Art and Madness

by Beth Metcalf     

When Blanchot (1) comments on Foucault’s (2) commentary on Roussel (3), he is reminded of Flaubert’s complaint about a fault in language --- “too many things and not enough forms”.   According to Flaubert, the writer must try to compensate for this lack of forms in language.  But Blanchot asks if Flaubert’s formulation is justified.  Isn’t there really too much of this lack?  Isn’t there “always too much of what we never have enough of”?  There is a lack in what there is to be signified, and there is lack in meaning.  The “lack” of forms in language is the result of these two incommensurable lacks.  To speak is to deepen this lack in the signifying “pure absence of signs”.  Its silence is an excess of signification.  To speak is to deepen this lack into a signifying absence. 

Blanchot says that Flaubert’s formulation, “too many things and not enough forms”, would mean that language consists of forms that are finite in number, and things would be a kind of infinite or indefinite.  Therefore, if language does not have enough forms, it must be because the form of language, itself, is already seen as a material thing.  Form could only be a generalizing structure of particular corporeal things.  However, if a form could contain an infinity of things (i.e. an infinity of different kinds of relations), then the formulation could be turned around.  Then there would never be enough material things, and there would be no lack of forms.  Roussel is credited with turning Flaubert’s formulation around.  A form of language can contain the infinite only by containing nothing corporeal (i.e. no already formed matter).   

Blanchot tells us that Flaubert’s problem is the question of the ‘Other’.  The Other of a language is always posed in that language itself.  So, Flaubert’s problem is the same as Wittgenstein’s problem.  How does a language reach outside itself if its Other is merely part of that language?  The other is always part of the same language that speaks of its other, and therefore it is not Other.  Wittgenstein’s problem is addressed by Russell’s Theory of Types.  The structure of any language cannot be expressed in that language, but is expressed in another language.  This second language has a new structure that must be expressed in a third language….and so on.  The other of speech is other of a given speech.  “Too many things” expresses what seems to be the excess of real things.  “Not enough forms” expresses what seems to be the lack of words.  But this is merely comparing one language with its own other.  The former is a fixed content.  The latter is its own formal value.  But this opposition is not Other.  Every language has its Other at another level that changes or destroys it.  So, when Flaubert says “too many things and not enough forms” he doesn’t know he is speaking from a higher type.  But does Blanchot believe Russell’s types really solve the problem?  Does this really reverse the problem of a deficiency in language?  Blanchot and Foucault see Roussel’s work as reaching a void that opens all forms in the “infinite navigation from one kind of language to another”.  Madness and art are no longer separate in the folding and unfolding movement of this void.  The void is not a lack of forms.  It is the incorporeal excess.  Art reveals things never seen before because it navigates this infinite void of madness.


Deleuze (4), like Blanchot, says that Foucault describes a time when language was thought to be limited by a deficiency.  It was thought that there are more things than words.  Each word must then have several meanings.  That is, language was thought to be equivocal.  However, if the same word means several corporeal things, the form itself would merely be a conceptual image of material things.  The form itself would be merely a generalized structure of material things.  Equivocal language says one form of conceptual identity that totalizes many corporeal things.  Metaphor, like all tropes, tries to multiply forms.  But Deleuze tells us (Two Regimes of Madness 202) “In my view, metaphors do not exist”.  Metaphors are not ontological propositions.  They are equivocal because they are still too material.  They merely maintain a same conceptual structure of things and their material properties said in several senses.

