Deleuze and Guattari, Cognitive Science, and Feminist Visual Arts: Kiki Smith's Bodies Without Organs Without Bodies

Deleuze and Guattari, Cognitive Science, and Feminist Visual Arts: Kiki Smith's Bodies Without Organs Without Bodies

Martin Rosenberg

Martin Rosenberg discusses Kiki Smith’s feminist visual art and cognitive science.


In The Embodied Mind, Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch represent the mind as having two competing cognitive processes occurring simultaneously. Cognitive processes at the local level, from the senses, the organs of the body, and the operations of memory, self-organize or “emerge” into a global state. That global state may be considered fictional, since it has no being; it does function, however, to constrain those lower order processes in order to act in the world as if it were unified and autonomous. These antithetical cognitive processes may serve to help inform Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction in A Thousand Plateaus between various processes of “becoming” associated with the senses, the bodily organs and even nomadic and rhizomatic thought and action, and their crucial concept, “the body without organs,” the operations of which they describe in terms of two interdependent concepts: striated and smooth spaces. The first invokes superimposed geometrical constructs, such as “plane of consistency” and “strata,” while the second invokes references to various contingent processes such as “waves” or “intensities” that flow through these surfaces and depths in a constant state of becoming.

For Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, as well as for Deleuze and Guattari, it seems that the condition of contingency, which characterizes processes of self-organization, is always-already becoming in a non-dialectical relationship with those superimpositions. The exertions of that part of the Body Without Organs responsible for striated spaces, in turn, bear resemblance to the ways in which the unified, autonomous global construct frames and constrains contingency from within as well as from without - within the individual mind as well as in cultural machinery. In other words, the Body Without Organs constitutes a virtual realm undergoing a kind of mental warfare between competing cognitive styles - a realm which offers us a new way to discuss aesthetics as well as politics, and the politics of gender as well as that of ethnicity.

This temporary alliance between philosophy and cognitive science may be extended further to artistic expression. Through Deleuze’s own work on Francis Bacon, I would like to apply these distinctions to Kiki Smith’s elaborate, technically brilliant constructions often involving viscera and fetuses dangling from paper or wax human forms. Kiki Smith’s juxtaposition of elegantly wrought human bodies out of technically difficult materials such as wax over armature, or handmade paper and paper-maché with the horrific representations of flowing menstrual blood, dangling fetuses, placenta, and viscera, deliberately engages contradictory mental processes: the calm disinterest of aesthetic judgment involving standards of harmony, balance, proportion, as well as an appreciation of complexity and skill; the literally visceral response often felt not by the head but by the stomach and intestines experiencing an involuntary response to a horror, a threat.

Kiki Smith’s Wax and Paper Constructions

It’s useful to see Kiki Smith’s bodies as extending in different media the tension between aesthetic disinterest and the visceral response as in her famous series of antiseptic glass jars containing actual body fluids. The neat containers, labeled in a way to invoke division/classification systems (Aristotelean phallo-logocentrism), can barely hide from the viewer the realm of what, from the perspective of the consumer of the museum space, constitutes the unspeakably degrading and inhuman. Yet, with her paper and wax figures, we have the added element of artistic mastery which changes the context from the merely rational to technically difficult, a mastery exemplified by her Mother (1992), a bust of a woman’s upper torso on a high pedestal made of paper and paper-maché hands cupped around breasts leaking paper streams of milk down the pedestal onto the floor in front; or, The Virgin Mary (1990), a woman’s lower torso dangling in mid-air, as if insubstantial like the hand-made paper from which it is constructed - with a fetus dangling upside down from its umbilical cord, the head almost touching the floor. The wax figures, demonstrating a Renaissance-inspired mastery reminiscent of marble sculpture, likewise have, in the case of Untitled (Train) (1993), six strands of dark beads streaming from the vulva behind a complete and voluptuously rendered female figure as if the figure were in movement with menstrual fluid trailing behind. What makes these works far more interesting than the series of antiseptic jars, conceptually as well as artistically, is simply their engagement with a complex, often disturbing sense of the integrity of the human body. For, in Kiki Smith’s works the human body is portrayed as whole, and as having holes. Often incomplete, like Duchamp’s Étant Donnés (1968), formed out of insubstantial materials, and perceived as insubstantial by the viewer because of its positioning as well as its materiality, the whole body is often given the sense of a concept rather than a palpable object complete in itself. Crucially, the insubstantial corpus of the object constitutes an idea of wholeness rather than its reality, a frame of reference which the dangling viscera serve to undermine by the breaking of the frame itself. To what extent is Kiki Smith’s loyalty to the local identity of individual organs and bodily processes (fetus, placenta, menstrual fluid, intestines), at the expense of the totalizing body itself? Perhaps, for Smith, the totalized, global body is by nature the site of colonization by the male gaze. I would like to argue that by invoking the work of Varela and Deleuze and Guattari, it becomes possible to understand Kiki Smith’s work as a critique of top-down constraints of the gaze of global cognition by engendering it male, and a celebration of local cognitive processes emanating even perhaps from specific organs of the body, by engendering those local processes female.

