The General Idea Lectures: Copycat Academy (2014)
Given as a series of public lectures as part of Hannah Hurtzig's Copycat Academy, A Weeklong Master Class with an Absent Master: AA Bronson and General Idea as part of the Luminato Festival, Toronto, June 2014. Hurtzig chose me as the resident expert or local authority on General Idea. The lecture subjects were chosen by Hannah to correspond to the day's themes: death, Glamour, perversion, plagiarism, and collectivity.
Lecture 1: Death and the Maiden (June 9)
We enter under the pall of death. We are in the house of death. I repeat: We are in a house of death. Silence, respect, and order are due. We come to show our respect. A corpse is absent yet still has a presence. An aura lingers. An otherworldly aura.
We are considering a difficult image, this image of Felix Partz, member of General Idea, barely just departed: an icon of his death, captured twenty years ago. Ron Gabe, I knew him as. Likewise Felix. These were names to use between worlds, between one world and another. His switch from one name to the other, from Ron to Felix, was rather a borderline crossover. He was a borderline artist, General Idea’s theoretician of the borderline. His new identity, from Ron to Felix, contrariwise to its assumption, rather was a means of de-individuation. Private Partz: he was subsumed, or consumed, in a new identity, as an entity, part of a collective group with a corporate name: General Idea. Becoming General Idea, even while performing a new role, he was de-individuated, just as the death mask de-individuates, rather than we think creates an impression of the just expired individual. Instead of capturing features in its indexical embrace, the death mask begins the process of letting go, of witnessing details disappear—first the eyes, but really any twitch or twinkle of individuality, evidence of life itself, are erased by its smoothing hand, its smothering embrace, its embalming artifice. Embalm. The image, for instance, or rather the icon, embalms—flattens out the jagged edges of the violence of death into the surface sheen of seduction.
To embalm means:
1. To “preserve (a corpse) from decay by means of material injection of a preservative” 2. “Keep (a place) unchanged”
To run ahead of myself, because one always runs ahead of death, and then finds death already there, where one arrives, also where one departed, moreover all along the way. To run ahead of myself, isn’t Glamour this material injection of a preservative—that is, maintaining Miss General Idea embalmed perpetually, even though the incumbents always, theoretically, changed? And isn’t the Pavillion itself, The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion, even set off in distant 1984 as it then was in that mythical year, isn’t the Pavillion a place kept unchanged, itself indeed embalmed and embalming? Embalmed but also embalming. Container and contained, like Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square? Maintenance was what the Pavillion was all about. Image maintenance. Keeping it all erect and elevated—for all to see, basically to witness and worship, to witness and worship what was only an image, a false front, a false front that, moreover, we maintain.
And “balm,” it too, “a pleasant perfume or fragrance,” my dictionary says, isn’t balm this rising up, like censered incense, of our complicity, our seduction, the process, the encapsulating, embalming approval of our submission to Miss General Idea?
Absent, too, today is AA Bronson. But he is alive. He lives on, survives. Living on, is he our proper guide to General Idea’s enterprise? No, he is excluded from this task, structurally excluded. He lives on in this borrowed name he originally pseudonymously created, as well known as he has since made it, individuated it, that is. In a sense, General Idea survives in his pseudonym. This borrowed name, this name baptized in the correspondence network, where proliferating pseudonyms were “recorded ‘history’, concerns and events recorded in names to provide contextual information.” AA Bronson, lone survivor, witness to the catastrophe, is he our guide? Is his name a life-line, a surviving, resonating, attracting, live-saving fetish? In that distant, past correspondence world, it was said, indeed AA Bronson said it: “A fetish object is the intersection of a multiplicity of potent meanings, here made visible. It is the point at which a network of significations whirlpool about a convenient image.”  “The fetish object is thus a convenient point around which ritual may gather and concentrate.... Ritual, accumulating about and releasing the resident imagery of fetish objects, carries the stabilization of imagery beyond the mere objectification offered by fetish objects. The ritual re-enacts the potency of the imagery in repeated manifestation of its venerated importance.”  Here we are, venerating, paying copycat homage.
No, no, not AA; death remains our guide, Virgil to this underworld cum overworld.
AA survives and in his survival, unwillingly liberated from the bind, released from this collective of three, from three he returns to the one, even perhaps, guru-like, to a one above, the one above: how much now he appears like Miss General Idea these days!
Death. [full stop] Death introduces us to the system, to the other world of General Idea, to the mythic other world, its otherworldliness: an underworld and an overworld as well, that is, a world above, separated from us, but also a world that lords it over us—like William Burroughs’s Mayan priests. General Idea as priestly triumvirate? AA Bronson now as healer, humbled. Or is he?
It was a mythic world and, as such, was complete. It always was. Mythic worlds are complete even if they are still being elaborated. There is no history here, no access through history. We require a leap into the void.
The death of Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal in 1994 was the end of General Idea as an enterprise. Without them, without the threesome, without its tripartite stability, General Idea could not carry on. Only AA Bronson could survive. Death was a calamity, a catastrophe, the final crisis of this collective career. But this crisis was different. After all, there were many crises before. The Pavillion was already dissolved, destroyed; it had been consumed in a catastrophic fire. But the three, the stable, heroic three persisted. They tempted fate; they played with fire. Yet this crisis was different: it was not stage-managed by the artists. It came from out of frame, from outside their system, but not to demolish it since the artists had already done that (in 1977 already, well before General Idea ended). The crisis was visited from outside their system. Death came calling in 1994. But was death figured—moreover death and destruction pre-figured—within their work all along, as a constituent part of it, constituting it actually?
Death introduces us to their system, opens it up and closes it off, before dismantling it. Witness: the End. But maybe the system itself is death, death itself. General Idea’s was a closed system, and any closed system is homeostatic. One criterion for any structure is that it is reversible: decomposition follows composition; destruction follows construction. The secret of General Idea’s system is that it was a system in motion. Is there life yet?
What was it that General Idea put in motion that kept it alive, that draws us collectively here today?
From the start, General Idea were lucky or intuitive enough to hit upon an overall totalizing structure, which, nonetheless, was elaborated and articulated over time. Not so lucky ourselves, we must follow when their structure is complete—forever a timeless and closed system.
Perhaps only an arbitrary cut into the totality of General Idea’s work can lead to any pertinent remarks on this collective’s enterprise. Cutting remarks, however, only further fissure and proliferate, leading us deeper into a labyrinth and, in the process, re-creating the architecture of an enigma that is General Idea. At any one moment, forking lines are like fractals that mirror the whole in each part. Problematically, mirrors mirror mirrors. With no beginning and no end, this evolving and devolving structure, like myth, appears always to have existed.
From their very first editorial in the 1972 debut issue of FILE Megazine, General Idea warned us of this problem of analysis: “We might categorize connections and demonstrate the fluidity of the ballooning situation. But in the end it is all the same; the telling destroys the actuality and the story slips through our fingers, wriggling into other levels convoluted beyond expectation.” Convoluted, indeed! They themselves recommended myth: “The myth slides down the center, slicing realities into thin transparencies shuffling lives like leaves dissolving dualities into fabled tales. In the story it all comes together. In the myth opposite possibilities become complementary content.”
Myth, then, brings it all together, as ambiguous as it remains. As a story, myth operates other than history. Perhaps it is the way we should proceed here: by means of a story. But General Idea themselves have claim to their story from the moment they stated: “This is the story of General Idea and the story of what we wanted.” They were constantly telling this story and they told it better than anyone else. It is futile, therefore, to try to tell it again other than to repeat the artists’ words. Moreover, their totalizing enterprise cannot be captured in any one narrative that attempts to totalize it. Rather, any description or analysis already is anticipated in advance. Their enterprise was a whole that expanded and defined itself at every moment. Only through its mythic structure can we penetrate its devices. Myth composes a whole while any narrative of General Idea’s enterprise is only partial. A narrative no more than a chronology, therefore, is possible. Nonetheless, in myth “everything must be accounted for,” a task General Idea and the correspondence movement set themselves. A partiality that repeats might be the only way to remark the architectonics of their conceptual apparatus. Hence we proceed by a series of fragments, fragments that are not to be considered only remains but equally constructive: a view on their work. After all, deconstruction mirrored construction in General Idea’s enterprise, where the mirror, moreover, was both fictive and architectonic. Consider these fragments mirrors. Consider the cuts mirrors, too. Dividing and uniting, penetrating and glancing. They slice into myth but sometimes other than the mirror of part and whole myth already is.
They say the first cut is the deepest, but only in betrayal.
So, as always, we begin in medias res, in the middle of things, looking both forwards and backwards at the same time. Any point of entry is as good as any other as long as we don’t look for either origins or closure. General Idea began in 1969 when AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal (otherwise Michael Tims, Ron Gabe, and Slobodan Saia- Levy) more or less formed as a group, but we shall never talk here of beginnings as much as the inauguration of their enterprise, which was an ongoing fiction. General Idea ended in 1994 with the untimely deaths of Partz and Zontal, but at any one moment during their history their project, by definition, was complete.
