John Protevi (2001) Political Physics: Deleuze, Derrida and the Body Politic.

London and New York: Continuum. ISBN 0485006197.

Working the Differences

M. D. Price

Secondary texts dealing with Derrida and Deleuze inevitably catalyse material flows. The better ones compel their readers to return to the bookshop for primary texts. Others force a return for a philosophy dictionary, or a refund, or first one, and then the other. Either way the publications make real changes in economies of cash, forestry and wood pulping industries, public transport systems, shoe leather, and ideas. John Protevi’s Political Physics is without a doubt one of the more productive types of catalysts for thought, although ‘secondary text’ may well be an unfair description of this work. It is a protracted consideration of ideas as real material forces, generated by bodies politic in a material world which drives the book. As is customarily the case with continental philosophy, the arguments proceed by way of detailed commentaries and critical analyses of the texts of landmark thinkers. Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Heidegger are read through a strange but always thought-provoking mixture of Derridean and Deleuzian strategies. This is why the book both is and is not a secondary text. It is, to a high degree, dependent on the works of previous thinkers with which the reader needs to be in large part already familiar for the stakes of the argument to be fully appreciated. The book is not a secondary text in as much as there is a great deal of truly creative exegesis of those thinkers, and it expounds an original overall thesis which is much more than the sum of its parts. Protevi understands that the tactics and methods of Deleuze and Derrida cannot be simply dropped on to other textual and libidinal zones like hermeneutic paratroopers to impose a new order of interpretation upon them, for such would be to replicate the moves of the ‘hylomorphic thinking’ this book is at pains to critique. Following Deleuze and Guattari’s appropriation of Simondon, Protevi unpicks the ethical and socio-political presuppositions which implicitly underwrite the ontology of materiality given to us in hylomorphic thinking:

Hylomorphism is thus the doctrine that production is the result of an (architectural) imposition of a transcendent form on a chaotic and/or passive matter. This arche-thinking — that a simple unchanging commanding origin is responsible for change in others – is one of the fundamental philosophical issues of the West . . . it is fundamentally not just the viewpoint of the observer outside the workshop, but that of the master commanding slave labour. (8)

Against this model of material production Protevi deploys a thinking of immanent material self-organisation, thinking with andthrough the works of Derrida and Deleuze, and not merely about them. The tangled and frequently obfuscatory Derridean corpus and the schizo-nomadic productions of Deleuze and Guattari are here put to good use, rather than merely commandeered to talk in the courtly academic accents of Derridese and Deleuzian. Protevi’s attempt to productively hybridise their approaches is not without its problems, but he certainly makes a convincing case for the generally deleterious effects and epidemic spread of hylomorphic thinking. And he does so without degenerating into the kind of neologism-infested word-salad which is so often served up as Derrida or Deleuze ‘scholarship’. This book will be useful for anyone seeking lucid, original, non-introductory developments and applications of the thinking of both Deleuze and Derrida, as well as providing novel critical perspectives on aspects of Plato, Aristotle, Heidegger, and Kant. The introduction and overview to the book have been made available on John Protevi’s website (, on which the interested may rely as an accurate cartography of the terrain. To concentrate too sharply on chapters in isolation would misrepresent the manner in which the author interweaves themes and arguments into a compelling whole. The momentum of the entire book is directed towards settling an account between two major divisions of the post-Kantian inheritance in continental philosophy: the followers of a (post)phenomenological trajectory tracing its roots back to Hegel, and a broadly Nietzschean band of libidinal-energetic materialists. In weighing the pros and cons of these traditions on a scale with Derridean post-phenomenology and Deleuzian libidinal materialism at either end of the beam, Protevi argues that, whilst both are laudable, the greater value is ultimately to be found on the Deleuzian side. For reasons we shall come to present, this will no doubt attract the kind of crossfire that Guru Nanak did when trying to establish Sikhism as a productive mediation between Islam and Hinduism. The attempt at (at least partial) synthesis, the call for a merging of horizons, and the earnest recognition of the need for genuine dialogue outside of dogmatically accepting either party’s elaboration of the terms of the debate is palpable in Protevi’s writing. There can be no doubt that he is a thinker who wishes to promote genuine conversations between heterogeneous disciplines and registers of enquiry, and for this he will no doubt be castigated by a wide range of reactive academic life-forms. One is tempted to invoke a notion of instant Karma; how productive and enjoyable the reader will find this book can probably be calculated in advance on the basis of whether they approach it with the spirit of generosity and openness in which it is written, or with the myopic and poisonous eye of the scholarly vivisectionist. Communication is a messy business at the best of times, but as this book reminds us, tightening up disciplinary border-controls exacerbates the problems we have had since the tower of Babel collapsed.

