Secrecy and Complicity: Sub Rrosa
“Secrecy,” writes Mary Nooter, “is a channel of communication and commentary, a social and political boundary marker, and a medium of property and power”; it operates around social performances in which “strategies of concealment” are as important as the promise of revelation (1993: 20, 24). Unexpectedly, then, secrets are often less about invisibility or withholding than cohesion, structure and relation, as Georg Simmel already suggested in 1906. Secrecy is the name we can give to knowledge and meaning that is shared but controlled, tacit (anthropologists have noted that secrets are often “known” to many but revealed, acknowledged and “understood” only by initiates). What secrecy motivates, then, is a kind of unsound performative community, one characterized both by collaboration and the spaces or silences between it. As it happens, of course, With Hidden Noise bears just these hallmarks of complicities and silences, of conversations whose breaths of fresh air are lost to us. Created in the convivial atmosphere of the New York intellectual circle into which Duchamp was initiated upon arrival in New York – his first visit to Walter and Louise Arensberg’s apartment was made the day he stepped off the boat in June 1915 (Cabanne 1971: 51) – it looks to be as much the outcome of shared conversations and enthusiasms as a product for which Duchamp could claim sole authority. As we have noted, it is overseen most famously – “completed,” though this finality is delicate: “when I, before I finished it” – by Walter’s gesture of hiding an object within it, even if his contribution seems never to have been enough for historians or institutions to credit him with authorship rather than mere ownership.
Arensberg’s wider collaboration with Duchamp is in several ways constituted under the sign of secrecy and pregnant silence. Arensberg’s interests and his relationship with Duchamp are well-documented; in particular he would influence (or confirm) Duchamp’s growing interest in cryptography, semantic play and enigma around this time. One might notice, for example, that the theme of mystery, arcana and overlain identities is particularly marked in Arensberg’s future writings, for example three publications claiming to reveal the presence of Francis Bacon behind the works of William Shakespeare by unveiling forms of word play. Significantly, this line of enquiry was based for Arensberg upon the certainty that behind one author’s identity, encoded in the very letter of his texts, lies another to be discerned peeking between the lines only with the help of stealthy detection. All of this dovetails tellingly into the ideas of secrecy, masking and persona present in Duchamp’s work and thought (whose assumed alter-egos like Rrose Sélavy began to emerge in the next decade) and echoes in turn the links between controlled or encrypted knowledge and the performance of persona described by anthropologists, for example, as being a key component of strategies of secrecy. In fact another, even more occluded level of collaboration for With Hidden Noise is uncovered by Molly Nesbit and Naomi Sawelson-Gorse (1996: 163-67), who identify the journalist and playwright Sophie Treadwell – a regular in the Arensberg circle – as joint author of a key segment of the work’s logic, the bilingual word games of its inscriptions. While this time Duchamp took steps to signal Treadwell’s contribution, signing the work “Sophie Marcel / Easter 1916 - December 31, 1916” – a move that pointedly excludes Walter from sharing this billing – one notes that Nesbit and Sawelson-Gorse remain the only commentators to insist upon Treadwell’s role. It seems that some silences are particularly hard to break.
Interleaved with these layers of unsound and tacitly acknowledged collaborations sit other problematizing factors that complicate the story further still and about which, again, most observers have not been inclined to worry, since they disturb the object’s narrative coherence. There’s the intriguing fact, in particular, that With Hidden Noise was apparently one of three works, all presumably made at the same time, triplets with different and at present unaccounted destinies. While Arensberg’s object is the one we think we know, it would seem that Duchamp made a second for Treadwell and a third for himself, so ensuring that all three partners in the work might have equal ownership of it (Nesbit and Sawelson-Gorse: 1993: 163 and 167). The others of the trio seem to have vanished without a trace (though the possibility of their eventual reappearance is tantalizing, and it seems particularly odd that Duchamp would have lost track of his own copy). We might assume, though without any evidence to support this, that all three bore the same inscriptions, but crucially there is nothing to suggest that the second and third versions contained hidden objects. The story of Arensberg “finishing” With Hidden Noise – so completing the work by giving it a name as much as a content, since Duchamp later specified that it was not initially titled – thus leaves its two siblings in limbo, perhaps without a name (since no hidden object means no secret noise) and either awaiting completion, definitively incomplete like the Large Glass, or else secretly complete …
Secrecy has a particular status within Duchamp’s œuvre and biography: hidden relationships, furtive processes and ideas, alternate identities all seem hooked to a power that the artist both organizes and disdains at the same time. The combination of coded or withheld inscriptions, plus the strategies of hiding its object – of hiding its noise, its “sound object,” according to the title – and the performances of guessing its identity make With Hidden Noise a convenient marker for the “special knowledge” that is often seen as both art’s seductive appeal and its often apparently forbidding levels of difficulty and occult status. This is a frequent problem with Duchamp’s work, making interpretations prone to speculation or conspiracy theories. In cultural terms, the idea of secrecy is aligned with dangerous or prohibited knowledge and, thence, more broadly to otherness, strangeness and the sense of alternate realms; it signals misalignments between accepted structures and a “hidden” truth (Beidelman 1993: 42-44). To conceive of a secret implies that at least one person knows its truth; in fact, over the course of its history several individuals have been members of With Hidden Noise’s secret society: when Arensberg died in 1954, Duchamp passed on the knowledge of the hidden object’s identity to the curator and critic Walter Hopps in 1963, who in turn passed it on before his death to curator and Duchamp specialist Anne d’Harnoncourt (von Meier n.d.; Parkinson 2008: 130). Whether others, in the wake of d’Harnoncourt’s own death in 2008, might know the object’s identity is open to question. In the late 1960s, Kurt von Meier came right out and asked Hopps what the object was, to which Hopps replied: “If you really want to know, I suppose I could tell you. But that might just spoil the game for you. Or, at least, there's a much better game if you try to figure it out” (n.d.: chapter 1 section 2).
Secrecy and collaboration are both forms of communication incorporating objects and organizing or constructing knowledge; they prioritize negotiation, coding and decoding, dancing around points of non-knowledge, or where meaning slips and must be re-aligned. As we have already seen, Schaeffer makes a specific knowledge claim for the sound object as a communication through things; three centuries earlier, quoting Hermes Trismegistus, Athanasius Kircher had made the same point: “Music is nothing else but knowing the ordering of all things” (Godwin 1979: 66). With Hidden Noise, too, is a kind of communication through an object and sound object that employs secrecy and complicity to operate at the boundaries between knowledge and non-knowledge, negotiated through sound.