To Eat, To Speak, To Skirt: Reading the Little Girl's Lips: Sarah Mann-O'Donnell's World



Participants of the Deleuze Studies conference were not prepared for Sarah Mann-O'Donnell's presentation. She climbed onto the desk, crushed red plums, separated them into pits and peels, ate the pulp, and then vomited it onto the table through a pipe. Her actions were interspersed with stuttering and strange little stories. She was creating an enclave that generated sensual sense, affect, bringing to life a particular short-lived cosmology. Naturally, her world entertains tight connections with Deleuzian thought, in particular with Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's Body without Organs, and Deleuze's remarks on Lewis Carroll's Alice in The Logic of Sense. But the consequence of presenting philosophical ideas in such a way reaches beyond philosophical debate: when ideas are brought to life—given an actual, performative social life—they acquire their own mobility and generate fresh, new spillovers, breaching borders, leading elsewhere. They do not represent, but engender something new in the world, they do, thus coming close to a performance of ritual. Connecting her outer self with her interiority, Sarah can summon brute and creative forces embedded within the body through practice in its own right.

“But it's no use now,” thought poor Alice, “to pretend to be two people! Why, there's hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!”

Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1994[1865]:19.

To eat and to be eaten—this is the operational mode of bodies, the type of their mixture in depth, their action and passion, and the way in which they coexist within one another. To speak, though, is the movement of the surface, and of ideational attributes or incorporeal events. What is more serious: to speak of food or to eat words?

Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, 1990:23.

“You can circulate around me and come closer,” said Sarah introducing her presentation,”But you may not want to be too close at times.” Then she stepped onto the small white board she had set on the lecturer's desk, carefully placing her bare feet on scores of sharp-edged lightweight metal brackets that she had upturned and arranged as footholds. Some of them had already flown off the table onto the carpeted floor of the sloped classroom, hinting at the mess that would ensue. When her feet had found their place on the sharp edges, she began her presentation, which she called “To eat, to speak, to skirt: Reading the little girl's lips.1 “ Participants in the Amsterdam University classroom on the morning of the second day of the summer 2010 third Deleuze Studies conference were transported; they entered the world of Sarah, an enclave that generated sensual sense on its own terms, bringing into being a particular short-lived cosmology.

I would like to peer into that cosmology and make a succinct suggestion concerning how it works and what it can do. Obviously, this world entertains tight connections with Deleuzian thought, in particular with Deleuze and Guattari's Body without Organs (BwO; 2005:149–166) and Deleuze's remarks on Lewis Carroll's Alice in The Logic of Sense. But the consequence of presenting philosophical ideas the way that Sarah did goes beyond philosophical debate: when the ideas are brought to life—given an actual, performative social life—they acquire their own mobility and generate fresh, new spillovers leading elsewhere.

An idiosyncratic world emerges from Sarah's little performance, a world that clearly points at the creative forces embedded within the body, which come to life as they are transformed into practice. By subverting and reshaping her body, her performance taps onto the presocial within it: the invisible, inaccessible, mystical interiority of the body, which follows its own routes and processes. Although the interiority of our body is us in an intimate way, it can never become utterly tamed or socialized, yet by connecting her outer self with her interiority, Sarah can summon brute forces more powerful than words, more pungent than philosophical concepts, and more overwhelming than any representation; thus she can also skew and undermine the authority of the hypercivilized agents of representation. Undoing semiotics, her performance latches onto the potentiality of somaticity to become an ambiguous creature, a body made of pipes that spills into the world, or a living tentacle of the inert world: feeling, taking in, forcing the still substance to feel. Inseparable from pure materiality, her creativity is no longer hers alone, instead it engages with the forces of organicity and of physics. Sarah's world is a bricolage, assembled and performed by her intentionality and imagination, yet once it is out in the world it espouses its own dynamics.

Looking closely at this distinct world, I will examine how “a small, even tiny system is organized to create a specific outcome through its own interior relational working, an outcome that would be quite different from where [it] began” (Handelman ms). Handelman's remark concerns ritual, and although Sarah's presentation is not ritual, it does comprise ritualistic elements and shares several traits with it. The main shared trait is that both ritual and Sarah's little world are capable of generating sense in their own terms, Sarah's presentation is a “performance of ritual” in which the ritualistic element concerns mainly the sacrificial role of the plums (see below). This is also why, like ritual, Sarah's performance can lead elsewhere and produce transformation through its interior connections alone. And, as in some rituals, the transformation created by Sarah's presentation is made of intensities and difference; within this world, practice represents nothing, while connections make sense.

And so the anthropological question becomes—to paraphrase “how to become a Body without Organs” (Deleuze and Guatarri 2005:149–166)—how does Sarah organize her confined space and body–self to become what she already is yet something totally different? Her world sets into motion a new actuality, following its own dynamics into an idiosyncratic logic closed upon itself, at the same time opening new conduits to the exterior world. Sarah's world—that of the little girl, or at times some other devouring creature—is Body deterritorializing its Organs, evacuating or extending them to include bits of the inert piping of the exterior world. Within Sarah's world the evacuated-extended organs continue their own itinerary.

