PRINT January 1972

Meaning in the Art of Duchamp, Part II

BEFORE WE TURN OUR attention specifically to the written notes, we should be aware of the content of one of them which adds insight to the particular function of the “Readymades” and other attendant works:

2 ‘similar’ objects, i.e., of different dimensions but the one being the reproduction of the other (like 2 ‘deck chairs’ one large and one doll-size) could serve to establish a 4 dim’l perspective=not by locating side by side in space3 but simply by considering the optical illusions produced by the difference of their dimensions.11

The artist makes it clear that a sculptural “Ready-made” and its shadow on The Large Glass are set into a sort of perspectival intercourse. But this is not the illusion of perspective; it arises only after reflective comparison of one plane of the work with another. The fourth dimension is the result not of physical juxtaposition, but of abstractly considering the relations between the objects. It is tempting to call Duchamp’s fourth dimension a sort of archi-écriture, the condition for the possibility of the work. This description also explains what differentiates Duchamp’s crossing of media from other synesthetic arts. The value he sees in the presence of the object appears to be the tension (unfelt by the idealist Mallarmé) of confronting the word with its specific realization. The content of this particular note, however, casts a disturbing self-reflection onto its presence. It is not at all clear, for example, what the reflection of this statement is to the objects of which it speaks. We are also in doubt as to how this note is affected by being placed within the boundary of the art work.

There are two types of note in the Green Box, those which give the impression of an accurate and deadpan description of the actual contents of The Large Glass, and those which pursue obliquity to the point of effacing altogether any relation to their analogical forms. The literal notes, written in the style of engineering instructions, can only be interpreted in the light of the more theoretical jottings. In a sense they share a central characteristic with the most abstract and arbitrary of Duchamp’s writings (such as the note on the Jura-Paris road). That is, they are without inherent content and meaningless; their most important contribution to the work is their sheer presence, a presence which makes manifest the fact of language without disguising this fact by making it the content of a second level of linguistic articulation. What Steefel points out concerning the mechanical drawings holds equally true for the engineering notes: “The mechanical drawing procedures used by Duchamp correspond on the graphic level to the Ready-made on the object or ‘sculptural’ level. . . . As a convention, the schematic drawing is less concrete, immediate, and dynamic than the Ready-made, but it is more abstract, mental, and subtle in its dynamism.”12

But even within this literalness there are varying degrees of direct approximation. Only an extremely small number of notes come close to fulfilling the above description. Examples of these include Duchamp’s projected use of “unconventional colors” and also his long list of materials. The greater part of the engineering plans, on the other hand, tend to interweave indisputable accuracy with extraneous and mysterious themes, at once tempting an allegorical interpretation and dissolving the substance of that interpretation into an endless round of meanings. In the most extreme cases, as in the example of the fleshlike milky way which hovers near the top of the glass, this borders on an impossible situation. In the notes the milky way is called the Top Inscription and described with almost no reference to its real appearance:

Moving Inscription. i.e., in which the group of alphabetic units should no longer have a strict order from left to right—each alphabetic unit will be present only once in the group ABC and will be displaced from A to C and back again. Since, from A towards C, the inscription should, according to the need for equilibrium of the plate D, displace a (stabilizer) (a ball or anything). On this plate D.13

Later we are informed that the three openings at the center of the Top Inscription are mechanisms for the bride to transmit her commands. Apparently the figure was named an Inscription because it bears alphabetic unities; but upon reflection we realize that this phrase is also a pure form and adds no more content to the description of the milky way than what was already implicit in the term “Inscription.” The rest of the note contains definitionally extraneous material all of which presumes a knowledge of and builds upon the empty category of the alphabetic unities. Yet its extraneous character hardly prevents it from adding an extra twist to the unreality of the situation; given the visual data of the Glass, it is surprising to find that the “Inscription” is “moving,” that all the alphabetic unities are shuttling back and forth from end to end. Because such terms as “the need for equilibrium” and “plate D” are introduced, the reason given for the movement is no less mysterious. Thus the conceptual being of the Top Inscription has little to do with its perceived reality.

Other examples of this sort of situation are the nine vanishing points which we would not know as such without the notes, and the description of the bride configuration as the Pendu femelle: “The Pendu femelle is the form in ordinary perspective of a Pendu femelle for which one could perhaps try to discover the true form.”14 The difficult denotation (plus sexual ambiguity) of the term “Pendu femelle” is inserted into a claim that “ordinary” perspective does not present its true form. Once again we have the case of an unimaginable situation with an undenotable subject which is nevertheless in possession of a definite correlate on the Glass and in the paintings.

Finally, an odd situation becomes evident once one reads further and further into the literal notes, namely that a large part of the jottings deal with objects that were finally never applied to the Glass. Elements such as the Waterfall, the Sex Cylinder (Wasp), and the Boxing Match are fully outlined with diagrams and description but in fact do not exist. The result is a sort of “pictorial nominalism” where the description does not imply the existence of the object.

