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Marjorie Perloff "Wittgenstein's Ladder: Introduction"

Excerpted from WITTGENSTEIN'S LADDER: POETIC LANGUAGE AND THE STRANGENESS OF THE ORDINARY, by Marjorie Perloff published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 1996 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

--Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel

Philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry. (Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten.)

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (1)

In the autumn of 1939, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his young Cambridge student and friend Norman Malcolm were walking along the river when they saw a newspaper vendor's sign announcing that the Germans had accused the British government of instigating a recent attempt to assassinate Hitler. When Wittgenstein remarked that it wouldn't surprise him at all if it were true, Malcolm retorted that it was impossible because "the British were too civilized and decent to attempt anything so underhand, and . . . such an act was incompatible with the British 'national character'." Wittgenstein was furious. Some five years later, he wrote to Malcolm:
Whenever I thought of you I couldn't help thinking of a particular incident which seemed to me very important. . . . you made a remark about 'national character' that shocked me by its primitiveness. I then thought: what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any . . . journalist in the use of the DANGEROUS phrases such people use for their own ends. (2)
What is the use of studying philosophy if it doesn't improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life? It is the pressing question Wittgenstein asked himself throughout his career as a philosopher. As early as 1913 in the Notes on Logic, he wrote, "In philosophy there are no deductions: it is purely descriptive. Philosophy gives no pictures of reality." (3) And a few years later, he made the following riddling entry in the manuscript that was to become the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:
We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. But of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer. (T #6.52)
Thus, when Wittgenstein chides Malcolm for accepting as "true" the proposition that assassination attempts are alien to the British "national character," the issue is not whether the British government did or did not participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler, but whether it is meaningful to assert that it was too "civilized" and "decent" to do so. Ethical propositions, propositions about such things as "national character," Wittgenstein held, are always questionable: "nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing." (4) Imagine, then, what Wittgenstein would have made of our current propensity for sloganizing, the predilection, not just on the part of TV journalists, but in intellectual life, for pious phrase-making about "the end of history," "the age of Reagan," "the cold war mentality," "the Me decade," "the Vietnam syndrome," and so on.

One such set of "primitive" propositions has to do with poetry. A recent book by Vernon Shetley bears the ominous title After the Death of Poetry; another recent book, this one by Dana Gioia, is called Can Poetry Matter?, the author noting sadly that "American poetry now belongs to a subculture," that "Daily newspapers no longer review poetry," and that "although there is a great deal of poetry around, none of it matters very much to readers, publishers, or advertisers--to anyone, that is, except other poets." (5)

Are such "DANGEROUS phrases" to be taken at face value? Wittgenstein might have responded by asking Shetley or Gioia what the "it" is that no longer "matters, the "it" that is by the critics' testimony so sadly "diminished," so marginalized, so evidently beside the point in the culture of late twentieth-century America. And he would have been equally suspicious of the critics' prescriptions for change (e.g., Gioia's argument that if we could only get rid of Creative Writing programs, poetry might once again belong to the "public"), asking to whom poetry should matter and why? It all depends, after all, on what questions one chooses to ask in a given instance. As Wittgenstein put it in a notebook entry of 1942, "A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that's unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than to push it" (CV 42). Or again:
Earlier physicists are said to have found suddenly that they had too little mathematical understanding to cope with physics; and in almost the same way young people today can be said to be in a situation where ordinary common sense no longer suffices to meet the strange demands life makes. Everything has become so intricate that mastering it would require an exceptional intellect. Because skill at playing the game is no longer enough; the question that keeps coming up is: can this game be played at all now and what would be the right game to play? (CV 27)
What, we might ask, extrapolating from Wittgenstein's question, is the "right" poetry game to be played today and, if "skill"--let us say, the ability to use meter, rhyme, and "vivid" imagery-- is no longer enough, how should it be reformulated? To put it more concretely: what role does the interrogation of language which dichten (composing poetry) entails play in the mass culture of the later twentieth century? Theodor Adorno, after all, had famously declared in 1967 that "Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today." (6) What, then, replaces the "poetic" in cultural consciousness?

