notes on Passive Vitalism

p.39: Colebrook’s reading of Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy is fascinating precisely because she finds in their work a passive vitalism that resists (traditional conceptions of) life and productivity. The passivity of passive vitalism is at least twofold. First, it signifies a vitality without a subject or an agent (or an object for that matter): there is no life “of this or that identifiable substance”, for life is not more, and indeed no less, than positive difference or continuous variation. That relatively durable forms emerge is neither the result of a constitutive life-force or spirit working through matter nor entirely mechanistic processes but of myriad desiring processes, or what Deleuze and Guattari also call “passive synthesis”, always already immanent in all actual bodies.

Second, passive vitalism affirms indeterminate becomings, that is, differential forces that are not directed towards the realization of recognizable forms but instead signal a range of potential relations and affects. Passive vitalism thus brings to the fore detached, unactualized and unlived potentials… “life does not strive to maintain and produce itself but is inflected and directed by powers from without”. “A viral power in material life that takes the form of a variabitlity without self-reference, without meaning,” a power characterized by stasis and sterility, thoroughly in tension with the dynamics and productivity of the organism.

(Ontologically significant) Deleuze insists that becoming is localized, a unique immanent encounter between pre-individual singularities by which new bodily relations and affective powers are actualized. Yet a life is always already a queer vitality since its creative impulse is bound up with “the unproductive, the sterile, the unengendered, the unconsumable”, namely, the body without organs.

(Politically significant) because it contests the vision of the human as that which aspires to a pure becoming, thus free to actualize any kind of existence whatsoever, a vision beloved of the liberal tradition. Given such an aspiration, the political imperative must be the refusal of all normative images of humanity since these only ever serve to subjugate human beings.

p.40 To sum up: Deleuze and Guattari’s passive vitalism, as reconstructed by Colebrook, shares with new materialism a refusal of reductive accounts of matter as mere extended stuff to be vivified by an immaterial life-force. Life is not envisaged as that which strives to actualize form, nor that which endeavours to increase its creative productivity. Instead, passive vitalism proposes the notion of an inorganic, mechanic life, thereby liberating the concept of life from the bounds of the organism, as this serves to tie life to self-maintenance (against death) and productive relations.The dynamism of inorganic life is passive because it is not sustained by the intentional agency of the organism. Passive vitalism invites us to elaborate a non-reductive, immanent materialism, where life is not all glorious, creative becoming but that which also deflects from the living, tending towards disorganization, disconnection and sterility.

from Patrice Haynes, Creative Becoming and the Patiency of Matter. Angelaki, 19:1, 2014.

admitting life’s potential not to realise its productive powers, and appreciating that all living bodies presuppose a life which does not live (the body without organs), “passive vitalism”, is indeed illuminating. however Haynes also refers to this as “a sense of what might be, of potentiality or proper realization. To be human is to be burdened with giving oneself a world, with forming oneself and deciding on one’s own being” (p.39). Does it not go back to the stereotypical Bergsonian impression of creative agency?

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