6. Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque

by breavman99

the fold

I decided to read Deleuze’s book on Leibniz, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, to answer a question that came out of my reading of Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre’s essay on data in qualitative social-science research: is artistic research, or walking-as-art, in the fold? What is the importance of Deleuze’s image of the fold, which is central to St. Pierre’s understanding of what she calls “transgressive data”? That question remained with me after reading St. Pierre’s essay, because I didn’t quite understand quite why she found that image so compelling. The thing to do, I decided, was to read the source where St. Pierre found that image–or at least one of them. Perhaps I’ll find the answer to my questions there.

After finishing The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, I’m still not sure I understand why the image of the fold is so compelling for St. Pierre. In part, that’s because Deleuze’s book is a gloss on or reading of the work of the seventeenth-century philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz—a “dazzling reading,” according to translator Tom Conley (xi)—and I’m not sure it’s possible to follow Deleuze’s serpentine argument without being familiar with Leibniz’s writing, and all I know about Leibniz is that Voltaire mocked him in his satire about the problem of suffering, Candide, as the idiotic Pangloss, who taught “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology” and “proved incontestably that there is no effect without a cause,” and that in this best of all possible worlds, “everything is made for the best purpose”:

Observe: our noses were made to carry spectacles, so we have spectacles. Legs were clearly intended for breeches, and we wear them. Stones were meant for carving and for building houses, and that is why my lord has a most beautiful house; for the greatest baron in Westphalia ought to have the noblest residence. And since pigs were made to be eaten, we eat pork all year round. It follows that those who maintain that all is right talk nonsense; they ought to say all is for the best. (Voltaire 20)

Pangloss’s doctrine that what we understand as evil will, if considered properly, be seen as part of the general good, is, according to translator John Butt, “a perversion of Leibniz’s teaching, and perhaps Voltaire knew it” (Voltaire 8), but still, Voltaire’s mockery is so powerful that I have never been tempted to read Leibniz. For that reason, I am not prepared in any way to confront Deleuze’s exploration of Leibniz’s thought. Besides, as Conley’s foreword suggests, Leibniz’s philosophy—and therefore Deleuze’s reading of it—are extraordinarily complex, touching on atomic theory, differential calculus, grammar, visual art, and the history of logic. The breadth of references is stunning, but it’s also a problem. What do I know about calculus or logic? Nothing. When I encounter equations in Deleuze’s text–and they are everywhere in some of the chapters–I cannot understand them. I just don’t have the background. Nevertheless, my questions still persist—why is the fold so important? is walking-as-art within the fold?—and the only way to answer them, or to try to answer them, is to try to read Deleuze. And so that’s what I did.

For Deleuze, Leibniz is the philosopher of the Baroque, but the Baroque isn’t simply a historical period. Rather, Conley suggests, it is a trope, an “intense taste for life that grows and pullulates,” a fascination with “a fragility of infinitely varied patterns of movement” (x). Deleuze begins his discussion by claiming that the Baroque is not an essence but “an operative function” that “endlessly produces folds” (3). These folds are characteristic of Baroque visual art, but for Deleuze they are more than that: “the Baroque trait twists and turns its folds, pushing them to infinity, fold over fold, one upon the other. The Baroque fold unfurls all the way to infinity” (3). Leibniz apparently imagines a house with two levels, one upper and one lower, which correspond to soul and matter, but those levels are connected by folds and pleats, like veins in a marble tile: 

Sometimes the veins are the pleats of matter that surround living beings held in the mass, such that the marble tile represents a rippling lake that teems with fish. Sometimes the veins are innate ideas in the soul, like twisted figures or powerful statues caught in the block of marble. (4)

These folds are curved, fluid, elastic; they divide endlessly, forming “little vortices in a maelstrom, and in these are found even more vortices, even smaller, and even more are spinning in the concave intervals of the whirls that touch one another” (5). The folds are thus “caverns endlessly contained in other caverns,” and “each body contains a world pierced with irregular passages” (5). All of these folds can be understood as “a continuous labyrinth” or “a sheet of paper divided into infinite folds or separated into bending movements” (6). “A fold is always folded within a fold, like a cavern in a cavern,” Deleuze writes. “The unit of matter, the smallest element of the labyrinth, is the fold, not the point which is never a part, but a simple extremity of the line. That is why parts of matter are masses or aggregates, as a correlative to elastic compressive force. Unfolding is thus not the contrary of folding, but follows the fold up to the following fold” (6). It’s pretty clear that Deleuze, or Leibniz, is not thinking about folds in a Baroque painting, but something else, something much more fundamental: a way of understanding the complexity of the world: “an organism is enveloped by organisms, one within another (interlocking of germinal matter), like Russian dolls” (8). Moreover, nothing travels in a straight line; everything moves in a curvilinear fashion, an arch. And, just to complicate matters, there are folds, but there is also the Fold, which might be a principle of folding rather than an example of that principle: “It is because the Fold is always between two folds, and because the between-two-folds seems to move about everywhere” (13). So not only are the folds infinitely complex; they are also in motion, or seem to be in motion. How can we possibly grasp any of this complexity? And yet we do, partially, incompletely, and no doubt incorrectly. (That’s how I feel about the process of reading this text, in fact.)

