10.03.2017

Beginning from the Middle (with reference to Deleuze)


Francis Bacon in his studio. Note the images everywhere. As Deleuze argues, the painter doesn't begin with a blank canvas;
he begins with a canvas dense with images.

Where to begin? How to begin? As Deleuze argues in Difference and Repetition, Descartes supposes to begin without presuppositions. I'll doubt everything, says Descartes adopting his version of skepticism, and see what I find. And we all know what he finds: a thinking self, the CogitoI think, therefore I am. As Deleuze points out, however, this assertion is not free of suppositions at all: it has its own elaborate set of assumptions, namely, that we all know what an I is, what thinking is, what being is.

There is no clean slate. No pure beginning. We never begin from nothing to form something. We always begin somewhere. There is no outside the fray of it all, no place free of culture, of personal experience, of history, of ourselves. We're always somewhere doing something as this, whatever this is.

It sure seems like it'd be nice if we could shake this all off like a dog after a bath. Or scrub with exfoliating brushes until we're free of ourselves. Alas, after the exfoliation and waxing and asshole bleaching, we're still here, still this — wherever here is, whatever this is.

We're quite attracted to origin stories. The universe was something and then, Bang!, it blew apart and became all sorts of things moving this way and that. But what if it was always already all this stuff moving around? Why does the universe need an origin story in which there is only one moment? What a weird thing to even imagine! The universe is so fucking big and complex it seems hilariously demented to reduce it to an absolute beginning. In his great essay on history, Foucault writes that when we look for the origin of things, we find the dissension of other things. We find forks and splays. There is no singular point that begins the line from there to here. There's always already multiple things happening, careening and veering every which way.

It can be maddening to imagine no beginning and no ending, to imagine that time has always existed. It's much cleaner to imagine time as a line that begins somewhere rather than as an infinite number of lines have always already been happening. So we posit primal moments — the big bang or, well, some intense moment from childhood (like seeing our parents screwing). I am this way because my father left me or my mother was controlling or favored my brother or...or...or. Sure, those things figure into who we are and how we go. And some events are no doubt more poignant than others. But, as Foucault says, when we look for the origin, we find the dissension of other things. We are all the things that happen to us and the way we process these things. We cannot be reduced to one event. That's ridiculous.

In his book on the painter, Francis Bacon, Deleuze says the painter never comes to a blank canvas. The artist's job, he argues, is not to create something from nothing but to create something new from the density of what is and what has been. That canvas may look white but it is infinitely dense with images from the history of art, from TV and movies, from advertising, from the news, from everyday life.

The painter is enmeshed in this density of images at a certain posture, with a certain metabolism, and begins to break those images, smear them, parody them. Pollock grabbed the canvas off the easel, threw it on the floor, and writhed over it, all serious bravado (you can imagine a similar gesture done with more, say, smiling). Guston made the KKK into cartoons alongside his big soft goofy rocks and shoes and light bulbs. Duchamps just picked up a urinal and, prankster-like, deposited it in a gallery. Bacon smeared his canvases with a broom and created falling flesh from what emerged.

Look all those ways of beginning. What determines this way or that way? Look at your own way of beginning anything — a book, a conversation, writing. What propels you? What images are in your mind? What do you think you're doing? Whatever your answer, there are more answers you'll never see, never be able to articulate (so it is with the eye; it never sees itself; we are always more than we think, thankfully).

Deleuze says we're always in the middle. And so his books always begin mid-conversation. That is, he doesn't even try to frame his conversation as if he could stand outside his own text and let us survey the scene. That's what text books do; they want to be definitive and tell you: this is what is known. But Deleuze operates from the middle, amidst the fray and teem where all there are are assertions, positions, postures — never certainties. And so he just begins wherever he is.

Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation  
A round area often delimits the place where the person — that is to say, the Figure — is seated, lying down, doubled over, or in some other position.

Spinoza: Practical Philosophy  
Nietzsche understood, having lived it himself, what constitutes the mystery of a philosopher's life.

Difference and Repetition  
Repetition is not generality.

The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque   
The Baroque refers not to an essence but rather to an operative function, to a trait.

The effect can be disconcerting. I've found myself making sure I didn't skip a page or three. But nope: Deleuze flourishes in the middle, in the thick of it, in the middle of a life in motion, amidst an idea already happening.

Nietzsche never believed that morality exists outside of history, outside of ideology, of desire, of the will to power. Which is why he dismisses Kant just as he dismisses Judeo-Christian codes. And why he performs a genealogy of morality, tracing it to a certain set of historical-existential conditions: the emergence of ressentiment. Whence ressentiment, you ask? Well, it just happens, a convergence of any number of forces and events. William Burroughs thinks it's a mutation, perhaps from an alien world. For Nietzsche, our beliefs come from our intestines, from our constitution and comportment, from how we bear experience. And what determines those? Being born from these people in these conditions as this body. And this thing that's born is always multiple. Nietzsche himself is his own own doppelgänger — and even a third!

When Derrida looks for the origin of, say, a text he finds other texts. You're already quoting other words. When he looks for the origin of identity, he finds iteration. What propels this iteration, this text and not that text? Derrida doesn't talk about that so much. He just knows there are no origin points, that it's all play.

Every beginning has always already begun. Every beginning is a multiplicity that is mired in historical, physical, cultural, and conceptual trajectories that intersect each other at different speeds and intensities. 

Trying to shake it all off — all this body and thinking, all this life — is absurd (Nietzsche would say it's nihilistic). But that doesn't mean we can't be reborn. That we can't dramatically shift how we go in this world. But doing this isn't a matter of getting to the bottom of things or wiping everything away. It's not a matter of creating a clean slate or getting back to the beginning. It's a matter of short circuiting, hedging, leaning this way rather than that. It's a matter of engineering from the middle.

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