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On Duchamp

MICHEL LEIRIS
Translated by Richard Sieburth On The Bride Stripped Bare . . . A parallelepiped box sheathed in almond green with, on one of its sides, this title in black and white: The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even. Inside the box, pell-mell, a series of documents relating to The Bride Stripped Bare . . . , an unfinished painting on glass that seems to have occupied most of its author’s attention between 1911 and 1923, at least to judge from the various dates at which the ninety-four exhibits gathered into this elegant receptacle were produced. A haphazard ensemble of photographic reproductions, plans, facsimiles of manuscript notes (entire sheets or scraps of paper, texts or snippets of phrases in black, blue, and red ink, or in black pencil, sometimes underlined or overwritten in crayon). A puzzle of sorts that one first has to look at and read through as a whole before proceeding to a rudimentary classification that might allow one to seize what it all adds up to. This then is one of the most recent signs that Marcel Duchamp, so habitually in the margins, has given us of his presence. This then is the marvelous plaything—at least as envisaged in its most circumstantial, most fortuitous guise—that he offered up to our curiosity in October 1934. A work such as this—a veritable Pandora’s box which one manipulates at one’s own peril—needs to be approached not from the classic point of view of form and substance, but rather, strictly speaking, from that of container and contained. Our critical task will therefore consist of making a rapid inventory of its contents and then of demonstrating, should the verdict prove positive, that there is a necessary relationship between container and contained. To begin with, one has to realize that Duchamp—initially one of the most talented of the so-called “Cubist” painters—has, like a number of other innovators of his period, set himself several problems having to do with the legitimacy of representation (the role of perspective, the discovery of methods that would be just as—or more—valid than perspective in order to move from the three dimensions of an object to its figuration on a surface, the role of colors, of light, etc.), but that instead of more or less academically resolving these problems, he has come up with his very own method, an “ironism of affirmation” that is quite different from the “negative
OCTOBER 112, Spring 2005, pp. 45–50. © 2005 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

the pataphysics of Alfred Jarry. “Beacon of the Bride. thus renewing on his own person those same procedures to which he submitted manufactured objects). will play itself out in the margin of uncertainty separating the sign from the signified. Duchamp’s decision to have his astonishing—and at times dazzlingly lyrical— documents reproduced on this luxurious scale (down to their most minute detail. with an emphasis on its genesis and not on the dead moment of its completion—“the apparition of an appearance. or almost everything. for example. Between The Bride as painting and The Bride as a series of documents there is a significant gap.” Duchamp’s assessment of Picabia applies equally well to the singular value of his own mind. Duchamp’s decision to reproduce his documents with this exactitude addresses the necessity of presenting things (lest one kill them) in their raw state. For Duchamp. to remain a nonbeliever in those divinities that are too lightly created for social needs. Everything.e. As Duchamp noted in his 1926 preface to a sale catalogue of Picabia’s paintings. what is at issue is not the discovery of some new method of experimentation. Whether it involves the rather special attitude adopted by Duchamp in regard to sexuality (in an article in Minotaure no. an instrument of course prodigiously well-suited to production of a certain level of bewilderment but whose buffoonery too often sets it off from genuine humor. without dressing them up or deifying them. but rather the testing.. 6.” adding: “It is as if some Martian were trying to figure out this . even more distinctly than for Jarry. the absurd. despite his casual airs. pushed to the limit. which is to be located in the sovereign indifference of this non-belief and which leads to the gaiety with which he strips everything bare. cynical interpretation of the phenomenon of love. “The gaiety of the titles.” André Breton defined the work in question as “a mechanistic. in all seriousness. of a specific method. In the course of this resolutely asocial operation. indicative of Duchamp’s valorization of the-game-as-living-thing over the-painting-as-dead-thing and expressed by the gradual passage of the subject of the painting (which is already a machine with all its moving and interlocking parts: the “stripping bare” of the bride) into what will become the subject of the box: i. a certain narcissism (which.” to quote one of the most revealing of the notes scattered throughout the documents. the rips in the pieces of paper) might well suggest. exhibited in all its successive stages and multiple ramifications. therefore goes well beyond the sole mental technique to which such a method might immediately be related: namely. the very creation of the painting itself. In any event. becomes the sole measure of our freedom. promoted to a sort of rational dignity. at t imes to the indent at ion indicat ing a generational population decrease due to war casualties in the so-called “age pyramid” figure so dear to statisticians) thanks to the implementation of any number of—purely conventional—procedures of symbolization. joined by a bond that is as precise but as tenuous as possible (at times comparable to the relat ion bet ween monocle and cord.46 OCTOBER ironism dependent solely on laughter” and which. by this fact alone. the collage of commonplace objects demonstrate his impulse to defrock himself. would leave the author with no other recourse but to place himself on exhibit after having signed himself.

