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n one of the most memorable accounts of the pantomime Pierrot, Baudelaire tells the story of the clown’s execution. Having gotten himself into trouble, “for some misdeed or other,” the kleptomaniac Pierrot finds himself faced with the guillotine. After “struggling and bellowing like an ox that scents the slaughter-house,” Pierrot bows to the blade and the expectant audience is treated to a butcher’s vision of a spinal column dripping with blood and gore. And then suddenly, as the head “rolled noisily” away, “the decapitated trunk jumped to its feet, triumphantly ‘lifted’ its own head as though it was a ham or a bottle of wine, and, with far more circumspection than the great St. Denis, proceeded to stuff it into its pocket!” (Kukuljevic, 62).
There are at least two ways to read this anecdote, each with their own type of laughter. On the one hand there is the irony of the clown whose refusal to stop being a clown, even after losing his head, triggers a laughter governed by mortality. Depending on a simultaneous acceptance and disavowal of their own demise, the audience laughs at life’s comic futility. Typically aimed at authority figures or institutions, it calls on the spectator to see the world as it ‘really’ is, beneath the absurdity of its spectacle. By binding a knowing subject to an unreal world, such a laughter serves as nothing more than a release valve, cooling the machine when it overheats. And the audience can go home, safe and secure in their grasp of reality.
But what if the spectators did not laugh at the clown’s rejection of mortality? What if they laughed at the clown’s inability to die, or rather, the irrelevance of death for him? Ridiculing the difference between life and death, reality and illusion, meaning and meaninglessness, this kind of laughter would unbind words from things and, teetering on the brink, threaten to collapse the world into an indeterminate silence. Its outburst would announce an incommunicable hollow within thought, that which must be excised in order for thought to hold itself together. A laughter in which one gets carried away, in which one loses oneself.
In Alexi Kukuljevic’s reading, Pierrot’s beheading expresses the comedy of this rupture in which language appears as a kind of cat’s cradle: a fragile structure suspended over, and run through with, the void. Subject only to his own disintegration, Pierrot does not relate to his head as the locus of thought, of his “I.” Instead he relates to his head like he would a bottle of wine, or a ham, or any other thing that cannot hold itself together. His actions are humorous because language has no hold over his body. As Kukuljevic writes, “the mime relates to the subject as nothing more than the division of an object: an utterly impersonal operation” (62) that ultimately reduces thinking to the entropic materiality of the body. Dialectics cannot save him. Already headless to begin with, Pierrot’s theft, “literalizes the expression ‘to think with your head,’” and reveals that, “one can think with one’s foot, one’s belly, or any other object” (62, my emphasis). Refusing the relation between the subject and its constitutive negativity, Baudelaire’s Pierrot is positioned on the side of pure gesture in which every act simultaneously repeats the absence of subjectivity. Of course, it is not only the mime that is trying to collect, or more accurately for the 21st century, to hoard himself, we too find ourselves falling apart, always elsewhere, forever grasping at anything solid just to give us the feeling of wholeness, the feeling of keeping it together.
Rather than attempting to bind the subject to a new fantasy or fiction, Liquidation World encourages its readers to think through the subject as a material entity organized by what Nathan Brown has called a “logic of disintegration” (Brown). In doing so, Kukuljevic ends up forgoing relations of identification in favor of participation—not with an idea but with the empty, meaningless matter that cannot be thought—except with the peril of thoughtlessness. There’s an alignment here with Hito Steyerl’s insistence that we should cease to identify with images but rather participate with them like the bytes that make up a .jpg file. “How about siding with the object for a change?” she asks, “Why not affirm it? Why not be a thing? An object without a subject?” (Steyerl, original emphasis). But where Steyerl seems to suggest that becoming an object could activate a politics of flow or unforeseen strategic potentialities, Kukuljevic holds back from any attempt to propose a politics. Siding with the object is after all a radically non-subjective process, one whose comic element violates all forms of organization whether ideological, political or algorithmic. By restricting himself to a series of theoretical portraits, Kukuljevic sketches the contours of a comic violence that takes aim at the structure of subjectivity itself.
