terça-feira, 19 de agosto de 2014

Avant-Garde Machines, Experimental Systems by Louis Armand

The "modern" conception of the machine issues from the Industrial Revolution—itself a term for a disparate and
uncoordinated tendency towards mass mechanisation, prefigured by the Renaissance, but only realised in practice from the eighteenth century onwards — and this conception is thus also tied to the emergence of a particular type of scientific discourse, one in which the speculative or theoretical disposition is increasingly linked to experimental and technological verification (or what Karl Popper has called "falsifiability" as the criterion of empirical statements in science).[1] This trend is particularly evident, for example, in the genealogy of ideas and practices linking the early time-and- motion studies of Etienne Jules Marey, Frederick Taylor, and Lillian and Frank Gilbreth, to the advent of mechanised production and Ford's automated assembly-line. It is a genealogy that draws together the self-regulating free market ideology of Adam Smith and the regulated efficiencies and division of labour that characterise Taylorism, thus giving rise to the various "contradictorily coherent" mechanisms and structural "crises" of the contemporary global economy. However, mechanisation acquires a global significance in another sense during the latter stages of the Industrial Revolution—in that it is in terms of discursive structures, recursion and complex relations of environmental causality, that ideas of mechanisation come to predominate in the work of key nineteenth century thinkers like Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and C.S. Pierce. (In the twentieth century, this increasingly global, discursive view has been most widely represented in the work of Norbert Wiener, Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan and more recently Bernard Stiegler.)

Initially, industrial-era machines were regarded as entirely predictive—as mindless prostheses of the human will-to- progress — their operations determined according to a strict set of protocols. Yet already in the 1830s Charles Babbage—in his study On the Economy of Machinery and Manufacture—had recognised ways in which programmable mechanical procedures might give rise to recursive structures capable of what, in cybernetics, is called auto-poiesis. That is to say, of self-programming, learning machines, or so-called "artificial intelligence." This in turn called into question such received philosophical pieties as the nature-technics dichotomy, or the separation of mind from matter, and consequently exposed a need to accommodate effects of unpredictability in mechanical and computing systems, and indeed in the understanding of all dynamic systems, thus transforming a dominant concept of the nineteenth century—systematicity—from one of totalisation to one of radical indeterminacy.

This move away from positivism and the idea of the machine as a prosthesis of the human idea, towards a conception of a general mechanistics underwriting material, discursive systems—from machine metaphor to semiotic mechanism—likewise implies a transformation of what is meant by terms like mechanism, mechanistics and machine, as no longer signalling a type of industrial-era "contraption," but rather—as Peirce suggests — any binary relation mediated by a third element.[2] Or in other words, what we might call a pro­gramme, as the underwriting condition for any concept of agency, operation, or event-state of semiosis. (Importantly, this transformation has also come to effect the way in which we conceive language and sign systems generally, such that today we can speak of phenomena of semiosis as arising in any dynamic system whatsoever—in a state that would formerly have been bracketed-off from the realm of signifiability as a state of base materiality or "mindless mechanistics.")
At the same time, the discursive aspect of mechanisation— and of technology per se—begins to reveal itself as being other than the locus of a continuous historical progress, and instead as an "agent" of discontinuity and anachronism. In its orientation towards a certain futurity vested in the technological object,[3] semio-mechanisation articulates a perpetual movement of supercession; a breach in the "teleological hypothesis"[4] of historical discourse that henceforth describes a repetition automatism, as Freud says, wherein the historical relation is constantly refigured as one of ambivalence.[5] This ambivalence is firstly experienced as a disjointedness in the "time of production," as a figuring of the present as anachrony: the constant deferral of the to-come which mirrors the deferral of gratification and the alienation-effect of commodification, as described by Marx. Moreover, this movement of deferral is perpetuated as a condition, not as a departure from the norm or as a perversion of a teleological (ends-means) system of production-consumption. With the advent of industrial "modernity," historical periodisation thus cedes to a machinic periodicity; just as in Nietzsche the history concept cedes to a mode of eternal recurrence.

