The Diagrammatic — The Witch’s Flight

It’s not like me to use this space to repost other content wholesale but I’ve been thinking about this post I found on an old Warwick University blog all week.

“To think is always to follow the witch’s flight” is one of Deleuze and Guattari’s most evocative phrases, nestled within a chapter of What is Philosophy?, but it is a line that so many people have come back to again and again.

As with most things — sorry Guattari — there is a line here — itself a witch’s flight — that can be traced back through Deleuze’s philosophy. It’s something he writes about at length in his book on the painter Francis Bacon, The Logic of Sensation, but here he refers to it — via Wilhelm Worringer — as the “Gothic line”. (A line Mark Fisher would later take up and modify to become his “Gothic flatline”.)

It’s a meandering line within Deleuze’s own thought but is, more often than not, demonstrated rather than unpacked with any rigour but this old blog post from 2006 does a great job of tying it to Deleuze’s sense of the “diagrammatic”. It’s a really nice essay and short too, so here it is in its entirety:

In chapter 3 of What is Philosophy? Deleuze & Guattari talk of the three necessary elements of philosophy, a kind of trinity consisting of:

‘…the prephilosophical plane it must lay out (immanence), the persona or personae it must invent and bring to life (insistence), and the philosophical concepts it must create (consistency). Laying out, inventing, and creating constitute the philosophical trinity – diagrammatic, personalistic,and intensive features.’ (What is Philosophy?, pp. 76–7)

The initial ‘diagrammatic’ function within philosophy (the elaboration of a prephilosophical plane of immanence) necessary for the subsequent creation of concepts has clear resonance with Deleuze’s understanding of Francis Bacon’s creative practice in The Logic of Sensation, and offers a clear example of the type of creative pedagogy provided by art to our understanding of the practice of philosophy. Both involve taking what Deleuze & Guatarri term ‘a witches’ flight’. Deleuze asks in what does the initial pre-figurative act of painting consist for Bacon? For Bacon the initial act of painting is defined by the making of random marks; cleaning, sweeping, brushing or wiping the canvas which serve to clear out locales or zones on the canvas; and the throwing of paint from various angles and at various speeds. Such acts presuppose the existence of figurative givens on the canvas (clichés), and it is precisely such givens that are to be removed, by being cleaned, brushed, swept or wiped, or else covered over, by the act of painting. In the interviews with David Sylvester this is what Bacon called a ‘graph’ or a ‘diagram’. The ‘diagram’ is to be understood as the pre-figural preparation of the canvas (the initial acts of painting) – the series of shades, colours, scratches and layers of material set down prior to the actual delineation of the Figure. In Bacon this process consists of a series of haphazard lines, coloured spots and pitched paint. Such a physical rather than a visual act of painting lays out a ground that is in contradiction with the pre-planned figure. This is an automatic or random ground that threatens to engulf the act of figuration it prepares for. Deleuze claims that the ‘diagram’ is a kind of physical catastrophe that underlies the subsequent production of figuration in painting:

‘It is as if, in the midst of the figurative and probabilistic givens, a catastrophe overcame the canvas.’ (Deleuze, The Logic of Sensation, p. 80)

According to Deleuze the ‘diagram’ in painting allows the emergence of another possible world. The marks associated with the ‘diagram’ are irrational, involuntary, accidental, free, random. They are non-representative, non-illustrative, non-narrative. They are no longer either significant or signifiers, they are, Deleuze claims, ‘a-signifying traits’. Such (almost blind) manual marks attest to the intrusion of another world into the visual world of figuration. To a degree, they remove the painting from the optical organisation that reigns over it, rendering it always already figurative. The painter’s hand intervenes in order to disrupt its own dependence and deconstruct the sovereign optical organisation. Here one can no longer see anything, as if one was in a catastrophe or chaos. The ‘diagram’ serves to disrupt a certain pre-existing ‘sense’ and allow for the emergence of an entirely new ‘sense’. The operation or function of the ‘diagram’ is, according to Bacon, to be ‘suggestive’ of a new ‘sense’. Because such marks are destined to provide the Figure it is essential that they break with the conventional codes of figuration as such. Thus, such marks are not sufficient in themselves to break with figuration, but must provide a function of utility. They mark out certain ‘possibilities of fact’, but do not of themselves yet constitute a ‘fact’ (the pictorial ‘fact’). In order to be configured into a ‘fact’, i.e. in order to evolve into a Figure, they must be re-injected into the visual whole, but it is precisely through the action of these marks that the visual whole ceases to be a purely optical organisation:

‘It will give the eye another power, as well as an object that will no longer be figurative.’ (Deleuze, The Logic of Sensation, p. 81)

The ‘diagram’ evinced within Bacon’s work is indeed a type of chaos, a catastrophe, but it is also a germ of order of rhythm. It is thus a violent chaos in relation to the figurative givens, but it is also germ of rhythm in relation to the new order of the painting, a new and emergent sense. As Bacon says, it ‘unlocks areas of sensation’. Deleuze argues that the entire significance of Bacon’s ‘diagrammatic path’ is the recognition that the ‘diagram’ must not eat away at the entire painting, it must remain limited in space and time, it must remain operative, functional and controlled. The violent methods associated with the ‘diagrammatic’ must not be given free reign, and the necessary catastrophe must not submerge the whole. The ‘diagram’ is a possibility of ‘fact’ – it is not the ‘Fact’ itself. Thus not all the figurative givens have to disappear; a new figuration, that of the Figure, should emerge from the ‘diagram’ and render the bloc of sensation clear and precise. The ‘diagrammatic’ thus begins the act of painting, it lays out the prepictorial plane of immanence, and it is precisely this creative practice bound up with diagrammatic elaboration which is to be understood to form one of the three fundamental elements of philosophy, albeit a non-philosophical one:

‘Precisely because the plane of immanence is prephilosophical and does not immediately take effect with concepts, it implies a sort of groping experimentation and its layout resorts to measures that are not very respectable , rational, or reasonable. These measures belong to the order of dreams, of pathological processes , esosteric experiences, drunkenness, and excess…To think is always to follow the witch’s flight.’ (What is Philosophy?, p. 41)

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