Historical Modernisms Symposium University of London. Institute of English –                     School of Advanced Study. Senate House  12th and  13th December 2016.

               Paper given on the 13th December.Titled:  Joyce, Duchamp and Warburg

Ian Hays

Unless the visual arts attend to writing and to language – that is literature, philosophy, poetry, they are doomed to be as stagnant and as antiquated as these religions that are scattered over the entirety of the world. We would be committing intellectual suicide were we to refuse to accept the enterprises of all of the Humanities, derived as they all are from language. We will challenge Finnegans Wake in our song of that Apollo and Dionysus.

PowerPoint Accompaniment:  Presentation 2.1


We cannot stand outside of language. Those who will have read and even written on Finnegans Wake know that neither “plain” language nor the more difficult enterprises of linguistics or some new kind of philosophy are likely to enlighten or satisfy their own thoughts as to what they might have actually understood behind Finnegans Wake and beyond their own readings. Finnegans Wake as complexity and as “unreadable” makes ordinary language and most other literature, philosophy and poetry stand out against it and distorts our imagination’s propensities to undo the foibles of any other language that attempts to describe or interrogate it. The Wake and the Glass are experiments in how linguistic and artistic representation can materialize or dematerialize the object world – in the Glass the object world comes to life and assumes a voice of its own through its marginalised texts and notes. It is this deviation from the norms of Modernism bound by the play of complexities of language and image that strike us most – but what is “complexity” then that so affects this troubling play modernism has brought into its writing but the problem of the living of it as such – the questioning of everything that lies behind or inside our languages as such.

“We no longer have a sufficiently high estimate of ourselves when we communicate. Our true experiences are not garrulous. They could not communicate themselves if they wanted to: they lack words. We have already grown beyond whatever we have words for. In all talking there lies a grain of contempt. Speech, it seems, was devised only for the average medium, communicable. The speaker has already vulgarized himself by speaking.” (Nietzsche: Twilight of the Idols)

The Joycean “significance of trivial things” (that leads to complexity. The synthesis of height and depth becomes the synthesis of surface.

By way of Introduction

Language creates or destroys the Work of Art just as Language has created the world and its environments. Language is everywhere and always on show but is greatly ignored but especially perhaps where one imagines it should grow best between teacher and student, I mean, for myself in the studios of art and design. My life as an art historian in several English university schools of art and design showed me the total disregard with which Language was treat during teaching by lecturers and students. But then again somewhat later during my time as a lecturer the very vast majority of students who each year enrolled on courses in either painting or sculpture, print or photography had not even heard of Modernism making it impossible to figure-out ways of introduction to it. Where does one start when the only artist they had ever heard of was Picasso? But I am not speaking about students alone who would be flummoxed by the vaster scope of Modernism in light of the literary and the philosophical, of Poetry and of Music, but also tutors of studio practice. The riches that await the reader of diversities in Modernism are simply vast and varied of course: but we have seen the moment of visual art’s Modernist greatness flicker perhaps for its last time in this fairly new century. I begin this paper as you can see with Aby Warburg and his Bilderatlas that also entices me here to add Duchamp’s Boite en Valise! Typical of Warburg’s passion for the marginal, the unexpected and the fragmentary, the Atlas included photos from contemporary illustrated magazines depicting images with links to antique formulae. In a panel devoted, for instance, to the characteristic theme of the striding figure of the classical nymph, Warburg not only attaches an image of Delacroix’s Massacre at Chios, and his Medea but he also includes a contemporary photograph of a female golfer in mid-swing – likewise capturing the flowing and mobile gesture of the accessories in motion.

Christopher Johnson writes: “That Warburg conceived of Mnemosyne topographically, beyond the montage of maps on the preliminary panel of the Atlas, appears to be suggested in the enigmatic phrase, “iconology of the intervals,” which he used in his journal of 1929. This iconology is based not on the meaning of his figures . . . but on the interrelationships between the figures in their complex, autonomous arrangement, which cannot be reduced to discourse.”

Yet I think to the contrary, for Warburg the Mnemosyne hungers for discourses to take place and in making them as different as possible.

The following are some recent thoughts: We haven’t the foggiest clue about how Language is. Living is language. Language and Photography, text and image are means by which scientific objectivity and a mapping of subjectivity in the Humanities – as well as objective forces that have shaped World culture – meet in the term Atlas. The Internet is an Atlas that in our own time relives the past as our present. Unleashed in writing by means of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake of 1939 it is the Atlas that opens humankind by means of its atomic alphabet: HCE, ALP, Issy, Shem and Shaun – or the Doodles or Sigla.

Here Comes Everybody of Finnegans Wake celebrates the spectacle of learning languages and hypnogogia that sleeps in us all at the extremes of thought patterning in our imaginations opened by internal visions of flux. But what are lives today lived inside the Computer and TV screen?

