Elapsing Time and Belief in the World
Translated by Michael Turnbull
It was Gilles Deleuze who in various contexts underlined that what we most lacked was “belief in the world.” The odd remark appears, for example, in a conversation in 1990 with the Italian Marxist Antonio Negri about revolutionary emergence and the political force of minorities. In this dialogue Negri examines his interlocutor’s thought in the light of the “problem of the political,” which connects the various stages of the philosopher’s intellectual biography. Deleuze’s remark here is the reprise of a motif that would be familiar to readers of his second book on cinema, which appeared in 1985, in which Deleuze contends that the “power of modern cinema” is based on its ability to “give us back” our lost “belief in the world.”
At the end of the conversation Negri asks his dialogue partner about the possibility of present-day processes of subjectivization. After initially emphasizing the “rebellious spontaneity” of such processes, Deleuze utters the following sentence in an act linked to such spontaneity: “Belief in the world is what we most lack; we have completely lost the world, we have been robbed of it.” In the context of this conversation the sentence takes on the character of a strange conceptual escapade. Bemoaning a lack of belief, a loss or robbery of the world, without establishing an unambiguous relationship of causality, Deleuze’s intellectual insert remains impetuous to a certain extent, and evades categorization because it has neither been prepared by what was said before it nor does it introduce a new line of thought.
Disregarding for a moment the irritated reactions this remark provoked from many commentators, and furthermore leaving aside the irritation that can come about through the affirmative treatment of the instance of belief and bringing it into play precisely in the context of an intraworldly practice of change, we can attempt to take this idea further and extend it into our present.
If one lacks “belief in the world,” if one has lost the world or been robbed of it, then all that remains in such a state of unbelief is the elapsing of time. The elapsing of time, which seems to be coming more and more into itself today, to be inclining towards completion, is a process experienced by individuals as obscure and contradictory, but that in its incomprehensibility begins to look like an incontrovertible fact. That time can only elapse, that it only exists in this mode, as the measure of its own elapsing, is generally accepted and presupposed. Yet this dominant conviction, which presents itself as pure fact, is based on forgetting and betrayal. As Deleuze says, the “events” brought about in the world and the “time-spaces” brought into it, which attest to the possibility and reality of a different measure of time, are forgotten and betrayed, as is the basic creative power that as such and again and again resists the elapsing of time.
Our current situation is characterized by both: forgetting, which isn’t innocent; and betrayal, which actively pursues the business of annulment. Their specific sedative effect is amplified today by the jaded offshoots of critical thought, by an either opportunistic or orthodox criticism that challenges creativity in art and politics. But the tools once used to denounce the ideological pretense of art and politics, to expose the appearance of autonomy, are now part of the inventory of the present and have lost their pointedness. Having almost completely forfeited their percussive edge, these lifeless critical forms now tend to merge indistinguishably with forgetting and betrayal. An only apparently critical questioning prevails, passively blending into the current process of homogenization and unification of time because it has nothing to oppose the elapsing of time, to which it quietly acquiesces.
In its homogenizing and unifying temporal order, the present leads to an extension of the adolescent phase. It’s as if a society in which contemporaneity is absolute—the single valueless value, as it were—is naturally attracted to the insignia of youth, and falls in love with ahistoricity of its own moment. The adolescent phase of experimentation and invention escalates; the peculiar heedlessness of youth, its state of vital instability, is required to last. Adolescence is no longer understood as a transition but as the highpoint of a way of being entirely reduced to the senses. But after this highpoint, according to the unspoken threat, all we can expect is decay. And as can be observed, the expansion and conservation of adolescence goes hand in hand with a converse infantilization of adulthood, from which at some point it can no longer really be distinguished.
Parallel to the current dominance of the semi-adult, a differently weighted process is playing out that has not yet received much attention, nor could it be captured in the above description. We might attempt to call the most striking feature of the primacy of elapsing time, one of its concrete everyday forms of expression, the premature ageing of the young. This ageing process of the young is not so much expressed in signs of physical decay than through a weakening of forces, a paralysis of the affects, and an exhaustion of the imagination. It’s as if the extension of adolescence intersects with a premature ageing. While adolescence extends forward to a certain degree, ageing takes the reverse direction.
But what is the connection between a premature ageing that can be discerned in the striving for an endless deferral and a loss of “belief in the world”? Since there is nothing but the elapsing of time, personal history falls into disjointed fragments. Even the experiences specific to childhood and adolescence are marked in advance by an approaching loss, which is their only measure of appraisal. Lacking in orientation and ideas, but calculating in every respect, the prematurely aged attempt to enjoy their youth to the full and retain it forever. It’s a kind of equalization of tension: a strangely moderate and balanced state that admittedly doesn’t exclude regular doses of mobility, upheaval, and excess. But the pull of affirmation or the resistance of negation are never attained here—the gestures and attitudes have become unreal, the gaze friendly and empty. In retreat, one has already arrived, fatally calm and collected.
