As with most of his books on the History of Philosophy, Gilles Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy is in large part a work of ventriloquy. Deleuze is speaking through Nietzsche, or making Nietzsche speak for him, as part of a series of debates and concerns that are perhaps more properly “Deleuzian” than they are “Nietzschean.” This is no doubt clearest in the book’s excoriation of Hegelianism and the dialectic: “There is no possible compromise between Hegel and Nietzsche,” Deleuze tells us (195). Written in 1962, Nietzsche and Philosophy is then part of a broadside within French thought against the prevailing postwar interest in Hegel (very much as mediated by Alexandre Kojève). A few years later, Louis Althusser would also join in the fray, with his attempt to construct a Marxism in which all indebtedness to Hegel had been absolutely excised.
The war against Hegel and Hegelianism is also a war against negation. In Nietzsche, Deleuze claims to find a philosopher of pure affirmation: the affirmation of affirmation against the dialectic’s famous negation of negation. The dialectic can at best produce “a phantom of affirmation” (196). In Hegelianism, “everywhere there are sad passions; the unhappy consciousness is the subject of the whole dialectic” (196). By contrast, for Deleuze,
Nietzsche’s practical teaching is the difference is happy; that multiplicity, becoming and chance are adequate objects of joy by themselves and that only joy returns. Multiplicity, becoming and chance are the properly philosophical joy in which unity rejoices in itself and also in being and necessity. (190)
At every turn, Nietzsche chooses activity, life, the will, over against the forces of reaction and ressentiment. The only negativity in his work, Deleuze says, is in fact positive: it is always in the service of creation; it is a total critique that enables the new to manifest itself. Hence “destruction as the active destruction of all known values is the trail of the creator” (177); in Nietzsche, “the whole of the negative has become a power of affirming” (179).
Deleuze’s book, as though intoxicated by Nietzschean affirmation, ends with rather a flourish, heralding the powers of Zarathustra, Dionysus, and the Over-man. We a presented a vision, that can’t help but seem a little mystical, of the triumph of dance, “laughter, roars of laughter,” and a sense of “play [that] affirms chance and the necessity of chance” (194). All well and good. But the fact is that, if we look around, all we see is the supremacy of reaction, the ubiquity of ressentiment, and the ascendancy of nihilism. How can this be? Is it conceivable that reactive forces are in fact stronger than active ones? If not, what explains their triumph? How does action, activity, affirmation, and the will to power give way to the tyranny of the negative?
This is a question that Deleuze will never stop asking. Indeed, in some ways it is the central question of his philosophical career. In Anti-Oedipus, he and Félix Guattari put it in more strictly political terms:
Even the most repressive and the most deadly forms of social reproduction are produced by desire within the organization that is the consequence of such production under various conditions that we must analyze. That is why the fundamental problem of political philosophy is still precisely the one that Spinoza saw so clearly, and that Wilhelm Reich rediscovered: “Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?” (Anti-Oedipus 31)
In short: if activity and affirmation are primary, how are they so easily overcome? What goes wrong? Are reactive forces of the same nature as active forces? Do active forces somehow become reactive? If so, how? How does joyous creation end up so badly?
Deleuze’s argument is complex. It all begins when the strangely positive power of forgetting is itself forgotten. Forgetting is “an active and in the strictest sense positive faculty of repression” (113). After all, the first distinction between the noble soul and the slave is that the noble soon forgets any slights; the slave, by contrast, broods and breeds resentment. Ressentiment is only possible once the traces of past ills are preserved, even harboured and nurtured. When this happens, “reaction itself takes the place of action, reaction prevails over action” (114). But what Deleuze wants to stress–indeed, it is vital that he does so–is that “reactive forces do not triumph by forming a force greater than active forces. [. . .] Everything takes place between reactive forces” (114). Then, in a second stage, active force is itself disarmed by being “separated from what it can do; or rather, we find this fiction is propagated. Here we see also the birth of the subject, a fictional entity separated from its own powers of action and activity. But what is most important is that in the forgetting of forgetting and in the construction of the fiction of the subject alike, “in neither of the two cases do reactive forces triumph by forming a greater force than active forces” (124).
Deleuze has again to push further: How for instance does fiction gain a hold over the reality of force? Indeed, this question will soon be redoubled as the ascetic ideal itself is likewise founded on fiction, on the “projection of debt” and the internalization of guilt. How does fiction gain the upper hand? Why would a narrative about the way things are trump our sensation and experience, our affects and bodily investment in the world. Essentially, this is the question of hegemony–or rather, of the hegemony of hegemony. Why did we come to believe in the superiority of reactive forces? Why did we take their omnipotence for granted, so much so that we became habituated into submission and subjection? And with what effect?
I’m not sure that Deleuze is entirely satisfied with his answers here in Nietzsche and Philosophy. He does after all return to the problem over and over. Is this a symptom of some anxiety? Or is it simply that he feels that we need as many answers as possible: later, the figure of the fold will come to the fore in his consideration of how interiority and subjection develop. Or perhaps it’s the power of the return itself that Deleuze wants to affirm.