The Micro-Mechanics of Material Metaphor

What started one place ended in another; in between it passed through something.

A computer-controlled machine carves the surfaces of 150 pound, cubic foot, blocks of concrete with its hammer drill. Each block is lifted onto the machine in turn and held inside its mechanism. The drill moves in a path across the block’s surface and laboriously traces out the words “girly man” in various configurations. The marked blocks stand on one side of the machine while the intact blocks lie in wait at its other side. A wall separates the controlling computer from the machine and the blocks.

It is therefore never naïve … to ask oneself before a painting what it represents. Meaning sticks to man: even when he wants to create something against meaning or outside it, he ends up producing the very meaning of nonsense or non-meaning.[7]

... the separation between one's own ideas and one's use of materials ... becomes almost uncommunicatively wide when confronted by a viewer.[8]

... all I make are models. The actual works of art are ideas ... the models are a visual approximation of a particular art object I have in mind.[9]

It looks like an installation: a mixed media assemblage of various items arranged in the space of a gallery in such a way that the experience of the visitor has some relation to the conceptual territory being explored by its creator. I would not challenge that description; and at least it answers the question, “what is this?” by connecting the work to a known (art) practice with roots in conceptualism.


At its best, a gallery would become a contemplative space. But as conceptualists must admit, to assume that anyone experiencing the environment and its objects will be having similar thoughts is presumptuous. And if the art of it is in the idea, then one has the choice between presumption or the evaporation of art as the situation fails to convey the intention of the artist. The ball has been dropped. Kosuth worried that material objects would unsuccessfully communicate ideas and justified a turn toward language as an effort to narrow the gap. Yet his own work in language betrays the very imprecision of language.[10]

If the play continues, it might be better to simply let go of intention and be satisfied that use is sustained across an intersubjective divide. It is just a think-thing. The use of it, as well as the making of it is that: play–play, which is thinking. If it is possible to value thinking outside of the overestimation of reason which constitutes us as instrumentalzing monsters, that is what I wish to do. The things in the gallery are my think-things–artifacts of a contemplative existence that consists of asking questions about a situation, and searching for ways to inhabit it. The think-things are at once models of situation and of habitation, models of and models for. But I would want to make a distinction between Kosuth’s notion of model–which seems like an instantiation or illustration of an idea which proceeds it–and the notion of a think-thing, which resists any sense of its priority, and insists on a leveling of the hierarchy presumed between materiality and language. Thinking adheres to things; there is no idea that can exist in a “platonic” vacuum. Thinking and materiality are not separable except within conceptual fictions of structure. Thinking, just like language, is bound to materiality irrevocably.


To whom
No subject
No image
No taste
No beauty
No message
No talent
No technique (no why)
No idea
No intention
No art
No feeling[11]

... writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.[12]

... these aspects of an individual, which we designate as an author (or which comprise an individual as an author), are projections, in terms always more or less psychological, of our way of handling texts ...[13]

As Cage’s aesthetics of indifference demands, and Barthe’s and Foucault’s discussions of the death of the author confirm, the matrix of creation is irrelevant; meaning is constructed in the audience. It might seem extreme to insist that nothing is conveyed–that audiences share nothing with authors that would form the basis of some sort of communication, dialog, argument, or consensus, communities of understanding, discursive networks, identities, ethnicities, nationalities, etc. But the assumption that there is no transparency in any cultural production, makes reception a matter of struggle, contestation and difference, metaphor, semblance, and resonance, (mis)apprehension, (mis)interpretation, and mistaken identity. To paraphrase Barthes, the reader is the space on which writing is inscribed. And the given of reception is simply the text; authorship is a fictional function which need not persist. It is destination rather than origin which matters.

The think-thing offers itself to others as it is discarded by its previous user: it is the sad orphaned toy in the recycle bin. It is taken up again by one who recognizes in it a possible use that need not acknowledge the item’s provenance (although it might). The thing bears the marks and wear of its past use; its form conforms to the shapes and habits of its situation, which might interest the new user because they are her own, or her alternate, or her past, or her future–or because she might invent a future by employing the thing as a lever against her current state, and shift the trajectory of her habitation.

