, disguised in rags. After some time, the Messiah was finally recognised by a beggar, but the beggar could think of nothing more relevant to ask than: "when will you come?" (DN 24) Derrida intimates that were the messiah actually to turn up, this would be a disaster. He suggests it would shut down the structure of time and history. It would close off the future, as well as the hope and faith that this radical temporal difference makes possible. For Derrida, the messiah must hence be constitutively to come, or if they have already come, they must be to come again, one final time, and there are many religions that do suggest this, Christ and Christianity being the example par excellence. Even when the Messiah is ‘there’, or has been ‘present’, he or she must still be yet to come, and this temporal necessity reaffirms the force of the distinction between the messianic and the various historical messianisms. Whereas the historical messianisms domesticate the unknown and the future, the messianic refers to a structure of our existence that involves openness towards a future that can never be circumscribed by the horizons of significance that we inevitably bring to bear upon that possible future.

23. In other words, Derrida is not referring to a future that will one day become present (or a particular conception of the saviour who will arrive), but to an openness toward an unknown futurity that cannot be anticipated. It is time desertified of any concrete content and is hence ‘formal’, and deconstruction is clearly motivated by a desire to open up myriad possibilities for a future that is of a fundamentally different order to the ‘now’.

24. But what is wrong with anticipating the future and saying the future will be like this or that? While holding that we cannot avoid anticipating the future, Derrida also implies that, to greater and lesser extents, such demarcations of the future lead to the absolutisms of fascism and communism, in which in the name of this or that just future state (or state of affairs), individuals silence or even kill those who do not believe in such a future. Precisely in order to avoid the problems that such messianisms engender – eg. killing in the name of progress, mutilating on account of knowing the will of God better than others, etc. – Derrida suggests that: "I am careful to say ‘let it come’ because if the other is precisely what is not invented, the initiative or deconstructive inventiveness can consist only in opening, in uncloseting, in destabilising foreclusionary structures, so as to allow for the passage toward the other" (RDR 60). This means that Derrida cannot and will not name the future.

25. For him, there is only a persistent hope for what the future might contain; and a deconstruction that entertained any type of grand prophetic narrative, like a Marxist story about the movement of history toward a pre-determined future that would, once attained, make notions like history and progress obsolete, would itself have to be susceptible to deconstruction (SM). For Derrida, any dogmatic Marxism that is not primarily about an immanent critique of capitalism quickly becomes a philosophical messianism, because the future is determined in a particular way. Derrida wants to emphasise the way in which the future is not, in fact, foreseeable, but is radically other, much as Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition will also do, albeit in a different idiom that lacks such an obvious political engagement with questions concerning justice and democracy.

Deleuze and Difference and Repetition

26. Deleuze’s most systematic examination of time comes in Difference and Repetition, although Bergsonism and Cinema 2: The Time Image also accord the temporal sustained attention. Difference and Repetition emphasises three approaches to time, all of which, Deleuze contends, involve repetition, as well as difference in repetition.

27. His three paradigms of the temporal are habitual time, memorial time, and futural time, although these should not be understood in the traditional common-sense way as simply being three different empirical components of time. Rather, they are three representative ways of looking at time as a totality, and Deleuze suggests that they are hence exemplified in the work of certain philosophers, but rather than being a purely transcendental description, he also argues that these are concrete structures of experience. Habitual time is the time of the ‘living-present’, in which the chain of present moments is envisaged as constituting time. Memorial time is the time of the past, as events are placed into time, and a form is imposed upon sensory experience. Finally, there is the time of the future, which is the eternal return of difference.

28. Deleuze argues that all three of these modalities involve a synthesis of time, and the implication of this is that we cannot have an experience without synthesis. In order to grasp what Deleuze’s eternal return of difference is referring to, and why it is ultimately prioritised (both in an ontological and existential sense), it is necessary to begin by explicating the two other fundamental modes of time that Deleuze describes in Difference and Repetition.

a) Habit

29. As mentioned, for Deleuze, habit is the time of the living-present. It is axiomatically clear that habit involves some kind of repetition. When we behave habitually, we repeat previous modes of conduct, such as trying to park at the university in places where we have previously found a park.

30. It is a more difficult problem, however, to establish how habitual behaviour might also involve difference, as Deleuze insists it must – his fundamental contention is that difference and repetition are not simple opposites, but that each is necessarily embedded in the other. For Deleuze, habit also involves difference primarily because "habit draws something new from repetition – namely difference (in the first instance understood as generality)" (DR 73). Habit is hence not simply a mechanical repetition. Rather, it also involves a pre-reflective recognition that the activity that is being engaged in is something that has been done before, and this is the generality of which Deleuze speaks.

