Borges and Conceptual Art Author(s): Gregory L. Ulmer Source: boundary 2, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Spring, 1977), pp.

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Borges and Conceptual Art

Gregory L. Ulmer
The straining against boundaries underway in the disciplines and arts today seems to be the manifestation of a "paradigm shift" of the kind described by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In this situation we have literature that tries to be painting, music, or criticism; criticism becoming story, philosophy, and science; philosophy turning into literature or math; visual arts becoming theory and theatre. One consequence of these shifts has been the dissolution of the boundary separating criticism from the practice of art, which has given rise to a movement in the visual arts called Conceptual Art. My purpose here is to demonstrate that Jorge Luis Borges is a literary Conceptualist and to speculate about the implications of Borges' Conceptualism for literary criticism.

Although the movement within the visual arts designated as Conceptualism did not produce its first works until the late 1960's, Borges already had developed many Conceptualist principles decades earlier. Indeed, along with Duchamp, he is the primary precursor of Conceptual


Art. The key to Borges' Conceptualism is his creation of a hybrid form which synthesizes the criticism and practice of literature. "It is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance to compose huge books," Borges says, commenting on his procedure, "to explain in five hundred pages an idea whose full oral exposition takes only a few minutes. A better procedure is to pretend that these books already exist and to offer a summary, a I have preferred to write notes on imaginary books."1 commentary.... This hybrid form, embodied in such works as "El acercamiento a Almothsim," "Examen de la obra de Herbert Quain," "TISn, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," and "Pierre Menard, Autor del Quijote," contains the essence of Conceptual Art, the main point of which is the assertion that art has nothing to do with formal objects, but that ideas and concepts alone are art. These concepts are communicated by means of documents that frequently have the look and sound of critical or theoretical commentaries on non-existent works. The direct equivalent in the visual arts of Borges' hybrid essay is the exhibit that exists only in the catalog, like the one organized in 1969 by Siegelaub for the Conceptualists Barry, Weiner, Kosuth, and Huebler.2 Borges, then, initiates literary Conceptualism by replacing, in a sense, the fully embodied literary or scholarly work with a brief pseudo-essay. There are essentially two approaches to this suppression of the object in contemporary Conceptualism, one being the systems, process, earth, and body arts which replace traditional objects with activites, processes, or procedures, such as Robert Barry's work in invisible materials (inert gas, radio waves) or Hans Haacke's investigation into Seurat's "Les Poseuses" as a pure commodity. The other mode of Conceptualism, as presented in the work of Victor Burgin, Joseph Kosuth, John Stezaker, and the Art-Language group, stresses verbal theory over visual practice however broadly construed, defining art as an investigation of the concept "art." With this subject matter they claim to have eliminated the function of the critic from the artistic transaction.3 In fact, this usurpation of criticism is one of the primary goals of Conceptual Art. Borges, as we shall see, has something in common with both approaches. The immediate result of Conceptual practice is a redefinition of the traditional function of the elements - artist, work, and audience - in the artistic situation. Significantly, Borges anticipates this redefinition on every point. Regarding the status of the author, Borges calls for an art history without names, an impersonal history without mention of "the authors and the accidents of their careers or the careers of their works." All art has only one author, the Spirit which transcends all personal limitations. Since art originates with one atemporal, anonymous author in TISn, books are not signed; the concept of plagiarism does not exist. The author is someone who simply translates, or re-reads, whose writings are a manipulation and annotation of the inherited tradition and language. Hence the author and the reader are indistinguishable.4 Authorship is not 846

just "verbalalgebra,"however,for if that were so, "anyone could produce any book simply by practicingvariations."Rather, it is the experienceof Heraclitus behind the words "Everything flows" that makes them significant. The words have value not in themselves but as signs of an intending mind (albeit an impersonal one). Intention, then, is the necessaryand sufficient condition for art. Conceptualists share Borges' theory of the impersonalcreator. Daniel Buren, for example, carries out the dematerialization or disappearanceof art by neutralizingstyle to a "zero point." He sees the artist not as a creator but as a "producer"whose relationto the work "is similarin nature to the relation between a demonstratorand the product he is demonstrating.His function . . is merely a didactic one." "Thuswe can now say, for the first time, that 'it is painting,' as we say 'it is raining'" (IA, 179). To make a similar point regardingthe artist's impersonality, Borges draws on the history of philosophy, pointing out that "Lichtenberg,in the eighteenth century, proposedthat in place of 'I think' we should say, impersonally,'it thinks,' just as one would say 'it
thunders' or 'it rains' "5

