Tag Archives: difference

Diversity and Difference

One of many important contributions of poststructuralist and postcolonial philosophies is the recognition that there are severe limitations to theoretical-political uses of the category of “diversity.” While some might naively ask how philosophies can undergo revision to be more tolerant and inclusive of diversity, the real question is how the category of diversity can be opened up to make room for something less philosophically ignorant. Discourses on diversity are espoused by philodoxers, lovers of opinions who fail to question their own presuppositions and fail to understand the grounds of what is given as diversity.

Poststructuralist and postcolonial concepts of difference provide means for thinking deeper than the category of diversity allows. Deleuze’s philosophy is a good example: “Diversity is given, but difference is that by which the given is given, that by which the given is given as diverse. Difference is not phenomenon but the noumenon closest to the phenomenon. […] Every diversity and every change refers to a difference which is its sufficient reason” (Difference and Repetition).

Homi Bhabha’s shift from cultural diversity to cultural difference is another good example. Kwok Pui-Lan gives a cogent summary.

The debate on multiculturalism in the United States has pointed to its inadequacy in dealing with diversity, because it fails to confront the dominant white culture’s power to define, appropriate, and assimilate minority cultures, in other words, its power to set the rules of the game. Following Homi Bhabha, I have come to see the limitations of cultural diversity when articulated within a liberal paradigm, which treats different cultures as mutually interacting and competing on the same footing in the public square. Such an approach often assumes the stance of cultural relativity, which calls for cultural exchange, the tolerance of diversity, and the management of conflicts through democratic means. Instead, Bhabha uses the term “cultural difference” to underscore that the interaction of cultures in the postcolonial world is always imbued with power and authority. Difference arises not because there are many preconstituted cultures existing side by side, but is manufactured through particular discourses at critical moments when the status quo is questioned. […] Furthermore, the tension and anxieties elicited by cultural difference are always overlaid and heightened by the issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. (Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology)

Whereas the category of diversity makes issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality look like matters of identity politics, the category of difference trades identity politics for a politics of difference, for which race, class, gender, and sexuality are not given identities but are differential relations constituted through the tensions, ruptures, and resistance of asymmetrical powers. This is a rather old point, finding its explicit expression beginning in the late 1960s. However, the persistence of liberal discourses on diversity and identity politics indicates that this point has yet to be understood outside of the rare achievements of poststructuralism, postcolonial studies, and difference feminism. Along those lines, it’s apparent that liberalism has failed. Like McKenzie Wark said recently, “not only the old socialism but also the old liberalism is dead.” This death needs to sink in before proceeding to articulate a politics of difference. Mourning is important, otherwise melancholy will pull us back into the same old discourses on diversity and identity. “So mourn good and long. And then we’ll organize, but differently.”

“Tomorrow we shall have to invent, once more, the reality of this world.” (Octavio Paz)

Place in Whitehead, Deleuze, Derrida

Whitehead, Deleuze, and Derrida each discuss place by engaging, among other things, the discourse on chora (“place”) in Plato’s Timaeus, where chora is described as a “third thing” that is neither sensible (matter) nor intelligible (form), but a generative relational matrix that organizes and disturbs form/matter interactions.  The recoveries of chora at work in these thinkers draw on their related concepts of creativity (Whitehead), difference-in-itself (Deleuze), and différance (Derrida).  As a locus of creative differences, chora supports their respective efforts to transform or overcome Platonism and its form/matter hierarchy, thereby making room for understandings of place as exceeding the limits of dualistic hierarchies.

This fall, I’ll be presenting papers on this topic on a couple different  occasions, including the 5th annual meeting of the Pacific Association for the Continental Tradition (PACT) in San Francisco and the 17th annual meeting of the International Association for Environmental Philosophy (IAEP, pronounced like “yep”) in Eugene, Oregon.  I’ll discuss the specific ways in which Whitehead, Deleuze, and Derrida each interprets chora and how those interpretations are indicative of complementary yet antagonistic possibilities for understanding and responding to actual places.  Instead of taking sides, I claim that those possibilities are at their most relevant and compelling when they are brought into a complex contrast with one another.

For Whitehead and Deleuze, chora is described in terms of a positive becoming, whereas Derrida writes about chora as an excluded or marginalized alterity.  Those different accounts reflect different conceptions of transcendence and immanence.  While Derrida maintains a Levinasian tendency to privilege the transcendence of alterity, Deleuze is committed to immanence, notwithstanding their respective attempts to deconstruct transcendental signifieds and liberate events from transcendence/immanence binaries.  Whitehead resolves the opposition by conceiving of a mutually implicative relationship between transcendence and immanence (in theological terms, panentheism).

