Fasten your Seatbelts
as we Prepare for our Nude Descending

by Edward D. Powers

a language that will match how he experiences things
-- and things only, not people. -- Bruno Bettelheim

Rites of Passage: s / he

click to enlarge
Figure 30
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917
Figure 31
Constantin Brancusi, Princess X, 1916
Further elaborating the domain of the "phallesse"--of such formidably phallic she-males as "La Broyeuse de chocolat" and "Le Pendu Femelle" / "La Guêpe" (femelle)--Duchamp's Fountain (1917) (Fig. 30) analogously redesignates and, in the process, exactly reverses what would very much appear to be "un pissoir" (or, otherwise, "un urinoir"), instead, as "une fontaine". Indeed, Kermit Champa asks, "Phallic? Vaginal? It was a man-made female object for exclusive male functions. Yet, who could characterize it precisely?"(43) Nevertheless Fountain can perhaps be characterized as a "female object" in the same sense that Duchamp might have described the similarly organic lines of Brancusi's phallic totem, of only the prior year, Princess X (1916) (Fig. 31). For Beatrice Wood, indeed, Fountain was not only the "Madonna of the Bathroom",(44) but also comparable to "a Brancusi, with curved lines of genuine sensitivity",(45) a formal logic perhaps informed by the fact that Fountain and a version of Princess X were both slated to appear at the 1917 New York Independents exhibition.(46) But Fountain is also a "female object" according to another of Duchamp's randy quips: "On n'a que: pour femelle la pissotière et on en vit" (DDS 37; cf. WMD 23). For those who easily recall the days of disco, the gist is fairly clear--"I've got what you want; you've got what I need":


on n'a que = on a queue: we've got dicks

et on en vit = et on envie: and we want [what they've got]

(Or, "where there's pussy there's prick" ["où il y a Chaliapine"],(47) as Duchamp elsewhere declares.) Lost in between what "we've got" and what "we want", however, "pour femelle / la pissotière" plays by an entirely different set of rules. Although I might as well be quoting Freud's infamous remarks in his lecture on "Femininity",(48) yet here too the problem--as in "Le Pendu Femelle" / "La Guêpe" (femelle)--is "femelle". Like its closest English translation--which is not really the "female" gender, but rather the zoological "bitch"--"femelle" frankly varies from catwalk to dogshow, for exactly which reason Flaubert counsels its use "only in speaking of animals".(49) No less problematical, however, is the second and likewise "femelle" term: "la pissotière". Even so, "We've got dicks, but all we've got for broads are open holes, and we want them"--taking both "femelle" and "la pissotière" as crudely reductive of male desire to the desire for any available opening--doesn't quite work.

For, behind the obviously problematic view of feminine sexuality inherent in "pour femelle / la pissotière", the more fundamental problem is Duchamp's intent to assimilate the meaningfulness of gender in its psycho-sexual sense to its meaninglessness--or only circumscribed, even binary meaningfulness--in any linguistic sense.(50) By which I mean, why are farmers, pirates and poets all in the conventionally feminine form in Latin, although grammatically they are masculine, and in Rome they were paradigmatically men? This is the typically aesthetic question to which Duchamp likewise reduces gender, most obviously, when he explains to Cabanne, "If it isn't a literary movement, it's a woman; it's the same thing".(51) At this grammatical-as-ontological level, by simultaneously reversing both the flow and the gender of "un pissoir", instead, as "une fontaine", Duchamp similarly alienates it from its expressly male identification by the simple and--like the rose of Shakespeare and Stein--entirely arbitrary process of renaming it. So, too, in "Le Pendu Femelle" ["the female of the species which is male and hangs"], "La Guêpe" (femelle) and its phallic stinger, as well as the Chocolate Grinderess and its phallic cabriole "legs", even this process of renaming is, itself, self-consciously marked and, in this sense, not unlike the use of "she" as the indefinite personal pronoun, yet definitely to raise the issue of why "he" is otherwise assumed. Duchamp's early experience with the failure of English, by contrast, to gender its articles might even explain the artist's otherwise inexplicable preoccupation with no sooner arriving in New York than replacing each occurrence of a gender indefinite "the" with an even more indefinite "*" in his title text of 1915: The.