It is also important to disavow that there is an idea. There is no idea which is whole, complete, unique, and separate. There is only a thinking–an activity, a gesture, an event, a process, a movement, a meeting, a collision, a coincidence, an alliance, an appropriation. There is only a relationship between a situation and a habitation, both of which are dynamic trajectories.

This, the think-thing you are reading, is also a model. It models a play that is possible in relation to the think-thing that is Inscription. But it has the same status as the thing; the thing is not its origin, and it does not supercede it. This is not the thing’s explanation, not a substitute for the thing–not an artist’s statement, not a substitute for the maker. It supplements the thing which readily admits its incompleteness, but it does not complete the thing, and it remains patently incomplete itself.

Here is written: I write this thing and I made that thing. But the I that is written expresses doubts about the usefulness of the concept of authorship. Authorship, if it exists (i.e. if it is a useful notion), exists as the prior use (not the originary use) of the thing; and the thing, if it exists, exists as the trace of a use.

This thing is the re-use of the thing called Inscription. This inscription is the trace of the use of the thing. The use of the thing is the thinking of the think-thing. This trace of the use of the thing is the thinking of thing–is the thinking through of the thinking of the think-thing.


A wall sits on the divide between software and hardware, between command and controlled. The arrangement of the room re-presents the configurations of computation and production as axes of a diagram mapping the structure of language onto everything. A sign, as we well know, is diacritically cut at the seam between signifier/signified, and the containment of signification relies on this tentative alliance between the material and the immaterial, which cleaves and is cleaved. Likewise, the space is divided.

The room gives four views: two concealing and two revealing the conspiracy of the divided system. View A gives priority to the immaterial, to idea and to control, while obscuring the mechanics of the transformation of raw material into finished products, and arrogating to concept, the power of transformation. View B foregrounds raw materiality, nature, and the formless; but from here, the continuity of material with the combined forces of mind and muscle fill it with the scent of purposiveness, while relegating the perfected and transformed to the distance as utopic vision. (How, one might ask, does a manufactured cube stand in for the formless? The answer is that it does so, just as the word “formless” stands in for the formless: only because it is iconically blank, and only because we can tolerate quite a bit of irony.) View C embraces techne, centering it neatly between the raw and the cooked, and hides the wizard where he would be hid. View D presents the child as the successful hero of an oedipal drama, with the scene of his struggle depicted in all its tawdriness behind him.

Only one scene of these four tableaux is immediately betrayed (although their co-presence in the room betrays them all): the serenity of the view from the gallery gate is pierced by the cries of the instrument and its captive. While the rule of opticality enables the structuring of the space, and sets up the possibility of differential readings, the pervasiveness of the auditory element, the sonic permeability of spatial divisions and material partitions, brings attention to the fiction of hermetic containment. This neatly arranged space is traversed by networks of flux that both follow and ignore the visible structure of its material arrangement, which is only one dimension, and a humbled one at that, of a more complex nexus of interpenetrating structures.

The elements of the work are the console, the machine, and the blocks. The console and the machine make up the system which processes the blocks as in a Taylorist assembly line, although all together the group forms an analog of the Turing Machine. The series of blocks functions like the infinite tape of inscription divided into squares, the machine as the moving, marking and erasing apparatus, and the console as the mechanism for tracking state and recording and following the table of operations.

The console with its empty chair (a) stands as a marker of the alienated psychic labor that disembodied and set within the rungs of a silicon ladder, continues to work as a productive memory of post-subjective mentation. That only certain tools and certain memories have an inertia that keeps them working, even at a distance from their makers or users, is emphasized through the contrasting placement of hand tools at the console. The absence of the human touch is temporary; the empty chair tempts the visitor to sit in for a missing manager, and reminds us that the machine does not really run all on its own: it requires both the first mover and the maintenance man. Moreover, the mercy seat is the first of four holes, four spaces, four absences at the core of each of the stations of the cross (for subject, object, material, and product). The mercy seat, please recall, is nothing but an empty chair riding on a book of rules. And, at a certain level of abstraction all holes are equivalent.