So, in telling the story of General Idea, to say that The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion, for example, followed chronologically from The 1984 Miss General Idea Pageant makes no sense when the latter was incorporated within the former (elevated or raised up in an architectural enclosure or structural completion that had nothing of Hegel’s Aufhebung about it). And to say that The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion can be deconstructed analytically into its “architectural” elements or systematic development—that it is an entity in itself—likewise makes no sense when it continued the principles, indeed, was formed by the ideals of FILE Megazine, a collective enterprise of another function—and fiction—altogether.
In considering General Idea’s history, we must think in terms of another whole: that of an overarching conceptual apparatus guiding the elaboration of their work. Operative concepts, however, are different from artists’ strategies, which General Idea frequently announced within the fabric of their work itself, indeed, as an essential component of it. For instance, viral strategies of inhabitation articulated most succinctly in the 1975 “Glamour” issue of FILE. No more are operative concepts meta-concepts or a meta- commentary on General Idea’s own commentary itself enfolded within their work— indeed, to be more accurate, a meta-meta-commentary on their meta-commentary. As a totality, their work should not be considered only as a second-order semiological system as Roland Barthes explained myth to be—a metalanguage already parasitic on another order of language. Rather, General Idea’s work is an unconventional type of myth analysis itself, containing the evacuated form of any particular myth in its presentation, in the process re-mythifying rather than demystifying myth for their own purposes of creating art. Yet, let’s not dismiss Barthes out of hand who was otherwise so pertinent to their enterprise.
Let’s also be clear that this is not an analysis that I impose on General Idea from a superior position outside their work, demystifying it, but that these are operations internal to it, though not visible, for instance in the way that The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion is visible. But was the Pavillion ever visible or was it merely the effect of a linguistic operation? Was it only a performative fiction? Visual art produced by enunciative strategies?
Enunciation. Like General Idea, we make it up as we go along, just as I do in this enunciative, performative context, performing as I am here in front of you, guided by a system, constrained by a context. Am I making myself clear: the performative context in operation here?
General Idea was one big performance, but not one big joke as many thought. The Miss 1984 General Idea Pavillion rather was a coherent system. Take my word for it. Or read my book.
Given this complex system, given the limits of our introduction to it today, let me summarize by saying:
In General Idea’s system, there is one concept: Glamour; one operation: reversibility; one technique: cut-up; one strategy: theft; one tactic: camouflage. Surprisingly, for the complexity, diversity, even eclecticism of General Idea’s work, their system can be so reduced. But it is a system after all and systems have a basic structure and rules of operation. And within this system, Glamour really does rule.
Glamour, though, indeed the system itself, was dependent on a mirror. The mirror played a fundamental role in General Idea’s enterprise, fundamental—foundational, that is— given that mirroring was also, contradictorily, an ungrounding. The reversibility of the system was a mirror: destruction followed construction, or, rather, logically was coincident with it—or perhaps even preceded it. The mirror was all, all there was: superstructure and ungrounding at once. The Pavillion was no more than an illusion constituted and architecturally instituted by the mirror situations of its borderline cases: elevations and floor plans at once. The Pavillion was only a mirror illusion, sustained and maintained by mirrors mirroring mirrors, its image (nothing substantive or original, its images reflected, cannibalized, or plagiarized, more on that later, from elsewhere), kept erect through the architectonics of mirroring.
General Idea’s whole system was a mirror effect. A mirror effect could be the whole apparatus of art. General Idea were mirror operators, not operators hiding behind the scene, that is, but only ever within the mirror operation itself.
The mirror was the mythic signifier; strange since it was only ever empty, merely reflective—like structuralism’s “zero symbolic value.” Consider the mirror thematics of the 1973 FILE article “Are You Truly Invisible?”:
Consider your mirror’s feelings. Must it always reflect you? A) Coerce all your mirrors to look at each other. B) Now that you’ve turned them onto the ultimate narcissism, steal away your reflection while they aren’t watching. Carefully. It’s all done without mirrors. How they’ll talk about you! The vacuum created by your invisibility has got to be filled with words. They’ll talk and talk ...
Note the artists are absent in this operation (they “steal away”); only the operation itself is operative. Only the operation has value. Indeed it is the movement of value, the sole creator of value: valuing and devaluing. Very Nietzsche, this.
In spite of its so-called architectonic stability, the Pavillion was all talk, therefore, only talk. The Pavillion was sustained performatively in a linguistic operation; indeed, it only came into effect as a linguistic utterance. Words, too, were mirrors. “Cutting remarks” and mirror insertions were one and the same. (If we think of General Idea’s predilection for “cutting remarks”: camp too was a mirror function.) If we can logically say this, the mirror preceded everything—as invisible as it was. As invisible as it was, it was an event, the instantiation of a case, an instance of now: a collage collision. It was the inaugurating act: the origin of all General Idea’s work, the Pavillion included.
When we realize that a mirror is an image in collision with itself, we understand General Idea’s early slogan: “Every image is a self image. Every image is a mirror.” We must now presume that between every image (that is, between every selfsame image) is a borderline. The image does not merely reflect itself as if in a mirror (performing and posing to itself). A fissure of words, indeed, of cutting remarks, divides the image from itself. Mirrors were divisive. Mirrors were tools of destabilization. They were cutting remarks for dissolving word lines, then erecting the illusion of others: the Pavillion itself, which was erected solely through the mirror effect of its language operations. Turning the mirror on itself made this apparatus not only fictional but functional, a machine for keeping a crisis (ambiguity, contradiction—“ambiguity without contradiction” as General put it) in perpetual motion. Myth, mirror, and collage were one; they were one process of unlimited disruption and reconfiguration.
Any mirror situation was a mirror operation. It was a figure of Glamour but also a figure of Glamour’s operation. It was Miss General Idea herself who operated this device, as she did Luxon V.B., the window device of the Pavillion, where “A resonance which is ambiguity flips the image in and out of context. Layers of accumulated meaning snap in and out of focus.” Now you see it, now you don’t.
Miss General Idea was both revealing and revealed. The intermittent flash, the mirror cut was revealing. It was a memento mori that revealed the skull beneath the skin.
The angel of death: Her name was Miss General Idea. Destroy, she said.
Lecture 2: Glamour (June 10)
The 1984 Miss General Idea Pageant was directed towards the crowning of Miss General Idea. All eyes were turned towards her, focused on her elevation. Miss General Idea was the epitome of Glamour. Indeed, Glamour was the criteria for her selection. But as the centerpiece of General Idea’s system, “Glamour” is a term that cannot be pinned down. Appropriately, it remains just out of reach, but not out of sight—hardly knowable at all.
As the Pageant elevated Miss General Idea, so the Pavillion was a system for the elevation of a concept: Glamour. But in the spotlight, a crowning concept tends to obscure the means of its elevation becoming in itself a permanent symbol and enshrined emblem of its success. Concerning Glamour, we can repeat what was said about Miss General Idea herself: “Elevated she reigns; idealized she contains; artfully she maintains; dominantly she sustains our interest.” This is to say, Glamour is the mythic concept. It demands our attention.
Appropriated in part from the fashion world and in part from beauty contests, Glamour was a means to mock the art system, and the Pageant was the parody of its yearly rituals. But Glamour there was not the system, only what was elevated within it. Glamour was something in which we had a role as an audience with our vision bound and directed and our responses ritually rehearsed in its elevation. Glamour was the means by which we participated in the camp send up of the system. But was Glamour forever destined to function in this fashion?
It is assumed that the classic expression of Glamour was expounded in the 1975 “Glamour” issue of FILE. But we find that Glamour did not operate quite the same there as it did in the Pageant. We now witness not so much a turn as an exaggeration of Miss General Idea’s characteristics. Her “bottom nature” no longer was so benign. Although active and passive at the same time, her sadistic streak had been hardened to the point of aggression. She was likened to poison—and the Pageant no longer was so much about elevation as it was about violent intrusion: “Like poison Miss General Idea, objet d’art, posed on stiletto heel and bound in the latest fantasy, represents a violent intrusion into the heart of culture: the Canada Council, for example, or beauty pageants (essentially one and the same).”
This was not the only change in the function of Glamour, which remained, all the same, a difference in kind rather than type. If Glamour operated differently here, it was because the operators now told a different story. This was the story of General Idea themselves and no longer that of the Pageant. “This is the story of Glamour and the part it has played in our art,” General Idea wrote. It was a story of how the artists diverted Glamour to their own self-elevation. Glamour thus functioned within this story of their desire now “to be famous, glamourous and rich,” which was still a send-up of sorts of the art system. But within this story, which was not a pageant, Glamour was not only an attribute to achieve—as in being rich and famous; it was an operation to manipulate in order to get there.
