Deleuze and Neo-aesthetics,Tate Modern, 21–22 September 2001

Conference report

Rearguard actionImmanent Choreographies: Deleuze and Neo-aesthetics,Tate Modern, 21–22 September 2001

This conference, organized by Tate Modern and Staffordshire University, brought together an impressive array of speakers from the UK (Alexander García Düttmann and Peter Hallward), Europe (Robert Fleck and Pascale Criton), the USA (Dorothea Olkowski and John Rajchman), and Australia (Ian Buchanan), including artists and curators (such as Christina Caprioli and Andres Kurg) as well as academics. Collectively, these speakers (and others, whose presentations will be the focus of this report) were gathered ʻto explore the power of Deleuzean neo-aesthetics, and also its limitsʼ.

Yet in the course of the event, few speakers had much to say about aesthetics, and fewer still seemed prepared to outline what might be meant by a Deleuzean ʻneo-aestheticsʼ. Though overall there were many good and substantial presentations, generally the few that did attempt to relate Deleuzeʼs philosophy explicitly to aesthetic theory or practice were the least satisfying. While this failure to meet the conference aim may not damn altogether the project of elaborating a Deleuzean (neo-)aesthetics, it does show that such a project is still in the rearguard of Deleuzeanism.

Though one of Deleuzeʼs overriding philosophical aims was the attempt to go beyond dualisms of all kinds, the aesthetic criticism that imagines itself following Deleuzeʼs footsteps is too often blighted by a proliferation of often remarkably Manichaean dichotomies. These dichotomies (rhizome/arborescence, nomadism/State, and so on) are too easily applied rather mechanically to aesthetic material to produce a new set of judgements of taste serving to justify what are in the end fairly traditional (avant-gardist) conceptions of art. By contrast, within political philosophy, more sophisticated analyses have warned of the dangers of rhizomatic formations and the both suicidal and homicidal potential of the nomad.

These dangers, and indeed the dangers of dichotomies themselves, are only all the more apparent in the aftermath of the events of 11 September (and this conference very much took place in the shadow of those fallen twin towers). Perhaps it is simply more difficult to actualize such concerns within aesthetic thought or practice, or at least to do so without again reducing aesthetics to politics. On the other hand, one member of the audience proposed that the conference gather in special session to discuss the impact of events in the United States, with the aim of formulating a message of support to be sent to the artistic community of New York. (I am not sure whether or not this session eventually took place – at the time set aside for its realization, along with the majority of the other conference participants, I was outside the auditorium, taking advantage of the wine reception laid on by the Tate.) But the gesture, while understandable, appeared to establish a debate whose outcome was already known, and a reduction of politics to solidarity with aesthetes.

Of the presentations whose focus was on the aesthetic, David Rodowickʼs was among the most interesting, though even this focus was ultimately displaced, in that Rodowickʼs concern was with the philosophical work that film might accomplish. Taking examples from Godard, Chantal Akerman and Agnès Varda, the paper aimed both to clarify the concept of ʻconceptual personaeʼ introduced by Deleuze and Félix Guattariʼs What is Philosophy? and to argue that film, too, could express conceptual personae as much as it also presents us with ʻaesthetic figuresʼ and ʻpsychosocial typesʼ.

Thus Rodowick argued that in the play between diegetic and nondiegetic forms of presentation and narration, film could establish two differential series of ʻvirtual intercessorsʼ and so express the desire to construct new forms of existence, and the concepts appropriate to new planes of becoming. The force of film lies not in its representational qualities, but in the way in which it can establish a disjunction between two sources of enunciation, and so point to the unthinkable that lies beyond representation.

A Deleuzean aesthetics, then, might revolve around efforts to indicate the limits of representation, on the one hand, and to produce new forms of experience, on the other. As Astrid Söderberg Widding also pointed out, film theory has been particularly obsessed with the question of representation (no doubt because of filmʼs apparent fidelity to the real) and with the spectatorʼs (psychic) identification with either the camera or the characters portrayed. Ideas of continuity, seamlessness and recognition have been imposed upon a medium whose technical characteristics (such as montage and added sound) are discontinuous and disjunctive. But in what sense can film (or any other art) serve not only as a critique of representation but also as a medium in which something new is constituted or created? A Deleuzean aesthetics might rescue the idea of creativity from either intentionalism or finalism, both of which reduce what is created to that creationʼs conditions of possibility.

