Concerning the Annotations

by Mel Ramsden

[previously unpublished and untitled typescript, written in 1974, and circulated internally within Art & Language in New York]

A number of us seem to be considerably in the dark concerning the handbook. As I see the Handbook it is closely related to the Annotations, in various ways to Ian [Burn], Terry [Smith] and Preston [Heller]´s work, the Schema material 1 – and so on. There were some problems with the work before the Annotations. I don´t want to go into what was wrong with the essay-writing again, but I do see the handbook as a necessary catalyst, pushing beyond and really transforming a lot of the old weltanschauung. A bit about this then.

One feature of the old situation is still disturbingly present in some of the current conversations. It is the overbearing spectre of reductionism. What is reductionism? It is the belief that you can somehow `explain´ something by reducing it to more basic simples. Look at Carnap´s `The Logical Structure of the World´. 2 I´m willing, going along with Ian, to admit that you must not confuse reductionism with what he calls `aspectualism´. 3 The latter means, presumably, that you emphasise details, or select important aspects of a situation (this presumably includes constructing meta-languages). But I don´t feel entirely convinced that the work of Ian, Terry and Preston has got around the reductionist pitfalls. Maybe I am over reacting. I find it quite difficult to pin down my discomforts. Do I find it oddly scholastic. Perhaps a key to this might be found in Ian´short remark quoted in Terry´s article in Artforum . 4 That the work is involved in a kind of self description trying. 5 Maybe to call it reductionist is extreme, but the description penchant might be closer to a characterization of my complaints.

I´m tying to characterize my notion of praxis. I find the above work (at least as I am able to understand it) to contravene my notion of praxis. I find it embedded in Ian´s notion of trying numerous descriptions which I could contrast with my rubric – pandemonium. (More about this in a bit.) But my real aversion to the spectre of reductionism depends, I think, on clarifying my goals concerning the handbook, and also, to what I think the history of our conversations over the past two years really commit us.

A remark like `the art world world is embedded in Capitalism´ is not free of reductionism and foundationism. It leads to imagine that you are actually saying something about the art world. Teleological/ideological concepts are not reducible to mechanistic ones. When Preston was speaking of the need to scrutinize our conversations in order to better discover what was `really going on´, this to me smacked of reductionism. And anyway, Preston´s remarks seemed to contain more than a few vestiges of essentialism. The concept of action is not reducible to the concept of movement. Reductionism links with foundationism, two pillars of early Logical Atomism. 6 Both of these omit man as agent. [Charles Sanders] Peirce pointed this out, and haven´t we learnt enough from [Paul Karl] Feyerabend 7 and learnt from the potentially demonic rationalism of the pre 1972 work (demonic, that is, in that you play the dogmatist, protecting your views by retreating to a weaker – though less refutable – position).

Here some very important ideological issues are lurking in the background. There is a battle over the ideological nature of our going-on. It is important to see the historical dimensions of this point – which is one reason for talking about the Annotations and the earlier work. One thing that we might all agree on is that ALNY has, the same as ALUK, `imploded´. This means, for one thing, that what we project out to the so-called public is no longer according to neat rationalist `learning´ criteria for `them´. The `public´ dimensions are newly frail ones. This was clearly manifest, for us, in the internal pandemonium of the Annotations 8, though it maybe can be traced to the Documenta index. 9 What is the difference between the `implosion´ and the earlier, suppose we call it `explosion´? The point with both would seem to be that we deal with our institutions. This doesn´t mean that we undertake empirical studies of that institution (AL itself is one of our institutions), though such studies may not be entirely useless. I should have thought that the `group encounter´, unlike `individual´ work, forced you to define your proceeding through conduct and, as Andrew [Menard] pointed out, that´s the point in using proceedings, you get su[r]prises. At the end of this summer, I seemed to continually irritate everybody, by stressing that proceeding by reflecting upon our own hoped [hopes?] for profundities was bunk and that we had to constitute going-on. (This is not, obviously, a rigid de facto division, it´s a heuristic.)