The artists let us in on their secret to being Glamourous. Apparently it was not a matter of talent: “We never felt we had to produce great art to be great artists. We knew great art did not bring glamour and fame.” Nor was it a case of playing a convincing role, even though General Idea “made public appearances in painters’ smocks.” Primarily, Glamour was an operation of “stolen lingo.” Right away General Idea shamelessly admitted:
We knew that in order to be glamourous we had to become plagiarists, intellectual parasites. We moved in on history and occupied images, emptying them of meaning, reducing them to shells. We filled these shells then with Glamour, the creampuff innocence of idiots, the naughty silence of sharkfins slicing oily waters.
Notwithstanding its crazy lingo, here was a concise description of General Idea’s methods. “A method of invasion,” Glamour was a parasitic operation of inhabitation. But it was, as well, an object of that operation—in spite of General Idea claiming right away that: “We knew Glamour was not an object, not an action, not an idea.” However, to complicate the issue, they immediately proceeded to call it an object and an act. For instance, “Glamour acts economically.” Or in “Objet d’art,” they said “Glamourous objects open themselves like whores to meaning, answering need with vacancy, waiting to be penetrated by the act of recognition.” And in “Image Lobotomy,” they added, “Glamourous objects events have been brutally emptied of meaning that parasitic but cultured meaning might be housed there.” Ambivalently, the object opened itself or it was emptied and penetrated, turning from one to the other as if in the flick of a switch ... or a venetian blind.
Glamour exhibited a double structure: vacillating between vacancy and closure, fluctuating between being open and closed. On the one hand, the Glamourous object opened itself to penetration by meaning and recognition. On the other hand, impenetrable, the Glamourous “object exhibit[ed] unashamedly a closure and a brilliance, in a word a SILENCE which belongs to the world of myth.”
Glamour was a Borderline Case, so being open or closed was neither then a logical case of either-or (either open or closed) nor a successive event of one after the other (open then closed). Fluctuation was a principle whereby Glamour could not be pinned down because it presented alternative, even contradictory, points of view ambivalently together within the same structure: “A resonance which is ambiguity flips the image in and out of context.” However, for Glamour to exhibit this double structure (that is, being both open and closed) it had to operate on a double register whereby an action disguised itself as an object.
For an object really to be an action, an operation must contradictorily be disguised in a vacant and benumbed image. But disguise itself also was a covert action. That is, not only the object but also the action was disguised. This made it all very difficult to see—doubly so since the object or image was plagiarized, presenting itself as something it was not, but being open about it, displaying itself openly. Disguise advertised and hid itself at the same time in this contradictory, camouflaged moment: “Don’t be blinded by the invisibility of our stance,” General Idea advised readers in the “Glamour” editorial.
Blinding light disguises, especially when reflected by a mirror. In the article “Are You Truly Invisible?,” General Idea had already earlier commanded us, through a manoeuvering of mirrors, to “Cross all borders. Steal past the fashion guards and steal away the Glamour Myth! Counterfeit! Interphase! Camouflage!” Blinding obscures an action; it hides or camouflages an operation in effect. Problematically, Glamour was both the mirror act and the object of a theft by its means. The fact that we were told in the “Glamour” article what was happening did not make it any more visible, quite the reverse: an event sometimes happens disguised in the telling. “Glamour strikes in a single invisible blow,” the article concluded. The consecutive moments of plagiarism—moving in on images, occupying, emptying, and then filling them—disappeared in a spirited act, the sleight-of-hand closure that is Glamour. The act disappeared only for its effect to reappear mysteriously as a detourned object. This turned and returned object was the result of a “brief but brilliant larceny.” Glamour was theft:
Glamourous objects events have been brutally emptied of meaning that parasitic but cultured meaning might be housed there. Thus Glamour is the result of a brief but brilliant larceny: image is stolen and restored, but what is restored? Memories are blurred. Details have been erased. The image moves with the awkward grace of the benumbed, slave to a host of myths.
Glamour was never innocent, even if it had an alibi of being in plain view rather than stealthily thieving behind the scenes. Yet Glamour was doubly implicated: not only the object, it was also the act of theft. The aim of this theft, of course, was not to steal an image of Glamour but rather to put another surreptitiously in its place.
Stealing in and out hinged on plagiarism. Of the three topics of this article—Glamour, plagiarism, and role—only plagiarism acted and did not merely play a role, indeed never played a role, which is why its actions necessarily were disguised. As theft was a concealed movement of goods, so plagiarism was a disguised movement of words from one place to another, from one author to another, or simply from one context to serve as the content in another context. The original meaning was nullified in this “non- performance” of plagiarism. Plagiarism’s meaning, rather, was in its mobility, a mobility it kept under wraps, unexposed: plagiarism meant being in two places at once without being discovered.
As a theft, plagiarism was both offensive and defensive. It aggressively stole in but in the process carefully hid both its theft and its tracks on the way out, leaving nothing seemingly altered. To defend itself from discovery Glamour took its lead now from battlefield strategies where “Glamour is a passive defense.” The object of Glamour was to expose itself; but it was risky “slipping in and out of trenches” and potentially revealing oneself to enemy sightlines. Means of concealment that obscured visibility were needed when one acted dangerously out in the open near enemy lines, indeed on the borderline or battle line of nature and culture. If Glamour was contradictory—being both open and closed, hidden and exposed—then one had to use the same techniques for concealment that were also used for exposure and elevation. Thus:
The triple strategy of Glamour is simple but evasive:
1. Concealment, i.e. separation, postured innocence.
2. Hardening of the Target, i.e. closure of the object, a seeming immobility, a brilliance.
3. Mobility of the Target, i.e. the superficial image hides an APPARENT emptiness (changing one’s mind, shifting stance, ‘feminine’ logic).
We’ve talked now of Glamour and its operations, but what of the system of Glamour, the Glamour System that rules everything?
As a reigning concept, Glamour rules. But what is Glamour? It is an ideal: it is General Idea’s supreme concept, the end of its system in the elevation of Miss General Idea, the raison d’être of The 1984 Miss General Idea Pageant. Having said this, we have to admit that we cannot define Glamour; we cannot determine the essence of its “what is?” It seems instead to be a question of what Glamour is not, a question of what it is the lack of: a question of The Problem of Nothing. Definition seems impossible.
Let’s ask instead: What is the relation between the Pageant and the Pavillion, the latter being built to house the former? In other words, what is the relation between Glamour and the Pavillion? Let’s say that Glamour is a system and that the Pavillion is an apparatus to realize it. The two cannot be separated: the apparatus is a means to actualize the system. Yet, in a sense, the Pavillion is not a structure but merely an image of it. We could then say the opposite: The system is what puts the Pavillion in place (erects it) and keeps it standing (operating). As the system is a whole, all its operations are linked but not in any way that is visible. Its mechanisms have no appearance... or are only appearance. If part of the problem is that Glamour is not an object but as well not a simple concept, it is because it is a concept whose operations are achieved through the application of techniques produced by strategies and insinuated by tactics. Here is the ambiguity: confused with each other, all these terms seem what they are not. But they become clearer in their functions (not meanings, however) once we move systematically from “concept” through to “tactic.”
Concepts come first in General Idea’s system, but not necessarily ostensibly to define what follows. Coming first, concepts rather establish precedence in order to produce a simulation of order—an image of hierarchy, in fact: what elevation is all about. Elevation being Glamour’s primary aim, we are led to believe that Glamour is a concept in spite of General Idea implying that it is not (i.e., “We knew Glamour was not an object, not an action, not an idea”). Here is the problem: being a name, a concept already is myth. Problematically, a name stabilizes a system in motion. It disguises operations in action, appearing only to name an object while it actually helps produce an effect. A concept operates like myth: like Glamour, elevated it rules, while appearing to do no work. It is only “behind” the scenes, where operations are manipulated, that the operators work by means of concepts. Concepts are not visible although they condition visibility. Actually, a concept regulates an operation, but how would we know so if both concepts and operations are disguised in General Idea’s system?
Immediately two concepts rise to the top in General Idea’s system: Myth and Glamour. Myth and Glamour, though, seem one, as when the artists refer to the “Glamour Myth.” Yet Myth and Glamour are two concepts. They are primary concepts. But they are not the only concepts in General Idea’s system. They are joined by two others, joined and divided by them. The concept of Nostalgia brings Myth and Glamour together while that of the Borderline intervenes between them. Nostalgia confuses them, while making them a mirror of each other; the Borderline divides them again. Encompassing Myth and Glamour does not make Nostalgia a higher concept. It is secondary, as is the Borderline. Primary and secondary concepts are coordinated, though: Nostalgia is to Myth as the Borderline is to Glamour.
