Rethinking Reductionism – Maria Hynes

If it is true that we are, as popular opinion would have it, in the midst of a genetic revolution, then it is also true that we are witness to a vastly diminished understanding of the object of this revolution: life. For, far from being the harbinger of novelty, life is, according to the dominant reductionist paradigm, the key to the very essence of things. And as we benefactors of the Western metaphysical tradition know well, that which is essential is essentially opposed to time, to change and becoming. In attempting to displace the hold of this account of life on the cultural imagination it has become somewhat fashionable to champion certain modes of scientific holism, namely those arising from the sciences of chaos and complexity. For many in the humanities, then, these newer modes of holism represent timely competitors in the life sciences’ pursuit of the nature of life and a welcome check on the growing cultural monopoly of the reductionist purview. From this perspective, reductionism appears a thoroughly modernist and ultimately antiquated approach to life, and the new sciences the bearers of ‘a pluralistic picture of reality’ more suited to the contemporary context (Sardar 1994: 677).

Yet the suggestion that the sciences of complexity and chaos represent in some sense the thought of our time entails assumptions about the nature of both thought and time that require more careful consideration. For this is to imply that there is something essential about the present and that thought’s role is to embody or give form to its dynamics. Such assumptions are at odds with a mode of thinking that claims to embrace the excessive nature of life with respect to human attempts to apprehend it. If we are to take seriously the uncertainty and unpredictability implied in the new sciences then we need a thought that does not pretend, or aspire, to be of its time but that is, as Nietzsche (1983) puts it, ‘untimely.’ The claim that a thought that has a fitness for life will be untimely represents a commitment to a particular view of life. Life here would be understood as a productive, generative force. Again it is Nietzsche (1974) who captures well the terribleness of such a force, which compels, confounds and exceeds human attempts to grasp it. A thought adequate to life, then, would be taken up in its movement. In surrendering the illusion that it might capture life through its representations and reflections, thought would itself become genetic: creative and productive of differences. Thought gains the power to generate differences in thought when it no longer seeks to be of its time, but is instead born along by forces that come as if from out of the blue, taking it beyond itself to the as-yet unthought.

The paper starts from the perspective that the new science of complexity has a greater affinity for an untimely, and thus vital, thought than the kind of reductionism that it opposes. But it turns a critical eye to some of the contemporary attempts in the humanities to appropriate the ideas of complexity theory, which leave too intact the metaphysical baggage of the life sciences and their privileged hold over life. It is argued that thought will become genetic when it frees itself of an inevitable requirement of the practice of the life sciences: namely, the requirement that thought abstract itself from life, in order to reflect upon it and best describe its nature. The key difference that the paper seeks to outline is between a thought that concerns itself with that which is given to it, and one that aspires itself to be genetic. While a genetic mode of thinking distances itself from the truth claims of the sciences of complexity, it seeks to exploit the fertility of the knot of concepts that it has made its own.

The attempt to produce a genetic mode of thought that is at one with the very principle of creation is motivated by the notion that life can be understood in terms of a dual movement. Put another way, life can be seen to consist of two distinct but inseparable moments, the one analytic and the other synthetic. In the first place, life has the power of extracting genetic elements from the totalities that threaten to imprison them, in order to, secondly, put them into relations that give rise to something new. To speak of genetic elements is not to refer to parts that would belong to a whole but to singular elements that can only be grasped by going beyond the part/whole relation. The act of reduction gives an autonomy to these singular elements and it is because of this autonomy that, in life’s synthetic movement, something truly novel is produced.

A properly genetic thought will aim to reflect the tenor of this process, by performing a certain necessary ‘reduction’ and a certain necessary synthesis. The paper focuses on the ‘reductionist’ moment of this process, by casting a fresh glance on the concept of reduction. Where ‘reductionism’ and ‘holism’ currently indicate opposing perspectives on life, the paper treats these concepts as distinct, though inseparable, moments in the process of life. To speak in this context of the ‘concepts’ of reductionism and holism is to indicate a predilection for a particular view of concepts, as intensive forces with no necessary relation to truth, which would be a merely external determination applied to concepts. In arguing for a refigured notion of reduction, the paper attempts to free the reductive moment from the epistemological and ontological claims currently made in its name. Reduction takes on a conceptual force, which is in no way abstracted or removed from ‘life itself.’ The concept of life will henceforth be implicated with that vital process of conceptual work through which an event in thought is generated.

In developing this argument the paper finds inspiration in artistic activity, since art has the potential to take us before and beyond the structures and determinations that constitute the starting point of science. More specifically, the work of Lucio Fontana provides the material for a rethought reductionism, which makes the explosion of totalities and the release of genetic elements its driving force. Fontana’s work lends itself to a thought that shares with complexity theory a preoccupation with the immanent causes by which the new emerges. Yet where scientific thought necessarily posits a state of affairs given to thought, Fontana’s sculptural thinking begins the work of reducing the given, opening up to its conditions of possibility and putting genetic elements at the service of the new.

The paper begins its trajectory by making way for a communication between the life sciences and the humanities that could be said to be fit for the event of life. I argue that the kind of thinking that would arise from this communication would necessarily go beyond the terms of the representational tradition. It would do this, in the first instance, through a reductionist movement in thought. The second part of the paper considers some of the metaphysical shifts that would be required to activate a non-representational view of reductionism. But the level of generality necessary to outline the character of a newly reductionist thought is in tension with the spirit of such thinking. Accordingly, the third part of the paper takes a change of pace and mode. The idea here is to offer a sense of, or rather to perform, an experiment in reductionist thinking, by putting selected artworks to work.

