The Authority of the Readymade and Other Fallacies

Somewhat preoccupied with my reading preferences as of late, I decided to do a Google search for “minor literature.” What can I say? Those kinds of books, and certainly also that search engine, keep insomniacs good company. What else can I say? I am overly consumed with stories and characters of the everyday kind, and equally concerned about my vehement reading of what seems, quite simply, banal. These books relieve me of what has otherwise become a commonplace intensity felt toward everything—a sensation that usually has me blissfully levitating, but also grounded in overbearing distress, which is as hard to experience as it is to disengage from. If that sounds like an addiction, I wouldn’t be surprised.

I used to think of this kind of reading as an antidote to the afflictions of sleeplessness. What TV or Facebook binging or exercising or getting high or you-name-it is for some people. But that night, with full-fledged insomnia, I wondered if it was something other than procrastinating that in fact attracted me to minor literature. If it was something else besides a way to fill those nocturnal waking hours. And if that was the case, I was determined to find out what the motives were, what they meant. See, I noticed that, as prosaic as these books are, there is something extraordinary about them. What is it? For sure, it isn’t just realism or a matter of great writing. There is something else to them, in them, about them.

Alas, gone were my days of learning about literature by discussing a text in a classroom with Raymond Williams enthusiasts, scrutinizing adverbs to identify a possible structure of feeling. Instead, I was wakeful in bed, alone at dawn, with Google. Facing my tablet, staring at those words I’d entered—“minor literature”—I wondered among other things if it was a conceit to consider something, for instance these books, in a way that seemed pejorative. I quickly typed in “philosophy,” adding the term to the search. That threesome of words, I figured, would help Google filter my query more sensibly—or, uhm, more intelligently. Indeed, I’d unashamedly let the machine carry out some of the sentimental workings.

An unanticipated existential exhale accompanied the instant when Google’s page went blank, as it fetched the results that eventually (given the slow-paced Internet connection of my boudoir) appeared on the tablet’s screen. The only light source in the room was emanating from that device, although by then it was competing with the first rays of sunrise peeking through the window. In the search findings came another kind of unexpected breath. This time, it felt like a sigh of relief. The results included names like Kafka and Deleuze and Guattari. There were nouns such as “immigrants” and names of minority groups. Sources pointed to academic journals, and to major and lesser-known literary blogs. There were phrases like “vital intimacy” and “where the forms of collective enunciation and national consciousness are breaking down.” This was not exactly what I imagined finding.

Scrolling through the search results, page after page, I arrived at the thought that I could consider my newly acquired addiction to minor lit, in fact, a good habit—productive, even. The possibility of that, to my surprise, provoked a kind of cerebral masturbation—and the fact that this was caused by the simple presence of information was as peculiar as the symbiotic form of pleasure it came with. Was I experiencing some kind of data pornography, a mind-blowing excitement? Whatever it was, it was satisfying. I felt my muscles relax, give in. The zombie sensation of my sleep-deprived body was being slowly replaced by a human condition. In no time, I was yawning, that dawdling opening of the mouth welcoming the end of my wake. It must have been all that intensive breathing what was dozing me, I thought, and, without even noticing, I fell asleep at last.

The morning after... Well, it’s complicated. By this I mean to say that I probably only remember some things. Practically speaking, forgetting is a form of survival and, as it pertains to the writing of this text, an excuse for sticking to my allotted word count. Anyway, I’ll develop here some of the thoughts that ensued since that revealing night. These considerations, in combination with the experience of specific artworks, artistic practices, and their discursive interpretations, were what brought me to my topic: “The Authority of the Readymade and Other Fallacies.”

First, though, I’ll share some other facts for the sake of context or culture or whatever name you give to circumstance. To begin, when Edoardo invited me to contribute to this issue of Mousse, which as you may have noticed is dedicated to the subject of authority, I confessed to being somebody who’d been more than once considered having problems with authority. Not that I agreed with such perception, but neither did I exactly deem myself the most appropriate correspondent. But after a couple of epistolary exchanges, he convinced me to contribute. What to say of that? Everyone has debilities, lives contradictions in their own peculiar way.