Performance of Ritual

Antonin Artaud (1964) claims that theater has a double, a twin of sorts, a shadow that follows it everywhere. He also claims that one of those twins is an illusion (Deleuze and Guattari 2005:542, n. 48), but it is nearly impossible to say which came first: Did theater yield its double, or was it the other way around? Following Artaud's denunciation of the “civilized” person who cultivates the faculty of separating thought from deed ad absurdum and who asserts that theater imitates life, it would be futile to separate Sarah's sequence of deeds as performance from its double. Sarah's presentation is embedded in life and acts upon it with no gap between what it does and what it means. Deleuze and Guattari do not favor either theater or its double and do not consider one any more of an illusion than the other. They formulate the relations between the various planes of art—form-contents, perception-expression, potentiality (of a tree in a seed) and the unfolding of its becoming tree (2005:266), performance and its double—asserting that “there are only speeds and slowness between unformed elements, and affects between nonsubjectified powers, as a function of a place that is necessarily given at the same time as that to which it gives rise (the plane of consistency or composition)” (2005:267–8). One plane is a given, while the other must be worked at. Art therefore always yields or contains more than its composition. The question of performance, then, is how do the relations between the multiple planes function? How does one plane give birth to the other(s) and transcend itself to yield or contain more than its composition? How can the connections between the planes of consistency attain this feat?

Within the performance of ritual the connection between the planes of the world become apparent because ritual is often oriented to change something in the world we live in, a change that is planned, often teleological, especially when it does not represent but rather does something in the world. Ritual sets connections into motion, and through this connectivity it holds the potentiality to transform. Sarah's presentation as performance is akin to the performance of ritual: it is a small system organized to create a specific outcome through its own interior relational working, which is quite different from where it began (Handelman ms.). Sarah sets into motion a certain idiosyncratic logic that follows its own dynamics in transforming her body and self, affecting the participant-spectators by opening new conduits into the exterior world.

Artaud (1964:14) claims that the “European” semiotic way of perceiving culture is not only a monstrosity but may doom civilization to death, which is why he suggests that the true actor is to be found in what he calls the “totemic,” which is the performance of ritual. The magic of civilized theater is make-believe magic, he continues, whereas true magic can only be generated by the Quetzalcoatl Serpent,2 namely, by the shaman performing ritual. Deleuze and Guattari refer to this ritualistic option of transformation, basing their observation on Victor Turner's description of the Ndembu healing: “the exegetical meaning (what is said about the thing) is only one element among others, and is less important than the operative use (what is done with things) or the positional functioning (the relationship with other things in one and the same complex), according to which the symbol is never in a one-to-one relationship with what it means, but always has a multiplicity of referents” (2009:181). Sarah does just that: she brings into play external meanings which become stepping stones for reconnecting things that are potentially connected (such as the seed and the tree), but by setting these relations into motion she generates a complex that yields or contains more than its composition and thus breaches the borders between theater and its double to act in the world.

A Presentation

Dressed in tights and form-fitting spaghetti-strapped shirt that exposed the tattooed wings extending from her shoulders and down her back, Sarah stood on the sharp upturned brackets, took a deep breath and started telling her first story. She spoke matter of factly, with no drama in her intonation. At her mother's house, she said, the sink taps broke, and when the plumber replaced them, he remarked that they had originally been installed the wrong way, and he had now corrected the mistake. Both the hot- and the cold-water taps previously turned in the same direction but now would turn in opposite directions. Since the plumber's visit, however, whenever Sarah wanted to use the sink, her left hand moved smoothly but her right hand faltered because it moved in the wrong direction—and she demonstrated by rotating her hands. Now it moves clockwise when it should, according to her habit, be moving “counter-clockwise,” she said, and again demonstrated with her hands.

She crouched on her knees and repeated “counter-clockwise”; she stuttered, she choked, she spit the word out, stammering and stumbling over the consonants: “ccccounter-clockwise, counttter-clockwise, counter-clockkkkkwizzz.” The sounds sprouted from within her onto her surface, and she spewed them out. She put one of the brackets in her mouth, chewing on it as she continued to stutter “couuunttter-cllockwizzz”3, her body convulsing to get the words out, her face turning red. And then she straightened up, composed herself, took a deep breath and began a second little story, concerning a performance that was part of her art studies. Titled “Pit and Peel,” it took place at the seashore and entailed Sarah's wading into the sea to wash fruits she held in her apron, and then eating as many of them as she could. But then came the first chill of the year and the water, she said, was the coldest she had ever experienced. She began turning blue, and her teacher made her stop eating any more fruit for fear of hypothermia.

At this point in her presentation, Sarah moved the purple plums she had set out around the white board onto the board. She then stepped on them, crushing them and creating a soft and wet surface of smashed plums that squirted juice all around her and onto the carpeted floor of the neat classroom. Her bare feet become red and the firm round balls that had been entire plums soon became a mush.