What drives the process of ageing forward is the fact that without a “belief in the world” time can’t be experienced as anything other than elapsing. What the process of premature ageing accelerates is the current enslavement to the incessant registration of time passing. This registration is refined by an almost endless segmentation, in which all time periods are functionally allocated and subsequently evaluated. Today the tacit work of classification and assignation, of verification and utilization, is part of a perfected organization of survival. This organization is associated with constantly new forms of body care and the optimization of physical efficiency. The aim is a high degree of health and productivity, whose maintenance becomes a value in itself. The currently escalating fetishization of potentiality gives rise to a peculiar form of mortification in which stasis and acceleration form a neutral entity. Potentiality revolves around itself: effort is made to preserve or increase it, to refine or improve it. Time—this is the dilemma—can only be experienced as elapsing here. For we find ourselves in the mode of continuously passing by, whose characteristic perception is a consistent escalation of the possible. This escalation of the possible—and this is the decisive thing—isn’t an extension but rather a restriction of potential. (The possible is arguably the only thing that becomes smaller as it expands.) A purely quantitative possible comes in to eliminate the remaining gaps. For the individual this colonization of the impossible has the result that under the precisely surveyed sphere of influence of the possible every action now seems to be the realization of something already potentially existent, a selection from a series of potential conditions. This may explain why even biographically a sequence of choices replaces decision-making. The individual is free to choose or abstain. But the two are experienced as painful: both the endless sojourn in a state of possibility, of potentiality or the retention of “investment,” which leads to peculiar form of exhaustion—without having moved—and every individual choice, each of which is felt to be an irreversible intervention into the realm of the possible, a reduction of one’s own potentiality, and only a relative factor in the sequence of empty time. Here we watch ourselves playing the inanimate roles of a life passing by; here we are sound as a bell but already corpses.
The “organization of survival” (Badiou) replaces the invention of “life chances” (Deleuze), possibilities in the emphatic sense that presupposes a “belief in the world.” Following this loss of belief, which relates to a loss of the world, all that ultimately remains to a person is a kind of animal lifeform concerned with self-preservation and the satisfaction of its needs, and with it a society devoted exclusively to securing these ends. The ideological remnants of the restorative present—which is simultaneously a present without a past or future, an absolute present, which knows nothing but the elapsing of time—can thus aptly be described following Alain Badiou as “animal humanism.” The inventive and creative, which can never be organized and through which the animal body becomes something more than itself, is suspicious in advance to this stance, even a purely ideological effect; as is everything of permanence and endurance, which represents resistance to the elapsing of time. What remains in this absolute present is mere life—a life that Hannah Arendt calls life without world, Alain Badiou without idea, or Gilles Deleuze without life.
Is it possible to regain a lost belief? Is it possible to do as we will with belief? What help is the knowledge of a loss? “The shame,” says Deleuze in his conversation with Negri, “consists in having no secure means of preserving becoming, and above all of initiating it, within ourselves too.” So what is the task in a time of unbelief, in an interim without event that appears as a presentless present? A first step perhaps consists in inventing new constructions of time that contrast with the structure of a universal and totalizing model of history in their assemblage and rearrangement of the “time-spaces” brought into the world. Inventing new constructions of time initially means diverting the attention from the elapsing of time that has occupied the vacant place of belief. Perhaps, for the moment, it just means dealing with forgetting and combating betrayal. “Belief in the world” must initially be attempted in the present on the level of ideological struggle, which is always a struggle against oneself.
Time has to become altogether experienceable again as a mode of real change. But is it enough in this sense to understand the work in an “absolute present,” in which the cementation and disappearance of the present moment come together, as one of reconstruction or cure? Is such adherence to constructibility strong enough to renew the “belief in the world” spoken of by Deleuze? Strictly speaking, a lost belief can’t be restored by an act of will or a conscious manoeuver. No field of knowledge, insight, or criticism would ultimately be capable of replacing a lost world or renewing a lost belief. So the thing that action is intended to enable—belief—must paradoxically be created retroactively by action that runs ahead of its own possibility. Put differently, if we have lost the world and lack “belief in the world,” the only way out of this free-floating, steadily elapsing time is a belief in belief. Believing in belief means practicing an objectless belief, one that has finally detached itself from the lost world and solely affirms its own pure possibility as a subjective act.
In times of lost belief, universalized skepticism, and generalized relativity, action running ahead of itself and belief in belief have the appearance of obsession. Belief in belief, running ahead of itself as action and possibly appearing futile as objectless in the elapsing interim produces the masks of the obsessive. Beyond idealized bodies and fantasies of immediacy, beyond the fanatical denial of the world and the terrorist death drive, we admire the techniques of the maniac, who has learnt to take possession of his obsessions, to put them to service, and is capable of a kind of libidinous redeployment. A way out of the interim will ultimately only initiate a hypomanic leap.
If we lose our way in the midday sun of the desert, we won’t direct our eyes to the horizon in order to crawl along the ground looking for water like animals. Instead of scuttling sideways, we’ll break out upwards.