Posted by Bill Wilson on July 01, 19101 at 17:03:20:
In Reply to: A Note on Duchamp, Saussure and the mysterious ‘Sign of Accordance’ posted by Glenn Harvey on June 21, 19101 at 13:35:30:
Responding to Glenn Harvey’s suggestions, I offer a few tentative notes on Saussure and Duchamp:
Fernand de Saussure was working on a system of language, but system is not self-evidently appropriate for language. A system has a tendency to close over itself, and to close over people who use it. Most artists learn to straddle systems, to find ways to be both inside and outside, within and without. That is, many radical artists take positions at margins or borderlines of systems, one shoe on, one shoe off. The interior of a fairly closed system is viscous, like a customs office that classifies metals yet cannot recognize metal aestheticized as a work of sculpture. In response, the tone of artists who work to frustrate official systems is usually dry, even breezy, that is, not viscous. An artist who is thinking his or her way out of the governing systems might well give up painting in oils, a viscous medium.
A system has a tendency to run down in proportion to its being closed. A completely closed system will run down, but at least if there is a closed system, we don’t know about it. Before one attempts to construct a system, one had better think through the consequences. However with language, attempts to impose a system on communications with language cannot succeed, if only for these two reasons: 1) any present moment, Now, is free to change the rules sufficiently to make it impossible for projections of a total language to keep up with current events; 2) the meaning of a use of language depends upon sincerity and trustworthiness, for which we may have tacit methods, but not possibly an explicit system. Analogously, if we had a system of rules which could be followed in the invention, discovery, appreciation or understanding of works of art, any mediocrity could apply them, as indeed many do.
One of the motor forces driving Modernist Art has been that the work was to be authentic, yet if it conformed to a system of ready-made rules, it couldn’t seem to be original. One problem of visual trustworthiness is that if a work seems to follow the rules of a system, it can’t seem very authentic. Some artists have demonstrated authenticity by not conforming to any bourgeois rules in order to prove that they were obeying only the laws of their own nature. Their apparent violence to forms in Modernist art demonstrates that one is not obeying inherited laws and rules, but is working in the immediate moment according to self-set rules. The very value of immediacy is that the immediate moment, Now, is not within a system, but is on the edge of systems, where accidents happen. This moment Now will confirm and preserve the systems if the rules are followed, otherwise it is a point of no return.
A ready-made object is produced by a methodical system of operations like an assembly line. A ready-made can also become a found object, but there is no system for lighting upon a found object. Finding an object has an element of chance, while the choice of an object as significant is an invincibly personal decision for which rules do not exist. Similarly arbitrary, the decision to present a ready-made object, or a found object which can be a ready-made, in an aesthetic context cannot be systematic. Neither an aesthetic commitment, nor a commitment to an anesthetic, can be systematized.
Duchamp eschewed the violence which demonstrates that one is not conforming to any of the imposed systems, unlike both Jean Genet and Jackson Pollock, who were ferociously autonomous. He made his point in relation to Pollock by making up the story that he had cut several inches from Pollock’s mural for Peggy Guggenheim. If he had made such an aesthetic-practical decision, subsuming Pollock’s work, then Pollock’s forms would have become the content of Duchamp’s decisions about form, and Duchamp’s urbane philosophy would supervene Pollock’s pantheism and animism. Conservationist investigation of Duchamp’s story proves that he was only joking with one of those serious jokes he made in behalf of his own reality.
Duchamp took a mischievous relation to the conventions or rules for the sincere expression of commitments and beliefs, and to both sincerity and truth. During his lifetime, arts were rapidly changing in response to different understandings of truth. Whereas Jeanne d’Arc did violence to the immanences in behalf of transcendentals, and Jean Genet did violence to the transcendentals in behalf of immanences, Marcel Duchamp demonstrated his independence from the demonstrations of both absolute transcendence and absolute immanence by working with deceptions and other mischief. After all, both Jeanne d’Arc and Jean Genet had complex systems of rules which would have closed options and decreased possibilities for other people.
There can be no systems of deceptions and no rules for mischiefs. Of course deceptions don’t offhand seem like a method of advancing toward truth. Yet Duchamp could use deceptions as a gadfly pointing toward the problem of unquestioning perceptions. He seems not to have concealed his deceptions, and he seems to have been sincerely deceptive in behalf of an emancipatory skepticism. Rather than opposing any system of absolutist or dogmatic thought with an opposed system, which might come to resemble it in structure, he opts out of systems. Rather than the anti-system and the violent proof of authenticity, his work participates in the non-system, the unsystematic and the anti-system. But are his deceptions like lies, or do they have a plane of trustworthiness?