Now, it is important to say that Kiki Smith’s work does not fit into the category of shock art; on the contrary, she has taken a number of hits from the world of art critics as well as other artists for her seemingly complicitous willingness to work within the realms of conventional aesthetic standards by making commodifiable objets d’art. Yet, to give her her due, Smith seems to be making the tension within the mind of the observer of her works the central battleground for her artistic corpus: between the aesthetic assumptions put into play simply by accepting the terms of the museum space, and the involuntary response of disgust and even fear: a fear of violation - certainly a fear of domination. In this sense, Marcel Duchamp’s insistence that the avant-garde thrust involves a confrontation not with the observer but with the rhetoricity of the art event as a complicitous meeting of artist and observer like warring kings at endgame, helps to explain Kiki Smith’s works as an enactment of contradictory cognitive responses. First, we find a charged response (termed “visceral”) that is both spontaneous and contingent. Second, we find a contemplative response, ritualized by the consumers’ assumption of the categories of Kantian judgment in the apprehension of the art object within the reified space of the museum itself. These categories have their origin in spatio-temporal superimpositions, supposedly a priori, but which have a social origin and an ideological cast.

Kiki Smith’s work has a feminist cast. Her jars, as well as her paper and wax constructions, both enact and conceptualize a radical reconsideration of epistemology and gender through an act of terrorism against the global state’s intrusive schematizing of the emotions and of the rhythms of the body. In effect, Kiki Smith’s works seem to apply gender distinctions to cognitive processes: the striated Body Without Organs, associated with the top-down superimpositions of the global state in cognitive science and coded male, more than meets his match in the organs without bodies that are always becoming, which are associated with the emanation of local cognitive processes, and coded female.

This interpretive tactic raises important concerns: how can the “minortarian” philosophy of Gilles Deleuze (with Felix Guattari) be applied to feminist praxis? While in the writings by feminists about Kiki Smith one may find references to the works and writings of Alice Jardin, Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler, among others, there is no question that Gilles Deleuze in particular is practicing grand philosophy, attempting a philosophy of marginality applicable to a range of those politically marginal, including women. Now this brief excursion into Kiki Smith’s work is not going to finish the debate over the role of Deleuze’s thought for feminist theory, for example, as played out within Deleuze studies by Elizabeth Grosz, Rosi Braidotti, and Dorothea Olkowski. It should, however, provide one arena where this problem might become more precisely visible. Let’s examine in greater detail the link between the cognitive science of Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, and the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, in order to bring home a sense of Smith’s art as a form of cognitive terrorism, not domesticated by its reification in the museum space, but converted to a form of didacticism employed for the purposes of an engendered, cognitive ethics.

