Object to be Destroyed: an excess of interpretation
Ian Andrews 1994
New York, 1922. The Dada painter and photographer, Man Ray, in an effort to attain some structure to his painting, has the idea of placing a metronome beside his easel. He sets the metronome in motion whenever he wishes to paint, so that his brush stokes are regulated by the ticking; the faster it goes, the faster he paints. He resolves to himself : in the event that the metronome should stop while he is still painting, this would indicate that he had been painting to long and thus, the work, not having satisfied the chronometrical demands of the metronome, would have to be destroyed. Feeling that his painting would benefit from the presence of an impartial observer, Man Ray clips a photograph of an eye onto the metronome's swinging arm, to create the illusion of being watched. He names this assemblage Object to be Destroyed. On one occasion however, not accepting the metronome's verdict, Man Ray smashes the object to pieces.
Nothing further is heard of the metronome until in the December issue of This Quarter, 1932, where a drawing of the metronome appears with a cut out photo of Lee Miller's eye. The drawing is entitled Object of Destruction, with the caption: " cut out the eye from a photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more. Attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired. Keep going to the limit of endurance. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow."
A third metronome, made in 1945 for inclusion in an exhibition at Julien Levy's New York Gallery, after a previous version had disappeared, is called Lost Object. In the catalogue a printer’s error, which Man Ray accepts gladly, transforms this title to Last Object. Man Ray writes: "it is still my earnest desire, some day while the eye is ticking away during a conversation, to lift my hammer and with one well-aimed blow completely to demolish the metronome."
In 1957 a retrospective show of early Dada works is held at the Galerie de l'Institut in Paris and the metronome is exhibited with the original title, Object to be Destroyed. A mob of reactionary art students remove the metronome from the gallery and destroy it. The following year, an edition of the work is made by Daniel Spoerri, which Man Ray entitles Indestructible object. Man Ray remarks: "it would be very difficult to destroy all hundred metronomes now."
In 1971 Man Ray replaces the eye of the metronome with a double-printed image of a blinking eye that opens and closes as it swings back and forth. This final version is called Perpertual Motif.
The Object to be Destroyed, a metronome with an eye attached. What is it amongst the metronome's qualities that invites its own destruction? Is it the precision of its movement, its unbearable regularity? Or perhaps its innate stupidity, the absurdity of this primitive automaton brought to 'life' by the addition of a single cut-out eye. An impostor masquerading as Being and self-consciousness. Does this representation entail a logic of fetishisation, in view of the disappearance of aesthetic value (modern arts traditional use value) with the emergence of the readymade? And if so should we invite the operation of "sounding-out" this "idol", if not with a hammer which destroys all in one throw, at least with a tuning fork to detect the cultural resonances of the object. 1 Are aesthetic values to be relied upon in such an instance, and to what extent is their elevation based on the interpretation of largely visual phenomena, according to a symbolic regime a (in psychoanalysis as well as the arts), reducible to logocentric, ocularcentric and phallocentric determinations? Examination of the relationship of the field of aesthetics to its structuring tropology may reveal some less than sound foundations. Consequently the long and patient work of the aesthete and the logician, risks been blown apart at any moment, under the impetuous (and ecstatic) hammer blow of Nietzsche (Bataille and Derrida).
This deconstructive analysis attempts to proceed in “sight” of the underlying metaphor(s) presented by the Object to be Destroyed, (and its history) which determines the structure, establishes the limits, and above all, serves as the point of departure for this paper. The first section consists of an architectonic reading of the object, which resonates with a critique of Hegel’s theory of the symbolic in art. The second section focuses on the eye, occularcentrism and a critique of Freud’s reliance on universal symbolic equivalences. The concluding section examines the limits of Derrida’s displacement of phallogocentrism in Glas,2 in relation to the oscillating movement of the metronome’s swinging arm.
Part1: The Geometry of Time
The Architecture of the Symbol
The metronome is pyramidal.3 The pure geometricality of the pyramid’s shape finds its place, in Hegel's classification of the arts, at the very beginning of art.4 The rigid geometrical forms of pyramids and obelisks, according to Hegel, mark the transition from an original but unconscious unity of meaning and shape to symbolism proper, which is subsequently superseded by the classical work of art. Representations of organic forms, originally functioning as sacred objects in religious practice, are replaced by rectilinear objects with flat surfaces and straight lines, which are replaced in turn by objects characterised once again by organic roundness, but roundness which now only constitutes an outer surface, in which organic form is reduced to "mere ornament."5 This same movement is reiterated in another section of the Aesthetics, where Hegel discusses architecture. Independent or symbolic architectural works are built firstly with the purpose of national unification, but gradually the content of their meanings becomes more predominate and individualised as in the case of phallic columns and obelisks and finally, with the transition to classical architecture the buildings lose their sculptural autonomy becoming structures for other meanings, or dwellings proper. This occurs according to the same tripartite movement of the Aufhebung 6 which characterises the structure of the Aesthetics: the symbolic, or abstract, work of art, is superseded by the classical, or living, work of art, which is finally transcended in the romantic, or spiritual, work of art. In this way Hegel’s Aesthetics begins with unity (in nature) and ends, after many divisions in unity (in spirit).
