Updated: Sep 25
(You can listen to the podcast at https://www.fightwithastick.ca/podcast or the usual podcast players)
We are in danger of breaking apart at any moment.
I mean that metaphorically
What holds us together?
Could it be a song? Could it be singing, and moving around to the song we are singing?
And if it is a song that holds us together, if it is singing, do we fall apart when the song ends?
When does the song inevitably become another song or no song at all?
Who knows how the song begins. Or from where? The void? The darkness? Chaos? But out of chaos we sing and dance to mark out a space. To create order. We dance and we sing.
I’m summarizing philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Loosely. Paraphrasing. Taking liberties.
But before I dive into Deleuze and Guattari, let me go on a little further.
A little further into the darkness
to create some light.
We are energy. Each of us a little power station
. . . surrounded by darkness. And always
by many other power stations.
Sometimes there is so much light that darkness and light amount to the same thing. They obscure.
Sometimes there is a boundary that creates an echo. At other times there seems to be nothing but echo-less space.
Thoughts can pull me in so many directions at once I feel like I’m going to break apart.
I’ve seen people fracture completely under the pressure of too much thinking,
or due to the chemistry of their bodies going off,
or due to trauma, or a combination of all of these.
One of my closest friends put an end to his life by shooting himself. Another close friend ended his life by ritually stabbing himself. I’ve know others who have ended their lives by ingesting a lethal dose of a drug.
I once had the sad misfortune of seeing two middle age women with whom I had been conversing and who had just imparted some wise advice to me, be crushed by the impact of a speeding van as they crossed the street.
Every one of these people was once a small child.
There’s nothing that doesn’t turn into something else eventually.
Things fall apart. Things fall together. And fall apart. And fall together.
Songs orient us. They have rhythm. They have refrains. Then they are forgotten.
And somehow it starts again.
Welcome to episode 2 of The Refrain. This episode is going to be a little different from episode 1, Thinking with the Forest. That episode mirrored the style of author Eduardo Kohn; or maybe it’s more accurate to say it created an echo of his style. Kohn wrote a very rigorous study that tried to show how non-human animals— and plants — have selves; and to describe how these selves think. Using the semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce, he tried to explain how all animals, not just humans, represent other animals, and that representation is how we all do most of our thinking. Because Kohn was writing something that challenged the way Western anthropology has tended to frame things, he had to be very careful to make his points stand up to scrutiny. In episode 1, I tried to honour Kohn’s work by also being rigourous.
The source for this episode is chapter 11 from A Thousand Plateaus by philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Theirs is an expansive, free-roaming philosophy in which the style of the writing exemplifies the argument being made. You could say the style of writing is the argument, in that it takes on the character of the ideas the authors express. It feels to me like a very creative, very process-oriented type of writing — a philosophical literary artwork that invents itself as it goes along. Every time I read it, it reveals something different. I sometimes get lost in its winding logic — the way the authors dip into so many fields of knowledge, the way they seem to enjoy provoking, upsetting and inspiring all at once. At times the ideas come across very clearly. Often it’s like a piece of music with developing motifs, rhythms, melodies, and counterpoints.
You have to read it closely
and ride it loosely.
This episode progresses in much the same fashion.
So here we go.
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote a book called A Thousand Plateaus. Chapter eleven is called, “1837: Of the Refrain.”
At the top of the chapter the authors write, “A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos.”
One of the things I get from this chapter is a wide ranging way of thinking about how things hold together and fall apart. And then how the falling apart might result in a new holding together, which falls apart — a lot or a little — leading to a new version of holding together or — and this I suppose is the terrifying part — to total chaos from which nothing comes together ever again. I think that terrifying part is very unlikely, given the self-organizing character of the universe and of all animated and non-animated matter.
But things will fall apart. An ecosystem, a personal relationship, a life, many lives.
Chapter 11 begins in the manner of a religious tome — in a void. A boy in the dark tries to keep the forces of chaos at bay by humming and singing. And then by skipping and jumping — I’ll call it dancing — he marks out a territory, which, they write, “is in danger of breaking apart at any moment.”