These semidirect, semioblique explanations of the mechanism of The Large Glass perform the important function of providing the “plot” for the bride’s allegory. Without them the objects would be an incomprehensible jumble of forms. Yet their promise of meaning and apparent simultaneous mockery of this promise makes problematic the character of their function. At one point Duchamp hints that the objects of The Large Glass are “words” which can only be translated into normal language by means of entire sentences or phrases. Are the notes we have been discussing precisely the phrases and sentences which are needed in order to convert the “signs” of the dictionary of The Large Glass back into French? Perhaps they are the way out of the prison of hermeticism, but at what risk? On the other hand, even they are locked within the boundaries of the work.

The most oblique notes in Duchamp’s Boxes are those which either have no specific correlate at all on the Glass (hence speaking vaguely of we are not sure what), or those which attempt to treat the Glass and its meaning as a whole. The subtitle of The Bride . . . is, “Agricultural machine (a world in yellow) preferably in the text.15 There are also such things as plans for a new society, reflections on the military, speculations on the beauty of indifference, etc. Like some of the engineering notes, these also appear to promise an exit from the closed world of Duchamp’s work, but, pushed to their extreme, likewise become devoid of meaning to the point of merely asserting their presence. But whereas the engineering descriptions negated extra significance simply by means of their self-effacing accuracy, the sheer presence of words in this case tends to be shown through syntax. It is here that the influence of Mallarmé seems to be the strongest. Placing the word in an unusual context opens it up to a literal infinity of meanings (especially if one emphasizes, like Duchamp, the revelatory character of puns). An illustration of this is the following note in which Duchamp, in spite of himself, wrote beautiful prose: “La route Jura-Paris, devant être infinie seulement humainement, ne perdra rien de son caractère d’infinité en trouvant en terme d’un côté dans le chef des 5 nus, de l’autre dans l’enfant-phare.”16 (The Jura-Paris road, having to be infinite only humanly, will lose none of its character of infinity in finding a termination at one end in the chief of the 5 nudes, at the other in the headlight child.) In one sense the sentence falls into three parts: a series of abstractions, beginning with “devant être” (having to be) and ending ambiguously around the phrase “en terme” (a termination), is surrounded by nouns and noun phrases so concrete that we find it difficult to discover their precise denotation. In this way the limiting on two sides of the “route Jura-Paris” (the Jura-Paris road) by the “chef des 5 nus” (the chief of 5 nudes) and the “enfant-phare” (the headlight child) (i.e., the content of the statement) is mirrored in the syntax of the sentence. The route appears to be the group of “infinite” statements (infinite because they are abstract?) which “lose none of this trait” because they are limited on both sides by absolutely proper names. Concentrating on the middle portion of the sentence, we find that because both “infinity” and “humanity” are abstractions, their juxtaposition loses translatability (not meaning or sense). The quality of the thought is expressible only by means of the proximity of the words. The two words are united into a phrase by the strange copula “devant être” in which the force of the “devant” is not entirely clear. Following this phrase, the main verb, actually the most precise word of the sentence, finds itself placed exactly in the center of the group of abstractions, themselves the middle section of the sense of the sentence. Following this, the idea of infinity (now converted into a noun) appears in another three-part juxtaposition, this time with the phrase “en terme.” At this point the phrases reflect back into one another rather closely: “devant être infinie seulement humainement” (having to be infinite only humanly) and “son caractère d’infinité en trouvant en terme” (its character of infinity in finding a termination) are contrasted syntactically, if not in meaning, and the same for their important modifiers humainement“ and ”en terme.“ Finally the words ”perdra“ and ”trouvant“are set in opposition by means of proximity, while through a slight shift in the context presented by the sentence, their ”meanings" are not completely antithetical.

These devices, being far from the usual Dada-Surrealist emphasis on image juxtaposition, are the same as Mallarmé’s use of abstractions and indefinite images in such phrases as:

Et ce squelette nain, coiffé d’un feutre à plume
Et botté, dont l’aisselle a pour poils vrais des vers,
Est pour eux l’infini de la vaste amertume.
(And this dwarf skeleton clothed in a feathered
felt hat and boots, whose armpit bears worms
(verses) for genuine hairs, is for them the infinity
of vast bitterness.)

and the well-known “circonstances éternelles du fond d’un naufrage.”18 (Eternal circumstances from the depths of a shipwreck.) The interest and poetic character of both of these phrases rests in the reader’s temporary confusion when forced to associate words and word clusters with radically contrasting relationships to their respective contents. The virtual superimposition of types of words which convention has placed in the irreconcilable categories of concrete and abstract (this being, of course, a distinction within a certain horizon, since all words are abstract) which is already familiar to us from Duchamp’s notes, finds its roots in Mallarmé’s syntax.