The original moment of art, for Hegel, is seen in the symbol, the first division of primordial unity into meaning and expression, content and form, truth and representation. But this symbol, as it turns out, is a “mere sign,” impoverished by the abyssal indifference between meaning and expression, that is, its arbitrariness. Pyramids and obelisks belong to this category of arcane signifiers because the relation between idea and expression is still abstract, and consequently, for Hegel, their meaning remains hidden. With the transition to classical art the Idea, as spiritual individuality is brought into a more direct relation to its "bodily reality", that is it becomes lifelike. Finally classical art is raised to the "free spirituality" and self-knowledge of romantic art where "the Idea of the beautiful is comprehended as absolute spirit" 7
For Hegel, the purest example the symbolic art-form are the Pyramids: "they are prodigious crystals which conceal in themselves an inner meaning.." The Pyramids constitute a "double architecture", one above ground and the other subterranean. On the one hand they are independent symbolic structures, but on the other hand their function as mausoleums, as houses for the dead, they assume the place of architecture in its proper sense. Those buildings which do not serve the purpose of enclosure, such as obelisks, lingham-pillars, sphinxes and memnons, are categorized by Hegel as "architectural works wavering between architecture and sculpture:"
Amongst these are obelisks which do not derive their form from the living organic life of nature, from plants and animals or the human form; on the contrary they have a purely regular shape, though they do not yet have the purpose of serving as houses or temples; they stand freely on their own account and independently and are symbols meaning the rays of the sun. 8
The oldest known obelisk is the one raised by Sesostris I (1971-1928 BC) at Heliopolis, symbolizes the place of the sun god's emergence. It is a three dimensional hieroglyph which signifies the primordial mound on which was found a stone - probably a meteorite - known as the Ben Ben, thought to be the solidified semen of the god Atum, the primordial manifestation of the sun god Re. The obelisks in Egyptian times were capped with gold as they had the function of capturing and dissipating the generative power of the sun's rays which would produce a "thermogenetic or animating effect on the stone." 9 To this end, obelisks usually appeared in pairs: one for the rising sun, and one for the setting sun ( this theory would seem to devalue the simple phallic significance given to obelisks).10
These structures, however, in Hegel's terms, are mute, they lack "speech". Like the collossi of Memnon, which were reported to emit a sound at the sun's first rays, meaning bears an external relation to expression. The stone requires the illuminating presence of an exterior and sensible sun to find its voice, to signify. (the antithesis is the black stone of Mecca, the Kaaba, the covering for inner being, formless, simple darkness). 11 Hegel's theory of art rests on valuation of the living voice over the dead stone, speech (Sprache) over resonance (Klang), the self-present, self-conscious expression of inner being over the abstract representation of a system of signs. This logocentric premise forms the basis of the Aesthetics.
The Time of the Obelisk
The obelisk, a symbolic representation of the sun's rays, is the image of what is most enduring and imperishable. Just as the Pyramids ensure the preservation of the dead, preserving them against the idea of absorption into nature, the obelisk seeks to halt the flow of time. This is what Bataille suggests when he ponders the significance of the arrival on the Square of the Place de la Concorde of the Obelisk of Luxor. (The Obelisk)
For Bataille, the obelisk, which is "the purest image of the head and of the heavens,"12 has the purpose of designating a centre, (hence the shift from the periphery: Egypt, to the centre: the capitals of the modern world) and its erection there constitutes a sign of military power. The obelisk emerges, after periods of unrest, war, revolution and flux, to re-establish the order of things. In this way it is the " calmest negation" of Nietzsche's madman who announces the death of God, and is the "surest and most durable obstacle to the drifting away of things.” 13 In its massive solidity, stability and permanence, the obelisk anchors the indeterminate movement of time; all that is fleeting, mad, chaotic, Heracletean. In this sense, the obelisk is employed by Bataille as a metaphor for the "heavy" Hegelian discourse (for Hegel's text is nothing if not monolithic). The movement of time in Hegel is bound up with the history of spirit. Time, internalised toward self-consciousness, is directed teleologically inward toward being, God, absolute spirit. Bataille thus refers to the Hegelian conception of time as centripetal.
The Time of the Metronome
Before proceeding further in this direction, let us return to the metronome, and having now established an oblique relation between the obelisk and time, investigate this movement of time with regard to the time measuring function of the metronome. We could proceed to the centre: to the Encyclopeadia of the Philosophical Sciences, where Hegel unveils his formidable theory of time. But it may be more fortuitous to flit about the angles of the massive Hegelian edifice, "in the manner of an insect fascinated by a lamp," and instead turn to the section of the Aesthetics concerned with music, and in particular where Hegel discusses "Time, Bar, (and) Rhythm". This text is concerned with what Hegel considers to be music's most important element: time. The regular uniform action of the beat or bar (Takt) 14 describes, for Hegel, the process by which spirit "falls into time" (geschichte in die zeit).
It is thus that music accompanies the march of troops: this attunes the mind to the regularity of the step, immerses the individual in the business of marching, and concentrates the mind on what he has to do….
For the same sort of reason, the disorderly restlessness of a lot of people in a restaurant and the unsatisfying excitement it causes is burdensome; this walking to and fro, this clattering and chattering should be regulated, and since in the intervals of eating and drinking we have to do with empty time, this emptiness should be filled. 15
Here we see perhaps the birth of Muzak, with its desire to fill, empty time, built up from a Hegelian necessity for order. For Hegel, time, like space, is an abstract ideal in the sphere of externality or being-outside-of-itself. As an ideal negative form of externality, time negates the chance juxtaposition of things in space, and posits itself for-itself as a point of time, a 'now'. As soon as this 'now' is, it is at once superseded by another 'now' which is likewise cancelled to give place to another. This process, which Hegel calls punctuality (Punktualitat), and which is a negation of the negation, is time. every point is posited as a now point with no unity between successive points. Thus it is in music, the succession of notes as points of time, that for Hegel, "time becomes countable." 16 But on the other hand, time can also be thought of as an uninterrupted series of coming to be ('now' as not-yet), and passing away ('now' as no-longer). This is time as intuited becoming, as non being, empty time. So time comes to be considered by Hegel to be both a formalized sequence of 'nows', and an undifferentiated duration.
This is where, in Hegel’s process, the bar becomes important, and where music provides the connection between subjective feeling and time as such. The beat (the bar) deals with this indeterminancy by ordering time, giving it measure and making it tolerable to consciousness. The self which is in time but which, unlike time, is not an abstract negativity of unpunctuated duration, only becomes a self by reflecting on its momentary experiences and interiorising them. In this way self-consciousness becomes aware of its own identity and finds itself as a unity. Spirit actualises itself to fall into time. This subject centred (and circular) interpretation of time, which is characterised by the interiorising movement of the Aufhebung, is centripetal.17 Hegel’s theory of time is inherited from Aristotle’s Physics, centred around the basic notions of the “now,” the “point,” and the “circle.”
