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  • Reflections on DuchampBergson Readymade
  • Federico Luisetti (bio)
    Translated by David Sharp

[I]nside the person we must distinctly perceive, as through a glass, a set-up mechanism.

—Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1901)

In spite of the enormous critical attention paid to Marcel Duchamp’s art and theoretical background, the dialogue with Bergsonism is mostly confined to scattered references and erudite observations.1 Paradoxically, the major obstacle to this encounter has been the immense popularity of Henri Bergson’s philosophy since the initial decade of the twentieth century. Such success has come with a price, however, for the proliferation of neutralizing schematizations has progressively suffocated the specificity of his thought and subsequently impeded the understanding of his epistemological radicalism, so cherished by Duchamp and the historical avant-garde.2

Consider, for example, how the specter of Bergson constantly hovers over Linda Dalrymple Henderson’s authoritative discussion of Duchamp’s scientific sources. Although Henderson recognizes the diffuse presence in Duchamp of various Bergsonian motives, because she regards Bergson as the antiscientific philosopher of the “inner self” and of “profound self-expression,”3 Bergsonian notions seem to her incompatible with the artistic revolution prompted by Duchamp. A historiographical exorcism is therefore needed in order to heal the consequences of the traumatic Bergson-Duchamp incest. Herein lies Henderson’s solution: since Duchamp rejects the aesthetic principles of the Puteaux Cubists, he also abandons Bergsonism, which represents their philosophical matrix. Thus, the Bergsonian ideas “undoubtedly” present in Duchamp’s artistic lexicon are nothing but debris accumulated in the course of his battle with the Cubist disciples of Bergson.4

To counter these approaches, in the following pages I will map Duchamp’s absorption and creative distortion of Bergsonism,5 concentrating on key terms of both Bergson’s philosophy and Duchamp’s speculations on art: space, “readymade,” delay, body, virtual, circuit, machine.6 I will then discuss the theoretical implications of Duchamp’s Bergsonism and place the readymade7 within its proper context: the deconstruction of the Western metaphysics of reflection. [End Page 77]


Beginning with Time and Free Will (1889), Bergson distinguishes between two types of multiplicities: on the one hand, “duration” (durée), “an internal multiplicity of succession, of fusion, of organization, of heterogeneity, of qualitative discrimination . . . a virtual and continuous multiplicity that cannot be reduced to numbers,” and on the other, “a multiplicity of exteriority, of simultaneity, of juxtaposition, of order, of quantitative differentiation . . . a numerical multiplicity, discontinuous and actual.”8 This opposition is generally understood as a clear-cut differentiation between the inner experience of time and the objective consistence of space. In Time and Free Will and Matter and Memory (1896), there are several passages that can be read accordingly, since duration is often described as a continuous, indivisible temporal experience, and space as that which “by definition, is outside us.”9

Yet for Bergson space and time are mixed terms, and their internal complexity does not coincide with the semantic distinction between the two multiplicities. Deleuze has clearly formulated the central difficulty that a reductionist theory of space and time would imply, a problem of which Bergson is fully aware. Since the concept of duration has an ontological span, space must find a place within time and vice versa: “If things endure, or if there is duration in things, the question of space will need to be reassessed on new foundations. For space will no longer simply be a form of exteriority. . . . Space itself will need to be based in things . . . to have its own ‘purity’” [Deleuze, Bergsonism 49]. Hidden behind the motif of the “spatialization of time,” Bergson has devised a stratified theory of space, whose origins we can trace back to his philosophical apprenticeship [see Heidesick 29–42].

Departing from Kant, Bergson introduces a boundary between the “perception of extension” and the “conception of space,” between qualitative space, which he calls “extensity” (étendue), and “abstract,” “homogeneous” space: “We must thus distinguish between the perception of extensity and the conception of space. . . . [S]pace is not so homogeneous for the animal as for us . . . determinations of space, or directions, do not assume for it a purely geometrical form” [Bergson, Time...