13 Sep 2009

Deleuze's Kant: Bodily Intensity, Sublime Catastrophe


by Corry Shores
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[The following is taken from my master's thesis, The Rhythm of Sensation on the Surface of Sense: Communication in Deleuze as NonSensed and Intense, pages 41-46. Completed, defended, and archived June 2008. I present this material here as reference for later work on Kant, Deleuze, and common sense.]



1. Sublime Intensity


We may trace Deleuze’s notion of intensity to his commentary on the role of intensive magnitudes in Kant’s sublime and the resulting violence and discord of the faculties. When our faculties function normally in sensation, the object we encounter is given to us with extensive magnitudes: it extends in time and space. Yet for Kant, the phenomenal object is not something that merely bears extensive magnitudes, it itself is a magnitude: “we might think of a walking stick as having a magnitude of [one meter]... in contrast, Kant thinks of the walking stick as being a magnitude.”[1] Objects appear to us with temporal and spatial features; thus, to be a phenomenal object is to be a magnitude (eine Größe sein), and we may estimate how great (wie groß) the extent of the magnitude (Größe) is.[2] When we confront an object, we do not grasp its extensive dimensions all at once; for, no matter how small the object, a passage of time is required to scan its full spatial extent.[3] It is not until we take all the extensive parts together that we comprehend the object, to take it as a whole; but this is done through a succession of apprehensions of the parts which are then retroactively synthesized into a whole. The imagination does this by reproducing the representations of the previously apprehended parts and then uniting them all into a synthetic representation of the entire object. The understanding then proceeds to recognize the object by identifying it with its proper concept. This harmonious cooperation of the faculties recognizing a shared object is our “common sense.”[4]

Unlike the magnitudes of these recognized objects whose extensive features we apprehend successively, intensive magnitudes are apprehended instantaneously and entirely, and their magnitude is a matter of their degree of influence on our senses. For example, the full moon’s diameter may appear to be only somewhat less than the sun. However, emanating from this same approximate extent of space is a vast difference of intensity: the moonlight’s glimmer is pale in comparison to the sun’s shine, which is “about 200,000 illuminations of the moon,” so bright as to burn the retinas of our eyes.[5] Yet, even though upon reflection we may compare their intensities according to standard moon-units of brightness, we do not perceive the intensity as having such a quantity, but instead only as being an unextended magnitude of greatness.

When experiencing the mathematical sublime, we confront something formless whose extensive magnitude is absolutely great (schlecthin groß).[6] As such, there can be no end to the succession of apprehensions; and, our imagination, which dually reproduces passing appearances while representing those still appearing, encounters the limit of the amount of representations it may reproduce and synthesize into one object. Yet still, we desire the pleasure that results when our faculties fulfill their purpose of comprehension, and thus we add to the violence that the imagination already experiences from its being pushed past its limits, by pressuring the faculties to comprehend the absolutely great object. However, on account of its endless magnitude, the absolutely great object cannot be represented by comprehending its extensive parts. The best the imagination can do is represent the “subjective play of the powers of the mind (imagination and reason) as harmonious even in their contrast.”[7] That is to say, our faculties cannot represent the object, but rather only their own failed coordinated efforts to do so. This “negative” representation is then correlated with reason’s idea of the absolute whole, and thereby the violence is resolved, and our pain from the sublime experience is replaced by the pleasure of satisfying our purpose as rational creatures.[8]

In these cases when no extensive magnitude is sensed, only intensive magnitudes are experienced; however, Kant still subordinates intensity to extensity. Magnitude is homogeneous, because it is made up of numerically diverse identical parts.[9] By comprehending the parts of an extensive magnitude into a whole, and then by comparing that whole with another magnitude, we measure the extensities of objects. Intensity, however, is not given in its parts, so its quantity is represented only by artificially imposing an extensive-like measure upon its magnitude, as if it extended in a homogeneously quantified dimension. We will find that for Deleuze, intensity is likewise a quantity, yet not a homogenous one; and he detects an implicit evaluation of a chaotic heterogeneous rhythm in Kant’s sublime experiences.