The Moment of Rupture
The function of the obelisk is to stabilize and solidify time, preventing subjectivity from falling into the terrifying "sensation of time". Against the Hegelian construction, Bataille employs the explosive moment of fracture which characterizes part of Nietzsche's doctrine of the eternal return: the endless fall of time as opposed to the timeless state of imperial glory. Bataille privileges the explosive moment, the instant, the catastrophe, in his formulation of an idea of time which is centrifugal. The eternal return cannot be theorized through philosophical reflection, the arduous building up of knowledge, block by block, but only in the ecstasy of the moment. This instant illumination, in which the impossible vertiginous depth of things becomes apparent, in which life appears devoid of sense, which is like an earthquake, must be thought in terms of both the destructive vision of Heraclitus, and Nietzsche's vision of the "Death of God" (the eternal return is, among other things a "test" for those who naively announce the death of god). The ecstatic laughter which tears apart the fabric of being is pitted against Hegel's sober philosophy of work and servility. Bataille's sovereign moment is thus characterized by an absolute loss of meaning, a miraculous moment of unknowing. Knowledge must be forgotten, that is, actively forgotten in the radical sense of Nietzsche's aktive Vergesslichkeit.
Hegel’s theory of time is determined according to the point, the instant (Augenblick) which it fills and preserves within the fold of being. On the other hand, Bataille’s conception of time is determined by the point’s excess, it evacuates the point in the ecstatic instant, in a movement which is centrifugal.
The obelisk and the metronome may be summarised under the sign of the "point." That is, all those words derived from the Latin punctus: punctuality, punctuation, puncture, and so on. Obelisk comes from the Greek obeliskos which is a diminutive of obelos, meaning spit, or pointed pillar. Also deriving from obelos are the obelus and the obelisk, marks of punctuation, the purpose of which are to mark or point out. The Egyptian word for the obelisk is thn, 18 which is connected with a stem meaning "to gore', to 'injure', presumably meaning "to puncture the sky." The American architect and monument designer, Horatio Greenough writes:
The obelisk has to my eye a singular aptitude in its form and character to call attention to a spot memorable in its history. It says one word but it speaks it loud. If I understand this voice, it says 'here!' 19
If the obelisk can be thought of as a sign, then is must be that particular type of sign that Heidegger calls "Dasein-designations," or what C.S. Peirce calls "indexical symbols" or indices, like "here", "now", "then", and so on, what modern linguistics calls "shifters." The obelisk now points to the unique moment in history, the exemplary point in time and space. It signifies at each erection a "here-now" or a "here-then", marking origins, births, and beginnings, and anchors, like Lacan's "points de capiton," time to space and words to discourse. The obelisk marks the singular detached here-now point of time while the metronome marks the sequence of here-now points in time. Both are structured around the point, which is the sign of presence and being, that which resists the vertiginous flow of time.
The production of the readymade object, an activity which excludes any recourse to aesthetics, and which seeks to detach itself from any "intention" on the part of the artist, ironically reinscribes the so-called beginning of aesthetics. Object to be destroyed, with its pure rectilinear casing, presents us with a movement which is simultaneously an escape from aesthetics, and a return to its origin. But it is an origin which appears to have cracks in its foundations. Its destruction marks the end of the aesthetic object, and the edition (Indestructible Object) erects its tomb.
Part 2: The Eye - Detached
Of all the inexplicable horrors which torment civilised man, one of the most surprising is the fear of the eye: in particular the detached eye, the wounded eye, or the evil eye cast by the gettatore. What is it which gives the power of vision
The symbolic economy of the eye is governed by its relation to the orbicular, to the sun, heavenly orb, circle, egg, etc. It symbolises knowledge, judgement, authority and life.
The fields of rhetoric and philosophy have always been dominated by this series of tropes to which the eye belongs. The series: eye, sun, gold, the cosmic egg, phallus, has never ceased to determine philosophy as an orbicular movement. That is as both an upward movement toward the sun, and as a circular movement around the sun. Derrida employs the trope of the sunflower to describe (and circumscribe) this movement which is the tropic movement of metaphor. "Is not this flower of rhetoric (like) a sunflower? That is- but this is not exactly a synonym- analogous to the heliotrope?" 20 The heliotrope, (literally “sun-turn”) in its heliocentric movement which turns toward the sun and turns with the sun, metaphorically describes the movement of metaphor, of the trope, the rhetorical turn of a phrase, and the idealizing direction taken by rhetorical language (which is essentially the same as philosophical language) toward the sun, the heavens, the light. At the same time the figure of heliotrope reveals itself to be subordinated to the same system. In this way Derrida is able to demonstrate the central aporia of philosophical language which can never dominate its own system from without. There is no all encompassing master concept which is able to circumscribe metaphor, without being a metaphor itself. There is always a supplementary metaphor which remains excluded. Thus philosophy can only properly perceive its tropology around a "blind spot or central deafness." 21
Ocularcentrism, the idea of the eye as a perfect representation of intuitive presence from a fixed singular and privileged point of view, must be undone. Metaphysics has always regarded vision as the most "speculative" and spiritual of the senses. The eye, occupying a privileged position at the top of the face, has always been seen as the highest of the organs, avoiding all material contact with the world.
No one more than Bataille can be said to have contributed more to the demolition of the traditional figures of height and light, and the heliocentric model of a benign sun radiating knowledge and illuminating truth. Bataille reinscribes this light in terms of a blinding sun, a fecal sun, the sun of blood and sacrifice, a burning sun, the sulphur coloured sun which compels Van Gogh to mutilate his ear. 22 The "pineal eye" is Bataille's vision of an eye at the summit of the head, an eye which opens up to contemplate such an incandescent and maddening sun, and which is born of the desire to become a sun. The verticality of the pineal eye brings to the subject the painful ecstasy of immediate existence in its direct view to the sun. This short circuit bypasses the world of things reflected back to us in the process of normal horizontal vision. The pineal eye opens and directly blinds itself, like a fire in the head of consciousness, its vision "spends" life "without counting," spends it all at once, without reserve, and constitutes a fall into "the void of the sky." This absolute loss, this anguish without respite is what Bataille refers to as the notion of expenditure (depense). 23
For Bataille, knowledge, meaning, understanding, can only be represented around a central blind spot, can only be perceived in the fatality of a blind movement towards death. This blind spot of Hegelianism, Bataille likens to the physical structure of the eye.