We may recall that the structuralistRoland Barthes shares this impersonalattitude. Buren'sneutralizedor zero style is an applicationof Barthes'szero degree, that is, of style as "a citational process, a body of formulae, a memory (almost in the cybernetic sense of the word), a Like Borges, the cultural and not an expressive to treat literature "as a type of structuralists,after Levi-Strauss,wantinheritance,"6 discoursefrom which the subjects of enunciationhave been eliminated."7 Buren's intentional echo of Barthes reflects the extent to which the structuralist "death of the author" is operative in Conceptualism. Conceptualism,in fact, is a structuralistart; but that is the subject for anotheressay. The denial of originality in Borges' "Pierre Menard"(in which Menardattempts to write his own word-for-word versionof Don Quijote) has become, then, a tenet of Conceptual practice. Cheryl Bernstein,for example, praisesan exhibit by Hank Herronin which Herronreproduced the exact appearancesof Frank Stella's oeuvre. This exhibit "solves the the problemof content without compromising purity of the nonreferential object as such" (IA, 42). Herronthus "goes beyond" Stella, just as Menard went beyond Cervantes(eventhough the works themselveswere identical), by reproducingthe artist's past work as someone else's activity in the present. The fake, she maintains, in shifting the art phenomenon to the critical level, is more, not less, than the original.The choice of Stella is particularlyappropriatesince his work, accordingto HaroldRosenberg,is a visual-verbal hybrid anyway, an example par excellence of paintingas criticism. The real point in both cases, as we shall see, is that in but Conceptualismthe true creator of art is not the "artist-producer," the 847

percipient- it is Menard's twentieth-centurycontext which differentiates his exact reproduction of Quijote from Cervantes' version. Of equal interest is simply the idea of literally repeatinga work of literature.The project representsa "found text" in defiance of the view, articulatedby Frank Kermode, that because of the notion of plagiarismthe closest literaturecan come to the Readymadeis strict authorialimpersonality.8 Literature,after all, is what Nelson Goodman, in his discussion of the
"perfect fake," calls an allographic art - one in which, because of its use of a notational language, any exact copy is genuine.9 Painting, on the other hand, being non-notational, is an autographic art - one in which the distinction between forgeries and originals makes a difference. Conceptualism, it seems, has abolished this "insuperable" difference between the arts. There can be no plagiarism when art is idea. Regarding the work itself, then, Borges violates all traditional notions of organic form and uniqueness. In Tlon, "works of fiction contain a single plot, with all its imaginable permutations." Similarly, Ts'ui Pen's labyrinthine book, The Garden of Forking Paths, contains all possible outcomes, all variations of character, plot, setting. Herbert Quain's April March is a game of combinations in which nine possible novels are contained in one. The library of Babel, of course, contains every juxtaposition of letters and words possible in a given alphabet, embodying thus every work that could be written. Language is a vast, combinatory "system of precise compensations." Hence, "if we postulate an infinite period of time, with infinite circumstances and changes, the impossible thing is not to compose the Odyssey, at least once" (L, 13). Borges' view of art forms as systems capable of infinite variation recurs in Conceptualism. Conceptualists are not interested in particular instances of works in a given form, but pursue instead a "systems aesthetics," as Jack Burnham notes, that takes language as the model for all the arts. The artist's role in this aesthetic is to design systems "capable of generating objects, rather than individual objects themselves" (CA, 79). Akin to the key text in the library of Babel, the "abstract or propositional grammar" of art, once described, would account like Chomsky's deep structure for all actual and potential works. Adrian Piper's "Three Models of Art Production Systems" is a move in this direction (CA, 202-03). Noting that "for each work of art that becomes physical there are many variations that do not," Sol Lewitt remarks that "all ideas need not be made physical." Since "ideas alone can be works of art," the potential variations are not to be distinguished from embodied works (CA, 174-75). The consequences for Borges' critic-reader with regard to these ideas of author and text include the method of "deliberate anachronism and erroneous attributions" - just those practices against which literary history labored for generations.10 The critics often invent authors: "they select two dissimilar works - the Tao te Ching and the 1001 Nights, say attribute them to the same writer, and then determine most scrupulously 848

