A Delay In Glass: Marcel Duchamp, the Possible, and the Aversion to Déjà Vu

3rd July 2020

Tyrus Miller, University of California, Irvine

In his Green Box (1934) of reproduced notes and images related to his uncompleted and shattered Large Glass, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23), Marcel Duchamp famously characterized his meticulously assembled work not as a “picture” or “painting” but as a “delay in glass”:

Use “delay” instead of picture or painting: picture on glass becomes delay in glass—but delay in glass does not mean picture on glass—

It’s merely a way of succeeding in no longer thinking that the thing in question is a picture—to make a delay of it in the most general way possible, not so much in the different meanings in which delay can be taken, but rather in their indecisive reunion “delay”—/ a delay in glass as you would say a poem in prose or a spittoon in silver[1]

As in many of his notes, Duchamp’s meaning is enigmatic; but he suggests that underlying the various senses of the word “delay,” there is a general manifestation and collation of them realized by means of, at the site of, and through the occasion of his work. Glass is not a surface—a medium support, like wood or stretched canvas for instance—to which paint is to be applied: a picture on glass. Rather it is a medium in which and through which delay is manifested, a delay in glass, manifested, for instance, by virtue of its material properties of transparency, reflectiveness, and refraction of light, and hence, by implication, the splitting of a present act of seeing into temporally different streams, ranging from maximum to minimum delay in the passage of light.

The notes of the Green Box themselves stand in a peculiar supplementary relation of both anticipating and succeeding the putative work of visual art that the Large Glass represents. As already remarked, the Green Box was published more than a decade following Duchamp’s abandonment of work on the Large Glass and seemed to reveal, after this long delay, a pre-elaborated conceptual content as well as a set of modular precursor studies that would be incorporated into but at the same time occulted within the physically manifest work. As Susi Bloch notes

it is clear that the Green Box was always intended as something more than a supplement to the Large Glass…. If anything…it is the Large Glass which could be seen as a supplement to the Green Box, the incomplete realization of a ruminating idea that could never satisfactorily articulate itself in visual terms. The only reason that the Green Box has been understood or taken as an adjunct or guide to the mysterious iconography of the Large Glass, whose forms by themselves are unrelenting of their specific intelligence or program, is that it was published so much after the appearance of the Glass.[2]

This sense of delay accords with an earlier note from Duchamp’s 1914 Box, a precursor to the work on the Large Glass: “Make a painting of frequency:”[3] (25). The depiction of “frequency” suggests, it would seem, an analogous juncture of the oscillatory movement of light and its differentiation in prismatic optical phenomena explored by Duchamp in related works of the period like To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour (1918) or Tu m’ (1918). Even prior to expressing any overt preference for the linguistic or conceptual as materials of art-making, Duchamp’s explorations of the interaction of light and materials—from the diffractive properties of glass to the projective forms of shadows cast by opaque shaped matter—attack the “retinal” foundations of visually identifiable and temporally identical objects. Whatever, he suggests, “presents” itself to the eye is already striated, stretched, and diffused by differences of time (“delays”).

As is also typical of Duchamp, these manifest “delays,” folds in time registering in the arrested or deferred experience of an identifiable work-object, can also be seen as the compressed pleats of more expansive dimensions of time, for example, the creative process wrested away from labor and turned towards a “lazy,” non-working artistic procedure (which may, of course, appear almost obsessively meticulous in its progressive deferral/manifestation of the work). In his 1966 interviews with Duchamp, Pierre Cabanne asked what had been important to the artist in 1920 and 1921; Duchamp responded:

Nothing. Yes, my “Glass.” That held me until 1923, the only thing I was interested in, and I even regret not finishing it, but it became so monotonous, it was a transcription, and toward the end there was no invention. So it just fizzled out. I left for Europe in 1923, and when I came back three years later, the “Glass” was broken…[4]

Yet Duchamp also exhibited a profound passivity to this breaking of his “fizzled” work, even affirming its brokenness as a heightening of the work’s manifestation of the antithesis of work for Duchamp, the erotic, becoming a seductive lure for the artist’s “love”:

Cabanne: When one sees the “Large Glass,” one doesn’t imagine it intact at all.

