The Clutter Assemblage

Ian Buchanan

In a short but intriguing essay entitled “Clutter: A Case History”, Welsh psychoanalyst Adam Phillips asks what clutter - e.g., a messy bedroom, an untidy studio, a disorganised desk, and so on - might mean, or rather ‘do’, for the person doing the cluttering. For Phillips, the questions ‘what does clutter mean?’ and ‘what does clutter do?’ are related, obviously, but also distinct, and one senses that he shares Deleuze and Guattari’s view, or at least intuits the substance of their argument, that one can only properly engage the second question by first of all renouncing the first. [1] Psychoanalysis, especially but not exclusively its British, empirical strain, is, Phillips observes, curiously ambivalent about disorder, or what he prefers to call clutter. Virtually all its “categories of pathology” are, as Phillips puts it, “fantasies of disorder”, yet its critical language “repudiates chaos” as its basic duty. [2] On the one hand, psychoanalysis is professionally fascinated by instances of disorder and is constantly on the alert for slips of the tongue, tics, compulsions, anything that might be construed as betraying a second order of psychical activity; yet, on the other hand, it cannot accept that disorder really is what it appears to be, it must uncover the hidden pattern, the secret order that renders the slips of the tongue, the tics, the compulsions, and so on, legible. What it cannot countenance, then, is the idea that clutter might be meaningless and still purposeful. The conflict between these two questions, ‘what does it mean?’ and ‘what does it do?’, pushes contemporary psychoanalysts like Phillips in a similar direction to Deleuze and Guattari’s work.

Phillips offers as his paradigmatic example of what might be termed purposive clutter, the case of a painter in his mid-30s who came to see him because he felt he was becoming ‘mildly agoraphobic’. The artist couldn’t be completely sure of his self-diagnosis because his vocation kept him indoors at an easel most of the time anyway, but he was sufficiently anxious about venturing anywhere near parks or the countryside to compel him to seek treatment. But it was not the thought of being able to go outside again in relative comfort that drove him to the analyst’s door. His agoraphobia did not imprison him, or if it did it was not the confining nature of it that worried him. Not unfamiliar with psychoanalysis, he wondered if his anxiety concealed an unconscious or perhaps preconscious desire not to see someone or something. Was it, in other words, a defence or perhaps a screen? Was he afraid of going outside in case he encountered someone or something that was in fact the real cause of his discomfort? Doubtless, as an artist he was also troubled by the potential impairment of his visual apparatus such a will to blindness entails. How could he have confidence in the ‘truth’ of his art with that gnawing worm of self-doubt eating away at his sense of aesthetic integrity? Paradoxically, the prospect of treatment also caused him not a little anxiety too because he sensed, or at least worried, that there was an intimate and productive connection between his symptoms and his art, as though his not-seeing one thing was the price to be paid for acuity in other areas. Phillips also senses a connection between his art and his symptoms, although not in quite the direct fashion the patient feared. So worried is the patient about the possibly positive connection between his symptoms and his art he goes so far as to tell his analyst, “I will be in a mess if I come here with agoraphobia and you cure me of painting!” [3]

It is worth observing at this point that, as Phillips records, in his practice he treats his patients’ presenting symptoms as a potential entrée onto a new field of virtuality (to use Guattari’s notion); and for that reason, he doesn’t seize on agoraphobia as the problem, but waits for the patient to explain why he thinks it is a problem. This is of course standard procedure for psychoanalysis, which effects its ‘cure’ not by interpreting symptoms for the patient, but by teaching the patient how to interpret them for themselves. Its ‘talking cure’ label is deserved because it is precisely by talking, by self-analysing that the patient attains their cure, albeit at the price of a perpetual autocritque. For Deleuze and Guattari this is one of the more egregious aspect of psychoanalytic practice; in their view, the psychoanalyst’s silences are more pernicious than their pronouncements. [4] However, Phillips short-circuits the process by asking an exceedingly presumptive question about the connection between the agoraphobic symptoms and the patient’s vocation. In doing so he exposes the clinician’s own desire and more or less buries the patient’s, or at least traps it within a problematic not of his own choosing. Agoraphobia is the patient’s symptom, to be sure, but the connection between that and his artistic predicament is the analyst’s: that Phillips desires the connection is divulged by his wordlessness at the moment the connection is made - “I had so much to say that I couldn’t think of anything to say.” [5] If one were, as Phillips puts it, “to be a crude old-style Freudian” for a moment, it would not be difficult to discern in his momentary aphasia evidence of cathexis. [6] But can one not also see in this hesitation a certain longing for a different kind of analytic discourse, one that was capable of interrogating a symptom for itself without having to treat it as a sign of something?