“Like an atomist acknowledging the eternal and meaningless rain of atoms within the void” (1), Kukuljevic uses each chapter to map out a comic figure of subjective absence. There’s the void of the object in Duchamp’s ready-made and Marcel Broodthaers as a ready-made artist; Jacques Vaché’s sense of umour and Alfred Jarry as ‘he who pistols’ rather than acts; the nihilist as a thinking thing and Paul Valéry’s M. Teste as the dandy whose capricious self-observation alienates him from himself; and the melancholic whose object of desire is nothing more than an imprint of the void, an expression of empty desire. What emerges from this parade of failure, this celebration of collapse, is a comic stance that violates the subjective relation between desire and lack, meaning and meaninglessness, and finds its humour in the flight of thought, the loss of self.
Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages serve Kukuljevic as an exemplary instance of this comic violence. In this work, Duchamp measured three pieces of string one meter long. Then he raised each of them one meter high over a flat horizontal plane and dropped them. “Distorting itself as it pleases,” wrote Duchamp, the fallen string, “creates a new shape of the measure of length” (13, original emphasis). In Duchamp’s patalogic, it is not so much that the string makes the artificiality of the meter visible (this is already a consequence of alternative systems of measurement) but that it produces an actual measurement of the founding instance of the meter—it measures the meter's disavowed lack of measure. To phrase it differently, if the meter signifies an institutionalized sense of measure, this structuration of sense is based on its relation to non-sense. The Stoppages does not care for the sense of the meter, but rather seeks to measure its non-sense, its lack of measure. Blocking up the persistent irony of the signifier in this way, Duchamp’s patalogical experiments expose the deadly seriousness of nonsense: in their figuration of an infinite measurement, the Stoppages exhaust the possible and mark the place of the void without remainder, without lack.
Toying with the vertigo of exhaustion, Duchamp’s ready-made jams up the symbolic machine that makes measurement possible. In this light, reading Duchamp’s Fountain as a critique of the art object is much too limited. On the surface, Fountain performs a double operation: it takes up the structural position of an art object without having any of the significance normally used to identify an art object; at the same time, its usefulness as a receptacle of urine is stripped away because it is submitted to an art show, the Salon des Refusés. Kukuljevic’s innovation is to show that the structural position taken up by Fountain, and by the ready-made as a category of objects, is that they serve to mark and make visible the absence of meaning within meaning. In other words, what is lacking in the ready-made is a lack of meaning. “In loosening the thing’s relation to the form of its signification,” Kukuljevic writes, “the ready-made becomes a mute signifier of this place, a figure of absence..., that henceforth designates the null occupant of a hole in sense” (24). The ready-made is a kind of bare materiality, an object whose deflection of all significance makes visible the absent place of meaning, the void from which it came and into which it will dissolve.
So what does this mean for the subject? Among the examples Kukuljevic provides, two stand out: Jacques Vaché and Alfred Jarry. Vaché recognized the strange fact that the word humor, as a signifier, actually lacks humor. He came up with an ingenious solution: by severing the ‘h’ from humor (and thereby anticipating both Lacan’s and Derrida’s understanding of the materiality of the letter) Vaché’s umour includes the sense of humor in the word itself. Umour is literally (h)umourous. Because it can’t signify anything other than umour, it exists as a solid block, at the limit of speech, jamming up the flexibility of signification. Moreover, since its meaning is only apparent in written form, the subject who says umour might be interpreted to have said humour and vice-versa. As the spoken word falls into non-sense, the subject that emerges enunciates a speech that is so literal it cannot be understood. The subject, that is Vaché himself, thereby becomes the subject of the absent letter, making his body the material “differentiator of this difference between the sense of umour and humour” (42). His body, no longer given meaning by its relation to a subject (of language, of ideology), becomes a site of inscription, not of a thing, but of the void of a thing: the excised letter ‘h’. Identifying with the non-sense that he speaks, like a body without a head, Vaché performs the ready-made, exposing and marking out the disavowed absence of meaning which constitutes meaning. In Kukuljevic’s enigmatic phrasing, the subject of umour, that is, the ready-made subject, is a “hole in a thing it is not” (105).