The appeal of anti-reductionism

The debate between reductionist and holist modes of knowledge production has a long history in the life sciences. The recent revitalisation of the problem of holism takes place against the backdrop of a widespread acceptance of the triumph of reductionism within the life sciences and in modern culture more generally, where the ontological claims of reductionism hold such sway that their epistemological character is largely forgotten. This faith in the reductionist method has not been weakened by the development of technologies that claim to alter the very meaning of ‘life itself.’ Whether understood as promise or threat, the ethical and political problems raised by these technologies rarely question the claims to truth of reductionist science, but position themselves in an always secondary position with respect to them. This is perhaps most glaringly evident in deliberations on the ethical implications of new genetic technologies, which invariably accept as their starting point the validity of what science has to say about life. There has been much discourse on the reach of control over life represented by biotechnological developments. Yet, less has been said about the way that reductionism structures the parameters and limits of thought, determining what is deserving of political attention and demanding of ethical deliberation as well as defining the limits of the serious.

At the margins of this reductionist paradigm and its attendant discourses an alternative, synthetic approach to life has in recent years gained sway. Within the life sciences there has been a growing sense of the inadequacy of a reductionist approach to capture both the complexity and the dynamism of its object. The sense in which these strands of thought represent an anti-reductionism is best grasped when the dialectical character of scientific progress is emphasised. For many practitioners in the life sciences the significance of new modes of holist thought clearly lies in their capacity to complement the reductionist paradigm.1 This is not to obscure the real tensions between reductionist perspectives and these newer modes of holism and the challenge that the latter pose to the dominant paradigm.2 In the first place, there has been a recognition of the heuristic benefits of the idea that life exceeds science’s attempts to capture it in knowledge or predict with certainty its future course. Complexity theory also, and importantly, insists that the capacity of life to produce novelty can only be grasped when life is studied with an eye to the distinctly non-linear dynamics of a complex system at far from equilibrium conditions.

It is the sensitivity of complexity theory to the question of novelty that has given it particular appeal outside the life sciences, and especially in the humanities. According to Prigogine (1996: 2), what formerly separated the ‘two cultures’ was their ‘manner of describing the passage of time,’ as well as the ‘complexity of their object.’ Yet these differences are diminishing as science apprehends complex objects and the irreversibility implied by the arrow of time (Prigogine, 1996). Science has, Prigogine argues, become receptive to ideas long familiar to the humanities: the possibility of novelty, risk and uncertainty. No doubt this convergence of interests accounts in part for the growing popularity of the ideas of chaos and complexity within the humanities themselves. There the tendency to identify the life sciences with the increasingly extensive exercise of modern biopower has been checked by a new optimism.3 The lens of emergent complexity is said to ‘resolve the contradiction between hegemonic reductionism and fragmented relativism, which characterizes the post-modern condition’ (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1994: 569) and may even offer a way of finding ‘swift and humanistic’ solutions to the most significant of the world’s problems (Loye and Eisler, 1987: 64).

The grandiosity of these claims aside, my interest for the moment is in the kind of syntheses commonly proposed between the life sciences and the humanities. The sciences and non-sciences are said to have reached a point of ‘mutual evolution’ (Lechte, 2002: 105), that highlights the ‘obvious affinity’ (Thrift, 1999: 32) between the life sciences and humanities. Such figures risk emphasising the convergence of interests between the fields in question to the detriment of their important differences. Yet, perhaps more worrying is the tendency of many in the humanities to assume a deferential position with respect to the life sciences.4 According to Tenhaaf (2001: 116), a certain fetishisation of the sciences in the arts and humanities should be seen in the context of the ‘weird, disempowered time’ that this is, in the wake of the relative demise of critical theories of culture and the resultant insecurity and theoretical lacuna. Tenhaaf (2001: 116) suggests that the Sokal affair has only served to exacerbate this insecurity, so that now many in the humanities say, ‘look, the people who are doing the “real” work think that when we speak it is just academic jargon.’ Given the colonisation of the cultural sphere by a scientific mode of thinking, such deference risks negating the capacity for syntheses of the sciences and non-sciences to produce a genuinely novel thought.

Claims for the inherent radicalism of the new modes of holist thought, then, beg a certain caution. Scientific positivism and other domains operate according to different criteria, so that an uncritical importation of ideas from one domain to the other may as easily lead to political conservatism as not. Hayles (1991: 4) refutes the idea that ‘the science of chaos is opposed to normal science,’ insisting that ‘(i)t is normal science’ and, as such, ‘its criteria for evaluating evidence, reproducing results, credentialing investigators, and so on, differs not at all from the other physical sciences.’

In cautioning against too ready a celebration of the radicalism of the new sciences my point is certainly not to suggest that the life sciences and humanities cannot, or should not, enter into productive liaisons. On the contrary, it is to argue that any synthesis will be at its most productive when it understands the conditions of scientific enquiry and the parameters that such conditions inevitably set on thought. A communication between the life sciences and humanities will also have maximal creative potential when it makes a virtue of the differences between scientific and non-scientific modes of thought. No doubt the driving problem of a thought that seeks to be genetic is to forge a communication between that which is different in kind. Again there is a sense in which it is more faithful to the spirit of the theory of complexity to affirm divergence as the figure that would best characterise the relation between modes of thought that are qualitatively different. Scientific and non-scientific modes of thought are of course not different in nature, to the extent that that would imply the essential or given differences between their identities. Rather, the task is to differentiate in the name of the proliferation of differences.

It is not, then, a question of combining perspectives in the name of a convergence upon their object, life. Rather, the challenge is to enable a mode of thinking that dares to redescribe this very object. Here I am evoking a particular understanding of description. As Smith (1999: 5) puts it, ‘descriptions no longer describe a pre-existing reality; rather . . . they now stand for their objects, creating and erasing them at the same time.’ In this context, such descriptions make their own creative claims on the concept of life. This appears to be happening, in a quite practical way, in the field of A-Life which, according to the proponents of a ‘strong theory’ of the science, is involved not merely in the imitation of biological life through technological means, but in the synthesis of new forms of life (Emmeche, 2001: 117).

