THREE STANDARD STOPPAGES
I. THE LEGACY VIRUS
A certain amount of time should be spent in libraries if one really desires to get a sense for what may have animated the thought of Marcel Duchamp ("MD" from here on out). Libraries were Foucault’s heterotopias par excellance, places of slow transformations, time piling up upon itself, that invisible disorder which can be appreciated only by way of a prolonged exposure (it is an acquired taste, after all). For a time MD was employed as a librarian at the Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve in Paris where he would find the inspiration for his Boite-en-Valise and especially The Green Box that would, much like a catalogue, accompany The Large Glass. If one were to visit a library now, perhaps in pursuit of certain volumes which might contain pieces of the extant knowledge production surrounding MD, they would surely find no shortage of authors – with some exceptions, Marjorie Perloff being one of them - participating in his ‘Canonization’ who readily hand his life and work over to the Dadaist movement. (As if he belonged there, as if he were so obviously one of them). Yet this fact is key, since MD himself was not a Dadaist, and there is an ever-apparent shortage/lack/absence of historical and critical accounts of his ‘legacy’ that would view the fact of his Dadaist nomination as a systemic problem.
One of the more interesting refutations of ‘MD the Dadaist’ that I am aware of happens to have come from a former professor of mine, Steven Michael Vroom. Slide lectures on art of the early twentieth century were always an appropriate time to assure his students – no doubt quick to passively accept the endless stream of Dadaist accounts - that “retroactively assigning a man to a movement that didn’t happen yet is a historical fallacy” (that’s verbatim I might add). Certainly this statement applies across the board, although it is most effective when thought in the context of those who would place MD, Dada, and his 1913 Bicycle Wheel all within the same space. It should be noted that Dada itself, as a word and movement, was not even invented until the events of 1916 surrounding the Cabaret Voltaire. Regardless of Dada as a ‘spirit’ or quality whose atemporal nature one can find examples of in societies throughout history (which MD himself explains here), some of what characterized the Dadaist’s work and activities, their anti-art stance and opposition to the bourgeoisie, while shared by MD, are not enough to qualify him as a Dadaist. Par example: he ‘refused’ when asked to contribute to the Dada Salon of 1920, instead sending a telegram where “Peau de balle” was spelled “Pode bal” (roughly, “Balls to you”) and saying later: “Well, what in the world could I send them? I didn’t have anything especially interesting to send, I didn’t even know what Dada was.” (Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, 65)
Taken to its humorous extreme, MD’s involvement/non-involvement with the Dadaists could perhaps benefit from an invocation of Alain Badiou’s idiosyncratic use of set theory: of all the artists, poets, etc., surrounding that historical, inconsistent multiplicity that we can collected under the name “Dada”, the life and work of MD would be a part, but not a member. “Proto-Dadaist” might be better, but is still lacking, and Uberdada might also work if that title did not already belong to Johannes Baader. As endless as the documents that refer to MD as a Dadaist seem to be, likewise are the reasons that works such as Fountain, The Large Glass, With Hidden Noise, L.H.O.O.Q., Tzank Check…etc., should be seen as events whose only proper name is Duchamp. MD, the non-dadaist non-artist, ‘author’ of the readymade, the assisted readymade, the reciprocal readymade, and by far my personal favorite, more humorous than the idea of using a Rembrandt as an ironing board, was the “unhappy readymade”: a geometry book replete with all of its mathematical certainties sent to Jean Crotti along with instructions to hang it by strings on the balcony of his apartment in the rue Condamine. The book was, much as the map that covered the territory in Borges’ “Of Exactitude in Science”, abandoned “to the rigors of sun and rain.” MD’s singular genius as subtracted from the Dadaist movement was probably best described by the artist Willem de Kooning, who it is doubtful MD could have ever found it in himself to even like:
And then there is that one-man movement, Marcel Duchamp - for me a truly modern movement because it implies that each artist can do what he thinks he ought to - a movement for each person and open for everybody.- "What Abstract Art Means to Me," Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, vol. 18, nr. 3 (June 1951), p. 7
II. A CURIOUS ABSENCE
Chess is a game of State, or of the court: the emperor of China played it. Chess pieces are coded […]Go pieces, in contrast, are pellets, disks, simple arithmetic units, and have only an anonymous, collective, or third-person
function: “It” makes a move. (ATP, p. 352-353)
Chess is indeed a war, but an institutionalized, regulated, coded war, with a front, a rear, battles. But what is proper to Go is war without battle lines, with neither confrontation nor retreat, without battles even: pure strategy, whereas chess is a semiology.
