The dualities in paleonymy and the resonance of dueling paleonymic materials.

An enquiry of paleonymic dynamics as artistic concepts: The dualities in paleonymy and the resonance of dueling paleonymic materials.

In the following text I hope to explore, define and communicate under a perhaps Derridian guise applied to conceptual art, how context and meaning (increasingly the bones of ‘things’ in todays de-materialised and de-territorialized universe) are transitory, fragile and fleeting. I will attempt, (I say ‘attempt’ because the process is inherently Sisyphean and problematic) to identify Paleonymic artistic formats and mechanisms in two contemporary art pieces, artworks that, I feel, wear such dynamics on their conceptual sleeves. Also, by identifying various compositional structures and causal components (verisimilitudes) in the following examples I hope to highlight how everything’s ‘unique’ context is essentially, inherently, finite and consequently exists as base material for future artistic productions - hence an inevitably automatic dissolution of lineage, history and permanence. This essay will outline the nature of the Paleonymic dynamics operating within particular artistic practices, the trouble with this aim is that the causal elements are always in flux, as soon as a particular aspect is grasped the (ontological) position of all other contexts shitfs, similar to a set of globes placed with their sides touching like spherical cogs, the process of mapping one cartography immediately disrupts the possibility to map another (cartography, globe).

Let us begin with Paleonymics(1), personally I feel the etymological heritage of this Derridian portmanteau betrays its true meaning: paleo- (“ancient”) nym (“names”)= Paleonym. Personally I’d rather call Derrida’s notion of Paleonymics something along the lines of Neo(new)Paleo-rhythm’s (Latin rhythmus from Ancient Greek υθμός (rhythmos, “any measured flow or movement, symmetry, rhythm”) έω (rhèō, “I flow, run, stream, gush”)…or even Paleo-neotrophies? Ancient to New changes? Or Neo-paleopoiesis – New to Ancient births. Etymological nit picking aside I feel it’s important to regard a few words by J W P Phillips (2) regarding the definition Paleonymy:

“It is worth recalling Kierkegaard’s warning, though, about “what the philosophers say about actuality,” which, he says, “is as disappointing as when you see a sign in a second hand store that reads: Pressing Done Here.  If you went in with your clothes to have them pressed you would be fooled: the sign is for sale” (E/O 50).  Accordingly, if the first approach requires attention to what is said, the second requires a shift in focus, an emptying out of the statement itself, what we might call a paleonymic procedure that retains the old concept but allows its conventional or traditional designations—its sense and the conceptual or syntactic space around it—to become loosened before it can be firmed up in a new, more powerful, designation. “Paleonymy” is a coinage by Jacques Derrida, designating the method according to which old names can be utilized in novel circumstances where existing terms are inadequate.  Derrida, of course, does not invent the procedure but rather discovers it at work covertly in the texts of the tradition at significant moments.”

I hope to apply Phillips parallel of Derrida’s Paleonymics and Kierkegaard’s statement to map the paleonymic practices of artists, or rather the contextual poiesisthesizings through paleonymic mechanisms – mechanisms that, essentially and intrinsically, harbor an element of sacrifice/subtraction/trophy/addition – this is approaching another area of Derridian concepts, namely Pharmakos, but we must first attempt to understand Paleonymics. So many art works are ‘propelled’ by jettison (feel free to insert a petro-political analogy concerning modern civilisations dependence upon fossil (paleo) fuels as a means to progress/continue). When I say propelled, I use the term as an execution, an artwork becomes and artistic conceptual act as original components are employed and changed. A composite material (the art piece) is born of a fusion, an act that colours, destroys, changes or shifts an original materials context.

The first example I’d like to explore is Cory Arcangel’s ‘Punk Rock 101’ (2004)(3). Conceptually I feel this is a very simplistic, very plain piece, essentially a composite of Kurt Cobain’s suicide note and Google Adsense advertising programs – the conceptual dynamics, the shifts of context are, however, more complex. Arcangel’s statement:

A while back, I made a web page which paired Kurt Cobain’s suicide letter with Google Ads (google ads are generated from the text of the page they appear on). It was up for a while but after getting digged google decided to remove the ads from the page. I took some screen shots while it was up and below are two examples of what it looked like. Also below are the checks that google sent me!”(4)

Screenshot of ‘Punk Rock 101’, Cory Arcangel (2004)

Arcangel’s piece installs all the required apparatus for a Paleonymic resonance to form. The old socio-political context of Cobain’s suicide letter (this is very well established, I won’t explore this particular “materials” qualities, we all know of the tragedy and the then commodified legacy) is used as an interior host for the all enveloping, and somewhat parasitic, mechanism of Arcangels work. Work that, in turn, also mirrors the other parasitic medium he employs so adroitly: Google Adsense. The paleotrope (τρόπος (tropos), "turn, direction, way", related to the root of the verb τρέπειν (trepein), "to turn, to direct, to alter, to change") supports the newer context surrounding it, whilst at the same time continuing to exist independently - a state necessary for ‘Punk Rock 101’ to execute as an artwork. Cobain’s note has two contexts, it simultaneously has its established MTV context (key for the work to work) but also it’s newer ‘Punk Rock 101’ context. The double context is active, each facet existing to bolster and define the others context.