This counter-historical movement can be regarded as one of the defining characteristics of what has been called the avant­garde, whose claim to being somehow before its time ties it, in often unanticipated ways, to an inherent "anachronism" of political-economy and the experimental sciences. Moreover, this movement accomplishes itself in a two-fold way, since its orientation towards the unrealised and the "unpresentable" at the limits of received knowledge is always accompanied by a dependency upon previous forms of representation and conceptualisation in order to formulate, precisely, an idea of what the limits of knowledge in fact are, and what the "unpresentable" might be.[6] John Dewey argues this in his 1958 book Experience and Nature, linking the anachronism of conceptual dependency to the constructivism of "deviating from a norm."

"In the history of man," Dewey writes, "the individual characteristics of mind were regarded as deviations from the normal, and as dangers against which society had to protect itself. Hence the long rule of custom, the rigid conservatism, and the still existing regime of conformity and intellectual standardisation." As a consequence, the development of modern science—or of modernity per se—began only when "there was recognised in certain technical fields a power to utilise variations as the starting points of new observations, hypotheses and experiments. The growth of the experimental as distinct from the dogmatic habit of mind is due to the increased ability to utilise variations for constructive ends instead of suppressing them."7

Henri Lefebvre has attempted to locate the ambivalence of this two-fold status of anachrony and unpresentability—and of the experimental and the constructive—in terms of what he calls the antithesis of "modernism" and "modernity," as contrary aspects of the so-called avant-garde moment. According to Lefebvre, modernism designates "the consciousness which successive ages, periods and generations had of themselves; thus modernism consists of phenomena of consciousness, of triumphalist images and projections of self." While modernity, is understood as "the beginnings of a reflective process, a more-or-less advanced attempt at critique and autocritique, a bid for knowledge. We contact it in a series of texts and documents which bear the mark of their era and yet go beyond the provocation of fashion and the stimulation of novelty. Modernity differs from modernism just as a concept which is being formulated in society differs from social
"avant-garde" always involves a notion of insufficiency and the task of defining the very totality whose limits it would test. As William Blake wrote, in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "Enough, or too much!"
7       John Dewey, Experience and Nature (New York: Dover, 1958) xiv. phenomena themselves, just as a thought differs from actual events."[7]

In a more or less similar gesture, Jean-Frangois Lyotard, locates modernity in terms of a certain discursive ambivalence that he defines as a post-effect in advance of the fact, as it were. For Lyotard, it is the "unpresentable" ambivalence of the relation of thought and event—as the normative object of an institutional exclusion (the limits of knowledge, the thinkable or "historical consciousness") — which defines a fundamental aspect of what he consequently refers to as the postmodern. In Lyotard's view:
A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by pre-established rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgement, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done. Hence the fact that the work and text have the character of an event; hence also, they always come too late for their author, or, what amounts to the same thing, their being put into work, their realisation (mise en auvre) always begins too soon. Post modern would have to be understood according to the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo).[8]
It is in this paradox (of future-anteriority) that the condition of "the machine" resides—that is to say, as a mode of enactment contiguous with the "unpresentable" — and according to which it describes a systematicity which is at once recursive and "experimental." We are concerned here, in other words, with a notion of mechanism linked to a certain performativity; to the performance of operations, above all sign-operations, and the recursive nature of the relation between such performances and what is called a "programme." That is to say, we are concerned with a logic of representation and of representability, insofar as the experimental points beyond itself to a mode of understanding that is "without model."