But, given this basic aspect of the traces of Mallarmé’s heritage to be found in Duchamp’s work, the former’s process of meaning might finally give us a clue towards clarifying this same process in Duchamp. Consider the climax of Un Coup de dés (and despite its alloverness this poem, formally and emotionally, does have a climax) in the phrase (also embodying the familiar abstract/concrete dialectic):

UNE CONSTELLATION froide d’oubli et de désuétude pas tant qu’elle n’énumère sur quelque surface vacante et supérieure le heurt successif sidéralement d’un compte total en formation veillant doutant roulant brillant et méditant avant de s’arrêter à quelque point dernier qui le sacre. . . . 19
(A CONSTELLATION cold with forgetfulness and disuse—not so much that it does not number on some empty and upper surface the successive shock of the circular movement of the stars of a total sum in formation watching doubting revolving shining and meditating before stopping at some final point which engenders its consecration.)

The possibility of a victorious emergence of integrated significance by means of placing the content of Mallarmé’s meaning in the perspective of his poetic method is confirmed by the ecstatic outburst of this finale. A meeting of idea and process (which is present in nearly all his poems and stated most explicitly in Un Coup de dés and Igitur) occurs in the transformation of a relentless doubt (occurring at every point of utterance) in the work as capable of signifying into an affirmation caused by pushing this doubt to act upon itself. The desperation of an artistic gesture pursued against a background of silence and indeterminacy is overcome by the fact of poetic gesture, or the doubt of doubt transformed into the active forgetfulness of doubt. After a long typographical descent into “ces garages du vague en quoi toute réalité se dissout” (those regions of the wave in which every reality is dissolved) a sudden leap to the top of the page and boldface type announces the formation of a Constellation, or the furrowed splay of thought onto the white field of the page, and the establishment of this Constellation as the irrevocable horizon of all indeterminacy. The themes of death and rebirth familiar from Igitur are refined into images of locus in which the unreality of the ocean floor is transformed into an astronomical configuration and the groundwork for the universe. The work of art establishes itself in itself as that against which all reality can be measured. That the Constellation is “cold from forgetfulness” implies a rejection of the external except to the extent that the external can be subordinated to the creative ordering of the work and finds its stylistic counterpart in the poet’s rejection (Mallarmé was among the first and surpassed even Baudelaire in this respect; nor did he, like Wagner, feel the need to fill the gap with myths from his own race) of excessive classical allusion in favor of internally directed meaning. (Such a rejection had, of course, become customary by Duchamp’s time, but few until Duchamp would reenact the radical step of turning the groundwork of meaning inward. Rimbaud, for example, or Impressionism or even Minimal art, would feel the urge to ground the work in an externally apprehensible social or perceptual “reality.”

Is it the case then that Duchamp exemplifies the same dialectical circle of affirmation arising out of defeating indeterminacy by the artistic gesture of establishing a furrow of differentiation in the midst of the formerly impenetrable self-certainty of his raw materials (whether they be blank pages of paper or a mass of anonymous objets before they become objets trouvés)? Commentators such as Paz, and to a limited extent, Steefel, would be inclined to answer in the affirmative: “[Duchamp’s] is an irony which destroys its own negation and, hence, returns in the affirmative.”20

This conclusion, however, is not entirely satisfying. Whatever may be the intimate stylistic similarities discovered upon examining individual passages, the total impressions of the works of the two artists ultimately differ quite sharply. We need only recall their respective attitudes concerning the Work to become conscious of the extent of the gap which separates them. Yet we are still in no position to confirm either Paz’s conjecture or our doubts concerning the role of creative affirmation in Duchamp. While we have discovered that the meaning or significance of the work of both men is, in the fullest sense, the question of meaning or significance itself expressing itself in a perpetual rotation of negation and affirmation, we seem simply to be faced with the further question of what is the meaning of this question of significance, why should it figure as the content of a work of art, and what is the import of the apparently empty idea of negation and affirmation? That is, so far we have managed to isolate the insight that the problem facing anyone who wishes to begin a hermeneutic and criticism of Duchamp’s art is the problem the art itself deals with, its thematic motivation; but we cannot yet discover how Du-champ specifically reacted to this problem: we cannot even decide to what extent he differs from Mallarmé.

