Bacon and the Cartoonist: The Emergence of the Figure Through Two Opposing Diagrams

In The Logic of Sensation, Deleuze describes Francis Bacon’s practice as a constant struggle to avoid or surpass figuration, illustration, and narrative, all of which are central elements of the art practice most commonly known as “cartooning”—the drawing of comic strips, books, and graphic novels. This paper will focus on Deleuze’s use of the concept of the “diagram” and the “figural” in The Logic of Sensation to argue that comics create sensual experience through discursively articulated depictions.

Deleuze opens the chapter on the diagram by saying “We do not listen closely enough to what painters have to say. They say that the painter is already in the canvas, where he or she encounters all the figurative and probabilistic givens that occupy and preoccupy the canvas.” The probabilistic givens are the established figurative practices that surround the painter, a bombardment of imagery and methods of representation that threaten to pull the painter into illustrative cliché. So how can they be avoided? Bacon says, “make random marks (lines-traits); scrub, sweep, or wipe the canvas in order to clear out locales or zones (color-patches); throw the paint, from various angles and at various speeds.” Through this act of exorcism, the figurative givens, the clichés, are removed, expelled from the canvas. This process creates the diagram, which is not a painting, or an image, but a set of possibilities.

For comics scholar Thierry Groensteen, the cartoonist’s diagram is created through a process of “gridding.” Like Bacon’s givens, this process can pre-exist the making of any marks on the drawing surface. It is “a stage of reflection that is not always incarnated,” and operates as “a primary repartition of the narrative material.” Rather than avoid figuration, cliché, cartoonists must create their own set of clichés—a set of marks that allow serial recognition, potentialities that allow them to give form to the narrative material: this is the diagram of a cartoonist. And it is through this seriality, this repetition, that the figural—in the sense described earlier of a presence that is dependent on depiction but not contained within it—is created in comics. It is also through seriality that the figural, which Deleuze describes as a sense of presence and awareness of identity created by a work that, while dependent on depiction, cannot be located solely in that depiction.

If you take individual depictions of a character in a comic to be serial appearances of the same character pulling different expressions, then you have in mind a figure that is not contained within any of these individual figurations; this, I want to suggest, is comics’ equivalent to Deleuze-Bacon’s figural. Deleuze characterises Bacon’s creation of “the improbable visual figure” as a constant negotiation between free manual actions and the presence of a pre-existing visual whole. My comic Starts Out Vague magnifies the opposition of these pictorial and prepictorial acts in attempting to analyse the figurative regime operative in the act of drawing known as cartooning. It is built from sequences of figurative images produced using the following process: perform movements, copy these movements by manipulating a digital three-dimensional model. This process begins with movements that are transcribed in a medium that has no edges or surface, and ends with reinjection into the overdetermined surface of the comic’s page, where not only specific places but also a specific order of movement through those places are privileged by the constraints of gridding. Finally, the reading protocols that guide the navigation of a comic are fundamentally discursive: in comics, the figurative is placed into discourse, and through this interaction emerges the figural.

Hollywood Flatlands: Taking a Line for a Walk

Sergei Eisenstein’s conceptual contribution to an infinitely elastic cartoon line—he was working on an unfinished book on Walt Disney at that time—is centred on the capacity of stroke drawing to assume any form whatever in a continuous amoeba-like contour: an ability he describes as “plasmaticness,” behaving like the primal protoplasm. In contrast to a structural line, which maintains its precise shape and would break under pressure, the plastic line assumes a polyformic character and also produces polymorphic characters on the page or screen. A sort of vitality is built in here, whereby the line becomes a human/inhuman agent reproducing “life’s” unpredictability. On the agenda of “Hollywood Flatlands” is line reading: to look at different conceptions of the figurative line in motion, and from there trace concepts of a vital and poetic line, as well as animation’s dedication to reproduction and lifelikeness.

This is a proposal for an image lecture based on a seminar, titled “Vital lines,” which I run at Goldsmiths, University of London. From six sessions in total, one lecture/seminar has been chosen to be translated into a flow of images in response to the written manuscript. Nothing is spoken; the image assemblage speaks its own rhythm, vocabulary. Conceptually, plasmaticness or the vital line links to a current voicing of Guattari, his thinking (partially in the shadow of Deleuze) in the process of becoming key to reading immediate living–working environments—their interconnectedness, drifts.

My dedication to Deleuze and Guattari’s thinking began when working on a PhD in fine arts at Central Saint Martins, London, in 2000. The image lecture proposed here takes account of how the two thinkers have informed my art research in the subsequent years. It does so in discreet and almost clandestine ways: surpassing text, affirming modesty and ignorance, avoiding an overload of linguistics—logocentrism. Thereby the formation of a (speaking) subject or subjectivity is superseded by avoiding one form, mode, and voice of interpretation of a given content/written words. In this sense my contribution also subtly refers to Guattari’s “theory of enunciation, in which . . . the ground of enunciation is existential, not discursive” and Maurizio Lazzarato’s (2014) call for “ethical differentiation” and a constructed subject-function in communication and language:

The subject-function in communication and language is in no way natural: on the contrary, it has to be constructed and imposed. According to Deleuze and Guattari, the subject is neither a precondition of language nor is it the cause of a statement. Deleuze argues that we as subjects are not what generate the statements in each of us; they are produced by something entirely different, by ‘multiplicities, masses and packs, peoples and tribes: all collective arrangements which are within us and for which we are vehicles, without knowing precisely what those arrangements are.’ These are what make us speak, and they are the true drivers of our statements. There is no subject, only collective arrangements of enunciation which produce statements. ‘The statement is always collective, even when it appears to be expressed by a unique, solitary individual such as the artist.’” (Lazzarato 2006)

The three components of this presentation (the original lecture, the image lecture, and the presentation at the conference) inflect each other and relate to plasmaticness, the key concept of the image lecture, not in the way they together or on their own reiterate—to a degree—the very function of “subject” and a neglect of an originary form, but, rather, in the naturalness of “things” and a structural sense of elasticity, poetry, and something potentially polyformic and polymorphic. (Instead of being considered a literal claim of plasmaticness, this is an enquiry into certain properties of a contemporary, i.e., current, plasmaticness on the basis of other technological and historical-conceptual means.) A score will be produced during the conference.

References

Leyda, Jay, ed. 1986. Eisenstein on Disney. Translated by Alan Upchurch. Calcutta: Seagull Books.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. 2006. “The Machine.” Transversal, October. Accessed 14 October 2015. http://eipcp.net/transversal/1106/lazzarato/en/#_ftn2.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. 2014. Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity. Translated by Joshua David Jordan. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).