Dorothea E. Olkowski: Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty
2022 04 15
Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty: The Logic and Pragmatics of Creation, Affective Life, and Perception
Dorothea E. Olkowski
Indiana University Press
Paperback $28.00, Hardcover $75.00, eBook, $27.99
Reviewed by: Timothy Deane-Freeman (Deakin University)
At first glance, a monograph simultaneously dedicated to the philosophies of Henri Bergson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Gilles Deleuze might seem an obscure, even capricious proposition. Why, after all, bring these particular thinkers into dialogue? Why instigate this particular “three body problem” (1)? The answer to this question is complex, but lies in part in the immense structural influence they succeeded one another in exerting over French philosophy. Throughout a period of over one hundred years, French thought was fundamentally coloured first by Bergsonian “vitalism,” then by existentialist phenomenology, and finally by a “post-structuralism” of which Deleuze is considered a primary, if sometimes unwilling figurehead. To trace the shifting conceptual lineages marbled throughout their work is therefore to map the very movement of 20th century French thought, such as has colonised a stubborn corner of the globe’s intellectual life. But there is more than just this profound institutional influence linking together these disparate philosophical projects. As Dorothea Olkowski argues, throughout her accomplished and intriguing study, Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty: The logic and pragmatics of creation, these thinkers also share a common set of problems and an overlapping conceptual vocabulary, the complexities of which she draws out across six brief, rich, yet challenging essays.
Perhaps the foremost of these problems is a familiar dualism haunting philosophy, which here emerges in several guises. Thought and extension, reality and signs, the empirical and the transcendental, formalism and its “outside”- Olkowski returns frequently to this nebulous dialectic, and makes a compelling case for its centrality in the work of each of her subjects. As she writes, evoking the terms of Deleuze’s study of Bergson in Cinema I: The Movement-Image, and establishing one of the central argumentative lines of her own book:
…each of the three is engaged in the undoing of dualism -understood as the relation between thought and movements- by slightly different means […] providing an explanation of the relation between empiricist and formalist approaches to reality (18).
This latter schism is key, emerging as it does with the existential challenge posed to modern philosophy by the immense descriptive powers of post-Enlightenment science. For Olkowski, a strict division between empiricist and formalist approaches is intimately linked to this confluence, in particular to “the view that emerged, starting in approximately the sixteenth century, that science is autonomous, that it generates its own elements, that it stands outside time and outside the lived experience of a subject” (2) -in an epistemological splitting which establishes observer and observed as radically distinct. Against this view -which is far from synonymous with the self-problematising realities of scientific practice- Olkowski excavates a threefold project to reinject questions of genesis, vitality, subjectivity and temporality into a scientistic episteme which has perhaps tended to obscure them.
Indeed in her first chapter, which recapitulates themes from 2012’s Postmodern Philosophy and the Scientific Turn, she introduces this epistemological backdrop, and the bifurcation by which we inherit “two” contemporary philosophies- an analytic approach grounded in formal logic, and a Continental tradition oriented by phenomenology and metaphysics. The former, of which a thinker like Frege is paradigmatic, seeks to “ground” the empirical findings of science through a purely formal analysis of logical relations. This approach turns to signs -to their relations and modes of reference- eschewing all discussion of ontology or the empirical, given that such discussion “violates the principles of formalist systems,” producing unfounded and speculative “nonsense” (26). And while Frege -like Russell, the logical positivists and Wittgenstein- thus seek to banish metaphysics from the philosophical enterprise, what unites Olkowski’s subjects is their determination to develop a metaphysics adequate to contemporary science, simultaneously drawing out the contingency of logic- an approach she will introduce via the French philosopher of mathematics Jean Cavaillès.
For Cavaillès, Olkowski notes, an important contemporary of her three primary subjects, “the logic of a formal system requires an ontology to complete it; in addition to the formal system, it requires reference to an exteriority, to objects, and not just to other signs in the system” (16). And this determination to think the compossibility of the empirical and its symbolisation beats at the heart of Olkowski’s text. Signs and their systems, are not, after all, “immaculate.” An ontology is implicit, indeed required, in order for us to ask questions about their affects, milieux and genesis. And one of the book’s central propositions is that these thinkers help us to understand the genesis of formal systems in and from an empirical and pre-signifying world which can only be sensed. This approach leads to a threefold philosophy of perception, and to the complex ways in which manifold sense-data becomes sensible, taking form under the aegis of a “sign,” “Idea” or “Gestalt” in an operation which is simultaneously pragmatic and creative.