Cognitive Science, Becoming and the Body Without Organs

The shift from the top-down computational model to a bottom-up connectionist or emergent model of cognition, inspired by computer and information sciences, resulted from the realization of two fundamental limitations in the computational model. Otherwise known as the Von Neumann Bottleneck, the first limitation results from the “sequential rules” (Varela 86) that constrain the processing of symbolic information; that is, only one rule may be applied at a time. The second limitation is indicated by the fact that if any loss or malfunction of even a small number of symbols or rules occurs, the system often suffers catastrophic failure.

Varela, Thompson, and Rosch argue that it was work by Ilya Prigogine and others in non-equilibrium thermodynamics, and non-linear dynamics in math and physics, that alerted cognitive scientists and computer scientists to the phenomena of complex systems behavior, and while they note that there is no unified formal theory of emergent properties, symptoms of such systems have been identified across disciplinary boundaries: in each case a network gives rise to new properties, and the ability to formalize and replicate artificially those properties, observed in a large variety of physical and cognitive phenomena, represents a fundamental shift in the understanding of the functioning of systems generally speaking.

But what makes this shift from the computational model to the emergent properties model interesting is its ideological as well as epistemological significance. Let us borrow from Varela, Thompson, and Rosch once again as they explain simply, in terms of three questions, the distinction between these two paradigms.

The Computational Paradigm:

Question 1: What is cognition?

Answer: Information processing as symbolic computation - rule based manipulation of symbols.

Question 2: How does it work?

Answer: Through any device that can support and manipulate discrete functional elements - the symbols. The system interacts only with the form of the symbols (their physical attributes), not their meaning.

Question 3: How do I know when a cognitive system is functioning adequately?

Answer: When the symbols appropriately represent some aspect of the real world, and the information processing leads to a successful solution of the problem given to the system (42).

The Emergent Properties Paradigm:

Question 1: What is Cognition?

Answer: The emergence of global states in a network of simple components.

Question 2: How does it work?

Answer: Through local rules for individual operation and rules for changes in the connectivity among the elements.

Question 3: How do I know when a cognitive system is functioning adequately?

Answer: When the emergent properties (and resulting structure) can be seen to correspond to a specific cognitive capacity - a successful solution to a required task (99).

What makes this distinction interesting from the perspective of ideology can be summed up as follows: for the first, the emphasis is placed on the total control of the trajectories of symbolic manipulation; any loss of control brings down the computational house. For the second, the emphasis is placed on the connections among elements of systems, the deliberate relinquishing of control of those elements, and the observance of the contingent emergence of new forms of order among the connected elements that might not necessarily be predicted.

The top-down exertion of control, and the contingencies of bottom-up emergence represent epistemological and ideological stances toward cognitive functioning, and in the study of human cognition, there is no question that both processes go on simultaneously, and perhaps even at cross purposes. I would like to argue that, of all social philosophers, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have played out the ideological implications of these two styles of cognitive functioning, and I would like to move from cognitive science to their social philosophy, using the art work of Kiki Smith to help visualize their applications of the principles of cognitive science to social philosophy, and more specifically, to the engendering of these cognitive styles.

Becoming and the Body Without Organs

Deleuze and Guattari’s “rhizome” exemplifies the emergent state with its principles of 1) connectivity, which describes the capacity to aggregate; 2) heterogeneity, as in the coordination of unlike elements; 3) multiplicity with respect to the connections, the variability of which is at a maximum; 4) asignifying rupture (allowing the system to function despite local breakdowns); 5) cartography as inadequate representational form (“a rhizome cannot be reduced to a structural or generative model”); 6) decalcomania, or the condition of infinite flexibility and adaptability and resistance to rigidity. Specifically associated with all “manner of becomings,” (TP 8-21), the rhizome exemplifies one style of cognitive and social functioning that resists domination and determination, which are exemplified by the radical-system, or fascicular root (5) “to which our modernity pays willing allegiance,” and represented by “binary logic and biunivocal relationships” that ideologically dominate linguistics, structuralism, and until recently, “information science.” But these two cannot engage in a Hegelian struggle to the death:

You may make a rupture, draw a line of flight, yet there is still a danger that you will reencounter organizations that restratify [everting] formations that restore power to a signifier, attributions that reconstitute a subject - anything you like, from Oedipal resurgences to fascist concretions. Groups and individuals contain microfascisms just waiting to crystalize (9-10).

