Unreal Nature

June 19, 2017

This Work to Be Done Required This Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… it moves toward the conditions behind cause, and beyond effect …

Continuing through Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade by Thierry de Duve (1991):

… Let us take up the question again: this something that the artwork contributes to knowledge, where does it come from, and where does it display its efficiency?

… It was only at the end of his life and after he had been doubting for so long (“Will I ever reach an end that I have so long looked for and so long pursued?”) that Cézanne sent to Emile Mâle a famous phrase: “I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you.” It is the subject of certitude that pronounces this phrase, and it speaks of truth.

[line break added] Certitude and truth connect to each other in that region where the self-referentiality of pictorial practice, which is also a practice of one’s life, becomes a revulsion-revelation: “Although it is certain that a man’s life does not explain his work, it is equally certain that the two are connected. The truth is that this work to be done required this life.”

Once again, where does it come from, this something that the work or art contributes to knowledge, this radically new “that’s what it was!”? From itself. It is sui generis. This does not at all mean that it has no cause — in the life of the artist, for example — but that it has no other “origin” than the pivot around which subjective causality is revulsed and by means of which artistic self-referentiality reveals itself to be self-analysis. “Well,” Lacan says, “it is at this point that I am trying to make you see by approximation that the Freudian unconscious is situated at this point where, between cause and that which it affects, there is always something wrong.”

… Let us begin by rejoicing in the fact that the thesis of the “something wrong” lets the aesthetician get rid of all those aesthetic theories in which interpreting means attaching an effect to its cause or to its causes.

… Let us now ask this: if the work of art establishes its own certitude and its own truth-function “at that point where, between cause and that which it affects, there is always something wrong,” what allows it to constitute a knowledge beyond the seemingly impossible geometry of this solipsistic point? What allows its self-referentiality to be fruitful and not fall back onto the most limiting of tautologies?

[line break added] Or, to refer to the Lacanian theory of the Symbolic, what allows a signifier with no other signification than its own quality of being a signifier, or a nomination that names no more than its naming function, to grip us for more than a moment without boring us? The answer is not that this punctual upsurging of revelation fascinates us in itself. Neither the byzantine taste of a certain conceptual art for tautology and self-referentiality nor the equally byzantine tendency of certain epigones of Lacan to want to make the signifier into a substance of sorts will convince me that knowledge can emerge from such a hypnotic fascination.

[line break added] The answer must be of a completely different kind; it will be a quite simple one if we make use of all the theoretical consequences of our preceding discussion. The artwork’s self-referential pointing is not self-contained; it leads us, without our even realizing it, into a process of interpretation that we may well misconstrue if we theorize it as a causal link, since, in fact, it has nothing to do with cause or effect.

The type of knowledge that the work of art encourages — and this is true both of the simple amateur who is not looking for a thematizable knowledge and a fortiori of the aesthetician-art historian who is looking for it — leaps by the same token before cause and beyond effect: before cause, since it moves toward the conditions behind cause, and beyond effect, since it moves toward its facticity, its very existence. A condition is less than a cause, a fact more than an effect. A condition does not determine an order of consequences; it delimits a field of possibilities.

[line break added] It does not force anything to happen; it does not permit everything; but it specifies what will be permitted, or, better yet, it will have specified what it permitted. The connections of the work of art to its “context,” to everything — whether economic, social, ideological, personal — that puts pressure on the freedom of the artist, are evidently forces of this sort: they are not the connections of an effect to its causes but of a fact to its conditions. In conceiving of them in this way, we can easily understand the reality of artistic creation without in the least mythifying the freedom of the creator.

My most recent previous post from de Duve’s book is here.

-Julie

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