Infra-mince and the Poetics of Gas: Liner Notes, Vinyl Records, and the Difference that Makes a Difference


Lisa Gye, Swinburne University of Technology
Darren Tofts, Swinburne University of Technology
Reference this essay: Gye, Lisa and Darren Tofts. “Infra-Mince and the Poetics of Gas: Liner Notes, Vinyl Records, and the Difference that Makes a Difference.” In Leonardo Electronic Almanac 22, no. 1, edited by Lanfranco Aceti, Paul Thomas, and Edward Colless. Cambridge, MA: LEA / MIT Press, 2017.
Published Online: May 15, 2017
Published in Print: To Be Announced
ISSN: 1071-4391
ISBN: 978-1-906897-62-8
https://contemporaryarts.mit.edu/pub/infra-mince


“Sometimes – often in science and always in art – one does not know what the problems were till after they have been solved.”

–Gregory Bateson, Steps to An Ecology of Mind.

“Our eye finds it more comfortable to respond to a given stimulus by reproducing once more an image that it has produced many times before, instead of registering what is different and new in an impression.”

–Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil.

Abstract

At the Istanbul biennial in 2011, Israeli artist Dani Gal’s Historical Records Archive (2005 – present) installation blew our minds. Here was a collection of real LP albums of significant twentieth century historical events, speeches, and political debates. But it was also an archive in which the actual records were deliberately absent, foregrounding the planar cover art as information about something elusive and leaving visitors with the speculative task of imagining how they might or could sound. [1] But in its own uncanny, quantum way, it echoed our work in Classical Gas project (2011 – present) in its transformation of classical album covers from the “easy listening” tradition of popular music into canonical texts from the history of ideas. What follows, then, is a series of probes that explore a form of molecular semiotics that we perform to suggest uncanny epiphanies that can occur when, for instance, a Shirley Bassey album becomes An Ethics of Sexual Difference by Luce Irigaray [2] or Music in the Morgan Manner segues into a fighting title by Roseanne Allucquere Stone. [3] Drawing on Marcel Duchamp’s readymade concept of infra-mince, or infrathin, as well as Gregory Bateson’s informatic “difference that makes a difference,” our ongoing Classical Gasproject freeze-frames this poetic moment of transformation from one semiotic state to another. As in physics or digital vectors of information exchange, the fine and elusive epiphany of transformation is always in the eye of the beholder. Art isn’t necessarily about what you see, but what it prompts you to see.


Inhalation: The Molecular Poetics of Infra-mince

Duchamp was interested in neglected and barely visible forms of culture, in ephemeral stuff that is ignored: urinals, hat-stands, or pieces of string. The most audacious and obscure instance of this artistic conceit was the po-faced concept of infra-mince. This was an obtuse and highly intellectual thought experiment concerning questions of molecular and imperceptible change in the ordinary and the banal; such as the difference between print in its unread and read states, forms cast in the same mold, the warmth of a seat recently vacated by someone on a train, the taste and smell of tobacco smoke when exhaled. [4] Or, for us, a new Classical Gas t-shirt that has also been worn.

In terms of Classical Gas, the semantics of each album title is an analog of difference and replication at the cellular level. Body snatching an album cover by German composer Werner Müller, shape-shifting or becoming ‘Other’ in Photoshop, changes its identity at the level of the pixel, the physis and physics of digital visuality. So too the chameleon-like morphing of bodies whereby Müller rages as American literary wild-man Leslie Fiedler. [5]

Ambiguity: Philosophy as Popular Entertainment

Curiously, Duchamp insisted that one could not define the ‘infrathin,’ but only show examples of it. Coldness and Cruelty by Gilles Deleuze juxtaposes the image of Max Bygraves and Delueze’s own implied identity. The image of an English variety entertainer also elides with Deleuze’s study of the enigmatic writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, which gives the album its name. Further, the ‘infrathin’ play of time: Is Deleuze lighting up, or being told to butt out?  His countenance suggests distraction, a pause in the act of smoking. And an afterthought: Will that match light his cigarette or burn his fingers? [6]

So infra-mince stands as a differential effect of the juxtaposition of multiple forms of communication, in which text, image, genre, and an implied way of seeing all three become a discrete and manifold whole. Variation and replication occur at the same time as a kind of compressed semiotic inhalation and exhalation, as well as a way of seeing, and seeing double.

