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

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Abstract

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.

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Notes

  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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Gilliam, C. Sartre as a thinker of (Deleuzian) immanence: Prefiguring and complementing the micropolitical. Contemp Polit Theory 15, 358–377 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1057/cpt.2016.2

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Keywords

  • Jean-Paul Sartre
  • immanence
  • existentialism
  • micropolitics
  • Gilles Deleuze
  • transcendence