Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 11, 2000
Dorothea Olkowski Gilles Deleuze and the Ruin of Representation Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. 310 pp.; 10 b/w ills. Paper $18.95 (0520216938)

Foucault once stated that the 20th century would one day be called Deleuzian, citing Gilles Deleuze’s profound ability to theorize radical change on the ontological level, beyond the restricting epistemological logic of hierarchic, organic thought that has dominated philosophical and semiotic discourse since the Enlightenment. Although Deleuze’s groundbreaking work with Felix Guattari—specifically Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus—and such terms as “rhizomatics,” “deterritorialization,” the “body-without-organs,” and the “war machine” have become increasingly common buzzwords in recent critical attempts to rethink the ideology of the image, the French philosopher has been significantly ignored by feminists, particularly in comparison to Freudian and Marxian counterparts Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser.

This oversight makes Dorothea Olkowski’s brilliant new study all the more welcome. Her rigorous analysis of Deleuze (specifically of his re-reading of Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution and Matter and Memory in Repetition and Difference and Bergsonism) allows Olkowski to exploit an alternative philosophical trajectory that challenges what Derrida calls the phallogocentrism (i.e. the mutually reinforcing transcendental signifiers of the phallus and logos which co-constitute the metaphysics of presence) of much contemporary thought. For Olkowski, Deleuze brings about what Michele Montreley called the ruin of representation—that is, of the static, hierarchically-ordered structures of time and space that make phallogocentrism possible—in order to facilitate the creation of new modes of life and thought. Theirs is a practical philosophy in the Spinozist sense, focusing on specific practices in the sense of this woman in this particular situation, this I, this sexuality, this oppression, this site of creation and transformation. A key artistic practice for Olkowski’s agenda is Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document, which she sees as a performative process through which the ruin of representation may be carried out.

Representation is a necessary target for feminists because it is complicit with an authority structure—specifically white, liberal, and patriarchal—that sees nature as fixed and immutable, guaranteeing a hierarchical order that roots representation and truth in binary oppositions such as self/other, male/female and center/margin, each privileging one-half of the dialectical divide at the expense of the Other. Such binaries enable and regulate the patriarchal logic of difference, so that any opposition to its oppressive framing of identity always reinforces the status quo because it necessarily takes place on its prevailing structural terms. For Olkowski, any shift in the logic of the dominant must also entail a change of ontology, so that difference is redefined not as a reiteration of a static Being, but rather as a fluid ontology of becoming, that which Deleuze calls a stuttering practice of change that causes the system to bifurcate and vibrate in perpetual disequilibrium. Only when philosophy refuses to erect new orders of fixed thought in place of old shibboleths can it be truly creative and transformative.

Not surprisingly, Olkowski finds Deleuze an important ally in feminism’s challenge to the Aristotelian model of organic representation, which is organized around conventional structures of identity, opposition, analogy, and resemblance. Drawing specifically upon Bergson, Spinoza, and Nietzsche, Deleuze frees difference from these organic hierarchies of representation (which he labels the molar state machinic apparatus) by making it monstrous. Instead of rooting difference in a static model of the same, Deleuze harnesses it to a nomadic movement of becoming (the molecular). Deleuze tears representation from its center (the identity of the concept) by focusing less on philosophical idealism—rooted in Platonic Forms or Hegel’s Absolute—than on the distorting, dislocating practices of bodily forces or events, that instead privilege individual experience and sense as active passions. The result is that stable representational structures are deterritorialized as wandering distributions of assemblages—ruled by destratifying lines of flight whose only form consists of connections and successions, speeds and slownesses—creating a plurality of intensities. Such intensities are constituted by difference. Far from defining itself in relation to a fixed norm or episteme, this difference refers only to still other differences, creating an ever-increasing proliferation of heterogeneity. Because these assemblages have a plurality of centers, they allow the individual to recast power less as a dictatorial hierarchy of static structures than as a rhizome of creative potential. The possibility is of new social and political institutions not yet envisioned by current democratric (read: patriarchal) practices.