Wittgenstein would have had no answers to these and related questions. On the contrary, his writing of "philosophy" as if it were "poetry" dramatizes the process of working through particular questions so as to test what can and cannot be said about literary forms (e.g., poetry), concepts (e.g., barbarism), and facts of life (e.g., death). "A philosopher," he wrote in 1944, "is a man who has to cure many intellectual diseases in himself before he can arrive at the notions of common sense" (CV 44). And again, "My account will be hard to follow: because it says something new but still has egg-shells from the old view sticking to it" (CV 44). Perhaps it is this curious mix of mysticism and common-sense, of radical thought to which the "egg-shells" of one's old views continue to "stick," that has made Wittgenstein, who had no interest at all in the "poetry" of his own time, paradoxically a kind of patron saint for poets and artists.

In the Introduction to the screenplay he wrote for Derek Jarman's 1993 film on Wittgenstein, Terry Eagleton remarks:
The library of artistic works on Ludwig Wittgenstein continues to accumulate. What is it about this man, whose philosophy can be taxing and technical enough, which so fascinates the artistic imagination? Frege is a philosopher's philosopher, Bertrand Russell every shopkeeper's image of the sage, and Sartre the media's idea of an intellectual; but Wittgenstein is the philosopher of poets and composers, playwrights and novelists, and snatches of his mighty Tractatus have even been set to music. (7)
Eagleton himself had fallen under Wittgenstein's spell some years earlier when he wrote a witty novel called Saints and Scholars (1987), in which Wittgenstein, fleeing the insularity and hypocrisy of Cambridge, rents a cottage on the Irish coast with his friend, the Russian emigre linguistic philosopher Nikolai Bakhtin (the great critic Mikhail's brother), who, unlike the austere Wittgenstein, happens to be a great gourmet. (8) No sooner have the two dons settled in, then they are forced to grant asylum to the Irish patriot James Connolly, on the run from the British government and to Leopold Bloom, on the run from anti-Semitism in Joyce's Dublin. The conversation between these principals on the value of revolution and related topics is the substance of the novel, Wittgenstein taking the hard line. "Revolution," he tells Connolly, "is the dream of the metaphysician," and again, "the idea of a total break in human life is an illusion. There's nothing total to be broken. As though all we know now could stop, and something entirely different start." (9) And yet, the novel suggests, it is Wittgenstein who emerges as perhaps the true radical of the group in his clear-eyed assessment of what the situation really warrants.

A similar, if more stylized, fantasy is found in Guy Davenport's short story "The Aeroplanes at Brescia," published in the collection Tatlin! in 1974. Davenport imagines that in 1909, when Kafka and his friends Max and Otto Brod are (as in fact they were) vacationing at Como, they decide to attend the great air show at Brescia, where the aviators Louis Blériot, Glenn Curtiss, and the brothers Wright are scheduled to perform. As they watch Blériot preparing his plane ("a yellow dragonfly of waxed wood, stretched canvas, and wires"), they become aware of a stranger:
Near them a tall man with thick chestnut hair held his left wrist as if it might be in pain. It was the intensity of his eyes that caught Kafka's attention more than his tall leanness which, from the evidence about, marked the aeronaut and the mechanic. This was the age of the bird man and of the magician of the machine. Who knows but that one of these preoccupied faces might belong to Marinetti himself? This was a crane of a man. The very wildness of his curly brown hair and the tension in his long fingers seemed to speak of man's strange necessity to fly. He was talking to a short man in a mechanic's blue smock and with an eye-patch. From his mouth flew the words Kite Flying Upper Air Station, Höhere Luftstazion zum Drachensteigenlassen. Then the small man raised his square hands and cocked his head in a question. Glossop, was the answer, followed by the green word Derbyshire. (10)
From 1908 to 1911, the real Wittgenstein studied aeronautics at the University of Manchester; his main research project on the design and construction of kites was carried on at the Kite Flying Upper Atmosphere Station near Glossop. (11) Davenport, evidently fascinated by the very unusual but apposite practical training the future philosopher received (Wittgenstein did not have a university education), posits what might have happened if Wittgenstein and Kafka, two of the great avant-gardists to come out of the assimilated Jewish world of the Austro-Hungarian empire, two writers who, however, were never to know each other's work, had met (or rather, almost met) at the Brescia air show. "Who," Davenport has Franz [Kafka] ask the Italian reporter, ["is] that tall man with the deep eyes and chestnut hair?" (GDAB 65). The giornalista doesn't know, but later, after Blériot's flight, he hands Franz a piece of paper: "Kafka looked at the name. It read, in light pencil, the kind meticulous men used to jot down fractions and the abbreviated titles of learned journals, volume, number, and page, probably a thin silver pencil with fine lead, Ludwig Wittgenstein " (GDAP 67).

