Friday, January 28, 2005

Tractatus Pangrammaticus [6.124]

Logical propositions describe the scaffolding of the world, or rather they set it forth. They are not 'about' anything.

This is my translation of the first two sentences of proposition 6.124 of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. My dissatisfaction with the Pears & McGuinness translation, which runs,

The propositions of logic describe the scaffolding of the world, or rather they represent it. They have no 'subject-matter',

stems in part from its use of "they represent it" for "sie stellen es dar", which, like the standard rendering of "├╝bersichtliche Darstellung" as "perspicuous representation" smuggles the concept of representation (normally "Vorstellung") in for "Darstellung", which should really read "presentation" (the Miles/Rhees translation of the Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough gets this right, by the way) and in part from the rendering of "'handeln' von nichts" as "have no 'subject-matter'", instead of the much more literal and colloquial "are not 'about' anything".

We now pangrammatically replace "world" with "history", "logical" with "pathetic", "describe" with "prescribe" and the impersonal "anything" with the personal "anyone". Giving us,

Pathetic propositions prescribe the scaffolding of history, or rather they set it forth. They are not 'about' anyone.

But this is not quite enough. I want to suggest that presentation is to logic what resentment is to passion. (Please try not to understand that too quickly.) Now, in German, "nachtragend" means "resentful" because "nach" means "against" and "tragen" means "to carry". Thus,

Pathetic propositions prescribe the scaffolding of history, or rather they hold it against. They are not 'about' anyone.

I want also to call logical propositions "(philosophical) remarks", and pathetic propositions "(poetic) strophes". So we now have,

Remarks describe the scaffolding of the world, or rather they present it. They are not 'about' anything.

Strophes prescribe the scaffolding of history, or rather they resent it. They are not 'about' anyone.

(For an early version of this idea, see Jay Thomas' Bad with Titles, which has the virtue of linking it to Gary Norris' reading of Emerson's "Circles": "He claps his wings to the sides of all the solid old lumber of the world." I took the liberty of associating Emerson's lumber with Wittgenstein's scaffolding, for obvious reasons.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Unprepared Paper

In my first post this year I said of Josef Albers that "his colour studies depended on the arrangement of colour samples that were not prepared (indeed, unprepared) for the study of colour interactions. Ordinary colour." Albers believed that not only should we not use paints in the study of colour, we should not use "prepared paper sets representing specific color systems." Rather, we should arrange colour samples gathered in the working environment of colour: "waste strips found at printers and bookbinders; collections of samples of packing papers, of wrapping and bag papers, of cover and decoration papers . . . cutouts from magazines, from advertisements and illustrations, from posters, wallpapers, paint samples, and from catalogues . . ."

The analogue of this approach in poetry is called Flarf. Instead of using a prepared lexicon of poetic diction, the poet collects waste strips and cutouts from the working environment of emotion and arranges them in "interaction studies". Now, Tony and I have been disagreeing about whether the "poetic effect" (Kitasono's "vague" term) of Flarf depends on what is true (or even imagined) of the sources (often found by Googling key words). If my analogy here holds, then the source of the text that goes into a work of flarf ought stand in the same relation to the poetic effect as the colour effects of a patch of Armani grey stands to the suit advertised in the source from which it was cut. That is, none. The suit (the picture of it) was "unprepared" for the arrangement that its colour came to participate in.

Flarf is made of emotional materials that are unprepared for poetry.

Borrowing from Kitasono again, I want to say that the undeveloped aesthetic feeling of a line like "I could only kill in self defense," can contribute to a larger poetic effect like that of "I Am Not the Pilot", regardless of the purpose for which those words were originally assembled, just as the colour of the suit can be extricated from the selling of the suit by carefully cutting out a section of the ad.

