Hapless thinking and fuzzy logic - an imagined conversation

Derek Horton

The following conversation is imaginary in the sense that it never took place but real in the sense that every part of it was actually said by somebody. Made and read with readymade words, it has something to say about how the readymade might be read and made, and within its own fuzzy logic, something to say about the futility of conflating art and politics.

Except on rare occasions the words spoken in the conversation are not mine. They are the words (in the approximate order of their contribution) of: Irving Wohlfarth, Terry Eagleton, Rebecca Solnit, Jonathan Swift, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ernst Bloch, Antonio Tabucchi, Bruce Sievier & Ord Hamilton, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Richard Wollheim, Benjamin Buchloh, Frederic Jameson, John Roberts, Bernd Witte, Eldon Garnet, Ben Watson, Geoff Teasdale, Carl Einstein, Michel Leiris, Yve-Alain Bois, Rosalind Krauss, Michelle Hannoosh, Walter Benjamin, Umberto Eco, Susan Stewart, Conrad Atkinson, Edward Said, Stephen Logan, C Wright Mills, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Charles Fourier, Frank Zappa, Guy Debord, Mary Austin and Hal Foster.

Having assembled this motley crew and used their borrowed words to stage a conversation between two voices, transcribed as if it were perhaps the scripted dialogue of a play, they are simultaneously sometimes, never and always my own voice, engaged haplessly in conversation with myself, anyone or no-one.

Can we start from the position that dialectics consists of thinking inside - not above or beyond - other people's heads?1

And that quotation is reproduction rather than repetition - an erasure of genesis that restores authentic meaning. What is most memorable is what is skewed out of context. In the mosaic of quotation, discourse is released from its reified environs and flexibly recomposed to weave fresh correspondences across language.2

Communication depends on common things - things we have in common.

The world has no lack of things, only of attending to those things.3

Many of the most learned and wise adhere to the new scheme of expressing themselves by things. For short conversations a man may carry simple implements in his pockets and under his arms enough to supply him, and in his house he cannot be at a loss. The room where company meet who practice this art is full of things ready at hand, requisite to furnish matter for this kind of artificial converse.4

All these are pregnant with meaning. Indeed, anyone who knew how to decipher them properly would soon be able to do without writing and speech.5

... as if the world and all the objects in it were language...6

Do you know what that is? - it's a first-class lesson in material culture. I've always preferred the material to the imaginary, or rather, I've always preferred to inflame the imagination with the material.7

While reaching for the moon and the stars up in the sky, the simple things of normal life are slowly passing by. You're blase!8

But if you pay attention to the simple things of normal life...

The everyday prose of objects is transformed into poetry.9

Every sign, linguistic or non-linguistic, can be cited, put between quotation marks; in so doing it can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts.10

But we might reach a point where interpretation becomes free association!11

The allegorical mind sides with the object and protests against its devaluation to the status of commodity.12

Allegory is precisely the dominant mode of expression of a world in which things have been for whatever reason utterly sundered from meanings, from spirit, from genuine human existence.13

By creating the new from the old, by reworking that which has been consumed or discarded into new objects of delight, humour or pathos, the products of a passive relation to consumption are transformed into acts of conspicuous self-determination. By offering us metaphors of the practical remaking of our industrialized culture, they give imaginative life back to the dead world of the commodity.14

The decayed, despised, excess material of history!15

History written from its residue!16

In a world where hierarchies of value are crushing humanity underfoot, this rubbish is pertinent. Proper attention to rubbish, debris and clutter could detonate a hidden potential, blow a hole in the squalid banality of existence under capitalism.17

Blimey! ... I doubt it! The moment you use it you recommodify it and you aestheticize it - scraping up the debris only to resurrect it as bric-a-brac for the bourgeoisie.18

There was a time when collage played the part of the acid thrower, when it was a means of defence against the happy chance of virtuosity. Today it has degenerated into easy riddles and is danger of lapsing into the fakery of petit-bourgeois decoration.19

At present there is no means of making something pass as ugly or repulsive. Even shit is pretty.20

Recycling, the very height of capitalist alchemy, turns everything into grist for commodification's mill.21

The allegorist places one thing next to another, this meaning with that image, this image with that meaning. Allegory corresponds to commodity fetishism. Just as there is in allegory no 'natural mediation' between image and meaning, so also the relationship between the commodity and its value. The arbitrariness, substitutability and changeability of meaning characteristic of allegory define the commodity's value too.22

What were we saying earlier about the danger of free association?