It is obvious now that a lot of the earlier work was partly within the realm of some sort of reductionist model. This is certainly true of Ian and my own early writings, less true later. What does it mean to rid ourselves of the reductionist/rationalist model? We don´t use the proven rationalist method of retreating to a weaker but less refutable position, we live with the `anomalies´ and proceed to a stronger but more refutable position. I don´t think this distinction is glib. The internal pandemonium/ contradictions of the Annotations were one way of ridding ourselves of the objectivist/ atomist model of discovery. The annotations were, and I see this as a positive feature, a kind of dogfight. To remove the anomalies and contradictions would be to miss the point. There seems to me a danger of the rationalist ideology lingering on. For instance, one can be lead to see the `implosion´ notion as responsible for a shift from dispelling the `confusions´ of others, to analysis of our own confusions. So as I say, the ideology lingers on: it´s a minor change now to see our praxis as analysing our own confusions, instead of others. But the mistake is, I think, in believeing this is to be the sole definition of our praxis, though it may be useful for developing praxis. Obviously I´m not saying anything so silly as reflection is useless, or description is useless. Nor do I want to uphold the easy distinction between theoria and praxis. We don[´]t have a straight-forward object-language. What I am suggesting is that the vortex of our activities are characterizable as part of our moral and ideological life. That this is the measure of our going-on. This may all be part of the `myth of the given´, the tendency to regard the group as a priori given and possibly profound, instead of something constituted t[h]rough praxis. This is rarely explicit, but it comes out in the way some of us talk about AL.

In the Annotations, the pandemonium, replacing the earlier analytic `insights´, was most important because it was constituted through conduct. It wasn¥t existentially alien to the NYAL situation, which is what I felt by this time the essay writing had become. We replaced refinement, improvement, the warding off anomalies, with praxis, the strong possibility of confusion, contradiction, living with the difficulties, it became a `classroom situation´ – we directed our activities toward a community of enquirers in which all share and all participate. We constitute going-on through praxis (the Annotations).

The possible internal `lived´ relations constituted in the Annotations and subsequent work (the Schema stuff) constituted a problematic. You can´t remove things from that problematic and still expect to `understand´ them (pragmatics). Thus ALNY had `imploded´. I´m obviously leaving a lot unsaid here, but I think we know most of this, it´s part of the history, and the history over the past two years is crucial. As I see it, going-on for us can be continuous or discontinuous but must be dialectically related to this `history´.

Perhaps you might look upon all this as developing a learning environment for ourselves. Our conduct is not directly and logically constructed out of a set of neat ideological parameters, it is also occupied in reflexive determination or re-construction of those parameters. Our `message´ lies in encountering the kind of enquiry we are generating, not in our authoritarian imputing to others some solid party-line – static teacher/learner relationships. But as a matter of fact, there may be times when we do both. The thing is that I see our whole situation as so thoroughly pragmatized that it depends on going the whole hog, being almost wilfully problematic. This `pandemonium´ also holds as an external projection. That is, it´s an apt characterization of the way we seem to interact (match) with the `culture at large´. I see this as positive. Here, every recommendation, ought to be taken as a bit over-robust, a heuristic, not a static demarcation.

To say that what we have is an idiolect shouldn´t be confused with seeing ourselves as a discrete model. This means that the `public´ relationships are not resolved by just having others learn/contemplate our language; we are not a discipline. Conduct, praxis, the whole implosion/pandemonium notion, makes our contact with a reader (etc.) much more frail.

A reader should approach the Handbook by creating it for himself anew. Hence he encounters it through his conduct, praxis. One is here setting up an encounter/confrontation, parametrized by a reader´s own action, with our proceedings/ideology. Is one hopeful of talking here of a dialectic? There is no point in bridging up the traditional teacher/learner dualism because the reader is himself choosing/performing going-on. The reader is executing or parametrizing the work. It´s not [...] at all a matter of finding your way about in a foreign situation because there is no `way about´ until you constitute it.

The best way to describe what the Handbook is about is by analogy to the role of the reader in Kierkegaard´s Either/Or. This is just how frail I find the relation involved in Us/Them, how `wilfully problematic´ I look upon the encounter. Anyway, the title either/or only makes sense when you realize that there is a `third term´ implicated in the disjunction, namely, the existing individual who reads the book (follows a pathway in our case). It´s not solely limited to a realm of `abstract thought´, you are dead wrong if you read the handbook like this – as confined to `learned´ subject-matter. In so-called abstract-thought there is no either/or because there is no existing subject. This is, obviously, heavily Kierkegaardian. I don´t want to give the impression/that I find all of his philosophy acceptable. I don´t. But I do, however, find this explicit `orientation for readers´ to be of interest.

The handbook presents a reader with `live´ existential possibilities, calling forth his decision. The material is parametrized by his kind of praxis, conduct. It isn´t scholastic anymore (my kind of pragmatics has deliberation not opinion as its focus – this was brought out, in a different way, with the Schema stuff. The difference between this and the handbook is that we chose the pathways this time. The resulting display differs from the `game´ that the reader plays with the handbook in that it is a kind of object for scrutiny – this doesn´t matter of course).

So it is useful to see the handbook in this `existential´ light. It´s more than 8 months now since it was finally formalized: the instrumentalities are a bit impoverished – I can´t argue with that, they could have been improved. But as I see it, this doesn´t matter so long as the pragmatic/existential point of deliberating can be grasped.

