Gilles Deleuze: The Expressive Aesthetic

In Proust and Signs, Deleuze writes,

Certain Neoplatonists used a profound word to designate the original state that proceeds any development, any “explication”: complication, which envelops the many in the One and affirms the unity of the multiple. Eternity did not seem to them the absence of change, nor even the extension of a limitless existence, but the complicated state of time itself (uno ictu mutationes was compiectitur). The Word, omnia compiicans, and containing all essences, was defined as the supreme complication, the complication of contraries, the unstable opposition. From this they derived the notion of an essentially expressive universe, organized according to degrees of immanent complications and following an order of descending explications. (ps, 45) 1

Deleuze affirms the univocity of being, but he does so not at the level of substance, but at the level of expression itself. For Deleuze, univocity is not a given, but a generated and generative power, productive only as a “power of thinking which is in itself equal to the power of producing or acting” (E, 181).2 He goes on to say that “expression characterizes both being and knowing. But only univocal being, only univocal consciousness, are expressive. Substance and modes, cause and effects, only have being and are only known through common forms that actually constitute the essence of the one, and actually contain the essence of the others. (E, 181)

Even in his earliest known work Deleuze was seeking in the older forms of Hermetic traditions a path forward in his expressive theories. As David Reggio acknowledges Deleuze provided an introduction to the work of Jean Malfatti de Montereggio:

An Introduction to Jean Malfatti de Montereggio’s La Mathése, a recondite and compelling work, was the earliest publication by a youthful Deleuze of twenty-one years, who in 1946 would have been approaching the completion of his agrégation in philosophy (completed in 1948) at the Sorbonne under the supervision of Georges Canguilhem, Jean Hyppolite and Ferdinand Aliquié.

We know that this was a work by Malfatti known as the Mathesis, or Studies on the Anarchy and Hierarchy of Knowledge. Malfatti was a nineteenth-century Italian doctor who practised the science of medicine in the tradition of natural philosophy grounded not  in a technical proficiency but in experimental practice embodied in lived experience of deep knowledge leading to healing through the sympathetic patterns of vibration that produced what Deleuze would later call maps or diagrams. The idea of mathesis universalis – a science of all sciences that, if and when realized, would have established a long-sought-after unity of knowledge – has been historically viewed as both occult and politically subversive, defying the then scientific beliefs and religious dogmas alike. As Yate has argued, part of what led to Giordano Bruno’s burning at the stake was his advocacy of a new religion that would be centered on love and art together with magic and mathesis. Mathesis as a universal science was then not posited in opposition (as per would-be Cartesian dreamof reason) to art and magic; they would have been reconciled. In mainstream Western philosophy, mathesis universalis is associated with Leibniz, who had envisaged an arithmetica universalis or scientia generalis that would allow a kind of formal or internal elaboration of all possible relations between all concepts in all branches of knowledge taken together. As such, mathesis would be a kind of universal grammar, a sort of formal ‘language’ of symbols.

In his preface to Malfatti’s Mathesis, Deleuze formulates the basic character of life as a paradox: it is only when and to the extent that each entity or individual incarnates the powers of life in itself that resonance and symbiosis can be fully established between every one. As Deleuze states it in the preface:

Prefiguring the relation between man and the infinite, the natural relation unites the living being with life. Life, in the first instance, seems to exist only through and within the living being, within the individual organism that puts it in action. Life exists only through these fragmentary and closed assumptions, each of which realizes it in its own account and nothing more, in solitude. That is to say that universality, the community of life, denies itself, gives itself to each being as a simple outside, an exteriority that remains foreign to it, an Other: there is a plurality of men yet, precisely, each one must in the same way assume his life for himself, without common measure with others, on his own account; the universal is immediately recuperated. And in this sense life will be defined as complicity, as opposed to a crew. (MSP, 144)

In his later magnum opus, Difference and Repetition Deleuze (1994) refersto mathesis in connection with an ‘esoteric’ usage of the calculus, claiming that there is a mathesis universalis that corresponds to his theory of ideas as the differentials of thought. The ideas are often so enveloped or enfolded deep ‘in the soul that we can’t always unfold or develop them’ (Deleuze,1993, p. 49) by means of our cognitive tools alone. The ideas are to be different/ciated in the double movement between the multiple – actual and virtual – levels of reality.

