Contemporary Political Theory

, Volume 15, Issue 4, pp 358–377 | Cite as

Sartre as a thinker of (Deleuzian) immanence: Prefiguring and complementing the micropolitical



It is typically held that Sartre is a thinker of transcendence, inasmuch as he retains a subject–predicate structure via intentional consciousness and ruptures an otherwise insular domain through his dialectic of the self. Against such interpretations, this article argues that in following the progression of Sartre’s thought, we will come to see a deepening engagement with, and development of, immanence in the spirit of Deleuze. Specifically, Sartre steadily develops a dialectic in which consciousness, while relating to an ‘outside’, is construed as also thoroughly embedded in that outside through the subject-body of the flesh and relations of desire. From this comes a conceptualisation of the in-itself and for-itself as simulacra or topological variations of a more primordial intertwining or fabric of univocal Being. In this sense, we are immediately taken away from the subject of social contract theory, insofar as this presumes an asocial self, and the notion of identity as the sine qua non of politics, insofar as this presumes the terrain of an inexplicable transcendent Other. This brings with it a take on politics that prefigures and is concomitant with Deleuzian micropolitics, while also serving to complement it through the retention of the ego as a practical function.


Jean-Paul Sartre immanence existentialism micropolitics Gilles Deleuze transcendence 

Despite the differences that exist between contending interpretations of Sartre, there is a general, though mostly tacit, agreement that he is a thinker of formal transcendence. At its most basic, transcendence refers to that which conditions externally, or from above (as opposed to that which conditions from within, that is ‘immanence’). Shifting away from previous ‘positive’ understandings of transcendence as it figures in Plato’s ideal Form of the Good or Judeo-Christian perfect divinity, formal or contemporary theories of transcendence utilise instead a negative conception, maintaining that something unnameable and unrepresentable stands as the groundless ground for subjectivity, constituting a subject as responsible before some Law (see Smith, 2003). This is a tradition that has been particularly central to Continental philosophy, and is most evident in Hegel’s dialectic of identity, and, following on from him, what have already been identified as political theories of lack (inter alia Slavoj Žižek and Ernesto Laclau, and, to a lesser degree, Alain Badiou and Judith Butler).

Although Hegel may be said to develop an ontological immanence, according to which the difference between For-itself and In-itself is itself ‘for us’ – that is, the distinction between the noumenal and phenomenal is experienced in the immanence of our thought – this immanence retains a negative structure that culminates with a Subject that, on the one hand, transcends what would otherwise be a sterile world of mere Substance, but, on the other hand, is still seen to emerge from immanent conditions of this world. In this way, Hegelian immanence retains a moment of formal transcendence, a moment where, as Hegel says, the divine is realised on Earth. In attempting to conceptualise ideological and hegemonic struggle within a broadly post-Marxist milieu, Žižek and Laclau follow this trajectory, while rejecting the idea that the emergence of the Subject from Substance is a completion of immanence, instead seeing it as the moment where immanence is ruptured. As a consequence, they also reject the idea that this completion is a moment of ‘positive’ Absolute Knowledge, holding instead that it is the recognition of the necessary failure of the Absolute to achieve positive status. Specifically, although in various and at times conflicting ways, these theorists utilise the negative form of an unrepresentable Other as a lack (herein lies a mutual dependence on Lacan’s Hegel) within a given structure, a form that goes beyond the negative of dialectical opposition in order to both ground and unground the subject. On the political register, this negativity, gap or incompleteness is further said to ensure the antagonistic nature of hegemony, political subjectivity and the corresponding identity claims of new social movements. Indeed, it is precisely this lack that is the subject.1

Sartre is said to fit into this spectrum in a twofold manner. In the first instance, as Deleuze (2004b, p. 114 no. 6) puts it, while repudiating transcendence in the version of a field of consciousness immanent to a transcendental subject, Sartre retains transcendence’s form, insofar as the transcendental field is still determined as a field of consciousness, ‘and as such it must be unified by itself through a play of intentionalities or pure intentions’. The transcendental is still individuated at the personal level, as already possessing a subject–predicate structure that goes beyond, or sits outside the immanent flux of experience itself. Such a reading is prominent among those who privilege Sartre’s earlier ‘rationalist’ works, at the expense of his later ‘dialectical’ turn (see for instance, Warnock, 1970, p. 128; Barrett, 1990, p. 245; Craib, 1976, p. 93; Fox, 2003, p. 149). In the second instance, by starting off with this form of the subject, the later Sartre of the dialectic – or rather the ‘holistic’ Sartre as it is for some – evokes an intentional relation between nomination and the thing, effectively breaking with the All-One of immanence in favour of a metaphysical polarity (see, for instance, Catalano, 2005, p. 28, 1996, p. 65; Cumming, 1979, p. 181; Baugh, 2003, p. 101). In this way, Sartre seemingly pushes forward a formal transcendence of a different sort, in which the Outside/Other replaces the transcendental subject as that to which the field of consciousness is related, entailing a transcendence of the subject and of the object (see Smith, 2003, p. 55). This has led Sartre’s interpreters – and at times Sartre himself – unwittingly to endorse a more traditional Marxian politics of transcendence, one that even seems to replicate key aspects of the sovereign-centred juridico-political model of liberalism and social contract theory (see for instance, Aronson, 1978, p. 226; Flynn, 1997, p. 50; Gillan, 1997, p. 193; Martinot, 1993, p. 45; Cumming, 1979, p. 193).

Against such interpretations, this article argues that Sartre not only instigates, but also prefigures and complements an ontology of ‘pure’ immanence in the spirit of Deleuze. That is to say that the Deleuzian conceptualisation of immanence – which is arguably the most perspicacious, consistent and politically challenging to date inasmuch as it leads to an immanence without negativity, a micropolitics and a total eschewal of the subject (hence its present conceptual use) – is indebted to, and prefigured in Sartre, more so than Deleuze and contemporary scholarship allows for. What is more, given that ‘pure’ immanence provokes a renewed understanding of political subjectivity in the form of micropolitics, while simultaneously providing the conceptual plane upon which it is constructed, this establishes an intriguing consequence in terms of our understanding of the political implications and direction of Sartre’s thought. Indeed, as we shall see, Sartre’s ethic of authenticity is not only reflective of, and built upon an ontology of ‘pure’ immanence, but is also resonant with Deleuze’s micropolitical ethic of becoming a Body without Organs.

