Le Serret, 1973-1974 © Thierry Boccon-Gibod. In Fernand Deligny, Œuvres, Paris, L’Arachnéen, 2007, p. 1234-1235

Think Piece: Notes on the Contemporary

Peter Pál Pelbart


Talmudic tradition tells that 26 failed attempts preceded the creation of this world. As such Genesis would not have been that so-celebrated, miraculous inaugural moment, nor the sudden bursting forth of a round totality, out of a Nothing from the Word, but trial and error, experimentation, failures, re-assembly, re-collages from former debris. Yet, this world retains of this origin story a constitutive fragility. Constantly and forever exposed to the risk of failure and the return to nothing. At any moment the success of the venture can become undone, and everything can fall apart. It is always a close call that everything exists. Always, it is thanks to a mix of ingenuity and chance that things hang together. Moreover, they carry an indelible mark of that original uncertainty, of a beginning that could not be avenged. And yet, according to this Talmudic interpretation, ended up being avenged because there was a God who rooted for the world saying Halevai sheyaamod: “May God will that it stays standing”. When I first read this interpretation I found it very seductive. For it challenged the idea of creation as a single act, simple, round, solid, entwining into creation: time and desire, ruin and failure, the incomplete and the precarious. Even more so, as at the time I was struggling with the question of madness and the treatment of psychosis. And psychosis is constantly concerned with this: with a creation. But, not the creation of objects, but rather a creation of oneself, a re-creation of oneself from the debris of former attempts, a trans-creation. To assemble oneself with the debris that you have, with what’s left of a ruined life.


Gilles Deleuze notes that in Italian Neo-Realism the characters pass their time being startled by that which is overly vile, or terrible or excessively beautiful. They don’t interact with the situations in a motor-sensory thread, in the sense in which a perception becomes prolonged in action. The characters are doomed to experience the intolerable in a kind of clairvoyant motor-paralysis, with images coming from time or from thought. It is a new subjectivity that first appears in this post-war cinema – a subjectivity that is less motor and material, and more temporal or spiritual. This is all in contrast with American cinema. European cinema was trying, in these images, to reach the mystery of thought and of time: the motor impotence of the character corresponds to a total mobilization of thought, of time, of memory, of the past. If this heralded a new regime for the image, it was also symptomatic of a rupture. As Deleuze says in The Time-Image, “The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. Not even in the events that happen to us, love, death, as if we were only told of them by half (…) It is the bond that man has with the world which has been broken”1. In fact, when the organic totality of the world falls apart, the bond between man and the world becomes unthinkable. This is what Artaud would have seen so clearly, when he said that cinema did not privilege the force of thought but rather its powerlessness, its central collapse. The thought can only think one thing, the fact that we do not yet think – the impotence of thinking of All and of ourselves. So what is the subtle exit that Deleuze evokes that would be fitting for cinema to carry out? It would require just filming belief, not in another world, but in the link with this world “in love or in life”, says Deleuze, “to believe in this as in the impossible, the unthinkable, which, nonetheless can only be thought”2.

Paradoxically, it is in this way that the thought is the act that is always being born, always to come, pure time, from which cinema must extract a superior power. Although Fascism and Hollywood took hold of the art of the masses and the world itself came to make cinema and turn it into bad cinema, nothing impedes the seventh art from continuing to perform itself like a nervous wave, like a shock or vibration, like that which brings thought to life, and even the body itself. As Schefer showed, cinema stretches out upon us a night of experimentation, and launches itself into it like dancing grains, luminous dust.3 It brings to life as if behind us another unknown, virtual, nervous body. Deleuze reiterates: “What is certain is that believing does not signify any longer neither believing in another world, nor in a transformed world. It is only, and simply, believing in the body. To carry speech back to the body, and in so doing, reach the body before discourse, before words, before things are named”4. Yet it is a body of affection, of pure capacity to affect, the body as the seed of life, a particular conjunction between passivity and activity that falls short of language and even meaning.


In another and entirely different context, poet and educator Fernand Deligny went to extremes in his meditations on what a world prior to language or subject would be, governed by something else that was not will and the objective, the yield and the meaning, but rather the gesture and the body, their power of affecting and being affected. Drawing on years of experience with autistic patients with whom he lived amongst, Deligny contrasts the word act as opposed to make/do. Doing is the fruit of the will directed towards an end, for example, doing work, whereas acting, on the unique definition he ascribes to it, is the innate, the nonchalant, the ritual movement, and the non-representational. We do not descend from apes, but from spiders… the spider is not interested in projects, but in weaving incessantly, purposelessly, and also in the actual web itself, the network…5 It is not the being-toward-death, but the being-for-the-network. “Respecting the autistic being is not about respecting the being that he would be while he is another, it’s about doing what is necessary for the web to be woven”6. The human web (or network) as a vital necessity, as escape, as interval, desertion, dissidence guerilla, common… As Deligny says: all men from whatever era or place are network beings. The territory itself that Deligny created along with these autistic people – that was a network, dissidence, a shelter, but also an outside, without end or income. Not socialization, or inclusion, or cure, but distance from that which suffocates – place and evasion… Always “when the space becomes something that concentrates, the formation of a network creates a sort of exterior that enables human beings to survive”7… But precisely this human must detach itself from the unitary image of man who impregnates us, the subject… this anti-anthropology, or “reverse anthropology” like that which comes from autism, if it existed, would perhaps be able to read our saturation of meaning and of intentions, of subjectivity and of words, of humanist arrogance that separates us from that dimension which Deligny would call innate or human, which Guattari would call inhuman, Benjamin mere life, Agamben naked life, and Deleuze, a life.