Ambiguity is a form of détournement that persuasively mixes one channel of semiotic information (such as The Elisabeth-Serenade by the Gunther Kallmann Choir) with another (Revolution in Poetic Language by Julia Kristeva). [7] This album presumes an interval between two things that we can simultaneously perceive, yet only imagine. In the material world of cardboard and pressed vinyl, there is no Revolution in Poetic Language album, but within the ‘infrathin’ poetics of Classical Gas, there is.

Liminality: In Through the Out Door

Ambiguity presumes the possibility of two different states coexisting—if obliquely—with one another. The imputed album is liminal, a border-zone between states of difference, between the mix and what could become a remix. The relationship between album title and cover art is an obscure palimpsest of two possible states, flickering; an uncanny ambivalence that leaves us, after James Joyce, “in twosome twiminds”. [8] Liminality evocatively captures this sense of double-vision, an ocular duplicity that partitions as well as occludes two different spaces or states mediated by a threshold, as in the totemic scene from John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), when John Wayne stands framed by the doorway of the Jorgensen homestead.  The perspective of the viewer is deep within the dark and cool recesses of the house. In stark contrast, the harsh, sunburnt brightness of the Texas desert glares beyond the portal. This resonant image, seen in so many variations throughout the history of cinema, is an apt figure for thinking about Classical Gas album cover art as liminal—between states in transition, waiting for something, as in Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp. [9]

But to invoke two such states in anticipation of recognition is a provisional assumption that exists in an ideal time of viewing, in which both titles (album and text) are known and recognized. This presumes the bombast and archival mastery of Joyce’s “ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia,” a figure imagined in Finnegans Wake who reads Finnegans Wake. [10] The visual epiphany of seeing double may or may not occur, since the slender membrane between two different visual codes in collision is not immediately obvious. What it is becomes a judgement made by the viewer based on the presumption of a double presence—or not.

Exhalation: The Difference that Makes a Difference

Uncannily, Gregory Bateson may be describing the process that makes this album possible when he discusses information that undergoes “successive transformation in a circuit”. [11] The difference between an overt or implied state takes possession of its a priori ‘other’ in an act of body snatching.

The visual collision of album title and image is an abrupt, momentary rupture. It creates a pause for thought, a “delay” of the kind Duchamp talked about in relation to the Large Glass. [12] As Classical Gas is fundamentally an image-text project, neither can be separated from the other. The accompanying captions or liner notes denote and detonate simultaneously—another grammatical difference that contributes a third level of meaning to the overall virtuality of an album. Here liner notes for a hi-fi stereo demonstration record, designed for a Kriesler phonograph morph, into Philosophy in the Bedroom by the Marquis de Sade [13]:

The Family Romance of Eugénie, Dolmancé and Madame de Saint-Ange. Donatien Alphonse François’s tale of the coming of age story of a voluptuary, recorded in “Single-Unit” Stereo Sound. In this “Dramatic Club and Play Reading” presentation, de Sade’s exotic parable of the boudoir comes to life as a breakthrough in musical equipment design. The “luxury finish” completes the perfect listening experience in Kriesler hi-fi innovation. [14]

The syntactic combination of acute Gallic accents and voluptuaries in the bedroom may seem inappropriate and out of place in a comfortable scene of familial harmony; however, the sensation of imposture, method acting, or parody is difficult to not see or hear, or at the very least intuit.

In other titles, the semiotic channels are neither ambiguous nor ambivalent. In An Evening with Ted Colless, [15] the liner notes denote while the image detonates. Unlike Coldness and Cruelty, the absence of an iconographic image of the recording artist and implied author provides an obvious contrast and rupture. It simply is what it is: an album featuring the Byronic cultural theorist Ted Colless at town hall. The tantalizing incertitude at play here (as with all titles in the Classical Gas catalogue) is exactly what we would hear on such a record, especially with liner notes like this:

The three Dons, Juan, Quixote and Giovanni all woven together. Ted Colless. In this celebrated night at Town Hall, Ted performs selections from his The Error of My Ways in his distinctive, oneiric way. A flâneur of space and time, rhapsodist of rhyme and reason, satirist of bombast and pretension, Ted warms to his audience as they holler for more. [16]

What do these liner notes suggest about what we think we might hear? How does Colless perform selected essays, and in what ways is this performance dream-like? These liner notes are the “bits” of information that make a difference after Bateson, the difference between a present state and a “preferred” or implied state. [17]