Ultimately, through explicating the various threads of this dimension in Sartre, and weaving them back into a micropolitical schema, we shall essentially reposition Sartre, such that he can serve to: (i) further illuminate the limits, and unnecessariness of a politics committed to the subject, in whichever guise in may manifest itself; (ii) provide a useful means through which to articulate micropolitical resistance in a meaningful and resonant language, specifically inasmuch as Sartre retains a particular version of the ego as a practical function, without for all that evoking an inconsistent (with immanence/micropolitics) negativity in the theoretical or conceptual sense – a critical point somewhat missing in Deleuze and micropolitical scholarship; and (iii) thereby provoke a reconsideration of Sartre’s place in contemporary political theory.

Before going further, it is crucial to clarify exactly what is meant by ‘pure’/Deleuzian immanence, so as to distinguish it from other conceptualisations of immanence, and to elucidate how it corresponds to micropolitics. Immanence refers to a state of being internal or remaining within, in which the condition does not transcend, but rather is in the conditioned. Rooted in the thought of Spinoza and the ancient Stoics on the nature of divinity, when applied to the formal structure of subjectivity, it essentially holds that the cause of subjective experience is in the effect, such that to isolate the one from the other is to enact a radical abstraction. ‘To remain within’ might suggest some kind of harmonious unity or interiority. This is the way immanence is conceived by Sartre in his early and middle works, rejecting it on the basis that it denies the Outside to which consciousness intends, and which already weighs upon us.2 But what is significant about a different notion of immanence that ironically develops from Sartre and reaches its explicit culmination in Deleuze is that, despite superficial appearances, it cannot be restricted to or defined in terms of ‘complete’ interiority, inclusivity or an apparent harmony between the conditions of experience and experience itself (and herein lies its novel perspicacity). Instead, it entails a notion of the Outside or Other, and a corresponding violence or disturbance, but this Outside/Other is reconfigured in terms of a fold of the univocal fabric of Being. Unlike Hegel, pure immanence rejects the process by which negation culminates in a Subject. As opposed to contradiction, Deleuze (2004a) posits ‘vice-diction’ as an immanent movement of disjunction and folding, which result not in a consolidated subject but in a ‘nomadic distribution and crowned anarchy’ (p. 47). This nomad is opposed to the subject as the figure about which it no longer matters whether or not one says ‘I’.

In Deleuze’s solo works (that is, before his collaboration with Guattari), this is broadly construed through the relation between what he devises, following Bergson, as virtual/intensive multiplicities and actual/extensive multiplicities. Virtual multiplicities refer to the non-spatial juxtaposition of indiscernibly numerous qualitative elements or positive singularities of purely affective and so internal psychic states, which melt and permeate one another in a process prior to any extension in time as space. The actual, by contrast, refers to the extensive particles of the objective world, the world of quantity and magnitude. There is an immanent causality between both multiplicities, in that the virtual is already embedded in and shaped by this Outside actual world through which it is also provocatively emitted. This speaks to what we can call, following Foucault (1998, pp. 99–100), the principle of ‘double-conditioning’. The consequence is that the distinction between the two multiplicities portrays an epistemological rather than an ontological division. Given this immanent relation, it holds that Deleuze’s (2004a) ontology is univocal: ‘A single and same voice for the whole thousand-voiced multiple’ (p. 378).

Whereas Bergson construes double-conditioning via pure duration as the process of synthesis or juxtaposition in which the pure past coexists in the present, in turn constituting the present and its passing, Deleuze argues that this misses the way in which a virtual multiplicity of the past is related to consciousness through the disjunctive syntheses of incompossibles related and folded into one another through a dark precursor or the will to power. Though a notoriously slippery concept, it can be said that the ‘willing’ of the will to power is essentially the virtual aspect of force by which it differentiates (or ‘makes the difference’ between incommensurable perspectives) and differentiates itself (or differentiates intensive and differential relations of forces into distinct actual types), involving and explicating itself in a repetition of difference, immanently conditioned and thus relative to the real that provokes it. In this way, the will to power can be understood as the agency of force, ensuring communication between differences, synthesising different peripheral series while retaining their discontinuity, such that they never simply correspond, oppose or subsume each other; hence its ‘disjunctive’ nature (see Deleuze, 2006b, pp. 44–46). In this respect, it is also the in-itself of difference.

Because of this temporal disjunction, it follows that the virtual is a real realm full of incompossibilities, as in various subjective and affective possibilities that co-exist by vice-dicting one another such that they are neither negated nor collapsed into a higher unity. A novel and different variation of the incompossible relation is repetitively incarnated into a particular quality via provocation, in an indeterminate number of actual states of affairs (albeit not simultaneously). Ultimately, this means that the self is not progressively fractured through chronological time via duration (Bergson’s thesis), but rather typified by a fundamental discontinuity, inasmuch as it is assembled in non-chronological order from different series or periods of time, each referring to different subjectivities. Politically speaking, this means there is no unified subject as a precondition for thought, meaning and action.

In his works with Guattari, Deleuze goes on to add that the Outside/actual always arises in a social and political context. When understood through the principle of ‘double-conditioning’, it follows that the expression and emission of virtual ‘micro’ multiplicities are conditioned and are provoked by organisation/stratified relations and formed matters in conjunction – or, rather, disjunction (folding) – with social production and political forms (interchangeably understood as the ‘macropolitical’), which in turn condition the virtual. In this way, micro(virtual)power relations can sustain or subvert the power of authority, or macro structures, while these very authorities and structures can exercise their powers in ways that strengthen or undermine the microscopic force relations upon which they rely. The one is always in the other, in a dance of immanent causality (where the cause is in the effect). In Deleuze and Guattari’s second work, A Thousand Plateaus, this entire process is conceptualised through the ‘assemblage’ – a concept I will return to and expand on later. Crucially, pure immanence leads to a micropolitics, insofar as it draws our attention to the constitutive virtual or ‘micro’ level of subjectivity, which while conditioning macrostructures is simultaneously conditioned by them.

