Onwards

It followed me home (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I sense a breakthrough on the horizon. I reflect that there must be few people who really attempt the transition from the new world to the old—few native English speakers make more than a half-hearted effort to learn another language; most find Europe quaint but of inferior living standards. In short, it seems more forward to have moved on from the old continent and its old-fashioned ways. The chasm between analytical and Continental philosophy is no mere physical border that one simply crosses by plane, but a dramatic shift in mindset, as I begin to experience first-hand at the Universität Wien.

In Vienna, there is an immense investment in and reverence of the history of philosophy, which is no real surprise given much foundational philosophy was written in German, and I immediately find myself thousands of years behind with my light smattering of Descartes and Plato, my utilitarianism and political theory, my if A then B. I expect history to be full of dry consecutive names; instead a rich forest of ideas towers before me, its immovable trunks mellow with age, its foliage swaying slowly and heavily, conscious of its own import. I tread slowly, leaf by leaf, dictionary in hand, eyes and mind open. In the face of my rigorous training, Deleuze and Guattari (1996: 22) assure me that philosophy ‘does not link propositions together,’ and caution against the false equivocation of philosophy and science that logic encourages. Paul de Man (1986: 19) politely suggests that I am under the tyranny of logic.

It is mildly amusing that the Anglo world holds so fast to the rigid linguistic frameworks they have built up around their ideas, precisely because of their clumsiness with language. Perhaps it is the very linguistic agility of Europeans—the ability to swing from language to language in a heartbeat, deftly expressing themselves in two, three, four or more languages without shyness or reserve—that makes them less precious about language. Language, indeed, is far from a monolith the way the monolingual tend to worship it. It bends and flexes under the demands of each moment; it changes flavour with each speaker, each a product of a unique mix of hereditary, educational and experiential backgrounds. Language is not God; it is an ever-mutating and stretching membrane that exists between individuals trying to make meaningful contact with one another.

My bewildered self, however, a strange (liquid) solution of (non-equal parts) English and German, confronts these wordplays with no small amount of confusion. De Man (1986: 16) wants me to ponder potentially but not definitively recasting the title of Keats’ The Fall of Hyperion in the genitive case, though my natural impulse is to think of titles as identifying handles that are a matter of convention, an afterthought to the real work, which is where we most probably ought to focus our attention. Deleuze wants me to remember a string of metaphors—meat, scaffold and cosmos—and to remember that ‘house’ and ‘scaffold’ are interchangeable, in a seemingly arbitrary game of free-association, but is fiercely insistent that other related words play absolutely no part here. That though the Greeks philosophised via dialogue, philosophers in fact run from discussion, and communication is decidedly irrelevant (Deleuze & Guattari, 1996: 28, 29). What am I to do with these sudden and pervasive contradictions, these unexpected associations and dissociations? Does this English word really capture that French word, and does German have a more precise distinction between reason and understanding, or a finer delineation of existence? Should many words and all their shades of meaning be available, since we all speak different tongues; or should we defer to the language that best picks out the thought we want to express?

Learning another language, of course, makes you take more notice of your own. For I remember being uninterested in the etymological background of the word ‘express,’ which I believe Dewey (1934) spends some time elaborating, to draw attention to the way we squeeze meaning out, or press the essence of our thoughts of feelings from our bodies. German, with particular crispness, makes me confront that I am engaged in a struggle of Ausdruck, of pressing out, which makes this whole enterprise of wringing out the language much more plausible. Perhaps we would do well to mince our words rather than pride ourselves on clarity—arrogantly hiding the duplicity of words behind a fragile screen of necessity.

