Archives for posts with tag: Duchamp


I find fancy art supplies intimidating. Cadmium red is expensive, and a thoroughly gessoed and sanded panel requires a sizable investment in time as well as money. Thus when I paint, I risk trying too hard. Writing requires a time investment as well, and any research necessary seems to be the equivalent of sanding gessoed panels. But I have a quibble with that: Preparing a panel is like cleaning the kitchen, but researching a topic for writing is more like cooking – it takes thought of greater relevance to the final product. Research is more intimately involved with the blessed writing event. To finish the analogy, the acts of painting and writing themselves must be like eating. And although perhaps warranted by my saying “blessed event”, I am unable to point to any similarities between eating and giving birth. Maybe later.


A metaphor that includes eating got me thinking of William Blake, “Thus one portion of being, is the Prolific, the other, the Devouring … These two classes of men are always upon the earth, and they should be enemies; whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence” (fn1) Maybe more on this later as well.


Let’s make the painting and writing analogy fair, and suppose that for every one hundred words that you wish to save, you have to pay one dollar. I believe this one cent a word fee would be a factor of greater or lesser degree for everyone, except on occasion, for the wealthy, reckless, and highly motivated. I’m rarely those kinds of person.


Prose written under these circumstances is endangered: It could wind up purple, overwrought, or pretentious, because when every word costs, you’d better make them all good. We all want to do our best, but there are external circumstances that adversely affect our judgement. I’m not left with any good excuses, but I’m glad my save button is free.

I didn’t fully realize I found fancy art supplies intimidating until I was cleaning out a closet and discovered an old account ledger book. The pages were very appealing and because of that, the last few months have been productive – free, casual, and loose – not my typical way of doing things. I don’t want any excuses for my painting either, I want good painting.


This is all very nice, but there are two metaphors above that bother me, and when I consider them together, it’s even worse. It’s difficult to see how creating a work of art is like eating, and it’s especially difficult when I wonder who the Prolific and the Devourers might be. Things would be easier if, I had just launched my metaphor like God’s truth, and left it to the poor reader to work it out.


But I can’t leave it alone, and I’m going to get Marcel Duchamp involved. He seemed to be more about the cooking than the eating: He pointed out that the relevant thought and decisions behind the production of the work is where you will find the art. But this isn’t necessarily a call to conceptual art because so much thought is involved in the production itself. The process is a matter of dealing with changes, working through thickets and a multitude of decisions. I think the eating must be more than ingestion, it also includes digestion.

Here’s an example: I didn’t think these things until I wrote them. I merely started with the wish to examine intimidation, which I hadn’t really noticed until I left it behind with my ledger paintings. Talking about intimidation looked like an easy way to share my new work. All I needed was some paper worthy of recycling and a free save button. Nonetheless, there are people who think there’s no free lunch. Odd.


(fn1) William Blake, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, David V. Erdman ed., Anchor Books, Garden City, New York, 1982, p. 40. I really like footnotes like this. They reference a proof of accuracy more reliable than the internet, and at the same time, given the internet, they seem quaint and pointless. I like that.

I’ve just discovered an interesting artist, Alan Uglow, thanks to an article by Gregory Williams in The Brooklyn Rail (Image courtesy of Brooklyn Rail) The painting on the right is from 1994, the serigraph “portrait” of the painting is from 2000.

This was going to be about Uglow and me and possibly Gerhard Richter and how copying your own work is a way forward from appropriation, the arbitrariness of subject matter, and the general flatness of everything. Then I got upset.

The problem started when I searched for Sherrie Levine to confirm she was the one who did rephotographing. That’s when I stumbled on this painting of hers, part of a series completed between 1987 and 2002. This particular one is from 1988.

Sherrie Levine plywood

So why am I upset?

I made these two plywood knot paintings in 1993, and called them The Things at the Edge of the Universe 1 and 2, 45″ x 50″ and 15″ x 26″.

edguniv93 45x50

thgsuniv93 15x26

So of course they have something to do with appropriation and how it is related to the difficulty deciding on subject matter when all things seem equal. They are ‘found’ compositions to some extent. All I had to do was colour them in.

We’re living on a very smooth plain, it’s difficult to find things sticking up enough to warrant sincere attention. This also has a bearing on attitudes to copyright, which is the reason everything I publish has been under

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

But there is more. These two paintings are not just about appropriation, the lack of reasons and commitments, and the act of choosing itself. The latter two were well covered by Warhol and Duchamp respectively. The first one, appropriation art, is mainly a rehash of Warhol and Duchamp’s ideas taken to their end point. When youthful spite subsides, it’s time to respect your tradition. That’s the only way to change it. (T. S. Eliot, more or less.)