Of late, dialogues (if we can call them that) between science and continental philosophy have become something of a moot point. The cruder exchanges seem to boil down to two positions, both untenable. The first, pointing in one direction, is that the aggregates of ‘true knowledge’ claimed by the ‘proper’ sciences are a collection of more-or-less well told stories about the grand fiction of ‘reality’, put about by a lab-coated priesthood intent on ‘rationally’ controlling, mechanizing and/or destroying the active forces of affective life. This position relies heavily upon a caricature of scientific conceptions of truth, and ugly quotation marks placed squarely around those caricatures. The second position, pointing in the other direction, maintains that anybody talking about science in a philosophical register had better adhere to the rules of the scientific language game or stand condemned as ranting idiots – at best merely foolish, and at worst dangerous simulacra of the knowing classes. Set up thus, the engagement between the rival parties makes no substantial improvement upon Plato’s staging of the argument between Thrasymachus and Socrates in Book I of the Republic. As Protevi points out in the introduction, Derrida’s work remains largely immune to the tantrums of defenders of the scientific faith like Sokal and Bricmont precisely because of ‘the (non-) relation of Derrida’s work to science – or at least more modestly, to contemporary complexity theory’ (5). Deleuze’s work, on the other hand, is anything but shy of engaging with any and all genera of investigation, be they chemical, biological, literary, mathematical, or ‘geo-philosophical’. It is for this very reason that Deleuzian materialism is capable of being crudely mis-read as either neo-pagan vitalism or pre-critical mechanical determinism by critics with no ear for the transcendental aspect of his thought. Indeed (though Protevi does not put it so bluntly) it is precisely the tendency of phenomenological and post-phenomenological philosophy to write itself into an academic ghetto which Political Physics takes up as one of its urgent problems. Whilst democratic politics in the Western world is increasingly being conducted as a branch of the advertising industry, the response of many philosophers to such sloganeering has consisted of attempts to think the political in registers so subtle and abstruse that the bridges to real, effective political intervention are burned behind them.

This thought informs many of the central questions of Political Physics. How might philosophers re-connect with other academic disciplines and non-academic bodies in a meaningful way without having to take up the lowest common denominators (and hence the most common reactive dominators) of the political lingua franca? Why have many attempts to open dialogues between continental philosophy and science resulted in wilful misunderstanding and insults like Sokal’s Intellectual Impostures? What real, material economies and bodies politic are affected by contemporary continental exchanges of philosophical words and concepts? Why has the notion of material self-ordering been uncritically pushed aside by such giants as Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger?

The broad thrust of Protevi’s answer is that we require a re-engagement with real, material bodies politic. This necessitates, amongst other things, a close examination of the political implications of various ways of thinking the ontological. The two main contenders for our allegiance are identified by Protevi as a) the post-Heideggerian strain of thought which threads much of French theory up to and including Derrida’s explicitly political writings, versus b) the bastard line of critical non-reductive materialism which sparks out from Nietzsche through Bataille to Deleuze and Guattari. Protevi is well aware that thus stated this contrast is somewhat artificially stark, and points towards Derrida’s engagement with Nietzsche and Bataille as well as Hegel and Husserl as a means of illustrating the complexity of the philosophical milieu. Still, one is left in no doubt that the author sees the scales tipping significantly in favour of a critical materialism cut completely loose from what he sees as the encumbrance of the (post-) phenomenological tradition’s Hegelian roots: ‘Derrida cannot articulate the production of bodies politic from clashes of forces in the general text. He can show that bodies politic are forceful, that force is inextricably part of their institution, but he has no resources, as do Deleuze and Guattari, for elaborating the principles of an empirical research project into the material production of bodies politic’ (62).