In experiencing Duchamp’s work, a person needs time to work through from the misleading appearances toward a trustworthy visual and verbal plane. After all, when a simple system or method for moving works of art failed, cracking The Large Glass, Duchamp accepted the failure as the consummation, declaring the work “finished.” If the word “finished” can suggest both completed in fulfillment of plans, and destroyed or done for, then what do such ambiguities do to any system of language? The Large Glass is finished in the sense that its planned completion is permanently postponed. Such postponement combines with other experiences of waiting, as the malic forms are “provisionally painted with red lead while waiting for each one to receive its color, like croquet mallets.”
The removing of The Large Glass had been planned, yet went awry. An advantage of a moment of the failure of a system is that in the next moment one must improvise, and there is and can be no system for spontaneous responses to an unrehearsed moment of failure like cracking glass. Moments without system are more vivid with possibilities for impromptu reactions than systematized events. One does not have ready-made responses to unpredictable happenings, although some artists develop a knack.
Surely the work of Duchamp and of Saussure can be compared illuminatingly, especially because of Saussure’s interest in anagrams, which reaches Duchamp’s ANEMIC CINEMA (using caps now because italics don’t always get through). Yet apart from the question why anyone would want a system of language (Saussure’s LANGUE), or would want to think of art as a social system (N.Luhmann), a question arises about the consequences if Saussure’s thought is incorrect or invalid in some way. Would a comparison with Saussure pull Duchamp back toward a theory that might: 1) be inadequate in itself; 2) be inadequate to describe Duchamp’s operations on language? Relating Duchamp to Saussure positions Duchamp in relation to language, but what is language? Is there an abstract object of thought that we call language? The philosopher Donald Davidson will be quoted as answering “No” to that question. So does an abstract language exist from which can be abstracted a system or an interpretation of structure? Do we know what I am going to say next, or how I am going to say it? How, where, and when does language exist? Am I communicating?
Saussure’s theory posits a synchronicity that is contrary to a diachronicity. Synchronicity is an artifact of thought. The synchronic and the diachronic are not equal or balanced opposites, for the synchronic language exists merely as a construction in the mind of a linguist, it doesn’t dwell someplace where we can examine it as we can examine the word WORD. The synchronic is hypothetical, constructed by a method of thinking in the study of language, while the diachronic is categorical. The language as historically spoken and written can be an object of verifiable research going case-by-case, but where is the language as a whole so that I can compare statements about that language with that language? Saussure’s synchronic language is a fuzzy fiction. A fiction is an object twisted to fit assumptions, and Saussure’s assumptions differ from Duchamp’s premises and conjectures. Saussure died in 1913, while Duchamp got to wait out World War I while pondering its lessons about stable forms and reliable systems.
An implication of the synchronic, of language as a system at any one moment, is that language is closed over us, or that language could and might close over us. However when Jacques Derrida writes and speaks the word DIFFÉRANCE, and when Marcel Duchamp writes PARLLLL, in such verbal events language opens vents in any such systems. Delaying a moment, why is PARLLLL not a word, if you think that it isn’t?
I do not see how the methodologically synchronic can be used as though the synchronic has the same status and power as the diachronic. Even with the diachronic, problems remain. If Saussure’s theory of language is reduced to the diachronic, the historicized events of language as spoken and written, then even the diachronic is problematic, if only because the very concept of a language as a structure is problematic. In what sense does “the English language” exist as a totality? Where might one examine it? If we arise in the midst of the structure of language, so that in some way the language thinks us, where do we look for that language with that structure? I wouldn’t say that we arise within a structure of language, or other structures like social systems, and systems of art, but at the edges of any such systems, one foot in, one foot out.
If we look back only as far as my last sentence, we may discern a structure of rules and conventions, but if we look laterally at casual uses of language, or if we look forward toward my next sentence, where then is a system of rules? How does a language exist apart from the moments in which a person is communicating with that language and with whatever else it takes? What happens to our freedom to improvise within our communications? If you ask me how I feel, and I point toward a bottle of aspirin, where then are the rules governing such communications? If you want a statement made to you in language to be sincere and truthful, where and what are the rules for sincerity? Actors often do better at performing sincerity than ordinary people do.
