Black Swan: How do you make yourself a body without organs?

I have always been peculiarly baffled by the co-authored article of Deleuze and Guattari, “How do you make yourself a body without organs?”. For those unfamiliar with the work, it is severely masochistic. Merely sampling a short passage immediately gives away its idiosyncratic character:

You begin sewing, you sew up the hole in the glans; you sew the skin around the glans to the glans itself, preventing the top from tearing; you sew the scrotum to the skin of the thighs. You sew the breasts, securely attaching a button with four holes to each nipple. You may connect them with an elastic band with buttonholes… […] You sew my buttocks together, all the way up and down the crack of my ass. Tightly, with a doubled thread, each stitch knotted. (A Thousand Plateaus, p. 151)

At least, this quote is representative of what I remember of my first horrific encounter with this piece—utterly bizarre. I have since invested a significant amount of time devoted to studying Deleuze, but this particular work continued to haunt me. It yet remained to be recognized as an identifiable concept. In other words, borrowing the phrase of Deleuze, “How do you make yourself a body without organs?” was for me an object of encounter.

It was not until my spouse and I recently went to the theater to watch Aronofsky’s Black Swan that the enigmatic section of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus became illuminated for me. As with all of Aronofsky’s films—Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler—Black Swan is complex, compelling, and never recognizable to common representations of existence. In fact, coming out of the theater we were discussing what we thought of the film and I made the comment that I was having a particular difficult time processing what I thought of it. My spouse responded by making the insightful comment that that seemed to be the point of the movie. More particularly, Black Swan was unlike what people most often watch and uncommon to habitual ways of encountering films. This is a bit of an exaggeration, but the point—and, I think, the purpose of the film—is to create a novel experience for the audience; one, in this case, that includes body horror.

Again like other Aronofsky films, there is a traversal and blurring of standard demarcated boundaries separating madness and genius in Black Swan. This downstairs mixup of imagination and reality centers round Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers, “a woman who has dedicated herself so completely to the ballet and the art of dance, that it has stunted her development in many ways. She is cold and isolated, and has difficulty relating to people, while still retaining a purity and naivety that teeters between innocence and cowardice” (see here). But in order to perform the ballet ‘Swan Lake’ Nina must not only play the role of the White Swan Queen—a role she easily fits—but the seductive and dangerous Black Swan as well. Indeed, Nina is perfect in grace and technical ability, but it is quite apparent that she significantly lacks passion and creativity. In order to achieve the dark existential side of the Swan Queen duality Nina undergoes a psychological transmogrification by subjecting herself to mental and physical torture. However, given Aronofsky’s famous style, the audience is left clueless what is real and what is imagined, but this confused state of both Nina and the audience contributes to the experimental nature of Aronofky’s films that teeter between genius and madness—a space clearing gesture that makes room for thinking otherwise than we currently do.

Although this postmodern-typical boundary crossing is certainly interesting and animates thinking beyond its common restraints, it is significantly overdone. What I find more fascinating with the films that Aronofsky produces is his penchant for featuring body mutilation motifs, “be it by drug use or razor blade” (see here). More specifically, his films depict artists “destroying themselves in pursuit of their art”. This is no less true of Black Swan. “Every single frame of Black Swan echoes the theme of the destructiveness of the artistic process and proves that Aronofsky, in his thrilling story about a woman seeking perfection, has found it himself.” What seems lacking in this description, however, is not that artists destroy themselves in spite of their art, but must destroy themselves exactly for their art.

This theme of “full-blown body horror” is again echoed on one of my favorite blog sites, ‘The Pinocchio Theory’. According to Shaviro “the tortured flesh of Natalie Portman is at the center of the film” (see here). Shaviro suggests that this sort of masochism is the necessary condition of possibility for the breakthroughs required of Portman’s Nina, an insight that I believe confirms what we discover articulated in Deleuze and Guattari’s “How do you make yourself a body without organs?”. Not only does the body torture function as a safeguard from “high-minded and self-congratulatory elitism”–a gesture which would reify the status-quo of institutionally accepted standards of “good” art and therefore would be unable to transcend beyond the common to the genuinely original—but more significantly, such a breakthrough must pass through a particular form of breakdown in order to be achieved. As Shaviro puts it, “Portman’s character finally learns that she can only fulfill her quest for aesthetic perfection at the price of her own existential self-destruction”. I find this right. Of course, this is not a self-annihilation or breakdown as such, but only such in terms of the old conservative scheme of things. In the new valuation of things, the previously described revolting bodily metamorphosis would not be considered horror or failure but success. In this sense, I think Shaviro gets what most others miss in their review of Black Swan.