Now kneeling on the table, Sarah urgently began peeling open the trampled blood-red fruit, putting the peels in a pile to her left, and stuffing the fruit into her mouth, grunting as she devoured them with the savage gluttony of a starved predator, and then delicately discarding the pits from her mouth and placing them on a pile to her right. Juice was now running down her chin, which looked as if it were covered in blood and gore, as she stuffed more and more fruit into her mouth. Then she held two plums in her hands and turned them like the sink taps she had demonstrated, and then stuffed those too into her mouth. She wiped her hands on her tights and began telling her third and final story. As she did so, she assembled a long copper pipe: She attached pieces of copper piping together with adhesive tape and added a jointed segment that she covered in Styrofoam, meticulously cutting off the excess with a knife. She drew a deep breath and told her last story, about the summer she had worked in the home of a paraplegic. He designed his own home, which she helped him build. As one of her chores, she had to install a faucet, so she took a one-day course in plumbing.

Once again she crouched on the table; she put the copper pipe into her mouth and very slowly, very intently, and with a very slight convulsion as a few drops came out of her nose, vomited the plums she had swallowed up through the pipe and onto the center of the table. Now there were three piles on the table: to the right, the plum pits; to the left, the peels; and in the center, the red pulp that had come out of her and through the pipe: a composition of intensities of plums. Then she took the deep, dark crimson fleshy peels and stuck them in her mouth so that they dangled from it like some internal organ that had emerged from her mouth, or perhaps a little animal that had been hunted and devoured, leaving only bloody remnants hanging from the predator's mouth. She stood up with the pipe in one hand, a mock Statue of Liberty.

The lights dimmed; when they came on again, the devouring beast—and the anorexic little girl—were all but gone, and Sarah was with us again, dirty, wet, wiping herself and the table clean of debris. Collecting the rubbish, the vomit, the pits, the peels, and the juice that had landed everywhere, Sarah said, “I am wet.” Her toe was bleeding slightly and she remarked that she had done this before and each time hurt herself somewhere else, the last time cutting her tongue.

What sort of a world was that, I wondered?

Sarah's World

Toward the middle of the presentation-performance, a woman walked into what she thought would be a straightforward, probably lethargic, early-morning conference session and found herself facing a young woman vomiting. She contorted her face in disgust while we, the other participants who had been there from the start, looked on intently as the events unfolded. Disgust is the most visceral of “ugly feelings,” one of the hardest to control when it makes our throats and stomachs reflexively contract and evacuate. Disgust is at once part of desire and its enemy (see Ngai 2005:332–354). However, as Sarah vomits with no apparent contraction of the alimentary canal, the sensation she generates in the spectators who had been present from the outset is a cold, nearly intellectual disgust.4

The emotional tone of the presentation was one of equanimity, of doing and affect. Here was praxis set between reading (Deleuze) and doing, in which the distinction between the conceptual reckoning and the actual somatic engagement with the concepts were in the process of erasure, projecting a complete holistic becoming, the entire body turning into a whole: tool, meaning, and finality all at once, as the gap between the conceptual plan and performative execution was blurred (Bar-On Cohen n.d.; Handelman 1991:205). Sarah determined the terms, constraints, conditions, and scope of our experience, while the hall of academia was transformed into an intimate lavatory where private things were carried out; and we were all enthralled and affected by it. The woman who strayed into the classroom had not been captured into Sarah's world; she could only see a young woman sticking a copper pipe into her mouth.

Sarah fabricated new connections, which in turn generated affect in a nonrepresentational way. There was a blurring of distinction between the outside and the inside of the body; between the organic digestive tube and mechanic plumbing; between story, stuttering, and body; between the sharp edges, the mushy fruit, and the soft membrane of skin inside her mouth and in her extremities (her toe); between the hunter and the hunted; and between the personalized Sarah Mann-O'Donnell and the unidentifiable “she” who at times lost her gender to become “it.” Oscillating between intensities—eating, cold, paralysis, and habit—the new connections flowed without external reason or formal cause, from one to the other and back, pursuing their own dynamics into tentative junctions, opening up potentialities, following roads, encountering dead ends. Yet although the presentation meandered, the sequences had linearity in the sad tale of the plums, whose route from solid round fruit to pulped waste was causal and inevitable, from being stepped on, having peel torn from pulp and pit, being ingested and then vomited out, and the blood-red scraps of peel hanging from Sarah's mouth then being thrown out. From self-enclosed whole to soggy mess, from cute little creatures to sacrifice: for them there was no return route. Sarah's body had only one aperture: the mouth; and as the time for the bloody plums to pour out came, they emerged with no convulsion. She was menstruating from her mouth, an infertile femininity

René Magritte's 1927 painting “Desire (the Young Girl Eating a Bird)” shows a girl in a dark brown dress with wide white lace cuffs and collar, digging her teeth into a black bird's heart. Her face is framed with her brown hair and her gaze is calm, intent, even dreamy with pleasure, her fingers are stained with blood, as is her white collar. The dead bird's wings are slightly spread in surrender, its head drooping, while the other colorful birds go on with their birdness in the tree behind her. Unlike the world of Magritte's little girl, Sarah's world is not oedipal (in the sense Deleuze and Guattari give it), it is not cathartic, not the innocent black and white desire of a young girl to plunge her teeth into a black bird.

