Reactivating Antibodies

Stephanie Polsky

Gilles Deleuze did not have reservations about showing the intolerable, or what Primo Levi had called "the shame of being human" (as distinct from guilt and retribution), in his later work. Indeed he revered Francis Bacon's attempt to show "the meat" of the human form.1 In his book Francis Bacon The Logic of Sensation, Deleuze speaks of 'a zone of indiscernibility or undecidability between man and animal.'2 For Deleuze this zone harbours something factical about life, something common to man and animal. Both in point of fact share a common objective fate, to exist as flesh and as meat. These terms sit provocatively nearby to least two discourses, which run their course in a parallel fashion to Deleuze's burgeoning discourse on ethics. The first Agamben's use of the phrase a 'zone of indistinguishability' in Homo Sacer to describe bare life as a condition where human survival lingers somewhere in between life and law,' and thus remains indefinitely suspended in a perpetual 'state of exception' which constitutes its governance.3 The second is Derrida's use of the term undeciability is an attempt to devise a politically operative position for the practice of deconstruction. What Deleuze had in mind in adjoining the two, was the creation of new apparatus for the discernment of corporal suffering. He wanted to assert the category of corporal suffering as something that could be uniquely dynamic, sensational, and powerful. For Deleuze, corporal suffering apprehended in such a way would be potent enough to re-orientate our understanding of violence and bring about new vitality to the formulation of human being.

Deleuze, echoing Bacon implores us to 'Pity the meat!'4 Why you ask? Because the

meat is not dead flesh; it retains all the sufferings and assumes all the colours of living flesh. It manifests such convulsive pain and vulnerability, but also such delightful invention, color, acrobatics.5

'Pity mankind!' Bacon speaks of a curious idea that grips him every time he goes into the butcher's shop: 'I always think it's surprising that I wasn't there instead of the animal.'6 It would seem that what separates us from beasts then is some infra-thin cut made into fate, a nuance of suffering presenting just so much of a threshold between man and beast. This is the stuff of becoming, 'suffering.'7 It is our responsibility to adhere to this bond before the event of extermination, so as to remember our violence, or capacity to slaughter and be slaughtered. Bacon's expression is the container for such violence, violence as a series, 'all the violence of Ireland, all the violence of Nazism, the violence of war.'8 They form for him a kind of back catalogue of imagery, a means with which to assume a particular kind of responsibility before the fact of our suffering.

Deleuze writes of Bacon's capacity to 'pass through the horror,'9 so much so that his paintings are then able to portray something of a unique characteristic in brutality; its fundamental ability to demonstrate its force upon us invisibly. Thus Deleuze is able to cannily acknowledge that 'cruelty is not what one believes it to be, and depends less and less on what is represented.'10 This subsequently alters how we might consider bodily response, the response as it were of the flesh. The flesh has no feelings. Rather it experiences the world as zoe, the world through 'affects; that is the "sensations" and "instincts"'11 that arise when flesh is acted upon by exterior forces. Thus the affective body does not choose to seek out 'the most agreeable sensation, but the one that fills the flesh in a particular moment of its descent, contraction, or dilation'12 upon having received the blow. This itself becomes the 'act of vital faith,'13 something that far surpasses what can be endured seemingly through emotion. We must have prepared ourselves in other ways to have survived this long, seeing as 'the invisible forces, the powers of the future' are 'already upon us, and much more insurmountable that the worst spectacle or the worst pain,'14 as again these fall to the lesser capacities of feeling to cope with. Feeling simply doesn't go far enough. On the other hand it does go so far, so far as these feelings become another sense in our arsenal of sensations we draw up when the invisible forces come down upon us.

Indeed, it is always the case that when

the visible body confronts the powers of the invisible, it gives them no other visibility than its own. It is within this visibility that the body actively struggles, affirming the possibility of struggling, which was beyond its reach as long as these powers remained invisible, hidden in a spectacle that sapped our strength and diverted us. It is as if combat had now become possible. The struggle with the shadow is the only real struggle.15

It is a battle waged from the viewpoint of light, of the potential inherent within exposure. Death dealt with from the force of life, and not the other way around, death coming to us not as a vanquisher of life, but as a catalyst to its further intensification, its fortitude.

