Of Hooks and Unhookings

Throughout much of the time we have spent reading about the time image, its workings have appeared as a particular kind of break—to the sensory-motor schema, to the relation between the image and the Whole, and to the re/presentation of time, to name a few of the points of impact. What has been difficult, at times, to imagine, is what may come of such a break. There have been moments when it seems that, were it not for Deleuze’s assertion of the presence of pure time, there would be nothing at all in the fold of the time image, that it would be pure absence or aporia. Of course, one bears in mind the constant unthought of the virtual, the unceasing multiplication of becomings and mutations, but to phrase it rather pedantically: so what? What impact does this have on the way we, Deleuze’s readers, move through the world? If I’ve asked a non-philosophical question here, it’s only because I was emboldened by the fact that Deleuze, in the later chapters of Cinema 2, in Foucault, and in A Thousand Plateaus, gives his readers something of an answer as to what the ethical stakes of such a shift are. Of the many political and ethical implications Deleuze lays out, it is worth mentioning at least a few: the speech act that refuses a distinction between public and private, addressing a people who are missing and are thus yet to come; the interstice as the site of radical potential for thought in excess of a particular diagram of power; and the rhizome as the shape and action of such thought, as an act of cartography. In this blog, I hope to address as many of these as possible.

Each of the above elements of Deleuze’s thought depends particularly on the operation of relinkage, the perilous passage between incommensurable, irrational cuts or interstices. This is true of the cinematic time image most explicitly: there is, Deleuze writes, “no longer association through metaphor or metonymy, but relinkage on the literal image; there is no longer linkage of associated images, but only relinkages of independent images” (C2 214). It is also true of the relation between forms and forces, the visible and the articulable: “the problem is that of the coadaptation of the two forms or two sorts of conditions, which differ in nature […] determinable visibilities and determining statements” that are, in the end, irreducible to one another, and thus disjunctive (F 52). Finally, it is true of the rhizome in the oscillation between territorialization and deterritorialization: “there is neither imitation nor resemblance, only an exploding of two heterogeneous series on the line of flight composed by a common rhizome that can no longer be attributed to or subjugated by anything signifying” (ATP 10). Indeed, we can see echoes of this concern throughout Deleuze’s work, back to “Proust and Signs” and Difference and Repetition, where the act of relinking reveals the terminal point of each faculty, the farthest extension of its ability and the domain that is unique to it: “between sensibility and imagination, between imagination and memory, between memory and thought – when each disjointed faculty communicates to another the violence which carries it to its own limit, every time it is a free form of difference which awakens the faculty, and awakens it as the different within that difference” (D&R 145). To summarize, it is the mode of connection between irreducible, heterogeneous forms/forces/images/faculties that is of the utmost importance to Deleuze. It is here that power, as the relations between forces, exerts its pull, but also here that the potential for new, radical connections exists. This process of linking occurs all the time, it is continuous; but, it seems, it is rare that thought participates in this process. Instead it is habit, repetition, resemblance, representation, and all those tools we use to mitigate the risks we face as we leap across the interstice. “A concept’s power,” says Deleuze, “comes from the way it’s repeated, as one area links up with another. And this linkage is an essential, ceaseless activity: the world as a patch­ work” (Negotiations 147). The task is to not shut ourselves off from mutation, change, and difference during this leap, but to hold fast to them, and see where they may lead.

One of the most fascinating threads that can be followed in this leap is Deleuze’s assertion that, in the case of modern political cinema, “the people no longer exist, or not yet… the people are missing” (C2 216). Deleuze claims that this knowledge is borne of third world cinema, where colonization both imposes the myths of the colonizer and abstracts and repurposes the myths of the colonized. The result is that such cinema cannot ‘return to the well’ of a private, mythic past that might point toward a revolutionary future, because the sense of continuity and unity that might enable such a gesture is always already unavailable: “the death-knell for becoming conscious was precisely the consciousness that there were no people, but always several peoples, an infinity of peoples, who remained to be united, or should not be united, in order for the problem to change” (C2 220). In black American cinema, Deleuze writes, this results in “shattered states of emotions or drives, expressible in pure images and sounds…” (C2 220). It is this state, however, that enables a confrontation with the fractured I that Deleuze writes of in Difference and Repetition, and the now-shattered ground of a pure or immemorial past. Thrown up into this space of indeterminacy, it is only the utterance that relinks the shattered states, a pre-personal utterance (because I-less and groundless), “which are already collective, which are like the seeds of the people to come, and whose political impact is immediate and inescapable” (C2 221).

