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  11. sense and nonsense


Yi-Jinkyung, Professor

Seoul National University of Technology


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It was the era of linguistics and semiology when Deleuze’s works began to be published. Lévi-Strauss actively engaged structural linguistics, including phonology, in the study of anthropology, and later linguistics became the symbolic flag that marked the era of semiology. It becomes a sort of Zeitgeist to treat almost everything, including fashions, advertisements, and commodities as well as knowledge, spirit, and unconsciousness, with the concepts of sign and meaning. The term "linguistic turn" was the name for this huge wave that hit the entire humanities. However, Deleuze, who was fascinated by Nietzsche and Spinoza, began his own thinking far away from this Zeitgeist, and opened a new field of thinking, running through that era with the 'untimely spirit(unzeitlicher Geist)'. as Nietzsche stated. He, of course, wrote about sign and meaning and thought about unconsciousness as he didn’t ignore the wave, but he moved on with a very disparate trajectory.

In Proust and Signs for the title of which Deleuze uses the word ‘sign,’ he writes: “One becomes a carpenter only by becoming sensitive to the signs of wood, a physician by becoming sensitive to the signs of disease”(Proust and Signs, 4). Here, ‘sign’ is irrelevant to language and is far from semiology that interprets meaning using linguistics as a model. Sign, here, is something like singular symptom that expresses the state of a tree or a disease, more correctly, an event that happened in the body. When a patient says “my mouth gets dry and saliva is bitter,” it is a sign that expresses his body condition. It can’t be said that a doctor understood the sign just by understanding its linguistic meaning. What a doctor really needs to read from this sign is what happened in the patient’s body. That is the ‘sense’ to be read from the patient’s word. It is the same even if you are not a doctor. When a friend who knocks his head against a post says “I saw stars in broad daylight,” you didn’t understand the sense of his word at all if you asked back “where are the stars?”

It is this sense that Deleuze is interested in. He contrasts this concept of sense with what are thought to be the meaning of a word or a proposition, which are the designation of object, the manifestation of intention, and the signification of signifiant. First, when it comes to the concept of designation, the meaning of word is the designated object and that of proposition is the ‘picture’ in which those objects are woven. This concept of designation corresponds to ‘object.’ The second is the concept of meaning that corresponds to ‘subject.’ In other words, what the subject intends to say is precisely the meaning of a word or a proposition, which is something like ‘intention.’ The third concept is the signification of signifiant, which contains a criticism of the previous two concepts and needs some explanation.

According to Saussure, there’s no reason to say ‘sheep’ to denote a sheep. It doesn't matter even though we use 'mangchu' or 'punggu' instead of ‘sheep’. If the linguistic community decided to call it ‘mangchu,’ we represent a sheep on hearing the word ‘mangchu.’ From that viewpoint, sign is said to be arbitrary. It is in accordance with a promise or convention that the word ‘sheep’ is used to refer to a particular animal. The signified of the signifier is determined not by the object or intention but rather by its relation with other signifiant. For example, in English, the word novel is a noun that means a genre of literature in relation to ‘story’ and ‘fiction, ’plot’ etc., but it is an adjective that means fresh and new in relation to ’stale’ and ‘old.’ When this relation changes, one and the same word comes to have different extension. The English word mutton, for example, stems from the French word mouton. However, French mouton means both sheep and lamb, whereas English mutton means just dead sheep, that is, lamb. That’s because there was already the word sheep in English that denotes living sheep.

The concepts of sign and signification of structuralism come from this. Deleuze accepts the structuralist position to see the signification of sign in a relationship as ‘serial thinking.’ However, this concept is modeled on linguistic sign. Although there also are non-arbitrary signs such as icons and index, only arbitrary signs are privileged.