These two paintings have rounded corners, mildly suggestive of cathode ray tubes, what TV’s looked like in 1993. They are covered in very scratched quarter-inch plexiglass which elevates visibility to a second simultaneous picture plane. The plexiglass has a gridded array of holes drilled in it for finishing nails and the occasional screw. The grid is not square with the sides of the work, which gives the grid some tilt, but no vanishing point.

The nails hold the layers together, but they are also visible objects that travel through all the virtual objects generated with paint and scratches. Nails as wormholes perhaps, the things at the edge of the universe maybe – and all along we thought it was the painted knots. “Ha ha”, as Bosse-de-Nage the dog faced baboon would say. (Please refer to Alfred Jarry’s Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician).

For the most part I don’t mind obscurity, but there are times when it’s frustrating. Frustrating because I feel compelled to defend and explain my work when I come across things that look quite similar – plywood knot paintings for example. But as Mosheim apparently said, “Renown is a source of toil and sorrow; obscurity is a source of happiness” [I got this from  J. W. Von Goethe, Conversations with Eckermann (Washington and London: M. Walter Dunne, 1901), p. 6. And I have no idea who Mosheim is.]

Thankfully, I think it’s possible to feel schadenfreude for my own misfortune. Grimly satisfying wound licking isn’t half bad. While flattering myself that my work measures up to his, I can easily imagine myself in the circumstances of Kurt Schwitters. He said we shouldn’t worry about his obscurity and poverty because he knew very well how important he was. And he is important – his shadow continues to grow, just as Picasso’s shrinks. Therefore, I will not be bothered by the fact that I seem to have made a career of being overlooked and underestimated.


1923 – and it contains seeds of almost all the ‘retinal’ art that follows. (“Retinal” is a reference to Duchamp’s pejorative term for all art that isn’t ‘conceptual’, for lack of a better word. It seems to me though, that visual art would use a retinal vehicle.) And looking at this one humble collage from 1923, I know I have a lot of work to do. The insidious influence of theory still drives me, I’m not retinal enough.

Sherrie Levine has made her career as an “appropriation artist”. She came to my attention in 1980 when she rephotographed pictures by Walker Evans and showed them as her own. It was a brilliant choice because Evans was such a damned earnest photographer, living in a time when artists really thought they were making a difference (aesthetic, political or both) – Schwitters, John Heartfield, Rodchenko, and so on. Levine’s move was a refreshingly bitter thing to do.

I’m sympathetic with appropriation, and in the 1970’s I tried my hand at it with a series of one-piece collages. From time to time, from 1976 to 1999, I tore things from newspapers, magazines, brochures, and maps that appealed to me, mounted them and signed them. These two are both coincidentally from 1979. I picked them because they look nice on my computer screen.

collage 1979

collage map 1979

Seeing that map once again makes me think it would make a great painting – a little bit of a Richard Diebenkorn Ocean Park Series thing going on.


My use of appropriation was sour grapes and cleverness to some extent, but it still had a hint of vicarious escape from media saturation in it. I took back the initiative, the choosing, I was less of a passive consumer. That was the do-good, Schwitters part, but that’s hardly adequate.

Appropriation is basically a rehash of Conceptual and Pop art. It is the blindingly obvious thing to do after Duchamp and Warhol. It’s also a one-trick pony to establish an art career – but if you keep doing the same thing for long enough, you’ll probably get famous. Morris Lewis demonstrated it and General Idea satirized it. As far as appropriation goes, I couldn’t be bothered with anything more than some scrap booking – there are so many other things to think about.

So much for being vexed, and onto the matter of copying your own work. I have three rules for art making: It needs charm, it acknowledges its roots in a tradition, and it contains some other idea, hopefully a new way to see or understand something. That’s a tall order, and I know I don’t always succeed.

In 1977 I propped a book on the arm of a chair. It was open to a photograph of Marcel Duchamp taken by Alfred Stieglitz and I photographed it. I then signed and dated the photo. If art were physics, then Duchamp’s Law would be, “The art of a thing is the choice.” I chose Stieglitz’s photo to be my art.