The patient’s first response to the question of whether he saw any links himself between his symptoms and his art was to recollect seeing a photograph of Francis Bacon’s studio and being amazed at how cluttered it was. “How could he find anything in all that mess?” [7] The messiness of Bacon’s South Kensington studio was legendary in the artist’s own lifetime, but has become even more renowned since his death in 1992. He bequeathed the studio, though not the building that contained it (which he didn’t own), to the Hugh Lane Gallery, who amidst great furore relocated it to Dublin, where a reconstruction of the surface layer of it can now be viewed through glass display windows. The full depth of the mess, however, is stored separately in an archival area. A team of ten archaeologists were employed to excavate the ‘site’ and catalogue and photograph every single component of the mess. Some 7500 individual items were unearthed, identified, labelled, recorded and entered into a database, the whole process taking some three years to complete. The archaeologists found all manner of detritus, such as empty paint containers, slashed canvases, shreds of corduroy used to texture images, clippings from magazines, and empty champagne bottles. In many places the rubbish is piled several feet high and even the walls are smeared thick with paint – apparently Bacon never used a palette to mix or test his colours, he simply used any available surface, including the walls. Bacon never took out the trash, either, but just dropped it at his feet and let it accumulate layer upon layer in a manner that can only have been deliberate, though to what purpose it remains to be discovered. In interviews Bacon described the mess as essential to his art and for this reason this studio (one of several he utilised in the course of his long career) has been preserved with the thought that it somehow provides an insight into the artist’s process, if not the art itself.

Not unaware of the importance of a good story, and always conscious of the need to build up his ‘legend’ as an artist whose work comes together by accident rather than design, through free-flowing experimentation rather than conscious purpose, Bacon himself was known to say that “this mess is rather like my mind; it may be a good image of what goes on inside me.” [8] He claimed in effect that his studio was a symptom of his mind, thus raising the question which countless art historians have asked with regards to artists throughout the ages of whether it can also tell us something about his art. Putting this into the language of symptomatology, the question would be: is the studio the symptom of the art, or the art the symptom of the studio? If one were strictly speaking a symptom of other, then it should be possible to either view the art and guess the state of the studio, or view the studio and guess the state of the art. Bacon seems to have wanted us to think there was this direct connection between his work and his workspace. For example, he told the poet and writer Anthony Cronin an anecdote about his childhood that cannot but point us in this direction. When he was a young child, Bacon’s parents used to leave him in the care of their maid, Jessie Lightfoot, who doubled as his nanny. The maid had a boyfriend who would visit when his parents were away and as can be imagined the two of them would try to spend some time alone, but being a demanding child the young Francis would constantly interrupt them, until – exasperated – the maid took to locking him in a broom cupboard. She would leave him there for several hours in complete darkness, impervious to his screams. “‘That cupboard’, Bacon said years later, ‘was the making of me.’” [9] It is tempting to see in this statement the biographical support for Deleuze’s impression that the scream in Bacon is nothing other than the body trying to escape itself, but that would be to make neurosis the basis of his art, which Deleuze constantly cautions us against.