In the "system," poetry, laughter, ecstasy are nothing, Hegel gets rid of them in a hurry: he knows of no other end than knowledge. His immense fatigue is linked in my eyes to horror of the blind spot. 24
Knowledge loses itself in the blind spot, in moving from the unknown to the known, there is a point at which death and the vertigo of existence laid bear, constitutes so great an expenditure and a negativity without reserve, that the movement must inverse itself and fall into unknowing, desire, poetry, laughter... the general economy.
The Evil Eye
The detached eye and the uncomfortable feelings it evokes are nowhere more inticately developed than in Hoffmann's tale, The Sandman. 25 It is from this story, following Jentsch, that Freud, feeling "impelled to investigate the subject of aesthetics," develops his theory of "the uncanny"(Unheimlich).(Das Unheimlich) For Freud, the uncanny constitutes an uncomfortable feeling which is strange but at the same time secretly familiar. Freud differs from Jentsch who attributes the uncanny feeling to a state of intellectual uncertainty as to whether something is alive or dead, as might happen with the human appearance of things such as wax work figures, automata, and dolls (the automaton 'Olympia' in Hoffmann's tale), and conversely to the automatic, mechanical actions of epileptic fits and manifestation of insanity. Instead Freud focuses on another theme in the story of the Sandman: the theme of detached eyes, the idea of being robbed of one's eyes, a fear which, predictably, Freud attributes to castration anxiety. Freud backs up his conviction, that anxiety regarding an injury to the eye is a substitute for the fear of castration, with the examples, found in myths and dreams, which present an equivalence between the eye and the phallus.
The self-blinding of the mythical criminal, Oedipus, was simply a mitigated form of the punishment of castration-the only punishment that was adequate for him by the lex talionis. 27
Is castration the only way to proceed? The law of the talion states: if it is the eye that transgresses, it must be the eye that must be punished. In other words, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth... Revenge, retaliation, is taken against the eye, as the offending organ. Freud downplays this determination in The Uncanny while at the same time drawing our attention to its exact opposite: the uncanny figure of the Gettatore who 'throws' misfortune by way of the (evil) eye. By the law of the talion, revenge is taken on the eye. But with the mal'occhio, or jettatura, revenge is taken by the eye.( The belief is prevalent throughout Italy and Southern Europe. The Pope is held to be possessed- perchance unconsciously- of that disagreeable gift [c.f.Bacon's uncanny Popes]. (The Veil of Isis i 380). The malicious forces of the evil eye are "thrown" outward by the eye. They are cast (out) in the sense of casting a spell, but also in the sense of casting a glance or look ( Freud uses the term 'der bose Blick', literally 'the evil look'.). Underlying this belief is the notion that the eye is not only capable of receiving stimulus, but that it is also capable of transmitting or projecting. Thus, a kind of doubling of the organ's operation. Freud attributes the belief in the evil eye to a fear of other people’s envy, under the principle of 'omnipotence of thoughts.' likewise, Lacan links this power to invidia, which he notes, entymologically stems from videre (to see). For Lacan, the eye is endowed with a separating power, which goes much farther than the function of distinguishing between objects. This is "the true function of the organ of the eye, the eye filled with voracity, the evil eye." 28 Lacan speaks of the fascinatory element of the gaze where the evil eye, as the fascinum, has the effect of arresting movement and literally, of killing life." 29 The petrifying look of the Medusa is of the same order of operations. The decisive exchange of cast glances which Perseus eludes by the subterfuge of seeing without being seen. Again the eyes are at fault, in daring to look at the face of the monster, but vengeance is not taken upon the eyes, but on the entire body. For Freud, in the unconscious, decapitation is equivalent to castration, thus the mythical terror of Medusa is linked to the fear of castration. "To decapitate = to castrate" but also:
The sight of Medusa's head makes the spectator stiff with terror, turns him to stone... For becoming stiff means an erection. Thus in the original situation it offers consolation to the spectator: he is still in possession of a penis, and the stiffening reassures him of the fact." 30
The decapitated head of Medusa symbolizes castration and thus the terror it inspires must be the terror of castration, but at the same time the petrifying gaze produces the opposite effect: erection, reassurance of non-castration.
In the myth of Medusa, the eye assumes both a virulent aggressive function (the evil eye, the look that kills, turns to stone, the gaze that arrests all movement), as well as a luring seductive function (the temptation to look, the pleasure in seeing) Jean Baudrillard speaks of the metamorphosing effect of make-up on the eyes in terms of this seductive function. The threat of the castrating or petrifying gaze of the other is drastically reduced:
These sophisticated eyes, these Medusa's eyes, gaze at nobody, they don't open onto anything. Caught in the labour of the sign, they posses the sign's redundancy: they revel in their own fascination, and their seduction derives from this perverse onanism. 31
On the other hand, Bataille relates the eye to the extreme seductiveness of the cutting edge – “at the boundary of horror” 32
Inn order for the victim to be turned to stone, the monster’s gaze must be met by the eyes of the victim. Medusa’s gaze is sleepless and omnidirectional but it looks without seeing. It is therefore an eye without subjectivity. For its power to have effect, the ontological circuit must be completed with the inquiring and regarding gaze of the victim. This careless look invites ruin, blindness, night… this is the look of the metronome’s eye.
The Detachable Eye
Subjectless vigilance: this is what Perseus steals from the three Graeae, who share the use of a single eye and a singe tooth, when he intercepts the eye at the moment of transfer and hurls it into Lake Triton. Derrida's Memoirs of the Blind 33 (the entirety of which, among other things, is an "oblique or distracted reading" of Bataille's Story of the Eye) points to this moment of theft, in which the eye, in the process of circulation between the Graeae, is ownerless.