31. For example, in the famous Humean series AB AB AB AB, it is habit that introduces a difference between one set of the series and the next. It is habit that creates a difference between the two repetitions, and leads us to expect a B whenever we encounter an A. As Deleuze suggests, "when A appears, we expect B with a force corresponding to the qualitative impressions of all the contracted ABs. This is by no means a memory, nor… a matter of reflection" (DR 70). His point is that it is not that we reflect upon the past, or even consciously remember the past – in fact, Deleuze argues that repetition induces us to repress any conscious recognition of that repetition (DR 93–110) – but that we simply know how to go on in a non-reflective way. Of course, this partially depends upon past experiences (and what is often, perhaps problematically, called procedural memory), but at least according to Deleuze, there is no memory involved in the living present of habit (DR 70). To repeat, he argues that it is not because of memory that the second pair of the group AB AB differs phenomenologically from the first.

32. The main premise of a recent film directed by Christopher Nolan, Memento, offers a good example of the manner in which habit might be envisaged as being largely independent of memory. To briefly summarise the story, the main character, Leonard Shelby, witnesses his wife being raped and perhaps murdered (this is ambiguous), and thereafter suffers a memory loss problem. Lenny cannot create new memories after the incident. He still remembers incidents prior to the rape, but after that everything passes and cannot be recalled. Every minute or two, it is an abyssal difference that returns; everything is new, repeatedly. For example, in one scene Lenny has no memorial retention of how he got in the shower, but suddenly just finds himself there.

33. For our purposes, the important point is that Lenny does not remember his past at all, and yet he can still develop habitual responses towards his situation that ensure that he can learn and develop increasingly refined ways of adjusting to the world. How is this possible? By simply repeating particular actions, aspects of his behaviour become quasi-instinctual. He begins to habitually know where to look for things. Even though he has no recollection of what he did a minute ago, it is nevertheless possible to learn and to adapt to what is ostensibly an absolutely new situation, through the deployment of consistent patterns of behaviour. This is something that Merleau-Ponty also consistently emphasises in Phenomenology of Perception, where he insists upon the epistemological importance of the way that the body acclimatises to its environment, and thereby makes possible an embodied learning and training (Merleau-Ponty, 1945, 152–3).

b) Memory

34. Now Deleuze is not entirely satisfied with this habitual explanation of time, in which the chain of events, or passing present moments, constitute time. At least, he is not satisfied with it on its own, and his basic question is something like, ‘why is it that a habitual present, or temporal ‘now’ moment, can pass’, or, ‘why is it that the present is not totally coextensive with time?’

35. Deleuze suggests that there needs to be a second synthesis of time that causes the present to pass, and this, he argues, is the time of the past, or the time of memory (DR 79). The fundamental idea is that we cannot represent a former present (ie. the past) without also making the present itself represented in that very representation. So, if we think about our past, we also in some sense bracket away the present, or cause the present to cease to be. This means that whenever we remember, there will be two main aspects to this: firstly, the ‘actual’ memory of that past; but also a representation of the present (or the self) as itself being engaged in remembering. Deleuze describes these two aspects as memory and understanding (DR 80).

36. Again, Memento serves as a helpful tool in clarifying how this memorial aspect of our lives might cause the habitual present to pass. After all, what Lenny cannot experience is memory and this means that Lenny’s living-present of habit does not pass in the ordinary sense. Rather, there is only an abrupt break, or gap, in the temporal order, and Lenny suddenly and repeatedly finds himself in new situations.

37. Deleuze argues that memory involves a more profound synthesis than habit (DR 79), and he makes a very Derridean point to disrupt any privilege that might be accorded to the living-present of habit. He argues that "no present would ever pass were it not past ‘at the same time’ as it is present; no past would ever be constituted unless it were first constituted ‘at the same time’ as it was present" (DR 81). So there is no temporal ‘now’ moment, contrary to what Husserl held, and the present must itself always be divided. The present is always already differentiated from itself, and we have seen the manner in which the repetition of habit does, in fact, instantiate a difference (it introduces a difference between the first AB and the following AB, by causing us to expect a B whenever we encounter an A).

