The Letter of the Aphabet: Notes to Shaun Pictures 9

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The Letter of the Alphabet and Thought. Ann Hamilton 2011


It is a poetic act to think of alphabetic letters as having “gravity”, “weight”, jostling within larger “gravitational fields” like sentences and paragraphs: the condensation of the poem, the newspaper article, the countless texts that have established an ∞ number of models that are our thoughts in and through their fixity-non-fixity as a 4 Dimensional whole. The work of art can open broader avenues for thought and language in the virtual as fixity-non-fixity, as Gilles Deleuze has described it, for instance, in his remark on the mere activity of making a book and writing:

A book is a small cog in a much more complex, external machinery. Writing is a flow among others; it enjoys no special privilege and enters into relationships of current and countercurrent, of backwash with other flows – the flows of shit, sperm, speech, action, eroticism, money, politics, etc. Like Bloom, writing on the sand with one hand and masturbating with the other: ­- two flows in what relationship? (Gilles Deleuze “I have nothing to admit” [Cher Michel, je na’i rien a avouer, in La Quinzaine litteraire. 116 (April 1-15, 1973).


In a quotation by Deleuze on Proust we find a passage that reads similarly to the engagement I have with Finnegans Wake that at present is an attempt to pursue its raison d’etre both visually and linguistically in images:

In the literary machine that Proust’s In Search of Lost Time constitutes, we are struck by the fact that all the parts are produced as asymmetrical sections, paths that suddenly come to an end, hermetically sealed boxes, noncommunicating vessels, watertight compartments, in which there are gaps even between things that are contiguous, gaps that are affirmations, pieces of a puzzle belonging not to any one puzzle but to many, pieces assembled by forcing them into a certain place where they may or may not belong, their unmatched edges violently forced out of shape, forcibly made to fit together, to interlock, with a number of pieces always left over.”

(Gilles Deleuze: Capitalism and Schizophrenia pp. 42-43).


“Pasteurised” and “Pasturised” – Louis Pasteur’s treatment for bacteria in milk and wine, or putting animals to Pasture – Raymond Roussel was keenly interested in words that seem almost the same but which mean or suggest something quite different. Language, built as it is on single letters is such a complex phenomenon that it is best compared to our bodies with all of the complexities of materials and organs, blood, water, DNA and so forth that make the body what it is: a living and changing and finally dying organism.

The significance of the single letter constitutes in-built change, morphing, movement, space-time and ∞ direction – memory, history, cultures, wars and peace; cities, roads, architecture and civilizations, as they have been and will become. Reading Joyce and Duchamp is revealing to us a type of reading and learning coextensive with the act of identifying the role of this fixity-non-fixity definition talis qualis, in that the single letter means the world entire as I have and will come to know it. Finnegans Wake promotes such a clear understanding of language as the source of all that we might come to think, because it structures our senses through an inflation of the letter itself in its singularity as a motif whose metamorphosis was, is and becomes uncertain. In moderating our own ways of thought, and thought’s movements and associations, it is formal educational patterns and scholarly convention that are abandoned ex post facto: Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze in particular have emphasized the liquidity of thought as an aspect of the force of writing whose directive is “abnormal” against the “sobriety” of conservative philosophy and its writing, and in Nietzsche’s thought we discover an advance in artistic thought both Derrida and Deleuze have sought to emulate (like Joyce particularly) and upon which to expand. The single letter is atomic, is sub-atomically fraudulent because it is also a sign, it is something it is not, and it is the foundation for tropes, the sensation, the immensity of persistent childhood, the coefficient of what it will become in the “word”, in the “term”.  Duchamp’s call for a new “objectivity” in art in a period when the field was awash with subjective incoherence, as it still is, came from the background of a poesies stretching from Mallarmé, Roussel, and Brisset among others, and a sophisticated if not in-depth knowledge of science, physics and the technological inventions of his time. Indeed, in Brisset Duchamp had found an autodidact who delighted in the analysis of language as having developed or descended from frogs and a Cratylism in which words clearly represent both their own origins and the meanings of the things to which they refer. (1) Duchamp had a hero in Brisset, and also a “Station Master”, one of the Malic Molds Duchamp created for the Glass. (2) Brisset’s word puns are contradictions of constraints and play of the single letter that reveal at least one order of the symbol as it is used in the Wake.