Hence, for Lyotard, the postmodern "would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable."[9] In this way, "a work can only become modern if it is first post modern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant."[10] This is what Lefebvre describes, vis-a-vis the reifications and mechanical ambivalence of such a constant "nascent state," as the "idea of cyclical regularity of change, and of change as a norm."[11]
In a lecture delivered in Turin in November 1967, entitled "Cybernetics and Ghosts," Italo Calvino argued that it is primarily through stochastic and recursive processes of anticipation, rupture and reintegration, that previously unapparent forms are arrived at and consequently acquire a normative status; that new combinations of elements are obtained, as Calvino says, "through the combinatorial mechanism itself, independently of any search for meaning or effect on any other level." In place of a continuous linear progression, the "future-anteriority" of experimentation functions by discontinuity, readjustment, and contingency within what are nevertheless definable as "procedural constraints" or structural norms—whether or not these are recognised, as Lyotard says, in the form of "pre-established rules," or methods of prediction and production, or are only recognised and recognisable after the fact. Once normalised, however, such contingencies then become "charged," according to Calvino, "with an unexpected meaning or unforeseen effects which the conscious mind would not have arrived at deliberately: an unconscious meaning in fact, or at least the premonition of an unconscious meaning."[12] Such outcomes define what Dewey termed the "constructive ends" of experimentation, whose contingencies nevertheless define a limit-effect of ambivalence in the discourse of knowledge, for example, and in which the ego—as Jacques Lacan says—is accorded the status of something like a mechanism, rather than that of an inaugurating intentionality or "will."

In relating the experimental to the experiential aspect of "consciousness" — or the "imaginary function of the ego" as the outward manifestation of unconscious agency—Lacan identifies in the "paradoxical expression thinking machine" the co­implication of structural contingency and structural necessity in defining so-called acts of language. "The paradox of consciousness," Lacan argues, is that "it both has to be there, and not be there."[13] This paradox reappears elsewhere, in a more insistent form, in the discourse surrounding the question of modernity in philosophy and the arts, above all with regard to the status of language in its relation to the "real." Still in February 1955, Lacan was able to write: "The big question for the human sciences now is—what is language?"[14]

Confronted with an increasing number of ellipses in the predictions of scientific method (under the fading constellation of Cartesianism), and with the consequent problem of the status of language in conditioning and constituting the experience of the knowable, more and more writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century had already began to ask about the definitional character of reality, and the emerging supposition that "behind" the idea of the real there is only discourse. As Samuel Beckett remarked in his 1931 study of Proust: "the transcendental apperception that can capture the Model, the Idea, the Thing in itself," failed to materialise under scrutiny.[15] Taken beyond the literary and philosophical domains, this problem likewise invested the physical sciences, which discovered a need to account, among other things, for its disturbances of the object of scientific observation. Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg's principle of indeterminacy is the well-known consequence of this development. But as the ambivalence of language and the increasingly recognised materiality of discourse came to effect scientific method and experimentation (with its initial dependency upon models of the real), more broadly semiotic questions also began to arise. What, for example, is it that we mean when we speak of reality? And, indeed, what does it mean when we speak of language? or the reality of language? In other words, confronted with the incompatability of consciousness, as defined by Lacan, and the observer paradoxes of quantum mechanics, how could the so- called object of language itself be anything but "experimental," unpresentable or otherwise indeterminate?

While language thus appeared, on one level, to assume an increasingly abstract or "theoretical" aspect, on another level its radical materiality necessarily came more into focus. These two
characteristics — abstraction and materiality—emerge at this point as defining a state of complementary: the first linked to the speculativity of signification (vis-a-vis Saussurean semiology), the second to its inherently "procedural" function (vis-a-vis Levi-Strauss's structural anthropology and Claude Shannon's mathematical theories of communication). It is in this sense, for example, that language reveals itself as a "system" of mechanical (event-state) transformations, iterations and reversions; as a type of machine, in other words, made not of an enumeration of symbols, but of a topology of symbolic relations or "sign operations." Moreover, in place of any deterministic ego, agency or deus ex machina, the term "operation" here— through its allusion to something like an operator—comes to designate instead what we might call an algorithm or "rule," which automatically (and arbitrarily) co-ordinates a given function with some other function: for example, metaphor, metonymy, or any analogous translational, "totemic," or "coding-decoding" process. This implies what we might call a mechanism of generalised equivalence across contiguity—not only with regard to tropic or "rule-orientated" operations, but to the status of any assumed relation between, say, signification and materiality.

