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?
In Duchamp's notes from the Green Box he makes reference to one
element, namely, a succession "[of a group] of various facts"
that seem to depend on each other under "certain laws." He
wants to determine the conditions which bring about the instantaneous
State of Rest (extra-rapid; perhaps a photographic exposure; an indexical
mark or trace) - that which brings a sudden halt to this succession
of interdependent various facts. This accord (agreement/conformity)
is between then, this State of Rest (a particular) and a choice of possibilities
(authorised and determined by these certain laws). Here, as elsewhere,
the thinly veiled language of photography and other physical-indexical
processes is apparent in Duchamps notes. This much has already been
noted by Duchamp scholars.
In another note from The Green Box Duchamp re-frames the problem
in a slightly different way. Here, what was also previously an allegorical
appearance has also become an allegorical "reproduction."
What remains unchanged in this other note is that the required proof
is still the isolation of "the sign of accordance."
A third re-framing of the problem by Duchamp - again from The Green
Box - takes an algebraic turn: he writes a sort of ur-formula:
Here "a" is the instantaneous State of Rest or extra-rapid
exposition (or exposure), whilst "b" is the (or a) choice
of possibilities. Duchamp makes a point in his notes here to the effect
that this ratio of "a" over "b" is not given by
a resultant (say) "c," but by the sign (the horizontal bar)
that separates "a" and "b." This is effectively
the sign of his pursuit..."look for it." (Fig.
Deluxe edition of
the Green Box, 1934
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
Some speculations - hopefully not too idle. Duchamp seems to be searching
for some process, some abstract relation, not dissimilar from the concerns
of classical semiotics(2)
- a theoretical discipline struggling to be born in the years prior
to the First World War via the nineteenth century research and writings
of, for example, William Dwight Whitney in America and Hippolyte Taine
in France. For where can we find a similar set of problems articulated
(almost during the same time)? Look at Ferdinand de Saussure's Course
in General Linguistics(3).
Some of the parallels, at the level of ideas, with Duchamp's writings
from The Green Box, are quite uncanny (as in a kind of
unfamiliarity within familiarity...). The interesting thing here is
that, despite being at the beginning of a new Science of Signs, Saussure's
researches into the workings of language were tinged with a kind of
madness and, in that sense, it makes a comparative study all the more
At the time Duchamp was formulating his ideas for The Large Glass,
it appears untenable that he knew anything of Ferdinand de Saussure's
research. (Saussure wrote very little and published less.) Saussure's
Course, based on the notes of his students, was published posthumously
by Payot in Paris in 1916, but there appears to be no biographical or
documentary evidence that Duchamp ever read the book. However
the "correspondences" were in the air at the time, and it
should be of little surprise that these two thinkers where approaching
similar intellectual projects - albeit from radically different directions.
So Saussure's "sign of accordance"--how did he "look
What follows is a rather sketchy and caricatured version of (a small
part of) Saussure's Course but it will, possibily, go some way
to illustrating some of the similarities in the thinking of these two
very different "researchers."
Because of his dissatisfaction with previous attempts to map out the
specific and detailed contours of a study of language, Saussure set
about the task himself and in doing so focused on what he saw as the
most elemental characteristics. For example, Saussure had to first establish
the building block of his discipline. How did he do this? He started
from an act of speech from a specific spoken sound and as he saw it
its accompanying idea. From this simple coupling, he articulates the
beginning of a new social science.
A language...is a social institution. But it is in various respects
distinct from political, juridical and other institutions. Its special
nature emerges when we bring into consideration a different order of
facts. A language is a system of signs expressing ideas, and hence comparable
to writing, the deaf-and-dumb alphabet, symbolic rites, forms of politeness,
military signals and so on. It is simply the most important of such
systems. It is therefore possible to conceive of a science which studies
the role of signs as part of social life. It would form part of social
psychology, and hence general psychology. We shall call it semiology...(4)
diagram for two-sided psychological entity
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
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)
It is important to remember that what we have here is effectively a
structural relationship between an idea and the mental imprint, if you
like, of that idea's articulation. Although Saussure called the sign
"concrete," in many ways it is actually an abstract construction,
more or less. It, the Saussarian sign, is neither a relation between
a spoken word and its concept nor a thing entirely in the world. As
Saussure says, "A linguistic sign is not a link between a thing
and a name, but between a concept and a sound pattern" and "...[a]
sound pattern is the hearer's psychological impression of a sound..."(8)
Today, these structural features of the sign are known more familiarly.
