Chaos Theory

by on Feb.24, 2011

Art thus captures an element, a fragment, of chaos in the frame and creates or extracts from it not an image or representation, but a sensation or rather a compound or multiplicity of sensations, not the repetition of sensations already experienced or available beyond or outside the work of art, but those very sensations generated and proliferated only by art.

– Elizabeth Grosz

Art is not chaos but a composition of chaos that yields the vision or sensation, so that it constitutes, as Joyce says, a chaosmos, a composed chaos…

– Deleuze and Guattari

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Grosz’s Chaos, Territory, Art, which is a detailed study of some of Deleuze’s more controversial (and biological/evolutionary) concepts about aesthetics. Overall, it’s fascinating: she even has a fairly persuasive argument that Darwin and Deleuze shared a similarly radical (and non-utilitarian) sense of evolution, one that stresses sexual selection (with its tendencies toward excess, even self-destruction) over natural selection (which reduces so much phenomena to the single template of I-must-mate-to-ensure-my-genes-will-survive).

There are many elements in this book I plan like to discuss, because I think Grosz writes about art in a highly materialist manner that I find intriguing, but I first wanted to briefly discuss the way she and Deleuze approach aesthetics–the macro view here–and it’s a way that I’m very much in sympathy with. They see art as a plane of composition. As a space that is separate from chaos and yet a manifestation of that chaos. And as a surface that generates sensations.

One of the many things I find intriguing in this approach to art is the way that it cuts through many of the oppositions that have become so embedded in our own discourse about aesthetics: the raw vs. cooked, the formless vs. the formally rigorous, and art which is about the rejection of closure vs. art that is interested in image and/or narrative and/or genre. (There’s some overlap between those first two binaries: the third is its own thing.) Grosz and Deleuze (and Nietzsche and Artaud stand in the background here) instead focus on intensities, surface, territory, affect, the figural, and blocs of sensation.

One of the problems with the oppositions above is that they focus, oddly, on intention: that is, on the intention of the artist or writer. Was this piece fully digested, or was in simply spewed out? (The raw and the cooked.) Or, did the writer seem to be grasping for a conceptual or narrative frame that might curtail our reading, or did he or she fully reject closure in all of its various guises? (The rejection of closure vs. image and/or narrative and/or genre). Yet if we truly do away with authorial intention (something so much easier said then done; much like Platonic and Hegelian idealism, authorial intention keeps seeping through the cracks) then quite a few of these binaries drop away. And we would be left with an approach to art that would be closer to Grosz and Deleuze’s: one that actively engages with the surface of the text and work of art, and that is truly indifferent to whatever the writer or artist thought they were trying to achieve. One that does away with psychology and intention in favor of sensation.

Plus, as Derrida repeatedly showed, a simple reversal of opposites still leaves us stuck in the logic of that very opposition: hence his fascination with the in-between, or the play of meaning between one reversal and the next, a play that never rests. To write “against” the cooked only ends up being a sort of “cooked” writing of its own: that is, the chaos is intended as a form of argument, and therefore loses much of its actual chaotic possibility. And a philosophy of writing that is always and at all times against closure is actually, by the logic of such reversals, a form of closure itself. A new prohibition arises: the prohibition of (even temporarily) rejecting the rejection of closure.

(A quick side note: a huge amount of lazy deconstructive writing has been carried out because of this misunderstanding of reversals. As Spivak wrote about his most famous reversal: “Derrida cautions us that, when we teach ourselves to reject the notion of the primacy of the signified–of meaning over word–we should not satisfy our longing for transcendence by giving primacy to the signifier–word over meaning.” Such a move would lead us to one more “transcendental signifier” (to use Derrida’s term). And it would mistakenly give us the sense that we had finally freed truth from fiction.

One of my problems with the more dogmatic strands of Language writing is the way that it fell into exactly this trap, making of the liberated signifier a vehicle by which we could be freed of the ideological illusions of the signified and touch the face of Truth (whether it be the truth of language, or the truth of social/economic relations, or both.) Both Foucault and Derrida were very invested in the notion of “fiction”–in fact, Foucault used to call his works “fictions”–and yet there was a strange contempt for “fiction” with the more dogmatic strands of Language writing. The liberated signifier becomes a new cult of authenticity, a new ontology.)

I see Beckett’s approach to writing as being very much about “planes of composition” and as being almost impossible to examine under the lens of the above oppositions. His texts move back and forth between lucidity and catastrophe, between the comprehensible and the incomprehensible. Every grasp toward a metaphysical and transcendental position is undermined. Many of his characters say that they will now be silent, that all this talk is senseless–and yet even then they keep on talking, relating stories that dissolve, unwind. We learn no lessons. We usually leave a work by Beckett feeling like we know less then we did before we read the book or saw the play. But we experience startling sensations. And the sensations are the more vivid for not be attached to a lesson or an implied argument “against” this or that kind of writing.

No wonder Deleuze sensed such an affinity with Beckett: despite their enormous differences (Deleuze’s affirmation of becoming, Beckett’s comic despair) they both write in a manner that does away with the cooked and the raw, with form vs. formlessness. The aesthetic intentions become beside the point because the humanist idea of the self becomes beside the point.

With both–and with Grosz too, I would say– we’re left with an aesthetic that I like to think of as the abandoned house approach to art. You go in and wander around, but no one lives there anymore.


5 comments for this entry:
  1. Pate on aesthetics | HTMLGIANT

    […] James Pate at Montevidayo says some really precise stuff about chaos and art, ending with this (YES): “With both–and with Grosz too, I would say– we’re left with an aesthetic that I like to think of as the abandoned house approach to art. You go in and wander around, but no one lives there anymore.” blog comments powered by Disqus /* […]

  2. Ken Baumann

    Love this thinking. Thank you!

  3. Lucas de Lima

    James, thanks so much for situating Grosz like this. Her book has been very important for me, especially the points about art as sensation, as something “of the animal.”

    I also love how voluptuous, and therefore performative, Grosz’s language is. I could imagine her eating chocolate-covered cherries while writing it.

  4. James Pate

    Hi Lucas,

    I completely agree with what you say about Grosz’s style: too often, when writers write theory, they seem to be under the impression that dry, jargon-riddled writing is closer to the “truth.” As if an engaged, powerful style should only be used in “creative” types of writing. Grosz’s entrancing style blurs the line between creative and critical writing…

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