The concept of designation tries to represent an object. The concept of manifestation is the one with which the subject tries to represent his intention. The linguistic signifier mediates this representation through the established identity of signification. In other words, these three signs form a triangle of representational signs. These concepts of sign can’t deal with the sign that a tree makes or the sign which a patient’s body sends. It can’t handle signs spoken unintentionally, often without knowing its sense, and can’t handle what is intended to express with sign either. What’s really important about sign is this. “This is a drawing of a cow!”ㅡthis word makes the painter discouraged. “Cold!”; “I’am cold too!‘ㅡThe responder didn’t understand the word ”cold!.“

In addition, these three signs confine what we want to express in the representation of object or intention, in the identity of signification. Deleuze seeks to liberate sense from representational sign. And since the signifier is arbitrary, it is difficult to understand unless it is written according to given rule or convention. Therefore, the signifier exercises the power to force us to use it as it is set. Deleuze also tries to save sign from the this power of signifiant. It is this reason that he tries to deal with the sense of sign as a kind of singular symptom as Nietzsche does(Nietzsche and Philosophy, 3). Thereupon, even everyday and ordinary sign has different expressive sense on each occasion and the same sign also deviates from the identity of meaning. Therefore, Deleuze tries to go to the other side of the mirror, saying designation and expression are precisely the duality that distinguishes propositions. A mirror is a world that accurately reflects and represents objects. Therefore, to go to the other side of the mirror means “to pass from the relation of denotation to the relation of expression—without pausing at the intermediaries, namely, at manifestation and signification”(The Logic of Sense 25).

For example, when Baudelaire’s gaze caught the tears that must have dropped countless times in the old woman’s eyes, he becomes to see the sign of her life that crossed arduous thresholds countless times behind the ugly wrinkled eyes reflected in the mirror(Little Old Women). Although the words ‘eye’ and ‘tear’ used in this poem are ‘eye’ and ‘tear’ being used as ordinary words, they have very different senses. It is an expression of the life that the old woman lived. The ugly wrinkled appearance itself grasped with that word is a sign too. From that sign, the poet reads out the old woman’s life that must have experienced “bleeding in the heart pushing her way/ through the chaos of the city.” He reads out certain events surrounded by an atmosphere of pain.

From this viewpoint, Deleuze defines sense as event, and event as singularity(The Logic of Sense, 74, 121). The old woman’s eye caught by the poet’s fine sense is a sign that has events which would have been accompanied by a million tears. Even when he wrote about the old woman’s ‘eye’ in linguistic sign, there expressed are events in which the eyes “were as piercing as gimlets....and amazed and laugh at everything that gleams.” Even though signifiers used in obedience to signification were used, they became signs that expressed a particular singularity grasped by the poet deviating from their ordinary meanings.

It is not just the case for poets. The sense of the word ”I saw stars in broad daylight“ is the event of the knocking of a head against a post. There is neither a star nor a daylight in this word. There expressed is just the singularity of the affect of the one who knocked his head against a post. The sense of the word “my mouth gets dry and saliva is bitter‘ expresses an event that occurred in the body of that patient. The patient himself doesn’t say this to manifest his certain intention or meaning. He’s saying this word to ask the doctor about its sense. It is not a sign to manifest his intention but a sign to express the singularity of the event that occurred in his body.

A sign is an expression, whereas an event is what is ‘expressed’ through it. Sense is expressed by sign like this. The reason a sign is distinguished from another one is that it has a different singularity. The sign ‘my mouth gets dry and saliva is bitter’ is the expression of a singularity different from that of the sign ‘my hands are shaking and heart palpitating.’ The serialized neighbors determine the singularity. The swan serialized with water and forest and the one with the dry pavement of a city and dirt(Baudelaire, The Swan) have different senses even when the two have one and the same body. This swan has two different senses because it was grasped as a different event through different singularity on each occasion.

Conversely, event is sense. If you ask ‘what event’ it is when something happens, you ask about its sense. The body fallen on the side of the road itself is a ‘thing.’ We ask “what on earth happened here?” on this body. It is a question that asks what event occurred. It is also a question that asks the sense of the body. There are people whose job is to ask this kind of question, police officers and reporters. The sense of being asked is that the body in question is a sign which expresses a certain sense not yet determined. That is a sign that expresses the singularity of the event.

To determine what happened around the body, we need to search for things in the vicinity of it. When we find the neighbors serialized with the body enough, we can determine what event occurred. As such, when the singularity of an event is clearly determined, we can understand the sense of the body. That the sense can be easily grasped means that serialized neighboring relationship is revealed enough to determine the singularity of the event. That the event is shrouded in mystery means that the singularity of the event can’t be determined yet because the neighbors are not enough. Kurosawa Akira’s Rashomon excellently shows that one and the same body can have many different senses through the diverging events. The diverging events put the sense of the body back to indeterminability, non-sense.