What we mean by "rule," in this context, has a purely definitional character. Its operative principle is that of ambivalence as such—and of ambivalence as a "causal agent" of signification. It thus also marks a transition in thinking about language, from deterministic laws to probabilistic ones, or from an epistemological or paradigmatic status of meaning to a contingent, definitional and above all complementary status. It is not—in effect—a matter of mediating between states or changes of state (i.e. between signification and materiality), but of constituting an event-state of complementarity: for example, in speaking about the materiality o/signification—wherein neither of these terms may be said to assume an autonomous, discrete or objective status. Consequently, this "rule" — arbitrating, as it were, between two modalities of causation, or what Peirce
elsewhere terms "the law of mind"[16]—represents a fundamental "equivalence across contiguity"; a resistance and a transference; or what Gaston Bachelard refers to both as an "epistemological obstacle" and as an "epistemological rupture." In doing so it reveals a fundamental contradiction in the logic and structure of so-called "laws" of reason, even when they are accommodated to what Bachelard refers to as "the notion of epistemological discontinuity in scientific progress."[17] This interpolation of the arbitrary within the totalising movement of reason as law—being, on a fundamental level, the very articulation of law[18]—does not represent a perversion or deviation, but rather a logical or structural inherence: for example, between the letter of the law ("lex") and the truth- status of its logos, the word itself ("lexis"); what we might in fact call a perturbation at the origin of any signifying system.
Such a perturbation, as Lacan points out, is necessarily sublimated in the operations of the law of reason in the guise— for example—of justice, whose arbitrations represent a kind of parenthesis in which the referent of the law (such as the transcendence of "the good") passes beyond reach and must be approached by way of a certain detour. By detour we would also mean, by metaphor or metonymy; in other words, by way of a "rule" of discourse or discursus. To illustrate this formulation, Lacan makes reference to a passage from The Story of Justine, by the Marquis de Sade. "Tyrants," Sade writes,
are never born out of anarchy. One only ever sees them rise up in the shadow of laws; they derive their authority from laws.
The reign of law is, therefore, evil; it is inferior to anarchy. The greatest proof of this position is the obligation of any government to plunge back into anarchy whenever it wants to remake its constitution. In order to abrogate its ancient laws, it is obliged to establish a revolutionary regime in which there are no laws. Under this regime new laws are eventually born, but the second is less pure than the first since it derives from it, since the first good, anarchy, had to occur, if one wanted to achieve the second good, the State's constitution.[19]

In Sade, the dream of rationalism is worked out in extremis, its mechanistic universe articulating an inescapable logic that is at the same time recursive, deranged, and self-fulfilling. On the one hand a radical critique of Kantian "categorical imperative," on the other an apparatus of narrative discursus and "degeneracy" in which the lineaments of literary and philosophical modernity are clearly visible in the complementarity and contrariety of rule and law—or otherwise discursive "anarchy" and the "tyranny" of forms—by which the ambivalence of any system of values is ultimately constituted. Much of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary modernism can be seen as a critical extension—if also "rectification"—of Sade's anti-rationalist project, mediated, for example, by certain facets of Marxism and Darwinism, according to which re-evolution, or epistemological rupture, retains a positivistic or homoeostatic function.
Sade's extremism finds itself seconded to a project of aesthetic and epistemological reform—such as the ultimately reformative ambitions of Surrealism—in which the revolution of values and of consciousness is linked to a project of social reconstruction: anarchy sublimated in a "new" constitutionalism, a "new" epistemology, a "new" system of judgement. Indeed, if—as Georges Canguilhem has argued— "epistemology provides a principle on which judgement can be based,"[20] it is nevertheless upon the "crisis" of epistemological rupture that judgement itself can here be seen to be founded, as the regulating mechanism of the otherwise arbitrary convulsions of the law. Sade, writing at the height of the French Revolution, identifies law as the very inversion of justice, whose subsequent discourse however only serves to mask the revolutionary character of the epistemological break in terms of "correction" or "reconstruction."