My tentative steps into the cavernous history of philosophy lead me to concepts wholly unfamiliar to my Anglo ears: such as the apparently familiar trivium, the historical partitioning of language into its three sciences (de Man, 1986: 13). I start to suspect some sort of British intellectual imperialism that kept such pedagogical categories on the quiet on Anglo turf, all the while parading around to the beat of irrefutable, incontestable, unconquerable logic. The trivium, I belatedly learn, breaks language down into grammar, rhetoric and logic (all of which look more pleasing with k’s: Grammatik, Rhetorik und Logik), which exist in an uneasy tension. De Man (1986: 14) points out the ‘natural enough affinity’ between logic and grammar, and the discomfort that rhetoric tends to introduce to this delicate balance. Why resist (Continental) literary theory? Precisely because it resists your concept of language, but from within language itself. It reclaims the rhetorical aspect of language and brings it to centre stage, instead of flicking it aside as unnecessary ‘ornament.’ Were language scientifically precise, we could find in it a solid epistemological foundation. And, as monolinguals, that is the understanding of language that we develop and nurture and protect. When the polylinguals arrive with their freewheeling interchangeability, with their ‘literariness,’ drenched in their clouds of loosely connected pretty words, our chests grow tight and our eyes narrow with suspicion.

Yet our common Greek heritage esteems this more seductive layer of language. ‘How did he entertain you?’ Socrates asks his friend Phaedrus. ‘Can I be wrong in supposing that Lysias gave you a feast of discourse?’ Plato (2010) reports the two stirring each other to higher and higher planes of ecstasy, enraptured in turn by the written speech prepared and recorded by the brilliant rhetorician Lysias, and by Socrates’ spontaneous responses on the theme of love. Having worked each other into a ‘phrenzy,’ they try to knuckle down just what this art of rhetoric is, and how it is to be mastered. Phraedus voices the concern that echoes across the millennia in the doubts of the logicians: ‘I have heard that he who would be an orator has nothing to do with true justice, but only with what is likely to be approved by the many who sit in judgement … and that from opinion comes persuasion, and not from the truth.’ Socrates imagines Rhetoric herself reproaching such Spartans: ‘Mere knowledge of the truth will not give you the art of persuasion.’ Certainly, those who cling fast to grammar and logic suspect this ‘art of enchanting the mind by arguments’ of being ‘a mere routine and trick, not an art.’

Plato’s meta-story concludes with the observation that souls come in all kinds, and must be persuaded on their own terms; a good rhetorician, then, does not pound him with a stick of logic but learns to systematise and recognise types and have her method of argument polished and at the ready. ‘He who knows all this, and who knows also when he should speak and when he should refrain, and when he should use pithy sayings, pathetic appeals, sensational effects, and all the other modes of speech which he has learned’ is a skilful practitioner of the art.

While we risk dullness and lifelessness in delivery if we place all our confidence in the irrefutability of technical correctness (de Man, 1986: 19), clear and logical expression certainly need not be so dry. The elegant and amiable writing of David Hume attests to this, and I recall the deep impression he had on my friend and philosopher colleague Mark Hooper, and in turn on me. In Hooper’s reading of Hume it suddenly struck him that all writing could be beautiful, that one must simply apply a little thought and make a concentrated effort to construct a tight, meaningful and pleasing sentence. ‘Why are there bad sentences?’ Hooper demanded to know, though probably putting it more elegantly. The sentiment has remained with me, and propelled my own writing, which I have always seen as more than a vehicle for ideas. I relish the deftness and precision with which one can summon words, with a little care, the poetry that one can extract from them—ever trembling at the brink of pretentiousness but never (intentionally) sacrificing clarity. Hume’s Scottish pride drove him to France rather than to England, and the example of this self-professed cosmopolitan glows warmly in my mind.

When I began to seriously study drawing, I took a brief but intense string of classes with the formidable David Paulson. He was renowned for breaking pencils and students. He broke my pencil, and my brain, but his intensity stirred my spirit rather than broke it. Yet I left his class feeling utterly adrift. My lines became cruder, more abrasive. I tread hesitantly, my lines faltered. But with time I regained my composure and drew with greater vigour, more poetically, finding expression in bold, calligraphic lines that cut deep into the page. Paulson barks at me still, from the back of my mind. He left an indelible impression on me as a draughtsperson, he left a trace of his marks in mine.

And so it must be with philosophy. When we confront that ancient, disconcerting, but compelling, thickly-grown forest, when we meet with something that seems to tap some deep source just beyond our reach, the important thing is to keep on pushing. To latch on to the people who can guide us through this unfamiliar territory, and to relish the feeling of being cracked open and pieced back together in a new way. That’s what life does with us anyway, and there’s nothing for it but to go on.