Levine’s photos of Evan’s photos are more pointed – they’re just the photos with no surrounding context, they’re about appropriation, pure and simple. My photo is polluted with context: the image, the book and the chair in my living room – frames within frames. Besides appropriation, it’s also about my sense of being on the outside, looking through a window into the art world, like watching a family dinner while standing in the snow. Art students sometimes feel that way, very Dickens.

Duchamp 1977
I also enjoyed signing the front – photographers rarely do that.

I 2000, I photographed my photograph and printed it on enough paper to write a screed. It was intended to be amusing like my Artist Statement from a previous post.

Duchamp 2000

It says, “I don’t think Jeff Koons and Sherrie Levine are Postmodernists. I see them as Academic Modernists, Duchamp’s epigoni reworking the readymade concept ad nauseum. My student work of 1977 reflects the same concerns: I accepted what I was taught about permissible museum-grade transgression. To a certain extent, Modernism seems to have been about the quiddity of art itself. Assuming this problem has been solved, and as far as I know, it hasn’t, the next logical step is the quiddity of quiddity. Unfortunately this issue is extremely abstract, and artists are better applied than theoretical philosophers. Instead, let’s suppose for a moment that some point would be served if we were to force historical facts into a dialectical process. This granted, the next dialectical step is to reconsider the ideas negated by Modernism. Notwithstanding De Stijl and Earthworks, (because historical facts must be carefully chosen) the negated ideas are the Beautiful and the Sublime. The other next dialectical step is to chose the particulars of Modernism which need to be negated. Let these be transgression and the logical model of art practice. Therefore, I am pleased to announce that my dialectical thinking has discovered the possibility of a post Modernism. It only lacks a name.”

This definitely illustrates that I had developed some hostility towards theory.

Not much more to say. Here are three related works:

barrel collage 1979
One-piece collage, 1977.

barrel drawing 1999
Pencil drawing, 1999.

barrel photo 2000
Photograph, 2000.

3 stoppages étalon (3 Standard Stoppages) 1913-14, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968
Marcel Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages is the most explicit work about the importance of chance that I’ve ever seen. It also might be the first. Duchamp dropped three one meter threads onto a prepared surface and used these lines to make his meter sticks. The following came from the Tate’s website:

In 1964 Duchamp explained: ‘This experiment was made in 1913 to imprison and preserve forms obtained through chance, through my chance. At the same time, the unit of length, one meter, was changed from a straight line to a curved line without actually losing its identity [as] the meter, and yet casting a pataphysical doubt on the concept of a straight edge as being the shortest route from one point to another.’ (Anne d’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine, eds., Marcel Duchamp, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973, pp.273-4.)

It’s interesting how Duchamp referred to the creation of a work as an imprisonment. It occurred to me once, while listening to Thelonious Monk, that sometimes making art feels like a crime. His exquisite, pauses before committing to a note can make my hair stand up. Art can be very, very serious. The artist is culpable. What’s done is done, and it can’t be taken back. When the move is made, the idea of it is no more. It’s a murder of sorts, and a museum is a morgue.

I hesitate to mention dialectics, but this is the experience of aufhebung, the dialectical move of raising up and preservation through destruction. That’s all nonsense of course, because the dialectic is about feelings, not thinking – a complicated memoir dressed as bad philosophy argued from the personal experience of “it seems like”. Notwithstanding Hegel the Reprehensible, Marx has said many perceptive things, “In no sense does the writer regard his work as a means. They are ends in themselves: so little are they means for him and others that, when necessary, he sacrifices his existence to theirs” FN 1

Art is important.

Embracing chance may seem like an evasion of responsibility, but chance is unavoidable. An artist should love fate like Nietzsche and permit art to be a premeditated arrangement that allows chance to occur. Sometimes the latitude for chance is limited to merely the chanciness of skill, but at other times it is given huge scope.

The critical moment for any work is heeding the realization that the piece might be finished. This is more difficult than I often suppose. I admire the work as it proceeds and I don’t want the pleasure of feeling so smart and talented to stop. But if I don’t coolly consider my judgements as I work, I risk irredeemably ruining it. I need to pause and look at it as an art lover, not an art maker. Maybe it’s done, and maybe it’s not. Think carefully. Not sure? Do something else and come back to it later. Ultimately, when I make the last call, and weeks later decide that it was the right decision, I get the finest pleasure: I still feel smart and talented, but now it comes with relief instead of worry.

Duchamp also mentioned pataphysics – more about that in a future post.

