An artist friend of mine asked me what I’ll be discussing at The Matter of Contradiction conference in Limosine, so I thought it might be nice to post a few words here on where I’m going. I’m a bit terrified by this talk as I’m not an artist and I believe that philosophers should recognize the situated knowledge and practices of other fields rather than presuming to legislate over them. Following Badiou, I believe that philosophers should not so much seek to legislate or dictate to other practices, as hear their Truths.
My talk will be focused on three interrelated points. First, I’m interested in emphasizing the materiality or real autonomy of art, or that it is not simply about something, but is something. For me, works of art are objects or machines in their own right, that circulate throughout the world independent of their makers. A work of art is no less a thing or machine than a person, rock, or tardigrade. They take on a life of their own and have their own singular powers and properties. In my view, there’s a tendency to ignore the powers of art per se, to always reterritorialize it on artists intentions and audience receptions, rather than exploring the being of the work of art as a real entity in the world as such. While I agree with everything you say about the production of the work of art– that the production of art involves an immersion of the artist in the medium with which he works such that both artist and medium become something different in the activity of production and such that there isn’t a pre-existent model of the work of art in the artist’s mind that’s then simply placed in material embodiment –I want to argue that art works enjoy a sort of autonomy from both their makers and audiences. We know little about the author of the Epic of Gilgamesh or the creators of the French cave paintings, yet these things are still nonetheless able to resonate and act in the world. There’s thus a way in which, I think, works of art are in excess of all contexts (author’s intention, historical setting, audience reception, etc); and it is because they are in excess of context that they are able to endure throughout the ages. Works of art are perpetually escaping all historical and hermeneutic horizons, all regimes of attraction, and falling into new regimes of attraction modifying them in all sorts of ways. They are examples of the Lucretian clinamen or swerve and are inexhaustible in their ability to produce swerves. This is what the historicists and hermeneuticians miss in their approach to art: the excess of art over any and all historical context or horizon, the constitutive being of art as clinamen.
This excess over every horizon is possible because art is a material being. To my knowledge, Deleuze and Guattari do the best job of emphasizing the being of art as object or machine. In chapter 7 of What is Philosophy?, they claim that art preserves and is the only thing that preserves. Paraphrasing them, they point out that Mona Lisa’s smile is preserved in oil for all eternity, or at least until the paint and canvas decay. While I don’t share the view that art is the only thing that preserves, their point is nonetheless well taken. They begin from the observation that art is a material being, an object, not a meaning. In this vein they speak of art works creating blocks of affect and sensation. Reference to “blocks” should be taken literally. The art work does not represent a percept, affect, or sensation, it creates a percept, affect, or sensation that has now become an autonomous material being in its own right, liberated from dependence on the sense organs. These blocks of affect are literally things out there in the world, not just experiences in the sense organs of a person.
Second, I want to argue that works of art are machinic rather than hermeneutic. In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari say that the unconscious is a factory, not a theater. By this they mean that the unconscious does not represent or mean, but that it produces. I want to say that works of arts are factories or machines, not theaters. They don’t have meanings, but are powers of producing differences in the world. They are real actors. They do not represent, even in the tradition of realism, but make. I read Proust, for example, and his exquisite discussion of various emotional states has the power to actually create new forms of affect in me that I never before had. I begin to love as Proust’s characters do. The work of art is thus a factory that both transforms the artist that creates it (artists tell me that they become something else as a result of their work) and that transforms the audiences that encounter the work. Works of art are difference engines that circulate throughout the world and that transform the people and things that encounter them. Picasso’s Guernica does not represent the bombing of Guernica, but both transforms the event of that bombing, giving it a new sense, and creates an affect for the slaughter of the innocents everywhere.
In the rhizome chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari say that a novel is a tiny little machine. I believe this is true of all works of art. I would like to understand what an artistic machine is. To be a machine is to be something that functions, it is something through which flows pass, and it is something that produces a difference of some sort. A machine is not something represents a pre-existent meaning or sense, but rather something that produces something else. A flower-machine does not mean, but rather machines colors, leaves, transforms light into cells, produces oxygen, and scents. If works of art are machines, what do they produce? How do they function? What flows pass through them? How are those flows transformed? This is what I’m trying to figure out. A poem does not so much mean as reconfigure my inchoate affects, ways of thinking, ways of seeing, my language, rendering me capable of ways of experience of which I was never before capable.
Finally, I want to argue that the work of art liberates affect, sensations, and percepts from lived, embodied experience, opening us up to nonhuman and other human worlds beyond ourselves. Phenomenology has exquisitely analyzed the way in which we encounter the world in embodied experience. Yet there is something profoundly anti-phenomenological in art. The Impressionists portray a world not of human perception, but of pure light or what Richard Boothby, in Freud as Philosopher, refers to as a “dispositional field”. It is a luminescent world, the flower as light, that has never been perceived or lived by any human. It is a world of quanta or photons, beyond any human sensation or intentionality. In Cinema I, Deleuze talks about how the camera liberates images from the first person perspective of the embodied human gaze. In the open to Prometheus we are shown vistas of a waterfall that no human being could ever live. In Three Kings we are shown the world as perceived by a bullet traveling through the internal world of the human body. In MicroCosmos we are brought down to the small world of insects or the jungles teaming in our lawns and the universes that exist in a drop of dew on a leave. In Contact and Men and Black, we are brought before the vastness of the cosmos and the smallness of our place in the universe. In Pleasantville we are brought before the intensity of those different forms of libido in the lush redness of a rose that blooms in a world that is black and white due to severe social striation. We come to see how the world pulsates with libidinal intensities like attractors or vectors for different people. A red rose for this woman that reads a book, red lipstick for this woman who discovers sex, intense green for this man that discovers bowling, and so on.
And in this regard, it is not that these blocks of sensation, affect, or percepts only open us on to the worlds of nonhumans, allowing us to experience something of what it is like to be a praying mantis, it is also that it opens us on to the worlds of other people. Toni Morrison’s Paradise allows us to escape something of what black experience is like, deterritorializing us from the familiarity of our own being-in-the-world. Kafka’s Trial and Castle open us on to the strange world of intelligent aliens among us, where corporations, bureaucracies, and governments are literally intelligent, nonhuman beings in their own right, treating the people that inhabit them as mere neurons in their broader functioning; a harrowing world of entities with inscrutable laws and aims. Our own affects are transformed as a result of these encounters and we come to see a bit more of our own blindness, learning not to confuse the world as we encounter it with the world as it is. Leibniz’s city populated by an infinity of points of view.
So this is the direction I’m trying to move in. If I see art as playing a crucial role, then this is because it opens us to worlds beyond our own lived experience and teleologies. Without such openings, without what Bogost has called “alien phenomenology”, it proves impossible to confront the ecological complexity of the world about us.