Meditation on Metallurgy

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By Elizabeth JonesMore from this author

Meditation on Metallurgy

Not everything is metal, but metal is everywhere. Metal is the conductor of all matter….And thought is born more from metal than from stone….

-Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (411)

Rarely in philosophical discourse does one come across texts which place metalsmithing at the core of their content. Fine arts generally dominate philosophical thinking and perhaps this prejudice explains the drift of metalsmithing towards the fine arts in academic circles. It is refreshing, therefore, to discover metalsmithing as the model for freedom projected in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1980) by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. I will present an overall view of the authors' theories followed by an examination of their musings on metallurgy and freedom. The materiality of metal, its formless form, the lifestyle of the metalsmith, and their relationship with sedentary and nomadic societies will guide our investigation.

Deleuze and Guattari analyze our postindustrial age with an encouraging optimism, born of their awareness that multinational capitalism systematically undermines all systems of control. Rather than creating solutions which engender contentment, capitalism maintains a continuous movement and flux which fuels an insatiable state of desire. Possession is not the object of desire. What desire demands, above all, is desire, to be kept in a continuous state of suspension, with no conclusion and no satisfaction. The market economy depends on a dissatisfaction which generates a constant circulation of goods and money, a pure state of movement, which the authors call "pure speed" (Deleuze 411). Discouraging as this may sound in terms of contentment, Deleuze and Guattari find hope in the fact that dissatisfaction breeds perpetual revolution, resisting all centralized control and creating pure freedom.  Hey liken this freedom to the processes of thought where "thought…lives solely by its own incapacity to take on form, bringing into relief only traits of expression in a material, developing peripherally, in a pure milieu of exteriority, as a function of singularities impossible to universalize, of circumstances impossible to interiorize" (Deleuze 378).

Although many critics, such as Donald Kuspit, utilize these theories to explain the schizophrenic behavior of fine arts in the eighties, Deleuze and Guattari use metalsmithing to explain their concept of postindustrial freedom. Just as thought resists form or the imposition of an exterior universalizing force, metal resists form. True, metal can take form, but it is never restricted to a form. Metal can be as thin as paper, as solid as a rock, as liquid as water, as colorful as the rainbow, as luminous as light, or as opaque as the night. Metals cross over into every organic form as salts and minerals, expressing a "vital materialism" unprecedented in other substances (Deleuze 411).

In fine arts, many philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger, discuss the relationship between form and mater, where an exterior form is forced upon a material without regard for its inherent properties. The artist transforms stone into flesh in spite of the fact that stone and flesh have nothing in common. Mind controls matter. This argument places art squarely in the realm of thought rather than intermediate between thought and physical reality.

To speak of form and matter in relation to metals is useless. We have seen that metals take all forms and therefore cannot be associated with a particular form. It is the transforming material par excellence, never definable as a form nor even as a matter or substance. Metal has the continuous ability to alloy, mix, and change substance. Its variability links metal more to formlessness, chaos, and mobility than to anything that will fit into a pigeon hole. Metalsmithing is the art form of the most mobile of all cultures, the barbarian or nomadic cultures. For Deleuze and Guattari, nomad jewelry and weapons best represent the mobility of freedom.

But something lights up in our mind when we are told that metalworking was the "barbarian," or nomad, art par excellence, and when we see such masterpieces of minor art. These fibulas, these gold or silver plaques, these pieces of jewelry are attached to small moveable objects; they are not only easy to transport, but pertain to the object only as object in motion. These plaques constitute traits of expression of pure speed carried on objects that are themselves mobile and moving. The relation between them is not that of form-matter but of motif-support, where the earth is no longer anything more than ground (sol), where there is no longer even any ground at all because the support is as mobile as the motif. They lend colors the speed of light, turning gold to red and silver to white light. They are attached to the horse's harness, the sheath of the sword, the warrior's garments, the handle of the weapon; they even decorate things used only once, such as arrowheads. Regardless of the effort or toil they imply, they are of the order of free action, related to pure mobility and not of the order of work with its conditions of gravity resistance, and expenditure. (Deleuze 401) Not only does metal take all forms in general, it also takes formless form in nomadic design. Animals are depicted geometrically with haphazardly arranged body parts, moving in opposite directions. They float in smooth space against a field of flat, dynamic lines with no sense of direction. The authors credit this lack of orientation to the lack of a single perspective in nomadic life. The nomad lives by his periphery vision, a kind of haptic vision which includes all the five senses as well as an intuitive sixth sense. The vast spaces which the nomad inhabits encourage a defused, circular perspective rather than the focused perspective more suitable to urban lifestyles. "There exists a nomadic absolute, as a local integration moving from part to part and constituting smooth space in an infinite succession of linkages and changes in direction. It is an absolute that is one with becoming itself, with process. It is the absolute of passage, which in nomadic art merges with its manifestation" (Deleuze 494).