The single letter is turned on and turned off in our body by the invisible power of neuron electricity. Before the medium is the message the single letter is our own totality in abeyance “before” thought, as it were. It is no wonder then, particularly in reading Finnegans Wake, that we are brought back at first to our own body and instantly to the bodies of others of which we are a part in a multiplicity of beings that think, live and love in letters – the apogee of a single letter is no small type to be. In the realm of what is a contradictory body assumed by Shem and Shaun in Finnegans Wake – the so-called “warring twins” of the father – history is not only the great history of man but instead the “trivial” un-momentous drivel of what one person may perceive every day of their lives were they only so inclined as to look at it with artistic, poetic interest: in other words, mankind beholding the commonplace phenomena he is given to consume, discovers that “history” may continue to generate through him and via his senses that have become those of the creating poet. Beyond Nietzsche, the letter becomes sovereign itself and leaps out of the word, “the word leaps out of the sentence; the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page; the page gains life at the expense of the whole – the whole is no longer a whole”. (3)


The “mechanics” of Duchamp’s Glass and its Notes is oriented too on the model of the persistent thing, which stems from logic, or the Pataphysics of logic, deflated from metaphysics. Its concept of “force” remains an empty word while an “inner will” is not ascribed to it by the reader/spectator. It is not a whole because it is dispersed and an army that is dispersed is not capable of combat. Duchamp’s texts lend themselves to the appropriation of nihilism for this dispersed outfit of parts that fall apart while holding together by means of their power in striving during weariness: nihilism is a sensation that requires cohesion and thus it is ruled out of court even as it is courted in Duchamp’s words by the Bachelor Machine. No corresponding instructions reach the Bachelors from their Bride and the Bride requires the “drive” of the Bachelor Machine: it is as though the creation of the text for the Glass was always “possible”, one of Duchamp’s most important words. The Bride develops single letters only by throwing them into empty space.

Duchamp likened the Bride’s spinning-out of her letters to Times Square in New York: being a translation of her moment of wilful obscurity to another sign system and symbol as another occupant of the “Great White Way” and “centre of the world” – the Umbilicus Mundi that was Jerusalem. Such is the question of the single letter prominent as the aftermath of Duchamp’s Notes and Joyce’s Wake, coming post-Deleuze-Guattari, that we are left reflecting upon new lines of enquiry related to the dimensions of the single letter and its porosities, metamorphoses, infinite extensions in the life of the wor (l) d. In Duchamp his precursors have derived a pataphysical wor (l) d in which the single letter has developed the machinic anarchy of wit and the folds of contradiction understood as force and power. Single letters are, of course, understood now in terms of the very sub and super structures of all that is, and within the manifold of Duchamp and Joyce the virtual display of art as the first step into the dark of each new thought-like-moment and also its provisional differAnce movement. Fixity at the point of release and tension, the grip of the single letter evolving into ∞ shards, supplants the plight of art as a first and foremost “aesthetic experience”, replacing it by means of the ∞ intellectual backlashes of Language’s atomic constitution inside and outside of “the work of art” itself – the object, the experience of the turns-of-phrase, the metaphors in play in the mere description of what it is we see in the work of art – even its various transcendental possibilities that always take place through language.

We will now move outward beyond the surface complexities of painted or sculpted objects, outside even the most sophisticated analysis of such objects as accepted within the cycle of Art Historical Analysis and Criticism including art that currently identifies itself with Modernism’s long heritage. It is as though the poet and the scientist will ultimately be insane together for we can trace the logic of previous “insanities” and “Pataphysics” to the calmer resources of intimate history in the arts of man and have them near and at our fingertips because their previous warring heart has been tamed; made still and useful for interpreters of what is still a most problematic art. Now we will acknowledge the power of mind to travel at enormous speeds since we are free of gravity – yet conscious of it – with Joyce and Duchamp.

Duchamp and Joyce practiced oppositions to artistic Modernity, even while Modernity itself was not understood or appreciated; in other words their work and their thought developed, and was still developing, in a fashion that brought language into clear opposition with the cultural status quo of progress as understood by Modernism’s American guides, and which the rest of the world, by and large, “silently” validated. We must agree with Deleuze – not on everything he says but in regard to his work on film or cinema theory when he maintains that a double articulation of the image is involved inasmuch as language is that requirement that reveals the sense of the image to us, since language is of course prior to sense and meaning in any event, in the mind, in all that is the world, and this leaves no exception. Even the so-called “exhaustion” of language in Samuel Beckett’s late television plays, for example, which is to be taken as the point where “language reaches its limit, vanishes, is no more”, is simply the author’s none-use of verbal language for a particular effect, but the playwright has not “finally managed to do without language altogether” since this is an impossibility – language is boundless – bottomless. But Deleuze constructs his commentary on Beckett around a theory of Beckett’s language, even a theory of Beckett’s three types of language, so that he deals with a text where only a vestigial form of language remains by constructing a theory of its (presumably absent) language. Jean-Jacques Leclerc has used this merely apparent paradox as a “parable”:

[…] the parable of the problematic nature of language, of the love hate relationship its practitioners (I will not say its users) have with it, of the necessity to push it to its limits, into silence, and of the inexhaustible garrulousness that defeats exhaustion, of the constitutive effability that inhabits even the ineffable. (Deleuze and Language. p. 2)


Nonsense rules in Deleuze and Leclerc here, and it is little wonder that we often see artworks, and perhaps modernist artworks most of all as mystical, as possessing transcendental qualities that leave us language-less, that we don’t “understand” them. Of course these products are part of the world – and according to what we know about them – they can constitute a particular means of expression within the world community or fail to do so.