the psychology of this interesting homme de lettres" (L, 13). Limited only by his own ingenuity, the critic-reader becomes a surrealist operating according to the principle of juxtaposition. In other words, Borges' aesthetic is an aesthetic of reading.1 1 "One literature differs from another, either before or after it," he says in "For Bernard Shaw," "not so much because of the text as for the manner in which it is read."112 In the systems aesthetic of the Conceptualists, of course, as in Borges' aesthetic of reading, the creation of the object is the function of perceptual behavior. To the degree that actual materials are used to communicate the conceptual "object," their own "objectness" must be subverted in order to identify them as "situational cues." Such, at least, is Victor Burgin's description of the procedure, based on an acknowledged adaptation of Morse Peckham's sign theories (CA, 82). The preferred procedure, Lawrence Weiner says, is to declare an idea, usually involving a non-specific production system, which may be possible - "a turbulence induced within a body of water" - or impossible - "the Arctic Circle shattered." The realization of these works, which consist of phrases that double as title and disembodied instructions, "rests with the receiver upon the occasion of ownership" (CA, 218). Given this impersonality and generalization, the properties of uniqueness and individualization, once thought to be the artist's province, are now provided by the recipient (GW, 60). The most extreme example of this perceptual orientation is Robert Barry's "telepathic" work, "something which is very near in place and time, but not yet known to me." The work, recalling Cage's music, is in fact whatever the spectator is thinking. What does it mean to "own" such works? One of the chief characteristics of works existing only as ideas is that everyone can be an artist. As in TIon, plagiarism is not possible: "People, buying my stuff," Weiner remarks, "can take it wherever they go and can rebuild it if they choose. If they keep it in their heads, that's fine too. They don't have to buy it to have it - they can have it just by knowing it. Anyone making a reproduction of my art is making art just as valid as art as if I had made it" (CA, 217). We are reminded here of Barthes's advice that the modernist writer make a "systematic war" on the quotation mark.13 In a similar context Borges says that "all men who repeat a line from Shakespeare are William Shakespeare." We have seen that there is a theoretical agreement between Borges and the Conceptualists concerning the nature of the artistic transaction, which consists of the artist's impersonal intention to produce art, a grammar of mechanical forms, and the audience's individualizing, creative perception. Borges also anticipates certain performance or ritualistic aspects of Conceptualism. Based on his belief that the Cabalist's relation to the Scriptures is the proper analogy for the relation of man to the world, hence that life is performance, Borges suggests in "The Mirror of Enigmas" that "the steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his 849

death trace in time an inconceivablefigure. The Divine Mind intuitively grasps that form immediately as men do a triangle" (L, 212). That "patient labyrinth of lines" that we create as we attempt to portraythe world, or even to live in it, finally traces the imageof our own face.14 In this vein J. M. Cohen describes Borges' "Death and the Compass" (in which the detective is led to his death by following a geometricalfigure traced on a city map) as "a ritual, a formal dance, an abstractdiagram which expresses more perfectly than any of the other fictions Borges' vision of life as a maze of formal movements whose meaning is 5 unknown."1 This view of behavioras formal or ritualperformance anticipates the "increasingly archetypal, ontological, ritualistic tendency in contemporaryartisticbehavior"noted by many commentators(GW,154). Sharing Borges' belief in the transcendentsignificanceof the trivial (01, 31-32), a Conceptualperformerlike On Kawaratraces out the patternof his movements and travelson a map while daily markingthe hour of his awakingwith postcardannouncementsto friends. Dennis Oppenheimhas most successfully adapted the traditional rituals of the shaman to his Conceptual experiments along this line. In a work called Polarities (1971-72) Oppenheimtook the last drawing his father made before his death (a geometrical, diamond-like shape) and one of his daughter's earliest scribbles (suggestively anthropomorphic), enlarged them both several hundred times, plotted the results with red magnesiumflares in a field, and flew over them in a light plane at dusk taking pictures (GW, has 140-41). The existence of such works indicatesthat Conceptualism as much capacity as other modes of art to come to gripswith the mysterious universalsin humanexperience. II How can we account for the remarkable paralleloutlined thus far between Borges and Conceptualism?One explanation has to do with Borges' association with structuralism,which in turn has been a major influence on Conceptualism. Although Borges' work is associated historically with surrealism, it has also become the emblem of the structuralist "nightmare utopia" of a world completely confined to discourse.16 Roland Bartheshimself notes that "surrealism may well have producedthe first experienceof structuralistliterature." 17 The obsession with infinite regressionthat permeates Borges' to thought, for example, revealsthe similarityof his view of language that of Barthes. Barthes'view of writing as an "hereditaryprocess"without end in a world of interconnecting codes implies that "to explain a message,we are obliged to go over to anothercode, which in turn sends us to yet another code, and so on, in an infinite regress.This is ultimatelya metaphysical conception, coming down to the irreduciblefact of the 850