Might following a system, writing within a structure, obeying rules and honoring conventions, be the causes of insincerity, or of an appearance of insincerity? Donald Davidson has long since written that we can have no rules for sincere statements, because if we did, any villain would use them. But how does meaning inhere in our statements if they are not sincere? The person who suspends the rules, and who does work which is visually and verbally untrustworthy, but who reveals or does not conceal the deceptions, is more trustworthy than the person who follows conventions for sincerity such as commercial cards of sympathy for a death.
A crucial distinction arose in some 20th century arts between magic, which conceals the means, methods and materials of deception, and the values in behalf of which the art was made. Much visual art, after so many disillusionments and disenchantments, calls attention to the means of illusion, so that the spectator can experience the aesthetic illusion as a strong and enduring illusion which does not deceive. One can return later to an aesthetic illusion, perhaps to find more than one had perceived earlier (that experience of discovering more, later, has profound philosophic implications, especially for phenomenology). Duchamp’s deceptive visual illusions are not deceptive delusions, if only because in one case a spectator can see and understand the methodical operations like a record spinning on a record-player.
I might comprehend a direct and sincere utterance with some immediacy, but a deception, trick, joke or other mischief is likely to delay responses while the convolutions are worked out. Any kind of irony works more slowly than an excited utterance because it must go around a turn, the discovery of a double meaning. In understanding irony, one makes a path from apparent meaning toward a different and more real meaning, sometimes entailing a reversal as one adjusts one’s vision. In an experience of some works by Duchamp any immediate impact is followed by a delay while one constructs one’s appreciative understanding. The spectator is freed to construct a platform for thinking into a different perspective.
The supposed rules of language, as well as of baseball, basketball and football, have changed in my life-time, so they aren’t as strong as they were made out to be. Donald Davidson has made a subtle point about novel uses of language. He allows that one cannot change the meaning of a word merely by intending to, but “you can change the meaning provided you believe (and perhaps are justified in believing) that the interpreter has adequate clues for the new interpretation.” The concept of justified belief is not novel, it has animated secular arts throughout their histories and herstories during which artists have perfected the art of planting clues. I think that Duchamp thoroughly airs questions of adequate clues for new interpretations.
I have quoted from the key text by Donald Davidson: “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs.” Davidson concludes, in a sentence already wastefully misunderstood by philosophers: “I conclude that there is no such thing as a language, not if language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed” (TRUTH AND INTERPRETATION, ed. Thomas LePore, Blackwell 1986, p.446). One point that might emerge from Davidson’s thoughts is that the rules of language reach only toward the present moment, not into it or beyond it. The future will not be bound by the conventions and or even by rules, which I catch myself revising for myself even as new rules are now arising for the nonce. Language does not do what it does because of what it is, but it is what it is because of what it does, which always reopens further possibilities a moment after it has done its business.
Systems of grammar have always had unexamined political and economic motives, so that resisting a supposedly correct grammar can have social and political implications, if only in the rejection of central governing or organizing powers. The purpose of “correct” grammar has been to exclude people who were not educated in that grammar, because the hierarchical structure of society required a broad-base of people unschooled in that grammar. The computer on which I type, with its rules for “that” and “which,” has the grammatical instincts of a nanny monitoring the English language. Yet mechanized computer-grammar, if followed, has the social effect of obscuring the hierarchies of money and of power which are sustained by notions of correctness. If a machine intervenes like a tutor, “correct” grammar no longer marks a level in a hierarchy, although puns, neologisms and fractured grammar remain a privilege of rank. Jean Genet subverts French society not by fracturing French, but by writing “good” French, while Jacques Derrida subverts French society by writing French that is not quite COMME IL FAUT. “Phallogocentric,” indeed.
We seem usually to follow rules, but if I ratify and commit myself to such rules and structures, I should not conceal from myself my freedom to ignore the rules, that is, my freedom to improvise communications with the materials at hand. I am here merely sketching a few notions, but will lift a few examples from Duchamp into the light of Saussure’s theory, as is reasonably suggested by Glenn Harvey.