Once again, the lone, unique eye stands out, is detachable; it circulates between subjects like an instrumental organ, a fetishized prothesis, an object of delegation or representation. Moreover, by making it into a partial object, all the representations of an eye dissociated or worked over by a graft are inscribed in this scene. 34
What does Derrida mean when he says the eye is detachable? What is this theme of detachability, which is to found throughout the Memoirs? First there is detachment as separation of a member (such as with the fetishism of the enucleated eye which dominates Bataille's narrative): but also, detachment as delegation of a representative, a proxy, or a sign or symbol; and finally, detachment as the disinterested attitude of the gaze of aesthetic spectatorship (this is Derrida's response to the question [first raised by Nietzsche] of desire, of pleasure and unpleasure, in Kant's concept of aesthetic experience).
Object to be destroyed
All these meanings may be brought into view, laid out under the gaze of the Object to be Destroyed. The oscillation, throughout myth and literature, between violence to he eye, on the one hand, and violence of the eye, on the other, the cutting gaze, and the slicing of an eye (as in the film Un Chien Andalou), the evil eye, voracious, thrown, thrust out, castrating, and the enucleated eye (of Hoffmann and Bataille), cut out, detached, put out, castrated, is carried along by the swing of the pendulum. On the one hand, the arresting effect, Medusant, petrifying. On the other hand blindness, death and subjectless vision.
The detached eye of subjectless vision takes its place upon the tip of the metronome's pendulum. Object to be destroyed brings to mind the delirious vision of the student Nathaniel in Hoffman's tale: “the eyes of someone once loved but who is seen no more,” stolen, detached and re-attached to an uncanny and lifeless automaton; clipped on, with nothing more than a paper clip, to the pendulum of the metronome, a primitive automaton. 35 But, on the other hand, the eye on the metronome is nothing but a photograph, a representation, a proxy for the "one who is seen no more," in the order of the copy, simulacra, the fetish. The final metronome (Perpetual object) now marks time with a blinking eye; an eye here, an eye there...The eye is caught up by the frightening “spectre of time” (Poe), 36 oscillating between two contraries: open eye, closed eye; corresponding to the traditional opposition, truth/non-truth, active/passive, masculine/feminine. The interval of this opposition is marked by the shattering catastrophe of the instant, the Augenblick (literally “the blink of an eye”), the moment of rupture, the moment of laughter, the moment one lets fly the hammer which smashes the object to pieces.
Part 3: The Oscillation of the Fetish
Derrida reinscribes the detachable object/organ (part object) within the general economy, extending the question of fetishism beyond its political economy (Marx), or its psychoanalytic economy (Freud), or even the traditional opposition between the fetish and the thing itself (Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche). 37 In his Glas, Derrida makes a distinction between strict fetishism as such, and what he refers to as “general fetishism.” Never content to observe the rule, Derrida focuses his attention on the margin of the Freudian text; the appendix, the footnote; the point where Freud "broaches" the well known theory, and instead turns to some "very subtle cases." Here Freud relates the case of a man whose fetish consists of an athletic support belt or girdle which can also be worn as a swimming costume.
This piece of clothing covered up the genitals entirely and concealed the distinction between them. Analysis showed that it signified that women were castrated and that they were not castrated; and it also allowed of the hypothesis that men were castrated, for all these possibilities could equally well be concealed under the belt - the earliest rudiment of which in his childhood had been the fig-leaf on a statue 38
In this case the choice of the girdle as the fetish object was, according to Freud, determined by a "divided attitude," on the part of the subject, consisting of both the disavowal and the affirmation of castration. Freud notes that other cases involving this divided attitude involved both affection and hostility in the subject's treatment of the fetish, and he cites the Chinese custom of binding the female foot as an example of this attitude.
For Derrida, this divided attitude constitutes the "undecidable," where fetishism oscillates between two contraries: at once disavowal and affirmation. "This at-once, in-the-same-stroke, the du-meme-coup of the two contraries, of the two opposite operations, prohibits a cutting through to a decision within the undecidable... this at-once constitutes an economy of the un-decidable..." (Glas P. 210)
The economy of the un-decidable opens up onto the general economy of non-dialectical economic speculation; or, in other words, a feint which plays a game with dialectics. "The feint consists in pretending to lose, to castrate oneself, to kill oneself in order to cut (couper) death off. But the feint does not cut it off. One loses on both sides, in both registers, in knowing how to play all sides (sur les deux tableaux). On this condition does the economy become general." (Glas P. 210) "The structure of the feint describes, as always, an extra turn." 39
Traditional notions of fetishism, including Freudian and Marxian models, regard the fetish as a substitute which conceals a truth (God, nature, castration, use value, etc.); the fetish as ersatz which corresponds always to some transcendental non-ersatz. Derrida calls this traditional notion of the fetish, which desires nothing but the thing itself, "strict fetishism." The restricted economy of strict fetishism always has as its general equivalent (its alibi), some transcendental signified at which all the figures of multiplication and substitution come to an end: absolute knowledge for Hegel; Oedipus for Freud. In short, phallogocentrism. Strict fetishism remains circumscribed within an economy of truth (the symbolic order, full speech, presence, intersubjective dialectic, etc.). General fetishism or the general economy of fetishism, on the other hand, resists a decidable, oedipal interpretation, and exceeds the oppositions true/non-true, substitute/ non-substitute. The undecidable oscillation of general fetishism prevents it from being opposable.
Derrida's Glas swings or oscillates all the way through, between two texts: two separate texts under the one title - which appear, not as two successive texts, but take the form of two columns side by side on each page; one on Hegel; the other on Genet (As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak points out, Derrida here plays with the Freudian image of the young boy perceiving his mother’s genitals from below – two pillars with the fleece of hair, signalling the absence, in between: two erect members and the white blank of the hymen ).40 By way of this graphic juxtaposition the reader cannot resist jumping at random from one column to another, engaging in a reading which continually interrupts itself. In this way the text dealing with Freud, quoted above, is placed directly opposite a reading of Jean Genet's A Thief's Journal, Derrida avoids, at all costs, drawing decidable conclusions from Genet's text. He refuses a reading which would interpret the text in terms of an economy of truth. Instead Glas offers a reading which at any time can cut into itself, which cuts across from one column to another, a reading that oscillates, like those very subtle cases mentioned by Freud, "like the clapper of a truth that rings awry [cloche]." (Glas P. 227)
The object of fetishism in Genet's narrative is a bunch of artificial grapes that the thief's (Genet's) Spanish lover wears inside his trousers.