38. For Deleuze (as for Derrida in his discussions of the trace), any invocations of the past refer to a ‘pure past’ that has never yet been present. As Jon Roffe has put it, memory "synthesises from passing moments a form in-itself of things which never existed before that operation" (Roffe, 2002). In other words, unity is imposed upon the past, in that it makes of the past this or that specific meaning. Difference, or pure difference, is hence denied by this synthesis, but it is also clear that Deleuze does not want to hold that memory is a simple matter of representing the past. Memory also creates the past, and hence instantiates a lesser form of difference. According to Deleuze, this second synthesis of time, the past, is also the ground that means that any ‘present’ always necessarily passes (as it is bracketed away in the attempt to remember), and it hence allows for the arrival of another ‘present’ (DR 81–2).

39. Deleuze goes on to make the provocative claim that "every reminiscence, whether of a town, or a woman, is erotic" (DR 85). Although this is never precisely explicated, his point seems to be that the experience of time in this second sense is ‘structurally’ akin to the experience of desire. In this memorial dimension of time, we violate the purity of an absolute past and fail to understand it in its difference and singularity. Likewise, desire is an experience in which you never completely get what you want, so to speak, but must always leave intact the mystery or singularity of that which is desired.

40. However, Deleuze has another reason why he considers the temporal modes of habit and memory to be insufficient, and this is explained in some detail. Basically, he argues that these two conceptions of time do not properly institute time in thought. Although we no doubt can think habitually, and can regurgitate prior ways of thinking about problems (but remember that for Deleuze, habit must always be flexible and non-mechanistic), this is not genuine thought. Similarly, although there is a type of ‘understanding’ involved in memory (as the present is also bracketed away with the past, and this enables the necessary distance for something tantamount to reflection) this is also not genuine thought. Deleuze argues that truly philosophical thought involves a futural form that breaks open time (DR 88), and interrupts time, even if it always also pertains to time. It is this aspect of time that we will now turn to, via a discussion of Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return of the same.

c) The Future and the Eternal Return

41. While Nietzsche regularly affirmed the importance of his conception of the eternal return, arguably the most important recent treatment of the concept can be found in Deleuze’s work. Deleuze accords the eternal return sustained attention in several different texts including Difference and Repetition, Nietzsche and Philosophy, Pure Immanence, and his essay "Nomad Thought".

42. However, Deleuze puts a peculiar inflexion on Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal return of the same, and instead exalts the eternal return of difference, or the eternal recurrence of difference. He also argues that this is at least partially congruent with Nietzsche’s own stated position.

43. While Nietzsche suggests competing interpretations of the eternal return, at least according to the traditional interpretation, the eternal return poses a single but complicated question that can be schematised as follows – what if a malevolent genie informed that you that whatever mode of action you choose now, it will be repeated indefinitely? The implication of this is that everything recurs as we have once experienced it, and an infinite number of times. This view also has potential cosmological implications if we are to concretely attempt to conceive of it, but Nietzsche intends the ‘return’ to function more as a test designed to intensify experience, and to ensure that we choose to do something that we are prepared to affirm over and over again. The presumption seems to be that such an individual, who can affirm their own life on the supposition that their chosen action will recur infinitely, can handle anything.

44. This conception of the eternal return seems to represent the world, or at least an individual’s life, as repeating itself endlessly in identical cycles. Nietzsche explicitly suggests that a life is envisaged as returning in sequential order, and that there will be "nothing new in it" (Nietzsche, 2001, 341). It would hardly seem to be a good candidate for thematizing the future.

45. According to Deleuze, however, to emphasise this one conception of the eternal return in Nietzsche’s work is to misconstrue the main import of the idea, which he argues is supposed to be about the return of difference. Now there are undoubtedly some intuitive problems with the notion of difference returning – how can difference return if it does not share something with that which has preceded it? Is it even coherent to claim that pure difference can return? It is precisely this kind of logic that Deleuze wants to reject in his insistence on understanding pure difference, and he instead argues that the eternal return is designed to affirm only the contingent nature of things, and the manner in which we are confronted with a certain situation and compelled to act. Like Nietzsche, there is a sense in which Deleuze also wants to affirm the eternal return as a thought that is designed to test us. However, he argues that any commitment to the eternal return affirms only that initial experience of contingency – the moment of not having any particular mode of action necessitated, or of openness to the future. Whereas the Kantian categorical imperative prescribes a certain course of action (at least if one is being rational), the Deleuzian/Nietzschean test affirms the way in which the thought of the return does not prescribe anything, and it hence affirms chance, and that things may have been other than they are.

