5 Ways to Understand Deleuze Through the Work of David Byrne and the Talking Heads

deleuze david byrne

Deleuze’s thought is reflected in so much pop culture that once you start to notice it, you will see his philosophy everywhere. The work of David Byrne, the oddball cofounder and eccentric frontman of Talking Heads, is no exception. Byrne’s huge back catalogue, coupled with his growing library of books, is filled with Deleuzean phenomena. Here are five examples in which Byrne’s lyrics, and his musical style, can help us to understand what Deleuze was trying to get at.

#1 Schizophrenia

Deleuze and Guattari famously proclaimed in “Anti-Oedipus that the “schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model than a neurotic lying on the analyst’s couch.”[1]  They develop the concept of ‘schizophrenia’ to offer an alternative mode of subjectivity, in which desire is freed from the binary logic of the Oedipus complex and liberated from the family triangle. Freudian psychoanalysis sees schizophrenia as a condition in which the libidinal energy is detached from objects, causing the subject to lose his grip on reality, and resulting in incoherent speech, confused action and anxiety. For Deleuze, on the other hand, the hallucinations of the schizophrenic are not a poor image of reality, but are in fact the creative productions of a new reality, in which desire is not repressed by the standard social structures.

The music of David Byrne embodies this practice, creating strange worlds in which the individual is dissolved into a range of creative possibilities. For example, Byrne’s own personality is constantly shifting, singing at one moment as an FBI agent, then as a housewife or a child. He has said: “I try never to wear my own clothes, I pretend I’m someone else.”[2] The best example of Byrne’s schizophrenic style is given in a promotional video, created for the release of the Talking Heads film “Stop Making Sense,in which he interviews himself in a multitude of guises. It’s possibly the most postmodern pop-culture interview ever recorded. The point here is that rather than being a kind of coping mechanism, Byrne’s multiple personalities are a form of positive action, in which his desire escapes from the confines of a singular identity. Freud says of the schizophrenic that “his remarks often seem nonsensical” and that, “some reference to bodily organs or innervations is often given prominence in the content of these remarks.”[3] Byrne’s language fits this description beautifully, often answering questions with incoherent replies, and taking pains to describe his body: he explains that he wears the ‘big suit’ because, “I wanted my head to appear smaller and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger.” The schizophrenic’s tendency to break up the body into partial objects is also reflected in Byrne’s desire to “write a song about hair-dos, not about the people under them” because then, “the dos have a power by themselves.”

Closely related to Deleuze’s concept of schizophrenia is that of ‘repetition’. For Freud, repetition is the result of an inability to remember, but for Deleuze, each repetition is the positive production of an original. True to form, Byrne also reflects this repetitive form, reusing the phrases “I’ll tell you later” and “it’s like 60 minutes on acid” over and over again. It is also interesting to note, that sixteen years after Deleuze’s schizo attacked the standard family structure of the ‘mommy-daddy-me’, Talking Heads released a track about a family road trip called Mommy Daddy You and I.


#2 Metamorphosis

Byrne does not restrict himself to human personalities. His style has an animal quality in which his voice fits and starts, sometimes erupting in animal barks or squawks. In This Must Be The Place he is “just an animal looking for a home” and in Totally Nude he sings “I’m a little fish and you’re the river.” This practice can help us to understand Deleuze’s idea of metamorphosis, as opposed to the form of metaphor.

For Deleuze, language is not a symbolic realm that points towards a more basic reality. Following on from Nietzsche, Deleuze claims that behind the mask of metaphor there is no ‘truth’, but only more masks. As such, the world is nothing more than a ‘swarm’ of appearances and concepts, which join together in assemblages to create our reality. In his analysis of Kafka’s work, Deleuze claims that we should not read his writings as allegories or metaphors, but that instead they form an interlocking reality of reversible intensities. When Gregor Samsa, the protagonist in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” becomes an insect, he really does become an insect. He undergoes a process of metamorphosis that is not a representation, but a reality.

This commitment to metamorphosis, as opposed to metaphor, is linked to Deleuze’s larger metaphysical project. For Deleuze, western philosophy since Plato has been trapped in a form of thought based on the concept of representation. For Plato, all things gain their being by a reference to some external ‘idea’ or ‘form’: each man is only a man because he is a likeness of the ideal form of man, and each instance of love is only love because it is a representation of the true form of love. For Deleuze this is a mistake, based on the false assumption that there is some external, transcendent realm which gives our reality meaning. For Deleuze there is nothing but the immanent reality in which we live. Concepts are not defined by their relationship to an external ideal, but by the internal difference within themselves. In David Byrne’s lyrics, he doesn’t claim to be like an animal, or like a fish, but instead he becomes one. He takes the form of an animal, or another being, in a way that denies the existence of a higher power capable of restricting him to being a man, and only a man.

#3 Desiring-Production, Machines and Assemblages

Deleuze had a problem with the standard explanation of desire as laid down by psychoanalysis. According to this standard picture, desire is always characterised by a longing for a lost object, archetypally defined by the trauma of leaving the mother. For Deleuze, desire is not always characterised by some form of lack, but is instead a positive action. Deleuze and Guattari, borrow from the ideas of Marx to develop an alternative model of ‘desiring production’, in which desire is a creative machine, or a factory. In this way, desire becomes an autonomous force, freed of its object and of its subject.

