Artaud, Deleuze and The Will to Nothingness

Catrin Welz-Stein – Unborn Ideas

I close the eyes of my intelligence, and giving voice to the unformulated within me,

I offer myself the sense of having wrested from the unknown something real.

I believe in spontaneous conjurations.

On the paths along which my blood draws me, it cannot be that one day I will not discover a truth.[1]                     

Antonin Artaud does not call for destruction of reason through the imaginary but an affirmation of reason’s self-destruction on the way to self-creation. There is a knowledge which Artaud is in pursuit of without knowing what that knowledge is and what purpose it serves. Artaud is always in pursuit of this unattainable and ungraspable knowledge and he knows that, as he is trying to give it a voice, he is moving away from and towards it at the same time. This movement of the action and the intention in opposite directions, that is, this turning against itself of desire, is a thought that Artaud feels with his body but cannot express through articulable forms. Artaud makes the inarticulable visible through costume, lighting, etc., and tries to create a psychic materiality.

When you will have made him a body without organs,

then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions and restored him to his true freedom,

then you will teach him again to dance wrong side out,

as in the frenzy of dancehalls,

and this wrong side out will be his real place.[2]

Artaud feels the body as an externally organized structure and experiences existence as pain because he feels his body to be restricted and subjected to forms it is not willing to take at all times. By disorganizing the body through putting its organs to different uses, to uses other than they have come to be put, within the organizing structures, Artaud induces agony in himself. Desiring to become inorganic, and this is a desire for an impersonal death, an “ungraspable” knowledge, this striving for infinity within the finite, is, paradoxically, at once the product and the producer of his affirmation of life as it is, that is, as “a process of breaking down…” as the American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald puts it in his The Crack Up. In The Logic of Sense Deleuze reads Fitzgerald’s The Crack Up with Kleinian eyes and says that identification is peculiar to manic-depressive states. In The Crack Up Fitzgerald says,

I only wanted absolute quiet to think about why I had developed a sad attitude toward tragedy—why I had become identified with the objects of my horror or compassion… Identification such as this spells the death of accomplishment. It is something like this that keeps insane people from working. Lenin did not willingly endure the sufferings of his proletariat, nor Washington of his troops, nor Dickens of his London poor. And when Tolstoy tried some such merging of himself with the objects of his attention, it was a fake and a failure…[3]

Deleuze affirms Fitzgerald’s manic-depressive attitude towards the relationship between life and death in the Porcelain and Volcano chapter of his The Logic of Sense.

If one asks why health does not suffice, why the crack is desirable, it is perhaps because only by means of the crack and at its edges thought occurs, that anything that is good and great in humanity enters and exits through it, in people ready to destroy themselves—better death than the health which we are given. Is there some other health, like a body surviving as long as possible its scar, like Lowry dreaming of rewriting a “Crack Up” which would end happily, and never giving up the idea of a new vital conquest?[4]

In a world ruled by fools full of ill-will war becomes inescapable. Since war, conflict, violence and destruction are interior as much as they are exterior affairs, it is hardly a matter of bad luck that we will be wounded at some point if we haven’t been already, not that I wish it to be that way. An injury either creates a possibility of relating to the world as it is, or turns into an obsession with the self, into a delusional and rigid vision of existence projected onto the real, giving birth to neurosis or psychosis.

We do not write with our neuroses. Neuroses or psychoses are not passages of life, but states into which we fall when the process is interrupted, blocked, or plugged up. Illness is not a process but a stopping of the process, as in “the Nietzsche case.” Moreover, the writer as such is not a patient but rather a physician, the physician of himself and of the world. The world is a set of symptoms whose illness merges with man. Literature then appears as an enterprise of health.[5]

If we have a look at “the Nietzsche case” once again with Kleinian eyes through a Deleuzean looking glass we see that the mechanism of projection-introjection is itself the illness of which resentment and bad conscience are the causes and the symptoms at the same time. In the case of projection the subject’s illness is manifested as aggressiveness and hostility towards the external world, always accusing the others for his weaknesses. This is the paranoiac who is afraid of being persecuted and sees the external world as a threat to his unity. Afraid of the external world, he himself becomes hostile towards it in turn provoking hostility against himself, thus giving birth to the actualisation of what he was afraid of. And in the case of introjection the subject internalises the fault and turns against itself. This is the psychotic who identifies with everything and everyone, and who has too many points of view together with a divergent coherency of thought and action. Intending to take a spoon from the drawer he might break a plate on the floor. In the first case there is a detached hostility and in the second case there is an immersed attachment. In both cases the subject becomes the victim of his own actions against and toward himself and others.

