- percept + literature
- ---- by John MarksDeleuze is particularly struck by the way in which the great English and American novelists write in percepts, claiming by comparison that authors such as Heinrich von Kleist and Franz Kafka write in affects. The 'percept' is at the heart of Deleuze's impersonal conception of literature, whereby conventional literary categories like character, milieu and landscape are read in new ways. In order to explore how the percept works in literature it is necessary to understand how Deleuze is preoccupied with all that leads to the dissolution of the ego in art. This might manifest itself in the capacity of Virginia Woolf 's characters to merge with the world, in T. E. Lawrence's devastation of his own ego, or even Bartleby's persistent refusal to be 'particular'. The percept also has something of childhood perception in it, given that small children are unable to distinguish between themselves and the outside world. By means of the percept, literature becomes a way of exploring not how we exist in the world, but rather how we become with the world. It has the capacity to explore our existence as haecceities on the plane of consistency; to remind us that we ourselves are part of these compounds of sensation. The percept makes visible the invisible forces of the world, and it is the literary expression of the things that the writer has seen and heard that overwhelm her or him. Consequently, it has a visionary potential. The percept challenges conventional notions of forms and subjects. It also has a political significance, in that it enables us to explore an impersonal and pre-individual collectivity that might be the basis for a particular sort of ethical community.The authors that Deleuze initially refers to in order to illustrate the function of the percept in literature are Herman Melville and Virgina Woolf. Moby Dick is a particularly important reference point for Deleuze. Through his perceptions of the whale, Ahab passes into the landscape, which in turn becomes a plane of pure expression that escapes form. Ahab enters into a relationship of becoming with the whale, and the ocean emerges as a pure percept, a compound of sensations. Another important reference point is Virginia Woolf, who talks of 'moments of the world', in which a character such as Mrs Dalloway 'passes into' the town. Similarly, Deleuze alludes to the way in which the moor functions as a percept for Thomas Hardy, as does the steppe for Anton Chekhov and the desert for T. E. Lawrence. It can be seen, then, that the percept implies a particular relationship between character and landscape. Essentially, the landscape is no longer an environment that either mirrors, mocks or forms the character. Nor is it the case that the character perceives the landscape by directing a gaze at it. Rather, Deleuze feels that the percept in literature shows us how the mind is a sort of membrane that is both in contact with, and is actually part of, the external world. The self is not a thing that is distinct from the external world, but something more like a 'fold' of the external world, a membrane that captures other things. The intimate contact between the outside and inside means that literature can explore the 'private desert' (T. E. Lawrence), or the 'private ocean' (Melville) that results from this contact. As Deleuze puts it, every bomb that T. E. Lawrence explodes is a bomb that explodes in himself. He cannot stop himself from projecting intense images of himself and others into the desert, with the result that these images take on a life of their own.Given this emphasis on impersonality and the dissolution of the ego, it is not surprising that the literary hero of the percept is the 'man without qualities'. This sort of character - closely related to what Deleuze calls the 'seer' (le voyeur) in his books on cinema - ultimately has the tendency, at once modest but also crazy, to 'become' everyone and everything. He might be a character who is literally 'on the road', and an obvious example from popular literature would be the openness to experience of Jack Kerouac's narrator in On the Road. In 'taking to the road' and being open to all contacts, Deleuze talks about how a particular, pragmatic notion of democracy is expressed in the way the soul in American literature seeks fulfilment, rather than salvation. The percept is primarily a literary form of experimentation, but it has something to contribute to politics. In simple terms, the percept has the effect of drawing us out of ourselves and into the world, and of challenging the individualising and infantilising tendency of much contemporary culture. It is not enough, Deleuze and Guattari argue, to turn our own perceptions and affections into a novel, to embark upon a journey in search of the father who ultimately turns out to be oneself.
The Deleuze dictionary. Revised Edition Edited by Adrian Parr . 2010.