Tuesday, August 29, 2006

How to Write Concepts Down (3)

I want to go touching.

Tony Tost


The ability to write concepts down bears on the ability to think as little and as much as the ability to draw hands bears on the ability to touch. Certainly, there is an important relation between noting something down (committing black marks to a piece of paper) and noticing it. This noticing and noting is then related in a variety of ways to the use of the thing noticed.

Wittgenstein said that the uses of philosophical words like "language" and "experience" are as humble as those of "lamp" and "door". We can extend this: their uses are as humble as those of lamps and doors. These objects, too, have their "usage".

We must approach the grammar of concepts (in writing) as one might approach the grammar of hands (in drawing). That is, the usage of marks on bits of paper.

Friday, August 25, 2006

How to Write Concepts Down (2)

Is a bit of white paper with black marks on it like a human body?

Ludwig Wittgenstein
(Philosophical Investigation, §364)


I mean I don't do as Bill does--notice something and write the note down and then type it off.

Louis Zukofsky
(Pound/Zukofsky, p. 78)

I'm a great admirer of David Hockney, both in practice and in theory. But in 1981, introducing Jeffery Camp's Draw: how to master the art, he made a mess of the difference between drawing and writing. The passage is worth quoting in full.

Everybody learns to write. We are taught to write by copying marks, and even when we copy marks we all make them individually, we all have different kinds of handwriting. Within a year or two of being taught to write, things happen to our handwriting and personal ways of making marks develop very quickly. That's the way, really, you learn to draw. And in learning to draw (unlike learning to write) you learn to look. It's not the beauty of the marks we like in writing, it's the beauty of the ideas. But in drawing it's a bit of both - it's beauty of ideas, of feelings and of marks.

Maybe Hockney doesn't know any poets, or never talks to them about writing. Later on he makes the following outrageous assertion: "Drawing is a more interesting way than writing of passing on feelings about the world you see, the world you feel about."

I know a woman whose instinctive response to people who claim they don't know how to do draw pictures is, "How do you see?" I sometimes feel the same way about people who claim they can't write. How can you think? How can you be sure you know anything at all? "The only time I know something is true," said Jean Malaquais to Norman Mailer, "is the moment I discover it in the act of writing." It strikes me as absolute rubbish to suggest that writing is a less interesting means of expression than drawing.

Hockney thinks that "learning how to write" is a matter of learning how to form the letters. He reduces style to handwriting, and then claims that writing style has nothing interesting to do with seeing or feeling. But in order to write a good sentence you have to be able to see your world, feel it, think it. The beauty of the ideas depends on the beauty of the marks. A well-crafted remark, like a well-written strophe, is aesthetically sastisfying. That is, it's a bit of both, even when you've stopped using a pen altogether and type everything you write. Even when you've stopped typing and Google everything you write. It's how the marks work on the page that matters.

Writing, whether our notes are conceptual or emotional, helps us to attain precision in suffering. Wittgenstein described the writing of the Philosophical Investigations as a painstaking process of making sketches, selecting the good ones, and then arranging them. I think this positive analogy is much stronger than Hockney's negative analogy. We put marks down on the page and then work on the arrangement of those remarks until it satisfies us.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

How to Write Concepts Down (1)

The philosophical remarks in this book are, as it were, a number of sketches ... Very many of these were badly drawn or uncharacteristic, marked by all the defects of a weak draughtsman. And when they were rejected a number of tolerable ones were left, which now had to be arranged ...

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Preface to the Philosophical Investigations

I've noted my admiration for the prose of accomplished artists before. Josef Albers' Interaction of Color and Michael Andrews "Notes and Preoccupations" are dependable sources of literary pleasure for me. This weekend I found a less famous example in a little book by Oliver Senior called simply How to Draw Hands (Studio Publications, 1944). It is about just that. The very first sentence announces that "This is an instruction book."

What I like about this sort of writing is the excess of experience that supports the text. The author is telling us in words how to do something that he is obviously very capable of doing with his hands. (Senior drew the pictures in the book. They are very good.) He is also making a very simple assumption: that we are reading his book in order to learn how to do it ourselves, and not in order to learn "how it is done" (by others). Under that assumption is another: that we will only learn this particular art by trying to follow his instructions. That is, the book is only the tip of the iceberg. The clarity of this basic relation, which in fact obtains between any text and the experience it addresses, is the main attraction for me in the way artists write about their work.

In his own words, Senior "assumes authority to propose ... a course of study ... together with directions, explanations and comment based upon his experience and observations." He describes the hand as "a familiar yet highly complex piece of physical mechanism" and correlates "the notorious difficulty of drawing hands" with "the mental equipment by which [the student's] vision may be directed, extended and refreshed."

