Review of Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, Formless: A User's Guide, MIT Press, 2000. ISBN: 0942299442. 304 pp. $30.00 pb.
Other Voices, v.2, n.2 (March 2002)
Text copyright © 2002, Victor Grauer, all rights reserved.
Formless: A User's Guide is the catalog of an exhibition held at the Pompidou Center in Paris during the summer of 1996. It is also much more, both a theoretical-historical monograph and a manifesto. Curator-authors Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois wish to redefine the boundaries of modernism and put that redefinition to use in a shake-up of the art world that will "redeal modernism's cards."
For Bois, the "mainstream" modernism of traditional art history— essentially, the modernism of Clement Greenberg, "had to justify its existence as the search for its own essence." This "ontological enterprise" promoted a myth based on four foundational postulates: 1. art is, or ought to be, "purely visual"—the tactile or material "does not exist for [art] except as in-formed, made over into form"; 2. "pictures reveal themselves in an instant and are addressed only to the eye of the viewer"; 3. "being 'purely visual,' art is addressed to the subject as an erect being, far from the horizontal axis that governs the life of animals . . . Art, according to this [mainstream modernist] view, is a sublimatory [thus repressive] activity that separates the perceiver from his or her body ... [gathering] the perceiver together around the core of its ideal unity..."; 4. a work of art must have a beginning and an end—"all apparent disorder is necessarily reabsorbed in the very fact of being bounded." 
Much of this has a familiar ring. For a long time now, the demystification of the "pretensions" of modernism with respect to "significant form," "the autonomy of the work of art," "pure visuality," "transcendence," the quest for "the essential," etc. has been an obsessive theme of the "postmodern" critical enterprise. But Krauss and Bois are not exactly card carrying postmodernists. We see very little if anything in this book of the usual PoMo vocabulary: "art-as-language," the "gaze," the "signifier," feminism, multiculturalism, historicism, semiosis, textuality, deconstruction, etc. Our authors take as their principal point of departure, not the work of Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Kristeva, Lyotard, Deleuze-Guatarri, etc., nor even, surprisingly, their own recent and noteworthy research on pictorial semiology, but certain writings of an important, long-neglected thinker: Georges Bataille.
Putting Bataille to Use
Notorious for a bitter dispute with André Breton, Bataille was well known in surrealist circles, but hardly an international figure. With the advent of post-structuralism, however, he has become, in retrospect, something of a legend, one of those all too necessary "precursors" whose work seems justified more by the use to which it can be put at the present moment than any real value it may ever have had. But the value of "real value" is no longer what it used to be. And "use" can have a value all its own, as we shall learn.
Inspired by the strange "dictionary" Bataille published serially in the journal Documents during the late '20s, Krauss and Bois have organized both their book and their exhibition according to an amusing "fractured" logic. Responding to the four "foundational postulates" of modernism summarized above are four basic "categories" of the formless: Base Materialism, Horizontality, Pulse, Entropy. Each is divided into exactly six subcategories (except for the last, which has ten), each explicated in a brief essay by one (never both—with one exception) of our collaborators . But it is very difficult to see how the subheadings fit under their categories. For example, under Base Materialism we have Abattoir, Base Materialism, Cadaver, Dialectic, Entropy and Figure. Under Horizontality we have Gestalt, Horizontality, Isotropy, Jeu Lugubre, Kitsch, Liquid Words. The joke, which is a good one, is that all the subheadings are organized alphabetically, with no regard for the boundaries of the categories under which they are listed. Thus the first subcategory under Horizontality, Gestalt, comes alphabetically just after the last subcategory under Base Materialism, Figure. Moreover, each main category is also a subcategory, either of itself or another category. Clearly, the authors have here endeavored to apply the subversive "anti-methodology" of Bataille himself.
Let us now focus our attention on the word: in French, informe, in English, "formless." As defined by Bataille, this term is informed by the task of bringing things "down in the world." "What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm." The Bataillian "formless" speaks to us of what is belittled, denigrated, repressed. The difficulties entailed in this notion become evident when we review certain key distinctions emphasized by our authors. Bataille's "formless" is "base materialism," but not the flattened "material" surface of Clement Greenberg. It is "formless," but not the art informel of Tapié or Dubuffet. It can be bloody, excremental and disgusting, but not in the manner of artists such as Nitsche or Beuys. It can be "abject" (Bataille put this term to use), but not in the currently "fashionable" manner now associated with Julia Kristeva.
