Pearson on Deleuze and Weismann


Interesting conversation concerning Emile Zola, Weismann, entropy/negentropy, and the theme of the ‘crack’ in Deleuze’s Logic of Sense, from Keith Ansell Pearson’s Germinal Life: The Difference and Repetition of Deleuze:

In the crucial chapter of the novel Doctor Pascal (the final book in a cycle of twenty) entitled ‘The Genealogical Tree’ Zola has the doctor lay out before himself and the young woman Clotilde the entire genealogical tree of the Rougon-Macquart family in order to present her with a ‘terrible lesson in life’. But this tree stretches beyond and over this particular family, encompassing the strata of races and civilizations from the dawn of time to the present and branching out endlessly into unknown futures. This is the ‘whole monstrous florescence of the human tree’. Moreover, this genealogy is presented in the terms of a highly complex, erratic, and unpredictable monstrous descent, a descent subject, to deploy Deleuze’s later terms, to perpetual deterritorialization and reterritorialization. Zola is imaginative in depicting the unfolding of this tree in terms of a complicated entanglement of sickness and health, of death and renewal, a vitality of life that is caught up in destruction, decay, and degeneration. For example, Pascal asks: once the floodgates have been opened by the overflowing river of life (creative evolution as monstrous) and as detected by the emergent science of heredity (as the science of difference and repetition), then is it possible to say that among the weeds and flowers on the bank, there also mingles and floats by—gold? This is, says Pascal, a world ‘beyond good and evil’. The chapter concludes by asking whether it is necessary to burn the tree of genealogy or whether this can be a matter of the future in its affair. 

In the novel Zola presents Dr. Pascal’s work on the new science of heredity moving through Darwin’s confused theory of pangenesis, the peri-genesis of Ernst Haeckel (whose works were avidly read by Nietzsche), the eugenics of Galton (also read by Nietzsche), finally arriving at the intuition of Weismann’s major thesis on the continuity of the germ-plasm in which a portion of this ‘delicate’ and ‘complex’ substance is held in reserve and passed on without variation or mutation from generation to generation. Pascal, however, does not stop there, which is what makes his case especially interesting. He propounds his own theory, which he calls the ‘failure of cells theory’, which consists in granting a high degree of freedom and novelty to plasmic evolution. It is not atavism that Pascal privileges but ‘perpetual change’, the change that denotes an ‘increasing transformation, due to the transmitted strength and effort, that perturbation which imbues matter with life, and which is, indeed, life itself in an abstract sense’. In short, there is no plasmic finality and it is at this point that Zola is able to resist the biological nihilism of Weismann’s continuity thesis. It is in terms of such a nihilism that Wesimann is appropriated in Hardy’s tragic fiction where the anomalous and the aberrant (the ‘unfit’) are not allowed to survive but must face extermination (Tess, Jude, etc.). This biological nihilism amounts, in short, to repetition without difference, to the eternal return of the same, since the germ-plasm is posited as evolving completely independently of perturbations (Deleuze’s ‘crack’) and free of the endogenous powers of the organism itself which may exert an influence on  the character of evolution. 

In Deleuze’s reading of Zola, Weismann’s distinction between the two plasms, soma and germ, operates as a distinction between a love or a body that dies and a movement that creatively ‘evolves’ through germinal intensity. This is a movement from the organized body of the organism to the ‘body without organs’ which involves the release of singularities and intensities from entropic containment. But the two exist in implication and complication; this is life and death lived and died from ‘within the folds’ or ‘on the train’ as in Zola’s La Bete Humaine (published 1890 as the seventeenth of the twenty novels that make up the Rougon-Macquart cycle), where the machines function as the pure death instinct: ‘The instincts or temperaments no longer occupy the essential position. They swarm about and within the train, but the train itself is the epic representation of the death instinct’. In the novel the train is undoubtedly depicted in terms of the demonic power of the death drive:

the train was passing, in all of its stormy violence, as if it might sweep away everything that lay in its path… It was like some huge body, a giant creature laid out on the ground… past it went, mechanical, triumphant, hurtling towards the future with mathematical rigor, determinedly oblivious to the rest of human life on either side, life unseen and yet perennial, with its eternal passions and its eternal crimes.

