Joseph F. Lawless | La Storia dei Mascherari–Nietzsche, Deleuze, and the (Un)Masking of Subjectivity

By Joseph F. Lawless

In 1296, the city-state of Venice declared its spectacular Carnevale a government-sanctioned festival, employing ornate ritual and bacchanalian excess to publically inscribe the brilliance of Venetian history. Throughout the festival, the Venetian state presented the past and present as seamlessly joined; carnival was the specular mechanism of this integration, reflecting the past onto the present and the present onto the past so iteratively as to mark them as indistinguishable. While historical accounts of Venetian carnival may descriptively diverge, there stands a point of consensus: carnival “was a time of outrageous freedom, licentiousness, and spontaneity . . . [where social] distinctions were blurred, cancelled or obliterated.”[1] Facilitating the dissolution of social boundaries was the iconic Venetian mask, understood as “the sine qua non of participation in Venetian carnival.”[2] In a deluge of masks and kaleidoscopic anonymity, power relations inverted, and the body that functioned as their conduit embraced grotesque, perverse, and Janus-faced sexual indulgence.[3]

Thoughts of carnival inevitably drift toward its sartorial synecdoche, the mask, that mode of facial disguise Nietzsche would galvanize in his trenchant critique of the aesthetic ideals of philosophy:

[At] first the philosophical spirit always had to slip into the disguise and chrysalis of the previously established types of contemplative human beings . . . in order even to be possible in any degree at all: for a long time the ascetic ideal served the philosopher as the form in which he could appear, as presupposition of existence–he had to act it in order to be able to be a philosopher, he had to believe it in order to be able to act it. . . . [For] the longest time philosophy would not have been at all possible on earth without an ascetic covering and mantle, without an ascetic self-misunderstanding.[4]

A close reading of this passage illuminates the consistent, internal presence of masking within Nietzsche’s critique of subjectivity. Note that Nietzsche does not begin his discussion with the material body but instead with the philosophical spirit; it is the philosophical spirit that “slip[s] into” those bodily forms whose coherence has already been established within the matrix of social intelligibility. It is almost as though the subject is unanchored or unmoored, and its only possibility to materialize within the sphere of sociality is to take on the mask of the philosophical spirit, an already constructed personage deeply embedded within an intractable intellectual tradition.[5] When the subject fits the philosopher’s mask onto her face, she experiences the paradoxical moment of power: her intelligibility and viability are achieved through her submission to a discursive field that always already operates to constrain her agency.[6]

A discussion of the mask’s centrality within Nietzsche’s philosophical corpus began during Nietzsche 4/13, which traced the lines of connection and lines of flight between Nietzsche and Gilles Deleuze. The three interveners–Barbara Stiegler [10:16], John Rajchman [34:52], and Michael Taussig [66:15]–offered rigorous interpretations and posed stimulating inquiries regarding Deleuze’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s works and Nietzschean methodology. As it would be difficult to properly engage with the depth of each intervention in this brief meditation, I will instead turn to a question submitted through the Nietzsche 13/13 social media apparatus, which was situated at the intersection of Deleuzean critique and Nietzschean methodology. The question remarked on Deleuze’s metaphorical use of masking in his critique of metaphysical representation [93:27] and, in part, queried the genealogy of the mask within the Nietzschean-Deleuzean nexus. An excavation of the mask’s presence within Deleuze’s writing–specifically, in Nietzsche and Philosophy and Difference and Repetition–may illustrate how Deleuze enriched and complicated the Nietzschean mask to further his own critical endeavors. I will argue that the two animating principles of Difference and Repetition, though seemingly situated in contradiction with one another, may be reconcilable through the image of the mask. In joining what I perceive to be the major theoretical arcs of Difference and Repetition, I hope to determine how the mask can serve as a critical theoretical tool in the negotiation of subjectivity and the paradoxical role power maintains in the founding of the subject.