While such distinctions might seem arbitrary or even a bit snobbish, there is a genuine insight here. Bois and Krauss are at pains to distinguish between strategies designed to elevate the debased, abject, formless, by sublimating them into Art, and strategies designed to get viewers "down and dirty," inviting them to experience "formlessness" on its own, far more subversive, terms. As they might put it: no to sublimation—yes to "return of the repressed." (The index entry under "Freud" occupies twelve lines, second only to "Bataille.")
Formless vs. Gestalt
To help us understand the relation between issues pertaining to form and formlessness, repression and its return, Krauss invokes, in an essay entitled "Gestalt," the venerable but still useful "mirror stage" of Jacques Lacan, the period in the child's development when it begins to recognize itself in its mirror image, as a Gestalt, i.e., a unified subject. "Lacan seized on this model of the Gestalt's 'good form' as securing the centered subject...which will...serve to prefigure the 'I'." And, a bit farther along: "The [Lacanian] Imaginary... continues to play a part in the [Lacanian] Symbolic's meaning-effect, insofar as the Gestalt provides the illusion that meaning itself is, first, resolvable, unifiable, univocal, one; and, second, a reflection of the subject, as in a mirror, thus belonging to the subject, arising from him." Ultimately, "Lacan widens the field of the Gestalt from vision to signification, spreading its net to the phallic 'one' as meaning/being." Thus the mirror stage establishes the Lacanian Imaginary as a Gestalt, the unifications of which then become the basis for verbal language (the Symbolic) and its repressive subject (the Ego). Krauss then takes this a bit farther. Noting that "[t]he image, as seen in the mirror, will also be upright," she argues that "verticality" is a necessary ingredient in the Gestalt/Imaginary brew, linking signification/meaning with man's uniquely upright posture, a position which orients him to his surroundings and at the same time establishes a set of values based on "up" and "down," "high" and "low," the repression of what is "base," which cannot even be thought until "lifted up" via sublimation.
As Krauss makes clear in the same essay, Bataille's interest is overwhelmingly in that "low," that "baseness." But his intention is not at all to "lift it up," via sublimation, Hegelian Aufhebung, or, least of all, any kind of "artistic" or "poetic" transfiguration into anything resembling "significant form." On the contrary, "the work of formlessness" destroys the very categories (classes) which give form to the lofty Symbolic, "stripping off the 'mathematical frock coats' of the categories, ... lowering these integers—whether visual or cognitive—from their upright positions as vertical Gestalts, by knocking them off their pedestals of form, and thus bringing them down in the world." A kind of sublimation in reverse—desublimation as return of the repressed. And this is certainly one of the keys to the interest our authors take in Bataille. Inspired by his essay "The Use Value of de Sade," Krauss and Bois are interested in putting Bataille himself "to use" in "shaking" the art world by negotiating the return of its own long-repressed, long-denied "other."
Now that we know a bit about formless, we are left with the question of how to achieve it, which is where our four main headings—Base Materialism, Horizontality, Pulse, and Entropy,—come in. Each represents a set of strategies through which form, meaning, the subject, language, or Art, can be knocked off their pedestals and brought down to earth so that what has been "repressed" can more (un)easily "return." Let's briefly examine each.
For Bataille, the materialism of the philosophers—even the dialectical materialism of Marx and his followers—is still too dependent on "an obsession with an ideal form of matter." Base materialism is more extreme. In the essay presented under this heading, Bois explains: ". ..the formless matter that base materialism claims for itself resembles nothing, especially not what it should be, refusing to let itself be assimilated to any concept whatever, to any abstraction whatever. For base materialism, nature produces only unique monsters...." To "find a support on which to construct this base materialism" one must "learn to submit one's being and one's reason 'to what is lower...'"
Formulation of the laws governing such a process of submission will be the task of "heterology," "the science of what is entirely other." Linked in Bataille's mind with both scatology ("the science of excrement") and "the sacred," heterology can be understood as a kind of arrested dialectic, a raw, abyssal, scission interposed between high and low, with no possible Hegelian third term through which the division could be resolved (sublated/sublimated) on some higher plane of awareness or artistic achievement. As Bois explains in his essay under the heading "Dialectic," "[e]ach time that the homogeneous raises its head and reconstitutes itself (which it never stops doing since society coheres only by means of its cement), the job of the informe, base materialism, and scission is to decapitate it. What is at stake is the very possibility of a nondialectical materialism: matter is heterogeneous; it is what cannot be tamed by any concept." 