A creative endeavour, including making art, can be seen as a ritual act of self-organization — a territorializing action, to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term, that gestures toward a chaos-defying boundary that might, for time, be called a performance. Such works of art seem to emerge from the force of collective will. They have a limited life-span. That is, they emerge, have energy, are appreciated, and are then dismantled, dissolved, dispersed. They die.
Why do we go through this ritual? What are we taking part in? Life, yes. Living energy, yes. And death — dying energy — or as Deleuze and Guattari might put it, the rhythm of dying.
Does anyone doubt our physical existence ends at some point in what we call death? Not many people doubt this.
The bigger question seems to be about what happens after death: nothing, or the continuance of the self as we’ve known it — but in spirit form, or transformation into dispersed organic and mineral material.
And what about the here and now? What about this lifetime, however long that happens to be, during which we seem to maintain a level of physical and psychological coherence? What maintains it while it lasts? What makes a body a self and not a scattering of atoms among scatterings of atoms?
First there is singing: to find a center.
Then the dancing: the marking out of a space, the making of an outside and inside.
As Deleuze and Guattari, who I will often abbreviate from now on to “D and G”, put it: “The forces of chaos are kept outside as much as possible . . . This involves an activity of selection, elimination and extraction, to take something from chaos across the filter or sieve of the space that has been drawn. Sonorous or vocal components are very important: a wall of sound, or at least a wall with some sonic bricks in it.”
It’s mysterious, this talk of forces of chaos and the sieve between spaces. But then, to make it more concrete, the authors describe everyday situations. “A child,” they write, “hums to summon the strength for the schoolwork she has to hand in. A housewife sings to herself, or listens to the radio, as she marshals the anti-chaos forces of her work. Radios and television sets are like sound walls around every household and mark territories (the neighbour complains when it gets too loud). For sublime deeds like the foundation of a city or the fabrication of a golem, one draws a circle, or better yet walks in a circle as in a children’s dance, combining rhythmic vowels and consonants that correspond to the interior forces of creation . . . A mistake in speed, rhythm, or harmony would be catastrophic because it would bring back the forces of chaos, destroying both creator and creation.”
The refrain is all three of the following:
1. Finding a center — through song.
2. Marking a territory — through dance.
3. Opening up the circle and letting the territory change.
Opening up the circle and letting the territory change, but at the same time resisting too much of the potential chaos an opening might allow for.
How do you resist chaos? Temporarily resist chaos?
Do you sit and focus on maintaining your physical integrity, your body’s coherence? It won’t work. The longer you sit the faster the decomposition of your body.
Rhythm is the answer to chaos.
Rhythm implies a type of movement. It regenerates the body. It isn’t static, isn’t stuck in place.
Rhythm creates new spaces, and becomes other rhythms. It is energizing and collaborative.
Everything has a rhythm. Deleuze and Guattari write, “Drying up, death, intrusion, have a rhythm” (313).
So I’m in a studio. It’s a place where I create with other artists. Later it will become a rehearsal hall. Then it will be a performance venue where an audience comes to take part in the theatrical event.
We have some ideas about what we want to make. We’ve even mocked up what we think is a half-scale set. Everything is makeshift. No one wants to put the cart before the horse. Deleuze and Guattari make a distinction between “territorializing” and “territory.” The distinction is slippery, as one becomes the other. But let me start with the first term, territorializing, and how it relates to the way Fight With a Stick creates its work.
There is the singing. The feeling-out of a center. It’s the beginning of our little performance universe. We do it like this: one person starts a melody, a tone, a series of tones, perhaps the thing that will become the refrain. Someone else picks up the thread, or harmonizes. I don’t mean that we are literally singing, although that’s always a possibility. I mean that an idea has been put forward, or an interest in some material, or image, or sound, or in some process. This is territorializing. We haven’t defined the parameters yet, haven’t established a territory. The situation is very fluid.