Harvey writes, “…all the signs in the system (subject to “certain laws”) only derive their meaning by their relation to each other. In other words the meaning of a sign is significant in relation to what it is not.” Setting aside names, which follow their own conventions (Rrose Selavy; Duchamp-Villon), I propose to look at the concept of the parallel, and at a word written by Duchamp: PARLLLL. Duchamp’s interest in parallelisms is manifest in his image of the Sad Young Man, completed in December 1911, where an analogy seems to be a parallelism: “First, there’s the idea of the movement of the train, and then that of the sad young man who is in the corridor and who is moving about; thus there are two parallel movements corresponding to each other.” The literal parallel of train tracks may make possible the image of parallels, but the movement of the man is not parallel in the same sense that the movement of the train is on parallel tracks. Duchamp’s metaphorical parallels throw the concept of parallels out of alignment.
Years ago I saw that Duchamp, in a different context, had written the word PARALLEL as PARLL. However I haven’t seen that example since, and so may have misremembered PARLLLL (p.94 in Hulten-Schwartz). The word “parll” begins readably as a syllable, “par,” but then the eye-mind snags on “ll,” and must shift to a different method of reading, letter by letter, “el” by “el”. These two systems of syllable and letter cannot have a mediating link, because then the two systems would be one system. If “par” is isolated as a syllable, it suggests many meaning, as it is a component of many words in many languages. When the letter L is separated and pronounced by itself, L, or perhaps ELLE, then it can be linked to a “non pareil” of language, L.H.O.O.Q. Ray Johnson once spotted a license plate reading L.H.O.O.Q. The late wife of O. J. Simpson had a license plate reading L84AD8. Modernist artists often work more with illegibilities, as opaque as riddles which call attention to surfaces, than with transparent meanings where one immediately sees through surfaces toward designations.
I do not see how a method of descriptive analysis in a structuralist interpretation of language could secure itself as a system for an artist who hears a word, PAR EL EL, and who then represents the verbal-aural in one single unit, PARLL, but entailing a shift within the word from one system of reading to a different system.
In the context of an artist who thought about and who thought with parallels, the word PARLLLL may not be transparent, but it is translucent, as one can see soon enough that Duchamp has written PAR EL EL EL EL. The word PARALLEL in French or in English might derive its meanings only from its contrasts with other words; yet in PARLL, the word PARALLEL enhances its meanings by exemplifying them. The word PARLLLL illustrates parallelism with its last four letters which are visual parallels: L L L L. While the standard spelling, parallel, also has L and L in a parallel (LL), that example of parallelism is too familiar to galvanize the parallelism of the letters.
“Visual signs are unrelated to what they designate,” we are told, yet in some words the method of spelling the word is related to the meaning of the word, because the word as an abstract object illustrates the concrete object it designates. The word WEE is itself rather wee, and the word HUGE, not being so large, gets supplanted by the word HUMONGOUS. Sometimes GRAY is grayer than GREY. That is, some words are ikonic in the sense that the physical word participates in the concept and can be used as a concrete exemplification of its abstract concept. For myself, I speak less of a word having a meaning, or of a word as referring on its own, then of a word as that which can be used to point with at something. A work doesn’t refer, but we can use it to refer, along with a lot of other pointing. Some words can be used to point to themselves, as the word WORD conveys itself as both the abstract object, the concept of a word, yet also as a concrete object which is a prime example of its abstract concept. While I am free to use a word to point with at anything I choose to designate, like Humpty Dumpty for whom “glory” means a nice knock-down argument, I might not be understood without an interpretation. But with PARLLLL, I can use the word or sign to point with at itself, for it self-interpretingly conveys the concept and provides an example of the concept.
Harvey has typed, “the cleavage between The Bride and her Batchelors.” The spelling “batchelor” is translucent, one instantly sees through toward the concept “bachelor.” A bachelor is a man who has emerged from a baccalaurius as a person who has earned a baccalaureate. However, the nonce-word batchelor might be used to point toward a baker baking a batch. The heating and cooking in baking a batch can be associated with the intense physiological activity associated with both bachelor and bride in a consummation of their marriage, even as a pregnant woman used to be said to “have a bun in the oven.” Back in parallelisms, a bachelor and a bride may be two unaligned people who are moving toward lying legitimately parallel with each other, with the poignant questions of if, when and how such parallels ever meet. The variant idea in that image was conveyed by Andrew Marvell to his mistress as his understanding that their positions in love were not oblique, but parallel: “But ours, so truly parallel,/ Though infinite, can never meet.”