Duchamp’s urinal or Fountain became part of the debate that is Modernism, but it’s articulacy is concerned with the phenomenon of language. As a gesture Duchamp’s urinal is a precursor to Jacques Derrida’s “differance”: a catachresis, if you will, kept alive in language by its constant negating – a perpetually unresolved metaphor that is placed against the value systems of previous art and bringing to the fore the realm(s) of language into which it was born. Others than Derrida himself have discussed the single-letter “a” in “differance” and the neographism’s most important facets concern the fact that the word resists the history of metaphysics and the logos and effects a focus on the play of presence and absence which, it needs to be reiterated from my previous papers, is the systemic modus operandi that developed eventually throughout the productions of Joyce and Duchamp. I believe it is essential to begin to equate Duchamp’s neologism “Infrathin” and what his texts within this signature suggest when played against the Glass, and also his work as a whole, with Joyce’s play on neologisms or what we call “Wakease”. Wittgenstein’s employment of the “Duck/Rabbit” in his Philosophical Investigations is illuminating since “Wakease” is image-like: ultimately every single-letter in almost every coined term or “word” belongs to interpretation. According to Wittgenstein, in such an instance, it could not be the case that the external world actually stays the same while an “internal” cognitive change takes place. Reading Finnegans Wake is not concerned with merely reporting what one sees and reads, but is instead a “machine”, involved in the “machinic”, since the text of the Wake moves constantly between what we may consider something might initially be, or “mean”, and the realization that something else lurks beneath every letter, word and phrase, indicating the presence of various dimensions of history and including varying dimensions in our framings of time. What Duchamp achieved in his Glass project is similar because he stretched the envelope of the interpretation of the visual work of art immeasurably through his use of Notes, parallel and undissembled yet essential to the Glass and its notional “mechanical” parts: notes that subject the reader or spectator to deep interpretation. In preparing such texts, often repetitive, and with alterations and contradictions exposed, Duchamp achieved involvedness.

Both of these works, the Wake and the Glass projects, ask the spectator to read or to see something “like this”, and now “like that” simultaneously. In doing so, however, at the crux of this movement lie extreme subtleties that reach out to the personalized reader and spectator – these works were not intended for unfurnished minds but rather as challenges for the vigorously minded interpreter fascinated with creative pedagogy, with the enormous and contradictory details that the artist has put in their way. For my part I subscribe to the position that Joyce was endeavoring to surpass Dante and Shakespeare, and even perhaps to add yet another layer or many layers to their vast accomplishments; and that Duchamp was outdoing, while calling attention to Leonardo and a kind of return to the intellectual propensities of the Renaissance. I am not the first to mention any of these observations, but it seems that I am the first to note, as I have several times before, the power both Duchamp and Joyce preserved as students of Renaissance thought: its art, its sciences and its literary and philosophical knowledge. Modernism, it should be remembered, became a catalyst for a program that severed its fields of creative and artistic component into parts such that the visual arts, music, literature, poetry, dance, philosophy and any other branches of the humanities became unintegrated; unlike the Renaissance in which the artist was also likely to be a poet too, an architect, a silversmith and a sculptor – an all-rounder – versed in all the important fields of knowledge of his day. What we see in the Wake is Joyce’s absorption in a pre-world-wide-web, polyglotism, and hypermedia in this manic scaffolding of language, where the single-letter is a prism, a prodigious gestalt. The single-letter holds in the Wake the primary signs that there is an informed and intellectual world capable of being cerebrally absorbed from its multifarious fields that keep emitting scribbled signs of a rebirth – a rebirth that is always in question. A rebirth or a reawaking of intellect and sensitivity for the world over mere artistic appreciation is to be gleaned from project(s) of imaging: assuming something like the challenge of reading the Wake and the Glass, and this requires an interest in deep and informed reading, as opposed to activities associated with the making and the creation of typical “works of art” whose “merits” today are gallery-assembled like the “Emperor’s New Clothes”.

Subtleties that reside in the Wake and the Glass have been largely ignored by the sister arts that accompany each – literature and painting – and we will find no furtherance or delicate beneficial critique of Joyce’s work, or of Duchamp’s either curiously enough, where one might expect it to be: in the writings of such thinkers as John Cage, for example, and one has merely to read him to discern this.