Bacon through his representation of 'horror, mutilation, prosthesis, fall or failure,' then erects nothing short of, 'indomitable figures, indomitable both through their insistence and their presence.'16 Finally, in Bacon's paintings, he seems to be uniquely capable of drawing out the invisible forces that act upon the body: isolation, deformation, and dissipation amongst many others.17 These forces all act as agents through time, wresting it parabasically, temporarily away from the flow eternal time only to be reabsorbed again in through still other bodies. Perhaps this could signal the provisional emergence of a zone where new epochs of violence are hatched, new modes of absorption devised, new bodies shaped to the task of detection. Alternatively, cruelty could be understood to emerge within an entirely different order of becoming. One point of cross over between Agamben's Musselman and Deleuze's definition of the inhuman as the point where man identifies himself with his flesh might be had in the feature of the Musselman's deteriorated nervous system, which was lacking 'not only in all moral conscience, but even sensibility and nervous stimuli'18 compromises the body beyond the realm of dignity, digging past dignity to the recess of the nerves themselves. To the point where life is stripped down to its bare minimal, its degree zero, it's pure immanence. This is the body beyond sense or reason, this the body of pure sensation insofar as Deleuze defines sensation, 'as the master of deformation, the agent of bodily deformations.'19 This is crucial because such bodies lead us to focus on the scream and not the horror, to focus on the scream that is invoked before the invisible, at a moment before it has become visible so as to act as a beacon, a sign. The open mouth of the scream then acts as a potential conduit out of which might pour the diabolic forces readying themselves to bare down on humanity, the dark forces of the yet to come. Deleuze offers, 'this is what is expressed in the phrase "to scream at" — not to scream before or about, but to scream at death — which suggests this coupling of forces, the perceptible force of the scream and the imperceptible force that makes one scream.'20

This is a very different angle on violence. It suggests that the scream 'is the source of extraordinary vitality.'21 It also suggests that violence is fundamentally beyond representation, beyond narration. It is almost totally invisible and mute. It is illogical insofar as it effect is enacted prior to its cause. The body here enacts a movement of sorts resembling that of a 'spasm, which reveals a completely different problem characteristic for Bacon: the action of invisible forces on the body (hence the bodily deformations that are due to a more profound cause.)'22

In order to interfere with forces that remain for the most part invisible in their causality, we must resort to empowering the body from alternative sources, which for Deleuze come under the heading of 'rhythm.' Indeed he would hypothesize in the Bacon book, the case for another rhythm of time to be followed, as a means with which to alter history and to create a series of measures that correspond to a different sort of vitality then the one that is currently under siege by the biopoliticised State. This rhythm shifts the order away from the domains of the visual, the rational, and the cerebral and accords life a place in and amongst the senses it runs through and which run through it. In this way, it encodes itself as both an actualisation and counter-actualisation of life in the space of a breath. Or as Deleuze describes it, 'it is diastole-systole: the world that seizes me by closing in on me, the self that opens to the world and opens the world itself.'23 It requires both a folding and an unfolding following a rhythm of life that makes the potential open up for at once the dissipation of life as we know and the opening up of another possible world in which a different kind of subjectivisation could emerge. Of course such a project opens mankind up to great risk, even annihilation, in his current occupancy of his body and his world. In order to proceed, we like Bacon, must 'distinguish between two violences, that of the spectacle and that of the sensation....'24 Bacon 'declares that the first must be renounced in order to reach the second, it is a kind of declaration of faith in life.'25 Deleuze asks, 'Why is it an act of vital faith to choose "the scream more than the horror," the violence of sensation over the violence of the spectacle?'26 To which the answer comes to us in part as a further cause for sympathy with the meat, and on the other hand, a cause for the meat to confront its aggressor, making the blows it receives as a consequence the canvas on which the invisible partially comes into view, visible as the deformation of body it attacks. These forces that sap our resolve when in the realm of spectacle, when nudged into the realm of sensation become the arena for active struggle on the part of the body, harbouring within it the once impossible prospect — the chance for the body to triumph. The battle is then staged within a different spectrum of visibility, in what Deleuze characterises as 'the struggle with the shadow,' which moreover for him, 'is the only real struggle.'27 This struggle is generated from within the realm of sensation:

When the visual sensation confronts the invisible force that conditions it, it releases a force that is capable of vanquishing the invisible force or even befriending it. Life screams at death, but death is no longer the all-too-visible thing that makes us faint; it is the invisible force that life detects, flushes out, and makes visible through its own scream. Death is judged from the point of view of life, and not the reverse, as we like to believe.28

After undergoing such combat, the body is rightly dissipated, yet it remains within the domain of the forces that formerly held sway over it. In this way it is returned to its surroundings within the realm of spectacle for a time, until the next skirmish ensues in the ongoing duration that characterises a life. It is a life that situates within its movement a rhythm that can be recognised scarcely as one of contraction and dilation of a body, against a debilitating milieu of forces, which seek it out as a means to reconstitute their own vitality.

'It is at this time, it is at the point closest to catastrophe, in absolute proximity, that modern man discovers rhythm...'29 In the same instant he abandons his former supports which enabled him to maintain his figurative appearance as a human subject. In this way he is ceasing to be an organism, or act as something that possesses as isolated organisation. Instead, as bare life his body has adapted to create its own relations with the divisions labour it confronts now, as part and parcel of globalisation. Such bare life is impelled to become lateral in its thinking and comportment. In this way it becomes more directly functional on the level of the senses as opposed to privileged the brain alone as the source of understanding the tensions which surround and impact upon it. In this way it prepares itself to emerge from catastrophe. It would seem that the only way to survive the fall off of culture under the current reign of globalisation is to redress the imbalance, by integrating into a deformation which allows it to persist in its general contour, without it becoming so rigid as to crack irreparably under the threat of its digital absorption, homogenisation and binarisation. Bare life must respond to this threat by modulating itself, allowing its contours to remain permeable enough to withstand the forces, which impinge upon it. It must remain vulnerable just long enough to 'constitute a new resemblance' to its former self, 'inside a visual whole.'30 This duration in which this deformation might be said to take place are the 'between-times' that are singular a life, the immanent space of duration which opens is the space between moments where an infra-ethics emerge to grasp at the contour of a new becoming, anticipating from within the potential for a new world and a new people to come.

