Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


 

Michael Goddard

Beauty Lies in the Eye (So Why Can't I Touch It?)

 


 

 

Brian Massumi, Guest Editor

'Deleuze, Guattari and the Philosophy of Expression'

_Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/Revue Canadienne de Litterature Comparee_

Vol. 24 no. 3, University of Toronto Press, 1997

337 Pages (450-787)

 

'The Process is expression. The distinction is between the expressing and the expressed. The new expressionism derivable from a rethinking of beauty is not a spontaneist individualism, far from it: it is impersonal *Matter* that does the expressing. What is *expressed* is that which emerges from matter after a manner, as the 'subject' of the process (along with a reciprocal conversion of remnant matter into 'objectivity'). Double ontological articulation' (Massumi 748).

 

I believe that this volume is one of the most valuable collections of Deleuze and Guattari inspired essays that have yet appeared, and in its focus on a 'philosophy of expression' is of particular relevance to the inter-relations between philosophy and cinema. Surprisingly, very few of the essays touch on cinema directly: in fact, in a range of expressive activities from calligraphy, poetry and the visual arts to the theatre of cruelty, sound recordings and virtual reality, cinema seems almost to be deliberately avoided (with the exception of Steven Shaviro's consideration of _Under the Cherry Moon_!). However, many of the articles either lead from an engagement with cinema (typically in terms of Deleuze's books on cinema) into engagements in other areas, or else develop approaches to expressive practices that are equally applicable to cinematic encounters. In order to focus and structure this review, I will focus on those essays which seem most suggestive of, or resonant with, new approaches to cinema as an expressive practice, and follow the chapter divisions of the issue.

 

'Of Beauty and a Fist'

 

In this first section, a new encounter with 'beauty' is the basis for a re-conceptualisation of both aesthetic practices and the operations of desire: in fact, the radical immanence of beauty suggests that art and desire can only be separated artificially.

 

In Melissa McMahon's essay, 'Beauty: Machinic Repetition in the Age of Art', this new sense of beauty is understood as a distinctively modern phenomenon, and as primarily temporal: beauty would be an intensification of the any-moment-whatevers that characterise the temporality of modernity. McMahon reads Kant against Benjamin and interestingly against the postmodern emphasis on the Kantian sublime, to suggest that Kant's conceptualisation of aesthetics is neither organic nor mechanical but machinic, which in a sense places Kant, or a certain Kant *after* Benjamin, as still limited to a dialectic between the human and the mechanical. Beauty, as a process that takes place between these categories, would now be a singular event or encounter which immobilises both these orders: 'The removal of the Beautiful, in Kant's aesthetic, from any given cultural or intelligible context . . . seems also to isolate and immobilise the aesthetic in an affective ineffability. But it is this quality that produces the dynamism of the beautiful, and its capacity to provoke thought' (457).

 

If Beauty is a feeling without a concept, it is still intimately related to thought, and in its very suspension of what is, opens a space for the creation of the new in both thought and art. In this sense McMahon's essay is very suggestive of new ways of negotiating the interface between cinema and philosophy: not only does it actualise some of the more difficult aspects of this relation in Deleuze's _Cinema 2_, [1] but it also suggests that there is a political difference between a spectatorial approach to aesthetics in terms of the sublime, and an immanent encounter with the beautiful, which would be devoid of nostalgia for a lost wholeness. This difference is embodied by the beginning of the essay, which is in itself a beautiful engagement with the contingent and indifferent passage of time: 'Time passes. A lot of time passes. I'm waiting for it to stop, for it to gather itself into an image, of myself, of my life, of the world . . . But it turns its face away, dissolves into a hundred tiny details on a cruelly indifferent time-line, dissolves me into a hundred tiny details, pure moving mass' (453).