We never cease to be exposed to such variations – which are not solely terminological. They refer to what today is really at stake in the biopolitical context – life. Under assault, from outside and within, all speak on their behalf and wish to represent it, at times defend it, sometimes manipulate it, anyway intensify it, optimize it, capitalize it, and make it pay. Faced with this assault and counter-assault, perhaps something else is required, something more sober, tenuous and obstinate. To not surrender to the paranoid discourse, which made the concentration camp the West’s biopolitical paradigm, in which, in the supposed state of planetary exception, one sees the naked life everywhere – life reduced to its present state of real biology, deformity, impotence, banality, sheer matter for manipulations of all kinds, whether in Guantanamo, in Palestinian alleyways, in Brazilian favelas, among the mad or the autistic. Deligny’s perspective is without doubt another, as he sees among autistic children something that resists, which persists, that in their muteness reiterates a common humanity, that falls short of justice or injustice, good and evil, glory or suffering. A little akin to Deleuze, when he refers to a life, it is a life that is conceived of as common virtuality, as an impersonal power. Or like Muriel Combes, for whom life is neither object, nor subject, but that which is capable of conduct – it is ways of being, “allures”, modes of being. Or Foucault, who at the end of his work can no longer think about the relationship between power and life without an interstice, a mediation, a fold, namely the techniques of the self and their variations. Perhaps it is necessary to rid oneself of catastrophism, of a claustrophobic demonization, as much as of its opposite, a vitalism no less euphoric than anxiolytic, in order to arrive at another plan, where one might conceivably revive a hesitant, tentative experimentation, close to vital material, in a suspension of wandering and indeterminacy, in which one could detect the most diverse modes of existence – minimal or improbable, unnamed or unexplored. As Étienne Souriau says, existence itself is a sketch, incompleteness, the course taken, and above all establishment: beings should be established, even the body, the soul, the work of art.8 A life should also be established, there is an “art of existence” that undergoes modal change, and in its intensive modes, in its strengths and weaknesses, passes through hesitations, runs the risk of succumbing before succeeding, but along its path affirms modes of existence in which one may carve out, so to speak, the very material of existence. Nothing is given, everything is to come, to be done, in the eventual wake of a virtuality in the process of being established.

Something Happened

We know what differentiates a novel from a short story. In a short story one asks: what will happen?9 In a novel, the question is: what happened? What could it be that happened? What would have happened so that everything had changed, as in Henry James or Fitzgerald? There is no single fact or episode that can be located, or circumstances that explain the rupture or change, yet nothing is as it was before, no one recognizes themselves anymore in what was previously trivial and everyday. Characters revolve around this event, trying to gauge the point at which everything has changed, but in fact there is no such notable point, not even a group of nameable factors, but rather microfissures, micromovements, molecular counterflows that do not reach the threshold of ordinary perception – vibrations that redraw our lines – in any case, nothing will be as it was before. If such an event is of the “becoming” sort and not of History, then it is because it is very difficult to place it in the dimension of time: it is characterized precisely by the fact that it escapes the time line, it deviates from the chain of cause and effect and from influence and consequence, facts and circumstances. The event occurs in the between-time, in dead time in the “waiting and reserving”10.

The Greeks already understood that besides Chronos – the measurement of time that fixes things and people, which develops a form and direction – there is another time, Aion, time that is not measured, which is undefined, which never ceases to divide itself when it arrives. It is always already there (the immemorial) and not-yet-there (the unprecedent), always too early and too late, the time of “something is to follow” and simultaneously “something just happened”. This spring of time, this bifurcated, non-metric, non-pulsed, floating time we see sometimes in psychosis, in dreams, in disasters, in giant and micro-ruptures, in collectives or individuals, in movies, etc.


