19 Jul 2009

Deleuze and Dance Part II: At the Limit of What Bodies Can Do: Michael Jackson’s Fullness of Death, Under Spinoza's Microscope

by Corry Shores
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Deleuze and Dance Part II

At the Limit of What Bodies Can Do:

Michael Jackson’s Fullness of Death,

Under Spinoza's Microscope

Kvond at Frames /sing has posted a thought-provoking entry on death and the body. He explains that our deaths are echoes that carry-on eternally throughout other living bodies. He writes,

Past events continue in their echoeous life in other taken-to-be-living bodies, how Mozart lives across us, and our instruments, our material etchings; but the body itself, as it once was, opens itself up to other confabulation, other involvements.

So consider if everything in the world around us is one (substance), and all the little parts of the world that we see, including ourselves, are just modifications of that underlying one thing. And these parts themselves have parts, just as we have internal organs, which are made of tissue, cells, atoms, and so on. Within each body-part are smaller bodies, and this can be said for any part of the physical world that extends before us.

Kvond has done extraordinary work already on Spinoza’s optics and lens craftsmanship. One topic he explores is Spinoza’s manufacture of microscope lenses. In one of kvond’s expansions of our exchange on Spinoza’s foci/infinity, he suggests that Spinoza’s notion of the infinite could be further explored in terms of the tiny worlds that his microscopes open-up.

In this other entry, kvond notes how Spinoza describes

the kind of knowledge that a worm in the blood of the body has, as it goes about bumping into something so vast it has no possibility of understanding. One has to keep mind that Spinoza was an early maker of microscope lenses (attested to be of rather high quality), and it is perhaps likely that he had stared into lenses, looking at blood and the what must have seemed infinitesimally small forms therein. (emphasis mine)

Kvond has even uncovered an account given by Theodore Kerckring, who used one of Spinoza’s microscopes:

Kerckring is in possession of a microscope made by Spinoza (the only record of it kind), and by virtue of its powers of clarity he is exploring the structure of ducts and lymph nodes. Yet he has skepticism for what is found in the still oft-clouded microscope glass leads him to muse about the very nature of perception and magnification, after he tells of the swarming of tiny animals he has seen covering the viscera of the cadaver, (what might be the first human sighting of bacteria). He writes of the way in which even if we see things clearly, unless we understand all the relationships between things, from the greatest breadth to the smallest, we simply cannot fully know what is happening, if it is destruction or preservation:

On this account by my wondrous instrument’s clear power I detected something seen that is even more wondrous: the intestines plainly, the liver, and other organs of the viscera to swarm with infinitely minute animalcules, which whether by their perpetual motion they corrupt or preserve one would be in doubt, for something is considered to flourish and shine as a home while it is lived in, just the same, a habitation is exhausted by continuous cultivation. Marvelous is nature in her arts, and more marvelous still is Nature’s Lord, how as he brought forth bodies, thus to the infinite itself one after another by magnitude they having withdrawn so that no intellect is able to follow whether it is, which it is, or where is the end of their magnitude; thus if in diminishments you would descend, never will you discover where you would be able to stand.

Spicilegium Anatomicum 1670. (emphasis mine)

Kvond then quotes from the 32 letter of Spinoza’s correspondences.

It is said by Colerus, his first biographer, than he would lift his magnifying glass and stare at mosquitoes and flies. All the vastness was opening itself up, and closing in.

Let us imagine, with your permission, a little worm, living in the blood¹, able to distinguish by sight the particles of blood, lymph, &c., and to reflect on the manner in which each particle, on meeting with another particle, either is repulsed, or communicates a portion of its own motion. This little worm would live in the blood, in the same way as we live in a part of the universe, and would consider each particle of blood, not as a part, but as a whole. He would be unable to determine, how all the parts are modified by the general nature of blood, and are compelled by it to adapt themselves, so as to stand in a fixed relation to one another. For, if we imagine that there are no causes external to the blood, which could communicate fresh movements to it, nor any space beyond the blood, nor any bodies whereto the particles of blood could communicate their motion, it is certain that the blood would always remain in the same state, and its particles would undergo no modifications, save those which may be conceived as arising from the relations of motion existing between the lymph, the chyle, &c. The blood would then always have to be considered as a whole, not as a part. But, as there exist, as a matter of fact, very many causes which modify, in a given manner, the nature of the blood, and are, in turn, modified thereby, it follows that other motions and other relations arise in the blood, springing not from the mutual relations of its parts only, but from the mutual relations between the blood as a whole and external causes. Thus the blood comes to be regarded as a part, not as a whole. So much for the whole and the part.