The four fundamental concepts of General Idea’s system are: Myth, Glamour, Nostalgia, and Borderline. But all can be reduced to the rule of Glamour.
In General Idea’s system, concepts are not only confused amongst themselves, they are confused as well with operations. A concept regulates an operation but cannot enact it. An operation determines an action. We might be led to think that certain operations in General Idea’s system are actually concepts, for instance, the idea of “ambiguity without contradiction.” “Ambiguity without contradiction” is not a concept, however; rather, it is a movement where “a resonance which is ambiguity flips the image in and out of context.” As an action (even one as slight as resonance), ambiguity therefore is an operation. There is even a machine—the Luxon V.B.—to articulate its flip-flop function. Concepts differ from operations. They are elevated, out of sight. Concepts appear to do no work. Work is left to the operations to fulfill the functioning of the system, to keep the Pavillion up and running. And at the Pavillion, the main activity is the elevation of Glamour, although the main operation of the Pavillion, perhaps, is simply to keep itself erected. Operations maintain the system in motion, while the system as a whole is sustained by its concepts.
Glamour’s elevation incorporates a number of different actions subordinate to it: concentrating vision, subjecting seeing, fetishizing the look, miniaturizing point of view. Other preparative activities, such as the ongoing rehearsals and repetitions of the Pageant are subservient to it, as well. At first glance, elevation seems to be the system’s basic operation.
Glamour is not only elevation; it is also theft. So the lateral actions of invasion and evacuation—the stealing in and stealing out of plagiarism—are also its operations. Elevation and theft are similar in their actions. Though differently oriented movements, they are both subsumed within a general operation of reversibility.
An ambiguous reversibility rules General Idea’s system. From the de-crowning that inevitably accompanies any crowning of Miss General Idea; to the erection then destruction of the Pavillion (“composition-decomposition”); to the “future seen in retrospect,” General Idea’s system always was in flux.
Elevation, therefore, is no one-way act, always on the up and up. Elevation is only one moment in a general movement of reversibility. In fact, elevation is subservient to the overall principle of reversibility in General Idea’s system in motion. De-crowning does not just succeed crowning; it is implicit to the ritual process from the beginning: a beauty queen is condemned to degradation from the start of her reign, indeed, from the moment of entering competition.
In its own compulsive repetition, theft, too, participates in this degradation or devaluation. With its lateral movements of invasion and evacuation, plagiarism is always a matter of reversing or inverting values by elevating others—Glamour—in place of those its downgrades and displaces or replaces. Theft is not only disguised here, reversal is as well.
With its lateral and elevatory movements, Glamour possesses the uncanny ability to occupy two structural positions at once. The ambiguity without contradiction of Glamour is this ability to be in two places at once. Glamour’s theft is also its alibi: the ability to say it was elsewhere. It is seen in one place (elevated) while it operates invisibly in another (stealing). We can tabulate the operations of Glamour thus:
The operations of General Idea’s system are: ambiguity, elevation, repetition, invasion, evacuation, and reversibility. All operations are linked through the principle of reversibility. Reversibility, therefore, is the system’s main operation. Reversibility keeps the system in flux.
Techniques are easily confused with operations. This is because they appear together. But they are not the same: they align in an action, although different techniques may be applied to any one operation. Technique is not an operation but a method or manner of doing something. Or it is the style or fashion of execution (or performance), sometimes achieved by means of a knack or trick. Techniques facilitate operations. They could be said to finesse them. Every thief has his own tricks of the trade: his specialized tools of entry. Theft employs devices; devices are techniques. Principally, there are two techniques in General Idea’s system: mirror insertion and collage cut-up. Since these are basically the same, we can say that General Idea’s one technique is cut-up.
A strategy is a plan of action, not the action itself. Etymologically the word derives from military application where the planning of attack (strategy) is distinguished from action in the field (tactics), the place where one is in contact with an enemy. In the “battle between nature and culture,” General Idea identified Glamour as a “passive defense,” whose “evasive” strategy was three-fold: concealment, hardening of target, and mobility. They added, “Glamour is the perfect simulation technique for ongoing battles.” For General Idea, simulation would seem to be both a technique and a strategy. In that the battle is ongoing, or offensive, however, simulation rather is a tactic and theft is the strategy that must be disguised or camouflaged. Since the aim of Glamour is theft, General Idea’s main strategy is theft.
We find it difficult to distinguish strategies from tactics in General Idea: intentionally so on their part. We find it difficult to distinguish strategies from tactics especially when the operations of General Idea’s work all take place in language. And when subterfuge is not only disguised but also announced, moreover. Strategies are announced; tactics are enacted. The tactic is disguised in the announcement of the strategy. This is both a strategy and a tactic. General Idea’s tactic is camouflage.
To summarize General Idea’s system, there is one concept: Glamour; one operation: reversibility; one technique: cut-up; one strategy: theft; one tactic: camouflage. Surprisingly, for the complexity, diversity, even eclecticism of General Idea’s work, their system can be so reduced. But it is a system after all and systems have a basic structure and rules of operation. And within this system, Glamour really does rule.
Lecture 3: Perversion (June 11)
Theirs was a system in motion. Theirs was a system, but this system was in motion. This is as radical as it gets. General Idea didn’t invent this system, although they articulated it better than anyone else. Or at least, that is, AA Bronson did, even though he wrote his description under the collective name of General Idea in a 1973 article titled “Pablum for the Pablum Eaters.” They didn’t invent it, this system in motion; this system was a collective invention that answered to a need. Or a desire. (Desire, perverse desire, Miss General Idea’s desire or the desire for Miss General Idea, this is the closest I can get to emotion in General Idea’s work. Miss General Idea was aloof, cold, and sadistic.)
In “Pablum for the Pablum Eaters,” Bronson wrote: “In this article seeing art as a system of signs in motion as an archive and indicator and stabilizer of culture as a means of creating fetish objects as residence for the field of imagery defining a culture, seeing all this and more in many ways we have become aware of the necessity of developing methods of generating realizing stabilizing alternate myths alternate lifestyles.”
You see, well before the internet, there was the desire to communicate through a network. It was called correspondence art, or, simply, mail art. Correspondence art was a means for artists to collect their signature fetish images through the mail in order then to re- circulate their obsessive compulsions.
Correspondence art was a precursor, a progenitor of the artist-run system. It was something of a Canadian invention, as coincidentally Pablum was, right here in Toronto, down the street from General Idea’s first headquarters, which was really a commune, it was something of a Canadian invention, the artist-run system, that is, coming out of the correspondence movement, but the actual inventor of correspondence art was Ray Johnson. Canadians were its popularizers, so much so that as an example of Gresham’s law (bad coinage drives out good from circulation), Johnson stopped in 1973. Soon the momentum was over, but FILE, originally started basically to circulate Image Bank Request Lists, adapted to new circumstances. A good idea always adapts. A general idea adapts, unless we adapt to it.
Published at the moment of that momentous resignation from the movement, here (in a 1976 republished revision of the text) is the article’s description of Image Bank, the central bank of the decentralized correspondence movement:
Image Bank is a structure set up to generate, extend and stabilize such a system of image connections, or correspondences. Begun in 1970 by artists Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov, in Vancouver, Canada, Image Bank set out to establish a network of artists exchanging imagery and ideas without reference to existing art gallery and bureaucracy structures. In Canada in particular, where artists were fairly isolated, this filled a strong need. The first Image Bank Image Request Lists were mailed to correspondents (many from Ray Johnson’s already well established New York Correspondence School); by 1972 they were being included in General Idea’s FILE Magazine. These lists were simply a free listing of individuals’ image
requests. Like personal columns and classified sex ads, they acted as anonymous means of advertising and filling personal needs. Like penpal lists, they established communication links between artists around the world—but links of a particular kind. By establishing each artist as an image “collector,” they gave each artist an image habit, committed him to image bondage. Image is virus.
Functionally, the lists not only established and reinforced an evolving network of people, they also set up a moving field of significant contemporary imagery. And that field of imagery is a description of the world. The lists themselves became an indexing system to a vast library of imagery, while necessitating some stability and continuation by establishing each correspondent as a collector with particular image archives. This is the network of artists and imagery I am calling subliminal.
The correspondence network was no less than an attempt to map contemporary consciousness in terms of its mythic structure, something presumed absent in modern man. But it was contemporary myth only in the sense that it was still conscious as archived within media representations. These were démodé and depassé, demobbed and declassified images ripe for reclassification as media mythology. Undoubtedly, “alternate myths” reflecting “alternate lifestyles” were coloured by the countercultural sixties and seventies, but myth was a matter really of reception—a reception, moreover, of all that seemingly was rejected by the counterculture. For baby boomers (Zontal, b. 1944, Partz b. 1945, Bronson, b. 1946), this meant the “mythologies” or “mystique” of the 1940s and 1950s found in the postwar publicity apparatus of magazines such as Fortune, Time, and LIFE and the banal first years of television. In this sense, “myth” fulfilled Roland Barthes’s criteria that “Mythical speech is made of a material which has already been worked on so as to make it suitable for communication.” In this sense, re-mythologized art was “a system of signs in motion as an archive and indicator and stabilizer of culture as a means of creating fetish objects as residence for the field of imagery defining a culture.”