Although each of these thinkers intends to affirm an ethical commitment to place, that does not necessarily translate into a commitment to some actual place(s).  For instance, Derrida affirms the ethically compelling alterity of place, including human and nonhuman others associated with place, and he does so with much attention to language and ontology but relatively little engagement in natural sciences, thus compromising his ability to account for some specificities of actual places.  That contrasts with the evolutionary and cosmological repetitions of chora given by the more scientifically inclined Whitehead and Deleuze, for whom the task of understanding and responding to places requires an integration of speculative metaphysics with empirical inquiry.  A crucial contrast between Whitehead and Deleuze is that the latter tends to undermine the specificity of actual places by explaining actual entities in terms of an underlying field of virtual multiplicities.  More pluralistically, Whitehead’s ontological principle affirms that actual entities are irreducibly real, such that a place is a field of becoming not in the sense of an underlying virtual field but in the sense of a dynamic network of actual entities in mutually constitutive relations.

This is not to say that Whitehead’s recovery of chora is better than Derrida’s or Deleuze’s.  Whitehead is more attentive to the specificities of actual places.  However, his “God” and “eternal objects” might unnecessarily complicate empirical inquiries, in contrast to Deleuze’s immanent experiments with chora, which are more affirmative of the non-teleological and self-organizing capacities of places.  Among these three thinkers, Derrida is perhaps most well-suited for discerning ways in which different (undecidable) determinations of place involve exclusions and negations, which constitute and disturb the boundaries of language, reason, gender, and species.  In sum, I hope to convey some ways in which Whitehead, Deleuze, and Derrida contribute to knowledge of and ethical responses to actual places, with the unique benefits and limitations of those contributions becoming apparent amid the creative differences between them.

Learning to Swim with Deleuze

The movement of the swimmer does not resemble that of the wave, in particular, the movements of the swimming instructor which we reproduce on the sand bear no relation to the movements of the wave, which we learn to deal with only by grasping the former in practice as signs.  That is why it is so difficult to say how someone learns: there is an innate or acquired practical familiarity with signs, which means that there is something amorous—but also something fatal—about all education.  […]

When a body combines some of its own distinctive points with those of a wave, it espouses the principle of a repetition which is no longer that of the Same, but involves the Other—involves difference, from one wave and one gesture to another, and carries that difference through the repetitive space thereby constituted.  To learn is indeed to constitute this space of an encounter with signs, in which the distinctive points renew themselves in each other, and repetition takes shape while disguising itself. […]

To learn to swim is to conjugate the distinctive points of our bodies with the singular points of the objective Idea in order to form a problematic field.  This conjugation determines for us a threshold of consciousness at which our real acts are adjusted to our perceptions of the real relations, thereby providing a solution to the problem.  Moreover, problematic Ideas are precisely the ultimate elements of nature and the subliminal objects of little perceptions.  As a result, ‘learning’ always takes place in and through the unconscious, thereby establishing the bond of a profound complicity between nature and mind.

Gilles Deleuze, Difference and repetition, trans. Paul Patton. (Columbia University Press, 1994), pp. 23, 165.

Joy and laughter, or Why I am So Happy

Nietzsche’s practical teaching is that difference is happy; that multiplicity, becoming and chance are adequate objects of joy by themselves and that only joy returns.  […]  The death of God needs time finally to find its essence and become a joyful event.  Time to expel the negative, to exorcise the reactive—the time of a becoming-active.  This time is the cycle of the eternal return.
The negative expires at the gates of being.  Opposition ceases its labour and difference begins its play.

Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy (Columbia UP, 2002), p. 190.


Drag queens flaunt their perversions and incite our laughter at them. [….] In the moment of laughter, there is transparency among individuals, as if the outburst of laughter gave rise to a single torrent surging within them.
Thus drag queens are the paragons and forgers of public morality.
Laughter freezes when someone who brings death to our friend or to a whole people gets away with it.  Yet Nature does get away with it: the wind sputters through the eyes and jaw of a skeleton.  We understand that we can laugh in the face of death.  We catch sight of the possibility of seeing our death as a joke.  We understand that we can die laughing.
You see our planet set in the orbit of the Sun, which is burning out as fast as it can.  You see our Sun swirling in the cosmic maelstrom of the Milky Way galaxy.  You see innumerable galaxies exploding toward immensities and distances that telescopes are not yet able to track.  New telescopes and spaceship journeys into outer space will extend your vision of the universe ever further beyond the radius of our managed environment.  It will direct our minds with material entities—stars, novae, and black holes—more alien and more forceful than any gods that we had imagined.

Alphonso Lingis, Body Transformations: Evolutions and Atavisms in Culture (Routledge, 2005), pp. 98, 123.