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Ches Smith, Mat Maneri, Craig Taborn: The Bell at the Western Front

Last night at the Western Front, Ches Smith’s trio (with him on drum kit and vibraphone, Mat Maneri on electrified viola, and Craig Taborn on piano) offered two sets of provocative, engrossing and powerful music drawn from The Bell, their recent album issued by ECM. Each set consisted of extended suites of Smith’s compositions; his writing practice sounds to me typically to involve a logic of serial disjunction, assembling each piece from layered rhythmic and melodic cells—emerging in the recording as fractal loops, insistent frittered ostinato, reminiscent at times of Steve Reich’s music for percussion—conjoined in distinct, contrasting sections. In performance, those assemblages—close to coruscating, unfixed fragments of wordless art songs—link up, often with turn-on-a-dime jump cuts, to produce a compelling admixture of meditative resonance and hard-driving, impactful disturbance. The music feels both openly improvisational and exactingly through-composed, as it moves from the intimate lyricism of chamber-jazz to—I’m not exaggerating—bone-shaking heavy-metal thrash. The first set emerged as a single suite, gradually ramping, like “I Think” and “Wacken Open Air” do on the recording, toward a propulsive, drum-driven wall of sound; the recording itself is quieter, with the drums mixed down a little, while in performance Ches Smith will build a thunderous and gleeful abandon. (I don’t know which compositions were played in which set, although I think they began with “The Bell”; they may have played extended version of the album tracks in order, since the second set—which featured two more compact suites instead of one—closed with “For Days,” the final cut on the recording.) Craig Taborn’s lines concentrated principally on repeated motifs, either locked chords or looped shards of melody, but he also provided an insistence, a fierceness, that introduced a provocative and—if this is the right word—actively contemplative energy into the potential stasis or fixity in such unwavering recurrence to push the sound forward. Gilles Deleuze names a philosophical version of this practice, simply, the imagination: “The role of the imagination, or the mind which contemplates in its multiple and fragmented states, is to draw something new from repetition, to draw difference from it. . . .  Between a repetition which never ceases to unravel itself and a repetition which was deployed and conserved for us in the space of repetition, there was difference, . . . the imaginary. Difference inhabits repetition” (Difference and Repetition 76). Mat Maneri’s contributions on viola either established electronically-enhanced bass drones, or, more frequently, negotiated the interstices of upper-register tonality, pulling at the spaces between notes, microtonally fraying and re-stitching phrases. All told, it was a truly powerful gig, the trio collectively laying down a spate of compelling trajectories through variegated tensions and multiplicities: overlapping lines that attend on, that sound, I’d say, the “barely intervallic” collisions and differences inherent in present-tense collaboration, to grant an audience moments of shared, unsettled, and imaginatively rich listening.
Gilles Deleuze. Difference and Repetition. 1968.
Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia UP,
1994. Print.