To give content and importance to this problem of meaning and the presently empty category of negation and affirmation it is necessary to trace (very sketchily) the stylistic phenomenon we have been discussing back to what appears to be its ultimate origin: "No doubt, the reversal of values that underlies Mallarmé’s poetry can be expressed in philosophical terms. It can be Marcer Duchamp, The Nine Malic Moulds, wash study for the second state of the etching, summer 1965.

identified with the negation of a negation leading to the emergence of a positive value, which the poet might have gathered from a reading of Hegel, to whose ideas he was introduced by his friend, Eugène Lefébure."21 The heritage from Hegel to Mallarmé is as direct as that from Mallarmé to Duchamp and, since in neither of the earlier writers, were content and process identified so completely as in Duchamp, the development in this case proceeds on the double plane of literary style and philosophical content. It should be manifest in the end, however, that Hegel, Mallarmé, and Duchamp exhibit a unified stylistic and intellectual development. An explanation of this development will do more justice to the subtlety of thought and creation in the work of Mallarmé and Duchamp than will the naive observations concerning the negation of of a negation let drop by such nonphilosophical critics as Paz and Anthony Hartley.

In terms of stylistics, Hegel’s occasionally deliberate obscurity, especially in The Phenomenology of Mind as to which verb an object belongs, or which nouns mismatched adjectival phrases modify, purposefully upsets a balanced periodic construction and prefigures Mallarmé’s own anacolutha, such as his running together strings of objectless prepositions or his similar ambiguity concerning the relations between nouns and modifying phrases. The jarring superimposition of concretions and abstractions which was our point of comparison between Mallarmé and Duchamp is also occasionally dramatically present in the prose of the philosopher:

Die gattung . . . erleidet in diesem ruhigen Geschäfte Gewalt von der Seite des allgemeinen Individuums, der Erde, als die allgemeine Negativität. . . . Dieses Thun der Gattung wird zu einem ganz eingeschränkten Geschäft, das sie nur innerhalb jener mächtigen Elemente treiben darf, und das durch die zügellose Gewalt dersel ben allenthalben unterbrochen, lückenhaft und verkümmert wird. (While quietly prosecuting this aim, the genus meets with violence at the hands of the universal individual, the earth . . . in the role of universal negativity. . . . This action [generic systematization] on the part of the genus comes to quite a restricted business, which it can only carry on inside those mighty elements, and which is left with gaps and arrested and interrupted at all points through their unbridled violence.)22

It is clear that it was Hegel’s curious literary practice to use terms from Aristotle’s abstract and formalized logic and from 18th-century mechanics in unity with the most startling and colorful verbs, bringing into stylistic proximity the “immediate, the undisturbed, the unmoved” of traditional metaphysics with earthly concreteness in the material unfolding of spiritual processes. “The realized purpose, or concrete actuality, is movement and development unfolded. But this very unrest is the self, and it is one and the same with that immediacy and simplicity characteristic of the beginning just for the reason that it is the result, and has returned upon itself.”23Another example of this technique. lies in his almost obsessive use of the term “indifferent” (gleichgültig) when describing physical properties or mechanical laws not united in the oneness of the object or the all-encompassing category. The “psychological” and individualizing overtones of this word cast it into an uncomfortable tension with the universals it modifies.

As far as matters of content are concerned, sufficient attention paid to the analysis of his use of logical terminology should have already revealed that Hegel furnishes the clue to the significance of the concretion-abstraction juxtaposition which we discovered in Mallarmé and Duchamp. That is, the subjective hermetic spiritual process of the poet and the artist become objective spiritual forms (Geister) in Hegel’s treatment by coming to light as the principal denotable subject matter of his speculation. It is not merely Hegel’s tendency to suppress the titles and authors (such as Sophocles and Diderot) of other literary and speculative works he subjects to dialectical analysis, thus spinning a web of tension into the use of an entirely specific object as an essence of the process of spiritual knowledge, nor is it merely the delicate imbalance of the universality of the process which embodies Spirit’s self-realization and the manifestation of that process in a specific historical personage, which unites Hegel to Mallarmé’s obliquity about proper names in Igitur and Un Coup de dés or to Duchamp’s treatment of his personae in The Bride . . . as if they were a universal allegory: it is rather the entire movement of The Phenomenology of Mind (and later the Encyclopedia) whose overarching project was to reconcile the abstract and the concrete under the titles of substance and subject.

We are now in a position to give a preliminary ontological description of the meaning of Duchamp’s approach to meaning (content). The clue is the “plot” of The Phenomenology of Mind and the continual self-reflection of spiritual forms in order to establish a reconciliation and self-recognition of subject (ultimately identified with the universal and abstract) and substance (ultimately identified with the specific and concrete). The objective spiritual content of Mallarmé’s and Duchamp’s juxtapositions is to be found in the perpetual rotational self-reflection of spirit in order to achieve this integration. The following passage might almost be read as a direct explanation of their common stylistic quirk:

being, pure being is not a concrete actual reality, but abstraction, and conversely . . . pure thought, self-identity or inner essence, is partly the negative of self-consciousness, and consequently is being, and partly, qua immediate simple entity, is likewise nothing else than being. Thought is thing-hood, or thinghood is thought. . . . The universal common to both is the abstraction of pure self-thinking, of pure quivering within the self. This simple motion of rotating on its own axis is bound to resolve itself into separate moments. . . . The distinguishing of the moments leaves the unmoved (unity) behind as the empty shell of pure being. . . .24

The progress of Hegel’s style (and subject matter) is from the pure abstract (the unmoved “beginning”) in Consciousness, to the pure concrete in History. The “moments” of the process of Mallarmé’s poetry (remember his description of the Constellation: “doutant roulant brillant et méditant” in which he places an image of rotation between the doubt and the sanctification) and Duchamp’s notes and the latter’s deliberate rotation between actual object and significatory description is the physical embodiment of Spirit’s gradual filling-in with content in the five formal “quivers” of The Phenomenology of Mind.