Nor is Sarah's world Alice's Wonderland; the aspiration to become a “respectable person”—to cite Carroll as quoted in the epigraph of this paper—is of no consequence. At the same time, like Alice, Sarah cannot “pretend to be two people,”5 because she cannot dissociate her eating anorexic self—attempting to wash her mess at her mother's house—from the one eating her. Because her food is ejected, she must derive her nourishment from her own flesh. In Sarah's world the hunter and the hunted are inseparable and so are “the way in which they coexist within one another” (Deleuze 1990:23). The hunter not only devours the hunted, but also is the hunted, as they recursively nourish and eliminate each other, or each itself. The birds on Sarah's tree do not go on with their carefree chirping, because the wings tattooed on her back transform birdness into an innocent, yet monstrous, angelness.

Body and Affect

Despite the immense potentiality of the body to actually fabricate the world and to yield worlds of meaning in its own right—following Marcel Mauss (1950 [1936]), Mary Douglas (1971), and others—the anthropological tendency was to decipher culture in symbolic terms, to look at the body as the most readily available and generalized source of symbolic structuring of society, something that is “good to think with.” Yet the body is not a cultural object meant to generate symbols and representations; rather, it is what it does, it is nothing “but affects and local movements, differential speeds” (Deleuze and Guattari 2005:260). The body is immanent; it is immanence itself. Thomas Csordas attempts to rectify the neglect of the lived in body in anthropology by uncovering the ways in which the body operates and the social potentialities embedded in it—particularly to healing—through phenomenological scrutiny (elsewhere I have followed the anthropology of the body more carefully: Bar-On Cohen 2007). Following Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Csordas claims that a gap exists between the body as a tool of perception and the body as a tool of objectivization, and that this gap may very well be the universal source of mystery and religions (2004).6

My own anthropological experience with Japanese martial arts has clearly indicated that some cultures do not presume such a gap. Because we use our bodies actively to make food, eat, vomit, menstruate, crush, and wipe clean—to mention only some of the actions performed by Sarah—anthropologists must find a way to consider the role of the body as “something to do with,” rather than merely “something to think with,” and replace the question of “what does it mean,” with “how does it do.” The body is sensing, acting, making a world that makes sense with no possible gap between collecting information, processing it, engaging with it. And the body is not narcissistic: it comes into being socially, within interaction. As Erin Manning (2007) insists, the body does not fill an empty space and a regularly ticking time; rather, it generates a certain space and time and operates in it, changing the affects of this space and time as it creates the world it lives in, sensing, making sense, operating—all of these are mixed, mingled, and affected by other bodies and by the environment at large. Kathleen Stewart calls the nonsemiotic stamps that the body impresses on the world “ordinary affects.” She formulates the challenge of showing the world in non-semiotic terms: the question “they [ordinary affects] beg is not what they might mean in an order of representations, or things, but where they might go and what potential modes of knowing, relating, and attending to things are already somehow present in them in a state of potentiality and resonance” (2007:3)7.

Sarah Mann-O'Donnell's presentation does not represent anything. She does not stand for anything absent, as do symbols, nor does she depend on narratives or tropes, or any other construct we usually call semiotic. On the contrary, she is thoroughly present, she strives to systematically annihilate any potential narrative from assuming her place, and so no gap is formed between what she is doing and what it does to us, the participant-spectators. Her body spawns affect in its own right.

Deleuze chose “affect” to replace semiotic sense making, to express “the limit of semiotics that tend to structure emotional responses to aesthetic and physical experiences” (Coleman 2005:12). It is an “explanatory concept” (Blackman and Venn 2010:8) that is “more than sensate experience or cognition” (Coleman 2005:12), “the knowable product of an encounter, specific in its ethical and lived dimensions and yet [it is] also as indefinite as the experience of a sunset, transformation or ghost” (2005:11). Coleman suggests that affect is the consequence of something that exceeds description and cannot be completely accounted for in words.8 Manning also thinks about affect: it “is not emotion, though it does play on the idea of movement within the word emotion. Emotion is affect plus an awareness of that affect. Affect is the with-ness of the movement of the world” (2007:xxi). Stewart describes ordinary affects as the “shifting of assemblage of practices and practical knowledge, a sense of both liveness and exhaustion” (2007:1). Lisa Blackman and Couze Venn (20109) are concerned with the somatic sense of affect, which they deem an explanatory concept for phenomena of breaching boundaries, for instance, the kinesthetic communication that can overcome the borders between nature and culture, and more particularly, across species, between animal and human: the tool of becoming animal. This interpretation, however, is problematic because “affect,” then, is the residue of whatever cannot be communicated in “normal” semiotic means; this in turn threatens to reintroduce the dual divide in updated terms. Affect is not residue; it accounts for the entire event with all its manifestations.