As I will argue, this ‘pure’ immanence is ultimately expressed by Sartre through the Heideggerian-inspired notion ‘being-in-the-world’. The basic idea is that though consciousness is empty, for it intends towards its object, it does so through its situation via the body as flesh. This represents the immanent Outside in which it is already embedded, and ultimately this is the meaning of being-in-the-world. There are three critical stages to Sartre’s engagement with, and development of, immanence that this article will highlight. Each one corresponds with one of Sartre’s published works: (i) The Transcendence of the Ego – the displacement of the necessity and centrality of the ego by giving the object itself the role of providing identity for the subject and the flux of consciousness the role of unity through the retention of previous experience. Here we also find a tacit notion of what Deleuze would call an ‘intensive virtuality’; (ii) Being and Nothingness – the subsequent development of a dialectic premised on a primordial bond of facticity via the flesh and relations of desire, in which consciousness is thoroughly embedded in the Outside/Other to which it relates by virtue of the body as the surface inbetween; (iii) The Critique of Dialectical Reason – lastly the materialisation of the dialectic and the flesh within the context of scarcity and processes of totalisation–detotalisation, which anticipates Deleuze and Guattari’s assemblage and their contention that there is a heterogeneous yet immanent relation between micro- and macro-arrangements or political force relations. It is this aspect of Sartre’s thought, in particular, combined with his ethic of authenticity, where we find the direct connection with the micropolitical, and his complementation of it.

The First Stage: Phenomenology and the Transcendental Ego

Sartre’s first move towards a philosophy of immanence comes from his well-known repudiation of Husserl’s Kantian categories in the form of the ‘pure Ego’ and hyle, by which he sets up an alternative impersonal transcendental field as one with neither the form of a synthetic consciousness nor that of a subjective identity. Sartre argues that the retention of the pure Ego runs up against the fundamental requisite of phenomenology (back to things themselves), for consciousness’s direct access is here mediated by representational machinery. If the epoché is supposed to exclude any transcendent being, then we cannot have an Ego of the sort to which Husserl refers. How can consciousness be intentional if it is loaded down or driven by something else (Sartre 2004b, p. 42)? The transcendental I is gratuitous and unwarranted.

This subsequently raises the question as to the requirement for the transcendental ego in the first place. As Sartre (2004b, p. 6) notes, ‘it is usually believed that the existence of a transcendental I is justified by the need for consciousness to have unity and individuality’. In other words, the ego is introduced in order to retain the unity of self, for the purity of phenomenology risks reducing us to unlocalisable and disconnected experiences. Through intentionality via consciousness, Sartre gives transcendental unity to the object, wherein the flux of consciousness itself participates in this unity by play of ‘transversal’ intentionalities that are concrete and real retentions of past consciousnesses. In this way, ‘consciousness continually refers back to itself’ (Sartre, 2004b, p. 7). This nature of consciousness, its nothingness, retains individuality, for like Spinoza’s substance, whose concept does not require the concept of other things from which it must be formed, it cannot be limited except by itself (Sartre, 2004b, p. 7).

This concept of consciousness receives its much needed elaboration in Being and Nothingness, where it makes up the first of the three ekstases that constitute the for-itself (the second being ‘reflection’, and the third ‘being-for-others’). Sartre argues that consciousnesses transverse themselves through the durational experience of time. In its failed attempt to be totally present to itself in an instant, consciousness nihilates itself from its factitious past, only to flee the present towards a forever unrealisable future. That is, the for-itself arises as diasporic, dispersing itself in the three dimensions of time by virtue of nihilation or the negation of the in-itself. This means that the primary negative structure of the for-itself is found in temporality. Further, as the subject is temporally spread, it holds it is premised on a fundamental and perpetual fracturing.

However, despite this fracturing, the subject is at the centre of a unifying act, that is, it unifies by individuating. Therefore, it does not so much establish a multiplicity in the strictly Deleuzian sense (wherein the emission of singularities that make up a multiplicity occur on an unconscious surface in which unification is taken completely out of the hands of the subject), as much as it establishes a quasi-multiplicity, ‘a foreshadowing of dissociation in the heart of unity’ (Sartre, 2008a, p. 158). Temporality is a ‘unity which multiplies itself; that is, temporality can be only a relation of being at the heart of this same being’ (p. 159). It is here that Sartre truly distances himself from Bergson, holding that though the past penetrates the present, the multiplicity of before and after cannot be accounted for through the unity of memory, but rather only by nihilation or perpetual flight, in which the present is the centre of the synthetic unity of the temporal dimensions.

Questions of Sartre’s interpretation of Bergson aside, it soon becomes evident that this take on duration as the basis of the for-itself still has critical elements that meet the general criteria of a virtual or intensive multiplicity as described by the early Bergson (2001, pp. 128, 162–164), and in part by Deleuze (2006a, p. 112). It speaks to a structure of time, or a mental synthesis in which the three dimensions of time and their corresponding psychic states interpenetrate and melt into one another to establish a forever fluxual synthetic whole (a totalisation), which is set off from an extensive Outside to which consciousness continually intends in a condemned effort to achieve self-coincidence. That means to say, it is a reality, and a condition of our experience of reality, initially beyond though related to the corresponding symbolic representations of such intensities juxtaposed in an ideal extended space.

To be sure, Sartre explicitly argues that the past is not present in the thetic (positional) mode of consciousness, but is nevertheless constantly there, surrounding it, essentially as its virtual double or as a facticity continually and pre-reflectively orientating consciousness’s for-itself to the world. It is the ‘origin and springboard of all my actions’, and my ‘contingent and gratuitous bond with the world and with myself inasmuch as I constantly live it as a total abandonment’ (Sartre, 2008a, p. 164). Explicitly employing Bergson’s terminology from Time and Free Will, Sartre goes on to add that the ego is an abstract, infinite contraction of the material self, a ‘virtual locus of unity’ (p. 34) or, more specifically, it is, in relation to the past as facticity, an ‘interpenetrative multiplicity’, and in relation to the future, a ‘bare potentiality’, which is actualised and fixed when it comes into contact with events (p. 38). Here, the ego, ‘is apprehended but also constituted by reflective knowledge’ (Sartre, 2004b, p. 34).