If Duchamp, therefore, is to be read as attempting to achieve the same affirmation (the “yes, yes”) as Hegel and Mallarmé, it must be demonstrated that the project of his art is to realize the same integration of matter and form. We are aware now that we can answer in the negative for the simple reason that Duchamp’s juxtaposition does not resolve itself in time and the linear development of the work as occurs in the two writers. Nor do his abstract and concrete words possess the connotative necessity of the words employed by the other two: this is the humor of bringing into proximity “infinity” and the “chief of the 5 nudes.” Duchamp’s choice of words turns the movement of the dialectic towards chaos. We suspect that, while the objective spiritual project must be the same, Duchamp does not allow this project to resolve itself and forces form to remain in perpetual “self-estrangement.” Unlike Mallarmé for whom the act of writing, once performed, hollows out a black furrow of thought in the self-certain being of the page, and thus establishes itself as a sort of riverbed, the ground of universal motion; and unlike Hegel for whom the Recollection of the parts would reveal process as stasis (rotation), Duchamp must regard his abstract gestures (the only alternative to bovine immediacy), like the Nietzschean man, at an inevitable remove from the world. In order to remain still and unmoved the former must sacrifice the concreteness of their truth. Hegel’s description of the fissure in Being which occurs before the first self-reflective resolution of the dialectic is the most concise statement of Duchamp’s attitude towards the traces of art which embody themselves in his work:

(The Now and the Here are the two forms of the This of Sense-Certainty. But) to the question, What is Now? we reply, for example, the Now is nighttime. To test the truth of this certainty of sense, a simple experiment is all we need: write that truth down. A truth cannot lose anything by being written down (or applied with a brush), and just a little by our preserving and keeping it. If we look again at the truth we have written down, look at it now, at this noon-time, we shall have to say it has turned stale and become out of date.25

This is not, however, an entirely satisfactory conclusion. At best it reduces Duchamp to the sort of conventional pessimism so fashionable in later Romanticism; at worst it tinges his work with that negative irony which Nietzsche said proclaimed the advent of European Nihilism and for which Duchamp himself condemned the other Dadists. Yet he would seem to confirm this reading of his art with statements such as:

. . . pushing the idea of doubt of Descartes to a much further point than they did in the School of Cartesianism: doubt in myself, doubt in everything. In the first place, never believing in truth. In the end it comes to doubt ‘to be.’ _Not doubt to say ‘to be or not to be’—that has nothing to do with it. There won’t be any difference between when I’m dead and now, because I won’t know it. You see the famous ‘to be’ is consciousness, and when you sleep you ‘are’ no more. That’s what I mean—a state of sleepingness; because consciousness is a formulation, a very gratuitous formulation of something, but nothing else. And I go further by saying that words such as truth, art, veracity, or anything are stupid in themselves. Of course, it’s difficult to formulate, so I insist: every word I am telling you is stupid and wrong.26

Such a remark not only implies what we feared, that Duchamp has no intention of taking any steps beyond pure negation, it also appears to encourage the current empiricist-positivist reading of Duchamp which, for all his faults, Burnham was rightfully attempting to combat. Still, certain elements of Duchamp’s outburst lead us to suspect that he is not merely echoing the self-pitying proverb “Whatever we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence,” that he is speaking about something much more fundamental. . . .

“And I go further to say that words such as truth, art, veracity, or anything are stupid in themselves.” Given the context of the totality of Duchamp’s oeuvre and our own preceding analysis, the spirit of this statement, and that of its closest artistic adjunct, the “Readymades” cannot be read as an example of what modern esthetics has chosen to call the Dada paradox, the self-obliterating denial of all signification (significance), the sort of artistic stance which is harmless simply because it affects nothing outside of itself. A systematic attempt to deny meaning in art (which in its most sophisticated form—Heidegger’s ontologism—becomes an attempt to assert the sheer being of the work) is already a gesture so laden with meaning that it can only be read in terms of affirmation and an extremely pale affirmation at that next to the great climaxes of Hegel and Mallarmé. It is especially tempting to read the “Readymades,” isolated from the rest of Duchamp’s work, in this fashion. Without doubt, one of their central themes is a radicalization of the ontological nature of art, the message that the object can be understood and not merely experienced in its “equipmental” character by simply placing it out of context; Van Gogh’s expressionism and formal decoration are unnecessary. Furthermore, if it is difficult to eliminate meaning, it is impossible to negate art since, an infinite flexibility arising out of the purely formal character of the word “art,” the gesture itself is soon absorbed into the category of art.