In acknowledging the fertility of a practice that is, as Whitelaw (2004: 7) notes, ‘informed by a sense of living things as complex dynamic systems,’ the point is not to find a model for the kind of synthesis that would be adequate to the thought of life. Indeed, this would be to reinvoke a formalism that is at odds with some of complexity theory’s most interesting insights. This is a point worthy of some attention, given the popularity of the kind of attempts to apply ideas from the life sciences to other domains that I have discussed. The very idea of an application is instructive, for it implies the suitability of a model/copy relation to the communication between these domains. Yet one of the more novel implications of recent strands of holist thought in the life sciences is the challenge they pose to this manner of formalism. Loye and Eisler (1987: 56) register the significance of the dynamic of self-organisation in this respect, which describes ‘the capacity of open and living systems, such as we live in and we ourselves are, to generate their own forms from inner guidelines rather than the imposition of form from outside.’ Such a dynamic represents a certain receptivity to the activity of matter and to its capacity to organise itself according to immanent rather than transcendent forces.

Yet complexity theory is clearly also engaged in, as House (2000: 1) puts it, a ‘transdisciplinary formalism.’ No doubt, as Funtowicz and Ravetz (1994: 568) note, formalisms ‘are no longer taken to represent the core of immutable truth and certainty in a world of flux; but they are used with respect for the variability and uncertainty of the world of experience.’ Nonetheless, as House (2000: 2) notes, ‘strange tensions’ arise when scientific formalisms are taken as explanations for complexity in other fields. There is a sense, then, in which the treatment of complexity theory as a model with applicability to social, cultural and political life fails to grasp what is new about such modes of thinking and the challenge they pose to a model/copy logic. In particular, the model implies a capacity for abstraction that is at odds with an insistence on the immanent capacities of matter and a simplicity that is in tension with the complexity of life’s dynamics.

The important point to garner from this analysis is that when we speak about life we invariably bring into play a certain metaphysics. Indeed, any claim to offer a purely materialist description of life merely fails to examine the metaphysical assumptions made about the way that matter relates to an incorporeal or ideal dimension.5 Much poststructuralist thought has sought to demonstrate that the formal dynamics of the model/copy relation, which our tradition inherits from Plato, has, by nature, a certain antipathy to the new. The life sciences concern themselves with the forms of empirical experience, and their methods invariably reinvoke their own formalisms. But from the point of view of a synthesis between the life sciences and the humanities and, more precisely, an attempt to produce a thought with a vitality proper to life, the formalist tradition presupposes too much.

From the point of view of an explanation of the world, the model/copy logic assumes the sensuous world of appearances to be without being relative to the ideal forms that condition it and the appearance of flux to be an illusion or error of perception. It presupposes, too, a certain image of thought, whereby thought seeks to represent — be an adequate copy of — an external world. But, as Patton (1994: 145) notes, ‘(t)hought understood as a process of representing some external reality means that the distinctions drawn in thought are projected back onto the object itself.’ This means, for example, that complexity theory cannot — in spite of its methodological receptivity to process, change and time — overcome the problems of the being/becoming distinction on its own terms (contra Prigogine and Stengers, 1985). No doubt, it is only through the positing of a world external to thought and the formulation of the task of thinking in representational terms that the life sciences can practice as they do. Yet they are, as a consequence, encumbered in ways that the humanities may not wish to imitate, making the model/copy relation a poor figure for a conceptual practice that seeks a creative relation to their material.

A thought that synthesises in the name of life, then, will need to rethink its ‘object’ and its modus operandi. It will distance itself from the image of thought as a representation of the external world and from the idea that life may be grasped through its objectification. Kwinter (2001:4) refers to the gap between the ‘senseless procession of events in nature’ and our attempts to distribute them ‘within an external, thinkable space of measure, management and mastery,’ echoing the Bergsonian view that the objectification of life through knowledge represents a failure to grasp its essential nature. According to Bergson, (1968: xiii), knowledge that assumes to abstract itself from life surrenders the possibility of a far more ‘direct vision’ of life. This claim involves a critique of the biological science of his time, which is accused of falling into the error of treating life as one would inert matter. Bergson’s own attempt to grasp life that the artifices of biological science cover over is at one with the attempt to produce a form of knowledge that can think time: time as invention. For when we discover this life ‘unfolding beneath the symbols which conceal it, we readily perceive that time is just the stuff it is made of’ (Bergson, 1968: 4).

At first glance the problems outlined by Bergson concerning the scientific grasp of time and life’s relationship to it appear to have been made redundant by complexity theory. For their part, Prigogine and Stengers (1985: 128) endorse Bergson’s claim that time ‘is indeed the very medium of innovation’ yet reject what they see as Bergson’s ‘de facto‘ identification of the limits of science — an inability to think time — as merely ‘de jure‘ limitations (93). Bergson’s error, Prigogine and Stengers (1985: 214) suggest, is to oppose ‘subjective time’ or ‘internal existential time’ to the debased, objectified time of physical science, and to then claim that a philosophical or metaphysical method alone can grasp time. Yet in identifying duration with a purely internal and subjective time Prigogine and Stengers overlook Bergson’s insistence that the human subject and its objects belong to the same logic, a logic that is inherently antithetical to duration. The subject and object, as discontinuous entities, are merely artificial symbols, which cover over duration (Bergson, 1944).

