ACCORDING TO MAYA DEREN, the Ukrainian-born experimental filmmaker, writer, photographer, and choreographer, “a truly creative work of art creates its own reality.” When a friend once suggested to Deren that she become an anthropologist, given her interest in the field, she insisted that she would never be satisfied in analyzing the nature of an established reality but would always want to make her own.
Despite the brevity of her career, Deren’s influence as an avant-garde director and film theorist in the 1940s and ’50s is more than safely established. Sally Berger has shown how important her work was to later artists, such as Carole Schneemann, Barbara Hammer, and numerous others. But her original contributions to the study of rhythm and dance, and their connection to spirituality and trance, have been overlooked by specialists in those fields, as she remains a figure read almost exclusively by film scholars. But Deren’s work was not only wild but wildly interdisciplinary, drinking from, as well as collaborating with, radically disparate sources and traditions.
In particular, the critical comments in her notebooks on the cybernetic anthropology of Gregory Bateson (first published in the magazine October, in 1980), I believe, deserve much more attention than they have received from researchers on culture and cybernetics (the notable exception being Ute Holl’s remarkable 2002 book Cinema, Trance and Cybernetics, originally written in German and published in English in 2017).
Deren was born in Kyiv, in 1917, as Eleonora Derenkowska. After her family fled to the United States in 1922 to escape antisemitism, she studied journalism and political science at Syracuse University, where she met her first husband, the activist Gregory Bardacke. Together, they moved to New York, where she finished her degree at New York University in 1935 and became an active socialist agitator, working for the Young People’s Socialist League. The couple separated before the end of the decade, and Deren went on to get a master’s degree in literature in 1939, studying symbolism in French and English poetry. It was not until 1943, at the age of 26, that she made her first film, in collaboration with her second husband, Alexander Hammid.
With a modest budget of about $275, Meshes of the Afternoon is by far her most famous work, an almost mandatory presence in most lists of best American short films. The silent piece shows Deren in a disorienting and oneiric course in which she finds different versions of herself, as well as a dark figure that looks a bit like Death itself (with a mirror for a face). (Initially produced without a soundtrack, Deren’s third husband, Teiji Ito, would later compose a highly percussive musical accompaniment, a haunting track that heightens the anxious, dreamlike mood of the film.) At the time, many treated Meshes of the Afternoon as a psychoanalytical drama, others seeing a surrealist synthesis of film noir. And while the film has had its share of imitations, nothing else looks quite like it. Despite the simple narrative and editing elements, all repurposed from classical cinema, the combination that Deren and Hammid offer us is still familiar in an extremely disturbing way, not unlike the movie’s signature doppelgänger figures.
Her movies are carving of the visible, giving us little to no context or explanation besides their titles. Deren’s work lacks any of the conceptual excess or the abstract plasticity that would come to characterize so much of experimental cinema in the United States. While dealing with the tortuous relationship of the body in motion and all the spatial-temporal subversions made possible by montage, she put her own likeness at play. Each material was an inventive opening into a world, as well as the mode of its operational closure and its functional limits. As an artist, Deren mixed a passionate interest in the singular, technical affordances of the cinematographic form with a desire to reorganize our rhythmic perception.
This is made evident by works like An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film (1946) and “Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality” (1960). Deren wanted cinema to reformulate the dimensions of ritual and magic that have always accompanied our species. Cinema for her was not simply an ingenious way to display traditional narrative forms, like the epic poem or the novel, but a new irruption of the interactive trances otherwise so thoroughly repressed in modernity. She comes to the point of saying, in Anagram, that all art should be ritualistic, consciously manipulated to create effects and refashion reality. She understood this orientation toward ritual to be much more in phase with the epistemological state of scientific modernity than any notion of naturalistic expression in art, an extension of her overarching interest in anthropology and in dancing rites.
Deren completed six films in her whole career, four between the years of 1943 and 1946, including the hypnotic works At Land (1944) and Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946); this was also the period in which she also wrote the texts most associated with her legacy. After her trips to Haiti, however, which began in February 1947, she took 14 years to finish her final two movies, often considered minor works — Meditation on Violence (1948) and The Very Eye of Night (1958) — both slightly awkward but conceptually original experiments in cinematic expression. Some historians suggest that Deren’s interest in Haiti acted as a sort of break or detour in her career as a filmmaker, but researcher Catrina Neiman points out that you could well argue the very opposite: Deren’s brief and intense career in cinema distracted her from her deep and systematic interest in studying dance and religion.