If PARLL or PARLLLL is a word that one can understand and use to point with at both the concept of parallelism, and a specific example of parallelism, then it derives its uses and meanings from its relations with non-words, and from its relations with events which are outside the text, and which are outside the self-referring structures of languages. Saussure may systematize everything about the language except what will prove useful in probing existence in forthcoming experiments.
Duchamp in various ways brought obscure and inchoate thoughts onto an observable plane. My obscure thought turns toward Jerry Fodor and Jerrold Katz who suggest, in THE STRUCTURE OF LANGUAGE (1964), that linguists attempt to project the finite set of sentences we have experienced toward the infinite set of possible sentences of the language. They call this experience of thought “the projection problem.” I don’t think that the verbal or visual thinking of Marcel Duchamp can help with that projection problem, he was too busy frustrating systems of intellectual projection.
: The Large Glass is the result of Duchamp attempting a kind of pataphysical proof. He is looking to demonstrate that it is possible to isolate the ‘sign of
: accordance'(quite specifically). That is ultimately his aim and the test of whether his experiment has been successful or not.
: What are the factors at work in this attempt? What are the conceptual tools at his disposal? The ‘sign of
: accordance’ between what elements? A succession of a group of 'various facts' that seem to depend on each other under 'certain laws'.
: He wants to determine the conditions which bring about the ‘instantaneous State of Rest’(extra-rapid; perhaps a photographic exposure; an indexical mark or trace) - that which brings a sudden halt to this succession of interdependent ‘various facts’.
: This accord (agreement/conformity) is between then, ‘this State of Rest’ (a particular) and a ‘choice of possibilities’ (authorised and determined
: by ‘certain laws’). Here, as elsewhere, the thinly veiled language of photography and other physical-indexical processes is apparent in Duchamp’s notes -
: This much has already been noted by Duchamp scholars.
: Another re-framing of the problem by Duchamp takes an algebraic turn:
: Here ‘a’ is the instantaneous state of rest or extra-rapid exposition (or exposure), Whilst ‘b’ is the (or a) ‘choice of possibilities’. Duchamp makes a
: point in his notes here to the effect that this ratio of ‘a’ over ‘b’ is not given by a resultant (say) ‘c’, but by the sign (the horizontal bar) that separates ‘a’ and ‘b’.
: Some speculations - hopefully not too idle. Duchamp seems to be searching for some process that is not a million miles away from the concerns of classical semiotics. For where can we find an almost identical set of problems set out (and at about the same time - just before the first world war)? Look at Ferdinand de Saussure’s ‘Course in General Linguistics’. Some of the
: parallels with Duchamp’s writings from The Green Box - to accompany The Large Glass are quite uncanny. The interesting thing here is that - despite being at the beginning of a new ‘Science of Signs’, Saussure’s research was tinged with a kind of madness - and, in that sense, it makes a comparative study all the more compelling.
: Saussure truly struggled with the relationship between the signifier and the signified within the structure of the sign - the sign of accordance in other
: words between these two terms - because, although he wanted to demonstrate their distinctiveness, he was also at pains to demonstrate their conventional (or arbitary) ‘connectedness’.
: Not only that, all the signs in the system (subject to 'certain laws') only derive their meaning by their relation to each other. In other words the meaning of a
: sign is on significant in relation to what it is not.
: ‘The ultimate law of language is, dare we say, that nothing can ever reside in a single term. This is a direct consequence of the fact that linguistic signs are unrelated to what they designate, and that therefore a cannot designate anything without the aid
: of b and vice versa, or in other words that both have value only by the differences between them, or that neither has value, in any of its constituents, except through his same network of forever negative differences.’
: Like the cleavage between The Bride and her Batchelors, the relationship between the signifier and the signified is, coincidentally, a separation and a
: pulling together. Saussure indicates that the two elements of the linguistic sign ‘are intimately linked’. Elsewhere in The Course, Saussure describes the relation between signifier and signified as ‘mysterious’ and accompanies his discussion with a diagram not unlike Duchamp’s ‘painterly’ Milky Way.
: We could, perhaps go further and say that Saussure’s construction of the sign held within itself its own deconstruction and further, it could be argued
: that Duchamp was more aware of this than Saussure - as, of course, within The Large Glass the relationship between the The Bride and Her Bachelors is represented by three (not one) glass ‘bars’ which are subject to feeble and faltering breaches - both electrical and mechanical...