I'd still say that there is an important "critical" effect to be derived from discovering the sources (just as something may be learned from deconstructing one of Albers' interaction studies into its source material and thereby connecting a laboratory effect to a "real world" situation.) But the poetic effect of the arrangement of brute (flarfy) feelings on the page precedes this critical exercise and does not depend on it.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Tractatus Pangrammaticus [1]

In late September of last year, Gary Norris started a discussion about the bearing of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus on poetics. A lot of great observations were made, not least by Jay Thomas, with whom I pursued a number of shiny peripheral issues throughout October on his blog. Jacques Derrida died, Laura Carter finished the Egret Party, and George W. Bush was soon re-elected. It was an eventful fall, to be sure. I'm thankful to everyone involved. One of the things that began to take shape was the Tractatus Pathetico-Poeticus -- a shadowy, complicated somnambulist of a book (the tractatus Tony Tost would write in his "complex sleep", I suggested at the time.)

I propose to begin to reconstruct some of the ideas we discussed back then, this time under the title "Tractatus Pangrammaticus". The number in the square brackets does not indicate a sequence of posts but the reference proposition in Wittgenstein's Tractatus, which is available in hypertext here. There are, finally, three tractati. The first is Wittgenstein's, the second is the Pathetico-Poeticus, and the third is the articulate balance between them, all the usage in the world, the Pangrammaticon itself. (I've long known that it can be easily deconstructed and, in a sense, what I propose here is to lay bare the schema of its grammatology.)

All this will hopefully become clearer as we proceed.

To begin, then, let's look at proposition 1:

The world is all that is the case.

The basic operation in rewriting this is simple to explain. Throughout, "logic" is replaced with "passion" ("logical" with "pathetic") and, accordingly, "philosophy" is replaced with "poetry". "Logic is to philosophy what passion is to poetry," is the schema that will guide us. There are two core consequences, one of which will concern us later [6.34], and the other which must be raised at the outset. What is to passion as the world is to logic? My answer is "history". But history is not "the case" (though, as I have quipped, it may be "on your case"). History happens. So we have our first proposition.

History is all that happens.

The second tractatus is, you will note, rather easy to construct. The hard part comes in working out the third. Here, however, Wittgenstein himself may help. After all, his later work was an attempt to flesh out the schematism of his early attempt. The task here is to construct the "obiter dicta", the passing remarks, that articulate the interstices between the world and history.

Wittgenstein said that error of the Tractatus was to begin with something as large as the world. He should have started with a lamp or a tree.

It is the case that this lamp is on.


It is the case that there is no door in the frame.

But he could also have said something more, perhaps, profound, namely,

This is the world.

Then, we ask, what do we put in the shadow Tractatus?

This is history.

So far so good. Now, what are some pithy remarks to set into the fissure between these two propositions?

We've just had a discussion recently here at the Pangrammaticon about the definite article, and I think Wittgenstein's objection to the scope of this reference still holds. So, we try,

This is my world-history.

This is my body.

This is my body, the world, our history.

World-history is all that happens and is the case,
all that is on my case.

Notice that struggling subjects and objects here (my, the, our), notice the modicum of humour. That is the stuff of pangrammaticism. The Pangrammaticon articulates all the usage in the world. It is perfectly useless.

Future entries will be shorter, I hope.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Body Ink

Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt.

Tim grew weary and Tony couldn't sleep; maybe "spritely" was the wrong word. Here are some interpretations, summaries, comments and questions.

First, there is the issue of the very idea of articulating embodiment with the definite article, i.e., using the "construction 'the body'" (see Tim's 12:15 AM comments to my last post). Since Tim does not object to the word "body" alone (11:14 PM), the alternatives are easy to spot: "a body", "my body", "this body", "her body" all suggest concrete, particular references. We should probably also allow "the body" when used in constructions like "the body I was given" or "the body we found in the basement". Tim's objection goes to any reference made to "the body", without further stipulations, allowing us to ask "Whose body?" to be followed by the answer "The body in the abstract." I think I basically agree with Tim on this question, though I'm not sure Tony's poem about Jackson Mac Low is the best example of this failing.