In the heliotropical noughttime following a fade of transformed Tuff and, pending its viseversion, a metenergic reglow of beaming Batt the bairdboard bombardment screen, if tastefully taut guranium satin, tends to teleframe and step up to the charge of the light barricade. Down the photoslope in syncopanc pulses, with the bitts bugtwag their teffs, the missledhropes, glitteraglatteraglutt, borne by their carnier valve. Spraygun rakes and splits them from a double focus . . . and the scanning firespot of the sgunners traverses the rutilanced illustred sunksundered lines. Shlossh! A gaspel truce leaks out over the caeseine coatings. (Finnegans Wake p. 349.06-16).

 But then not everybody finds problems with language; least of all those who teach visual art, it seems, since “Art is a language of its own”, as is “the Language of the Cinema!” and so on: such nonsense can prevail due perhaps to the continued mental climate concerning the autonomy of the work of art as being an “aesthetic question” and somehow ageless – we should rather, in Aby Warburg’s words be: “undemonizing the phobically imprinted inherited mass of impressions” by registering language as first.

Spectator practice is not usually related to the organisation of the material of art works and texts and other planes of creativity, connecting it largely to its role of receptivity. Shifting our focus to an immaterial in-between, the interval, the seemingly marginal or peripheral could of course become the very key constitutional elements for the spectator in the creative act of language and associative thinking. The scene of writing and language is the core of thought in art that Marcel Duchamp wrote of as the aesthetics of waiting, and the lack of reference in Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas is traceable to his adjustments of this visual montage evident in photographs whose voice is at work as a body of language coexistent with Modernism.

Photography, cinematography and movement implied in Joyce’s thick use of montage by attraction in Ulysses and the photograph’s machinic presence in Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and Large Glass, had, decidedly early, cast a different light across the aesthetic of time. If the Glass alone meant extensive reading to complete it and make it part of the accelerating synaesthetic world of art and language, then Ulysses and Finnegans Wake in their growing complexities of temporal machinic perspectives would re-spell alliances between art, science and technology that might redefine the meaning of time as an amplification of a most coy out-of-sight universe behind its otherwise-written portmanteau landscape. The Wakes collideorscape is flight sprung from Nietzsche’s serpent, its multiphasic assemblages anticipating electronica it had already displaced.

Analogously Duchamp’s lazy ironized machinic is covered by ekphrastic writings like those of Arturo Schwartz and Octavio Paz both dealing with Duchamp’s fascination for Neo-Platonic Hermeticism and Renaissance practitioners like Ficino, Pico della Mirandola to Cornelius Agrippa and Giordano Bruno whose explicit persona is active in Warburg and Joyce. Fixed apathy to literary complexity in visual art’s cross-disciplinarity is responsible for its cessation in our age – while Modern art history is dead.

Jacques Derrida, in an interview concerning Joyce’s Ulysses, asked: “Are we not Joyce’s dream, his dream readers? The dream we were talking about concerns what it is in the work which produces its reader, a reader who doesn’t yet exist, whose competence cannot yet be identified, a reader who would be “formed,” “trained,” instructed, constructed, even engendered, let’s say invented by the work”.

At least the same – although a thoroughly intensified manifestation of reading metamorphosis – is evidenced in Finnegan’s Wake – the stake of its readership being one with total ownership of the text by its readers whose creative interpretation is a required art of the book’s raison d’etre.

The work of Duchamp’s motto that “all art is a mirage” even in all its inscribed poetics and scientific materialization and controversial teaching polemic, his analytic/scientific notes to The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, assumes a similar kind of ingredient whereby Duchamp suggests that reading the writings he had made in his Notes to the Large Glass should be done first and that only later should the Glass be looked at as a manifestation of that writing. When Duchamp conceived of the Large Glass as a type of machine and the Notes in The Green Box as its operating manual, titles for its parts became an important ingredient in his project of transforming art from the retinal to the linguistic. The history of Duchamp’s art is a practice in Language – titles both inside and outside the frame of the work but properly located in the space of neither, exemplifies the strange logic of what Derrida describes as parergonality: or the chiasmic figure of the fold. Language creates this “fold” but what we seem to do is to reject such linguistic traces ahead of our attempt to grasp what appears most natural in attending to the image that is in front of us. Viewers pack language away, as it were, it leaves the stage, hence Duchamp, like Joyce, makes present the ghost of language and in rather the way Aby Warburg does in view of his work in the Mnemosyne Atlas.

Ghosted language circles Warburg’s Atlas as does Giordano Bruno, and as Bruno does in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. A mindful layer of untreated language exists between Warburg’s images and us. For Warburg the fascination was based on Bruno’s legacy in mind of his magico-mnemotechnical treatises, such as De umbris idearum (or the Shadows of Ideas). In it the seals Bruno inserted in that text are shaped like natal horoscopes.

A new order of language is here introduced without words: an interiority of art without description or apparent analysis whose status may be likened to that of Joyce’s literary montage inasmuch as invention remains the task of educating linguistic thought and transference – that posits work on the art historical, poetic, and philosophic inside the etymologisms and perversions resisting restraint between metaphor and concept. Indeed cinematic montage has its origins in the novel, where for example, D.W. Griffith and Eisenstein borrowed from Dickens. Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake too are concerned with such “mental time” and “mental realism” in general, and thus Joyce too saw juxtapositions without continuous narration as exacting interior film.

