Stefan Hölscher_Biopolitics, Deleuzianism, and the Destiny of Aesthetics

Biopolitics, Deleuzianism, and the Destiny of Aesthetics

In the very first chapter of Anti-Oedipus and related as closely to Daniel Paul Schreber´s sunbeams as to Lenz by Georg Büchner, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari make a promise: “This does not mean that we are attempting to make nature one of the poles of schizophrenia. What the schizophrenic experiences, both as an individual and as a member of the human species, is not at all any one specific aspect of nature, but nature as a process of production.“(1) Later on they will conduct capitalism´s capacity to decode the flows of desire and to liberate the forces of deep bodily mixtures from their capture by organic apparatuses of significance and subjectivication and the ruin of surfaces of sense they support. In front of this background and following their trajectory I would like to suggest that the schizo is above all an aesthetic figure or, more precisely, a figural opening of the figure´s contour and, due to the intimate contact of her body with a chaotic outside, the incorporation of an inadequate, unframed, and inorganic idea of life. Admittedly there are historical parallels between the unfolding of capitalism´s power and aesthetics, but there are also important differences. These I am going to sketch, relating Deleuzianism to Jacques Rancière´s aesthetic regime on the one hand and to Michel Foucault´s concept of biopolitics on the other hand. Although there are important disagreements between these three philosophical approaches – whilst in Foucault and Rancière notions like “life“ or “nature“ are strictly understood in the context of the conditions of possibility of their (historical) emergence, for Deleuze they rather refer to the reality of their production and to constructive processes, respectively to the problem of ontogenesis – I nevertheless want to describe overlappings and resonances between these three thinkers.

Nature as a process of production: Indeed the schizo has to return red-eyed from something too big for her she went through in order to be considered the vehicle of a productive nature expressing itself through and the passive syntheses arising within her. Deleuze then actualizes the refrain of what already Immanuel Kant had considered the genius almost two centuries before when, in his Third Critique from 1790, he elaborated a form of judgement that is dominated neither by pure reason nor by a practical understanding of the world, but multiplies intuitions of a beautiful and „drusy“(2) nature. Both the schizo and the genius experience and experiment with a fluent nature and a fundamentally indeterminate and open relation between intuitions and concepts and an unrestrained unfolding of their faculties. In the chapters of his Third Critique dedicated to Beauty Kant emphasizes that neither imagination nor understanding were dominating in beautiful encounters. We then “schematize without concepts“(3) so that, as Deleuze describes Kant´s aesthetic judgement, “on the one hand, the concepts of the understanding are enlarged to infinity, in an unlimited manner; on the other hand, the imagination is freed from the constraint of the determinate concepts of the understanding“(4) With regard to the relation between genius in Kant and the idea of another nature she expresses, Deleuze writes, long before, together with Guattari, he will proclaim the schizo, that she created a nature “in which phenomena are immediately events of the mind, and the events of the mind, phenomena of nature.“(5)

In the second half of the 18th century the epistemic transformation of natura naturata into natura naturans and the emergence of an understanding of “life itself“ as living do not only have an impact on the economical and political fields but deeply touch on traditional understandings of the work of art as well. The birth of aesthetics within philosophy is just a consequence, not the reason, for new practices and procedures in the field of art. Until now the strict rules of Poetics had governed and distributed mimesis, keeping the different arts separate whilst subsuming their sujets under the idea of an organic unity of the artwork. Until now every representation had to correspond to the order of an organically determined body politic. Sensible matter was dominated by determined forms of thought which were supposed adequate to the bodily depths they thus recorded. With the aesthetic and biopolitical turn in the second half of the 18th century every measure is lost. Before the organic unity of the artwork – constituted with the aid of specific manners of representation, subjected to the body of the despot, and the law of the father – had refered to an already made, finished, and closed image of nature which now cannot be taken for granted anymore e.g. in the reflexions on Beauty by Kant and his follower Friedrich Schiller. What manifests in their descriptions of an aesthetic state is an indeterminate nature and an uncertain relation between thought and matter, a nature of becoming rather than one of being, ontogenesis rather than ontology, and a free harmony of the human faculties beyond every actually given relation between form and matter.