He also said he made it with chance, “my chance”. Perhaps a confession that he made some adjustments, or more likely, repeated the process at an appropriate height to obtain results that were apparently random, and incidentally, fit on sticks of pleasing width. I don’t see anything wrong with this. Artists are liars and keep secrets. The camera obscura is a great example. I suspect Vermeer used one, and he’s my favourite painter. I saw “Girl with Scarf” when it came to the National Gallery in Ottawa and I was stunned. There were no edges, just tiny fallings-off into infinity. David Hockney tried to out the cheats in a book. He may approve of cheating, but I’m not sure, I haven’t read the book. For his sake, I hope he does approve.

Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” makes my point, “The only form of lying that is absolutely beyond reproach is Lying for its own sake, and the highest development of this, as we have already pointed out, is Lying in Art.” FN 2 The Decay of Lying is a delightful dialog that I highly recommend. It’s funny and true in a mendacious kind of way, although Wilde would never be so gauche as to make any claim to truth.

FN 1 Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844”, in Marx and Engels on Literature and Art, L. Baxandall & S. Morawski (eds.) St. Louis: Telos Press, p. 61.

FN 2 Oscar Wilde,”The Decay of Lying” in “Intentions” in The Artist as Critic, Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, Richard Ellman (ed.) New York: Random House, 1969, p.318

IMAGE from the Tate

Alan Sokal

The following was published in Wegway Primary Culture, issue 8, Spring 2005. I resisted the urge to edit my introduction.

Wegway8 cover

The Science Wars – Lest We Forget
André Questcequecest

with an introduction by Stephen Eric Armstrong

Alan Sokal, a Professor of Physics at New York University published an essay called, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in the Spring/Summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue of Social Text, a leading North American journal of Culture Studies. The editorial board of this journal includes respected thinkers such as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross.

Sokal’s verbose, metaphor-driven essay was a parody and, when word of this got out, it generated a lot of controversy. In 1998, Sokal, along with Jean Bricmont published Intellectual Impostures, a book dealing with some of the issues raised by the affair.

If the publication of “Transgressing the Boundaries” were to be considered a work of art, then I believe art should consider itself flattered. André Questcequecest is thrilled by all of this. He told me once that his distinctive writing style, of never saying anything and only quoting what others have said, was inspired, in part, by his reading of Frederic Jameson and Jacques Derrida. In 1995, Questcequecest published “A Dialogue between the Pleonasmus Brothers, Obfusicus and Pomposius, concerning Approximately Art” in Wegway’s inaugural issue. It consisted of two lengthy quotes, one from Derrida’s The Truth in Painting, and the other from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The two quotes interrupted each other at appropriate intervals to produce a strange dialogue.

In spite of the fact that it is very difficult to determine the relation between ideas, and the words that refer to those ideas, or whether in fact there even are ideas that are separate in any functional way from their words, I see Questcequecest’s work as a poetry of ideas generated by the process of choosing other peoples’ words. It has touches of Duchamp, Schwitters and Ezra Pound’s “Imagism” in it; and it acknowledges the complexity of form versus content. I think it also points to the ambivalent feelings many artists have about copyright, intellectual property, commercial value and one’s sense of community within a tradition.

As Questcequecest’s First Law of Texts states, “There is an inverse relation between an author’s sense of responsibility for what a text might say and the number of references that text contains.” And as Nietzsche said somewhere, philosophical writings mostly reveal the character of their authors and perhaps not much else.

Stephen Eric Armstrong

The Science Wars – Lest We Forget

To begin, Alan Sokal said, “Thus, general relativity forces upon us radically new and counterintuitive notions of space, time and causality; so it is not surprising that it has had a profound impact not only on the natural sciences but also on philosophy, literary criticism, and the human sciences. For example, in a celebrated symposium three decades ago on Les Langages Critiques et les Sciences de l’Homme, Jean Hyppolite raised an incisive question about Jacques Derrida’s theory of structure and sign in scientific discourse … Derrida’s perceptive reply went to the heart of classical general relativity: The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability–it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something–of a center starting from which an observer could master the field–but the very concept of the game … In mathematical terms, Derrida’s observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation Gμv = 8πGTμv; under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key point is that this invariance group “acts transitively”: this means that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the π of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone.”FN1

