Francis Bacon & The Problem of Affect: Deleuze, Proust & Representation – Josh Mcloughlin

Josh Mcloughlin is co-founder & editor at Sonder.

Francis Bacon & The Problem of Affect: Deleuze, Proust & Representation

In Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, philosopher Gilles Deleuze seeks to read paintings in affective terms, to grasp the body as a present-in-itself. But can affects ever satisfactorily moor a body in this way, even if that body is, as Deleuze theorises here, ‘a body without organs’? In fact, more generally speaking, isn’t Deleuze’s desire to side-step ‘representational logic’ – if we take that phrase to mean not just the metaphysical tradition of presence but also the legacy of that way of thinking, which includes its most vehement critics – just another recapitulation of the ‘determination of being as presence’ along a new axis which places speech-body-affect in opposition to writing-language-representation? Deleuze is, after all, propounding ‘sensation [which] is not qualitative or qualified, but has only intensive reality, which no longer determines itself with representational elements, but ‘allotropic variations’. In other words, there is a search for a presence or ‘reality’, at once infinitely variable and singularly graspable, outside of meditation – or, to put it another way, immediately.

Deleuze seeks ‘this state of the body ‘before’ organic representation’, using Antonin Artaud’s notion of the ‘body without organs’ (‘no mouth, no tongue, no teeth’) to posit ‘a whole non-organic life’. But isn’t this trying to disavow the fact that ‘wholen[ess]’ is really an assemblage of differences by the banishing of, as Deleuze says, ‘forms [which] are contingent or accessory’? Deleuze seeks a unity without difference – and the specific unity sought after here is that of the body, as Deleuze says, ‘when sensation is linked to the body in this way, it ceases to be representative and becomes real’.

Lauren Berlant’s recent work has shown that this ‘link[age]’ of bodies and affects is far from immutable. Even from within Deleuzian thought itself this self-present affective body admits of its reliance (its supplementarity, in Derridean terms) upon that which is outside. For Deleuze, ‘a body affects other bodies, or is affected by other bodies; it is this capacity for affecting and being affected that also defines a body in its individuality’. The plenitude of the body, its ‘individuality’ relies fundamentally on a supplement: another body to affect or by which to be affected. Despite Deleuze’s attempt to ground the body ‘before […] representation’, his language belies how the body cannot ever be ‘individual’ in the sense of possessing full (affective) presence. Indeed, in his reading of Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X  (1953), Deleuze arguably lets slip the always-already deferred and dispersed nature of affective intensity when he says that ‘in fact, it is the whole painting that is hystericized’. The hysterical dynamism or hysterical texture Deleuze uses to ‘impose [the] presence’ of the hysterical body, in other words, is not reducible to the body alone, and is what Berlant (reading and borrowing from an early theorist of affect, Roland Barthes) calls an atmospheric ‘ongoingness’ which threatens to unseat the body as the sole progenitor or centre of affect. To put it another way, the hysterical affect which is legible seems to escape, to leak out of, to be, in any case, elaborated apart from the body even as it appears to cluster around a given subject. Once that relation is problematized, everything which is founded on it – which in Deleuze’s case includes the present-body or the body-as-present (‘before […] representation’), but also includes more generally the Hegelian Idea, the unified subject, and so forth  – can be questioned.

Further on, Deleuze describes ‘a scream that survives the mouth’ in Bacon’s hysteric portraiture. But isn’t this a perfect example of what Berlant calls ‘aesthetic [the sensible, the scream] self-dispossession [the scream which dispossesses the body of its own sensation]’? In this case, what Deleuze terms ‘a smile beyond and beneath the face’, far from rescuing the body from representation by accounting fully for its presence, actually discloses how divergent affective resonances (the scream/smile) cannot be circumscribed by or grounded in their the attachment to the sensational body. Indeed, using Deleuze’s own vocabulary, we can say that the affective body is always (always-already) elaborated ‘beyond’ or ‘beneath’ – in any case outside of what Deleuze wants to call ‘the body itself’. Where Deleuze claims that in Bacon’s work ‘the pure presence of the body becomes visible’, what is in fact the case is that it is the deferred and dispersed body which is rendered, wherein affectivity is not the sole property of a sensational body, but exists only in relation to that which is outside the body – whether that outside is other bodies, as Deleuze concedes, or the atmospheric ‘ongoingness’ mapped out by Berlant. In turn, the body can no longer been so to exist in and for ‘itself’, but must be viewed as enmeshed in intersubjectivity and a being (or affecting) in-the-world which robs it of the plenitude which Deleuze seeks to restore to it.

