R. rO. S. E. Sel. A. Vy

by Roberto Giunti

2c. Self-Reference and Self-Production of Sense

Duchamp's wordplays often have another important characteristic: the self-reference. As a first example let's consider the following:


Si la scie scie la scie

et si la scie qui scie la scie

est la scie qui scie la scie

il y a suissscide metallique.

[If the saw saws the saw

and if the saw sawing the saw

is the saw sawing the saw

then we have metallic sew-cide]

The Effemeridi (March 17th, 1960) states that the passage was composed for an artwork by Jean Tinguely (a happening, we could say) in whose scene an army of saws was originally planned.

The wordplay isn't memorable, but it is particularly useful to introduce what is interesting here, because the image of the saw that saws itself is clearly self-referential. Furthermore, there is the above-discussed element of the proliferation by means of the syllabic repetition (self-construction). Finally, we have at least an amusing suiss-scide, with nearly identical sound of suicide, i.e. a suicide of Swiss (suiss) saws (scie – scide), that Duchamp wrote maybe thinking to the army of saws that move themselves with perfect synchronism (with Swiss precision) until the unaware, dull suicide (self-destruction).

Curiously, Tinguely's happening had unexpectedly the same characteristics of the wordplay: it was self-destructive (and this was expected) but also self-constructive (and this was unexpected). Fanciful machinery, made with each sort of recycled material, had to destroy itself with a fire. At a certain moment, fearing for the possible explosion of an extinguisher because of a sudden breakdown, Tinguely begged for the intervention of the fireman, who, instead, hesitated; when finally the fireman started with his operations, he risked lynching, because the spectators considered his intervention inopportune in the happening context. So, in the interaction of the work and its spectators, an unexpected and quite comic event happened to self-generate.

Let's now return, after this digression, to the self-reference theme in Duchamp's wordplay. He pursues this target with subtle and effective techniques. As examples I shall consider two wordplays, recalling Gould's analysis and developing some further considerations. The first wordplay, is quite simple:


Cessez le chant

­laissez ce chant

[stop the song

leave this song]

Gould observed that swapping the initial consonants (C and L) between the first two words of each line, according to the scheme:




provokes a pleasant auditory chiasmus and, at the semantic level, an inversion in the sense of the sentence. Here I want to underline that each of the two text lines, taken for itself, hasn't any particular value beyond its obvious semantic reference; but a new sense is created by the conjunction of the two sentences because of their internal reciprocal references: that of the auditory chiasmus and that of the sense inversion. In other words, the conjunction produces an added value that goes beyond the pure sum of the semantic value of the sentences. Hence, in the wordplay the whole is superior to the sum of the parts, and the added value is generated because of the internal cross-reference, i.e. this wordplay is self-referential.

The second wordplay, more complex and fascinating, is bilingual (French vs. Latin):


éffacer FAC

assez AC

[erase DO

enough AND]

The word éffacer sounds like a contraction of ef (F) and éffacer (erase); hence it’s meaning is somewhat like: erase the F. Now, putting into effect the command on the same word éffacer (hence a self-referential operation), we obtain acer, whose homophone is assez, i.e. the second French word. Here all would stop, because assez means enough, as if to say: that's enough--all is finished. Here the Latin part comes into play. Applying the same F-deletion to the first Latin word, we pass from FAC (do) to AC (and). The writing is so completed. Notice that each Latin word has a semantic value opposite to the one of the correspondent French word, so that it creates an alternation of orders and countermands, underlined by the language passage. Now we can see the most interesting part--the last word AC (and) implicitly suggests the addition of something. If this thing would be just the previously omitted F, and if we would put into effect the command (like the operations in the passage from the first to the second line) we would obtain efassez FAC, homophone of éffacer FAC. So, we would have a cyclic return to the starting point, in an infinite periodic motion.

In the latter wordplay we can see, with stronger evidence than in the former one, an intrinsic self-reference: the four words, if taken one by one, have a scarce meaning (just their direct semantic reference); but the self-established relations between those words creates an engine that produces new sense. More precisely, the first among the four words contains in itself the germ of the entire machinery, and in the internal relations with the other parts of the system it self-generates a potentially infinite circular motion. Once more, and with greater evidence, the self-reference generates new organization and then new sense.

It is evocative to think that a little jewel like the last wordplay can condense in itself a lot of features not only of several other works, but also of the whole of Duchamp's work. Particularly, the typical Duchampian idea of re-contextualization of his previous works, as for the Stoppages, is intrinsically self-referential, because Duchamp always refers to a previous Duchamp. In the cyclic and recursive reuse without end of similar ideas in newer and newer contexts, there arise qualitative leaps, those generalizations, and added values or, as Bateson says, that hierarchy of logical types that make his work and his thought progress (155). Each single element of his inextinguishable mental activity contains in nuce, the essential germs of the overall features; each element of his production potentially contains a quantity of information sufficient to re-run through (if not to recreate) his whole production, exactly as in living organisms, where each cell contains the genetic information potentially able to regenerate the whole organism. >>Next

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