|A Note on Duchamp/Saussure and the Mysterious Sign of Accordance|
|by Harvey, Glenn|
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The Large Glass,
on the evidence of Marcel Duchamp's own notes from The Green
Box, is the result of an attempt at a kind of pataphysical proof.
Duchamp is looking to demonstrate that it is possible to isolate what
he calls in his notes--"the sign of accordance"(1)
(quite specifically). This is ultimately Duchamp's aim and the test
of whether his scientific experiment has been successful. What are the
factors at work in this attempt? What are the conceptual tools at his
disposal? The sign of accordance between what elements?
And here also he
writes a curious thing: as soon as "a" and "b" are
known they become new units and lose their relative value. In other
words, as soon as a and b become - somehow - concrete or qualitative,
they lose their previously held abstract quantative character. Here
again Duchamp rehearses the refrain of looking for the sign of accordance
or rather of something else related to the concept of accordance (perhaps
parallelism or something else?). Where else might we find a similar
So here we have Saussure's momentous founding of a new social science. Its most elemental structure, according to Saussure, is "The Sign" which he illustrates thus(5) : (Fig. 2)
we have here is three ways of picturing what Saussure called a "two-sided
psychological entity." (6)
In this diagram he is using (appropriately enough for a comparison with
Duchamp and The Large Glass) an example of the word "arbor"
where the concept or idea of "tree" sits above what Saussure
calls the "sound pattern." This "concept" has a
relation with its "sound pattern" which involves a kind of
two-way communication across the line that "divides" the two
psychological entities. At one point in his notes Saussure also compares
this relation to the two sides of a sheet of paper. Recto (say)
is the idea or thought and verso being the sound pattern. "Just
as it is impossible to take a pair of scissors and cut one side of paper
without at the same time cutting the other, so it is impossible in a
language to isolate sound from thought or thought from sound...Linguistics,
then, operates along this margin, where sound and thought meet."(7)
Here we have,
effectively, Saussure's illustration of his sign of accordance.
For in this diagram what haunts his ideas on the sign is the nature
of the relation between the signifier (A) and the signified (B). However,
look at that gap! A shifting nothingness sliced by the temporal relation
with other signs. Moreover these "other signs" are never really
present as such. What is more, a substitution of a form of ideogramme
for a phonetic text derived from the Greek alphabet brings more clearly
into focus the "vulgar" comparison with not only The Large
Glass, but also, perhaps, begins to show the limitation of the Saussurian
sign--one which (albeit unwittingly) I believe Duchamp was questioning.
Duchamp's Large Glass was broken and repaired the few photographs
of it show that the division between The Bride and Her Bachelors was
not as distinct as it is now. The repair of the two sections and the
subsequent reframing have given The Large Glass a visual heaviness
that it did not have when it was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926.
4 & 5) Then, although the heavy wooden
frame almost semed to threaten to crush the work it seemed to maintain
its visual lightness and physical integrity. Now of course, the heavy
framework more brutally (but only visually) separates The Bride and,
her fantasies, Her Bachelors. By 1936 Duchamp's interests had moved
on although to developments of very much related matters.
Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even: a typgraphic
2. In an unpublished Master of Arts dissertation, Richard Blakey, taking a "deconstructivist approach," relates the machinations of Duchamp's Large Glass via Saussure to Derrida - in his Of Grammatology - and Derrida's critique of Saussure's concept of the sign in Chapter 2 of that book. Here I am just trying to draw out a few (perhaps "naïve") associations from a perspective of Art History/Theory. See: R.Blakey, "Duchamp and The Sign," diss., University of Sussex, U.K, 1991.
exist within the text of the Course, and there are a few (whether
due to the inconsistencies in Saussure's exposition, interpretation
by Saussure's students, or his translator), they are not
Figs. 1, 4, 5