Even in this early work we see Deleuze’s movement toward the knowledge of life and the life of knowledge:

Thus we see that unity comes about at the level of conscious man; very far from transcending the human condition, it is its exact description. It must simply be remarked that such a description must position man in relation to the infinite, the universal. Each individual exists only by denying the universal; but insofar as man’s existence refers to plurality, the negation is carried out universally under the exhaustive form of each and every one-so that it is but the human way of affirming what it denies. We have called this mode of affirmation conscious complicity. And initiation is nothing other than this. Initiation does not have a mystical sense: it is thought of life and the only possible way of thinking life. Initiation is mysterious only in the sense that the knowledge that it represents must be acquired by each person on their own account. The initiate is living man in his relationship with the infinite. And the key notion of mathesis – not at all mystical – is that individuality never separates itself from the universal, that between the living and life one finds the same relation as between life as species, and divinity. Thus the multiplicity of living beings which knows itself as such refers itself back to unity, which it describes in inverse relief, the circle as the simplest case of the ellipse. This is why we need to take Malfatti’s words seriously when he reminds us that the circle, the wheel, represents God: “Mathesis would be for man in his relations with the infinite, what locomotion is to space.”

In many ways this, too, presents a material gnosis one that one that is produced along the transversal line of flight connecting two ‘inseparable planes in reciprocal presupposition’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 109) when the ‘subjective’ world of mind comes in contact with the ‘objective’ world of matter in their mutual integration at the deeper, soul, level, thus ‘establishing the bond of a profound complicity between nature and mind’ (Deleuze, 1994, p. 165).

As one scholar, Joshua Ramey, says “Deleuze remained haunted by the possibility of an ecstatic and therapeutic approach to knowledge his entire career.”1 Part of what is so extraordinary about this early essay, despite the somewhat obscure nature of its intimations, is the way Deleuze is already attempting to think in terms of a “plane” on which a certain projection of life, a lived experience of knowledge, can figure as a dynamic act of transformation or even of creation: sum ergo genero. Deleuze’s early thoughts on mathesis thus anticipate many of the features he will later ascribe to the plan(e) of immanence or composition. He will even eventually claim, with Guattari, that the plane of composition is composed by “sorcerer’s drawings,” a clear harkening back to the symbolic language of Malfatti’s ecstatic mathesis: “The plane of consistency is the intersection of all concrete forms. Therefore all becomings are written like sorcerer’s drawings on this plane of consistency, which is the ultimate Door providing a way out for them … The only question is: Does a given becoming reach that point?” (ATP, 251). One cannot help wondering, given passages like this in his later writings, whether or not there is throughout Deleuze’s work a kind of secret priority or silent prerogative given to esoteric knowledge and practice as a clue to the multiple meanings of immanence, such that to completely comprehend the significance of Deleuze’s philosophy one would have to delve more deeply into previous esoteric traditions. (ibid.)



What’s interesting is that Deleuze himself, even as early as this introduction to Malfatti, was already moving toward a non-philosophical project, in the sense that it was neither philosophy nor science that truly interested him: it was the knowledge of life and the life of knowledge, that per se was the unique underpinnings of his whole complex of notions, ideas, trajectories. Even in such passages as this from A Thousand Plateaus: “The plane of consistency is the intersection of all concrete forms. Therefore all becomings are written like sorcerer’s drawings on this plane of consistency, which is the ultimate Door providing a way out for them … The only question is: Does a given becoming reach that point?” (ATP, 251). It was on this plane of composition, where the empirical aligned itself with the spatium that Deleuze hoped to formulate his transcendental empiricism. His sense of how things emerge out of the spatium.

I sometimes think that people lean too heavy on The Logic of Sense and Difference and Repetition when they should traverse the full oeuvre of Deleuze’s work. Some think that Deleuze took a wrong turn with Guattari, without realizing that this venture was a part of a complex movement and that Deleuze took it all in as part of an overall strategy in his progress. And, I do see his work as a struggle or agon in the old sense, not one against other philosophers, but one like the old parable of Jacob wrestling with God for the life of his son: but in this instance the what is being wrestled with is the hidden underbelly of philosophical tradition itself, and the prize a way out of the deadlock we are now in… Did he succeed? Obviously he did not have time to complete the task…. with his death many things remained unsaid, ill-composed or half-measured; yet, in the end he was building a legacy that we still have as yet ill-understood, are only now beginning to truly understand.


1. Joshua Ramey. The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal (Duke University Press 2012)
2. David Reggio. Jean Malfatti de Montereggio: a brief introduction

  2 comments for “Gilles Deleuze: The Expressive Aesthetic

  1. dmfant
    January 14, 2013 at 7:07 am
    • January 14, 2013 at 8:05 am

      Ah, that was great… classic Ballard, he was there before everyone else, anyway! The Technological Sublime in four dimensions… haha. His early work is still the best, eerie with that sense of our dead and blank stares fitfully inhabiting the moonscapes of our external thoughts…

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