The appearance of the ego, in this case ‘is not so much theoretical as practical’ (Sartre, 2004b, p. 48). When confronted with this ego, ‘we are dealing with a mere appearance’ (p. 33) – that is to say, with a semblance.3 This semblance of an ego is no less functional on that account, offering a sense of agency or a disguise, as if ‘consciousness constituted the Ego as a false representation of itself’ (p. 48). It is because of the appearance of the ego ‘that a distinction can be drawn between the possible and the real, between appearance and being, between what is willed and what is yielded to’, through which a grounded self-to-self relation can be sustained (p. 48).

Deleuze and Guattari (1994, p. 47) point out that through this move the early Sartre ‘restores the rights of immanence’, inasmuch as it bypasses representational machinery in favour of an impersonal transcendental field without an ego, wherein consciousness is no longer related to a transcendental subject. There seems to be an ambiguous tension, however, between the notion of the virtual, at least as Deleuze portrays it, and the notion of time as a unifying act by virtue of nihilation as the organisational centre of time. This is undoubtedly true for The Transcendence of the Ego. But though consciousness is empty, for it intends towards its object, Being and Nothingness adds that it does so through its situation via the body as flesh, or an Outside in which it is already embedded, in which the subject is not a pre-existing determination that can be found ready-made, but a fluid effect of reflection, in accordance with a dialectical process within an immanent apparatus or order. The ‘ego’ as a practical function is still retained, inasmuch as it assists in conceptualising self-to-self relations (that is, ‘bad faith’), but it has no transcendental significance in and of itself. Alas, it is precisely this retention that Deleuze conflates with a subject–predicate structure, which when read against a fleshless version of Sartre, provides an image of formal transcendence. In missing this point, Deleuze deprives himself of any practical notion of the self, which leads onto several ambiguities concerning his politico-ethics of resistance (a point I shall return to shortly).

The Second Stage: The Body and Lived Experience

For now, we would do well to note, as Sartre makes clear in the infamous introduction to Being and Nothingness, that it is precisely the ontological gap or ‘veritable abyss’ retained by Husserl that he finds problematic and in need of bridging through proper elaboration. Rather than dealing with the analysis of a concept, Sartre analyses the relation of a being (consciousness or the for-itself) to another being (in-itself), which corresponds to the difference between Husserl’s and existentialism’s phenomenology. In short, consciousness cannot be bracketed from reality, for reality plays a fundamental role in its activity – what Sartre calls facticity. Whereas Kant argues that the transcendental subject is also required to provide a distance between the subject and the world, to keep representations from crowding upon the soul, Sartre argues that this ‘crowding’ actually personifies our thrownness in or enthralment with it, requiring us constantly to react. Supposedly, this shows that unity lies at the heart of Being, with interiority and exteriority being its complementary structures, but also, more importantly, that freedom is not negated by the in-itself, but rather found in the relationship with it, and is therefore absolute. Self-reflection, in this sense, is always secondary, and so the self, though real, is not itself generative.

However, it is on the question of the precise conceptualisation of such enthralment that a number of interpretative problems and ambiguities arise. The initial stages of the argument in Being and Nothingness present such facticity – that is, the necessary connection with the in-itself – through the situation and through our being-for-others (that is, the look), which themselves are also oppositional relations. At its most basic, this argument holds that elements outside of the self (the situation) structure it, establishing a whole, or what Sartre later calls the ‘singular universal’, and in some respects, a ‘totalisation’ (Sartre, 1976, pp. 59–60). However, the self, which is defined by negation, reacts to this situation in continual flux and tension. There is no ‘harmonious synthesis’ (Sartre, 1963a, p. 338). Therefore, the thesis and the antithesis ‘represent the two moments of freedom’, which remain ‘mutilated and abstract and perpetuate their opposition’ (Sartre, 1963a, p. 338). As such, existence ‘exhausts itself in maintaining a conflict without a solution’ (p, 273).

This seems to echo the common claim made by contemporary thinkers of transcendence: that there is a rupture between reality and our experience of it, and that it is this rupture that defines and constitutes our subjectivity. Indeed, based on Sartre’s section on ‘the look’, it would seem that he retains a primary metaphysical polarity or rupture of an otherwise insular domain, establishing two different orders of Being through an absolute opposition, wherein I am (the for-itself) absolute negativity and the world is positivity. In reality, this reading fails to appreciate how Being and Nothingness strives to move from the abstract to the concrete. As Sartre (2008a) says, following Laporte, ‘an abstraction is made when something not capable of existing in isolation is thought of as in an isolated state’, whereas the ‘concrete by contrast is a totality which can exist by itself alone’ (p. 27). Further, from this point of view, ‘consciousness is an abstraction since it conceals within itself an ontological course in the region of the in-itself, and conversely the phenomenon is likewise an abstraction since it must “appear” to consciousness’ (Sartre, 2008a, p. 27). The concrete ‘is man within the world in that specific union of man with the world which Heidegger, for example, calls “being-in-the-world” ’ (p. 27). Being is contrasted with Existence in that it is all-embracing and objective as opposed to individual and subjective. Thus, the first half of Being and Nothingness deals with the immediacy of experience, and the second part with the background flesh of that experience and their mutual imbrication.

In accordance with the nature of the Being and Nothingness, this thesis first comes into play halfway through it. Here Sartre (2008a, p. 241) begins by conceding that though ‘some may be surprised that we have treated the problem of knowledge without raising the question of the body and the senses or even once referring to it’, it is ‘not my purpose to misunderstand or to ignore the role of the body’. What in fact is important ‘above all else, in ontology as elsewhere, is to observe strict order in discussion’ (loc. cit.). Accordingly, the body, ‘whatever may be its function, appears [note: not “exists”] first as the known’ (Sartre, 2008a, p. 241). As such, we cannot ‘refer knowledge back to it or discuss it before we have defined knowing, nor can we derive knowing in its fundamental structure from the body in any way or manner whatsoever’ (loc. cit.). The body cannot be for me transcendent and known. What I know is the body of another, ‘and the essential facts which I know concerning my own body come from the way in which others see it’ (p. 241). Thus, ‘consciousness exists its body’ (p. 353), for unreflective consciousness is not consciousness of the body. The relation between the body-as-point-of-view and things is an objective relation, and the relation of consciousness to the body is an existential one.

