Ethics of Partiality: Andy Warhol Likes Things
James Decker



Being alive was being at work for Warhol. That’s maybe why for me then I studied ethics by him. For me, between Warhol and the mysticism of William Langland’s Vision of Piers the Ploughman, there is strangely some common starting point—specifically, an impersonal view of life as work without rest. It is work; it doesn’t stop. Warhol said “being born is like being kidnapped. And then sold into slavery. People are working every minute.” The ethical posture toward life as work is one that sets our machinery to tasks as endless as life. Find the tasks and you’re finding your machinery. For Warhol the easier the better. Of course, laziness is not what Warhol means by “easy” anymore than for Piers Ploughman. Warhol discovers what he is partial to and since you’ve already lost track of vision, begin again with the fact that states of not working aren’t a possibility for Warhol. People don’t break free. There is no notion of a person staying happy, only a choice to be what type you are. There is only a search for a rut, and only an assurance that you’ll find it better with others than without. This last point is one easily missed for any who feel they are already in a rut when, likely, their mechanism hasn’t engaged work at all but has formed itself from consciousness—made itself its task. Bored people think of breaking free rather than burrowing in continually.

Warhol said, “Pop art is liking things.”  If evil is banal, then inspiration must be a useless, pure, and obsessive affinity. It was Warhol’s boon that he could pose single portraits of proliferate items or rows of profligate personnae and lodge us in between two modes of mindfulness: recognition and alienation. He made me think that in pursuit if we are to break with empirical reason and admit unobservable mechanisms of co-occurrence we ought not to exclude the things of language repeating as memory in our minds, sinus pressure as the source of attention, and the span of shoulders as the ballast of hypothesis. But how to experience subjective states without reliving romantic forms of psychological Self or reasserting linear logic, or remove ourselves to the concreteness of ill suited analogies to whatever technology we currently have hold of, engines, algorhythms, ant colonies? How to consider things without personifying, sublimating, and rewrapping them as not choices yet? Warhol was masterful because his choices, his choices of things, were inconstruable either for being meaninglessly abstract or for being overt, immediately recognizable. It’s this later extreme we need to talk about first.

Particular abstracts.

We can chuck that mistaken idea that abstract thoughts are general and send along with it the rational belief that categories are containers. The usual distinctions drawn between the particular and the abstract are difference regarding events perceived in one moment vs. events unperceived as a set of moments, that is, events remembered. Sets of moments are, of course, not necessarily sequential but successive, not ever complete but always recollected, always a set. The machinery of conscious time-based memory is a filter, as a hand may stencil parts of a half-tone photographic angle while self-consistent memory’s hand reproduces differently each time and each time automatically an authentic copy without an original. The idea of originals is a phenomenological fallacy, a concept based on the structure of perceptual organs, an image projected by the eyes which exist to receive it. Already we hear the mystics knocking.  Their early notions of originator and its categorical abstract, originality, are ancestors to a simpler successor: portrait painting. In the form of portraiture there is a singleness, an overtness, a representation of a self requiring no knowledge from outside the frame assembling the world as a set of simplistic, easy, particulars for which beg no need of patterns, forms, or laws, except to say that it is the possession of the present undivided... except from the outside, the par ergon. But if every person is genuine, an original, If every person is only one are we really singularities among singularities, or simplistic denials of not self?

Arogate Derogate Abrogate.

Warhol's ethic is not irony, or any other device.  It is being the wrong person in the right place, being the right person in the wrong place. Ethics isn’t a system applied to the behavior of the individual, not rules for living as much as an urge to commit to rules if we could. And it is something shared, continually changing, for long times unstated, the interrogative we don’t know how to ask, that makes people nervous as it devours answers thrust at it and refuses to resist escapism into answerable, provable, anti-ethics. Ethics is a nonindividual anxiety and a currency that affects individuals whether they pursue it as personal, or not.

Mechanism of succession.

In portraits of particulars Warhol scared folks. His portraits of soup cans supplanted a set of well-anchored, soundly derived categorical notions using the most recognizable particulars, mundane items posed and painted as icons, fauvist beasts to be sacked, slaughtered, torn open and eaten in respectable calm. Warhol’s first audiences often did not see his work, just heard of it. In either case, what they perceived was more than unexpected it was involuntary. In mundane particulars his audience recognized form as the subject, consider this as distinct from mechanism or skillful flick of the painterly wrist,, they saw the abstract and saw at first either meaninglessness or universalism then later would remember themselves as having seen the other.