In the Glass and the Wake, notions, ideas, are systematically kept out of the symbolic space that is supposed to indicate, and effectively does indicate, but without being allowed to establish themselves by instituting any sort of analogy: in effect this creates perpetually unresolved metaphors. I have written modestly concerning this creative perplexity elsewhere (Duchamp and Joyce16 Sep 2004 … ‘Metaphor’ and ‘concept’ in Joyce and Duchamp) but the ironies present in the passing of time and “reading” Finnegans Wake as my visual work is carried forward has lead to this almost absurd reflection on the single-letter of the alphabet that for me is beginning to characterize new dimensions in Joyce’s Wake and Duchamp’s Glass and his Writings. Yet for Duchamp, in my work, this may not appear so obvious save that one can take Duchamp out of Dada but one cannot take Dada out of Duchamp – like Tristan Tzara, Duchamp operated on a special kind of “devaluation” of the word and in doing so in his Notes to the Glass particularly, brought about a revolution of scribbling in pencil on loose scraps of paper or the backs of odd envelopes or household bills – any paper detritus that came to hand – (engineered or not, it is impossible to distinguish) that severs itself from contemporary culture together with all of the privileges and inequalities that are its sacrosanct givens. Modernism and the “memory of culture” in the Glass project, and the Wake, are already defunct and non-operational, obsolete – outdated. These are the “Notes” of the scientist-pataphysician a.k.a. Leonardo, and of course Henri Poincaré simulated or rather more imagined – the imperfect simulacrum and thus “perfect” after all: original as imitative in form if not at all in content. Within this perspective there is continuous punning in and on language that Duchamp and Joyce share. In the Wake paronomasia is Joyce’s tool throughout, which as Nicholas Morris has suggested (4) is the only possibility for Joyce’s allusions to kenoma or “universal negative space” made possible by the use of common or garden syntax and semantics, that Cage actually assumed to be the Wake’s great failing, whereas plain English meets what Derrida calls the Parergon:

The parergonal frame stands out against two grounds [fonds], but with respect to each of these two grounds, it merges [se fond] into the other. With respect to the work which can serve as a ground for it, it merges into the wall, and then gradually, into the general text. With respect to the background, which the general text is, it merges into the work, which stands out against the general background (Derrida The Truth in Painting. 1987: 61).

Duchamp’s cyclical sexual explorations of water, gas and electricity in his Glass, ostensibly through the Bride and her Bachelors, is the outcome of a bulky array of readings he undertook at the Bibliotèque Sainte-Geneviève including research on technology, science, physics, chemistry, geometry, and mathematics – his word plays or puns in his texts becomes a method of directly exploiting the virtuality per se of signs derived from the research he had undertaken and had begun to infiltrate into his writing as a resource after the influence of Roussel: puns, as in the Wake too, of course, operate the resemblance of signifiers (sound) to bring together extremely diverse signifieds. Spoonerisms based on minute shifts of sound works a phonetic drift in a double chiasmic movement; the results are a large-scale change in the textual geography that Duchamp utilized as a means of articulating a phenomenological impasse against the hard stable word, fabricating an indecidable adventure in “scientific” speak and reiteration as a sign of his routine for “verifying” his “results” against the “silence” of the Glass itself. It is evident that this “silence” derives from the manifestations of the Notes and that the “silence” that shouts out from the Glass connotes something of the unnamable experiences the human mind and body generates at every moment – the insensible unspeakable felt-presence of living as we always know it – and largely ignore – as something about which we cannot speak. Clearly Joyce’s use of interior monologue or stream of consciousness, like other authors perhaps but up to the point of Finnegans Wake, has authorial presence that Duchamp’s various Writings and Notes including The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelor’s, Even do not at first appear to possess, and in any case French is very prone to complex punning: a limited number of consonant-vowel syllable combinations, the many silent consonants, the lack of juncture as a phonemic feature, and a tradition of bad spelling make word play a commonplace, as it were, of everyday life.

Yet Duchamp expands the play of language by rebounding his terms off material forms that are on hold: he calls this “delayed” action a “verbal mirage” in one of his early Notes to the Large Glass (N.70 [recto]). The Notes, each quite separate from the next, all watch one another, and they are thus self-conscious concerning their own special creation against one another, hence we must draw attention to this life of Duchamp’s Notes as a form of “stream of consciousness” – Notes parading as jottings that in fact poetize resonances of “indecidability” and of “differance”. The Notes and the Glass can be created by spectators aware of Duchamp’s irony involved in affirmation: these are signs that proceed by the agencies of unresolved metaphors that offer analogies by means of the notions of “spacing” and “temporization”. No precedent for this type of activity had existed in the “visual arts” before The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even; and this traditional term “visual arts” is not only unwieldy, so far as this writer is concerned, but is instead thoroughly misleading – it tempts us back to those works historically from which it must be distinguished, and largely from other Modernist artworks per se. Like Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even is a time capsule for reading, for visual and sense inspection against the grain of sequence and “narrative”, and an attitude on Duchamp’s part to bring miniscule effects for which we have no terms or words into play in the language(s) we have that we nevertheless inwardly feel as sensations. William James, discussing stream of consciousness, suggests the following that imparts an interesting and useful appendage to what we are discussing here:

The object before the mind always has a ‘Fringe.’ There are other unnamed modifications of consciousness just as important as the transitive states, and just as cognitive as they. Examples will show what I mean [….]. Suppose we try to recall a forgotten name. The state of our consciousness is peculiar. There is a gap therein but no mere gap. It is a gap that is intensely active. A sort of wraith of the name is in it, beckoning us in a given direction, making us at moments tingle with the sense of our closeness, and then letting us sink back without the longed-for term. If wrong names are proposed to us, this singularly definite gap acts immediately so as to negate them. They do not fit into its mould. And the gap of one word does not feel like the gap of another, all empty of content, as both might seem necessarily to be when described as gaps.