Bergson’s critique contributes to a clarification of what it means to speak of producing a thought that is adequate to life. To the extent that life is posited as an object awaiting apprehension by the human subject, thinking is adequate when it adequates, or corresponds, to life. Yet when we perceive life as a force of which the human intellect is ‘only an emanation or an aspect’ (Bergson, 1968: x), it becomes a question of producing a thought that is fit for, or worthy of, life. Where the former approach attempts to capture life, the latter seeks to express it. It will do so to the extent that it can find a way of going beyond the forms of empirical experience toward the conditions of that experience. This is not an attempt to ground empirical forms by discovering a relationship of resemblance between forms and their conditions of possibility. Rather, it is a question of making the way for a vital thought, which is to say, a method of genesis. Certain concepts and conceptual dynamics currently at play in the life sciences provide fertile material for such an endeavour, not because of their timeliness but because they might be put to the service of the new. A thought that borrows in this manner, in order to rise to the event of life, will not be satisfied to concern itself with the given but will seek to be genetic. Why might such a thought require, in the first instance, a gesture of reduction?

For a reductive movement in thought

In the context of molecular biology, a ‘reductive’ approach to life signals the practice whereby a whole is analysed into its component parts, in order that the essential nature of the part and, ultimately, of the whole, might be understood. Such an understanding of reduction clearly assumes, in the first place, a commitment to a reductionist epistemology. As Williams (1998: 15) puts it, (t)he central tenet of reductionism is that a complex whole can be fully reduced in terms of its small component parts.’ But reductionism of this kind also assumes that the whole is a copy of the part, or that the two are related by a condition of resemblance. This is perhaps most famously expressed in the ambitions of the human genome project, which promises an understanding of the human species as a whole through a knowledge of the genome. This assumption of the essential resemblance between whole and part itself betrays a particular view of the causal means by which the potentiality of life is said to be realised in living beings. In its most popular formulation, reductionism is associated with the naïve genetic determinism inherent in the idea that ‘we are our genes.’6 In molecular biology, such a determinism can be identified in, for example, the idea that a complex phenomenon such as development can be understood as an ‘unfolding of pre-existing capabilities, an acting out of genetically encoded instructions’ (Medawar, cited by Fox Keller, 1992: 20). But this sort of genetic determinism is most often moderated by reference to the role of the environment and its effects on the realisation of the possibilities contained in the code. It is notable here that life’s realisation is inseparable from a process of delimitation: of the vast set of possibilities inherent in the code, some will be realised while others will not, in accordance with the whims of the environment.

In any case, it is through a model/copy logic that life is said to reproduce itself. This entails the assumption that the principle governing life’s reproduction is that of identity; as Maynard Smith and Szathmary (1995: 67) put it, the idea of the reproduction of life from generation to generation rests on the assumption that ‘like begets like.’ It is also significant that the means by which the ‘genetic endowment of an organism’ is realised in the ‘visible appearance, internal structure, and biochemistry’ (Wolpert, 2002: 8-9) follows a distribution familiar to the model/copy relation. The attribution of reality falls to the advantage of the genotype, in relation to which the level of phenomenal appearances, the phenotype, is always determined but never determining.

Such a reductionism is clearly incapable of inspiring a vital process of conceptual work, though it points the way toward the kind of ‘overturning’ that might be necessary in order to think life as a principle of creation. In the first place it would be necessary to reappropriate the concept of reduction from its colonisation by molecular biology. In the course of this recasting of the idea of reduction, inspiration can be found in the etymology and usages of the word. The word ‘reduce’ implies, among other things, a leading back. In its common sense and scientific usage, to reduce is to analyse, which means to ‘separate, distinguish or ascertain the elements of anything complex’ (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). A scientific analysis, I have argued, necessarily concerns itself with the empirical relation of a subject to its objects. I have also suggested that life’s operations are not dictated to by the forms of experience but are always in excess of them, and that it is therefore necessary to go beyond the forms of empirical experience in order to encounter life. From Deleuze’s (1994) explication of the idea of ‘transcendental empiricism’ it is possible to derive a notion of analysis that operates at the transcendental, as opposed to merely empirical, level. Such an analysis analyses not what is given to it, but the domain of the given itself and it reduces insofar as it leads thought back to its conditions of possibility. This leading back is not an operation in grounding, where that would imply the establishment of the identity of the ground and that which it grounds. To speak of a properly analytic exercise is to evoke the etymological sense of ‘analysis,’ as a breaking up or an untying (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). It is a transcendental, rather than merely empirical, analysis that can do this because it separates and distinguishes the ground from that which it grounds, thus freeing genetic elements from the forms that cover them over.

It is Kant that Deleuze (1994) credits with having discovered the domain of the transcendental. Deleuze (1994: 135) likens Kant to ‘a great explorer — not of another world but of the upper and lower reaches of this one.’ Deleuze (1994: 143) reminds us that the transcendent exercise of a faculty ‘in no way means that the faculty addresses itself to objects outside the world but, on the contrary, that it grasps that in the world which concerns it exclusively and brings it into the world.’ For his part, Kant falls into the error of tracing ‘the so-called transcendental structures from the empirical acts of a psychological consciousness’ (Deleuze, 1994: 135). For a properly transcendental analysis, in contrast, the task is to make that which appears to be given without presuppositions into the object of its analysis.

To suggest that this exploration beyond the terms of the given is an encounter with the ‘ground’ of thought is to invoke a somewhat cautious and vastly reworked notion of the ground. Above all, it is a question of extracting the ground from the model/copy logic and its strange but dogmatic distribution of possibility and reality. According to what Bergson (1968) identifies as the possible/real logic, the real is made possible by a potential that precedes it but which, in itself, is without reality. The real and the possible are related by a condition of resemblance, since the possible resembles the real from which it has been abstracted, while it anticipates and pre-forms that which emerges from it through a process of realisation. In the dominant representational tradition, it is the Ideal forms that condition the realm of appearances. The sensuous realm of appearances bears a resemblance to the intelligible domain but is itself without reality.