My Poem of Ruins

(In February, I lectured on T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land for Arts One, a first-year undergraduate humanities program at the University of British Columbia. Video versions of that lecture, which is an overview of the poem with an eye to the course theme of the “monster in the mirror,” can be accessed here. With my colleague Jon Beasley-Murray, I also discussed the poem, along with J. M. Coetzee’s novel Foe, in an audio podcast, that can be found here. This brief essay is an attempt to come to some personal terms with a poem I’ve been reading for over thirty years.)
Amid the iterative crescendo, the torrent of abstruse and fractured references with which The Waste Landbuilds toward formal closure (citing Arthurian legend, the Book of Isaiah, nursery rhyme, Dante Alighieri with Arnaut Daniel, the Pervigilium Veneris, Gerard de Nerval, Thomas Kyd, and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, almost all at once), one line stands out, anomalously clinging to a reflexive, lyric plainness and to a rhythmic heft that would soon come to characterize much of Eliot’s nascent liturgical poetry: 
                                             I sat upon the shore
         Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
         Shall I at least set my lands in order?
         London Bridge is falling down
            falling down falling down
         Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
         Quando fiam ceu chelidon—O swallow swallow
         Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
         These fragments I have shored against my ruins
         Why the Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
         Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
                  Shantih  shantih  shantih
 “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”: for me, and I’m sure for many late readers of Eliot’s poem, this line offers without too much irony a small key to the interpretative challenges of The Waste Land’s broken whole; it encapsulates, with as much directness as the poem can manage, its difficult and seductive music. Not that this line stands alienated from any cultural intertext, as some nonce moment of romantic originality; I hear echoes of the autumnal decrepitude of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, where the leafless and bird-abandoned branches of a deciduous tree – themselves part of a sustained conceit, an ingrown metaphor comparing the poet’s aging aspect – are compared to “[b]are ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” Eliot’s line offers an instance of what the poem elsewhere names “that Shakespeherian rag,” when the allusive backbone of poetic canon begins to shred itself; the pentameter-based sureness of the sonnet is not lost, but starts to give way – with its missing end-stop and outriding unstressed final syllable – to its own audible ruin, shored up but crumbling. In a way, the line stands as a next-to-last gasp, a feint of vestigial originality, the expiration of the uninspired: Eliot briefly, nostalgically culling one more time, out of time, what Ezra Pound had called a “penty” lyricism from the shards of his trans-Atlantic English.
         There is also an internal iteration, a dying echo: the line picks up and semantically retools the word “shore” from the mention of the fisher-king just above it. The western shores of Albion, the Atlantic verges of both promise and twilight, figure the sea both as mortal desert – the saline whirlpool picking the bones of the Phoenician sailor; the stale sea of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, water everywhere but not a drop to drink – and as creative protoplasm – the transformative bath of Ariel’s song, the pearls that were his eyes. To shore fragments against one’s ruin is both to beach the shards and remainders of self and culture, but also to shore up, to secure, to gather, and even to culture the scattered pearls of what might be left of Western European wisdom. What gets shored here on the poem’s formal terminus, at its ragged edge, is also subjective, personal: whoever this speaker is – and it’s tempting, given the scattered references to Eliot’s troubled private life in the poem (like the shoreline at Margate mentioned in “The Fire Sermon”), to identify this last “I” not as a persona, not some overdetermined Tiresias, but with Eliot himself, speaking candidly – whoever this speaker is in this particular line, he or she links those ruins directly with subjective agency, a reflexive capacity in language identified with a moment of intervention, of productive action: the lyric first-person staking its claim (“I at least”) as a speech act, in the iterative stuff of the poem: “my ruins.”
In a poem that appears to declare the exhaustion of its own means, and of poetic means generally, this one line offers a tenuous but palpable moment of verbal surety, of measure. Readers come to The Waste Land in these late days, ninety years or more after its first publication in The Criterion, with a sense of trepidation, of being culturally intimidated. But I think this trepidation has been carried alongside the poem since the inclusion of the footnotes two months after that first appearance: what was ever left to say about a poem that tries to say too much, and knows it does, making its bed in its own overwhelmed and overwhelming wreckage? Not much. But what does remain, for me, what lets me make these ruins also mine, somehow habitable for me as a reader, is the poem’s pulse, its measure, that music. In a 1988 speechintroducing a celebratory reading of The Waste Land, Ted Hughes remarks on “the curious fact” that “this immensely learned, profound, comprehensive, allusive masterpiece is also a popular poem. And popular with the most unexpected audiences.” (I tend to trust Hughes on Eliot, pretty much on the strength of his recorded readings of Eliot’s poetry; his Yorkshire intonations, much more than Eliot’s mid-Atlantic accent, resonates for me in these lines.) Its accessibility as poetry, Hughes declares, rests on a reader’s capacity to listen to and to hear its cadences, as well as its deeper music(s): “this notoriously difficult work is wide open, in some way, to those who can hear it as a musical composition.” Early on in the poem’s critical reception, F. R. Leavis noted that the poem’s order is essentially musical rather than logical or thematic, so in this regard Hughes isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said before, but what he does reaffirm, for me, is the sustained immediacy – despite all the critical wear and tear – of Eliot’s “whisper music,” or what Hughes identifies as the poem’s “assemblage of human cries”:  
A woman drew her long black hair out tight 

