[Essay] Bacon’s Hysteria, van Gogh’s Shoes: Deleuze and the Problem of Affect — Josh Mcloughlin

In Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (1981), 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’ (my emphasis). In other words, there is a search for a presence or ‘reality’, at once infinitely variable and singularly graspable, outside of meditation.

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 the ‘whole’ is really an assemblage of differences by banishing, 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 puts it: ‘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. Rather, the painting’s hysteria is what Berlant (reading and borrowing from Roland Barthes, himself an early theorist of affect) calls an atmospheric ‘ongoingness’. The dispersed and extended hysteria is not anchored in the body, and so 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 relate to a given subject. Once that relation is problematized, Deleuze’s body ‘before […] representation’ is profoundly called into question.

Further on, Deleuze describes ‘a scream that survives the mouth’ in Bacon’s hysteric portraiture. This is a striking example of what Berlant calls ‘aesthetic self-dispossession’? The body is dispossessed of the scream—a sensible, that is to say, aesthetic quality—that escapes the confines of the mouth. 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 attachment to the sensational body. Indeed, using Deleuze’s own vocabulary, we can say that the affective body is always elaborated ‘beyond’ or ‘beneath’ – in any case outside of what Deleuze wants to call ‘the body itself’. Deleuze claims that, in Bacon’s work, ‘the pure presence of the body becomes visible’. In fact, it is the deferred and dispersed body which is rendered; and Bacon’s paintings insist, with some violence, that affects are not the sole property of a sensational body, but exist in relation to the outside—whether that outside is other bodies, as Deleuze concedes, a Barthesian atmospheric ‘ongoingness’ that connects the body to the world, or the primordial involvement in the world of Martin Heidegger’s notion of Dasein. Seen in this way, the body can no longer be seen to exist in and for ‘itself’, but must be viewed as enmeshed in intersubjectivity and a being-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’ the body possesses is its unremitting interconnectedness with other bodies and with the external diffusion of its affects. Heidegger, in fact, discloses some of the non-corporeality (acorporeality? transcorporeality?) of affective intensity in ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ (1950), during his discussion of van Gogh’s paintings of peasant life:

“A pair of peasant shoes and nothing more. And yet…From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles stretches the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quite gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. The equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining worry as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-withing-self.”

Heidegger locates the foci of a range of affects firmly outside the body/subject: ‘loneliness’ lurks not in the peasant’s mind but in ‘the field-path as evening falls’. It is not the hungry worker but their shoes, their ‘equipment’ that is ‘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. In other words, here is an affect not ‘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: À la Recherche de temps perdu (1913) The taste of the madeleine which triggers the narrator’s memoire involuntaire marks an interregnum between the body and its affects, a state wherein affects no longer rely on physicality for their origin or elaboration: ‘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’, […] smell and taste remain for a long time’.      

If affects are not moored to the body; or if the connection between body and affect is not 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 escape the authority of the things and the bodies they apparently point back to. 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 is saturated with ‘envy’ despite offering to ‘particular expression’ of it and, in fact, ‘without expressing […] anything’ at all. 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, perhaps even that representation is a prerequisite for affective experience of any kind. The idea that representation undermines and underlies 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 prefigure the notion of textuality that Derrida would go on to popularise in the later 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’. In a striking parallel, Proust offers 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 is a direct challenge to mid-twentieth century theories of the primacy of representation and representational logic. But this attempt to sidestep the problem of representation and presence founders when we properly scrutinise the relationship between bodies and the logic governing the affects that supposedly locate them. Whenever affects are legible, they seem continually to outlive or elude their ostensible ‘subject’. Opposed to representational logic is Deleuze’s own ‘logic of sensation’. But in Bacon’s hysterical painting and Proust’s literature of memory, sensation itself works to peel apart affects and bodies, unmooring physical entities and emotional resonances, and ensures that Deleuze’s attempt to grasp an ‘interminable presence’ remains frustrated.


Josh Mcloughlin is co-founder and editor of New Critique.

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