Deleuze surmised that such happenings were features of humanity, as they exist in the immanent duration of a life. Furthermore, he would have suggested that the periodic dissembly of the body; its rhythmic deformation, was an opportunity for the affirmation of a life.

What we will say of pure immanence, that it is A LIFE, and nothing else. It is not immanence to a life, but the immanent that is in nothing to itself. A life is the immanence of immanence, absolute immanence: it is complete power, complete bliss. It is to this degree that [it] goes beyond the aporias of the subject and the object... no longer dependent on a Being or submitted to an Act — it is an absolute immediate consciousness whose very activity no longer refers to being but is ceaselessly posed to a life.31

A life does concern itself with the mastery or sublimation of violence. Rather it is about seizing upon the encounter with such 'diabolic forces knocking on the door'32 as mode of vital transformation. It is these events from which character is shaped in the moments 'we designate by saying, "here, the moment has come."'33 This summoning of this moment comes in sharp tonal contrast to Derrida's utterance, which asserts that the moment always there, deferred, yet to come in which something worse will happen than what we face now. By summoning the moment to us, another relationship to fear is made possible, and therein another posture toward violent encounter is offered to us. One that is perhaps no less violent, but with a different potential offered for not only for 'life to survive civilization if need be,'34 but, also in this current biopolitical atmosphere for life to survive 'the death of man' if need be. Hopefully, this takes place in order to inaugurate a new form of being and becoming, attaching itself to a future that resists a factical, messianic, or eschatological attitude to the valuation of life. Perhaps its rhythms will correspond not with a fear of the future, but instead with an affirmation of the potential inherent to the here and now, to the immanent call of a life. What can we expect from these people yet to come? Perhaps one clue comes from Bacon's attitude toward to the new human form he refers to and goes some of the way towards inaugurating in his paintings. In regard to this figure Deleuze asserts, 'Bacon is not using empty words when he declares he is cerebrally pessimistic but nervously optimistic, with an optimism that believes only in life.'35 This optimism stems from the potential he sees towards a reassembly of the human sensorium in line with the forces which seek to overtake it, a triumph is possible so long as one overcomes the limits of thinking to encompass a greater form, the conquest of nerve over fear — this becoming the hallmark of an affirmative life. This condition of life would indeed signal the emergence of a different time, and the inauguration of a different ethical sphere.


  1. Rajchman, John, The Deleuze Connections, (Cambridge, Mass.,: The MIT Press, 2000), p. 106.

  2. Deleuze, Gilles, Francis Bacon The Logic of Sensation, Trans. Daniel W. Smith, (New York: London: Continuum, 2003), 21.

  3. Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer, Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, (Stanford, Cali., :Stanford University Press, 1998), 58.

  4. Deleuze, Gilles, Francis Bacon The Logic of Sensation, Trans. Daniel W. Smith, (New York: London: Continuum, 2003), 23.

  5. Ibid. 23.

  6. Ibid. 24.

  7. Ibid. 25.

  8. Ibid. 38.

  9. Ibid. 38.

  10. Ibid. 39.

  11. Ibid. 39.

  12. Ibid. 40.

  13. Ibid. 61.

  14. Ibid. 62.

  15. Ibid. 62.

  16. Ibid. 62.

  17. Ibid. 63.

  18. Agamben, Giorgio, Remnants of Auschwitz, Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, (London: Zone Books, 1999), 57.

  19. Deleuze, Francis Bacon The Logic of Sensation, 36.

  20. Ibid. 61.

  21. Ibid. 61.

  22. Ibid. 41.

  23. Ibid. 41-42.

  24. Ibid. 61.

  25. Ibid. 61.

  26. Ibid. 61.

  27. Ibid. 62.

  28. Ibid. 62.

  29. Ibid. 107.

  30. Ibid. 121.

  31. Deleuze, Gilles, 'Immanence : A Life,' In Pure Immanence Essays on a Life, Intro., John Rajchman, Trans., Anne Boyman, (New York: Zone Books, 2001), 27.

  32. Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, Trans. Dana Polan, Foreword by Reda Bensmaia, (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 1986), 41.

  33. Deleuze, 'Immanence : A Life,' 148.

  34. This commen was made by Walter Benjamin as a possible response to the crisis of National Socialism, which inaugurated an era of suicidal abolition on the part of the State. Benjamin, Walter, 'Karl Kraus,' One Way Street and Other Writings, Trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, Intro. Susan Sontag, (London: Verso, 1997), 278.

  35. Deleuze, Francis Bacon The Logic of Sensation, 43.