Therefore, as long as language is thought to be equivocal, there are too many corporeal things and not enough forms.  But Foucault says that Roussel finds a neutral voice that reverses this deficiency.  Roussel tries to say incorporeal things (i.e. pre-individual unformed matter) with the same word.  And, isn’t this just what Deleuze calls the only ontological proposition?  Being is the saying of language, and it is univocal.  Real difference is ontological singularity.  Univocal language says all incorporeal forms of real distinction in one sense because all are ontologically singular.  Therefore Deleuze, like Blanchot and Foucault, sees in Roussel a new direction in explaining the “essential distance ….. displacement, dislocation, or breach”.  Now, it is not a same form said differently.  Really different forms of incorporeal things are said as same.  It is not a lack of meaning that opens a vacuum in language.  It is not repetition of a word that opens a gap or a lack of meaning between different things.  Roussel tries to widen the gap and fill it with new incorporeal machinery that binds and integrates difference and repetition, so that there can be real singular difference.  Now, repetition integrates difference without deficiency or lack.  Repetition is no longer things repeated, but a “radical repetition” that goes beyond corporeal things in order to integrate a singular difference within the gap.  It is a radical repetition of incorporeal singular difference (‘intensity’) that changes the nature of the forms with each repetition.   

Now, the vacuum is filled.  But as Deleuze tells us, it can’t be filled with corporeal things (i.e. already formed substances) that can never integrate difference.  The vacuum must be filled without being filled.  Roussel fills it with incorporeal machinery.  And these “liberating repetitions are poetic precisely because they do not suppress difference”.  They internalize singular difference.  Art must not remain at the level of corporeal matter.  Art opens the forms so they can become liberated from material correspondences of representation, analogy, or metaphor.  Metaphors (like all tropes) are not ontological propositions.  Metaphor may be fragile and temporary effect, a modal use, but it is not substantial.  Deleuze tells us that we must reach a sub-representative field where this signifying absence in signs is in excess in relation to the lack in speech.  That is, in order to turn around the formulation “too many things and not enough words”, we must reach that which Deleuze calls ‘univocal being’.  

(The Logic of Sense 64) “This is the secret of the event: it exists on the line of the Aion, and yet it does not fill it.  How could an incorporeal fill up the incorporeal or the impenetrable fill up the impenetrable?  Only bodies penetrate each other, only Chronos is filled up with state of affairs and the movements of the objects that it measures.  But being an empty and unfolded form of time, the Aion subdivides ad infinitum that which haunts it without ever inhabiting it --- the Event for all events.”

The form of language must contain something without containing it --- to be filled without being filled.  So, if there are “not enough forms” it could only mean that form itself has been turned into a thing --- a form that totalizes corporeal things.  That is, form is often thought to be filled by numerically distinct corporeal substances.  But as Deleuze-Spinoza point out, numerically distinct substances are never real.  Therefore, when forms are filled, with relations among corporeal things of numerical distinction, there can only really be one form of conceptual identity.  Form is merely the identity of a conceptual image of corporeal things.  Form itself has been turned into a material thing.  But if a form could contain an infinity of things (because they are incorporeal things of real distinction), then the formulation can be reversed.  Now, there are not enough things (corporeal things), nor is there merely a finite form of corporeal correspondences.  Rather, now there are multiplicities of forms arising from the empty form (Aion).  We can see that the formulation of “too many things” was too material and “not enough forms” merely turned the form itself into an image of relations among corporeal things.  However, with incorporeal intensity, the forms become open.  Any incorporeal intensive thing may be paired with anything or any sign regardless of distance.  As Deleuze and Guattari say:

(A Thousand Plateaus 69)  “….if we consider the plane of consistency we note that the most disparate of things and signs move upon it: a semiotic fragment rubs shoulders with a chemical interaction, an electron crashes into a language, a black hole captures a genetic message, a crystallization produces a passion, the wasp and the orchid cross a letter…There is no “like” here, we are not saying “like an electron,”  “like an interaction,”  etc.  The plane of consistency is the abolition of all metaphor; all that consists is Real.” 