Correspondence artists traded ready-made images, that is, those already published and circulated as automatically recognized icons—in the process individualizing them as personal fetishes. Their aim was not demystification, therefore, but “amplified” obsession. To reiterate Bronson, “by establishing each artist as an image ‘collector,’ [correspondence] gave each artist an image habit, committed him to image bondage. Image is virus.”
In the subliminal network, artists became Public Relations agents for their own individuated archetypes, responsible through networking for maintaining their own image habit. Pseudonyms lent a covert status to artists’ habits. Hence their proliferation, too.
The subliminal network was parasitical on what was already a dream, on what had already been worked over by a process of rationalized dream work called advertising. Artists were there to exploit this mythic unconscious, infiltrating the collective mind through the very images purveyed to it by advertising and rewriting them as camp folklore. Not just the dreams, they copied as well the publicity apparatus that fabricated and delivered these constructs. One could say that General Idea’s whole enterprise was nothing but an advertising agency with the proviso that it advertised nothing but itself, that is to say, nothing but its own fabrication.
Here were FILE’s initial functions as an artists’ publication: disseminator of Image Bank Request Lists and mirror, of sorts, of a particular art scene. Myth was the unlikely binding agent of these two functions.
The myth must go on, even if correspondence was dead. And the myth was the maintenance of General Idea. It was not the first time they would cut and run, abandoning Image Bank in the process. They could be cruel. Miss General Idea, herself, the ideal not her incumbents who were discarded along the way, was cruel, too; she was a cruel mistress.
But the ethos of correspondence art, of a “system of signs in motion,” would continue to ground General Idea’s system, radically so, given that this grounding was a perpetual un- grounding as well.
The logic of myth is the logic of connections. ... The key to this logic is the borderline situation, the neither one nor the other, camouflaged indifference, mirror mirror on the wall. Flip flop. Lip flap. The logic of myth is the moving territory of words ... Correspondences are the key to the mythical universe, the cosmology of moving bodies, images in collision, classification by jointing.
I don’t have time to unpack, as they say, this statement in motion, even to throw the clothes around helter skelter. Let me just say that mirror, myth, and collage were one; that wherever there was one, there was the other; the cut of collage was like the insertion of a mirror: a disjunctive, destructive, ever-changing system, where “nothing is true; everything is permitted,” as William Burroughs liked to write quoting Hassan I Sabbah.
Did you know, General Idea initially were hippies? General Idea in 1969 basically was a commune, and so was a much larger group than we now know it today, that, as a threesome, consolidated by 1975. Initially the group included several Miss General Idea and others not of that persuasion. But that hippie background and all it stood for was cast off, people too. As AA Bronson wrote years later (1997):
We considered ourselves a cultural parasite and our method was viral.... We had abandoned our hippie backgrounds of heterosexual idealism, abandoned any shred of belief that we could change the world by activism, by demonstration, by any of the methods we had tried in the 1960s—they had all failed. As children of the Summer of Love (1967) and spectators of the Paris riots (1968), we were well aware of the International Situationists and Society of the Spectacle on one hand, and of Marshall McLuhan, drug culture, digger houses, underground papers and free schools on the other. Now we turned to the queer outsider methods of William Burroughs, for example, whose invented universe of sex-mad, body-snatcher espionage archetypes provided the ironic myth-making model we required: “We need a peg to hang it on,” he said. “Something really ugly like virus. Not for nothing do they come from a land without mirrors.” So he takes over this newsmagazine.... And he breaks out all the ugliest pictures in the image bank and puts it out on the subliminal so one crisis piles up after the other right on schedule.”
Now you have to understand that these were exactly the same motivations and procedures that sustained and influenced correspondence art, and FILE, after all, founded on Burroughs’s invasive and cut-up principles, was its vehicle. But lest you think that I am suggesting that General Idea were cynical operators out for themselves, they abandoned themselves, too, or at least their system, destroying it.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that General Idea continued to exist and that after a hiatus rooms were added to the Pavillion. General Idea destroyed their system in 1977, and it wasn’t just the burning down of the Pavillion that year. In part, they burned the Pavillion down because their reversible system demanded it (what goes up must come down), but also because they were bored. Boredom is an emotion, too. “Look around you ... look how boring it is ... look how bored we all are,” read the Editorial to their “Punk ’til you Puke” issue of FILE of fall 1977. Summer 1977 was when Punk broke in Toronto, and it happened at Crash ’n Burn, the basement club of the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication, the artist-run centre in rivalry with General Idea, that lost its funding the next year for advocating knee-capping Red Brigade style. It is perhaps under the impulse of punk that General Idea destroyed their Pavillion, because when they wrote in that Editorial, “The sentimentalism of late sixties early seventies essentially surrealist aesthetic has been replaced by a certain pragmatic anarchy which is now the theme of this issue,” who were they referring to, except themselves and the whole ethos of the correspondence art movement? How punk can you get?
1977 was also the year that Anti-Oedipus broke, you know, the English translation of Deleuze and Guattari’s radical tool-kit, subtitled “Capitalism and Schizophrenia. In an article of the Punk issue of FILE, “Pogo Dancing in the British Aisles,” the ever-astute AA Bronson aligned his paean to punk to Deleuze and Guatarri’s description of desiring machines (although he likely derived it from an article of the authors in Semiotext(e)):
... the punk machine: 200 fans in a closed environment pump and strain in pogo rhythms, sex pistons, an essential component of the musician/audio equipment/audience desiring machine. Spitting provides the electrical connection that bypasses the contained sexuality of the family to power this group desire. This is an anarchist motion by definition: decision-making is not a reflection of hierarchial control of groups or masses (capitalism/Fascism) nor of theoretical Marxist equalities. In anarchy desire is restored to its central orchestrating role.
Another system of desire imposed itself, no longer that of the eternal network of correspondence art but of anonymous desiring machines. No longer that of the mail system, but the electronic gadgetry of phone lines and fax machines. No longer symbolic surrogates of mass culture circulating innocently, but rather now engaging perversely (but even perversion here was relatively innocent), no longer symbolic surrogates circulating in the postal system but the possibility of desire actually acting out.
The desiring machine was equally about transgressive sexuality. Not because, and I am continuing with “Pogo Dancing,” “Like S & M punk involves the body in a complete and brilliant desiring machine,” but because “desire is anti-capitalist. Present economies of production and distribution do not allow for an economy of desire.” Yet, AA goes on to say, “But as capitalism’s complex resonance amplifies strange new need, its mushrooming electronic communications gadgetry creates hiding spots in tangled circuitry for perverted modern lovers. Two men, two telephones and certain electronic circuitry (established for entirely different reasons) combine to form a simple desiring machine. The gay connection is particular here, because gay eroticism is group eroticism (as distinct from group sex).”
“Transgression” was the theme of fall 1979 FILE issue. Transgression was the means of a new “effective” art. “What do you mean by ‘effective’ art?,” you remember, was the lead question of the “Punk ’til you Puke” issue. Transgression, however, led to a new word:
Yes, “trendy” is a word to be grappled with, as “glamour” once was. Certainly there is one peak moment when trendiness rises to its most effective, when it becomes a powerful tool for dealing with existing structures. It blooms for a night or a season, and then is consumed by what many call Capitalist chaos. ... Our role? Like custom agents on the borders of acceptance, we smuggle transgressions back into the picture, mixing doubles out of the ingredients of prohibition.
All this was said in light of advocating for an “effective art.” Many at that moment in the 1970s thought an effective art was a Marxist art. But was an effective art, as ironically as this might have been stated, an embrace of capitalism instead? Desire was not anti- capitalist, but cunning capital, desire was capitalism all along!
A change of words, from “glamour” to “trendy” was also a change of models. It was no longer the case of subversively infiltrating systems as a parasitical virus; transgression was almost acceptable, publicly consumable. “Take your pick,” as their Editorial concluded.
When earlier in 1975 General Idea wrote, “Glamour replaces Marxism as the single revolutionary statement of the twentieth century,” on analogy what would “trendy” replace now in 1979: Marxism again, it seems.
What was so compelling about destruction, so seductive? Once General Idea destroyed their Pavillion, it seems the act was infectious. They couldn’t get enough of the replay and repetition of it even if it was only sifting through the ruins. But there was something appealing to it, something provocative to say, the saying so appealing, as when they said:
“‘Fascism and Anarchy Join Hands to Create a Work of Art,’ VOICE OVER: The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion was the first concrete manifestation of that uneasy union we now take for granted, the first project where fascism and anarchy could join forces to create a work of art – and they did.” (1-084 “Fascism and Anarchy Join Hands to Create a Work of Art,” 1977)
Was does that statement mean?
