Cultural Discourse looks at a broad range of cultural issues.
8th September 2010

Theory Classics: The Fold

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The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque by Gilles Deleuze

A Review by John David Ebert

I read Deleuze books because they have teeth. His books are the philosophical equivalent of a Francis Bacon painting: you will not walk away from the experience without a few bite marks left in your psyche. 

The Fold, however, fails spectacularly on a number of levels. It not only has no teeth, it has no skull. It doesn’t even have a spine. There is, in short, nothing predatory about it at all.

And that’s too bad because it should have been a great book: the premise, after all, is quite intriguing. Consciousness is the result of matter that has been folded and folded and folded until exteriority has become interiority. A fresh idea, in other words. It may be a materialistic theory, but it’s a good one and even has the ring of plausibility about it.

Instead, what we get is a book with one fresh idea and the rest is a rather academic exposition of the ideas of Leibniz. No fun at all. Philosophers like Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou have insisted that Deleuze’s collaborations with Guattari are inferior to his stand alone projects, but I beg to differ. Maybe if Guattari had been along for the ride, this wouldn’t have been such a stiff exercise. We would have gotten fold theory as applied across the spectrum of the arts: what happens in Modernist art, for example, when you apply fold theory to cubism or abstract expressionism? And what about civilizations? Maybe they enfold other smaller societies within them, like endosymbiontic cells that gobble up smaller cells which become permanent members of the cell’s newly complex architecture?

Nothing of the kind.

Instead Deleuze begins by insisting that the basic idea of the Baroque is that it is a function, not a trait, namely a function of folding matter in variously intricate ways. It is a vision of life as though it were a Baroque house with two stories, the lower story, with windows, corresponding to the pleats of matter, while the upper, windowless story with folded drapes hanging from the wall, corresponds to the folds of the soul. Thus the Cartesian separation between mind and body as two separate substances is here overridden by the idea that all matter, living and non-living, is composed of matter that is variously folded. The soul is simply matter that has been infinitely folded into unimaginable complexities, producing interiority. There is no distinction between mind and matter, for mind is infinitely folded matter. 

Thus a fold is always folded within a fold and the smallest unit of matter is not the atom but a fold. Thus, the model for the sciences of matter is origami, the Japanese art of folding paper. 

Thus, to unfold is to grow, whereas to fold is to diminish, to reduce. A dead organism is simply one that has begun to contract in on itself, and this includes the soul, “which remains right where it was, in a part of the body, however reduced it may be.” However, if the soul remains localized to a part of the body, then how do we explain what happens when we cut a worm in two which then regrows into two independent worms? In which half of the cut worm was the soul located? 

The lower story of the house includes both inorganic and organic matter, while the upper story refers to consciousness, or the realm of souls.  

This book suffers from what Zizek terms a “parallax view” between Deleuze and Leibniz, that is to say, a misalignment with regard to their world views, for whereas Deleuze is a thoroughgoing materialist, Leibniz was nothing of the kind. His philosophy of monads was a gigantic vision of every speck of matter, whether animate or inanimate, inhabited by a cosmos of tiny living souls. It is a sort of philosophical recasting of ancient, archaic animism, and it is a worldview that is thoroughly “incompossible” with that of Deleuze who was, though a metaphysician, nonetheless, primarily a materialist. 

It is as though The Fold constituted an attempt on the part of Deleuze to put on Leibniz’s philosophy as a mask in order to see what the world might look like through, and by means, of it. The resulting view, though interesting, is not one of Deleuze’s best books. 

He spends pages analyzing Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason and his theory of incompossible worlds but it remains difficult to see what any of this has to do with Deleuze’s particular and rather unique way of looking at the world.

Maybe Deleuze was just getting tired. This was, after all, his penultimate book, followed only by his last collaboration with Guattari, What is Philosophy?, a book which, though good, was also the weakest of their collaborative efforts.

When he died–by throwing himself out of a window–Deleuze was reportedly at work on a book about Marx, a manuscript which, so far, has never surfaced. It would be interesting to see what he would have done with Marx, since Anti-Oedipus is heavily influenced by him, and revises him in interesting ways. 

But that’s another story.

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