Olkowski’s second chapter develops these themes via Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of logic, primarily as it appears in What is Philosophy? We’ve already spoken of Frege’s ambition to develop a philosophy homogenous with scientific description, moving it away from metaphysical “speculation” in favour of a systematic “science of logic” (30). At the heart of this endeavour is an idiosyncratic concept of the “concept,” inherited in part from Kant, which sees the concept become a logical function- a component of propositions which maps arguments to one of two truth vales (true or false). Thus, to use a well-known example, “is a man,” is a concept/function we can complete (or “saturate,” to use Frege’s intriguing term) by inserting the object “Socrates,” in a move which points us to the proposition’s ultimate referent- the truth-value “true.” But Deleuze and Guattari will claim that this approach, by virtue of its determination to avoid all empirical content, alongside its obliteration of particularity in positing only two possible referents for propositional sentences, gives us an empty formalism, applicable only to the most trivial and pre-determined propositions (32). What Frege gains in “perspicuity,” this argument suggests, he loses in consequence, and the possibility of meaningful philosophical engagement with the real.
Against this model, Olkowski sketches the Deleuzo-Guattarian “concept”- a concept which “belong(s) to a subject and not to a set,” constituting “a function of the lived” (33) as opposed to a purely formal abstraction. At the same time, they are eager to avoid the pitfalls of the “phenomenological concept,” which they see as rooted in the experience of a transcendental subject, and as such incompatible with a philosophy of immanence. One of Olkowski’s richest contributions, indeed, is a thorough mapping of this persistent Deleuzian critique of phenomenology- the charge that it establishes subjective, “natural” perception as a transcendent norm, elevating a particular and contingent relation to the status of a philosophical first principle. In so doing, claims Deleuze, it betrays philosophy’s task of breaking with doxa or opinion, establishing natural perception as Urdoxa, or original opinion, in a moment which is both conservative and anthropocentric. And while Olkowski is generally conciliatory, suggesting several times that Deleuze exaggerates the space between his and Merleau-Ponty’s thought, her identification of the numerous points at which their approaches diverge is a sophisticated complement to extant work by Wambacq (2018) or Reynolds and Roffe (2006).
Opposing themselves to both the Fregean (analytic) and phenomenological (transcendental-subjective) concept, Deleuze and Guattari sketch their own, intensional concepts, which Olkowski convincingly links to another key thinker threaded throughout her exegesis- the pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. For Deleuze and Guattari, concepts are “intensional” inasmuch as they constitute multiplicities whose unity is effected by their components’ internal (differential) relations. In this sense, Olkowski argues, they bear a striking resemble to Peircean “consistency” or “Thirdness” -habits, laws or generalities “to which future events have a tendency to conform” (42)- and which likewise produce continuity as the effect of multiple singular elements or events. Leaving aside the intricacies of Olkowski’s exegesis, it suffices to say that she does convincing and useful work here, tracing Peirce’s influence right across Deleuze’s oeuvre, particularly as it pertains to his recurrent conception of multiplicity as simultaneously “continuous” yet composed through differential relations.
Chapter three turns to Bergson, and an explication of his thought in the form of a rebuttal of the famous criticisms made by Bertrand Russell. Russell claims that Bergson’s thought reduces both distinction and abstraction to spatial phenomena, thereby demoting logic to a lesser branch of geometry (59). Graver than this, however, is Bergson’s apparent rejection of the mathematical model according to which change is apprehended as a series of discreet states. The indivisible continuity of Bergson’s “duration,” Russell argues, eschews the rigour of mathematics and science, opening the door to an irrational and irresponsible Cartesianism- a world in which things are never in any “state” at all, and the distinctions made by the intellect hover over of an indissoluble ontological mush. Olkowski links these criticisms to those made in the fallout of Bergson’s ill-fated encounter with Albert Einstein. While the latter is dedicated, by virtue of his theories of relativity, to a space-time continuum which is arguably “timeless” -with “any temporal event […] merely a geometric point in spacetime” (60), Bergson is interested in the qualitatively evolving and radically undetermined temporality of process, an approach which causes him to hesitate before the singular and unitary time of the physicist. In both cases, as Olkowski rightly notes, critics have sought to oppose the rigour of science and mathematics to Bergson’s “fuzzy” and “irrational” vitalism, effecting a discredit so fundamental as to cause even continental thinkers to “step[…] lightly around” (58) his thought.