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Figure 32
Marcel Duchamp, Nine Malic Molds, 1914-15
Nevertheless, the Nine Male-ish Molds (1914-15) (Fig. 32)--or "Moules Mâliques [Mâlic (?)]" (DDS 76; WMD 51), as Duchamp calls them--are perhaps the culminating example of all of this grammatical-as-ontological play. Although both grammatically ["un moule"] and descriptively ["mâlique"] masculine, their vessel-like form is gender ambivalent: whether as uterine-like molds to condense and cast gas (the enigmatic purpose Duchamp assigns them in the Large Glass), or as dress forms whose typically male costumes make (i.e. mold) the man. Yet, if "femelle" carries the double signifying burden of "bitch", "mâle"--although obviously the foil to "Le Pendu Femelle" / "La Guêpe" (femelle) and "pour femelle / la pissotière"--carries no such double connotation. As applied to the species, it means male; as applied to men, manly. Rather, Duchamp descriptively emasculates the Molds, not as "mâle", but rather as "mâlique" or "mâlic" (i.e. "male-ish") more as we might speak of clothes making the drag king than the man. Like Rrose Sélavy--the "female-ish" dress form, which is often confused with an alter ego (as if there were any ego in any of this, in the first place)--the dress-form Molds similarly identify the constructedness of language and of dress to that of gender more generally. Indeed, if "mâlique" constitutes an invented, feminine form of the adjective "mâle" (in the sense that "-ique" tends to form the feminine), only further confusing matters, "mâlic" restores Duchamp's neologism to an equally invented, male-ish form (-"ic") --albeit one which is, itself, derived from an invented, female-ish form (again, "-ique").(52) Exactly confounding logic, then, we have "Le Pendu Femelle" / "La Guêpe" (femelle), which are clearly insertive, yet are located in the upper register of the Large Glass: the so-called "Bride's Domain". On the other hand, we have the Male-ish Molds which by definition are receptive, yet are classed among the elements of its lower register: the so-called "Bachelor Apparatus". With the phallic "Bride" on top, lording it over her receptive "Bachelors" at bottom (cf. DDS 58; WMD 39), feminine and masculine in their psycho-sexual no less than their linguistic sense--rather than meaningfully contingent, historical and political, coordinates--become meaninglessly binary axes, and these, along an overarching grid of indifference.

Circles are straight. They are a straight line. -- "Joey" (53)

Becoming Full Circle: From PiRr to πR2

Like the "circularity" of the Bicycle Wheel, Coffee Mill and Chocolate Grinder -- or the tautological "I" they posit, whose final determinant is only the "not-I" to which their onanism opposes itself -- clad not only in the black leather of a Fresh Widow, but also in "pi", the very figure of the circle, Rrose Sélavy embodies an alternative (meta)physical trajectory. As Duchamp describes her:

...en 6 pi qu'habillarrose Sélavy

= [Fr]ancis Picabia, Rrose Sélavy

= in sex, [it is] "pi" that clothes eros, such is life(54)

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Figure 33
Marcel Duchamp, An Original Revolutionary Faucet: Mirrorical Return, 1964
In this sense, however, revolution no longer describes a circular process of onanism, but rather a rotational process of sexual involution--no longer a going around and around, but rather a turning inside-out--as in Duchamp's engravings, Mirrorical Return (1964) (Fig. 33). Here, above a line drawing of Fountain, the artist writes "an original revolutionary faucet / 'mirrorical return'"; and below it, "a faucet which stops running when we're not listening". In some sense, the logic of a faucet "mirrorically returned" as a urinal is only a variation on the circular theme with which we are already familiar. Thus, the named, but not reproduced (effluent) faucet appears in Mirrorical Return only by way of opposition to what it is not: the (influent) urinal, which Duchamp does reproduce, as a line drawing of Fountain. But Duchamp has also found a new binary axis--similar to "le" / "la", "mâle" / "femelle", etc.--with only circumscribed (if any) meaningfulness, by means of which to reclassify and once again to desublimate sexual identity as a sort of user's manual--"insert tab A into slot B" --for them for whom neither hunger nor love moves the world. Duchamp's new binary axis exactly continues his earlier play on "mâle" / "femelle", now, as plumbing fixtures--or "Lazy Hardware" as they are sometimes called (DDS 154; WMD 106)--which are indeed classified as insertive ["tuyau mâle"] or receptive ["tuyau femelle"], respectively.(55) Neither is the "mirrorical return" Duchamp stages of "pour femelle / la pissotière" at all unexpected: "pour mâle / le robinet"!(56)