However, there are two other ‘vital anecdotes’ (to use Deleuze’s useful concept) that Bacon offers that reinforce the view that the cupboard was the making of him and thereby compel us to think further about the relation (or non-relation as the case may be) between neurosis and art. First, Bacon repeatedly said he couldn’t paint anywhere else but his studio – the size of the room was important, and judging by the way he cluttered it up, it seems as if he constantly wanted it to become more not less claustrophobic, but the most interesting and surprising thing he says about the space is that its quality of light was right for him, despite it having only one very small skylight. Indeed, he found he couldn’t paint while visiting family in South Africa because it was too bright there. It is as though his artistic eye was formed in the stygian gloom of the closet at the top of the stairs and could only function properly in the absence of strong light. Second, Bacon repeatedly said he couldn’t live anywhere else but this same one bedroom flat where his studio was located. Although he became very wealthy and did in fact own a more comfortable flat nearby, he found he couldn’t bear it and remained in his tiny flat on Reece Mews in which the kitchen doubled as a bathroom and the living room doubled as the bedroom. [10] Evidently, in his life as in his art, Bacon quite literally never left the closet, even if he was ‘out’ of it in the more usual sense. Both his choice of working space and his choice of living space can easily be read as symptomatic of the neurosis brewed in the crucible of ‘that cupboard’. Anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with psychoanalysis could see that being locked in a confined space knowing that the object of one’s affection – it could have been either the maid or her lover – is nearby making love to somebody else is a potent combination almost guaranteed to induce some kind of hysteria.
There was a profound, possibly neurotic, contradiction in Bacon that made him long for another style of domestic living which, once achieved, was rejected. […] At one point he bought an impressive studio at Roland Gardens, a short walk away [from the Reece Mews studio and flat] on the other side of the Old Brompton Road. He went to considerable trouble to get it decorated and furnished to his liking and then found he could not even begin to work there. It was ‘too grand’, and he felt ‘castrated’ there because the immaculate splendour of the new space inhibited him from wiping brushes on the wall, letting paint drip and amassing the various documents and tools he liked to have scattered around on the floor. [11]
What, if anything, does the state of Bacon’s studio tell us about Bacon’s art? Chris Stephens, co-curator of the Tate Modern's 2008 major retrospective of Bacon suggests that the relationship between the contents of the studio and the work produced there is viral. Speaking of the 1500 photographs unearthed in the studio, Stephens said, “he didn't necessarily paint any of those - and yet he's sort of trying to get that feeling, that tension and apprehension, in his own images. There's a sense that just by owning images they somehow infected him.” [12] Again, what one sees here is an attempt to create some kind of homology between the state of the studio and the work produced there. At this point then, it is worth returning to Adam Phillips’ case history because what really struck his patient was the apparent contradiction between Bacon’s messy studio and the precision - i.e., unclutteredness - of his art. The photograph of the studio he shows Phillips induces a feeling of claustrophobia in both analyst and analysand, but somewhat surprisingly it is the clarity of the artwork rather than the clutter of the studio that gives rise to this feeling. The implication they draw from this is that the clutter of the studio is somehow necessary to the production of such lucid images, either as a kind of relief from their starkness, or perhaps as their residue. The studio would in this latter regard be something like the work’s midden mound, the product of an aesthetic abreaction displacing clutter from the canvas onto the floor and walls of the studio. It’s as if to ‘unclog’ (a favourite word of Bacon’s) the virtual space of the canvas Bacon had to ‘clog’ the actual space of his studio. Either way, it was concluded by Phillips and his patient that the disordered state of Bacon’s studio was in no way incidental to the nature of the aesthetic production and that got both of them thinking about how space works in art.

The association the artist makes between his present predicament as mild agoraphobic and Bacon is soon explained, and perhaps not surprisingly the explanation has more to do with their respective art than their apparent neuroses. Both also seem to share an affinity for clutter as an aesthetic mechanism of defence, though in Phillips’ patient’s case the connection to his art was much less direct than it is in Bacon. It turns out Bacon had been an important influence in his formative years as an artist precisely because he learned from reading an interview with Bacon a technique that enabled him to breakthrough the deadlock of his compulsive cluttering. In this interview Bacon described his practice of simply throwing paint at the canvas as though to break himself free from the tiresome constraints of form. Accidents and experiments are his way of freeing himself from the predictability of the image and the sterility of pure abstraction. Deleuze’s language is more precise: he argues that Bacon had to break with the pictorial in order to allow the Figure to emerge. In the eyes of this particular artist, Bacon’s lucidity was achieved through a kind of deliberate messiness, or what it might useful to call a ‘clutter assemblage’. As Phillips puts it: “Not only did this idea fit with a whole nexus of then adolescent intellectual passions - Gide’s gratuitous acts, Breton’s random writing, the chance and indeterminacy of John Cage’s compositions; in other words, a passion for loop holes, for ways of abrogating self-control in the service of contingencies - but it also fitted in with one of his own techniques for the uncalculated, which I imagine was an adolescent reworking of a childhood game.” [13] Here, then, life and art finally connect, but not directly – as I will discuss in a moment – since we never find out how exactly the artist deployed the insight Bacon’s technique afforded him, we only learn of the memory of a childhood game the analyst assumes it evoked.