an errancy. or the various means to elicit the interventions of chance or those sudden flares that cast such a consternating glow over our world of logic (such as: “Any form is the perspective of another according to a certain vanishing point and a certain distance” or the following apodictic demonstration of the tautological vanity of all language: “The search for Prime Words. but with the recognition here coming after a hesitation. All the pleasure derives from substitution (replacing a thing or part of a thing by its conventional figuration or by a new symbol) or from the possibility of substitution (making a copy or trompe l’oeil that could be substituted for the thing that served as model). Duchamp— who is shrewd enough to be the very opposite of a roué—demonstrates all the honesty of a gambler who knows that the game only has meaning to the extent that one scrupulously observes the rules from the very moment they are put into place. What is thus here involved is a symbolization raised to the second power. divisible only by themselves and by unity”)—in all these respects. comparable. Duchamp displays the mark of his keen negativity. this weight is denser in descent than on the rise”). though with greater lucidity.On Duchamp 47 sort of operation for himself”). as in repetition by the identical. the obverse of a proof via the absurd. everything that contributes to the fact that the game—as opposed to a work of art—never stands still. This involves repetition either by identity (copy. given that the absurd is on the contrary here rehabilitated and promoted to a kind of rational dignity that in the end appears as the sole measure of our freedom. In the course this research (an attempt. on a somewhat different plane. was another extraordinary engineer— the machine is not just a pillar of modern decor or an index of the chimera of human progress but an autonomous organism. to the way a child reconstructs the world with his building blocks (“By condescension. the constant shifting around of pawns. or his rather scholastic speculations concerning the quality of the “cuts” or “cuttage” contained in a razor blade. . a detour). or whether it involves his rather cavalier approach to the laws of physics. one can attempt to derive a mode of writing (finding signs that will stand in the same relationship to the visual signs alluded to above as do alphabetic signs to the words they transcribe). the circulation of cards. reproduction) or by pun (replacing something by its equivalent—the whole game essentially consisting in recognition. but rather the game in and of itself. • Out of plastic arts that normally make up a language (consisting of visual signs. What makes the game so compelling is not its final result or how well one performs. Notebook jottings for a projected article on “Marcel Duchamp’s Arts and Crafts” • Plastic arts as a play on the principle of identity. or in regard to the mechanical (for Duchamp as for Roussel—who. just as spoken language consists of auditory signs). at the squaring of the circle: to make a painting in which everything is perfectly gratuitous yet at the same time blindingly self-evident. and to do this without any cheating whatsoever). animated in the full sense of the term and possessed of its own life). perhaps.

but genuine if it derives its value from the hand that executed this calligraphy. The fragment of the real is not taken up in order to be confronted with the manually generated portions of the work or in order to become a symbol. • Nine malic molds = liveries swollen with desire. on surprise. on romanticism. A kind of short circuit is thus produced: there is no writing. isolated. but rather letters that speak. either by a slight addition or by the addition of a phrase or simply of a signature. No romanticism in Duchamp’s readymades : the chosen object is simply qualified. . Purely conventional procedures. In both these cases. Surrealist collage = putting to work of ready-made elements. All of our pleasure deriving from this displacement. that is. . promoted into a new world. A game of illusion on the order of LHOOQ: everything depends on the fact that the letters have a value in and of themselves (their sound when they are spelled out aloud) substituted for their value as alphabetical signs. all kinds of procedures of symbolization are at work. This is what occurs in rebuses : the objects that are substituted for portions of the sentence live their own lives. it is taken up in order to be taken up.48 OCTOBER In the Bride . • A code of signs that would be to the things signified what the diagrams of statisticians are to the human realities they express (for example: the so-called “age pyramid” figure in which the generational population decreases due to war casualties are translated by a slight indentation). • Cubist collage = introduction into the painting of a piece of reality. The definitive beauty of the chess pieces (dehumanized figures). as when one decrees that a certain group of characters will express a given phoneme. The linkage between sign and signified as elastic and tenuous as possible. in a series that is parallel to but independent from the series of words that made up the sentence. • Example of a “graphic craft”: the “craft” of the counterfeiter. separated from reality. . thus a fake check. • At the final stage of The Bride . • Play of mirrors: a check completely written out in elegant hand. to which a symbolic signification is assigned. . . there is a gamble on contrast. the “blossoming into the stripping bare by the bachelors” is expressed by the “throbbing jerk of the minute hand on the electric clocks” and the “blossoming as stripping bare voluntarily imagined by the bride-desiring” is expressed by the “triumphal snore” of a motorcar climbing a hill in first gear. and acquires its unexpected force only because it has been cut off from everything else (“Discrepency is an operation”). “Throbbing jerk” and “triumphal snore” function here somewhat like readymades.