Nietzsche does marshal the mask as an ontological opposite to transcendental reality or ontological permanence. It does not cover a form of being more “innate” or “inherent” but is a form of ontology in itself, representing the myriad phenomena whose complexity and chaos are the Nietzschean will to power (to this end, Nietzsche’s own concept of will to power, insofar as it is deployed as an organizing principle, performs the same kind of deception). In contrast to Greek art, which Nietzsche would characterize as one of the more beautiful veils crafted to cover the volatility of chaos, Nietzsche describes his own thought as the identification of masking itself. Nietzsche takes his objectives not as the pursuit of a particular form of “truth” but as the throwing away of the mask that reveals the chaos of becoming. Should Nietzsche prove successful in this enterprise and experience affirmation as a necessary component of this process, “his thought . . . will constitute an art by which Greek terror and its lineage in Western thought will have been modified and perhaps, in his discourse, overcome.”[7] The Nietzschean mask is the mask of self-overcoming and of dismantling those regimes of truth that pollute the human organism. The mask is as much that which must be identified and removed as it is a methodology, a distinctive mode of thinking about the power of truth and falsehood that sets into motion the possibility of overcoming those regimes.

In his examination of the Nietzschean corpus, Deleuze argues that, for Nietzsche, “everything is mask.”[8] Indeed, Nietzsche identified the mask of modern philosophy for what it really was–an intellectual putrefaction which fetishized the mask of “‘reactive’ over active life and [the mask] of negative over affirmative thought.”[9] Because these two dualisms–“active-reactive” and “affirmative-negative”–are present throughout much of Nietzsche’s writing, a brief examination of those concepts and of their constitutive corollary, force, is useful.[10] Activity and reactivity can be understood as the wartime scars of a scorched Nietzschean battleground. Waging the war that differentiates active from reactive are forces, which express the capacity to “appropriate[e], dominat[e], [and exploit] a quantity of reality.”[11] For Nietzsche, there is no singular force but instead a plurality of forces, and these forces exist in immediate, frictional contact with one another, a productive discord that subtends the perpetuity of becoming.

This struggle between forces is the site of an object’s origin and its history; thus, to evaluate an object’s origin and its subsequent history, one must examine the myriad forces that continuously constitute it. For Nietzsche, such an examination involves “philosophy’s highest art–that of interpretation.”[12] At its most simplistic, interpretation involves delicately weighing the relative potency of interlocked forces. At its most onerous, Nietzschean interpretation must grapple with an elementary principle of force: A new force “can only appear and appropriate an object by first of all putting on the mask of the forces which are already in possession of the object.”[13] To interpret the force as it currently appears, one must mine the mask’s structural evolution, as it is the mask which simultaneously contains and occludes an object’s genealogy. The adoption of the mask is, per Deleuze’s interpretation of Nietzsche, of absolute consequence; if such adoption is willingly foregone, the force seeking to dominate the object will ultimately atrophy and perish.[14]

Interpretation, or genealogy, is thus the art of piercing masks, of discovering why the mask becomes a site of intensive viability, and, perhaps most importantly, of charting how the metamorphosing mask can remain suspended upon the visage presumed behind it. That the mask is continuously reshaped signifies the ongoing, pluralistic relation of forces; in this interrelation of action, domination, and subsumption, forces become will–that “differential element of force.”[15] Innumerable forces produce a multiplicity of wills, some of which will command and some of which will submit. Although the relationship among wills that Deleuze describes is one of hierarchy and domination, Deleuze states clearly that the Nietzschean concept of domination should not be understood as bearing a negative valence. In the act of submission, a force does not deny the differential element that constitutes the will; instead, it celebrates its difference and affirms it as exemplary of activity.[16] When a force becomes too exhausted to affirm its difference, however, it becomes reactive, and, in such reactivity, the force brings to the fore the negative element Nietzsche would characterize as ressentiment.