„For there, Kant proposes a subject that neither comprehends nor legislates, but only feels and responds. The aesthetic subject does not impose its forms upon an otherwise chaotic outside world. Rather, this subject is itself informed by the world outside, a world that […] ‘fills the being before the mind can think“(6), as Steven Shaviro puts it in Without Criteria – Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics. Neither receptive sensibility nor active understanding (Kant), neither form drive nor material drive (Schiller) are dominating in the experience of beauty. Aesthetics however is paradoxically based on a fundamental “discordant accord“ (Daniel W. Smith) of the human faculties. Sensible matter is equally discordant with any purely active form and as such accords to a determinable understanding of its own genesis. In contrast to natura naturata a molecular nature of becoming cannot be limited by the rules of Poetics, coded on the body of the despot, or brought under the law of the father anymore. At its very core it is a productive nature, a never ending process that deeply decodes former organic conceptions of the artwork and renders them inorganic in consequence of a liberation of partial objects from the organism, and – as Kant himself states – based on a transformation of every form toward its “grotesque“(7) edge and the expression of a faceless material and of outside forces beyond every form of an already given transcendent surface.

In this respect, for Rancière aesthetics is neither a theory of art nor a manual for its creation but the ever unsolved problem of a special mode of experience and an indeterminate mode of thought which remain separate from the ordinary ones, although they are built upon their proliferating categories of representation. The beautiful experience “finds its source in that zone of indeterminacy where former individuations are undone, where the eternal dance of atoms composes new figures and intensities every moment. The old power of representation stemmed from the capacity of the organized mind to animate a formless external material.“(8) Rancière writes about Deleuze´s famous image of a wall, a wall “consisting of loose, uncemented stones, where every element has a value in itself but also in relation to others“(9), that this image proved its deep sympathy with aesthetics as an affectively effective condition. On the one hand the stones in Herman Melville´s novel are unconnected, but on the other hand they are not just freely drifting in outer space; they are given in the form of an impassable wall and, as such, express a Spinozist nature whose univocity is plural exactly because it consists of unconnected connections. The stones of such a wall cannot just merge together since they would be rendered into cement in this case. They paradoxically have to remain separate and loose whilst building an impenetrable wall.

What does that mean? From Rancière´s perspective, because of his quite Kantian restraint, Deleuze is fulfilling the destiny of his own aesthetic regime since he is unable to fulfill it. In Rancière aesthetics itself is an always unfulfilled promise, the promise that loose, uncemented stones might connect to build a diagram of sensation: With regard to Deleuze´s concept of the figural, a concept he develops out of his analysis of different paintings by Francis Bacon and which he defines less as something purely non-figurative but rather as the opening of the figure´s contour, as its relation to an outside of forces tearing flesh and bones of the pictoral body apart from each other, Rancière observes a similar paradox. The figural is unable to merge with the outside. Although it really destroys the organicity of the body, it keeps little remainders of its contour to operate as a diagram actually. For Rancière the Deleuzian diagram makes the forces of the outside visible because its is able to resist them simultaneously. In Kantian terms it is more beautiful than sublime. The same applies to what happens to a certain idea of nature then. Rancière considers an “illness in nature“ what is expressed in an artwork that is no longer based on an organic unity of its expressions.

“To hystericize the work, or to make a work of hysteria, means to undo the organicity that is latent in the very defnition of the work’s ‘autonomy‘. Which means that this nature whose telos is organic autonomy must be made sick. The pictorial work will then be conceived as an illness afficting organic nature and the figuration that imitates nature’s power. What is constituted by the elements of the formal grammar evoked above is in fact a crisis, a way of provoking an illness in nature.“(10)

According to Deleuze every figure has to perforate and sieve its contour to provoke an “illness in nature“ in order to open up toward (not dissolve into) what Deleuze calls structure, a chaotic outside of forces, “pure“ sensible matter, that then appears at the figural´s edges. The “illness in nature“ in Deleuze therefore results from the realization that nature is not governed anymore by the idea of just one life and its organic unity or by one form regulating mimesis, but split into a life and a living, into multiplicities of forces of transformation. Exactly at this point the Deleuzian project turns out to be deeply embedded not only in aesthetic but also in biopolitical issues. Exactly here the schizo turns out to be simultaneously the brother and the son of Kant´s genius. Both of them express a natura naturans rather than they would represent an already finished and closed image of nature. Both of them are confronted with the dissolution of fixed forms in the rising ground of transformative affects, sensations, and deep bodily mixtures. Nature for both of them rises up to plure the surface of sense. In Deleuze every organically thought surface of signification and subjectivication has to go down since life