Like many other Deleuzian concepts, “affect” is relatively easy to define in negative terms; it is not semiotic, it replaces the absurd separation between thoughts and deeds with a holistic imprint. But in positive terms affect is elusive; the above attempts to pin it down and connect it to emotion or sensation in some way, to consciousness or to knowledge, which may be ethical or aesthetic. There is, however, a social dimension to the term, beyond the simple sensation of a single person, which affects the entire social setting comprised of both semantic and nonsemantic manifestations. Because affect is a result of practice, it is both passive and active, it imprints a change or transformation on a sociality, and in its wake, that setting is positioned at a new starting point, not just once but over and over again, whether consciously known or sensed by the participant or not. Sarah is affect; she generates affect; she alters the conference room in a way that makes it wiser, somatically and emotionally inseparably from intellectually.

Sarah manipulates another somatic conundrum: whereas the exterior of our bodies is seen as our selves, the part most determinant of our fate, our interior, remains out of sight and out of reach; although our health and survival depend on whatever is going on inside us, we have no direct access to our inner organs; moreover, our well-being depends on this enclosure by the skin.10 Sarah breaches the border between our mysterious innards and our exterior surface when she brings her body interior onto the surface, not as the expression of interior feeling and emotions (Taylor 2005:747) but as a new way of relating to herself as concomitantly a subject and object. Sarah brings onto the self of the surface, that which should remain out of view, by connecting these two facets of the body she dredges up her true embeddedness within the world.

Creativity and the Presocial

A creative act is a conundrum, it can never be entirely explained by whatever culture had devised before it. It, by definition, contains something new, something drawn from elsewhere, something that defies ordinary social structure and norms. Tim Ingold (2000), Ingold and Elizabeth Hallam (2007), and Stuart McLean (2009) award creativity a central role; they set it between culture and nature, between interiority and exteriority; creative ingenuity, they claim, draws on the environment and on exteriority for its miraculous originality. Within real creativity, the “formal resemblance between a copy and the model is the outcome of this process, not given in advance” (Ingold and Hallam 2007:5), the plan is an outcome of execution, the template follows practice and not—as we normally tend to think—the other way around. Moreover, by reversing the temporal order between plan and execution, Ingold also stipulates how creativity orders other binaries. Nature and its potentialities is the source of creativity, it sets the restraining rules of materiality on human endeavor, and these limitations also, in turn, provide a vast field for novelty and improvisation. Thus, nature precedes culture, and also exteriority—taken in by humans and adapted through improvisation to create culture—precedes interiority.

Ingold and Hallam understand creativity as generative, relational, temporal, and material; an improvisation rather than an innovation. Instead of celebrating only the new, and awarding the blueprint and the abstract idea the sole title of creative, they think of creativity as an ongoing process of adaptation, adjustment, and improvisation that accompanies our every move. Imitation is the genuine creative process, repetition, rehearsal, and learning of skills are creative, they all demand solutions for emerging puzzles. As time inevitably moves on, at each repetition the conditions change ever so slightly so that every performance of the same task demands improvised corrections. As “it mingles with the world, the mind's creativity is inseparable from that of the total matrix of relations in which it is embedded and into which it extends, and whose unfolding is constitutive of the process of social life” (2007:9). Ultimately creativity is central to human behavior within the environment and accounts for “the way we work” (2007:12). Emphasizing creativity as the process of solving emerging problems, this attitude lends priority to the interface between human and environment, while concomitantly playing down intentionality and personal ingenuity.

McLean goes a step further and positions creativity—as interface between humans and environment—at the outset of cosmology. He seeks to “outline an experimental, multiagentive and pluralistic vision of creativity” (2009:213) and claims that the making of the material universe as well as the production of human imagination are equally creative. Creativity participates in the ongoing material world-forming processes, setting into motion relations between bodies of different kinds, both animate and inanimate, and thus creativity becomes dissociated from human assignment of cultural meaning (2009:214), nearly inseparable from the self-correcting processes of autopoiesis. McLean nevertheless objects to the usage of the concept of autopoiesis, because it stresses the difference between internal processes and external intervention, thus reinstating the binary of inside and out (2009:237 note 4).

Positioning creativity at the interface between human endeavor and environment, while according primacy to the world at large, however, points only at one possibility out of a multiplicity of potential cultural ingenuities. Moreover, the relation between binaries such as culture and nature, or interiority and exteriority, are dissimilar for different societies; they depend on cosmology and are recursively reiterated by cultural creativity. An organic holistic cosmos, for example, allows no exterior at all, in it autopoiesis becomes the process by which such a world self-corrects, indeed by improvisation and repetition (about holistic worlds see Handelman and Lindquist 2011; Handelman and Shulman 1997; on organicity see Bar-On Cohen 2011). The mechanical option of an exterior intervention, namely correcting from the outside, is another sort of creativity, which may emerge within a cosmos that does define strict borders, in which interiority is quite distinct from exteriority. Whereas in an organic cosmos no primacy is defined between nature and culture, for a cosmos that does emphasize separations, human planning is situated at the outset of creativity. Namely, stipulating binaries, undoing them, and determining the relations between them is in itself a cosmological act, independent of any theoretical anthropological proposal. What is more, the question of “what came first,” nature or culture, exteriority or interiority, plan or execution, also depends on the cultural logic as it is reiterated by its creativity. In their “Treatise on Nomadology,” Deleuze and Guattari (2005:351–423) propose that, whereas for the nomads in their “minor science” apprenticeship proceeds the plan, for the striated and its “royal science” the converse is true, plan must direct action.