One person introduces a spatial concept, another introduces a philosophical or political theme, another introduces a material such as a fabric, or a piece of granite found on a beach, or draws everyone’s attention to a chair against a wall. Or a composer introduces a musical concept. Deleuze and Guattari might describe each of these contributions as its own milieu, its own domain with its own rules, features, and tendencies. And the collaboration might be seen as a process of transcoding each of these domains of material or concept into one another in an alchemical process of collaboration. In any case, a promise begins to take shape. But it’s a bit like those scenes in the TV show Star Trek, when the transporter beam isn’t working properly. The transporter is supposed to collect an individual’s atoms in one place and reassemble them somewhere else. But for some reason, as the particles begin to take the shape of a figure, they fail to fully cohere. The shape becomes a mere suggestion. So we try again. Something begins to take shape, but not quite. We try again. And so it goes. We are territorializing.
Live performance is like this for me. You take part in the creation of a space — and then you have a territory, which is an expression of the space. Then you give it away. You use the space to intensify feeling. You invite an audience to take part in the event, but you make no demands of them. You give it away fully. You don’t insist on how they are to feel or what they are to think. And when I say I give it away, what I really mean is that the space gives itself away, because in truth no single contributor, including the performance itself, ever owned the performance.
Rhythm is the trans coder between milieus. D&G ask us to think of twilight changing day into night. Twilight is a rhythm and a transcoder. It is a territorializer, not a territory. So is everyone and everything involved in a performance. We are, Each of us, agents of transformation. Artists make a performance, and for a time it seems to mean what we think it means. Then an audience arrives like a rupture in the milieu. The encounter produces a rhythm between the two milieus. Expectations are recoded in both directions, transforming artwork, artist, and audience in the process. Hopefully, the artists have made the performance robust enough to resist being completely fractured by the new “rhythms” audience members bring to the encounter. The artists have hopefully rehearsed the performance enough times to have created a territorial refrain, something repeatable in its general outlines, but that can change with each repetition and with each new audience. If the artists have done their work well, an earth energy that Deleuze and Guattari speak of will anchor the energetic intrusions of the audience members and maintain aesthetic coherence.
So the creation of a space for performance is like an invitation. Why would audience members accept such an invitation?
I’m going to turn to philosopher Kym McLaren to help me articulate this. In the essay, “Intercorporeality, Intersubjectivity and the Problem of ‘Letting Others Be,’” she argues that what every person really wants is an open space where they can be free to explore becoming themselves. When we relate to other people only terms of what they can do for us, we limit who they can be in the relationship. Of course we also limit ourselves. Normally we enter a situation that determines, to an extent, who we will be to one another. For example, a classroom tends to determine the relationship between the person at the podium, the instructor, and the person sitting at a desk, the student. When we encounter one another in any given situation, we automatically imply each other’s role based on a number of factors, but especially based on how each of us embodies the situation — our bodily dispositions toward one another, our clothing choices, and so on. It’s less an intellectual exercise than it is the way in which we inhabit the situation and, as Maclaren argues, the way we embody the other person. What she means is that in any situation we are over here (in our body), but also over there — inhabiting the other person and their way of being. How does that happen?
One of the examples Maclaren’s uses to illustrate this is her visit to a friend’s stable. She comes to understand how to relate to a horse through her friend’s interactions with the horse. Her friend is gentle and sensitive with the horse. She listens to it well. Every gesture, every touch, and the positions she takes up in relation to the horse, inform McLaren of how she should approach the horse. Through bodily listening, a kind of attention that includes an unseen mirroring of her friend, Maclaren is not only in her own body, she is in her friend’s body. She is here, in her body, but also there, where her friend is. Maclaren describes this mutuality of understanding as getting swept up in the friend’s directedness toward the horse. This mutual understanding doesn’t necessarily happen all at once, it requires time spent together. But her friend’s approach to the horse is open and inclusive of McLaren taking part in the experience. And so McLaren is not just an observer, she becomes an embodied participant.
The is might be described as the interaction of several milieus, with the listening being the factor that allows for transcoding between them — friend, horse, and McLaren. Listening quality, I would say, is time based. To really listen you have to slow yourself down. I would say deep listening has a slow rhythm. This kind of listening allows for transformation through mutual embodiment.