 

In Steven Shaviro's essay, 'Beauty Lies in the Eye', this immanent conception of beauty is taken into encounters with both philosophy and aesthetic practices. Shaviro goes even further than McMahon in his claims for the immanence of beauty, paraphrasing the Surrealist manifesto: 'Beauty will be singular and immanent, or not at all' (469). As opposed to the affirmation of the sublime which maintains both transcendence and negativity, and which Shaviro sees as a late modern reaction against modernity, the beautiful is a fully postmodern attempt to communicate incommunicable singularities. Hence the proximity of the thought of the beautiful, not only to Kant and Deleuze, but also to Blanchot and Klossowski. Perhaps Shaviro runs through too many proper names at this point, but a new kind of mapping emerges, in which the apparently archaic and 'useless' category of the beautiful is given primacy.

 

But how does this conception of the beautiful operate in aesthetic encounters? Shaviro engages first of all with Prince's film _Under the Cherry Moon_ (1986). This film, which confuses eras and genres, and is deliberately superficial, is analysed by Shaviro in terms of the above aesthetics of beauty. For Shaviro, this film is nothing other than a languorous, eroticised performance which completely suspends any reality principle. The use of pastiche and parody, rather than invoking any sense of postmodern nostalgia for a lost reality, is an exercise in pure abundance: 'far from being about somehow lacking those pasts, Prince's pastiche of styles is about having access to them to the point of boredom' (463).

 

For Shaviro, the shift from the sublime to the beautiful is also a shift away from anxiety about representation to pure simulation, which poses problems for criticism: how does one talk about an aesthetic 'object' when it no longer represents anything, when it is saying nothing about the world? It is no accident that Shaviro invokes Warhol here, whose simulacral practices have posed similar problems. Shaviro's response seems to be to shift from critical analysis to a kind of affective repetition, whereby analysis and description alternate. Even the analytical passages as quoted above are wholly affirmative and are interspersed with descriptive passages which verge on the pornographic such as: 'His pants are flared at the legs, but nicely tight around the buttocks. His jackets and shirts feature rows of big buttons, and leave his chest or midriff bare. A single lock of hair curls daintily over his forehead' (462-63). I'm not sure whether an aesthetics of beauty necessarily results in a perverse discourse of this kind, but it certainly seems to animate Shaviro's work. However, when he brings the same affirmative, descriptive approach to analyse the Sonic Youth song 'Beauty Lies in the Eye' it seems to work very differently, and to invoke a haunting spiritual presence or absence: 'The past returns, unbidden and unwanted. 'It's coming down over me.' It sweeps through her, in an overwhelming rush. It seizes her, beyond all hope of forgetting. She is troubled by feelings long dead and gone. She is seduced by a lover who is no longer there. She searches out the eyes of someone who cannot return her gaze.' (470) In many ways writing about contemporary music poses similar problems to writing about the beautiful: with both it is a case of a conceptual engagement with 'feelings without concepts', which requires a singular affective response as much as a conceptual one.

 

The final two essays in this section take the problematics of expression in the direction of queer theory. Stephen O'Connell extends this Kant-Deleuzian aesthetics of the beautiful in the direction of Deleuze and Guattari's analysis of aesthetic activity as the creation of percepts and affects, and takes this approach to an encounter with 'the Beautiful Body of Activist Art' (481) in the work of Matthew Jones. Apart from re-iterating the points made in the previous two essays, O'Connell problematises the analysis of pornography according to a scopophiliac model, emphasising the political dimensions of understanding art as an immanent, affective and erotic encounter, rather than as a form of detached spectatorship. This points to a kind of synaesthetic approach to expressive practices, which in the case of Jones' work is manifested by a folding of the visual and the tactile. This resonates strongly with Deleuze's rethinking of the relations between sound and image in the cinema, and particularly the idea of the tactile image that he identifies in the work of Bresson. In line with Shaviro's essay, an affirmative approach to the beautiful, or aesthetic encounters is articulated along the lines of Deleuze's maxim about cinema being 'always as perfect as it can be' (480).