Letter 15 (32), 1662

Deleuze refers to this passage when talking about death, and the little bodies that constitute us, as well as our eternal essence, and his famous question, “what can a body do?’ I am reminded of an article about Michael Jackson, which describes his final days. In Michael’s honor, I would like to discuss the way his body danced and died, to illustrate certain Deleuzean ideas.

Deleuze’s treatment of our body’s simplest parts solves a problem in Spinoza’s philosophy: on the one hand, our body is finite; but our body’s essence is eternal.

Every one of us is an individual. And in fact, anything which holds together as something in the world around us is likewise an individual. Each thing extends in space. So we may infinitely divide that space to obtain smaller-and-smaller bodies. Or we might think of this in these terms: we use stronger-and-stronger microscope-lenses to see tinier-and-tinier parts.

If we think that our infinite magnifications or divisions will never reach a final part, then according to Deleuze we are considering the infinite as indefinite. However, when we conceive of the infinite as it actually is, then we will arrive upon final parts. So any one individual body is made-up of infinitely many simple bodies. None of these themselves alone are individuals, but all individuals are made-up of them. Deleuze says:

These are the ultimate terms, these are the terms which are last, which you can no longer divide. But, these terms are infinitely small. They are the infinitely small, and this is the actual infinite.

C’est bien des termes ultimes, c’est bien des termes qui sont les derniers, que vous ne pouvez plus diviser. Seulement, ces termes ce sont des infiniment petits. Ce sont des infiniment petits, et c’est ça, l’infini actuel. (Deleuze, Cours Vincennes: 10/03/1981)

Deleuze characterizes these smallest bodies as being inextensive; they are like calculus limits, or Newton’s "vanishing" ("évanouissants") quantities. So these infinitely small bodies are not themselves “things” but are more like the differential relations of calculus. (Deleuze, Cours Vincennes: 10/03/1981)

To better grasp what Deleuze will say about these differential relations, we should take his advice (Cours Vincennes - 22/04/1980) and briefly examine Leibniz’ simple triangle explanation of the differential ratios. [Click on images to enlarge].

We see lines x and y:

And we notice that the corresponding angles are the same in both triangles. Thus they are similar triangles; their proportions are the same, even if their sizes are different.

Now, we are to imagine the vertical line moving to the right.

So, we move line EY closer to point A, always maintaining the angle at C, and hence also at E

Eventually the smaller top triangle will vanish as the line passes through it.

Now, consider the moment right when the smaller triangle-sides e and c are just vanishing, but not yet vanished. They are at the limit of being magnitudes. So there is no extent between them and zero. However, they are not right on zero yet. So they do not have an extensive magnitude, because they extend to no distance away from zero. But they do have an intensive magnitude, which means a degree of difference. And the one vanishing line will have a relational difference to the other vanishing line. Together, they will make a ratio that has a finite value. We know what that is, because these lines maintained the same ratio-value as the larger triangle, even while the line moved.

So even though c and e are vanishing, and have no extensive measure, when we put them into a differential ratio relation at their limits, we obtain a finite value. This is the magic of differential calculus.

So the simple bodies do not exist on their own. They only exist when in relation to each other, just like the vanishing quantities of Leibniz’ triangle. Here Deleuze refers us to Spinoza's Letter on Blood. We saw that in this letter to Oldenburg (which we discussed above), Spinoza describes the constitution of our blood as being made of the relations between lymph and chyle. Deleuze says,

chyle is an infinite set of very simple bodies. Lymph is another infinite set of the very simple bodies. What distinguishes the two infinite sets? It is the differential relation! You have this time a dy/dx which is: the infinitely small parts of chyle over the infinitely small parts of lymph, and this differential relation tends towards a limit: the blood, that is to say: chyle and lymph compose blood.

le chyle c’est un ensemble infini de corps très simples. La lymphe, c’est un autre ensemble infini de corps très simples. Qu’est-ce qui distingue les deux ensembles infinis? C’est le rapport différentiel. Vous avez cette fois-ci un dy/dx qui est: les parties infiniment petites de chyle sur les parties infiniment petites de lymphe, et ce rapport différentiel tend vers une limite: le sang, à savoir: le chyle et la lymphe composent le sang. (Deleuze, "Cours Vincennes: 10/03/1981")

Such a limit is an infinity in the same way that a polygon tends towards its limit – being a circle – as its sides increase to infinity.