The devaluation of objects in allegory is surpassed in the world of objects itself by the commodity. The emblems return as commodities.23

In Marx's treatment of it, commodity production under capitalism resembles nothing so much as a language...24

In the splintering of signifier and signified, the allegorist subjects the sign to the same division of functions that the object has undergone in its transformation into a commodity.25

Used allegorically, the object is liberated from the drudgery of usefulness, stripped of its exchange value, and so rescued from the fate of the commodity. 26

Nonsense! We've been here before - it can't be rescued! Commodification is inescapable. The fate of the readymade is a good example.

The transformation of the commodity came full circle in the readymades of Duchamp, and in plenty of 'appropriation art' since, where the willful declaration of the unaltered object as meaningful and the act of its appropriation allegorized creation by bracketing it with the anonymous mass-produced object.27

But this symbolic substitution of use value objects for aesthetic exchange value was ultimately lost in the works' acculturation process in which the works acquired a historical meaning that inverted their original intentions entirely. It perpetuates the separation of various cultural practices and reaffirms the isolation of individual producers from the collective interests of the society within which they operate. It creates the commodity that it set out to abolish. By becoming the property of the cultural it prevents the political from becoming real.28

Hang on a minute! What you're saying is that the necessity of functioning within a distribution system - the market, in other words - as a commodity, and within a cultural legitimization system - the institutions of art - cancels out any effect of 'avant-garde' interference or intervention within the practice and turns it into a renewed legitimization of the ruling power structure. So an 'allegorised' commodity only ends up as merely another commodity.

The question of 'incorporation' is a question of politics, not in the first place of theory or culture. If the current system continues then it is no doubt true that there is in principle no theory or cultural production which it cannot turn to its own squalid ends.29

Commodification is so integrated into the fabric of western art that even to point to it continuously does only minimal service, and efforts to circumvent it only serve to reinforce it.30

But there are plenty of us western artists, critics and theorists who spend a lot of time, effort and words pointing to it - and failing in our efforts to circumvent it!

When the shit hits the fan, enlightenment smiles! The world is subject to an ideology of reflection, held in a prism that can only be examined at the professor's desk. In this neck of the woods, scepticism is well rewarded - until that scepticism extends to its own sources of funding.31

There is something fundamentally unsettling for the existing order about intellectuals who have neither offices to protect nor territory to consolidate and guard.32

... but there aren't many of them!

Those who are looking for an indication of the calibre of intellectual life in British universities will find it less in the research itself than in the ignominious scramble to get it weighed and measured.33

... sharecroppers in the dustbowl of academic business!34

Why does the critic sell the products of his mind, for thereby he makes the worst law of present day society his own law?35

That's what the philosophers are like; they rant against riches, honour and pleasure and then immerse themselves in them without restraint, under the pretext of reforming and improving the world.36

You mean we're only in it for the money?

We are only money!37

The whole body of disciplines which continues to develop today as the thought of the spectacle must justify a society without justification, and must become a general science of false consciousness. This school of thought is completely conditioned by the fact that it cannot and does not want to investigate its own material basis in the spectacular system...38

... Deconstruction has become a scholastic smokescreen, and serves to protect the material interests of the scholars. It accumulates the ideological fruit of struggle, lets it putrify on the sideboards of inaction, then hurls this rotten fruit at those who picked it in the first place.39

And when social reality becomes a product of language, materialism gets lost in a welter of bad theoretical art. Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey made the film 'Riddles of the Sphinx' just at the same time the Sex Pistols broke, and in terms of aesthetic vigour and political charge, entrepreneurial capitalism beat statist academia hands down.40

... A clean shortcut to areas of enjoyment long closed to us by the accumulated rubbish of the culture route...41

But there is another danger here too - and you've just fallen into the trap - which is that leftist critiques of art and academic institutions sometimes converge with rightist attacks. For example, when the left gives up on museums and universities as places where critical discussions might be fostered, it condones in a passive way the condemnation of these institutions by the right.42

Critical artists are not only involved with but also inevitably complicit with the systems they critique. There is considerable traffic between activism and the status quo - resistance and dissent are easily recruited as a spectacle of opposition.

This conversation could go on and on...

... And no doubt it will! ...