 

Fadi Abou-Rihan takes a very different approach to Deleuze and Guattari by focusing on the erotics to be found in their texts. While there is some analysis of the affirmation of homosexuality in Deleuze's book on Proust, the main focus is on the erotic language used to describe an approach to the history of philosophy where Deleuze 'seems to be totally fascinated, if not obsessed with the behind' (503). While I am sympathetic with the idea of an erotics of theoretical practice, I remain dubious as to how much weight tends to be given in this essay to the idea of the history of philosophy 'as a form of assfuck' (504). Many of Deleuze's comments about this are taken from interviews, dialogues, and, in the case of the 'Letter to a Harsh Critic', [2] playful responses to particular interlocuters, perhaps never intended to be taken as part of the body of theory. This may seem like an arbitrary counter-Deleuzian judgement, but I don't think this imagery is as interesting or important as the erotics to be found in the 'body without organs' and 'becomings' plateaus of _A Thousand Plateaus_, [3] which go a lot further in the direction of an molecular and erotic philosophy. Abou-Rihan's suggestion of replacing the assfuck with the multiple and non-hierarchical practice of fist-fucking, while not without a certain logic, seems to accept a fairly limited notion of erotics and of the body. As Deleuze states frequently, echoing Spinoza, we still don't know what a body can do, which is the same thing as saying we don't know what the potentials of bodies or desires are, and staying at the level of the sexual, however transgressively or non-hierarchically conceived, imposes a kind of blockage preventing rather than enabling the creation of bodies without organs. Nevertheless, Abou-Rihan's essay does raise the issue of the interconnectedness of expression with subjectivity and desire, which is further explored in the next section of the book.

 

'The Superior Empiricism of the Human'

 

In this section, the ways in which various expressive practices engage with the concept of the human or the non-human are explored. I will focus on Michael Hardt's engagement with Pasolini, and Catherine Dale's with Artaud, as I think these are key figures in terms of Deleuze's approach to cinema, and because these articles open up new affective connections in relation to thematics of exposure and cruelty respectively. But before engaging with these essays, I will attempt to engage with the essay that begins this section of the book, which stands out as a major reconfiguration of subjectivity itself as an expressive practice.

 

Paul Bains's 'Subjectless Subjectivities' is, I believe, one of the most important, most difficult and most sketchy in the collection, and I have no pretence to any full understanding of it. To begin with, Bains distances the thought of Deleuze and Guattari (and Foucault) from the postmodern discourse of the 'death of the subject' to which they have frequently been assimilated. For these thinkers it is a question of how subjectivity is produced, or as Bains puts it 'to think the possibility of an existential integrity that is at the same time in relation with other self-referential territories or events. To think the possibility of creative affirmation and joy in a world of suffering and resentment' (513). Not only is subjectivity an event rather than a static entity, or a happening rather than a being, but it is self-referential. If you are already starting to feel confused by this 'metalogical approach' (514), then the following sentences are hardly likely to reassure you: 'The *grasping* of real unity of feeling. You either get it or you don't. A particle of zen. A whole in all the parts. A holon. An endo-consistency in which the components are distinct but inseparable . . . A quantal nonlocality. A plateau. A real space' (514). This may be the generation of an 'affective pathic awareness', but its a lot more difficult to grasp than Shaviro's writing!

 

For me, if what Bains is suggesting seems difficult, it is for the same reason that reading Spinoza, Bergson and Deleuze can seem difficult: it is a demand to use one's own subjectivity or brain, to think not according to the regular pathways of habit or conatus, but to think how the whole process works, which is exactly what 'habitual' perception seeks most to avoid. Reference to the brain is not gratuitous, in that for Bains one of the keys to Deleuze and Guattari's account of subjectivity is the brain rather than the self as its locus, which is also necessary to explain what is meant by self-referentiality. According to Bains, this aspect of Deleuze and Guattari's thought, which develops the ideas of Raymond Ruyer, has been almost entirely neglected despite the fact that it gives 'their most compelling account of subjectivity' (518).

 

I am unable to do justice in this review to Bains' account of Ruyer's conception of the brain as primarily involved in 'absolute self survey', but the most crucial point is that the world 'out there' that is apparently perceived by the brain is not so much a pre-existent reality, or a representation, but a secondary effect of a brain that is essentially perceiving itself as absolute surface. In a sense the world is produced by the brain, and that is exactly what the brain does. This concept is impossible to grasp from a dualistic perspective of relations between consciousness and extension. If, however, a conception of the real as composed of events at once subjective and objective, physical and mental is employed, then the possibility of the brain producing its world, interacting with other event-worlds, in which everything is in a state of becoming -- while individual agents nevertheless retain processual autonomy or consistency -- becomes conceivable.

