Lettrisme (Style réseau mondial)
The Web of Letters (via Encyclopedia Hanasiana) is a clever device that pulls letters off the Web via Yahoo’s image search. Type in a word and it produces an image in which the letters are graphics grabbed from who knows where.
Like the Church Sign Generator, it’s the kind of minor amusement that the Web seems to encourage.
These devices give me an excuse to mention Isidore Isou and Lettrisme (↓1). I first came across Lettrisme in the late 70s while browsing through back issues of the Revue musicale (↓2). Like Cioran, Ionescu, and Eliade, Isou (born Isidore Goldstein) emigrated from Romania to France; he arrived after World War II with his new invention and a letter of introduction to Jean Paulhan, the managing editor of Gallimard. Gallimard was unimpressed; Isou was undaunted. In addition to having the looks of a young Elvis Presley(↓3), Isou had a gift for creating events, the first of which was an intervention at the premiere of Tristan Tzara’s La Fuite in 1946. Michel Leiris was to give a talk on Dada before the play. Isou and his friends interrupted it, and eventually, after Leiris had cut his talk short and the play had begun, Isou jumped onstage to expound on Lettrism before a rapidly dwindling audience.
Thus did Lettrism, and Isou, make their first headlines. Isou explicitly patterned his movement on Dada (one of whose founders was Tzara, another Romanian import) and Surrealism. But by this time, the whole apparatus of movements and manifestos, of artistic “isms”, provocative happenings, and a scandalized bourgeoisie, was near the end of its useful life—though the Situationists did extend it into the 60s.
Lettrism, like all movements worthy of the name, engendered schisms and apostasies. One sect, the Lettrist International, led by Guy Debord, split off after the “left” lettrists, passing out abusive pamphlets, disrupted a Charlie Chaplin press conference.
La crise du lettrismeThe crisis of Lettrism, signalled by the quasi-open opposition of the backward types to cinematographic experiments that they judged to be of a nature to discredit them by an “inept” violence, exploded in 1952 when the “Lettrist International”, which grouped the extreme portion of the movement around the shadow of a review having that title, tossed out insulting pamphlets at a press conference held by Chaplin. The æsthetic Lettrists, who had recently become the minority, did not stand in solidarity with the group after the event—and brought about a rupture that their naïve excuses did not succeed in deferring or in repairing subsequently—because Chaplin’s creative contribution to cinema made him, in their view, immune to attack., annoncée par l’opposition quasi ouverte des attardés à des essais cinématographiques qu’ils jugeaient de nature à les discréditer par une violence « inhabile », éclata en 1952 quand l’« Internationale lettriste », qui groupait la fraction extrême du mouvement autour d’une ombre de revue de ce titre, jeta des tracts injurieux à une conférence de presse tenue par Chaplin. Les lettristes esthètes, depuis peu minoritaires, se désolidarisèrent après coup — entraînant une rupture que leurs naïves excuses ne réussirent pas à différer, ni à réparer dans la suite — parce que la part de création apportée par Chaplin dans le Cinéma le rendait, à leur sens, inattaquable.
In 1957, the Lettrist International became the Situationist International, when it joined with the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus and the London Psychogeographical Committee. With the success of Guy Debord’s Société du spectacle, and the use of Situationist motifs by Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols, Situationism has eclipsed its parent (↓4).
But what’s in all this for the philosopher? The point is not that philosophical æsthetics is for the most part stodgy. It has been ever since Kant put it on a firm footing (poetry is best written in a dead language…). It ratifies more than it anticipates the judgments of artists and their sympathetic critics, and maybe it should. The point is rather that art generates its own internal æsthetics.
Museums and books isolate works from their spatial and social contexts; they create an illusion of contemporaneity (of the works exhibited with one another, and of the works with us) and of extratemporality (↓5). A useful illusion, immensely fruitful in the history of art (consider Montaigne’s relation to his ancient sources, or Descartes’ comparison, in the Discourse, of reading old authors with conversation—a stock analogy), but an illusion nonetheless. In our florilegia, real or virtual, we tend to treat the contents as if they existed together in a time of their own, ordered perhaps by “influence”, but not historical; just as in dictionaries, the words of a language, whatever their history of entry into use, stand together in a specious present.