Her experience in Haiti clearly changed her in a singular manner, but her deep interest in the connection between dance and spirituality, rhythm and trance, started years before, when, in 1940, she came in contact with the work of choreographer Katherine Dunham. A student of anthropology from the University of Chicago, Dunham researched Afro-Caribbean dancing practices in Haiti and Jamaica before becoming a very successful performer and the director of one of the first African American dance groups in the country. Neiman describes how Deren worked as Dunhan’s assistant for nine months, traveling with her group during a tour along the West Coast, and considers how her own field work seemed to have influenced Deren’s later decision to travel to Haiti.
The fact is that Deren’s Divine Horsemen, the amateur ethnography that she produced from her time in that country, is a remarkable achievement. An intense and insightful work on spirituality and rhythm, the book is extraordinarily well written, if a bit disconnected from most of the conceptual dilemmas of academic ethnography at the time. Deren also filmed a series of rituals in Haiti which later became Divine Horsemen, a documentary only edited and released in 1985, more than two decades after her death.
Despite some informal training with Gregory Bateson and Joseph Campbell, Deren herself admits to being an amateur ethnographer, an artist who initially intended to use what she saw in Haiti as material for her work, but who found herself so thoroughly seduced by the surprising complexity and formal beauty of the spiritual practices that she encountered that she could not help but struggle to further understand them: “I had begun as an artist, as one who would manipulate the elements of a reality into a work of art in the image of my creative integrity; I end by recording, as humbly and as accurately as I can, the logics of a reality which had forced me to recognize its integrity, and to abandon my manipulations.”
Of course, that is only partially true. Deren did attempt to be scientific, but she was still an artist, and as much as the book is an attentive work of research, it is also a dazzling piece of writing made with powerful rhetorical, even lyrical, manipulations.
Her final description of ritual possession in the book, for instance, is a virtuosic performance in which Deren not only describes the rituals with careful prose, but also includes her own bodily engagement with the rhythmic trance. This is not participant observation but something else entirely. And after describing a protracted choreography of invocation, Deren submits that it is “impossible to conceive how this culminating collective effort to establish contact with the world of les Invisibles could possibly fail.” This is both a generous assessment and an indication of how Deren’s powerful emotional reactions deeply inform her account. When Deren describes Erzulie, the loa of love, it is difficult not to read it as a description of herself and her art, her finding in that divine entity the expression of human capacity to “conceive beyond reality, to desire beyond adequacy, to create beyond need.” This impression is only made stronger when we learn that she carried this identification with Erzulie with her upon returning to the United States, sometimes describing herself to friends at parties as a sort of avatar of that divine entity of love.
For Deren, an act of “identification” was always a process of transformation into something else. You cannot separate the artist from the theorist of religion and rhythm, the woman making trancelike movies from the woman writing hypnotically about trance. And why would you even want to? Her entire work can be said to reenact, by different strategies, a desire to use cinema to create radically new collective rituals and choreographies, by any medium necessary.
But what of the “plateau” in the title?
In 1946, Deren started attending lectures by Gregory Bateson at the New School. Bateson was, at the time, developing his own singular style of anthropology, taking elements from the early developments of cybernetics, as well as from biology and ecological thinking. Deren also met Bateson’s wife, Margaret Mead, a distinguished anthropologist in her own right and, like her husband, a participant in the famous Macy Conferences on Circular and Causal Feedback Mechanisms. These conferences gathered, besides the couple, other towering figures of the blooming field of cybernetics, including Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, John von Neumann, and Heinz von Foerster.
Bateson and Mead had recently done fieldwork on the Balinese culture of Indonesia, and they offered Deren the possibility of editing the material they had filmed. In her notebooks, Deren’s excitement is palpable when she picks up the rolls of film from the couple. She describes how incredible it is to manipulate the velocity of the recording with her own muscular energy, calling it the “ultimate copulation” between her and the film. Deren’s aim was to make a movie that would work as an intercultural “fugue” of ritual gestures, but she soon abandoned this objective when, after exchanging letters with Bateson and Mead on the subject, she realized the difficulty in establishing simple connections between such disparate contexts.
