Monday, March 30, 2015

Wittgenstein and Private Language

As someone who has read Wittgenstein on and off for several decades, I thought I would finally write about him. For those of us who are neither professional philosophers nor students but are writers, Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is seductive—here is someone who took the question of language and its relation to thought seriously, someone who was seemingly at odds with the main thrust of academic philosophy. And he could write. The temptation is to read Philosophical Investigations and Zettel as if they were works of poetry. The curious thing is, when I come back to these works now, after many years, I find myself in disagreement with many of the claims they contain. This in no way diminishes my pleasure in reading them.

The private language argument contained in Philosophical Investigations is often thought of as the centerpiece of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. I’m not sure it is, but more than thirty years ago Saul Kripke placed it in its context. Innumerable people have dissected it since then. Wittgenstein defines a private language as a language specific to a single speaker, a language the speaker uses to catalogue and comment upon his own internal states. Wittgenstein’s main contention is that such a private language is an impossibility. The clearest statement of the problem appears in section 243 of Philosophical Investigations:

But could we also imagine a language in which a person could write down or give vocal expression to his inner experiences—his feelings, moods, and the rest—for his private use? Well, can't we do so in our ordinary language? But that is not what I mean. The individual words of this language are to refer to what can only be known to the person speaking; to his immediate private sensations. So another person cannot understand the language.

Revisiting all this, it occurs to me there are at least several situations that might suggest the existence of a private language, or languages. But the meaning of the term private is central here. “Private” doesn’t usually mean “restricted to one person,” but Wittgenstein clearly means it to be. He is thus creating his own idiosyncratic, which is to say private, use of the term.

Here’s a list of potential private languages, some stronger candidates than others.

1) A prisoner in solitary confinement is inexplicitly given pen and paper, though neither the guards nor anyone else communicates with him. With these implements, he devises a code in which he records the sights and sounds he witnesses, as well as his own physical sensations and thoughts. Now, one could argue that this is a code, not a language. True, but what if the prisoner took it a step further and developed his own syntax, a syntax not directly based on that of his native language. This language would exist for his use only.

2) A set of twins create their own spoken language, restricted and private to themselves.

3) In the gym I go to, there is an attendant who has what I take to be Tourette’s syndrome or a similar disorder. He is constantly pacing back and forth, uttering strange and somewhat threatening phrases that are nevertheless incomprehensible. I have never seen or heard him speak to another person, whether a member of the staff or anyone else. It’s possible this is “the language of Tourette’s.” The real test would be whether another person with his specific condition could understand these phrases. If not, he is indeed the master of his own linguistic world.

4) Clearly, Esperanto is not a private language—its inventor, L.L. Zamenhoff, devised it to be very much the opposite. But as he was creating it, before he showed it to anyone else, wasn’t it in some sense a “private language?” It certainly wasn’t a public language yet.

What if someone devised a new artificial language, kept it to themselves, and then died? What if no one could decode or translate the language?

5) The language of Finnegan’s Wake as Joyce was writing it—ie, before anyone else read and attempted to interpret the book. This would have been a privately devised narrative language, 
a language that described a self-enclosed world.

Wittgenstein would have been scathing about each of these. No doubt there are caveats and prohibitions to all of them. But together they demonstrate that the repeated insistence on the impossibility of a private language doesn’t fully close the issue.

If you restrict the definition of private to mean “unique to a single individual,” and if you define language as a means of communication among individuals, then it is a tautology to say there can’t be a private language—the definitions you’ve established preclude the existence of such a thing. Which is highly ironic, considering Wittgenstein’s discussion of tautologies in his early work, the Tractatus.

Perhaps writers of fiction and poetry are drawn to Wittgenstein’s later philosophy not because they agree with him, but for the opposite reason: writers tend to believe their work does in fact constitute a private language, not in Wittgenstein’s sense, but in a stylistic sense. After all, an individual writer’s style is a specific example of language that needs to be decoded by each individual reader. Which is to say, a public expression that requires private interpretation.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

“I Had Every Intention”—New Poetry by Michael Gottlieb

Recently I heard Michael Gottlieb read the title poem from his new volume of poetry, I Had Every Intention, at the Faux Press party at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. I’ve known Michael for a number of years and have admired and enjoyed his work. In addition to the title poem, the new volume includes “You Unacknowledged Legislators You” and “No Thought Best Thought.” He was one of four poets who read brief selections of new work that evening. The others were Kimberly Lyons, John Godfrey, and Vincent Katz. Music was provided by Drew Gardner.