The æsthetics according to which intentions have no place in criticism is an æsthetics of isolation. Though Beardsley and Wimsatt’s famous essay has mostly been taken to be a theory of interpretation (thus giving rise to a debate that bottomed out in the early 80s with Knapp and Michaels’ “Against Theory”), they also ruled out any appeal to intentions in judgment (↓6). The effect of that prohibition is either to substitute the critic’s æsthetic aims for those the artist may have had, or been working under; or else to displace finality altogether from criticism.
Philosophical æsthetics, in making, as Hume and Kant both did, the immediate perception or imaginative representation of the artwork the datum of judgment, tends to do likewise, whether or not it issues proclamations to that effect. Works like those of Isou are therefore judged in abstraction from the explicit programs that accompany them. Isou, like the Dadaists and Surrealists upon whose model Lettrism was fashioned, aimed to form the perceptions, hence the judgments, of his audience.
This is not a simple matter of stating goals whose accomplishment the critic is supposed to evaluate. It could have been (compare Perec’s intention of writing a novel without the letter e), but it wasn’t. The perception of the work is not independent of understanding the Lettrist program.
Nothing prevents the critic from isolating Isou’s work and juxtaposing it with Kandinsky’s or Mark Tobey’s or the funerary art of ancient Egypt. An exhibition on “writing in painting” might do just that. It may even be that Isou constructed a genealogy of lettrism in which all those works figured. More generally, some artists, some schools, produce works to be viewed as if sub specie æternitatis—for all times, places, and people. One might even argue that an artwork that was too “theory-bound” was for that reason deficient in comparison to more portable works. But that is to install an æsthetics of timelessness—or of displacement—at the starting-gate.
(↑1) I’m not the first to connect the Web of Letters with Lettrism. See “Letter Post” (13 Mar2005) at Ramage, which also lists devices similar to the Web of Letters.
On Lettrism, see Greil Marcus, Lipstick traces: A secret history of the twentieth century (Harvard, 1989; Margaret Moser, “Greil Marcus and the Mad Parade”, Austin Chronicle 10 Sep 1999 ) for a brief account of Lettrism, the Lettrist International (the “left wing” of Lettrism, and its offspring, the Situationist International. Other sources:
Karl Young and Karl Kempton, eds., Alain Satié and David W. Seaman, associate curators, Lettriste Pages: bibliography and texts of some major figures: see, for example, David W. Seaman, ed. & trans., Selections from the Manifestos of Isidore Isou, and “Isidore Isou à la Sorbonne, October, 2000”
Lettrism: includes a translation of Guy-Ernest Debord & Gil J. Wolman, “Pourquoi le lettrisme” by Leutha Blissett; the original, from Potlatch 1 (1955), in French at Nothingness.org and at La Revue des ressources
Eric Dussert, compte rendu de Contre l'Internationale Situationniste et autres travaux, Matricule des Anges 34 (avr–mai 2001)
Review of Jean-Paul Curtay, Qu’est-ce que le lettrisme?, Magazine littéraire 20 (Jul 1968)
Biographie de Serge Moscovici, sociologue et anthropologue, qui a collaboré avec Isou sur la revue Da (en 1944, quand tous les deux demeuraient encore dans la Roumanie); his book Essai sur l’histoire humaine de la nature (Flammarion, 1968 · 2080810103), which is still well worth reading, gives you no inkling of its author’s complicated past
Virginie Caraven, e.t.: excoordisme et téïsynisme
Some documents on Lettrism at Librairie L’Étourdi
Isidore Isou et la Créatique ou la Novatique: oddly enough, this page is from Nodal Consultants, “une société d’étude et de conseil de conception et de mise en place de stratégies innovantes en technologies, de R&D, de partenariat et de financement à risque”:
