Memeing History

Our pervasive tendency to anachronistically historicize all recent contributions to intellectual discourse, showing how they were prefigured rather than what new observations they bring to the table, is itself a product of capitalist realism.

That there are resonances between ideas, irrespective of the time and place of their emergence, is important for us to consider – not only so that we can appreciate a diversity beyond the Western canon (although that is never a bad thing), but because it prefigures the problems that faced the twentieth century’s Marxist-Hegelian view of history.

Understanding that idealism and materialism were not conflicting theories but two parts of a wider feedback loop, the idea of the linear development of history came repeatedly under fire. For Gilles Deleuze, history did not unfold neatly one way or another. History – real history – cannot be sorted like the genealogy of a family tree: a repetitious series of pairings unfolding in an evolutionary line. Anyone who has investigated their own genealogy will know this. The more information you add, the more extended family you include, the more our relations spread outwards in an amorphous cloud of names and faces. Our records only go back so far, but there is no final ancestor to which we can ultimately attribute our existence. Our social histories and the history of ideas functions in much the same way for Deleuze. To constantly assign predecessors and antecedents, losing track of the particular temperament of the present, is to fall head first into philosophy’s own Oedipus complex. In truth, our canonical sense of intellectual progression is nothing more than a convenient framing device. But this is not to say that history isn’t evolutionary, rather we require a new way of understanding how history unfolds.

Deleuze argues that history is rhizomatic, with a central point of origin impossible to ascertain. Though we can follow certain lines through history, they do not simply pass “from one point to another”, he writes, but pass “between points, ceaselessly bifurcating and diverging, like one of [Jackson] Pollock’s lines.” To trace the line of development of a certain idea, then, is not to find a linear development but a multiplicity, capable of existing in multiple times and places at once, and referred to by many different names.

“Multiplicities are made up of becomings without history, of individuation without subject (the way in which a river, a climate, an event, a day, an hour of the day, is individualized)”, Deleuze continues. Channelling Heraclitus, for whom one cannot step into the same river twice, Deleuze argues that this very idea — the concept of becoming — is immediately undone once we individualise the river in question. The River Thames, for instance, remains the River Thames whether I paddle along its silted shores on a cold Thursday in January or a hot Monday in June. In naming everything individually, though life assumes a certain order as a result, the flowing multiplicity of the river and its relations is buried under certain signifiers. Its true nature is rendered as an abstraction, and the abstraction is discarded as useless and imprecise. But what is discarded is reality in all of its psychedelic complexity, and we do ourselves a disservice when we reject complexity out of hand.

To note the reductive nature of categorisation – of individualising the River Thames as the River Thames – is not to genericise the river as such, however. For Deleuze, “the abstract does not explain, but must itself be explained”. It forces us to offer up a more comprehensive explanation of the river’s becoming, its changing states, the ways it is impacted by the things around it, without relying on the one-dimensional shorthand of proper nouns and possessive understandings. Drawing on Whitehead, and echoing his often misused comment about footnotes to Plato, Deleuze insists that the aim of philosophy “is not to rediscover the eternal or the universal, but to find the conditions under which something new is produced.” When we historicise and point to this prefigurement of that, we focus entirely on what has been rather than on what has newly been created. And so, to stick with our example, by unpacking the individualised River Thames, which has cut through the heart of London for eternity, we suddenly unlock a perspective of the river underneath and the different things it has meant to different people – not the universal concept of the Thames but the plurality of a river’s history.

To take another example, we might consider the Ship of Theseus – one of the oldest thought experiments in Western philosophy. The ancient historian Plutarch penned the first recorded version of the tale, in which he explains how Theseus’s ship has been preserved over so many years. The people of Athens, he writes, “took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.” If every part on Theseus’s ship is changed over the course of a long and treacherous voyage, is it still the same ship? That is the question, or so we’re told. But Deleuze reveals the fallacy at the heart of this experiment. The point should be that the ship is, of course, still a ship. To debate whether it is still Theseus’s ship, since all the parts of the ship he originally owned have been replaced, covers over the ingenuity of his crew, who have found so many creative solutions to keep Theseus afloat. Whether Theseus recognises it possessively as his ship is short-sighted. If anything, the ship is now even more representative of the crew, of the multiplicity of persons who have sailed on board.

This not only describes Deleuze’s approach to history but philosophy itself. In his infamous “Letter to a Harsh Critic”, he explains that he belongs “to a generation … that was more or less bludgeoned to death with the history of philosophy”, which is nothing more than “philosophy’s own version of the Oedipus complex: ‘You can’t seriously consider what you yourself think until you’ve read this and that, and that on this, and this on that.’” (This remains a familiar sentiment today, of course.) Resentful of the overbearing weight of history, used as a straitjacket rather than productively, Deleuze engages with the history of philosophy through “a kind of buggery”, he explains, “taking an author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet monstrous.”

This, in turn, was the Ccru’s relationship to Deleuze and Guattari. But it is a relationship that we struggle to maintain with many of the Ccru’s former associates today. It is, notably, what killed accelerationism too. Accelerationism became a meme, and in the process, lost its motor — a militant insistence on the production of the new. As Vincent Garton wrote on this very topic: “Unleashing ideas — intercepting signals — demands a different approach.” We should know our history and we can work with it to produce new ideas, just as Deleuze did, but historicism quickly becomes a blunt instrument if used incorrectly. As Vince adds: “In the course of the history of ideas, reshaping and novelty have always trumped antiquarian precision.”

It is telling that most “memeings” of contemporary figures forget this. Memes of concepts encase events. They don’t unleash ideas but reify them. They turn a free-floating concept into a flat signifier. When created to services the desires of a new generation of philosophy-curious young readers, they abuse novelty by putting it in service of antiquarian precision (and even then, precision is often lacking). We and they deserve better…

Can you tell this is a subtweet that got out of control?

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