Using Deleuze’s concepts of the imaginary to rethink beliefs about drawing

Deleuze (1990) states in Negotiations that signs are realized in ideas. Although Deleuze referred to cinema, his thinking about signs and ideas can apply to drawings. Cinema is moving imagery and drawing is static, however both are informed and constructed from realized ideas that continue to shift beyond the artifact.

Many theories about drawings focus on developing schematic universalities and do not acknowledge the agglomerative connections that are made to the multiple things occurring around a drawing as it is created. Deleuze’s assertions about the signs and classifications of cinema help to contest the idea that drawings contain particular schemas. Deleuze’s writings on imagination and the imaginary are useful in helping to theorize on conventional ideas about the production, appraisal and the possible meanings in drawings.

In the posthumous text Desert Islands, Deleuze (2004) considers Kantian thought on reason and judgment, he suggests Kant’s ideas about imagination are determined by fixed constructs of judgment, taste and aesthetics and he questions whether the conditions, or stipulations for these determinations are natural or universal. Deleuze declares imagination unimpressive, as not inherently natural but tied to governing determinations that act as authorizers. Imagination for Deleuze, is not innate, but legislated and authorized by constructed notions of taste.

Additionally in Negotiations, Deleuze (1990) placed little importance on the imaginary, saying ‘It depends, in the first place, on a crystallization, physical, chemical, or psychical. (p. 66). For Deleuze, the imaginary does not exist in its own right, it relies upon the jostling energies that occur when ‘actual-virtual, clear-opaque, seed-environment’ (p. 66) and other disrupting and contrasting divergences enable/initiate it. The imaginary ‘defines nothing, but is defined by the crystal-image as a circuit of exchanges’ (p. 66). The crystal-image reflects many things simultaneously; the imaginary comes in to play in response to this multi-referential, reactive occurrence. Deleuze’s opinion that the imaginary is contingent, without power due to its reliance on frictions between contrasts, is useful in challenging popular beleifs about what the contents of drawings demonstrate.

Deleuze held more regard for the signs that are emitted in the visual, saying ‘all images combine the same elements, the same signs, differently. But not just any combination’s possible at just any moment: a particular element can only be developed given certain conditions, without which it will remain atrophied, or secondary’ (1990, p. 49). His focus was on reading imagery, and suggests that it is dependent upon the moment, the time and condition. The reading is temporal in that each time a reading is made it is slightly different because the ‘certain conditions’ of that moment change. Conditions include light, temperature, mood, presence as well as materials, surface material, surroundings, purpose, body movements.

Thinking of the visual as full of signs, and that reading the signs within those visuals as being subject to contextual influences, forces a rethinking about what drawings are. A Deleuzian reading of drawings sees them as a visual capture of a moment in time. Drawings are seen as making contingent connections with the conditions surrounding their creation. They are ‘a presentation of pure time’ (Deleuze 1990, p. 66), hence their temporal status.

Deleuze, in his critique of Kant’s thinking about taste and aesthetics, suggested that ‘only the imagination can and knows how to schematize’ (2004, p. 57). This is not straightforward because ‘the imagination does not schematize of its own accord, simply because it is free to do so. It schematizes only to the extent that understanding determines it, induces it to do so’ (p. 57). The understanding Deleuze refers to is governed by the determinative concepts that authorize and legislate it.

As a person draws those ‘authorizing concepts’ will include the immediate environment, objects, clothing, pictures that are encountered in daily life. Understanding relies upon an encounter, an energy shift.


Deleuze, G. (1990) Negotiations: 1972-1990. M. Joughin (Trans). New York: Columbia University Press.

Deleuze, G. (2004) The idea of Genesis in Kant’s esthetics, in D. Lapoujade (Ed), M. Taormina (Trans) Desert Islands and other texts 1953-1974, pp. 56-71. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

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