When I vainly try to recall the name of Spalding, my consciousness is far removed from what it is when I vainly try to recall the name of Bowles. There are innumerable consciousnesses of want, no one of which taken in itself has a name, but all different from each other. Such feeling of want is tota cÏlo other than a want of feeling: it is an intense feeling. The rhythm of a lost word may be there without a sound to clothe it; or the evanescent sense of something that is the initial vowel or consonant may mock us fitfully, without growing more distinct. Every one must know the tantalizing effect of the blank rhythm of some forgotten verse, restlessly dancing in one’s mind, striving to be filled out with words.

[….] The traditional psychology talks like one who should say a river consists of nothing but pailsful, spoonsful, quartpotsful, barrelsful, and other moulded forms of water. Even were the pails and the pots all actually standing in the stream, still between them the free water would continue to flow. It is just this free water of consciousness that psychologists resolutely overlook. Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it. With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead. The significance, the value, of the image is all in this halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it, – or rather that is fused into one with it and has become bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh; leaving it, it is true, an image of the same thing it was before, but making it an image of that thing newly taken and freshly understood.

Let us call the consciousness of this halo of relations around the image by the name of ‘psychic overtone’ or ‘fringe’. (William James. The Stream of Consciousness
 (1892. Ch. Xl).

Not only “want” of course, the sensation of “wanting” – for in a sense this is merely one innumerable “type”, but an example of the “type” of inner-sensation (the feeling of which has no linguistic signifier) that currently interests us. The “free water of consciousness” that James touches on in his text can be employed as an example of what Duchamp (solely as a single specimen for our purposes) in his note 25 of Infrathin, describes as “[…] the pearlescent, the moiré, the iridescent in general: relationships to the infra thin”. As opposed to “want” the signifiers “pearlescent”, “moiré” are not “wanting” memory to recall through what James describes as a “gap”, but rather presents us with the concept of effect the “infra thin” requires if the instinct is to become useful to us as a conceptual tool by which to look and think our way around the Glass’ system and Duchamp’s entire Oeuvre.

The “handler of gravity” (for instance), which is annotated in the Green Box Notes, does not appear on the Glass as such, but may be alluded to by a Note on Infrathin “the gratuitousness of the little weight”. Again, this small text may be regarded as a moving and shifting signifier for a more general sensation for sections of the Bachelor Apparatus, an impression or physical feeling for a vaguely proceeding activity of which we have become aware. This stirring is less visually conspicuous but more thought provoking: word and image are yoked together without violence to our response once our attention has been drawn to the possibilities of this kind of morphing as an act of poetics. Duchamp’s “irony of affirmation” almost depends on the art of the term “gratuitousness…” being completely lost such that the weight of the word draws attention to the phenomenon of writing and the single letter that posits the possibility of deconstruction – the word “deconstruct” resulting from a combination of two opposing morphemes: “de” (to undo, to destroy) and “construct” (to do, to build). To simply overlook Duchamp’s arrangement of text to object as in this example is akin to overlooking the invisibility of the single letter when we are reading a text at all and where  “meaning” overrides the visual conspicuousness of its building materials. Thus “the gratuitousness of the little weight” is in at least one sense a self de-constructing act of poetry whose signified is nowhere and everywhere in the Glass, and also among its matching Notes. The contexts in which the “handler of gravity” exists belong to the mind-games we play with it rather like the shadow play of Shem and Shaun in Finnegans Wake: one son is the shadow of the other, and this construction exists as oppositions are thought in relation to there complexity. In Duchamp’s texts the effect is subliminally connected with minutiae that appear in Duchamp’s Glass as the sign for the “storage of potential”. Duchamp’s attachment to Infrathin as a category is in play with sous rature fully signifying that a word or sentence is “inadequate yet necessary” and that a particular signifier is not wholly suitable for the concept it represents but must be used as the constraints of our language offer nothing better. The outcome of this is a sidelong glimpse of “thought” being presented as Text and as a perspective on its failure to characterize.

Our intellect is challenged by Jules Laforgue-like ennui and its grey world.

As Donald Kuspit suggests:

Ezra Pound admired “the dance of the intellect among words” in Laforgue’s poetry. Duchamp wants us to admire the dance of the intellect among the words in his assisted readymades, and above all between the words and the object on which they are written. Laforgue was also Duchamp’s model in the use of language. He invented new words, and ironically juxtaposed “low” and “high” language in his poetry, creating an effect of incongruity. Terms from everyday speech and popular culture were given equal billing with terms from scientific and philosophical language, making for a certain linguistic perversity and excitement. Bored and lonely, and obsessed with death, Laforgue admired Schopenhauer’s pessimism. It was transmuted into Duchamp’s ironical pessimism. T. S. Eliot once said he wanted to “work out the implications of Laforgue.” Duchamp seems to have done so. The writers J. -K. Huysmans, Lautréamont, Arthur Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Roussel, Jean-Pierre Brisset and Mallarmé also “composed the literary microcosm of Marcel Duchamp,” but Laforgue seemed to have been the most important one for Duchamp.