The artist’s childhood game was an invention of the patient’s own and involved piling his clothes on the floor in a disordered jumble and wearing whatever came to hand first regardless of whether it matched anything else he was wearing. New clothes were simply added to the heap, the resulting accumulation intensifying his interest in the tactic. The more chaotic his dress became somehow the more satisfying it was, as though only in absolute randomness was his freedom from having to choose actually to be found. If he looked ill-dressed then that meant he couldn’t have chosen his clothes and therefore he was fully free from the burden of that particular regime. His ‘bohemian’ parents were at first quite tolerant, but even they cracked and eventually insisted on at least some semblance of orderliness. This ‘mess-dress’ tactic, as he called it, saved him from the tedious and in its own way troubling chore of having to decide what to wear each morning. It meant, as he tried to explain to his disconcerted mother, that he no longer had to think about what clothing he would put on. It was also an abrogation of all responsibility for he how looked too, which left him impervious to criticism. Since his clothes found him and not the other way round, he did not have to concern himself with whether or not his ensemble was fashionable. Occasionally he found it disagreeable not to be able to find the clothing items he was looking for, but he felt this was more than compensated by the “way he could both discover things he didn’t know he was looking for and, of course, that he would find himself wearing such apparently unusual combinations of clothes.” [14] By this means he stopped himself from being able to make cluttered choices and freed himself to embrace contingency not as an obstacle to be overcome but as a source of expression. This, according to Phillips, is what Bacon’s intervention aimed to achieve as well. By cancelling conscious selection he freed his art from an adherence to a method that risked pushing him into a black hole of formalism.

But for Phillips’ patient, what worked in life did not work in art. Cluttering up his room worked for him, it was the solution to nameless anxieties to do with dress; but when it came to his art clutter seemed to be the problem not the solution. Cluttering his room seemed to free his mind from the unknown anxieties that beset him, but it did not save him (as it apparently did Bacon) from cluttering the canvas. If for Bacon cluttering his physical surrounds was the price to be paid for unclogging his canvas, then the opposite was the case for Phillips’ patient, who seemed to carry the clutter of the physical space over to the virtual space of the canvas. The cluttered canvases he seemed inevitably to produce induced a great deal of anxiety and effectively paralysed him artistically. What he felt he needed was a tactic like Bacon’s that could stop him from ruining - in his own eyes - his paintings. He needed a means of ‘unclogging’ his art. Although Phillips doesn’t say it, it isn’t hard to imagine an interpretation of the mess-dress tactic as the embodiment of a logic of sacrifice displacing clutter from the sphere of art to the sphere of life. By deliberately cluttering his life he perhaps feels his art will be spared its nonplussing blind alleys, but it doesn’t quite work that way. In their general discussions about art analyst and analysand unhesitatingly recognise the significance of the frame - without it, the artist says, you wouldn’t know where to start. Yet he also admits that his own practice as an artist exhibits a strong tendency to clutter the framed space. No sooner did he fill his frame, though, than he’d find he’d painted himself into an artistic impasse from which there was no way out. (Bacon complained of the same problem and tended to destroy any such work.) That he felt compelled to fill the frame as rapidly as possible was a sign to him of its possibly pathological underpinnings. His cluttering might be read as a mechanism of defence, a way of combating the intimidating emptiness of the blank canvas as though his agoraphobia could somehow be stimulated by that as well as an open field.