Unlike the murder of the husband in Therese Raquin, committed by Therese and Laurent simply because he stands in their way and is inconvenient, Zola’s aim in La Bete Humaine was to link murder with an ancient hereditary impulse buried in the sedimented layers of civilization, to show the ‘caveman’ dwelling deep within the civilized man of modernity, as he put it in a letter to a Dutch journalist. In the novel the hereditary ‘crack’ is not simply a matter of ill-health, but is said to be involved in those ‘sudden loses of control’ that lie deep within our being like ‘fractures, holes’ through which the self seeks escape, losing itself ‘in the midst of a kind of thick haze that bent everything out of shape’. At such moments as these, where the self is no longer the master of its own body but the obedient servant of its muscles and the ‘rabid beast within’ it is cast into paying back an ancient debt: 

paying for the others, for the fathers and grandfathers who had drunk, for the generations of drunkards, of whose blood he was the corrupt issue… paying the price for gradual poisoning, of a relapse into the primitive savagery that was dragging him back into the forest.

To the extent that Zola’s novel, with its stress on a hereditary regression and atavistic instincts, anticipates both Freud’s conception of death and his positioning of the death drive is indeed remarkable. On Deleuze’s reading, however, the complicated investment of the erotic instincts in destructive ones—Zola’s novel was read in the precise terms of this complication on its publication—expresses not simply the noise of primal instincts caught up in an involution but rather the silent echoes of a repetition that drives us ever forward and upward. This is why for him the key actor or agent is the train itself (a field of action, a body without organs distributing intensities and producing transformations). The train is a creation of modern civilization, but is also the crack which derails it, making sure that it is the ‘great health’ which lives on in humanity (the dissolutions of the novel, it should be noted, take place against the backdrop of the dying days of the Second Empire). Michael Serres is incisive in detecting in Zola’s epic series of novels with its cycles of destruction, waste, dispersion, irreversible ebbing towards death, disorder, and degeneration, revolving around in La Bete Humaine a veritable thermodynamics of the train, an ‘epic of entropy’. Such an insight, however, discloses on Deleuze’s reading only half the story. Deleuze’s conception of the germinal life aims to demonstrate that entropy is never the final word. Thermodynamics needs to be linked up with good sense since they share the same characteristics: the single direction from the most to least differentiated, from the singular to the regular, so orientating ‘the arrow time from the past to the future, according to this determination’.

In his reading of the literature, therefore, Deleuze is proposing a vital reworking of heredity, in which it is shown that it is not heredity that passes through the crack, which would fix desire to a morbid ancestry, but that heredity is the crack itself. Hence the claim: ‘In its truest sense, the crack is not a crossing for a morbid heredity; it is alone the hereditary and the morbid in its entirety. For Deleuze everything depends on grasping the significance of this paradox, confusing this heredity for its vehicle, that is, the ‘confusion of what is transmitted with its transmission’ (the transmission which transmits only itself). This is what he means when he declares the ‘germen’ to be the crack and nothing but the crack.



Germline (#1)


[The below is a (gently remixed) rough draft of something I never completed. Since it connects with some of the dialogue that has been happening on this blog lately, I figured I would put it up. Hopefully I will flesh out thoughts concerning the dangling threads, so until that time apologies for the lack of climax. Or not, climaxes are fashy.]


Identity has always been about keeping you on Level 1, or to be more exact, leaving you with a zero-sum option: Level 1 or Game Over, the organism or death, the phallus or lack. – Mark Fisher, “Hom(m)eostasis”

Can what is playing you make it Level-2? – Nick Land, “Meltdown”

What is it that is playing us? It is clearly not the the illusionary identity that is doing the playing, as if it is some force possessing an otherwise pure entity. If the identity is what is discarded in leap from Level-1 to Level-2, then it is illusionary identity that is being played, a puppet that is mistaking itself for a puppeteer.