To my mind, I am not confident that Aronofsky has read Deleuze and Guattari, but it would by no means be surprising. In truth, the two have had an enormous impact on the art world in general. This is not altogether astonishing given the concepts they provide and their own indebtedness to art, cinema, literature, etc. As I have recounted elsewhere, the Deleuze of Difference and Repetition “identifies” a univocal ontology in which difference is ontologically fundamental. More generally, every existent entity is created, sustained by, and ultimately collapses back into a virtual intensity. Thus, all individuals, animate and inanimate alike, are stable structures that are simultaneously suspended over a hydraulic flux, what Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus call the “plane of consistency”, “plane of immanence” or “body without organs” (BwO). So while every actual body expresses a consistent “set of traits, habits, movements, affects, etc.” as faithful Wikipedia tells, every existent organized body possess “a vast reservoir of potential traits, connections, affects, movements, etc.” at the same time. What is relevant here is that to “make oneself a body without organs” requires one “to actively experiment with oneself to draw out and activate these virtual potentials. These potentials are mostly activated (or “actualized”) through conjunctions with other bodies (or BwOs) that Deleuze calls ‘becomings’.” As Deleuze and Guattari put it in A Thousand Plateaus, a body without organs “is permeated by unformed, unstable matters, by flows in all directions, by free intensities or nomadic singularities, by mad or transitory particles” (p. 40).

Is this in any way what Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers undergoes in Black Swan? In point of fact, I think it is. As Leroy the ballet director fears, Nina is ostensibly incapable of releasing and transcending herself enough to become the impassioned black swan. As Leroy recounts and the audience witnesses, Nina dances in an overly frigid and stiff way. She is the exact opposite of the dynamic, heterogeneous, and unorganized forces of desires that seem to overwhelm Nina’s antagonist Lily who is all passion and sloppy in technique. What is required of Nina to transfigure into the black swan is to embody a little crowned anarchy into her “organisational” life in order to be a creative force in her own right, independent and irreducible to the purposive and unequivocal goal-directed techniques of the ballet economy. What Deleuze and Guattari ultimately affirm is not after all the completely rigid body or the purely chaotic one but the full body that is teeming with life. What is needed to create oneself a body without organs, according to Deleuze and Guattari, is to introduce the dynamic and experimental nature of the virtual intensity into striated existence. This is in effect what Nina does in the film. She is on an endless becoming of perfection, forever attaining it, undertaking a continuously unaccomplished exercise of experimentation.

Of course, as Deleuze and Guattari warn and Nina discovers for herself, creating a body without organs can be highly dangerous. Therefore it is a task that must be accomplished with caution. As Deleuze and Guattari say, “overdose is a danger. You don’t do it with a sledgehammer, you use a very fine file” (p. 160). This then is completely unlike committing suicide. As they go on to say, “You don’t reach the BwO…by wildly destratifying. […] If you free it with too violent an action, if you blow apart the strata without taking precautions, then…you will be killed, plunged into a black hole, or even dragged toward catastrophe. Staying stratified – organized, signified, subjected – is not the worst that can happen; the worst that can happen is if you throw the strata into demented or suicidal collapse, which bring them back down on us heavier than ever” (pp. 160-161). As anticipated earlier, the experimental body that Deleuze and Guattari push is not construed polemically between the body without organs and the organism, or pure chaos and complete order. What they seem to esteem are bodies at the threshold of intensity that are nonetheless stable, even if flexible. What is attacked by the two then, as Ansell-Pearson notes in Germinal Life: The Difference and Repetition of Deleuze, is a particular sort of organism that is intractably hierarchized. As stated in an illuminating commentary by Torkild Thanem, one that is still a work in progress, and at his request not to quote, the danger or challenge of experimenting with a body without organs is that we go to far too soon, that is, too much is exposed at once. The experimentation that Deleuze and Guattari seem to suggest on the other hand is a patient and careful working of the body that attempts to form new habits in unpredictable ways that disturb our common notions of how bodies function (see here). This is further confirmed in a paper by John Sellars, drawing significantly upon the work of De Landa, and worth quoting at length:

