Philosophy is the theory of multiplicities. Every multiplicity implies actual elements and virtual elements. There is no purely actual object. Every actuality surrounds itself with a fog of virtual images.
This quote taken from a late text published posthumously from a reedition of Deleuze’s Dialogues with Claire Parnet summarises, in brief, the importance of the terms ‘virtual’ and ‘actual’ in Deleuze’s work. However, to truly understand the notion of virtuality we must take a detour through the work of Henri Bergson and Deleuze’s later reimagining of Bersonsian ideas in Bergsonism.
Bergson’s Matter and Memory marks a seminal point in the development of his philosophical system, and is arguably the foundation upon which the rest of his works are built. Here Bergson is concerned with understanding how these two ideas, matter and memory, interact with one another. He wants to show how it is that perception is affected by memory, and in what sense we can understand memory as existing at all. However, for the purposes of our entryway into the virtual we shall leave aside perception as it exists on its own as ‘pure perception’ and focus on Bergson’s presentation of memory.
In Bergsonism (B) Deleuze states that Bergson presents the identity of memory primarily as “the conservation and preservation of the past in the present” (B, 51), yet he wants to question “whether the present distinctly contains the ever-growing image of the past, or whether by its continual changing of quality attests rather to the increasingly heavy burden dragged along behind one the older one grows” (ibid.). These quotes, taken from Bergson’s works, start Deleuze’s discussion of virtuality in the chapter ‘Memory as Virtual Coexistence,’ and it is through them that we can see how Deleuze uses Bergson’s concept of memory to conceptualise time. It will be through this metaphysical discussion of the temporal aspect of memory that Deleuze will separate his notion of the virtual from Simondon’s preindividual. Yet to understand this discussion we must first see how Bergson introduces the concept of ‘pure memory’ and uses it to bring forth a novel conception of time.
Bergson wants to claim that there is a fundamental difference between sensations and memory that has been absent from many philosophical and psychological explorations of the subject. He states that “philosophers insist on regarding the difference between actual sensations and pure memory as a mere difference in degree, and not in kind. In our view the difference is radical” (Bergson, 1991, 139). In other words, Bergson is claiming that pure memory is not merely of the same kind as other human actions like perception and sensation. He claims that the past is preserved in two distinct forms and can be accessed in different ways. To exemplify this point he first makes the distinction between two separate types of memory, habit memory and recollection memory. Habit memory is seen as the functional memory of the body which is situated in the sensori-motor mechanisms that allow it to operate. Habit is ingrained in our behaviour by means of practice and repetition and it is through this operation that we form a connection to the past. On the other hand, recollection memory operates “through an intellectual effort when we place ourselves directly in the past and contract elements of it to suit a present requirement” (Ansell Pearson, 2002, 172). In other words, recollection memory represents an action taken by the human subject in which we use our recollection of the past to inform our present.
However, as we have noted, pure memory exists in a different realm to that of sensations and matter. It refers to an impersonal realm of memory which has not been lived by the experiencing subject and therefore exists beyond the limits of psychological recollection. It does not exist in the brain, or indeed in any kind of physical space, it exists purely as the non-actual realm in which past events and actions are stored as soon as they move beyond the present moment. Here Bergson is introducing an ontological distinction between the world of matter and the realm of memory which leads Deleuze to claim that the introduction of ‘pure memory’ implies something beyond subjective psychology; it implies “a ‘past in general’ that is not the particular past of a particular present but that is like an ontological element, a past that is eternal and for all time” (B, 56). So, in summary, we are operating under the assumption that pure memory is an ontological totality which implies a ‘past in general’ that exists independently from the experiencing subject. Therefore, we must conclude that pure memory, insofar as it exists, does not exist actually, it exists virtually.
It is following this discussion where Deleuze highlights the novelty of Bergson’s ideas. Deleuze states that we mischaracterise both the past and present by claiming that a present only becomes past when it is replaced by another present. In other words, thinking of the relation between present to past purely as a succession brings up a host of issues that he will try to address. He asks the question: “How would a new present come about if the old present did not pass at the same time that it is present? How would any present whatsoever pass, if it were not past at the same time as present?” (B, 58). To Deleuze this represents a fundamental paradox concerning the nature of time which lies at the heart of Bergson’s question of memory, and one that implies the notion of virtuality which he will explore later: “The past is ‘contemporaneous’ with the present that it has been. … The past and the present do not denote two successive moments, but two elements which coexist” (B, 58-59). The implication of this contemporaneity is that there must exist a past in general, a pure past, that is the whole past, and thus constitutes all of our pasts, which coexists with the present moment as it is experienced by the individual perceiver. The past cannot therefore merely follow on from the present, it must be the condition which allows the present to exist insofar as it is defined by a ceaseless movement into what it is not. The past is therefore presupposed by the present, for if it weren’t no present could exist. In short, we are all bound by a past that exists externally to our experience, but at the same time constitutes our experience.
Here we encounter Bergson’s famous metaphor of the cone which he describes thusly:
At S is the present perception which I have of my body, that is to say, of a certain sensori-motor equilibrium. Over the surface of the base AB are spread, we may say, my recollections in their totality. Within the cone so determined, the general idea oscillates continually between the summit S and the base AB. (Bergson, 1991, 161)
Thus, what is crucial here in terms of our understanding of the virtual is that the past, represented by AB, must coexist with the present S, but it must also include within itself every subsection of the cone marked A’B’ or A’’B’’ etc. These subsections measure the degree to which the past exists in relation to our sensation in the present. “Each of these sections is itself virtual, belonging to the being in itself of the past. Each of these sections or these levels includes not particular elements of the past but always the totality of the past. … Bergsonian duration is … defined less by succession than by coexistence” (B, 60). Yet the importance of this coexistence is that it is inherently virtual in nature (as implied by Deleuze’s chapter heading). In other words, when we place ourselves into the past, we are not merely delving into a particular region which contains certain recollections, one which differs from another region containing other recollecitons. We are instead interacting with the past as a whole which contains distinct levels or subsections that encapsulate the whole past in a varying states of contraction (as it is brought down the cone towards sensation). As Deleuze states, the whole of our past “is played, restarts, repeats itself, at the same time, on all the levels that it sketches out … It is in this sense that one can speak of the regions of Being itself, the ontological regions of the past ‘in general,’ all coexisting, all ‘repeating’ one another” (ibid.). The repetition that exists within the past is a repetition of planes, or subsections of the past i.e. A’B’ and A’’B’’. Our leap into the past through recollection implies an interaction with the virtual nature of these planes as Bergson’s theory suggests a form of movement within a realm that cannot be physical and therefore actual, but must be virtual.
Here we start to see the importance of the notion of repetition as it exists in Deleuze’s later work. Bergson’s virtual realm of pure past is a totality made up of differing distinct levels and regions which, paradoxically, contain the whole of the past in its entirety, and serves as the necessary condition which allows the present to come into being. This concept therefore serves as an ontological grounding for the processes of perception and individuation that define life itself (in general) and the human being (in particular). This aspect of Deleuze’s interpretation of Bergson serves the cornerstone to much of his later philosophy. We must always remember that without Bergson, there would be no Deleuze.
Ansell-Pearson, K. (2002) Philosophy and the Adventure of the Virtual: Bergson and the Time of Life. London: Routledge.
Bergson, H. (1991) Matter and Memory. Trans. N. M. Paul and W. S. Palmer. New York: Zone.
Deleuze, G. (1991). Bergsonism. New York: Zone Books.
Deleuze, G. (1997) ‘The Actual and the Virtual.’ ANY: Architecture New York, No. 19/20 pp. 19.6-19.7