Moreover, Tony is right to point out that we will then have to give up the definite article in many other contexts, especially "the mouth" and "the language". And these two examples of his are, I think, particularily well chosen because when we talk about "the body" in the abstract we mean, I think, precisely the articulate connection between the mouth and the language, and this might be a reason to grin and bear "the body" in some cases.

Second, there is the issue of the theoretical censure of practical poetry. Tim spots the offending phrase in Tony's poem and asks his infamous question. Now, is this already an act of theoretical censorship? Clearly, if Tim had said from the outset, "But Tony, there's no such thing as the body," it would be. But he waited (baited?) until Tony defended his poem "in theory", i.e., with the words "in the abstract". Tim could then let his theoretical verdict be known: there's no such thing as the body in the abstract. Whatever may be true of Tim and Tony, and whatever they may worry about, I don't think poets should be required to "point to this or that theory or figure and say 'see, I'm right.'" I don't think theories should be allowed to determine how complicated our bodies, or complex our sleeping, should be.

Third, there is the general issue, which I think I'll leave open for now, about the relation between the body and the text, or how best to deal with "embodiment". In what sense is a white page with black marks on it like a pool of bruises? I think Tim's distinctions do make sense, and, taken out of context, his examples do suggest a problem. That problem itself may be more complex, however, than using or not using the phrase "the body". (And is surely more interesting than how the post-structuralists in Iowa read Foucault.) I guess I'd ask whether Tony's earlier invocation of "the mouth", doesn't adequately prepare the way for "the body" and its "imaginary circumference". Or whether it really is as sleazy as Tony suspects Tim thinks it is.

Fourth, if I was to get actors to perform the dialogue that started this, I'd ask to them play it with straight faces.

Finally, I don't think Tony meant a virtual arm wrestle, and I very much hope to witness the real thing one day. Maybe we write poems because we can't arm wrestle with everyone . . . except in the abstract. The Armwrestle.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Body, Inc.

Tim and Tony have had two brief but spritely encounters (here and here) on the body. I'm sure I won't be able to settle the issue but here are some of my views on the question.

Consider the sentence

This is my body,

which has a bit of a history. Christ said it while holding out a piece of bread. This was translated into Latin as "Hoc est corpus meum", which famously gave us "hocus pocus". Now, here's an interesting bit of trivia. William James said that "the whole hocus-pocus of erkenntnisstheorie begins" when the "concrete particularities" of "intervening experiences" between idealities and realities (which he also called "intermediaries") are made to evaporate, leaving only abstract schemata. I take it Tim's objection amounts to something along those lines.

Next, consider Descartes' peculiar claim in the Discourse on Method (Ch. 4).

I could pretend [feindre] that I had no body.

This also of course implies the ability to make sense of a sentence like

This is not my body.

(Not, mind you, "That is not my body.") Wittgenstein's remarks in On Certainty, as I read them, display the implausibility of that kind of pretence. In any case, I find myself generally in agreement with Tim (and James) that conceiving of the body "in the abstract" is a phenomenological error. But I am suspicious of statements like "The notion of embodiment is a massively more complicated issue [than Foucault's use of it as a stable term in his history suggests]," because I don't want to give anyone the right to tell me how complicated my body is. What is "disrespectful to the experience of having a body" is the act of calling a material reference to it into question. This is the line that has been so elegantly crossed and recrossed in the exchanges between Tim and Tony.

I have a feeling that Tony's aesthetic needs "the body" as a "single material signifier", needs to be able to indicate it with a single, simple gesture--"a child's body", "a pool of bruises". And I think he is right about this.

It is true that the sentence, "This is my body," is ambiguous. But its ambiguity may be very simple, cleaving (despite the threat of deconstruction) into an assertion on one side (the body's empirical aspect) and an injunction on the other (the body's normative aspect). There are gestures that say, "This is my body," and which are clear indications of significant material. Sometimes you are asked to confirm the body. Sometimes you are asked to obey.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Transparency V

The crystogram of Luzhin's vague existence works because it manages to connect a desiring subject (the smoker) with an object of belief (the unlit cigarette) through a series of haptic happenings that together form a live world. It is when the automatism of removing a cigarette from the pack, picking up the matchbox, shaking it and evoking a rattle (apparently normally only registered unconsciously), extracting the match and lighting it, holding it to the end of the cigarette, etc. is thwarted by the emptiness of the box of matches that the image crystalizes, sparkles with rain.