The most original force in nomadic design, which plays against that dimensionless space, is the free abstract line. Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between the abstract line and the concrete line. Other theorists such as Wilhelm Worringer distinguish between geometric and organic lines, where the geometric line of the Egyptians is accorded with the first "artistic will" towards abstraction (Deleuze 496). Geometric abstraction here counters the incessant flow of organic life forms, fixing for eternity what time keeps in perpetual movement. Unlike Worringer, our authors support the nomadic line, which includes both geometric and organic expressions, as the original abstraction. They define abstraction as "a line of variable direction that describes no contour and delimits no form" (Deleuze 499). Nomadic geometry does not fix form so that it stands still. Repetition and asymmetry mobilize geometry while organic forms become transfixed in the moving stillness of geometric repetitions. "The line escapes geometry by a fugitive mobility at the same time as life tears itself free from the organic by a permutating, stationary whirlwind" (Deleuze 499). The abstract, free line is nomadic while the concrete line belongs to sedentary cultures where the State develops abstraction primarily through writing systems. In static cultures the power of the free line is diminished through its attachment to representation and "children [forget] how to draw" (Deleve 497).

The power of metal lives in its omnipresence in all matter and in its essential formlessness by taking all forms or by taking no form at all in its most famous designs. It evades all definition, all control, offering the purest model of freedom and mobility. Thought cannot contain it nor physical reality limit it. It stretches between the two realms, communicating, passing through as the ultimate "deterritorialized" material (Deleuze 415).

"Material-forces rather than material-form" may be a more potent way of describing metal objects (Deleuze 369). "In metallurgy,…the operations are always astride the thresholds, so that an energetic materiality overspills the prepared matter, a qualitative deformation or transformation overfills a form" (Deleuze 410). The authors liken metallurgy to music where there is a "continuous development of form" corresponding to a "continuous development of matter" (Deleuze 411). An energetic materiality derived from the accidents of metal's combinations with other substances, gives it a force which varies the "intensive affects" possible for formal manipulation (Deleuze 408). In other words, variable matter dictates variable form.

The metalsmith must follow the material rather than impose form on matter. This operation is different from the modernist practice of allowing a material to be itself. Metal, in its infinite variability actively effects the possibility of form and the resulting affects of form (light, dark, hard, soft, etceteras). Thus, there is a more fluid relationship between form and matter, artist and object, thought and material reality. This moving matter or "matter-flow can only be followed" by an itinerant artisan (Deleuze 409). Not only does the metalsmith follow the flow of metal, bridging thought and reality he also bridges radically different cultures.

The first and primary itinerant is the artisan. But artisans are neither hunters, farmers, nor animal raisers. Neither are they winnowers or potters, who only secondarily take up craft activity. Rather, artisans are those who follow the matter-flow as pure productivity; therefore in mineral form, and not in vegetable or animal form. They are not of the land, or of the soil, but of the subsoil. Because metal is the pure productivity of matter, those who follow metal are producers of objects par excellence. The metallurgist is the first specialized artisan, and in this respect forms a collective body (secret societies, guilds, journeymen's associations). Artisans-metallurgists are itinerants because they follow the matter-flow of the subsoil. Of course metallurgists have relations with "the others," those of the soil, land, and sky. (Deleuze 411-412).