That's all that happens. The two men never meet. But after Curtiss's dare-devil flight, which wins him the grand prize, "The man named Wittgenstein was again holding his left wrist, massaging it as if it were in pain," even as, on the other side of the field, Max asks Franz, "why are there tears in your eyes?" and Franz responds, "I don't know . . . I don't know" (GDAP 70).

Davenport's is a parable about the avant-garde art of Mitteleuropa in the pre-World War I years, an art in love with the technology that was soon to destroy it. The air show, for that matter, takes place on what was soon to be Fascist ground and hence off limits for both Wittgenstein and Kafka. No doubt, it is ironies like these that have made the figure of Wittgenstein so appealing to writers like Davenport and Eagleton, and theirs are only two examples of the growing body of Wittgensteiniana that includes such diverse novels and plays as Peter Handke's Kaspar (1968), Ingeborg Bachmann's Malina (1971), Thomas Bernhard's Wittgenstein's Nephew (1982), and Ritter, Dene, Voss (1984), Bruce Duffy's mock biography The World as I Found It (1987), and David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988). Among poets, Wittgenstein's presence is even more startling. In the last decade or so, the following poetry books (all published in the U.S. or Canada) may be said to have been written under the sign of Wittgenstein: Charles Bernstein's The Sophist and Dark City, Allen Davies's Signage, Steve McCaffery's Evoba: The Investigation Meditations 1976-78, Tom Mandel's Realism, Michael Palmer's Notes for Echo Lake, Joan Retallack's Circumstantial Evidence, Ron Silliman's The Age of Huts, Rosmarie Waldrop's Reproduction of Profiles and A Key into the Language of America, and Jan Zwicky's Wittgenstein's Elegies. The list grows even longer when we include performance pieces: for example, Laurie Anderson's "Language is a Virus from Outer Space," David Antin's "The Poetry of Ideas and the Idea of Poetry," John Cage's I-VI (The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures), and Johanna Drucker's installation piece The Wittgenstein Variations. Fluxus, for that matter, now recognized as one of the most important international art movements of the later 1960s and 70s, is inconceivable without the example of Wittgenstein, as are the recent poetic experiments of Emmanuel Hocquard and Claude Royet-Journoud in France and the Gruppo 93 in Italy. In 1992 Joseph Kosuth, whose series of "Art Investigations" are directly modelled on Wittgenstein's writings, published a remarkable artist's book called Letters from Wittgenstein, Abridged in Ghent. Like Cage or the Tom Phillips of A Humument, Kosuth has produced a "writing through," in this case of the well-known bilingual edition of Wittgenstein's letters to Karl Engelmann, a "writing through" composed of enigmatic black-and-white photographs of Ghent cityscapes. How, Kosuth challenges the viewer to determine, do these dreary images of factories, canals, parking lots, and nondescript office buildings, relate to the passionate dialogue about the meaning of life contained in the corresponence between Wittgenstein and Engelmann?

