Deleuze and the Sign

July 6, 2010

Signs are one of the more overworked bits of thought, like small pack animals carrying the weight of the world’s meaning. And along with this each philosopher or school of thought likes to have their own take on what exactly entails the framework of the sign, how they behave, their dynamics, and with each new approach they morph, pinch, subvert, or are twisted in order to fit within some larger framework. Signs are like the proteins of philosophy, in that they begin to “taste” like whatever they are cooked or seasoned with. It’s with this in mind that I approached Christopher M. Drohan’s Delueze and the Sign. As someone who’s only recently begun dipping a toe into the ideas of Delueze, it was through the familiar vantage point of the sign that I chose to approach. In Delueze and the Sign, Drohan highlights a surprisingly cohesive and accessible set of Deluezian semiotics from various sources into a concise volume that remains true to the language and dynamic approach. Through this system, signs emerge as a means for understanding the relationship between things as a way of learning and making meaning in the world. As Drohan observes: “It is signs that expose new relations in our world, and it is the search of signs that creates the most basic meanings through which we know the world” (23). In all of this Drohan should be commended on his ability to use language to clarify Deleuze’s key concepts, but also as a means to illustrate and give passion to the dynamic process set forth by Delueze, who in a sense is marrying a world of essences and ideals to objects and material realism through an analysis of the sign.

In Deleuze and the Sign, Drohan maps Delueze’s ontology of signs into worldly signs, signs of love, sensuous signs, and finally signs of art. The first three categories all closely align with objects and materialism and illustrate a sort of journey. In the worldly sign, the sign is basically a stand in for an object where sign is equal to object, whereas with the sign of love the sign’s origins are unclear so it creates a loop where all meaning is the projection of the individual encountering the sign and thus utterly subjective. On the other hand sensuous signs find affinity in other signs and can be said to experience multiple origins. Through these three categories Drohan illustrates an almost “three bears” approach to encountering the sign. With worldly signs, one comes across what may be thought of as the “too hard”; here the sign is rigidly defined through the object or action that it depicts without much leeway for exploring meaning. Conversely the sign of love might appear “too soft” as its entire reality is constructed from the subjective readings of the individual and has no basis in an object, and thus mean anything the individual projects. Following these the sensuous sign expresses a limited “just rightness” of sorts, in that it finds origins and affinity in other signs. In a sense it provides multiple origins upon which the sign can rest, however the problem with all three categories is that they inevitably lead to dissatisfaction in one form or another. It takes the fourth variety of sign, the sign of art, to become truly dynamic:

We grasp the work of art again, differently this time, as filled with qualities signifying infinite relations to other objects, as well as entirely immaterial relations to ideal essences. Our search pushes into the source of all meaning, into the pure significance of the sign without limits (Drohan 66).

But with all this, where Drohan excels most is in making Deleuze’s often abstract-sounding ideas on the sign become concrete, while highlighting the dynamic nature of his concepts. In exploring the nature of the love sign for example, much of the discussion is pinned on a vigorous metaphor of jealousy. Here Drohan’s language captures Deleuze’s idea as jealously becomes a drive searching for meaning in every nuance of the signs of love. Drohan explains the process as:

Jealousy contains the depth of the search itself, for it continues to obsessively interpret and reinterpret the signs of love. This ensures that our sensitivity to the beloved’s signs are sustained, and that the broadest interpretation of our beloved can be made. This is why jealousy is so much better at approaching the truth of the signs of love: in jealousy, the lover mistrusts every meaning they find for their beloved’s signs. They perpetually refuse to believe that they understand their lover, or that they have ‘figured their lover out’, denying their own interpretations of their love, as well as those their beloved gives them. Every ‘I love you’ is taken as a lie, for each lover knows that there will always be some degree of betrayal between them, as their private experiences cannot ever be completely conveyed to the other (Drohan 48).

In as such the love sign of these passions is unknowable as anything other than a projection of the self, but jealousy leads to an obsession for catching signs in a lie or searching for signs of betrayal. Key to understanding this type of sign is an uncertainty of meaning and an inability to discern origins as separate from one’s own desires. In these terms Drohan and Delueze might look to Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novel Jealousy in which an unnamed narrator is caught up in a system of unknowable signs to determine if his wife (only known as A…) is having an affair with a character called Franck. In Jealousy everything is signs, details, and possible interpretations, as the narrator suspiciously pours through and replays minutiae in the hopes of uncovering some discernible truth, which inevitably remains elusive. Through this obsession it’s never clear if an affair is in fact taking place, or if any of these signs indeed mean anything at all. Each instance is scrutinized for clues of a betrayal and replayed as the narrator seeks to confirm his suspicions:

A… has gone to get the glasses, the soda water, and the cognac herself. She sets a tray with the two bottles and three big glasses down on the table. Having uncorked the cognac she turns toward Franck and looks at him, while she begins making his drink. But Franck, instead of watching the rising level of the alcohol, fixes his eyes a little too high, on A…’s face. She has arranged her hair into a low knot whose skillful waves seem about to come undone; some hidden pins must be keeping it firmer than it looks (Robbe-Grillet 56).

Like Drohan and Deleuze’s signs of love, the narrator in Jealousy falls into an unfulfilling frenzy, searching for meaning that cannot be objectively ascertained. In this world even the pins in A…’s hair, a glance, or the distance between glasses become signs scrutinized as pregnant or bankrupt of meaning, but which ultimately bring one no closer to truth. In both texts this feverish trap of the sign of love leads deeper into jealousy and an infinite scrutiny of signs that are ultimately unknowable, and to eventual dissatisfaction. While the signs of love are shown to be dynamic they always disappoint:

Moreover, love abounds with the infinite: senseless and insensitive actions and pasts, and unknown futures. Every lover is well aware of all the signs of love that both they and their beloved do not know the meaning of. Lacking origins, these signs express a love that is never objective but infinitely meaningful, provoking great “pain” as they lead us only toward the perpetually dissatisfaction with their meaning (Drohan 49).

Though all this signs are shown as a process for creating and discerning meaning, but ultimately one may lead further into infinitely meaningful association or flounder in the unknowable.


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