We are taxed with various themes that arise from Text itself in Duchamp and Joyce that infer, at the very least, the issue of the body of the Text as possibly the “meaning” of what is being expressed as opposed to what the Text might seem to point to “beyond” or “behind” itself. One writer who has developed this case in terms of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is Michael Kaufmann in a clear arrangement in his book Textual Bodies (6) whereby:

The literally layered print of the book forces readers to examine its pages as if they were composed of geological strata. They must not merely read the pages but must plow them up, using their “earshare…to cassay the earthcrust at all of hours, furrowards, bagawards, like yoxen at the turnpaht (FW. 18.31-32). The page becomes a solid surface, reading the physical act of harrowing the page for its layers of meaning. Readers turn the textual soil and examine it as an archaeologist examines the text of the earth: “(Stoop) if you are abcedminded, to this claybook,…, in this allaphbed! Can you rede…its world?” (FW. 18. 16-18). Pushing their “earshares” through the layers of letters (aleph and beth in “allaphbed” make it a bed of letters) readers turn up objects: “Here say figurines billycoose arming and mounting. Mounting and arming bellicose figurines see here” (FW. 18. 33-34) (Joyce shows us Greek boustrophedon [as the ox plows] writing; the writing runs from right to left and then left to right as the readers plow the page). We must see (“see here”) what is “said” (“Here say”), see the sound. The objects seem to move with a will of their own, like the “movibles” scrawling on the page. (7)


In terms of this essay’s outlining of the point of the individual letter we will move through to what Kaufmann states in his recognition of the letter as the meat of what Joyce has to say himself about it in Finnegans Wake:

Even the alphabet is not merely a collection of signs but a group – as the Kabbala shows – of mysterious entities, each with its own story to tell. Unlike most books, the “allaphbed” (the fertile first bed of the alphabet) of Finnegans Wake is animated by the characters themselves. They are characters in the literal and literary sense. They are dispersed throughout the very letters of the book. Readers of the book have always been aware of the initials of HCE and ALP, the first couple of Finnegans Wake. As initials they leave their mark on almost every page: “Easy, calm your haste! Approach to lead our passage” (262.1-2 …“ech with pal”(FW. 264.1-3).


One can read the world of so-called “dead objects” or “inanimate things” in Finnegans Wake – not merely trees and leaves that correspond for Joyce with the Irish Alphabet, but also buildings and stones for instance; the way or manner in which a building has been created: for example a church or a cathedral in which the voices of the dead who helped in the creation of it still sing out from their curves and straight-edged complexities styled in stone: the immense gift of design and ornament that could only be the outcome of language. The first answer to a question like “how did this structure get built” is “through language” since language is everywhere and is everything in the sense of man building and working, warring and living together. This gives vent to an idea that, save for Duchamp and Dada, the visual arts as we have thought them in general have been and are little less than forms of benign decoration – types of entertainment. In Joyce and Duchamp we are considering a thick entertainment that, like the proverbial joke that needs to be explained, is simply not a joke at all. Of course the Wake and the Glass are comical at the very least because both Joyce and Duchamp take the world per se as their oeuvre: that is to say, the tactics and strategies of living in the world and its exhaust of history, or, as Alfred Jarry might have put it “the history of exhaustion” was central to the thought of Duchamp and Joyce, through to their writing and their visual interests in bringing together a critique of how the world is given to us via media, technology, and a full boredom with that world when reading halts, discontinues, or is otherwise rejected as the resource for electrified living.

The active trace of non-presence in Derrida’s discussions concerning the term différance is apparent in the withdrawal of Finnegan in the Wake and the alienation of the Bride from her Bachelors and its image from its texts in The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. As Peter Mahon affirms:

[…] Finnegan’s activity is not simply creation from nothing. It is creation from next to nothing: the absence of nothing is marked with the trace of presence and cannot be reduced to the simple opposition of presence/absence, since they are articulated by the next to nothingness of différance. (8)


Trace is the exhaust of différance: it is what Duchamp calls the “Infrathin” in the brief list of propositions he made with an eye toward phenomena for which nothing can be substituted as a concrete interpretation. The Glass as with the Wake consists, effectively, in the mind etc. of the spectator and of course we must re-establish the fact that in Duchamp’s Glass and Joyce’s Ulysses/Wake it is the Ideas that count and not the price or the cost of the work to hand – we are in no way concerned with markets or marketing nor the fortunes or misfortunes of personal recognition. Yet one aspect of Joyce and his approach to the language of the Wake in particular is problematic at least inasmuch as the various languages employed throughout the work turn the reader away from the kind of subtleties of thoughts and actions we are usually open or rather prone to everyday in our ordinary lives and that can be discovered throughout the project that is Ulysses. We can agree, for instance, that newspaper-reading likewise leaves us deprived of anything like the qualities of subtler feeling that on looking “into ourselves” we discover, and so forth, and this may be so through to the “great novel” and also, of course, through poetry: but perhaps in the work of Duchamp due to Mallarmé, Lautréamont and Laforgue there is an intelligence that inspires our quest for something like a visual/written expression of the impossible. Against and also for the machine and pragmatism in Duchamp’s oeuvre we find ourselves instead in completely foreign countries in Finnegans Wake, yet the fashioning of Ironies at the centre of Modernism and the intellect is nevertheless revealed in terms of the very highest creative sophistications reflected in terms of philosophical linguistics in reading both Duchamp and Joyce together even as a token emblem for a far wider field of interest.