If, therefore, Duchamp is not to be ensnared into triviality, his work must concern itself not with eliminating art, but with a change in outlook concerning the essence of art, or, to speak in non-metaphysical terms, the origin of the work of art. As is immediately apparent from the “Readymades” and (what we have spent a great deal of time trying to demonstrate) is capitalized upon by more ambitious works such as The Bride . . . this change of outlook centers around a negation of the classical-estheticist-formalist concept of art as beauty, which played a major role in the Impressionist, Fauvist, and Cubist esthetics and would become practically the sole raison d’être of much abstract art, in favor of an art which concerned itself completely with the problems of meaning and an authentic relatior between the work and its content whatever that content may be. This is what decisively distinguishes Duchamp from Mallarmé who, although making important contributions towards a view of the artist as a researcher into the possibility of meaning, remained closely allied to the esthetics of beauty. (There are, of course, traces in Duchamp of a return to the medieval notion of art, and this may provide additional justification for the alchemical symbolism in his work. In any event, as formalist esthetics recreated the history of art as a history of style, post-Duchampian art theory must, as Kaschnitz’ Strukturforschung School has already begun to do, read this history as a history of meaning and a struggle for adequate signification. In this reading formalism can be seen in its true perspective as a moment, a foolish episode, in the history of art.)

Precisely this rejection is what is implied, therefore, when Duchamp speaks simultaneously of truth and art with no mention of beauty. But it cannot be denied that he consigns both to “stupidity.” This is an important move if he is not to be interpreted as merely championing a stale representationalism or medieval didacticism. His change in outlook concerning the nature of art which turns it toward truth unfettered by the conventions of beauty demands a revision of the notion of truth which is equally far reaching. To this extent Duchamp’s, “In the first place never believing in truth,” is no different from Heidegger’s, “In its essence truth is untruth.” Neither statement implies a recapitulation, and Heidegger is quite explicit on this point, of conventional dialectical negation. Rather, both search beneath the Hegelian-Mallarméan perpetual motion of negation and affirmation in the quest of a truth which involves the necessary conflict of being “stupid” and untrue. As we shall see, Duchamp escapes the pure negative by abolishing the distinction between the “no” and the “yes” and seeking the origin of that which is their condition, art itself. In order to understand how Duchamp makes this attempt we must turn to a very special portion of his Green Box, which tries in a unique manner to deal with the problem of signification, the notes on language.

Earlier we posed, without really resolving, the problem of how Duchamp’s notes, by promising and then parodying the possibility of a meaning exterior to the givens of the work itself, might escape the all-too-limited horizon of hermeticism. Thus far we have found that this theme reveals itself as the “content” of his own work and the essential problem of modern thought in general. It is only fitting, therefore, that we turn to the jottings which deal with this problem directly, his notes on language. The obstacle which obscures any significant content in the majority of the notes, namely that in a sense the whole must be known before the meaning of any of the parts can come clear, might be lifted by the notes on language. They are the only part of The Bride . . . that claims to treat of the whole work and also, in addressing language as a whole, brings that which we discovered by means of an historicogenetic analysis of Duchamp’s style to be the central issue of his art, into contact with something external. We can see in a preliminary sense that these notes frame the world of thought in the same way that the transparent Glass frames the physical world: different and irreconcilable systems of thought and “plot leads” come into contact and cancel one another, but all find themselves inadequate for expressing that work which stimulated their being suggested and thus is the condition (a word we cannot speak without distrust but must use in the momentary strategy of a sudden naming) of their possibility.

We spoke earlier of his plans for the creation of a new language untranslatable point-by-point into conventional phonetic script.: “Dictionnaire d’une langue dont chaque mot ait la traduction en français (ou autre) par plusieurs mots, au besoin une phrase entière.”27 He calls the basic elements of his new dictionary “prime words”and explains the implementation of this translation from mathematics in the following note:
The search for “prime words” (“divisible” only by themselves and by unity). Take a Larousse dictionary and copy all the so-called “abstract” words, i.e., those which have no concrete reference. Compose a schematic sign designating each of these words. (This sign can be composed with the re-pairs standard). These signs must be thought of as the letters of the new alphabet. . . . Necessity for ideal continuity, i.e., each grouping will be connected with the other groupings by a strict meaning (a sort of grammar, no longer requiring a pedagogical sentence construction). Out apart from the differences of languages, and the “figures of speech” peculiar to each language—, weighs and measures some abstractions of substantives, of negatives, of relations of subject to verb, etc., by means of standard signs (representing these new relations: conjugations, declensions, plural and singular, adjectivation inexpressible by the concrete alphabetic forms of languages living now and to come.) This alphabet very probably is only suitable for the description of this picture.28

