The works of popular art seem particularly invested with time. Popular works age quickly: their materials, physical or cultural, are so notoriously subject to decay, injury, and effacement as to be classed as ‘ephemera’ by collectors. Perhaps in response to this material condition, popular artworks often seem concerned above all to articulate temporal experience. This is most obviously the case with music, of course, but it is no less true of movies, television programs, comics and fiction – all of which are these days principally understood as ways of telling stories. To be occupied with popular art is to be engaged in a pastime, to be passing the time, spending or dispensing it.

In What Is Philosophy?, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari choose to begin their chapter on art with the image of a person gazing at a painting: temporarily moved, not temporally moving (163-164). This is an image fit for art taken seriously – which is to say, art defined institutionally – the art everyone knows is art. And, in its canny way, this is also an image of distraction, an illustration and a percept of how art works in our age of technical reproducibilty – if ours is indeed that age, if indeed that age is ours, if indeed art works. It is also an image about which I have written before. (2)

But I do not see this image. Instead I see people with wires in their ears, with bobbing heads, with swaying walks, with twitching shoulders: people moving as they are moved. She turns pages faster as the tension mounts. Faced by the screen, she moves her hand before her eyes. Tears, tumescence, shrieking, laughing, clapping. Richard Meltzer writes:

Dancing? You should have been dancing with your mind all along – and not even just dancing to the danceable; that was always the transcendental prerequisite to the bodily anyway; now it’s time to be an athlete of the transcendental only. And genitals are easily trans-physical, so you don’t even have to abandon them. (234)

I am saying that I see a correspondence in popular art between how people move and how they are moved. And indeed, much of what Deleuze and Guattari have written about the concept of art goes to the questions of how art moves us. I will try to capture something of this in a montage.

The chapter on art in What Is Philosophy? replays a tension of motion and stillness familiar to readers of The Logic of Sense and A Thousand Plateaus, in which chunks of time are deployed within grand metaphorical spaces: series, planes, territories, lines; crossing, traversing, fleeing. The artwork, a thing of sensation incorporating the virtual event, is assigned the chilling name of ‘monument’ by Deleuze and Guattari. It finds its place in a series that includes bloc, compound, being, matter, zone, body, universe and infinity (not to mention territory) as well as sensation, affect, sensory becoming, and life; the artwork is, then, le tombeau de devenant, the eternally embalmed, undead. (3)

And yet, within the crypt, the dead still dance. The work as it is realised, as haeccity, calls forth motion because it moves virtually. “Vibrating sensation – coupling sensation – opening or splitting, hollowing out sensation” (WIP 168): the famous becoming-Other – “not the passage from one lived state to another but man’s nonhuman becoming” (173). Does this matter?



I am told that Ian Hacking has claimed that an earthquake is not an event. Be that as it may, at least one is. (4) It is a recording originally released on the Imperial label, made in a studio in July 1952 in Houston, Texas, and featuring a tenor saxophone played by Joe Houston, backed by Marian McKinley (piano), Robert Gray (bass) and Robert Byrd (drums). After awhile there is some shouting, perhaps by the musicians or perhaps by others. (5)

I want to write about the particular experience of time, movement and sound that this recording provokes by adopting something of the character of Jean-Louis Schefer’s “ordinary man”. Music is not my profession, and I do not possess the necessary qualities to speak about popular music except insofar as I listen to it. What I can say, then, is not founded in any of the discourses of musical expertise: I cannot even read a lead sheet. Like anyone else, I am merely music’s totally submissive servant and also its judge, yet I am drawn to a research whose object isn’t a polished construction, but the enigma of an origin, that is, to write what I hear and feel and understand. (6)