What is at Level-2?

Land: A convergent anti-authoritarianism emerges, labelled by tags such as meltdown acceleration, cyberian invasion, schizotechnics, K-tactics, bottom-up bacterial welfare, efficient neo-nihilism, voodoo antihumanism, synthetic feminization, rhizomatics, connectionism, Kuang contagion, viral amnesia, micro-insurgency, wintermutation, neotropy, dissipator proliferation, and lesbian vampirism, amongst other designations (frequently pornographic, abusive, or terroristic in nature). This massively distributed matrix-networked tendency is oriented to the disabling of ROM command-control programs sustaining all macro- and micro-governmental entities, globally concentrating themselves as the Human Security System.

Fisher: “To become the New Flesh you must first kill the old.”Max learns that organism death is not the end. Not that he moves into any kind of spirtualised immortality. Nicki teaches him that ‘Death’ only exists for the individuated organism. “It is understandable that, in a civilization which separates mind from body, we should either try to forget death or make mythologies about the survival transcendent mind. But if mind is immanent not only in those pathways of information which are located inside the body but also in external pathways, the death takes on a different aspect. The individual nexus of the pathways which I call ‘me’ is no longer so precious because that nexus is only part of a larger mind.” Out of the meat. Sex organs sprouting everywhere. First step into the New Flesh.


Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle is the story of the human puppet, undoubtedly one of the great horror stories of the twentieth century. It is a probing of the primordial trauma core from the point of view of the security apparatus (the work as a piece of psychoanalytic literature) and a murky, contaminated voyage into the depths of the fault-line it can scarcely trace (as indicated by the creeping paranoia that seethes underneath its scholarly pretenses).

The splitting of the subject appears from multiple, yet interrelated directions for Freud – first and foremost the movement indicated by the work’s title itself. Drawing heavily on the work of Gustav Fechner, Freud had elaborated the pleasure principle in early texts (such as The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900 and the The Two Interpretations of Mental Functioning in 1911) as the instinct to maximize pleasure and avoid pain. Such an instinct was, Freud had argued, the fundamental program for life – but the principle in itself had a cutting edge. Total capitulation to the pleasure principle would entail the collapse of civilization and the rapid expiration of the body. Thus the pleasure principle comes into conflict with another, the reality principle, which dampens the striving for pleasure with reason and the capacity for delayed gratification. Such is the development of the healthy individual, the process through which the ego (correlated to the reality principle) comes to gain control of the id (the pleasure principle).

Beyond the Pleasure Principle is a venture below this conflict, which comes to appear to Freud as a secondary process as he descends through into the substrate. Among the alien artifacts he churns up from this landscapes is the bizarre theory discussed in a previous post on the concept of anorganic continuum – that there is line that demarcates the inside from the outside, the interior self from the exterior world that forms a shield that protects the “little fragment of living substance” deep within; it carries this function by regulating the amount of stimuli that passes from the outside to the inside. If it weren’t for this regulation, Freud reasons, the unmitigated flow of stimuli would overwhelm and destroy the organism. The feeling of pain is but a minor indicator of this, being a localized and limited break of this shield. An event powerful to break through the protective shield in full, however, is registered as trauma.

Freud notes that the person who has suffered a traumatic event tends to dwell on the event in a way that they appear as if haunted by it: the smallest memory-traces, be it in everyday life or the clinical office, are capable of triggering re-enactments of the initial trauma. This reliving reinforces the hold the event has on the subject, widening the force of the fixation and triggering, in turn, additional re-enactments down the line. The trauma situation thus induces a suspension of the pleasure principle that reiterates in time, signaling the damage down to the dynamics of the instincts playing out between the id and ego.