 

De Man, Paul. 1986. The Resistance to Theory. Vol. 33. Theory and History of Literature. Manchester: Manchester University.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1996. What Is Philosophy? Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University.

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Plato, and Benjamin Jowett. 2010. Plato’s Phaedrus. 2.0.0 edition. Actonian Press.

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Disarmed

Fleisch / Meat (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Fleisch / Meat (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Reading Deleuze is a somewhat disorienting undertaking, but not without its rewards. The cascade of words, the veritable excess of words that skirt around the ideas, approaching them from all sides, unsystematic, rhythmic, and hypnotic, seduce us like poetry. One can easily be swept along by the words, so it takes extra concentration to seize hold of the ideas and trace them through the burbling writing. We are not greeted with signposts, but we trustingly hold a thread and allow ourselves to be pulled along.

It is the jolt that his writing gives us that is electrifying and spurs us into activity. The disorienting metaphors short circuit our thinking and force us to question concepts that have become second nature. We inevitably become habituated and even stuck in our patterns of thought and behaviour; Deleuze offers us an escape. What at first seems outlandish is maybe the only thing strong enough to break our habits—habits in both thought and practice.

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For his book on Bacon is fascinating to me as a painter, not only as a philosopher. It is not only in intellectual discussions that figure and ground have become comfortable concepts; whatever artists call them, if they use words at all, there is much physical evidence that many painters work with such a binary division in mind. It is the kind of thinking encouraged by art history, that of treating figures as if they were stickers that could be lifted and repositioned at will, removable symbols. There are painters who indeed paint in this way: treating the edge of a figure with a biting crispness that severs the two zones with clumsy cruelty. Such paintings haplessly proffer us a paper cut-out against a disconnected stage. In such paintings the edge is a cliff, wrenching an eternity between subject and setting, and betraying the conceptual simplicity of the artist. But there are other painters who recognise the crucial interplay between figure and ground, and who couldn’t conceive of divorcing the two. These painters do not simply fill in the holes around the figure, but work each shape into the other, find two-dimensional rhythms through the image that traverse space in three-dimensionally impossible ways, notice and celebrate fortuitous kisses between distant but aligned objects, and think about the asymptotic turning away of form and the subsequent expanse of flesh to be treated at this intersection, despite its retreat from our line of sight. These painters know that ‘something happens in both directions’ (Deleuze, 2003: 12).

ryandrawingslickhair

But Deleuze (2003: 6) attempts to break our brains with his deliberations on Bacon’s ‘three fundamental elements of painting’: the material structure, the round contour and the raised image. From the start, he catches us off-guard with unfamiliar terms that we have to chew over a bit, grasp more deliberately, rather than permitting us to feel we are entering the discussion with our concepts firmly in place. Deleuze deliberately disarms us, but this is part of the fun, because as philosophers we know there are not enough words to name our ideas, and as painters we hardly care to give them names, as long as we can form them with our hands. So we follow him trustingly to see where these new terms will take us, what new aspects they will bring to our attention.

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Firstly, a new name for the ground, the ‘material structure,’ shakes us out of our habit of thinking of a passive, receding substrate waiting to be animated by the ‘real’ content of the picture. It grants comparable status to the bits around the figure. The concepts of ‘figure’ and ‘ground’ remain faithful to the illusion of space, which urges us to see some things set behind others; ‘material structure’ against ‘raised image’ suggests a more immediate visual interaction. We are urged to notice that the material structure coils around the raised image, seeping into its crevices and constricting the image with a muscular strength of its own.

And the plot thickens: for by naming the intersection between them we draw attention to its significance, and grant this feverish zone a physical presence too. But Deleuze (2003: 12) has more to derail our predictable thought patterns: he insistently describes the contour as a place. Habitually, we would consider the ground to be the setting; Deleuze perplexingly transfers this status to the contour. But if we humour him and deliberate on it a while, a new thought takes shape—that there is something powerful in conceiving of the contour as the site of the action. For while it is not the literal setting in which the subjects of the picture act, it is undeniably the physical territory where image and material mingle, vie for predominance, press upon each other with such force that we must admit that this is where the action indeed takes place, at the quivering border of two shapes, where neither is considered positive or negative but both brandish equal power.