An analysis that is transcendental in ambition disturbs this distribution of reality and the subjugation of the sensible to the intelligible domain through which it operates. It does so by creating what Boundas (1996) refers to as ‘an ontology of the virtual.’ The task is to affirm the superior reality — with respect to the model/copy logic — of forces that are not yet actualised, yet are fully real. This opposition between what is actual and those forces that are yet to be actualised as empirical forms comprehends the opposition of the possible to the real and challenges its privileged position. A potential that is virtual, rather than merely possible, gives rise to divergent actualisations because the virtual itself is neither formal nor essential. However, as Clark (1997: 59) notes, ‘to be without form or inessential is not necessarily to be indeterminate or undetermined.’ To refer to a virtual ground is to evoke a dual movement of grounding and ungrounding. As Deleuze (1994: 274-75) puts it, the ground is ‘strangely bent: on the one hand, it leans toward that which it grounds, towards the forms of representation; on the other it turns and plunges into a groundlessness beyond the ground.’

It is art that can serve as an exploration of this transcendental domain of sensibility. Working at the level of sensation, art acts as an exploration of the transcendental conditions of real experience, ‘before’ or between subject and object (Deleuze & Guattari, 1991). While not directly accessible from the point of view of experience, these transcendental conditions can give an immanence to thought and to the real. By preserving the passing of material into sensation, art gives to sensation an autonomous being, which is irreducible to the perceptions and affections of a subject in its relation to objects (Deleuze & Guattari, 1991). Artworks allow an exploration of the conditions by which the given is given. But also, and more importantly, they point the way for a method of genesis (Smith, 1996).

It can be said, then, that art has a privileged contribution to make to a thought aiming to make perceptible forces that are imperceptible from the point of view of experience. The remainder of the paper undertakes a necessarily cursory exploration of selected works by Lucio Fontana, arguing for their capacity to perform an analysis, which is to imply that they affect a loosening or freeing up in thought (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). To suggest that the works express a movement of reduction that opens thinking to life in its fullest sense is already to indicate a particular way of approaching them. More precisely, it is to posit the possibility of their externality to the metaphysics of models and their copies, which binds life to identity and degrades thought to reflection. Where a reflective mode of thinking (knowledge) would assume an attributive distribution of life — life as a property of living beings — Fontana’s works lend themselves to a conceptual activity with an aptitude for life’s movement, its way of actualizing and appearing.

Reduction as a gesture of thought

The claims made for ‘Fontana’ in the name of a recast reductionism betray an experimental and unashamedly interested approach to Fontana’s art, which reads his own self-representations selectively and at times obliquely. The work’s own conceptual framework, or indeed conceptual significance per se, is of less concern than the effects of the works themselves and the encounter one might have with them. The difference, as Smith (1996: 47) puts it, is between an interpretative approach (‘What does it mean?’) and an experimental one (‘How does it work?’). In pursuing the latter question attention is paid to the strikingly repetitive character of Fontana’s productions, as well as the performative aspect of this repetition, which signals the repetition of an event in thought that inaugurates a difference.

Fontana’s work performs and dramatizes a reduction that opens matter to a void. But this void is poorly understood as the other side of being, an empty nothingness. As Deleuze and Guattari (1994: 165) note, ‘even the void is sensation.’ In Fontana’s case it is a question of offering a glimpse of a plenitude that is the source of novelty, a complex origin from which forms emerge. It is possible, then, to ‘discover’ in Fontana’s oeuvre the outline of a program for a reductionist moment in thought that is fit for the other, more holist movement of life. Such a reductionism has the capacity to communicate with complexity theory and release the full power of the conceptual dynamics that, in their own context, have limited aptitude for the new.

The discussion of Fontana’s work is organised according to four principles, which signal distinct aspects of the act of reducing in thought. No claim is made that these principles are Fontana’s own, nor is there anything strictly necessary about their logic. Indeed, there is an artificial, analytical distinctness to these principles, which signals that the concept of reduction has itself been subjected to an analysis. Through an act of division, the concept of reduction is internally differentiated, so as to demonstrate the complexity with which a recasting endows it.

Principle 1: Rupture the forms of experience

When Deleuze (cited by Patton, 1994: 145) writes that ‘thought is primarily trespass and violence’ he refers not to the dominant representational image of thought (the defining character of which he suggests is its timidity) but to a thought with the audacity to encounter the forces that that tradition covers over. It is, I have argued, an analysis of the transcendental kind that can usher such a thought into being. Such an analysis destroys the foundations of an image of thought that would reduce thinking to the forms of human experience. The idea of an analysis that is, in the first instance, a violation, is given dramatic expression in the works for which Fontana is best known; namely, his perforated and slashed canvases. In his taglia (cut) series in particular, Fontana despoils painting’s most recognizable ground — the canvas — to show how the surface can be made to work (see for example Abandoning the painterly ambition of producing form through the interplay of line and colour, Fontana’s tagli present as a bold vitalisation of the surface that makes immediately discernable the autonomy that appearances assume in his work. It is not merely that the tagli are without representational pretence. What is important is that Fontana’s aim to ‘arrive at life in art’ (Fraquelli 1988: 1) is pursued via a gesture of reduction that makes complexity, rather than simplicity, its motif. While Fontana’s act of taking a knife to the canvas has been viewed as a reaction to the ‘overweighted aesthetic’ (Whitfield, 1999: 31) of his earlier works, a minimalist aesthetic captures poorly the expansive character of his thought. While the tagli bear witness to a certain precision of execution, they are, far from being the product of a restrained attitude, an ‘aggressive and sensuous’ demonstration that art is ‘a way of inventing life’ (Fraquelli, 1988: 1). Here the modernist rejection of representationalist norms goes by way of a brazen demolition of the art object as well as an effacement of the author/subject (White, 2001).