Inside his trousers was pinned [epingle] one of those postiche clusters of thin cellulose grapes stuffed with wadding. (They are as big as greengage plums; elegant Spanish women of the period wore them on their loose-brimmed, straw sun bonnets.) Whenever some queer at the Criolla, excited by the swelling, put his hand on the fly, his horrified fingers would encounter this object, which they feared to be a cluster of his true treasure, the branch on which, comically, too much fruit was hanging. 41
The notion of the postiche, something superadded in an inappropriate way, as in the addition of superfluous sculptural ornament to architecture, but also something artificial, counterfeit or false. The cluster of grapes, false grapes, but also a false erection, is this postiche a fetish? If the fetish is anything, if it has any substance, it is only in relation to its undecidable bond to a set of contraries.
In his deconstruction of Genet's text, Derrida refuses to accept the bounds of a Freudian symbolic interpretation, which would "pin down" the cluster of grapes to the decidable status of a phallic substitute. Accordingly, the postiche is not a substitute for Stillitano's more than adequate penis, it is rather, as Genet suggests, a "postiche wound [plaie]" which functions both as detachable fetish object and as a symbolic wound calculated to disgust, a subterfuge "in order to save his cut-off hand from scorn." (Glas P. 213) The postiche is a castration substitute which in drawing attention to itself, draws attention away from that which it stands in for (Stillitano's lopped off hand), as much as it is a substitute for the penis. Derrida explains the consequences of this doubling action. "As soon as the thing itself, in its unveiled truth, is already found engaged, by the very unveiling, in the play of supplementary difference, the fetish no longer has any rigorously decidable status. Glas of phallogocentrism." (Glas P. 226) Castration ceases to be a determining factor but only one possibility among many. This movement of oscillation "sounds out" the death knell of phallogocentrism.
Derrida's operation here, it would seem, would also involve the re-inscription of the object of fetishism, directing it toward the notion of the postiche or supplement (both addition and substitute) or the hymen (“and/or, between and and or”). 42 For Derrida, the supplement opens up philosophy like the opening of a square. The restricted economy of philosophy operates according to calculus derived from the numbers one, two and three: the one of unity; the two of binary oppositions; the three of dialectics, trinity or Oedipus. The undecidable economy of dissemination displaces and reinscribes the three of ontotheology by a refolding [reploiement], adding a supplementary fourth term: the more or less.
Derrida's ambivalent words (différance, gramme, trace broach/breach [entamer], pharmakon, supplement, hymen, etc.) perform this operation textually, when employed in their own appropriate textual situations. "They destroy the trinitarian horizon. They destroy it textually." 43
Through this textual operation, conceptual definitions are loosened up and reinscribed in a way which evades the grasp of mastery (Hegel's Herrschaft) which encircles and encloses, positions and pins down.
The supplement thus reinscribes castration, opening it up, beyond the simple opposition: presence/absence. '...("castration - always at stake - ": but with a certain outside of castration (a fall with no return and with no restricted economy)...,' 44 "a fetishism which unfolds itself without limit." (Glas P. 216) This is the general economy of fetishism: a fall without return; loosing in both registers, an economy which is ultimately more powerful than the economy of truth, dialectics, the question of Being, discourse in the mode of the pro et contra. Truth as unveiling is replaced by an oscillating rhythm not unlike the swinging motion of the opening and closing eye on the metronome. “There is no aletheia, only a wink of the hymen. A rhythmic fall. A regular (w)inclined cadence” 45
The Hegelian tree of aesthetics, with its roots in the natural, which grows and branches into the ethical (or moral), and finally flowers (and detaches itself) into the transcendental concept of "the beautiful," is a model which both Nietzsche and Bataille put into question. For Kant, the judgement of taste which constitutes the beautiful, is defined as that which pleases without interest. Nietzsche asks, how is this disinterested satisfaction to be achieved, without an "interest" which is clearly based on sensual or sexual excitation? How can one conceive of a theory of pleasure without pleasure, a theory which suspends desire and bridles excitement, a theory which simultaneously sublimates, conserves, heals and calms, in short a "castrated hedonism"? ( ) Against Kant's formulation, which is explicitly manifested in the case of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche proposes that the origin of the "particular sweetness," which is peculiar to the aesthetic condition, may well lie in the "ingredient of sensuality." 46
The aesthetic ideal, based on the dominance of the plastic arts, demands of the spectator a kind of detached vision, which is distant, and like the eye of Apollo, "sun-like." 47 Above all the greatest prohibition of art spectatorship is to touch the art-work. As Theodor Adorno suggests: "... most important taboo in art is the one that prohibits an animal-like attitude toward the object, say a desire to devour it or subjugate it to one's body." 48
Dionysian sensuality and materiality are brought into the sphere of aesthetics by Bataille, who writes, "I challenge any art lover to love a canvas as much as a fetishist loves a shoe." 49 This quote from Bataille at once raises a number of questions. How does the concept of art communicate with the question of fetishism. Is the fetishism in question limited to the psycho-analytic notion of "abnormal" sexual desire, or can it be extended to, and beyond, magico-religious fetishism, commodity fetishism, or even the simple opposition of the fetish to the thing itself? Are these notions adequate to the question? Finally, does Bataille's challenge hint at a certain "use value" of art, and if so, what relationship does this bear with what has been called the "truth" of a work of art? The destruction of Man Ray’s object is an instance of this corporeality in art. It transgresses the prohibition in an act of sacrifice which transforms the subjectivity of the sacrificer at the same time (one cannot imagine Man Ray performing this act without laughing out loud).