Deleuze marshals the image of the mask in Nietzsche and Philosophy to elucidate Nietzsche’s conception of the will and the will’s relationship to the affirmation of difference. Deleuze directly addresses the substance of difference in Difference and Repetition, the objective of which is a radical critique of the modernist impulse to subordinate difference to identity, to take identity as definitive of representation, and to treat repetition as a form of difference that lacks any conceptual anchor.[17] Speaking broadly, I take Deleuze’s response to the failure of representation to be twofold. First, Deleuze urges a historical excavation of those prior actions that have converged as the enabling condition for the subject. Second, Deleuze adopts a cautious attitude toward the working of memory, as it is only when one is willing to forget that one can come to accept the actualization of difference. Because my purpose here is not to address Difference and Repetition in its entirety, I will focus on the nexus between these two principles and one prominent site of the mask’s emergence within the text: Deleuze’s comparative discussion of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. I will argue that Deleuze’s examination of the theatre of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard serves to construct the motile, multiplying Deleuzean mask–that which combines a plenitude of intensities, sensations, and virtualities to ignite the immanent production of subjectivity.

Deleuze opines that Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, though of considerably different philosophical orientations, share a mutual desire to actively “oppose repetition to all forms of generality.”[18] Deleuze expands his overall proposition on repetition within Nietzsche and Kierkegaard’s writing by noting several points of conceptual mutuality the two share. Of interest to my discussion is the fourth point to which Deleuze draws our attention. Here, Deleuze identifies an opposition on behalf of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard “not only to the generalities of habit but also to the particularities of memory.”[19] I find this fourth juncture to be foundational to Deleuze’s arguments in Difference and Repetition, as it articulates the dual principles undergirding his intervention–first, the location of an action within its genealogical history and, second, the act forgetting, which subverts the power-politics of representation by opening a space within which difference can flourish. For the transformative prowess of these two principles to be actualized, they must continuously coalesce, meeting one another in joint symmetry.

At first glance, the knitting Deleuze advocates is seemingly incoherent. How can one simultaneously act upon the genealogical history of an action while forgetting what one knows of the action through memory? In response to this tension, I would contend that what appears to be an irreconcilable aporia is in fact a generative, vitalizing contradiction. To be clear, my interpretation does not follow the lines of a Hegelian dialectic. The reconciliation of these two principles is not, as I read Difference and Repetition, achieved through a Hegelian synthesis. Both the acquisition of genealogical knowledge and the active disintegration of memory are necessary elements in the formation of Deleuzean subjectivity, and, although their operation is concurrent, the two are neither fused together nor are they reducible to one another. Their point of their convergence, to which I earlier alluded, is the Deleuzean mask, which brings together these Deleuzean principles without diluting their pure difference.

If Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are rightfully claimed as those who overcame philosophy, of what does their new means of expression consist? For Deleuze, the failure of representation is in its relentless attempts at mediation; representation mutates chains of signification through its dilution of difference. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard eschew the stasis of representational metaphysics and instead take movement as the locus of philosophical inquiry. Deleuze celebrates this conceptual shift as finally encouraging the “question of making movement itself a work, without interposition; of substituting direct signs for mediate representations; of inventing vibrations, rotations, whirlings, gravitations, dances or leaps which directly touch the mind.”[20] It is not, then, that Kierkegaard seeks to reflect on the dramaturgy of the ancients or the moderns. Rather, Kierkegaard seeks to live within that theatricality, to “live[] within the problems of masks, [to] experience[] the inner emptiness of masks and seek[] to fill it, to complete it, albeit with the ‘absolutely different.’”[21] The delicious complexity of masks proves all the more sensuous for Nietzsche, whose mobilizing work in The Birth of Tragedy is achieved “by multiplying the superimposed masks [worn by characters within the text] and inscribing the omnipresence of Dionysus in that superimposition, by inserting both the infinity of real movement and the form of absolute difference given in the repetition of the eternal return.”[22]