“has ceased to be the pure indeterminate which remains below, but the forms also cease to be the coexisting or complementary determinations. The rising ground is no longer below, it acquires autonomous existence; the form reflected in this ground is no longer a form but an abstract line acting directly upon the soul. When the ground rises to the surface, the human face decomposes in this mirror in which both determinations and the indeterminate combine in a single determination which ‘makes’ the difference“. (11)

According to Michel Foucault, the third one in the triptych I am outling here, biopolitics, as a new formation of knowledge and power, originates together with aesthetics in the second half of the 18th century and superimposes former sovereign and disciplinary assemblages. In sharp contrast to very opposite adaptations of his later lectures on governmentality by people such as e.g. Antonio Negri/Michael Hardt, Giorgio Agamben, or Roberto Esposito, Foucault considers biopolitics a very contradictory form of government. For him biopolitics refers to the concept of life simultaneously as a model and as an instrument (Maria Muhle (12)). Therefore he comprehends “life“ not, as Deleuze does, as an ontogenetic process of becoming. The very definition of the Foucauldian term “biopolitics“ rests on a necessary undecidability between life and politics. Whilst as a model life is considered a process, as an instrument it is rendered into a never finished product, a product that is always re-introduced into the process which makes it. From these circuits results a form of excessive mimetical operation that produces what it imitates or – to borrow from a regularily repeated statement by Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus – that “writes“ the real rather than it were apart from it because of a lack or an imaginary split. Therefore, as Foucault puts it in Security, Territory, Population, from now on politics has to relate to life as a living manner “in order to respond to a reality in such a way that this response cancels out the reality to which it responds – nullifies it, or limits, checks, or regulates it.“(13)

In the second half of the 18th century life as living and as a dynamical becoming unfolds not only on the political stage and in the formation of the so-called life sciences, but also in the fields of art, although it is treated very differently in these areas. Certainly within philosophy the problem of aesthetics manifests precisely not as an economy or a politics in the above-mentioned sense. Aesthetics does not try to regulate the production of art under the calculus of Poetics. Art precisely does not record life on an organic surface of a given work. Instead artworks are considered to release bodily depths of sensual matter from any quasi-cause locating them in a chain of signifiers through disjunctive synthesis. Aesthetics is not about usefull circulations of code. In contrast the artwork is ought to free sensible matter from any fixed sphere of human activity and from any fixed idea of work in general, too. The artwork is ought to be an expression of the forces of an indeterminate and infinite nature. Therefore Beauty since Kant and Schiller deals with questions about a life not being restricted to fixed territories and regulated by fixed rules and sujets anymore. An aesthetic life overcomes every self-enclosure in biopolitical circuits.

According to Rancière, who, via his concept of an aesthetic regime, has been trying to remind our contemporary art worlds on their historical legacy, the living of a life as it is problematized in discourses such as those about the idea of Beauty in Kant and Schiller is quite opposed to the idea life as a model and an instrument that Foucault reflects on in his lectures on the History of Governmentality between 1977 and 1979. Both deal with “the problem that is no longer that of fixing and demarcating the territory, but of allowing circulations to take place, of controlling them, sifting the good and the bad, ensuring that things are always in movement, constantly moving around, continually going from one point to another, but in such a way that the inherent dangers of this circulation are cancelled out“(14) Both Foucault and Rancière call the sifting of life´s circulations since the lively turn in the second half of the 18th century police order, but Rancière rather puts an emphasis on forces that might resist the biopolitical logic. In an interview on these topics, Rancière distinguishes between two different ideas of life, one conceptualising it as an organism, the other as an inorganic, molecular life. What is at stake for him since the (bio)political and aesthetic changes in the second half of the 18th century is the latter as “a supplementary ‘property‘, a property that is biologically and anthropologically unlocatable, the equality of speaking beings.“(15)