Maybe you could look at this in the light of the Wittgensteinian sharp gap between what can be said and what can be shown. What can be shown cannot, strictly speaking, be said. 10 The handbook isn´t restricted to `abstract thought´ (if it were, it would be an appalling failure) – it doesn´t `say´ things, it can only be directly and intimately `encountered´.

Anyway, my notion of going-on is presently embedded within the broad cover of pandemonium. There is no question of trying to formalize this pandemonium since you then remove one crucial ingredient: the interest. And anyway, the pandemonium is in essence a question of praxis. Pandemonium in the way we internally abrasively interact, and pandemonium in the relation between us and the culture.

Annotations (added 2001, T. D., with the help of M. R.):

1 "The Handbook": Art & LanguageNY: Blurting in A & L. New York/Halifax 1973.
"The Annotations": see Art & LanguageNY: Blurting in A & L. New York/Halifax 1973, introduction, p.1: "This project involved eight of us here in New York. It was based on a notion of annotating: a set of short statements or remarks were written and a series of commentaries or annotations derived from these. This procedure continued and the resulting bulk of collected `annotations´ exhibited a variety of branchings, contradictory sequences, learning chains and the whole project producing a shared topography of the interaction of the eight participants over a limited period – January-July, 1973)." Compare Burn,Ian/Ramsden, Mel/Smith, Terry: Draft for an Anti-Textbook. In: Art-Language. September 1974, p.15ss.; Harrison, Charles: Essays on Art & Language. Oxford 1991, p.99; Harrison, Charles/Orton, Fred: A Provisional History of Art & Language. Paris 1982, p.39.
"The Schema material": This was titled "77 Sentences", and shown at Galleria Schema, Firenze in 1974. Reproductions of this work can be found in: Schlatter, Christian: Art Conceptuel Formes Conceptuelles. Galerie 1900-2000 and Galerie de Poche, Paris 1990, p.130-135. The 77 sentences were numbered 1-77 and accompanied by a type of graph which showed how each individual participant embedded a selected sentence within other sentences. Those who participated were (from "A&L1" to "A&L6"): Ian Burn, Michael Corris, Preston Heller, Andrew Menard, Mel Ramsden, Terry Smith [=ALNY] and (from "P1" to "P5"): Karl Beveridge, Carole Condé, Paula Eck, Kathleen Mooney, John Ruff. The graph allows notations/inscriptions with brackets and numbers. The numbers were indices of the sentences and the brackets show contextual embeddings of indices/sentences (Ian Burn: "`indexical/contextual´ features"), f. e.: "A&L1" (see first horizontal line) combines sentence no."10" (see vertical line on the left) with "(6(21(50)))". The inscriptions with brackets demonstrate a limited range of possibilities of a notation system (only "recursions"), which can be found in Arthur C. Danto´s "Analytical Philosophy of History" (Cambridge 1965, chapter XI). back

2 Carnap, Rudolf: Der logische Aufbau der Welt. Berlin 1928/2nd edition Hamburg 1961. back

3 Carnap, Rudolf, s. ann.2, §124,128. back

4 Smith, Terry: Art and Art and Language. In: Artforum. February 1974, p.49-52. back

5 Ian Burn, quoted in: Smith, Terry, s. ann.4, p.50: "Much of the activity has been involved in self-description; indeed, a form of `self-description-trying´." back

6 Russell, Bertrand: The Philosophy of Logical Atomism. In: The Monist 28/1918 and 29/1919. back

7 Compare Dreher, Thomas: Blurting in A & L: Art & Language and contextual investigation, chapter II.1 with ann.32s. back

8 Art & LanguageNY: Blurting in A & L. New York/Halifax 1973, p.4: "The `classroom situation´ is possibly a metaphor for a kind of pandemonium. So, in the end, the handbook is concerned with developing a learner environment; there has to be that sort of elbow room as is implied in pandemonium...What is striking on a basic level is that the 400-odd blurts have been approached textually, as a self-defining/containing `imploded´ `world´." back

9 Art & Language: Index 01, 1972, 8 file cabinets with six drawers, files with texts of members of Art & Language, photostats for wall installation, private collection Z¸rich (Conception: Michael Baldwin). Illustrations in: Dreher, Thomas: Art & Language. Bildchronologie 1966-1999 (2001, URL:, II/Abb.2,3,4. back

10 Wittgenstein, Ludwig: Tractatus logico-philosophicus (1921). Frankfurt am Main 15th edition 1980, p.43, §4.1212: "Was gezeigt werden kann, kann nicht gesagt werden." back


Last update: Saturday, July 6, 2002 at 12:11:27 AM.