Nietzsche says that the will to nothingness eventually turns against itself and becomes creative and revalues all values to survive death.[6] It is through writing as the patient and the physician, as the analyst and the analysand at the same time that Nietzsche is able to turn resentment, bad conscience, fear, and guilt against themselves and produce desire as affirmation of the world as it is after a conflict that is interior as much as it is exterior to the self. This conflict is the crack up that happens to the body of the organism. It is neither interior nor exterior, but a “surface event.”

There was a silent, imperceptible crack, at the surface, a unique surface Event. It is as if it were suspended or hovering over itself, flying over its own field. The real difference is not between the inside and the outside, for the crack is neither internal nor external, but is rather at the frontier.[7]

It was on and through his disorganized body, or body without organs, that Artaud traversed the realm of affective intensities and the field of partial objects and produced desire without an object. For Deleuze the process of traversing the affective intensities felt through body rather than grasped by the mind may be the returning of a “great health.” Here objects are related to in such a way as to produce desire not as lack but as production. For Deleuze it is the production of fantastic visions of the world that are the causes and effects of certain pathological conditions. Bombarded with unattainable objects of desire the subject becomes mad.

In both Freud and Lacan the attitude toward the object of desire is Platonic in that the object of desire is the object of desire as long it remains unattainable. To put it in Lacanian terms, with the acquisition of language the subject starts to enter the symbolic order and loses touch with the Real which is the unconscious. His desires and drives are shaped and organized according to the Symbolic order of the language game in which he finds himself. So the direction the subject’s becoming will take depends not only on the way in which the subject relates to language but also how he relates the unconscious to language, since it is one’s production of a sense of oneness for oneself in and through language that determines one’s way of being in relation to language. Language is neither internal nor external to the subject and yet it is equally internal and external to the subject since language is the surface in-between. Beyond language there is nothing. Deleuze observes a movement of language towards its outside, not to reach the outside of language, but to create an outside language within language in writers such as Kafka, Beckett, and later Kerouac(The Subterraneans, Big Sur). For Deleuze, their subversions of syntax become their passage through the fleshy transparency of signification unless the process of production through the unconscious forces of the outside is blocked.

All writing involves an athleticism, but far from reconciling literature with sports, or turning writing into an Olympic event, this athleticism is exercised in flight and in the breakdown of the organic body—an athlete in bed, as Michaux put it.[8]

Deleuze sees the goal of literature as giving a voice to those unconscious forces that belong to a realm outside of language and those forces can only be given a voice by creating an impersonal consciousness through a new language within language – an outside language inside the language – that traverses the field of partial representations of the human condition and produces an other sign that is itself at once internally exterior and externally interior to the major order of signification. The outside of language is the realm which Deleuze calls “the transcendental field of immanence.” It is through this synthesis of transcendence and immanence that Deleuze is theoretically able to touch the material through the psychic, and the real through the fantasy. But the problem persists, for the question remains: how are we going to practice this theory? Is it practical enough to be applied to the banalities of ordinary life?

In his book, On Deleuze and Consequences, Zizek bases his critique of Deleuze on his use of Artaud’s concept of the body without organs. As is clearly understood from the subtitle of his book, Organs Without Bodies, Zizek’s aim is to reverse the Deleuzean order of things. With his well known 180 degrees reversals, Zizek uses Deleuze’s idea of a resistance to Oedipalization against him, and that way shows that Deleuze’s assumption that Oedipalization is something to be resisted is based on false premises. For Zizek, Oedipalization takes place when and if there is a failure in the system. Zizek considers Anti-Oedipus to be a book in which Deleuze and Guattari situate a psychotic and an Oedipalized subject on the opposite poles of one another. For Zizek a psychotic is the Oedipalized subject par excellence, rather than being an anti-Oedipe who escapes the codes of capitalist axiomatics.

