The scandal of rationalism is its claim to be reasonable. The shame of reason is when it abets rational control. The close horizon of both is our final submission to autopoietic systems. The computer says ‘Do it now’.
In response, having defined contemporary worlds as societies of control, Gilles Deleuze argues that reason and rationalism are dangerous illusions when they are seen as self-contained and self-sufficient. Their independence is a form of self-deception or, worse, a way of deceiving and exploiting others. The humans or things deciding on the structure and, applying it, don’t really know what they are doing or why they are doing it, or they know they don’t know, but act as if they do anyway.
I define rationalism as a way to structure the world according to a pre-set logic and series of identities. Thus defined, it leads to forms of rational control, such as the organisation of a workforce into distinctive tasks according to a plan and grid of measurements. The logic regulates the relations between the identified workers, tasks, performance indicators and times. Chris, sorry, we have to downsize you: you’re in the tail on the vitality curve according to lines of codes checked per hour…
So, more seriously, the structure and the logic are also illusions of sufficiency. They aren’t independent either; they have soggy bottoms. Foreign lifeforms and material seep into them, making them rot, fail and adapt. Our laws are this kind of rational structure and suffer from this kind of porosity. We are their sogginess: rebelling against them, looking for ways around them, misusing them, going beyond them, pleading against them and making them old, ridiculous or monstrous.
“Each rational plan has a terrible relation to time as something that passes and unfolds”
The important point is that it is good to be porous in this way. The last thing we need is the dominion of reason. It is good to be open to non-reason. But the deep problem is how to be, without falling into unreason.
We value our legal system over others because it adapts to unforeseen cases and events. The thing to fear is a legal system that thinks it knows it all. The managers and leaders to mistrust are the ones with total belief in their rational plan; the ones acting like omniscient systems (a severe challenge to the concept of case law, as we are now discovering). A most empirical and pragmatic thinker, Deleuze is a pitiless opponent of overconfident reason – he’s quite English really, at least before their current descent into cheap ideologies.
His great middle-period work, The Logic of Sense, is a relentless debunking of rationalism as logical structuring. The book owes a lot to Lewis Carroll and to his lessons in nonsense and unreason. It attacks each component of rationalism. For Deleuze, the unconscious always seeps into and undoes conscious assessment and forward planning. Structures fall apart from the very beginning, destroyed from within. Logics depend on signs that turn out to be living processes, not inert functions. The world is an event, not a plan.
In his philosophy of time, Deleuze distinguishes between two types of present: the present as creature of reason and the living present. As creature of reason, the present falls apart and passes events by, because it is caught between overconfidence in a structure in the present and a connected desire to escape the past and control the future. Each rational plan has a terrible relation to time as something that passes and unfolds. The rational present is bound to be undone. And a good thing too, for otherwise it will try to impose itself on future times like a deceiving ruler.
“The last thing we need is the dominion of reason. It is good to be open to non-reason”
The living present is not beholden to reason alone. It is instead a process of change incorporating non-reason as well as it can. The living present listens to the past and to the future, allowing them to alter it in ways that it cannot fully know or understand. That’s why I say non-reason rather than irrationality (a most loaded of terms). A good legal system tries to be as close to the living present as it can, hence our horror of judges set in their ways against changing times.
Deleuze’s argument is radical. It isn’t that sometimes irrationality confounds reason. Rationalism could easily handle that; in fact, it would increase its power and mystique. Look how I defeat my demons. It’s that a necessarily unconscious irrationality is continuously at work within them. The real will be unreasonable and beyond the control of reason, forever and wherever. The task of thought – as opposed to reason – is to find the best way of responding creatively to problems on the borderline between reason and non-reason. How should we legislate for autopoietic systems before it is too late?
SUGGESTED READING On Rationality and Nonsense By Matthew Bevis That’s why Deleuze’s book is called The Logic of Sense. He means that sense (understood as feeling, learning, adapting and creating in response to events) has its own logic. The logic of sense combines sense and nonsense, because you can’t separate them rationally without making a terrible mistake about the real and about life as deeply paradoxical and problematic, as resistance to reason: ‘Sense cannot be separated from a new genre of paradoxes, marking the presence of nonsense in sense…’
Here’s a thought experiment to understand the extreme but valuable nature of Deleuze’s position. Take a computer in a server farm with no human operators, running a program switching the light sequences maximising the flow of self-driving taxis through the streets of a distant city. Is it not folly to think that this server has an unconscious that undermines its codes and operation? Sure, things can go wrong in the city – humans will always vomit in the back of cabs and need to be rapidly disembarked. But the server is self-contained: the acme of reliable rationalism.
If we follow Deleuze, the paradox is that any event that occurs in and around the server farm necessarily breaks into the closed boundaries of systems and machines. This is because those systems only have meaning when they interact with living processes, whether a rat gnawing into a high voltage line, a human mistaken by a facial recognition programme, populations thrown into darkness due to an algorithm allocating resources to other ‘more important’ ones, power sources failing due to climate breakdown. We must make sense of these events, but we can only do so if we add non-reason to reason (in time).
Image by Camillo