Significant exceptions, of course, are Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty, and Olkowski devotes the rest of the chapter to their spirited defence of his concepts in the face of these attacks. For Merleau-Ponty, Bergson’s is a radical philosophy, one which breaks with Cartesianism by “present[ing] a being that is duration in place of an ‘I think’” (64). Further, Merleau-Ponty will argue that it is Bergson, rather than Einstein, who offers a temporality adequate to quantum physics, and a universe of indeterminacy and discontinuity ushered in by wave-particle duality (65). For Deleuze meanwhile, Bergson’s thought possesses an implicit mathematical rigour which renders it far closer to Russell than the latter himself supposes. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze will refer to Russell’s distinction between lengths and distances, the latter of which cannot be divided into homogenous and interchangeable series but rather constitute “irreducible” series “derived in some way from perception” (69). As Olkowski notes, “Bergson too defines duration as a multiplicity or divisibility that does not divide without changing its nature, and so duration begins to sound like Russell’s concept of distance” (69). Deleuze will take up this hybrid Russellian-Bergsonian multiplicity in Difference and Repetition, using it as an image of ontogenesis- a mapping of the way in which intensive differences are explicated (differenciated) as “extensity” (or distance) in the context of individuation conceived as actualisation of the virtual. Olkowski’s work here is detailed and meticulous, illuminating the often-overlooked connections between Bergson, Deleuze and Russell.
In chapter four, Olkowski turns to Deleuze’s two volumes dedicated to film, Cinema I: The Movement-Image and Cinema II: The Time-Image, which she reads in the context of her central theme- a philosophical project to overcome the dualisms of thought and extension, reality and signs. Essential here, to Olkowski as to Deleuze, is Bergson’s idiosyncratic use of the term “image” as a means of effecting a rapprochement between realist and idealist accounts of reality. Prior to adopting either one of these positions, Bergson writes, “I am in the presence of images, in the vaguest sense of the word, images perceived when my senses are opened to them, unperceived when they are closed” (2005: 17). And this first principle, far from strictly phenomenological, becomes the staging ground for an immanent metaphysics of “images,” given that, he continues, “to make of the brain the condition on which the whole image depends is, in truth, a contradiction in terms, since the brain is by hypothesis a part of this image” (2005: 19). In this way, the brain becomes one image among many, perceiving or receiving movements from the images which surround it. Its apparent singularity stems not from any unique metaphysical status, but from a capacity to create a “gap” or “interval” (écart) between these received movements and reaction. As Olkowski explains, according to this model, “the brain is neither the origin nor the centre of the universe of images; it is the centre of indetermination in the interval between reception and reaction” (87), a centre of non-action which enables the organism to draw on virtual forces and escape the determinism of pure motricity.
This approach, which serves to render thought immanent to the interacting planes of “movement-images” which compose it, is then linked to another Deleuzian adaptation of Peirce, and his claim that the cinema volumes constitute a “taxonomy” of signs in the Peircean sense. Importantly, and against a then-dominant model in continental film theory, the “signs” of cinema do not resemble a language. Rather, and in keeping with the ontology Deleuze inherits from Bergson, signs are also “images”- catalytic reflective centres, situated on the same luminous register as their affects. This section of the book, it should be said, comprises a clear and insightful explication of the key ideas animating Deleuze’s work on cinema, albeit one which doesn’t offer a great deal which can’t be found in other works.
From here Olkowski shifts into a discussion of what Deleuze will call the cinematic time-image– the source of “pure” sonic and visual signs which confound action, and as such our habitual, action-oriented modes of thought. Paradigmatic are the signs/images of Italian neorealism, which confront both character and spectator with situations which are “unthinkable” in their magnitude, horror or banality. These images see the subject stripped of its capacities for action, and as such confronted with “the pure power of time that overflows all possibility of reaction and defeats, immobilizes and petrifies figures […] condemning them to a horrendous fate…” (93). For Deleuze, in keeping with a generalised hostility to the subject conceived as an autonomous and self-identical interiority, these images are thus immensely valuable to philosophy, enacting a temporal-semiotic deterritorialization of the cogito as the source and site of agency.