Bois (paraphrasing Bataille): "Man is proud of being erect (and of having thus emerged from the animal state...) but this pride is founded on a repression.... his present architecture, by means of which his horizontal gaze traverses a vertical field, is a travesty."  If what is desired is "lowness," then surely the horizontally-aligned animal is in a better position to experience it. But man has repressed this token of his animalistic history by insisting on standing upright and striving, always, for that which is "high." We like to think we live in our heads, not our feet—which, for Bataille, is a scandal.
In her "Horizontality" essay, Krauss discusses some examples of the sort of art which promotes the informe by getting, and staying, low. The first, that of Jackson Pollock, is a surprising choice, given the strong link between his work and the "idealized," aestheticised materialism of Clement Greenberg. For her, the most important of Pollock's many breakthroughs was his moving of the site of painting, not so much from the easel to the wall, ala Greenbergian theory, but down onto the floor, where he placed his unstretched canvas, literally dripping and pouring the paint. The "import of lowness encoded onto Pollock's assumption of the horizontal" was masked by fanciful, idealized titles, such as Sea Change, Vortex, etc., which were, in fact, not by Pollock at all, but a helpful, "literary" neighbor. Such works institute a new relation between the canvas and the viewer, who must observe these dripped, poured, cigarette-stubbed-out-on, trash-thrown-into canvasses as though looking downward. Krauss continues with more predictable readings of certain floor-oriented works by Robert Morris, followed by a discussion of what may be the most apt examples of any in the book Andy Warhol's spectacular "Oxidation Paintings," produced by literally placing canvasses on the floor and pissing on them.
While not a term widely employed by Bataille, pulse is here used both to "attack the modernist exclusion of temporality from the visual field"  and assert the importance, for the informe, of the "repetition compulsion" so fundamentally associated with Freud's theory of the "death drive." For Bois, pulse "involves an endless beat," continually renewed, thus anti-teleological—a beat which, like that of the heart, "incites an irruption of the carnal." In her essay entitled "Moteur," Krauss elaborates, via an extended discussion of certain time-based works of Duchamp, on the contrast between the gestaltist, Husserlian, "modernist" approach to time, which is, ultimately, for her, a denial of temporality, and the pulsing, erotically suggestive "throb" of Duchamp's rotoreliefs, which "disrupt the laws of form" to "invent the pulse as one of the operations of the formless...[bringing] the news that we 'see' with our bodies." Moving from Duchamp to the monotonously repetitious film Hand Catching Lead by Serra, thence to a brief consideration of stroboscopic "flicker" films by Kubelka and Sharits, Krauss distinguishes between the structuralist "purity" of such works and their "corporeal dimension," in a not-wholly-successful attempt to link their strategies with the obsessions of Bataille.
Entropy, according to the second law of thermodynamics, is what leads all matter and energy inevitably into an increasing state of disorder. For Bois, this law is strongly linked with "Bataille's fascination with rot and waste, with the decomposition of everything."  In the work of certain artists, notably Robert Smithson, Raoul Ubac, Gordon Matta-Clark, Bruce Nauman, Claes Oldenberg, and Marcel Duchamp, it operates by means of "degradation," "accumulation," "inversion," "the invasion of noise," "wear and tear," etc. It is "a sinking, a spoiling, but perhaps also an irrecoverable waste." 
In attempting to take things a bit farther, Krauss borrows a simple example of entropy from the writings of Smithson: as a child runs around inside a sandbox neatly divided between black and white grains, the colors will inevitably mix into a uniform gray. For her, this particular movement from differentiation to non-differentiation calls to mind "the photographs from [the surrealist journal] Minotaure of insects so perfectly imitating the patterns of their habitats as to vanish completely into the uniformity of one continuous texture. And this in turn suggests that what is at issue is the question of boundary or contour, which is to say, of the distinction between figure and ground."  Entropy, therefore, is not simply the wearing away of form, but much more: an attack on meaning itself, and its subject, via a subversion of the basic principle that produces the Lacanian imaginary, the Gestalt.
