Drive it away and it gallops back

Barthes, “That Old Thing, Art…”, included in the catalogue for the Pop Art exhibition at the Istituto di Cultura di Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 1980; translated by Richard Howard in The Responsibility of Forms:

As all encyclopedias remind us, during the fifties certain artists at the the London Institute of Contemporary Arts became advocates of the popular culture of the period: comic strips, films, advertising, science fiction, pop music. These various manifestations did not derive from what is generally called an Aesthetic but were entirely produced by Mass Culture and did not participate in art art at all; simply, certain artists, architects, and writers were interested in them. Crossing the Atlantic, these products forced the barrier of art; accommodated by certain American artists, they became works of art, of which culture no longer constituted the being, merely the reference: origin was displaced by citation. Pop Art as we know it is the permanent theater of this tension: on one hand the mass culture of the period is present in it as revolutionary force which contests art; and on the other , art is present in it as a very old force which irresistibly returns in the economy of societies. There are two voices, as in a fugue—one says “This is not Art”, the other says, at the same time “I am Art.”

Art is something which must be destroyed—a proposition common to many experiments of Modernity.


Now the fact, in mass culture, is not longer an element of the nature world; what appears as fact is the stereotype: what everyone else sees and consumes. Pop Art finds the unity of its representation in the radical conjunction of these two forms each carried to extremes: the stereotype and the image. Tahiti is a fact, insofar as a unanimous and persistent public opinion designates this isle as a collection of palm trees, of flowers worn over one ear, of long hair, sarongs and languorous, enticing glances (Lichtenstein’s Little Aloha). In this way, Pop Art produces certain radical images: by dint of being an image, the thing is stripped of any symbol. This is an audacious movement of mind (or of society): it is no longer the fact which is transformed into an image (which is, strictly speaking, the movement of metaphor, out of which humanity has made poetry for centuries), it is the image which becomes a fact. Pop Art thus features a philosophical quality of things, which we may call facticity. The factitious is the character of what exists as facts and appears stripped of any justification: not only are the objects represented by Pop Art factitious, but they incarnate themselves, they begin to signify again—they signify that they signify nothing.

For meaning is cunning: drive it away and it gallops back. Pop Art seeks to destroy art (or at least to do without it), but art rejoins it: art is the counter-subject of our fugue.

The drudgery of being useful

Benjamin, from “Paris, die Hauptstadt des XIX Jahrhunderts”:

Das Interieur ist die Zufluchtsstätte der Kunst. Der Sammler ist der wahre Insasse des Interieurs. Er macht die Verklärung der Dinge zu seiner Sache. Ihm fällt die Sisyphosaufgabe zu, durch seinen Besitz an den Dingen den Warencharakter von ihnen abzustreifen. Aber er verleiht ihnen nur den Liebhaberwert statt des Gebrauchswerts. Der Sammler träumt sich nicht nur in eine ferne oder vergangene Welt, sondern zugleich in eine bessere, in der zwar die Menschen ebensowenig mit dem versehen sind, was sie brauchen, wie in der alltäglichen, aber die Dinge von der Fron frei sind, nützlich zu sein.

translated by Kevin McLaughlin:

The interior is the asylum of art. The collector is the true resident of the interior. He makes his concern the transfiguration of things. To him falls the Sisyphean task of divesting things of their commodity character by taking possession of them. But he bestows on them only connoisseur value, rather than use value. The collector dreams his way not only into a distant or bygone world but also into a better one—one in which, to be sure, human beings are no better provided with what they need than in the everyday world, but in which things are freed from the drudgery of being useful.

A really tidy job of it

Beckett, “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce,” in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, 1929:

The danger is in the neatness of identifications. The conception of Philosophy and Philology as a pair of […] minstrels out of the Teatro dei Piccoli is soothing, like the contemplation of a carefully folded ham-sandwich. Giambattista Vico himself could not resist the attractiveness of such coincidence of gesture. He insisted on complete identification between the philosophical abstraction and the empirical illustration, thereby annulling the absolutism of each conception—hoisting the real unjustifiably clear of its dimensional limits, temporalizing that which is extratemporal. And now, here am I, with my handful of abstractions, among which notably: a mountain, the coincidence of contraries, the inevitability of cyclic evolution, a system of Poetics, and the prospect of self-extension in the world of Mr. Joyce’s ‘Work in Progress’. There is the temptation to treat every concept like ‘a bass dropt neck fust in till a bung crate’ and make a really tidy job of it. Unfortunately, such an exactitude of application would imply distortion in one of two direction. Must we wring the neck of a certain system in order to stuff it into a contemporary pigeon-hole, or modify the dimensions of that pigeon-hole for the satisfaction of the analogymongers? Literary criticism is not book-keeping.