Yet Fontana (1999a) always insisted that the slashing of the canvas was more than a negative act of destruction. Rather, it aimed to ‘introduce a dimension beyond the painting itself’ (Fontana, 1999a: 122). As Fontana put it, time and again, the cut in the canvas was an opening to space. His ‘spatial sculptures,’ as the tagli were frequently called, were a sort of tribute to the technological pursuit of dimensions beyond the present reach of human experience. In the discovery of an infinite, cosmic space Fontana espied ‘the abandonment of earth, of the line of the horizon — which for thousands of years has been the basis of man’s aesthetics and his proportions’ (Fontana, 1971: 231, original emphasis). The taglia’s vitalisation of the surface is simultaneously an opening to this ‘fourth dimension’ (Fontana, 1971: 145). These works are therefore not sculptural in the classical sense of being defined by the three-dimensionality of the object in space. Rather, the act of sculpturalising the canvas through the cut is an opening to a dimension beyond that which could be said of the object. Nor is the cosmic space that the canvas encounters reducible to the kind of space in which an object might be extended. So it is not merely the reference of the object that is lost but the conditions for its quantification and measure.

This argument signals a departure from Bergson’s (1944) positing of space as the enemy of duration. More accurately, it applies Bergson’s method of division to his own thought. For it becomes evident that space itself is divided between, on the one hand, a discrete, numerical space and, on the other, a qualitative, intensive and continuous space with an affinity for duration (and thus life). For his part, Fontana (1985) claimed that ‘from 1929 onwards the problem of creating art is resolving itself instinctively for me’ and cited ‘the continuity of matter and space’ as the solution.7 Fontana (1971: 225) speaks of the demand made on the arts to grasp matter as a form of dynamic energy and space as itself a ‘plastic material.’ Thus the enactment of a single cut is not an act of abstraction from life, a gesture that, with time, would fall ‘into sterile, empty and desperate abstruseness’ (Fontana, 1971: 225).

The gesture is saved from such a fate because it is not representational but is concerned with the production of sensations. Undoubtedly it is the idea of space that Fontana means to convey in the naming of his spatial concepts in the extensive Concetto Spaziale series, and his work has largely been theorised with a view to the mental or symbolic level at which it operates (see, for example, Crispolti, 1999). But Fontana also insisted that, above all else and in spite of the media that one employs, ‘(w)hat is necessary is to create spatial sensations with one’s own imagination.’ Beneath the artist’s ideas and actions, there is, then, a qualitative, continuous space that bites into the canvas. The intensity and transformation of the uniform colour of Concetto Spaziale/Attesa (see stands as a testament to such a ground. It is as though the colour itself cracks upon under the pressure of the forces it bears, thus making otherwise imperceptible forces become perceptible, not to experience, but to sense.

Principle 2: Expose a groundless ground

Understood as a mere negation, reduction would have little power to express the expansiveness of the forces of life or to generate novelty. Going beyond a merely negative understanding of reduction requires that thought be opened to a ground unmediated by identity. Only then might reduction bring about ‘the genesis of the act of thinking in thought itself’ (Deleuze, 1994: 139). Here again the task is to refuse the dogmas of the model/copy logic, which would posit an identity between figure and ground. No doubt the purchase of the model on our thinking is inseparable from its capacity to reproduce itself, through a process of abstraction and reapplication. Abstraction, in this context, would imply the process of reduction to an ideal essence that is readily identifiable with scientific reductionism. In art, the abstract is related to the renunciation of the ambition of giving a figurative representation to

perceived reality. Fontana shows that ‘the mythical conflict between abstraction and figuration’ (Ballo, 1971: 55) can be resolved when the figure/ground relation is thought beyond the terms of representation. The brash handling of the clay and the entirely un-naturalistic use of colour in Battaglia (1947; PLATE 1) serves less to embellish the figures than to distinguish the figures from the ground with which they are continuous.

(Source: Whitfield, 1999) PLATE 1. Battaglia (1947)

The distinctness, yet continuity, of the variedly treated matter, made salient through an irregularity of volume and lavishness of texture, is crucial to the sense of dynamism that pervades the work. Such dynamism is not captured in the motion of bodies but appears through a matter that has become ‘spatially active’ (Ballo, 1971: 70) and swarms with life. Again, this is a temporalised space, which does not rest on a distinction between the stasis of being, on the one hand, and processes of becoming, on the other, but gives a sense that the figure is nothing more than forces in becoming.

In this work, then, it is the figures that give the sensations that pass from an active matter a way of enduring for at least as long as the matter does. A latter work of the same name, by contrast, is characterised by a move toward abstraction, which offers a somewhat different passage between thought and the virtual. Where Krauss (1981) notes that the typically ‘anti’ gesture of the modernist avant-garde manifests in the negation of figurative ambitions and the loss of the ground, Battaglia (1948-49; PLATE 2) seems to present us with the genetic potential of pure forces.

(Source: Whitfield, 1999) PLATE 2. Battaglia (1948-49)

The work presents a clay that is weighty with movement and thick with mass, as though the battle that it ‘represents’ were in matter itself as it passes into sensation. While it may be suggestive of forms, it is not the primacy of a matter/form relation that is signalled here but the operations of material forces that traverse matter and gain a visibility through their effects. As Ballo (1971: 24) notes, it is only by proceeding beyond the traditional lines of aesthetic classification (abstract or figurative?) that we can perceive Fontana’s ‘continual aspiration to express the energy of life — the true hallmark of all his activity.’