Interestingly, Phillips does not read the cluttering as entirely self-defeating; or, rather, underneath the self-defeat he detects an undiscovered victory. Phillips sees the clutter as the expression of an unconscious wish to sabotage the painting process, not to bring it to a halt so much as to unconsciously compel it to take another direction. Beneath the wish to sabotage, then, there is still another wish, which is to produce something new - the first wish is then interpreted as the means of fulfilling the latter, deeper and as it were truer wish. Phillips reasons that clutter “may not be about the way we hide things from ourselves but the way we make ourselves look for things. It is, as it were, a self-imposed hide and seek.” [15] Phillips’ clinical judgement is that clutter is a problem concealing a solution. What Bacon taught the artist, which only Phillips’ intervention properly enabled him to see, was not how to unclutter his art, the goal his mess-dress had perhaps been aiming for; rather, it showed him how to clutter up the clutter and make clutter work for him and not against him. Clutter ceased to be the unwanted outcome or endpoint of his artistic endeavour, but the matter to hand, the substance or beginning of his work. “His coming for psychoanalysis meant we could think about - in relation to his presenting symptom - what made this new kind of clutter work for him.” [16] But just what kind of work this newly conceived clutter was actually doing Phillips is evidently unable to say, save (echoing New Criticism’s standard defence of difficult poetry) that by creating a stoppage in the artistic endeavour it forced the artist to be still more creative in order to retrieve it from the abyss. Phillips doesn’t say whether he managed to diagnose, much less ‘cure’ his patient of his agoraphobia, but that was clearly never his point. “It was the links between his present, apparently mild symptoms and the initial dilemmas my patient found himself in when he began painting as a fourteen-year-old boy that brought the analysis to life.” [17]

What is interesting to me is the fact that Phillips eventually concludes that his patient was trying to construct something with his clutter, but is at a loss to say what it was. He can see readily enough that the clutter is not merely a tic, a nervous habit with no conceivable purpose, but something purposive and even constructive. It is obvious to both him, and, as it turns out, the patient, that clutter is effective; it is a means to an ineffable but felt end. What Phillips demonstrates with admirable economy is that clutter can relieve you of the stress of having to decide what to wear, it can make clothes themselves take on that particular burden; clutter can also relieve one of the starkness and anxiety of a blank canvas; by the same token, it can open an image up, get it out of its self-inflicted impasses. Beyond this point, however, Phillips’s assiduously Freudian language reaches its own limit; his revealingly half-hearted foray into an oedipal analysis of clutter (as a response to parental authority) betrays the extent to which his Freudian analytic apparatus is similarly stretched past capacity. Midway through his analysis, Phillips appears to lose his nerve because he ceases to describe clutter in constructive terms and falls back on the psychoanalytic standby of the reaction-formation. On the one hand, he wants to describe clutter as both the obstacle and the object of desire, which obviously presents no difficulty for psychoanalysis. But on the other hand, he also wants to describe clutter as being a kind of resource to action, and here psychoanalysis is much less sure of itself. Phillips senses that clutter functions as something like a reaction-formation, but if this were true it would simply be yet another instance of it functioning as both obstacle and object of desire. If clutter does function as a resource to action, then what exactly does it enable us to do? Here Phillips’s answer is solidly constructivist, even if his avowed theoretical position is not: clutter enables the artist to create art by giving him a way out the black holes his impetuous beginnings propel him into. It cannot then be said that clutter is either an obstacle to or object of desire because desire neither flows toward it nor indeed around it, but through it.

