Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Deleuze Special Issue

Vol. 5 No. 37, November 2001



Dorothea Olkowski

La Longue durée

A Reply to Joseph Nechvatal




Joseph Nechvatal

'La Beaute tragique: Olkowski, Deleuze, and the 'Ruin of Representation''

_Film-Philosophy_, Deleuze Special Issue

vol. 5 no. 36, November 2001


In chapter four of _Gilles Deleuze and the Ruin of Representation_, I present an account of creative life that is grounded in the empiricist philosophy of David Hume. For Hume, we do not need apriori principles to guarantee that our experience is intelligible. The connection between one perception and another arises from the experientially organized habits of a 'mind' qualified, that is, organized by its sensations which both connect one experience with another and organize a self, a self which is, in the words of Constantin Boundas, a 'theater without a stage'. [1] On this basis alone, however, all that sensation produces is habitual thought, the constant conjunction that assures the continuity of experience and the illusion of an identical, or at least stable self. Creative life, however, takes something more. It arises from an impression of reflection, an idea that 'returns upon the soul', is felt, and reflected upon in the interval between perception and action. Given the complicated nature of this process, it is no surprise that the interval is not always available to humans -- that many things are perceived and felt which are never reflected upon. At times, in fact too much of the time, we live more like single-celled amoeba for which perception and action are instantaneous. For such creatures, to perceive is to act, either to flee or to consume the object of perception. Life for such creatures has a tremendous intensity, that is to say, a speed and an utterly eclipsed extensivity. It has speed because there is no interval between the perception of an external being and the response to it; hesitation can be death. It is precluded from extensivity insofar as the latter would be the extension of an intensional duration, that is, an ongoing affectivity wherein the being feels itself, in pleasure or pain, and on the basis of that feeling, reflects and extends itself, heterogeneously towards something. Between itself and this other thing, there must exist another interval, a heterogeneous extensive relationship, a connection which Deleuze-Guattari sometimes refer to as a desiring-machine, although such a term perhaps does more to obscure the nature of this connection than it does to make sense of it and thereby enable one to insist upon the utter necessity of this connection. In this manner, by means of extensive connection, what is virtual, thus felt and reflected upon, becomes actual, acted. Without the interval of reflection and without the interval of extensivity, all acts are purely habitual repetitions, they are *representations*, and it is such habitual representations that my book and my work in general aim to ruin.


The question arises as to the relationship between this aim and feminism, and then between this aim and the work of art (cinema in particular, but also works of art of all sorts). Perhaps I have in this endeavor become an erratic sort of feminist. Completely committed to examining the tensions between habit or representation and creative life where ever I find them, I would insist that it is not enough to be a feminist and to demand certain kinds of rights and privileges for women in a world where what is at stake is creativity everywhere. Such political questions, I maintain, are also artistic-aesthetic questions because they invoke the creation of new forms of social and political life as well as new forms of artistic life. These are feminist issues, but they are also sexual, aesthetic, ontological, social, political, and ethical. Indeed, in the drive for recognition and approval, philosophers often either ignore the extent to which the connections at stake are overwhelmingly sexual, or they habitualize them, preferring to subordinate sexuality to what are perceived to be progressive social attitudes or sex negative theoretics, but which often are merely tactics of evasion. Thus, it comes as no small surprise to me that nearly all artists and intellectuals who have commented on my book believe that my connection to and therefore interest in Mary Kelly is misplaced. That these comments have generally come from formalists may be part of what is significant, but what is interesting is that they always have a ready alternative; mostly, that alternative has been film. [2]


Joseph Nechvatal, for example, concludes that Kelly's work fails as a ruin of representation because it 'adheres to the framing and centering tropes indispensable to the comprehension striven for in prototypical representation and the average book'. Thus, he maintains, we are looking at her art through a renaissance 'intentional window', a single point perspective which reduces our otherwise wobbly and wide peripheral vision into a single bounded point of view. In short, there is little to differentiate Kelly's inherence in the world from that of Leonardo or Durer. The only difference, for Nechvatal, is that Kelly replaces the old content with a new content, one which appears to him to be but a tedious reply to the master discourses of psychoanalysis. But Nechvatal's insertion into Kelly's work and world is not mine. For him, the ruin of representation appears to be a matter of asserting form over content, and this leads him to a particular interpretation of 'perpetual displacement' and 'excess of the signifier'. [3] Nechvatal interprets these terms as calling for a shift in the perceptual process whereby rather than focusing on the figure-ground relationship which is always given in perception (a relationship that tends to be easily assimilated into single-point perspective), there will now be no focus at all, only an increased emphasis on the edges of sight and consciousness. Accomplishing this vision requires a technological fix, an immersion into a 360-degree perspective afforded by a 'single-processor Silicon Graphics (SGI) VGX R4000 Reality Engine'. Immersion into this technological vat dissolves horizon and frame and forces vision into an allocentric mirror world which 'intensifies thalmic input into the cortex by making the active thalamic neurons in that region fire more rapidly than usual'. Such 'excess' in Nechvatal's view is the real ruin of representation, for it produces a non-linear, dynamic conceptual displacement of a view in favor of sweeping processes of space/time. However, given this description, I fear that either this experience is commensurate with the visual and bodily disorientation that might be produced less expensively by twirling round and round while holding one's breath, or it would create a single and total world picture that would have to be the epitome of representation. Never having experienced this mechanism it is difficult for me to know, but I do know that visual disorientation or expansion of the visual field and displacement of the perceptual gestalt by technological means is no less manipulative and instantaneous than the instantaneous perception informed by habit. It occurs to me that Nechvatal seeks perceptual reorientation because he fails to take into consideration the ongoing impact of what Paul Virilio calls *la longue duree*, ongoing affective life, the ontological unconscious, the connection of desiring-machines, the immediate connectivity between one thing and another that opens up an interval for thought between every perception and any response to that perception. [4] Thus, without affective life, everything devolves around perception and form.