Soul and body are folded together as well, according to Deleuze (or Leibniz—one of the recurring challenges of The Fold is determining where Leibniz ends and Deleuze begins). In the second chapter, “The Folds in the Soul,” Deleuze describes inflection as “the ideal genetic element of the variable curve or fold” (14), a definition that also complicates the image of the fold. Inflection moves through three transformations: it is vectoral, projective, and it cannot be separated “from an infinite variation or an infinitely variable curve” (15-16). Inflection becomes fluctuation: “there will always be an inflection that makes a fold form variation, and that brings the fold or the variation to infinity” (18). The object therefore becomes an event, and the subject comes to represent a point of view, a perspective (19-20). The object, an “ambiguous sign,” according to Leibniz, which is “effectively enveloped in variation, just as variation is enveloped in point of view. It does not exist outside of variation, just as variation does not exist outside of point of view” (21). The law enveloped by a variation is called “involution” (21), which appears to be a technical term. In fact, the second chapter’s use of calculus makes it difficult to follow, but its references to Henry James, which suggest that point of view is akin to focus, cryptography, the secret of things, or even “the determination of the indeterminate by means of ambiguous signs” (22) is a little clearer—not that clarity is ever one of Deleuze’s concerns. The point, it seems, is that things are folded in order “to be enveloped, wrapped, put into something else” (22), and the soul itself “is what has folds and is full of folds” (22). “But this is no less true for the world,” Deleuze writes: “the whole world is only a virtuality that currently exists only in the folds of the soul which convey it, the soul implementing inner pleats through which it endows itself with a representation of the enclosed world” (23). Why “currently,” though? And is it true that the world only exists in the soul which conveys its folds? Does the world really have no existence outside of our perception—is that where this argument is going? Wasn’t there a world before humans evolved, and won’t there still be something here after we are gone? “The world is an infinite series of curvatures or inflections,” Deleuze contends, “and the entire world is enclosed in the soul from one point of view” (24)—from one perspective, one optical position, that is (I think). How can the soul—one particular soul, or soul in general?—envelop the whole world? Isn’t each point of view or perspective going to be incomplete and particular? I don’t understand. Indeed, he continues, “The world is the infinite curve that touches at an infinity of points an infinity of curves, the curve with a unique variable, the convergent series of all series” (24). Fair enough: the world is infinitely complex. How, then, can it be enclosed in the soul? But this is one of the claims Deleuze (or Leibniz) makes: that the individual unit—the monad, in Leibniz’s terminology—includes the whole series: “hence it conveys the entire world, but does not express it without expressing more clearly a small region of the world, a ‘subdivision,’ a borough of the city, a finite sequence” (25). Moreover, because the soul is filled with folds stretching to infinity, it “can always unfold a limited number of them inside itself, those that make up its subdivision or its borough” (25). But we can’t get at the infinity inside ourself: “Closure is the condition of being for the world,” although “[t]he condition of closure holds for the infinite opening of the finite: it ‘finitely represents infinity’” (26). How does the finite represent infinity? Through “the torsion that constitutes the fold of the world and of the soul. And it is what gives to expression its fundamental character: the soul is the expression of the world (actuality), but because the world is what the soul expresses (virtuality)” (26). The folds of matter seem to reduplicate the folds in the soul, which is no wonder, because in Leibniz’s formulation, matter and soul are infinitely folded together.

There are other figures in The Fold, most importantly the monad, but my focus—my point of view, perhaps—on this text (the complexity of which may be a figure for the infinite folding and unfolding it describes) was the fold. (If I tried to think through or write about all the other lines of argument or all the other figures or images here, I might never stop writing.) Many other themes and figures and notions are introduced in this difficult text, but let me range through my 30 pages of notes to find more descriptions of the fold. Here’s one: “The ‘duplicity’ of the fold has to be reproduced from the two sides that it distinguishes, but it relates one to the other by distinguishing them: a severing by which each term casts the other forward, a tension by which each fold is pulled into the other” (30). So the two sides of the fold are related, but also separate, and this contradiction produces a kind of movement outward and inward. The fold—in Baroque painting, at least-is “the infinite work or process” (34); it is the inside and the outside, the high and the low, folding and unfolding (35-36). It is simultaneously one thing and its opposite, and it “appears only with infinity, in what is incommensurable and in excess, when the variable curve supersedes the circle” (38). Knowledge is only known where it is folded, according to Deleuze: “Ideas are so folded in the soul that we can’t always unfold or develop them, just as things themselves are inextricably wrapped up in nature” (49). The fold is related to the other central figure in Leibniz, the monad: “It is as if the depths of every monad were made from an infinity of tiny folds (inflections) endlessly furling and unfurling in every direction, so that the monad’s spontaneity resembles that of agitated sleepers who twist and turn on their mattresses” (86). Our perceptions, or perhaps the perceptions of the monads,“are these little folds that unravel in every direction, folds in folds, over folds, following folds” (86). Those are “microperceptions” (86), but there are also “macroperceptions,” which take in “great composite folds” (87). “Folds over folds: such is the status of the two modes of perception, or of microscopic and macroscopic processes,” Deleuze writes: 

That is why the unfolded surface is never the opposite of the fold, but rather the movement that goes from some to the others. Unfolding sometimes means that I am developing—that I am undoing—infinite tiny folds that are forever agitating in the background, with the goal of drawing a great fold on the side whence forms appear. . . . At other times, on the contrary, I undo the folds of consciousness that pass through every one of my thresholds . . . in order to unveil in a single movement this unfathomable depth of tiny and moving folds that waft me along at excessive speeds in the operation of vertigo. (93)

No wonder Deleuze goes on to claim that “Every perception is hallucinatory because perception has no object” (93). How could it have an object, given the infinite, mobile complexity of consciousness, perception, and the world itself?