Before a direct attempt can be made at understanding the general movement of this extraordinary methodology, one or two preliminary observations might be in order. Notice, in the first place, the self-conscious awareness of the special role of abstract words, and the special relation such words have to an external reference, in a phrase which almost prefigures the prose of the note on the Jura-Paris road: “copy all the so-called ‘abstract’ words, i.e., those which have no concrete reference.” The strategy is to give these abstractions (the distinction between abstractions and other words is unclear; perhaps all words are abstract) a concrete reference in the signs of The Bride . . . thus bringing into absolute proximity their essential ideality and newly gained uniqueness. The apparent contradiction and ambiguity of this situation reenacts the strategy we mentioned earlier of searching beneath the truth (in this case that ideal entity which guarantees the truth of a word) for contradiction.

It might also be of interest to notice that there is a real similarity to Structuralist linguistics in a phrase such as “each grouping will be connected with the other groupings by a strict meaning. . . .” The unification of the signs among themselves, given a necessary adjustment of terminology, is not too far from Saussure’s theory that meaning results not from a specific transcendent correlate but from negating all other possible meanings. In the end Burnham is probably correct to notice a relation between Duchamp’s notes and Structuralism. I would speculate that the relationship between the latter and Mallarmé is much more convincing, that in poetics and linguistics there was somehow a contemporaneous realization that, with the fall of Idealism, the meaning of a word would have to be found in a different manner than through the concept of the “idea” which the word “represents.” Saussure’s system of arbitrary pairings of sounds and significations is very close to some of Mallarmés statements in Variations sur un sujet and Quant au Livre. Yet Mallarmé (and this is important) and Structuralism were simply comanifestations of a unified historical phenomenon. Contrary to what Burnham implies, I doubt whether Structuralism’s explanation of Mallarmé (or Duchamp) would not merely restate in linguistic terms what the poet had said from within a different horizon. My argument here is an application of Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle: the relation of Structuralism to Mallarmé demonstrates that the evocation of a meta-language is much more difficult than we would at first believe. In this case it results in a simple tautology. It is true, nevertheless, that both Mallarmé and Structuralism (the former explicitly, the latter implicitly) posit the whole of language as the ultimate meaning against which the matching of signs derives its significance. Duchamp, I suspect, would challenge this as too close to Idealism by doubting the determinacy of the whole of language. His use of Chance, which is quite unlike Mallarmé’s, creates a work beyond all possible permutations (Lévi-Strauss, that ever-practical thinker, once told the world that he could produce the transcendental ego just by adding up all these permutations) and thus beyond the tangible universal and any system of semiotics no matter how far reaching. Introducing the unthinkable condition that an inseparable component of this whole is Nothing, Duchamp moves much closer to second generation Structuralism (Foucault and Derrida) and inevitably Heidegger. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Let us attempt a general explanation of this note. The translation of the concept “prime” from numerical into linguistic series entails a shift in content which Duchamp himself explains only by means of examples. The first point is that these words are divisible only by themselves. Division in language is definition; to divide a word means to break up the unity it represents into a cluster of component unities. If prime words are divisible only by themselves, this must imply that in context they resist translation outside of the art work. The word itself is as unique as that about which it speaks. The thrust of this gesture seems to be against the instant idealization and conceptualization which language usually incurs.

But the results are rather strict. What were normally functioning units of the French language (taken from a Larousse) assume entirely new and self-contained meanings in the context of the truth-originating art work. In other words, the notes are applicable only to descriptions of other elements of The Bride . . ., other notes, objects on the Glass, etc. For any leap at all to occur into another language the word must be in its unique environment: entire structures can be translated out of the art work but their translation precedes and is not the result of translating natural symbols point-by-point. This is what is meant by saying that the word is also divisible by unity. Since there exists no smallest positive unit in language as is possible in mathematics, unity in this case must be the largest unit, or the whole (the meaning of which gives the meaning of the smaller parts). Perhaps Duchamp implies that even individual sentences cannot serve as sufficient structures to define the meaning of their components. The meaning is given all at once or not at all.

But how is this possible? Am I not, like Burnham and Schwarz, reading much too much into this simple note? If the knowledge of the whole precedes that of the parts, am I not presuming that knowledge in myself in order to explain these linguistic notes which, after all, are merely parts? Can a situation such as I have described even exist, can it be?

