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  • Untitled
  • Dale Jacquette

I recently acquired the unpublished manuscripts of an obscure

early twentieth-century philosopher. Among the papers is included a detailed account of the semantics of untitled artworks and literary productions. I am convinced of the truth of this important aesthetic theory, and I wish to serve as editor to help see the work to publication. Unfortunately, the manuscript is untitled, which poses an interesting difficulty.

The principles of the theory are these:

  1. 1. A title is an important part of any text or artwork.

  2. 2. Every text and artwork must be titled for publication.

  3. 3. ”Untitled” (and the equivalent) is a (convention-governed) title.

  4. 4. When an author or artist titles a work “Untitled,” the decision may be (inclusively) made for these three reasons, and accordingly have (inclusively) these three implicit meanings or interpretations:

    1. a. The author or artist is unable to assign a more satisfactory content-descriptive or connotative title, and so by default, when nothing better offers, decides to title the work “Untitled.”

    2. b. The author or artist wishes for reasons of prestige to have the work included in the category of untitled productions (works left untitled often by famous authors or artists).

    3. c. The author or artist chooses the title “Untitled” as a purely arbitrary label for the work, in that the name is not supposed [End Page 102] to express any particular content-descriptive or connotative meaning, or intent to include the project in the established category of untitled works.

  5. 5. When an author or artist leaves an untitled work to posterity, it is an editorial-curatorial offense according to condition (1) to impose a content-descriptive or connotative title on the work in order to satisfy condition (2) for purposes of publication.

The author emphasizes the significance of titles as an integral part of any text or artwork. Titles do not merely name and identify a piece for purposes of reference, but are often as valuable as any component of the body of a production. Some works cannot be understood without their titles, while for others, especially in modern art and literature, the title may actually be the main point, to which the attached body of work is secondary and accidental.

Although every text and artwork according to proposition (2) must be titled for public presentation, the theory maintains that it is the greatest presumption for an editor, literary executor, art dealer, museum curator, or the like to impose an unauthorized title on an untitled production, at the risk of contradicting, distorting, or misrepresenting an artist’s or author’s original ideas. The only proper, semantically neutral, procedure for publishing an artist’s untitled production is to title it “Untitled” (or the equivalent). The theory gains strength from the fact that it reasonably explains this frequently followed editorial-curatorial practice. It incorporates a normative judgment about the correct policy for managing certain literary and other art productions, based on a sensitive appreciation of the semantic role of titles in the holistic meaning of a text or artwork.

Here is my problem. The theory seems correct to me; I accept the author’s injunction against the imputation of substantive titles on untitled works, and I want to act in accordance with it. Proposition (2) requires that I give the work a title if it is to be published. The manuscript cannot appear indecently with a blank cover page, and it cannot be cataloged, reviewed, or entered into bibliographies as a null entry. But if I title the work “Untitled,” as proposition (3) permits, I violate the injunction not to impose a content-descriptive or connotative title on the work for purposes of publication. This is unavoidable in the nature of this special case, simply because the manuscript happens to be about that which is untitled. The same is true if I try to title the piece “‘Untitled’” or “[No Title]” or “The Semantics of Untitled Productions.” These are also unauthorized descriptive editorial [End Page 103] impositions. If the theory is true, the manuscript cannot be legitimately titled, even as an untitled work. Oddly, what may well be the most correct theory of untitled productions forbids all and only the titling of untitled manuscripts...

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pp. 102-105
Launched on MUSE
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