A "whole life [is now] concentrated in the single desire to smoke" and a whole world, we might say, is concentrated into a single soulless thing stuck in his mouth. These are aspects of one and the same moment.

The singularity of the desire is not trivial. Luzhin becomes aware of his existence as this existence -- this life, this entity which, as Heidegger emphasised, "is in each case mine" (H. 41). Heidegger (H. 171, 358) and Pound (Canto LXXXI/535), however, both emphasise the primacy of seeing (though one gets the sense that Heidegger is aware that this is a historically contingent metaphysical bias). Heidegger, like Pound, invoked light imagery at every turn, probably because both were influenced by Duns Scotus. But while Nabokov's books, too, are full of light, full of things that shine and glisten and sparkle and twinkle, they are also, as in this case, full of motion -- shaking, rattling, thrusting.

What I like about the way the transparencies of the match and cigarette are constructed in this case is its dependence on what might be called manual imagery. I don't want to argue for the opposite bias (i.e., for the primacy of movement) but I do want to note the effect of maintaining a balanced view (cf. also my "The History of the World").

And this brings us back to the beginning, to the tension film of immediate reality that is neither the object nor the subject of literature (which has neither) but is, as Heidegger might say, its proximate theme, or, to invoke Catholic psychology, its proximate occasion. The "here" of the literary text.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Ephemeral Publication

Here's a a journal some of you might find interesting. It suggests an opening for writing to occur in places not devoted to literature as such. The current issue draws attention to the problem of writing in management studies, which is to say, it locates a literary problem in the (an) academic genre. My contribution [pdf] is an attempt to imitate Ben Marcus, which might stick a little in Gary's craw. Comments are welcome.

Intermission Firmly Grasped by Grammar

I have not yet named the profound trough
in which to drown it perfectly.
You have to admit: you thought
you could simply reach down into the fray
with your hand
and wring the folds of the old rag
that lies in the bucket watching its kingdom
sprawling and heaving, sprawling and heaving,
until at last it only farts.
I want my life and death to be like that:
something rotten, a kingdom.
Filled with the mangy sense of resistance,
as the French say.
Here’s to that which cannot be made familiar.
Its loss is less and less these days.

(Cf. Jane Hirshfield)

Friday, January 14, 2005

The Red Sun of Decision and Desire (Transparency IV)

. . .and the red sun of desire and decision (the two things that create a live world) rose higher and higher, while upon a succession of balconies a succession of libertines, sparkling glass in hand, toasted the bliss of past and future nights.

Nabokov, Lolita, Ch. 17

I want to look at two sections of the listed crystogram now. (The original passage can be found here. The list is here.) First, the component of the image that indicates a desire:
a sudden growth and assertion
a whole life
a concentration
a single desire to smoke
Now, I don't want to suggest that Luzhin (our heroic smoker) animates a "live world" so I will not, at least immediately, go looking for the indication of a decision here. But what we can see is the trace of Luzhin's beliefs. These are as tacit as his existence, as his desire to smoke (dulled by its continuous satisfaction), but they are explicated by a sudden discovery.
a shaking
a matchbox
a failure to evoke

Discovery is to belief what decision is to desire. Just as a decision may obey or disobey desire, so a discovery may confirm or disconfirm a belief. Luzhin discovers that there are no matches in the box, his shaking hand indicates the tacit belief that there would be. He now faces his desire and his world dies a little. He must decide to reconstitute it, to let the red sun rise again.
I confess, I am drawn to symmetry, and I notice here a growth set against a shaking, a whole life set against a matchbox, a concentration against a failure, a desire leaning on (what I am forced to posit as) a belief.