Here is what I might do. I might not play this recording incessantly, as I have in writing and speaking about it before, confusing our inner speech with sound. I might instead attempt to diagram its structure, insofar as I am able to apprehend it. Such a structure might consist of 10 ‘choruses’ capped by a brief ‘tag’ or coda. These choruses might be grouped into large segments reminiscent of chapters or paragraphs or episodes. I might then elucidate the bases upon which I had made my divisions and some of the elements which, nonetheless, link the different episodes and make them consanguinal: doubtless including the six choruses of variation on a single phrase introduced at the beginning of the third chorus (five in a single bloc, one at the end). I might then indicate other structures of affinity and of divergence: repeated rhythmic or melodic motifs, like the low notes (‘bomps’) which recur at different points throughout, counterbalancing singular noises and effects, like the quick tag phrase which begins the eighth chorus. I might even include some of this in a handy table with aural examples. [See ‘Earthquake – structure‘]

And I might attempt some commentary on my affection for what happens – which is only what is expected of this kind of writing. For example, in the liner notes to an album that contains “Earthquake”, Ken Mills responds to its affect by invoking this species of understanding of musical form as a descriptive foundation:

the shocker is 8 bars of low-B-flat blasts forming the riff which precedes the outchorus [last chorus]. All great honkers blow bombastic bomps but only Houston fitted them into a lyrical line.

This mode of analysis certainly has its uses, and I will not abandon it entirely in this paper. But surely such methods are analytic only insofar as they are spatial. They comprehend my experience of time and of movement in terms antithetical to – or, at least, significantly at odds with – that experience. Mills has to resort to hyperbole and alliteration in what can only be a gesture towards his experience, to restore time to what he has virtually diagrammed.

Elements of another approach are, as you may know, evoked in two chapters of A Thousand Plateaus. Here there is an effort to avoid unadulterated spatialisation – an effort which is all the more remarkable in the light of the relentless spatialisation characteristic of that work as much as of What Is Philosophy?. Instead there is a focus, a concentration, on becoming and what it might mean in an understanding of art.

Becoming, yes – in a block.

Block. Why block? Is there something blocked here, a movement balked just as the lines are thrown for its escape? Don’t you imagine a solid square shape (perhaps with alphabet letters raised along its sides), something to be used like a brick to make a wall or, more forcefully, to express love? Becoming what? Woman, child, animal. Surely, in the end, only becoming-block. Becoming blocked.

Only then, within the block, not around the block, is there becoming-animal. Deleuze and Guattari are Europeans; they write about the blocked animals on our block: becoming-rat, becoming-wolf. But Joe Houston, like many other rhythm `n’ blues tenor saxophonists, plays music about becoming-hog. He grunts. He squeals. He roots. This is an animal from the back blocks, not the city blocks. Rats and wolves squeak and howl, they scurry through the walls and lope over the territory, barely brushing the surface of our block. Joe Houston gets down, down in the shit and the slops. He messes things up, leaves a trail. Rats and wolves are cunning. Joe Houston gets ignorant, hog-ignorant: one idea on his mind, who he is and what belongs to him. Rats and wolves are children of the night and the secret ways. A hog knows no secrets: openly, boastfully, it pounds down its wild ways at noontime, midnight, any time at all, trampling all over the block, all that precious ecology, gnawing those funky black roots – likes this path, let’s take it again – well now, look there, that looks interesting; let’s go skronch on that. Rats and wolves burrow from underneath and strike in packs from behind. A hog is on you suddenly in raucous fury; one hog and it comes from any side, all sides, and it takes you with it squealing, riding the hog’s back, razorback, the hog carries its lunch, tenderising it in the saddle. And we, listening just a little unblocked, becoming, becoming little baby piglets that big hogs eat, riding and ridden by Papamummy, the hog loa.

Music has a thirst for destruction, every level of destruction, extinction, breakage, dislocation. Is not that its potential ‘fascism’? (ATP 299)


Let me begin again – with the typology exposited in “Of the Refrain” and transformed into vibration, coupling and splitting in What Is Philosophy?. First a child sings to itself as it wanders in the dark, then home-makers sing as they shore themselves against what is outside, and finally (hi ho, hi ho), the nomad sings, setting off to make a way in the wide, wide world. Each phase of the triptych is a story, and together they make a never-ending story, a bestselling fairytale, that doctrinal weapon of the young Kracauer and the old Gorky. The child: “Who was that masked man?” The settler: “That was the Lone Ranger.” The nomad: “Hi yo, Silver, awaaaaay!”