To explore this a bit, I want to return to the Kanye West song I referenced in class, “Blood on the Leaves,” from the 2013 album Yeezus. Of course, here we’re talking about a song instead of cinema, but the incommensurable relation between sonsigns, as opposed to sonsigns and opsigns, still performs the same function, and just as effectively. There is a tripartite layering of sounds in West’s song wherein the mode of relinkage is as problematic, and as evocative of the virtual, as the pure optical and sound image in cinema. In class, I mentioned that “Blood on the Leaves” contains a sample of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” recorded in 1965. The song, most famously sung by Billie Holiday in 1939, was written as a response to a 1930 lynching in Indiana. Its use in a 2013 hip-hop track, then, might be seen as drawing parallels between the Black American experience in the late 30s, mid 60s, and 21st century. And typically, when rap songs contain traces of work by politically motivated singers of the civil rights era, it’s done with a reverence and sense of continuity with the past, as a lament that so much of the same work seems left to be performed, or as a contrite analysis of violence in the black community. West, however, offers none of these, but rather a song/rap that is almost horrifying in its disjunction from Simone’s lyrics: a story of a failed, unfaithful relationship, and unwanted pregnancy, and the high cost of alimony and child support. The song is iconoclastic in the literal sense, smashing the icons of civil rights-era culture and the history of black America without even an acknowledgment of its impropriety. The listener hears Simone sing, “black bodies, swinging in the summer breeze,” as West raps about the social and emotional fallout of a break up, saying, “Now you sittin’ courtside, wifey on the other side/Gotta keep ‘em separated, I call that apartheid.” At the same time, West layers in a blasting horn section lifted from the 1999 C-Murder and Snoop Dogg song “Down 4 my N****,” an uninspired track celebrating male loyalty and violence from the very tail end of the gangsta rap decade. While the horn layer works with the overall production of the song, the subject matter it alludes to is as alien to the circumstances West describes as that of “Strange Fruit.” The horror of “Blood on the Leaves” is not the heretical misappropriation of “Strange Fruit,” but the fragmentation of ‘sheets of the past’—60s civil rights song, 90s gangsta rap song, 2010s lost love pop song—that are coexistent yet incommensurable parts of (for West) the black American cultural experience. Each of these three sheets—sound images, I would call them—attempts to speak for and of a people, but there is an irrational cut between them. The irony, given West’s reputation in the press as an egomaniac, is that there is no I in the song, no “beautiful interiority” that unites these sheets, but instead a non-personal relinkage on the order of the sound itself.

“Blood on the Leaves,” I would argue, is more effectively imagined as a map that points to the disconnect between certain stratigraphic layers, certain sheets of the past. If the diagram is composed of “the superimposing of coexistent sheets” (C2 121), a particular organization of space-time (F 34), West’s disturbing song is disturbing precisely because of the violent lines it draws through these strata. But a question remains: is there anything rhizomatic in West’s song, any sign of becoming, of territorialization and deterritorialization? Yes, I will (briefly) argue, and strangely enough it takes the form of a tree—the magnolia. The magnolia tree is an almost entirely invisible element of all three sheets in “Blood on the Leaves,” and it is rhizomatic precisely in its radical reach across each sheet. The magnolia tree sends off lines in all directions in the three songs that compose West’s track, but not as any kind of central figure, more as a mobile, a-centered element that reaches out toward the unspoken. At the end of the third verse, West sings “How you gon’ lie to the lawyer?/ It’s like I don’t even know ya/ I gotta bring it back to the ‘Nolia…” To what magnolia is West referring? He does not mention it again in the song, yet it links in certain ways to both “Strange Fruit” and “Down 4 my N*****.” Simone’s song contains the lyric “scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh/ then the sudden smell of burning flesh,” but West’s reference wouldn’t make sense given the context. More likely he is referring to the Magnolia projects in New Orleans, where No Limit Records (Snoop and C-Murder’s record label) was based, and the center of the 90s/00s New Orleans rap boom. But here, another problem emerges: the Magnolia projects were severely flooded during Hurricane Katrina, and were shuttered and razed by the time West’s song was released. As such, the magnolia forms a rhizomatic territory with each sheet of “Blood on the Leaves,” as a sweet smell that disappears amidst the horror of lynched bodies, as a neighborhood and cultural center, and as a depopulated and destroyed part of black history, a place to which West can never really “bring it back.” Why? Because the people are missing.