The body adds further complexity as it includes its exteriority inside itself, because its interior is undomesticated and can only be corrected mechanically by opening it up as does modern medicine, while the body as a holistic unit lends itself to autopoiesis. Auto-urine therapy, an Indian neotradition, as one example, engages the body in creative autopoiesis, because according to this healing method, urine as the substance that was purified by the body can, if ingested regularly, heal that same body. Moreover, auto-urine therapy can accord more than just immunity to disease; it can provide extraordinary faculties (Alter 2004:181–210). Auto-urine therapy molds that body into a self-correcting self-sustaining unit, which is composed of interiority alone.

Sarah too draws on the inert world to create her world, and on the traits of exteriority within her body, she connects her material body to the material world. Nevertheless, it is her creativity, creating a hybrid, a monster, forcing her body to flow against the autopoietic processes. Unlike Ingold's claim, in Sarah's world no priority is stipulated, nature—which I prefer to call the presocial11 —does not lend itself easily to Sarah's creativity, she has to force it, to go against the direction of the flow of materials within it. Instead of leading from mouth down, food comes up again through the mouth. Neither does exteriority take precedence over interiority in Sarah's performance, the unexplored space of the body's interiority—the presocial within that obeys the processes of the world and always exceeds cultural taming—is made evident in all of its disgusting glory. Last, plan does not follow execution, as the planned correction—such as that of the taps in Sarah's mother's house mechanically corrected—does not meet with the appropriate practice. Here creativity aborts all attempts to set any sort of order of priority in time, her creativity obliterates difference between interior and exterior, between the social and the presocial, and between plan and execution. Instead of an interior autocorrection of autopoiesis or a mechanical correction stemming from the outside, she promotes a mess.

Sarah's performance erases the distinction between processes of the world, her body within that world, and her intentionality, between the manmade making and the organic progression of growing (Ingold 2000:339). Nevertheless, when the interweaving of making and growth is negative, namely, destruction and decay, these two processes are not oppositions at all. Sarah meanders between manmade damage and organic decay and death. Her creativity, as well as that of the world, is violent. Sarah's world destroys words, makes them stutter into unintelligibility and then taps onto her own body, she coerces herself to disclose her presocial self, which she renders intimately continuous with the inert world. She generates affect, a social and cultural event that stems from the body that she is.

A Deleuzian Presentation

In the main, the conference participants transposed words into other words; Sarah's cosmology, on the other hand, was achieved by turning her reading into practice. And because, unlike words, practice can hardly be tamed to perfection, the passage from words to deeds yields recursiveness, difference, and circularity of the body-self into, and out to, the world, returning, albeit now different, to the point of departure. Sarah's is a world that stutters counterclockwise; nothing dramatic can emerge from a stutter, no heroic “self-critic” or “self-vivisection” (Mann-O'Donnell 2010:163)—no, nothing like that, merely something we can all do. We can all eat, speak, vomit, fix the plumbing: these are commonplace potentialities embedded in all our bodies and selves; the world created by Sarah's presentation is an aborted “self-opening” (2010:170). Sarah's stomach was empty when she came in and empty when she left, yet an event took place. Between the cautionary note introducing the performance and her cleaning up the mess after it, aborted nourishment and bleeding through the mouth occurred, resulting in the slaughtered plums. Meanwhile, a different passageway was made, not the one leading into the body, but a new one, leading out.

Sarah's presentation reveals how, through intensities, a dynamic of becoming Body without Organs is espoused: the sundering of fruit peel from pit and pulp, treading, being chewed, diluted and mixed with stomach fluid, the egg-shaped whole fruit disclosing interior mushiness, “plum” becoming “plum-(b)ing,” eating, digesting, vomiting, exteriorizing words and storytelling, internal and external pipes, lips, taps, cold seawater, the immobility of paraplegia, the sharpness of metal, the mushiness of plums, the vulnerability of a protective skin—all these are the intensities of this personalized Body without Organs (BwO).

In Sarah's own words, a BwO “constitutes a mode of living and thinking as continual […] self-construction through the production of intensive difference” (Mann-O'Donnell 2010:173; Deleuze and Guattari 2005:203). It “disavows depth, enacting this disavowal through its self-unfurling” (Mann-O'Donnell 2010;174; Deleuze and Guattari 2005:197). So the BwO is a stubborn insistence on surface, a systematic denial of any option of profundity, achieved through the self-generation of continuity. The BwO challenges the borders of the body by making them specific, by almost detaching itself from all the rest of the world, by nearly dying. A BwO is a whole that becomes so specialized or obsessed by one thing that it is nearly completely disconnected from everything else, holding on by a thread as it were. This obsession brings it to the verge of death—the anorectic dedicates herself to avoiding eating, the addict aspires to the coldness of the drugged body, the masochist is obsessed by pain—the BwO is enclosed upon itself, cut off from the external world, challenging borders by inflating one part of a whole (nonsustenance, coldness, pain) and neglecting the other parts; the rest shrivels, becomes vestigial and useless, and threatens to kill it.

