Icarus falling, Lazarus rising:
revisiting reflections on The Man Who Fell to Earth
Per ardua ad astra. Through difficulties to the stars
IV. The Gravity of Knowing
‘My father used to say, “Oliver, when you get a gift horse, walk up to it, pat it, quiet the animal down, and then, using both hands, force open its jaws and have a damned good look in its mouth.”’
I have seen this movie too many times to recall the exact number but one thing is certain, every time I see it I understand it fully for the first time. This relationship between seeing and knowing is also a theme of the film. In my original planning for the first version of this essay (in 2003), my research led me to a philosopher called Gilles Deleuze. This encounter seemed productive as Deleuze had written challenging the assumptions of common sense as well as the importance of sense as cinematic affect. The Man Who Fell to Earth relies a lot on cinematic tricks such as timing, edits, sound (as well as the stardom of Bowie, more of which later) to create almost intuitive experiences of the film which often feel more right than any intelligent coherent explanation. These sensual tricks are not only a challenge to audiences reading the film but also to the way characters interact with and make sense of the film’s inner world. So Deleuze seemed the turn-to-theorist in making sense of sense, especially when I realized that some of his metaphors and ideas were echoed by the film. Then again, these were concepts I had already set up to critique. For me, Newton’s fall is the result of oppressive identity figurations, oppression I now saw in the language of both the film and Deleuze. If I was going to use Deleuze, I would have to deal with how he made sense too.
But first things first. Let the guy speak for himself. So allow me to introduce you. Reader, this is Gilles Deleuze. The French philosopher Deleuze (1925–1995) was so influential that another French philosopher of note, Michel Foucault, controversially suggested the twentieth century would be remembered as ‘Deleuzian’ (Foucault, 1977: 165). Just as Newton’s patent lawyer, Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), recalls being urged by his father, Deleuze opened the gift-horse of knowledge and had a damn hard look inside. He wrote studies on key philosophers, work he considered as encounters, committing to difference and becoming rather than merely supporting the presuppositions inherent in the long tradition of philosophy. He also wrote about painting, literature and film, figuring that art creates ‘a bloc of sensation’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 1994: 164), a tool for ‘thinking otherwise’ (Stivale, 2005: 1).
For Deleuze, philosophy is a response to the everyday problems of capitalism, ‘man’ and thought, the latter having been reduced by the history of Western thinking to mere recognition of the predictable pattern of identity (Deleuze, 1990: 75). I often think Bowie and Deleuze are similar spirits, looking for the solutions in art as in life, such as the singer’s disappointing flirtation with communism during his ‘Berlin years’. They both committed to collaboration over the temptations of sole authorship. Deleuze collaborated with the radical psychoanalyst Félix Guattari including for the critically acclaimed books Anti-Oedipus (1983) and A Thousand Plateaus (1987) in a performative authoring that affirmed the difference of the two writers, and their approaches, and provided the basis for elements that could not be attributed to either. By collaborating in this way, the sense and assumptions of each was challenged, resulting in written efforts that neither by themselves would have created. In my writing about David Bowie and ‘Low’ (1977) I point out something similar about Brian Eno’s relationship with Bowie and the studio writing they practiced. The focus on collaboration challenges the idea of authorship and many of the cultural assumptions that Bowie biographers make. Similarly, the notion of what is ‘Deleuzian’ is transformed by encounters such as the collaboration with Guattari and through new writers creating connections with and making productive misreadings of the philosopher in the same way that Deleuze opened up a ‘radical gap’ (Zizek, 2004: xi) with the key philosophers in his past. At the very least then, I imagine that my compulsion to use Deleuze and then challenge him represents a Deleuzean encounter, not so much a logical progression or thesis, more a becoming, collaborative affect.
For Deleuze, becomings are produced by the Body without Organs, the limit at which life-flows speed across one another desirous of freedom and expansion but interrupted nevertheless into contractions of physical constitution (Deleuze, 1987: 150). Becoming-woman is the beginning becoming through which connections with the boundaries of all further becomings – the ultimate of which is becoming-imperceptible – can be explored and engendered. There can be no becoming-man since man is already and always the subject – his being is privileged and his is the point-of-view from which all becomings are ‘determined’ (1987: 291-3). Culture and history usher in the being-man as the standard against which all else is aberrant. The contracted world of being-man is the very ‘assemblage of power’ (1987: 167-169) that produces and polices signification. Becoming-woman, conversely, opens up the fluidity and multiplicity of the deterritorialized line of flight, and therefore a de-hierarchal and de-patriarchal field. This is only a gynocentric field inasmuch as it obliterates the androcentric dualisms: since it engenders ‘a thousand tiny sexes’ (1987: 213) it will not engender the singularity of the embodied woman. It is therefore important to emphasize two things: firstly, Deleuze insists that both men and women must follow the process of deterritorialization that is becoming-woman; secondly, the term ‘woman’ is not a reference to an imitation of the physical or represented woman (1987: 275).
This is quite difficult and precise writing because it is attempting to tackle knowledge that we take for granted but which is full of convenient cultural assumptions. Deleuze and Bowie, perhaps partially as a result of being active in the postwar cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, both reacted against the privilege of their inherited world and to enduring concepts such as paternalism and capitalism as blocks to creativity, freedom and life flows. This is quite important to my reading of Newton as a character struggling to become part of and yet remain different from the human organization of gendered space. Still, it is little wonder that the Deleuzean figuration of becoming-woman has raised objections. For Caren Kaplan, the project represents a colonization of space since ‘[d]etrritorialization is always… an increase in territory, an imperialization.’ (Kaplan, 1996: 90). Luce Irigaray (1985) also expresses strong reservations, arguing that the term ‘becoming-woman’ is already, necessarily, a linguistic bondage, one that, in promising to open up lines of flight, gravitates towards a fantasy of ‘woman’. In its figuration of Newton and its marshalling of Bowie as one of its effects, Roeg’s film relies on this same fantasy of the fluid and apparently de-historic body. Deleuze opposed metaphors as part of the oppressive and ‘imperialist’ signification system (see Deleuze & Guattari, 1983 and 1987; Deleuze, 1990) and provocatively denied their use in his work. But all writing signifies culturally and therefore must remain politically insistently opposed to oppressive appropriation. I shall return to this criticism of Deleuzean metaphors later.
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