The better draughtsman has more "on his mind" concerning his subject; and, by embodying his knowledge and understanding in each purposeful line or passage of his drawing, achieves with apparent--or even real--ease an expression of form, character, action--whatever may be his immediate object--that the novice, lacking such equipment and relying on vision alone, finds beyond his power.

It was this "better draughtsman" that reminded me of Wittgenstein and the quote in the epigraph. Immediately after making his famous remark about writing philosophy in the manner of poetic composition ("Philosophie dürfte man eigenlich nur dichten") he noted that this only showed that he was "someone who cannot quite do what he would like to be able to do" (Culture and Value, p. 24). I, of course, think he did it better than anyone else. He knew how to write concepts down, i.e., how to arrange descriptions (sketches) so as to render a concept perspicuous, locating "its place among the concepts of experience" (PI, part II, xi, p. 193).

His main strength was the eschewal of philosophical jargon and special "philosophical propositions", theses, or theories. (That, to my mind, is the most important difference between Wittgenstein and, say, Heidegger, and marks his genius as being of a wholly different order.) As it happens, Oliver Senior puts this point brilliantly in relation to the difficulty of drawing hands.

If ... the artist finds himself constrained, by any consideration of expression, treatment or style, or by his deference to the peculiar nature and limitations of his tools and materials, to adopt or invent a convention or a symbol and to substitute the semblance of a bunch of bananas or a bent fork for a representation of the human hand, then the particular problem dealt with in this book does not arise.

I feel like this about jargon in philosophy, perhaps symbolism in poetry. It avoids the inherent difficulty and substitutes a technical term, a "technically correct" word, and thereby sidesteps the problem of the draughtsman: to get the subject down on the page.

What the better draughtsman (il miglior fabbro?) has "on his mind" makes him "more alert to respond to the indvidual character of his model, more interested to recognize its unexpected aspects, to seize upon its exceptional grace, or to emphasies its strength." After all, "the better drawing is not the more elaborate attempt to reproduce the visual appearance of its subject, but that which is better informed."

It may be argued that we cannot be as straightforwardly informed about concepts as we can about hands. Fortunately, like Senior, "I am entitled to assume that you are never at a loss for an authentic model to study." Everyone has one or two concepts work with. We are not, as Wittgenstein, pointed out, dealing with a super-order of super-concepts. "If the words, 'language', 'experience', 'world', have a use, it must be as humble a one as that of the words 'table', 'lamp', 'door'." (PI§97)

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Armor Fati

"Traicit et fati litora magnus amor."

Heinz Guderian once asked Hitler "Was it really necessary
to attack Kursk and indeed in the East that year at all.
Do you think anyone even knows where Kursk is?"
to which Hitler agreed with him saying, "I know. The thought
of it turns my stomach." It was just the two of us
and we went to visit my older sister. Soldiers headed
for Iraq are still buying their own body armor — and in
many cases, their families are buying it for them: spikey
quills covering body as well as hard shell on back.

They go on and on like you thought I stole your armor.
Just south of the guildtower and west of the Knights of
the Bad Face, north of the Spears of Odin's Handmaidens
(per fati un esempio nel tread della gilda leggevo che
piccolo fatica
) weapons and armor are made by the best smiths
of the land. I want to know where to get shoulder pads.
To enable tanks and heavy armor to penetrate to the camp,
the IDF sent in the only survivor of the incident. He explained
how his son and his love of your unchangeable fate buries
secretly her weapons as she takes up her sword again.

Surreal reality: my armor, my collapse module.
L'ouvrage de Michel Defromont s'appuie sur des faits réels.
If somehow we do survive, if the path does continue,
I hope it is made by others like you. My formula for
greatness in a human being has been wounded in this war,
and because of body armor and better emergency medicine,
the dancing became even more abandoned, with no sign
that irony can serve as a sufficient protective armor
against criticism of that aspiration for danger.
I finde it easier to beare all ones life a combersome
armour of the finer compositions of Rumba Music.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Counter-Singers

One of the catchphrases of the first
Estonian government was "The State
helps those who help themselves."
So we have this new social program.
It's called "Save Up Your Own Pension".
Homeless people emerged, and others
who had proved to be weaker than life.
The very same people who had sung
with their bare hands were declared
to be helpless and they felt helpless.
The "semiotic nerve" of Estonia was
given up. New words appeared in the
language -- like "the sad inevitability
of the people of Estonia in the 1990s."

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

One thinks one is tracing the outline of the thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing around the frame through which we look at it.

Wittgenstein (PI§114)


Much of my critical project here at the Pangrammaticon is about the relationship between poetry and politics on the model of the relationship between philosophy and science. For some reason, this line of thinking has been bringing me down lately (how weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seems to me all the usage of this world!). It may certainly have something to do with how things stand with both our scientific and political establishments. Or maybe there is something I've missed. In any case, I'm going to leave criticism alone again for awhile. Turn my attention to more (for me) pleasurable things.