In printing portraits of the famous, Warhol posed figure and figment, overt to mass audiences, the form of the known. Overt means not concealed, and overt in the sense of open means operative, or current. Currency, for Warhol, had everything to do with commerce, and fame demonstrated the readiness, the overtness of transacted familiars, the currency of cultural logic. If Warhol speaks of how strange a famous person must feel to appear regularly on people’s televisions, he is not discussing career goals of individuals, he is exposing audience as collective perception, he is calling on collective recognition of  product logos, same as faces, same as deities. That ought to interest most folks. To me, Warhol depicts the currency of belief so starkly that it leads me to think about the space surrounding familiars, the emergence of familiars from the impossibility and entelechy of individual experience (as distinct from the sum of our perceptions, science kids.) Outside of perceptions, there is a mechanism that pops new particulars to the top of the shared stack. There’s a notion, valid at a certain scale, of a dominant. As far as my training tells, Roman Jakobson was first to talk about “the dominant” in culture. Jakobson analyzes the dominant in terms of Czech poetry and  explains how an individual’s sense of form grows out of the activities of a group. Of course, Jakobson wants to make it a universal aesthetic, but that’s hard fruit, the sort that literature academics—those ham radio lurkers of short-wave language—love.

“They say time changes things but actually you have to change them yourself.”


Logo, insignia is not to be mistaken for the universal. A logo is overt to us, it is designed for the individual relative to a cultural dominant and placed in anticipation of the off-chance encounter in some ten thousand specific settings. It’s significant to the individual, it is genitive, but got there as a result of a larger society, the soup cans less than the arena where they are stacked in pyramids. It translates to nothing but only occupies the individual just as the individual occupies cultural space. There is nothing to translate about a logo portrait and person. It is presence and encounter, name and logos. To elaborate or interpret, to judge the logo is to admit confusion and blindness. Logos are suited to physical evocations, a twist off and a gulp, a gesture, an open mouth scream. Listen for it, it’s not a marketing tool, it’s not a facet of individual human psychology, it is currency itself, the market floor, it is transactable and it is money. Logo is commerce, cash is logo, coke is logo, streets are logos, faces are logos.

“American money is very well-designed, really. I like it better than any other kind of money. I’ve thrown it in the East River down by the Staten Island Ferry just to see it float.”

 “Money is the MOMENT to me.

Money is my MOOD.”


There should still be a way for us to wonder about currency apart from Jakobsen, psychoanalysis, or other hair-trigger absolutes. We should also be able to continue without rhetoric of objectivity. Scientific tools for probing and modeling are excellent craft, but for too long scientific rhetoric has seemed prefab, made for completeness, modernist in its denial and ecumenical in its description of quantum phenomena.  If we need to describe the sensation of time, the warble and warp of chemical states which are, as a set, nonrepeating, then we should describe whatever is new, not aesthetic, not fetish, not ethical principle, but the question as it comes to us, right then and not for all time, the question that we want to bite much more than we want to have to swallow. If our unsure, untasted questions are described in particular, and in time, then we ourselves might be mechanisms of enquiry and that which we accept as description, and as knowledge, will change as the particulars that we ask appear in shared spaces. Luckily it is nausea as much as knowledge that we’re after. Otherwise, we’d violently pursue and endlessly and hopelessly repeat our fascination for an original, and fail ever to sicken of things.

“Maybe my fear of being up high is chemical.  I always bring every problem back to chemicals, because I really think that everything starts and finishes with chemicals.”

“You mean you don’t get wiser as you grow up?”

“Yes. You do. You have to, so you usually do.”

Chemicals, repetition, mechanism, is where everything starts and finishes, but Warhol is really after nothing, not everything. He works repetition to pose the nonrepeating and to clarify currency. How is currency different from so many years of ideas about the universal? It’s different because its supposed effect is not hierarchical.  If there is an effect, it’s upon memory; if there is a structure, it is succession. So Warhol poses commerce to us, paints its picture, not prosaically, nothing about the return of latent desires, but iconically, he just paints money. His portraits of United States currency expose an impassioned, ultra-rational, and divisive effect occurring among a deadpan people. No need to ironize, he plays straight and the portraits pose all by themselves. He doesn’t play a role of impassioned or disimpassioned artist, nor in any circumstance does he act above or below, but Warhol is himself always the wrong thing in the right place, or, the right thing in the wrong place. In reaction to the effects of passion, rational certainty, malice, sweetness, Warhol doesn’t raise a Self, or lift a reason. He likes the idea that he is dominated by life.