Yet what is "original revolutionary", as the engravings boldly declare, either describes a faucet caught in the pleonastic grip of advertising or one caught, instead, in a "revolutionary"--in the sense of rotational--process, which is itself "original": a sort of sexual spin-cycle, according to which his sex goes in, her sex comes out; so too faucets go in, urinals come out. Thus, rather than return Fountain to where it began--as he does the "handle" of the Coffee Mill, completing its circuit of (de)tumescence--Duchamp brings Fountain to where it never was, yet in some parallel sense always is. He rotates it through the "fourth dimension", which exactly accounts for its sexual involution, with what was an insertive / effluent faucet "mirrorically returned" as a receptive / influent urinal.(57) Indeed, that the faucet doesn't actually appear in Mirrorical Return is precisely Duchamp's (fourth-dimensional) point. For urinal and faucet, in this sense, are not analogous objects, but rather are alternate manifestations of the self-same object. At any given time and place, only one aspect of its essentially dyadic nature is in esse--the other aspect, by contrast, is always in potentia, and awaits the object's rotation through the fourth dimension. For this reason, Duchamp elsewhere compares the process of "mirrorical return" to the effect achieved by so-called "Wilson-Lincoln" diagrams (DDS 93; WMD 65). Seen from the left, these accordion-pleated diagrams appear to be Wilson; only at another time and place--a few seconds later, say, now seen from the right--do they appear to be Lincoln. In this way, the object has no absolute priority of identity--whether Wilson or Lincoln, faucet or urinal--but only a relative identity, a pure sexual (ex)change value, whose coordinates need include not only a place (our three dimensions) but also a time (the fourth dimension, according to popular understanding). Although the "Wilson-Lincoln" diagram is destined to remain among the Large Glass' definitively unfinished elements, yet the only difference between it, a faucet "mirrorically returned" as a urinal, and Duchamp's related researches into the fourth-dimensional field of sexual involution--his 1950s erotic casts which we might never more accurately describe as "invaginated"(58)--is one of medium: e.g. Feuille de vigne femelle (1950) (Fig. 34), in which her trough returns as a peak, if not strictly speaking his peak; Coin de chasteté (1954) (Fig. 35), in which a positive form and its negative are indissolubly elided; even Objet-Dard (1951) (Fig. 36), in which Eve's rib, from Etant Donnés, instead returns as Adam's (d)art.(59) No differently than Duchamp reversibly genders sexual identity along the axes of "le" / "la", "mâle" / "femelle", he thus "engenders" the figure-ground problem: as a question not only of three-dimensional versus invaginated / fourth-dimensional space, but also of real versus virtual space, to which I myself now turn. >>Next

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Figure 34
Figure 35
Figure 36
Marcel Duchamp, Feuille de vigne femelle [Female Fig Leaf], 1950/61
Marcel Duchamp, Coin de chasteté [Wedge of Chastity], 1954/63
Marcel Duchamp, Objet-Dard [Dart-Object], 1951/1962



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42. Bettelheim, The Empty Fortress, p. 241.

43. Kermit Champa, "Charlie was like that", Artforum, vol. 12, no. 7 (March 1974): 58. Following Hopkins' analysis of Fountain in terms of a proto-fetishistic / homosexual masculinity, Franklin anthropomorphizes it, as turned on its side and photographed by Stieglitz, into a full-blown Tea-Room Daddy -- and its "hollow, porcelain protrusion", in particular, into a "bare, thick, round organ". See Paul Franklin, "Object Choice: Marcel Duchamp's Fountain and the Art of Queer Art History", Oxford Art Journal, vol. 23, no. 1 (2000): 26, 33. See also Hopkins, "De-Essentializing Duchamp", p. 278; "Men Before the Mirror", p. 319. Yet, by Franklin's own anti-essentialist logic, this "hollow, porcelain protrusion" is a priori neither phallic nor clitoral / vaginal, neither effluent nor influent.

44. See William Camfield, "Marcel Duchamp's Fountain: Its History and Aesthetics in the Context of 1917", in Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century, ed. Rudolf Kuenzli, Francis Naumann (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T., 1990) 74, citing Beatrice Wood, I Shock Myself (1985).

45. Beatrice Wood, "Marcel", in Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century, ed. Rudolf Kuenzli, Francis Naumann (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T., 1990) 14. In this sense, the Ready-mades indeed constitute a very specific sort of object, one in which the immanence of form and function is as atavistic, even, as the bodily functions to which they often refer. For, however closely allied Duchamp's and Picabia's interest in mechanomorphic imagery, when Duchamp undertakes the Ready-mades, he doesn't so much shift gears as abandon them altogether. How very easy, for example, to imagine Picabia's spark-plug girl -- Portrait d'une jeune fille américaine dans l'état de nudité (1915) -- as part of the Large Glass. How very difficult, by contrast, to imagine a real spark-plug among the ostentatiously low-tech Ready-mades.