Duchamp: No. It’s a lot better with the breaks, a hundred times better. It’s the destiny of things.

Cabanne: The intervention of chance that you count on so often.

Duchamp: I respect it; I have ended up loving it.[5]

Such non-working takes place at the edge of boredom, but also withdraws itself, as Maurizio Lazzarato has noted, from work itself, in order to open up an alternative subjective time as a corollary of the deferred destiny of the object in its creation by the artist and manifestation to a spectator:

Duchamp asks us to hold with the refusal itself, with non-movement and demobilization. He invites us to develop and experiment with all the possibilities that “lazy action” creates in order to carry out a reconversation of subjectivity, to invent new techniques of existence and new ways of living time.[6]

If we hear in Lazzarato’s term “demobilization” a military overtone—precisely the opposite of the bellicose connotations of “avant-garde”—we can find confirmation in Duchamp’s note from the 1914 Box on “deferment,” which in turns invests the optical and processual senses of “delay” with a set of social and political shadows and echoes.[7] Duchamp imagines the pacific deferral of military service as also entailing a slowing down and suspension of the physical and affective movement of bodies, such that any coordinated collective “movement”—of any “corps,” individual or collective—disintegrates into a set of disconnected difference.

Against compulsory military service: a “deferment” of each limb, of the heart and the other anatomical parts; each soldier being already unable to put his uniform on again, his heart feeding telephonically, a deferred arm, etc. Then, no more feeding; each deferee isolating himself. Finally, a Regulation of regrets from one “deferee” to another.[8]

Metamorphically lacking any identity or coordination, no bearing of a “uniform”—that is, an presentation of a homogeneous object or body optically identifiable as a token of a category or group—is possible in this time of deferment, this artistic zone of delay.

Duchamp’s alter-avantgarde thematics of delay and deferral—and of demobilization—connect aptly with an additional motif in the Green Box, namely that of the “possible.” In a note, Duchamp presents the possible as a caustic agent against the acts associated with art (aesthetics) and the apprehension of beauty (callistics):

The figuration of a possible.

(not as the opposite of impossible

nor as related to probable

nor as subordinated to likely)

the possible is only

a physical “caustic” [vitriol type]

burning up all aesthetics or callistics[9]

Duchamp makes clear that the possible here is not a deficient or temporarily withheld modes of the actual; rather it is what eats at the act with the caustic power of delay, holding back the act and drawing it back into potentiality.

It is also clear that in his reflections on the category of the “possible” and its relation to “aesthetics” and “callistics” that Duchamp is aware of the embedding of these terms within the discourse of classical philosophy, particularly Plato and Aristotle. Notably, the possible has also been the object of recent reconsideration by philosophers such as Giorgio Agamben and Paolo Virno. Although it would be a stretch to assert any direct tributary from Duchamp to these contemporary thinkers (though clearly there are indirect links through thinkers such as Lyotard and Deleuze), they offer us certain revisionary perspectives on the possible that highlights its importance as a modality of alter-avantgarde temporality, linked to Duchamp’s multiform effectuation of delay and deferral in artistic production. I will conclude with only two points of concurrence between Agamben and Virno, in their otherwise different exposition of the possible.

The first is the association of the possible with the philosophical notion of a “faculty.” Agamben, for example, writes: “This problem—which is the originary problem of potentiality—is: what does it mean ‘to have a faculty’? In what way can something like a ‘faculty’ exist?”[10] Virno points to faculties such as language (the capacity to speak), labor (the capacity to produce), and memory (the capacity to recall) as dwelling in potentiality and its peculiar temporality with respect to that of events and acts:

The faculty resembles a uniform duration, a continuum that envelops and circumscribes discrete units, single realisations. It is a bizarre duration, however: since it is never present, the capacity to speak is not spread out across a multitude of ‘nows,’ and nor can it be broken down into (or measured in) lapses of time. If the act is ‘now,’ potential is ‘always’: the former is evanescent, the latter is permanent.[11]

Or put otherwise, potential’s “now” is always, permanently delayed.