Within the framework of rationalism, crisis does not represent the unthinkable or the unpresentable, but rather an alibi—a justification. And this in turn points to the difficulty in conceiving an avant-garde method which would lead to anything other than a positivistic reintegration. Jonathan Swift, in 1726, was already attentive to such implications in his satirical treatment of scientific positivism in the "Academy of Lagado" section of Gulliver's Travels. Among other things, Swift's critique focuses upon the idea of an experimental random-text machine, "for improving speculative knowledge by practical and mechanical operations."[21] The mostly nonsensical formulations produced by Swift's machine assume an oracular function—reducing the labour of thought to a "merely" mechanical procedure—while providing the substance of poetic, philosophical and juridical treatises, anthologised by an otherwise mindless priesthood of technicians (predecessors of Karel Capek's "universal robots"). A type of semiotic "anarchy" thus becomes the rule upon which universal laws are founded, interpreted and enacted. However, the satirical aspect of Swift's machine resides not in its suggestion that such an idea is foolish as such, or that a positivistic science which sublimates "true" knowledge to technological production is necessarily foolish, but rather that science itself and the arbitrariness of law, and of language (Marinetti's parole in liberta), in fact imply and require it. In Swift's analogy, moreover, there is a recognition of the fundamentally satirical character of any epistemological, semantic or legalistic code that attempts to exhaust the arbitrarily descriptive possibilities of so-called truth statements. This is because all such codes—as discourse—are effectively excessive, devolving upon an "excess at the origin" which cannot be remediated by means of any "law" since it itself is the underwriting condition of the law, of its limits and of its norms of judgement.
Swift's and Sade's rejection of a purely procedural rationalism has often been seen as prefiguring twentieth-century avant­gardist critiques of Enlightenment reason—like those of Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia and Jean Tinguely, whose satirical, counter-functional "machines" affect something of a rebuke to the ideologues of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century industrial "progress." But in prefiguring the avant-garde, Swift and Sade also necessarily prefigure the sinister "triumph" of a rationalism embodied in the systematic disorders of industrialised warfare and the Nazi extermination camps. Irrationalism, Swift and Sade tell us, is not a deviation from the rule, but the very foundation of the rule itself and of its "reason."

Framed at either end of its history by Auschwitz and the Place de la Concorde, the avant-garde has always run the risk— in the revolutionary mode identified by Peter Bürger with the "historical avant-garde"[22]—of becoming little more than an aestheticised form of political conscience or socio-cultural symptom. It is not so much a question of whether or not, as Theodor Adorno argued, poetry after Auschwitz could still be possible (or merely "barbaric").[23] Rather it is a question of the "burden of history" as a type of reactionary classicism, or negative tradition, and of the rule of platitude in defining a certain historical imminence. This has always been the struggle of experimentalism, situated between historical agency and historical object. Such is likewise the case not only with the historicisation of "the avant-garde" but, also, what we might call the classicising of modernity. It implies a classicism that perpetuates itself merely by a rote form of "equilibrium": an identification of what is knowable with what is known, and according to which experimentation is cognate with method.

In his lecture on "Cybernetics and Ghosts," Calvino broaches the subject of classicism and method in terms, like Sade's, of an intervention in the historical transmission of social-aesthetic norms which also delineates the very possibility of norms.[24] This intervention, associated by Calvino with a type of avant-gardism, functions as a mechanism of difference that re-sets the classical mechanics of aesthetic stasis, allowing for a renewal of the classical idea as one of movement and re­invention. Accordingly, Calvino proposes an almost Swiftian scenario in which literature would become "a machine that will produce avant-garde work to free its circuits when they are choked by too long a production of classicism."[25]
The question is, however, does such a "freeing of the circuits," as Calvino says, amount to anything more, ultimately, than a form of historical reversioning—since classicism here implies not simply a type of conservation, but also a periodic totalisation; a closed cycle that is at the same time expansive, inflationary, accumulative; of both entropy and discursus; teleology and recursion? "Is this," Calvino asks, "the triumph of the irrational? Or is it the refusal to believe that the irrational exists, that anything in the world can be considered extraneous to the reason of things, even if something eludes the reasons determined by our historical condition, and also eludes limited and defensive so-called rationalism?"[26]

