On the Importance of Sensation and Rhythm – Between Chaos and Cliché

Art has a special role for Deleuze and Guatarri: “Art preserves, and it is the only thing in the world that is preserved. It preserves and is preserved in itself, although actually it lasts no longer than its support and materials—stone, canvas, chemical color, and so on.” WIP, 163. By preservation, Deleuze and Guatarri does not mean that art renders things and affects static. Instead, art preserves a bloc of sensations, or a compound of percepts and affects. WIP, 164. The artist creates and uses sensations to create artwork. WIP, 166. The very aim of art “is to wrest the precept from perceptions of objects and the states of a perceiving subject, to wrest the affect from affections as the transition from one state to another: to extract a block of sensations, a pure being of sensations.” WIP, 167. But not all art is able to extract and express the pure being of sensation.

In Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Deleuze distinguishes figurative from figural paintings. Figurative paintings are unable to show the violence of sensation, or the act of painting. LS, xiv. The figurative, or the illustrative or narrative types of painting, present narratives and models, rather than sensations. LS, 2. Interestingly, Deleuze argues that “Painting has to extract the Figure from the figurative” since photography has taken over painting’s former illustrative role. LS, 8 (emphasis added). The Figure, for Deleuze, “is the sensible form related to a sensation; it acts immediately upon the nervous system, which is of the flesh, whereas abstract form is addressed to the head, and acts through the intermediary of the brain, which is closer to the bone.” LS, 34. Deleuze also opposes sensation to the superficial, cliché, and the spontaneous. Id. When we encounter sensations, “[we] become in the sensation and something happens through the sensation . . . .” LS, 35. From Deleuze’s writings, we can extract a few key ideas concerning sensation.

Since sensation is something that is in the body, sensation is not merely mental impressions we experience in our brains. Deleuze defines the body as being “both subject and object” or that which “gives and receives the sensation.” LS, 35. Quoting Cézeanne, Deleuze describes sensation as “the appleyness of the apple.” Id. Deleuze cautions us not to think of sensation as something that represents and is separate from an object. LS, 39. Deleuze proposes instead that sensations are inseparable from its direct actions on the nervous system. LS, 39. Because of this inseparability between the action and the nervous system, sensation seems to require both the ‘subject,’ to sense and the ‘object,’ to be sensed. But because Deleuze opposes a strictly representational model of sensation, sensation seems to describe something that passes through and exists only by a confluence of, in representational terms, the subject and object.

But what is the importance of sensation? Why should we, as budding philosophers, care about sensation? Bacon, as described by Deleuze, “has always tried to eliminate the ‘sensational’, that is, the primary figuration of that which provokes a violent sensation.” LS, 38. Deleuze also observes that Bacon must sometimes “turn against his own instincts, renounce his own experience. [He] harbors within himself all the violence of Ireland, and the violence of Nazism, the violence of war.” Id.   Deleuze seems to suggest that Bacon’s process of painting, which uses and creates sensations that act upon instincts, requires Bacon to be self-reflexive. Bacon, in order to renounce figuration, must combat cliché and his own preconceived notions in order to develop the Figure that is freed from narrative and representational content. The act of creating sensation requires some sort of mimesis, or a process of negotiating and reflecting which avoids the violence of the represented and is able to channel the violence of sensation. Yet the creation of sensation has other important features as well.

In his interview with Sylvester, Bacon clarifies that sensation, which passes and traverses through levels of senses, should not be thought of as an ambivalence of senses or feelings. LS, 39. Bacon does not try to express “at one and at the same time a love of the person and a hostility towards them”, but is trying to make the image more immediately real to himself. Id. Deleuze’s interest in this part of Bacon’s interview could be motivated by his own philosophical concerns with the diagram. Bacon’s paintings could operate as a diagram of sensation. Bacon’s use of couples and triptychs are diagrams, which unite the diverse levels of different sensations. LS, 73. According to Deleuze, Bacon reveals the “action of invisible forces on the body” in his painting. LS, 41. These forced movement both produces in us an impression of time and is able to break past the limits of sensation. LS, 73. Bacon employs the use of Figures, which are not subject to torture or brutality or any other visible horrors, to manifest the power of the paint and to make visible some sort of multi-sensible Figure. LS, 42. Deleuze argues that this operation is only possible if “it is direct contact with vital power that exceeds every domain and traverses them all. This power is rhythm, which is more profound than vision, hearing, etc.” Id.

For Deleuze, sensation and rhythm are deeply interrelated. Deleuze notes that to paint the sensation is essentially painting rhythm, “[b]ut in the simple sensation, rhythm is still dependent on the Figure; it appears as the vibration that flows through the body without organs, it is a vector of the sensation, it is what makes the sensation pass from one level to another. LS, 72. Rhythm confronts and unites different levels of sensations by coupling sensations under melodic lines. LS, 73. Painting allows us to encounter “a violent chaos in relation to the figurative givens, but it is a germ of rhythm in relation to the new order of the painting.” LS, 102. In my understanding, Deleuze’s conception of rhythm (and its relationship to sensation) seems to allow us to perceive some sort of ‘order’ within the chaos of sensations, by creating some unity amongst our senses. Deleuze believes that we “seek the unity of rhythm only at the point where rhythm itself plunges into chaos . . . at the point where the differences of level are violently mixed.” LS, 44 (emphasis added). To explain this dynamic in phenomenological terms, when we sense rhythm, we are able to locate a pattern amongst the myriad of sensations, which allows the Figure to appear. LS, 42. But at the same time, Deleuze seems to be describing an ebb and flow between rhythm and chaos, since there is a germ of order or rhythm in the diagram. LS, 102. We cannot isolate the two, rhythm and chaos, since chaos unlocks new areas of sensation, while rhythm allows us to ascertain and unify sensations. Id. Both are contaminated with the germ of the other. Id.

In sum, painting seems to be mired in this dynamic: paintings are sensations that avoid the cliché and the sensational, while also avoid being completely overwhelmed by chaos because of rhythm.



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