It was several nights later, when I read the short volume through in its entirety, that something clicked in a major way. A revelation, certainly, but the revelation was this—as smooth and seemingly light as the surface of these poems may be, it’s what’s below the surface that will transfix you, and the world with it.

The syntax is deceptively simple:

what about the other laws
he broke
like verb noun agreement

A little later:

he has an abstinent spirit
proudly renouncing easy pleasures

Easy to read, very easy to hear someone read the lines aloud. But then, there’s the question of specific vocabulary. At a public reading, the words go down easily. But should they? Isn’t the selection of these casual, almost throwaway phrases absolutely intentional? And shouldn’t these exact words lead us to ask certain questions before we proceed to the next line?

For example, what precisely is the Dunning-Kruger Effect? Or the business judgment rule, for that matter? The answers are shocking in a way, and should bring us up short. The definitions are entirely relevant, whether to the banking crisis of 2008 or to our everyday lives.

Then there are the words that we think we know—coruscate, for example. No, it doesn’t mean to excoriate, but to shine, to glisten. And what’s the definition of skeumorphic? What about assortative? What exactly happens in a Faraday Cage? What or where is Ploesti? And have you seen an eidolon lately? 

There is something subtly subversive about this way of using language, the casual allusions that at first glance don’t need to be delved into. Subversive of what, one might ask. Of our complacency, of our pretense to knowledge in a world where knowledge is infinite, perhaps even subversive of theories that presume to explain how language works. 

Then there’s the reference to Hölderlin—this is hilarious, a very backhanded way of referring to someone who is the opposite, someone we’d be relieved to see the last of. Then again, look up Hölderlin, look up his evanescent verse, and one realizes that several things are going on here. Someone is disappearing and someone isn’t, but who has just walked past us isn’t clear.

I Had Every Intention by Michael Gottlieb is available from Faux Press and from Small Press Distribution. A video of the reading can now be seen at Ron Silliman’s blog for November 19.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Wendy Whelan is one of the great dancers of the past twenty-five years. In honor of her retirement from the New York City Ballet on October 18, we’re reprinting a poem written many years ago, when she first rose to prominence.

Wendy Whelan

The lines in her arms,
calf muscles like fists
then elongated,
and her swiftness      
cut through space,
define it.

An exotic,
she moves,
when she moves
time stops.

When she danced with Hübbe,
she was different,
they danced
as if they were
in flagrante delicto,
which is the way
it's supposed to seem.

To see her dance
in Stravinsky Violin Concerto,
very close to perfection,
eternity in a moment,
we want it to last forever.

Is this art or is it life?

Poem written at the bar at Sperry’s, Saratoga Springs, NY, 1994, Steven Fraccaro.

Wendy Whelan first came to my attention in 1989 when she danced in Episodes, Balanchine’s choreography set to the astringent Webern music. After that, it was a progression through the Balanchine leotard ballets, various new pieces, her slinky rendition of the Coffee “Arabian Dance” in The Nutcracker, but ultimately her handling of the woman’s part in the second pas de trois in Agon that defined her as a virtuoso.

That was in 1993. Soon afterwards, she inherited the lead ballerina role in Agon, the most demanding role in the Balanchine modernist canon. There have been numerous very accomplished dancers who have danced this part—Diana Adams, Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell, many others. But Whelan brought something else, not herself so much as an exact depiction of the music, the slicing angularity and drama of what Stravinsky and Balanchine must have intended. When she danced, it wasn’t about her, it was about the precise movement of arm and leg, about something both fierce and mysterious.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the various video clips of Diana Adams, Suzanne  Farrell, Darci Bussell, anyone else in Agon. Then watch Whelan dance the pas de deux in the film “Bringing Back Balanchine.” Is there really any question?

Strangely enough, she was also quite magical at the opposite end of the spectrum, in one of Balanchine’s most romantic ballets, Liebeslieder Walzer and in Opus19/The Dreamer by Jerome Robbins. These performances will stay in my mind forever.