2. Bodily Catastrophe


As we described previously, in Kant’s experience of the sublime we encounter something whose magnitude exceeds our capacities to comprehend it. Normally we apprehend objects part-by-part in their chain of succession, eventually comprehending them together, which, Deleuze explains, we accomplish by selecting an apprehension to function as a standard unit of measure. This unit should be in proportional “harmony” with what it measures, although it varies for each instance, because, he says, “apprehending successive parts implies... something like a lived evaluation of a unit of measure. But in following the nature of objects there is no constant unit of measure,” (Appréhender des parties successives ça implique… déjà comme une espèce d’évaluation vécue d’une unité de mesure. Or suivant la nature des objets il n’y a pas d’unité de mesure constante).[10]

For example, when seeing a tree, we might apprehend the parts by looking first to the top, then move our eyes bit-by-bit towards the bottom, thereby assessing that the tree has a height of ten people. But when seeing the mountain behind the tree, we look-it up to the top and assess it as ten trees tall. So the unit of measure varies according to the circumstance, but in each case, it must be in due proportion and harmony with the object it measures. What must be involved in these acts of comprehension, Deleuze suggests, is an aesthetic comprehension of the unit of measure, based on an evaluation of the “rhythm” of the succession of apprehensions, as though they had a rate which could be quantified by juxtaposing a homogeneous part to the whole flow, like a beat with a particular tempo.

Yet, as sublime experiences demonstrate, the rhythm cannot be assessed by an equal, steady, and consistent comparison of homogeneous differences; rather, this rhythm is continually heterogeneous and uneven. However, merely for the purpose of comprehending our experiences, we evaluate an approximate regularity in the flow of temporally and spatially determined apprehensions, as Deleuze says, “we plunge into them in a sort of exploration,” (on s’enfonce comme dans une espèce d’exploration).[11] Which is to say, that the proportions in our apprehensions are continually changing, as though we were looking upon our reflection in a carnival mirror from different angles at a time. Objects, then, are originally given to us as deformations, because they appear at varying scales, distances, and angles.

This inconsistency of proportion is one reason that Deleuze discovers a heterogeneous rhythm in Kant’s notion of perception. We should look first at the metaphorical implications of the term rhythm. We normally measure temporal rhythm by consistent ratios: the clock ticks were one per second. Kant’s aesthetic comprehension of a unit of measure is analogous, but considered more in terms of spatial extent (‘ten trees per mountain’) rather than temporal extension (‘one tick per second’). However, there is also a sort of temporal rhythm to the apprehensions, because if, for instance, our eyes are moving more rapidly, then the smaller apprehensions might be arriving faster. As well, there is a temporal rhythm to our comprehensions, because if we were standing far from the tree, we would comprehend its size quicker than if we were standing underneath it; because, from this more awkward angle, we would have greater difficulty comparing the disproportionate top with what lies near us at the bottom. Thus, it would require more apprehensions per comprehension.

But even in these exceptional examples, the difficulties we have in making aesthetic comprehensions is not a complete disaster to our perception, because we can adjust to the abnormalities after some time. Our exploratory “plunge” into the rhythmically irregular apprehensions results in our emerging with a sort of map or representative depiction of the objects and their correct spatiotemporal relativities to each other, despite them having been given without these universal regularities.