Sources of the contributions cited in the imagined conversation:

  1. Irving Wohlfarth, adding to a quotation of Brecht, in The Measure of the Possible, The Weight of the Real and The Heat of the Moment: Benjamin's Actuality Today, in New Formations, No.20, Summer 1993

  2. Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin: Or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism: London, Verso, 1981

  3. Rebecca Solnit, Landscapes of Emergency in Ann Hamilton, Sao Paulo/Seattle: exhibition catalogue, 1992

  4. Jonathan Swift, Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver, 1726, published as Gulliver's Travels: London, Collins, 1993

  5. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, quoted in John Cage [ed.] Goethe On Art: 1980

  6. Ernst Bloch, quoted in Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project: Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1989

  7. Antonio Tabucchi, Requiem [trans. M.J.Costa]: London, Harvill, 1994

  8. A brief extract from the lyrics of the song "You're Blase" by R Bruce Sievier and J Ord Hamilton, which is particularly beautifully sung by Ella Fitzgerald on the album 'Take Love Easy': Pablo Records, 1974

  9. Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects [trans. J.Benedict]: London, Verso, 1996 (p.87)

  10. Jacques Derrida, quoted by Rosalind Krauss in Using Language To Do Business As Usual in Bryson et.al.[eds.] Visual Theory: Cambridge, Polity Press, 1990

  11. Richard Wollheim, commenting to Tamar Garb at the conference, Cezanne and the Aesthetic, at the Tate Gallery, London, 1996

  12. Benjamin Buchloh, Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art, in Artforum 21, No.1, 1982

  13. Frederic Jameson, Marxism and Form: Princeton N.J., Princeton University Press, 1971

  14. John Roberts, Postmodernism, Politics and Art: Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1990

  15. Bernd Witte, Walter Benjamin: An Intellectual Biography [trans. J.Rolleston]: Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1991

  16. Eldon Garnet, I Shot Mussolini: Toronto, Impulse Editions, 1989

  17. Ben Watson, Art, Class & Cleavage: London, Quartet Books, 1998

  18. 'Bric-a-brac for the bourgeoisie' is a phrase I have borrowed from Geoff Teasdale.

  19. Carl Einstein, Exposition de Collages, in Documents 2 (1930) No.4 (p.244)

  20. Michel Leiris, Journal 1922-1989: Paris, Gallimard, 1992 (p.154)

  21. Yve-Alain Bois, Rayguns, in Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, Formless: A User's Guide: New York, Zone Books, 1997

  22. Michelle Hannoosh, The Allegorical Artist and the Crises of History: Benjamin, Grandville, Baudelaire, in Word & Image, Vol.10, No.1, Jan-Mar 1994 (pp.38-54)

  23. Walter Benjamin, quoted by Benjamin Buchloh, 1982, op.cit.

  24. Umberto Eco, quoted by Susan Stewart in: On Longing: Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984

  25. Benjamin Buchloh, 1982, op.cit.

  26. Terry Eagleton, 1981, op.cit.

  27. Benjamin Buchloh, 1982, op.cit.

  28. Benjamin Buchloh, Parody and Appropriation in Francis Picabia and Sigmar Polke, in Artforum 20, No.7, 1982 (pp.28-34)

  29. Terry Eagleton, The Significance of Theory: Oxford, Blackwell, 1990 (p.32)

  30. Conrad Atkinson, Lost Horizons, in Art & Artists, January 1974

  31. Ben Watson, 1998, op.cit. (p.8)

  32. Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual, _The 1993 Reith Lectures: London, Vintage, 1994 (p.xv_)

  33. Stephen Logan, More Research Not Needed: The Independent, 6 August 1998

  34. A slight embellishment by Geoff Teasdale of a metaphor from C.Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes: New York, Oxford University Press, 1951 (p.xviii)

  35. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism, 1884 [trans. R.Dixon & C.Dutt]: Moscow, Progress, 1975 (p.189)

  36. Charles Fourier, The Theory of the Four Movements, 1808 [trans. I.Patterson]: Cambridge, CUP, 1996 (p.129)

  37. Frank Zappa, Ahead of Their Time, 1968/1993, Rykodisk, RCD 10559

  38. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 1967 [trans. anonymously]: Detroit, Black & Red, 1983 (Section 194)

  39. Ben Watson, 1998, op.cit. (p.243)

  40. Ben Watson, 1998, op.cit. (p.321)

  41. Novelist, Mary Austin on Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, cited by James Weldon Johnson in Black Manhattan, 1930, reprinted New York: Da Capo, 1991

  42. Hal Foster, The Return of the Real - An Interview with Hal Foster by Miwon Kwon, in Flash Art, Vol.xxix, No.187, Mar-Apr 1996 (p.62)