It is, of course, by nature, ultimately unstable. Some other influence will enter — another person, a loud noise, a change in the weather — and alter the embodied dynamic.
I’ve been speaking about this in terms of human social relationships. But that is never all that is in play. Always the other-than-human forces, with which we are entangled, are co-creators of a given situation and all of its human and non-human relationships. Deleuze and Guattari discuss the concept of “geomorphism” and the way relationships are also the consequences of rhythms that arise from the earth — which I take to mean the actual earth in combination with whatever architectonic structures that also define a space.
Let me try to connect this to a question we began the podcast with. What holds us together, what stops us from coming apart? McLaren suggests that it is when we learn to let one another be, and hold our implication of one another’s roles lightly — in other words acknowledge that we have assigned roles to one another but also allow ourselves to trust in a process of ongoing re-definition — that we can embrace a kind of ongoingness in the change that may be occurring.
Things will change. If we take just a few moments to reflect on our journey through life we will see that things do not stay the same. When we trust in this change, in each other, and in the world around us, we cultivate some kind of enduring mutuality. The river is rushing along. It’s going to sweep us away. We can choose to hold tightly to our rock for as long as we can, or get swept away together and hope for the best. The alternative to listening to the horse trainer, the horse, and the situation is, in McLaren’s example, to insist on a sort of master-slave relationship between horse trainer and horse in which the trainer profits from the horse, forces the horse to do his bidding, and the horse suffers.
This creates division. It is the opposite of listening and letting be. It is an attempt to build hard boundaries around our territory.
Can such boundaries be maintained for long? How long can a dike hold back the ocean when it is pounded with hurricane after hurricane? And can a song, the thing we began with, do more than suggest a space in which to sit and sing along for a while? Whatever holds us together, it might be in this listening, this letting be. This constant process of decoding and recoding. And we know it can’t last. We tell our children they are safe, that this situation we’ve created for them is stable. We try to be homes for them. If we don’t have children we try to be homes for each other. For how long? How long is long enough?
When we build shelters, when we create networks of friends and family, when we make art — as much as we sometimes feel we want these to last forever, we know they won’t. Meanwhile some of the chaos leaks in to the territory, destabilizing it; something of the territory leaks out into the chaos or into other milieus, and so the process of territorializing begins again. A show does this when it is performed / given to the audience. Each spectator exits the territory to territorialize.
Deleuze and Guattari write, “Finally, one opens the circle a crack, opens it all the way, lets someone in, calls someone, or else goes out oneself, launches forth. One opens the circle not on the side where the old forces of chaos press against it but in another region, one created by the circle itself. As though the circle tended on its own to open onto a future, as a function of the working forces it shelters. This time, it is in order to join with the forces of the future, cosmic forces. One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it” (311).
You can see the transformation that must come. Melding with the World, as they put it, means becoming something other than what you were.
Why so much emphasis on sound, rhythm, sonority? Everything you can touch has a sound frequency, including the floor beneath your feet. Jane Bennett, who I discussed in the previous episode, named her book Vibrant Matter for a reason. The concept of vibrating matter comes up again and again in A Thousand Plateaus. There’s a reason singing, chanting, orating … breathing . . . are central to so many cultural practices. Material vibration — received as pressure in our ears, then translated into sound in our brains — material vibration occurring at every moment in most of what is around us, and our ability harmonize with these vibrations is central to being, action, and thought. Yes, thought and emotion require vibration.
It’s not just a matter of harmonizing with surrounding vibrations. Sometimes we use sound to create a protective layer between our selves and the cacophony in the environment. Like the boy singing to create order in chaos.
And sometimes sound is used to seduce.
To seduce even into death.
Take the proverbial spider and fly.
Deleuze and Guattari write, “It has often been noted that the spider web implies that there are sequences of the fly's own code in the spider's code; it is as though the spider had a fly in its head, a fly "motif," a fly "refrain." The implication may be reciprocal, as with the wasp and the orchid, or the snapdragon and the bumblebee” (314).”