Like Wallace Stevens's blackbird, Wittgenstein's shadow thus marks "the edge / of one of many circles. " But why? Is it primarily the life that has fascinated literary artists? Yes and no, for Wittgenstein's life is curiously bound up with his work. "He was," writes Eagleton, "an arresting combination of monk, mystic and mechanic: a high European intellectual who yearned for Tolstoyan simplicitas, a philosphical giant with scant respect for philosophy, an irascible autocrat with a thirst for holiness" (WTE 7-8). The Wittgenstein paradoxes are indeed the stuff of legend. A fabulously rich man who gave away all his money so he wouldn't have to bother with it; a man, three of whose brothers committed suicide and who frequently contemplated suicide himself and yet told friends, on his deathbed, that he had had a wonderful life; a Jew baptised in the Catholic church, with strong leanings toward Protestant piety; a Viennese exile who made his home in Cambridge, England but insisted that he was "German through and through"; a misogynist, who counted among his most brilliant and devoted students Elizabeth Anscombe and Alice Ambrose; a closeted homosexual who lived an outwardly austere life but was intimate with a series of much younger men; a gentle man who abhorred violence but became a decorated hero in World War I; an intellectual genius who, in his thirties, worked first as a gardener and then as an elementary school teacher in rural Austria, an apolitical man who went to the Soviet Union in his forties in the hopes of becoming an ordinary worker and declared "I am a communist, at heart"; a man who had no interest in modernist art movements and lived in Spartan rented rooms furnished with assorted deck chairs, but who designed for his sister Margarete Stonborough a starkly beautiful ultra-modernist house and attended to every detail of its construction from radiators to door-knobs (12) -- it is, no doubt, a life that lends itself to dramatic and fictional representation, to the making of myths. For Wittgenstein comes to us as the ultimate modernist outsider, the changeling who never stops re-inventing himself, never really "belongs," and whose presence is nevertheless so overwhelming that we can immediately identify it as Wittgenstein's.

Perhaps it is this very contradictoriness, this refusal to stay in one place, that has made Wittgenstein so appealing. "He who understands me," says Wittgenstein on the final page of the Tractatus, "finally recognizes [my propositions] as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it) . . . . then he sees the world rightly" (T #6.54). But no sooner is the world seen "rightly" than new obstacles appear which require new ladders. "Forcing my thoughts into an ordered sequence," said Wittgenstein, "is a torment for me. Is it even worth attempting now?" (CV 28).

The example Wittgenstein thus set writers from Samuel Beckett (who insisted that he hadn't read any Wittgenstein until the late fifties, long after he had completed such "Wittgensteinian" works as Watt and Waiting for Godot), (13) to Bachmann and Bernstein, is that he never gave up the struggle, both with himself and with language, never allowed himself to accept this or that truth statement or totalizing system as the answer. "Language," he wrote in his notebook, "sets everyone the same traps . . . . What I have to do then is erect signposts at all the junctions where there are wrong turnings so as to help people past the danger points" (CV 18). And one of the implications of the famous aphorism "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world" (T #5.6), is that the cult of personality, of a subject somehow outside language, that dominated American poetry, from the confessionalism of the fifties to the "scenic mode" (Charles Altieri's apt phrase) of the seventies has now begun to give way to a resurgence of what was known, in the heyday of the New Criticism which regarded it with some asperity, as "the poetry of ideas." (14)

But not the "poetry of ideas" in the traditional sense, where it meant the expression of significant "content" in appropriate language and verse form. For if we accept Wittgenstein's premise that "The results of philosophy [and hence by analogy of poetry] are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and of bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language," and that "These bumps make us see the value of the discovery" (PI #119), the "poetry of ideas" becomes the site of discovery, where the "bumps" we receive by running our heads up against the walls and ceilings of the rooms we dwell in are interrogated. And that process of interrogation is of necessity tentative, self-cancelling, and self-correcting, even as it deals with the most ordinary aspects of everyday life. Take the following two examples:
Why can't a dog simulate pain? Is he too honest? Could one teach a dog to simulate pain? Perhaps it is possible to teach him to howl on particular occasions as if he were in pain, even when he is not. But the surroundings which are necessary for this behaviour to be real simulation are missing. (PI #250).