During these lectures, Bateson was developing his reflections on the “plateau,” which came to be later used and expanded by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus (1980). Bateson produces the concept (or image) while describing a scene in which a Balinese mother played an erotic game with her son, pulling on his penis in a playful manner. The anthropologist is struck by the fact that the mother seemed to provoke the son right to the point in which he was close to a small climax, only then to interrupt the game abruptly, much to his frustration.
Bateson is struck by this scene because of how it seemed to deviate from the general pattern of schismogenesis, a concept that he first proposed in 1935 after studying the Iatmul people of New Guinea. Schismogenesis is a concept that describes processes of cumulative social interactions that lead to inner division in social groups, and it comes from an understanding that the most basic characteristic that would make men prone to struggle would be “this hope of release from tension through total involvement.”
That is, Bateson speculated that nearly every social interaction that is cumulative and directed toward climax, such as war and social conflict in general, has curves that were bounded in a way that is comparable to orgasms. In other words, since the achievement of a certain degree of bodily intensity is usually followed by a release of tension, this meant that the orgasm could serve as a sort of basic prototype for social interaction. Bateson first recognized these circuits of behavior in the Iatmul, but he thought they could be found all over Western society as well. He came to use the concept to describe the arms race between the US and USSR as a case of symmetric schismogenesis, a cumulative escalation of tension which recursively intensifies the behavior on both sides, as opposed to cases of complementary schismogenesis, like that of a master and a slave or of Marxist class relations.
Going back to the Balinese mother and child, Bateson understood that in teaching the child to divert or defer the accumulated tension instead of dissipating it in immediate consummation, the Balinese offered another model for the social disposition of interactive tension. He saw other patterns of behavior in Balinese culture that would tend to avoid climax in such a manner (in trances, in social conflicts, and in their traditional forms of art). This libidinal economy departed from Western culture and from this general theory of schismogenesis.
Deren seemed excited about Bateson’s ideas, but she quickly grew skeptical. On her notebooks, she registers disagreement with the diagram that Bateson made of the process. She writes:
Bateson’s treatment of the frustrated Balinese climax principle has always bothered me, particularly as illustrated by that diagram of the ascending line, stopped off with a cross, and then just a dotted line indicating, I suppose, where it should have gone. It did not seem as simple a thing as a conclusive negative abortion.
Deren offers her own version of the process:
Actually, that line, after it gets ascending, does not merely disappear at the point of the X on Bateson’s diagram. What happens is that the energy which would be required for the ascendant acceleration of a climactic curve is channelized instead into a plateau of duration. The duration in time, therefore, is enormously extended and can even withstand interruption, as an accelerating curve cannot.
Bateson’s 1949 publication on Balinese culture offers a description of libidinal economy that is longer, and more complex, than his first one, from 1941. And it is only in 1949 that the climax is substituted by a “continuing plateau of intensity,” echoing Deren’s 1947 objection to his initial formulation. Perhaps Deren’s and Bateson’s understandings of the Balinese were more similar than her notes would suggest, or maybe Deren’s objections played a hand in shaping Bateson’s now-classic formulation. (A careful, critical reading of their correspondence could possibly help us illuminate this.)
The main difference between Bateson’s and Deren’s definitions perhaps lies at the end, in which she says that the channeled duration of a plateau can bear interruption in a way that an ascending curve cannot. Pleasure does not only happen in quantized leaps; it can be gradually and continuously modulated, like the subtle toning of a muscle. This transformation of the ascending climax, as tension distended in another plateau of intensive interaction, resonates with elements from Deleuze and Guattari’s own later reading, as Ute Holl has already pointed out.
Deren writes in her notebooks that this frustration of climaxes in the Balinese would have as its purpose: “The channelization of energy which would, in climactic activity, be spent and really dissipated in conclusive exhaustion-that it is converted into a tension plateau which serves the continuity both of personal and communal relations.” Where Bateson initially saw a sort of denial of culmination through intensive stabilization, Deren projects a progressive intensification, going beyond the dotted line of the curve without reaching permanent stability. This is not to deny the structure of the climax, but to distend and modulate its thickness.