Let’s contemplate this for a moment.
The spider has a fly in its head.
How can the spider have the fly in its head and what does it mean to have the fly in its head?
One of the ways we understand what we see is that we mimic it with our own bodies, with our own muscles and neurons. When I see an action I understand that action by performing it. This doesn’t normally happen in a way that is apparent. It happens very subtly. If a person I’m talking to waves their arm, I too wave my arm. You can’t see me do it. I’m waving a virtual arm. If you were looking at an fMRI of my brain, and I was looking at someone waving their arm, you would see certain areas light up. Many of these are the same areas that would light up if I were imagining waving my arm or if I were actually waving my own arm. I have the arm waver “in my head.” If I didn’t, their action would be a meaningless abstraction to me. There is, of course, a difference between moving my arm through space in an obvious manner, and waving my arm on a neuromuscular level. But this mimicry is required to make sense of the other person’s arm waving — not only am I imitating the action, but the quality of the action and, therefore what the action means to me.
I get that arm waving in my head, so to speak. An “image” in my head, so to speak. But not just an image. We are synaesthetic creatures to a greater or lesser degree, which means our other senses help us construct the image. Or for the spider, the fly in the head. Neurons across other regions also fire, neurons in regions that are supposed to be sound-specific, or smell-specific, or action-specific.
One way to understand this is to think of how you comprehend distance, or the size of a space. If the lights are out, you can still get a sense of how small or big a space is due to the sound you make when moving in it, or by how your voice sounds. Sound waves bounce off surfaces and come back to you, letting you know whether you are in a closet or a cathedral. The air will smell different in a closet than it will in a cathedral — so that’s another sensory clue. Even with your eyes open, you use your other senses to calibrate how far away something is or how big or small it is. You use your whole body to do this. Your body is, for you, the measuring stick for any space you are in. Everything is relative to that measuring stick: how high or low something is, how dense or light, how pressurized, how pungent or sweet, how loud or quiet, and so on.
Be the spider for a moment.
The fly is in your head: its buzz, its motion, its angles, the shape of it, the smell of it, all of it.
You have the fly in your head. You have it in your body. If you didn’t have it in your body you wouldn’t understand how it moved, what its trajectories are, what it wants. You wouldn’t be able to catch it. Because you have mapped it into yourself, you can map yourself into it. This is a profoundly intimate and common experience.
And it isn’t just you and the fly. You’ve made a web for this encounter. In order to make a web you need to have also mapped the rest of the environment into yourself. The things the web attaches to. The pathways you predict the fly will follow. The place you hide in waiting. The lures: the surrounding textures, scents, and shapes that will attract the fly. You are all of that. If you weren’t you would fail to attract the fly. You would starve.
Now be a human. Be your human self. Let’s say you are in a co-relational act of seduction. How do you know if the desire is mutual? You must have the other person in your head, in your body. If you have the other person in your body, you will know when to touch or when to allow yourself to be touched. The other person’s movements and sounds and gaze will be in your body. And not just the other person, but the environment. Let’s employ the cliches for a moment. Wine, candle light, soft music, warm tones, pleasing scents on your body and on theirs. Pleasing fabrics. A certain atmosphere. All of these are mapped into you. Without having the other person in your head, in your body, instead of seduction there will be a clumsy stabbing of hands in the dark.
This brings us back to philosopher Kym McLaren. Yes . . . we implicate the other’s role: potential lover. Through listening to the other, and letting the other be in an improvisational field of play, we will either accept the role and let ourselves be changed from potential lover to actual lover, or reject it and remain “just friends.”
Based on bodily understanding, mutual seduction can happen.
But so can trickery, imprisonment, and death. If the spider has the fly in its head it can trap it. And feed on it.