Deleuze states that, at its core, the theatre of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard is the theatre of movement, and the nature of movement lies not in opposition or mediation but in repetition. The theatre is not the site where the actor, still unfamiliar with the script, repeats his lines repetitively to configure them as habit. Instead, says Deleuze, this theatrical space is one whose emptiness is filled not by banality of the script but by “the signs and masks through which the actor plays a role which plays other roles . . . [illuminating] how repetition is woven from one distinctive point to another.”[23] It is in one’s rejection of the theatre of representation in favor of the theatre of repetition that one may shed the beguiling roles of the concept which mediates the sign and the representation which mediates the concept. Central to repetition’s becoming is the mask, which Deleuze takes as the sartorial and symbolic motif of repetition’s vitality. The Deleuzean mask is always that which hides other masks. It is the mask that builds upon the history of variegated disguise within which pure difference flourishes, itself a nourishing soil tilled by the countless masks that claim no origin. Through these qualities, the mask operates as the nodal intersection of the two principles states stated earlier. The mask is able to fill the emptiness of the theatre by drawing upon the history of those masks whose accretion has enabled its formation. At the same time, the mask’s intelligibility depends on its abandoning any notion of the fixity of that prior history. It is the tether to the actual that the mask discards so that it may savor the intensities and virtualities that flow within it, and it is this savoring of the not-yet-actualized that allows for the creation and destruction essential to difference.

I have thus far sought to trace, albeit partially, the presence of the mask within a small portion of Deleuze’s writing. To connect the Deleuzean mask to the question of subjectivity I posed above, I propose a reading of the theatre of repetition as a metonymy, representing a site always already imminent and implicated in the production of subjectivity. What role, then, does the mask play in this generative space? In his characterization of the theatre, Deleuze depicts a space of hollowness and substance, a conflict of emptying and filling. It is not the actor (or, more specifically, the actor’s body) that fills the void of the theatrical space; it is instead the mask and its incipient dynamism that fill the space and determine its capacity for repetition. In a narration of the theatre’s purity and power, Deleuze remarks:

In the theatre of repetition, we experience pure forces, dynamic lines in space which act without intermediary upon the spirit, and link those forces directly with nature and history, with a language which speaks before words, with gestures which develop before [organized] bodies, with masks before faces, with [specters] and phantoms before characters–the whole apparatus of repetition as a “terrible power.”[24]

While it may be tempting to read this passage as Deleuze’s implicit sacrifice of the material (the body) in favor of the discursive (the mask), this interpretation risks a misappraisal of Difference and Repetition–specifically, misunderstanding the text’s relationship with and continuation of Nietzsche’s critique of Platonism.[25] Nietzsche heralded the imperative of modern philosophy to be the displacement of Platonism’s opposition between appearance and essence that precluded the ontological possibility of becoming.[26] In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze takes up Nietzsche’s call to arms and argues for a rejection of the Platonic concepts of essence and appearance, of the “true” and the “false,” of the “unmasked” and the “masked.” This rejection takes as its nodal point the process of repetition, which Deleuze refuses to organize along a bipolar axis of true object and false imitation. Repetition eschews ordered hierarchy and privileged perspective; the only illusion, Deleuze states, “is that of unmasking something or someone” and presuming that behind the mask there will be a face marked as the origin of being, inoculated against the disease of becoming.[27]

During the bacchanalian height of the Venetian carnival, citizens adorned the now-iconic mask to revel in the dissolution of social hierarchy and rigidity. Against the power relations that constituted the Venetian city-state, carnival participants reoriented and displaced sedimented hierarchies in flamboyant displays of salacious indulgence. Deleuze’s conceptual development of the mask tracks a similar mode of resistance to the system of representation that conceals and exterminates the possibility of difference. Insofar as the enabling condition of the subject is its submission to power, the Deleuzean mask operates as a tool with which to explore how the subject may resist the performativity of that necessary submission. Understood as the compulsive reiteration of norms by which the subject becomes intelligible, performativity coerces the subject into techniques of self-creation that ultimately “cannot be assumed as ‘one’s own.’”[28] Juxtaposing the constraints of performativity against the Deleuzean mask underscores the latter’s theoretical value in forging systems of resistance. Deleuze remarks that repetition “is truly that which disguises itself in constituting itself, that which constitutes itself only by disguising itself.”[29] Repetition is tied to the mask, that which fails to “hide anything except other masks.”[30] If the mask demonstrates that what is disguised is also what disguises, then the subject who seeks to embrace to mobility of the mask and its aleatory possibilities stands to reconstitute the very discourse to which she was forced to submit to ensure her very existence.

