Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The abstract potential of professional life: notes on Deleuze, drawing and disruption.

I have spent some time 'thinking visually' about why I find visual language so useful, and what sort of potential it offers postdoctoral work (as soon as that much delayed Viva is passed). This has involved sketching, as well as dipping into Jakub Zdebik's (2012) book on Deleuze and the Diagram.

My interest in visualities is in their potential to 'open up' biography, and human practices by attempting to disrupt forms of description which are cause us to think is restrictive ways. For example, I have a specific interest in helping social care, education and health professionals to develop alternative ways of seeing and questioning what they do. In that specific domain, our thinking is limited when we only see through the 'lens' of evidence based practice, which relates things causally, in a linear way, and where understanding can be substituted for metrics. I don't suggest that lenses such as 'evidence based practice' have specific value, only that they are designed to do certain things, represent in certain ways, and raise only specific types of questions. In developing my own research practice, my challenge is to understand and articulate what an alternative - visually orientated - approach might look like.

Part of my thinking has been to go to texts that deal with ideas about aesthetics, and the way lines (or different sorts) may connect, open up and re-imagine reality. It has been an opportunity to pick up philosophical interests developed in doctoral study, but with a very pragmatic approach. I ask: what inspires? What could I adapt? and so on. One of these texts, as I previously mentioned, is Zdebik's (2012) "Deleuze and the Diagram: Aesthetic Threads in Visual Organisation". At this stage, I am digging up and laying out ideas, rather than synthesising and discussing them, so I hope you might find the following items - interesting as 'things to consider and wonder about', and you can find your own questions and inspirations as you read my notes with me.

I am digging around the idea of the diagram at the moment. The idea of the diagram is complex, attractive and intriguing to me. Having previously read a little Deleuze, I found myself equally confused and inspired by his work generally, not being familiar with this type of philosohphy. I liked the connections, the disruptions and the visual landscape Deleuze provided. In his 2012 work, Zdebik focuses specifically on Deleuze's concept of the diagram, which may have particular use in my task. Fragments of this idea are summarised below.

Zdebik (2012) identifies a diagram variously as a plan, a map or a graph, or schema - a "configuration of lines" where representation is not the aim, but it "maps out possibilities prior to their appearance" (p.1), and "...is the dynamic, fluctuating process occurring between static structures." (Ibid.). The diagram displays "abstract functions". In short - it relates and informs diverse systems, connecting each on the level of abstract functions. Zdebik (2012) offers concrete examples in discussion of Foucault's Discipline and Punish, where two different systems - in this case, prison and penal law - are identified as things that influence one another, and are related, even though "...they are not linked in any way that could be understood as representational" (p.3). Zdebik illustrates a connection between the prison environment and the discursive penal system by noting that both systems experienced a shift at a particular point in time. Specifically, he highlights the shift in the penal system from the idea of revenge, to the idea of what is articulable. The prison, in parallel, shifted from a place of "hiding" to visibility, a place of seeing and disciplining prisoners under a hidden gaze. The idea of the diagram is the connecting "essential traits" or "abstract functions" which can be seen in both. It "makes abstracted functions pass from one formation or system to the next" (p.5). The diagram, in this case, is the function of surveillance. The diagram, like the drawing, is something that connects, and relates different things. May it help us visualise 'what is going on' when we look at places, activities and people?

Elsewhere, Zdebik (2012) mentions Deleuze's famous focus on architecture, and identifies the diagram as "...that stage between the idea of the building and the actual building", where it "...connects between the theoretical and the real stages of the construction of a building" (p.8). Here, abstraction is vital as a creative force, in opposition to attempts to simply represent. Close to this idea is the image of diagram as map, which connects vectors and relates things, where potentialities can be viewed; it is experimental. Zdebik argues that the map can make the (virtual) diagram visible in a snapshot of time. The idea of snapshot, considering potentialities, to understand complex relations between things is interesting.

I found Zdebik's example from the art of Frances Bacon useful in thinking about the idea of the diagram as something that relates, influences and redistributes (although I'm not sure I 'like' the painting). Bacon's work is cited as it features in Deleuze's Frances Bacon: The Logic of Sensation and famously features blurred and distorted figures. The diagram is identified in catastrophic preparatory work, as it moves towards what Zdebik identifies "a zone of indiscernibility" (p.18). Swipes and rubbed marks are real and virtual in Bacon's head. In his work, Bacon's distortions are "nonrepresentative...suggestive" (p.18), offering the germ of an idea; it is controlled and finds itself expressed in tangible parts of the work. In Painting (1946) "The diagram is responsible for the elasticity of the bird-figure, which is topologically redistributed into other forms on the canvas." (p.19)

These are strange and abstract ideas. The artist in me likes the playfulness of them, but the practitioner wants a pragmatic application. I am in the phase of thinking about these ideas, such as the diagram, and playing with how something like drawing could help (temporarily) materialise connections, potentials and layers operating within services and in professional life.

I'm going on to consider the value of the abstract, so often rejected as fiction, to disrupt and open up ways of seeing these things. These ideas make me think about drawing as opening up and speaking about the space of experience and professional life. This stands in creative relationship with the concrete, the literal, the empirical. What I am aiming at is not representation directly, but the creation of a shift, a lens which redistributes those things (as in the indiscernable zone in Bacon's Painting). Perhaps I can find a way to draw out lines which take a life of their own. These are productive lines on which new formulations of professional life can be explored.