Yet almost as soon as this conclusion is reached, problems arise that destabilize the ground. Why does one repeat? To master something, to overcome initial limitations in order to increase functioning in the world. Referring to the child who throws toys from his crib while happily babbling affirmations, Freud suggests that compulsion to repeat is not simply linked the unpleasurable – as is the case of traumatic repetition – but to the pleasurable as well. It follows, then, that repetition is not induced by the piercing of the protective shield itself. If it cuts across both pleasure and unpleasure, learning and failure to overcome, then the source must be deeper still, bubbling up from some zone deeper still. We begin to get hints here that something is amiss with the human subject, that something else is lurking behind the facade. Indeed, Freud says – the compulsion to repeat carries with it a “hint of possession by some ‘daemonic’ power.” He continues:

At this point we cannot escape the suspicion that we may have come upon the track of a universal attribute of instincts and perhaps of organic life in general which has not hitherto been recognized or at least explicitly stressed. It seems, then, that an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces; that is, a kind of organic elasticity, or to put it another way, the expression of the inertia inherent in organic life.(emphasis in original)

Here the primary process is approached, the ur-instinct: the death drive, the striving to return to the primordial point of origin, the inorganic itself. Understanding the aim of life as death itself reveals the split subject, divided eternally between the secondary and the primary, between the surface level conflict between the pleasure principle and the reality principle and the deeper, wider circuitry of self-preservation and drive to abolition. But, at the same time, Freud’s rendering bears a distinctive conservatism. It revels, for example, in the fantasy of the origin point (even if it expands this to a generalized and abstract ‘inorganic’), and, by extension, suggests that the ultimate impulse of the organism is towards homeostasis and a final ‘balancing’.

Freud notes the proximity of his theory to those of the great German evolutionary biologist, August Weismann. The dynamic play between the exoteric will-to-life and the esoteric will-to-death seems to bear some resemblance to the so-called “Weismann barrier” that cleaves apart the germ cell lineages (the germline) and those of the soma cells. This barrier effectively isolates the immortal from the mortal and illustrates a flow of information from the former to the latter: the germline, which gives rise to the gametes of sexually reproducing organisms, imparts hereditary information to each generation of the somatic cells of the generation in question. While each iteration of the somatic line is doomed to death, the germline can live forever as long as propagation of itself in ensured. The sense of a phylogenetic horror begins to rise from the pages of Beyond the Pleasure Principle: in our individual bodies we are the somatic meat-puppets for the germline, the mortal protective shells developed to ensure its immortality.

Freud had come close to this very understanding nearly a decade prior in a 1912 essay titled “A Note on the Unconscious in Psychoanalysis”, having written that:

The individual does carry on a double existence: one designed to serve his own purpose and another as a link in a chain in which he serves against, or at any rate without, any volition of his own. The individual regards sexuality as his own ends; while from another point of view he is only an appendage of his germplasm, to which he lends his energies… the mortal vehicle of a (possibly) immortal substance.

Whatever his thoughts on phylogeny, Freud conjured forth Weismann in Beyond the Pleasure Principle only to ward off his ultimate conclusions away. This is done precisely to maintain the stability of his conservative interpretation of the death drive, which threatens to be overwhelmed by Weismann’s theory of ‘programmed death’. For the biologist, death was something that develops later in the evolutionary line, as a form of adaptation to natural circumstances necessary for the continuation of the germline. Simply put: if the single organism is immortal, then the proliferation of organisms threatens the survival of the organism via the depletion of the natural resources it depends upon. Death becomes necessary for the continued evolution of the species, and the prolonging of the germline itself.

Freud’s theory, by contrast, was predicated on a death as a universal condition that beset the biological organism from its very protozoic beginning, and he retained Weismann insofar that this point could be avoided. If death did have the universality that Freud lent to it, then the death drive was precisely that striving for homeostasis realized as a conjoining with the origin in organic totality. But, in the inverse, if organism death developed later through evolutionary process, then the death drive must be expressing something and – perhaps most importantly – it isn’t a manifestation of a strive towards homeostasis. Robbed of the organic totality, the ‘daemonic power’ must become dynamic, an indication of productive disequilibrium.


