***This is something I presented as a seminar on November 6th, 2002. It, of course, is not as rigourously written as an essay; just pretend you're hearing my voice and enjoy the ride :). the essay "Ancient Philosopy and the Simulacrum" is taken from Gilles Deleuze's book The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester & Charles Stivale (New York: Columbia Press, 1990). All quotes in my w/u are taken from that essay. Also, a further disclaimer: anxiety has been expressed at Deleuze's proximity to the word "deconstruction" in this w/u's title. I am not saying that Deleuze is a deconstructionist (that is, that it is his main project). Rather, I am saying that he effects a deconstruction (as I understand deconstruction) of Plato's theory in this essay.
In “Ancient Philosophy and the Simulacrum” Gilles Deleuze picks up a project most commonly associated with the work of Friedrich Nietzsche: the “reversal of Plationism”. By this is meant specifically in this case - Plato’s treatment of epistemology, which sets up a difference between appearances and essences , or phenomenal objects in the world and the pure ideal entities from which all corporeal objects derive their properties. This is a correspondance theory of knowledge: objects correspond or rather participate in their characteristics to the aforementioned Ideal entities, and this of course is known as Plato’s theory of forms. the reversal of Platonism is the annulment of this distinction. Deleuze identifies its occurance in the work of other philosophers as well, namely Hegel and Kant. What they effect is a collapse of this distinction by positing a unity of which the subject is a part; for Hegel, especially, there is a “veil of appearances” that the subject can pull aside in the realization that there is no real subject/object distinction. Deleuze, however, stays in line with the Nietzschean approach, which erases one term in the equation and says that there are no essences at all, only appearances. Of course, he develops and fleshes out the argument by showing how Plato opens the door for his own deconstruction within the theory of forms itself. So here, I will take a look at Deleuze’s view of what’s going on with Plato’s theory of forms. In particular, the question to be asked is “what is the motivation of Plato’s account?”
1) As I said before, Plato’s theory of forms is a correspondence theory of knowledge: properties of objects participate in or correspond to these forms. On the face of it, this seems to be a matter of simple division: what goes where, what corresponds to what. If something is red, then it corresponds to the form of redness. Deleuze, however, sees something much deeper going on here. As he says on page 253, “the Platonic project comes to light only when we turn back to the method of division, for this method is not just one dialectical procedure among others. It assembles the power of the dialectic in order to combine with it another power, and represents thus the entire system”. So this dialectic is not just one in which appropriate distinctions are drawn out and conclusions arrived at. Instead, it is a dialectic of rivalry. Essentially, there is a claim being made when something asserts its participation in a particular form, what is being said is that “x is true to form”: there is a claim of authenticity being made.
Deleuze uses the the triadic image of the father, daughter, and suitor to make his point. In this formulation, the father corresponds to the foundation, which possesses the object aspired to (the daughter), in a primary way . The suitor must satisfy the father’s requirements - Deleuze says that he must “pass the test of the foundation” in order to make good on his bid to “possess” the daughter (255). In other words, the father must be sure that the suitor is suitable to be his daughter’s husband, by having the suitor prove to him that he will be a provider, a support system, a loving companion, and so on - basically, the suitor must prove that he is motivated out of love for the daughter, just as the father is. He must conform, internally, to the father’s parameters. Of course, he can never take the place of the father, so he must always “possess” the object aspired to in a secondary way. Now, assuming that there is more than one suitor, then a choice must be made between them to decide which of them is, in fact, the “most true to form” and therefore making the most authentic claim.
This, on the surface, is what Plato’s theory of forms is doing, according to Deleuze: it is to “distinguish the true pretender from the false one” - of course all claimants are pretenders because they can never possess what they aspire to in a primary way, but can only participate in it. The can only appear to resemble that which possesses in a primary way. The argument that follows from this is that there are varying degrees of proper participation. At the top of the heap we have the “true” pretender, at the bottom, we have that bogeyman known as the “false” pretender, or the simulacrum. The simulacrum is that which produces an appearance which lays claim to participation in a form, but which is internally corrupted and decidedly not “true” to that form. Immediately we can see a problem arising here: if all “false” pretenders of any sort are simulacrum, then to what do they correspond? It would seem that they cannot correspond to nothing, since there is something to which their falsehood corresponds. They are actually all being produced by the same thing: the simulacrum itself. As Deleuze says on page 256, “as a consequence of searching in the direction of the simulacrum and of leaning over its abyss, Plato discovers, in a flash of an instant, that the simulacrum is not simply a false copy, but that it places in question the very notations of copy and model.” This means that if the simulacrum is something to which these simulacra can correspond and, in other words “be true to”. There is, in fact, truth to these false pretenders. So here, the argument is already shaken up. Now I will move on to Plato’s more complete irony, the one which really opens the door for his deconstruction.