So here I am, typing away, trying to articulate some thoughts that may serve to comprehend certain tendencies in contemporary art and, of course, the place of authority, or something along those lines. Anyway, here’s a second fact to keep in mind as you read this, one that partly explains my Googling of “minor literature philosophy.” While I am an avid reader, I am actually an amateur of literature, and, for that matter, of literary criticism. Thus, there was nothing on the subject to be consulted from my bookshelves. Relatedly is the third fact, which is perhaps more relevant in order for you to judiciously consider the ideas of this text. It may take me a bit to describe, but I’ll do my best to be clear and concise.

As it happens, after a brief but deep sleep induced by the aforementioned pseudo-erotic experience of data at dawn, I woke up to the sound of my phone’s alarm clock and used the thing to SMS my friend Leo: “Do you have D&G’s Kafka + Minor Lit?” He responded immediately with a “Y.” A couple of hours later, he was handing me the book. Yes, that was quick. For better or worse, things usually fall into place, even for insomniacs, eyelids aside. Leo is not only my neighbor; he is a literary scholar who’d dropped out of academia to pursue a career as an independent curator of contemporary art. It was in the latter field that we met. He must have been a good professor, I always thought, because when I talked about the novelitas I was reading, he listened without rolling his eyes.

The book he lent me was the French-to-English translation of the most cited essay on the matter of minor literature and philosophy. He seemed pleased to add a finer text to my usual bibliography. For sure, I was happy. My eyebrows even rose upon noticing the book was by Minnesota, the publisher known for other po-mo lit’ I’d read way back in school. That morning, holding again one of their monochrome-cover paperbacks felt timely and reassuring. It transmitted a vibe of being on the right track. I’d learn. And, with that hope-veiled hunch, I hopped into my traveling reading chamber. For a change, the day’s subway commute would be spent reading about, rather than a piece of, minor literature. Or so I thought.

Things actually took a different course. As I advanced the first couple of pages, I began blinking more often, at irregular intervals. Soon my head had dropped in synchrony with the eyelids and was nodding with the movements of the wagon. Every so often, the squeal of the rails popped my eyes open, prompting me to get back on track, focus, and continue reading, but to no avail. Every paragraph read, and, soon enough, each couple of lines, the somnolent choreography of nerve and skull began again. Ugh, if sleeping was generally hard to attain, now it was impossible to resist. I gave in. A fellow passenger, who had probably lent his shoulder to my head for most of the ride, eventually woke me up.

We had arrived at the subway line’s last stop. It was far from where I had intended to get off, but I stepped out of the station anyway. It was also far from any neighborhood I usually frequented, so it took some time to get my bearings. I wasn’t exactly lost, just discombobulated. Nowhere in sight were recognizable landmarks or skyscrapers to indicate my place or orientation. And even though it was a clear day—or, precisely, because it was, time was nebulous. At the height of summer, which is when these events happened, the late-morning sun could well pass for that of early afternoon, and vice versa. East and West, any cardinal point, was unrecognizable. Standing on a desolate street corner, I referred to the clock on my phone’s screen, which I then swiped and tapped a bit to procure my GPS coordinates.

So, where was I? Ah, right, on minor literature’s philosophy, trying to get to the readymade and authority. Clearly, getting there was a challenge, and the ultimate end was becoming increasingly more difficult to reach. I thus decided to walk; get my thoughts together; do a reconnaissance of the surroundings. I wandered in a bemused state until I reached the busiest street around. It was lined with storefronts, bodegas, eateries, and the like. Their fuss spilled to the pavement and diffused into the raucous traffic. It was a hot day, and a variety of murky smells filled the air. The street’s atmosphere was infused with exhaust fumes, fried food, burning incense, baked goods, body odor. And I was fully immersed in it all, the stench, the noise, drifting in a sidewalk less transited by passersby with quick gaits than by those who simply crouched or stood around.

There and then, we all seemed to be immigrants, even if it was unclear who were the legal residents and who were the undocumented. For sure, some of us had more or less rights, more or less advantages, more or less a clear origin and sense of history, our present, what was to come. It was also likely that some of us were more or less street savvy, more or less educated; that some of us were more or less courageous, ferocious, laid back; that some of us were more or less articulate, more or less expressive. To be there, some of us had left others and things behind. Some of us had arrived here with others, or thanks to them, or because of them; and some of us were here for the purpose of having something else, for at least an opportunity.