The lyrics of the Talking Heads track The Facts of Life give us a good example of this productive desire. The song describes “machines of love” and tells us repeatedly that each is “a machine without a driver.” Just like Deleuzean machines, these are non-deterministic, go off in unexpected directions, and are constantly breaking and fixing themselves. Byrne sings, “Sparks fly, shooting out; Making sure that everything is working.” According to Deleuze, desire is a machine which creates reality by forming assemblages of component parts. Assemblages can be formed by connecting heterogeneous objects and partial objects like the mother’s breast and the child’s mouth, or a wasp and an orchid. The ‘machines of love’ in the Talking Heads song are described as functioning like a Deleuzean assemblage, connecting a long list of interrelated elements: “Smokey water; air conditioned; boys ‘n’ girls; and automation; chromosomes; designer jeans; chimpanzees; and human beings.”

For Deleuze, the process of creative production which characterises desire is of ontological importance. In “What is Philosophy?” Deleuze describes the way in which this creative process produces something new, namely ‘affects’ and ‘percepts’. Artistic creativity works by generating new affects and percepts and then combining them into blocs of sensation. These blocs then form the basis of our experienced reality.  In his book “Bicycle Diaries,” Byrne helps us to understand what this might mean in practice when he describes his own artistic process as “a machine that digs down and finds stuff, emotional stuff that will someday be raw material that can be used to produce more stuff.”

#4 Language and Bureaucracy

Like many philosophers of his generation, Deleuze had a difficult relationship with language. If language is not a representation of the world, but is in fact part of the fabric of reality, then our use of it is always political. The standard binary linguistic distinctions, such as gender, work to implement such differences in reality.  The fact that his own writing is constantly dense and cryptic is no mistake; it is a reaction to the political nature of our language. In chapter four of “A Thousand Plateaus,” Deleuze puts forward a theory of language in which the primary function of speech is not the communication of information, but the inscription of ‘order-words’. Through these ‘order-words’ language functions as a tool for a bureaucratic state of mind: “Language is made not to be believed but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience.”[4] This process is historically defined and can be disturbed by a use of language which problematizes the expected use of words and concepts.

In “Bicycle Diaries,” Byrne offers his own ruminations on the historic nature of language and the way that it is used as an implement of control. For him, language was created as “a tool for the administrators” who sought to control production and to measure “who had rented which plot of land, how many crops did they sell, how many fish did they catch, how many children do they have, how many water buffalo?” He goes on to say that “what may have begun as an instrument of social and economic control has now been internalized by us as a mark of being civilized.”

The fact that Byrne takes the example of bureaucratic control is also instructive. Deleuze’s work often deals with the problem of bureaucracy and its relationship with rationality: the bureaucrat’s language conforms perfectly with the rationality of the state, and thus helps to cement the power relations of the status quo. Deleuze’s theory is made manifest in Byrne’s confession that he is “afraid that everything will get homogenized and be the same [and] that reason will triumph and that the world will become a place where anyone who doesn’t fit that will become unnecessary.”[5] Both Deleuze and Byrne are trying to combat this fear by using language in a way that disrupts the normal order of things.

#5 Sense and Nonsense

The commitment to immanence which pervades Deleuze’s work leads him to argue against our common understanding of sense. For Deleuze, both ‘common sense’ and ‘good sense’ rely on a theory of language in which words gain their meaning by representing an external world. For Deleuze, there is no metaphysical gap between the signifier and that which it signifies, and thus a word or proposition cannot be given meaning by anything outside of it. In reaction to this, Deleuze develops a theory of sense which functions by the use of a series rather than a representation. The serial nature of meaning is important because it allows sense to be freed from any origin, end, or central concept.

Deleuze justifies his explanation of the serial nature of sense by examining the difference between sense and nonsense. Nonsense writing, like that of Lewis Carroll, manages to convey a sense, even though it does not refer to any external object, person or concept. Following from this, Deleuze argues that the sense of language must not rely on any external referent, but must instead be internal to language itself.

We can understand Deleuze’s complex theory more easily by taking Talking Heads lyrics as an example. When creating the album “Speaking in Tongues,” David Byrne first wrote the lyrics as meaningless sounds and only later developed them into recognisable words.[6] The words have a meaning based purely on the quality of their sound and not on what they are usually used to refer to. In this way, the lyrics create new meanings, which are related to, but do not depend on, the previous uses of the individual words. Instead of acting as signifiers, which point to external objects or people, the concepts are freed from any link to a world which is outside of the song. Each word is at once a repetition of a well-known concept and something completely new.

In the song Girlfriend is Better, Byrne ends up making his process into a kind of Deleuzean chant, which implores us to, “stop making sense, stop making sense, stop making sense, making sense.”


[1] Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, pxix

[2] http://www.designboom.com/eng/interview/byrne.html

[3] (SE 14, 198)

[4] ATP p84

[5] http://www.designboom.com/eng/interview/byrne.html

[6] http://thequietus.com/articles/12879-talking-heads-speaking-in-tongues