Sean Batton: Subjectivity, Thought, and the Outside

The path I have cut through Deleuze’s texts has been determined like a Markov chain: in each work I find myself attached to some concepts more than others, and these determine what will command my interest as I read the next one. Individually, these links are determined, but as a whole the sequence is aleatory. If I were to read them again in, say, a few years, when their memories are longer so fresh and my marginalia seem the baffling scrawls of a stranger, then the chain will likely come out looking different. Through Deleuze’s thought I’ll assemble a new links, and likely discover to my astonishment monumental concepts to which I must have previously been blind or indifferent. Subjectivity, one could say, is a throw of the dice. In this last journal, I want to take the opportunity to meditate further on some of the passages that have come to preoccupy me, particularly those relating to subjectivity, thought, and the Outside. 

Deleuze’s remarks on sensation and spectatorship in The Logic of Sensation are clarifying after the questions we’ve had about subjectivity and the cinema viewer. He gives equal significance to the experience of viewing Bacon’s paintings and the work that created them (and goes on continuing to work though them): “Sensation has one face turned toward the Subject (the nervous system, vital movement, ‘instinct,’ ‘temperament’…), and one face turned toward the object (the ‘fact,’ the place, the event).” The two are not so easily distinguished as, say, an effect from its cause. They are in fact two participants of a single encounter, the coordinates which describe a form: “Or rather, it has no faces at all, it is both things indissolubly, it is Being-in-the-World, as phenomenologists say: at one and the same time I become in the sensation and something happens through the sensation, one through the other, one in the other.” (LS, 31)

As we’ve repeatedly encountered since Bergson’s Matter and Memory, the product of sensation meeting a sensing being is thought. As Deleuze puts it in Difference and Repetition, “There is only involuntary thought, aroused but constrained within thought, and all the more absolutely necessary for being born, illegitimately, of fortuitousness in the world…Something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recognition but of a fundamental encounter.” (DR, 139)   However, product as I have used it is misleading, as it suggests that thought comes at the end of a causal sequence. What I am beginning to understand now is the fundamental importance of immanence to this concept of thought: that we are not beings reflecting on our experience but indissolubly part of a larger circuit of which our subjectivity and that which is exterior to it are a single system. To think is not, then, is not to contemplate or reflect on something, not to ‘watch oneself watching,’ but to attend. Deleuze develops this in The Logic of Sensation: 

Within the round area, the Figure is sitting on the chair, lying on the bed, and sometimes it even seems to be waiting for what is about to happen. But what is happening, or is about to happen, or has already happened, is not a spectacle or a representation. In Bacon, these waiting Figures or ‘attendants’ are not spectators. One discovers in Bacon’s paintings an attempt to eliminate every spectator, and consequently every spectacle…In many cases there seems to subsist, distinct from the Figure, a kind of spectator, a voyeur, a photograph, a passerby, an ‘attendant’…However, we will see that, in his paintings as well as his triptychs, Bacon needs the function of an attendant, which is not a spectator but part of the Figure.” (LS, 13-14)

The attendant and Figure are thus caught up in the same Becoming. It is this circuit that attracts Deleuze to Bacon’s paintings. The various attentions within the Figure, or in Bacon’s process, or the viewer’s sensations are variations of the same encounter; they preserve the relation of a subject to the Outside. 

Deleuze’s descriptions of Bacon’s process are illustrative:

It is like the emergence of another world. For these free marks, these traits, are irrational, involuntary, accidental, free, random” paint strokes, splatters, and wipes. They are traits of sensations, but of confused sensations (the confused sensations, as Cézanne said, that we bring with us at birth). Above all, they are manual traits…It is as if the hand assumed an independence, and began to be guided by other forces, making marks that no longer depend on will or sight. (LS, 82) 

This account of painting as not the expression of a singular subjectivity but the a process by which one loses subjectivity is helpful for grasping the “profound and almost unlivable Power” which necessitates the concept of a “body-without-organs”: “It is an intense and intensive body. It is traversed by a wave that traces levels or thresholds in the body according to the variations in amplitude. Thus the body does not have organs, but thresholds and levels. Sensation is not qualitative and qualified, but has only an intensive reality which no longer determines within itself representative elements, but allotropic variations. Sensation is vibration.” (LS, 39) The “body” is then conceived like a diagram, that is, as a site that mediates the forces that act upon it and give them new forms, new directions. It is a threshold through which that which passes, changes. As Bergson puts it, it gives back to matter movements stamped with its will. A body without organs, you could say, is a body which is capable of thinking. 

I think it is worth asking, and perhaps it is best to never stop asking, How, again, does thought happen? In The Time-Image, Deleuze paraphrases Artaud: “Thought has no other reason to function than its own birth, always the repetition of its own birth, secret and profound. He says that the image thus has as object the functioning of thought, and that the functioning of thought is also the real subject that brings us back to the images.” (TI, 165) Thought is not so much an activity that requires an intention to get it going, but something that exists for itself, indifferent to mind that bears it. Artaud’s attitude towards writing and cinema could just as well apply to Bacon’s painting: “Artaud believes more in an appropriateness between cinema and automatic writing, as long as we understand automatic writing is not at all an absence of composition, but a higher control which brings together a critical and conscious thought and the unconscious in thought: the spiritual automaton…” (ibid.)

This chapter from The Time-Image, “Thought and Cinema”, may contain some of Deleuze’s bleakest passages, but this is also where he comes closest to articulating what is most valuable in his approach to thinking, whether in philosophy or in painting or cinema. Continuing to discuss Artaud: “what cinema advances is not the power of thought but its impower, and thought has never had any other problem. It is precisely this which is so much more important than the dream: this difficulty of being, the powerlessness that lies at the heart of thought.” (166) This loss of power is from the perspective of a defined subject, from a body that insists on its organs. There is, yet, the higher power, in which the subject is integrated into and permeated by the circuit with the Outside. “What forces us to think is the inpower of thought, the figure of nothingness, the inexistence of a whole which could be thought. What Blanchot diagnoses everywhere in literature is particularly clear in cinema: on the one hand the presence of an unthinkable in thought, which would be both is source and its barrier; on the other hand the presence to infinity of another thinker in the thinker, who shatters every monologue of a thinking self.” (168)

This thinker inside the thinker is nothing other than the Outside.

Leave a Reply