It was also apparent that some of us had more time than usual to contemplate, whether because we had made an occasion for it or because we were simply lucky; because of the type of trade we were engaged in, which supposedly allowed for it, or because we were unemployed; because we were living out of some kind of trust, or who the fuck knows why. Okay, I’ll try again. Maybe we made time for contemplation because it was—sadly, hardly, or fortunately, I don’t know—the most accessible recourse for being or feeling sovereign; because it was the closest we could have to an emancipatory experience. Perhaps contemplating is an immigrant’s survival mechanism in the civic realm, which we inhabit as individuals and in community, mostly as workers, certainly as subjects, but not always lawfully as citizens.

At the thought of that, I put away my prescription specs and slipped on a pair of sunglasses I bought from one of the nearby street vendors. No doubt the new lenses would reduce my depth of vision. But I had come to terms with the idea: On that day, my myopia would be an intellectual disability rather than a physical impairment. Being a relentless optimist, I decided this wasn’t a tragedy. I convinced myself that resigning to nearsightedness for a day could be valuable. It would make me focus on my immediate surroundings. In order to become more observant during my stroll, it wasn’t a matter of squinting the eyes in an effort to see further ahead, but of reducing my pace to pay better attention to what was there, nearby.

Out of nowhere came an assaulting recollection: “What are we looking at?” My classmates and I were facing a picture of an artwork displayed by a 35-mm slide projector. But no one ventured to respond to that simple question posed by our teacher, Dr. J. Burns. The white noise emitted by the projector’s skimpy fan would be the only sound heard, a kind of timer, until Burns would break the silence by asking the question again, this time with a more inviting tone, which was when the group discussion would begin, constructing a visual and physical experience around the work.

The memory of her seminars hit me like a bullet. There was clearly a point to be made by Burns’s enquiry. Once upon a time, at school, it was a lesson to draw meaning from the description of an image, of matter, of frame; to discern a work’s form of content, its form of expression; to postpone, if not entirely suspend, a categorical mention of names, mediums, or styles; to apply theories as possible methods, instead of using citation as argumentation. Now, in the there and then, in that boisterous street where I was walking, the flashback was a call for carrying out Burns’s proposal.

But that the reverberations of this lesson came like ammunition suggested something else. The memory seemed to resist my free and willing embrace of situational myopia. It appeared to be a defense of history (but whose?), all the while pointing to phenomenology’s caveats of the observer. Addressing these suppositions meant considering art’s various dispositifs, their contexts. And at that point, it was impossible to disregard the genealogies, the places, or the manifestations of the readymade. Least of all, its purported authority in the art field.

I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my chest—the bullet’s effects. Luckily, there was another subway station a few steps away. Before descending to catch the train, I took a good last look at the surroundings. The sun was setting and the light cast on the place, a mandarin hue, a shade of lavender, had softened its atmosphere. It was time to leave. That night, I didn’t suffer insomnia, and in the weeks that followed I’d still sleep only a few hours a day, as usual, but fell into it deeply and without effort. I’d come to realize that if minor literature kept me awake and engaged, theory made me tired and sleepy; imagining was stimulating, but the form of thinking that philosophy demanded was exhausting. Coming to that realization was, in short, the third fact informing the ideas of this text, and to keep in mind as you consider what follows.

For the rest of the summer, I began interspersing novelitas and theory throughout the day. It was then that I began making sense of my fascination with minor literature. I was drawn to its detailed descriptiveness of common matters and things. It came with an unusual emotional articulation that was affecting. The theoretical underpinnings, I’d learn, were quite telling, too. The narratives of these books somehow—quite violently, in fact, and without involving revolt—had overturned values intrinsic to a sense of meritocracy in contemporary life, whether meritocracy was a dominating class, a governing desire, an inherited normative, or a combination of all of these. And if at times social values weren’t entirely upended, their expressed modes of subjectivization put in crisis a type of social Darwinism seemingly embodied in their practice.

