Deleuze on Sense, Series, Structures, Signifiers and Snarks (Part B)

By John Brady

(This is the second part of a piece exploring Gilles Deleuze’s “The Logic of Sense”. The first part can be found here.)

We’ve discussed in Part A how “sense”, the expressed of the proposition, intervenes in the circle of the proposition, paradoxically grounding it despite being its effect.

The intervention of sense is at two points: between words and things in the dimension of Denotation (Frege), and within the dimension of Signification as a nonsense word that expresses its own sense (Deleuze).

We’ve also discussed the paradoxical character of sense: to be doubled, to be sublimely indeterminate, and to be an effect of something that it grounds.

From this vantage we can return to our problematic:

How do words mean?

There can be little doubt that the entire problem of meaning is a problem of relating terms: Words and things, sign and opposing sign, I and You, to eat/to speak…


Now, these oppositions deliver us over to the notion of series. Why? Because for a relation to hold, it needs to hold reliably across members of at least two classes. A language of a single word is not a language at all, and neither is a language of a million words that all denote the same thing.

For any relation to exist it needs to relate multiple terms of one order to another. When we relate, for example, the physical states of water to the differing intensities of temperature, two series form where it becomes possible to relate each point on a thus derived quantitative scale to differing qualitative transformations in the water. We first mark notches within the intensive series at the privileged points observed within the qualitative series (the physical states of water), divide the space between the two notches by a hundred and create a metric temperature scale, Celsius. Via the quantitative notion of temperature it is possible to relate the qualitative transformations in the physical states of water to the intensive quality of heat.

In this way, meaning, or any relation for that matter, is not discrete, but is the “flashing across” from one developing series to another. Relations hold between terms insofar as the terms form series.

However, Deleuze points out that these series are never equal within a singular relation. The “flashing across” from one series to another has a direction, an orientation. Words mean things, things (for the most part) don’t mean words, for example. How are we to determine this orientation?

Well, we know from Frege that the series of words and the series of things are mediated and divided by sense. In a way, sense is what is responsible for the two series not collapsing back into a single series, which allows us to recognize speech as speech and not just sound emanating from a thing (like a penny falling on the floor). It does this by introducing an imbalance between the two series such that they cannot perfectly correspond, like a broken zip on a jacket. This imbalance is always the same: one of the series has too many iterations relative to its positive members (i.e. words without a denotatum, “Snark”, “it”), the other has too many members for its iterations (undenotable things). Sense, Deleuze argues, is what introduces this imbalance by being present in both series, and by paradoxically creating the surplus in the one and the shortage in the other, by virtue of it having two sides.

What’s more, the side that sense turns towards each series determines the orientation of their relation: excess on the signifying side, shortage on the signified side. An empty place on the side of the signifier, an object without a place on the side of the signified. An empty word without a meaning, and an unnameable thing that doesn’t belong in the series. We can think of it like a battery that has different polarities at its opposite ends that determine the direction of the flow of electrons. The negative polarity is an empty term, the positive polarity is an object without a place.

This is all as painfully abstract as Deleuze’s own text. We will do well to examine an example.

Shopping Lists

Take, for instance, a shopping list:


What could be simpler? Each item on the list corresponds to an individual item on a supermarket shelf. This series should find complete satisfaction with the four items. Where is the imbalance? Well, firstly, we know that this list is not a poem, or the instructions for a DVD player, but a list of items to be bought at a supermarket. How? Because the series does not merely signify the four items, it also signifies shopping lists in general. In fact, it’s this extra or excess of signification we grasp when we take the list in the sense of being a shopping list at all. Without this covert 5th term in the series that doesn’t denote anything in particular, it wouldn’t be a shopping list, and thus the four overt terms on it wouldn’t enter into a relation with objects on the supermarket shelves at all. It could, rather, just be poem. But then we would have taken it in the wrong sense.

And the four objects thus signified? Where is the lack of the place where lost objects rattle around unable to be signified? Well, let’s say I give you this list and send you to the supermarket. When you arrive you call me:

“It’s says here a tomato, but which one? There are heaps of tomatoes here.”
“You mean kinds? Just the regular kind.”
“No I mean, with the regular kind, there must be around 250 of them laid out here, they’ve stacked them in a pyramid, which one do you want specifically?”

You’ve taken this term of the list in the wrong sense just as much as if you’d thought the list was a poem I had written for you. The individual bodily existence, fleshy and juicy, of each particular fruiting body of the tomato plant escapes the relation, the meaning, of the simple interaction between the two series ramified in the “shopping list”. The individuality of each tomato, its discrete container of juices, its particular DNA strings coiled up in its seeds, is obviously there, somewhere, within the series of objects. However, in the simplified semantic domain of the shopping list and the objects in the supermarket to be bought, this being is extraneous despite being present. Despite being there, it has no proper place in the series of objects as they are related to the terms of the list.