Where Vaché performs this operation on the level of language as a material, Jarry is exemplary because he does so with a technical object: his pistol. In the normal metaphysics of the pistol, it is a machine that literally produces holes in things, voids in reality. Structured into this is the idea of the person who sights a target, who pulls the trigger: the subject to whom the hole making can be attributed. Alfred Jarry’s darkest humour problematizes this relationship. Nights carousing in bars or wandering the streets of Paris impersonating fictional characters—such as his own Père Ubu—would be punctuated by the shot of his gun, a “rhetorical device” (51) that leant a menacing edge to his comic persona. One couldn’t tell whether Jarry was intentionally firing the gun at someone, whether it was part of an act, or whether it was misfiring. By prioritizing the misfire and the accident over the Jarry’s agency, “the function of the pistol is reduced to its dysfunction, the possibility of its misfiring” (56).
In the same way as Vaché becomes the impersonator of the missing ‘h’, Jarry the artist becomes the impersonator of his pistol’s missing function. In this way the pistol becomes an autonomous machine organized by its own disfunction, its own breakdown. And Jarry’s ‘I’ is no more than an effect and ornament of this displacement, on repeat. “The I of Jarry,” Kukuljevic writes, “is pinned to a contingent preference, the pistol, whose non-sense positions it in relation to its own lack of significance, turning it into an autonomous fragment (differentiated from the whole), to which the whole of one’s subjectivity is subordinated” (63). By reconfiguring its relation to the material contingency of a technical object, the misfiring pistol prevents the subject from holding itself together. “Assuming Jarry’s place, the pistol marks the void of his presence” (62) so that Jarry loses his agency in favor of becoming “he who pistols.” Jarry is not the subject of a possible beheading, a potential castration, nor is he significant for satirizing authority: like Pierrot the mime, he is the already beheaded subject who steals back his head (or pistol) and, shoving it into his pocket, presents himself in a state of suspended dissolution, like a cloud hanging over the void.
Jarry’s comic violence is not simply a matter of the threat posed by the gun. More importantly it is a violence done to an automated world and the subject who exists as a function of it. If, as Mark Fisher argues, “we are integrated into a control circuit that has our desires and preferences as its only mandate” (Fisher 49), then the preference to automate oneself, to void one’s own subjectivity, violates the law of disavowal by which the system sustains itself. The novelty of Kukuljevic’s reading of Jarry is to show that the breakdown of automation is not outside, but contained within and that therefore subjecting oneself to the failure of automation, jams up the smooth functioning of the machine. And as the machine breaks down, so does the subject.
It’s no surprise that early in the book Kukuljevic cites Deleuze’s essay on the comic violence of Bartleby’s formula I would prefer not to. Bartleby’s occupation as a copyist is premised on the ability to work quickly and efficiently without thinking. Assuming this exclusion of thinking, Bartleby does not refuse or resist the demands of his boss. He merely prefers not to do what is asked of him. In a way that prefigures Kukuljevic’s absentee subjects, Bartleby’s disintegrating presence figures the disavowed negativity of a system that assumes the subject as a being in relation—in his case as an employee of a respectable lawyer. His repetition of the negative formula, “hollows out a zone of indetermination that renders words indistinguishable, that creates a vacuum within language” (Deleuze 73), and thus, like Vaché’s umour, makes “the whole confront silence, make it topple into silence” (72). Showing us what a comic, rather than political, subjectivity can do, Bartleby’s radical passivity causes the world to intensify around him, to accelerate and to spin out of control, while he remains silent, immobile.
Ultimately what I find so compelling about Liquidation World is its commitment to subjective disintegration. There is no program here, no proposals for building a better world. Instead there is an earnest acknowledgement that the subject is nothing more than a momentary emergence of chaotic materials (bound up with, to be sure, complex socio-economic and political histories) and already scheduled for dissolution. Each in their own way, the subjects that populate Liquidation World all attempt to reveal the comedy of this situation for their spectators. Kukuljevic’s novelty is to present their practices, on the whole, as a kind of cultural diagnostic that identifies and exploits the negativity disavowed by their particular historico-political contexts. Their practices may be ridiculous, stupid, idiotic, negligent, silly, insincere and perhaps, sad, but in the end, there will be laughter.