Critically, this relation, or passing through, exists on a non-reflective plane, as a fundamental part of the synthetic totality of man’s being-in-the-world. It is a non-reflective consciousness, in that quite simply it ‘is non-thetically conscious of self’ (Sartre, 2002, p. 38). This relates to intentionality as highlighted above, inasmuch as it refers to our immediate access to the object before reflection. More importantly, it is here that Sartre starts to develop a theory of the pre-personal unconscious, personified by his alternative existential psychoanalysis, which appears at the end of Being and Nothingness. The essential task of existential psychoanalysis is ‘hermeneutic’, that is, ‘a deciphering, a determination, and a conceptualization’ (Sartre, 2008a, p. 590), deciphering the meaning of acts in relation to a synthetic totality. When Sartre says that we must bring our fundamental choice to light, he is paying homage to a method that ‘has been furnished for us by the psychoanalysis of Freud and his disciples’ (Sartre, 2008a, p. 590).

Alike with Freud, Sartre’s existential psychoanalysis considers all objectively discernible manifestations of ‘psychic life’ as symbolic maintaining symbolic relations to the fundamental, total structures that make up the individual person (see also Bergson, 2001, p. 170). There is a need, in this sense, to restore the twofold structure: the event of infancy and the psychic crystallisation around this event. The crystallisation is what takes shape in pre-reflective consciousness such that every act is a manifestation of the totality of the existent, and in which reflection is only ever quasi-knowing, unable to isolate the choice symbolised. The concept of lived experience (le vécu) of Sartre’s (2008b) later period expands on this notion, explicitly recognising a ‘dialectical process of psychic life’ as well as ‘processes which are “below” consciousness and which are also rational, but lived as irrational’ (p. 42). Such predispositions operate in a habitual way, easily recalled into action, lived rather than known. It is only after, or on top of, this initial relation that Sartre construes the transition from the body-for-me, to the body-for-Others and the body-known-by-the-Other Then, from the body-for-Others to a third dimension.

Again in accordance with Sartre’s attempt to move from the abstract to the concrete, his next task, once making us cognisant of what the body is, is to uncover our concrete relations with Others. These will ‘represent the various attitudes of the for-itself in a world where there are Others’ (Sartre, 2008a, p. 383). In turning to the attitude of desire, Sartre stumbles upon where the body is. The relations uncovered in his analysis of the body, ‘presuppose a facticity’ (Sartre, 2008a, p. 383) – the flesh. Here, Sartre envisions consciousness as engulfed in a body, which is engulfed in the world as the surface between the for-itself and in-itself, or the intensive of consciousness and the extensive Outside to which consciousnesses intend. Thus, by flesh, ‘we do not mean a part of the body such as the dermis, the connective tissues or, specifically, epidermis; neither need we assume that the body will be “at rest” or dozing although often it is thus that its flesh is best revealed’ (Sartre, 2008a, p. 412). Rather, prefiguring Merleau-Ponty’s (1968) use of the concept, the flesh is the fundamental stuff of Being, which the body is in and of.

That is to say, the body is the surface (third term) or interface between, through which the virtual content of the Idea can be actualised in time as extended in space, as its final mechanical movement or contraction. Further, it is by virtue of the body’s extensivity and mechanical movement, or rather the way it is in and of the world’s flesh, that we can have an intellectual and intuitive experience of reality as extended, namely in the form of memories as continual recordings of these experience, and a past as a springboard for my actions and corresponding thoughts and the ability to think reflectively or thetically under the form of extensive homogeneity. Or rather, the body as surface reabsorbs the finished act into the interpenetrative multiplicity (see Sartre, 2004b, p. 38), and as such furnishes and informs the direction of consciousness in the form of the pre-reflective past. As with Deleuze (2001), Life becomes consciousness’s immanent Outside, and living thought (as in thetic awareness) becomes an encounter with something substantial, a direct experience of life forces. Indeed, is not the consistent thesis throughout Sartre’s work that consciousness, or praxis, exists only as engaged, and it is only in this way that freedom can have any intelligibility? Conscious thetic awareness retroactively creates a fissure (nothingness) between itself and the world. From this comes a conceptualisation of the in-itself and for-itself as simulacra or topological variations of a more primordial intertwining or fabric of univocal Being. It follows that there can be no true self-transparency, or radical choice in its typical sense.

Sartre’s main ambition here, however, is to outline how this tactile experience of the fleshly surface comes to my attention as a focus of awareness. For this, he turns to desire, and the act of the caress – touching. As with Sartre’s (2008a) theory of emotions, sexual desire represents a radical modification of the for-itself, wherein the body is no longer grasped as the instrument ‘which can not be utilized by any instrument – i.e., as the synthetic organization of my acts in the world’ – if it is lived as flesh; so that it is ‘as a reference to my flesh that I apprehend the objects in the world’ (p. 414). Thus, in desiring perception, I discover the fleshy nature of objects, realising my flesh by means of their flesh and so on. And so, here we have the third term, via the flesh, for incarnation is the preliminary condition of the appearance of the Other as flesh to my eyes, which in turn realises my incarnation.