46. Elsewhere, Deleuze also goes on to argue that what is affirmed in any genuine thought of the eternal return, is not the whole, as the Ancients may have held, and as some of Nietzsche’s comments also indicate. Rather, Deleuze argues that the eternal return is selective (PI 88-9; DR 91-2, 298), and that it frees us from conventional morality. We choose to affirm something in particular (which rules out, and differs from any number of alternatives). To invoke an example of Deleuze’s, if one were to choose cowardice or laziness to recur eternally, there is a sense in which this kind of affirmation of these attributes would actually transform them to such an extent that they could not be adequately called cowardice or laziness any longer (PI 88). So the eternal return is designed to intensify and affirm our experiences of each moment, and Deleuze argues that it is the affirmation itself that recurs eternally, and not the consequences, or even the agent who does the affirming. Reaction, negation and sameness do not return, and the consequences of actions do not return.

47. But if this is the case, it seems difficult to use the Deleuzian conception of the eternal return as a test to intensify experience. If the agent does not return, then why worry about what you affirm, or why imbue your decision with any intensity at all? In the Nietzschean test, the motivation to do so is provided by the possibility that actual consequences, and an agent who suffers them, will recur indefinitely. In other words, there is a question here as to how the Deleuzian inversion of Nietzsche’s position might function as an aide to a revaluation of values. It rejects traditional normative morality (much as the return of the same also does), but the return of difference, in which agency plays no part, and in which the will also gets left behind, does not seem to motivate or intensify action in quite the same way.

48. Deleuze and Nietzsche seem to be speaking on different levels. Even though Deleuze insists on the importance of the existential experience of the eternal return, to a greater extent than Nietzsche he is also naming conditions for the possibility of experience (hence his more ontological conception of the eternal return), as well as conditions for that particular kind of experience that Nietzsche is trying to encourage.

49. This brings Deleuze into closer proximity with the work of Derrida. Rather than juxtaposing the Nietzschean Deleuze in opposition to the more transcendentally concerned Derrida – as Gordon Bearn and many other theorists have done – it seems that the issue is more complicated than that.

50. What is required, for the moment, is to connect this discussion of the eternal return of difference with Deleuze’s descriptions of the final temporal mode – the future. Deleuze frequently connects these two ideas, but what could such a conjunction mean? Clearly it suggests that for him, the eternal return of difference is more than merely a thought experiment, and it is not simply about history repeating itself. Rather, for him the eternal return functions as a paradigm case of the futural dimension of time that he ultimately wants to privilege.

51. Among other things, we can take this apparently paradoxical insistence upon the return of difference as a critique of Hegel, in which difference is continually reabsorbed by the synthesising movement of the dialectic. For Deleuze, the thought of contradiction is not yet the thought of genuine difference (DR 263), and this means that thinking must not construe difference as derivative – or to be overcome, as he argues is the case with Hegel – but rather as fundamental to the possibility of any relation at all.

52. Of course, a complication for Deleuze’s position is that he argues that this third temporal mode remains a synthesis of time. The obvious response to this is to ask what exactly is being synthesised in the return of difference? If difference can be synthesised, then it would not seem to be an experience of pure difference, precisely because the contradiction, or difference, is overcome in the synthesis. In other words, how can one synthesise pure difference? For Deleuze, such questions are badly posed, as throughout Difference and Repetition he argues that the relation (the difference) precedes the actual terms or polarities of the synthesis. The synthesis that is involved in futural time, and the experience thereof, is hence not recuperative, but instead must be conceived of as disjunctive, in that the only unity of the eternal return is the negative unity that difference does, in fact, return. He repeats this claim when he suggests that, "it is not the same or the similar that returns, but the eternal return which is the only ‘same’ and the only resemblance of that which returns" (DR 126).

53. To put this third temporal modality into more experiential terms, an experience of the future, the time of the eternal return, would hence be oriented towards change. Of course, that does not tell us much, but Deleuze argues that he cannot tell us much about the eternal return, as pure difference cannot be adequately represented in conceptual thought.

54. In order to shed more light upon the way in which this idea might contribute to a revaluation of values, Deleuze talks about the past, or memorial time, as involving a disposition in which the act, or the event (whether it be imagined or empirical), is too big for one, and he suggests that this attitude is exemplified in the cases of Hamlet and Oedipus (DR 89). In habitual time, however, Deleuze suggests that there is a becoming equal to the act, and that the self is equal to whatever event may transpire. Finally, he suggests that in the time of the return of difference, the future, "the event and the act possess a secret coherence which excludes that of the self" (DR 89).