And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down 
a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns 

                                        and exhausted wells.
Reminiscence and nostos, the pool of cultural memory, may be exhausted, fraught, depleted, but those voices still sing. And they don’t merely seem to sing; they do it. The poem doesn’t just thematize song, but aspires to it, to a condition of music. The iterative echolalia out of which the poem fabricates itself – drawn out in the eighteen-syllable last line of the passage above, which gesticulates toward its own extension, its excess – isn’t so much a set of traces or afterimages as it is a persistence, a choral sustain. Something like what Gilles Deleuze, thinking of late modernist composition, might have called an assemblage (though I’m sure this isn’t exactly what Hughes might have had in mind when he used the term). No matter how many times I come back to The Waste Land, I keep thinking that I can hear it. Still.
         A last note about Hughes, Eliot and – incidentally – me: in his speech, Hughes compares Eliot to what he transliterates from Gaelic as fili, a composer-bard. “Ideally,” Hughes says, the fili “carried the whole culture of the people. He was the curator and the re-animator of the inner life which held the people together and made them what they were.” Big boots for a late modern poet to step into, but boots that Hughes, a little extravagantly but appropriately, suggests that Eliot, with his Mallarméan ambitions to purify the dialect of the tribe (and which Hughes had echoed in his own acceptance of the laureateship), might fill. One possible Celtic etymology for my own last name is mac an filidh, “son of the fili.” Which means something like I might come after them, trying to find a few of their footprints.

Dead Paper

In an essay revised for the second edition of her Nomadic Subjects, Rosi Braidotti takes up the fraught question of men in feminism, somewhat ironically I’d say, by building on Michel Foucault’s concretizing of the conceptual, the “materiality of ideas”:
One cannot make an abstraction of the network of truth and power formations that govern the practice of one’s enunciation; ideas are sharp-edged discursive events that cannot be analyzed simply in terms of their propositional content. (264)
What this means, for Braidotti, is that
heterosexual men are lacking intellectually […] a reflection on their position in history. The politics of location is just not part of their genealogical legacy. They have not inherited a world of oppression and exclusion based on their sexed corporal being; they do not have the lived experience of oppression because of their sex. Thus most of them fail to grasp the specificity of feminism in terms of its articulation of theory and practice, of thought and life. (265)
The politics of sex and sexualities, for Braidotti, needs to account for the materiality of ideas, and to address and even to enact not merely propositional or conceptual empathies, but the interactive negotiation of differences, or better, of pluralities; her Deleuzian nomadism, sieved through Luce Irigaray, wants to work through an amalgam, an admixture, an assemblage of intellectual deference and embodied resistance to his “becoming-woman”:
For Irigaray, as for Deleuze, the subject is not a substance, but rather a process of negotiation between material and semiotic conditions that affect one’s embodied, situated self. In this perspective, subjectivity names the process that consists in stringing together—under the fictional unity of a grammatical I—different forms of active and reactive interaction with a resistance to these conditions. The subject is a process, made of constant shifts and negotiations between different levels of power and desire, constantly switching between willful choice and unconscious drives. (274)