This creates something of a problem for Krauss. She wants to associate the breakup of the figure-ground distinction with the formless, but is all too aware of the importance this breakup has had for that very Greenbergian modernism she is so eager to reject. Her solution is to make a strong distinction between the visuality of mainstream modernism, where figure-ground differentiation is overcome for the sake of some more or less Hegelian sublation/sublimation into "purified space," and the "determinedly antivisualist" work of artists such as Robert Smithson, for whom, at least at first, "the intellectual challenge posed by entropy was temporal rather than spatial . . ."  When, in one of his later works, Enantiomorphic Chambers, Smithson engages the visual, he does it in such a way as to utterly stymy "the beholder's visual logic" through the creation of a mirrored space with "multiple, unsynthesizable vanishing points." Thus, even the visual can be "anti-visual" when it "logically erases any beholder." Krauss concludes: "The entropic, simulacral move...is to float the field of seeing in the absence of the subject...the disappearance of the first person is the mechanism that triggers formlessness." 
Modernism, High and Low
Bois and Krauss have chosen to concern themselves with a topic of the greatest interest, importance, relevance and even timeliness: the reconsideration, on the verge of the twenty-first century, of certain crucial aspects of a phenomenon profoundly characteristic of the twentieth—"modernism." In their view, what modernist art is most importantly about is not, as "mainstream" modernism maintains, the reduction of all aspects of art to some rarified, purified "essence" (which would merely be a continuation of the project of romanticism), but something far more challenging and problematic: the lowering of Man's sights "from the sky above to the mud below" and the loss of meaning, the descent into chaos, this entails. This is not a particularly new or even unusual topic. In one form or another it continually recurs in the literature in and around twentieth-century modernism, from the writings of Alfred Jarry and some (not all) of the Futurist manifestos to practically everything in Surrealist theory (including both Bataille and his nemesis Breton) and the writings of Artaud, not to mention DADA, all the way to works such as Morse Peckham's Man's Rage for Chaos, N. O. Brown's Life Against Death, the collected writings of John Cage and beyond, to take its place as a major theme of postmodernism. But this is an issue fraught with difficulties, as our authors are at pains to demonstrate, because there would seem to be two very different ways of approaching such a loss, such a descent: from the viewpoint of what is above, as tragic loss, or, at best, conundrum, in an economy which must demand redemption, restitution, explanation—or from the viewpoint of what is below, as liberation, literally "return of the repressed," in an economy of excess, overflow and unreason, what Bataille has termed "expenditure without reserve."
Our authors are therefore fighting a battle on two fronts: first against the by now rather old (and apparently defeated) Greenbergian view, an idealized materialism one step removed from romanticism, and second, against the more sophisticated and fashionable but nevertheless equally compromised view of a postmodernism which would rather thematize the return of the repressed than actively engage it. This latter issue lies, I suspect, at the heart of their continual return to that notion which has such importance for Bataille: "use." Thus Krauss argues, in the concluding section, against those who would interpret the work of Cindy Sherman in terms of Kristeva's abject: "That the reconsolidation of Sherman's images around the semantics of the wound acts contrary to their most radical and productive resources...is to be seen in an operational understanding of her work. Which is to say that 'abjection,' in [merely] producing a thematics of essences and substances, stands in absolute contradiction to the idea of the formless."  "Thematics," the mere mention of or reference to the abject, the low, the formless, the mere "semantics of the wound," is not sufficient. The wound, the informe, must become "operational," i.e., be "put to use." Thus most of the art on display in the exhibition must be understood "operationally," not as thematizations, representations, symbolizations of the formless, but specific instances of its being put to use. And, in turn, these works themselves have been put to use by the authors, in an effort to demonstrate the operationality of the informe.
Before proceeding to an evaluation of this work, I must confess that, despite my best efforts, my own response may not be without some degree of bias. Krauss and Bois have followed a "trajectory" (to borrow one of their favorite terms) which, at several points (and not only in this book), intersects with certain aspects of my own. My reading cannot help, therefore, but be colored by my own explorations—for some time now, in similar terrain—and the somewhat different conclusions I have drawn. The first thing I wish to say is how much I have always admired these authors, how much I have learned from them, how impressed I am with what they have accomplished here, and how enthusiastically I welcome an approach which so effectively gets beyond so many of the limitations and oversimplifications of a certain, very common, type of "postmodern" discourse on the arts. The second thing I wish to say is how surprising it would be for someone who has followed so similar a "trajectory" to arrive at exactly the same destination. So thirdly, I must assert that, for me, and as Krauss herself ultimately implies, there is still a great deal to be learned about the very important and also very difficult, very tricky, issues raised in this book.
