Thursday, January 06, 2005


If you can imagine the white chickens, I'll grant you all the rest. (Cf. William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" and Ludwig Wittgenstein's On Certainty, §1.)

If you cannot imagine the room in which you are sitting, I'll grant that "there is no grammar or logic by which [it] can be precisely recreated in words," but nor will your photos and floor maps help you now. (Cf. Ron Silliman's Chinese Notebook, §26)

Let us ask, does Williams manage to precisely recreate the wheelbarrow, the chickens, the rain water? How much depends on this?

So much depends upon the articulateness of experience, on the articulateness of the scene in the yard, on the articulateness of the room in which you sit.

What would it mean to recreate something precisely . . . never mind in words? What will the floor map precisely recreate that a handful of terse sentences could not?

The room in which I sit is articulated in manifold ways. The monitor is ON the desk, the desk is ON the floor. There is no door in the frame. The light is on.


Stuart Greenhouse said...


I think your arguing like a pre-1905 physicist. There is nothing so certainly existent down to the last perceptual node--there are fields of possibility delineated by the presence of energy manifest. So in the balance which quantum mechanics defines as the playing-field of perception and reality which is our existence, perhaps Williams' poem makes a great deal possible (all of that which 'depends' is not that which ^is^, then but what ^may be^, what would fit that 'equation' the poem is with human perception).

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks for your comment, Stuart. I think I agree with most of what you say at the end about the chickens only being manifest possible chickens. I think, however, that QM must be compatible with the behaviour of chickens and rain, because these are as real as stuff gets. (QM may have identified a certain statistical openness in physical systems: but surely it must explain the stability of our chicken-imagery in ordinary experience--which it does: statistically.) I don't think we can get more sure about the existence of things than ordinary chickens in good light. (I'm not sure what "down to the last perceptual node" is supposed to indicate.)

You can't recreate a chicken precisely in words because you can, ideally, eat a chicken and you can't, really, eat your words. But in that sense everything is beyond words and there simply is neither logic or grammar. Since logic and grammar do work sometimes, that can't be right. I think the balance you are talking about probably just is language. So . . . much depends upon these manifest chickens.

I suppose the question here is one of the difference between energy-fields of potential chicken-imagery and actual, manifest chickens.

In brief, yes, I think I am oldfashioned, but keep in mind that QM didn't get us into orbit. Ordinary Newtonian "rocket science" (and a good deal of social organization) got us there.

Jay said...


I've been turning this around in my mind over the past few days, to little avail (no surprise there). So I thought I'd at least mention the following . . .

I'm thinking of the fractal coastline problem; i.e., how does one measure the actual length of a coastline -- not on a map, but considering all the twists & turns, nooks & crannies. The more one "zooms in", the more twists & turns there are.

To apply this to the discussion at hand . . . sure the monitor is on the desk and the desk is on the floor and that does articulate the situation of the room to some degree. Similarly, I can draw a lay a ruler against a map and say "the coastline is about n miles long". And just as we can "zoom in" on the coastline, we can also "zoom in" on the room. What shape is the monitor? What are its dimensions? How does it reflect the room when it's off? What's it look like at 4pm, on a semi-cloudy day, in mid-winter, just after glancing up from reading passage p in the Philosophical Investigations? All of those things can be considered elements of what we'd consider to be the "complete room" and, in this sense, it's true that we'll never be able to complete the description. Whether or not Silliman's floor maps would help us get any closer is another matter . . .

Thomas Basbøll said...

That's a great observation, Jay. There's no "complete room" because there's no "complete zoom". Just as you're never "at the coast" in the sense of being related to each nook and crany, you're never "in the room" in the sense of being related to each possible moment of its articulation. Yet you can be in the room or at the coast, always "in some sense". The trouble with Silliman's paragraph is that it suggests that the "whole room" is somehow there in a way that language can never do justice to. To notice that neither can a photograph or a floor map is the first step. The second is to notice that that you're sitting in the room and therefore making a particular kind of use of it, to which a particular kind of usage fits. "What's it look like at 4pm, on a semi-cloudy day, in mid-winter, just after glancing up from reading passage p in the Philosophical Investigations?" Good question. But the answer is not beyond language, it just occurs at a particular level of detail. What you describe are various experiential moments of the room--there is no complete itemized list of those moments, each are articulated as they happen. And they only ever "are" (or as Stuart says, they may only ever happen) in so far as there is an articulation available. You hint that the length of the coastline may be infinite, and the amount of "things in the room" has a similar infinitude. Only we are never there. Just like infinity, you never get there. I think this is something like what I'm trying to say. Silliman seems to say that were are inadequate to the task of measuring the coastline. But in fact it is we who specify that task. Thanks, as always, for the input.

Stuart Greenhouse said...


Here's what I was thinking last night. Not so much a response in argument as thought in a different (i.e. my own) direction. Hope it makes sense.

The white chickens are part of that which is known--any variations which fit that data set, in quantum-speak, can represent that flux field's existence. Are possibilities permissible to the reader's imagination. Less is more, sometimes, and the poetic balance, it seems to me (though, perhaps, not the compositional Silliman), tends to the little, though not too little. An empty field is not interesting, there's no field of possiblity/imagination held together there by mass (i.e. condensed energy). Too much noticed imparts too much imprecision, a la Heisenberg--sometimes what is not seen clearly is truly not clear--the lack of definition is inherent in an electron, our perception can only see into that other frame of reverence so far. We can pick out what may arise into ours.

Back to the Williams poem, which I can't read in any way but as explicitly stating this: "So much depends." The world is not, here, every thing that is the case, but rather, every thing that may be the case: things are always changing, and what is is, in the true present, all of that which it may become. That is, for me (in this line of thought, now), the most sensible definition of true definition.

Which you pretty much cover, reading your post again, in your first statement of the post.

I hope this isn't tendentious/too off the mark. Thanks for the evocation of this!

Thomas Basbøll said...

Yes, I think that, given the image of the chickens, much follows. I'm not at all sure, however, that we need quantum mechanics either to explain it or to raise the problem. Williams' lineation is sufficent

beside the white

which separates also the whiteness from the chickens as it sets it beside the rain-sparkling wheelbarrow. That the relevant chickens are not really real but only possible means only that they are imagined, not seen.

Not off the mark at all, but I wonder how much depends upon quantum mechanics when you've already got the imagined chicken.

Laura Carter said...

I am more interested in the fact that your frame has no door.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Sorry for the belated clarification, but if you're still checking back here . . . The apartment includes two rooms "en suite" (I think it's called) with what must once have been French doors between them, only the doors weren't there when we moved in, the hinges removed, the holes (for the screws to mount them) painted over in the glossy grey of the frame. Must I paint you a picture? Draw you a floor map?

Laura Carter said...

I wasn't trying to be intrusive, just ruminating on that as an image per se.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Me too. I took it as a challenge to articulate, not to exhibit. I'm right though, right? We don't need a photo or a floor map?

Laura Carter said...

Not unless you really want to do that. I have a pretty good imagination & an apartment of my own with the same type of frame. I find the last two sentences of your post really engaging in a "literary" sense, but particularly the door-image. I worked a few years ago on a poem with the recurring line: "This is not the doorpost, and you will burn the frame." There's a resonance with me, hence.