Against this fundamentally inhuman temporality -a time which fractures and problematises the subject- Olkowski will then contrast the approach of Merleau-Ponty, for whom “time and the subject communicate […] in virtue of an inner, interior necessity” (97). For Merleau-Ponty, Olkowski explains, both subjectivity and perception are fundamentally temporal, the persistence of bodies in space is “an expression of the network of temporal relations of a subject…” (97), and the subject is itself a “temporal wave that moves, particle to particle, through the matter of the world” (96). This approach, in keeping with Merleau-Ponty’s existentialist leanings, establishes the centrality of choice and engaged action as constitutive of a subject’s world- a vocabulary which is thoughtfully juxtaposed against Deleuze’s fundamentally “inhuman” time-image.
The book’s two final chapters continue in this comparative mode, embarking on a protracted discussion of the concept of the “Event,” as it appears in both phenomenology and Deleuze and Guattari, and as it pertains to the notion of freedom. For Merleau-Ponty, as we’ve seen, subjectivity is fundamentally temporal, simultaneously linked to a subject’s capacity to perceive spatial relations through time and to the way in which it is able to “inhabit” these relations. In this context, freedom is also temporal, given that “the stimulations an organism receives are possible only because its preceding movements have culminated in exposing the organism to these external influences,” such that, “the organism chooses the stimuli in the physical world to which it will be sensitive” (114). And while this suggests a rather limited remit of free action in the case of non-human organisms, integral is Merleau-Ponty’s conviction that “we are not simply a material plenum” (115)- that subjectivity exists across the fields of physical, physiological and mental “forms,” and as such is irreducible to simple “causal events” on any particular register.
Olkowski then returns to Deleuze, and to his critique of phenomenology in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Here, Deleuze will suggest that while phenomenology remains wedded to the forms of a particular “lived body,” his own (or rather Artaud’s) concept of the “body without organs,” “arises at the very limit of the lived body” (118), as a process which renders life unliveable– impelling it towards traumatic processes of (re)formation. For Deleuze, as we have seen, phenomenology thus embraces the affective and perceptual clichés of a particular lived experience, reifying them as philosophy. The task of philosophy, however, is that of breaking with these clichés (doxa)- a task the “anexact” concept of the BwO is designed to help us realise.
This vocabulary of perceptual and affective clichés also implicates art, and the aleatory methods Deleuze’s Bacon deploys in his diagrammatic “battle” against painterly cliché. Indeed, in the context of their cleft approach to “natural perception,” both Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty turn to painting, in particular to Cézanne, such that Olkowski rightly notes that “it is secretly Cézanne’s paintings that are the battlefield upon which the contest between the philosophy of the Event and phenomenology takes place” (121). For Deleuze, Cézanne “renders visible” the vital power of the body without organs -the pure, formless chaos which arrives as the Event- that which overturns all previous organisation. For Merleau-Ponty meanwhile, Cézanne’s canvasses capture organisation itself, the hesitant process of “matter taking on form and manifesting the birth of order…” (121), in a model Olkowski thoughtfully contrasts with Deleuze’s.
After appearing to hesitate for a moment between these two alternatives, or perhaps to think their compossibility, Olkowski’s final chapter renders her Deleuzo-Guattarian allegiances clear- particularly in its final pages, which see her embrace their ambiguous injunction that we need to open thought onto the deterritiorializing forces of the “Cosmos” (148). Whereas Merleau-Ponty, indeed, remains dedicated to a familiar concept of “freedom” as the remit of human subjectivity, Olkowski will follow Deleuze and Guattari in locating this problem in the “Cosmic” sphere, asking, and then answering: “Can the Earth become cosmic, and can the people of the Earth also become cosmic people? To the extent that this is possible, it is what takes the place of the old concept of freedom” (148).