The Talking Cure: Erotica and Exotica

It is very difficult to know what we might hear on Totem and Taboo. And the problematic of sound and silence is gestured to in the logorrhea of the talking cure [18]:

Since its first release in 1913, enthusiasm for Totem and Taboo has been tremendous. Here, the Austrian maestro romps through one of his most requested pieces, giving it new appeal. Savour it with a Wiener Rohkost and perhaps a glass of your favourite Spätlese. A real pleasure for all the family to enjoy. Beware the blunted stylus! A worn stylus will impair the quality of sound reproduction you hear. Make sure your stylus is in good condition before you play this record. If in doubt, have it checked by your dealer—or buy a new stylus. [19]

Who knows how Freud “romps” through Totem and Taboo? But this un-decidability is the frisson of all titles in the Classical Gas catalogue, as well as the jouissance of imagining the unknowable and embracing the tension of either/or without needing to make a decision. The aesthetic of Classical Gas is hermeneutic rather than erotic, a reverse striptease in which garments are put on elicitly rather than removed illicitly. The un-decidability of either/or can’t be resolved, tantalizing in its possibilities that are not mandated by the “virtual co-existence” (after Deleuze) of writing, spoken word, image, and sound. [20]

After Derrida after Bateson after Duchamp, this poesies is the différance that makes a difference. Classical Gas albums deconstruct both channels of signification (vintage album cover art and theoretical or philosophical title) in the pure sense of deconstruction as a play of differences, not critical or hermeneutical analysis. Both signifying chains differ and defer at the same time, instantiating an un-decidability that is vaporous and gas-like, drifting, never static or fixed. The spectator contributes to the creative act of making a possible album by interpreting what could or might be. Duchamp talks of this collaborative process as a transubstantiation, in which the spectator determines “the weight of the work on the esthetic scale.” [21] Classical Gastitles are therefore not relays, but rather delays in the invocation of an imaginary, ‘fabulatory,’ or real album to come. In this way, each Classical Gas title, like the Large Glass, is “definitively unfinished.” [22]

Gas, Steam & Other Vapours: Speaking of the Devil

And what of gas and steam, and vapors and clouds? As Steven Connor notes:

The problems of deleterious air are confined almost entirely to the respiratory and alimentary systems. For other periods, air was much more generally diffused through and operative on the bodily frame…Although air arrived or arose in the lungs and stomach, it could work its way damagingly into bones, teeth and all the organs, including the brain. [23]

Classical Gas may then bring on the “vapors,” an evocatively named condition thought to loosen the body—to almost literally unstring it. In The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton quotes the Dutch physician Levinus Lemnius regarding the dangers of such tempestuous ‘vapors,’ which pulled the frame of the senses apart, leaving one susceptible to being possessed by devils:

Besides, the devil many times takes his opportunity in such storms, and when the humours by the air be stirred, he goes in with them, exagitates our spirits, and vexeth our souls; as the sea-waves, so are the spirits and humours in our bodies tossed with tempestuous winds and storms. [24]

The colloquial phrase “speak of the devil” captures that moment of serendipity and coincidence when someone talked about in their absence suddenly appears, whether on television or some other form of mediation. This unexpected visitation suggests that Classical Gas is bedeviled, or perhaps “bedazzled,” after the title of Stanley Donen’s 1967 film. Like other forms of arcana, Classical Gas titles are mysterious, but also demonically possessed, ventriloquizing the past as if in need of exorcism of devils, stink, and bad air. But Classical Gas “stanks” to a different kind of funk, more James Brown than Aleister Crowley.

Daddio of the Radio

Classical Gas is a kind of “steam radio,” an imaginary device that “belongs to some comfortable but superannuated past,” vaporous, elusive, and always on the verge of evaporation. [25] As a curious aside, when we searched for steam radio, Google asked us if we really meant “stream radio,” presuming to know better, like an executive producer telling a radio DJ what’s hot and what’s not. And, of course, Apple already has a streaming app called “Steam Radio.” But the joke depends upon the recognition and acceptance of a technological order of succession in which the digital-electronic is preceded by the electric, and the electric is preceded by the steam-driven. Like “the cloud” that we are exhorted to embrace by our technological overlords, it is all about looking back: to steam, to the ether, to vapors. They urge us not to look down at the dirt beneath our feet or at our footprint, because that gaze leads to the realization that we are living in and contributing to an ecological crisis. Instead, look up at the clouds and consign the past to the past, just in case we may learn something from it. Looking back, behind, and beyond what we see may afford a glimpse of a presence lurking fugitively just out of sight, but not beyond perception.