He also said, “Social Text’s acceptance of my article exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory – meaning postmodernist literary theory – carried to its logical extreme. No wonder they didn’t bother to consult a physicist. If all is discourse and “text,” then knowledge of the real world is superfluous; even physics becomes just another branch of Cultural Studies. If, moreover, all is rhetoric and “language games,” then internal logical consistency is superfluous too: a patina of theoretical sophistication serves equally well. Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic. My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this well-established genre.”FN2

Stanley Aronowitz stated, “Explaining his now famous parody in Social Text’s “Science Wars” issue, Alan Sokal writes in Dissent (“Afterword”, Fall 1996): But why did I do it? I confess that I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I’m a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them.” There is much to note in this “confession.” Why choose a hoax on Social Text to make these points? Did Sokal believe its editors were unabashed deconstructionists who doubted the existence of an external world or that they were anti-science? If so, he has either misread the burden of its seventeen-year history or was capricious in his choice. If not, then he has perpetuated the saddest hoax of all: on himself. For the fact is that Social Text, of which I am a founder and in whose editorial collective I served until this year, has never been in the deconstructionist camp; nor do its editors or the preponderance of its contributors doubt the existence of a material world. What is at issue is whether our knowledge of it can possibly be free of social and cultural presuppositions. Social Text was founded, and remains within, the Marxist project – which, as everyone knows, is profoundly materialist. When Fredric Jameson, John Brenkman, and I started the journal we gave it the subtitle “Theory, Culture, Ideology.” Our objective was to interrogate Marxists’ habitual separation of political economy and culture and to make a contribution to their articulation, even reunification. We were appalled by the orthodox Marxist claim that culture had nothing to do with burning issues of economic justice and were equally opposed to a “culturalist” deconstruction of reality in which all that mattered was language. The use of the term “ideology” in our subtitle revealed our critical intent. For us ideology was not “false consciousness” but a form of “lived experience.” This marked us decidedly as not “old leftist” because we questioned the naive old materialism that holds that knowledge simply reflects reality. We followed the contemporary Marxist view that all processes of knowledge, including science, are mediated by their practices; for us “practice” was not a mental, but a material category.”FN3

Then Alan Sokal responded, “According to Aronowitz, I think that knowledge of reality is “transparent” and I “never interrogate the nature of evidence or facts.” On what basis does he make such claims? And if I were such a simpleton, why would I have explicitly raised epistemological questions in my Afterword? But the trouble isn’t just that Aronowitz distorts my own positions; it is that much of his essay is based on setting up and demolishing straw opponents. Who nowadays claims that culture has nothing to do with economic injustice, or that funding sources have no effect on scientific work? Who denies the value of sociological and political study of science and technology, or of the philosophical analysis of epistemological problems? My point is a modest one: that such investigations need to be conducted with due intellectual rigor. The works cited in my parody article provide a plethora of examples of how not to proceed. And so, unfortunately, does Aronowitz’s essay”FN4

Bruce Robbins said, “As far more people than have ever read the journal now know, Alan Sokal’s essay in the Spring/Summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue of Social Text was a hoax. The journal’s editors thought the manuscript argued that quantum physics, properly understood, dovetails with postmodern philosophy. In fact, Sokal booby-trapped the piece with deliberate mistakes, as he later revealed; he sought to publish it to expose the various intellectual and political weaknesses in Social Text and those it represents. But which weaknesses? Even people who followed the story with some interest and amusement may still be wondering what, exactly, the hoax proved. As one of the editors of Social Text, I freely confess what I think it proved about us: that some scientific ignorance and some absent-mindedness could combine with much enthusiasm for a supposed political ally to produce a case of temporary blindness. It remains to be seen, however, whether our editorial failure is really symptomatic of a larger failure in the beliefs we hold or the movements from which we come, and if so, what it might be symptomatic of. One conclusion not to draw is that if non-scientists like us are incompetent to judge what scientists do, then only scientists can be allowed to judge it. Whatever our own failings, science should not be protected from public accountability. We cannot leave it accountable only to those funders (increasingly, private corporations) who pay the piper. Pretending that criticisms of science are invalidated by the critic’s postmodernism or poststructuralism is a convenient way for Sokal and his backers to pretend they are not defending their own exclusive rights to their turf — a turf that the public has good reason to monitor as closely as possible.”FN5

Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal said, “Julia Kristeva, writing in Le Nouvel Observateur, accuses us of spreading “disinformation” as part of an anti-French politico-economic campaign; she was even quoted (we hope misquoted) by the Italian daily Corriere della Sera as saying that we should undergo psychiatric treatment. Vincent Fleury and Yun Sun Limet, in Libération, accuse us of seeking to divert research funds from the social to the natural sciences. These defenses are curious: for even if our motivations were indeed as ascribed (and they most certainly aren’t), how would that affect the validity or invalidity of our arguments? We have the modest hope that calmer heads will soon prevail among both our supporters and our critics, so that the debate can focus on the substantive content of our book. Which is what? The book grew out of the now-famous hoax in which one of us published, in the American cultural-studies journal Social Text, a parody article chock-full of nonsensical, but unfortunately authentic, quotes about physics and mathematics by prominent French and American intellectuals. However, only a small fraction of the “dossier” discovered during Sokal’s library research could be included in the parody. After showing this larger dossier to scientist and non-scientist friends, we became (slowly) convinced that it might be worth making it available to a wider audience. We wanted to explain, in non-technical terms, why the quotes are absurd or, in many cases, simply meaningless; and we wanted also to discuss the cultural circumstances that enabled these discourses to achieve such prominence and to remain, thus far, unexposed. Hence our book, the noise and the furor. But what exactly do we claim in our book? Neither too much nor too little. We show that famous intellectuals such as Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Jean Baudrillard and Gilles Deleuze have repeatedly abused scientific concepts and terminology: either using scientific ideas totally out of context, without giving the slightest empirical or conceptual justification — note that we are not against extrapolating concepts from one field to another, but only against extrapolations made without argument — or throwing around scientific jargon to their non-scientist readers without any regard for its relevance or even its meaning. We make no claim that this invalidates the rest of their work, on which we are explicitly agnostic.”FN6

Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross said, “Why does science matter so much to us? Because its power, as a civil religion, as a social and political authority, affects our daily lives and the parlous condition of the natural world more than does any other domain of knowledge. Does it follow that non-scientists should have some say in the decision-making processes that define and shape the work of the professional scientific community? Some scientists (including Sokal presumably) would say yes, and in some countries, non-expert citizens do indeed participate in these processes. All hell breaks loose, however, when the following question is asked. Should non-experts have anything to say about scientific methodology and epistemology? After centuries of scientific racism, scientific sexism, and scientific domination of nature one might have thought this was a pertinent question to ask.”FN7

John Krige said, “Does Sokal care that his spontaneous response to those “relativists” who are puzzled about the epistemic status of a world that is always mediated by our unreliable senses, our context-laden language and our scientific instruments (he invites anyone who isn’t sure that the world exists to step out of the window of his high-rise apartment) is nothing more than a 1990s uptown New York version of an age-old common-sense reaction to a deep philosophical problem? Have Sokal and Bricmont followed the carefully crafted and empirically enriched studies of scientific practice by sociologists and historians of science over the last two decades (see Physics World, April 1998, pp. 19-20) — work that has breathed a new vitality into these fields? … The editors of the journal Social Text, in which Sokal’s spoof article was originally published, have also been overwhelmed by the authority of these fields. Indeed, it is just for this reason that they accepted Sokal’s article as a sincere attempt by an academic author to apply concepts from physics, which they did not understand, to cultural studies. They trusted him, all the more so since he was a physicist at a prestigious institution. But he deliberately betrayed that trust by producing what he knew to be drivel with a view to exposing and humiliating them. The lesson is obvious. Those of us working in the humanities and social sciences – as well as our students and the public at large – should not be so quick to trust people in the “hard” sciences, notably physicists. We should not take them uncritically at their word. Which is, of course, just what researchers in the history and social studies of science have been insisting on for the last two decades.”FN8

Jay Rosen said, “Although it would have been agonizingly difficult (pride is involved), I very much wish the editors had reacted differently. Had they said, “We goofed” right away, and then examined – penetratingly and in public – everything that led them to accept the Sokal article, they might have demonstrated to literate America that what the academic Left thinks about itself is actually true: it has no peer when it comes to being critical of institutions. Social Text is an institution of the academic Left. It should have taken itself apart and put itself back together again after the Sokal debacle. It would have been fascinating and inspiring to watch. Working backwards from the hoax, like safety experts going over a crash site, they could have illuminated every standard they diluted in order to accept the article, and then asked themselves: Well, what are our standards? Consider what the editors have already admitted:

1. They did not understand the ideas they were publishing. (“Scientific ignorance,” Bruce Robbins calls it, acknowledging that the physics on display was Greek to them, as it would have been to anyone since much of it was gibberish or deliberate clowning by Sokal.)
2. They didn’t respect what they were publishing. (“From the first, we considered Sokal’s unsolicited article to be a little hokey … His adventures in PostmodernLand were not really our cup of tea,” Robbins and co-editor Andrew Ross wrote in a statement explaining their decision.)
3. But they published it anyway for political reasons. (“Enthusiasm for a supposed political ally,” Robbins says, explaining why they went for the essay. “We thought it argued that quantum physics, properly understood, dovetails with postmodern philosophy.” Note: what “dovetails” with the editors’ perspective is good because it dovetails. Can Sokal’s point be made any plainer? )
4. They were condescending to the author and his “hokey” ideas. (Robbins and Ross again: “It is not every day we receive a dense philosophical tract from a professional physicist. Not knowing the author or his work, we engaged in some speculation about his intentions, and concluded that this article was the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation
from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field.” Earnest is what counted; intelligent — and intelligible — did not.)
5. They abandoned their attempts to improve what they were publishing when the author they condescended to resisted, thus doubling the condescension. (Robbins and Ross write: “Having established an interest in Sokal’s article, we did ask him informally to revise the piece. We requested him a) to excise a good deal of the philosophical speculation and b) to excise most of his footnotes. Sokal seemed resistant to any revisions …” So they went ahead anyway.)” FN9

FN 1 Alan Sokal, “A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies” at
FN 2 ibid
FN 3 Stanley Aronowitz, “Alan Sokal’s “Transgression,” Dissent (Winter 1997): 107-110, at ibid.
FN 4 Alan Sokal, “Alan Sokal Replies [to Stanley Aronowitz],” Dissent (Winter 1997): 110-111, at ibid.
FN 5 Bruce Robbins, “Anatomy of a Hoax” Tikkun (September/October 1996): 58-59, at ibid.
FN 6 Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal, “What is all the fuss about?” Times Literary Supplement (17 October 1997): 17, at ibid.
FN 7 Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross, Co-Editors Social Text at ibid.
FN 8 John Krige, “Cannon-fodder for the Science Wars,” Physics World (December 1998): 49-50, ibid.
FN 9 Jay Rosen, “Swallow Hard: What Social Text Should Have Done,” Tikkun (September/October 1996): 59-61, ibid

image from

Marcel Duchamp made a number of Rotoreliefs by applying various patterns to discs and then rotating them with an electric motor. The film he made of them in 1926 was called Anemic Cinema and, just as the pieces themselves did, it successfully generated virtual sculptures through optical illusion. There are versions of this film in circulation on the internet, YouTube and Vimeo for instance, with a musical sound track added and there are also colour versions floating around. But the original was made in 1926, so it’s safe to say it’s a silent film. I found the added sound track distracting – three dimensionality suddenly popping up is more than stimulating enough on its own. Colour films of the works though, add to the effect.

Why would he call it Anemic Cinema? I think this question gets to the heart of the matter. To answer it, the viewer needs to clarify an understanding of what sculpture is and what cinema is. Must sculpture actually be three dimensional, or would virtual three dimensionality suffice? A major theme in Duchamp’s work is to push viewers to define terms and make the necessary and sufficient conditions explicit. If a urinal can be art, then the question is “Why?”.

Duchamp’s film refines the sculpture problem even further. Now there isn’t even a disc and a motor, but rather, an image of a disc that seems to rotate because of the presentation speed of progressive images, in other words, a movie. That’s about as virtual as a sculpture can get.

But I think “anemic” relates strictly to film as opposed to sculpture. A film is a virtual event, non narrative and abstract films included. Michael Snow’s La Region Centrale, 1971, is a virtual event just as much as Gone with the Wind. I think that’s just what film is. The events you witness in a movie aren’t really happening, you just knowingly take them as real during the viewing.

In 1926, an era before anyone thought of making a kinetic sculpture, an image of a sculpture would be static, just like an image of a painting, time is unnecessary, they’re not events. As an aside, I searched when Calder made his first mobiles and Wikipedia gives a date of 1932 plus the incidental information that Duchamp was the person who gave them that name.

What we find is, Duchamp had a wry sense of humour. Anemic Cinema is a film of a sculpture that requires motion to generate a stable shape. It might as well be a still photograph but it can’t be. Anemic indeed.

The image of Rotoreliefs came from here:

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