As Lawrence D. Steefel writes:

Marcel Duchamp’s interest in the machine and the mechanistic is best understood as a consequence of his pursuit of a poetic of impersonality in which there will be a positive separation for the artist between “the man who suffers and the mind that creates.” Seeking to distance himself from his own fantasies, Duchamp sought a means of converting pathos into pleasure and emotion into thought. His mechanism of conversion was a strange one, but essentially it consisted of inventing a “displacement game” that would project conflicts and distill excitements into surrogate objects and constructs without whose existence his mental equilibrium might not have been sustained. Using personalized though expressively impersonal conventions drawn from what Elizabeth Sewell has called “the field of nonsense,” Duchamp disciplined the artistic products of his excited fantasy by a progressive mechanization of their aesthetic valence. By using the machine as an increasingly distinct and rigid counter against the turbulent vastness of unchanneled association and unfiltered dream, Duchamp created an art of nonsense that “hygienically” freed his mind from all those capsizing factors which had previously haunted him as a Laforguian “sad young man.” (9)


Subtler, deeper and more nuanced sensations somehow merging with the mind-in-action are here described by Steefel, and this type of “strange” activity of bringing art forth is dependent on what he calls a “displacement game”, a displacement such that the principle means brought about in the creative process becomes a shifting of accent – which in conscious thinking we come across only as faulty reasoning or perhaps as a means for a joke. Such is the activity associated with Joyce’s Wake of course, whereby the constant scanning of Joyce’s text for meaning is opposed to mere linearity in a world where linear links from “event” to “event” are overemphasized, deleting the being of a deeper selfhood. Or as Marcel Raymond suggests:

To strive to make oneself the most irreplaceable of individuals is, for all practical purposes, to strive never to resemble one’s fellow men, and for some, at least, not even to resemble oneself. This is a singularly attractive undertaking. A kind of underground spirit drives man to experiment with the most extreme possibilities of self-metamorphosis. The question is whether it is possible to enrich one’s nature and achieve a new awareness of one’s total being by overruling the resistance of reason and habit, by forcing one’s imagination to leap into the unknown beyond any beaten track. This implies a readiness to destroy the traditional concept of man, and, first of all, to destroy one’s personal being, to let it be absorbed and lost in a selva oscura…More than that; this very activity; this way of living and constantly renewing one’s life, is poetry. (10)

What we mean by “constant scanning” over Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is the ability to bring all of our senses to bear on the individual letters on which the Wake hinges during its constant metamorphosing as the text is looked at and re-read bit by bit, and holding on to what one remembers of it in order to make something begin to feel like a mental-condition, sous rature, we call “thought”. This task will take hours of reading a number of pages repeatedly, and it can be helpful to have McHugh’s Annotations open at these pages too; not so much because McHugh is probably correct in his suggestions but rather that his approach to Joyce’s text presents us with a model for reading through the Wake and may lead us to better thoughts of our own concerning Joyce’s general layout, puns and plans for our own interpretations after varied readings of it. Signifiers lead to more signifiers in the Wake and to such a degree that one becomes engaged in a paper trail of signifieds none of which are stable for obvious reasons: indeed, the activity of so reading the Wake amounts to a trial reading at every stage of re-reading since changes-of-mind as to what is being said as we read runs against and contradicts our accustomed mode of not having to make sense of the text in, say, the form of a typical novel. We are instead reading in-depth from what appears to be dense nonsense, detritus and bricolage, and as Derek Attridge notes:

In spite of its untoward tendency to polysemy, language works well enough, we are told, because it always operates in a disambiguating context. We are able to choose one of several potential meanings for a word or sentence because we are guided by the immediate verbal surroundings, the nature of the speech act in which the words are uttered and perceived, the social and historical setting, and so on. As speakers we construct our sentences in such a way as to eradicate possible ambiguities, and as hearers we assume single meanings in the sentences we interpret. The pun, however, is not just an ambiguity that has crept into an utterance unawares, to embarrass or amuse before being dismissed; it is ambiguity unashamed of itself, and this characteristic is what makes it more than just an inconvenience. The context of a pun, instead of being designed to suppress latent ambiguity, is deliberately constructed to enforce ambiguity, to render impossible the choice between meanings, to leave the reader or hearer endlessly oscillating in semantic space. (11)