Much of Bataille’s early work is dedicated to an overturning of aesthetic’s transcendental concept of the beautiful, which, in “The Language of Flowers,” the universal floral metaphor of beauty is reduced to a “garish withering.” 50 These early works, most of which were published I the dissident Surrealist journal Documents, provide the provisional stage for a deconstruction of aesthetics, the stage which involves the dramatic overturning of the hierarchy of its binary oppositions (beautiful/ugly, spiritual/material, and so on). Derrida “completes” the process by way of a “double writing,” which displaces the opposition with a new “concept” which emerges from the interval of this overturning. By the disruptive substitution of an undecidable term, Derrida succeeds, to a certain extent, in discursively displacing the Hegelian edifice. The undecidable term opens up the ground beneath the founding ideas of philosophy, hollows out philosophy’s idols, deprives them of their solidity, and reveals the aporias underlying their supposed immutability. However as Spivak argues, deconstruction, as a critique of phallocentrism, consigns women to a position which is doubly displaced and interpreted into the sign of an abyss.
Derrida suggests that Western discourse is caught within the metaphysical or phallogocentic limit, his point is precisely that man can problematize but not fully disown his status as subject… I learn from Derrida’s critique of phallocentrism – but I must go somewhere else with it. 51
For Spivak, in this instance, that would be a re-examination of Marx’s correction of Hegel.Any attempt to pin down a work such as Object to be Destroyed, by means of the conceptual categories of traditional aesthetics (be they Kantian, Hegelian, or Freudian) is necessarily doomed to failure. Perhaps the Object to be Destroyed is best examined in terms of its immediate effect: the unsettling laughter it evokes. At any rate, what is required is an “excess of interpretation, a supplement of reading” 52 which refuses to be content with universal symbolic equivalences.
1. Nietzsche, in the preface of Twilight of the Idols: or how to philosophise with a hammer, writes: “...Another form of recovery, in certain cases even more suited to me, is to sound out idols... There are more idols in the world than there are realities: that is my 'evil eye' for this world, that is also my 'evil ear'... For once to pose questions here with a hammer and perhaps to receive for an answer that famous hollow sound which speaks of inflated bowels - what a delight for one who has ears behind his ears - for an old psychologist and pied piper like me, in presence of whom precisely that which would like to stay silent has to become audible...
…and as regards the sounding out of idols, this time they are not just the idols of the age but eternal idols, which are here touched with a hammer as with a tuning fork – there are no more ancient idols in existence… also none more hollow… that does not prevent their being the most believed in; and they are not, especially in the most eminent case, called idols… Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ, Trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Harmondsworth, UK: penguine, 1968 (1889).
2. Jacques Derrida, Glas. Trans. John P. Leavey, Jr and Richard Rand. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986, hereafter cited in the text as Glas.
3. The metronome in question is of course the common pyramidal design patented in 1814 by Maelzel, who most certainly stole the invention from one D.N. Winkel. The first metronome is said to have been invented by Loulie in 1696, but being over six feet in height it was rather impractical.
Bremner, in his Rudiments of Music (1756) outlines the specifications for a device which he hoped would standardize the musical timing in churches. It consists of a pendulum eight feet and eight inches (the exact dimensions arrived at by experiments performed by the Musical Society and Music Masters in Edinburgh) which by its double vibration suitably fixes the length of the semibreve. He calls for the hanging of such pendulums in all schools where church music is taught.
4. G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art Vol I & II, trans. T.M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978 (1835). See also, Derrida, Glas pp 251-258.
5. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A.V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, P. 422.
6. Aufhebung – the raising of a concept to a higher level in a dialectical movement which simultaneously cancels and preserves. Usually translated as “sublation” or sometimes “sublimation.”
7. Hegel, Aesthetics Vol I, P 301.
8. Hegel, Aesthetics Vol II, P 642.
9. Erik Iversen, Obelisks in Exile, Vol I Copenhagen: G.E.C. Gad Publishers, 1968, P. 17.
10. Two obelisks, two columns – Derrida’s Glas seeks to displace the phallogocentric mastery of the monolithic text bby dividing itself into two columns: Hegel on the left, and Genet on the right. This double pillared text will be discussed at length later.
11. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, P. 423.
12. Georges Bataille, “The Obelisk,” in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Trans. Allan Stoekl. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,1985, P. 215.
14. The German word Takt means both beat and bar. Consequently the word for metronome is Taktmesser.
15. Hegel, Aesthetics Vol II, P. 907.
16. Ibid. P. 913.
17. Hegel, like Beethoven, would probably have rejected the idea of the metronome, regarding it as a fetishised prosthesis bearing an external relation to spirit and musical internal time consciousness.
18. The Egyptian word for the Great Pyramid is Khuti, which means “the lights.” The equivalent name in Semetic languages is urim. The root ur in Greek becomes successively pur, pyr [fire] and pyra [beacon fires] (the root ur also appears in burn and furnace). The Hebrew middin means “to measure” (in Greek this is metron). Thus the name of the Great Pyramid, which in Hebrew is urim-middin, literally “light-measures” or “fire-measures,” inn Greek becomes pyramid. This would suggest that the pyramids once had a measuring function (probably astronomical). See D. Davidson and H. Aldersmith, The Great Pyramid: Its Devine message, Vol I pyramid Records. London: Williams and Norgate, 1924.
19. Lois Craig and the Staff of the Federal Architecture project, The Federal Presence: Architecture, Politics, and Symbols in United States Government Building, Cambridge, MA.: MIT press, 1977, P. 58.
20. Jacques Derrida, "White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy," in Margins of Philosophy, Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982 (1981), P. 250.
21 Ibid. p. 228.
22. Cf. Bataille, “Sacrificial Mutilation and the Severed Ear of Vincent Van Gogh,” in Visions of Excess, and “Van Gogh as Prometheus,” October 36 (1986).
23. Cf. Bataille, “The Solar Anus,” “Eye,” “Rotten Sun,” “The Jesuve,” “The Pineal Eye,” and “The Notion of Expenditure,” in Visions of Excess.
Bataille, Inner Experience. Trans. Leslie Anne Boldt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988, P. 111.