55. But why must a genuine thought, or experience, of the future be subjectless? We can see from Deleuze’s Humean-inspired understanding that the subject is the product both of a habitual synthesis, and also a retrospective imposition in order to give past disparate moments some kind of overall meaning or unity. These memorial and habitual syntheses set up the basic conditions for subjectivity, but subjectivity is not part of the time of the return, the time of the future (DR 89). If the future is to genuinely be the future, then it must not be restricted by this kind of identity. Rather, the future is pure difference, or pure temporality, without the identity of subjectivity betrothed to it, and the "esoteric truth" of the idea of the eternal return of difference hence concerns the idea that the eternal return affects only the new, the unanticipatable, or the future as such, and not specific agents or conditions which return (DR 90). Subjectivity anticipates the future, projects toward the future, and thereby deprives the future of its genuine futurity – it makes of the future a ‘future-present’. Again, this is not a genuine exposure to difference, but is a ‘domestication’ of difference and the future.

56. In this third synthesis of time, Deleuze enigmatically suggests that, "the order of time has broken the circle of the same and arranged time in a series only in order to reform a circle of the Other at the end of the series" (DR 91). Now it is this circle of the Other that Deleuze describes, as well as this tacit claim that pure difference can be experienced, that Derrida does not so clearly endorse. For Deleuze, it is only the yet-to-come that returns, and he wants to argue that there is a sense in which one can experience the return of difference (as well as it being a transcendental condition for this temporal triumverate that cannot itself be thought representationally) without that difference being subsumed by identity. This isn’t quite the case with the later work of Derrida, despite it becoming both more Levinasian in its insistence upon the Other and also more Deleuzian in its insistence upon the future.

57. But what is the status of Deleuze’s claim that the eternal return of difference (the future) is both the totality of the temporal triumverate and also its end? How might this kind of ontological claim aide any revaluation of values? How might it allow us to reject ‘slave morality’ and avoid ressentiment? To indicate briefly how this might be so, it is axiomatic that resentment is an attitude that develops following the conviction that the future is circumscribed (eg. the master’s will always be dominant) and is bound to be contiguous with the past and the present. Deleuze is pointing toward the way in which this final synthesis of time is about pure difference, whereas the other two aspects of the temporal have a less fundamental conception of difference. The eternal return affirms the excessive and the unequal, the multiple and the different. It is about change, or "difference as the origin, which then relates different to different in order to make it return as such" (DR 125) and for him this reversal of the tradition has ethico-political consequences as much as ontological ones. We need to seek encounters in which the anticipatory (and potentially judgmental and moralising) aspects of subjectivity have been stripped away, so as to allow for the new, and for an event, in the fullest possible sense of the term, and what this might consist in is explored in his collaborative works with Guattari.

The Politics of Derrida and Deleuze: A Conclusion, Perhaps

58. Although there are important differences between these two theorists, they have a shared emphasis upon the future, and there are clear political motivations behind this; when the future is thought to be known, this tends to lead to either Fascism or Communism, in which that future state of affairs can justify the violent means needed to get there. In Deleuze’s case, this point is accompanied by a more Nietzschean insistence on the potentially pernicious psychological consequences of subjectivity and its inevitable moralisms (ie. ressentiment). Wary of this kind of thinking, both Derrida and Deleuze valorise the aspect of the future that is contentless and which cannot ever be known. Both theorists also affirm time as the most radical form of difference, and insist upon the importance of this difference in opposition to the priority that much of the philosophical tradition has accorded to a temporal ‘now’ moment.

59. Moreover, for Deleuze and Derrida the future is also linked to novelty, to invention, to the emergence of the new, and hence to the singularity of any event worthy of the name – that is, to an event that is not subsumable under considerations of context, historical precedent, structure, etc.

60. However, it needs to be noted that this apparent equivalence between these theorists can be complicated through the recognition that in his eulogy for Deleuze, Derrida hints at a fundamental disagreement with the Deleuzian formulation of philosophy as being concerned with creating concepts (WM, cf. WP 2). Of course, it is true that Derrida has a more circumspect and qualified attitude to philosophy than Deleuze, considering philosophy to always be partially betrothed to representational thinking (WM). That said, Derrida’s discontent with this idea of philosophy as being about concept creation is not purely about what should be called philosophy (and hence definitional). It is also about the very idea of the creation of the new itself.