For Deleuze and Guattari, the answer to domination by rigid calcification and binary determinism in the trajectories of symbols, as well as in the behavior of human beings, lies in the in-difference of emergent aggregative forms as they interpenetrate yet remain beyond the grasp of those crystalline structures within and without the single cognizing subject. It becomes a question of a subject or collectivity’s style of functioning whether it obeys one set of laws or another: these laws exist simultaneously and interpenetrate extensively.

The laws which govern the in-different emergence of aggregating forms are called collectively Becoming (Becoming-Intense, Becoming Animal, Becoming Imperceptible) and they become complicated in terms of the stages by which aggregating forms (woman-child-animal-molecule) may begin to localize as a site of aggregation, begin to evolve under the stress of external conditions, and then learn to function under the condition of in-difference.

The psycho-social condition under which the radical-system dominates and seeks to control the various becomings is called The Body Without Organs, and it refers to what might be called a preexisting condition of wholeness: in other words, the Body Without Organs is the Global State itself, a “field of immanence” (154), the reductio absurdum which is the schizophrenic dream of the rubber body suit without any holes to breathe, eat, defecate. Consistently described in terms of the spherical wholeness of the egg prior to the complete formation of the embryo, in terms of hierarchical strata and of planes of consistency through which rhizomes must propagate but only by avoiding detection, the Body Without Organs specifies the procedures by which the exertion of constraints on various becomings occur. Philosophically represented by Spinoza’s ethics, psychoanalytically by the analyst’s intrusion in the imaginary and symbolic formations of the patient, represented by the betrayal of desire in the form of the hypochondriac body, the schizo body, the drugged body, the masochist body, the Body Without Organs can be understood simply as the superimposition of constraints on the lower order cognitive processes emanating from the organs of the body, from the autonomic, circulatory, and immune systems. Just as the rhizome and its laws of becoming exemplify the conditions of emergence, the striated space within the Body Without Organs exemplifies the strict rigidity of the computational model of cognitive functioning, schematic modelings, structural representations, and geometrical constructions of time in the formalist obsessions of art and music.

What becomes interesting is how we might apply the ideological tensions generated by these competing cognitive styles to the context of aesthetics. In modern art, the writings and paintings of Kandinsky (On the Spriritual in Art; Point of Line to Plane) pays homage to the field of immanence as a field of force, and incidentally to the suppression of that desiring field through geometric superimpositions. Here, Kandinsky’s model can be compared usefully as an extension of Kant’s insistence on the a priori categories superimposed upon the manifold of consciousness in the realm of the imagination and structured further by the intrusions of the judgment.

For Deleuze and Guattari, these a priori categories are a specific manifestation of the striations coextensive with the Body Without Organs, which comes under threat only in the catastrophic breakdown in the cognizing models that enable the subject to function in the world. I’m speaking, of course, of Henri Poincaré’s demonstration of the social origin of geometry in physics, and Bergson’s complementary critique of the spatialization of duration during acts of cognition, a critique which insists on the social and ideological origin of those a priori categories.

