February 15, 2006

The Haptic

In Deleuze’s 1981 study of Francis Bacon, The Logic of Sensation, the artist becomes configured as the modern paradigm of a painter concerned with the expressive materiality of paint and the conveyance of intense modes of sensation which are distanced from the auspices of representation and narration. For Deleuze Bacon’s work circumvents narrative relations between figures and concentrates on “matters of fact” or “the brutality of fact.” Crucially this enables Bacon to begin to present the possibilities of what can be done with the materiality of paint on its own. His understanding of Bacon’s paintings rests on under-standing them as conveying a very special type of violence, a violence not of representation but of sensation. For Deleuze, this is a violence associated with “colour and line, a static or potential violence, a violence of reaction and expression” (LS, x). Bacon’s paintings are to be under-stood as an interlocking series of experimental, rhythmic assemblages in vivid colors of flesh and bone. The broken tones of flesh and bone operate as limits to a complex rhythmic interplay where each pushes the other to its limit; bone expands in and through flesh in spasmodic movements and flesh compresses and descends into bone in order to give birth to a heightened sense of the “brutality of fact.”

In explaining the operative affective function of Bacon’s work Deleuze draws upon the notion of ‘haptic’ seeing, which he opposes to the more dominant ‘optical’ modes of seeing. The notion is crucial to Deleuze’s account of Bacon’s work and is drawn from the early 20th century art theorist Alois Riegl. Riegl’s fundamental concern was with delineating various historical manifestations of what he called the human “will to art”. He concluded that there were three distinct types of aesthetic principles governing three distinct historical manifestations of this will to art – the Egyptian, Greek and Roman. Common to all three was the goal of representing external objects as clear material entities. For Riegl the ancients all attempted to delimit space to varying degrees in order to vitiate certain problems inherent within visual perception that emerge from the eye’s way of perceiving the natural world in two-dimensional coloured-planes – the objects of the external world tend to appear to us in a chaotic mixture. The ancients, Riegl claims, found the optically perceived external objects gained to be confusing and thus were driven to attempt in their art a representation of the individual object that was as clear as possible. They were forced to have to delineate it and emphasise its material impenetrability. Space was simply regarded as absence or as a void; it represented the negation of the kind of material stability required. In their efforts to comprehend and express the individuality of the object ancients were driven to refuse any reference to the actual ordinary experience of a subject or individual in their effort to embody the absolutely “objective”. The simplest and most straightforward means of perceiving an isolated, separate and “objective” object from out of the chaos of visual perception was through touch which revealed the enclosed unity of the surface or exterior of the object as well as reinforcing its material impenetrability. Yet touch alone cannot yield a comprehensive grasping of the complete surface of the object, just discrete elements of it. In order to grasp the entire object one must combine or link the series of multiple touches through an act of subjective consciousness and thought. The eye initially takes in a confused image of coloured planes and only assembles the outlines of defined individual objects through the synthesis of multiple planar perceptions. Riegl claims that touch is superior to vision in providing information regarding the material impenetrability of objects, yet vision surpasses touch by informing us of height and width, since it is able to synthesise multiple perceptions more quickly than touch. A comprehensive knowledge and understanding of stable objects as three-dimensional requires the subjective synthesis of multiple tactile and visual encounters with the object.

Riegl thus generated an opposition between the objective/subjective and tactile/optical in his account of the ancient will to art. This latter opposition between the tactile and the optical is, Riegl claims, subsequently subsumed within vision. Hand and eye come to reinforce one another, since our visual perceptions of objects as impenetrable, three dimensional and stable entities, necessarily comes to incorporate and synthesise knowledge gained from tactile experience. Hence Riegl introduces the notion of “tactile” or “haptic” vision or seeing, in which the contributing role of the hand and touch has become synthesised and emphasised. He eventually opposes the development of this haptic vision in ancient art to the pure optic vision prevalent within the modern era, where the synthesised role of manual touch has become minimised and largely obscured. However, it is a vital notion excavated and mobilised within Deleuze’s work on aesthetics.

With the haptic Deleuze argues that space becomes tactile as if the eye were now a hand caressing one surface after another without any sense of the overall configuration or mutual relation of those surfaces. It is a virtual space whose fragmented components can be assembled in multiple combinations. In this pure haptic Smooth Space of close-vision, all orientation, landmarks and the linkages between things are in continuous variation – i.e. a continuous transmutation which operates “step-by-step” to no pre-arranged or pre-governed schema. There is no stable unified set of referents since orientations are never constant, but constantly change. The interlinkages themselves are constituted according to an emergent realm of dynamic tactile relationships that have more to do with how a Nomad conceives of their territory.

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