Calvino attempts to confront this problem by way of Sartre's question "What is literature?" For Calvino, the difficulty of situating "literature" in the context of industrial modernity derives from the ultimate ambivalence of the terms "rational" and "irrational," and their status with regards to the controlled unpredictability of experimental method with its own ambivalent relation to the underwriting condition of "absolute chance," as Peirce says. Where "rational" and "irrational" remain definitional (and probabilistic), experimentality obtains at the level of the possible, and in this sense the term "literature" — as writing—designates an experimental condition of language itself. That is to say, a condition of absolute unconditionality, as defining the very chance of language as language; its underwriting iterability and techne of inscription. Calvino writes:
Did we say that literature is entirely involved with language, is merely the permutation of a restricted number of elements and functions? But is the tension in literature not continually striving to escape from this finite number? Does it not continually attempt to say something it cannot say, something that it does not know, and that no one could ever know? A thing cannot be known when the words and concepts used to say it and think it have not yet been used in that position, not yet arranged in that order, with that meaning ... The struggle of literature is in fact a struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches out from the utmost limits of what can be said; what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary.[27]
As in Sade, the formal and thematic rigidities, the compulsive repetition and enactment, the staging of a narrative and its mechanical "performance," all point to a conception of literature as operating under the sign of a programmatic ambivalence—in which the concept of "the machine" no longer remains straightforwardly linked to instrumentalism, but rather to its detournement.
A certain detournement of instrumentality can likewise be found in the "genetic distributions of language" in Mallarme, in the encyclopaedic schematisations of Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, in the entropic spirals of Beckett's minimalism, in the "minute vivisections" operated by Natalie Sarraute and Christine Brooke-Rose, or in the quasi-automated textual apparatuses of Georges Perec's La vie mode d'emploi and the counter-causal mechanistics of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, V, and The Crying of Lot 49. Alain Robbe-Grillet, principle architect of the Nouveau Roman, has himself described the legacy of Sade as practically reducing narrativity to a "vast nomenclature of perversions, comparable to the botanical classifications of Linnaeus or to Mendelejev's periodic table of elements."[28] This description is itself reminiscent of comments made about Robbe-Grillet's own texts, such as La Maison de Rendez-vous, notable for its "accrued frequency of themes of deprivation: drugs, fascination with crime, unnatural love, casual Sadism, necrophilia, cannibalism, etc."[29] Themes of crisis, perversion, anarchy and anachronism, also proliferate in Joyce, Beckett, and elsewhere in the body of "modernist" literature, yet this would hardly be noteworthy in and of itself if it did not involve a certain testing of the limits of presentability, as it were. Just as we might say that terms like indecency are nothing if not definitional—culturally and historically contingent—so too we may speculate that other aspects of the unpresentable may also be "reducible" to a set of cultural or ideological procedures.

Arguably, one of the challenges posed by modernity has been the relinquishing of a moral viewpoint or judgementalism. That is to say, the relinquishing of any "ethics" that is ideologically founded. The question remains whether or not this challenge— exemplified in Sade's critique of legalistic reason as the tyranny of an entirely abstracted "mind" — will itself inevitably be reduced to something like a "standard deviation" within the circuit of the cultural system? (It is noteworthy, in any case, that where the mere mention of Sade's name was once scandalous in itself, it now barely raises eyebrows). This in turn raises the question of the effective virulence of any "avant-garde" — since the operations of recursion that underwrite its various ruptures and discontinuities also serve as mechanisms of reintegration and homoeostasis. That is to say, as engines of entropy. We might pose this question otherwise, as whether or not the epistemological rupture brought about by modernity is not simply the necessary condition of an epistemological reconstruction and renewal? If, in other words, the ideology of what we might call "modernism" (as a continuation of the Enlightenment project) is not simply a dialectical reification of what is made to amount to a mere systemic perturbation or rote form of experimentation—what Bachelard terms "obsolete science."
With the liberatory phase of so-called postmodernism having passed — and with the status of avant-gardism and the possibility of criticism (of judgement) once again in dispute— the question arises as to the relation of experimentality to a future that, however unpresentable and enigmatic it may appear, has become overburdened by a type of neo-classicism. A classicism, that is, of both a speculative and material "revolution" of sense and of the senses—of the epistemological and the experiential, the cultural and the political, and so on. In other words, we are confronted with a question not merely of viability, but of a pervasive limit-effect of what Lefebvre terms