Il était naturelIt was natural for us to participate in the publication of La Créatique ou la Novatique by Isidore Isou, a philosophical manifesto the conception of which began in 1941, and which proposes a systematic, global method of cultural creation, invention, and discovery based on Kladologie, the science of the branches of human knowledge. In this work, where his innovative thought is developed, Isidore Isou offers us his cartographic genealogy of the creators and geniuses of Culture and Science. We are pleased that Isou’s thought should find, after so many years, the readership it deserves: “the social mover is not the instinct of survival, but the will to create… through the will of creation, the artist goes from the slobber of unconscious existence to history consciously made”. pour nous de participer à la publication de La Créatique ou la Novatique d’Isidore Isou, manifeste philosophique dont la conception commence en 1941, proposant une méthode systématique et globale de création culturelle, d’invention et de découverte basée sur la Kladologie, science des branches de la connaissance humaine. Dans cet ouvrage, où se développe sa pensée novatrice, Isidore Isou nous offre sa généalogie cartographique des créateurs et des génies de la Culture et et des Sciences. Nous sommes heureux que la pensée d’Isou trouve, après tant d’années, le lectorat qu’elle mérite : “…le moteur social n’était pas l’instinct de survie, mais la volonté de créer…par la volonté de création, l’artiste allait de la bave d’une existence inconsciente à l’éternité de l’histoire faite consciemment…” (I.I.)
This from the PDG (CEO), Louis Berreur. Would that more VCs were so enlightened.
(↑2) Browsing through back issues of journals is one of the best things you can do to get a feel for a period; it gives you a perspective on past and present that no second-hand history or anthology can give.
Unfortunately, now that libraries have moved most of their older journal volumes into storage, it’s more difficult to do this. But to read the Philosophical review or Synthese even from thirty years ago is instructive. Reading Analysis or Mind from the first volume onwards is even more instructive. You see schools and fads come and go, reputations bloom and fade, now-eminent figures make their debut, ads for the first editions of works since canonized—a synoptic view of philosophy, or some branch of it, without the slant with which later authors and historians inevitably present the past.
That slant or selectiveness has a rationale, of course. A philosopher inherits, or chooses, a genealogy, a collection of “influences” which will constitute his or her past. The historian does the same, but the past thus constructed is supposed to be collectively, not just personally significant. In either case, the selection is often designed to make the present look as if it were the inevitable, or the most reasonable, result of what came before. Hence the removal of false starts, of “redundant” authors, of contrary or competing tendencies. But the impression of finality thus created is an illusion, resting on bias or ignorance. A historian who has no acquaintance with the failures, mediocrities, and even the cranks of her period is incomplete. She will not know what was possible—not just logically possible, but feasible, thinkable.
Marcus says Tony Curtis. But Michèle Bernstein, a former Lettrist who knew Isou early on, favors the young Elvis Presley (Lipstick traces 249).
(↑4) Online sources:
Wikipedia: , , , Esperanto
Situationist Online: large collection of texts; pre- and post-Situationism; chronology—the place to start (in English)
Franck Einstein, Guy Debord et l’Internationale Situationniste: key documents, mostly in French; see also the Debord(el), a message board created by FE
Nothingness.org: texts of Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, images, links
Debordiana: a variety of documents in a variety of languages; unfortunately, quite a few links are broken
Documents of the Lettrist International, including “Henri Lefebvre on the Situationist International”, a 1983 interview by Kristen Ross, published in October 79 (W 1997)
La Revue des ressources: various documents
Andrew Hussey, “Requiem pour un con”: Situationism in (mostly British) pop music
(↑5) For starters, see
James Clifford. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Harvard, 1988 · 0674698436
Ivan Carp and Steven Lavine, Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. Washington DC: Smithsonian Press, 1991 · 1560980214
James Putnam. Art and Artifact: The Museum as Medium. Thames & Hudson, 2002 · 0500237905
(↑6) The founding document:
Monroe Beardsley and William K. Wimsatt, "The Intentional Fallacy." Sewanee Review 54 (Summer 1946). Also in: The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry, 1954 (excerpts)
W.J. T. Mitchell, ed. Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982 (this includes the piece by Knapp and Michaels)
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