Franz West and Deleuze

A nutshell from the PhilosophyArts event with Dr. Henry Somers-Hall talk at Tate Modern

In case you missed the event 13 May 2019 which took place inside the West exhibition and among the wonderful work, we have provided an extract from the talk. (with thanks to Dr. Somers-Hall).

(c) Estate Franz West

Today, I want to talk about three or four key concepts in Deleuze’s work, and to try to bring them into alignment with Franz West’s work in order to provide some illumination of both. Gilles Deleuze is becoming recognised as one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. Deleuze himself claims to be a ‘pure metaphysician’, which signals his interest in giving an account of the nature and structure of the world. This sets him apart from the trend of philosophy in the 20th century away from metaphysics towards an attempt to describe experience, or towards the claim that our understanding of the world is irredeemably historical or linguistic…[]

As you’ll see at the end of the exhibition, where some of West’s books are collected together, Franz West read Deleuze’s works, amongst other philosophers. I want to talk about two aspects of Deleuze’s thought which overlap with Franz West’s concerns here. The first of these is the question of how we should begin to practice philosophy. For Deleuze, what is central to the opening of philosophy is an encounter that provides a shock to thought. In his writing on Proust, Deleuze sees this shock, or encounter, to be something like the affect of jealousy one feels towards a lover. While a philosopher like Descartes might call for reflection and calmness at the outset of our philosophical enquiry, jealousy instead captures the sense of intensity that Deleuze thinks we need to have in order to be properly engaged with philosophy …[]

Passstücke

1975–80

Paint, plaster, gauze and iron

Franz West Installations. Tate Modern.

(c) Estate Franz West

Here we can see what are perhaps West’s most idiosyncratic works, the Passstücke. These works are supposed to be engaged with by being picked up and manipulated, either here in public, or behind the screens. Now, while the Passstücke resemble tools in some way, it’s also clear that they have no discernible purpose. Moreover, their unwieldy design is meant to force the body into unusual poses, and to force the body to move in ways it isn’t expected to. The Passstück relates to one of the central influences on Deleuze, Spinoza, and what Deleuze takes to be a key insight of Spinoza’s: ‘We do not know what the body can do . . .’ Deleuze takes up Spinoza’s notion that the body is an incredibly complex field of particles in relations of varying speed with each other:

Global form, specific form, and organic functions depend on relations of speed and slowness. Even the development of a form, the course of development of a form, depends on these relations, and not the reverse. The important thing is to understand life, each living individuality, not as a form, or a development of form, but as a complex relation between differential velocities, between deceleration and acceleration of particles. (Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy)

Now, there are some important features about seeing objects as collections of particles in motion. Most importantly, it means that objects and people are seen as essentially open to the outside – to the interplay of their own relations of speed and slowness with those of others. How bodies are able to affect and be affected by other bodies is fundamental to what they are. We normally understand what something is by talking about what kind of thing it is – that is, what properties it has. So we talk about human beings being rational animals, for instance. That’s the model of thinking that I talked about in the last room. What Deleuze is suggesting instead, following Spinoza, is that we define the nature of a body by the ways in which it is able to interact with other bodies (so the affects it has). Deleuze says the following:

For example: there are greater differences between a plow horse or draft horse and a racehorse than between an ox and a plow horse. This is because the racehorse and the plow horse do not have the same affects nor the same capacity for being affected; the plow horse has affects in common rather with the ox. (Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy)

The number of affects a body has (i.e., the number of different ways it can enter into relationships with the world) therefore defines its essence or nature. For instance, Deleuze introduces the idea of the tick as a creature that is capable of three affects or encounters with the world:

For example, J. von Uexkiill will do this for the tick, an animal that sucks the blood of mammals. He will define this animal by three affects: the first has to do with light (climb to the top of a branch); the second is olfactive (let yourself fall onto the mammal that passes beneath the branch); and the third is thermal (seek the area without fur, the warmest spot). A world with only three affects, in the midst of all that goes on in the immense forest. (Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy)

For Deleuze, therefore, our knowledge of the body is a knowledge of the effects of these relations with others – if we really want to understand what relations our body is capable of, we need to experiment by putting it into those relationships. Here’s the thing about the Passstücke then – they are objects that force us into a new relation, deliberately unwieldy, they force us to learn something new about ourselves. The screened off space to experiment with the Passstücke assures us that this investigation into their nature can be conducted properly, even if the effect of our engagement with them is a decrease in our powers. []

About Dr. Henry Somers-Hall

I am currently a reader in philosophy at Royal Holloway. I completed my PhD at the University of Warwick, under the supervision of Prof. Stephen Houlgate, with a thesis dealing with the responses of Gilles Deleuze and G. W. F. Hegel to certain problems emerging from Kant’s transcendental idealism.

Find out more about Dr. Somers-Hall here

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About Franz West

The late Austrian artist Franz West (1947–2012) was one of the most influential artists of the past 50 years. His retrospective at Tate Modern explores his irreverent sensibility and irreverent approach to art and materials, bringing together almost 200 works including abstract sculptures, furniture, collages and large outdoor works. Find out more here

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Dr. Henry Somers-Hall, speaks at PhilosophyArts curator tour event 13 May 2019 @ Tate