In his reading of Emile Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, Deleuze takes up both the sides of the Weismann barrier in a way that counteracts Freud’s interpretation of the death drive, and helps push it. In The Logic of Sense, as well as in other key works, the germline is recast as the germinal in order to detach it from the genealogical overcoding that attaches it strictly to primordial origin-points. It is not “’before’ the organism”, he writes in A Thousand Plateaus, directly correlating it with the Body without Organs. “[I]t is adjacent to it and continually in the process of constructing itself… The BwO is precisely this intense germen where there are not and cannot be either parents or children (organic representation). This is what Freud failed to understand about Weismann: the child as the germinal contemporary of the parents.” By breaking with organic representation, the germinal breaks from the punctual system to cause thing to slip between the organizing pincers and engage with the productive process itself. Non-familial, anti-oedipal.

This signals an immense transformation in Weismann’s own biological logic, which unfolds by connecting the germinal to, on the one hand, the death drive, and on the other the Eternal Return. Finally, it is the identification of these two together that truly allows the germinal to be separated from the baseline functions of the germline identified by Weismann. In his reading of Zola, these two modes of difference appear as two modes of heredity: the somatic heredity, correlated to the same, and germinal heredity, the elevated heredity of difference. The former is a small, historical heredity, a “heredity of instincts”. It is organic representation pursued through the familial lineage, its vitality ensured through the inter-generational transmission of traits.

The germinal heredity is epic and transhistorical, the “heredity of the crack”. This crack is not simply a split in the world where mutant diagonalizations slip away – it is the great biocosmic background of all things, a “continuous, imperceptible, and silent” crack that “renders this history possible”. It recalls the elusive “oceanic feeling”, described by Romain Rolland in his letter to Freud – the mystical sensation of a vast and uncanny interconnectivity between things, of becoming “without perceptible limits” through submersion in the eternal. Freud, in his response, dismissed the poetic flourishes of Rolland’s descriptions by noting (tellingly) that he had himself never experienced this sensation sensation. Insofar as it existed, it was a narcissistic regression to the state of the infant child before the formation of the ego itself, that is, during the time of breastfeeding (with the removal of the breast being, in Freud’s account, the impetus for the formation of the ego).

Here the oceanic sensation is coded into what Deleuze might call the somatic heredity, with its ultimate implications – the feeling of the self’s dissolution – locked into the individual’s development through the family setting. For Wilhelm Reich, this maneuver marked the beginning of his break with Freud. Foreshadowing Deleuze and Guattari, he lambasted his mentor for being “caught in words”. The oceanic feeling was no mere sensation, but something that, despite the fundamental imperceptibility of it, was palpable and produced effects. Reich: “In the schizophrenic, for example, the streaming they feel, the emotions they feel, that’s all very real.” Echoes: “What the schizophrenic experiences, both as an individual and as a member of the human species, is not at all any one specific aspect of nature, but nature as a process of production… everything is production: production of productions, of actions and of passions, productions of recording processes, of distributions and co-ordinates that serve as pints of reference; production of consumptions, of sensual pleasures, of anxiety, and of pain. Everything is production…”


[Nothing past this point in the initial draft was coherent at all, but here’s two quotes:

Fisher: There’s nothing the reproducers want more than another piece of martyred, dead meat to hang on the white wall as an example: stay on the straight and narrow or end up like this. Leaving Man requires as much care, as much caution, as hacking out of any security system – beware: there are booby-traps everywhere… Think of videogames: it’s all about learning to get to Level-2.

Zola: This time their old, tottering society had received a jolt and they had heard the ground crack beneath their feet, but they felt other jolts on the way, and yet others, and so it would go on until the old edifice was shaken to pieces and collapsed and disappeared into the earth… a black avenging host was slowly germinating in the furrows, thrusting upwards for the harvests of future ages. And very soon their germination would crack the earth asunder.]