What’s the Use?

Any challenge beyond your own personal narrative, any experience without Self at center, initiates a new discussion where an oblique line of new referents and conceptual encounters ad-libs anew. The rules of engagement become those of a given weeknight—it isn’t meaningful, reflective, or expressive and it isn’t public, but it may as well be since there’s as much chance of censoring what airs on t.v. or what stacks up on your supermarket floor as what airs in your head. Brief spins in succession is all really. This ambiguity is our abyss today, our attention, our collective synapse. It makes us nervous—what are we supposed to know, what information do we know, what can we expect others to know, what information can I bring up from my life that can be understood and will it tie me to one spot ‘til I die, to one set of people ‘til I wish they were dead? Flighty interactions are more gratifying, consistently they lift us to where we see what we don’t know aloft and amazed to see everything we do know. Everyone I see is everyone I know.


Warhol visits extremes upon us, to articulate a mean. His poling extremes has more in common with philosophies of ethics, more echoes in Aristotle, than offspring in today’s journalism as pop-culture.  Warhol’s playfulness differs significantly from ironizing the banal. Warhol posed form. He posed the form of fame. He posed ethics. He posed our perceptive machinery. He suggested a posture for existence that used value to invert worthless and priceless. He was earnest and disciplined, maybe like the alchemists whose science crossed to religion, whose noble huckster-art professed to convert base metals to precious.

“A person can cry or laugh. Always when you’re crying you could be laughing, you have the choice. […] So you can take the flexibility your mind is capable of and make it work for you.[…] Remember, though, that I think I’m missing some chemicals, so it’s easier for me than for a person who has a lot of responsibility chemicals, but the same principle could still be applied in a lot of instances.”

By painting soup cans, Warhol found that a particular everyday object which had not for any length of time stood for a larger, generalized truth, now, somehow instantly, did. It stood for nothing, and absolutely everyone saw there the nothing they saw out from. Soup presumably, forgettably, inside. Warhol’s art showed that recognizability was the function of form, even though he occupied our perceiving machinery with particulars and not forms, Brillo boxes rather than beauty.  These frightening subjects used copied, highly stylized designs with curves and edges that adverted the brain’s attention and delivered a message no deeper than the suggestion to buy. There he showed us form as highly personal, as that which does not need to steal our attention, as that which is already our attention.

Suddenly Warhol had made it clear that well-informed, golden, hallowed, and ossified archetypes were less recognizable than our liquid, less burdened forms, packages, Brillo boxes, soup. He liked it. We all like it. It’s not that older forms vanished, but they were less personal, less overt, and therefore less universal, therefore less successful as forms because they failed to give form to the particulars of American culture’s non-universal, present, and abstract particulars.  Warhol had done it without reference to beauty, truth, or permanence.  He flashed us our operational, our unenveloped, uncategorized, our particular thoughts while they were still behind our eyes and not yet even in front of us. He beat nostalgia while its hands were still bunching a fist. He caught us as machines, before gesture. He made abstraction of immediacy and without converging, cubing, extruding, or destabilizing.  And once uninterpreted, unbeautified, unidentified beauty was at hand, there was no going back, and we were committed to the whole swamping mass, the easy, ugly, useless value of things. Each of our portraits included.

Throw Me Away.

And, while we’re here, isn’t it true that if our established, respected forms and our universal conventional wisdoms weren’t really our most operative ideas, well then he had caught us playing at fetishes anyway?  Our nostalgia had mostly to do with the safe distance of the past anyway, the fact that our artistic, cultural, religious, and scientific artifacts were already consumed and assimilated. Warhol’s Factory disabled our oldest, most time tested, accepted knowledge, including the possibility of knowledge, unless we misremember that knowledge used to mean enduring information of demonstrated usefulness. Of course, pop wasn’t only Andy Warhol. The collective attention, like the personal, was easily grabbed. To struggle for it would in fact be a kind of denial. “I always go after the easiest thing, because if it’s the easiest, for me it’s usually the best,” said Warhol.  His idea of a cultural, personal dominant, what Andy called atmosphere, aura, and tingle we can play with in just a minute. But from this somewhat serious point concerning form and Self, we can recall the similar importance of death to Aristotle’s ethics. The whole, or actually for Aristotle “the mean,” can be remade. The dying act was key to Aristotle’s ethics because it was no different and enjoyed no extenuations above every other act.  We may fail, or succeed with our newest act. Warhol may instruct us more playfully, or rather we are less entertained by death bed dramas than Aristotle: “Like breaking the seal on a box of Russel Stovers, I don’t care what each candy tastes like I just want to taste the last one so I can throw the box away.”