These reflections also made me understand a couple of other things. On the one hand, they shed light on the reassurance felt in the aforementioned Google experience: the illusion (or delusion, really) that information and citationality could be perceived as knowledge and comprehension. If this kind of data-access-network chain reaction was at first satisfying, in the long run it was troubling. It was complacent, to say the least; an experience of affiliation passing as one of belonging. On the other hand, the weight that description had in narrative to disclose a context—and through this to comprehend the actions, decisions, and circumstances of a given character and set of principles—put in evidence something else: the distrust, unreliability, even nonexistence of institutions that could or would have a bearing as legitimizing forces that produce meaning or change, let alone provide sense of trust, even safety. I should specify: the characters in these books are mostly disenfranchised, hence the relationship, or lack thereof, with institutionality. In any case, I do not think that these characteristics of minor literature are fiction, even if it relies on such a style. Today, in many places, this is by and large reality.

With this focus on narrative, and specifically on description, it may seem that I’m making an appeal for lyrical or figurative representation in the visual arts. In fact, it is the reliance on the discursive more than the literal in and of art that I would like to settle on instead, here and now, if only for a moment. And so this is what now brings me to the readymade. The induction of the readymade to the art field, a century ago, brought with it a deconstructive potential that evolved into different kinds of artistic and cultural practices. The readymade both required and pointed to an institution—involving a speech act, architecture, policy, conspirators, et cetera—for signification. It acted both as a language and as a problem. That is, the readymade didn’t comprehend a world; a public was invited to comprehend the world that made the readymade mean something beyond its practical workings.

Not long ago, the artist Tania Bruguera said, “We have to put Duchamp’s urinal back in the restroom,” and she did literally that, placing a replica of the quintessential readymade—yes, an oxymoron—in the bathroom of a museum. Her action was a part of a larger pursuit involving cultural institutions, their workforces, and their publics in a more active consideration of the uses of art for the purposes of social justice. As much as I admire and am influenced by Tania’s work in general, I find disconcerting this oft-quoted line of hers and the accompanying action, which supposedly materialized the idea—put it into practice, so to say. I suppose my concern arises partly because it’s too confident and too literal of a statement, and partly because, in the end, it doesn’t do anything but highlight the authority of given history, which comes with its own values and implicates its own probable specialists in the art field—and which, today, is too insignificant of a territory to even bother cultivating if the quest is for justice.

The art field is in essence an unjust place. This doesn’t mean that art is unfair, however exhibitions tend to be. Nor does this imply that cultural institutions needn’t be bothered to mindfully reconsider their role in society and sensibly program to create a more inclusive, sensible, and critical public. The genealogies of the readymade evoke these axioms, shifting the place that art and its institutions had, from being a subject of criticism to becoming in their own right a matter of critique. But alas, the readymade depends on the authority of institutions. And if today these are untrusted, undependable, or nonexistent, which is often the case, then the language and the problem once synthetized by the readymade—of critique—now operates as a figure of speech of a specialized trade, of a professional class.

What appears to be the most ubiquitous readymade today is the discourse about art and its public. Much of the art and exhibitions produced nowadays seem more preoccupied with proving than with evoking. To prove what exactly is unclear, as is for whom the proof is made. The survey format—of accumulated data, objects, narratives, of which in the most part self-referential, art historically, speaking—appear to be overviews distilled of a political motive, examples of access to information, taste, power, rather than positions or even propositions for making sense of… of what else, but sensibility, subjectivities, agency, and just at that an important and challenging task for the art field. The reliance on citationality, for example, with references standing for readymade arguments, is a mannerism of deconstruction, and, as such, an undoing of post-structuralism’s radical proposal. And I say radical because uprootedness was in itself one of the human conditions that it set out to reflect upon in its study of language—of the dispositifs it adopts and reinvents for its expression.

There is much work to do—for artists, curators, institutions, and the public—in picturing our contemporaneity, in making an image of what is yet unseen. There is much work to do for evoking the present, for making something present. I am not implying with this a return to realism, but certainly of coming to terms with reality more so than with readymades. It is a suggestion to recuperate or reinvent a language, an art, with exhibitions, that can offer a sense of belonging and simultaneously critique; that makes sense of our present; that makes visible its black holes, violent movements, false starts, and never-ending delays. In this exercise, as in fiction, this may counter-intuitively overturn the values of a misleading meritocracy that increasingly governs our field, which in the process closes it. And it may help us to more intelligently resist the impending technocracy looming on the horizon. With those dreams in mind, I went to sleep and woke up the next morning to find that some of these had already been realized. I was simply unaware. It was just a matter of looking elsewhere or of changing frames—and, in the process, of leaving the readymade where it belongs: in the past.