Deleuze (5) writes about two figures of nonsense.  The first figure functions to coordinate the two series and make them converge in a regressive synthesis.  The word denotes its own expression and expresses what it denotes.  It expresses what it designates and designates its own sense.  Because it says its own sense, it is an abnormal set that is a member of itself.  The word denotes the thing it expresses and expresses the thing it denotes.  It says its own sense.  The name saying its own sense is nonsense.  The second figure is the disjunctive synthesis that ramifies series.  A portmanteau word has two alternate terms, each denoting the other’s sense or expressing what the other denotes.  The portmanteau word says its own sense and is therefore nonsense.  The two figures of nonsense result in absurd paradox.  There are too many corporeal things homogenized into one form that itself is too material.  There can be no form that is ‘Other’.  This is Wittgenstein’s Problem.  It is also the problem of the literature of the absurd where everything is nonsense.  There are always too many things and not enough forms.   

However, the two figures of nonsense do not necessarily fall into abnormal sets.  The two figures of nonsense may take on normal terms endowed with sense under laws that do not apply to them.  To Wittgenstein’s Problem, Russell offered a solution with his Theory of Types.  Any normal name (i.e. any name which does not say its own sense) has a sense denoted by another name in the regressive synthesis --- or must determine alternative terms filled by other names in the disjunctive synthesis.  As long as names do not say their own sense, they receive determinations of signification.  Therefore, Deleuze and Blanchot each write about Wittgenstein’s Problem.  One form of language is fixed at the level of corporeal things, and a reduced form totalizes those things at the same level.  This results in absurd nonsense and paradox.  Russell’s Theory of Types was offered as a response to this problem.  Paradox can be avoided to enact a determination of signification when this opposition of things and words is spoken in a language at a higher level.  However, Deleuze denies that the Theory of Types is adequate in turning the formulation (too many things and not enough forms) around.  

(The Logic of Sense 67-8) “We have already seen that it is futile to go from the conditioned to the condition in order to think of the condition in the image of the conditioned as a simple form of possibility.  The condition cannot have with its negative the same kind of relation that the conditioned has with its negative.”

The relation between sense and nonsense cannot have the same exclusive relation the true has with the false.  This means that sense and nonsense must not be thought to have the same relation a true signification has with a false one.  It is usually thought that nonsense is neither true nor false because it is simply meaningless, or lacking in sense.  However, Deleuze says that this “play on words” is not his hypothesis at all.  Rather, the logic of sense (the donation of sense) has a new mode of co-presence of sense and nonsense.  I believe this mode of co-presence is what Deleuze elsewhere calls ‘vice-diction’.  Deleuze tells us (LOS 74-5) “The force of paradoxes is that they are not contradictory; they rather allow us to be present at the genesis of the contradiction…..”  But Russel’s Theory of Types confuses sense with signification.  The conditioned signification is still in the image of its condition of material possibility.  Its form of possibility is still too material.  The signifying form totalizes concepts of material things and itself becomes a material thing.  It never reaches an incorporeal intensive difference that can change nature by opening the forms.  It never reaches the paradoxes of sense.  It never reaches the nomadic distribution in an open space that subdivides past and future into infinite subdivisions.  It never reaches univocal being.

There has been the assumption that the relation between sense and nonsense must be an exclusive relation.  It has been assumed that a class must either possess a property or lack that property.  But this assumption leads to paradoxical problems like the class of classes that are not members of themselves.  However, Deleuze does not make this assumption.  Rather, Deleuze sees the co-presence of sense and nonsense.  Now, with the donation of sense, paradox is not a relation of contradiction or exclusion between true sense and untrue-meaningless nonsense.  Sense is not to be confused with signification.  A term without signification still has sense.  This sense of the event is neutral with regard to modes of class or property.  There is co-presence of sense and nonsense.  It is vice-diction without exclusion or lack.  The logic of sense produces sense in excess.  All sense becomes possible without exclusion.  Sense and nonsense are in a new mode of co-presence which vice-dicts all donation of sense --- even sense which has no prior form of possible signification.  All donations of sense may have fragile and temporary uses of signification at the surface. 