So abstract ideas aren’t always difficult ideas. They are the simple after complex, they can in fact be particulars, thoroughly known, without mystery.

Repetition- Overt to Meaningless.

I am not hoping, finally, to describe semiotics. I am saying that if Jenny Jones herself had an infant dashed to pieces on the sidewalk before her, she, and we all, would be ashamed not to have availed ourselves of Andy Warhol’s film “Bad” as continued guidance that, in his time, refined and kept whole the American social consciousness that had, thankfully, gone adrift. Warhol enabled (it’ll sound weird to say) the honest yet meaningful description of American culture. Honest, today meaning the tough crappy evil actions we take of necessity. Meaningful, being the sensation of familiarity and well being (at times live for some, and not at others) in those honest actions.  Overt logo, or insignia is that exact familiarity, that well being of our cognitive mechanism deliberately played; yet, meaningless, it is untied from buffers of personal experience either positive or negative. We need to see that we survive what we see not by building mental toughness to it, but (the opposite) without righteousness or horror.

What are logos printed on?  Streets are printed on the ground, Brillo on boxes, Coke on aluminum, cash on paper, money on palms of hands, cologne on alcohol, beauty on…

 “If you get things when you really want them, you go crazy. Everything becomes distorted when something you really want is sitting in your lap.”

Warhol offered us resistance more than high-concept recontextualization when he pulled logos onto paintings, using silkscreens, the same means of printing as used in printing commercial images in large quantities, but he put the images in our laps, he distorted us.  I believe he worried about it too. I believe he worried about people. In his portraits of things he wanted to give us drips and painterly things that showed the painting that it was. You could imagine the painting without the drip, so there was something extra to it, something unnecessary which gives the viewer a task, a comfort. Warhol knew that dumping commerce on our heads would kill us, but it was a pratfall. He didn’t really stack a bunch of Brillo boxes from the store in a museum. Andy’s hundred Brillo boxes aren’t printed boxes at all. Stand close to them; they’re wood.

“You can’t argue with your scrapbook.”

I’m thinking it’s possible that when Warhol exposed new forms (particular objects that took on the function of general forms, we could say “particular abstracts”) he thought to use them as forms traditionally were used which was to fill them with examples. Thus Warhol uses the ultimate American form, portraiture, insipidness, histrionics, famein short, he film. But he fills this quintessential American form with nonprofessional cast members. Warhol’s vapid, tedious films do not as clearly bridge extremes as other of his works, but like his early art he makes incomplete stencils of the particulars of fame, not the famous but the contents of fame. Warhol’s films show a concentratedness of partial roles and partial knowledge that people use in order to play themselves. In place of the careful techniques of film, Warhol filmed continuously for hours on end. He filmed Ondine, active on amphetamine, for twenty four hours.  He filmed the Empire State Building for eight hours continuously. Better than portraits could do, his films show the solipsism and unintelligibility of experience and of things. For America, fame was the essence of new possibilities explored, the present re-cast and the past cast off even if its actors became cast aways. Oblivious to what lines they’d speak, Warhol’s superstars were likewise oblivious to the events that affected the larger social history of the time. The actors, settings, and plots are vapid to the extent that they pull in the questions of form. What is this? It’s a movie. You’re looking at film, a particular American form, and you’re as upset about watching as the first audiences seeing soup cans in a museum.  Because Warhol’s films were made without scripts, but the behavior recorded in them is not natural in any sense. These were superstars made by the machinery of the camera, the concrete form. These were lives lived as partial roles. They are dedicated to the fame that forms them. Where is Warhol’s sense of mercy here? Where is the splinter on the edge of the Brillo box in the case of Warhol’s films? Perhaps it is in the accidental real glimpses, jerks, accidental nudity, breathing. An accident.