46. See William Camfield, "Marcel Duchamp's Fountain: Aesthetic Object, Icon, or Anti-Art?", in The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp, ed. Thierry de Duve (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T., 1991) 152. Picabia's cover for the June 1917 issue of 391 -- depicting a propeller, but entitled Ane [Ass] -- thus suggests that, whatever the New York Independents choose to make of "Fontaine", ultimately, "[ils se] Font Ane[s]" = "[they] Make Asses [of themselves]," perhaps referring to "Buridan's Ass", and the problems of choice and free will. Cf. Marcel Duchamp, Notes, ed. and trans. Paul Matisse (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1980) note 101. Picabia's propeller, moreover, captures not only the "circularity" of the Ready-mades, but also their Brancusi-like resemblance to modern sculpture. Cf. DDS 242; WMD 160, where Duchamp chastens Brancusi: "Painting's washed up. Who'll do anything better than that propeller? Tell me, can you do that?" See Ades, Cox, Hopkins, Marcel Duchamp, p. 69.

47. Duchamp, Notes, note 265.

48. See Mary Anne Doane, "Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator", Screen, vol. 23, nos. 3-4 (Sept.-Oct. 1982): 74-77.

49. Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard and Pécuchet with "The Dictionary of Received Ideas" (1881), trans. Alban Krailsheimer, Robert Baldick (N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1976) 305. See also Jones, "Equivocal Masculinity", p. 204 (n. 82).

50. Cf. Spector, Surrealist Art and Writing, p. 226 (n. 70), where he discusses the French tendency to invest grammar with ontological significance; Jean Clair, "Sexe et topologie", in Marcel Duchamp: abécédaire: approches critiques, ed. Jean Clair (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1977) 59, where he describes Duchamp's works in terms of "a sort of naive, ontological experience of mathematical ideality, where sexual differentiation is abolished" (my translation).

51. Duchamp, Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, p. 102.

52. Robert Lubar has pointed out to me that "une moule" [a mussel (feminine)] is French argot for "cunt". Like a "clock" which doubles as a female-ish / phallic "pendulum" ("Le Pendu Femelle"), so too the Molds, then, are a sort of male-ish "cunt".

53. Bettelheim, The Empty Fortress, p. 254.

54. Amelia Jones, Postmodernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp (N.Y.: Cambridge University, 1994) 287 (n. 35). For variations on Duchamp's pun, see DDS 151, 159; Duchamp, Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, p. 65.

55. Cf. Craig Adcock, "Duchamp's Eroticism: A Mathematical Analysis", in Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century, ed. Rudolf Kuenzli, Francis Naumann (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T., 1990) 153.

56. On the "erotic homology between a spigot and a penis", see Franklin, "Object Choice", p. 47 (n. 114).

57. In sum, a round-trip ticket to the fourth dimension buys the ticket-holder a doubly inside-out and left-right reversed welcome home. See Adcock, "Duchamp's Eroticism", p. 149. Although unobservable in the case of bilaterally symmetric plumbing fixtures, the potential for left-right reversal exactly accounts for the Tu m' corkscrew (on which, see n. 69, herein). On the eroticism of Duchamp's fourth-dimensional imagery, see Adcock, "Duchamp's Eroticism", pp. 149-67. On Duchamp's fourth-dimensional imagery more generally, see Craig Adcock, "Geometrical Complication in the Art of Marcel Duchamp", Arts Magazine, vol. 58, no. 5 (Jan. 1984): 105-9; Linda Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidian Geometry in Modern Art (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1983) 117 ff.

58. In medical jargon, the difference is exactly between her "invaginated" sex and his "external" one, which Duchamp identifies to the fourth-dimensional process of sexual-as-spatial involution more generally. Indeed, in Duchamp's fourth-dimensional imagery, "vagina and penis lose... all distinctive character". Clair, "Sexe et topologie", p. 58 (my translation). See also Dalia Judovitz, Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit (Berkeley: University of California, 1995) 212-19; Hellmut Wohl, "Duchamp's Etchings of the Large Glass and The Lovers", in Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century, ed. Rudolf Kuenzli, Francis Naumann (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T., 1990) 180. Cf. Jones, Postmodernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp, p. 91, citing Ecke Bonk, Marcel Duchamp: The Box in a Valise (1989).

59. On the biblical referent of the rib imagery, see Adcock, "Duchamp's Eroticism", p. 162, citing Francis Naumann. In an especially felicitous turn on the "mâlic" molds, Clair would conversely describe Duchamp's erotic casts as "femâlic". Clair, "Sexe et topologie", p. 56.


Figs. 30, 32-36
©2003 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.