For Deleuze and Guattari the organized organism and the fluid Body without Organs always exist side by side. To make oneself a Body without Organs does not involve destroying the organism but rather experiencing the organism from a different perspective. The schizophrenic does not undergo a physical process of de-organization but rather undergoes a process in which he no longer experiences himself as an organism. This is possible because any level of organization or stratification is always relative to a particular perspective. So, although from the perspective of a human lifetime a mountain seems permanent and unchanging, from the perspective of geological time it continues to flow, if only slowly. (“The Point of View of the Cosmos: Deleuze, Romanticism, Stoicism”, p. 4)

What it means to make yourself a body without organs then, as I have presented it here and in tandem with Aronofsky’s Black Swan, is to experiment with what is always-already integral and vital to oneself. Or again, it is to open oneself to the pulsing creative force internal to oneself but merely blocked. Indeed, it seems quite clear that Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers experiments throughout the film of loosening herself from her own self-restraints, which is not the same as discovering an immediate inner self that is simply given but must merely be found lying in wait.

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6 responses to “Black Swan: How do you make yourself a body without organs?”

  1. Requestor says :

    I like this text a lot, since I happened to have conversations on black Swan & Gilles Deleuze in the same day with a friend. Maybe it was unconsciously linked in my head :]
    If you are interested in Dance in film, you might want to check this writer who is a professor of film, made a book on dance, (and the new realm the dancer enters, or the split bodies she acquires) http://www.jalaltoufic.com/downloads/Jalal_Toufic,_Over_Sensitivity.pdf
    you can start reading from from page 40.
    Btw I personally believe that if you watch the film The Red Shoes (1948), you might notice a little influence, perhaps a big one, especially that the writer is Hans Christian Andersen, who ends his novels with the death of the main characters.

    • Matt Cullen-Meyer says :

      Thanks for the link…from what I’ve already read there’s a lot of intriguing themes present. Given Aronofsky’s proclivity for subtly mixing up physical and imaginary realms, it is not altogether surprising that he choose dance as a medium for conveying this particular style in ‘Black Swan’. Indeed, the realm of altered movement, body, space and time projected through dance, in part, already does the work of producing a second register of reality that Aronofsky ostensibly strives to create. I was especially intrigued by the scene described in ‘The Band Wagon’ in which the bodies of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse are imperceptibly dancing in Central Park as they themselves casually stroll. In regards to D & G, this sounds a lot like the nomadic mode of existence that is nonetheless done in place. “Be quick, even when standing still!” What is more, I thoroughly enjoyed the insight that in narrative dances? the dancer-actor is the god of in-between, a hinge between performers and spectators. In tandem, this is parallel to medieval carnival in which ‘actors’ did not know footlights, in the sense that ‘performers’ did not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators.

      • Matt Cullen-Meyer says :

        I really like this theme: “Nomadic movements are not movements in extension, but rather intensive movements: one can take flight from the territory without moving an inch”

  2. S says :

    As both a professional ballet dancer and a rather overwhelmed graduate student trying to read D and G, I found this quite interesting. After I finish reading the damn book, perhaps I will comment again.

  3. j says :

    hi – only just found your blog. i read some of the same theory you write about and your work looks interesting. i cam elooking for a review fo black swan – going to see it tomorrow.

    unfortunatley i cant spend very long reading your posts as the white-on-black format gives me a headache really quickly. Ive never noticed this before (but cant say ive spent much time reading white on black in other places). i wouldnt request you change this on my part, but if you have had comments from others in the past perhaps you might consider changing it.

    i might return post-film viewing

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