Later, when comparing painting to music, Deleuze says that the former is ‘lodged further up, where the body escapes from itself. But in escaping, the body discovers the materiality of which it is composed’. Music, on the other hand, says Deleuze, ‘find[s] [its] consistency elsewhere’. Yet this is exactly the state of the ‘sensational body’, both in general and in Bacon’s painting: whatever ‘materiality’ we read is elaborated ‘elsewhere’ and the only ‘consistency’ that body possesses is the unremitting interconnectedness in which it is engaged with other bodies and with the external diffusion of its affects. Martin Heidegger, in fact, discloses some of the non-corporeality (acorporeality? transcorporeality?) of affective intensity in his discussion of Van Gogh, in which the Dutch artist presents ‘[farming] equipment […] pervaded by uncomplaining worry as to the certainty of bread’. That ‘worry’, which we might at first assume ‘belongs’ to the woman who is the subject of the painting, is a foreboding affective resonance which extends outside of the body and ‘pervade[s]’ the world, and so cannot be thought of as ‘belonging’ to the body at all.

In literature, we find perhaps the supreme example of the divergence of affects and bodies in Marcel Proust’s epic study of affective memory: A la Recherche de temps perdu. The taste of the madeleine which triggers the narrator’s memoire involuntaire marks an interregnum between the body and its affects, affects which no longer rely on physicality for their presence: ‘I sensed that [the memory] was connected to the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it went infinitely beyond it, could not be of the same nature’. Later, the narrator remarks that, ‘after the destruction of things [and here we might include ‘bodies’ amongst such ‘things’] […] smell and taste remain for a long time’.      

If affects cannot be thought of as being moored to the body; or at least if the connection between body and affect cannot be said to be ineluctable, then a Deleuzian conception of the body ‘in itself’, grounded in and coterminous with its affects, is unsustainable. Just as Bacon’s paintings diffuse hysteria away from the body, in Proust affects continually undermine the authority and unity of the body they apparently point to; transporting the self to different times, places and emotional locales, calling up memories and invading the conscious the self with intense, involuntary emotion which is not reducible to the physicality of a body. Proust’s description of Giotto’s ‘Virtues and Vices of Padua’ seems to anticipate Berlant’s own vocabulary, whereby affective resonances seem detached from a bodily source: the pregnant girl communicates ‘without expressing in her face anything’ and ‘Envy […] might have had more of a particular expression of envy’. This chimes with what Berlant calls the ‘recessive aesthetic’, in which the legibility of affective presence lies not in bodily expression, but in atmospheric diffusion. Proust says elsewhere that ‘all the feelings we are made to experience by the joy or misfortune of a real person are produced in us only through the intermediary of an image of that joy or that misfortune’. Here Proust seems to suggest that affects are unmoored from bodies right from the start, even perhaps that representation is a prerequisite for affective experience of any kind. The idea that re-presentation forms the underlying structure of all presence was theorised by Jacques Derrida, and is the basis for his controversial claim that writing is a supplement to speech, not the other way around, as conventional thinking would have us believe. Proust, writing at the fin de siecle, before Derrida was born, seems to affirm the notion of textuality that his fellow Frenchman would go on to popularise within the academy during the course of the twentieth-century. Proust describes how the novelist could register and produce affective intensity even as he ‘abolishes real people’ because in ‘the apparatus of our emotions, the image [is] the only essential element’ – almost a direct antecedent to Derrida’s notorious proclamation: ‘il n’ya pas de hors-texte’ (‘there is no outside-text’).

Deleuze’s aim of grasping a body outside of representation, then, is a direct challenge to mid-twentieth century theories of the fundamentality of representation and the idea that pretty much everything is subject to a representational logic. But this attempt to sidestep the problem of representation and presence founders when we properly scrutinize the relationship between bodies and the logic governing the affects that supposedly locate them. Whenever affects are legible, they seem continually to outlive or else elude their ostensible ‘subject’. The ‘logic of sensation’, as Deleuze calls it, is, in fact, a peeling apart, a sort of tectonic shifting, an irresistible unmooring, which conditions the relation of physical entities and emotional resonances as always-already deferred, and ensures that the project to grasp an ‘interminable presence’ remains frustrated.



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