The shopping list always means more than it overtly says, and there is always an infinity of bodies, things, that not only escape the signification of the list, but are not assigned as members of the series of objects that shopping lists signify. This is how the orientation of the shopping list is established, by sense, in the first place.

However, for Deleuze’s argument to hold, the series need to be ambivalent to their relation: if it is sense that forms their orientation through the positing of excess and lack to each individually, the orientation should be able to be reversed by rotating sense 180 degrees.

Moholy Nagy Laszlo “The Mirror” (1928)

Reversing Sense

This is precisely an amusing problem I often think about when buying a collection of things like the above at a supermarket. You place the items on the counter, and there is a moment when the cashier looks down at them, and in that brief moment the objects signify, in a manner akin to the list, a bizarre, Carrollesque contraption where the objects are all used in tandem. In the above example it would be a tomato and milk protein shake with crushed battery acid: energy drink of kings. Surely I can’t be the only person who’s seen a random collection of objects I’m buying mean too much. The objects, then, reverse sense and begin to occupy the signifying role, making use of the exact same kind of excess (there are multiple kinds) that our shopping list had originally. That is, each term signifies its denotatum, but there is an additional empty signification created by the collection of terms themselves.

It’s worth slowing down here, because it’s where Deleuze’s insight gets mind-bendingly awesome. When the orientation of the terms of the shopping list towards the four items being purchased, the former signifying the latter, is reversed, the objects become signifiers. Now, if the four objects form a signifying series, there must be the extra term that Deleuze wagered was the pure deciding factor of which series plays the role of signifier. If we import the kind of empty term we discovered in regards to the shopping list (a 5th term that signified the collection of terms as a shopping list) we see the four objects on the counter, insofar as they signify, produce a fifth empty object: a battery acid infused, tomato flavored, milk shake with raw egg. A Snark. Why is this hideous cocktail an empty object? Not because it is impossible (it’s not), but because its not present, yet it signifies all the same. An empty place in our simple series of signifiers, 4 occupied, and an empty 5th.

Now, the objects, with their empty 5th, are not signifying our shopping list at all. We started there, but with the reversal of sense the objects have produced another signified series. So what is the signified series here such that, when the objects begin to produce a clandestine sense effect sitting on the counter, an expressed of the collection, we are amused?

We should notice that it’s not that any four objects lying around can forcefully signify an amalgam. It occurs with frequency at supermarket checkouts because what is being signified by this set of objects is the desire of the customer. It’s funny because perhaps the cashier believes that the customer (me) has a desire to combine these things into an awful experiment. And why is such a suggestion possible? Because of the indeterminacy of desire — it’s always possible that there be one more desire one has never encountered, that has no place in the ordinary series of “desires denoted by human conduct”. When desire sits on the signified side, there is always an element of it that cannot be spoken of, symbolized, or placed, which creates the impression of infinity that allows us to believe, jokingly, for a moment, that any collection of objects bought from a supermarket are being bought to be placed into a blender together by a single outrageous desire.

A similar effect can be generated when someone empties out their bag. The truth is obviously that the bizarre and incongruous collection of items one finds in there have accumulated unintentionally over time, but occasionally one can find a set that hilariously signifies a rogue desire or belief that would have a person carefully pack each and every one of these items with deliberation before leaving that day, in anticipation of some single contingency.

And, then, we can move desire itself back to the signifying series by reversing sense again and think about how a given desire signifies, and this infinitude of desires without a place falls away and is replaced with the meaningless, empty surplus over its object (Lacanian Desire as the function: [Demand] - [Need] = [Desire]).

Now, it’s important to keep in mind we’ve been exploring this structure thus far in a very limited semantic domain: shopping lists, and objects that may signify a single desire. These features hold, though, as we zoom out to look at much larger domains. Part of the genius of Deleuze’s innovation in these sections of The Logic of Sense is to explode the domain of sense, and signification, to stretch out across the entire field of the “relation”. Where Frege saw sense as a “path” from a proper name to an object, Deleuze reinterprets this to mean that sense is all that is holding words and objects apart, and is all that is holding them together. It is “both the expressible or expressed of the proposition, and the attribute of the state of affairs” (pg.25). From this he derives the logic of twin series we have explored and the ways in which sense separates them by introducing disequilibrium, but also causing them to resonate in virtue of this disequilibrium. Carroll’s poetry is an ideal case: words like “Snark” demonstrate this disequilibrium sense introduces by expressing the curious object that is sense: a meaningless word that nonetheless signifies a “placeless” member within the series of things. A paradox of a notion that nonetheless drives the entire poem around itself and who’s only direct effect is to cause the baker (somewhere in the forest, where we can’t see) to gently vanish amidst giggles and tears. The Snark turns a body into pure, effervescent vocal sounds in the same act as it displaces it from its place; all the while unseen (ungraspable), indeterminate, and doubled (“for the Snark was a Boojum, you see?”)