Conversely it is also important for us to contemplate how the parasitic dynamic is also operating symmetrically, from Google Adsense to Kurt Cobain’s suicide note and vice-a-versa. The dynamic is not dissimilar to a Klein bottle – if we regard the contextual mechanism dynamic of Cobain’s (CN) suicide note we may perceive it as an interior host for the all enveloping and parasitic Google Adsense (GA). However if we regard the contextual resonance of GA we now perceive CN to be the parasitic exteriority, sacrificing the original (pre-experience) context of GA to a newer understanding – a mutual contextual decay of GA / CN is essential for the re-contextualization, the neotrophic (newly changed) state of CN / GA to be completed. For every moment one feels the cold, morbid and mercenary treatment of Cobain’s suicide note by Google Adsense one also rethinks the position of Cobain’s note in today’s world. One either thinks of Adsense in a new way or one thinks of Cobain’s note in a new way to (inevitably) re-animate and re-contextualize the other paired component – but this thinking is intrinsically linked to the older context of each component.

This bi-parasitism is difficult to contemplate simultaneously. Arcangels piece is so effective because of the resonance emerging from the two conceptual materials (GA and CN) juxtaposed paleonymic dynamics. A comfortingly physical analogy can be ‘drawn’ by animating M.C. Escher’s ‘Drawing Hands’ lithograph (1948). Let us imagine that the two pencils in the piece are pencils of death, upon touching another human being or any of their clothing the person is relegated to a two dimensional form or nothingness altogether, this transition begins in the center of the victim and slowly spreads out to their extremities. However, when the pencil is withdrawn the victims original state resumes. Looking at ‘Drawing Hands’ with this in mind we can imagine that if the lower hand were to lift his pencil the top hand would spring to life, grow an arm covered in shirt material and disappear off the right hand side of the page. In keeping with the terrifying magic at work in this dimensionally unstable universe we can appreciate that, conversely, if the top hand was to withdraw its touch of death then the bottom hand too would spring back to life, inhabit a three dimensional state and an arm would disappear off to the left hand side of the page. Being experienced with the laws of this world, and understanding the capabilities of the lethal writing tools we can appreciate that each hand in M.C. Eschers lithograph is not in the process of destroying any being, essentially these two implements of death are just touching an inanimate object.

‘Drawing Hands’, M.C. Escher, (1948).

In this universe the only possible explanation to the evidence depicted would be that two men, living and breathing simultaneously touched one another’s arms, leaving all but the offending hands remaining, the pencils held down under their weight – perpetuating the stalemate. A massive change of context is afforded one by the other, but, depending on how the eye falls upon the piece the viewer is sure that the top hand is drawing the bottom or the bottom is drawing the top. Each entity jettisons a context in itself or to alter the others context to be progressed, this strange loop is propelled by a similar dynamic to that of Cory Arcangel’s “Punk Rock 101’. The bi-parasitic paleonymic (as always in the Derridian sense not the strictly etymological sense) resonance is the peculiar sensation we experience in both works. It is also the mechanism of both pieces and the concept. Old things are put to work here, to change a context, in this moment they retain their original context, but shortly afterward this too fades an artistic statement is left behind.


To take a rather Bourdieu-esque view of the cultural components employed in such mechanics (that give rise to paleonymic resonance) we can see each facet of the pieces as loaded ‘cultural capital’ activations, keys or switches. Before the creators knowingly strategic juxtaposition each part carried an enormous, historic ‘burden’ of context and signification. Cobain’s note inevitably carried a very culturally embedded essence of understanding and a unique carto-cultural-signature, however in order for the paleonymic resonance in Arcangel’s piece to emerge the carto-cultural context needs to shift, or rather, as the paleonymic dynamic of the infamous note is comprehended (directly or indirectly, from on top of or beneath the opposing mechanics of Google Adsense – depending upon the gaze of the viewers understanding) a simultaneous event/context kinetism occurs. Even though the loaded nature(s) of the cultural components are present they are also comprehended and read within their mechanization of the piece, so after this event the subjectively received context, the significance, is altered. Depending upon the previous cultural entrenchment of the material and also upon the nature in which it is deployed the shift could be subtle or seismic. Degree’s of change are not of interest here (and these are subjective and therefore further removed from the primary mechanics of paleonymic execution I am interested in exploring here) – the inevitability of context change, of this shift remains. The argument that this change or shift only occurs in a viewers minds eye is valid, for it is true, but on a macro-premise this ‘subjective’ context shift is housed within the collectively alive nature of the world, if an art work (such as Arcangel’s ‘Punk Rock 101’) becomes infamous and notorious then the objectively established context of it’s cultural material is stained or at risk of a shift. Not dissimilar to the living and fragile language upon this page, the language of an artwork that piggybacks upon existing cultural-cartographies and entrenched semiotics of significance is engaged in the (at least) slow morphing, twisting and progressing of it’s employed materials meanings. I understand this phenomena as sharing similarities to the cultural-semiotic (or context) palimpsests (2501re)forming the current art. Or to put the notion in an even more simplistic analogy as Bourriaudian(5) remix and collage that inadvertently colours the material of it’s collage as the materials are pasted and mixed in juxtaposition within one another.