The other point on which Agamben and Virno agree is that the possible manifests itself as a perpetual, iterated withdrawal from the act, which manifests the “now” in the present. However, this withdrawal is not a passage from potential to act, or the disappearance of the potential in the act, but rather its suspended preservation as a split in the present, opening time to recollection and to newness.[12] Virno asserts that “potential is not a potential act, not an almost-now on the verge of entering the series of ‘nows.’ It is a perpetual not-now, a lasting actuality.”[13] Agamben concurs, “Contrary to the traditional idea of potentiality that is annulled in actuality, here we are confronted with a potentiality that conserves itself and saves itself in actuality. Here potentiality, so to speak, survives actuality and, in this way, gives itself to itself[14]—or as Duchamp might put it, the Bachelor grinds his own chocolate.

Lastly, looking briefly to the broader ambit of Virno’s argument about the category of the possible, understood as a conceptual persona of human faculties, we can understand a further resonance with Duchamp’s artistic thinking in their shared aversion to the “déjà vu,” the temporality of “retinal art” and its visual identification of objects in the succession of “nows.” By way of a reading of Henri Bergson’s conception of “memory of the present” and “false recollection” as a collapse of memory and perception, Virno offers a far-reaching philosophical reinterpretation of the experience of déjà vu as hinging upon the confusion of the anteriority of the faculty, with its existence in the present as potentiality, with a replication in the present of a real past act. In other words, as Virno notes, “It identifies a faculty with the sum of its objectifications. It reabsorbs the past-in-general back into the chronological sequence of time.”[15] The curiously intermittent and incomplete nature of Duchamp’s “works”; the obsessive, extended processes by which he  prepared them and their non-eventual “fizzling” into a passively accepted “destiny of the thing”; their delayed and diffused production, elaboration, and reception, allow us to glimpse something that withdraws from the artistic act and its entanglement with a déjà vu that hovers around the retinal experience of pictures: the possible. There lies still ahead of us a possible history of the avant-garde that fully accounts for the implications of Duchamp’s inaction.


[1] Marcel Duchamp, The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, eds. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973), 26.

[2] Susi Bloch, “Marcel Duchamp’s Green Box,” Art Journal 34, 1 (1974): 27-28.

[3] Ibid., 25.

[4] Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971), 65.

[5] Ibid., 75-76.

[6] Maurizio Lazzarato, Marcel Duchamp and the Refusal of Work, trans. Joshua David Jordan (New York: semiotext(e), 2014), 7. Cf. for a complementary treatment of Duchamp, Boris Groys, “Marx After Duchamp, or the Artist’s Two Bodies,” in Groys, Going Public (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2010), 121-134.

[7] On political interpretations of Duchamp, see my essay, “Reviving Political Aesthetics (After Duchamp, Even), Affirmations: Of the Modern, 1, 1 (2013), 71-104. https://affirmationsmodern.com/articles/78/

[8] Duchamp, Essential Writings, 23.

[9] Ibid., 73.

[10] Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 178.

[11] Paolo Virno, Déjá Vu and the End of History, trans. David Broder (London: Verso, 2015).

[12] In this regard, despite apparent convergences, the conception of possibility that Virno and Agamben articulate is radically different from that of Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi in Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility (London: Verso, 2017). Berardi’s basic notion is that the present is a chaotic swarm of latent possibilities, some of which will be facilitated or frustrated by current social organization. It is precisely this dialectic of latency and selective actualization that Virno and Agamben question, in favor of an ontology of the possible continually withheld from actuality. The latter, I would argue, is more consonant with Duchamp’s temporality of delay in the possible.

[13] Ibid., 90-91.

[14] Agamben, Potentialities, 183.

[15] Virno, Déjà Vu and the End of History, 31.

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