Becoming BwO is a practical project, and Deleuze and Guattari explain how this can be accomplished. By driving the body to the extremity of life, the BwO facilitates the breaching of borders—borders within the body and between the body and the environment (Bar-On Cohen 2009). “If the BwO is a limit, if one is forever attaining it, it is because behind each stratum, encasted in it, there is always another stratum”; and the BwO is freely “cutting across and dismantling all of the strata and the surfaces of stratification that block it or make it recoil” (Deleuze and Guattari 2005:159). Behind—or perhaps in some other geometrical relation to each facet of the lived body—is another facet, and the relations between those facets are reorganized, forever attaining other strata encased in them. By its smooth, nearly imperceptible passage between the strata, BwO avoids stuckedness, and thus it has the capacity to augment traits of selfness as nomadism, as movement “(keep moving, even in place, never stop moving, motionless voyage, desubjectification)” (ibid.). BwO is the futile motion in place that makes excess recognizable; the self is excess. The BwO recursively stretches itself thin, discarding all but intensive difference. And that is exactly what Sarah is doing. However, when the conceptual proposition of dismantling depth is transposed into the world, carried into actual somatic practice, something else happens, some depth is nevertheless generated.

To my anthropological mind, BwO drives to excess the separateness of the individual, the unit of one person, and points at its absurdity. The self is profoundly social, as it is inextricably connected with others. The BwO, on the other hand, moves towards ultimate separation of the one from the social, specializing in and becoming obsessed with one aspect of the self, with the self itself, driving it to its limit. When BwO is put into practice, actualized in a living body, it can break boundaries and lead toward openness. It clears a passage that can enhance connections, which are there all along but are habitually dulled, diluted. and muted imperceptibility in the bustle and noise of everyday life. Elsewhere I have shown this tendency of practiced BwO through the analysis of a specific karate training exercise, an extreme situation of prolonged stress, a BwO of pain (Bar-On Cohen 2009). The outcome there is the shattering of boundaries within and among the participants, so that they can make energy flow between parts of their bodies-selves and from one to another, an energy that enables them to sustain the excruciatingly painful position.

The particular BwO set into motion here—Sarah's, Alice's, or some other creature's—is also potentiating openness, obliterating boundaries, negating even the lips as a threshold to the body. The lips are stretched out, in Alice's telescopic manner, to the edge of the copper pipe, itself jerry-built with flimsy adhesive tape. The upper apertures—the mouth, the nose—are open, and their potentiality is extended to include food going down, and coming up again through the copper pipe, extending to the world of objects. However, this extension is not growth; it is the sending of tentacles into the world, which also implies that the lower apertures remain closed, inoperative, as the food cannot go all the way through; and the girl can remain a girl. The anus and the vagina remain shut, but not sewn together in the manner of the sadist (Deleuze and Guattari 2005:151); they simply have no work to do, nothing passes through them.

This BwO extends to the world through obstructed, stuttering repetition. When it was fixed, the tap in her mother's house could turn in only one direction, against the habitual movement, or else falter and become stuck in the frustrating repetition of stutter. Meanwhile, Sarah's esophagus became a two-way passage; sensibly, it should work in one direction only, leading food to the stomach, where it should stay and then continue its journey within the body, becoming something else: blood, excrement. Sarah, however, liberated the digestive conduit from being stuck, from its one-directionality. Now it could lead in and out, but the two directions are in fact one, because—as in Alice's world—”sense always goes in both directions at once” (Deleuze 1990:77). Sense is linear both in time and space, and thus Sarah's world is linear in one sense yet not “sensible” in another, because it is not “sensible” to let food, once swallowed, come up again. Thus Sarah's world opens up a parallel world, that of the erratic movement of the stutter, and releases—even liberates—the two-way passage to the potentiality of multiplicity.

Another consequence of this liberating BwO is that Sarah reverses the roles of food and speech: the food comes back out of her smoothly, while the words must be convulsed out. She liberates food from profundity and words from shallowness.12 Returning to the performance's name “To eat, to speak, to skirt: Reading the little girl's lips,” if, as Deleuze would have it, to “eat and to be eaten […] is the operational mode of bodies, the type of their mixture in depth, their action and passion, and the way in which they coexist within one another,” and if “to speak, though, is the movement of the surface, and of ideational attributes or incorporeal events” (Deleuze, 1990:23), then “to skirt”—in the double sense of border or moving on the edge and wearing a skirt as women do—is to reverse those roles.

Words are no longer movement on the surface; rather, they have to be ripped out from the deep presocial within, making no more sense than affect, coming from a profound place within the body to be transformed into intensities of effort and pain. Vomit, on the other hand, comes out smoothly, it aborts the potentiality of food to become living matter once again; eating is a dispassionate act by which food becomes waste, devoid of depth, yet is extended into the world. Thus it is the surface—food—and not the abstract word that enables the boundaries between body and world to be breached. To skirt, namely, to move along the rim of the world and of womanhood, is an act that can affect this reversal, where words acquire somatic depth, food is extended into the world, and the plums are separated in a sedentary way “on the one hand and on the other hand” (Deleuze 1990:75). They are dismantled, classified, dissected into categories: pits, peels, pulp-turned-vomit. Yet the result is not good order, it is the senseless order of mushiness. The plums are the little creatures sacrificed in order to achieve the feat of reversal.