[…] far from tying us down to our bodily reality, “symbolic castration” sustains our very ability to “transcend” this reality and enter the space of immaterial becoming. Does the autonomous smile that survives on its own when the cat’s body disappears in Alice in Wonderland also not stand for an organ “castrated,” cut off from the body? What if, then, phallus itself, as the signifier of castration, stands for such an organ without a body?[9]

What for Deleuze is traversing the symbolic becomes traversing the fantasy in Lacan as Zizek pointed out first in The Sublime Object of Ideology and later in The Ticklish Subject. Traversing the fantasy is a stage in the process of progress and it is only upon entry into the symbolic that the subject becomes capable of initiating change in the symbolic order. In Lacan’s mirror stage where a series of imaginary Narcissistic identifications prepares the subject for the symbolic order, the child has an illusory sense of oneness and yet this illusion is necessary only in so far as the child will traverse this fantasy and will have learned to look at the world without identification.

A detachment from identification is common to both Deleuze and Zizek and in this sense they are both Lacanians. Lacan is the one that unites them as he splits them. For Deleuze the Lacanian symbolic is that in which the subject finds itself upon birth, so to initiate change the subject should try to introduce an exterior inside, a new language within language. Deleuze tries to put language in touch with a pre-verbal, if not pre-linguistic stage. It is to Klein’s paranoid-schizoid position that Deleuze attributes importance. Deleuze takes the schizoid part of the paranoid-schizoid position and extracts from schizophrenia all apart from introjection and splitting processes. Following Klein Deleuze makes a distinction between introjection and identification. According to Deleuze introjection and splitting are useful tools for creating difference, whereas identification not only preserves but also serves the system. Zizek agrees with him on the usefulness of introjection and splitting. In both cases the revolutionary-becoming is associated with the death drive. But Zizek disagrees with Deleuze’s association of introjection and splitting with schizophrenia.

For Zizek there must be a distance between reason and non-reason. One should not try to name the unnamable, but rather one must show the nothingness outside everything, to do this one must introduce a split into the symbolic continuity of things. An interruption of the system from within is the aim of both Zizek and Deleuze, and yet while Zizek affirms non-representability of the unconscious, Deleuze sees the unconscious as the producer of difference and initiator of change. For Deleuze the unconscious is dynamic, but for Zizek it is static and it is this static state outside time that manifests itself in the form of gaps within the symbolic order; it splits and interrupts the flow of things, rather than participate in it.

What does Oedipalisation mean? It means the production of a subject who would willingly blind himself to the social reality. Who would rather see nothing rather than see the truth. An Oedipalised subject is he who blinds himself to the symbolic meaning of things and chooses to see the nothingness before or after the symbolic. It is the symbolic that Oedipus represses by blinding himself to it. That he has engaged in sexual intercourse with his mother and killed his father, induces such guilt in Oedipus that he punishes himself by cutting himself off from the external world. This Oedipal introversion of the subject leads to a weakening rather than a strengthening of the subject’s fantasy world. With the exclusion of reality, fantasy has nothing to mediate. Unconscious drives cannot attach themselves to external objects so as to turn into desire. Left hanging in the air the unconscious drives turn against the subject and the subject becomes self-destructive, blinding himself to the symbolic, thus opening himself up to the nothingness behind it by choosing to see nothing. An Oedipal subject closes his eyes and seeing the nothingness inside says there is nothing outside. He is Nietzsche’s man, as he puts at the beginning and the end of On The Genealogy of Morality, who “would much rather will nothingness than not will.” For he still wills, otherwise he wouldn’t want to blind himself to it all. It is because he cannot help willing although he doesn’t want to will that his will turns against itself and wills nothingness rather than something to stand in for it.