But Phillips cannot make this leap. So at the fateful moment when his analysis might have cut free from psychoanalysis’ eternal compulsion to exchange function for meaning, he reintroduces the concept of lack and smothers function beneath the weight of childhood memory – he argues that the artist’s clutter is not operative in itself, in its full positivity, but functions only as an obstacle to be overcome: in short, it is the proverbial nothing that gives rise to something. More to the point, Phillips betrays his own intuition – instead of a symptom that is meaningless but purposive he winds up with a symptom that is meaningful but purposeless: the clutter on the canvas is merely the repetition of the sartorial clutter the artist deliberately introduced into his daily routine, only now it has been interiorised and rendered unconscious. As Deleuze and Guattari complain, its as if psychoanalysis has only two ways of conceiving the relation between the interiority of desire and the outside world: introjection and projection – either, everything we do as has an internal introjected counterpart in the psyche, or, everything we do is an externalised projection of something that takes place first of all in the psyche. In either case, the world thus described is a world of mirrors and doubles in which everything we see and act upon has always already taken place somewhere else. As a consequence, though, there is no real connection between the world outside and desire – neither can influence the either because they are reduced to mirror images of each other. [18] So clutter is either the projection of an inner mental process (which seems to be the case for Bacon), or an introjection of an external set of circumstances (which seems to be the case for Phillips’ patient). While I am obviously of the opinion that this is a poor way of thinking about the artist’s use of clutter, I nevertheless want to suggest that there is something instructive in the way Phillips’ analysis oscillates between an approach that is patently Freudian in its language and its conclusions and another that is much closer to the constructivist model espoused by Deleuze and Guattari. The subtle veering towards Deleuze and Guattari’s position can be detected in Phillips’s contradictory attempt to describe the cluttering symptom as both meaningless but purposive and meaningful but purposeless.

It is a truism of the secondary literature on Deleuze and Guattari’s work that they simply rejected psychoanalysis out of hand. And while their own intemperate rhetoric does tend to give rise to the impression that that is precisely what they did, it is simply not the case. Their work cannot be understood in isolation from psychoanalysis – it is not merely a critique of psychoanalysis, it is, as they themselves say, a re-engineering of psychoanalysis. Deleuze and Guattari are quite explicit in saying they do not “share the pessimism” that consists in thinking that psychoanalysis can only be remedied from the outside (or, what amounts to the same thing, flat-out rejected); they believe, rather, in the possibility of what they call an “internal reversal”. [19] If one ignores Deleuze and Guattari’s hyperbole and concentrates instead on the specifics of their critique of psychoanalysis it becomes clear that schizoanalysis is not so much a radical departure from psychoanalysis as the logical development of it in the face of precisely the kinds of diagnostic impasses as the Phillips’s case presents. I would go so far as to say schizoanalysis is, like psychoanalysis, a form of metapsychology, but whereas Freud mapped the landscape of neuroses Deleuze and Guattari are cartographers of psychoses.In Dialogues, Deleuze states that he and Guattari have only two complaints against psychoanalysis: “it breaks up all productions of desire and crushes all formations of utterances.” [20] Deleuze goes on to explain that psychoanalysis is only interested in those productions of desire that it considers failures – such as slips of the tongue, or clutter – and it always assumes that these productions are sexually coded in some way. “Among the most grotesque passages in Freud are those on ‘fellatio’: how the penis stands for the cow’s udder, and the cow’s udder for a mother’s breast. A way of showing that fellatio is not a ‘true’ desire, but means something else, conceals something else.” [21] This is how psychoanalysis crushes all formations of utterances, by always insisting that desire is unable to speak for itself, that it can only speak indirectly through signs, substitutes and symbols (i.e., via introdjection and projection). These two complaints are borne out in the three case histories Deleuze and Guattari draw our attention to in their schizoanalytic writings: Bruno Bettelheim’s case history of ‘Little Joey’, Melanie Klein’s case history of ‘Little Richard’ and Sigmund Freud’s case history of ‘Little Hans’.