The book makes good on its claim to illustrate the limitations of Derridean deconstruction compared to the productivity of a Deleuzian approach in several ways. Most importantly, it suggests that the ability to productively mesh with concepts and works conventionally considered to be beyond its own ‘proper’ disciplinary boundaries is a crucial measure of the potency of a philosophical trajectory. It is largely in the second half of the work that Protevi shows how and why a Deleuzian re-thinking of material force can provide rich connections with the ‘outside’ of philosophical discourse via its de-privileging of semantics, meaning, and inscription, thus re-valuing the importance of materiality.

As feminist writers have been telling (or trying to tell) mainstream academia for quite some time, embodiment is not a side issue or accident for any theory. Yet remembrance that theories are produced by theorising bodies with histories, genders, ethnicities and sexualities is on the whole slight. Via a thorough and direct challenge to the mystification of hylomorphic thinking, and a more oblique and nuanced criticism of the post-phenomenological tradition, Protevi argues for the re-situation of theory in relation to real material bodies. Whilst the first three chapters move through the thinking of force in Derrida’s treatments of Aristotle, Husserl, and Heidegger (all three of which treatments are read sympathetically but highly critically), it is chapter four which really brings the stakes of Protevi’s argument out into the open. For whilst he respectfully notes the power of Derridean deconstruction to pull apart the essentialist assumptions and politically paralysing ‘hylomorphic arche-thinking’ of many sexual, social, and medical discourses on AIDS, Protevi argues that Derrida lacks the resources for getting to grips with material self-organization. This, he argues, leaves the question of the positively productive body unanswerable outside of its figuration in Derrida’s critique of metaphysical presence. As Protevi notes, the Derridean notion of the general text is in important measure indebted to Bataille’s thinking of restricted and general economies. Whilst far kinder in tone, the chapter establishes a similar point to Nick Land’s contention in his book on Bataille that the Derridean project is ultimately conservative in as much as it ‘redoubles the epistemo-contemplative terms of diagnosis [and] attempts the elimination of all possible references to a material, generative unconscious that is beyond phenomenological recuperation’ (Land, 1992: 20).

Many readers will no doubt be sympathetic to Protevi’s contention that forgetting the body in political thinking (especially in its lordly guise as ‘political philosophy’) contributes to the production of discourses which evaporate into the stratosphere of ever more careful formulations of ‘the ethical’ and finely-tuned accounts its aporias. Although he pulls his punches against Derrida somewhat, one senses that Protevi realizes that outside of the academic circles who can actually understand much of what is being said in Derrida’s texts, differance doesn’t usually make much of a difference. The end of the first section is a brilliant attempt to spell out exactly how a Derridean thinking of differance might be mobilized outside of the relatively small and closed conference and publishing circuits, and brought to bear on wider economies involving the production of what passes for truth. It must be said that Protevi does some remarkably successful work demonstrating precisely how the Derridean thinking of the ‘general text’ can open out new spaces for philosophy and outside of it.