General Idea’s $UCCE$$ issue of FILE of spring 1981 was prescient. That is, $UCCE$$, spelled $UCCE$$. They were prescient. At the beginnings of the 1980s, General Idea were at the origins of the last conflict between capitalism and socialism, whose outcome by 1989 we know, with the fall of the Berlin wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union: a global victory for capitalism.
WE BELIEVE: Reserve getting-to-the-top for coming up for air. Success isn’t getting to the top and staying there; it’s learning to surf without hyperventilating.
WE BELIEVE: Reagan’s recent budget and Toronto’s police raids are signals to the left from the right to occupy battle positions, assume territorial stances (oh, the old routines) and act out the importance of being earnest.
WE BELIEVE: All Marxists should be rich. Success is not money. Success is not power. Success is powerful money ... regardless of he amount. When everything else fails, fall back on success.
Look around you. Capitalism has won. We do not infiltrate capitalism; it infiltrates us, even at the molecular level. With your cell phones and your social networks, you/we are its agents. Trendy, trending, the system has co-opted all so-called transgression as it has so much else. Over and out, as we used to say in that old clunky analogue world, that cut- and-paste world General Idea inhabited. Collage or perish, as they said back then.
Lecture 4: Plagiarism (June 12)
Let us steal in, because we are thieves here, thick as thieves; let’s steal in by way of the window of etymology. We’re talking about plagiarism today. Who knows whether we are plagiarizing as well? Maybe I am even plagiarizing myself. Catch me if you can.
The derived form plagiarism was introduced into English around 1620. The Latin plagiārius, kidnapper, and plagium, kidnapping, has the root plaga (snare, net), based on the Indo-European root *-plak, to weave (seen for instance in Greek plekein, Bulgarian плета pleta, Latin plectere, all meaning to weave).
In the 1st century, the use of the Latin word plagiarius (literally kidnapper), to denote someone stealing someone else’s work, was pioneered by Roman poet Martial, who complained that another poet had kidnapped his verses. This use of the word was introduced into English in 1601 by dramatist Ben Jonson, to describe as a plagiary someone guilty of literary theft.
Of course, I am plagiarizing here from that open source Wikipedia. What you cannot see is that I did not put these statements in quotation marks. In plagiarism, the quotation marks are missing.
General Idea plagiarists? Yes, amongst some of the best. They plagiarized some of the best. They were before their time in plagiarizing, before their time in plagiarizing some of the best: plagiarizing Roland Barthes, for instance.
Regarding their plagiarism, let’s consider Exhibit 1:
We understand nothing of General Idea’s system if we triumphantly apply a judgement by simply attributing one of their statements referentially to that of another author, for instance, General Idea’s cut-up derivation to Barthes’s original, that is, by moving what was surreptitiously displaced back to its “origins” in a legal text:
General Idea (“Image Lobotomy” / “Glamour”): “Glamourous objects events have been brutally emptied of meaning that parasitic but cultured meaning might be housed there. Thus Glamour is the result of a brief but brilliant larceny: image is stolen and restored, but what is restored? Memories are blurred. Details have been erased. The image moves with the awkward grace of the benumbed, slave to a host of myths.”
Roland Barthes (“Myth Today”): “This is because myth is speech stolen and restored. Only, speech which is restored is no longer quite that which was stolen: when it was brought back, it was not put exactly in its place. It is this brief act of larceny, this moment taken for a surreptitious faking, which gives mythical speech its benumbed look.”
Obviously, academically, this is plagiarism. But to what effect? It is not a question of what the artists were hiding here, but what they were doing, which involves a hiding and an exposing. We can parse the act of plagiarism into its intention, object, process, and outcome. This is a bit legalistic; but is the act of plagiarism in the doing or the discovery? Plagiarism is to hide something out in the open. For General Idea, plagiarism was a divided act of “cutting remarks,” a dividing that spatialized language, creating an alibi in the process—an alibi of being in plain view but actually surreptitiously being in two places at once—but also that temporalized language, even though plagiarism was “brief but brilliant,” thrown from one place to another by the blinding light of a mirror, a mirror that divided contexts.
Instead of an act, should we be talking about the event of plagiarism?
What are we talking about when we talk about plagiarism? In the art world plagiarism as a strategy passes under many different names: inhabitation, appropriation, infiltration, viral parasitism, not all of which are actually plagiarism but rather various forms of quotation. We need first to excavate the term in order to clear away some of the confusing linguistic overlay that has accrued, particularly in the early 1980s with the popularity and interchangeability of the terms “inhabitation” and “appropriation.” Let me simply quote myself from a 1983 article on General Idea. “Appropriation quotes or parodies other cultural or popular discourses codes, styles or production techniques within a high art discourse and institutionality.... Inhabitation parasitically assumes cultural forms or codes, empties them of their ‘content’ and by inserting its own effects a critical disruption. The usual site inhabited is mass media in its ideological formation of mass consciousness.” Barthes and Derrida were the theoretical sources appropriated by this discourse—appropriated, not performatively inhabited, please note.
General Idea articulated their “theory” of parasitic inhabitation, which was also their theory of Glamour, and plagiarism moreover, in the Glamour article cum manifesto of their 1975 Glamour issue of FILE. This article marked the turn from the dominating influence of Claude Lévi-Strauss to that of Roland Barthes, from a collective, ritualized notion of myth to a corporate, capitalist one. But we should be aware that General Idea did not plagiarize Barthes or just plagiarize Barthes but that Barthes lent them a language for what was already in their work under the combined influence of William Burroughs and the correspondence movement, or rather, through aligning Burroughs and Lévi- Strauss. And that they were articulating it, notably, before postmodernism or what became its postmodernist moment of articulation, which was really already well into the 1980s. But let’s also admit that, borrowing from him, they were not as radical as William Burroughs.
“We need a peg to hang it on,” he said. “Something really ugly like virus. Not for nothing do they come from a land without mirrors.” So he takes over this newsmagazine. “Now,” he said, “I’ll by God show them how ugly the Ugly American can be.” And he breaks out all the ugliest pictures in the image bank and puts it out on the subliminal so one crisis piles up after the other right on schedule.
So let’s look at what General Idea wrote about plagiarism as inhabitation, remembering as well that the saying was the doing of it. That is, that they were performing it, out in the open, without our necessarily being aware of it, even though they were telling us so.
“Stolen Lingo”: We knew Glamour was not an object, not an action, not an idea. We knew Glamour never emerged from the “nature” of things. There are no glamourous people, no glamorous events. We knew Glamour was artificial. We knew that in order to be glamourous we had to become plagiarists, intellectual parasites. We moved in on history and occupied images, emptying them of meaning, reducing them to shells. We filled these shells then with Glamour, the creampuff innocence of idiots, the naughty silence of sharkfins slicing oily waters.
Their whole operation was elaborated here. On the one hand, Glamour was in on it, in on this sleight-of-hand theft, this “brief but brilliant larceny” accomplished by means of a mirror: “Glamour” reflected within Glamour, camp glamour reflected within media glamour.
Plagiarism and Pageant: elevation of “glamour” as a devaluation of Glamour. Drag Queen: elevating something degraded and therefore degrading the image of something elevated.
Lateral movement of plagiarism: In and out of plagiarism same as reversibility of elevation.
Plagiarism: devaluing of both form and content.
On the other hand, how serious was it, as a critique of Glamour, that is? Inhabiting the format of the beauty pageant meant speaking its language of separation. As Guy Debord wrote, “when analyzing the spectacle one speaks, to some extent, the language of the spectacular itself in the sense that one moves through the methodological terrain of the very society which expresses itself in the spectacle” (§ 11). The difficulty in recognizing camp as critique is that in infiltrating its ritual, the artists did not critique the pageant format from outside as a “formulation in negative” as one might expect from a Marxist analysis. They reproduced its mechanisms from inside. At the same time, though, they reversed the “essential movement of the spectacle” in a de-crowning inversion that exposed these mechanisms through the mimicry of a subversive commentary. As the essential movement of General Idea’s system, inversion restored the fluid state spectacle congealed.
Once again, the same thing as with Barthes: the Pageant and Glamour were not about demystifying but remystifying, using the forms of semiological analysis as a strategy and a vocabulary. Rather than purely plagiarizing Barthes, General Idea applied his principles to his own analysis, cannibalizing and evacuating his analysis in turn. Myth is a semiological system whose signifier cannibalizes another sign. “Myth is a peculiar system, in that it is constructed from a semiological chain which existed before it: it is a second-order semiological system.” Myth evacuates the content of another sign and turns it into an empty form, which it then fills with its own motivated content, exactly what General Idea does but also through the form of Barthes analysis. General Idea’s invasion and evacuation of found formats such as the Pageant were merely other names for the actions of the mythic signifier as it appropriated meanings and emptied them in order to fill them with new mythical significations. With General Idea, both evacuation and replacement were plagiaristic, one in terms of content, the other in terms of form.
