The Virtual, the Nomadic Turn, and the Digital | Catherine Ju-Yu Cheng

by Critical Asia

by Catherine Ju-Yu Cheng, Dec. 2023】

Deleuze’s work extensively explores the concept of the virtual, representing a core element in his philosophical framework. The examples that stem from this concept are like a beautiful array of stars scattered across his textual universe. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze’s theory of individuation, referred to as “indi-drama-different/citation,” elucidates the process by which pre-individual singularities transition into distinct individuals. This intricate process involves a continual interplay between the actual and the virtual realms, shedding light on the entwined relationship between the individual and species. Deleuze proposes viewing the individual as a developing crystal containing boundless assemblages and embodying an embryonic phase of life. Contrary to a constrained subject, the individual is conceived as a larval life form—a reservoir teeming with potentialities.

In Bergsonism, Deleuze appropriates Henri Bergson’s ontological distinction between actual and virtual. In Bergson’s and Deleuze’s view, memory is trans-individual and is stored not in the brain but in the virtual past. Memory refers, not only to empirical, personal memory but also to ontological memory that preserves itself elsewhere.

In Cinema II, Deleuze crafts a captivating concept known as the crystal image, offering an illuminating portrayal of how the world emerges from the interplay between actual and virtual images. He suggests that the fusion of the actual and virtual images engenders a crystal-image, that can reveal to us time itself. Time is no longer trapped in the present but can refer back to the past that preserves itself and the future that the passing present will become.

In The Fold, Deleuze borrows Leibniz’s concept of monad and incorporates the concept of Baroque to portray the fold between the monad (monadic subject) and the world. The actual and the virtual are explored from a whole new perspective. The monad actualizes the world while “the whole world is only a virtuality that currently exists only in the folds of the soul which convey it, the soul implementing inner pleats through which it endows itself with a representation of the enclosed world” (The Fold 24). Acting as a screen, the monad can only reveal a distinct zone, its realm of clear expression. The interplay between the virtual and the actual elucidates the relationship between the monadic subject and the world.

Nevertheless, Deleuze critiques Leibniz’s exclusion of incompossible singularities from our best compossible world. Deleuze introduces the concepts of “compossible and incompossible” to address whether singularities are compatible and can be included within our best compossible world. If a singularity diverges from those of this world, it shall be expelled from our best possible world created by God based on the principle of pre-established harmony. For example, Adam possesses singularities such as being the first man, residing in a garden of paradise, having a wife created from his rib, and sinning. However, while the fifth singularity (to resist temptation) appears, the fourth singularity (to sin) contradicts the fifth one (to resist temptation) and forces the divergences. The divergences make Adam the nonsinner incompossible with our best possible world: “It is not simply that it contradicts the fourth, ‘sinning,’ such that a choice has to be made between the two. It is that the lines of prolongation that go from this fifth to the three others are not convergent” (The Fold 69). The divergence results in the opening of the enclosed monad and the recreation of the enclosed cosmos. He depicts the opening beautifully: “But when the monad is in tune with divergent series that belong to incompossible monads, then the other condition is what disappears: it could be said that the monad, astraddle over several worlds, is kept half open as if by a pair of pliers” (The Fold 157). Thus, Deleuze substitutes monadology with a nomadology.

Through an exploration of the latest advancements in digital technology, the virtual can be perceived from a fresh angle. Aden Evens proposes two ontologies that deal with the relationship between the digital and Deleuze’s concept of the virtual:

The first ontology contrasts the digital with Deleuze’s notion of the virtual: whereas the virtual is creative and fecund, the digital is sterile and hermetic, precluding creativity. The second ontology describes how the digital is (nevertheless) creative: by virtue of the fold in the digital, a subtle but crucial feature of digital ontology, the digital reaches beyond its

flat plane to connect to the human world. In the fold, described by way of an extended example, the digital and the virtual thus overlap. (Evens 147)

The first ontology validates Deleuze’s concept of the virtual as creative, and the second affirms the creative essence of the digital. Regardless of debates surrounding the inherent creativity of the digital realm, its significant influence has substantially shaped our reality.

In a world dominated by artificial intelligence and algorithms, where individuals transition into dividuals and the proliferation of avatars is limitless, the relationship between the virtual and the actual, the digital and the individual (or dividual), has grown increasingly intricate and convoluted. When we feed information daily to algorithms, we are simultaneously influenced and controlled by the information propagated by these algorithms, becoming dividuals shaped by them. As our data is collected and digitized by artificial intelligence, we transform into “data doubles” (Haggerty and Ericson 613) within algorithms, forming a digital self and losing the capacity for subjectivity, reflection, and resistance. When the networked life formed online becomes merely a fragment within algorithms and individuals turn into passive entities, it prompts us to question: where lies the potential for escape?

Catherine Ju-Yu Cheng, Associate Professor, General Education Center, National Defense University, Taiwan


Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. 1966. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Zone, 1990.

——–. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. 1983. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. London: Continuum, 2005.

——–. Difference and Repetition. 1968. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia UP, 1995.

——–. The Fold: Leibnitz and the Baroque. 1988. Trans. Tom Conley, London: The Athlone Press, 1993.

Evens, Aden. “Digital Ontology and Example.” The Force of the Virtual, edited by Peter Gaffney, University of Minnesota Press, 2010, pp. 147-168.

Haggerty, Kevin D., and Richard V. Ericson. “The Surveillant Assemblage.” British Journal of Sociology, vol. 51, no. 4, 2000, pp. 605-622.

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