Another piece, or pieces that I feel activate(s) upon a similarly paleonymic resonance are Jake and Dinos Chapman’s ‘Insult to Injury’ series. In this series an original set of Goya’s ‘The Disasters of War’ etchings are used as a base for the Chapman’s to paste and draw demonical clown faces, puppy heads, horse heads and myriad indescribably ghoulish characters of macabre and sinister physiognomy. There are many themes explored in these works (the ‘Insult to Injury’ series) and implied within the calculated climate of the works execution, mans inhumanity towards man, the question of evil in a secular society, the fetishism of evil, the injection of Eros to Thanatos, the perversion of scopophilia, the mortocentric slippage of arts subjects in a post Kantian world the world – post deicide introspection is where the nightmares begin and fade: “unmetered data-overkill obliterates the potential of poetic redemption” (6). As fascinating and massive as these themes are, they are not my concern in this essay, the mechanics of ‘extraction, graft, extension’(7), the ‘lever of intervention’(8), the paleonymy dynamic employed in the conceptual deployment of materials is what interests me.

Jake and Dinos Chapman’s ‘Insult to Injury’.

Like Cory Arcangel’s ‘Punk Rock 101’ the Chapman brothers put a cultural relic to work for their own conceptual communications. Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ etchings cannot be read without the massive implications they hold traditionally under an art historical pretext. In ‘Insult to Injury’ Goya’s works carry not only their traditional connotations (the pre Chapman constellation of cultural signifiers) but are also forcibly re-configured to carry new meanings of context in the work and after the work. Solely regarding this facet of ‘Insult to Injuries’ materials (and disregarding the Chapman’s original material contributions to the ‘works’) it is natural to appreciate the dualistic dynamic, the paleonymic or rather the Paleo et neo labores, the ancient and new toils that Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ prints undergo.

The Chapman’s original material contributions to ‘Insult to Injury’ are less easy to define from a subjectively focused analysis, the imagery they deploy is stained, post-modern and composite to begin with and the ‘Disasters of War’ prints hold such massive cultural gravity that the ill defined Chapman applique risks being dwarfed by the weight of the old masters histories. However the paleonymic dynamic still occurs precisely because of their marriage with Goya – each paleonymic activation is intrinsically tied to the others. Despite the asymmetrical cultural weighting the conceptual form of two paleonymic mechanisms resonating from (and within) one another are as purely symmetrical conceptually as Arcangel’s ‘Punk Rock 101’. The reason for this is straightforward: despite any concerns of cultural context, despite any comparison between the two materials contexts the subjective act within the contemplator remains the same (the dynamic is the same). By just thinking of the newly contextualized facet of one paleonymic side/material (old context or new) one, by logic, does not think of the other, so the dynamic of paleonymic resonance between two paleonymic dynamics (the materials) remains the same, homogenous, across works that deploy faint or complex or bold parts against one another. 

Rather than re-iterate the same notion of paleonymic resonance I will re-present my previous text from the ‘Punk Rock 101’ analysis with the corresponding material signifiers replaced:

The dynamic is not dissimilar to a Klein bottle – if we regard the contextual mechanism dynamic of the ‘Disasters of War’ (DOW) we may perceive it as an interior host for the all enveloping and parasitic Chapman additions (CA). However if we regard the contextual resonance of CA we now perceive DOW to be the parasitic exteriority, sacrificing the original (pre-experience) context of CA to a newer understanding – a mutual contextual decay of CA / DOW is essential for the re-contextualisation, the neotrophic (newly changed) state of DOW / CA to be completed. For every moment one feels the cold, morbid and mercenary treatment of DOW by CA one also rethinks the position of DOW in today’s world. One either re-thinks of The Chapman Brothers art in a new way or one re-thinks of Goya’s prints and etchings in a new way to (inevitably) re-animate and re-contextualize the other paired component – but this thinking is intrinsically linked to the older context of each component.