25. E. T. A. Hoffmann, Eight Tales of Hoffmann, Trans. J. M. Cohen, London: Pan Books, 1952.
26. Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny” (Das Unheimliche), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Trans. James Strachey. Vol XVII(1917-1919). London: Hogarth, 1961.
It is easy to find, in all these instances, the simple symbolic equivalence between the eye and the phallus. It is not my intention here to dispute the psychoanalytic law of Oedipus, or to doubt that the origins of neurosis and fetishism lie in the infantile (male) fear of castration. As Derrida remarks: "Oedipus has become tiresome, a bit worn-out; we have grown old with him." Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, P. 17.
It is, to my mind, far more productive to indulge in a misguided or distracted reading, to stray from the centre and wander (with wonder) in the margins of these texts.
In Freud's earlier writings on cases of "hysterical blindness," there is no mention of castration. Here it is again the talion which provides the law. Freud comments on cases of psychogenic visual disturbance in which the individual is blind in consciousness, but sighted in the unconscious. This condition, according to Freud, is the result of repression caused by a "conflict of interests" which is "based on the segregation from consciousness of certain ideas connected with seeing." These patients hold the strong conviction that, through their scopophilic activities, they have, in a moral sense, abused their gift of sight, thus they are convinced that this blindness is the adequate penalty for their crime. This is perhaps what is at stake in the story (cited by Herodotus) of the Egyptian king, Pheron, the son of Sesostris, who was mysteriously struck blind for ten years. Once again the obelisk emerges to repay, with interest, the symbolic debt.
Pheron went blind following an action which involved his throwing a spear into the swollen waters of the Nile. "He was blind for ten years, after which he received an oracle from the city of Buto to the effect that the time of his punishment being now ended, he would recover his sight, if he washed his eyes with the urine of a woman who had never lain with any man except her husband. He tried his wife first, but without success - he remained blind as ever; then he tried other women, a great many, one after another, until at last his sight was restored. Then he collected within the walls of a town, now called Red Clod, all the women except the one whose urine proved effacious, set the place on fire, and burnt them to death, town and all; afterwards he married the woman who had been the means of curing him. In gratitude for his recovery he dedicated a number of offerings in all the temples of repute; but the most remarkable of them were two stone obelisks which he set up in the precinct of the temple of Hephaestus. These are worth seeing; they are twelve feet broad and a hundred and fifty feet high, each hewn from a single block of stone". Herodotus, The Histories, Trans. Aubrey De Selincourt. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1954 P. 142-143.
28. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan, Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1977 P. 115.
29. Ibid. p. 118.
30. Freud, “Medusa’s Head,” The Standard Edition Vol XVIII (1920-1922) P. 273.
31. Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death. Trans. Iain Hamilton Grant. London. Sage, 1993. P.103.
32. Bataille, “Eye,” Visions of Excess, P. 17.
33. See note 27.
34. Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind, P. 87.
35. Maelzel, apart from inventing the metronome, constructed life-size automata including an amazing trumpeter which played cavalry marches with great precision, and the Panharmonicon, a complete mechanical orchestra with forty two players.
36. "Looking upward, I surveyed the ceiling of my prison. It was some thirty or forty feet overhead, and constructed much as the side walls. In one of its panels a very singular figure riveted my whole attention. It was the painted figure of time as he is commonly represented, save that, in lieu of a scythe, he held what, at a casual glance, I supposed to be the pictured image of a huge pendulum, such as we see on antique clocks. There was something, however, in the appearance of this machine which caused me to regard it more attentively. While I gazed directly upward at it (for its position was immediately over my own) I fancied that I saw it in motion. in an instant afterward the fancy was confirmed. Its sweep was brief, and of course slow. I watched it for some minutes in fear, but more in wonder...
It might have been half an hour, perhaps even an hour (for I could take but imperfect note of time), before I again cast my eyes upward. What I saw confounded and amazed me. the sweep of the pendulum had increased in extent by nearly a yard. As a natural consequence its velocity was also much greater. But what mainly disturbed me was the idea that it had perceptibly descended. I now observed - with what horror it is needless to say - that its nether extremity was formed of a crescent of glittering steel, about a foot in length from horn to horn; the horns upward, and the under edge evidently as keen as that of a razor." Edgar Allen Poe, "The Pit and the Pendulum," The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: Random House, 1938, P 252.
37. Derrida, The Truth in Painting, Trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987 (1978) P. 267.
38. Freud. "Fetishism," The Standard Edition Trans. James Strachey. Vol XXI (1927-1931). London: Hogarth, 1961, P. 156. Glas P. 211.
39. Derrida, Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. P. 41.
40. Spivak suggests that this graphic structure of two columns with a slit inn between, is a fetish object which indicates the limits of deconstruction. “It is the classic case of fetishism, a uniquely shaped object (his bicolumnar book) that will allow the subject both to be and not to be a man - to have the phallus and yet accede to dissemination.”
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Displacement and the Discourse of Woman,” in Displacement: Derrida and After. Ed. Mark Krupnik. Bloomington: Indiana University press, 1983, P. 77.
41. Glas, P. 211, and Jean Genet, The Thief’s Journal. Trans. Bernard Frechtman, Hammondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, P. 41.
42. Derrida, Dissemination, P. 261.
43. Ibid. P.25.
44. Ibid. P. 26.
45. Ibid. P.261.
46. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1967, P. 111.
47. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1967, P. 35.
48. Theodore Adorno, Aesthetic Theory. Trans. C. Lenhardt. London: Routledge and Kegen Paul, 1984 (1970), P. 16.
49. Bataille, “L’espirit moderne et le jue des transpositions,” Documents 8 (1930), pp. 490-91. Quoted in Denis Hollier, “The Use-Value of the Impossible.” Trans. Liesl Ollman. October 60, 1992.
50. Bataille, “The Language of Flowers,” Visions of Excess, P. 12. This essay is essentially a violent parody of Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers (1884).
51. Spivak, Op Cit. P. 175.
52. Derrida, The Truth in painting, P. 268.