Remembering George Spencer-Brown

George Spencer-Brown’s The Laws of Form (1969) made a big impression of me when I encountered it a half-century ago.

What I got from the book on a first reading was the idea that the most elementary form of thought consists in drawing a distinction.

[A] distinction is drawn by arranging a boundary with separate sides so that a point on one side cannot reach the other side without crossing the boundary. For example, in a plane space a circle draws a distinction.

In drawing a distinction, one also does several other things: one indicates the spaces, states, or contents on either side of the boundary, attributes different values to what is indicated, establishes the possibility of indicating the values by naming them, and establishes the possibility of crossing from one side of the boundary to the other.

Now, it is possible to draw a “first distinction” only because something is distinguishable. For example, the plane surface on which one draws a circle is itself already distinguished from other surfaces. Were it not, it would not be possible to isolate the surface on which one arranges a boundary, or to establish its value.

In other words, a distinction has always already been drawn.

At least, for we mortals. The very first distinction must have been drawn by God. And that is indeed what the Bible seems to indicate: “And God separated the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening, and there was morning: a first day.” A distinction is drawn (“God separates”), values are attributed (“light” and “darkness”), values are named (“Day” and “Night”), and boundaries are crossed (“there was evening, and there was morning”). God creates by drawing distinctions. And as we were made in His image, so do we.

Laws of Form is also concerned with the form of law. The “laws” of nature, logic, mathematics, grammar, and everything else, said Spencer-Brown, are injunctions. “Let x = 0” is a command. Representations are active and motivated doings, not mere descriptions. (Another Godlike feature.)

A third idea had to do with self-reference.

[W]e cannot escape the fact that the world we know is constructed in order … to see itself. […] But in order to do so, evidently it must first cut itself up into at least one state that sees, and at least one other state that is seen. In this severed and mutilated condition, whatever it sees is only partially itself. […] In this condition it will always partly elude itself.

God, too, has trouble seeing himself. In the end all he can say is: “I am that I am.”

These little ideas provided a way into a lot of other things and thinkers, including Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Gadamer, and the problem of intelligibility more generally.

At the time I discovered Laws of Form, I was obsessed with the nature of art and the creative act. At the center of my problem was Marcel Duchamp’s “readymade.” In its purest form, a readymade was, in André Breton’s words, an “ordinary object promoted to the dignity of an art object by the mere choice of the artist.” In 1914, Duchamp promoted a bottle dryer he had purchased from a department store in Paris, and Bottle Dryer was created.

Marcel Duchamp, Bottle Dryer (1914/1959).

The question was, how is Duchamp’s Bottle Dryer different from all other bottle dryers? The first step in the answer involved recognizing the work’s dependence on Spencer-Brown’s basic law of form, namely drawing a distinction.

That, of course, doesn’t get you very far, because pretty much everything depends on drawing a distinction. As we saw, a distinction has always already been drawn. But it sets things up nicely. Duchamp crossed a boundary in order to establish a value, which he believed was the essence of the creative act. He crossed the boundary separating fine art from manufacturing, drew a distinction between his bottle dryer and all others, and attributed a differential value to it by giving it a title, as one would a work of art.

The laws of thought Duchamp relied on to create Bottle Dryer are, of course, laws of thought. In effect, Duchamp was thinking about art, not making it, and Bottle Dryer is an illustration of an idea about the essence of art. With Bottle Dryer, conceptual art was born.

In order for Duchamp to pull it off, viewers had to go along with it, and he could not have done it if he hadn’t had the required authority. Remember, the form of law is command: “Let this bottle dryer be a work of art.” A command is valid only if given by someone with the authority to do so. Explaining the nature of Duchamp’s claim to authority is a big part of the rest of the account of the readymade.

I learned about Spencer-Brown and The Laws of Form from the 1971 Whole Earth Catalogue, which endorsed it as follows: “I’m not ready to review this book. Who the hell is? It merely starts over. It’s too simple to grasp. The book is pure revolution.” It led to Russell and Wittgenstein, which at the time I blended with an interest in behaviorism (Skinner, Quine), which then led me to semiotics and structuralism, out of which I concocted a personal “theory” of Duchampism and creativity in general. After a few years of stops and starts, and much rumination, it bore fruit in the form of an undergraduate thesis.

Eventually, I came to feel there was something deeply wrong with the idea of the Readymade as something “promoted to the dignity of a work of art.” If Bottle Dryer is an illustration, it’s not best thought of as a work of art. And if it is not a work of art, then there’s probably something wrong with a theory for which it is.

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