The hinge chapter of the book, ‘Economies of AIDS’, subjects to critical scrutiny a chain of sexual, economic, scientific, epistemological and identarian constructions. It is Protevi’s contention that these contingent formations of power/knowledge have all, at some time, been presented and taken as ‘the given facts’ of the matter. Questioning the political and somatic motivations and consequences of mono-causal models of AIDS, Protevi highlights the sometimes deeply camoflagued ‘retrograde and essentialist sociologies’ implicit in avowedly purely scientific AIDS research. There are sections of this chapter which pack as much punch against the dogmatism of ‘purely scientific’ theory and research as Lewontin’s classic The Doctrine of DNA: Biology as Ideology (1993). Now comes the turn; whilst Protevi does not go so far as to point out the embarrassing paradox of the elitism and exclusivity of Derridean discourse on democracy, inclusion, and justice, he repeatedly emphasises what he argues to be a crucial limitation of the Derridean approach. Deconstruction remains largely tied to the metaphysical claims of presence and logics of opposition that it deconstructs, and, unlike the Deleuzian, the Derridean can only figure matter and materiality in relation to this complex, metaphysically-infested web of force and signification. The thinking of matter remains tied to a field of conceptual (non)determinations. The materialist response to such a deconstructive impasse is to demand ‘Who does the Earth think it is?’, asking why an intensive material continuum with its variegated strata has to be subordinated to the demands of ‘signifier and signified, base and superstructure, mind and matter’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987: 71). Protevi’s analysis does not urge the reader to wholly accept or reject either Deleuze or Derrida at the expense of the other. He does not wish to simply valorise Deleuzian materialism over a vanquished Derridean deconstruction: Protevi is well aware that both have real potentials for intervention, as well as practical limitations (198). As each and every one of the chapters demonstrates, deconstruction is corrosive of certain types of textual authority. Thus it is at least potentially useful for tackling more concretely political situations in which transcendent, mystical, and/or fascistic authority is at work. The author’s abilities to deploy Derridean-style deconstruction in complex analyses of the politicalimplications of philosophical texts such as Heidegger’s Basic Problems of Phenomenology are considerable. One senses a strange species of intellectual loyalty to Derrida and Heidegger in the midst of the conversion to Deleuzian materialism, and loyalty to the old crew is always dangerous when trying to jump ship. In this regard Protevi plays his cards early and above the table: ‘Derrida’s method remains important and to an extent unsurpassable’ (6) – but he says this even in the same sentence as he stresses the limits of the (post-)phenomenological approach. Before turning to the second half of the book we must mention a potential problem in this regard.

Setting aside the vexed question of the relation of Derrida’s ‘deconstructions’ and Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘schizo-analysis’ to method, we might ask about the extent to which Derrida and Deleuze and Guattari have any ‘common issues’, given the Derridean problematization of commonality and the role of differance. Add to this Deleuze and Guattari’s thinking of primary difference and we raise the problem of the extent to which a ‘synthesis of their approaches’ is either possible or desirable without begging questions of the role and value of ‘synthesis’. In relation to Derrida the notion of ‘synthesis’ resounds with (highly modified) Hegelian tones, whereas ‘synthesis’ in Deleuze’s works is modulated by a very different (though not necessarily antithetical, or less perverse) notion of immanent material production. That ‘synthesis’ in a Derridean register and ‘synthesis’ in a Deleuzian register might be synthesised in an approach which respects both notions of synthesis is questionable. It would be unfair to require the author to produce an all-out value critique of the various uses of ‘synthesis’ in Deleuze and Derrida’s publications, but it might have been wise to have said a little more about the precise nature of the common issues on which instruments as different as the torque-wrench and the X-ray machine converge. The critique of hylomorphic thinking which Protevi develops so conscientiously as a possible bridge between the approaches of Derrida and Deleuze doesn’t quite pay enough attention to the fact that the understanding of the term hylomorphism and, more importantly, the term thinking are animated by very different forces in a thoroughgoing materialsm. What Deleuze calls thinking and what Derrida calls thinking might be considered as a point of divergence rather than convergence.

The second half of the book explores and experiments with the potentialities of Deleuzian concepts set to work interrogating hylomorphic tendencies within Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Heidegger. Protevi’s avowed rationale for selecting this quartet is that ‘When it comes to illustrating the power of using the [Deleuzian] concept of hylomorphism to read the history of philosophy . . . we cannot hope to locate detailed readings of the hylomorphism of other philosophers in Deleuze the way we are able to follow the close readings Derrida devotes to articulating the metaphysical engagements of particular philosophers’ (116). And since Plato makes explicit many of the terms of orientation for European political philosophy, it makes sense to use him as a test-case from which we can map the developments which ‘will enable us to see similar patterns in Aristotle, Heidegger and Kant’ (116). Quite so. But one wonders if there is not some ancilliary motive, given the deep shadows cast across the Derridean project by precisely these thinkers? Even granting that Plato and Kant are difficult figures to get away from if one is doing any thinking at all in Western philosophy as it presently constitutes itself, might we not take Protevi’s criticisms of the hylomorphic strains of these thinkers in particular as a guarded (or perhaps unconscious?) criticism of the reactive nature of deconstruction’s attack on their metaphysical presuppositions? For one thing is certain: without the metaphysical apparatus and logics of opposition that animate such texts, what could the task of deconstruction possibly be? In the very title of the chapter which opens this section, ‘Master and Slave’, Protevi seems to be hinting that, unlike Deleuzian materialism, deconstruction can only constitute itself reactively as a kind of thinking-against. Read in such a light, one can pick out a subtext to the closing three chapters which stacks up against Derrida’s quasi-Hegelian reading of the dialectics of force and signification operating between mastery and slavery, and in favour of the Deleuzian refiguration of Nietzsche’s notion of slavery and mastery expounded in Nietzsche and Philosophy (1983).