So breathe in, breathe out. Listen to the book. Read the album. Buy a t-shirt. Don’t learn from the past, and then, as some famous classical gasbag once said, be condemned to repeat it again and again. Easy listening and curious looking is always a risk. And it’s always a gas. [26]

References and Notes

[1] Dani Gal, Historical Records Archive,http://institutionalarchive.weebly.com/44/post/2012/02/dani-gal-historical-records-archive-2005.html (accessed June8, 2014).

[2] Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual DifferenceClassical Gas (blog), www.classical-gas.com/an-ethics-of-sexual-difference (accessed November 11, 2014).

[3] Sandy Stone, The War of Desire and TechnologyClassical Gas (blog),http://www.classical-gas.com/the-war-of-desire-and-technology/ (accessed November 11, 2014).

[4] Jay D. Russell, “Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades: Walking on Infrathin Ice,”

http://www.dada-companion.com/duchamp/archive/duchamp_walking_on_infrathin_ice.pdf, (Accessed June 10, 2014).

[5] Leslie Fiedler, No! In Thunder: Essays on Myth & LiteratureClassical Gas (blog), http://www.classical-gas.com/no-in-thunder/ (accessed November 11, 2014).

[6] Gilles Deleuze, Coldness and CrueltyClassical Gas (blog), http://www.classical-gas.com/coldness-and-cruelty/ (accessed November 11, 2014).

[7] Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic LanguageClassical Gas (blog), http://www.classical-gas.com/page/3/ (accessed November 11, 2014).

[8] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (London: Faber, 1975), 8.

[9] Susan Sontag, Notes on CampClassical Gas (blog), http://www.classical-gas.com/notes-on-camp/ (accessed November 11, 2014).

[10] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (London: Faber, 1975), 120.

[11] Gregory Bateson, Steps Towards An Ecology of MindCollected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology (London: Intertext Books, 1972), 315.

[12] Richard Hamilton, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, trans. George Heard Hamilton (Stuttgart: Edition Hansjörg Mayer, 1960).

[13] Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the BedroomClassical Gas (blog), http://www.classical-gas.com/philosophy-in-the-bedroom/ (accessed November 11, 2014).

[14] Ibid.

[15] An Evening with Ted CollessClassical Gas (blog), http://www.classical-gas.com/an-evening-with-ted-colless/ (accessed November 11, 2014).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Gregory Bateson, Steps Towards an Ecology of MindCollected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology (London: Intertext Books, 1972), 381.

[18] Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, (blog), http://www.classical-gas.com/totem-and-taboo/ (accessed November 11, 2014).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York, NY: Zone Books, 1991), 56.

[21] Marcel Duchamp, “The Creative Act”,https://courses.ischool.utexas.edu/Smith_Kim/2007/Fall/INF385H/Duchamp_CreativeAct.pdf (accessed June 8, 2014).

[22] Pontus Hulten, ed., Marcel Duchamp: Ephemerides on and about Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Selavy 1887-1968 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1993), 17.

[23] Steven Connor, “The Vapours,” 2003, http://www.stevenconnor.com/vapours/(accessed November 11, 2015).

[24] Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Floyd Dell & Paul Jordan-Smith (New York, NY: Farrar & Rinehart, 1927), 209.

[25] Connor, “The Vapours,” 2003.

[26] Michel Foucault, Foucault àgogo, vol.2, The Use of Pleasure, (blog), (accessed November 11, 2014).

Author Biography

Darren Tofts is Professor of Media and Communications at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. He is a well-known cultural critic who writes regularly for a range of national and international publications on issues of cyberculture, new media arts, remix culture, and literary and cultural theory. He is the author (with artist Murray McKeich) of Memory Trade.  A Prehistory of Cyberculture (Sydney, Interface Books, 1998), ParallaxEssays on Art, Culture and Technology (Sydney, Interface Books 1999), and Interzone: Media Arts in Australia (Sydney, Thames and Hudson 2005). With Annemarie Jonson and Alessio Cavallaro, he edited Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History (Power Publications/MIT Press, 2003), and with Lisa Gye he edited Illogic of Sense: The Gregory L. Ulmer Remix (ALT-X Press, 2007).  His most recent book is Alephbet: Essays on Ghost-writing, Nutshells & Infinite Space (Prague/Litterraria Pragensia, 2013).