The narrative form is itself as important as the specific open-endedness of Deleuze and Guattari’s typology. For narrative surely gives a shape to time; it makes time in the act of passing it. Much structural analysis, much narratology, ignores or downplays the role of time in narrative in the name of synchronicity. Even diachronic analyses often treat story-telling as a species of building with blocks, as V. I. Pudovkin treated montage in the cinema, rather than as growing or journeying. However, in the tale of travelling to and from home, Deleuze and Guattari insist upon an understanding of narrative as the composition of time, as movement and becoming. No activity is ever completed (no one arrives, no territory is secured, no one vanishes over the horizon), there is no time to rest, to catch the breath. (7)

I suppose the simplest understanding of “Earthquake” as the encryption of this story catches the sax-agonist in mid-journey in the two repeated phrases of the first two choruses, casting about for a direction or just pickin’ ’em up and puttin’ ’em down, the way Illinois Jacquet did on the stage of the Chicago Theatre – at any rate already in motion, virtually travelling. A territory is staked out, a world pole erected, perhaps in the ensuing set of variations on the phrase introduced at the beginning of the third chorus or when the first melodic fragment is quoted suddenly, like a breath released, at the end of a long and frantic rhythmic series. This is Big Jay on the floor with his back arched and his horn pointed toward the sky – don’t tread on me. And then it may be possible to discern propulsion outward introduced by the launch chorus, or by the suspended-time lick that begins the eighth chorus, or again perhaps along the lyric line of blasts that so enraptures Mills, followed by an abrupt end that is no end, the master disc is running out, the man is signalling from the booth, uh-uh, no more.

Or. Perhaps. May be possible. I am not happy with this linear story that branches out, this too-facile mapping of narrative over music, mediated by an imaginary structural diagram. When I listen over, I dream it all again: the wandering, the claiming, the fleeing. Every story has a beginning and a middle and an end, he wrote us, but not necessarily in that order. And I think: in this piece it is all happening at once, three episodes narrated simultaneously in one voice. Every grunt or squeal is at once a cry of panic and a yell of triumph and a shout of farewell. “Earthquake” is no road system. What we have here are not routes but roots – those funky old roots again, truffles for hogs.

And, to my surprise, I have learned something about the form of this recording from that intuition about rhizomic simultaneous narratives. I have learned that “Earthquake” is not crafted along the sort of trajectory that is sometimes found in the work of rhythm `n’ blues tenor players and may be what most of us expect from them; solos which move towards home and settle the sucker like Hal Singer’s “Hot Rod”, solos that take off from home into the stratosphere like McNeely’s “Deacon’s Hop”. (8) Instead, the music made by this record attempts to sustain itself in movement and turns aside from reaching anywhere. To listen to this recording in the expectation of something would be to hear nothing, or only failure.

Beneath the horn which, I have suggested, moves hog-like, stomping zig-zags and scrawls, humping and wallowing, a little detached, above the beat, there are three other instruments, moving differently, along paths connected by their common roots. The drums jump between noise and silence: they hit, they beat, they slam (“earth compressors”, Mills says). The bass is walking: it moves easily with relaxed and steady power as it strides ahead, cooling the band, not looking around, never pausing. The piano rolls its boogie: muted, turbulent waves of sound churn across one another, head turning, eyes everywhere, every part of the body snaking, sidewise and forward, back and up and down.

These different beats converge into one time, one becoming. I think now I am beginning to think of a form shaped in time: the rhythm of the earthquake, shape of its shuddering.