Although retiring from City Ballet, Whelan is continuing to dance, with a series of projects scheduled for this year and next. These include Wendy Whelan: Restless Creature and upcoming collaborations with Edward Watson and with Basil Twist.   

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why The Recalcitrant Scrivener Still Matters

The Recalcitrant Scrivener first appeared five years ago. What seemed like a stretch in 2009, that the book publishing industry was in crisis, is now a given. These essays explain why that crisis has developed, with entries on the forgotten history of book publishing, the “Show Don’t Tell Fallacy,” and a hilarious piece entitled “Publishing Kingpin,” in which the author relates his ill-fated but brief career with a mainstream publisher. When the history of literary writing on the web is eventually considered, this short ebook will serve as a useful reference point. The second edition incorporates the blog entries written after the first series of essays was published. Now included are pieces on vampires, the history of Random House, the role of small presses, and the poet Jim Carroll, as well as a new Afterword.

Remember, it all started here…
The Recalcitrant Scrivener

Friday, September 12, 2014

Paintings from the Abyss—Recent Work by Robert Guerra

Bob Guerra is an intriguing personality, someone I’ve known for nearly ten years. He’s best known as an art director on numerous feature films, often working for the designer Dante Ferretti, whose work was recently the subject of an exhibition at MOMA. What is less well known is Bob’s work as a painter, the tone and style of which may surprise people who know him from his film work. 

The paintings I recently saw at his studio are distinctly political, though not in the sense of proselytizing for a specific point of view. Satirical, they are perhaps best considered as being in the tradition of George Grosz. In some ways, the draftsmanship and color palette remind me of Reginald Marsh. But there’s nothing dated about these works. What they manage to do is to hold up a mirror to our society, a funhouse mirror of sorts. And the picture isn’t pretty.

The first painting I saw isn’t particularly American, at least not immediately so. Titled Napoleon Crossing the Alps, it’s a parodic reworking of Jacques-Louis David’s ode to Napoleon. Here, Napoleon sits astride a monstrous carousel horse, but he doesn’t just sit, he is in fact one with the horse, an outgrowth of the horse’s body. Not a centaur, he is a travestied, composite creature. Together, they surmount a mountain of skulls and bones. The palette is red, white, and blue, a gray blue. To say this is about the vanity of war is to say the obvious. Nor is it simply about Napoleon. The effect manages to be both horrifying and darkly comical.

Hotel Haruspex might be said to treat the same theme, albeit more mysteriously. A general sits, wearing an elongated, cylindrical hat. To the uninitiated, this might appear to be a dunce’s hat. In reality, it’s a representation of the hat worn by the Etruscan soothsayer priests known as haruspex. These diviners read the entrails of animals. In the painting, the haruspex holds in his hands the entrails that emanate from a set of empty Roman armor, a mountain of skulls to the left. It is worth remembering that the Etruscans ruled the Romans for centuries, but were then defeated and subsumed, their civilization eliminated. Above and to the left is a film noir neon sign, the sort of sputtering sign that signals something deadly is about to happen in a 1940s movie. The sign, not surprisingly, reads, “Hotel Haruspex.”    

Forming something of a counterpoint to the first two paintings is another pair, The Male Politician and The Female Politician. Neither bodes well for the electoral process. The male candidate wears a carnival jacket, an idiotic grin besots his face as he sports an aging showgirl on his lap, a convention hat on her head. This could be the 1940s, but the ghostly image of the Emperor Augustus presides over them from the upper right, presaging war, murder, mayhem. The candidate is not an Augustus figure; rather, he is clueless, inept, skilled only at being reelected.

The Female Politician provides a similarly jaundiced view of our electoral system. Except that here, a woman who is not young supports an aging, ludicrous toy boy on her lap, more a ventriloquist’s dummy than a man. He bears an eerie resemblance to the male candidate in the matching painting.

The final work I saw was Venus Returning to the Place of Her Birth. She indeed holds a shell, but there the resemblance ends. This Venus is a gruff, wasted strumpet, still proud, but no longer a beauty. Fleshy, nude, she stands in front of a Dickensian industrial landscape, Satanic mills spewing smoke and soot, the home town she has returned to—both she and it are ruins of themselves.