We are dealing with simple cases, just as Wittgenstein would build a philosophy of arithmetic on an analysis of the proposition that 2 + 2 = 4. The decision that is required is not especially difficult to make. Still, that is what this image evokes as we raise our rain-sparkling crystal to the sun.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Transparency III

Consider the application of Kitasono's method of producing orthodox poetic effects to the identification of salient features of our itemized crystogram.

There seem, for example, to be only two properly objective, appropriately inhuman, solid, soulless and static "things" on the list, namely, a matchbox and a cigarette. To see that these are the only two dead things in the bunch, it is enough to try to produce what Kitasono described as a mere "aesthetic feeling" (without "further development") by the articulation of three items, using the classic line

a shell, a typewriter and grapes

as a paradigm. We get lines like the following.

a matchbox, a cigarette and an outstretched hand
a matchbox, a cigarette and a shaking
a matchbox, a cigarette and a mouth
a matchbox, a cigarette and someone else
a matchbox, a cigarette and a failure to evoke

All these give us more than an aesthetic feeling, which is to say, they evoke an image. I leave it as a challenge, but I'll claim that there are no three things on the list that can be put together without inadvertently producing imagery. (When I was younger, after watching a PBS special on mathematics, I spent many hours trying to draw a map that would need more than four colours to ensure that no two territories of the same colour were to touch. This challenge is like that.)

The thing to pay attention to here is the way the crystogram uses body parts (a hand, a mouth) and gesticulations (shaking, thrusting) as preconditions (a priori conditions) for the solidity and soullessness of things (a matchbox, a cigarette). I was trying, in a much simpler way, to do something like this by setting a naked body against a glass monolith in the pursuit of metaphysical composure.

This contrast renders the things transparent or rain-sparkling, while giving the person his necessary opacity. Somewhere around here we may locate the tension film, the "thin veneer of immediate reality". The next step will be to understand the composition of the thingly and personal items in this image in their relation to "the whole life" or "existence" described. In my next post, I'll therefore look at the desire to smoke and the correlative belief of the smoker.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Transparency II

Let's have a look at that list again. It occurs to me that it might better be itemized as follows.

an outstretched hand [his]
a shaking
a matchbox
a failure to evoke
a rattle of matches [not evoked]
a cigarette [one that seemed to have been thrust unnoticed into his mouth]
a mouth [his]
someone else [who seemed to have done the thrusting]
a sudden growth and assertion [of the cigarette, solid, soulless, and static]
a whole life [also his]
a concentration
a single desire to smoke

Okay . . . now we have our work cut out for us.

Monday, January 10, 2005


Like I said, I want to look at the following sentence from Chapter 6 of Nabokov's The Defence in some detail, in order to see how it accomplishes a phenomenologically correct description.

Only rarely did he notice his own existence, when for example lack of breath -- the revenge of a heavy body -- forced him to halt with open mouth on a staircase, or when he had a toothache, or when at a late hour during his chess cogitations an outstretched hand shaking a matchbox failed to evoke in it the rattle of matches, and the cigarette that seemed to have been thrust unnoticed into his mouth by someone else suddenly grew and asserted itself, solid, soulless, and static, and his whole life became concentrated in the single desire to smoke, although goodness knows how many cigarettes had already been unconsciously consumed.

I read the opening, "Only rarely did he notice his own existence," a bit like the "so much depends/upon" of "The Red Wheelbarrow", i.e., as a way of introducing some sense of a stake, which the image is then supposed to cash in. So we can take the word "existence" in the most philosophical sense available, namely, the Dasein of phenomenology. In Being and Time, Heidegger tells us that all phenomenology is finally descriptive, by which he means that it seeks the direct exhibition and demonstration of the phenomenon under investigation "in terms of the 'thinghood' of what is to be 'described'." (H. 35) Nabokov teaches us to avoid "involuntarily sinking into the history of that object" and rather to "stay at the exact level of the moment," that is, he describes "transparent things, through which the past shines!" (Transparent Things, Ch. 1) He describes their thinghood.