Stickiness, Hardness, Happiness.

By ease, Warhol sees what gloms on to him. His superstars repelled many of his other friends and supporters. But horrific as sticky superstars are, Warhol did not merely make a descent into particular fetishes and hobbies, nor pursue knowledge or build ironies. Knowledge is not ethics. Knowing what, knowing where, doesn’t help.  What then is the point?  Warhol can teach us that in the accidental ease of gesture we find what type we are, what we are partial to.

“Sometimes you’re invited to a big ball and for months you think about how glamorous and exciting it’s going to be. Then you fly to Europe and you go to the ball and when you think back on it a couple of months later what you remember is maybe the car ride to the ball, you can’t remember the ball. […] I should have been dreaming for months about the car ride to the ball and getting dressed for the car ride, and buying my ticket to Europe so I could take the car ride. Then, who knows, maybe I could have remembered the ball.”

Today, with knowledge no longer circumnavigable and excess of information routine, the question (arrogation, abrogation, and derogation) becomes: Where in all this detailed view can I go without dedicating my every reference to its particulars, how can I stay at home without losing that home as a particular and departable place? How do I continue to like where I am? Warhol shows that discoveries can be made without newness, knowledge without information, a building standing, a film star breathing, experiences so particular as never to be repeated and so simple as to be without details. What then is lacking? Why should it ever have been difficult to participate without first being fixing ourselves in the custody of happiness?  Perhaps what is lacking for many is the permission to run through other people’s areas, to not make of Self the task. It is running amok that hands us new and memorable particulars. After all, running amok is all that children know. It’s not anticipation, it’s not recognition, but the cavity behind the eyes where attention seems to see out, it is the shoulders, crosswise ballast of hypothesis, happiness is what you did remember, how you were ravaged by shallowness, that you were taken over by ideas, dominated by your own actions and never a defense for it.  What sticks to you, why do you spend here and not there? Or if you prefer, what presses on you and makes a scratch, and what presses on you and gets scratched?. This is why, for Warhol, other people were the key. Much of what he painted other people told him to paint once he asked them: “What should I paint?” He asked others to perform particular tasks, to give their current idea, or to do something they wanted to do. Warhol’s ease wasn’t based in pursuit of pleasure or guided by self. Often the easiest thing is to do just what occurs to others for you to do, and if they are the people around you, the people you see and know, usually that is best. This is not a vague notion, or a new notion, William Langland, our medieval mystic, in his vision of Piers the Ploughman would recognize instantly that we are talking about charity.


Warhol’s late diaries begin and end with transcriptions of the longest most detailed phone calls with other people I’ve ever read. They can go on for 25 pages. Warhol scarcely speaks during them. They’re endless to begin with, and have been published unedited to boot. These are catalogues of thought and feeling populated with exquisite and excruciating detail, a ships manifest in which the names the New York social register are also itemized, an irreducible list rather than a typification, not chosen, but complete, even nothing is not left out. With ease, we endure one another and unhappiness visits only when we are, ourselves, unendurable to others.

“Anyway, last night I walked across the street to the deli and bought a sandwich, a beer, a cake, frozen cake, orange, Sara Lee, some ice cream. Came home, ate the sandwich with my coat still on because I wanted to throw away the paper it came in and drank the beer, too, so I could throw away the bottle. Then I thought I couldn’t wait for the cake to defrost. . . Of course I couldn’t wait for the ice cream to pour or the cake to thaw so I chewed them both. I’m so edgy that just waiting for the elevator drives me crazy. I still have a quarter of the orange cake left and all I want to do is throw out the plate… I can prove right now that cleaning is more important than eating to me. I flush the cake down the toilet and put the tin box in the waste basket. Now I have to get dressed to take the waste basket out because it has something in it. The silver tin won’t flush. . . You can throw all your needlepoint needles down the toilet and they don’t go down, they just sit there at the bottom. Well, I had to fish them out. So I had to put on the yellow lined gloves again and it was very hard with rubber gloves to pick up the needles. So I put—first, I put more Comet in to make the toilet clean…Then all of a sudden the toilet started to bubble. And when I flushed it again it went up to the rim. It didn’t really go over the rim; it just stayed there. I could have dived in.  A are you there? Are you bored?”