non-origin of origins questioning the occidental idea that there are ultimate origins of a transcendental order" (LOC, 14-15). These metaphysical implications are explicit in some of Borges' stories, such as "The Immortal" and "Avatars of the Tortoise." Meyer uses a quotation from Barthes as one of the epigraphs to her anthology, thus indicating the importance of Barthes' thought to the Conceptualist movement. Barthes, after all, is one of the principal exponents of the idea that there is no difference between the activities of the author and the critic, both of whom have the same problematic relation to language. Similarly, Borges drops any pretense of copying the actual world and takes instead the world of books as his material reference, confusing thus the stance of the critic and the (traditional) writer. In fact, Borges and the Conceptualists have in common a "structuralist," that is, a semiotic, aesthetic, which explains why they both dematerialize the art object, why they prefer to produce documents commenting on non-existent, imaginary, usually fantastic works of art, rather than the work itself. In this semiotic aesthetic the aesthetic object is held to function as a sign in the aesthetic experience. Its most controversial aspect is precisely that the physical object itself is not the aesthetic object but only a sign of it, that something other than the work itself is the so-called aesthetic object. Borges and the Conceptualists, however, did not derive their dematerializing, experience-oriented theory from the same sources. The fact is that this aesthetic includes not only the theories of Charles Morris and Suzanne Langer, those of phenomenologists such as Ingarden and Sartre, and all theories in which the object is taken to be a vehicle of communication, but those as well in which the aesthetic object is "expressive," which includes Croce and Collingwood. And Borges' anti-formalist idealism is indebted to the expressionist intuition of Croce and Collingwood.18 Collingwood explains, for example, that he took up the question "What is art?" precisely because of the appearance of something like a theoretical art, that is, "a new movement in the arts" in which theory was not being written by professors and scholars but "by poets, dramatists, painters and sculptors themselves."l19 The part of the theory developed by Croce and Collingwood that concerns us is that the work of art proper is said to "be something in the artist's mind," not to be confused with the production of physical artifacts through craft. Although Collingwood never indicated that he thought theories should replace objects, his view of art as communication did lead him to conclude, like Borges, not only that the audience participates actively in determining the meaning of art, but also that the notion of plagiarism is a misunderstanding of the ideational nature of art (PA, 320). The reason why it took so long for Collingwood's "tour de force," as Suzanne Langer calls it, to dominate practice in the visual arts has to do not only with the demise of expressionistic aesthetics in favor of 851

formalism in the middle decades of the century, but also with the apparent "concreteness" of these arts, their "pure perceptibility" free of Kant's "usurpatory concepts." Thus, similar to the way visual artists are now turning to the language model, many writers in past decades worked to "spatialize" literary form and bring to language the "objective" virtues of painting. The spatial, perceptual, phenomenological model, the formal focus, has been replaced; Duchamp's Conceptual version of cubism has won out. With the growing prestige of linguistic theory, artists became convinced that the dematerialization of the object originally encouraged by expressionism could be extended even further. But this extension, the current epistemology of sign theory, shifted the following responsibility for meaning from producer to percipient. In short, in spite of their many differences, expressionist and structuralist aesthetics agree on the ideational nature of art as a process, an agreement which permits a writer like Borges, working in the vein of Croce, to be seen as a "structuralist" writer. In addition to the common link with Barthes and structuralism, Borges and the Conceptualists share another link which also helps account for their similarity. The common ground in this case is the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. As Richard Kuhns says, discussing the contextualist theory of meaning and world-as-text analogies, "the poetic interpretation of language temperamentally closest to Wittgenstein's is that of Paul Val'ry."20 Valery, we should recall, is also one of Borges' closest spiritual kin. The main lesson for aesthetic theory and for conceptual practice in Wittgenstein's philosophy - one that Borges would support - is that "art" is an "open concept."21 Morris Weitz shows, based on Wittgenstein's definition of games and of family resemblance, that the concept "art" may be extended to include anything, adding that "being an artifact" is not a necessary condition of art. Rather, art is determined by an attitude or state of mind. In fact, the function of the artist is precisely to provide this intention. Hence, Conceptualists say, something is art if it is declared to be art, if it is seen in the context of art, as Terry Atkinson has shown in his "declaration series" (CA, 19). Borges, for the same reason, stated that "verbal algebra" was not a sufficient condition for art, but rather that the experience behind phrases like "Everything flows" made them significant. Perhaps the most attractive thesis for Conceptualists in Wittgenstein, as noted by lan Wilson (CA, 220), is the suggestion in the Tractatus that language is a picture of reality, that the logical structure of language depicts the facts or the state of affairs in the world. The key to understanding why the linguistic model is attractive to, even a vital stimulation for, the visual arts lies in this proposition, in spite of the fact that Wittgenstein himself later abandoned it. Of course, as Sol Lewitt says, "one artist may misperceive (understand it differently from the artist) a work of art but still be set off in his own chain of thought by that misconstruing" (CA, 175). 852