What was taken over? Only what was démodé, by-passed, discarded and thrown away. Nothing of value, or only value itself. As they wrote in “Artificiality”:
“Artificiality”: We are obsessed with available form. We maneuver hungrily, conquering the uncontested territory of culture’s forgotten shells—beauty pageants, pavillions, picture magazines, and other contemporary corpses. Like parasites we animate these dead bodies and speak in alien tongues.
What we have to remember, and what distinguishes General Idea’s work from so much of what followed it, was that theirs was not only “a method of invasion” of a ready-made system, but also the articulation of a new system from what was cannibalized. It was a description to new ends. This logic of consumption and incorporation (“intellectual cannibalism,” they earlier called it (plagiarizing John Brockman, who himself advocated plagiarizing) was no more than another framing device, a nesting of one frame within another—or one format within another.
Parasitic animation was ventriloquistic. Parasitic, meaning was plagiaristic: it hijacked an intention to say and replaced it with lip flap. Ventriloquism emptied its subject (in the double sense of “subject,” of content and subjecthood) in order to “speak in tongues” in its place. Miss General Idea was a lip-syncing drag queen mouthing her words. Meaning was in the mouthing of a staged event. Ventriloquism was the mirror image of plagiarism: throwing your voice from afar to hijack attention.
As theft was a concealed movement of goods, so plagiarism was a disguised movement of words from one place to another, from one author to another, or simply from one context to serve as the content in another context. But that was not all. The original meaning was nullified in this “non-performance” of plagiarism. Plagiarism’s meaning was in its mobility, a mobility it kept under wraps, unexposed: plagiarism meant being in two places at once without being discovered. But the meaning of what was evacuated was no longer its content but its content’s devaluation.
Plagiarism was therefore not just rote copying. It was active. It evacuated one content in order to replace it with another, with the plagiarized content. The evacuation was just as important as the plagiarism, more important. Plagiarism disguised evacuation. Evacuation was devaluation.
The consecutive moments of plagiarism—moving in on images, occupying, emptying, and then filling them—disappeared in a spirited act, the sleight-of-hand closure that was Glamour. “Glamour strikes in a single invisible blow.” These acts disappeared only for their effects to reappear mysteriously in a detourned object that was brilliant in its closure. This turned and returned object was the result of a “brief but brilliant larceny.” In other words, glamour was theft, and plagiarism was its means.
Let’s return to that first plagiarism of “Image Lobotomy” to see these operations in action:
Glamourous objects events have been brutally emptied of meaning that parasitic but cultured meaning might be housed there.
Here General Idea played on the double meaning of cultured, invoking the elevated and the viral, the world of high culture and the laboratory at the same time. Cultured meaning was parasitic and unnatural. It was an attack on the natural. It unnaturally penetrated a natural substance, which all the same retained something of its original innocence. Diverting, parasitic culturing turned the image, perverted it. This was a sleight-of-hand, in-and-out movement: General Idea diverted the object in diverting our attention.
Thus Glamour is the result of a brief but brilliant larceny: image is stolen and restored, but what is restored?
As Glamour is theft, so is plagiarism, a theft that changes its content, while leaving it alone, by changing its context. Barthes: “speech which is restored is no longer quite that which was stolen: when it was brought back, it was not put exactly in its place.”
Memories are blurred. Details have been erased. The image moves with the awkward grace of the benumbed, slave to a host of myths. Degraded and humiliated, the glamourous image is brilliant in its vacancy, glorious in its degradation.
Glamour’s elevation is only a disguised theft. The lateral actions of invasion and evacuation—the stealing in and stealing out of plagiarism—are its operations. Though differently oriented movements, elevation and evacuation are both subsumed within a general operation of reversibility. With its lateral movements of invasion and evacuation, plagiarism is always a matter of reversing or inverting values by elevating others— Glamour—in place of those its downgrades and displaces or replaces. Theft is not only disguised here, reversal is as well. Plagiarism degrades the image in the drag queen’s revenge on glamour: glorious in his/her camp degradation.
The image retains signs of a former purity. The face of reality is still evident beneath the thin skin of Glamour.
The original image or format retain their recognizable outlines, yet the act of plagiarism is not just a passive hiding but a turning towards a closure of original meaning towards another inserted (that is, cultured) meaning that cannot be penetrated.
The false eyelashes like false commas punctuate the superficiality of its content.
Plagiarism/inhabitation is a verbal operation.
The Miss General Idea Shoes are still shoes. The 1984 Pavillion is still a building. Miss General Idea is still a particular women ... or is she?
Again, inhabitation/plagiarism is a double take, requiring a double take on our part—“or is she?”
A resonance which is ambiguity flips the image in and out of context. Layers of accumulated meaning snap in and out of focus. Myths hide behind the mask of “real” images; the shifty eyes of cultural content watch through the loopholes of natural context. The result is a full stop, a notational arrest wedged in the gap between culture and nature. And that is Glamour.
Like the mirror situation and mirror operation of Luxon V.B., where a series of mirrors moving in parallel captured the momentary effect of an image as a jagged zigzag interfacing inner and outer views, interfacing was not just temporary alignment of two views or images. It was a means of evacuation: flipping images in and out of focus led to a vacuum. The oscillating mirror was not itself a case of either-or: content or context, nature or culture, inside or out. The act of withdrawal opened a space for other operations.
Meaning is doubled up, raised to a second power. But that power is ambiguity.
Glamour, the “gap between nature and culture,” is glimpsed in this great divide between nature and culture. Like the mirror insertion of myth or notations of cutting remarks, this divide nonetheless is not visible because it is not an object or image but an operation. Nevertheless, this invisibility is blinding.
Such is plagiarism.
In June 1974, the editors of FILE received a cease-and-desist letter from TIME/LIFE Incorporated for “unauthorized simulation of the cover of LIFE.” After two years of its look being lifted, the empire had struck back. So much for semi-disguised appropriation of popular and corporate culture or for subliminal viral inhabitation—“Like we slipped into your mailbox disguised as LIFE. There you were staring FILE in the face and you couldn’t believe it was LIFE.” The subliminal, they said, was criminal, but here was the real effect of the fictional language of parasitism entering the real world. Typically, General Idea played TIME/LIFE while playing along with them. Yet changes demanded were changes made in the superficial appearance of the cover.
All the same, “the legal battle merely punctuated a change of vision that was already occurring for FILE. The look-alike contest had run its course.” So read the spring 1977 “People” issue editorial that announced the resolution of the conflict. The appearance of FILE changed, but its cover girl makeover was still in TIME’s face. Cheekily, the 1977 editorial continued: “FILE was entering a no-no-nostalgia age in preparation for 1984 and in keeping abreast of the TIMEs was becoming increasingly concerned with PEOPLE”; that is, appropriating neither the logo nor look but the content of another, recent Time Inc. publication, People. General Idea lived to fight another day, but their retreat was still one of Glamour’s aggressive strategies of disguise.
Lecture 5: Collectivity (June 13)
We can always start with the number three. After all, there were three General Idea— three members to this collective. But this was not always the case. Once, General Idea was a greater number. You know, of course, that there were a greater number of General Idea in the beginning (once upon a time). At that time, General Idea basically was a commune that included Miss General Idea, several of them, who then were discarded along the way, which was their destiny to be replaced: Miss General Idea 1968, 1969, 1970. But others were discarded, too, discarded to get down to the number three, to the magical number three, the basic unit three, the symbol of three.
There was a time, once upon a time, there was a time, though, when the number one ruled. Number one was the number above all. Miss General Idea was the one above all others. She was the chosen one. The number one ruled, even though who was number one—from time to time—changed. Miss General Idea was nameless in the numeric rule of one, in her numeric role of the one: Miss General Idea 1969, 1970, 1971. Numerology trumped naming in this system. [cf. “description” as naming]
One, the number one, was immanent to the system. It was the whole. One was one with it all. One was the multiplicity of the system. The correspondence movement was one with it. All for one and one for all. Every time collage disjointed, the mirror made it one again, mythically one. Even if the mirror divided, it made it whole again. Correspondence was a constellation, not a geometry.
What led to the crisis: the numeric crisis? The crisis when three replaced one, when the number three supplanted, or overcame the number one? We’re not talking about the reversibility crisis, where the system reversed itself in the destruction of the Pavillion in 1977. That was a delayed response to what had already happened a couple years before in 1975. Did we notice it then, notice the change in Glamour, announced in that 1975 FILE Glamour issue, when the transformation was disguised by Glamour itself? Did we notice the subtle transformation of attention to Glamour from Glamourous Miss General Idea to Glamourous General Idea themselves—a transformation from the one to the three? No one has ever pointed it out, although there have been murmured complaints, about the role of women in General Idea. This displacement of the mother, in the replacing of Miss General Idea, is equivalent, perhaps, to Freud’s death of the father, in his murder by the band of brothers. Displacing Miss General Idea was the ultimate decrowning ritual, disguised though it was. Three for one.