This question of the emergence of the new was a thread that linked many of the papers. It is a question that takes on different aspects depending upon the field within which it is asked: in aesthetics, it invokes creativity; in philosophy, conceptualization; in politics, constitution. Everywhere, however, it must also be a question of organization; specifically, what is at issue (if creation is not to be reduced to determination) is self-organization.

In this vein, Manuel De Landa applied concepts taken from complexity theory and examples taken from architecture and computer-aided architectural design to consider the conditions necessary to generate viable self-evolving and self-sustaining structures.

These conditions are, he argued, a population of diverse forms (and so community has to precede individuality), intensive modulations (and so folding takes priority over metric extension or division), and topological multiplicity (for which spatial resemblance is replaced by a wealth of possible actualizations). Essentially, then, De Landa recasts Deleuzeanism as a form of nonlinear science, and chooses nonlinearity over linearity at every opportunity. He articulates this project with verve and clarity. His presentation was a breathtaking combination of simplicity and ambition: if these three relatively simple conditions explain self-evolving structures, then they also explain all structure, in that what is taken to be formed identity is simply a partial (and so misrecognized) image of a process that is nothing but the continuous self-organizing flow of matter.

Yet to equate mountain ranges, as the product of flows of magma, with thunderstorms, as flows of wind and moisture, is also to pass over the question of (metric, or linear) scale, however topologically similar they may be. Changes in extension (a linear property), such as doubling all the physical dimensions of a building or bridge, can have catastrophic effects upon the structure as a whole, as the pressure on the loadbearing elements may increase exponentially and the whole edifice collapse. Surely the same is also true elsewhere: doubling the size of a political grouping also has reciprocal intensive effects, for instance, and the self-organization of a political cell must differ from the self-organization of the multitude. So either all properties are in fact nonlinear, or the relation between extension and intensity in the production of the new is more complicated than De Landa suggests; in either case, the dualism on which his presentation rested seems problematic.

More fundamentally, is the opposition between creativity and identity also not a misleading dualism? Alain Badiou and Iain Mackenzie both underlined the importance of creativity for Deleuzeʼs political thought. For Badiou, what he called the Nietzschean maxim of creation is fundamental to Deleuzeʼs politics. This maxim could be parsed in terms of three ethical maxims: that we must elude control (and so seek a new negation); that we must precipitate events (and so a new affirmation); and restore a belief in the world (and so a new subjectivity). Though this is not a politics per se (as politics,

Badiou argued, is always historical, whereas the maxim of creation sought a liberation from history), it is a politics of art, science, and philosophy, each of which is called upon to be creative, producing respectively affects, functions and concepts, in order to create a ʻnew thingʼ.

Mackenzie, in what was perhaps the conferenceʼs most challenging and rigorous paper, enumerated the necessary features of such autonomous creativity, which he identified as a post-Kantian ʻpure critiqueʼ. Pure critique must have no constraints, and must do away with any founding categories of the sociopolitical (because they, too, must be subject to critique). Whereas partial critique shares its terrain with what it criticizes (and so allows that terrain to escape critique), and whereas the terrain of total critique is defined (and so constrained) by its negation of what it criticizes, pure critique is the fully immanent art of constructing altogether new conceptions of the sociopolitical. Pure critique constructs its own terrain. It does away with this social to construct a new socius.

In discussion, both Badiou and Mackenzie acknowledged that this absolute autonomy might be impossible and even undesirable. Far, then, from De Landaʼs discovery of self-organization at every corner and every turn, this panel emphasized the constraints that foil the desire for autonomy. Moreover, in so far as there is no linear continuum between constraint and autonomy (in that the greatest reterritorialization is always found on the line of greatest deterritorialization), there could be no comfort in ʻalmostʼ achieving creation, in structures that were ʻalmostʼ self-organizing. Rosi Braidotti instead suggested the potentially productive notion of ʻsustainabilityʼ (and so ʻsustainableʼ becomings), which has the virtue of not being defined by the notion of a lack, or failure. Perhaps this is the direction in which we should be going, to consider how to maintain created structures and collectivities.

The question of the feasibility or sustainability of Deleuzean creativity is, perhaps, also the question of revolution for our times. The problem is the way in which the power to which Deleuzeanism points is always so close to the limits to that power of which Deleuze warns. And though ʻImmanent Choreographiesʼ provided no answers to this problem of the entanglement of power with its limits, of self-organization with control, it posed it in the starkest of terms.

Jon Beasley-Murray