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Do the Duchamp, Baby!
Dalia Judovitz, Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. pp. 318. Paperback ISBN: 0-5202-1376-9. (paper)
David Joselit, Infinite Regress: Marcel Duchamp 1910-1941 Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998. pp. 340. ISBN: 0-2621-0067-3. (hardcover)
Other Voices, v.1, n.2 (September 1998)
Copyright © 1998, Jonathan Eburne, all rights reserved.
There is a moment in Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs when F.B.I. agent Clarice Starling, interviewing Hannibal Lecter at his cell, attempts to use wordplay as a way of steering their conversation toward the questionnaire she has brought for him to complete. Lecter interrupts her with a sharp rebuke: "No. No, that's stupid and wrong. Never use wit in a segue." "Listen," he explains, "understanding a witticism and replying to it makes our subject perform a fast, detached scan that is inimical to mood. It is on the plank of mood that we proceed." 
In the tense chess-game of tact and tactics that transpires between them, Starling's gaffe does not represent a breach of the rules governing her interactions with Lecter: she has neither revealed her hand too early, nor rendered herself vulnerable to the psychopath's deadly scrutiny. Lecter, in fact, knows precisely why she is there, and is not expressing his dissatisfaction with the "game" Starling is playing with him. Rather, Starling's faux pas reflects her excessive focus upon the mechanics of this "game of chess" itself which neglects the importance of the relationship between its players -- the real reason for Lecter's cooperation. As Lecter explains, the "fast, detached scan" Starling's wit requires is alienating because its coy and superficial strategy for changing the subject overlooks the degree to which Lecter's desire to participate in the conversational exchange, his interest and mood, are essential to Starling's progress. Her segue fails not only because it imposes a hurried conclusion, but also because it effects this through a play on words whose rhetorical density diverts the listener away from the subject of conversation and toward the language itself. The problem, then, is not actually Starling's use of wit, but rather what her wit replaces or elides: namely, the logical connections a segue performs conclusively and with a generosity of explication that is not "inimical to mood."
The two recent books on the work of Marcel Duchamp reviewed here each rely heavily upon the kind of wit that Starling misuses. The difference, however, is that the witticisms used by their authors are not contrived gratuitously, but are distinctly "Duchampian." Duchamp himself developed a profound and assiduous wit throughout his artistic career, to the extent that his works have been described as forms of wit themselves: the late Octavio Paz has written that Duchamp's readymades are "the plastic equivalent of puns."  Both stylistically and structurally, the two books adopt an analytical language permeated by puns, plays-on-words, and esoteric terms, most of which are Duchamp's own. There is something problematic about this strategy that represents more than the rhetorical consequences of infusing post- Derridean "play" into academic language. Indeed, as I've implied, it is not their use of wit itself that is troublesome. Duchamp's work is wickedly clever and funny, and to write about it dryly or conservatively would, at best, betray its spirit, and at worst, "stupidly and wrongly" miss its point. Dalia Judovitz and David Joselit are both keenly aware of this. Rather, what is troublesome is the extent to which they deploy Duchampian wit in ways that unnecessarily hurry, digress from, contract, or confuse the progress of their respective arguments. This often makes for difficult reading, especially when the authors employ Duchamp's terms early in the texts, before they have explicated them. Judovitz, in particular, is guilty of this, though it is merely a stylistic concern, albeit one "inimical to mood." Likewise, on a conceptual level, the books are occasionally satisfied with allowing the multiple meanings of puns to supplant more fully-developed readings of Duchamp's work, or more demonstrative articulations of their logic. Like Starling's segue, the books lack some of the explicative generosity which comes with acknowledging the importance of their relationships to the reader. It is clear that the two books are written primarily for an academic audience with at least some expertise in the field of Duchamp's work. This, of course, accounts for the freedom with which un- or underexplicated Duchampian language is used as an analytical tool. Yet this circumstance is symptomatic of a broader issue which characterizes the field of Duchamp studies from which these two books emerge.