This blend of situated excisions and unraveling sutures characterizes Braidotti’s repurposing of Deleuze, but what I’m hearing here also resonates with my current reading of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” for my Arts One class. I have to confess that I bristle – just as she appears to predict I might – at Braidotti’s foreclosed feminism, at my preemptive and summary exclusion from feminist critique by virtue of a generalized bifurcation of human sexual anatomy into a male-female antinomy, a division which, despite her philosophical pluralism, Braidotti still maintains. But I don’t want to appear to be a resentful, if privileged reader, grumpy about some area of gendered experience that he can’t finally appropriate or even access. And I do think Bradotti has a point: that sexual politics must emerge from materially succinct, and distinct, lived subject positions, to which we have incomplete access at best. (I am concerned, still, about the seemingly unimpeachable gender solidarity, however, that she continues to claim.) 
Rather than resentment, I want to suggest that this incompleteness, this dis-closure (as opposed to foreclosure) might be more productively understood as an unnamable and inassimilable source-point, a singularity, around which surges of differential and even creative energy might be said to accrete.  As a man in feminism, or at least in its sights, what I want is to think toward those gendered exclusions, those singularities, not to appropriate any vital differences – what makes other lives others – but to participate, even if only tangentially, in what Gilman characterizes as an economy of difference, what she calls (in the story and in her tract) work:
Those who object to women’s working . . . should remember that human labor is an exercise of faculty, without which we should cease to be human; that to do and to make not only gives deep pleasure, but is indispensible to healthy growth. Few girls today fail to manifest some signs of this desire for individual expression. (Women and Economics 157)
Labor – which she distinguishes from the “morbid, defective, irregular, diseased” and pathological work of human motherhood, the reduction of women to reproductive and domestic vessels (181) – is for Gilman essentially expressive, inasmuch as it entails an instrumental – that is to say, a poietic – and even causal relationship between what Braidotti calls “theory and practice” or between the propositional and the active. Gilman’s critique is as site-specifically and as historically gendered as Braidotti wants feminist work to be, but it also generalizes itself and its “lived experiences” in contradistinction to Braidotti’s exclusions, to introduce women’s experience into an aggregate of the human, to produce a still fraught but nonetheless accessible, differential humanism. The exclusion of women from the purview of the human is for Gilman something to be overcome – in the act of writing, no less – rather than a set of exclusions to be materially reversed and re-instantiated by a reactive, if just, politics:
What we do modifies us more than what is done to us. The freedom of expression has been more restricted in women than the freedom of impression, if that be possible. Something of the world she has lived in she has seen from her barred windows. (Women and Economics 66)
The determinisms of oppression need to be overcome, but it is in the eruptive and disturbing – and decidedly material – acts of resistance, including a resistance on and through paper, as much as the utopian teleology of a better, just and “modified” world, that Gilman values: the work, the lived and living process, of pushing back and of tearing down and of breaking through.