From looking up, this three set of eyes never looked back. Henceforth, they saw only in threes: three architects, three babies, three poodles, three baby seals, three doctors, three academicians.
It was all a matter of separation—the necessity of separation, even if General Idea merged in formats and spoke in alien tongues. You know what Guy Debord wrote about separation in Society of the Spectacle; so did General Idea, and they based their subtle critique of the commodity, through the disguised elevation of Glamour, partly on the basis of their reading of it. But for General Idea now, that is, in the mid-1970s, it was a matter at first of how to distinguish themselves from the collectivity of the correspondence movement. You can see it in both the Pageant and the Pavillion: the process of disengagement that took place between the beginning of 1973 and the end of that year, as the Pageant and Pavillion turned from being collectively composed through the procedures of the correspondence movement to a strict articulation of General Idea’s program. But it is really apparent in 1975, after a separating hiatus, how General Idea branded themselves as a threesome, first as an architectural team. You know the image; you know the story.
The number three: As in a tripod, a motif in their late 1970s work, three was a stable number, as when the 1977 “Right Hand Man” Showcard (1-076) read: “The three of them are all each others right-hand man but they aren’t taking any chances. If one was lost on the job it would throw off the balance. They know that three’s a crowd and a basic social unit and they’d hate to be reduced to a couple.” Previously in their work, two was a precarious couple, produced as a mirror effect, not really the pillars of social and familial stability we think, or General Idea then imputed in 1977. General Idea, however, were no longer interested in constellations but geometry. Three was a geometrical figure: the triangle. They were no longer interested in the logic of division deriving from collage cutting and mirror incision, but in the logical possibilities of coupling, as long as coupling was variational—or, at least, anti-oedipal.
Visibility hence, rather than invisibility, as in the invisibility of the “border dweller who performs in the stolen moments” of plagiarism, visibility rather than invisibility was the new operational mode. Hence the visibility of transgression became their dominant interest.
And when it came to transgression, what could be more visible than the dollar sign?
“‘Single Image Reflex.’ Now they smile for the cameras as their flights of fantasy swarm about their heads. In this configuration their heads form a tri-angle in the centre of the image. Using the heads as the base of the tri-angle expanding it into three dimensions. Imagine this pyramid as a tri-pod supporting their single vision. Imagine what this single image could be besides a dollar sign.’ 1-077 “Single Image Reflex” 1977
Nonetheless, three was generative, a generative model of itself: three architects, three babies, three poodles, three academicians, three doctors, etc. On three went; three marched on, but not inhabiting formats; rather General Idea being themselves. “This is the story of General Idea and the story of what we wanted.” This procedure was highly successful. General Idea had branded themselves so successfully that they blinded us to what was discarded in the process. For instance, the Borderline. Where has the borderline been in our discussions here? Is it not a major oversight not to have considered it? Surely, it is as important as plagiarism.
“The logic of myth is the logic of connections. Image making room for words. Naming of partz, sensing the network working plugged into the subliminal. The key to this logic is the borderline situation, the neither one nor the other, camouflaged indifference, mirror mirror on the wall. Flip flop. Lip flap....” [“Pablum for the Pablum Eaters”]
With the number three, with a collective of three, there was room for specialty and division of labour (in spite of the death of the original, the death of the author its procedures implied). In spite of what AA said in his minute interview this morning, one can recognize the hand—or voice—of manufacture, particularly in the production of copy. Not the copy, but ad copy, what General Idea were all about. There was a great need for copy writing in General Idea’s enterprise. In spite of everyone thinking, and AA saying, that people thought he was the writer, when it came to the Borderline, it seems that Felix was the word man, the man with ad copy smarts. He was a mad man, à la Madison Avenue, but not as mad as Jorge in Shut the Fuck Up, whose voice we recognize too, periodically, in General Idea’s writing.
What was the borderline? It was formed in collage conjunction or by mirror insertion. Perpetually changing, constantly colliding, collage conjunctions were events that brought together, in continual cut-up, different alignments of words and images. These were momentary events that were hardly visible, or at least visible only as after-images that offered the illusion of stability. Their conjunction was a vacillating borderline that was temporary. (Are we dancing yet?)
The borderline (really, an interface) was a concept that General Idea shared with Marshall McLuhan, not surprisingly given that McLuhan posited it as part of the makeup of the Canadian persona (engendered vis-à-vis our relation to the United States). An ambiguous model signifying between the domains of politics and psychology—as both the boundary between nations and a personality disorder (i.e., borderline personality), the borderline was a major operative concept for General Idea. In their September 1973 FILE article “General Idea’s Borderline Cases,” the artists wrote “Ambiguity is not a symptom of a schizophrenic who travels back and forth across the line but a quality of the border dweller who performs in the stolen moments.” Borderlines came into existence every time there was a mirror insertion or collage cut. In fact, mirror, cut-up, and borderline were one and the same: silent and invisible, yet engendering the verbosity of myth. (“The vacuum created by your invisibility has got to be filled with words,” read a complementary article in the same issue). Unlike the Pavillion or Pageant, which were containers or formats, the borderline was an operative concept by which and on which the Pavillion was erected through means of disguise and theft. The Pavillion was built on this unstable borderline where the border dweller (General Idea) performed in stolen moments.
This article was its own case of cut-up correspondence of words and images. The borderline cases were ten exercises in creating seeming symmetries between words and images. Between one and the other, between word and image, though, was the surreptitious insertion of a mirror. From the start, the mirror image, of course, always added up to two. Between one and the other, between the numbers one and two, were all the resources of mirroring, mimicry, and mockery as language clichés were married to banal images. Here is the text from the second case, titled “Imitation of Life (Mimicry)”:
It’s only natural to try to be part of our vision, our culture. Like chameleons at odds trying to be part of it all. Like letting our one hand know what the other is about. When one body is imitating one body lying down its life imitating life. This act of bodies rubbing is merely a shadow of things to come. Was meeting face to face the mother of invention of the looking glass? Was this prop-osal to end our singleness? There’s safety in numbers and two can have a mind of its own. Our two hands applauded the engagement and came out dueling. In the crack of dawn a narcissus is blooming. All together now, one two, one two, one two.
(We’re still dancing here, even though now marching!)
Yet, the two, or the mirror image of two, did not mean equality or even actual symmetry. One brought forth the other (as if in a mirror), and engendering it gave it life, as simulacral as that life was since it was only mimetic. (Mimicry was viral: indeed, a virus. The point of entry, the mirror act was a viral, replicating invasion.) One preceded two and that one was the word. That is, the word came first and did not merely caption an image after the fact. It took off from its invasion: serially, creating content in the process. Words, too, were mirrors.
Each case was an application: the application of a method through the insertion of a mirror. It was purely artificial. There was no given place to insert a mirror, however. No guideline. The borderline did not preexist. The act of mirror insertion created the borderline situation. Only the mirror preceded—as invisible as it was. As invisible as it was, it was an event, the instantiation of a case, an instance of now: a collage collision. It was the inaugurating act: the origin of all General Idea’s work.
“The Great Divide was words,” they said. Words made images secondary; in fact, they doubled them. Words split images. Or, the proliferation of words split images into mirror images of themselves. Here is case number 3, “Self Conscious”:
Now that we’ve got our distance we look back over our shoulders. Could this be our skin? Still waters reflect our eyes reflecting still waters running deep. Let’s keep this all on the surface. The surface of the silvered glass narcissus. Could this be our connection? Score one for us and chalk it up to experienced. Driving the wedge down deep through the centre and splitting the images in halves. There is two of us to contend with now. Two heads are better than one but it’s really just one more mouth to feed on. Casting our image in the mirror revealed a cast of two. Our very own dialogue to talk to ourselves. We’re not the one we used to be.
Splitting in half was only a beginning that had no end. Words, like mirrors, were viral. So in retrospect, when we read the statement from FILE’s first editorial (“Every image is a self image. Every image is a mirror.”), we must now presume that between every image (that is, between every self-same image) is a borderline. This does not just make the image reflect itself (as if in a mirror) but is a fissure of words, indeed, of “cutting remarks.” Words were a method of invasion, even of the image.
Identity, too, was viral. Identity—or role—was a mirror effect produced serially: one plus one plus one, which did not add up to three, however. Yet three is where General Idea ended up.
Who’s to argue with numbers? Three against one; I mean me. Three against me. I can’t compete; better to give up here. Thus, I sign off: the end.