Duchamp has emerged in the 1990's as "the Artist of the Century," spawning a regular industry of scholarly production dedicated to his work. Numerous academic publications have appeared in the past ten years, including, significantly, "Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century," a collection of essays in which a chapter of Judovitz's book first appeared.  The tendency of such an industry is to become somewhat solipsistic, since each new book or essay must in some way respond to, or avoid repeating, the conclusions of all the existing books. Moreover, as artist of the century, Duchamp's usefulness for addressing numerous contemporary theoretical concerns -- postmodernism, modernism, gender, sexuality, authority, the status of art -- creates countless other directions of inquiry. The result, we might say, is an industry which focuses more upon the sophisticated mechanics of its own production, than on the basic relationships which lie underlie it: the relationship between a scholarly book and its readership, between the scholarly book and Duchamp's individual works, and, most significantly, between Duchamp's works and an audience composed of both viewers of this work and readers of the scholarship about it. The "fast, detached scan" of contemporary academic criticism is particularly damaging to the study of Duchamp because, in spite of his own self- referentiality, insidious trickery, and intricately complex annotations, his work does interact with its viewers very strongly "on the plank of mood," in terms of both interest and participation. One of Duchamp's great strengths as an artist is his ability to ask very basic, fundamental questions -- about the nature of art, ideas, sexuality, human relations -- with a conceptual rigor that allows these questions to remain both difficult and fundamental on all levels of analysis. Like the gamesmanship of a skilled chess player, Duchamp's art can be as basic or as difficult as its opponent, the viewer: it has the remarkable ability to rise to the occasion. The real game is played out conceptually, on the order of ideas, affect, and mood, and thus an industry dedicated to taking stock of all the possible moves and strategies runs the risk of obscuring the very basic questions at stake in Duchamp's work.
Judovitz, and especially Joselit, each position their work within the vicissitudes of this Duchamp industry. As attempts to advance the field, both books are very aware of the criticism that precedes them and, to a large extent, address themselves to this field of study. Both "Unpacking Duchamp" and "Infinite Regress" examine a wide range of Duchamp's work that includes much of his lesser-known pieces as well as his more famous works like Large Glass and the readymades. Both, in fact, cite the importance of Box in a Valise (1941), a portable collection of replicas of Duchamp's early pieces that looks like a cross between a cabinet of curiosities and a traveling salesman's kit, for interpreting Duchamp's work as a whole. Judovitz uses the work as her starting-point, "unpacking" the box to reveal how Duchamp's replication of his own work redefines his artistic production as reproduction; that is, that his art is no longer about representing new visual images but about art itself. Duchamp's reproductive art is more strategic than mimetic, playing itself out as an open-ended series of interactions with its viewers rather than as a fixed image. Just as a chess game can be replayed over and again with the same pieces, Judovitz argues that Duchamp's works reinterpret aesthetic pleasure as "a pleasure derived neither from invention nor the sensuality of the pieces themselves, but from their recomposition and poetic deployment as a game" (Judovitz, 39). Joselit, like Judovitz, stresses the usefulness of both the Box in a Valise and chess as interpretive tools for discussing Duchamp's work; his book, however, concludes with this piece, claiming that it "completed the metaphorical labor begun in The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even" (Joselit, 195). Joselit cites the painstaking manual labor undertaken by Duchamp to create the Box's replicas manually, rather than mechanically, as a way of writing about the readymades reproduced therein that reacts to "the crude and reductive discourses of reification that have characterized much of [the readymade's] postwar critical reception" (Joselit, 195). For Joselit, this new way of thinking about readymade would not conceive of Duchamp's art as a chess-game between the work of art and the viewer, but as "an infinite regress of transactional encounters" between the "object-as-self" and "the self-as-object" which is more relevant to the artist's encounter than the viewer's. This insures that Joselit's book, more so than Judovitz's, regresses into the intricacies and sophistries of a discursive field that includes not only Duchamp's own "industry" of replicating his work, but of the theoretical discourse of "identity" and "commodities" that surrounds Duchamp's "transactional encounters."