Ultimately, Deren thought that Bateson’s diagram said more about Bateson and his method than it said about the Balinese. She also pointed out to him that taking a long time to reach climax in sexual activity is not considered a negation for many, but, is, in fact, a desirable feat. Where Bateson apparently saw a sort of denial of orgasm as principle of temporal modulation, Deren saw another version of orgasm and distention, one which could possibly result, of course, in a different vision of this libidinal economy.
This is all to say: Dissipative discharge after cumulative tension is not the only available model for an orgasm. To consider sexual climax a basic model of tensional activity for social interaction, at the very least, one must include the possibility of multiple discharges with no recovery time, in the female orgasm, and of dry discharges in the male apparatus (without even getting into further complications of distension and modulation, such as you can find in tantric practices, and so on). It is remarkable to note that Deren and Bateson’s debates are happening directly prior to and congruently with the Kinsey Reports in 1948 and 1953. Theirs is shaped by anthropological field work rather than the medical field, but all these studies circle similarly explosive questions of pleasure, sexual difference, and the social body. Deren also departs from other elements in Bateson’s models of social interaction, bothered by his tendency to model every social exchange as a directional signpost, which she thought indicated his inability to capture the energetic, dynamic dimension of sociality.
Even if Deren studied with Bateson, it is evident how much the teacher had to learn from his student, and how much the field had to gain from Deren. As Holl explains, Bateson seemed to have incorporated some of Deren’s criticisms in his later work, especially in his work on the social matrix of psychiatry, and she adds that Deleuze and Guattari would then serve themselves of Bateson’s idea of a plateau of duration to conceive of the structure of the second volume of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, A Thousand Plateaus. For them, the plateau constitutes a multiplicity that is always to be found in the middle, with no beginning or end. This ideal can be understood as the structural germ of their shared conceptual perspective; and the possibility of distending intensity further ties into their infamously cryptic notion of the “Body Without Organs,” inspired by Antonin Artaud, which proposes an active state of experimentation that can destitute our rigid and strictly functional relationship with our bodies.
Much more could be said about plateaus and bodies without organs, of course, and a lot of that work has been done to death. Like Deleuze and Guattari, Deren was inspired by this possibility of interactive distension in Bateson, but she diverged from him by gesturing toward the radically open ongoing possibility of plotting out new types of libidinal diagrams, predicated on different hydraulics of intensity.
All of this, not coincidentally, is what Deren produced with her cinema: choreographic experiments in possession that work their effects upon their audience through the use and subversion of climax and continuity, by opening to every artistic medium for what it can reveal, by using montage as a speculative toolkit for enacting old trances with new media. Bateson knew how to extract coherent circuits out of social interactions, but Deren discovered how art was capable of shaping and transfiguring these selfsame circuits into diagrams for living differently.
In 1960, a young Korean artist named Nam June Paik visited the German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. His intention was to explain that fixed form would have to be maintained in experimental art because it was inspired in sex (a single direction, a single crescendo): “([C]an you imagine a multidirectional crescendo? We only have one heart), climax, catharsis — human nature — Ying Yang — Nature of Nature — Proton and Electron.” But before Paik could say anything, almost as if anticipating his point, Stockhausen began to say that fixed form is like sex: it has no freedom whatsoever. Then Stockhausen told Paik of the possibility of a calm and free kind of love.
Deren was not saying what Stockhausen was saying. Besides affirming that dissipative discharge is not the only kind of culmination, Deren knew that there are multiple ways of composing a crescendo. In other words, she not only questioned the totalizing dominance of the dissipative climax, but she regularly offered alternatives through art. In her films, she invokes a successive frustration of climaxes so as to erect plateaus of tension, circuits which, as Sarah Keller writes, construct meaning through resonances, not resolutions. Even when a form is completed, it is only an illusory gesture which can be unmade in the next movement. Her cinema is made from sustained and ingenious sets of frustrations, amplifying the usual deceptive ambivalence of montage, as deployed in more traditional filmic narrative, or even most experimental film. It’s the kind of simple but brilliant reversal of expectations that you get in the impossible gags of Buster Keaton, but with a kind of ritualistic cyclicity as its motor, in place of vaudeville.