Deleuze then uses this model of series related through sense as the minimal definition of a structure. The move to structure here requires a certain reshuffling. When we imagined the series of words and the series of things, or, like Wittgenstein, the series of true propositions and the series of state of affairs, it was enough to relate one term of one series to the other. But if this is to have baring on structure in general, we need to examine what it is we mean by “terms of the series”.

In a structure, say for example a “family structure”, the terms are engendered relative to other terms — that is to say they are engendered differentially. A father is only a father insofar as a daughter or son is a daughter or son relative to the father, and vice versa. A husband is always a husband of… The terms of the signifying series whereby family structures are mapped onto bodies don’t precede the series that they form a part of — the series itself is a process of differentiation where terms are the names of particular contrasts, differential points. Series, as we have discussed them here, are thus differentiating fields that produce (emit) singularities taken as terms.

We saw this in part A with the paradox of the signified all being given at once: signifiers (for example, words) function precisely in their differentiating themselves from their neighbors.

Pointing, for example, can only signify insofar as the pointing gesture of my hand differentiates itself from the state of my hand at rest. You can try it now by looking at your hand and slowly creating a pointing gesture. As your hand stretches, the gesture becoming more ostentatious and strained, the signifier of the “point” enters into clearer and clearer relief. As you relax your hand it fades away incrementally. You can even play with various articulations looking at what is the minimally differentiated state from the hand at rest that constitutes the signifier of pointing, which elements are weighted in the gesture? If you’re actually doing this now, what you’re seeing is a mute, resting hand, slowly producing a differentiated field as it stretches until it hits “the point”, where it emits a singularity, a signifier, like a shooting star. Now look where you’re pointing, the signifier shoots into the object, demarcating it and bringing it forward, differentiating it from the background. A field then unfurls, look at all the things around you, the series of objects, contrasting each other and coming forward in turn…

From here, we can hazard the categorical theory that:

  1. every series is composed of these differential functions that produce terms (emit singularities),
  2. that every structure is composed of at least two of these series,
  3. that one series plays the role of the signifying and the other signified,
  4. this difference is bestowed by the strange object of sense and the orientation to which it is turned:
  5. There’s always an empty place in the signifying series, and an object without a place in the signified.

And, that’s how words mean. Or at least, that’s what it looks like when they do.

But, seriously, perhaps we should conclude by setting up an example to explore all of this. A mere direction to launch off into. Let’s take the family structure.

What are the series involved here? On a minimal level we can say that there is a series of roles that can be denoted by nouns (father, mother, brother, sister, etc), and, a series of people who are denoted by these terms. The ordinary orientation of sense here is from term to person, not person to term: “This is my brother” not “this is what a brother is”.

Already, with a simple, small family, our previous use of a “zip” as image to describe the relation of two series needs to be tossed out and replaced with something of the complexity befitting the term “structure”. Why? Because each member of the signified series (the people) are signified by different terms in the signifying series (Father-Husband-Uncle-Brother-Son) relative to each term. The series begin to twist themselves and spread off into other series, forming a mesh like pattern. This shouldn’t dishearten us though, because the basic function of relation is the same.

Let’s investigate the formation of series. Starting with the bodies, not yet interpolated into a structure, we find three or four persons, sharing DNA and food, they use a wet rag to wipe their combined skin flakes off of the surfaces in their domicile on the weekends. Some are bigger than others, in some the cellular division process is less error prone than in the others, good wishes and torturous nightmares circulate among them. This homogeneous biomass starts with various differentiations that can be the basis of differences that “make the difference”. Different bodies in geometrical space, different heights, different hormonal concentrations, different desires. These differentiations form a series of terms, person-person-person-person, as well the sense of these differentiations, which brings our paradoxical object of sense into play, which ignites our second series of differential terms to denote the differentiations of bodies: father-mother-daughter-son. Now we have a structure humming along: as in “Why? Because I’m your father, that’s why.”

Now where is the empty term within the signifying series (the roles)? And what fleshy remainder finds itself without a place in the series of signified bodies thus formed? Where to find the Snark?

If you’re courageous enough, you can contemplate this question at your next family gathering, just be careful lest this Snark be a Boojum, which would have you “softly and suddenly vanish away”…

About the author: John Brady is a perennial student of philosophy and educator situated in Beijing. He gets most of his reading done in traffic jams. He is also a co-editor of this magazine, by way of full disclosure.

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