Judovitz's Unpacking Duchamp argues that Duchamp's art addresses the conventions that guide viewers, and thus her book directs some attention to the relationship between art and viewer that Duchamp, like Hannibal Lecter, analyses. Her way of setting up this discussion is insightful and innovative, not only where as she unpacks the Box in a Valise, but also in her discussion of Duchamp's earlier transition from painting to the readymade (addressing the famous notion that in the years following the succès-de- scandale of Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, Duchamp abandoned painting for pursuits which included readymades and chess). Though he gave up painting as a practice, he took it on as a set of rules and conventions: based on the reception of his painting, Duchamp was suddenly aware of the "norms and strictures that define not just conventional art but also contemporary art movements, such as Cubism" (Judovitz, 19), and thus while Duchamp's work ceased to operate within these constraints, it instead adopted them as its subject matter.
Judovitz's work equivocates about the precise nature of the "norms and strictures" that define avant-garde art, but implies that Duchamp's two major targets are a) the notion that aesthetic pleasure is a function of the visual reception of a fixed image, that is, the assumption that art remains "retinal" (as opposed to cerebral) even in movements like Cubism, and b) the notion that aesthetic value is a function of invention and "individual creation." When he draws upon such conventions as his subject matter, Duchamp reframes them as rhetorical and plastic elements, rather than ideological or merely assumed givens. Such a redefinition might suggest that Duchamp's strategy takes into account the transactions or relations between art, artist, and viewer, that make it possible. This does indeed appear to be Judovitz's intention, since at several points in her discussion the opinions and visual experiences of the spectator arise as a significant thematic element in Duchamp's work. However, Judovitz spends more time explicating how each of Duchamp's works "speculatively draw on and reinvest the conventions of previous artistic traditions" (Judovitz, 77), rather than fully exploring either how this rhetorical play affects the spectator, or what is at stake in addressing conventions in this way.
Judovitz's analysis, which is often brilliant, forwards works like Box in a Valise and the notes of The Green Box as works which not only reproduce in miniature other works but, more importantly, recontextualize them in a way that mirrors how a chessboard works: it's the same objects every time, but the moves are different. Duchamp's art is therefore more interested in strategy, in the paradoxes and problems that arise while playing out the moves of the game, than it is in the visual or sensual quality of the objects themselves. From this point, Judovitz draws the insightful but problematic conclusion that this strategy can be thought about as a field, as the conditions of possibility of the game. She turns, in other words, to the consequences of an understanding of art-as-chess upon the nature of the object; it is as if her book discusses the implications of chess play upon the pieces and the board, rather than on potential players. As a result, much of her argument concerns the notion of reproduction in Duchamp's work; as she writes, "in this context, artistic production emerges necessarily in the form of reproduction, that is, the deliberate staging and reappropriation of previous styles and artistic movements" (Judovitz, 235). While this focus permits Judovitz to forward valuable and often striking interpretations of Duchamp's works, it tends to marginalize the implications of her own argument: how might Duchamp's transformation of art into a kind of chess-game be something other than a game? Even if Duchamp's work challenges specific conventions like originality, fixed artistic value, and the primacy of visual perception, what is at stake in challenging the conventional basis of art itself? What, in other words, is the challenge of Duchamp's chess game?
David Joselit's Infinite Regress is an intricate and sophisticated work of synthesis which attempts to forge a structural homology between Duchamp's painting and his so-called abandonment of painting. Joselit's principle of synthesis is the plurality which, he writes, "refers equally to [Duchamp's] artistic practice and his reception within art history" (Joselit, 3). As both an author and a discursive field, the Duchamp of the years from 1910 (when he came into his own as a painter of proto-cubist nudes) until 1941 (when he completed Box in a Valise) invents a litany of discontinuous artistic styles, materials, and subjects whose very multiplicity suggests that Duchamp's artistic practice throughout this period might be described as a particularly esoteric form of research.