At first I believed there were two ways in which rhythm is discussed by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: directly, as “rhythm”, in “Of the Refrain”; and indirectly, as “punctual system” or Pierre Boulez’s “pulsed time” in “Becoming-Intense”. However, that is not quite the case. The punctual system seems to be characterised by meter, and

Indeed, the master narrative of Boulez’s history of music in the earlier chapter is abstracted by Deleuze and Guattari in such a way that this distinction is prehended by it:

That is, the beat does not punctuate or divide, it does not stop. Rather, it impels and propels, it rebounds, goes on. At the same time, rhythm directs what I have called the dance of the dead, animating the becoming within the monument. I would say it forms (and de-forms) sensations within the bloc. It would appear that specific rhythms compose or are composed within specific blocs of sensation, even though rhythms may also act as the means of linking bloc to bloc, decoding and recoding flows.

In “Of the Refrain”, Deleuze and Guattari deal with rhythm only in conjunction with territorialisation. Presumably, this is because rhythm is an aspect of becoming, because it marks the in-between and connects heterogeneities, not because it is consubstantial with the homogeneous space-time of a territory.

To be on the beat is to live between, where “only the past and future inhere . . . the instant without thickness and without extension” (LOS 164). There, on the surface, you look forward and backward at the same time, acting the pattern and sensing the surprise. It is a movie, just as one would have expected – but it is also a story in the making, questions and answers, events illumined in the light of a miner’s lamp, as things change, T+1, panel by panel. (9) They think that I keep the beat, but they are mistaken, for there is nothing of the beat that can be kept. Nor, on the other hand (for there is no other hand), do I set the beat, as I suppose one might set an alarm or dig a pit for ravening swine. No, what I do is ride, or try to ride, the beat and, if I am lucky, maybe once a night, the beat rides me and, riding me, rides them and you too. People think of rhythm as a foundation and music as a building – even Deleuze and Guatarri think this. But rhythm does not come from underneath anywhere: rhythm flows ungrounded. Over the surface. Unceasing. Rhythm shares the properties of Aion.

Always already passed and eternally yet to come, Aion is the eternal truth of time: pure empty form of time, which has freed itself of its present corporeal content and has thereby unwound its own circle, stretching itself out in a straight line. It is perhaps all the more dangerous, more labyrinthine, and more tortuous for this reason. (LOS 165)

The pure empty form of time is surely also the “deformalization of time”, time as de-former, of which Emmanuel Levinas writes (118-120). Riding the beat as a line, I act the pattern that passes, but at the same time, I sense the coming surprise. In this sense – and perhaps I mean, in the experience of it – temporal form is the form of freedom. (10) Surprise, or the possibility of surprise, is integral to slipping between past and future. “Earthquake”, for example, does not stop as I expect it to. It stops. Surprise.

Past and future are bipolar possibilities in a system of thought that is often suspicious of dichotomy. Walking the line of Aion demands them. Rhythm knows other pairings of qualities, marking extremities that cannot be reached, crossing at the point of the beat. Deleuze and Guattari several times refer to ‘speed’ as though that were the only quality of becoming. No doubt their formulation has the advantage of reminding us that strict tempo, the rhythm method, only works for white folks – but ‘speed’ is always only an instant along the line of fast and slow. Rhythm rides rougher or smoother – that is, more or less disconnected or connected, hot or cool. It is louder or softer and it is heavier or lighter (these are not two ways of describing the same qualities: there is a soft, but heavy beat in Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train”). Rhythm slides between regular and irregular, simple and complicated, tight and loose.

And, of course, it swings more or swings less – which, as I have now come to understand it, means that any rhythm discovers itself always dancing along the dead line that unwinds from the circle of stasis and entropy, always fleeing between the frozen heart of hell and the heat-death of the universe.


Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Caroll, Noël. Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

[ATP] Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

[LOS] Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense. Edited by Constantin V. Boundas. Translated by Mark Lester with Charles Stivale. New York: Columbia University Press 1990.

[WIP] Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Felix. What Is Philosophy?. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Forrest, Jimmy, tnr. sax. “Night Train”. Rec. 27 November, 1951. Jimmy Forrest: Night Train. Delmark DD-435. Chicago: Delmark Records, 1990.

Gaudreault, André. Du littéraire au filmique: Système du récit. Paris: Meridiens Klincksieck, 1988.