Joyce’s letter weaving in a single portmanteau word has us rummaging for sense, meaning and direction since many tunnels appear to beckon us to explore them while we reflect on the word(s) possibilities. In a way we are exploring a tabula rasa against which we set English as an initial querying tool or device to derive “our own” sense of what Joyce’s polysemous puns and portmanteaus present to us, and it is in this sense that our individual and existential reactions, emotions, feelings, and thoughts, or the meaning or the purpose of the book, can take root. As Attridge observes:

Joyce has set in motion a process over which he has no final control – a source of disquiet for many readers. Litz, for example, complains that “in reading it one does not feel that sense of ‘inevitability’ or ‘rightness’ which is the sign of a controlled narrative structure” (The Art of James Joyce, 62). Others are more willing to accept the vast scale of what the multilingual portmanteau opens up. In “Finnegans, Wake!” Jean Paris observes that “once it is established, it must by its own movement extend itself to the totality of living and dead languages. And here indeed is the irony of the portmanteau style: the enthroning of a principle of chance which, prolonging the intentions of the author, in so far as they are perceptible, comes little by little to substitute for them, to function like a delirious mechanism, accumulating allusions, parodying analogies, and finally atomizing the Book”.


“Digression” in the name of the Wake is detailed by Attridge as (pp. 220-221 of Attridge – also Duchamp’s Notes to the Glass as “Digression” which they of course are not – and on the contrary the Notes are the result of his working on a material object for which he needed to invent phrases and names for the (non-existent) parts of its “machinery”.

(1) Marcel Duchamp, who later recalled: “Brisset and Roussel were the two men in those years [1912-15] whom I admired for their delirium of imagination… Brisset’s work was a philological analysis of language — an analysis worked out by an incredible network of puns. He was a sort of Douanier Rousseau of philology… But Brisset was one of the real people who was lived and will be forgotten. Roussel was another great of mine in the early days. The reason I admired him was because he produced something I had never seen. That is the only thing that brings admiration from my innermost being — something completely independent — nothing to do with the great names or influences… I felt that as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter… My ideal library would have contained all Roussel’s writings —Brisset, perhaps Lautréamont and Mallarmé. Mallarmé was a great figure. This was a direction in which art should turn: to an intellectual expression, rather than to an animal expression. I am sick of the expression “bête comme un peintre” — stupid as a painter.”


Like Brisset, Duchamp (who referred to himself anagrammatically as “le marchand du sel” [salt seller]) relied on ubiquitous puns in his constant efforts to transgress the norm. He believed that we must do away with “retinal pleasure” in favor of a more intellectual pleasure when we view a work of art. By a game of wit and verbal licence set in motion by the title, words enter into a derisive relationship with the object they are supposed to represent and identify. It is thanks to Duchamp’s Morceaux moisis (Selected Moldy Pieces) and to the surrealist movement that Brisset achieved posthumous fame as the inventor of a completely new literary style.


(2) There were nine of them. … At first I thought of eight and I thought, “That’s not a multiple of three”. I added one, which made nine.  There were nine “Malic Molds”. How did they come?  I did a drawing, in 1913, in which there were eight – the ninth wasn’t yet there. It came six months later. The idea is amusing because they are molds. And to mould what?  Gas.  That is, gas is introduced into the moulds, where it takes the shape of the soldier, the department-store delivery boy, the cuirassier, the policeman, the priest, the stationmaster, etc., which are inscribed on my drawing.  Each is built on a common horizontal plane, where lines intersect at the point of their sex. All that helped me realize the glass entitled “Nine Malic Moulds”, which was made in 1914-1915. The mould side is invisible.  I always avoided doing something tangible, but with a mould it doesn’t matter, because it’s the inside I didn’t want to show. The “Nine Malic Moulds” were done in lead; they are not painted, they are each waiting to be given a color.  I denied myself the use of color:  lead is a color without being one. This is the kind of thing I was working on at that time.


(3) Friedrich Nietzsche: The Case of Wagner. Nietzsche: His philosophy of Contradiction and the Contradiction of his Philosophy. Wolfgang Müller-Lauter. p. 43.




(5) Fritz Senn. Joyce’s Dislocutions, p.115.


(6) Michael Kaufmann. Textual Bodies. Modernism, Postmodernism, and Print. Lewisburg. Buckness University Press. 1994.


(7) Ibid. p.72.


(8) Peter Mahon. Imagining Joyce and Derrida. Between Finnegans Wake and Glas. (University of Toronto Press). p. 29.


(9) Lawrence D. Steefel. Marcel Duchamp and the Machine.


(10) Marcel Raymond

(11) Derek Attridge. Peculiar Language. P.190. Cornell University Press. 1988.

About ian

Artist reading on Joyce, Duchamp, Derrida, Deleuze and Blanchot largely making way through Joyce and Duchamp's work as additions to language and thought.
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One Response to The Letter of the Aphabet: Notes to Shaun Pictures 9

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