If there is a sense in which such works can be said to ‘express the energy of life’ (Ballo, 1971: 24) it is because the gesture of the reduction begins the work of freeing life from its attribution to things and releasing it as a power. Moving beneath the forms of experience, life splinters totalities into their genetic elements. It can be said that these genetic elements are released through a process of abstraction, as long as we understand by that term a manner of withdrawing genetic elements and putting them into motion. Here abstraction would be a reduction because it would ‘reveal’ the essence of life, which, following Bergson, is its pure alteration.

Fontana puts into operation a kind of thinking that is reductionist because it participates in an analysis that takes thought back to a ground. But this ground is not the formal ground that grounds by fixing, because it is a multiplicity that divides and differentiates. The transcendental analysis performed does not reduce by lessening, but by multiplying. Reduction releases genetic elements as singularities, where singularities imply ‘not only something that opposes the universal but also some element that can be extended close to another, so as to obtain a connection; it is a singularity in the mathematical sense’ (Deleuze, 1991: 94). Having shattered the forms of thought that would hide these elements, it becomes a question of enabling the mechanism by which they can be differentiated to give rise to differences in thought.

Principle 3: Reveal a mechanism for the production of differences

How might the production of an effect of resemblance highlight the workings of a mechanism by which novelty in thought is generated? If the ruling principle of the idea that life reproduces itself over time is that ‘like begets like,’ ‘difference begets difference’ would be the principle of a life that repeats in time. Where the former formula betrays its representational commitments, the latter indicates another economy that seeks to redress the disservice done to both life and thought when life is understood as an objective dynamic of nature and thought as its representation. What is crucial is that difference becomes primary in a repetition that is at once deeper and more superficial than that which operates via the model.

Repetition is, in fact, the trade mark of Fontana’s body of work as a whole, as evidenced by the use of the generic title ‘Concetto Spaziale‘ for the three interlocking series of works created after 1947 (Whitfield 1999). Repetition also serves as the organising principle of many of the works themselves, particularly those in the tagli series (SEE PLATE 3).

(Source: Whitfield 1999) PLATE 3. Concetto spaziale/Attesa (1965)

Seen from within the conventions of representation, the idea of repetition rests on the notion of a first instance that subsequent times repeat, but which in itself is free of repetition. Repetition thus has an externality to the thing repeated. The repetition of the act of violating the canvas draws attention to the fact of a repetition that, as Deleuze (1994) suggests, operates ‘beneath’ a merely external and quantitative repetition. Here the first instance can be said to already virtually include all subsequent instances, which will not be bound to it by a principle of resemblance (Deleuze, 1994). The ‘first’ is itself a repetition because time (duration) is its structuring principle. In a certain sense the very idea of a first, second or third time is challenged because such numerical determinations are mere markers of differences in degree.

There is a profound difference between imitation and repetition as far as the concept of life and the life of the concept are concerned. To speak of a life that repeats is to claim that its manner of being is inseparable from the generation of differences. It is, too, to make way for a thought that vitalises concepts, so that they ‘would no longer be considered images of things but things in their own right, which might transmit intensities or provide means of interaction with other events and processes’ (Patton, 1994: 155). Again, we are forced to acknowledge the meagreness of the human with respect to the ceaseless becoming of which we are a mere aspect. For Fontana, it is always a question of what the embrace of an infinite potential does to where we stand. To put it into his terms, ‘in space measurement no longer exists . . . and that means that you are nothing, that man is reduced to nothing’ (Fontana, 1999a: 122). Called to reflect on the meaning of his gesture of violating the canvas, Fontana (1999b: 136) frequently spoke in the language of idealism, claiming that ‘the canvas served and still serves for the documentation of an idea.’ Yet he also rejected the subjugation of the arts to ‘the ideal representation of known forms,’ an ambition that he saw as incongruous with a world that ‘expresses itself by itself’ (Fontana, 1999c: 196). In any case, the effect of the gesture is to defy identity’s reign in the idea and to shatter the forms of human experience that serve as its support.

To suggest that the repetition of the cut conveys a becoming is thus to evoke a dynamism that is irreducible to the subjective energy of the author.8 The surface itself has been energized and presents as the site of vital energy. The serialized cuts in the canvas of Concetto Spaziale/Attese (PLATE 4) provide us with a record of the rhythm of a life that repeats, giving visibility to the process whereby an effect of identity is produced by means of a difference. The marks make no pretence to represent an object external to the plane; if there is anything to which they refer it is to a virtuality that actualises through repetition. It is this repetition that the gesture of rupturing embodies. Or, as Ballo (1971: 23) puts it, the work itself becomes gestural, which is to say that it carries or bears forces that suggest ‘the idea of mobility, without using geometry or setting up fixed relationships — corresponding precisely to the act of living.’

(Source: Whitfield 1999) PLATE 4. Concetto spaziale/Attesa (1965)

Principle 4: Leave a trace of the virtual

The final principle of a recast reductionism already leans towards the synthesis for which it prepares a way. Its concern is to experiment with the following question: what are the forms by which life appears? Of course, such a question assumes that appearances have gained a certain power denied them in the model/copy relation. It assumes, too, that we are not speaking of form in a representational sense, for the virtual, by definition, ‘resists all forms and cannot be represented’ (Deleuze, 1994: 275). The work of Focillon (1989) points the way toward an understanding of form that is suitably transformed by its communication with the concept of life. Focillon’s exploration of the ‘life of forms in art’ breaks with the assumption that art’s destiny is to imitate art, because of the way that in his thought forms become lively. Perceived form, Focillon insists, is inseparable from movement; forms encounter and engender a perpetual passage, whereby they refer outside themselves and to other forms. We can thus speak of the life of forms to the extent that movement itself is given a form. Made active through its communication with the concept of life, form loses its attributive or essential definition and becomes singular.