 

The consequences of this way of thinking are immense and raise many further questions. For example, I'm not sure how exactly this model accounts for interactions between different brain-worlds (are others registered as interference patterns?), or what happens in pathological forms of subjectivation or brain damage (does the brain make mistakes in its self-survey or are pathological symptoms merely the effects of brain-world mutations?). These questions may remain unanswered, as Bains is no longer, despite his promise of a larger project, working in this area. However, for those brave enough to take these ideas into other domains, I believe, the results could be highly productive. In _Cinema 2_ Deleuze was already beginning to think the cinema-brain relation in terms of 'the co-presence of an inside deeper than any internal medium and an outside more distant than any external medium' (522), and this is an analysis that could definitely be expanded via the work of Ruyer.

 

In 'Exposure: Pasolini in the Flesh', Michael Hardt takes Pasolini's poem 'Crucifixion' as embodying an immanent affirmation of the divine. Hardt is questioning what is at stake in this act of exposure, of emptying out, and finds that: 'this abandonment testifies instead to the fullness of the surfaces of being. The self-emptying or *kenosis* of Christ, the evacuation of the transcendental, is the affirmation of the plenitude of the material, the fullness of the flesh' (581). This immanent, corporeal account of the divine directly contests not only transcendent accounts of religion, but also the critique of religion in the name of materialism. Any conception of matter that excludes the divine is still prey to a Cartesian dualism of mind and extension. Pasolini's vision, on the other hand, is monistic, and can be productively understood as a carnal version of Spinoza's doctrine of pure immanence. If there is no 'hidden' god, if the divine is entirely immanent to the material world which is its actualisation, then the incarnation can be read as 'an ethical injunction: empty yourself, become flesh! . . . Incarnation is an option of joy and love. And the ultimate form of love is precisely belief in *this* world, as it is' (582).

 

One of the effects of understanding incarnation as exposure, is that it gives a different sense to eroticism: a shift from transgression to scandal. According to Hardt, scandal only opposes social norms as an secondary effect, so an eroticism based on the scandal of exposure rather than on oppositional transgression, does not get caught up in a dialectics of negation. Rather than setting out to violate the norm, exposure turns away from it, in order to create something new. This is also highly suggestive for critical practice and indeed seems to inform Pasolini's and Hardt's own writing. Instead of opposing existing normative ideas with a critical negativity that only reinforces those norms, a 'scandalous' critical practice becomes possible by turning away from these norms, exposing oneself to divine-carnal forces in order to create something new.

 

According to Hardt, as with the perverse fictions of Sade and Masoch, Pasolini's work is an attempt to overcome the violence of separation enacted by modernity, but unlike these authors, he does so without recourse to the imaginary or a theatre of representation. Instead, Pasolini engages in a forgetting of the self capable of overcoming all separation and leading to the affirmation of violence as a creative power: 'Through exposure violence becomes again our own as a common language, a vital power of creation, a life force' (585).

 

In Catherine Dale's 'Cruel: Antonin Artaud and Gilles Deleuze' there is an interrogation of a different, if related form of violence: the violence of thought. Beginning with an examination of Artaud's tautological desire to be 'truly sincere', Dale traces the emergence of a thought without image, no longer restricted to the dialectics of the true and the false, or good and evil. For Artaud, in the manifested world there is only evil, and the only goodness is 'the desire of a will to cruelty, a disruption of continuous evil' (591). Cruelty is a kind of severity of the mind or against the mind, in order to develop a new way of thinking with the flesh: 'Metaphysics enters the body as cruelty. Cruelty is a practice designed to force the mind to be affected' (598). As with Pasolini, Artaud's thought and practice leads to a monistic, Spinozist becoming-active, in which language is related directly to affects and movements, rather than the mind in any disembodied sense. In contrast to Pasolini, however, instead of an eroticised surface of exposure, with Artaud there is the painful experience of the flesh in which the event is inscribed: 'This is the flesh, the depths of bodies certainly, but at the synapses of the nerves which act as virtual intensities in continual agitation' (601).