And if language is a "logical" picture of reality, it is also true, as we noted in the dissolution of Goodman's allographic-autographic distinction between the arts, that "pictures" can now be written. As a part of the developing emphasis on process over product that goes back to the beginnings of the century, a development leading from Schwitters' collages through Happenings in which painting, sculpture, dance, and theatre all combined to become "performance" art, it became possible, to the degree that a performance culminated in an object, as in the action paintings of Georges Mathieu, for example, to "score" or "script" a work of visual art, thus altering its autographic nature. An early experimenter in this vein, Alan Kaprow claimed to be working on a way to market Happenings through mail-order houses, each one being a perfectly authentic "performance" of the work.22 The point is not to "own" a work, nor to reproduce it exactly, but to feel what it is like to paint it. Such productions, if nothing else, would have something in common with the rituals by which the religious keep in touch with the sacred events of their cult. Borges has been called an "ally of Wittgenstein" because of his skeptical attitude towards ideas,23 a point which brings us to the real essense of "idea art," as Conceptualism is sometimes called. That is, Borges utilizes philosophical ideas "on the basis of their aesthetic worth and even for what is singular and marvelous about them" (01, 189). The same has been said for the Conceptualists - for example, Joseph Kosuth, who shapes "art after philosophy" to an extreme degree.24 It is inappropriate, then, to expect a Conceptual essay to contain the "referential" plausibility or the logical rigor of an ordinary philosophical discourse, just as it is useless to approach Mondrian as a representational painter. This aesthetic approach to ideas, critics say, tends to expose the way language bewitches our intelligence. Thus Borges shares some of Wittgenstein's nominalism (just as Wittgenstein shares some of Borges' metaphysics): "I think I'm Aristotelian, but I wish it were the other way," Borges says. "I think it's the English strain that makes me think of particular things or persons being real rather than general ideas being real."25 Hence the nightmarish quality noted in his labyrinthine library. This apparently contradictory combination of dematerialization (idealization) of the art object with a nominalism or suspicion of the way language reifies ideas may be accounted for by distinguishing two aspects of the "idea" in Conceptualism: first of course is the intentionalist or phenomenological assertion that art is idea, not thing; second, that therefore the world of ideas is the artist's domain, rather than the external or referential, embodied world. A Conceptual artist plays with ideas the way a surrealist played with images of things, or the way any artist plays with his medium. To continue the parallel with the structuralists, Barthes, for example, in his latest work, "confesses" that his approach to critical ideas all along, even in his most scientific phases, has been aesthetic. Using 853

a philosophical "ideography" in which he simply names ideas as "emblems" - "mauvaise-foi," "bourgeois," "imaginaire," and so forth he creates an "ars combinatoria" for the generation of criticism. Thus, "la modernit6 est essay6e (comme on essaye tous les boutons d'un poste de
radio dont on ne connait pas le maniement). . . ,,"26 He simply "plays with

science like a gadget," he says, to see how meaning works. Barthes, then, is a Conceptual critic. The equivalent view in the arts is expressed by Sol Lewitt, who notes that "the idea becomes a machine that makes art."

Ill Having established the parallel between Borges' metafictions and Conceptual Art, and accounted in general terms for their mutual preference for idea over object based on a semiotical aesthetics, we should consider finally the implications for literary criticism of this art practice which claims to have absorbed criticism into art. The elimination of the critic along with the object in Conceptualism, as a part of the revolution in associated with structuralism, promises to alter our epistemology assumptions about criticism as much as did the experiments of C6zanne and Mallarm6. The usurpation of the critical function may be explained in part as the result of a continuing expansion of subject matter available to the artist: "The making of art and the making of a certain kind of art theory," Terry Atkinson says, "are often the same procedure" (CA, 11). The usurpation also involves the artist's reassertion of his rights over his intention in the artistic transaction.27 But literary critics themselves - Richard Poirier, for example have also noticed that contemporary literature, like the visual arts, has become completely self-analytical, with writers providing their own criticism. Paul de Man finds that the particular blindness of the critic is just his inability to see that literature may be inaccessible to critical language, that, in short, the act of criticism is redundant and unnecessary. In this crisis of criticism, he says, the "well-established rules and conventions that governed the discipline of criticism and made it a cornerstone of the intellectual establishment have been so badly tampered with that the entire edifice threatens to collapse."28 Criticism, he suggests, is undergoing a change similar to that which revolutionized the arts at the beginning of the century, which is to say that the discoveries made by the artists at that time have finally penetrated into the consciousness of the critic. The question to be pondered in these closing pages, then, concerns the direction that an avant-garde criticism might take. Borges' work is a good point of departure for such speculation since commentators have noted that, in obliterating the distinction between fiction and criticism, he pushes to its furthest limits "the parody of creation" implicit in most contemporary literature (PS, 41). He is 854

