Stephen Zepke on Felix Guattari’s Modernist Aesthetics

In an essay entitled ‘Art as Abstract Machine: Guattari’s Modernist Aesthetics’ in the recent volume of the Deleuze Studies Journal, Stephen Zepke makes the case for a reappraisal of Felix Guattari’s relationship with two variants of contemporary art. The first variety is the dominant form today, that of conceptual, art-into-life, non-aesthetic and second is a contemporary art that is based on the legacies of Modern art, ‘an aesthetic paradigm’ that is concerned with the production of the new within the present. Stephen Zepke says;

‘Art into life! This slogan has echoed from Duchamp to the neo-avant-garde of Conceptual art, before reaching its drab and almost hegemonic status today as an institutionalised theory of ‘non-art’. Guattari is often enlisted as part of this movement, but such claims leave out one rather important point: Guattari was a modernist!’ (225).

Zepke continues by extracting the elements of modernism that are salvaged by Guattari. Guattari’s modernism is a commitment to abstraction, autonomy, materialism, and immanent critique. It is a process of transformation and the emergence of the new. It is also the rejection of formalist abuses and reductions, such as the institutional and financial controls on art, and opposed to the myths of origin and progress. A shift from Buchloh’s ‘administrative aesthetic’ of conceptual art is rejected for a return or reformatting of sensation through material, technique and expressive, singular and cosmological trajectories.

Zepke points out that simple materials and cosmic forces achieve a consistency through technique. These materials are ‘abstracted’ from their external referents so that their intense complexity can be expressed’. Zepke continues, ‘For Guattari, modern art offers the model of an autonomous process of autopoiesis, it does not seek its categorical a prioris (qua conditions of possibility) but detaches (one could say ‘abstracts’) material-forces from these conditions, in order for them to repeat as difference. (228).

Abstraction is a process of self-reference, a visual block or sensation. It is a double movement that deterritorialises a materials signification (representational or linguistic) while also connecting up with a system of linkages or differences, the self-reflective abstraction of materials to the point where they can construct their own cosmos.

Through the term ‘Utopia’ Guattari claims that philosophy and art can create the new, within the present, through immanent abstraction, singularisation and autonomy. That art and philosophy can perform an ‘institutional therapeutics’, ‘a double becoming in which the abstract machine of modern art retains its autonomy, the better to intervene in the present through a cosmo-politics of experimentation. Modern art for Guattari was not something to be against; it was something to be affirmed as our most effective laboratory of the future’ (236).

Art is, Guattari says, ‘an alterity grasped at the point of its emergence . . . ’

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