(public-domain image of Charlotte Perkins Gilman from the Library of Congress on-line collection)

The bars in the passage I’ve just cited echo the bars on the windows in the abandoned, “atrocious” nursery that Gilman’s unnamed narrator inhabits in the rural house her husband has rented out (apparently to enable a rest-cure for his wife’s incipient hysteria) and to which she is provisionally confined, a space that sharply inverts Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own,” in which the patriarchal benevolence of her husband (and other “doctors”) effectively bans expressive work of all kinds, especially writing: “There comes John, and I must put this away,— he hates to have me write a word” (13).  Even the narrator doubts her own expressive capacities, scare-quoting her first mention of “work” both to trivialize her own labor and to accede to her husband’s will that she deliberately distance herself from the unruly action, especially writing.
That she remains existentially trapped in a nursery speaks to Gilman’s critique of married motherhood and of the limitations it imposes on women’s capacities for self-expression. (The narrator has had a child, but she defers its care to “Mary,” admitting that she cannot be with her infant son because it makes her “so nervous” [14].) She is infantilized by her husband – “’Bless her little heart!’” – and effectively mastered by his “care.” He presents himself as the intimate physician of her psyche, but also doubts the reality of her feminine pathology:
John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)— perhaps this is one reason I do not get well faster.
You see he does not believe I am sick! (9-10)
Her tentativeness to assume the defiant agency of a speaker, to even suggest that her husband’s wishes might be detrimental to her health – and not, perhaps, only “one reason” but in fact the reason she cannot get better – is ameliorated by the confessional dead-space of the page, its inaccessibility to him both as secret diary and as empirically “dead” paper. Gilman juxtaposes the propositional and the lived, the representational, abjected deadness of words on paper and the lived realities of the narrator’s oppression outside the bounds of the page: a juxtaposition crucial to Braidotti’s materialism. This bifurcation is sutured in the tale – cinched, perhaps, without necessarily being healed or remediated – in two ways.
First, in the impossible horizon of the present tense, as the narrator’s descriptive account verges on speech act: “I am sitting by the window now, up in this atrocious nursery, and there is nothing to hinder my writing as much as I please, save lack of strength” (13). These moments of reflexivity suggest that the act of handwriting, as an assemblage of corporeal effort (or “strength”) and propositional or thematic matter (whatever our narrator is describing or writing about) are drawn increasingly closer together. Her clipped style, with its journalistically brief paragraphs, affirms this aspiration to immediacy, to assemble action and description into the same written, subjectively-permeable moment. The penultimate page comes closest to this impossible presentism, when the narrator seems to be recording events in her journal as they happen around her, effectively making them happen (again?) on the page as her account unfolds:
                        Why there’s John at the door!
                        It is no use, young man, you can’t open it!
                        How he does call and pound!
                        Now he’s crying for an axe.
     It would be a shame to break down that beautiful door! 
This torrent of clipped paragraphs is meant to represent an hysteric break, but what it accomplishes in fact,  on the page, is expressive plenitude, an enlivenment. The potentially violent breach of that nursery door, behind which she has deliberately locked herself in an effort – a labor – to  exclude, and to exclude herself from, patriarchal mastery, is avoided by her admission to John of where to find the key, but it’s worth noting that her deference involves an immediate shift into the past tense:
            “John dear!” said I in the gentlest voice, “the key is down by the front steps, under a plantain leaf!” (36)
The expressive collision of word and event lapses into narrative distance, objectified and written down in retrospect, as soon as her husband’s access to her closed psyche is (however contingently, however much “perhaps”) is re-enabled.
             But the question of when and where – after the fact – the narrator continues to transcribe her experiences remains troubling here. The monstrous creeping she describes – creeping over her husband prostrate form, after he has fainted in his own moment of appropriated hysteria – does not entail a muted or inexpressible femininity, but is given voice through her:
“I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (36)
She tears down the suppressive yellow wallpaper, behind which she has been imagining – perceiving – the trapped spectral figures of creeping women, but her account of this culmination of her self-assertion is recounted from a transcendental point-of-view, outside of the narrative time-frame. That paper, too, is the second image of subjective suturing that I want to take up. The narrator has become pathologically fixated on the “unclean,” torn, irregular, repellent, yellowed wallpaper leftover on the nursery walls. She scans it for “patterns,” in an effort to read and interpret it, to master what it says; it reduplicates a species of domestic panopticism, even – “those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere” on its surfaces (16).  The narrator links the wallpaper, at least overtly, not to oppression but to expression: “I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have!” (16). The wallpaper, that is, becomes a metonymy for the “dead paper” – to which it is tied contiguously in the tale as a writing surface – onto which the narrator pours out her life, animating the inanimate page over which our own eyes pore. Still, that paper is suppressive, as the shadows of the window-bars play across its surfaces. Visual layers emerge as the narrator tries to make sense of what she sees, the elusive arrhythmic “pattern”: “If only that top pattern could be gotten off from the under one! I mean to try it, little by little” (31). Held under the surface, the submerged “pattern” is an irregularity, the repeated figure of a creeping woman, who starts to push at the paper’s outer membrane – trying to emerge from the amniotic wall – as she “takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard” (30). Writing as écriture féminine – in secret, excluded behind closed doors, in an atrocious rented room – both stitches a subjectivity onto the dead page, a monstrous graft, but also tears at those sutures, pushes viscerally through the page to touch the material quick of the reader’s living world. This is the marvelous horror of Gilman’s tale, its vital creepiness: that it tears at its own pages the way our narrator tears through that paper.
Cited Things
Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in
          Contemporary Feminist Theory. 2ndedition. New York: Columbia
UP, 2011. Print.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. Old Westbury, NY: 
          The Feminist P, 1973. Print.
– – -. Women and Economics: The Economic Factor Between Men and
         Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. 1898.  Ed. Carl Degler. 
         New York: Harper, 1966. Print.