Wittgenstein reveals a problem at the level of corporeal signification.  Determinations of signification give new insight into the problem of “too many things and not enough forms”, but it does not solve it.  Deleuze’s donation of sense is the logic of univocal being that reaches a sub-representative incorporeal and asignifying empty form that is filled without any corporeal filling.  Now, the apparent deficiency in language is reversed.  The empty form creates an infinity of forms with never enough material things.  The emptiness of Aion’s form is not a lack.  It is not a lacuna to be filled with corporeal things.  There is no totalizing form that unifies corporeal things.  In contrast to a determination of signification, nonsense now enacts donation of sense.  There are no longer significations determined at the material level of class or property.  Rather, there is nomadic distribution of singular, incorporeal events into heterogeneous series.  This distribution is not determined by any prior signification.  There are only events that are neutral in relation to class or property.  The paradoxical element is the nonsense within sense rather than nonsense within a prior possibility of signification. 

Deleuze says (LOS 71) that in the philosophy of the absurd (like that of Camus) the absurd is defined by nonsense as a lack of sense.  And Russell’s determinations of signification still do not reverse the formulation “too many things and not enough forms”.  The form of possibility is still too material.  Its singularities are general or individual, personal or universal.  They are still determined by classes and properties.  Whereas the determinations of signification are signifying semiology, donations of sense reach a pre-individual, asignifying semiotics. 

Deleuze says that those referred to as “structuralists” see sense as a surface effect of an empty square circulating in structural series.  Structure is a machine for the production of incorporeal sense.  Sense is produced by the displacement of nonsense in structural series.  And although those called “structuralists” see structure as machinery for producing sense, this old structure (see my article, ‘The Old and the New Structure’) still cannot escape a prior form of possible signification.  The old structure still cannot reach asignifying incorporeal sense, because the signified concepts of things are overcoded into one form of signification.  There are still “too many things and not enough forms”.  Traditional structuralism is still a determination of signification.  These determinations relate signifiers (names, words, and propositions) to signifieds (concepts, properties, or classes).  The paradoxical element as both word = x and thing = x.  It does not reach univocal action = x of Aion.  Deleuze says that today’s task, toward a new structure, is to produce sense by a more free circulation of the empty square in order to liberate pre-individual and non-personal singularities.  The empty form of Aion distributes singularities into past and future directions without present.  We must reach Deleuze’s paradoxical element that fills the two heterogeneous series without corporeal filling.  We must reach the occupant without place and the place without occupant that moves through heterogeneous series.  Aion opens forms and integrates difference with each repetition.  It doubles intensive content with intensive expression.  Action = x is the paradoxical element circulating through series of infinite subdivisions.  Sense is co-present with its own immanent cause and inseparable from its temporary and fragile use at the surface.  The sense of the event is the dice game of univocal being.        

With Deleuze’s univocal being, structure is sense in excess.  Nonsense enacts a donation of sense.  It nomadically distributes singular neutral events into heterogeneous series without any prior relation of signification.  The paradoxical element is an empty square distributing singularities that are neutral with regard to all classes and properties.  Even a term that has no signification has sense independent of any modes of class or property.  The co-presence of sense and nonsense vice-dicts all fragile and temporary uses of signification at the surface.  Sense is produced as surface effect by the new machinery of univocal being.  Paradoxes of sense are infinitely subdivided singular distributions.  Any intensive content may be coupled with any intensive expression to rise to the surface in fragile and temporary uses of signification that never were seen before.  That is what univocal being does.  It liberates singularities in creation of sense without any prior conditions of possible signification that would still be too material.  Difference & repetition is about the vacuum inside things and words that are incorporeal signs of death and madness that fill (without a corporeal filling).  Nonsense within sense is the madness within art that reveals things never seen.   