 

This problematics of surfaces and depths resonates with Deleuze's project in _The Logic of Sense_, [4] particularly when he examines his own relations to writers who were alcoholics, drug addicts or schizophrenics. The question is whether there is an alternative to either staying on the shore as a sober academic or 'cracking up' completely. Deleuze proposes the idea of being a little alcoholic, or a little crazy, of cracking on the surface without cracking up altogether. Dale analyses this 'a little' brilliantly, connecting it up with Deleuze and Guattari's distinction between full and empty bodies without organs in _A Thousand Plateaus_. [5] For Dale, the concept of 'a little' is relatively uninteresting if it is limited to achieving the effects of intoxication without the risks, as in Miller's project of getting drunk on pure water. Instead she suggests: ' 'a little' is the seed of creation occuring on both sides of an opposition of too much and too little movement and rest, life and death' (605). Understood in this way, this restraint, or sobriety, is not a hypocritical renunciation but the principle of creativity itself, as it is able to maintain just enough order to be able to maintain an affirmative relation to chaos.

 

'Forces of Expression'

 

This section continues the exploration of expressive practices, in relation to the machinic rather than the human. I will leave aside Bracha Lichternberg-Ettinger's interview with Guattari and her own essay, both of which I feel are still limited by a redundant consideration of the psycho-analytic concept of transference. Mani Haghighi's engagement with the neo-archaism of the *fatwa* against Salman Rushdie, and Thomas Lamarre's account of Japanese calligraphy, while both providing valuable Deleuzian reworkings of semiotics, are only tangentially related to cinema and the focus of this review. The last two essays however, on sound and virtual reality respectively, are vital investigations that border directly on the cinematic itself.

 

Aden Evens's 'Sound Ideas' problematises the current insistence on the digitalisation of recording technologies under the banner of 'the absolute sound'. Although Evens does provide a technological argument for the inferiority of digital modes of recording on the technical grounds of the exclusion of inaudible frequencies of sound (700), and the deformations produced by modulation (701), the most interesting part of his essay is the philosophical elaboration of an ethics of intensity. According to Evens, sound is always in a profound relation to noise which it 'explicates' or makes clear, while remaining thoroughly 'implicated' in the background noise out of which it emerges. This relation, which is similar to that between the virtual and the actual is what digital recording processes interfere with in their attempts to achieve a perfect explication or absolute sound from which noise would be entirely excluded. The affective experience of sound is dependent on this relation with noise which is for Evens what gives sound its force and meaning: 'noise's effect is not primarily negative. One also hears a positive effect of noise: to give force to music, to supply the implicated reserve of sense' (704). What gives a particular musical event its 'hacceity' or intensity is precisely this relation with absolute, inaudible noise of which music is an ordering or contraction: to eliminate this relation is to deprive sound of its sense. In a musical performance it is precisely the dynamics of sound and noise, of implication and explication that enables expression: '*Expression* is this ethics of implication, a question of finding the right balance, of explicating just enough so as to tease the implicated depth into perception, to make the unhearable heard' (709).

 

This approach to sound has several implications for new ways for understanding cinema: firstly, in the relations between sound, or more specifically voice and 'noise' in the soundtrack; secondly, in a new way of understanding the relation between sound and image in terms of implication/explication; and thirdly, as a new way of approaching images themselves. Whether it is a sound, an image, or both, cinema presents us with events, in which the clarity of what is presented is implicated in a world that remains implicit or virtual, and which gives these presentations their singularity and intensity.

