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2005.08.22 =>

The Literary Wittgenstein: but didn't he read detective magazines?

I got this collection of essays back from the fellow who borrowed it in time to anticipate most of the discussion on The Valve, and man, I wish it were a better book. It’s not that there aren’t any good essays in there, but the stated project of a “Wittgensteinian” criticism just doesn’t pan out. Joseph Margolis sums it up pretty well in his dissenting essay at the end.

I venture to say that, in the Investigations, Wittgenstein is obviously drawn to the flux of language: not by any means to linguistic chaos (because of course he makes meticulous distinctions) but more because of a profound mistrust of grand generalizations and the familiar philosophical longing for fixed essences. His teaching “method” is decidedly elenctic, in a way that invites comparison with the “method” of the early Platonic dialogues (which he seems to have discounted). But if so, then we begin to understand why it is so difficult to apply his “method” specifically in aesthetics: the truth is, there is no method, and where we might require “doctrinal” direction, Wittgenstein erases as much as he can of the explicit traces of the doctrines that have guided his own account.

To look for a method in the Philosophical Investigations is to reduce it to a manual for hunting out “grammatical confusion” in texts—essentially, you turn Wittgenstein into another theorist. It’s the same process that reduces Derrida’s writings to a Geiger counter for “binarisms,” or Benjamin’s to a crude call for revolutionary art, or Lacan’s—well, who the hell knows about that. The point is, it’s regrettably easy to take philosophical writings with little or no bearing on literature in particular, extract a few key terms, and turn them into a paint-by-numbers kit. I like Wittgenstein’s philosophy better than a lot of the others, but he’s not immune.

The worst offender in this bunch is probably Rupert Read’s essay on Benjy in The Sound and the Fury. Poor Benjy has been a whipping boy for any number of theories (e.g., he bellows for Caddie when the golfers yell “Caddy”—he’s assuming an essential connection between signifier and signified, the dummy!) and here Read for some reason conflates Benjy’s experience with the experience of schizophrenia, claims that both are incomprehensible by our standards of rationality, and that therefore the words on the page, which we do understand, do not communicate Benjy’s “experience” but instead—well, Read isn’t very clear about this. (The essay is here and a good counterargument from the Valve is here, if you want to go deep.) Meanwhile, there are no fewer than two essays trying to fix the logical status of fiction according to the Tractatus, which is as bad as asking whether capital belongs to the Lacanian Real, or what are the numbers and qualities of the orders of archangels.

Even the more considered essays don’t hold out much hope for turning Wittgenstein into the new cottage industry of English departments. Garry L. Hagberg offers an essay about private experience and autobiographical writing which amounts to a lucid summary of Wittgenstein’s writings on private experience, interspersed with occasional gestures toward “autobiographical writing is like this too.” It’s a fine synopsis if you don’t know the arguments, but there isn’t really anywhere to take them. Conversely, James Guetti writes a good essay on skepticism and Heart of Darkness, but his insights come out of a fairly straightforward critical reading and quotes from the Investigations simply pop up as window dressing. You can read literature or you can talk Wittgenstein, but trying to do both at the same time is like juggling on a unicycle—outside the circus, what’s the point?

So what good are the good essays? Well, if instead of reading literary texts you want to refute bad philosophical arguments about literary texts, you couldn’t have a better friend than Wittgenstein. Sonia Sedivy and Martin Stone take similar and satisfying tacks against the current dogma that every reading of a text is in some sense an interpretation, while Bernard Harrison and John Gibson ably enough discuss how literature’s being about itself doesn’t mean that it can’t also be about the world—though I think fewer people are asserting that one nowadays. Cora Diamond’s contribution about literature and moral philosophy is also fine, though it seems to have wandered into the volume by mistake.

But for my money, the best of the batch are those that talk about the Investigations as a work of literature. These would be Stanley Cavell’s piece on the book as a modernist artifact, Marjorie Perloff’s on the strangeness (you guessed it, unheimlichkeit) of ordinary language, and Timothy Gould’s on the narrative form of the Investigations. Taken together, these provide a good account of how aphorism, indirection, and narrative and stylistic strategies can produce philosophical insight without the usual structure of argument and proof, thus implicitly suggesting how literature in general can do these things. For me, the experience of reading the Investigations was a lot closer to reading Ulysses than, say, the Critique of Judgment; it’s nice to see those aspects of it addressed, since it’s precisely these aspects that are lost in the attempt to extract doctrines and methods for use in systematic criticism.

Basically, I think that Wittgenstein can do literary critics a lot of good, but mostly in an intuitive way. It’s only a few months since I read the Investigations for the first time; it made me far more alert to certain kinds of badly framed argument and turned my picture of language on its side. So of course the first thing I did—full disclosure here—was to run off and write a bunch of papers on Wittgenstein and literature pretty much like the ones I just attacked above. This was a mistake. It was a beautiful book, and I loved it in a way that I feel powerless to articulate, but the very qualities that made it so wonderful and strange also suggest that its influence might best be kept under the surface. As a careerist, I’m disappointed that Wittgenstein is ill suited to becoming the Next Big Thing and landing me a fancy job; as someone saddened by the misappropriation of the things he loves, I am relieved.


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2005.08.22 =>

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