The pile of blocks (b) sits on the unmarked floor of the room so that each block makes its place by its presence alone.[14] Because the block inhabits a location, its presence anticipates its absence by opening up the possibility that it can be removed and replaced. Presence converts the emptiness of space into the locative of place and enables the containment property immanent in the unmeasured state of spatiality to become manifest. Presence initializes the procedures of seriality, and the possibility of use, by inaugurating the possibility of absence, which is the possibility of use.

The carriage of the machine (c) is the space for the block: the mobile space of the vehicle. The transformation of form is compared with and depends on the translation of location in space. In contrast to the movement of content, which produces the emptiness of an evacuation of place, vehicular place moves with its content, and transforms its content by manipulating its locative properties. The container function of a static place is equivalent to the container function of a mobile space, which conveys its content–or its emptiness–between events, events being the conjunction/disjunction of contents and spaces.

On the pedestal (d) which holds the finished block, place is symbolically hierarchized: there is the high and there is, in contrast, the low. The containment function of place allows the differential assignment of value which depends on the possibility of separation. Judgment relies on the difference that is provided by the containment function of space. The pedestal allows the place of the finished block to be separated from the floor and marks the function of the pedestal by its contrast with the unelevated placement of the blank blocks. The temptation to an overestimation of the value of the product is balanced by the ironized use of the pedestal’s conventionality, and its figured insignificance in comparison with the machinations of the system, which stands actively as its situation, its ground.

The machine is the main focus of interest within the room. It attracts attention by its noise, by its metallic gleam, by its complexity, by its motion, and by its violence. The machine orchestrates a repetitive event cycle in which its two main parts force the collision of a block and a hammer drill. The block, mounted on the carriage of the machine, travels back and forth within the constraint of a single dimension of movement along the line of the z-axis. The drill secured in its opposing mount, travels within the constraint of a two dimensional movement defined by the single plane of the xy-axes. The violence of the machine is expressed at the moment when the paths of the two actors intersect. The impossibility of the cohabitation of space generates a force that breaks the block, the drill, and the machine; it produces an accommodation by fractioning an actor, and transforming the habitation function of some part of it, into a containment function: a hole is formed.

... a system whose time evolution can be predicted exactly.
... an algorithm in which the correct next step depends only on the current state. This contrasts with an algorithm ... where at each point there may be several possible actions and no way to chose between them except by trying each one ...[15]

Whatever it is that is inscribed on the block, that inscription is the outcome of an event that results from the constrained movements of the two actors. Inscriptive production is described metaphorically as this violent conjunction that makes work of collision. The appearance of the aggression of the actors is only a perspective on their constrained movement. Their mechanical constraint is shadowed, doubled and motivated by the rule sets that govern the motion of the motors: the programmatic control of the machine by the rules of the console. Although the rules are determined in the choice of the inscription (the block is sentenced to bear the caption of its crime) the outcome of the event is not strictly deterministic.

The indeterminacy of the outcome is not, in this case, a result of a probabilistic or generative strategy in the console, but rather play in the physical system itself. The gesture and the texture of the inscription on the block–and even the degree of success in achieving the completion of the inscription, its legibility, its correspondence with the instructions and programmatic intentions of the console and its operator–is a product of the combined contributions of mechanical and programmatic constraint with the play of the actors–which is to say, of the material qualities of the hardened mortar, the aluminum structure, the physical linkages, the efficiencies of the mechanics, the deficiencies of the motors, and the limitations of the software.

The locations of slack are multiple and dispersed throughout the entire apparatus, but their significance is concentrated and multiplied in proximity with the collision events. The brittleness of the block and the looseness of the drill bit are primarily responsible for the consistency of the worked surfaces of the bit and the block. The bit has a considerable tendency to wear, which though less visible and dramatic than the effects on the block, must be noted to understand that the destruction is mutual. The bit is like a pencil, since its use, uses it up. Unlike a pencil though, inscription happens in this event, not as its substance is distributed across a surface, but as its insistence, the force of its intrusion, breaks the coherence of the opposed surface. Since the machine’s grip on the bit is loose, each successive press of the bit to the block channels the trajectory of the event in one of three possible types of paths: through the wear of previous events; or along a line of facture; or directly into the block along a path of fricative abrasion and micro-fracture which produces a new hole. The worked surfaces are the aggregation of serial events which accumulate and collect secondary proximity effects. These effects are based on the interaction between events, and produce a probabilistic surface, a surface where tendencies toward certain types of trajectories cohere and form patters of accommodation and refusal, of likelihood and improbability. Texture is the map of these effects.