This is not an easy painting to look at. Despite the defiance and pride, there is something sad about her, and about the bleak industrial scene behind her, which seems both outmoded and futuristic. Perhaps she is a product of this monstrous industry, as indeed we all are. 

The five paintings I’ve described represent one strand of the artist’s work on canvas, what I refer to as the satirical strand. A selection of these and other works can be viewed online at the Robert Guerra Studio.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Language Writing and Other Matters

Literary Modernism appeared to have run its course in the English-speaking world by around 1940, at least as far as fiction writing was concerned. New Directions published Henry Miller and Kenneth Patchen, Grove Press went on to publish Beckett’s novels, the Nouveau Roman in translation, and William Burroughs, but that’s pretty much it. American novelists who emerged after World War Two may have incorporated specific Modernist techniques, but these were generally used sparingly. Even in the most lauded literary fiction, anything that might engage the reader’s intellect at the expense of his or her emotions was largely eliminated. Early Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Lydia Davis, Siri Hustvedt, and a few others provide the exceptions to this rule.

Poetry was a different matter, with the continuing work of Williams, Cummings, Stevens, Zukofsky, and Oppen, and the emergence of Olson and Creeley. By the 1970s, what became known as Language writing emerged. In New York, this was based around Roof Magazine, edited by James Sherry (1976-1979), A Hundred Posters, edited by Alan Davies (1976-1981), and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, edited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews (1978-1981). Michael Gottlieb has written an account of the New York group at this period, Memoir and Essay, published by Faux Press and Other Publications, which provides an engaging picture of the aesthetic concerns, intellectual preoccupations, and personal conflicts involved. Dozens of poets around the country were involved in the group. This was a major literary movement, with a focus on language and how it functions. 

In San Francisco, Ron Silliman was developing his specific avant-garde approach to prose poetry, as exemplified in his multipart work, The Age of Huts. From this volume, the section I still come back to is The Chinese Notebook, which can be seen as both a parody of and homage to Wittgenstein’s later work, one that is in fact influenced by that approach. Silliman also went on to develop a theory of reference in which he equated the realistic novel’s appropriation of reality with capitalism’s appropriation of the world we live in. Writers in the San Francisco Language group included Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, and Lyn Hejinian, among others.

It’s worth nothing that John Ashbery published the first of his Three Poems in The Paris Review in 1970. With an oblique approach to prose poetry and to meaning, these works have a certain affinity with Language writing. Nevertheless, Ashbery comes from an earlier generation and is sui generis among the New York School of poets.

When I first met a number of the Language writers in the 1970s, what struck me was that the they were virtually the only writers I knew who were seriously attempting to build on the Modernist impulse and take an intellectual approach to writing. Whether all their work succeeds isn’t the point. What bothers me is that few readers of The New York Review of Books know of Language writing’s existence. A major literary movement has been virtually ignored by the New York publishing world. This despite the fact that Rae Armantrout, one of the original Language writers, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2010. Ashbery’s seminal Three Poems was at one time published by Penguin, but is currently out of print. What does this say about the literary culture of corporate publishing?     

Now, the major publishers aren’t really in the business of publishing poetry—that’s left to small presses and to university presses. Nevertheless, when we come to fiction, it’s as if the major publishing houses steadfastly refuse to publish anything that makes any sort of intellectual demand on the reader. Emotion and easy reader accessibility are the primary criteria. I simply refuse to accept this as a legitimate approach. The phrase “dumbing down” occurs to me in a distinctly sinister light.

I’ve avoided getting into a detailed discussion of the theory and practice of Language writing, which varies from writer to writer. Nor have I discussed individual poets and their work to any significant extent. An interested reader might do well to start with Michael Gottlieb’s Memoir and Essay, which provides a personal view of both Language writing and literary and bohemian New York in the 1970s. For an introduction to the aesthetic issues involved, as well as many of the individual writers, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E is useful. Roof Magazine and A Hundred Posters are sources for important examples of the work. Then, it’s a matter of looking up books by the individual writers, nearly all of them published by small presses.

The thing is, there’s an enormous amount of work to investigate.