Metalsmiths not only follow the flow of metal, they also itinerate between the straited spaces of the centralized agricultural empires, the smooth spaces of the decentralized nomadic animal raisers, and the forest spaces of hunters. They are the inventors of "holey space," where mines penetrate the subsoil randomly following mineral veins (Deleuze 415). "Mines are a source of flow, mixture, and escape with few equivalents in history. Even when they are well controlled by an empire, there is a major movement of clandestine exploration, and of miner's alliances either with nomad and barbarian incursions or peasant revolts" (Deleuze 412-413). Because the metalsmith creates weapons, jewelry, and monetary expressions he gives power meaning, and value to each society but he also provides the means of revolt against any society. For Deleuze and Guattari a collective body or a specialized group, such as metalsmiths, supplies a check to centralizing power structures. As with metals, metalsmiths connect with everyone but their metallurgic secrets keep them free.

The objects metalsmiths produce also represent freedom and mobility. Although weapons may be used for enslavement, they just as easily become the instruments of liberation. Jewelry is a free form of expression unrelated to the political agendas of semiotic writing and visual narrative. Although it may represent expressively a culture, jewelry may transform into or pass into other societies with ease. The portability and luminosity of jewelry make it the most mobile of all art forms. Finally, monetary expressions, from coins to ingots, more than any other objects, represent a pure abstraction of value, which is universally negotiable in all societies because they serve no other purpose than pure circulation of goods. In this way, metallurgy has much in common with capitalism today. Money and the market circulate with the greatest fluidity across cultures and boundaries. They know no masters, Freedom of movement is their sole raison d'etre. Weapons, jewelry, and monetary forms all share crosscultural affinities. They wander freely in the world.

Deleuze and Guattari recognize that metalsmith culture bridges many cultures while maintaining its own holey, cave-dwelling space. Yet, they associate nomadic culture most closely with true mobility where no single place dominates and no destination terminates movement. Speed, flexibility, and the element of surprise make the great nomadic cultures, from the Mongols to the Huns, ideal "war machines" (Deleuze 420). War machines occupy smooth spaces, vast territories with no center, popping up unexpectedly and moving on. Possession is not the objective of the war machine. Pure movement is its aim. War machines always oppose the sedentary State apparatus. Even within the State, the military poses a threat to the stability of the monarchy or civil government. The State operates more through the police and prison system.

Metals have a special relation with the ideal war machine culture of the nomad or the barbarian. Weapons and jewelry are the primary art form of these mobile cultures. Built for speed, they arm and decorate the horses and men who flash across territories only to disappear in thin air. Weapons and jewelry implement the independence and the intense expression of constant mobility. Technology originates with nomadic metallurgy. Each progressive step in cultural development is initiated by the development of metals and weapons. The bronze battle-ax of the Hyksos or the iron sword of the Hittites mark the start of the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. "The fact remains that for weapons…, there is always a nomad on the horizon of a given technological lineage" (Deleuze 404). The nomad maintains his pure state of freedom and mobility only through his metallurgic innovations. Perpetual revolution requires perpetual technological revolution. Metals play a major role in this refusal to stand still and accept the status quo. Movement is freedom.

Deleuze and Guattari weave the arts of metalsmithing into complex relationships with multiple cultural groups, innovative technologies, and expressions of mobility. Their discussions of the material properties of metal, the formless designs of nomadic metalworks, the itinerancy of metalsmiths, and the connections between metallurgy and revolution for nomads place metalsmithing among the great philosophical discourses on freedom today.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. Originally published in French in 1980.
Heidegger, Martin. "The Origin of the Work of Art." In Poetry, Language, Thought, pp. 17-87. Edited by Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
Kuspit, Donald. "Collage: The Organizing Principle of Art." In New Subjectivism: Art in the 1980s, pp. 503-520. New York: Don Capo Press, 1993.
Worringer, Wilhelm. "From Abstraction and Empathy," Art in Theory, 1900 - 1990, pp. 68-72. Edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992.
Elizabeth Jones is an associate professor of art history and theory at the University of Texas, El Paso.
By Elizabeth Jones
Metalsmith Magazine – 1998 Winter
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Elizabeth Jones

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