Bettelheim’s ‘Little Joey’ is in many ways a paradigmatic figure for Deleuze and Guattari because his apparently pathological behaviour is so explicitly bound up with machines. A patient at the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School in Chicago, which Bettelheim directed for several years, Joey was classified as autistic, although his symptoms seem more consistent with schizophrenia. Joey thought of himself as a machine and he was only ‘present’, i.e., attentive and communicative, when his internal pistons and gears, or whatever his mechanisms consisted of, were churning over. The rest of the time he was silent, virtually catatonic, hence the autistic label. His machines needed an energy source to function, so wherever he went he had to be ‘plugged in’. Bettelheim describes Joey’s routine as follows: “Laying down an imaginary wire he connected himself with his source of electricity. Then he strung the wire from an imaginary outlet to the dining room table to insulate himself, then plugged himself in. (He had tried to use real wire, but this we could not allow […]) The imaginary electrical connections he had to establish before he could eat, because only the current ran his ingestive apparatus. He performed this ritual with such skill that one had to look twice to be sure there was neither wire nor outlet nor plug.” [22] He had other machines too, such as his sleeping machine, which consisted of an elaborate array of aluminium foil, paper plates and plastic cups. Effectively, he had a different machine for each of the operations he was expected to perform in daily life – breathing, eating, sleeping, bathing, urinating, and so on. These machines continued to be necessary and to function even when Bettelheim’s staff removed the props. So while they were real machines, they were nevertheless not necessarily actual machines. Bettelheim was of the view that Joey’s fascination with machinery “ruled out any contact with reality”, so his therapeutic strategy focused on weaning him off his machines. [23] But this never proved effective because while Joey was happy to give up the props, he never gave up on his machines.

Deleuze and Guattari are surprisingly soft in their criticism of Bettelheim, perhaps because in contrast to both Freud and Klein he is at least willing to entertain the idea that the machines are what Joey says they are and not substitutes for his parent’s sexual organs. [24] Klein, for her part, as Deleuze and Guattari relate with unconcealed contempt, interpreted her patient Little Richard’s interest in toy trains as symbolic of his penis which in her view he wanted to drive into the tunnel, which was of course mummy. [25] Klein interpreted Richard’s behaviour as regressive and saw all his actions in terms of a desire to return to the womb. In doing so she overcoded all his little machines, his trains and so on, and his statements, with a narrative framework that is nowhere to be found in anything her patient actually said. In 1977, Deleuze, along with students and friends (Félix Guattari, Claire Parnet and André Scala), conducted a seminar, later published as “The Interpretation of Utterances”, in which he made patent the degree to which analysts don’t listen to their patients by placing in parallel the actual statements made by patients and the statements of what the analysts ‘heard’. The disparity between the two sets of statements is quite striking. [26] One of the test cases he uses is Klein’s Richard and as one reads his statements freed from his analyst’s overcoding it seems clear that he wasn’t schizophrenic at all. Most likely he was traumatised by the fact that his father was away at war and that he himself had been evacuated from London to rural Scotland to escape the bombing. His dark and rather harrowing pictures of warplanes, submarines, explosions, but also maps and diagrams that look like so many escape plans would seem to bear this out. In any case, for our purposes here, Klein’s analysis bears comparison with Phillips’ because it centres on an arrangement of objects and assumes that this arrangement is neither accidental nor insignificant. In contrast to Klein, though, despite the obvious debt his work owes the theory of object relations she initiated, Phillips does not overcode his patient’s clutter and try to give meaning to the specific objects. Rather he attempts to see the whole assemblage as being in some way functional, but is at a loss as to explain exactly how this works. This is in effect what Deleuze and Guattari urge that Klein should have done and their work is taken up with explaining how this might be made to work both analytically and therapeutically.

But at least Klein was able to see that there was an arrangement of objects that was important to her patient. Freud failed to appreciate that any such arrangement existed for Little Hans. Whenever Hans spoke of horses all Freud heard was ‘your father’s penis’ because his methodology prescribed that every object encountered must be representative or in some way symbolic of another object – invariably related to the parent’s sexuality – that cannot be mentioned in this particular context. Thus on this view of things Hans speaks of horses because he cannot or at any rate does not know how to speak of matters relating to human sexuality. In effect, this means that whenever Hans is speaking about horses he must in fact be speaking about something else. Likewise, when Freud’s other famous case study the Wolfman speaks of wolves he must be speaking about something else. And because that something else is always presumed to be the Oedipal triangle of mommy-daddy-me, as Deleuze and Guattari put it, the horses and the wolves are never thought about for themselves. Freud never asks whether the horses or the wolves might be meaningful in their own right, he assumes that they were just available images, suitable visual material for conveying symbolic meanings having nothing to do with either horses or wolves. Deleuze and Guattari reject this view of things and in doing so create a new form of interpretive hermeneutic, one that focuses on the capacities of things (their affects in other words) in themselves, rather than their possible symbolic referent points. “Little Hans’s horse is not representative but affective. It is not a member of a species but an element or individual in a machinic assemblage: draft horse-omnibus-street. It is defined by a list of active and passive affects in the context of the individuated assemblage it is part of: having eyes blocked by blinders, having a bit and bridle, being proud, having a peepee-maker, pulling heavy loads, being whipped, falling, making a din with its legs, biting, etc. These affects circulate and are transformed within the assemblage: what a horse ‘can do’.” [27] The horse doesn’t stand for Hans’s father; rather, it has certain affects that mesh with Hans’s own to form what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as an assemblage.