once reproduced. both sharing a common origin. • Metaphor “taken at the letter”: a geometry book suspended by a thread ( = “geometry in space”). definitive. Duchamp gives new meaning to the expression “arts of amusement. or symbols and symbolizeds: “Any form is the perspective of another form according to a certain vanishing point and a certain distance. absolute character of the stereotype. • With his Rotoreliefs.On Duchamp 49 • The world as an inextricable tangle of signs and signifieds.” A plaything for adults. and plastic writing (if need be in the extreme form of the readymade). . • To oppose the stereotyped universal to the calligraphed particular. • The use of mechanical procedures to substitute readymades and seriality for usual painters’ bags of tricks.” • How the documents of The Bride .” A sort of paradoxical justification of Apollinaire’s prophecy: “to reconcile Art and the People. . . .” • The role of inscriptions or “captions” in Duchamp’s work. • A series of mirages indefinitely deducible from each other. create another work— which constitutes. The ineluctable. An invention with commercial potential and. what matters here is to take everything “at the letter” (as the geometrical expression of “projection” is taken in the procedures of the “shots”). “popular. this time. the true “stripping bare” of The Bride. but divergent: written language in the strict sense.: The “standard stoppages. . What a printed page is to a manuscript page. like the box of Bensdorp cocoa (a young Dutch girl holding a box of Bensdorp cocoa decorated with the image of a young Dutch girl holding a box of Bensdorp cocoa). already noted by Apollinaire. • The acme of reproduction: to reproduce via photoengraving the facsimile of the sheet of paper with the letterhead of the café reproduced in The Bride . Max. It would seem that he wants to oppose two types of writing.” In dialectical jargon: “negation of the negation” or synthesis coming after the Cubist thesis and the Dadaist antithesis. • Automatic procedures of reproduction: cast shadows. • Restif de la Bretonne composing his novels “typecase by typecase.” • Whereas one always behaves as if things were amenable to cabalistic interpretation. to a certain degree. shots.

by contiguity alone).. • The role of the readymade could be compared to what ethnographers call an “autonomous document”—whose entire value derives from the fact that it has not been made for any utilitarian purpose. etc. • Painting reduced to its prime elements. atoms aligned: literary elements (soon reduced to rebuses. puns. . • Literalism: the “Paris Air” ampule. . commercial elements (soon reduced to nothing more than issues of signature). .” • The work of art considered in its totality. lavish visiting cards. but envisaged within its real framework and content. that is. taking into account all of its attendant social circumstances: i. Total repudiation of such imagery: a readymade project consisting of an object— non-recognizable by its sound—shut up in an opaque box that would be hermetically sealed.” • On Duchamp’s works qua “elegant solutions. wheels to the others—there is still place for “arts and crafts”: amusing physics experiments. . not pragmatically sanctioned but in truth just as defensible. novelty items from the inventors’ contests run by the Concours Lépine. the white margin that brings the lines written on the page to the fore. Here the game involves presenting nothing that is not strictly true.50 OCTOBER • Romantic imagery here substituted by a sheer play of relations (relations created out of bits and pieces. . • Elements given as premises (true readymades): “being given” the waterfall and the lighting gas. • The notion of the “infra-thin. • Humor too is an insulating factor. plastic elements (soon reduced to nothing more than issues of optics). spoonerisms. the mystical notion of aesthetic values and— more practically—of the economic value that the the art object represents for its owner. . that it exists in and for itself. The hoax devolving on the utter absence of hoax.). • Once painting has been disassembled like an alarm clock---springs to one side. Attack on the social screens.e. not by denying them (crudely—and vainly— attempting to suppress them) but the method known as “ironism of affirmation”: thus replacing them with a variety of other screens. The art work is thus no longer regarded as an aerolith fallen from who knows what supernatural sky. “cootie-catchers” .