In contemplating these endless shifts, this horizon we cannot catch, in squinting at the various parts, the various concepts the (singular) paleonymic entity behaves as a entoptic phenomena(9), we can turn our gaze towards it’s position only to experience it shifting once more out of view, out of knowing, out to another context. The resonance between two of these phenomena (each refracting the others context, each maintaining and/or disrupting the others paleonymic dynamic), is the glory of the artist’s sublime execution of cultural materials and conceptual sensitivities. The paleonymic harmonizing of an artwork that performs through reforms that perform ad infinitum… is the art in the art.

Through-out this essay I have labored upon terms, like infinite(2501), constant, shift, endless etc. I have relied upon notions, analogies and metaphors of infinite regression, Mobius strips and Klein bottles. There are two reasons for this method of communicating such conceptually abstract readings of art is through 2501. Firstly, with regard to the cultural context of artworks cultural materials/components it is important to always contemplate the endless horizion of the context, these shift as we approach comprehension, like a mirage or entoptic phenomena their nature, their context and subjective conceptualization is tied to our journey of enquiry – and thus our journey to see, or grasp is Sisyphean, endless. Secondly, it is vital to remember the essence of Derridian deconstruction that Derrida outlines time and time again. His deconstruction is as applicable to post-production art as it is to language, for they are both a mix of endless shifting contexts and ever evolving, malleable signifiers. A signifier cannot move outside the system, the structure – but it can shift from one signification to another, paleonymy doesn’t destroy a meaning/context/signifier in order to deliver a alternate meaning/context/signifier. Paleonymy is the space, the transition, the doubling, juggling, penumbra between structurally or systemically established states as they become disrupted and, for want of a word with less ‘meaning’, shift. (Bi)Paleonymic resonance operates by giving each paleonymic entity a disruption upon constant contemplation, every time I think of Goya’s etchings (the renewed context, signification as well as the ‘original’) I also re-think The Chapman Brothers work (again, in this instance the renewed context, signification as well as the ‘original’), so I re-think Goya’s work and so on and so on. By pairing, by setting two bi-contextualizing in opposition (or harmony, marriage) is minimizing the ‘risk’ Derrida writes of: “To put old names to work, or even just to leave them in circulation, will always, of course, involve some risk: the risk of settling down or of regressing into the system that has been, or is in the process of being, deconstructed”(10). Rather than think of this artistic composition as minimizing the risk of rapidly sinking back into the system, we may also think of this composition as giving each paleonymic material every possible chance to suspend itself in deconstruction- to elude the hierarchical, systemic attribution of static signifiers for as long as the viewers mind swims amidst the currents of paleonymic resonance. “To remain content with the reversal is of course to operate within the immanence of the system to be destroyed.”(11) Each context I mention in this essay (eight in total, two for each material, two materials in each piece) is seldom content or afforded the chance to rest or regress, their composition of/in of a (bi)paleonymic resonance results in a (their) shifting deconstructionist purgatory.

(1) Most relevant text on page 71 of Positions, Jacques Derrida, The Athalone Press. Positions Chapter interview with Jean Houdebine and Guy Scarpetta. Derrida States “…I will say that my texts belong neither to the “philosophical” register nor to the “literary” register. Thereby they communicate, or so I hope at least, with other texts that, having operated a certain rupture, can be called “philosophical” or “literary” only according to a kind of paleonymy: the question of paleonymy: what is the strategic necessity (…), what then, is the “strategic” necessity that requires the occasional maintenance of an old name in order to launch a new concept? With all the reservations imposed by this classical distinction between the name and the concept, one might begin to describe this operation. Taking into account the fact that a name does not name the punctual simplicity of a concept, but rather a system of predicates defining a concept, a conceptual structure centered on a given predicate, we proceed: (1) to the extraction of a reduced predicative trait that is held in reserve, limited in a given conceptual structure (limited for motivations and relations of force to be analyzed) named X; (2) to the de-limitation, the gratifying and regulated extension of the extracted predicate, the name X being maintained as kind of lever of intervention, in order to maintain a grasp on the previous organization, which is to be transformed effectively. Therefore, extraction, graft, extension: you know that this is what I call, according to the process I have just described, writing.”

(2) A Guide to Jacques Derrida’s “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, John W P Phillips, (


(4) ibid

(5) Postproduction, Nicolas Bourriaud, Art Data, (October 2003)

(6) Insult to Injury: The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, Jake Chapman in ‘Insult to Injury’ by Jake and Dinos Chapman, Steidlmack, Germany 2003.

(7) Again, Positions : Interview with Jean-Louis Houdebine and Guy Scarpetta in ‘Positions’, Athalone Press, P.71.

(8) Ibid

(9) entoptic phenomena, or eye floaters, visual phenomena that are caused by materials on the eye itself.

(10) Outwork, p5, in Dissemination, Jacques Derrida (trans: Barbara Johnson), Continuum Publishing, London (2004)

(11) Ibid, p5