Philosopher of art Susanne Langer defines rhythm as the “the setting-up of new tensions by the resolution of former ones.” In Deren’s work, because the resolution is always reversible, the circuit always carries along with itself the possibility of its own undoing, of dissolving and being reassembled in another plane. The repeated movements in At Land create an almost abstract space, in which gesture becomes iterative protocol, seeming to happen both before and after it appears on screen. And in her article on editing, “Creative Cutting” (1947) (composed while she was attending Bateson’s lectures), Deren writes that “[i]t is impossible to overestimate the compelling continuity of duration which movement carried along the splice can create.” This carrying of movement along the splice seems to be the most essential procedure of Deren’s cinema. In her notebooks, she describes the same idea by saying that continuity and “intensified duration” is achieved in film by not letting any movement be completed.
For Deren, the interruption of a gesture deepens the tension rather than dissipating it. A step begins on the beach but finishes on a dining room; a character seems to approach the viewer, but the movement keeps repeating with no conclusion, modulating its tensive disposition. Thus, a leap can encompass the whole cosmic span of time. Made partly through a desire to reconcile contemporary art with 20th-century physics, Deren’s metamorphic montage is a thorough demonstration of Alfred North Whitehead’s idea that, in time, “there is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming.”
In her writings, Deren suggests that every cinematographic composition is based on the transformation of duration into tension. If cinema does that explicitly, or didactically, we can say that of any art form — that it negotiates the transformation of a set of material tensions inside a field of formal problems, turning it into a game of rhythmic intensity. Every form of art is choreographic in so far as it binds and unbinds the bodily appetites of an audience through a diagrammatic interaction with an ordered set of material tensions. This also means that every form of art is erotic in the rhythmic modality of its negotiation of pleasure and pain.
Considering Deren’s reiterated resistance to the application of psychoanalytical theory to art, it is as if she were arguing against the notion of pleasure as a reduction of tension, one which Freud himself would come to complicate in his 1924 text on masochism. (You don’t have to be a practicing masochist to surmise that pleasure can reach unbearable levels of intensive interaction.) To theorist Elizabeth Grosz, Freud’s entire work can be understood to be “a generalization of and abstraction from the model of male orgasm to the fundamental principle of life itself.”
Instead of thinking about art and sex as ever more complicated detours toward death, fatal iterations of the same tensive arc of predictable discharge, Deren helps us think about life as a spiraling deferral of pleasure and pain, ever binding and unbinding, a complicated, discrete and unstable flow of contingent creation. These ideas help refine our understanding of her rich, if limited, body of film work, just as her art helps us see a rhythmic actualization of her conceptual notions on life, death, and the spaces between.
Deren dedicates one of her texts to her father, who first talked to her about life as “unstable equilibrium” (an idea which she surely took to heart). She is that rare artist who reveals and points to the mechanisms behind the effects, while, at the same time, avails herself, shamelessly, of all available tricks and gimmicks. She chose the name Maya herself, after all, which in Sanskrit means “illusion” or “magic,” the powerful but illusory dimension of matter, which the German idealist philosopher Friedrich Schelling understood to mean “potency and possibility,” materiality and illusion all wrapped into one. As Holl suggests, Deren’s knowledge of the rules of transformation did not stop her from becoming possessed by the trances she herself created.
She thought that she was a deviant — Bateson and Margaret Mead too, for anthropology was the study of deviancy from social norms, best advanced by deviants. Like Georges Canguilhem, whom she probably did not read, Deren understood that deviancy is not a diagnosis but an orientation toward, or away from, a given norm. In some way, she understood herself to be a witch, an agent of catalyst, an advocate for change, for experimentation with new dimensions of interactivity. Witchcraft worked, she wrote in her notebooks, as an “activated projection, in material terms, of how a witch functions.” She also thought, in what I think is a non-trivial insight on the theory of social organization, “there is no society or organization designed to change itself, and this is what the whole hitch is.”
If the current collapse of civilization involves the excavation of old libidinal plumbing — if Bolsonarismo in Brazil, for instance, is mainly a morbid gathering of juvenile discharges and decrepit, impotent masculine drives — we need the power of both avant-garde and popular art forms to draw up some powerfully new erotic possibilities. Deren’s movies offer these, just as her writings invoke radical possibilities for rhythmic interaction. Tension, sexual and otherwise, is the interactive thickness of life itself, and its phase-space contains many more possible rhythms than the selfsame contours of discharge, our familiar, anxious cumming-unto-death.
Vinícius Portella is a Brazilian writer based in Rio de Janeiro.