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This is a draft: please do not cite without author's permission


a version of this review was published as "Rearguard Action." Report on "Immanent Choreographies: Deleuze and Neo-aesthetics" (Tate Modern, 21-22 September 2001).  Radical Philosophy 111 (January/February 2002): 51-53.

A Review of 'Immanent Choreographies: Deleuze and Neo-Aesthetics'
Tate Modern, 21-22 September 2001


This conference, organized by Tate Modern and Staffordshire University, brought together an impressive array of speakers from the UK (such as Alexander García Düttmann and Peter Hallward), Europe (Robert Fleck and Pascale Criton), the USA (Dorothea Olkowski and John Rajchman), and Australia (Ian Buchanan), including artists and curators (such as Christina Caprioli and Andres Kurg) as well as academics. Collectively, these speakers (and others, whose presentations will be the focus of this report) were gathered 'to explore the power of Deleuzian neo-aesthetics, and also its limits.'

Yet in the course of the event, few speakers had much to say about aesthetics, and fewer still seemed prepared to outline what might be meant by a Deleuzian 'neo-aesthetics.' Though overall there were many good and substantial presentations, generally the few that did attempt to relate Deleuze's philosophy explicitly to aesthetic theory or practice were the least satisfying. While this failure to meet the conference aim may not damn altogether the project of elaborating a Deleuzian (neo-)aesthetics, it does show that such a project is still in the rearguard of Deleuzianism.

Though one of Deleuze's over-riding philosophical aims was the attempt to go beyond dualisms of all kinds, the aesthetic criticism that imagines itself following Deleuze's footsteps is too often blighted by a proliferation of often remarkably Manichean dichotomies. These dichotomies (rhizome/arborescence, nomadism/State, and so on) are too easily applied rather mechanically to aesthetic material to produce a new set of judgements of taste serving to justify what are in the end fairly traditional (avant-gardist) conceptions of art. By contrast, within political philosophy, more sophisticated analyses have warned of the dangers of rhizomatic formations and the both suicidal and homicidal potential of the nomad.

These dangers, and indeed the dangers of dichotomies themselves, are only all the more apparent in the aftermath of the events of September 11th (and this conference very much took place in the shadow of those fallen twin towers). Perhaps it is simply more difficult to actualise such concerns within aesthetic thought or practice, or at least to do so without again reducing aesthetics to politics. On the other hand, one member of the audience proposed that the conference gather in special session to discuss the impact of events in the United States, with the aim of formulating a message of support to be sent to the artistic community of New York. I am not sure whether or not this session eventually took place--at the time set aside for its realization, along with the majority of the other conference participants I was outside the auditorium, taking advantage of the wine reception laid on by the Tate--but the gesture, while understandable, appeared to establish a debate whose outcome was already known, and a reduction of politics to solidarity with aesthetes.

Of the presentations whose focus was on the aesthetic, David Rodowick's was among the most interesting, though even here this focus was ultimately displaced, in that Rodowick's concern was with the philosophical work that film might accomplish. Taking examples from Godard, Chantal Akerman, and Agnès Varda, the paper aimed both to clarify the concept of 'conceptual personae' introduced by Deleuze and Félix Guattari's What is Philosophy? and to argue that film, too, could express conceptual personae as much as it also presents us with (what Deleuze and Guattari term) aesthetic figures and psychosocial types. Thus Rodowick argued that in the play between diegetic and non-diegetic forms of presentation and narration, film could establish two differential series of 'virtual intercessors' and so express the desire to construct new forms of existence, and the concepts appropriate to new planes of becoming. The force of film lies not in its representational qualities, but in the way in which it can establish a disjunction between two sources of enunciation, and so point to the unthinkable that lies beyond representation.

A Deleuzian aesthetics, then, might revolve around efforts to indicate the limits of representation on the one hand, and to produce new forms of experience on the other. As Astrid Söderberg Widding also pointed out, film theory has been particularly obsessed with the question of representation (no doubt because of film's apparent fidelity to the real) and with the spectator's (psychic) identification with either the camera or the characters portrayed. Ideas of continuity, seamlessness, and recognition have been imposed upon a medium whose technical characteristics (such as montage and added sound) are discontinuous and disjunctive. But in what sense can film (or any other art) serve not only as a critique of representation, but also as a medium in which something new is constituted or created? A Deleuzian aesthetics might rescue the idea of creativity from either intentionalism or finalism, both of which reduce what is created to that creation's conditions of possibility.