“In the end it comes to doubt ‘to be.’” But a doubt in being which is not a mere cavalier (and very metaphysical) rejection of the whole in favor of the self-evidence of the “facts.” Rather, using language as a cleft into the world of his Glass and the world at large, he exposes the inability of either world to account for itself, and analogously, of language to signify itself. By not only projecting the possibility of a language which is untranslatable by “les formes alphabétiques concrètes des langues vivantes présentes et à venir” and furthermore unspeakable (“Est-elle parlable? Non.”), but also asserting that the entirety of The Bride . . . is composed of this language (“se servir de ce dictionnaire pour la partie écrite du verre”), Duchamp lays bare, through the paradoxical core of his work—that is, the notes on language—the impossible necessity which is responsible for the form and presence of The Bride. . . . For this reason he prefaces his long description of the new language with the phrase, “Conditions of a language: The search for ”prime words, etc.“ The inaccessible but constantly manifest whole can only present itself as a notion by positing itself as the condition not only of the work but of language as a whole, and yet negating concrete language the minute the two come into contact. Accordingly, Duchamp, by means of his irony, places over every aspect of the work the disturbing ratures (brackets) which have been the fascination of modern thought: ”Parcourir un dictionnaire et raturer tous les mots indésirables."29

Now, rather, we have Duchamp himself in a position similar to our own: his manipulation of the concrete/abstract syntactical play of nominatives reflects our endless mediation of pure content vs. pure form in describing his work, the dialectic of the opening section of this essay. In fact we have reflected back upon that dialectic by converting it into the criticoliterary icon of concrete/abstract and by inserting it into our subject matter. In this sense we have carved a way through Duchamp’s art—but a way through which, I believe, our mythical artist himself formed his work. Beyond Duchamp we have turned into the interior of this essay what had been a problem of its process or progress, thus rescuing once again for “content” what had been left to the autism of “style.” That the effects of this turning in can be named as such is not, however, our claim. What we do assert is that the strategic limitations of this simple dialectic have perhaps been surpassed. And if these final sections turned quite consciously to rhetoric in order to dispel the notion that any naive materialism lay behind Duchamp’s intent, this interpretation, as different in style as it is revelatory in content, might perhaps leave in suspense the ultimate turn of that rhetoric. The “gratuitous formulation” consciousness, which presumes there is always something there to be conscious of, is replaced as the basis of the artistic experience by something which is perhaps not aware of itself as a thing and so not there at all.

But, being an artist and not a philosopher, Duchamp cannot rest content to simply make a claim concerning the possibilities of knowledge and truth, and thus create a work in the purely formal sense of one in which any specific content would do. The paradox lies in that our ability to denote the specificity of his content would deny that content. For that reason Duchamp tells us nothing that we can repeat and all our ideas seem to be swallowed up into the bottomlessness of the work the minute they appear. Yet there is something beyond the epistemological argument and, because it exists on the same plane of transcendence as we ourselves, we cannot subdue it. Although no truth resides in The Bride . . . to be discovered, and all thoughts expressed in relation to the work in and of themselves are inadequate to an expression of that which is not there (and, contrary to Heidegger, it has not fled: it was simply never present)—in spite of all of these things, the thoughts which come into proximity with The Bride . . . and those which flow from it as the condition of their stimulation are cast by the work into a new style, a subtle play, or, as Nietzsche said at the end of the modern era, an unknown dance whose obscure origin does not efface the eternal force of its rhythm.

Willis Domingo



11. Arturo Schwarz, Notes and Projects for the Large Glass, New York, 1969, p. 39. Italics and translations mine.

12. Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, New York, 1969, p. 136.

13. Marcel Duchamp, Marchand du Sel, ed. Michel Sanouillet, Paris, 1958, p. 51.

14. Schwarz, Notes and Projects, p. 75.

15. Duchamp, Marchand du Sel, p. 33.

16. Ibid., p. 35.

17. Stephane Mallarmé, Le Guignon from Oeuvres complétes, ed. Henri Mondor and G. Jean-Aubry, Paris, 1956.

18. Mallarmé, Un Coup de des from Oeuvres complétes.

19. Ibid.

20. Octavio Paz, Marcel Duchamp or the Castle of Purity, London, 1970.

21. Mallarmé, Collected Works, Middlesex, England, 1965, pp.xxi-xxiii.

22. G.W.F. Hegel, Die Phänomenologie des Geistes in Sämtliche Werke Jubiläumsausgabe, ed. Hermann Glockner, Stuttgart, 1927–30, p. 216. Translation by J. B. Baillie, The Phenomenology of Mind, New York, 1964, p. 325.

23. Hegel, pp. 83–84.

24. Ibid., p. 594.

25. Ibid, p. 151. Parenthetical remarks mine.

26. Schwarz, Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, p. 34. Italics mine.

27. Schwarz, Notes and Projects, p. 63.

28. Duchamp, Marchand du Sel, pp. 43–44.

29. Schwarz, Notes and Projects, p. 63. Italics mine.