In his recent book Dividuum, the philosopher Gerald Raunig hypothesizes that current technology offers the possibility of a new “type of interactive and activating writing.” Raunig imagines a future in which data about reading is harvested from e-book readers to “recursively affect the production of books, of texts altogether.” Writers would be required to revise, abridge, or otherwise recast their now perpetually unfinished books in accordance with data about the “democratically” determined preferences of readers. All books would be crowdsourced, and writers would become the slaves of “an endless feedback loop and chain of ever new versions.” The modernist idea of “the open art work,” Raunig warns, could become a “Sisyphean nightmare.”
What Raunig envisions is a far cry from the “definitively unfinished” works that we’re familiar with from history. On the one hand, there are those that have come down to us in an unpolished or fragmentary state—because of, say, the artist’s untimely death, their inability to envision a way to proceed past a certain point, or simply the intervention of chance. On the other hand, there are works that are deliberately unfinished or unfinishable, including all instances of what Umberto Eco characterized as “the open work” in his in his 1962 classic of the same name—works whose very structure depends on indeterminacy, most obviously the aleatoric music of Karlheinz Stockhausen or Luciano Berio. (Strangely, Eco doesn’t mention John Cage.)
Other art forms have their own variants, such as Nanni Balestrini’s novel Tristano, in which the order of the text varies in every printed copy—its publishers claim there are 109,027,350,432,000 possible variations—or Stan Douglas’s video Journey Into Fear (2001), in which a 15-minute film loop is synched to bits of dialogue that are scrambled and recombined by a computer in combinations that play out for more than six consecutive days. Such works may not be literally infinite in scope, but no one reader could ever experience all their various instantiations. They evoke what might be called a kind of mathematical sublime, to borrow Kant’s phrase.
The question of finish was crucial to the emergence of modernism. The gauntlet was first thrown down by Manet, whose works in the 1860s were declared by critics to be unfinished—in fact, not even paintings but mere sketches. Similarly, a few years later, Whistler was accused by the Victorian sage himself, John Ruskin, of doing nothing more than “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” But Baudelaire had already anticipated the howls of Manet’s and Whistler’s denigrators when he observed, in 1845, “that in general what is ‘completed’ is not ‘finished’ and that a thing ‘finished’ in detail may well lack the unity of the ‘completed’ thing.” From Manet and Whistler (or, indeed, from their predecessor Corot, who was the object of Baudelaire’s defense) until today, artistic modernism has been inseparable from the critique of finish. And this change in painting and sculpture occurred in tandem with similar developments in the other arts. Consider the difference, for example, between the omniscient narrator of the high Victorian novel and Flaubert’s style indirect libre, which depends on the reader making implicit connections and intuiting unmarked shifts in viewpoint; or, in the 20th century, the rejection by modernist architects of ornament—which had long been considered indispensable to a building’s finish—as something that, as August Perret remarked, “generally conceals a defect in construction.”