 

Andrew Murphie's examination of the highly contested area of virtual reality, 'Putting the Virtual back into VR', similarly opens new ground by refusing to conform to either utopian or dystopian visions of new technologies of the virtual. Instead, he poses the question of what these technologies do, which is certainly not to provide a new theatre of representation, although this doesn't mean that they have nothing to do with performance: 'Virtual Reality's commonality with performance and art will, therefore not be taken as its mimetic qualities -- its 'representation of an action' -- so much as its qualities of modulation . . . where an *object* is transformed into an *event*' (713). In order to do this, Murphie distinguishes between a purely technological register and a machinic one which operates as a 'series of 'diagrams,' through both avirtual tendencies and actual states of affairs' (717). Hence the various technologies of the virtual we are familiar with today are only contingent actualisations of this autopoietic machinic register, and this would apply not only to such technologies as virtual reality and the World Wide Web, but also the telephone and cinema: all of these technologies are ways of operating with the virtual, of actualising it. For Murphie, in contrast to theorists such as Virilio or Levy, it is not so much that the world is becoming increasingly virtualised, 'but our ability to operate the virtual' has increased (719).

 

One of most important points that Murphie makes about VR is that not only is it primarily non-mimetic, but it demonstrates the non-mimetic nature of perception itself. Following Deleuze, following Leibniz (722), the world is and has always been virtual, and perception has always been a process of actualisation, which new technologies merely extend. This is highly resonant with Bains's Ruyerian account of perception as self-survey. Whether one is taking about cyberspace, monadology or the unconscious, the salient point is that the reality of the world is a potential outside of awareness, and that one operates in this world by actualising the minimal amount of virtuality necessary for a given practice: 'the perceptive extraction of the world is a matter of practices, of ethics and, being about affording perception, is also about art' (723). In other words, technologies of the virtual (and this applies to cinema as much as virtual reality) simply literalise, clarify, and extend the operations of perception as an ethics/aesthetics of actualisation or differentiation.

 

Another important point that Murphie makes is that the virtual *is* difference, and so finding new ways to operate with the virtual, new actualisations in terms of both technologies and practices, is too create new forms of difference, new percepts and affects and ultimately to bring about a new immanent relation to the world, at least potentially. As with Artaud's theatre of cruelty, metaphysics in VR may enter us through the skin, but the world that is created through this interface is yet to be determined, although it is already beginning to touch and affect us. Murphie concludes by inviting us to open up to this machinic contact as nomads rather than monads, 'more freely, and with less anxiety' (740).

 

Not to Conclude

 

Rather than attempt to sum up either Brian Massumi's 'Involutionary Afterword', or indeed this volume of essays, I want to merely point out the richness and creativity of the work here and the impossibility of giving an exhaustive account. Massumi says of his own attempt to resonate with the work in this collection: 'It is one way of weaving a rhythm through it. The reader will find many others. There are any number of motifs that run through the essays like refrains' (776). My own attempt is entirely partial, influenced by both theoretical and personal encounters, fleeting thoughts and arbitrary connections. The thematics of a becoming-tactile, of musicality, of synaesthesia, may be common to both my own response and Massumi's but they are composed in different ways and from different affects. For example, my excitement that the music of Sonic Youth and The Buzzcocks would be considered as significant as the philosophy of Kant, for developing a philosophy of expression, probably says more about my own singularity than it does about these essays, and yet what is crucial about this collection is that it does invite a singular affective response as much as a conceptual one: so whether or not you have already been touched by the work of Deleuze and Guattari, I would invite you to allow yourself to be affected by the work presented here, by these multiple modulations of modulation, to be touched in new ways by this virtual, immanent world of expression: 'come and touch me here, so I know, that you're, not there' ('Secret Girl' from the Sonic Youth album _Evol_).

 

University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

 

Footnotes:

 

[1] Gilles Deleuze, _Cinema 2: The Time-Image_, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

 

[2] Gilles Deleuze, 'Letter to a Harsh Critic', _Negotiations: 1972-1990_, trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

 

[3] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, _A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia_, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 149-166 and 232-309.

 

[4] Gilles Deleuze, _The Logic of Sense_, trans. Mark Lester, ed. Constantin V. Boundas (New York: University of Columbia Press, 1990).

 

[5] _A Thousand Plateaus_, pp. 150 ff.

 

*****************

 

Michael Goddard, 'Beauty Lies in the Eye (So Why Can't I Touch It?)',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 25, September 1998 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n25goddard>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998

 

 

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