Center for Discursive Inquiry Hosts Jaleh Mansoor

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Off Campus

Online | Contact Tabitha Steinberg ( to RSVP

Universal Prostitution and Libidinal Reification: Notes on Francis Picabia’s Diagrams of Proletarianization

From 1916 to 1917, Francis Picabia worked on a mixed-media drawing that he entitled Universal Prostitution. On the face of it, Universal Prostitution looks like a machine part standing vertically against an undifferentiated field, connected to another machine part through a series of depicted tubes and pipes spewing disjointed words about the human body. From the vantage of description or representation, it is utterly nonsensical; and yet its exit from either representation on the one hand or aesthetic abstraction on the other affords it another kind of access to motivation and to the real movement of history. Picabia may have been purposively citing Karl Marx’s enigmatic phrase in the Philosophic and Economic Manuscripts mobilized in order to describe the emergence of a new kind of worker: the proletariat. Marx likens the new proletarian to a form of prostitution structurally operative as the very nature of waged labour. Picabia like Marx seemed to seek a new modality with which to formalize changes in the field of the social real otherwise impossible to figure. The mechanomorph and diagram explored across a handful of works from 1916-1920 are two key modalities that afford observations about the new model of the subject. Gifting the drawing, Duchamp surely recognized the extraordinary ramifications of Picabia’s insights, among them a surprising mobilization of a new form of drawing, the diagram drawn from industrial engineering which introduced a logic of indication more appropriate to an emergent worker-subject itself produced by an abstract and invisible, yet concrete, capitalist totality. This talk explores that form of life and its characteristics which both writer and artist tried to capture by way of forging a path to understanding aspects of our present, Picabia’s future, in which the cyborg and even AI seem to be full realizations of universal anonymized work displacing the human and opening onto the post-human. 

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Center for Discursive Inquiry