The Third Stage: The Critique and Sartre’s Micropolitics

Though a philosophy of immanence is clearly present in Being and Nothingness, the formal structure of the situation and facticity in the text remains somewhat abstract and seemingly apolitical, inasmuch as it is separated from material and social processes. Consequently, most of the reproaches made against Sartre’s seminal work following its publication arose more or less from a Marxist understanding of materialism (that is, Adorno, 1973, p. 50; Marcuse, 1948, p. 311; Lukács, 1973). In his eagerness to retain the singularity of the existential, Sartre sought to defend it on the Marxists’ own terms. Two things come as a result of this move. First, is the continuation of his engagement with immanence as depicted in Being and Nothingness. In this sense, The Critique should be viewed not as a replacement for Being and Nothingness as much as a supplement, providing not only a materialisation of situatedness but also a contingent explanation of History and historical struggle. As Sartre (2006) makes clear in the second volume of The Critique, his position, which opposes Hegelian idealism and external dialecticism, envisions antagonistic reciprocity as a ‘bond of immanence between epicenters, since each adversary totalizes and transcends the totalizing action of the other’ (p. 5). All determinations are concrete and it is a bond of immanence that unites them. The logic of facticity fleshed out in Being and Nothingness is continued, but placed within a particular conceptualisation of History, in this case scarcity (as in the contingent impossibility of satisfying all the needs of an ensemble) (see Sartre, 2006, p. 340). Second, as a result, and though sheathed in dialectical expressions, this serves to anticipate Deleuze and Guattari’s assemblage.

As said at the start, the political element of Deleuze’s metaphysics concerns the material Outside through which the virtual incompossibility of subjectivity is both conditioned and provoked (or ‘double-conditioned’) into organised actualisation. This is best captured by Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the assemblage. At its most basic, an assemblage is a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble that synthesises and thus consists of divergent elements, be they biological, social, machinic, gnoseological or imaginary. More specifically, these ‘elements’ are multiplicities: some are impersonal-intensive/molecular/micro (or, rather, ‘virtual’), whereas others are extensive/molar/macro processes of organisation and strategy (or, rather, ‘actual’). Immanent in a given assemblage, or rather inhabiting and codifying the mutual imbrication of these two domains like its diagrammatic virtual double, is what Deleuze and Guattari (2004, p. 155) refer to as an abstract machine, which in Anti-Oedipus is construed in terms of the axiomatic of capital, that is, the ultimate quantitative value that supersedes all other value systems, and redirects subjectivity according to the demands of the market. It is diagrammatic in the sense that it mobilises non-stratified matter and functions, utilising, for instance, various types of discourse and forms of ‘scientific’ or reified knowledge for a particular purpose, as is the case when the use of police or military force is retrospectively justified according to received notions of civility, justice and authority.

Utilising a formulaic method, this can be related to Sartre’s renewed understanding and use of the ‘totality’, though of course without obscuring any conceptual tensions (that is, the totality is devoid of the language of ‘disjunction’ and ‘vice-diction’ underpinning the assemblage). We can envision the unsurpassable opaqueness of lived experience, including the flesh and totalisations (the latter drawing on and replacing Sartre’s previous take on temporality), as making up the ‘micro’ element and the totality of the social, and totalisation of the material world as making up the ‘macro’, with scarcity effectively taking the place of the abstract machine, inasmuch as scarcity acts as a spectre, or a tacit value system, constantly enshrouding the social, operating in the background and thereby influencing (albeit in a mutual reciprocity), orientating, directing and justifying various exercises of force and power.

First, totality. The circularity of the regressive–progressive method, underpinning Sartre’s approach to totalisation and totality, is designed to emphasise that nothing is subordinate to an a priori, or that rather the plurality of a multiplicity cannot refer back to a stable unity. Thus totalisation is ‘never achieved’ and ‘the totality exists at best only in the form of a detotalized totality’ (Sartre, 1963b, p. 78). Specifically, totalisation is related to totality, as in ‘a being which, while radically distinct from the sum of its parts, is present in its entirety, in one form or another, in each of these parts, and which relates to itself either through its relation to one or more of its parts or through its relation to the relations between all of some of them’ (Sartre, 2004a, p. 45). In reality this refers to the moment of synthesis, to ‘the most rigorous synthesis of the most differentiated multiplicity’ (p. 46). In essence, praxis, as in the ‘pure spontaneity’ of consciousness and the material modification of the world, must be understood as a material totalisation (or synthesis) of its situation, an integration of material multiplicity into a projected totality or the actualisation of the virtual content of an Idea, immanent to the real Outside that provokes it.

As with the assemblage, this is not to undermine the univocal nature of the elements being brought together. Their disparate nature is only viewed from the vantage point of praxis, or a retroactive identification as a moment of incarnation, wherein a practical reality envelops in its own singularity, the ensemble of totalisations in progress – incarnation is totalisation as individuated (Sartre, 2006, p. 28). Furthermore, each struggle is a singularisation of all the circumstances of the social ensemble in movement. By this singularisation, it incarnates the totalisation-of-envelopment constituted by the historical process – ‘every totalization is enveloping as a totalization as well as enveloped as a singularity’ (p. 49).

Corresponding to the indiscernibility of the assemblage and its corresponding lines of subjectivation (see Deleuze, 2007, p. 345), and in some ways rooted in the conflictual relation in Being and Nothingness, this is a never-ending process. In this instance, negation exists within the process of totalisation (which is a constant projection into the future), and it is put into opposition with new projects (counter-finalities) that detotalise it. Thus there is a detotalised nature of all totalities and no ultimate teleological movement. In this sense, the totality (a social totality, a political totality, a cultural totality and so on), as with the assemblage, is relative, a mere ‘appearance’ of a process that must be upheld for it to appear. Totalisation, then, refers to the process which, through the multiplicities, continues that synthetic labour, ‘which makes each part an expression of the world’ (Sartre, 2004a, p. 46). Thus, it is a ‘developing totalisation’, and the dialectic is a ‘totalising activity’ (p. 47), in which the ‘totality’ is a regulative principle. In being an activity related to praxis, it holds that to totalise is to temporalise, which returns us to the immanent movement of consciousness. Or, rather, the human ensemble ‘temporalises its (the individual’s) totalisation and totalises its temporality’ (p. 55).

