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 (#)

First, a strict spatial partitioning: the closing of the town and its outlying districts, a prohibition to leave the town on pain of death … On the appointed day, everyone is ordered to stay indoors: it is forbidden to leave on pain of death. … Each family will have made its own provisions; but, for bread and wine, small wooden canals are set up between the street and the interior of the houses, thus allowing each person to receive his ration without communicating with the suppliers and other residents; meat, fish and herbs will be hoisted up into the houses with pulleys and baskets. If it is absolutely necessary to leave the house, it will be done in turn, avoiding any meeting. Only the intendants, syndics and guards will move about the streets and also, between the infected houses, from one corpse to another…

—Michel Foucault, “Panopticism” (##)

Not quite the end of the seventeenth century, but an eerie similarity. Terrorism as the modern plague. A total, city-wide discipline, but updated for our societies of control. Justified or no, haunting in the extreme …

Literature’s business model explained, with special reference to the age of the Internet | Boing Boing

What is particularly crucial to understand is that books were not dragged kicking and screaming into each new area of capitalism. Books not only are part and parcel of consumer capitalism, they virtually began it. They are part of the fuel that drives it. 

In the history of shop design, it is bookstores, strangely enough, that were the precursors of supermarkets. They, alone of all types of shop, made use of shelves that were not behind counters, with the goods arranged for casual browsing, and for what was not yet called self-service.

Exquisite timing, this article, since I free-sampled about twenty books from Amazon last night. I’m not quite sure I agree, that books drive capitalism, unless one approaches the phenomena with a requisite complexity:

Capitalism tends toward a threshold of decoding that will destroy the socius in order to make it a body without organs and unleash the flows of desire on this body as a deterritorialized field. (#)

Yes, something like that … books, information as desire, and desire as that which builds up at the edges and overflows. 

Literature’s business model explained, with special reference to the age of the Internet | Boing Boing


“From Sovereignty to Ethopoiesis: Literature, Aesthetics, and New Forms of Life,” The Comparatist 36 (2012): 86-106.

My article in The Comparatist is finally out. It is essentially a distillation of the methodological argument of my dissertation, though stripped of all the particular literary contexts with which it is developed there. It shifts the scene slightly, and focuses on the question of “sovereignty” that appears in Foucault’s early writings on literature, a concept he shares with Derrida, and that both take from Bataille. I highly recommend the rest of the articles in the issue as well.

The essay traces what becomes of this idea as it evolves into “the final Foucault,” where ethics is related to treating being as a work of art. In it, I also try and distinguish the specific discourse of “literature” from an aesthetic function that often, though not always, resides within it. A passage, not random:

Considering the domains of archaeology, genealogy, and ethics, this aesthetics would be defined by the virtual production of new subjects of enunciation in discourse around which practices can be actualized as new forms of life.

Emphasis original, &c.

This is one of my favorite paintings; I even have a nice reproduction in my study. Famously epigraphed* in Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (#), I find it somewhat ironic the MOMA generally doesn’t have it on display.

The MOMA does, however, have a bit of text to go alongside it on their website, text with which I take some minor umbrage. It reads the work neatively, seeing the image brimming with “looming menace,” the birds “shackled” to the crank. 

I’ve always seen it as something of the opposite of menacing, as a statement on the inherently mechanical aspect not just of the natural world, but of human beings themselves. A hard truth for some, maybe, but one I find quite liberating to embrace …

(via MoMA | The Collection | Paul Klee. Twittering Machine (Die Zwitscher-Maschine). 1922)

*yes, I used “epigraph” as a verb and to describe an image