Protevi identifies in Heidegger a hylomorphic tendency which systematically erases physical, bodily differences which, one might argue, are both philosophically and politically crucial to one’s being in the world (Dasein). Heideggerian Dasein is oblivious to the differences made by gender and race in the emergence of ‘authentic’ subjectivity. Protevi claims that the real material conditions of production are set aside to pursue the intricacies of the horizon of temporality, raising serious questions as to the motivation for ‘Heidegger’s effacement of the body politic’ (154). And here Protevi seems to score a direct hit. For whatever hermeneutic intricacies scholars might argue about on the subject of the precise conditions of the emergence of Heideggerian Dasein, it’s a safe bet that fucking doesn’t get a mention, much less maternity. Phenomenological accounts of subjectivity are pretty much wide open to Irigaray’s charge that any thinking of subjectivity is always overtly or covertly appropriated by the idealizations of a mythological-masculine formative force. It would be very interesting, nonetheless, to see how a serious Heidegger scholar with equally serious feminist commitments might respond to Protevi here. One is also left wondering to what extent (despite Derrida’s overt nods towards lesbian desire in Spurs, and the ‘excessive’ maternal implications of ‘the gift of life’) deconstruction itself is tainted by phenomenology’s denigration of any real material body in favour of prolonged meditations on the aporias of its presence and identity. This is another of the reasons why I consider this to be a very brave as well as genuinely thought-provoking book. For while it tries to remain friends with (dare I say it) the ‘spirit’ of Derrida’s enterprise, it will undoubtedly draw fire from devotees keen to point out the Derridean subtleties Protevi has overlooked in his analysis of Derrida’s limitations, no doubt via an easily rehearsable deconstruction of the limit of limitation. Both Nietzsche and Deleuze are careful to avoid prolonged engagements with the texts of dialectical opponents, despite their respective attacks on Socrates and Hegel. And with good reason. A dialectician sees every limitation as a passage beyond, and every disagreement as a contradiction whose role in developing the process is foreseen and written into the formula at the level of method (see Catherine Malabou’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Hegelian Wolves?’ in Paul Patton’s Deleuze: A Critical Reader). If you are going to do a job on a live and slipperly dialectician like Derrida, you’ve got to really stick the knife in all the way, twist it, snap it off, and run for your life. If you hesitate, or hang around to appreciate your handiwork, they’ll turn the blade and you’ll end up on the wrong end of the work of the negative. Protevi’s thesis will no doubt attract some criticism from that quarter, though how serious one takes such objections to be depends entirely on how convinced one already is of the philosophical value of quasi-dialectical methodologies.

Similarly, he will almost certainly attract criticisms from the Nietzschean and Deleuzian side of the wire, which I suspect will centre around accusations that there is insufficient thinking of the value of many of his key terms. Fascism, anti-fascism, and democracy, for example, are dropped into the afterword without much qualification. It would not be difficult to make the case that anti-fascism is (like democracy) too wide a field to deal with in such a short manner: some kind of genealogy of the values and forces animating specific, historically and socially situated instances would be in order, if there were but world enough and time. It is in some senses fascistic to reduce ‘fascism’ to something all of a piece; the value of certain types of fascism in certain situations cannot simply be presupposed, but requires something like a genealogical value-critique to diagnoserather than assert its worth. But as with the criticisms which are likely to flow from the (post-)phenomenological camp, much of the force of such objections can be deflected by reminding the critic of the meanness in taking an author to task for the book that was not written instead of the one that was actually produced. All books in some sense ‘suffer’ from their own organization, and however much we might aspire to the production of a ‘Book-Without-Organs’, material-economic conditions simply don’t allow philosophical monographs to run much over two hundred pages. To hold an author responsible for the finitude of their analysis is, more often than not, a cheap shot.