For this reason, Sartre (2004a) defines the totality as a ‘totalising project’ (p. 113). Furthermore, this totalisation (negation by praxis) exists in a dialectical tension with other totalisations as mediated by the material world, and similarly as mediated and conditioned by the totalised and totalising past of the process of human developments: ‘I totalise myself on the basis of centuries of history and, in accordance with my culture, I totalise this experience’ (Sartre, 2004a, p. 54). The individual life becomes ‘diluted’ in the ‘pluridimensional human ensemble’, which both temporalises its totalisation and totalises its temporalirity (p. 55). Hence when Sartre speaks of the ‘interiorisation of exteriority’ and the ‘exteriorisation of interiority’ (p. 60), he is essentially stating that the wider macro material totality conditions our unique micro totalisation, which in turn conditions the wider macro totality, which in turn conditions us, and so on (what Sartre refers to as ‘circularities’ and ‘feed-back devices’ [p. 16]). Such counter-finalities can transform into a practico-inert – a field of activity no longer responsive to the group struggle which founded it (that is, bureaucracy) – constituting the critical level of ‘social Being’ (p. 230), in that we all arise in the same field of action or material field of multiplicity. In this way, it is said that beneath the rift of antagonistic dissociation, ‘we find not the infinite void but unity again, and human presence. The fissure between the enveloped incarnations allows the plenitude of the unity of immanence to appear as a totalizing and singular incarnation of all incarnations taken together’ (Sartre, 2006, p. 86). Unity is dissociated within a vaster unity, that is, that of the totalisation-of-envelopment, which is one of immanence (see Sartre, 2006, pp. 85, 448).

Crucially, these totalisations do not dissolve the collectives, nor do they unify a multiplicity into a group. Rather, it refers to the way in which every man defines his practical field in a fundamentally univocal relationship, wherein the practical field is engendered by praxis and transformed perpetually by it. Thus, if it ‘was right to speak of a transformation of the agents (and of praxis) by the field, this transformation did not break the univocal nature of the fundamental relationship’ as a ‘synthetic immanence of exteriority’ (Sartre, 2006, p. 165). All interior exteriorisations of praxis take place against a ‘background of immanence’ (p. 231); the agent and the praxis are modified by the practico-inert, ‘but in immanence’ inasmuch as they work inside the practical field. Every man is linked to every man, even if unknown to one another, by an undetermined yet ‘reciprocal bond of immanence’, constantly ready ‘to be actualized’, revealing ‘the relationship of two persons as having always existed’ (p. 247; see also Sartre, 2004a, p. 109).

Once more placing the body at the centre of this operation, as the ultimate interface of, or surface between interiorisation/exteriorisation, Sartre is led to re-endorse his earlier position on the flesh, but now within the context of a material social reality. The whole event, the process of the social totalisation-of-envelopment, is incarnated, it becomes the body, and will be resuscitated, re-exteriorised, re-produced even in the form of an enveloped totalisation. Being not inert matter, but rather an affective device, the body will express this immanent bond in its desires. That is, the ‘fundamental existence of the sexes as a bond of reciprocity … disposes [the individual] in its carnal depth – and within the framework of the historical conjecture – to reactualise, by transcending, the relation of immanence that conditions him in his flesh by means of that particular woman: i.e. to realise himself as sexual behaviour at every “opportunity”, in every encounter, i.e. (outside of work) in a permanent way’ (Sartre, 2006, p. 260). Thus, once again, the body makes itself flesh, but also the flesh becomes act, ‘while retaining the opaque passivity of fleshly thickening to the very point of orientating practically … and revealing its own arousal’, thus the ‘carnal act’ (Sartre, 2006, p. 260).

The significance of the assemblage, and more specifically Sartre’s prefiguring of it via totalisation, is the way in which its univocal immanence delivers us away from a teleological, segmented and/or subject-based conceptualisation of the social world. Rather, the social world is shown to be a fluid process of contingent and heterogeneous connections that permeate various levels of organisation, combining micro and macro elements such that one cannot be truly understood or defined without reference to the other. The subject – though this is already a misleading term – is not an epicentre of social reality, but rather a variant of it, the effect of an immanent generativity. Thus, as opposed to a politics of the subject, this presents us with something akin to a micropolitics. That is, instead of focusing on the subject, no matter how contingent or displaced, as the site of primary political transformation and subjectivation, Sartre’s totalisation leads us to focus on an immanent or virtual, impersonal and pre-individual life. To put it in more concrete terms, Sartre’s totalisation speaks to a micropolitics, as described at the start, by:
  1. 1

    Elucidating an immanent generativity that entirely eschews the subject as a precondition of thought, meaning and action. Indeed, this in and of itself establishes a direct challenge to social contract theory, and its retention of an asocial ‘empirical’ subject, or ‘chooser of ends’.

  2. 2

    Connecting this immanent process of subjectivity with a material socio-political reality, such that even one’s most intimate and ‘private’ sense of self can be seen to be politically marked or engaged.


Micropolitical Resistance and the Practicality of the Ego

There is a third element to Deleuzian micropolitics. In emphasising immanent univocity and its related causality of ‘double-conditioning’, one cannot look for a transcendence as either a positive Body or as a formal break of a self-enclosed world of immanence, nor for a central subject of choice through which to conceptualise resistance. Does this mean there is no escape, so to speak? Given that the subject is an effect of a process of immanent disjunction, it follows that a certain excess is built into the relation, an excess that propels and allows for the self-overcoming of the condition. Or rather, because of the disjunction, there are a variety/incompossibility of virtual intensities waiting at any given time to be actualised and reshaped through various techniques that create new encounters and provocations across a range of personal, social and political strata. Thus, you may act tactically and experimentally upon yourself, to, as Connolly (2000, p. 107) aptly puts it, ‘fold more presumptive receptivity and forbearance into your responses to pluralizing movements in the domains of gender, sensual affiliation, ethnic identification, religion/irreligion, or market rationality that challenge your visceral presumption to embody the universal standard against which that diversity is to be measured’. The point is that ethical practice can be utilised to subvert and resist a self-identified subject position.

What is critical when considering resistance in the form of an ethics is once more the ‘double-condition’, in which thought is said to be immanent to the real that provokes it. If this is understood, it follows that to employ the disjunctive excess and thus to release virtual intensities back into life, we must have the right type of encounters, the right type of real. Indeed, we can never reach the intensive or constitutive level directly, as we continually operate at the actual level. We are left with practices or engagements that, though indirect in their own right, directly affect the intensive and the related processes of differentiation and differenciation, by virtue of being a type of encounter or provocation; hence the importance of developing tactics of the self. Given the assemblage is a complex system interacting with all levels of social reality, the slightest change can have a significant and unpredictable effect, either reifying or problematising social and political forms. This idea forms the basis of Deleuze and Guattari’s (2004, p. 166) politico-ethic of becoming a Body without Organs (BwO); a body (political, social, personal) that is not necessarily without organisation, but at least reorganised, subverted and folded back, achieved namely by engaging in ‘a set of practices’.