In the second-to-last chapter of the book, Deleuze asks, “Where is the fold moving?” His response tells us something more about the fold, or perhaps the process of folding:

As we have seen, it moves not only between essences and existences. It surely billows between the body and the soul, but already between the inorganic and the organic in the sense of bodies, and still between the ‘species’ of monads in the sense of souls. It is an extremely sinuous fold, a zigzag, a primal tie that cannot be located. (119-20)

The distinction in Deleuze, or Leibniz, between the inorganic and the organic reminds me of the distinction between inanimate and animate nouns in Cree. It seems, though, that as the fold moves, it crosses the boundary between inorganic and inanimate, along with other boundaries, including time and space, the finite and the infinite, and world and soul. The folds produce a kind of harmony, however, Deleuze contends in the last chapter: “The text is folded according to the accords, and harmony is what envelops the text. The same expressive problem will animate music endlessly, form Wagner to Debussy and now up to Cage, Boulez, Stockhausen, and Berio” (136). That endlessness is expressed at the very end of Deleuze’s text, where he writes, “We are discovering new ways of folding, akin to new envelopments, but we all remain Leibnizian because what always matters is folding, unfolding, folding” (137). Not only is Leibniz, according to Deleuze, the most important philosopher for the postmodern era—how else is one to understand the claim that “we all remain Leibnizian”?—but the series begun by “folding, unfolding, folding” apparently continues infinitely. Why wouldn’t it? That’s been Deleuze’s claim throughout, that the fold, or the process of folding and unfolding, moves infinitely in two directions, outwards and inwards. Everything is folded together. Everything is related through the figure of the fold.

So, does any of this answer the questions that came out of my reading of Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre’s essay? I’m not sure. Her take on the fold is, compared to Deleuze’s, finite: her research is in the fold because it generated three different types of transgressive data, and perhaps her claim is that those data are folds in what she describes as “the ruthlessly linear nature of the narrative of knowledge production in research methodology” (179). How so? Her shift from ethnography to autoethnography through her incorporation of emotional, dream, and sensual data arguably represents a fold or an enfolding between self and other: the two polarities touch through the process of folding. Is that true of artistic research as well? How could it not be? Doesn’t art, at least potentially, accept such enfoldings and refoldings? I don’t mean simply in a visual sense, although Deleuze is eloquent in his discussions of drapery and fabric in Baroque painting in sculpture. Is art in a more fundamental manner a way to grasp, briefly and incompletely, the infinity of foldings and unfoldings of both the world and the soul—and the infinity of foldings and unfoldings between those polarities? Yes, I want to say–yes. Isn’t that the purpose of art–in theory, if not always in practice?

I’m still not sure what that answer means for my own project, and I’m also not convinced that The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque is the best place to find answers to my questions. After all, most of St. Pierre’s discussion of the fold comes from Deleuze’s book on Foucault, and from Alain Badiou’s essay on Deleuze’s discussion of Leibniz. Maybe that’s because they provide a clearer definition or description of the figure of the fold—although it’s important to restate the fact that clarity is not a value in contemporary French philosophy. Indeed, Deleuze’s book on the fold reinscribes that image in its prose. Nevertheless, my next step will be to take a look at those additional sources. That’s how scholarship works, isn’t it? You start somewhere, and then follow the path as it unfolds—an unfolding that is, of course, potentially infinite, because there’s no end of connections and relationships and things to learn. I did my best with The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, although I am aware that I’ve only begun to follow its sinuous foldings and unfoldings. I would have to take up the challenge Deleuze offers his readers, and read Leibniz and the other texts that lie behind his argument. I don’t have time to do that—I need to remember what I’m trying to accomplish by reading for my comprehensive examinations—but maybe by reading Deleuze’s book on Foucault, or Badiou’s essay, I’ll find answers to the question that brought me here.

Works Cited

Badiou, Alain. “Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque.Gilles Deleuze and the Theater of Philosophy, edited by Constantin V. Boundas and Dorothea Olkowski, Routledge, 1994, pp. 51-69.

Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault, translated by Seán Hand, U of Minnesota P, 1988.

——-. The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, translated by Tom Conley, U of Minnesota P, 1993.

St. Pierre, Elizabeth Adams. “Methodology in the Fold and the Irruption of Transgressive Data.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 10, no. 2, 1997, pp. 175-89.

Voltaire. Candide or Optimism, translated by John Butt, Penguin, 1947.