One way or another, what is “out there” in the world is also “in here” in the body. Think of your body, not as a container, but as being solid all the way through. Not solid like concrete, but solid like a combination of jello and, I don’t know, custard, and what? — a sponge. It has a certain density, more dense in some areas and less dense in others. It receives vibration not only in the ears, but in the flesh and bones — in fact in the whole body. Displaced molecules displace other molecules in the air, which then displace molecules in the body, sometimes continuing the displacement all the way through to the other side of you. The body is a temporary locus of vibration, how it vibrates changes depending on where is it situated in space: close to or far away from other surfaces that also vibrate. In front or behind, above or below.
But if we take space out of it for a moment and consider everything that seems to be around us as a greater body that we are part of, then it is more a matter of vibration moving through the greater body that we are. Vibrations move through the greater body like currents in the ocean. Maybe that’s a better model: swimming . . . underwater. So many vibrations at once, Competing or complementary oscillations. Rhythm. The pop singer says that we are “slaves to the rhythm.” But we are neither slaves nor masters. We are the rhythm. The rhythm repeats in the form of a refrain. Well that’s not quite accurate because a refrain, in the way we are considering it, is never really a simple repetition. Each time a refrain is sung it is both very much like the previous time it was sung, but also a bit different. It’s the similarity that provides a sense of continuity. It’s the difference that breaks the illusion of an eternal, never-changing repetition. A refrain is a repetition that breaks the form it seems to be securing. On the other hand, we might say a refrain is a repetition that tries to secure the form that it is breaking. It’s a bit like the theory of natural selection. Errors in the gene code create mutations. They may be beneficial or harmful mutations — depending on how they serve replication — but they must lead to change. Perfect replication is a dead end.
Rhythm, singing, music, sound.
Maybe the most appropriate metaphor is to think of our bodies, not as machines, not as organisms, not as dense sponges as I suggested earlier, but as musical instruments — resonating instruments that produce and receive vibrations. We are, each of us, a resonator. Some of us feel as delicate as a violin, others as heavy as a pipe organ. Whichever metaphor we choose, the point is to deepen our understanding of ourselves in relation to each other and the world around us. As I journey through life I retain an echo — yes.. an echo seems the right metaphor — of the tiny body I started with, but I have evolved. I recall that I am a community of changing organisms. So, yes, I am less a musical meter that never varies, and more a rhythm that changes a little with each iteration.
We started the episode with the threat of falling apart. We remedied this by creating a territory through singing. Which means displacing molecules in the air — what we call vibration. Sound doesn’t have absolute boundaries. Vibrations can spread into furniture or through windows or rebound off surfaces such as wooden walls. Over distance there’s a loss of energy and sound falls off. The thing about sound is that it gets inside us: even when we plug our ears it displaces molecules in our bodies. And we use it to get inside others and everything around us.
Vibrations that originate as singing can become a rhythm that defines a territory. We use sound to try to make the territory a home. Then, the back door is left open and the weather gets in. A new atmosphere. A change of mood. A feeling of exposure. Moisture gets into the walls. Dis-integration begins. In a few years, maybe a few decades, the structure will collapse. In the meantime the inhabitants will venture out. New inhabitants might venture in. A family might emerge and then disperse. Maybe, as the individuals venture out, the home will remain — in their minds — as a reference point they return to from time to time, a compass point that is an emotional locus. But then there is an accident, a suicide, a terminal illness . . . and the one who ventured out is no longer there. There is no one to reference the territory.
What remains? Possibly nothing. From a human perspective, home has been de-territorialized. It may be re-territorialized by insects, plant growth, other animals, other lingering atmospheres.
Then again, maybe the human contribution isn’t extinguished:
In the summer of 2022, I was floating in the azure waters off the coast of the island of Kefalonia in Greece, next to the village of Assos. I’m not a great swimmer. Lucky for me swimming is less of an effort there due to the buoyancy produced by the very salty water. If it’s not too windy I like to swim very far out, so far I feel like I’ve lost contact with the shore and am at the mercy of the ocean. Once in a while I get a little afraid. Are there sharks? Jelly fish? What if the weather changes abruptly and the waves get high and I’m not strong enough to get back to land?