There is a point in the individual or collective life where nothing else seems possible. It is a crisis. Crisis reveals the forces that are at stake, or rather, it redistributes them, answering the question: will things move towards life or death? Crisis is a kind of decision, not the result of a series, but a-before-beginning that creates its own space and time, and does not obey the coordinates of a world held to be objective or ontic. The Catalan psychiatrist François Tosquelles, one of the innovators and pioneers of institutional psychotherapy, saw similarities between concentration camps and the psychiatric hospitals where he worked during the war, and wrote a influential book on this topic, that could be translated as Living the end of the world in madness.11 Acted upon and suffering, patients’ experience of catastrophe is lived as an existential shock, with a procession of disturbing images: earthquakes, the end of the world, death, resurrection in a spiritual life. But there is a challenge that often imposes itself, despite the ongoing destruction: creation. For each patient, beyond the processes of personality dissolution, there is a force, “a vital necessity”, an impulse to get to a “new form of unitary life”12. The lived experience of the end of the world is not considered exclusive to the schizophrenic, because for Tosquelles this disaster/creation matrix responds to a broader life function. Hence his out of the ordinary conclusion for psychiatry: “Madness is a creation, not a passivity”. The sensation that Nothing is possible oscillates with that other, where Everything is possible. Nothing is possible, Everything is possible; nothing is possible, everything is possible. Is it not strange that we share with Tosquelles’ crazy ones this so contemporary oscillation that inscribes itself within us as if it were the air of our times? Strangulation, blockage, impossibility, depletion… and then, something jumps out, unlocks, and everything opens, as in the 2013 June protests.


In a recent essay, Giorgio Agamben draws attention to the double dimension present in God, according to certain traditions.13 On the one hand, God is the creator, on the other, the savior. He creates what did not exist, saves what he himself had created and let degenerate, or lose itself. The creation we all know and cherish. But how to save that which was created and is lost, either because it was destroyed, or because it was forgotten, or because it is corrupted or because was lost, morally or spiritually or historically or ontologically? It is no less important to save than to create; perhaps part of the act of creation is the concern of saving that which this creation lost. Remove the theological reference, and we can ask ourselves if this dimension does not present a contemporary challenge, the proof is that so many artworks today revolve around this task.


We may already return to our point of departure, that is, the crisis that Deleuze spoke of in his diagnosis of the rupture between man and the world. What has been shaken up, according to him, is the belief that the world can still affect us, inspire us a purpose, awaken our forces and engender possibilities. As Lapoujade says, in a similar perspective: “James’s diagnosis is a neighbour of Nietzsche’s – we no longer believe in anything… He who no longer believes, he who no longer trusts, remains immobile and unresponsive, undone. He is struck by the death of sensibility”14. But we are not speaking of going back to believing in things that have fallen into the realm of disbelief: God, I, Revolution, Progress, whose pregnance crumbled apart precisely because they were offered or imposed as universals or absolutes. In differing ways, Nietzsche, James, Bergson, and Deleuze trounced these beliefs in the name of a different relationship with time, with the earth, with the body, with life. Since there is no safe place to stand, on plunging deep into the brutal collision between the elements of the world we depend ever more on trust, on a force without pinning down its movement, in sympathizing with its future and ours. It is a return to believing in what we see and hear, the point of “seeing” virtuality, and becoming a “seer”.

In a memorable interview conducted in the 1990s, Toni Negri asked Deleuze: What policy can prolong the splendor of the event in history?15 In his answer, Deleuze summarized a phrase from his book on cinema written years beforehand, and that we cited earlier. “Believing in the world is what we most lack, we have completely lost the world, we dispossessed it”. But this time he opened up in a broader, more political direction, the urgency of which resonates in us increasingly vividly: “Believing in the world means principally eliciting events, however small, which are beyond control, or which engender new space-times, even if at surface level or in reduced volume. It is at the level of each attempt that one evaluates capacity for resilience or, conversely, submission to a control”16.

[An earlier version of this text was originally published in OEI # 60–61: “Extra-disciplinary spaces and de-disciplinizing moments (in and out of the 30th Bienal de São Paulo)”, Stockholm, 2013]

1 Gilles Deleuze, L’image-temps, Paris, Minuit, 1985, p. 222

2 Idem, p. 220

3 Jean-Louis Schefer, L’homme ordinaire au cinema, Cahiers du cinéma/Gallimard, p. 113 – 123, 1980. See also, Kuniichi Uno, The genesis of an unknown body, Helsinki/São Paulo, n-1 publications, 2012

4 Gilles Deleuze, L image-temps, op. cit., p. 225

5 Fernand Deligny, L’Arachnéen et autres texts, Paris, L´Arachnéen, 2008

6 Idem, p. 95.

7 Idem, p. 14

8 Étienne Souriau, Les différents modes d’existence, Paris, PUF, 2009

9 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Mille Plateaux, Paris, Minuit, 1980, chap. 8.

10 Gilles Deleuze et Félix Guattari, Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? Paris, Minuit, 1991

11 François Tosquelles: Le vécu de la fin du monde dans la folie, Toulouse, Ed. De l´Arefppi, 1986

12 Idem.

13 Giorgio Agamben, Nudités, Paris, Rivages, 2012

14 David Lapoujade, William James, Emprisme et Pragmatisme, Paris, Les empêcheurs de penser en rond, 2007, p. 19

15 Gilles Deleuze, Pourparlers, Paris, Minuit, 1990, p. 239

16 Idem.