"change as a norm." Under such procedural conditions—in which procedure itself veers between permissibility and possibility—the Duchampian critique of post-industrial rationalism and its stylisation in the form of avant-gardist method, or in the commodification and consumption of the "avant­garde," points to a situation of historical recursion that possesses no immediately recognisable axes of critical differentiation.
Yet when Frangois Lyotard wrote of James Joyce that his writing "allows the unpresentable to become perceptible in his writing itself, in the signifier," he was signalling a change not in the aesthetics of revolution or historical consciousness, but in the very logic of signifying agency, and with regard to all of its possible social registers. "The whole range of available narrative and even stylistic operations is put into play without concern for the unity of the whole," Lyotard argues. Consequently: "The grammar and vocabulary of literary language are no longer accepted as given; rather they appear as academic forms, as rituals originating in piety (as Nietzsche said) which prevent the unpresentable from being put forward."[30] The question remains, of course, as to whose idea of the unpresentable we are speaking of here—if not that which is underwritten by the very resistance of the presentable itself. For it is indeed, here, a question of the mimetic status of presentability and of the assumption, in discourse, of something like an object. Even if this object is taken to be "discourse itself."

In any case, we need to ask ourselves about the significance of the relation of these various conceptions of agency and the mechanics of signifiability that underwrites them. If this question, as Lyotard suggests, is one that is linked to a particular experience of language as techne, then what can the work of writers like Swift, Sade or Joyce tell us about the general semiotic character of the mechanisms of presentability themselves? What do they tell us, in other words, of what we might call "grammars of emergence"? Is the "unpresentability," as Lyotard contends, of such structural grammars or sign operations, a mere symptom or instead a condition of language? Or rather, is it by means of a certain symptomatology bound to the conditional that we may speak of the unpresentable at all, as something that may become "perceptible" in writing itself, in the signifier? As Roger Shattuck has argued: "An avant-garde gains its special status from its adversary relation to the main body of the culture to which it is reacting," even if this culture is one that attaches especial significance, precisely, to avant-gardism.[31]
Contemporary preoccupations with hypertext, hypermedia, the recursive "collage-effect" of the World Wide Web, point again to an idea of language as both heterogeneous and yet procedurally constrained—one which is neither deviational nor positivistic, but rather an event-driven "state of affairs." Suggestive of a general condition of semiosis, this idea of language extends the literary medium to the very limits of "concretion," particularisation, and phenomenality— describing, as Andruid Kerne says, an interface with a "re­processed experiential archive," that is "in flux and yet bound to its material objects."[32] For cyber-ecologists like Kerne, "Interfaces are the multidimensional border zones through which the interdependent relationships of people, activities, codes, components, and systems are constituted."[33] Such an interface-effect is already signalled in the genealogy of procedural poetics extending from Mallarme, Gertrude Stein and John Cage, to the OuLiPo, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, and the advent of the "new" digital media—spawning, among other things, such Swiftian "textual machines" as Mark
America's Grammatron, Douglas Davis's The World's First Collaborative Sentence and Kerne's own CollageMachine.

These "machines," which integrate recursive and chance procedures in the production of multi-dimensional textual interfaces in "real time," describe a type of Joycean tetragrammaton—or word-of-words. Like Babbage's "Analytic Machine" — a mechanical device capable (at least in theory) of "weaving algebraic patterns"—these interfaces are not so much produced as performed, in the sense that they are themselves mechanisms within a larger recursive structure of "interactions" and "interference." And if such effects may be said to be effects of semiosis, or indeed "phenomena" implying something like an agency (if not a consciousness), then the question remains as to whether or not this is by consequence of a mechanisation applied to some prior state of affairs, or by consequence of a mechanical inherence constitutive of any form of signifying materiality, or indeed of any system as such.