In each of these three case studies, Deleuze and Guattari are critical of psychoanalysis for its inability to think or see the object except in terms of either introjection or projection – the train cannot but be daddy, likewise neither the horse nor the wolf cannot but be daddy. As ingenious as psychoanalysis is at making connections between images, there is also a certain predictability to its procedure that deadens the interest we might have in the connections it is able to make. If everything can be traced back to the Oedipal scenario in one form or another – whether as literal scene or abstract model – then as an interpretation of a symptom, or more importantly of a text, it lacks subtlety and ultimately credibility. Deleuze and Guattari’s rhetoric is at its most unbuttoned when they lampoon Freud for constantly bringing everything back to Oedipus, as though there were no other way of understanding the operations of the unconscious. Unlike Freud or Klein, Phillips does listen to his patients, quite attentively too it would seem, but he is nevertheless hampered by the requirements of the interpretative framework he has inherited from them. He tries to understand clutter for itself and not as a representative of something else, yet in the end he lacks the requisite vocabulary. Deleuze and Guattari offer new resources for the kinds of diagnostic and interpretive dilemmas Phillips encounters in this case that do not demand a constant return to Oedipus. Those resources are, to my mind at least, superior to those offered by Freud, but as I’ve emphasised above, they can only be understood when read against a psychoanalytic background.

[1] See Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. M. Seem et al. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 109.
[2] Phillips, Adam. Promises, Promises (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), 60.
[3]Phillips, 2000, 62.
[4] “It is well known that although psychoanalysts have ceased to speak, they interpret even more, or better yet, fuel interpretation on the part of the subject, who jumps from one circle of hell to the next.” Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. B Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 114.
[5] Phillips, 2000, 62.
[6] Phillips, 2000, 67.
[7] Phillips, 2000, 62.
[8] Cited in Edemariam, Aida. ‘Francis Bacon: Box of tricks’, The Guardian, 5 September 2008. The notion that Bacon’s art is ‘accidental’ is a constant refrain in his interviews, see Sylvester, David. Interviews with Francis Bacon (London: Thames and Hudson, 2008).
[9] Edemariam, 2008.
[10] Edemariam, 2008. See also Peppiatt, Michael. Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma (London: Constable, 2008), 227.
[11] Peppiatt, 2008, 311-312.
[12] Edemariam, 2008.
[13] Phillips, 2000, 65.
[14] Phillips, 2000, 66.
[15] Phillips, 2000, 63.
[16] Phillips, 2000, 70.
[17] Phillips, 2000, 63.
[18] Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, 28.
[19] Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, 82.
[20] Deleuze, Gilles. ‘The Interpretation of Utterances’ in G. Deleuze, Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews, trans. A. Hodges and M. Taormina (New York: Semiotext(e), 2006), 77. [21] Deleuze and Parnet, 1987, 77.
[22] Bettelheim, Bruno. The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self  (New York: The Free Press, 1967), 235.
[23] Bettelheim, 1967, 243.
[24]  For example, they say nothing at all about Bettelheim’s now widely discredited theory of the genesis of autism, which he blames on mothers for not loving their children enough.
[25] Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, 45.
[26] Deleuze, 2006.
[27] Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, 257.


Ian Buchanan is the Director of the Institute for Social Transformation Research at the University of Wollongong in Australia. He is the author of The Dictionary of Critical Theory (OUP, 2010) and the founding editor of the journal Deleuze Studies.