Deleuze and Guattari take the concept of the Cosmos from Paul Klee, from whom they likewise borrow a model of art as that which does not “render the visible,” but rather “render[s] visible” (2003: 56). What it renders visible, Deleuze, Guattari and Olkowski claim, are the invisible forces of the Cosmos, the formless, imageless and non-thinkable “open” which is the condition likewise for science and philosophy. But how, exactly, does it do this? Here, Olkowski evokes the semiotic processes Deleuze and Guattari call “refrains” (ritournelles) -rhythmic, expressive repetitions which work to organise chaos as habitat. A little child sings in the dark to reassure herself; the colours of a bird’s plumage vibrate to communicate its territory:
In each case, milieus, blocks of space-time, are created by the rhythm, the vibration, the periodic repetition that holds back the intrusion of chaos, the milieu of all milieus. This means that the milieus are coded, and each serve as the basis for another coding and transcoding as one milieu passes continuously into another through the chaosmos, the rhythm-chaos (145).
Importantly, Olkowski draws out the fact that this process of rhythmic territorialization establishes not just a sheltering “inside,” but a simultaneous “outside” we might now venture out and begin to explore. This amounts to a semiotic transformation of the chaotic into the Cosmic, the “plane” upon which philosophy, art and science conduct their experiments. In this context, Olkowski explains, in a model of thought as free conceptual creation, “the philosopher […] makes thought into pragmatics, asking what a concept can do, enabling a force of the Cosmos that travels” (147).
The refrain, indeed, brings us back to the problem(s) with which the book began, that of the individuation of signs, ideas, or forms and of the ontogenetic conditions which enable it. Across the many models Olkowski treats, and of which I have selected only a handful, she creates a philosophical assemblage dedicated to logics of perception, affection and creativity which allow us to think across the apparently irrevocable empiricist/formalist division. This approach problematises traditional dualisms of observer and observed, signifier and signified, in an immanent pragmatics which reinstates the necessity of both semiotics and metaphysics.
In keeping with this approach, Olkowski is not content to lapse into an apparently “neutral” exposition, as though the reconstruction of these three projects might somehow avoid a similarly interested perception. Indeed, perhaps the richest aspect of the book is her attention to this often repressed “stylistic” dimension of exegesis, and the way in which explication is itself creation. Her numerous additions and digressions -through contemporary literature, science, and cinema- accentuate this fact, and renew her subjects’ thought as living bodies. At the same time, the author is herself implicated by this process -an “authority” which cannot but be problematic, as Olkowski herself acknowledges:
I have examined the relationship between the creation of ideas and their actualization in relation to semiology, logic, and the cosmos in the philosophies of Deleuze, Bergson, and Merleau-Ponty. It is not a linear path. It is more a question of periodic orbits following strange and unrepeated trajectories that have been generally unpredictable. In other words, in spite of what I think I know or understand, I have, at every instance, sought to remain attentive to alternatives to my former views in order to consider ideas, concepts, orientations, problems, and solutions that could unexpectedly erupt and so alter the orientation of my own thinking within the context of the problem I have set out (2).
And this brief precis proves instructive, given that the book is ultimately comprised less of clearly demarcated, linear arguments than a series of interwoven and recurrent conceptual refrains which, while generally compelling, can also feel occasionally disorienting.
Indeed readers looking for close, methodical explication and clearly identified lines of scholarly argumentation may want to look elsewhere, as Olkowski’s book constitutes more an image of thought-in-motion, which is occasionally unwieldy and often unpredictable. There are points at which her readings of each thinker are heterodox, and there is a tendency to overlook periodisation of their oeuvres in favour of a more thematic, and as such perhaps selective exegesis, which runs very different works together. I do not intend these remarks as “critical” in the non-philosophical sense. Olkowski herself gestures towards the ethic which I take to animate this approach in her final chapter, when she asks: “Can philosophers envisage a diagram for philosophy such that it is no longer philosophy as we now conceptualize or imagine it?” (149). Olkowski rightly notes that this is the challenge Deleuze and Guattari lay down with their own work. Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty is a book which is both difficult and worthy because it takes this challenge seriously.
Bergson, Henri. 2005. Matter and Memory. Translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. New York: Zone Books.
Deleuze, Gilles. 2003. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Translated by Daniel Smith. London: Continuum.
Reynolds, Jack & Roffe, Jon. 2006. “Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty: Immanence, Univocity and Phenomenology.” In Journal of the British Society of Phenomenology. Vol. 37, No.3. 229-225.
Wambacq, Judith. 2018. Thinking Between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
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