Joyce and Duchamp inherited the Hermetic, Alchemical and Scientific – yet neither may be followed or made a guardian or master so that in this sense they, unlike artists that followed them, created artworks that are essentially forces discharging plateaus of variously elevated discourses.

Their audience needed to become readers of complex surfaces of writing that supported the latest scientific and modernist adventures not only in the fields of their own arts that were becoming in themselves metaphors for a vast movement away from Modernisms of geographical differences. For Duchamp, language in his playful serious search for what he called “prime words” expressed his return to it under the subheading of “Conditions of a Language”: He Writes in a Note:

The search for ‘prime words’ (divisible’ only by themselves and by unity) Take a Larousse Dictionary and copy all the so-called ‘abstract’ words, i.e. those which have no concrete reference. Compose a schematic designating each of these words. (This sign can be composed with the standard stops) These signs must be thought of as the letters of the new alphabet, A grouping of several signs will determine – (Utilize colours – in order to differentiate what would correspond in this literature to the substantive, verb, adverb, declensions, conjugations etc).

There are two distinct steps. The first step is copying abstract words from a dictionary, dislodging them from their ordinary locus as linguistic objects readily defined, and then reinscribing these words within the alien territory of the vocabulary of painting to create a new alphabet. The result is the ‘prime word’, which stripped of its function as a means of signification regresses into pure materiality – in English a word like “the” for instance would become a “literary readymade” and a “mathematical sign”. Since they are stripped of their concrete reference, prime words can function only in a purely abstract or technical language in which their meaning is determined by their groupings with other signs and various and illimitable contextual usage. The result will be a sentence or an entire text that may be grammatically correct but nonsense to untrained minds.

Duchamp and Joyce as Moderns are anachronisms of a complex period often gauged by false measures, save for those who have studied each or either of them in depth and the phenomena they anticipated. Analog to the machinic in the Glass Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake charter waters of growing complexity in the development of the world of ancient and modern signs. Samuel Beckett’s essay Dante, Bruno, Vico, Joyce – one of the 12 essays by designated disciples of Joyce for Finnegans Wake exegesis in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress of 1929 might best be paralleled for Duchamp as Leonardo da Vinci, Jean Francois Niceron, Raymond Roussel, Duchamp. Spectators/readers view the remains of Duchamp and Joyce as the work of the impossible past, satirical Dada superseded by Modern technology, a work that is far too serious and far too interlocking in its critique as to the autonomy of painting and sculpture and its veneer of a wordless, virtually speechless common world. Duchamp stands apart and a line has been drawn in the way that the “conceptual art” of past Modernism, much of it initiated by Duchamp’s practice, bears little or no relation to its originator who arose within language largely in relation to the work, among others, of Raymond Roussell but with the experimental target of expanding on Italian Renaissance artistic perspective. A familiar response to Finnegans Wake is that it is a work of comic intent since verbal distortions appear to us as arising from wit even when they issue from the unconscious. Though puns are unlimited in the book it is best gauged by its interconnected multiple levels of reading and its vertical associations permitting readers to newly recreate it by way of industrious reading. Duchamp’s ideas as suggested by his Box in a Suitcase reflect how divergent these had become, reliant as they are on his writings and notes and later the tomes that reflect this complexity in Modernist thought by way of the immense annotations that refer to his distinctive creativity.

Warburg understood the problem of history as a methodological construct lending itself to the Atlas Mnemosyne that makes its survival of archaic practices into the present that breaks with notions of “progress” and even historical “development” as suggested by his concept of Nachleben. Warburg’s theory of culture engages with Nietzsche’s ideas on classical antiquity, its legacy and the meaning of the Dionysus–Apollo duality. Seen as a work of art (since no work of art is entirely autonomous, not absolutely different, not “purely conceptual”) its sense of space by means of accrued assorted pottage of montage inspires us.  The Wake – this ever overlooked machine, describable as the core of the search engine, that engendered the online gallery or as Joyce might have it the “collocation of disparates” or the “coincidences of opposites” exaggerates the already steady inclusion of Bruno the Nolan as discussed by Thornton Wilder, for instance, who traces the play of Bruno’s death burned at the stake in the Wake as Shaun the Post turned to roast meat on a barbeque whose fate, however, is a rebirth like the fire-eating flame of the phoenix. The history of art like our history of time as it happens is not invariable – but where human intellect turns itself into its own object of study probing its limits and those aspects of reality that its discourse can no longer hold together we have in the Atlas a legendary example of cerebral interneting.

Warburg’s professional disinterest in modernism would have received measured approval from Duchamp whose pronouncements on the debilitating effects of ‘retinal’, formalist art had appeared fairly regularly in print from 1915 onwards. Duchamp would, no doubt, have been interested in Warburg’s desire to link recurring classical and mythic themes with their reinterpretation into later artistic periods – a process that he too had been engaged with in, for instance, the antecedents for the alchemical process of ‘stripping of the bride’, the subject of a drawing he made in 1912 leading to the development of the ‘Large Glass’, properly known through its arcane title ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, even’ (1915-1923). (That is from Kieran Lyons)