As I was floating there one day, this thought came into my head: “My father Poseidon will protect me.” What a strange thought. Poseidon? Really? I've only ever thought of Poseidon as a cultural artefact relegated to myth. A subject of cultural studies. But I also realized that many people in that part of the world, a part of the world my family comes from and continues to live in, have had the same thought . . . for millennia. It means less to me that it is Poseidon, who I see as an anthropomorphic representation of the power of the ocean; the personification could just as easily have had another name or gender. On the other hand, this was the thought: “Poseidon will protect me.”
Then another idea came into my head: “Thoughts have ancestors.” The fact that so many people have had the same thought over so many generations, and that I was having it that day, suggests to me that thoughts are living things, passed down, and that, because they are living things, they also evolve. This echoes the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, discussed in the previous episode: thoughts are living things that change in a chain of causality. If thoughts don’t change, they go the way of other things that don’t evolve: they become irrelevant. The Indian sage Nagarjuna wrote that once you put a thought out in the world, it continues to exist and has consequences. A long time ago someone had the feeling that Poseidon was the ocean, that he was a father figure, and that he would protect them. And the thought was repeated and reinforced year after year after century after millennium. My Poseidon thought is not identical to the Poseidon thought others have had in the past. How could it be? If thoughts have ancestors and they beget other thoughts, then just as children are similar but different to their parents, a thought evolves.
There’s something about drifting out to sea, away from the stability of the earth under my feet, that feels like surrendering to whatever happens. Let the boundaries dissolve. Even the boundaries of self. But then, as I said, a fear creeps in — sharks? jelly fish? a storm? — and then following that the reassuring, and perhaps slightly desperate thought, “My father Poseidon will protect me.”
Thoughts also occur as electro-chemical signals in the brain. These are one with the emotional state they create, and one with any physiological state that occurs. In other words, even though a thought isn’t sung, it too creates a rhythm, a vibration, and suggests a territory. Floating in the ocean, that territory feels barely there. I become part of a liquid void, I expand into the vastness of the globe-encircling ocean. Then doubt creeps in and the boundary shrinks to the edges of my body, an encasement of fear-shaped skin. This oscillation between dissolving and gathering-in feels to me like the most direct connection to reality I can have. It’s not art. It’s not performance. But it’s a feeling I’ve had at some performances. A performance is a container that intensely focuses my attention. I feel the clarity of my presence and my relationship to everything around me. In another moment the container seems to disappear and I am floating. No not “I,” there is no “I” to feel. There’s just floating. And then I return to the container. But it’s not quite the same container. Not quite the same sound. It’s a refrain. It repeats without ever quite repeating.
And then it repeats
without quite repeating
repeats and repeats
The following is for those who want to know a little more about my approach, as a researcher/writer to Deleuze and Guattari’s chapter.
D&G play fairly loose with their definitions of milieus and territories, as well as their definitions of refrain and rhythm. These are hard to pin down in a way that seems consistent across the entire chapter or across the book as a whole. You might say the concepts are living ideas that evolve through “time” — the experience of time being connected to whichever direction you decide to read through the chapters of the book (Although, here as everywhere, the metaphors are mixed and contradictory. For example, the authors claim that evolution is not a working paradigm in the book, despite their frequent use of terms such as “species, phylum, mutation,” and so on. They refer instead to the idea of “passages” — one assemblage connecting to, or perhaps even transforming into or with, another, through a passage such as a tunnel or bridge). Therefore, I think one has to treat the material as creative, intuitive, and generative, rather than as definitive or ultimately ‘well reasoned.’ For the sake of this episode, I have circled around the following part of their argument (hopefully without getting too narrowly focused on it or too ‘definitional’):
“The refrain moves in the direction of the territorial assemblage and lodges itself there or leaves. In a general sense, we call a refrain any aggregate of matters of expression that draws a territory and develops into territorial motifs and landscapes (there are optical, gestural, motor, etc., refrains)” (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980, trans. B. Massumi, 1987, p. 323).
