Navigating with Deleuze is fine as long as you don’t have a fixed and final destination and have plenty of time. When I think of following a Deleuzian path or track, I expect to end up where I started a few times and go off at tangents, looping back and occasionally taking a line of flight.
Two words in the description of the Cabinets of Consequence exhibition drew my attention when I was thinking about what to say today. They are: ‘interplay’ and ‘multiple’ – “the interplay between human, animal, environmental and technological activity within the context of ecological change”; and “the multiple effects of everyday materials and artefacts”. The resonances with the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze are loud and clear, so I thought I would introduce some fundamental Deleuzean concepts and explore how they work in the exhibition. Rather than thinking in terms of navigating something that is already there, I want to characterise the exhibition as a thinking-machine, an assemblage that prompts active engagement with the objects and artefacts displayed.
‘Ideas are multiplicities: every idea is a multiplicity or a variety.’ This statement comes from Deleuze’s book Difference and Repetition. He goes on to say that the substantive form of the idea is crucially important and that (here I am paraphrasing) we must resist the tendency to organize variety into a unified system. This would involve ready-made categories and hierarchies which according to Deleuze are not conducive to active thinking. When I looked at the cabinets, this was one of the first things to strike me – that I wasn’t being offered someone else’s pre-thought-out static structures of meaning. It’s a beautifully suggestive exhibition.
Returning to multiplicity – how does it work as a form of organization ‘belonging to the many as such’? The answer is to think rhizomatically. Deleuze wrote a book together with the psychiatrist Felix Guattari called A Thousand Plateaus. In it, they contrast the hierarchically arranged tree structure with that of the rhizome. Nomadic philosophy requires us to think in a new way – to think and to write rhizomatically – to make connections, associations, to trace a branching path, to abandon traditional structures of argumentation, and yet it is not the case that anything goes. Think of the rhizome as your main, yet multiple, idea in which everything is connected. You can map or track your idea, following a route that is suggested by the intensities you encounter. In my case, it was the artefacts that drew me in. First the engraving of polar whaling by Van der Laan, then the baleen (via some imaginings of stays and corsets) to the more repellent whale skin and blubber – men exploiting animals for fuel oil, women for beauty aids – interrupted by the horrific sight of the black lung which made me think of a friend’s father – a Welsh miner – who died of pneumoconiosis in his mid-fifties. So it wasn’t just animals, but certain people who were victims of the ‘drive for energy and resources’.
It is possible to see the cabinets of consequence themselves as a connector or assemblage which allows us to view everyday materials and artefacts and make our own connections between them. They are grouped, not hierarchically, or in categories, but in association with one another, chosen in such a way as to make us think about their effects on different, but interconnecting ‘plateaus’ or ‘planes’. We could say that ‘dog breeding’ is one such plane and ‘bees and pollination’ another. These connect with one another in the idea of human manipulations and interferences in the natural world.
Although we are given a short statement about each cabinet, I did not see this as being told what or how to think about the multiple connections between the objects grouped together, whether in a small group or an entire cabinet, or indeed the four cabinets constituting the exhibition. You, the viewer, are free to trace your own rhizome as well, which might depend on which cabinet you start with, or what your own academic discipline is. It would not be too far-fetched to say that the makers of this exhibition have constructed a thinking-machine.
Deleuzean philosophy embraces the physical, material world. It turns away from ideas as abstract essences and from representation as inducing recollection of something already known. ‘The events and singularities of the Idea do not allow any positing of an essence as “what the thing is”.’ It is the thing itself which is important. So we can see the objects in the cabinets eg. the blue carnations, fossilized dung or robotic pollinators as singularities that make up the Idea – as one of the many singularities that form the Idea. The cabinets do give us context and description of the objects – if we want them – they do not explicitly reproduce something that is already known – what is the point of that? Much more powerful than recognizing what is known, according to Deleuze, is thinking for ourselves. Quote: ‘The Idea is not the element of knowledge but that of infinite “learning”.’ Which brings me to the heart of nomadic philosophy: its positivity and affirmative approach.
So bringing Deleuzean thinking to bear on the Cabinets of Consequence has highlighted the importance of experimenting with modes of presenting objects for exhibition. What is special about the cabinets of consequence is that they implicitly ask a spectator to work at making connections, not only between the singularities displayed here, but between them and other objects or events not even included in the exhibition. I congratulate the makers of the thinking-machine.
Jane Fenoulhet is Professor Of Dutch Studies in UCL Department of Dutch