Deleuze explains:

The limit is precisely the moment when the angular line, by dint of multiplying its sides, tends towards infinity. (Deleuze, "Cours Vincennes: 17/02/1981")

Yet we are more than just blood. There are many such differential ratios that make-up our body, which is a cohering group of moving simple bodies in differential relations to each other. We are not the addition of all these differentials, but rather the integral sum:

this relation which characterises me, this differential relation or better, this summation, not an addition but this kind of integration of differential relations, since in fact there are an infinity of differential relations which compose me: my blood, my bones, my flesh, all this refers to all sorts of systems of differential relations.

ce rapport qui me caractérise, ce rapport différentiel ou bien plus, cette sommation, pas une addition mais cette espèce d’intégration de rapports différentiels, puisque en fait il y a une infinité de rapports différentiels qui me composent: mon sang, mes os, ma chair, tout ça renvoie à toutes sortes de systèmes de rapports différentiels. (Deleuze, "Cours Vincennes: 10/03/1981")

Now consider how our bodies are constantly in contact with other individual things. Good food increases our power or abilities. Toxins decrease our body’s capacities. This is because bad things disrupt the differential ratios that characterize us. They make them take-on different proportions. And this is our death. Deleuze says that if one of our own collections is

determined from the outside to take another relation than the one under which it belongs to me. What does this mean? It means that: I die! I die! In effect, the infinite set which belongs to me under such a relation which characterises me, under my characteristic relation, this infinite set will take another relation under the influence of external causes.

déterminée du dehors à prendre un autre rapport que celui sous lequel elle m’appartient. Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire? Ça veut dire: je meurs! Je meurs. En effet, l’ensemble infini qui m’appartenait sous tel rapport qui me caractérise, sous mon rapport caractéristique, cet ensemble infini va prendre un autre rapport sous l’influence de causes extérieures.

He gives the example

of poison which decomposes the blood: under the action of arsenic, the infinitely small particles which compose the blood, which compose my blood under such a relation, are going to be determined to enter under another relation. Because of this, this infinite set is going to enter in the composition of another body, it will no longer be mine: I die!

du poison qui décompose le sang: sous l’action de l’arsenic, les particules infiniment petites qui composent mon sang, qui composent mon sang sous tel rapport, vont être déterminées à entrer sous un autre rapport. Dès lors cet ensemble infini va entrer dans la composition d’un autre corps, ce ne sera plus le mien: je meurs!

. . .

I die when these parts which belong to me or which belonged to me are determined to enter under another relation which characterises another body: I would feed worms! "I would feed worms", which means: the parts of which I am composed enter under another relation — I am eaten by worms. My corpuscles, mine, which pass under the relation of the worms.

Je meurs lorsque les parties qui m’appartiennent ou qui m’appartenaient sont déterminées à rentrer sous un autre rapport qui caractérise un autre corps: je nourrirais les vers! "Je nourrirais les vers", cela veut dire: les parties qui me composent entrent sous un autre rapport — je suis mangé par les vers. Mes corpuscules, à moi, qui passent sous le rapport des vers. (Deleuze, "Cours Vincennes: 10/03/1981")

In death our simple bodies break-up and form into different ratios, for example, those of the worm feeding on our bodies. But what is important to note is that the proportional relations themselves do not disappear. “The formula” that makes us who we are always existed and always will exist, eternally, in the mind of God. But God’s mind is no different than the underlying substance of the whole world. It is merely another qualitative expression of the same thing. So we exist eternally. Only, substance expresses us for a finite duration as a modality. (And along the lines of Nietzsche’s eternal return, we could possibly come to be expressed again in exactly the same ratios, and perhaps we might come into existence over-and-over again infinitely many more times). But yet, we are always implicitly expressed in the world around us. This idea could be compatible with kvond’s description of our persistence after death as echoes through other bodies, which he says might be Spinoza’s God.