This discussion, which might be termed “the micro-mechanics of material metaphor” opens the installation Inscription to metaphor, without specifying any intended mappings between the situation of its construction and its manifestation. Any object is, of course, always already subject to metaphoric use; by “open” I mean only to suggest that the discussion exposes less obvious aspects of the material properties of Inscription and in doing so facilitates their availability as think-things. Think-things offer themselves to thought.

Alternatively, this text is simply constructed as available in that capacity. Its existence is not necessarily dependent on the pre-existence of the machine, and could as easily have been created in relation to an imagined, virtual, or fictive machine–an imagined, virtual, or fictive world. Here is written: It was not; if I am not dissembling, the machine was constructed in the context of a particular cultural and political landscape, the thinking through of which produced the machine and its installation. But what are these scapes? The following passages explore them as a way of laying alongside these things (this text, the installation) another thing, so that the proximity effects of all these things will be open for your thinking-through.


... an exhibition is a system of meanings, a discourse, which, taken as a complex unit or enunciative field, can be said to constitute a group of statements: the individual works comprising fragments of imaged discourse or utterances which are anchored by the exhibition's titles, subheadings, and commentary, but at the same time unsettled, exceeded, or dispersed in the process of their articulation as events.[16]

Mary Kelly comments that the exhibition “conducts a passage” (ambiguously a textual fragment or an experiential journey) out of “its spatiotemporal disposition, conventions of display, codes of architecture”–that is, the installation (of an exhibition) orchestrates the reception of its contents in a way that remains at least partially open and “at the disposal of the spectator” because of her agency within the mechanics of perusal. The catalog, however, or any written accompaniment to the exhibition, fixes the narrativizations of display and image, and “confers an authorship, an authority, on the exhibition events.”[17]

Here is written: My hesitance to create this text (I had neglected to mention I was not happy to do this.) is the consequence of my reluctance to authorize a particular reading of the work–to construct a conventional subject of authorship and intent. My own use of the materials is dynamic and promiscuous, as they hold interest only as long as they can sustain the mobility of thinking. If I am not changed in the experience, I am disappointed. The astute reader will recognize the signs of my transformation within this text–this text being a trace of my passage through Inscription. It is not a rehearsal of my motivations, it is not an explanation of what the piece definitively means. It is a page made blank by the scars of a previous use.

I imagine that even within the volubility of this text, a certain reticence can remain in the writing, and that the writing will fail to completely foreclose the potential for an open use of itself and of Inscription. The writing takes up a paratactical strategy declining to explicitly map the micro-mechanics of metaphor onto the particularities of context. It should be left to user of these materials to construct the passages between, and to make connections among, the forms and fictions that are on offer. A resonant system remains inert until disturbed by the event of contact or excitable proximity; only then does it wake and ring.


[7] Roland Barthes, “The Wisdom of Art”.

[8] Joseph Kosuth, in Arthur R. Rose, “Four Interviews,” Arts Magazine (February 1969), p. 23, quoted in Liz Kotz, “Language Between Performance and Photography”, October 111 (Winter 2005) p. 10.

[9] Joseph Kosuth, "Statement" (June 1966), Collected Writings, p. 3, quoted in Kotz, p. 13.

[10] Kotz's article mentions both her own and Buchloh's observations regarding the persistence of the gap between artistic intention and reception within Kosuth's linguistic practice, pp. 10-11.

[11] Indifference refers to an attitude that includes authorship but applies to much more; see Kotz, p. 12.

[12] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath, New York, Hill and Wang, 1977. “To give a text an Author,” writes Barthes, “is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.”

[13] Michel Foucault, "What is an Author?" Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1977. pp. 124-127.

[14] This notion, as well as many of the ideas about containment below, relies on Deleuze's discussion of place and the empty square in The Logic of Sense, New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

[15] Free Online Dictionary of Computing.

[16] Mary Kelly, "Re-Viewing Modernist Criticism", Imaging Desire, MIT, 1996, pp. 99-100.

[17] Kelly, p. 100.