On turning to the ‘Work in Progress’ we find that the mirror is not so convex. Here is direct expression—pages and pages of it. And if you don’t understand it, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is because you are too decadent to receive it. You are not satisfied unless form is so strictly divorced from content that you can comprehend the one almost without bothering to read the other. This rapid skimming and absorption of the scant cream of sense is made possible by what I may call a continuous process of copious intellectual salivation. The form that is an arbitrary and independent phenomenon can fulfil no higher function than that of stimulus for a tertiary or quartary conditioned reflex of dribbling comprehension. When Miss Rebecca West clears her decks for a sorrowful deprecation of the Narcisstic element in Mr. Joyce by the purchase of 3 hats, one feels that she might very well wear her bib at all her intellectual banquets, or alternatively, assert a more noteworthy control over her salivary glands than is possible for Monsieur Pavlo’s unfortunate dogs. The title of this book is a good example of a form carrying a strict inner determination. lt should be proof against the usual volley of cerebral sniggers: and it may suggest to some a dozen incredulous Joshuas prowling around the Queen’s Hall, springing their tuning-forks lightly against finger-nails that have not yet been refined out of existence.


A last word about the Purgatories. Dante’s is conical and consequently implies culmination. Mr. Joyce’s is spherical and excludes culmination. In the one there is an ascent from real vegetation—Ante-Purgatory, to ideal vegetation—Terrestrial Paradise: in the other there is no ascent and no ideal vegetation. In the one, absolute progression and a guaranteed consummation: in the other, flux—progression or retrogression, and an apparent consummation. In the one movement is unidirectional, and a step forward represents a net advance: in the other movement is non-directional—or multi-directional, and a step forward is, by definition, a step back. Dante’s Terrestrial Paradise is the carriage entrance to a Paradise that is not terrestial: Mr. Joyce’s Terrestrial Paradise is the tradesmen’s entrance on to the sea-shore. Sin is an impediment to movement up the cone, and a condition of movement round the sphere. In what sense, then, is Mr. Joyce’s work purgatorial? In the absolute absence of the Absolute. Hell is the static lifelessness of unrelieved viciousness. Paradise the static lifelessness of unrelieved immaculation. Purgatory a Hood of movement and vitality released by the conjunction of these two elements. There is a continuous purgatorial process at work, in the sense that the vicious circle of humanity is being achieved, and this achievement depends on the recurrent predomination of one of two broad qualities. No resistance, no eruption, and it is only in Hell and Paradise that there are no eruptions, that there can be none, need be none. On this earth that is Purgatory, Vice and Virtue—which you may take to mean any pair of large contrary human factors—must in turn be purged down to spirits of rebelliousness. Then the dominant crust of the Vicious or Virtuous sets, resistance is provided, the explosion duly takes place and the machine proceeds. And no more than this; neither prize nor penalty; simply a series of stimulants to enable the kitten to catch its tail. And the partially purgatorial agent? The partially purged.

Inevitably irritated into writing it

The preface to T. E. Hulme’s posthumously published collection of meditations on language and philosophy, “Cinders”:

The history of philosophers we know, but who will write the history of the philosophic amateurs and readers? Who will tell us of the circulation of Descartes, who read the book and who understood it? Or do philosophers, like the mythical people on the island, take in each other’s washing? For I take it, a man who understands philosophy is inevitably irritated into writing it. The few who have learnt the jargon must repay themselves by employing it. A new philosophy is not like a new religion, a thing to be merely thankful for and accepted mutely by the faithful. It is more of the nature of food thrown to the lions; the pleasure lies in the fact that it can be devoured. It is food for the critics, and all readers of philosophy, I suppose, are critics, and not faithful ones waiting for the new gospel.

With this preface I offer my new kind of food to tickle the palate of the connoisseurs.