Historically, Henri Poincaré and Henri Bergson’s work provided a major part of the ideological underpinning for avant-garde tactics of resistance to habitual frames of reference, and, in the case of the works of Marcel Duchamp, to even the conditions under which the aesthetic engagement might take place. In the works of Kiki Smith, we find specific acts of terror committed in resistance to the striations of the Body Without Organs, with reference to the fascism of the Body Politic at the level of the socius, with reference to the engendering of cognitive styles at the level of the individual subject. In her confrontation with the body itself, through the representation of viscera and the triggering of the visceral response, we find an enactment of the tension between global domination and local in-different becomings. But this confrontation is not simply terroristic; Kiki Smith’s work enacts the confrontation within the mind of the art consumer engaged in the process of aesthetic cognition. The visceral work of her bodies without organs without bodies therefore engages simultaneously with instruction as well as confrontation - what we might call a didactics of visceral judgment, an awakening to the voices of the parts of a body, under erasure by a totalizing consciousness, but which continue to speak out of turn.

Works Cited

Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Trans. Arthur Mitchell. New York: Henry Holt, 1911.

Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory Matière et memoire, [Fifth Edition, 1908]). Trans. Nancy Margaret Paul. New York: Zone Books, 1988.

Braidotti, Rosi. “Organs Without Bodies.” Differences 1:1 (1989).

Braidotti, Rosi. “Toward a New Nomadism: Feminist Deleuzian Tracks; or, Metaphysics and Metabolism.” In Gilles Deleuze and the Theater of Philosophy. Eds. Constantin V. Boundas and Dorothea Olkowski, New York: Routledge, 1994.

Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Cabanne, Pierre. Dialogues With Marcel Duchamp. Trans. Ron Padgett, New York: Viking Press, 1971.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. Trans. Thomlinson and Habberjam. New York: Zone Books, 1988.

Duchamp, Marcel, and H. Halberstadt. Opposition et les cases conjugées sont reconciliées. Brussels: L’Echiquier/Edmund Lancel, 1932.

Duchamp, Marcel. Écrits. Reunis et Presentes par Michel Sanouillet. Nouvelle edition revue et augment avec la collaboration de Elmer Paterson. Paris: Flammarion, 1975.

Duchamp, Marcel. Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp. Eds. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Duchamp, Marcel. Étant Donnés: 1. La chuteclairage…. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1987.

Grosz, Elizabeth. “A Thousand Tiny Sexes: Feminism and Rhizomatics,” in Gilles Deleuze and the Theater of Philosophy. Eds. Boundas, Constantin V. and Dorothea Olkowski. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Grosz, Elizabeth. “Notes Towards a Corporeal Feminism.” Australian Feminist Studies 5 (1987).

Hamilton, George Heard. “Inside the Green Box” and “Afterward.” In The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even: A Typographic Version…. Unpaginated. Stuttgart, London, Reykajavik: Edition Hansjorg Mayer, 1960; 1963; 1976.

Henderson, Linda Dalrymple. The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Hutchins, Edwin. Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex which is not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Jardin, Alice A. and Anne M. Menke, eds. Shifting Scenes: Interviews on Women, Writing and Politics in Post-68 France. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Jardin, Alice A. Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Kandinsky, Wassily. Complete Writings on Art. Eds. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo. New York: De Capo Press, 1994.

Lyotard, Francois. Duchamp’s Transformers. Venice, CA: The Lapis Press, 1990.

Martin, Emily. “Body Narratives, Body Boundaries,” in Cultural Studies. Eds. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

Poincaré, Henri. “On the Foundations of Geometry.” The Monist. (Chicago), IX (Oct. 1898), 1-43.

Poincaré, Henri. Science and Hypothesis. New York: Dover, 1952.

Poincaré, Henri. Science and Method. New York: Dover, 1952.

Prigogine, Ilya, and Isabelle Stengers. Order Out of Chaos. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.

Prigogine, Ilya. From Being To Becoming: Time and Complexity in the Physical Sciences. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1980.

Smith, Kiki. Kiki Smith: Unfolding the Body. Catalogue of an Exhibition of the Work in Paper, Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Oct. 3-Nov. 15, 1992. Susan Stoops, Curator. Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 1992.

Smith, Kiki. Kiki Smith: Sojourn in Santa Barbara. Catalogue of an Exhibition at the University Art Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1995. Marla, C Berns, Curator. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995.

Varela, Francisco, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.