61. For Derrida, the new is highly unlikely, improbable; invention is qualified by the thought "if there is such a thing…" (PF 39) For Deleuze, however, genuine philosophy creates new concepts, and although this may be relatively rare, in his work there is also a transcendental commitment to the new, to difference, that is not accompanied by the obligatory ‘perhaps’ or other forms of scare quotations that Derrida regularly employs. Of course, phrasing the differences between these two French philosophers in such a way runs the risk of making Deleuze look like a naïve utopian thinker. This may seem reductive, but from the perspective of Derrida’s work it is also not altogether false. For Derrida, pure difference cannot be experienced because the metaphysics of presence, as well as social habituation, etc., cannot be simply avoided. A time without subjectivity (eg. différance) might produce or make (im)possible subjectivity (SP 82), but it is, paradoxically, only experiencable in the context of just such a subject. Similarly, the radical futurity of the ‘to come’ and the messianic is experienced only as a disruption within unity that is necessarily marginal and that is always partly inaccessible. On the other hand, in the work of Deleuze there is a suggestion that any imperialism of the same, or law of self-presence, is far more unstable and, consequently, that the play of difference, even pure difference, can be experienced in a modality of futural time that dispenses with both identity and subjectivity.

62. The distinction between messianisms and the messianic can also help to clarify this important difference between Deleuze’s and Derrida’s exaltations of the future. For Deleuze, the syntheses of memorial and habitual time are the basic conditions for subjectivity, but subjectivity is radically absent from the futural experience of time: the time of the eternal return of difference. Now, while it is clear that Derrida’s notion of the messianic is not reducible to subjectivity but is other than it, there is also a sense in which the messianic relies upon subjectivity and is inconceivable without it. This is because the messianic is best construed as the exposure of a subject to this radical difference and, for Derrida, the subject is also one of those many unities that simultaneously resists the experience of the messianic.

63. Derrida’s notion of the messianic hence contains a more psychological register, in that he argues that while we persistently hope for the arrival of the wholly other, the prospect also scares us, and we hence harbour a desire for the coming of the Messiah to be indefinitely postponed. As Derrida has suggested, "we wait for something that we would not like to wait for" (DN 24–5) and this suggests that even if it were temporally possible for the messiah to turn up, the subject would resist this, and an experience of pure difference (or pure futurity) hence seems eminently unlikely. Perhaps this should not surprise us unduly given Derrida’s enduring insistence upon the impossibility of simply overcoming metaphysics, but it is an important difference between he and Deleuze, and it ensures that subjectivity is never completely thrown into the volcano (cf. DR 89), or dispensed with, as is the case for Deleuze. The experience of pure difference remains tenable for Deleuze (even if improbable), but this is not so clearly the case for Derrida, who seems to hold true to his earlier formulation, at the start of his long academic career, regarding time necessarily being metaphysical. Derrida accepts and even emphasises that there is an experience of the future, and of the untimely, but these are only possible in the context of a disruption to a metaphysics of presence, and in which a subjectivity produced by such a metaphysics resists these futural experiences.

64. The ethico-political significance of this difference is only beginning to be examined in detail (see Patton and Protevi, 2003), despite it having been apparent for some time. Indeed, perhaps things haven’t changed dramatically since the student riots in France in May 1968. Deleuze embraced these wholeheartedly, but even then Derrida had reservations (N 147-98), and would not give himself over to the promise of the future as completely as his friend and colleague. Ad hominem arguments notwithstanding, this ongoing vigilance and caution means that deconstruction will never be quite as politically radical as Deleuze and his followers, but that does not preclude it being effective. Deconstruction’s ongoing resistance to teleologies of the future is an important guardrail against absolutisms of any and all sorts, although questions remain to be pursued regarding the kind of political calculations – and politics involves compromise – that might best respect this significant moral insight at work in deconstruction.


Jack Reynolds is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Tasmania. He is Continental Area Editor of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Editor of Acumen Press' Major Movements in Modern Philosophical Thought Series. He is currently working on the relationship between Derrida and Deleuze in relation to time and politics, and has two books forthcoming in early 2004: Embodiment and the Other: Relationships and Alterity in Phenomenology and Deconstruction, Merleau-Ponty and Derrida, and Understanding Derrida (ed. with Jon Roffe). Email:


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