Deleuze, Art, Cairns


In his essay on art, “What Children Say,” one becomes engrossed by Deleuze’s argument on the nature of art, the manner in which he opens up the concept by comparing it to the mappings of intensive space by children, by his invocations of Little Hans and to Deligny’s autistic children as the paradigmatic cases of artistic creation. It is, as his wont, subversive and brilliant, and this engrossment progresses apace until, right at the moment of giving a definition of art, one runs into a brick wall—or rather, a stone cairn:

Art is defined, then, as an impersonal process in which the work is composed somewhat like a cairn, with stones carried in by different voyagers and beings in becoming (rather than ghosts) [devenants plutôt que revenants] that may or may not depend on a single author. (#)

It is a typical Deleuzian moment, a typical philosophical moment even. Just as one is about to receive a definition, a statement that clarifies and distills the journey through the text, one is held up short, puzzled and perplexed: art is a cairn? Why? How? What is the connection to mappings and intensities, to children and ghosts?

These moments, though frustrating, are productive; they remind us to not have masters, to become beholden to no singular text. Yet, the mystery of the cairn remains, stubborn and opaque and tugging gently at the back of your mind every time you work on the concept of art, of Deleuze. A rather more than cursory round of research yielded nothing; following Deleuze’s footnotes, usually a winner, cross-referencing other works on Deleuze, even google books (at least when I first searched it) yielded nothing. Researching cairns, I puzzled through analogies such as the work of art is like a grave? a memorial? the upturned earth of a battle? They all resonated, but amounted to nothing.

Nothing, that is, until I spoke with a colleague of mine whose family hails from Scotland. And he told me that the custom is, as one walks about the countryside, that you every time you pass a cairn, you pick up a rock and add it to the top of the cairn. This practice, the living, communal practice of the cairn, was the key. The cairn was not just an inert marker of the past, but a living relationship with the present; it was people interacting with their environment, creating their own history through a collective memory encoded not merely in the exchange of words, but the perpetual work of moving stones: the cairn as assemblage.

The work of art is like a cairn because the work of art is not the object molded by the heroic subject of artistic creation, but an expression of the impersonal forces of accretion and collective pressure. The reference to ghosts also begins to make more sense; the work is not haunted per se, but the haecceities of the past interacting with the present; an impersonal, but non-metaphorical, exchange with the dead, indeed the creation of an assemblage that creates that past itself, but is also created by the subtle pressures it left behind, even over the span of hundreds or thousands of years: modern artists leaving their signatures on caves filled with prehistoric paintings. Cairns remain in a perpetual becoming; they may have a single author, but what defines them as works of art—what defines any work of art—is not the subjectivity of its origin, but the becoming which it produces.

*Thanks to Calum Matheson at the University of Pittsburgh. Picture courtesy of Wikimedia contributor Otter (#)