Olkowski – Deleuze and the Ruin of Representation 

In parallel to my readind of Deleuze Differnce and Repetiton, I started to read Olkowski’s book on Deleuze and the ‘Ruin of Representation’.

Ruin of Representation

Not having read it yet completely, I was pleasant surprised to see how the author critically interrogates feminist critiques of Deleuze (and his co-writer at times Guattari) and suggests a different viewpoint in understanding Deleuze’ ‘logic of difference’. She pulls from vast philosophical theories (Aristotle, Hegel, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty) to explore feminist conceptions and positions against Deleuze, e.g. by Catherine MacKinnon, Alice Jardine, Judith Butler, Rosi Braidotti or Elizabeth Grosz. Her main point is that, although the earlier audience for Deleuze was mainly male, she considers the key conceptions of difference and actualization of becoming by Deleuze and Guattaring as very relevant for a new feminist position against the negative bias of representation.

The book is, compared to some other critiques, not a complaint of women’s representation in an ‘hegemonic male’ society but overthrowing a victim’s role through a philosophical interrogation of representation and difference in itself, quite in context of Deleuze. A refreshing new perspective with a wider exploration of other feminist positions and exemplifies with the work by Mary Kelly (b. 1941)

Olkowksi challenges traditional representational frameworks, liberalism and individualism. She argues against the conceptions of naturalism (as related to a fixed biological condition), idealism (as related to belief in unmediated ‘just’ reasoning) and moralism (as related to volunteerism and autonomy as base of individual development). Her underlying question is an alternative definition of female subjectivity beyond representation. And another question an emphasis on sexual difference is either supporting a hegemonic identity on one side or supporting equality in being different.

A question that came up for me while reading the first chapters was whether Olkowski would also argue against enlightenment and the notion of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ as the theme of the French Revolution ad as a paradigm that constituted most of Western liberalism? I couldn’t find an answer in her book, but most likely I would assume that she would challenge enlightenment as a rationale mode of representation of male hegemony.

In her notion of the ‘ruin of representation’ she votes for new viewpoints, challenging the distancing and observer independent viewpoint of science that created a notion of objectivity that  she considers as a dominant male worldview. Representation relates to a model/copy conception and female equality would therefore result in convergence with the result that woman are one step removed from a male idea, identity, to put it in some Platonic framework. Seems quite logic for me, as to define represenation in Platonic way as a copy and claim to the internal essence of a model’s sameness, the copy cannot be anything else than just that, never have its own internal essence.

It is not so clear to me whether she considers all science as a mean to push male hegemonic power further. Considering history this would open up the question of causality.

Key aspect for her is the difference between a logic of difference and a logic of representation. The ‘standard’ approach of ‘logic of identity’ built on differences of one group identity means for her only another way of representation and copying a model. She is citing Marion Young when she considers a ‘logic of identity’ as the reason for oppression by a dominant group (obviously the group of white males) and exclusion of ‘otherness’, a conception based on differences in the ‘identical’ sense. A discourse at large, related to ongoing discussions of assimilation, integretation and inclusion.  I think the suggested casuality of representation equals hegemonic oppression is at times too simple, a dense philosophical argumentation can not solve it.

One main aspect coming through is the feminist challenge of philosophy by enforcing sexuality in a cultural and political discourse. Either related to representation (Plato, Aristotle) or to body and embodiment (phenomenology).

The book concludes language and with the power of language and speech acts. Words, or more precisely verbs, represent transformative and especially performative acts. These applied functions do resemble very much Searle’s assignment of power function to institutional facts and speech acts as an act of power. Considering language as an endless semiotic system of signifiers Olkowski looks at psychoanalysis not only as an interpretation of significations but also as an ‘authoritarian regime of subjectification and prophecy’ (p.228) making the subject passive.

Mary Kelly

She exemplifies her critique of objectified representation and new orientation by looking at the artist Mary Kelly who interrogated her own role as woman and mother as being subordinated to predetermining representations by signs and linguistic signs. Language is the interface between the social and the psychic, the relationship as mother and as a person during the growth of her child. (Post-Partum Document, 1985) It is an interrogation of  Lacan’s schemas and prevailing psychoanalytical language and the psychic structure of difference (see interview with M. Kelly in Art Monthly). Her works were included in the exhibition in 1985 with difference as a key theme: ‘Difference: On Representation And Sexuality‘. 

Overall, Kelly’s works are a denial of representation (iconic) and building on indexical and symbolic objects she makes assemblages of juxtapositions. Olkowski considers there  filmic sense embracing motion and time of mother and child. A virtual synthesis of various and fluid perspectives.

Olkowski compares Kelly’s work with Barthes Camera Lucida, both transforming and moving language creatively beyond prevailing schemas and representations. For her, the key aspect is ‘to seek differences in kind and articulations of the real’ (p. 231). What doesn’t go along that line of search is representation. She mentions as one example of a ‘philosophy of intuition’ (Bergson) Kant’s notion of the sublime. Sublime as appearing through the condition of nature as ‘art’  and independent of any representational constraints. In the ‘intuition of the sublime, the imagination fails to apprehend the absolutely great, .. producing pain with regards to imagination’s inadequacy.’ (p. 231)



Olkowski considers Deleuze’s conception of difference in itself and the actualization of the virtual mulitplicity as the key aspect in finding new feminist subjectivity. Considering the linguistic bias in representation of social and at times hegemonic structures, she follows the line of reasoning by Bergson’s philosophy of intuition and juxtaposed layers visualized by Mary Kelly to demonstrate the importance to overcome a focus on liberalism and individualism for its focus on one-sided perspective and focus on model-copy thought. From a feminist perspective she considers  naturalism, idealism, and moralism as means for oppression and enforcing external differences versus a difference in itself.

I found her book refreshing and it helped me, especially her exploration of the artist Mary Kelly, to see Deleuze’s rather theorectical conceptions in a practical perspective. Her critical exploration of various feminists positions and critiques gave me a wider and deeper inside in feminist theory and subversion of conventions of representation.

The question not answered yet for me, whether all represenational ‘iconic’ artwork will have to face the challenge of being considered oppressive and supporting hegemonic structures. Especially relevant for me as a white, male artist – kind of worst case?


  • Olkowski, D. (1999) Gilles Deleuze and the Ruin of Representation. Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press.

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