Yet, these evenly-proportional ratios between the measuring apprehension and the comprehension are not what Deleuze means by rhythm, which for him is chaos and catastrophe. He illustrates these notions with the powerful example of Kant’s sublime experiences. As we noted before, in these instances we perceive something with an absolute magnitude, which means that it goes beyond any possible measuring unit. For this reason, when perceiving it, there is no end to the succession of apprehensions; so, there is never a whole that can be measured with finite units. When we try to find one, the whole increases, and we continue to make larger-and-larger units, none being adequate: “each time I find one it is destroyed. So I am pushed as if by a wind at my back to choose bigger and bigger units of measure, and none is adequate” (Chaque fois que j’en trouve une, elle est détruite. Alors je suis poussé comme par un vent dans le dos à choisir des unités de mesure de plus en plus grandes, et aucune n’est adéquate).[12] This is the first catastrophe: we become disoriented and dizzy, because without possessing a common universal measure, we do not have any stable point of orientation in our perception of the world around us. It is as though the whole world were appearing in a waving carnival mirror. We may then only distinguish “completely heterogeneous parts,” and as we come to have new apprehensions, we forget the prior ones, which pushes us “into going ever further and losing more and more,” enhancing our dizziness. This is the second catastrophe, in which we are no longer able to synthesize our apprehensions.[13] For example, our eyes might move upwards from the mountain to the expanse of the starry night sky; and when trying to measure its extent, we continually discover that between each star are more fainter ones, and between those even more. We uncover galaxies in what we previously thought were but single points of light, so that it becomes impossible to assess the night sky’s extent, on account of its infinite depth: even its tiniest parts conceal cosmic expanses that are far beyond our comprehension.

As Deleuze explains, “beneath measures and their units, there are rhythms which give me, in each case, the aesthetic comprehension of the unit of measure. Beneath the measure there is the rhythm. But this is the catastrophe,” (Sous les mesures et leurs unités, il y a des rythmes qui me donnent, dans chaque cas, la compréhension esthétique de l’unité de mesure. Sous la mesure, il y a le rythme. Or la catastrophe est là).[14] That is to say, we comprehend objects in the chaos of sensation by first aesthetically apprehending a unit to measure them. However, what determines the size of the measuring unit are the proportions and rates of our perceptions, which are not regular enough to be simplified into consistent numerical divisions; for, our sensations are given to us in a way that has both regularity and irregularity. Hence, spatiotemporal extents appear in unpredictable and varying ways, which nonetheless seem manageable. We continually try to find the proper units of measure, even though the irregularities of perception make it impossible for our measurements to be precise. This strange mixture of order and its opposite, which is inherent to all out sensations, is what Deleuze calls chaos. (Perhaps we might venture to say that Deleuze seems to think that for Kant, perceptions are given to us already with spatial and temporal features; however, the way these spatial and temporal features are given to us is without spatiotemporal regularity. Yet, we must artificially establish some regularity for the purpose of comprehension. So, the inherent irregularity of their way of being given to us, then, might be the rhythm of sensation in this Kantian context).

For Deleuze, this heterogeneous rhythm is what disorganizes our faculties, although this relation between the rhythm of sensation and the discord of the faculties calls for clarification. The internal conflict in sublime experiences is found primarily between the faculties of imagination, understanding, and reason, all of which strive together to obtain knowledge, which is our purpose as rational beings. Reason is the faculty that forces us to “unite the immensity of the sensible world into a whole,” (rien d’autre que la raison ne nous force à réunir en un tout l’immensité du monde sensible).[15] The understanding provides us with concepts; the imagination synthesizes apprehensions into representations. When the understanding’s concept matches the imagination’s representation, the object is recognized.

Discord comes about in sublime experiences when this matching procedure is thwarted: the apprehensions are too numerous to synthesize, so the imagination never produces a complete representation that might correspond to a concept. Despite this impossibility of accord, reason violently pushes them to the limits of their capacities, which causes us to suffer pain.

If it is on account of the irregular rhythm of sensation that the imagination is unable comprehend the apprehensions, then we can see how rhythm is responsible for the disorganization of the faculties. We might also say metaphorically that they are out of synchrony, because when they recognize an object, they come together at the same moment, and then may together at once move-on to the next task. However, when they are in discord, the understanding might run through numerous possible concepts all while the imagination has synthesized only a few partial representations. Hence, we may consider the discord of the faculties both as a disruption of harmony and synchrony, the latter metaphor being important for regarding disorder in terms of rhythm.