I'll skip the two minor cases of physical discomfort and propose also that the last reference to the unconscious tells needlessly what has already been shown. W're dealing with prose here and the sentence works just fine in context. What remains of phenomenological interest are the following items:

an outstretched hand shaking a matchbox
the failure to evoke in it [the matchbox] the rattle of matches
the cigarette that seemed to have been thrust unnoticed into
his mouth
someone else [who seemed to have done the thrusting]
its sudden growth and assertion of itself, solid, soulless, and static,
his whole life
its concentration in
the single desire to smoke

One very interesting thing to notice at this point is the lack of any straighforwardly visual imagery. He could very well be blind and have this very same experience. It is not a visual image (like the wheelbarrow's glazed redness).

More later.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

The Rain-sparkling Crystogram

On par with Wittgenstein's "perspicuous presentations" and Ezra Pound's "luminous ideograms", we have Nabokov's "rain-sparkling crystograms". It is the task of the artist to produce them and the task to the critic to bring them to the attention of the public (often the student). I want here to deal with Nabokov's variant of what I believe is essentially one and the same idea. In a 1969 vogue interview, he recalls the following procedure.

In my academic days I endeavored to provide students of literature with exact information about details, about such combinations of details as yield the sensual spark without which a book is dead. In that respect, general ideas are of no importance. Any ass can assimilate the main points of Tolstoy's attitude toward adultery. . .

He proposed to "fondle" these details in his lectures at Cornell, and undertook to create them in his literary works. The relevant sense of "detail" (Pound also talked about the presentation of "luminous details") is a correct description of "transparent things".

A thin veneer of immediate reality is spread over natural and artificial matter, and whoever wishes to remain in the now, with the now, on the now, should please not break its tension film. (Transparent Things, Ch. 1)

That is, we are looking for a "phenomenologically correct" description of experience. Pound tells us that luminous details, presented without comment, are "the permanent basis of all metaphysics and psychology", and Nabokov, interestingly, offers his "rain-sparkling crystograms", in his foreword to The Eye, to "a serious psychologist" (that is, not a Freudian). I think there is a good sense in which phenomenology, when it is itself taken seriously, is serious psychology: precisely because it endeavours not to break the tension film. Here is my favourite example:

Only rarely did he notice his own existence, when for example lack of breath -- the revenge of a heavy body -- forced him to halt with open mouth on a staircase, or when he had a toothache, or when at a late hour during his chess cogitations an outstretched hand shaking a matchbox failed to evoke in it the rattle of matches, and the cigarette that seemed to have been thrust unnoticed into his mouth by someone else suddenly grew and asserted itself, solid, soulless, and static, and his whole life became concentrated in the single desire to smoke, although goodness knows how many cigarettes had already been unconciously consumed. (The Defence, Ch. 6)

In my next post, I want to look at this crystogram as a combination of details that yield a sensual spark, indeed, a combination that precisely presents the phenomenology of ordinary existence. Next to this, any ass can assimilate the main points of Heidegger's attitude toward tarrying.

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.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Beyond Language?

In his Chinese Notebook, Ron Silliman tells us that "there is no grammar or logic by which the room in which I sit can be precisely recreated in words. If, in fact, I were to try to convey it to a stranger, I’d be inclined to show photos and draw a floor map." (§26) Since I am vaguely totalitarian about grammar I am naturally effronted by this sort of talk.

Recent events have sharpened the point a little. "Some horror is beyond words," says Silliman in a recent post. "Watching the news footage this past week from South Asia, the Indian Ocean & Horn of Africa has been like that, a scale of devastation that goes further than our language can carry us."

A bit of perspective may be established if we recall the very ordinary sentiment normally associated with the phrase "more than words". The thing that distinguishes the first invocation of a realm beyond words from the others is that it is not intended as homage. Silliman is not saying that he is sitting in a site of especially profound devastation or beauty. What he is saying is that even the most ordinary things are beyond words. Notice the point of connection between Silliman's remarks about his room and Asia. In both cases, the field "beyond language" is occupied by other media: photos, maps and news footage. Visual images. In the case of love beyond words a certain shall we say manual imagery is normally invoked.