However, often they are misunderstood as "signifier" (the
Saussurian "concept") and "signified" (the "sound
In the Saussurian view, moreover, the relation between the signifier
and the signified is to a greater or lesser extent unmotivated, conventional
or arbitrary (arbor-tree). I will not go into the rationale for this
relation here but ask for this to be taken--for the purposes of this
short essay--as "given." What this amounts to though is that
the sign has a negative value when it is studied in the context of other
signs (or potential signs) it can only be isolated by what it is not.
Saussure says that. "...language itself is nothing other than a
system of pure values..."(9)
and that, the ultimate law of language is, therefore, dare we say, that
nothing can ever reside in a single term. This is a direct consequence
of the fact that linguistic signs are unrelated to what they designate,
and that therefore "a" cannot designate anything without the
aid of "b" and vice versa. In other words, both have value
only by the differences between them, or neither has value, in any of
its constituents, except through this same network of forever negative
So we have at this point a sign constructed of two conventionally related
components (both psychological) which as a combination have value only
in relation to what the combination is not. It is at this point that
Saussure's Course takes what I would call, an even more Duchampian
turn. Look at this diagram(11)
sign of accordance
Here we have,
effectively, Saussure's illustration of his sign of accordance.(Fig.
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.
Like the cleavage between The Bride and Her Batchelors, the relationship
between the signifier and the signified is, coincidentally, a separation
and a pulling together. Saussure indicates that the two elements
of the linguistic sign are intimately linked.(12)
Elsewhere in the Course, however, Saussure describes the relation
between signifier and signified as mysterious. When it comes to establishing
the nature of the "bar," or the entity, that both separates
and links the two entities of the sign together, Saussure starts to
struggle (we might even say teeter) on the edge of Reason. Prior to
this point in his Course his articulations have largely followed
a form of logic.(13)
Psychologically, setting aside its expression in words, our thought
is simply a vague, shapeless mass. Philosophers and linguists have always
agreed that were it not for signs, we should be incapable of differentiating
any two ideas in a clear and constant way. In itself, thought is like
a swirling cloud where no shape is intrinsically determinate. No ideas
are established in advance, and nothing is distinct, before the introduction
of linguistic structure.
But do sounds, which lie outside this nebulous world of thought, in
themselves constitute entities established in advance? No more than
ideas do. The substance of sound is no more fixed or rigid than that
of thought. It does not offer a ready-made mould, with shapes that thought
must inevitably conform to. It is a malleable material which can be
fashioned in to several parts in order to supply the signals that thought
has need of. So we can envisage the linguistic phenomenon in its entirety
the language, that is as a series of adjoining subdivisions simultaneously
imprinted both on the plane of vague, amorphous thought (A), and on
the equally featureless plane of sound (B).... Thought, chaotic by nature,
is made precise by this process of segmentation. But what happens is
neither a transformation of thoughts into matter, nor a transformation
of sounds into ideas. What takes place is a somewhat mysterious process
by which "thought-sound" evolves into divisions, and a language
takes shape with its linguistic units in between those two amorphous
masses. One might think of it as being like air in contact with water:
changes in atmospheric pressure break up the surface of the water into
a series of divisions, i.e. waves. The correlation between thought and
sound, and the union of the two, is like that.(14)
Saussure is trying to grapple with the problem he has, himself, set
up. For he is struggling, metaphorically, with a strange and mysterious
confluence which, earlier in his notes, was a single fixed line (albeit
one which entertained contrary vectors). We could perhaps go further
and say that Saussure's construction of the sign held within itself
its own critique, and, further, it could be argued that Duchamp was
more aware of this than Saussure. Within The Large Glass the
relationship between the The Bride and Her Bachelors is represented
by three (not one) glass bars which are subject to feeble and faltering
breaches - both electrical and mechanical. In contra-distinction to
Saussure's amorphous "middle term," even Duchamp's middle
has a middle.
of the Large Glass
Brooklyn Museum of Art,
New York, in 1926
The Large Glass repaired,
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.
& 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
Richard Hamilton of Marcel Duchamp's Green Box, trans.
George Heard Hamilton (Stuttgart: Edition Hansjorg Mayer,
1976) unpaginated. All quotes are from this publication unless stated
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 "na´ve") associations from a perspective of Art History/Theory.
See: R.Blakey, "Duchamp and
The Sign," diss., University of Sussex, U.K, 1991.
de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Roy Harris
(London: Duckworth, 1983).
Saussure (London: Fontana Press, 1986), de Saussure quoted, p.52.
de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, 111.
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
the subject here.
1, 4, 5
©2002 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris.
All rights reserved.