[1]   Karl Popper, "Science, Pseudo-Science, and Falsifiability," Conjectures and Refutations (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978 [1962]) 33-39.
[2]   Charles Sanders Peirce, "Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs," Philosophical Writings, ed. Justus Buchler (New York: Dover, 1955) 99-100.
[3]   Which, like the machine, is not a thing as such but rather a "figure" or "trope" (in this case of the always to come, the ideally unrealised end of production).
[4]   Samuel Beckett, Proust (New York: Grove Press, 1931) 71.
[5]   Cf. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. C.J.M. Hubback (London: The Hogarth Press, 1922).
[6]  This two-fold movement can otherwise be characterised as a recursion, or what cyberneticists describe as a feedback loop. The sense of the preposition avant is thus always qualified by the necessary conservatism of the verb garder, to keep: it remains conditional, tentative, an attempt at defining limits—so that the term
[7]   Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity, trans. John Moore (London: Verso, 1995) 1-2.
[8]  Jean-Frangois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991) 81.
[9]    Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 81.
[10]  Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 79.
[11]  Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity, 168. The problem that arises here is not which of Lyotard's or Lefebvre's terminologies are most appropriate to the circumstances, but whether or not their arguments offer some sort of means of accounting for the apparent impasse in the status of avant-gardism and its paradigm of the machine.
[12]  Italo Calvino, "Cybernetics and Ghosts," The Literature Machine, trans. Patrick Creagh (London: Secker and Warburg, 1987) 21-2.
[13]  Jacques Lacan, "From the Entwurf to the Traumdeutung," The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book II: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955, trans. S. Tomaselli (London: Cambridge University Press, 1988) 117­120.
[14]  Lacan, "From the Entwurf to the Traumdeutung," 119.
[15]  Beckett, Proust, 69.
[16]  Peirce, "The Law of Mind," Philosophical Writings, 339ff.
[17]  Gaston Bachelard, Le Materialisme rationnel (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1953); cited in Georges Canguilhem, A Vital Rationalist: Selected Writings, ed, Frangois Delaporte, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Zone, 1994) 32.
[18]  Whether it be defined as the a priori as such, the given of meaning, the acts of signification (i.e. as formally determined and mimetic).
[19]  Cited in Jacques Lacan, "The Function of the Good," The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, trans. Dennis Porter (New York: Norton, 1992) 221.
[20]  Canguilhem, A Vital Rationalist, 43.
[21]  Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels (London: Wordsworth Edition, 1992) III.iv.195.
[22]  Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).
[23]  Theodor Adorno, Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1967) 34.
[24]  It is precisely such an idea of stultifying and overly "rationalised" classicism that we encounter, for example, in Pier Paulo Passolini's film Salo, in which Sade's 120 Days of Sodom is transposed into a critique of the last days of Fascist Italy—the infamous Repubblica di Salo (last refuge and death-place, incidentally, of Fillipo Marinetti, founder of Italian Futurism and one of the leading figures in the avant-garde cult of the machine).
[25]  Calvino, "Cybernetics and Ghosts," 13.
[26]  Calvino, "Cybernetics and Ghosts," 20.
[27]  Calvino, "Cybernetics and Ghosts," 18.
[28]  Alain Robbe-Grillet, "L'ordre et son double" (1965), Le Voyageur (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 2001) 86.
[29]  Robbe-Grillet, "Un ecrivain non reconcilie," Le Voyageur, 100.
[30]  Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 80-1.
[31]  Roger Shattuck, The Innocent Eye: On Modern Literature and the Arts (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1984) 74
[32]  Andruid Kerne, "CollageMachine: An Interactive Agent of Web Recombination," Leonardo 33.5 (2000): 347-350.
[33]  Louis Armand, "Interface Ecologies," Solicitations (Prague: Litteraria, 2005) 124.

In: Avant-post The Avant-Garde under Post-Conditions/ edited by Louis Armand. Prague : Litteraria Pragensia, 2006. pp. 194-214.

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