Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Eugene Holland reviews John Protevi’s Life, War, Earth: Deleuze and the Sciences

John Protevi. Life, War, Earth: Deleuze and the Sciences. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 264 pp. Hardcover $75.00. Paperback $25.00.

Reviewed by Eugene W. Holland

4 June 2014

With characteristic rigor, clarity, and modesty, John Protevi here adds to his earlier, similarly focused books a superb collection of essays focused on the interface between philosophy and science in Gilles Deleuze.  Drawing on cutting-edge research in the cognitive and life sciences, he is able on one hand to shed invaluable light on the relations among the interacting domains of the virtual, the intensive, and the actual, which are key to Deleuze’s ontology.  Case studies drawn from state-formation and military training (part 1), the embodied mind branch of cognitive science (part 2), and contemporary biology (part 3) provide rich illustrations of the dynamics of differentiation, individuation, and differenciation characteristic of those three interacting domains.  At the same time, and perhaps more surprisingly, Protevi is able on the other hand to show how Deleuze’s ontology “enables us to understand natural processes in multiple registers” in especially productive ways (p. 9).  For one thing, Protevi’s astonishing transdisciplinary reach enables us to see the same abstract machines of self-organization at work on very different materials at very different scales, ranging from the behavior of hurricanes to the behavior of single-cell bacteria (in somewhat the same way, albeit on very similar scales, that Michel Foucault discerned the abstract machine of disciplinary power to be operative in schools and hospitals as well as armies and prisons).  The analysis of human action thus gets decentered from the individual subject to the realms of the geopolitical, the neurophysiological, and the social-technological, within overlapping time frames that include the long-term phylogenetic, the mid-term ontogenetic, and the short-term behavioral.  More important, Deleuze’s philosophical perspective highlights how nondeterministic the best of much recent science can be; increasingly (but as a matter of principle in Deleuzian philosophy), the objects of science are seen to emerge immanently yet contingently from preexisting conditions rather than to result deterministically from an antecedent cause.  Deleuze thus moves us beyond the stand-off between an outmoded and “discredited” social constructivism and an “equally discredited . . . determinism” (p. 79) (and similarly beyond the sterile realism/idealism debate in cognitive science [pp. 147–49]); virtual Ideas are just as real as the objects and events that actualize them, while at the same time both allowing (nondeterministically) for various different actualizations and themselves changing over time as a result of those actualizations (so that Deleuzian Ideas are completely unlike Platonic Forms). 


A conclusion to this collection of essays could have brought the importance of this move, of Protevi’s book, and of Deleuzian metaphysics in general into sharper relief.  While we can hope that a book as fine as this one does indeed fulfill the author’s stated aim of “bring[ing] scientifically minded philosophers and philosophically minded scientists… into dialogue” (p. 14) by introducing both groups “to the benefits of a Deleuzian approach” (p. vii), the collection never specifies what it is that Deleuzian metaphysics offers us an approach to.  Surely “dialogue” (as laudable as it may be in its own right) cannot be the ultimate goal (Deleuze himself was notoriously dismissive of communication as an end in itself).  And while it is certainly the case, as Protevi brilliantly demonstrates here, that Deleuze’s “ontology helps us explain natural processes in multiple registers” (p. 9), this cannot be the goal either, for that would turn philosophy into a mere handmaiden of the sciences.  Instead, by steering us between the Scylla of constructivism and the Charybdis of determinism, Deleuzian metaphysics creates the space for a politics based squarely on both the realistic constraints and the plausible affordances revealed by contemporary nonlinear science, a politics whose “normative standard” would be a continual “search for novel ways of empowering people to search for novel means of empowering others” (p. 108; see also pp. 124–25). 


To bring such a politics down to earth and flesh it out, finally, we need to correct the only false note I found in the entire book: Protevi’s abrupt dismissal (adopted uncritically, it is true, from Deleuze and Guattari themselves) of the notion of ideology.  He is right, of course, to reject the attribution of causal agency to disembodied ideas, but no one has defined ideology that way at least since Althusser.  He is also right to insist on resituating the dethroned subject in relation to the social-technical register (along with the geopolitical and the neurophysiological registers), and this is precisely where Althusser’s “ideological state apparatuses” operate as structured prepersonal fields of individuation (see pp. 33, 110) to induce “behavioral modules” (p. 29) or even “affect programs” (p. 75) in subject populations.  Quintessentially, in the context of his long-standing interest in the contingency of social formations’ ability or inability to reproduce themselves, it is always an open question for Althusser whether a given ideological effect or behavior module will contribute to the consolidation (what he called the “becoming-necessary”) of a social formation or to its transformation (its becoming-unnecessary)–just as it is for Deleuze and for Protevi as well.  The opening between the two is the space of politics.