It is Nietzsche’s legacy to have made a distinction between the subject and the signifier, knowledge and truth. By exposing the absence of an origin of knowledge he exposed the absence of truth in knowledge. Nietzsche inverted into the spotlight the nothingness inherent in knowledge which is constitutive of a truth outside scientific knowledge. Truth can take many forms and one of these is poetic truth, which Nietzsche considers to be closer to the absolute truth, which is the truth of the absence of truth at the center of scientific knowledge.

For Nietzsche there is no relation whatsoever between the object of knowledge and the truth of experience. Perhaps what Deleuze would years later call transcendental empiricism explains the production of truths alternative to the scientific truth which claims to be objective and absolute. For Deleuze literary activity involves creation of impersonal consciousnesses within the subject of writing. The subject of writing should detach himself/herself from the object of writing; that is, the writer should make a distinction between the enunciated and the subject of enunciation. As Deleuze puts it in his essay, Life and Literature, “literature is not a personal affair.”  Literature is not about writing down one’s personal experiences as they actually took place, which is impossible anyway. Literature involves selecting from experience and giving form to formless experience which is yet to take the shape of new forms of experience. Out of the old experience one creates new experience.

The writer turns unnameable drives into new symbolic meanings and new objects of desire. With Deleuze the unconscious is given a very important role to play in the process of cultural production. The non-symbolizable drives interacting with one another and forming what is called the unconscious are turned into comprehensible and desirable forms through literature. Literature contributes to the symbolic order by producing not only new symbolic meanings of the already existing objects but also new objects which didn’t previously exist within the symbolic order.  Literature, therefore, turns the unconscious drive into the symbolic desire. So Deleuze could say the unconscious produces desire. Literature is about turning the pre-verbal — if not pre-linguistic — objects into verbal objects with symbolic meanings attached to them. Literature constructs a world in which the objects gain new significance.


David Pearson, a plastic surgeon, has a fun hobby: photoshopping Escher/Droste-style remixes of watch-faces, combination-lock dials, and other round readouts and twiddles.

Droste/Escher (Thanks, Teresa!)

(Image: Antique Time Spiral, used by permission)


[1] Antonin Artaud, Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag (Berkeley: University of California, 1975), 92

[2] Antonin Artaud, Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag (University of California: Berkeley, 1975), 570-1

[3] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack Up (New York: New Directions, 1945), 69

[4] Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale, (London: Continuum, 2003),

[5] Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, transl.Daniel W. Smith and Michale A. Greco (London and New York: Verso, 1998), 3

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Genealogy of Morality, trans. Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998), 116-8

[7] Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale, (London: Continuum, 2003), 155

[8] Gilles Deleuze, Essays: Critical and Clinical, transl. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (Verso: London and New York, 1998), 2

[9] Slavoj Žižek, Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), 83

7 thoughts on “Artaud, Deleuze and The Will to Nothingness

  1. Pingback: Graham Harman: The Object Smasher; or, the rhetorics of rubble (via Dark Chemistry) « Minimal ve Maksimal Yazılar

  2. In my recently published book “Nothing Matters – a book about nothing” (iff-books) I make a distinction between Nothingness (the absence of something) and Nothing (the absence of everything), and show that the will towards Nothing – as exemplified, e.g. In the arts – is necessarily thwarted.

  3. Hello, I am a student, currently working on a dissertation related to the death drive as perceived by Freud, Lacan, Deleuze, Zizek and Kristeva. I am very interested in your sources/bibliography, however it seems that I need an invitation in order to see them. Is it possible to request an invitation? I have found many of your posts to be a very knowledgeable and inspiring pieces of writing. Best- Aleksandra.

  4. Pingback: Senselogi©’s 2013 in Review | Senselogi©

  5. Pingback: Graham Harman: The Object Smasher; or, the rhetorics of rubble (via Dark Chemistry) | SenseLogic

  6. Pingback: The Object Smasher; or, the Philosophy of Rubble | Senselogi©

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