Because we are continually thwarted from comprehending and recognizing the object in sublime experiences, Kant claims that we sense the object as formless.[16] Deleuze adds that the object is also deformed (difforme), on account of the interesting way that he modifies Kant’s doctrine of the faculties.[17] Deleuze's transformative renewal of this theory is central to his anti-phenomenological account of perception; so, he defends it with strong words, writing that Kant’s doctrine of the faculties is “an entirely necessary component of the system of philosophy.”[18] We noted that in phenomenology, chaos becomes a factor in perception when our expectations are disappointed, because we have two conflicting possible syntheses; this conflict, then, temporarily suspends the unification of the sense data. Yet, object constitution happens on the level of the passive association of the constituent appearances of the objects, on the basis of kinship relations that refer to each other.[19] Disappointment only occurs when we were wrong in our unifications. Phenomenology could not possibly mix chaos and order on this level, because the “agency” of the unification is found within the features of the appearances themselves: the tree’s leaves already bear such similar features as to not require a precise analysis of each one in order to determine that they are the foliage of one tree. According to Husserl, we associatively identify objects through connections of homogeneity, and distinguish them with relations of heterogeneity.[20] If phenomenology took into consideration the chaotic rhythm of sensation that Deleuze describes (perhaps by giving a phenomenological analysis of sublime experiences), it would encounter the difficulty of explaining an associative synthesis of the heterogeneous.

Deleuze, however, is not interested in giving an account of passive synthesis. Rather, he wants to show that there is a sort of sensation that has nothing to do with synthesis and identification. And, the fact that it is chaotic presents no problem for Deleuze’s theory, because raw sensations do not require any sort of organizational procedure.

Hence Deleuze's interest in the faculties: by claiming that “phenomena” come about through a tension between 1) our tendency to find order where it is suggested, and 2) the inherent irregularities thwarting these efforts, Deleuze can account for experiences which we are more compelled to call sensations, on account of their engaging our empirical faculties to the maximum degree.




[1] Daniel Sutherland, “Kant's Philosophy of Mathematics and the Greek Mathematical Tradition,” (The Philosophical Review, Vol. 113, No. 2, April, 2004), p, 158.

[2] Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt, 1957), B81; Kritik der Reinen Vernunft, (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt, 1956), B203.

[3] Kritik der Reinen Vernunft B202-204.

[4] Gilles Deleuze, Logic of Sense, Transl. Mark Lester (London: Columbia University Press, 1990, reprinted by Continuum, 2001), p.89. Logique de sens, (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1969), p.95-96.

[5] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Transls. & Eds. Paul Guyer & Allen W. Wood, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), B221.

[6] Immanuel Kant, Der Kritik der Urteilskraft, B81.

[7] Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, Transls. & Eds. Paul Guyer & Eric Matthews, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.142.

[8] Critique of the Power of Judgment, p.143.

[9] Sutherland, “Kant's Philosophy of Mathematics,” p.168.

[10] Gilles Deleuze, “Cours Vincennes: synthesis and time - 28/03/1978,” webdeleuze.com.

[11] Gilles Deleuze, “Cours Vincennes: synthesis and time - 28/03/1978,” webdeleuze.com.

[12] Gilles Deleuze, “Cours Vincennes: synthesis and time - 28/03/1978,” webdeleuze.com.

[13] Gilles Deleuze, “Cours Vincennes: synthesis and time - 28/03/1978,” webdeleuze.com.

[14] Gilles Deleuze, “Cours Vincennes: synthesis and time - 28/03/1978,” webdeleuze.com.

[15] Gilles Deleuze, Kant’s Critical Philosophy: The Doctrine of the Faculties, Transl. Hugh Tomlinson & Barbara Habberjam, (London: The Athlone Press, 1984,) p.51. La philosophie critique de Kant : doctrines des facultés, (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2004, originally 1963,) p.74.

[16]das Erhabene ist dagegen auch an einem formlosen Gegenstande zu finden,” Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft¸ B76.

[17] Gilles Deleuze, Kant’s Critical Philosophy, p.50. La philosophie critique de Kant, p.73.

[18] Gilles Deleuze, Différence et répétition, (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1968), p.143. Difference & Repetition, Transl. Paul Patton, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p.186.

[19] Husserl, Edmund, Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, Ed. Rudolf Bernet, Transl. Anthony J. Steinbock, (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001), p. 175.

[20] Husserl, p.175.



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