Monday, February 25, 2013

A thought out of time

It's been a hectic time recently. Work, professional conference, travel in the middle of the academic quarter. All of which means that I have not taken care to give room in my mind for things of a higher order: that is, higher than the PowerPoint lecture I have to give tomorrow, higher than the midterm I have to make for students, higher than the documents I have to review for the next faculty meeting. But what does it mean, things of a higher order? For religious persons, it probably means something like spiritual truth. (Yes, it is Lent, so I am being doubly bad for not giving room to things of a higher order.) The question is thus easier - and therefore not as much fun - to answer for religious persons than it is for secular individuals. What does it mean for the secular person to give room in her or his mind for things of a higher order?

I was teaching Duchamp today. In 1913, without having any notion of creating a work of art or a "readymade," Duchamp mounted a single bicycle wheel on top of a kitchen stool. In so doing he destroyed the stool: it could no longer be sat on. He also destroyed the wheel: it could only turn in vain instead of serving as an instrument of locomotion. This new entity amused Duchamp; it also calmed him. He compared to the experience of watching it turn in his studio to the experience of watching flames in the fireplace. Without the two being the least alike in visual resemblance, the flames in the fireplace and the bicycle readymade had in common their timelessness.

What a strange thing to say: The Duchamp bicycle wheel is timeless like the flames dancing in the fireplace. One may imagine easily the timelessness of the flames: most likely the fire did for the cavemen a similar number as the one it does for us now. But the Duchamp is a distinctly twentieth-century invention. In retrospect, Duchamp had invented the first work of conceptual art. What can this possibly have in common with the timelessness of the flame?

One way of thinking about timelessness is that it is eternal, forever unchanging. Another way is to think about it as out of time, in the sense of having stepped out of ordinary time, no matter for how short or for how long. One must therefore imagine the wheel spinning on top of the kitchen stool as something that profoundly changes the way we think about movement in relation to time. In ordinary time, the speed of the spinning wheel corresponds to the speed in which the bicycle carries us from point A to point B. The faster the wheel spins, the shorter the time it takes for us to get to our destination. Movement in this case is utilitarian, or interested. We have an interest in how fast or how slow the wheel spins. By mounting the wheel on top of the kitchen stool, Duchamp effectively disinterested it. Now, the wheel no longer carries anything. Nothing is at stake in it anymore. Whether it spins fast, slowly or not at all has no consequence in life whatsoever. It becomes like the flame in the fireplace: whether it flickers this way or other, whether it cracks now or then, it makes no difference to the fire as a whole. Above all, the wheel is not going anywhere no matter how fast or slow it spins. The stool is stationary: it holds the wheel up but also grounds it. The entity therefore has the effect of a turtle or beetle turned over on its back: its legs frantically moving in vain.

Yet there is nothing frantic about Duchamp's bicycle wheel. Duchamp's own view of it is that of an affectionate detachment: he smiles instead of despairs over the finitude of the wheel. Does Duchamp smile because he thinks the universe is closed like a chess game, but enigmatic because of the infinity of moves that can nevertheless be had within a strict set of inviolable rules? Probably. But I think he is smiling also because he found a way to defeat interested-ness; he found a way out of time. This is why the object is ultimately a calming object: it is the paradox of a static movement or a moving inertia that suggests the uselessness of all efforts to move, to beat time.

Paradoxically, it is the way out of time that allows Duchamp to make some of the most important interventions in twentieth-century art; by stepping out of time, he makes history. How so? In an increasingly utilitarian world, we might entertain the counter-intuitive idea that only the non-utilitarian has real value. For instance, what I am writing here has no scholarly value (probably). I will not publish it; I will not use it advance my career; I will not need it to demonstrate that I am learned about Duchamp (I am not). But for the very reason of its disinterestedness (other than that it amuses me, distracts me, relaxes me), what I am saying this evening about Duchamp may have more interest in the long run, more interest than my scholarly publications. Interest for whom, for what? The fact that I cannot answer these questions is already suggesting to me that I may be right.