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Indeed, Deleuze challenges our worn understanding of ‘figure,’ appropriating Lyotard’s distinction between ‘figurative’ and ‘figural,’ and reserving the capitalised ‘Figure’ for the subject. The figurative comes to stand for representation—which Deleuze (2003: 2) lightly defines as any time a relationship between picture and object is implied. The but the Figure need not always be representational, and to avoid the figurative or representational is not necessarily to turn to the abstract. Deleuze (2003: 8) argues that there is another way to salvage the Figure, to make it work in other less literal, less narrative ways, without dissolving into the drifting Figureless mists of pure abstraction. This is the way of the ‘figural,’ a twist on familiar vocabulary that tries to carve out a different painterly intent. The figural is about ‘extraction’ and ‘isolation,’ and Deleuze (2003: 2; 15) batters us with imagery of escape through bodily orifices, through the bursting membrane of the contour, through screams, through ‘mouths’ on eyes and lungs. The Figure must, demands Deleuze (2003: 8) be extracted from our ordinary and overused figurative approach to painting, and the visual means by which this is done plays on these squeezing and heaving forces.

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All this metaphor can send one in circles, but perhaps Deleuze pushes us to circle around the idea because of it’s very unfamiliarity. He stalls us a moment. If we momentarily let go of our representational concerns, we might ponder the middle ground a while. Is there some immovable core of this Figure that touches us more directly than its unaltered exterior? Is there something about the insides of this Figure that should pervade its exterior, remould it, alter the way we choose to apply paint? Many of us already ask ourselves such questions in some manner, whether we trouble ourselves with such intentionally picky language or not. We might still be struck by how much further this thought can take us, once put into words.

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The paint can certainly touch us more directly—Bacon (in Deleuze, 2003: 35) ponders the way it sometimes reaches us by long and slow means through the brain, and other times makes direct contact with the nervous system. Deleuze’s preoccupation with meat cuts to the heart of this matter. Faithful representation results in satisfying deception; other visual mutations prompt entirely other trains of thought that bring us to the core of the Figure with startling immediacy, or jolt us back into our bodies with an immediate sensory experience. Our skins keep us together, stitched up, polished and presentable, though we know we are made of flesh. But to dwell on our meaty composition is something subterranean and sensual, it is an unusual meditation on our physicality.

And paint, in its materiality, seems so well suited to such fleshy contemplation. Deleuze (2003: 22; 23) enters with his high-sounding words—musing on the ‘objective zone of indiscernibility,’ the ‘common zone of man and the beast’ that meat insinuates. Meat, more immediate than flesh, less individual, more raw and yet dripping with a quickly-fading life, is indeed a more urgent, primal way of categorising our substance. It brings us right back to our earthy origins, out of our skins that rendered us fit for society, to a brutish, sub-intellectual level of our existence. As the painter dwells on meat rather than flesh, she touches a nerve, she penetrates us so swiftly that we are enthralled before we have had time to think.

josephinum-beine

Anatomical studies at the Josephinum, Vienna

Meat is not supposed to be disgusting, however. Primitive and physical, yes, but not brutal. Deleuze (2003: 39) discovers no emotion in Bacon, only sensation. If anything, he finds a peculiar reverence for the essence of a being. An artist—such a physical creature—demonstrates her profound respect for the physical and the earthy in her unflinching confrontation with meat. Perhaps in her incisiveness she cuts us to the marrow—but she ‘goes to the butcher’s shop as if it were a church’ (Deleuze, 2003: 24).

The verbal cycles that Deleuze wrings us through slowly spin an ever thicker web of ideas that challenge the conceptual laziness we so easily lapse into. Perhaps it is nothing but games, but a patient thinker and an investigative painter might yet find such absurdity the very chute through which she can escape ingrained modes of thinking and working.

Copy after Poussin

Copy after Poussin

 

Deleuze, Gilles. 2003. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation by Gilles Deleuze. Translated by Daniel W. Smith. 1 edition. London: Continuum.

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