True to the spirit of Deleuzian production the book has in part been assembled from materials which have previously stood alone, though the work does not suffer from this. There are no abrupt skips or jumps in the argument and much of the book is woven back into itself, highlighting and developing previous themes in different registers. Chapter three, for example, introduces and unpackages complex Derridean material on ‘the gift of life’. The exegetical work of this section makes for worthwhile reading in its own right, but its larger importance only becomes apparent in chapter six, where it bears fruit in relation to the ‘surplus’ time necessary for philosophical reflection. This seems to be a feature of Protevi’s argumentative style: settling the accounts on one apparently self-contained problem which one thinks is then set aside, only to find that what felt like a closed unit of work flares into activity and resonates at a later stage of the book. The effect is like a series of depth-charges quietly sinking into the past of the argument only to detonate fully fifty pages down the line. This is an impressive work which promises and delivers much by way of mobilizing some of the complexities of the further outposts of French theory in disciplines such as the social sciences and life sciences. It lives up to the series editor’s aim, ‘to present work which is both theoretically innovative and challenging, whilst retaining a commitment to rigour and clarity’.

In the works of both Derrida and Deleuze there is an urgent call to rethink the political, and in both a call to promote what Foucault described in his introduction to Anti-Oedipusas ‘anti-fascist thinking’. Given the reliance of the Deleuzo-Guattarian and Derridean projects upon a very complex and subtle engagement with (and modification of) the Kantian inauguration of transcendentality, one wonders how the intellectual elitism inherent in their political philosophies can circumvent the following accusation: they operate on the premise that increasingly complex works of philosophy provide some kind of ‘trickle down’ effect on the common folks who have a real material problem with articulating the complexity of the transcendental social unconscious, and wouldn’t know their aporia from their elbow. To this extent perhaps both streams of continental philosophy, libidinal-materialists no less than post-phenomenologists, are still dreaming the Enlightenment dream that sufficient education in what is socially produced as academic philosophy is a prerequisite of acceptable political maturity and good order. And let’s face it squarely, if you haven’t got a handle on Kant, getting to grips with either Deleuzian ‘machinic production’ or Derridean ‘quasi-transcendentality’ is almost written off a priori. Which presents a question that is not specific to this book, but urgent for contemporary politico-philosophical work in general. How well we can square the ‘revolutionary’ desire for anti-fascistic, self-ordering, and ethical political economies with the harsh condition of belonging to an intellectual elite in order to effectively voice such a desire?

In summary, Political Physics is a rich, enjoyable, and courageous book in as much as it seems designed to attract the comments and criticisms of no end of academic specialists – be they classicists, Kant scholars, neo-Hegelians, Nietzscheans, no less than card-carrying Derrideans and Deleuzians, and it would not be too much to hope that some political theorists and sociologists will also be drawn into the fray. In sticking his head so high above the parapet Protevi deserves a wide spectrum of responses, and one can only hope that they will be made with the same spirit of productive dialogue that this book examples. Political philosophy, both inside and outside academia, would be well served by thinkers equally committed to exchanging and circulating ideas outside of their limited economies of hyper-specialist ‘knowledge’ and taking up the invitation toexperiment once again.


Deleuze, G. (1983) Nietzsche and Philosophy. Trans. H. Tomlinson. New York: Columbia University Press.

—- & Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. B. Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lewontin, R.C. (1993) The Doctrine of DNA: Biology as Ideology. Harper.

Patton, P. (ed.) (1996)Deleuze: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.

M. D. Price is currently completing a PhD thesis on violence and post-Kantian philosophy at Bolton Institute, UK.