Opposing the Oppositions of Dialectics
To begin with the introduction, I must observe that Bois, in seeking to "declare null and void" the characteristically modernist opposition, form vs. content, seems to forget that he and his colleague are seeking to replace it, in effect, with another equally Hegelian, equally idealist opposition: formed vs. formless. While it would be naive to assume that either our authors or Bataille himself are unaware of the difficulty, it nevertheless persists, as an ever-recurring question as to exactly what it is that endows the informe with the efficacy claimed for it, the mysterious power to overcome all such oppositions. Thus, when Bois states that "the formless matter that base materialism claims for itself resembles nothing,"  or that "this dualist mode of thought refuses to resolve contradictions . . . [and thus] sets a movement of asymmetrical division to work, separating high from low and, through its asymmetry, implying a fall from high to low"  or when Krauss writes of "a sense of the erosion of good form, an experience of prägnanz in the grip of the devolutionary forces of a throb that disrupts the laws of form, that overwhelms them, that scatters them",  it is hard to avoid the feeling that some unformulated, long-buried question is being rather strenuously begged.
In the now-classic study of Bataille's encounter with Hegel titled, "From Restricted to General Economy," Derrida, after a generally approving summary of Bataille's transgressive strategies, hesitates: "But this transgression of discourse (and consequently of law in general...) must, in some fashion, and like every transgression, conserve or confirm that which it exceeds." From this point, therefore, it is necessary for Derrida to "interpret Bataille against Bataille, or rather... interpret one stratum of his work from another stratum." In another essay from the same volume, "La Parole Souflée," Derrida writes in a similar vein with reference to certain comparably transgressive claims of Antonin Artaud, of "a necessary dependency of all destructive discourses: they must inhabit the structures they demolish, and, within them they must shelter an indestructible desire for full presence... The transgression of metaphysics...always risks returning to metaphysics."  Indeed, it's hard to see how formlessness per se, base materialism per se, horizontality per se, etc., as simply the intention to make some sort of mess, assert the presence of some irreducibly humble base matter, bring the viewer literally (though more often figuratively) down to the level of the low, etc., could be subtle enough to carry out its project without at the same time strengthening the dialectical oppositions it ostensibly seeks to subvert.
Formless vs. Omnipotence of Thought
Another related aspect of the problem can be seen in Freud's treatment, in Totem and Taboo, of the process he calls "secondary elaboration": "[A]n intellectual function in us demands the unification, coherence and comprehensibility of everything perceived and thought of, and does not hesitate to construct a false connection if, as a result of special circumstances, it cannot grasp the right one." He continues, relating secondary elaboration to the notion of primitive animism, "a contagious magic which depends upon contiguous association," and is motivated by "the wish and the will." Animism causes objects to be "overshadowed by the ideas representing them; what takes place in the latter must also happen to the former." The basis of animism is "similarity and contiguity," two forms of "contact" which are also the basis for the primitive notion of "taboo." Freud ultimately labels the fundamental principle behind both secondary elaboration and animism "Omnipotence of Thought."
To Freud, the elaborate pretensions of thought, attributed so often to the logical systemizations of dialectical metaphysics, are clearly pre-logical, pre-systematic. In a statement that might have been aimed directly at Bataille's notions of liberatory eroticism, Freud contends that "the belief in the omnipotence of thought, the unshaken confidence in the capacity to dominate the world..." is accounted for by the fact that "among primitive people thinking is still highly sexualized." But the will to imaginary domination cannot, of course, be confined to the primitive. As Freud makes clear, the basic principles of animism remain in the modern world "as the foundation of our language, our belief, our philosophy."
A simple but nevertheless telling example of secondary elaboration can be found on the front jacket of the book under review, a reproduction of a detail from Alberto Burri's Combustione Plastica, one of the works presented in the Pompidou exhibition. What is clearly intended as an example of the formless "put to use" can quite easily be seen otherwise as a crouching, black-haired, faceless figure with an elongated head, knees just below the chin, with a right arm extended downward to both encircle the legs and clasp a left arm at the elbow. Hardly the result of any intention on the part of either the artist or the author/curators, this figure emerges nevertheless to remind us that formlessness, in itself, as simple lack of form, is simply not strong enough to subvert the powerful processes of formation Freud associated with "omnipotence of thought."