Criminals hide and remove the neighbors so that the singularity of the event is not revealed. Or, change neighbors in order for the sense of the event to be misunderstood. Detective fiction writers also use misleading neighbors for the purpose of later reversal. Novelists leave out neighbors essential to grasp the singularity of the event and ask: “what happened?” Therefore, Deleuze says, in novella, “everything is organized around this question”(A Thousand Plateaus, 192). This question is the one that eventuates. ‘Being sensitive to the sign’ means that the ability to detect the invisible hidden neighbors is eminent. That is precisely the kind of ability that skillful detectives or excellent doctors.


This position on sign and sense is referred to as expressive viewpoint in contrast to representational viewpoint. As discussed previously at the time of the concept of ‘expression,’ this viewpoint has a triad unlike representation(Expressionism in Philosophy, 13-14). Proposition or sign is ‘expression,’ whereas sense is what is ‘expressed’ with this(The Logic of Sense, 19). Another thing that should be added here is ‘expressing self.’

The bloody knife found near the body is another sign that expresses the event that occurred around the dead. This being serialized with the body, the event will be determined to be a ‘murder by knife.’ That is the sense of sign. But what if a poison bottle was found nearby? We can imagine the possibility of ‘poisoning.’ The determination ‘murder by knife’ gets neutralized, and the body returns to a sign whose sense you can’t tell, between the knife and the poison. One sense being erased, it returns to ‘non-sense.’ Here, one and the same event surrounding the body is ‘expressing itself’ with signs such as knife, poison, etc. In addition to these, there can be more expressions with different senses. A number of possible events are implied in one and the same Event surrounding the body. If the sense of the event is determined rashly without this point being taken into consideration, the investigation is likely to fail. “Expressing self’ is important in this respect.

What expresses self, namely, one and the same Event that expresses itself with multiple events and different senses has indeterminate virtuality with multiple determinabilities. The event in this state corresponds to nonsense rather than sense. However, nonsense, here, arises not because it has no sense but because it has too many senses. The same is true for language. Lewis Carroll coined the word snark by combining snake and shark, and James Joyce coined the word chaosmos by combining chaos and cosmos. Both words are nonsense because different senses coexist. They are nonsenses because of too many senses. Therefore, each of these words is also open to many other different senses other than the two.

Nonsense means the virtuality that can be unfolded into numerous senses. Nonsense is empty place that has not yet been filled with sense, but it, in fact, is ’empty place’ filled with many senses. We pull one sense out of these possible senses, We serialize a thing with neighbors. However, the way we serialize, in fact, is very limited because we serialize according to good sense or conventional view(doxa). If someone with a piece of bread in the hand is running, being chased by somebody else, we believe it’s obviously an event of theft.

The French word ‘bon sens’ also means ‘good direction.’ Bon sens provides ‘good direction’ in which we serialize the neighbors. Therefore, even though other possibilities of serializations are wide open, we rashly serialize according to bon sens. For example, if a red flag and demonstrators are nearby, we rashly serialize those and determine the sense of the person holding the flag as a ‘communist.’ In a famous scene from Modern Times, Chaplin erases the sense of the red flag by serializing the red flag with the demonstrators on one hand and by serializing it with a truck loaded with rebar on the other. By overlapping serializations in different directions, the sense of the flag was returned to nonsense. It brings our eyes back to other senses that we are missing because of the serialization according to bon sens.

Putting sense back to nonsense through this kind of serialization against bon sens or conventional view is referred to as paradox by Deleuze(LS 75). Paradox is a word coined by combining the word para which means ‘against’ and the word doxa which means ‘conventional view.’ Bon sens and conventional view are equipped with the power to make us serialize the way we usually do. Paradox neutralizes this power, erasing the ordinary sense and putting it back to nonsense. Thereafter, a new serialization for a different sense is attempted. It prompts sign or expression to move away from the power of identity and toward another sense. When we miss this virtuality for another sense in a sign, we fall into the trap dug by the power of bon sens. Not only will we miss the culprits of the case, but we will put suspicion on the wrong person just like the ordinary cops do in detective fiction. This is why nonsense is more important than sense.



translated by Jung Ki Lee