Depending on the variations of our internal ratio-relations, we might have more-or-less power or ability at any given time. These levels change throughout our lives. Yet, we remain who we are despite the changes we undergo. This is because our essence is really a continuum of power-variation. The essence variation-range itself is eternal, but its different levels express themselves as our current states at any given time. And again, that level of power is expressed as our internal simple-body ratios. When they lose their cohesion and consistency, we become something else, like soil and its small living organisms (our echoes, perhaps). While we are alive, our body is capable of certain actions. And we are affected by different things, like nutrients or toxins, which increase or decrease our capabilities. Our power swings up and down continuously, like a melody. But as kvond notes in his comments to this blog entry (at Michael Austin’s Complete Lies http://buymeout.wordpress.com), the stone is not imperfect on account of it being unable to see. For, conditions do not allow for stones to see. So we would not also consider a blind man as deficient either. Thus we do not become deficient as we near our deaths and our body decays on account of its composing-relations taking-on proportions that express other beings (like worms). Throughout the course of our whole lives, we will fully express our range of essence. But what is important for Deleuze is that we cannot predict if in the next instant we will have more capacities or less. This is because the way we are affected changes unpredictably, like a melody we hear for the first time. This is why Deleuze takes this question from Spinoza: “What can a body do?” For all we know, we could become much more powerful a moment from now. Or, we could suddenly die. We just never know what our body can do.

Someone who has shown us just how much a body can do, is Michael Jackson. His capacities in dance far exceeded what many consider humanly possible. Here are parts of Billy Jean, when first he introduces the moonwalk.


It seems that his body is right at the limit of what bodies can do. But his body also came to suffer harmful affections. He obtained addiction to pain medicines some think in the mid 80’s when a stage accident set his hair on fire. He also suffered chronic insomnia, and took heavy drugs to put himself down at night, then took others to get him up and through the next day. He suffered other ailments as well, and as he aged, his body came to be able to do less-and-less.

Even at the heights of his body’s ability to dance, he had a sense of its morbidity as well. In this scene during the Smooth Criminal song of his Moonwalker film, there is a breakdown where he and the other dancers evoke a voodoo underworld erotic dance of death.


Ian Halperin is a biographer who followed Michael during his final years. His superb article can be found here. He explains that Michael knew his body was incapable of handling the demanding 50 concert schedule he was contractually obligated to fulfill. In fact, Michael predicted that his attempt to go through with it would certainly kill him. But he did so anyway. He saw himself as being better if he were to die. Halperin writes:

Jackson told my contact that he wanted to die. He said that he didn’t have what it would take to perform any more because he had lost his voice and dance moves.

‘It’s not working out,’ Jackson said. ‘I’m better off dead. I don’t have anywhere left to turn. I’m done.’

Michael knew the concerts would kill him. But he did not quit. He instead took his body to the limit, where he would inevitably vanish. We can see from this final rehearsal video that he was not a frail old man. His body could still do amazing things. [Perhaps adjust the volume down for this one].


Our body will someday face its limit, when it ceases to be our body, and comes to compose something else. Right at that limit, no extent of time will stand between us and our deaths. We will not have vanished. But we will be vanishing.

I do not know what to say about us after we die. I think I agree with kvond’s characterization of us as echoing-away into eternity. But I would like to say more about what our bodies do while we are alive. When we reach the limit of our lives, we might also ask, what have our bodies done? If we would have died at a much younger age, we would have expressed a narrow range of variation. If we age and lose the parts of our youthful appearance and fitness, we are gaining a greater range of variation in how our essence is expressed. So the longer we live, the more we become. Even the “deficiencies” we develop in our later age are new notes in life’s melody. And when we reach the limit of our life’s duration, only then have we been as much as our bodies could be. To die a second earlier would mean to have undergone less expressive variation. However, this does not mean that those who die young have missed-out on more self-fulfillment. Circumstances did not allow for them to have a longer life, so they fully expressed the entire extent of their essence’s range of variation. Nonetheless, as we near death, we should look forward to it as the fulfillment of the expression of our selfhood.

Deleuze, Gilles. "Cours Vincennes: 10/03/1981".webdeleuze.com. English and French versions available here.

Deleuze, Gilles. "Cours Vincennes: 17/02/1981".webdeleuze.com. English and French versions available here.

Deleuze, Gilles. "Cours Vincennes: 20/01/1981".webdeleuze.com. The lecture is available here: French and English.

Deleuze, Gilles. "Cours Vincennes: 10/03/1981".webdeleuze.com. English and French versions available here.

Halperin, Ian. “I’m better off dead. I’m done. Michael Jackson’s fateful prediction just a week before his death.” Mail Online. 29-June-2009. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1196009/Im-better-dead-Im-How-Michael-Jackson-predicted-death-months-ago.html

Leibniz, Gottfried. "Justification of the Infinitesimal Calculus by that of Ordinary Algebra." Philosophical Papers and Letters. Ed. & Transl. Leroy E. Loemker. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1956.

Spinoza. The Letters. Transl Samuel Shirley. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1995.


First Moonwalk:

Smooth Criminal:

Final rehersal:

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