If I recall, the thing that connects Rene Daumal's A Night of Serious Drinking with Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus it is the dictum that if something can be thought it can be said clearly. Wittgenstein located the "thought" behind a sentence in the operation of making pictures of the facts. If we can form a picture of the devastation in Asia, then we can think it. And it is then not beyond language. I refuse to be more horrified by CNN's insistence on showing us corpses bulldozed into mass graves than I am by the words I have just written.

We understand. And we understand what must be done. The images (not as Silliman says, the numbers) are what numb us, by projecting our empathy into a realm of silence, of quietude. "Language is, first of all, a political question." (Chinese Notebook, §6) And the first of these questions is where the limits of language run. If we allow CNN to propel us into a realm of inarticulate grunting we are not being serious about the very specifiable, very quantifiable suffering that is going on in Asia.

Here's what I want to say, meaning no disrespect. What has happened is wholly articulable. We can say what has happened, and we can say what a fitting response to the event is. Its victims CAN articulate their need for shelter, for clean water, for food, for medical supplies. And we CAN understand these needs. Indeed, it is within our power to satisfy many of them. Our representatives, such as they are, are engaged in that effort as we speak. They are able and willing to do so because of ongoing political struggles and commitments that reach beyond the high profile media moment -- not beyond language.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

On Paper

. . .let's face it, poems are not made of words, but paper.
Tony Tost

Paper provides innumerable colors in a large range of shades
and tints ready for immediate use.
Josef Albers

Happy New Year.

During the holidays, I spent some time reading Josef Albers' Interaction of Color, which I am enjoying immensely. The experience can be compared to reading Pound's ABC or Wittgenstein's On Certainty. These books all seem guided by Pound's question, "What is the simplest possible statement?"

Albers insisted on the value of investigating colour as colour (and not, as Eliot might say, some other thing.) And this led him to some very simple and very effective presentations of this phenomenon ("the most relative medium in art," he said.) The book is really a textbook -- a set of studies that can be reproduced in the classroom, affording the student very precise experiences of colour. In a similar way, On Certainty and the ABC lead the student toward very precise experiences of conceptual and literary order.

This insistence on making the relevant experience available in the writing is what I want to start the new year with.

Because of the laboratory character of these studies
there is no opportunity to decorate, to illustrate, to represent anything,
or to express something -- or one's self. (Albers, p. 9)

The careful study of simple cases, where the desired effects are immediately available, can be applied in philosophy and poetry. One proceeds by the comparison of (easily accessible) examples. The writing is nothing other than the arrangement of these cases. Wittgenstein called it perspicuous presentation; Pound called it the ideogrammic method; Albers called it interaction studies.

The paper is important as a medium; it is at once the source and the destination of composition. A method suggests itself, one by which writing may be both studied and perfected. In looking for colour samples to work with, Albers discouraged the use of "prepared paper sets representing specific color systems."

Sources easily accessible for many kinds of color paper are waste strips found at printers and bookbinders; collections of samples of packing papers, of wrapping and bag papers, of cover and decoration papers. Also, instead of full sheets of paper, just cutouts from magazines, from advertisements and illustrations, from posters, wallpapers, paint samples, and from catalogues with color reproductions of various materials will do. (p. 9)

That is, he proposed to use colours that were already in use. The study of colour must connect to actual usage. His colour studies depended on the arrangement of colour samples that were not prepared (indeed, unprepared) for the study of colour interactions. Ordinary colour.

I want to say that what colour was to Albers' work, emotions were to Pound's, and concepts were to Wittgenstein's. All were intent on bringing these phenomena back from their metaphysical to their ordinary uses. They wanted to reveal their usage, their grammar.

Poems are made of paper, not words. That is, they are made of words already set down, cut out of their original texts and rearranged in new contexts for novel effects.