The depth where Antonin Artaud experimented is precisely on the level of affective, sensible life. It is the depth where sounds are separated from bodies and organized into propositions, freeing them for the expressive function. When sounds are not differentiated from bodies, then sounds are the sounds of bodies moving about, perceiving, yawning, chewing, slobbering, choking, orgasming. This is not the same as expression. To express something there must be denotation, designation, the force of speaking and being spoken. As Artaud discovered over and over again, words are not just sounds. One must distinguish the 'sense' of perceptions from their physical and psychological aspects. Given this, I might be permitted to say that when what we envision is not distinguished from merely seeing, then what is envisioned is not freed as an expressive function. Thus, just as there are 'things said' as well as 'how the human voice articulates itself in order to say things', there are 'things envisioned', to be differentiated from 'how the eyes are focused (or not) in order to see'. Envisioning requires more than expanding or decentering one's visual perception, just as speaking requires more than varying one's vocal chords and/or articulation. So, on the one hand, if there is the series to eat/to speak or event/sense so, on the other, there might be a visual perceptual series like to see/to envision or event/sense. In each case, the event refers to something the body does and sense refers to expressible meanings either linguistic or visual sense, both of which have to be created. The choices are to create these meanings either representationally or some other way.


The perception or seeing can be related to the envisioning or sense on the basis of resemblance, that is, the envisioning or sense can merely translate the real seeing, the gestalt perception, or in the interval opened up by the affective, temporalization, in *la longue duree* it may envision something else. It can only do this if the real seeing is in 'perpetual displacement' with respect to 'envisioning' the production of sense. Since seeing itself is difficult (although not impossible) to alter, it is difficult to imagine that very many people will be attracted to the technological fix. But what we can displace is the envisioning, which in turn, will alter the seeing too. This is the 'excess of the signifier', through which an absolutely new meaning may emerge in the interval. It is in the disruption of the relation between event and sense that the new erupts. If we fail to understand this, it is because sense arises out of the actions and passions of bodies, in the becoming language and the ongoing envisioning of those bodies -- but instead of recognizing this process, we present vision and voice with the representation, the finished product, as the only way to make sense of what is seen or said. It is this finished product that Kelly's work evades.


What attracted me to her art was the display of what appeared to be her own clothing in _Interim_ (1984-1989). Each piece is folded, photographed, then displayed as if on an advertising billboard and presented with an accompanying text: a series of conversations between the woman and the people in her life. Yet, the leather jacket, the sheer night-gown, and the cotton dress do not merely tell a story about an artist: a woman with a child and a husband and a mother and friends. They document her body, for the body is not visible in the images, but it is envisioned by them for each viewer. One is free to 'see' these images as Nechvatal has seen them, but there is also the possibility of envisioning them, by means of their perpetual displacement and the excess of the signifier, particularly since the billboard format does not invoke the mechanics of single point perspective, even though it does involve the physiology of seeing. This is also why I do not think that the ruin of representation is the end of film. I must admit that, with a few exceptions, I do not love film. I love video and performance, but I do not love film, such that its ruin would not devastate my work nor my aesthetic options. However, the analysis that I have developed for seeing/envisioning might be of use in considering films. Certainly, the narrative film with fixed shots remains utterly representational. But technological fixes are equally representational. Such is the motivation for Virilio's concern with the application to cinema of technologies created for war and for speed, where seeing becomes not merely habitual but digital, so that we cease to rely on our own vision and instead rely on that of computers and satellites. What is eliminated is once again the durational, affective element in our perception, the interval in which we may reflect upon the seen. What has begun to happen is that the technology both sees and acts without thought. Its seeing and the response to that seeing can be and often are instantaneous. This might serve as a warning that expanding our perception may also result in a ruin, not so much of representation, but of our very capacity to envision and to make sense of our world. If there is still a time and a place for envisioning, then perhaps film still has a future somewhere between the representation of fixed shots and that of absolute speed.


University of Colorado

Colorado Springs, USA





1. Dorothea Olkowski, _Gilles Deleuze and the Ruin of Representation_ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), p. 133.


2. Need I add that not only have these comments come from formalists, but they have also come from men who, like Nechvatal, find that Kelly adheres to the framing and centering tropes indispensable to the comprehension striven for in prototypical *patriarchal* representation. The ways in which form and content interact does not generally enter into these considerations.


3. Olkowski, _Gilles Deleuze and the Ruin of Representation_, p. 224.


4. Paul Virilio, 'Critical Space', in James Der Derian, ed., _The Virilio Reader_ (London: Blackwell Press, 1998), pp. 58-72, see pp. 59, 60, and 66. Originally published in French as _L'Espace critique_ (Paris: Christian Bourgeois, 1984), pp. 155-181.



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001


Dorothea Olkowski, 'La Longue duree: A Reply to Joseph Nechvatal', _Film-Philosophy_, Deleuze Special Issue, vol. 5 no. 37, November 2001 <>.




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