2) The middle term which makes Plato’s theory work is that of the “foundation myth”. This myth posits the existence of an eternal soul, which is able to see the forms while it is in the underworld, awaiting rebirth into a new body. When it is infused into a body, it always forgets what it has seen, but Plato says this knowledge can be teased out with the proper discourse or education. So the myth bridges the gap between the world of appearances and the world of essences, and makes the latter knowable within the boundaries of the former. It is important to remember this fundamental point: “It is the pretender who appeals to a foundation, whose claim may be judged well-founded, ill-founded, or unfounded”.
Now we arrive at the deep irony of Plato’s account: the myth which he provides as foundation for the theory of forms is utterly constructed: it is a myth, a story. His theory of forms is a claim made upon this foundation: since the foundation itself is a fiction, where does that leave the claim itself? It is put into serious question. We find that there is actually no real foundation through which we can properly induce this argument, and therefore the argument has nowhere to go. Since the foundation itself is ill-founded, the claim is not really corresponding to anything, and what we have is yet another illusion. Furthermore, if the theory of forms turns out to be an illusion, then all we have are illusions. Therefore, the simulacrum has won out; we have the death of representation. Iconic copies of an ideal model have no truth to them, any more than phantasmic simulacra.
3) So, if not representation, what then? We are left with the aforementioned “simulacra-phantasm”, produced by the simulacrum itself, which is difference, Otherness, dissimilarity. It is, as Deleuze puts it, “an image without resemblance”. Deleuze points to man himself for an example. On page 257, he says “God made man in his image and resemblance. Through sin, however, man lost the resemblance while retaining the image. We have become simulacra. We have forsaken moral existence in order to enter into aesthetic existence.” I take this last point to really mean that we have given up certainty in order to take up possibility.
Here we arrive at the productive rather than deconstructive side of Deleuze’s argument. The simulacrum is what he calls “becoming unlimited”. Rather than ideal categories from which all corresponding objects descend in order of their being “true to form”, there is the simulacrum, a “latent content” for which all images and effects are a possibility. In the simulacrum, Deleuze sees a “will to power”, one which can create and affirm all representations, without concerning itself with corresponding to some “true form”. “The simulacrum,” he says on page 262, “is not a degraded copy. It harbors a positive power which denies the original and the copy, the model and the reproduction.” Here, the simulacrum asserts a primary power over all effects or appearances, it “simulates at once the father, the pretender, and the fiancé in a superimposition of masks”.
The Simulacrum itself has no tangible content; it is, to put it simply, a “no-thing” for which all effects are possible and for which all productions are to be affirmed rather than judged. Here we see the Nietzschean strain coming out: creativity is now without boundary; “the power to affirm divergence and decentering ... the object of a superior affirmation. “ (page 265). All values are now considered equivalent. It is for this reason that James Joyce could write Finnegans Wake: he is producing an effect based in heterogeneity, and forces it to resemble itself in a form of self-authentication or affirmation; it sets up a basis for its own continuation by producing what Deleuze identifies an “internal resonance” - “this resonance,” he says, “induces a forced movement”. So all identity is produced by the simulacrum, but at the same time, all differences and distinctions must also be a production of the simulacrum. So we are once again left with something to which all appearances tie into, but it is important to remember that it is not in the same way as Plato’s theory of forms, for the simulacrum has no particular content and produces these appearances rather than setting up an exemplary form to which they correspond and thus gain some sort of truth.
So, the reversal of Plationism opens up possibilities for creation and broader forms of expression, because we are no longer concerned with what is “true” - we are focused on “potential”, and liberated from justification; again, this makes possible Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, non-representational works of art, and so on and so forth. Representation is dead; production has overtaken it.