In front of this background I would like to suggest to consider Deleuzian philosophy in general and the figure of the schizo he developed together with Guattari in particular as positioned in the trajectory of aesthetic thought and a way to manifest the unlocatable equality of speaking beings as opposed to every biopolitical calculus. In Deleuzian thought, this is my claim, we can find the desire for a-significant and dangerous circulations similar to the experience of “grotesque“ forms in the case of Kant´s Beauty. Both biopolitics and aesthetic thought are embedded in the transformation of natura naturata into natura naturans, but with very different outcomes: Whilst the biopolitical calculus aims at the capture of an “useful“ nature and its recording on surfaces of needs and goods, aesthetics, since Kant´s concept of genius, tries to express the inexpressible through the creation of another nature or, as Deleuze translates Kant into his own thought, “it engenders everywhere the free indeterminate accord of the imagination and the understanding […]“(16) in order to produce a desert in thought. It is Deleuze´s irreducible difference in itself and its affinity to aesthetic thought which resists any integration into formations of power and knowledge as Foucault thinks them. Irreducible differences (respectively intensities) can already be found in Kant´s and Schiller´s idea of an indeterminate living of life. Intensities cannot be rendered valuable but as such mark an excessive nature whose processes are products in themselves. Intensities initiate the opening of infinite forms of life.

This opening of life as an indeterminate and living entity can be found in two extracts of very different texts, one from Friedrich Schiller´s Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, a collection of reflections on Kant´s former Third Critique which he published in 1795, the other one from Deleuze´s Difference and Repetition. Schiller, two centuries before Deleuze wrote his famous book, had claimed in one of his letters:

“The condition of the state of man before destination or direction is given him by the impressions of the senses is an unlimited capacity of being determined. The infinite of time and space is given to his imagination for its free use; and, because nothing is settled in this kingdom of the possible, and therefore nothing is excluded from it, this state of absence of determination can be named an empty infiniteness, which must not by any means be confounded with an infinite void.“(17)

Schiller firstly imagines a state of purely passive affections. He then tries to extend this state into one of an affirmation of joyful affects and the capacity to act and create in an indeterminate way. He sounds quite Spinozist when he describes this indeterminate state in which an infinite nature rises up to distort the fixed territories of things and their contours. For him their is a specific force to the material drive to which the subject has to return to be able to express nature accordingly. Paradoxically it is then also necessary to get into a discordance with one´s own faculties, to bring the circulations of forms and matters into an unsolved tension.

“There is a moment, in fact, when the instinct of life, not yet opposed to the instinct of form, acts as nature and as necessity; when the sensuous is a power because man has not begun; for even in man there can be no other power than his will. […] Consequently, in order to exchange passive against active liberty, a passive determination against an active, he must be momentarily free from all determination, and must traverse a state of pure determinability. He has then to return in some degree to that state of pure negative indetermination in which he was before his senses were affected by anything. But this state was absolutely empty of all contents, and now the question is to reconcile an equal determination and a determinability equally without limit, with the greatest possible fullness, because from this situation something positive must immediately follow“ (18)

Schiller therefore distinguishes between an empty and a full determinability and privileges the latter over the former. Out of a discord there shall result concord, but within concord a tension and contradiction between form and matter has to be kept. So he suggests an opening of the organic contour of thought quite similar to Deleuze. Deleuze himself will explain in Difference and Repetition:

“Indifference has two aspects: the undifferenciated abyss, the black nothingness, the indeterminate animal in which everything is dissolved – but also the white nothingness, the once more calm surface upon which float unconnected determinations like scattered members: a head without a neck, an arm without a shoulder, eyes without brows. The indeterminate is completely indifferent, but such floating determinations are no less indifferent to each other. Is difference intermediate between these two extremes? Or is it not rather the only extreme, the only moment of presence and precision? Difference is the state in which one can speak of determination as such. The difference ‘between’ two things is only empirical, and the corresponding determinations are only extrinsic. However, instead of something distinguished from something else, imagine something which distinguishes itself – and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it.“ (19)

This “something“ is not only the Spinozist substance but also an understanding of nature as it can be found in Kant´s Third Critique from 1790 and Schiller´s Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man from 1795 already. It is a nature where the schizo and the genius live, an unlocatable place where “the equation Nature = Production (the production of a new humanity)“(20) is the only law given. And it is also a nature of equality, the nature of intensities and a difference in itself because it always stays equal and indifferent toward what it differentiates, a free appearance, like the wall of loose stones in Deleuze´s Bartleby or the crucified bodies in his readings of Bacon´s paintings. For Rancière this indetermination of the sensible can only be kept open if it remains a promise and an aesthetic experience “strictly related to a withdrawel of power. The ‘free appearence‘ stands in front of us, unapproachable, unavailable to our knowledge, our aims and desires. The subject is promised the possession of a new world by this figure that he cannot possess in any way.“(21)

