VII. Becoming Worthy of What Happens to Us: Art and Subjectivity in the Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze

By Levin, Kasper | Consciousness, Literature & the Arts, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

VII. Becoming Worthy of What Happens to Us: Art and Subjectivity in the Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze


Levin, Kasper, Consciousness, Literature & the Arts


Aesthetics traditionally lends itself to a double meaning. On the one hand, it is often referred to as a theory of art by which we can reflect on our experiences with different material forms of expression; on the other hand, aesthetics also refers to a more general theory of sensibility, as the fundamental ground for subjective experience. In the context of this book's themes of art and identity, aesthetic dualism is central, because it immediately forces us to presuppose, in the analysis of the role of art, a separation of the subjective level of experience and the objective conditions for experience, as such.

Philosophically, aesthetic dualism goes back to Immanuel Kant's distinction between the analysis of a transcendental aesthetic (Kant 1781) and aesthetic judgment (Kant 1790). However, due to the pervasiveness of Kantian thought aesthetic dualism does not restrict itself to the realm of philosophical aesthetics. This dualism leads to a common claim inherent in many approaches to art: that works of art must be considered as representations, expressing or signifying an identity underlying human subjectivity.

To name a few generalized examples, in psychoanalysis aesthetic dualism is inherent in the understanding of artworks as representations of unconscious objects or desires (e.g., Freud 1910; Segal 1952; Wollheim 1987). In neuropsychology the aesthetic dualism is inherent in the claim that art represents neural laws of the brain (Zeki 2004), and in phenomenology it is inherent in the conception of art as a representation of the intentionality of subjective experience (e.g., Ingarden 1965). In other words, subjectivity is presupposed in the understanding of art. Though many exponents of various disciplines in philosophy and psychology emphasize the significance of art to sub- jectivity, most often the model of art as a representation or reflection of the world reduces art to an appendix to subjective thought.

From my point of view, the presupposition of a subjective identity as a primary condition in art is problematic because it reduces the genuinely creative or productive relationship between art and subjec- tivity to an instance of representation, reference, or reproduction. By presupposing subjectivity in the understanding of art, the productions in art are subjugated to general categories of subjective thought, re- ducing art to a reflection of thought rather than a production of it. In my view, this perspective remains blind to the role of art as a genetic or productive force in subjectivity.

The intensive engagement with art and aesthetics in the works of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze is often portrayed as a means of dissolution or a fundamental break with the discourse on subjectivi- ty in both its psychological and philosophical expositions. According to Deleuze, what is central to art is not an exploration of emotions or representations of a world of perceptions, but rather the production of sensations as the genetic principle immanent to subjectivity. The claim that art does not represent, but rather creates or expands the world we experience through sensations, means that the question of 'art' and 'identity' is not an apprehension of a harmonious accord between the subjective being and art, but rather an expression of a fundamental dissension or rift. Thus, through the function of art we are constantly reminded that the subjective acts of thinking, feeling, seeing, or hearing cannot be presupposed. As Deleuze argued, we do not experience art but we become subjectivities through it. Often this radical aesthetic element of Deleuze's philosophy is reduced to a de- structive dismantling of personal identity, exposing the contradictory elements and internal oppositions of subjectivity.

Indeed, a genuinely non-human element of thought, beyond the established notions of subjectivity and identity, does constitute a cen- tral force in Deleuze's approach to art. However, as I suggest, his radical dismantling of subjectivity through art should not be consid- ered as the end of subjectivity, but rather as an opening up of a crea- tive domain in our constant involvement with the production of subjectivity as a way of organizing thought. …

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