Houston, Joe, tnr. sax. “Earthquake”. Rec. July, 1952. The Fabulous Joe Houston: Rockin’ ‘n’ Boppin’. Southland SCD-16. New Orleans: 2000.

Levinas, Emmanuel. “Diachrony and Representation”. Time and the Other [and additional essays]. Translated by Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987. 97-120.

McNeely, Big Jay, tnr. sax. “The Deacon’s Hop”. Rec. 15 December, 1948. 1949 The R&B Hits. Indigo Records IGODCD 104Z-UK. London: 2000.

Meltzer, R. The Aesthetics of Rock. New York: Something Else Press, 1970.

Mills, Ken. [Liner notes]. Joe Houston: Rockin’ `n’ Boppin’. Saxophonograph BM-1302. Vingàker, Sweden, [c. 1987].

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Experience of Freedom. Translated by Bridget McDonald. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Singer, Hal, tnr. sax. “Hot Rod”. Rec. 27 October, 1955. Rent Party / Hal Singer. Savoy Jazz SV 0258. Nippon Columbia Co., Ltd [Japan]: 1994.


  1. I should like to thank Adrian Martin for his interest in this piece. That interest is the reason for its publication in this form. “Earthquake” began its existence in 1996 as a conference presentation; and I am grateful to Ian Buchanan for the opportunity to present the original paper at the Deleuze Symposium which he organised as well as to the people who heard and commented on it at that time (above the din of the recording). Finally – first – always – Diane.
  2. “Making looking public: Clement Greenberg imagines the kitsch public”, In search of the public, ed. by Wendy Parkins and Geoff Craig, Continuum 11.3 (1997): 47-58.
  3. Clearly I am concerned about how this way of thinking, that I admire so much, goes about stilling works of art, as so many have done before. One explanation for this strategy may be that Deleuze and Guattari, like so many before, tend to adopt the standpoint of the producer of the artwork – to whom, as they imagine, the work must be a thing – whereas I believe that to those of us who experience artworks they are (more like) events.
  4. “HOG MAWS, HURRICANE and EARTHQUAKE are geological events, transferences through images and symbols (in sound) of nature in its own operation. Joe, like Big Jay McNeely, Robbie Robinson, Willis Jackson, Red Prysock, Freddie Simon, et. al., pulls out all the stops, providing the stuff of gambol and group ritual as they and the parishoners (radio audience, concert audience) give themselves for, relinquish their egos therefor, to selfabnegation, that dying unto self of Philosophia Perennis which puts the sentient being in harmony with life” writes Ken Mills in the liner notes to Joe Houston: Rockin’ `n’ Boppin’ (Saxophonograph BM-1302: [c. 1987]). He goes on to invoke Whitehead’s Symbolism. (N.B. Mills’ notes to the CD cited in the reference section are quite different, but still elementally enthusiastic.)
  5. My information about this recording comes from Ken Mills’ liner notes and the documentation on the album. I am not as sure as Mills is that the shouting is done by the “Ensemble”. He says that “the band becomes rowdy and totally flipped out . . . literally ecstatic”, but I think the noise on the track could have been made, or augmented, by ecstatic studio guests.
  6. This paragraph directly quotes and otherwise paraphrases a great deal that appears in Schefer 110-111.
  7. From the point of view of temporal form, some the most productive ideas of narrative would appear to be those exposited by André Gaudreault in Du littéraire au filmique, which in part derive from Ricoeur and Brémond, and the “Constructivist” understanding outlined by David Bordwell in Narration in the Fiction Film (29-47) and by Noël Carroll in Mystifying Movies (170-181). I will return, fleetingly, to these connections a bit further on.
  8. Indeed, the expectation of a rising trajectory clearly influences the positive attention that Mills pays to the later sections of “Earthquake”.
  9. This is the promised fleeting reference to Gaudreault, Bordwell and Carroll.
  10. The intended reference here is to Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Experience of Freedom, and especially to Chapter 11, “Freedom and Destiny: Surprise, Tragedy and Generosity” (110-120).

About The Author

William D. Routt does pretty much what he wants.

Related Posts