representative, then, of what happens when art and criticism meet in the problematic discourse. We need only note that Borges has stimulated the enquiries of critics such as Maurice Blanchot, Gerard Genette, Jean Ricardou, Michel Foucault, John Barth, William Gass, Hugh Kenner, and George Steiner to realize that his ideas have genuine theoretical value. In Borges' labyrinthine (systematic) view of language, one finds "plus de v6rit6 que dans les v6rites de notre 'science' litt6raire," Genette says. "L'id6e borgesienne de la litterature, sous ses dehors de fantastique et de mystification, est une idle serieuse, profonde, qui nous propose a la fois une jouissance et une responsabilit,."29 The nature of this responsibility for critics is spelled out by Ihab Hassan, whose Paracriticisms attacks the concept of "organic form" and the practice in general of placing the object at the center of attention. Rejecting the traditional belief in the possibility of an "objective" reading, along with other classical preferences for form, evaluation, good taste, Hassan calls for a "Dionysian" mode to balance the dominant Apollonianism of traditional criticism. One of the results of this mode has been a shift of attention to the reader in acceptance of the fact that writing and reading (creation and criticism) are simultaneous and reversible activities.30 The current recognition of the aesthetics of reading finally adapts to critical practice the active, creative aspects of perception that have preoccupied the artists since early Romanticism.31 The point for criticism is that the old notion of being a secondary support language subordinate to "literature" is now superannuated. In our handbooks we still encounter archaisms such as the following: "The work of scholarship is secondary, exhaustible, and replaceable, while the work of art is primary, inexhaustible, and permanent.... In practice, anyone who goes into scholarship to satisfy his intentions of immortality has generally chosen the wrong mystery."32 Accompanying this view is a definition of "true" criticism which, as Rene Wellek puts it, "upholds ideals of correctness of interpretation, observes the laws of evidence, and must aim, ultimately, at a body of knowledge which we hesitate to call 'science' only because the natural scientists have preempted the term in English."33 But the situation to which this ideal once applied has been abolished by the artists themselves. All the old boundaries have been breached, the notion of the "masterpiece" is defunct, and the very existence of a literary "object" is in doubt. Thus, in defiance of the humble academic just quoted, we now find anti-art defined as art that negates notions of quality and permanence, and that is uncollectable (IA, 133). Art now is "impoverished," ephemeral, replaceable, while criticism, in terms of its recently demonstrated capacity for knowledge and invention, is more vital and significant than ever before. The disappearance of the art object or text as traditionally 855

conceived is directly or indirectly the source of the present crisis in criticism. Our age of criticism began with the disappearance of the object (representation, narration) within art. Is this age of criticism initiated by formalism now to be terminated by the end of that movement due to the dematerialization of the art object itself? The answer lies in a comparison of the death-of-the-artist with the death-of-God phenomenon. The structuralist-Conceptualist death of the artist (based on the realization that writing writes, speech speaks), and with it the disappearance of the traditional art object, will no more be the end of criticism than was the death of God the end of theology. It is apparent, in spite of certain fantasies about eliminating the critic, that the Conceptual artist has entered fully into the realm of ideas, as opposed to the realm of art which embodies these ideas. If it is true that someone is being made superfluous by this movement (a notion that is not necessarily self-evident), it is not the critic. Eliot's essay on the function of criticism is instructive on this point. "No exponent of criticism," he remarks, "has, I presume, ever made the preposterous assumption that criticism is an autotelic activity."34 Like the Conceptualists, Eliot considers the blending of creativity and criticism to be a one-way proposition in favor of art. His ill humor in this matter may be seen in his condemnation of the "vicious taste for reading about works of art instead of reading the works themselves," caused, he says, by the proliferation of critical books. Eliot's distaste for reading about art (expressed in a period when it was still believed that critics did not create meaning, but extracted it) demonstrates the same lack of foresight shown by those who have objected to other changes of taste that violate certain preconceptions about art. Borges was fascinated by attempts to think the unthinkable, as in "Averroes' Search,"for example. Nonetheless, he is still a man of Eliot's generation for he places Pierre Menard's Conceptual project in a conventional story frame. Had Borges stated Menard's project as his own, John Barth says, rather than embodying it in a highly imaginative fiction, he would not have produced an artwork but merely an "idea" worth only a moment's conversation over a beer.35 Conservative commentators on the visual arts have made similar criticisms, charging that in abandoning practice to make theory, the Art-Language group is much less interesting in fact than in principle; John Stezaker, on the other hand, is praised for making theory that is art practice as well.36 Such objections are inappropriate because the purpose of Conceptualism is precisely to dissolve the principle-fact, theory-practice dualism. It is inconsistent for John Barth to admire Borges, who, it is said, pushed the confusion between art and life as far as one could within the boundaries of recognizable fiction, and yet reject contemporary "intermedia" authors (Barth mentions specifically those working with The Something Else Press) for taking the step from fiction into reality to which Borges points. 856