The purpose of Nietzsche 13/13 has been and remains to think about Nietzsche in dialogue with those philosophers whose work continued the mission of radical critique. Nietzsche need be neither the subject of praise nor the subject of vitriol for our purposes; instead, we examine how his mode of critique influenced the project of leftist politics that continued in his wake. Deleuze was one thinker who thought with Nietzsche, through Nietzsche and against Nietzsche. A point of their convergence is the mask, which I have herein mined to ascertain its potential as a tool of critique in the collective work in which we now–more than ever–must engage. The Deleuzean mask is a symbol of the fluidity of subjectivity, its capacity for change, for reorientation, for disorientation. Just as there is no doer behind the deed, there is no face behind the mask. What we must understand is that the mask comes to us and gives our faces shape, but this is a shape of a fractured subjectivity, one circumscribed and yet ripe with subversive potential. Nevertheless, if we can locate the value of the mask–if we recognize that we need not search for an original but instead celebrate the possibility of the infinity of difference in all its radical promise–we may discover modes of resistance that otherwise remain epistemologically foreclosed. Shedding the power of the notion of false, of the notion that the mask hides a transcendental truth we must discover to subtend our liberation, we may determine another site to disrupt those structures whose calcification precludes the diversity of becoming. Let us be willing to take on the mask, to discard the mask, and to find the power within such entropy:

The mask, the costume, the covered is everywhere the truth of the uncovered. The mask is the true subject of repetition. Because repetition differs in kind from representation, the repeated cannot be represented: rather, it must always be signified, masked by what signifies it, itself masking what it signifies.[31]


[1] D.K. Feil, How Venetians Think About Carnival and History, 9 Austl. J. Anthropology 141, 143 (1998).

[2] Id.

[3] Mikhail Bahktin, the Russian literary critic, drew upon the Venetian carnival to articulate his notion of the “carnivalesque,” which Bahktin deployed both to describe a historical phenomenon and as a mode of literary critique. Bahktin emphasized that the discursive forms of the carnivalesque were not limited to mere accounts of carnival but should come to embody the very theatricality and social inversions that carnival encouraged. The carnivalesque is the site where transgressive social behaviors thrive beneath the thin veil of order and hierarchy, constantly positioned to undermine social organization. See Ian Buchanan, Carnivalesque, in A Dictionary of Critical Theory (2010),

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality 82 (Maudemarie Clark & Alan J. Swensen trans., 1998).

[5] Or, perhaps, it might be more accurate to suggest that Nietzsche here implies that the subject as such must be called into question, that the subject who philosophizes may be nothing more than the very act of philosophizing itself.

[6] Deleuze acknowledges the masked multiplicity of the philosopher qua personage in his consideration of who will prove most able to investigate the composition of a “truly active science . . . capable of discovering active forces and also of [recognizing] reactive forces for what they are–forces.” Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy 75 (Hugh Tomlinson trans., Columbia University Press 2006) (1962). Deleuze states that, for Nietzsche, it is the philosopher of the future, constituted within a “Nietzschean trinity,” that will prove properly positioned to interpret, evaluate, and organize these new sciences. Id. Such a philosopher would wear three additional masks, each symbolizing the alchemical production of her new epistemological acumen: the mask of the philosopher-physician (capable of interpreting phenomena in terms of the forces that produce them); the mask of the philosopher-artist (capable of interpreting the quality of forces, be it active or reactive); and the mask of the philosopher-legislator (capable of hierarchically ordering forces through recourse to the will to power). Id.