Precisely this question of the emergence of the new was a thread that linked many of the conference papers. It is a question that takes on different aspects depending upon the field within which it is asked: in aesthetics, it invokes creativity; in philosophy, conceptualisation; in politics, constitution. Everywhere, however, it must also be a question of organisation; specifically, what is at issue (if creation is not to be reduced to determination) is self-organisation.

In this vein, Manuel De Landa applied concepts taken from complexity theory and examples taken from architecture, and from computer-aided architectural design, to consider the conditions necessary to generate viable self-evolving and self-sustaining structures. These conditions are, he argued: a population of diverse forms (and so community has to precede individuality); intensive modulations (and so folding takes priority over metric extension or division); and topological multiplicity (for which spatial resemblance is replaced by a wealth of possible actualisations). Essentially, then, De Landa recasts Deleuzianism as a form of non-linear science, and chooses non-linearity over linearity at every opportunity. He articulates this project with verve and clarity. His presentation was a breathtaking combination of simplicity and ambition: if these three relatively simple conditions explain self-evolving structures, then they also explain all structure, in that what is taken to be formed identity is simply a partial (and so misrecognised) image of a process that is nothing but the continuous self-organising flow of matter.

Yet to equate mountain ranges, as the product of flows of magma, and thunderstorms, as flows of wind and moisture, though they may be topologically the same, is also to pass over the question of (metric, or linear) scale. Changes in extension (a linear property), such as doubling all the physical dimensions of a building or bridge, can have catastrophic effects upon the structure as a whole, as the pressure on the load-bearing elements may increase exponentially and the whole edifice collapse. Surely the same is also true elsewhere: doubling the size of a political grouping also has reciprocal intensive effects, for instance, and the self-organisation of a political cell must differ from the self-organisation of the multitude. So either all properties are in fact non-linear, or the relation between extension and intensity in the production of the new is more complicated than De Landa suggests; in either case, the dualism on which his presentation rested seems problematic.

But, more fundamentally, is the opposition between creativity and identity also not a misleading dualism? Alain Badiou and Iain Mackenzie both underlined the importance of creativity for Deleuze's political thought. For Badiou, what he called the Nietzchean maxim of creation is fundamental to Deleuze's politics. This maxim could be parsed in terms of three ethical maxims: that we must elude control (and so seek a new negation); that we must precipitate events (and so a new affirmation); and restore a belief in the world (and so a new subjectivity). Though this is not a politics <U>per se</U> (as politics, Badiou argued, is always historical, whereas the maxim of creation sought a liberation from history), it is a politics of art, science, and philosophy, each of which are called upon to be creative, producing respectively affects, functions, and concepts, in order to create a 'new thing.'

Mackenzie, in what was perhaps the conference's most challenging and rigorous paper, enumerated the necessary features of such autonomous creativity, which he identified as a post-Kantian 'pure critique.' Pure critique must have no constraints, and must do away with any founding categories of the socio-political (because they too must be subject to critique). Whereas partial critique shares its terrain with what it criticizes (and so allows that terrain to escape critique), and whereas the terrain of total critique is defined (and so constrained) by its negation of what it criticizes, pure critique is the fully immanent art of constructing altogether new conceptions of the socio-political. Pure critique constructs its own terrain, and does away with this social to construct a new socius.

In discussion, both Badiou and Mackenzie acknowledged that this absolute autonomy might be impossible and even undesirable. Far, then, from De Landa's discovery of self-organisation at every corner and every turn, this panel emphasised the constraints that foil the desire for autonomy. Moreover, in so far as there is no linear continuum between constraint and autonomy (in other words, in that the greatest reterritorialization is always found on the line of greatest deterritorialization), there could be no comfort in 'almost' achieving creation, in structures that were 'almost' self-organising. Rosi Braidotti instead suggested the potentially productive notion of 'sustainability' (and so 'sustainable' becomings), which has the virtue of not being defined by the notion of a lack, or failure. Perhaps this is the direction in which we should be going, to consider first above all how to maintain created structures and collectivities.

The question of the feasibility or sustainability of Deleuzian creativity is, perhaps, also the question of revolution for our times. The problem is the way in which the power to which Deleuzianism points is always so close to the limits to that power of which Deleuze warns. And though 'Immanent Choreographies' provided no answers to this problem of the entanglement of power with its limits, of self-organisation with control, it posed it in the starkest of terms.



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