The words, “lodges itself there or leaves,” are perhaps most pertinent to what I extract from the chapter. They signify the temporary nature of a territory/assemblage (really, what’s the difference?). The words “moves in the direction of” are also important. D&G write, “The refrain moves in the direction of the territorial assemblage.” With some inconsistency, they argue that a refrain is never quite a territory, never quite a finished thing. In fact it is a translator, or to be more precise to their terminology, a “transcoder.” Territories are temporary assemblages of milieus. Milieus can be many things. They can be an organ, a cluster of cells, a symphony, a clearing in the forest. Each of these things can be transformed by, or transformed into, something else. The refrain is an in-between process that deciphers/decodes the code (yes ‘decodes the code,’ they write things like that) of one milieu and recodes it into another, presumably changing both milieus. In a previous chapter, the idea of refrain is synonymous with strict musical meter and monotonous repetition. But in this chapter, it becomes a much freer process. And it is at times synonymous with another word, “rhythm,” which is also tied, in the previous chapter to strict meter but becomes in this chapter, like “refrain,” an evolving thing (Oops, did I reference evolution?).
I’ll add one note here to clarify my approach: It’s important, I think, that the refrain/rhythm not be strictly thought of as a representation, in the sense of being a word-that-stands-in-for something else, the way the word “economy” stands in for a complex set of transactions. And it shouldn’t be thought of as a word that defines a territory, or even the transcoding between milieus. I think of it as a thing-in-itself. What do I mean by that? I mean that any thing, including a human being, can ‘be’ as follows: a rhythm is an analogy or metaphor for human being; by the same token, a human being is an analogy or metaphor for a rhythm; but we don’t always have to think in terms of analogies. For example if I said the human body is a biological organisation, you might say, yeah that makes sense. It’s not a representation of that organisation; it is the organisation. I could put it another way: ‘I’ am a biological organisation. Following this logic, I could also say, without appealing to analogy, that ‘I’ am a human being. I am now going to suggest I could also say, without appealing to analogy, that I am a rhythm. This goes for anything. Is this just another way of substituting the word ‘energy’ for ‘biological process’ or ‘human being’, and then substituting the word ‘rhythm’ for energy? Maybe. Probably. But I find the old quantum theory notion of ‘process’, as it has been adopted in performance studies for so long, a bit boring, a bit tired. It feels to me like a concept that has been over-used to the point of semantic satiation — it has become a word without inherent meaning, or even representational meaning, a mere concept that has as much value as the words ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Rhythm, on the other had, offers appealing specificities. It is related to musical meter. In fact it can mean exactly that, and worse — repetitive monotonous singing, as in some children’s songs. But D&G expand it beyond this. It’s related to musical time signatures, to stretching and compressing our sense of time, to swelling and fading. As a feature of time, it’s the thing that sort of makes music ‘music’ by constantly, subtly, altering meter in its repetitions/refrains. D&G reverse what I just wrote: rhythm is not a feature of time, it is a maker of time. And because it is elastic, time is elastic.
Despite the “passage” concept noted above, I think evolution seems to be the paradigm here, as D&G venture into biology and geology and astrophysics and quantum field theory, etc., etc. Rhythm and refrain almost become substitutes for evolution, as they are extended beyond music into all living and nonliving processes. Passages works too. Except for my money, it doesn’t offer enough of a conceptual model for how one thing becomes another or dissipates completely. At least a good first half, or more, of the chapter seems to have the theory of evolution operating in the background of the creative/explanatory journey.
Later they introduce the machinic model. Unnecessary in my opinion. They have already provided a mechanism, so to speak, that allows for transformation — the refrain/rhythm, which is a transcoder, decoder, recoder. The machine, something that by force injects itself into a milieu, seems to do nothing other than provide a different ‘tone’ to the discussion. They ramble into romanticism and the creation of a “future people,” and make a very reasonable socio-political description of the society we live in, where we prize our individualism while yearning for community; but the whole thing seems like an unnecessary accretion. It’s like two different shows. The first one was about milieu’s and forces, as they apply to anything. The second is the machinic show. The two are sort of linked by the idea of a grounding earth force (the below) and cosmic refrain (the above) which are outside of a territory but sort of run through it. …. Way too many analogies and metaphors. And contradictions. Can we do some Zen now?