[7] Charles E. Scott, The Mask of Nietzsche’s Self-Overcoming, in Nietzsche as Postmodernist: Essays Pro and Contra 217, 218 (Clayton Koelb ed., 1990).

[8] Gilles Deleuze, Pure Immanence: Essays on A Life 59 (Anne Boyman trans., 2001). Because I will be tracking Deleuze’s reading of the mask within Nietzsche and Deleuze’s subsequent adoption of the mask imago in his own work, I will not examine whether Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche is itself faithful to the Nietzschean corpus. Deleuze implies that the Nietzschean mask operates as a functional symbol, illuminating the concept of genealogy and the genealogical method. Insofar as the mask is worn to conceal, the genealogical mask is adopted to conceal the divergence between the circumstances surrounding an object’s origin and the use to which the object becomes put. See Deleuze, supra note 5, at 5 (“The difference in the origin does not appear at the origin . . . [only] when [an object] has grown up can we grasp its essence or its genealogy and distinguish it from everything that it originally had too great a stake in being mistaken for.”). Other scholars, however, have suggested that Nietzsche marshals the mask either to conceal his self-placement within his texts or to literalize his frequent metaphors. See, e.g., Ofelia Schutte, Beyond Nihilism: Nietzsche Without Masks, at ix (1984) (suggesting that Nietzschean figures of Zarathustra and Dionysus may have been masks behind which Nietzsche hid); id. (“[The] metaphor is one place where Nietzsche’s views are most likely to be found. His metaphors need not lead any interpreter astray. They can easily be understood and valued precisely for what they are, namely, figures of speech.”).

[9] Deleuze, supra note 8, at 68 (emphasis removed).

[10] I will speak here of activity and reactivity simply to avoid redundancy. For Nietzsche, the active and the affirmative operate together; similarly, the reactive and the negative operate together.

[11] Deleuze, supra note 6, at 4.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. at 5 (emphasis added).

[14] Id. (noting that a force would “not survive if it did not first of all borrow the feature of the forces with which it struggles”).

[15] Id. at 7.

[16] Id. at 8–9 (“In its relation with the other the force which makes itself obeyed does not deny the other or that which it is not, it affirms its own difference and enjoys this difference. . . . What a will wants is to affirm its difference. In its essential relation with the ‘other’ a will makes its difference an object of affirmation.”).

[17] See, e.g., Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, at xv (Paul Patton trans., 1994) (“We tend to subordinate difference to identity in order to think it (from the point of view of the concept or the subject: for example, specific difference presupposes an identical concept in the form of genus).”); id. at xix (“The primary of identity, however, conceived, defines the world of representation. But . . . [the] modern world is one of simulacra.”); id. at xv–xvi (“We treat [repetition] as difference without concept: two things repeat one another when they are difference even while they have exactly the same concept. Henceforth, everything which causes repetition to vary seems to us to cover or hide it at the same time.”).

[18] Id. at 5 (emphasis removed).

[19] Id. at 7.

[20] Id. at 8.

[21] Id. at 8–9.

[22] Id. at 9.

[23] Id. at 10.

[24] Id.

[25] Id. at xv.

[26] In his analysis of Nietzsche and Platonism, Martin Heidegger quotes the following from an unpublished draft of Nietzsche’s work: “‘My philosophy is an inverted Platonism: the farther removed from true being, the purer, the finer, the better it is. Living in semblance as goal.” Martin Heidegger, 1 Nietzsche: The Will to Power as Art 154 (David Farrell Krell trans., 1979). Heidegger aptly demonstrates that this phrase, if taken literally, could only lead to a miring positivism (which, per Heidegger, Nietzsche would engage and then discard in subsequent writing). Deleuze’s connection to Nietzsche’s critique is a connection to the work of Hegel and Kant, which sought to disturb the notions of truth and falsehood.

[27] Deleuze, supra note 17, at 106.

[28] Judith Butler & Athena Athanasiou, Dispossession: The Performative in the Political 15 (2013).

[29] Deleuze, supra note 17, at 17.

[30] Id.

[31] Id. at 18.