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Deleuze's Pure Immanence

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Pure Immanence: Essays on A Life.

Deleuze, Gilles. Translator: Boyman, Anne. Zone Books: New York, 2001. 102 p., $24.00, softcover. ISBN: 1890951242.

Three brief essays make up Pure Immanence -- one on Hume, one on Nietzsche, and one -- "Immanence: A Life" -- that functions as a Deleuzian last testament of sorts, written as it was "in a strange interval [immediately] before his death" (20) as John Rajchman informs us in his very useful introduction to the volume. In this essay, which appears first in the book, Deleuze defines what he calls a "transcendental empiricism," an a-subjective, impersonal, wild and powerful state, existing "in contrast to everything that makes up the world of the subject and the object" (25).

Unlike a notion of the transcendent, the plane of the transcendental is an absolute immanence, complete in itself, neither "in something" nor belonging to someone (say some notion of a universal subject). "It is only when immanence is no longer immanence to anything other than itself that we can speak of a plane of immanence" (27). Pure or absolute immanence is what Deleuze calls "A LIFE," defined as a paradoxical experience/duration in which individuality fades and becomes "a singular essence," an empty time of singularities or virtualities existing in between what we take to be the defining moments of an individual's life. A LIFE unfolds according to a different logic than the life of an individual. It can never be grasped fully; it is always yet "in the making," in potentia, and flashes into conscious existence only occasionally. Deleuze gives two striking examples to illustrate this enigmatic state/space/time, the first from Dickens's Our Mutual Friend:

A disreputable man, a rogue, held in contempt by everyone, is found as he lies dying. Suddenly, those taking care of him manifest an eagerness, respect, even love, for his slightest sign of life. Everybody bustles about to save him, to the point where, in his deepest coma, this wicked man himself senses something soft and sweet penetrating him. But to the degree that he comes back to life, his saviors turn colder, and he becomes once again mean and crude. Between his life and his death, there is a moment that is only that of a life playing with death (28).

In another example, Deleuze calls attention to very small children, as yet unformed as individuals, who all tend to resemble one another except in their singularities -- a smile, a gesture. "Through all their sufferings and weakness, [they] are infused with an immanent life that is pure power and even bliss" (30).

As Rajchman points out, one would need a new conception of society in order to understand Deleuze's notion of a life. It would be one in which we recognize that what we share is our singularities and not our individualities, that "what is common is impersonal and what is impersonal is common" (14). From this perspective, society is viewed not as a social contract between individuals but as an experiment with what in life precedes both individuals and collectivities. Relations with others would be based not in identification or recognition but in encounter and new compositions formed by saying "yes" to what is singular yet impersonal in living.

This all too brief summary cannot do justice to what is a complex set of musings. While Pure Immanence is not the place to start if one is unfamiliar with Deleuze's thought, it is a rich, rewarding, and not inaccessible read.

Ellen E. Berry