The linguistic equivalent of the singularity is the infinitive form (Deleuze, 1993). To speak, then, of the singular manner by which life appears is to suggest that the concept of form is made active, functioning as the infinitive: to form. ‘To form’ is to activate the process of making plastic, of modulating and putting into variation. The activity of forming thus concerns itself with the ways in which the virtual ground comes to the surface and insinuates itself between forms. These are themselves nothing more than momentary condensations of pure relations, created through a process whereby matter becomes expressive. As Fontana (1999c: 197) himself puts it, the time has come to appreciate that ‘matter exists in movement and only in movement’ and that, subsequently, the artistic era of paints and paralysed forms has come to an end. Perhaps an exaggerated gesture is required to force thought to truly think the forces of variation and emergence, the expressivity of matter and the complexity of the origin and to give the appearances of life the form proper to them. It is, most obviously, the sensation of matter at and beyond the limit that is given being through the overstated thickness of paint and the visibility of warp and weft in Concetto Spaziale (PLATE 5). When a maximally saturated matter succumbs to force and is ripped apart, thought encounters the outside. This is a beyond that is a potential, and yet is no simple origin, since it is the operations of complexity that take place at the surface (Massumi, 1997). The work does not peel back the surface in order to disclose a simplicity at its core, but produces an interiority through the folding of the surface. Crucially, then, the form of the work is not given before the rupture but is co-extensive with it. Form becomes inseparable from its own genesis.

(Source: Whitfield 1999) PLATE 5. Concetto spaziale (1967)


It has been argued that a mode of thinking that gives life a way of emerging in, and appearing through, thought needs firstly to reduce the forms of human experience, revealing a mechanism for the production of variation. If reductionism is inseparable from a gesture of returning or leading back to the origin, this is now to be understood as a thoroughly complex origin. Or, if the revelation of an essence id its business, the concept of essence has been transformed by time, so that it now signifies a pure alteration. All of this is to prepare thinking for its more synthetic moment. But to suggest that reductionism and holism need each other is not to replace a contest between opposing modes of thinking with a complementarity that would effect a progress toward thought’s adequation with its object, life. Any complementarity would retain the distinctness, yet inseparability, of the analytic and synthetic movements of life, in order that a thought worthy of it might be produced.

Reduction, then, is the first step in allowing thought to approach a pure potential that will, in the more synthetic moment, provide the material for new syntheses. Holism needs this reduction if it seeks to discover more than change in the nature of things, which would be to merely remain at the level of the given. For what appears to be merely given to us is always already fashioned through its value for us. An analysis that destroys the given to reveal the forces of the new is always already a re-valuation. The act of producing a thought that does not represent but repeats life has both ontological and ethical implications. Ontologically speaking, ‘only that which becomes in the fullest sense of the word’ can be said to have being (Deleuze, 1983: xi). Such an ontology implies a certain ethical attitude, which eliminates ‘all half-willing, everything which can only be willed with the proviso “once, only once”‘ (Deleuze, 1983: xi). If the analytical moment has something destructive about it, it is in the Nietzschean sense of the destruction of death, that is the destruction of that which stands in the way of growth. And it is always accompanied by a courageous creativity that exclaims ‘Was that life? Well then! Once more!’ (Nietzsche ,1969: 178).


I am grateful to the Fondazione Lucio Fontana for permission to reproduce the images included in this paper. Many thanks to Scott Sharpe for his thoughtful assistance at various stages of writing.


1 For Kauffman (1993: 11), for example, it is a question of acknowledging that ‘the routes to life are broader’ than a reductionist perspective alone can appreciate. While reductionism enables a theorisation of the ‘discrete order of stable chemical bonds derived from quantum mechanics’, a more holistic perspective is required to understand ‘the ultimate sources of order’ which ‘lie in the emergence of collectively ordered dynamics in complex chemical reaction systems’ (Kauffman, 1995: 85).

2 Within the field of biology there is, for example, a growing belief that ‘areas of knowledge and research exist (such as theories of evolution and embryology) where mechanism is not a fruitful view, and the analytic . . . methods are not applicable’ (Rummel, 2002: 4).

3 For some, complexity theory offers a way of more accurately predicting market fluctuations or of understanding human cognitive processes. Toffler (1985: xxiii), for example, speaks of the way in which the Prigoginian model might ‘lend itself to analogical extension’ in the understanding of organizational transformation, ‘psychological processes’ and the like. For DeLanda (1997) society itself might be understood as a self-organising system that changes when a threshold is reached and bifurcation occurs.

4 McNair (2000: 553), for example, makes no apology for sociology’s attempt ‘to emulate . . . epistemological categories and methodological concepts of the natural sciences’ in a ‘culture which elevates “science” above other discourses of knowledge.’

5 According to Gilbert and Sarkar (2000), it is the strict materialism of complexity theory that distinguishes it from its holist predecessors.

6 Richard Dawkins has no doubt been the most popular apologist for such naïve determinism. In particular, his proposal of a single mechanism for the development of individual form and large scale evolutionary change conveys the message that there is a single and fundamental causal mechanism (see, for example, Dawkins, 1996).

7 For Fontana (1971: 186), the real achievement of the art of the Baroque was the way in which the ‘figures seemed to abandon the picture plane and to continue the represented movements out into space.’ By these means the ‘Baroque masters’ are said to have ‘represented space with a grandiosity that has still not been superseded’ as well as having ‘enriched the plastic arts with the notion of time’ (Fontana, 1971: 186).

8 Fontana reproached Pollack for ‘the pretence to move out of the painting’ which merely served to underline the traces of his subjective energy (Zacharopoulos, 1987: 45).


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