Whereas “wonderland exists in an always subdivided double direction” (Deleuze 1990:78), Sarah's is a world that refuses to open where it should: it is stuck. The path to liberation begins with the fakir-like act of standing on sharp-edged brackets and continues with the sacrificial odyssey of the plums. The plums are an offering for linearity, causality, and sensibility, sacrificed in the line of duty. Sarah's world sets into action a circular desiring machine, repeating itself in the hope for oedipal deliverance that will enable the plums to go all the way through, becoming real blood, opening up the anus—and the vagina, which will allow its monthly stream of blood to flow—reading the little girl's other lips into becoming woman. Just as a philosophical concept has a life of its own, so too lived worlds have a propensity to go places.

* * *

And then there is another reversal. Sarah's world is a caricature, a mock sacrifice, a toy pipe, an ironic Statue of Liberty (perhaps hinting at the liberation of the hunter and the hunted from their constraining opposition?), a distorted circus, plumbing only for Deleuzians: a private joke on our account, understood only by us. Bateson (2000) has suggested that humor is a meta-message and that the only difference between what is serious and what is play, or humor, is the framing in which it is communicated. Humor is the framed announcement (this is not serious), and whatever is outside that frame is serious (see also Handelman 2001). The only difference between the nip of a young puppy playing and the bite of an angry adult dog is the frame. “Simultaneously the playful nip is not only a bite and a nonbite, not only one thing and another … but also a bite in process, in transformation to something else. Something looking like what it isn't and indeed it is that” (Handelman and Shulman 1997:39). But what happens to humor when the borders are breached and become fuzzy, when the BwO makes them flow and lose their steadiness, as in Sarah's presentation? How then does humor operate? In such a world a nip might bite or become something altogether different.

If you think about it, it is both shocking and yet funny to walk on sharp-edged cookie cutters and smashed fruit instead of a tight rope. It is ridiculous to train the body for the fantastic feat of throwing up without convulsing instead of swallowing swords. It is preposterous to replace bleeding little creatures with plums. It is just as absurd to tell pointless stories that don't go anywhere instead of displaying human silliness through tripping clowning acts. But isn't that what we all do? We train ourselves to become maestros of our own silly habits; we sacrifice little things for no reason at all; we communicate through senseless stories; and we generate pipes and taps that will lead out into the world in our attempt of some understanding.


  1. 1

    This is the title as it appeared in the conference program. Sarah told me later that she had wanted to change the title to “To eat, to speak, to skirt, or, Plumbing for Deleuzians.” We were the Deleuzians that she was plumbing for. I will relate to both titles.

  2. 2

    Quetzalcoatl is the Aztec feathered serpent god.

  3. 3

    Sarah wrote me that the sharp brackets she was standing on “were metal alphabet cookie cutters, which is pretty central. So when I chewed on one, I was chewing on a letter—an “H” to be exact, because I was playing with the title of the piece which I'd spelled out with the letters—”Count(h)er Clockwise.” This, however, was completely lost on me during the presentation.

  4. 4

    Vomiting can also be understood in positive terms as a form of purging or reenergizing. For the Kwakiutl, Native Americans from the Seattle Bay area who were intensively documented and analyzed, “vomiting comprises the basic paradigm of transformation and rebirth; fire, like vomit, does not destroy, it resubstantiates” (Walens 1981:17).

  5. 5

    Alice can no longer play badminton in her head, taking both sides and having equally good chances of winning or losing, of b-eating the other or of getting b-eaten.

  6. 6

    Such a reckoning of the body is culturally specific to monotheistic thinking; it stems from the same sources as do semiotics, both of them claiming a metaphysical, unbreachable gap between the world and us, between a symbol and the thing in the world that it refers to, between body and soul, and between God and humans.

  7. 7

    For a complementary anthropological perspective see Persson (2010).

  8. 8

    Notwithstanding Coleman's inference that they are extraordinary, both transformation and ghosts are, for anthropologists, part of everyday reality in many places.

  9. 9

    The entire issue of Body & Society dedicated to affect.

  10. 10

    Yogis can defy the inaccessibility of the interiority of the body by controlling their heart beat, blood pressure and more (see Alter 2004).

  11. 11

    Each cosmology provides a different perception of what nature is and how it stands in relation to culture, yet we all have some concept of what existed before it was tamed by the social, what will always remain untamed, and what can be done at the borders between the presocial and the social. A twilight zone in this sense is the body, which inevitably connects “us” with the processes of our body.

  12. 12

    The relation between words and food are longstanding in European history. In the Middle Ages, reading aloud the written sacred word was likened to eating and digesting or ruminating: hearing the written word was eating, while taking it into one's heart was digesting (Ingold 2007:17–18).