A "Science" of Formlessness
To do justice to both Bataille and Artaud, our invocations of Derrida and Freud cannot tell the whole story with respect to the intentions, if not the accomplishments, of these famously "outrageous" poet-thinkers. Indeed, in my view, Derrida's assessment of Artaud, while undeniably trenchant, is not as devastating as he might have thought. Artaud is not simply advocating transgression per se, the breakup of traditional forms and values per se, but something quite new, something which Derrida has no grounds to dismiss simply because he has never encountered it. Far from being a crude assertion of absolute, unmediated presence, Artaud's self-aborted, unrealized and possibly unrealizable project (in this sense more in tune with Derrida's later notion of the Messianic, the "to come") was conceived as a work of the most acute precisions: "I give myself up to feverish dreams, but I do so in order to deduce new laws. In delirium, I seek multiplicity, subtlety and the eye of reason, not rash prophecies." We do not know what those "new laws" were to be. Perhaps they were never even formulated. But until the (Messianic) "coming" of such laws, we have no right to assume Artaud's project must inevitably defeat itself.
Can "new laws" be discerned among the "rash prophecies" of Bataille? In his essay, "Dialectic," Bois distinguishes the Hegelian dialectic from Bataille's notion of "scission." While "the dialectic is geared toward a final reconciliation [of opposites], . . . scission, on the contrary, always tries, by means of a low blow that attacks reason itself, to make the assimilation of the two opposites impossible. Scission is the basis of heterology as 'the science of the wholly other' ..." Reason, attacked not through the simple assertion of unreason, but the subversive operations of a science. This is promising, but Bois seems primarily interested in the philosophical implications, the establishment of heterology as a radically disjunctive mode of thought, a kind of "negative dialectic" not far removed, perhaps, from that of Adorno. The manner in which this science might actually operate to perform a non-dialectical subversion in, say, a work of art, is not really discussed. Heterology puts in an appearance in Bois' essay on Base Materialism as well, but again it is the purely philosophical aspect that gets most of the attention. When finally Bois considers specific works of art by Giacometti, Fontana, Burri, Rauschenberg, etc., it is their simple assertion of base materialism, not their employment of any sort of heterological science, which occupies him.
Heterology puts in one more appearance in the final chapter, Krauss' "Conclusion: The Destiny of the Informe." It is here in explicitly rejecting strategies of "thematization" in favor of formlessness as an operation, "a process of 'alteration,' in which there are no essentialized or fixed terms, but only energies within a force field . . ." that she comes closest to expressing the sense of "new laws" (laws of subversion which might direct such energies in the production of such a field) rather than simple transgressions of the sort that too easily return us to either traditional dialectics or animism. But when it comes time to put her insight "to use," she can do no better than produce, as examples, some concept art pieces by Mike Kelley— installations which seem to operate mostly, once again, by means of simple assertion and, indeed (as does most concept art) thematization. If any "energies" or "force fields" are put into play in these works, they are strictly conceptual, not "material."
In her essay entitled "Isotropy," Krauss draws upon Lyotard's Discours/Figure, which replaces the static structuralist grid with the complexities of a transformational matrix, on which might be plotted the "spatial 'logic' of the unconscious." "This work of the matrix is then to overlay contradiction and to create the simultaneity of logically incompatible solutions.... The destruction of difference, the work here of the matrix figure, is the destruction of form." This is indeed promising. But again, the move from the theoretical to the all important operational is desultory. A few examples of image "melting" and the "blurring of sexual difference" from the surrealist photography of Ubac, Bellmer and Man Ray are mentioned (in a single sentence) but never discussed.
Disappointingly, most of the art chosen by Bois and Krauss for the purpose of actively putting the informe "to use" seems to lack much in the way of energy and is, in fact, strangely passive. Robert Smithson goes to a great deal of trouble and expense to dump tons of dirt on a hill—the real "work" of the piece is then accomplished, over time, by nature (entropy). Robert Morris earnestly cuts a huge bolt of felt according to some simple scheme and then hangs it from a wall, where the strands deploy according to gravitational laws (nature's own horizontality). Andy Warhol and friends randomly "relieve nature" on a large canvas, which is then left to "cure" and later displayed as a (surprisingly spectacular) "oxidation painting," where it proudly exhibits the effects of natural laws. Claes Oldenberg compulsively collects various pieces of junk in the shape of "ray guns," which are then displayed in a case, like arrowheads in some nature lodge.