(ibid. , p. 353)
However, if one were to rattle off a list of those ideas and literary figures important to MD, it could almost be confused with the same type of list compiled for Deleuze: movement, time, history, chance (and not just chance, but a pure chance), nonsense (or “anti-sense” rather), humor, desire; authors such as Roussell, Jarry, and Mallarme; the brain… Then of course there is the case of MD’s Bartleby-like refusal to be an artist (his non-activity or “attitude of the mind”), a refusal to even participate - in the sense that this could be associated with say, the cubist painters or the Dadaists - in any sort of ‘artistic community’. Upon close inspection, one also gets the sense from both Deleuze and MD that, very often, what they wanted more than anything was simply to disappear.
Ever since they were first translated by Richard Hamilton, MD’s notes have become famous for their surplus of puns, wordplay, Wittgensteinian propositions, descriptions of obscure machines, and examples of his “Playful Physics” (read: Pataphysics). All with the air of the subversive “prankster” that artists today such as SuttonBeresCuller, Maurizio Cattellan, and Martin Creed owe so much too. Even more interesting is MD’s idea of the Infrathin – a ‘distance between the mold and the real’. Some of his examples:
- the warmth of a seat (which hasjust/been left) is Infrathin- 2 forms cast in/the same mold differ from each other by an Infrathin separative amount.
- when the tobacco smoke smells also of the/mouth which exhales it, the two odors/marry by Infrathin
- All “identicals” as/identical as they may be, (and/the more indentical they are)/move toward this/infra thin seperative/ difference
Aren’t Deleuze’s descriptions of events as ‘incorporeal entities’ in The Logic of Sense also very similar? For Deleuze, an event takes place at the surface of things, at the surface of states of affairs, bodies and their mixtures - the Stoic discovery that was also Valery’s profound idea: “Deeper than any other ground is the surface of the skin.” (The Logic of Sense, p. 141). The Infrathin is an “infinitesimal thickness” that has all the properties of Deleuze’s virtual -
The question is less that of attaining the immediate than of determining the site where the immediate is “immediately” as not-to-be-attained(comme non-a-atteindre): the surface where the void and every event alon with it are
made […] non-thought, shooting which becomes non-shooting, to speak without speaking[...] (ibid., p. 137)
Another curiosity involves just how readily MD’s early mechanistic paintings, as well as his notes and elements of The Large Glass, lend themselves not only to D&G’s concept of desiring machines, but also to the theories of Bergson. So far, Sarat Maharaj is the only ‘art researcher’ to my knowledge who has – correctly I believe – spoken about Henri Bergson’s influence on MD. If MD were to have actually been reading Bergson (and there is enough evidence to support this), it would have made possible something which has been contested ground: that the formal innovations of his Nude Descending a Staircase were invented without his ever having seen the work of the Italian Futurists, who had also been reading the aforementioned “vitalist philosopher”. I have often wondered whether the conical diagram on p. 152 of Matter and Memory (1911) was the source for the “dancing cones” embedded in The Large Glass. Maharaj explains MD’s relation to Bergson:
For Bergson, ‘readymade’ signaled the mechanical, repetitive, all-too-known – as opposed to dimensions of unpredictable possibility, the virtual. In a
flip-over, Duchamp floated the idea of the ‘readymade’ as a vehicle for raiding
the unknown – ‘the mechanical’ itself becomes a medium for breaking out of auto-pilot artistic experience into ‘other’ conceptual spaces. Duchamp interacts with Bergson – not as academic commentary but researcher-practitioner – turning
his ideas and terms upside down, fleshing them out as concrete images.
- Sarat Maharaj, “Unfinishable Sketch of ‘An Unknown Object in 4 D’: Scenes of Artistic Research”, L&B, vol. 18, p. 46
III. “THE MISSIONARY OF INSOLENCE”: AGAMBEN’S READING
To avoid a misunderstanding, we must remember that this 'art coefficient' is a personal expression of art a' l'e 'tat brut, that is, still in a raw state, which must be 'refined' as pure sugar from molasses by the spectator; the digit of this coefficient has no bearing whatsoever on his verdict. The creative act takes another aspect when the spectator experiences the phenomenon of transmutation: through the change from inert matter into a work of art, an actual transubstantiation has taken place, and the role of the spectator is to determine the weight of the work on the esthetic scale.
All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contrubution to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists.
(MD, From Session on the Creative Act, Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Houston, Texas, April 1957)