Foucault (2) writes about this apparent deficiency in language.  The fact of language is that there are fewer designating words than things to designate.  Eighteenth-century grammarians had a merely material or empirical concept of signs.  Tropes were used in the attempt to multiply forms.  They showed the different relations words could have with the same representational content.  However, tropes still spatialize language. Tropes still could not avoid a deficiency of signs.  Foucault finds in Roussel a new kind of “tropological space” that is not the material or empirical space of the old tropes. 

Foucault says (DL Chapter 2), “Style is…..the possibility, masked and identified at the same time, of saying the same thing but in other ways.  All of Roussel’s language, in its reversal of style, surreptitiously tries to say two things with the same words”.  The old tropes of style, then, say the same conceptual form in several senses.  With this style, language is equivocal.  However, Roussel’s new “tropological space” opens a void.  Words and things are duplicated without regard to prior concepts of what is possible.  It brings being (visible content) and saying (expression) into ever new singular realities never seen before.  Being is univocal.

Foucault says that Roussel uses one word (homonym) or a word with difference in an asignifying element (billiard/pilliard) to say different things in two isomorphic sentences without any prior correspondence of word (signifier) and thing (signified).  This shows that a word (thought to have an identity) is already a duplicate that can be re-coupled transversally across the void of differences.  It connects the same word with different meanings.  And, isn’t this chance game of homonyms just what Deleuze calls the dice game of univocal being?  It opens the forms so that now there are more forms than corporeal things.  Roussel’s language machine rejoins incompatible distances and re-duplicates the same language that is divided from itself in ever new repetitions of difference.  Language reaches that empty form of change that does not change but from which comes all real difference. (See Deleuze’s explanation, Difference & Repetition 121.)


So in conclusion, we see that language which has too many things and not enough forms is the equivocal formulation of Representation.  It is one form of generality that totalizes many material things.  At the level of signifying correspondences between words and things, not even metaphor (or any kind of trope) can turn this formulation around.  But that which Blanchot and Foucault see as a reversal of that formulation is what Deleuze calls ‘univocal being’.  Foucault says that Roussel stretches the gap within language into a neutral void, not in order to merely morph signifying reality (maintaining the conceptual identity of an image of things), but to create forms never seen or said before.  Roussel’s experiment reverses the elements of the old tropes.  Instead of saying the same things in different words with equivocal tropes, Roussel tries to say two things with the same word using univocal homonyms.  Being is saying.  It is univocal being in a new “tropological space” that is not to be confused with the equivocity of the old tropes.  It doubles being with saying. Singular difference is repeated.  It is transversal linkages across the void.  Language is birth and death of meanings as it crosses this void to speak of things never seen before.  Incompatible elements may be conjoined across distances without any prior resemblance or signification.  Impossible forms are created from this empty void that is the being of all differentiation in ontologically singular saying.  Language unites being and saying.  It duplicates the incorporeal intensive content with expression.  It reaches real singular difference each time it is repeated.  It duplicates differences repeated as ontologically singular and said as same.  Roussel’s art opens new forms that arise out of this void of death and madness as language folds and unfolds its repetitions while integrating difference.  The labyrinthine void between things and words is filled with incorporeal forms of madness to return as signs of life and death in the work of art as things never seen.


(1)   In The Infinite Conversation, Maurice Blanchot writes a text on ‘Wittgenstein’s Problem’.  The final section comments on Foucault’s commentary of Roussel, in Death and the Labyrinth. 

(2)   Death and the Labyrinth, The World of Raymond Roussel, by Michel Foucault. 

(3)   How I Wrote Certain of My Books, by Raymond Roussel.

(4)   In Deleuze’s Desert Islands is a brief text entitled ‘Raymond Roussel, or the Abhorrent Vacuum’ in which Deleuze, like Blanchot, comments on Foucault’s commentary on Roussel in Death and the Labyrinth. 

(5)   In The Logic of Sense, Eleventh Series of Nonsense, Deleuze writes about Wittgenstein’s Problem and Russell’s Theory of Types.  He contrasts this Determination of Signification with the Donation of Sense.


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