Unlike Judovitz, Joselit rejects outright the myth that Duchamp abandoned painting after Nude Descending a Staircase, and demonstrates instead how Duchamp progressed through numerous series of objects and object-relations which express and develop an organic theme originally developed in his early painting. Rather than abandoning the nudes depicted in his painting, this progression develops Duchamp's original theoretical concern, the dichotomy between a body (the female nude) and a measurement system (cubism's "tricks," its sign systems and networks of signification). Rather than focusing on cubism or painting in general as a set of conventions, Joselit insightfully interprets these conventions as a systems of measurement or mensuration. The drama of Duchamp's work, then, consists of the interactions between bodies, commodities, and identities which are provisionally defined through various forms of measurement, but which always regress back to mute materiality and carnality. What begins in Duchamp's nudes as a blurring of the boundaries between bodies and measurement systems, develops into an open-ended proliferation of interchangeable objects and inscriptions in which each thing is both an object to be measured and a form of measurement. Joselit's book focuses primarily on this interchangeability of both objects and systems of measurement, since his primary bone of contention is the tendency of many interpreters of Duchamp to reduce his research on objects and conceptual systems of measurement to a critique of art as an institution. Such reductions are satisfied with criticizing, or at least revealing, that art objects had become no more than commodities in the modern era. Arguing instead that human subjects, as well as art objects, are themselves already conditioned by the same process of commodification, Joselit rejects institutional critique as a limited way of understanding Duchamp's achievements. Joselit attempts instead to show that what makes Duchamp's art interesting is how it delves into the "infinite regress" of interrelation and interplay between these two types of commodified entities, the "object-as-subject" and the "subject-as-object." Rather than thinking of Duchamp as a cunning chess-master who plays invisibly, though his art pieces, with the spectators who collectively make up the social institution of art, Joselit understands Duchamp as a field of discourse, that is, as an aspect of the chessboard itself. For Joselit, the two people who oppose each other in such a game of chess do not figure literally as Duchamp and his spectator(s); rather, the players and their moves are all functions of the game itself, representing the occasionally measurable, and occasionally immensurable, encounters between objects and subjects that represent the social dimension of Duchamp's chesslike art. Joselit's innovative synthesis of Duchamp's artistic project from 1910-1941 thus succeeds in systematizing Duchamp's complicated and multitudinous artistic strategies, as well as many of their theoretical implications. However, Joselit's achievement produces the same results as Clarice Starling's stroke of wit: although it makes an important connection in a bold and cunning way, its effect is ultimately alienating insofar as it neglects the relationships which make possible the transactional exchanges Joselit writes about in the first place. This is not merely due to the book's rhetorical density or lack of explicative generosity when it comes to articulating a difficult conceptual position; but rather, its depiction Duchamp as a field of discourse inside which there is little to identify with or relate to. By defining Duchamp's practice as one of "establishing virtually limitless chains or spirals of identifications" (Joselit, 4), Joselit limits his discussion to the immediate mechanics of Duchamp's preoccupations as an artist, rather than extrapolating why these preoccupations were interesting or important to Duchamp, or how they might be interesting or important to us. The fact that Joselit limits his discussion to Duchamp's work before 1941 -- after which Duchamp went "underground," arguably in order to mull over these very questions of motivation and significance -- reflects this limitation. Joselit's monograph elaborates many fascinating and insightful forces at work within Duchamp's oeuvre, but it ultimately fails to understand this oeuvre as anything other than an industrialized game -- a serious and complicated game, but a game nonetheless.
1 Thomas Harris, The Silence of the
Lambs (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988), 19.
Octavio Paz, Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare, trans.
Rachel Phillips and Donald Gardner (New York: Viking, 1978), 21.
Rudolph E. Kuenzli and Francis M. Naumann, eds., Marcel Duchamp: Artist
of the Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989).
Click here to order Dalia Judovitz's Unpacking Duchamp:
Art in Transit from Amazon.com
Click here to order David Joselit's Infinite Regress: Marcel
Duchamp 1910-1941 from Amazon.com
1 Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988), 19.
2 Octavio Paz, Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare, trans. Rachel Phillips and Donald Gardner (New York: Viking, 1978), 21.
3 Rudolph E. Kuenzli and Francis M. Naumann, eds., Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989).
Click here to order Dalia Judovitz's Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit from Amazon.com
Click here to order David Joselit's Infinite Regress: Marcel Duchamp 1910-1941 from Amazon.com
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