In contrast to a natura naturata (which could offer art an organic concept and a Poesis for its work) natura naturans, as it firstly appears in the concept of Beauty by Kant and Schiller, is no fixed entity anymore. “Life itself“ then is no longer understood as a passive outside but becomes an active agent: But while biopolitics is continuously trying to integrate every lively expression into a calculus of usefullness, whilst biopolitics as a form of governmental reason subjects life and breaks through the wall, aesthetics does not care about the path its connections might build… or not. Aesthetics only cares about an indeterminacy of life as living. Aesthetics confronts us with a wall of loose stones and the promise to break through, but, as we know, we will always only be able to reach the edge. We will recognize that the stones are loosely connected and without cement, but nevertheless building a wall. We will then have felt the chaotic sensible matter but return to the other side afterwards. Red-eyed. Happy schizos. Monsters, born by a nature that is not a theatre but a factory. Feeling the real as a process rather than as a product. Crashing into the wall and bouncing back.

Stefan Hölscher, 23. Dezmber 2011

1 Gilles Deleuze/Fèlix Guattari (2000), Anti-Oedipus – Capitalism and Schizophrenia I, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 3.

2 Brian Massumi (1998), Deleuze, Guattari and the Philosophy of Expression – Involutionary Afterword,, Access: 7-19-2011.

3 I am borrowing this phrase from Immanuel Kant (2009), The Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith, Adelaide: The University of Adelaide Library.

4 Gilles Deleuze (2000), The Idea of Genesis in Kant´s Aesthetics, trans. Daniel W. Smith, in: ANGELAKI – Journal for the Theoretical Humanities, Volume 5, Number 3, December 2000, p. 65..

5 Gilles Deleuze (2000), The Idea of Genesis in Kant´s Aesthetics, trans. Daniel W. Smith, in: ANGELAKI – Journal for the Theoretical Humanities, Volume 5, Number 3, December 2000, p. 66.

6 Steven Shaviro, Without Criteria – Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2009, p. 13.
7 “Thus English taste in gardens, and fantastic taste in furniture, push the freedom of imagination to the verge of what is grotesque the idea being that in this divorce from all constraint of rules the precise instance is being afforded where taste can exhibit its perfection in projects of the imagination to the fullest extent.“ – Immanuel Kant (2009), The Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith, Adelaide: The University of Adelaide Library, p. 69.

8 Jacques Rancière (2004), The Flesh of the Words, trans. Charlotte Mandell, Stanford University Press, p. 149.

9 Gilles Deleuze (1987), Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 86-87.

10 Jacques Rancière (2004), Is there a Deleuzian Aesthetics?, trans. Radmila Djordjevic, in: Qui Parle?, Volume 14, Number 2, 2004, pp. 4-5.

11 Gilles Deleuze (1994), Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, New York: Columbia University Press, p. 28.

12 Maria Muhle (2010), Eine Genealogie der Biopolitik, Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.

13 Michel Foucault (2008), Security, Territory, Population – LECTURES AT THE COLLÉGE DE FRANCE, 1977-78, trans. Graham Burchell, New York: Palgrave, p. 69.

14 Michel Foucault (2008), Security, Territory, Population – LECTURES AT THE COLLÉGE DE FRANCE, 1977-78, trans. Graham Burchell, New York: Palgrave, p. 96.

15 Jacques Rancière (2010), Biopolitics or Politics?, in: Dissensus – On Politics and Aesthetics, trans. Steven Corcoran, New York: Continuum, p. 92.

16 Gilles Deleuze (2000), The Idea of Genesis in Kant´s Aesthetics, trans. Daniel W. Smith, in: ANGELAKI – Journal for the Theoretical Humanities, Volume 5, Number 3, December 2000, p. 67.

17 Friedrich Schiller , Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, Letter XIX, trans. Elizabeth M Wilkinson and Leonard Ashley Willoughby,, Access: 7-19-2011.

18 Friedrich Schiller, Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, Letter XX, trans. Elizabeth M Wilkinson and Leonard Ashley Willoughby,, Access: 7-19-2011.

19 Gilles Deleuze (1994), Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, New York: Columbia University Press, p. 28.

20 Gilles Deleuze/Fèlix Guattari (2000), Anti-Oedipus – Capitalism and Schizophrenia I, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 19.

21 Jacques Rancière (2010), The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcomes, trans. Steven Corcoran, in: Dissensus – On Politics and Aesthetics, New York: Continuum, p. 117.