Following Deleuze and Bergson, Olkowski calls such assemblages a multiplicity. Multiplicity is an important component in Bergson’s ontology, for it saves him from thinking in the dialectical, binary terms of Hegel’s One and Multiple, in which the movement of the One (Being) into its opposite (non-Being) is seen as an external difference in degree. Bergson instead calls for “difference-as-multiplicity” in which the image (itself a multiplicity) can be read as a fugitive, asignifying figure instead of an intellectualized sign attached to a representational code of signification. Bergson distinguished between two kinds of multiplicity immanent to the One. The first is represented by space. It is a multiplicity of exteriority, simultaneity, juxtaposition, and order. It measures quantitative differentiation as actual differences in degree. The second multiplicity appears in and as pure duration. It is an internal multiplicity of succession, heterogeneity, and qualitative discrimination. It is a virtual and continuous multiplicity that cannot be reduced to numbers. Instead it encompasses difference in kind. In simpler terms, this second multiplicity takes the form of ontological (or creative) memory that exists in pure duration. Virtual and actual, subject and object, are no longer posited as “inside vs outside,” but as attributes of interiority, qualified by this internal process of differentiation. Being can thus be said to differ with itself internally and transform itself through creative affirmation.

If difference is defined by Bergson as movement, then it actually unfolds—i.e. moves from virtual to actual, memory to action—through duration itself. It is, by its very nature, a matter of time (a question of time, as well as matter-as-time), but an incommensurable, nonlinear temporality. Time is the process through which the multiplicity divides and differentiates itself creatively. For Bergson, the imbrication of the temporal slippages between virtual and actual, past and future, is paramount given the nature of the multiplicity, for duration is already fractured by difference‹albeit a difference defined by repetition rather than linearity.

Olkowski argues that this virtual multiplicity is accessed in the act of perception, in the interval between a received stimulus and the body’s executed movement, i.e. in the gap between excitation and reaction. As stimuli excite the body, the organism draws upon its reservoir of virtual memories in the form of recollections. Some responses are purely automatic, whereby habit or custom resurrects images of past perceptions and places them in a chain of thought, much like an automatic response or chain reaction of cause and effect. Far from being creative, such memory-habits reinforce preconstituted representations by harnessing memory to hierarchically-ordered actions and identities. However, other memories never become active: they literally remain virtual realities uncontaminated by representation. It is in this passive synthesis of memory as pure duration—as a collapsing of past, present, and future into a form of incommensurable time—that Olkowski finds her catalyst for difference as a truly creative evolution. The perceptual interval between stimulus and response thus opens up a crack in time where memory is harnessed as pure becoming, as pure difference, what Olkowski calls the being of becoming.

Olkowski theorizes a sexual difference no longer tethered to memory as repression, to memory as a desire for lost plenitude (i.e. as lack); instead (and in stark contrast to the Freud-Lacan paradigm) sexual memory becomes a manifestation of desire as pure creativity. Eros is now to be derived from Bergsonian Mnemosyne, from the ontological unconscious. Because it is also pure difference in kind, virtual as well as infinite, Eros can produce a heterogeneous pleasure in and for itself. Deleuze and Bergson’s ruin of representation thereby also marks the death of Freud’s pleasure principle as a return to psychic equilibrium, for far from binding difference (through cathexis) onto the stable, active synthesis of the reality principle; desire is instead deterritorialized as pure affirmation, a qualitative, durational mechanism that taps into memory in its most creative, contracted state. The ruin of representation is also the ruin of the phallus as the privileged linguistic signifier.

While Olkowski’s book is not an easy read and demands careful exegesis, she unpacks the complexities of Deleuze’s practical philosophy with subtlety and considerable flair. It should become required reading in critical feminist circles as well as art history and visual theory departments. My one quibble is that while her use of Mary Kelly’s work as a direct enactment of the ruin of representation is both apt and well argued, it grounds the discussion in a dated (1970s) aesthetic discourse. Moreover, Deleuze’s ontological re-reading of difference as duration is far more expressive when applied to art forms that themselves move in different multiplicities of time and space, namely film and video. A chapter on digital media or recent developments in projected video (Diana Thater’s Deleuze-inspired work, for example) would have expanded the discussion in terms of current, duration-inspired practice. As it stands, Olkowski on film should be well worth waiting for.

Colin Gardner
University of California, Santa Barbara