Though lacking the conceptual language of ‘disjunction’, such an emphasis on ethics corresponds with Sartre’s valuative ideal of authenticity, inasmuch as it speaks to the way in which we seek such a practice of freedom, in which we attempt to recognise and utilise the conditions and factitious limits that have given form to this semblance of the ego, before contractual engagements. It is precisely with an immanent relation in mind that Sartre (1976) says the self chooses itself in situation, that ‘the exercise of this freedom may be considered as authentic or inauthentic according to the choices made in the situation’, that authenticity ‘consists in having a true and lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks that it involves in accepting it in pride or humiliation, sometimes in horror and hate’ (p. 9). Hence the central Sartrean claim: ‘man can always make something out of what is made of him’ (Sartre, 2008b, p. 35).

Considering this point, in conjunction with Sartre’s assertion that existence precedes and defines essence (by virtue of nothingness), it follows that existential authenticity and its adjacent notion of choice has no pre-defined eternal image or identity to which one could refer. Any such image would therefore have to be created anew, but only out of the stuff out of which one has been made. For that reason, ‘of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative’, and we ‘will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image’ (Sartre, 2007, p. 32). Strictly in this sense, it is said that to choose is to invent: ‘You are free, therefore choose – that is to say, invent’ (Sartre, 2007, p. 43). It is the continual willingness to make this inventive choice within the confines of one’s situation, which defines authenticity.

What the Critique adds to authenticity is a material situation in which freedom arises and through which freedom navigates. Thus the self-experimental model of authenticity is clearly not merely ethical, but politico-ethical, seeking to subvert and play with a sense of self constituted through immanent processes of totalisation–detotalisation of praxis. I would even say that the ethic of becoming a BwO almost entirely corresponds with Sartre’s idea of ‘feedback mechanisms’ in processes of totalisation, in which practices of authenticity alter the feedback or change its resonance.

Aside from differences in conceptual language and expression, Sartrean authenticity differs from Deleuzean ethics, by virtue of retaining a practical role for the ego, holding that it provides a point of reference through which we can relate to ourselves when these techniques of the self, or authentic practices of freedom are being worked out, namely by allowing us to thetically differentiate between the possible and the real, or between appearance and being. It can also appear as a way by which we seemingly make a choice about how we become different, even if said choice is somewhat illusory. Such a practical language is all too often absent in Deleuzian and micropolitical literature, such that it increasingly seems difficult to attach any meaningful or political significance to the notion of micropolitical resistance or to attain an initial site of resistance. In other words, even if our sense of self is the result of a primordial process attributable to a non-explicated intensive field, it is still the self we rely on as the marker point in all actions. This idea is certainly not a perfect one, and it does seem to leave us with an ambiguous role for the subject (how much should be accorded to the ‘I’ without returning to formal transcendence?), but at the very least Sartre serves to draw it to our attention. It is even possible that by allowing us to employ the ego in a practical fashion, we will be enabled to return the existential in a newly appreciated guise. Such an idea is worthy – and in need – of more work, but hopefully this has now been made somewhat possible.


  1. 1.

    In reading Lacan with Hegel, Žižek’s basic contention is that subjectivity emerges from contradiction or a withdrawal from reality. Connecting this position more generally with Kant and German idealism, Žižek argues that the All of reality, which exists in itself, has to be rejected as a paralogism – what is viewed as an epistemological limitation is in fact the ontological condition of reality itself. But where Kantian transcendentalism envisions a gap or split between the phenomenal and noumenal, Žižek, following Lacan, envisions a split between a symbolic identity and the noumenal-like force of desire constituted by lack, between which is constituted the subject. The immediate political significance regards the identification of Althusserian ideological interpellation as the very process by which the subject as pure negativity is inverted into the (Hegelian) ‘second nature’ of a symbolic order via the Master-Signifier. However, a gap persists between first and second nature, a rupture in/of immanence that in turn resists the subject’s full reconciliation with his second nature (what Žižek [1999, pp. 92–93] interchangeably refers to as the Freudian death drive, Hegelian abstract negativity and the night of the world). Laclau argues that the process of identification with a signifier in language is considered to be indispensable to the foundation of the subject, which in turn underpins new social movements and the processes of hegemony. However, Laclau also holds that such identification is always partial, such that identity (the unity of the subject with the other with which it identifies) is itself never fully constituted. A lack inherent to language itself, or a gap between identification and identity, ensures the continual failure of identity to achieve complete determination, or for social objectivity to be fully constituted. Thus, while accepting that identity is differential, Laclau (2007, p. 53) posits a beyond which is ‘not one more difference but something which poses a threat (that is, negates) all the differences within that context’. It is precisely this failure, lack, or beyond that, by creating a ‘radical undecidability that needs to be constantly superseded by acts of decision’, constitutes ‘the subject, who can only exist as a will transcending the structure’ (p. 92).

  2. 2.

    What is important to note vis-à-vis Sartre’s express rejection of immanence is that he is fundamentally referring to phenomenological immanence, as in ‘immanent to consciousness’. This is clearly a very different and certainly restricted use of immanence from the ‘pure’ immanence of the fold. As we will see, despite his rejection of immanence, Sartre (2008a) moves over time towards a different kind of immanence as fold, or rather he moves away from this rather simplistic understanding of immanence as pure idealist interiority, as ‘the pure subjectivity of the instantaneous cogito’, (p. 68) to one which has its own Outside. Beauvoir (2010, p. xvii) provides a strikingly similar reading of immanence, to the one presented by the early Sartre, in The Second Sex.

  3. 3.

    Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick’s earlier translation of the text indeed renders the French ‘appearance’ as ‘semblance’, which seems more appropriate given its use in the context of Sartre discussing the ego’s ‘pseudo-spontaneity’ (see Sartre, 1957, p. 79).


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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Rutherford College, School of Politics and International Relations, University of KentCanterburyUK

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