Now, at the same time that artists have been incorporating the critical act into their art, critics such as Poulet and Roland Barthes, using a mimetic approach to the world of discourse, have been assimilating the creative act into criticism. Both critics describe this mimesis as a re-creation in which the critic replaces with his own language the form "destroyed" during reading. The work resulting from this reconstruction is a simulacrum of the object.37 The point is that the critical text has the same relation to its object as the work of art has to the world. Jean Ricardou has defined this situation for literature: "Si la litterature nous fait mieux voir le monde, nous le revble, et, d'un mot, en accomplit la critique, c'est dans I'exacte mesure oi, loin d'en offrir un substitut, une image, une repr6sentation, elle est capable, en sa textualite, de lui opposer un tout autre systeme d'6lements et de rapports."38 As a mode of literature, criticism must criticize its object in the same way. To complain that a given work of criticism does not "resemble" the literary work it purports to discuss is to be like the person who noted that Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein did not resemble her. Picasso's reply - that given time Gertrude would resemble the painting - applies to the critical method as well. In short, the last stronghold of the realistic bias - literary criticism - is at last opening up to the lessons of modernism. As already noted in the case of Barthes, literary critics are ready for not merely a mimetic, but a conceptual (non-objective) approach to critical writing, as is indicated by their wide-spread acceptance of the view of art that generated Conceptualism in the visual arts - one which puts literature itself in question. As though paraphrasing from Borges' "Aleph," Barthes notes that literature from now on may be what it was during the Middle Ages -"un objet a commentaires, un tuteur d'autres langages, un point c'est tout."39 If this is a possibility then the idea of criticism as an autotelic activity is no longer as preposterous as it once seemed to T. S. Eliot. The methodology for an autonomous criticism has been proposed already by Ronald Christ in a limited if not unexpected context: In stories like "Examination of the Works of Herbert Quain" Borges taught us that criticism is in no way inferior to art but simply that critics have been inferior to artists; he has restored to us the knowledge that the achievements of literary criticism are subordinate to those of fiction and poetry, necessarily, only when the motives are different. In other ages, Horace and Pope have known that; in our time, along with Borges, the author of a volume of notes to his own translation of Eugene Onegin has also known it... . So what I am urging is the adoption of Borges' innovation as a means of criticism - that innovation he first tried in 1935 with "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim." ...40 857

He then tries his hand at abstracting some imaginary books on Borges. Although he modestly limits the application of Conceptual criticism to Borges studies, Professor Christ here offers a suggestion that could be the salvation of contemporary criticism. In fact, given the generative theories characteristic of criticism now, it is not surprising to find artists such as Claude Simon following the lead of a critic such as Ricardou, thus reversing the traditional situation in which the critic was supposed to let his formulations be guided by the works. We have come around at last to the same relation between theoretical or pure research and applied knowledge that exists in many other disciplines. One consequence of this shift, best exemplified in the work of the Tel Quel group in Paris, is the creation of an interdisciplinary genre in which theory precedes practice, which is a theoretical praxis. With this praxis criticism joins the vanguard - it is theory oriented towards the future of art, which concerns itself with the modes of art yet to be realized as well as with those now past. This conceptual function is an addition to, not an elimination of, the other functions of criticism which will continue to be useful for dealing with traditional art. If Professor Christ's suggestion is taken seriously, then, as I think it must be, the critic will be free to work conceptually. He will invent his examples as he goes (as Borges does in the essay on P. H. Gosse), write literary histories about impossible works, or author manifestschriften in honor of imaginary beings. While pure Conceptualism may not be the final solution to the crisis of criticism, it offers in the person of Borges an example that must be assimilated before the critic can take his proper place in contemporary art practice. University of Florida

1 2 Borges, Ficciones (Buenos Aires: Emec6, 1956), pp. 11-12. See Jack Burnham, Great Western Salt Works (New York: Braziller, 1974), p. 50. Further references to Burnham's book will be abbreviated GW and cited in parentheses. James Collins, "Things and Theories," Artforum (May 1973), p. 32. See L. Lippard, Changing (New York: Dutton, 1971), p. 274; Ursula Meyer, ed., Conceptual Art (New York: Dutton, 1972), pp. vi-x. Further references to Meyer's book will be abbreviated CA in parentheses. The movement is documented in T. Atkinson et al., Art & Language (K6ln: DuMont Schauberg, 1972); G. Battcock, ed., Idea Art (New York: Dutton, 1973); TriQuarterly, 32