There are some compelling exceptions. Gordon Matta-Clark's remarkable "anarchitectural" projects involved carefully planned and precisely executed "cuts" in the floors and/or walls of condemned buildings to produce "negative spaces . . . pierced into the architecture..." "To visit his final works was to be seized by vertigo, as one suddenly realized that one could not differentiate between the vertical section and the horizontal plan . ." Smithson's Enantiomorphic Chambers (discussed above), was "a work made up of facing mirrors positioned in such a way that the viewer placed between them—instead of being multiplied infinitely in the crossfire of reflections—would both disappear from the space...and observe the trajectory of his or her gaze bifurcate into multiple, unsynthesizable vanishing points."  Such effects of vertigo and self-obliteration do indeed suggest the implementation of new laws, the development of an antilogic which might well be put to use by a heterological science. What really interests Krauss about the Smithson piece, however, is not the logic of the carefully deployed mirrors—which she never discusses—but the tired thematics of the mirror as simulacrum, the metaphysics of which she dwells on for the remainder of the essay.
Entropy, Expenditure and the Subject On Trial
The odd conjunction of the natural and the passive, embodied in the mirror theme, is exemplified also in the surprising choice of entropy as a major category. Selected, in all likelihood, as a reflection of the authors' interest in the work and writings of Smithson (for whom it is all important), it creates some serious problems in the context of a discussion centering on Bataille. As Bois readily admits, entropy was not a part of Bataille's working vocabulary. Indeed, the rejected alternative which according to Bois would probably have been more acceptable to Bataille, expenditure, would indeed have been a far better choice. This notion, known more commonly as "expenditure without reserve," is a key aspect of Bataille's most important contribution to current critical theory: general economics. Oddly, neither Krauss nor Bois seem particularly interested in the radical illogic of either expenditure or general economics—ideas far more challenging and dynamic than entropy, a topic already done to death years ago based on a "scientific law" which can all too easily lead one to equate formlessness with some sort of "return to nature."
For me, the most serious lapse can be found in Krauss' essay, "Yo-Yo," where an illuminating summary of Freud's insights regarding the role of negation in language via the rhythms of the fort-da game culminates in a surprisingly simplistic misreading of Julia Kristeva's theories relating negativity to rhythm. Assuming that the semiotic rhythms of Kristeva's chora "produce the speaking subject" and then "put in place both the stability of form and the fullness of meaning," Krauss declares such ideas incompatible with the anarchic "work of the formless." This is a serious oversimplification. The subject of Kristeva's le sémiotique is a sujet en proces, a "subject on trial," a radically divided, "unsettled" subject very different from the self-assured "subject of enunciation" Krauss has confused it with. Le sémiotique is, for Kristeva, the return of the repressed, as a "heterogeneousness to signification [that] operates through, despite, and in excess of it and produces in poetic language 'musical' but also nonsense effects that destroy not only accepted beliefs and significations but, in radical experiments, syntax itself, that guarantee of thetic consciousness..." Few authors have developed Bataille's most problematic ideas as thoroughly and radically as Kristeva. Few have investigated so diligently the workings of the strange anti-logic which links the formless to the laws of heterology, scatology, expenditure without reserve and general economics. Indeed, her le sémiotique and chora come very close indeed to expressing such "laws"—which may, for our authors, be the problem.
Kristeva states: "In the experience of a Joyce or a Bataille... literature moves beyond madness and realism in a leap that maintains both 'delirium' and 'logic.'" If transgressive strategies such as the formless are not going to end by re-affirming what they set out to disrupt (Derrida), if they are to adequately withstand the powers of re-formation (secondary elaboration, omnipotence of thought), they cannot simply be transgressive—there must be a logic, no matter how illogical, problematic or elusive, to establish them on a ground of their own, however shaky, ephemeral, excessive, delirious. Krauss and Bois seem at times to understand this, but never really come to grips with it. Base Materialism, Horizontality, Pulse and Entropy are certainly relevant and useful, but are in themselves inadequate to the ambitious task required of them here—as is, indeed, in my opinion, the great majority of the art works cited. These noted historian-critics have had some remarkable insights into the thinking behind Bataille's informe, as both concept and operation. I highly recommend their book. But the need to actively pursue certain laws of operation, and the problematic "logic" behind such laws, seems to have eluded them.