(1975). Further references to Battock's book will be abbreviated IA and cited in parentheses. 4 5 6 7 See Borges, Historia Universal de ia Infamia (Buenos Aires: Emec6, 1954), p. 7. Borges, Labyrinths, ed. D. Yates and J. Irby (New York: New Directions, 1962), p. 221. Further citations abbreviated as L. Barthes, "Style and its Image," Literary Style: A Symposium, ed. S. Chatman (London: Oxford, 1971), pp. 8-9. E. Donato, "The Two Languages of Criticism," in The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, ed. R. Macksey, E. Donato (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), p. 97. This book will be abbreviated as LOC and cited in parentheses in future references. Kermode, Continuities (New York: Random House, 1968), pp. 13-14. Goodman, The Languages of Art (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968), pp. 112-23. D. Newton-de-Molina, "Sceptical Literary Historicism: A Fictional Analogue in Borges," Essays in Criticism, 21 (1971), 57-73. E. R. Monegal, "Borges: The Reader as Writer," TriQuarterly, 25 (1972), pp. 102-43. Borges, Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964), p. 164. Further citations abbreviated as 01 and placed in parentheses. Barthes, S/Z, trans. R. Miller (New York: Hill & Wang, 1974), p. 139. Dreamtigers, trans. M. Boyer, H. Morland (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964), p. 93. Cohen, Jorge Luis Borges (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1974), p. 62. Edward Said, "Abecedarium Culturae: Structuralism, Absence, Writing," in Modern French Criticism, ed. J. Simon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972). Barthes, "The Structuralist Activity," Critical Essays, trans. R. Howard (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972), p. 214. T. R. Hart, Jr. "The Literary Criticism of Jorge Luis Borges," Modern Language Notes, 78 (1963), 490. See R. Rudner, "On Semiotic Aesthetics," Aesthetic Inquiry, ed. Beardsley, Schueller (Belmont: Dickenson, 1967), pp. 93-102. Collingwood, The Principles of Art (London: Oxford University Press, 1938), p. vi. Further references to this book will be abbreviated PA and cited in parentheses. Kuhns, Structures of Experience (New York: Basic Books, 1970), p. 258. Robert Smithson's "reconstructions of thought processes" are influenced by

8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

17 18




both Borges and Wittgenstein, among others, according to Harold Rosenberg, The Dedefinition of Art (New York: Horizon Press, 1972), p. 60. 21 22 23 24 25 M. Weitz, "The role of theory in aesthetics," Aesthetic Inquiry, pp. 3-11. M. Kirby, ed., Happenings (New York: Dutton, 1966), p. 52 William Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1972), p. 129. See S. Jones, "De Legibus Philosophicus," Studio International, 186 (1973), p. 271. Quoted in R. J. Christ, The Narrow Act (New York: New York University Press, 1969), p. 104. See Jean Wahl, "Les personnes et I'impersonnel," Jorge Luis Borges (Paris: L'Herne, 1964), p. 261: "le plus souvent lui-mgme se classerait en platonicien, malgr6 son nominalisme." Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (Paris: Seuil, 1975), p. 78. To deal with Conceptual art one must first discover the idea or intention that makes it significant, Harold Rosenberg notes in The Dedefinition of Art, pp. 56-57. Poirier, The Performing Self (New York: Oxford, 1971), pp. 27-44; to be abbreviated in the text as PS. Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 3-19. Genette, "La littdrature selon Borges," Jorge Luis Borges, pp. 323-27. For bibliography see E. Monegal, "Borges and la Nouvelle Critique," Diacritics, 2 (1972), 27-34. See Hugh Kenner, The Counterfeiters (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), p. 91; G. Steiner, After Babel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 67-71. See, for example, J. Ehrmann, "The Death of Literature," New Literary History, 3 (1971), 43: " 'Literature'... is a particular manner of reading and deciphering signs." Pierre Daix, Nouvelle Critique et Art Moderne (Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1968), p. 167. J. Thorpe, ed., Relations of Literary Study (New York: Modern Language Assoc., 1967), p. viii. Wellek, "The Poet as Critic, The Critic as Poet, The Poet-Critic," The Poet as Critic, ed. F. McDowell (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1967). Collected in Irving Howe, Modern Literary Criticism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958). John Barth, "The Literature of Exhaustion," in Surfiction, ed. R. Federman (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1975), pp. 19-33. D. Wood, "Reflections on Art and Language"; R. Brooks, "Problem Solving

26 27




31 32

33 34 35 36


and Question Begging: The Works of Art-Language and John Stezaker," Studio International, 186 (1973), pp. 275, 278. 37 38 39 40 Poulet, La Conscience Critique (Paris: J. Corti, 1971), p. 272; see Barthes, Critical Essays, p. 215. Ricardou, "Fonction Critique," in Theorie d'Ensemble (Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1968), pp. 255-56. Raymond Bellours, "Entretien avec Roland Barthes," Le Livre des Autres (Paris: L'Herne, 1971), p. 254. Christ, "A Modest Proposal for the Criticism of Borges," The CardinalPoints of Borges, ed. L. Dunham, I.lvask (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), p. 8.








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