"You can't hear God speak to someone else, you can hear him only if you are being addressed". -- That is a grammatical remark. (Z #717)
"Wittgenstein," says Guy Davenport in a discussion of these fragments, "did not argue; he merely thought himself into subtler and deeper problems." (15) As such, his Heraclitean epigrams easily shade into poetry. But the paradox--a paradox of a piece with the ones I cited above-- is that this poet formulated no poetics, had no "theory" of literature or art, and repeatedly insisted that it was impossible to define the "beautiful" or to say what the "essence" of art" might be. Such professed skepticism, coupled with what seemed to be simple ignorance about literature, was greeted with suspicion, first by his Viennese and then by his English contemporaries. "Cultivated as he was," declared his Cambridge colleague F. R. Leavis, "[Wittgenstein's] interest in literature had remained rudimentary." Indeed, aside from his knowledge of Dickens's The Uncommercial Traveller and A Christmas Carol," Leavis reports, "I never discovered that he took any other creative writing seriously. It may of course be that in German the range and quality of his literary culture were more impressive, but I can't give any great weight to that possibility." (16)

In one sense, Leavis was surely right. Cyril Barrett and others have tried to defend Wittgenstein against such charges by noting that he certainly knew his German classics, that, for example, when he was stationed on the Eastern front, he asked his friend Karl Engelmann to send him the novellas of Gottfried Keller, the historical dramas of Franz Grillparzer, and the lyric poems of Uhland and Mörike. (17) But it is not a question of listing the literary works Wittgenstein had or had not read-- he insisted, for that matter, that he had never read Aristotle or, closer to home, Hegel either-- but of outlook and sensibility. Just as Wittgenstein, who had received extensive training in music, would not listen to any composer later than Brahms, so he was indifferent to, if not openly hostile toward, his poetic contemporaries. True, in an impulsive act of legendary generosity, he bequeathed, in 1914, one hundred thousand crowns (roughly the equivalent of one hundred thousand dollars today) to Ludwig von Ficker, the editor of the literary magazine Der Brenner, instructing Ficker to distribute the money "among Austrian artists who are without means." But of the three main beneficiaries--Rilke, Trakl, and Carl Dallago--Rilke was the only poet with whose work Wittgenstein was at all familiar. Of Trakl's poems, he wrote Ficker, "I do not understand them, but their tone makes me happy. It is the tone of genius." Some months later, however, when Ficker sent him a posthumously published edition of Trakl's works, Wittgenstein's only comment was that they were "probably very good" but that, just now, he had "no desire to assimilate foreign thoughts" (RM 118-20, 126).

During his Cambridge years, Wittgenstein became even less responsive to the artistic production of his contemporaries. In conversations with friends, he was given to pessimistic representations of modernism. "I was walking about in Cambridge," he remarked in 1930, "and passed a bookshop, and in the window were portraits of Russell, Freud, and Einstein. A little further on, in a music shop, I saw portraits of Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin. Comparing these portraits I felt intensely the terrible degeneration that had come over the human spirit in the course of only a hundred years" (RR 112). If this almost comically exaggerated Spenglerianism (how can one compare Einstein to Chopin?) sounds a bit like the epitaphs for poetry made by critics today, the difference is that Wittgenstein offered no explanations or panaceas. He merely stayed out of the fray: there is no indication that he ever read T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence or W. H. Auden, and, with the exception of John Maynard Keynes, he studiously avoided Bloosmbury. As Ray Monk puts it, "There was little common ground between the peculiarly English, self-consciously 'civilized' aestheticism of Bloomsbury and the [Cambridge] Apostles, and Wittgenstein's rigorously ascetic sensibility and occasionally ruthless honesty." (18)

When, in his notebooks and lectures, Wittgenstein does comment directly about the nature of "art," his remarks tend to be modernist commonplaces. "A work of art," he observed in 1930, "forces us--as one might say--to see it in the right perspective but, in the absence of art, the object is just a fragment of nature like any other" (CV 4). Here Wittgenstein echoes, no doubt unwittingly, Viktor Shklovsky's famous doctrine of "making it strange" or "defamiliarization," with its emphasis on the "artistic" removal of the object from its usual surroundings so as to recharge its potency, the object itself being "unimportant." Or again, Wittgenstein will pay lip service to the romantic / modernist doctrine of artistic uniqueness: "Every artist has been influenced by others and shows traces of that influence in his works; but his significance for us is nothing but his personality" (CV 23).

One does not, then, go to Wittgenstein for a systematic poetics. His writing (so much of it not his writing at all but a recreation of his talk made by his students and colleagues) has nothing interesting to say about the "big" issues like "the aesthetic," much less the specifics of tropes or genres, fictionality or narrative form, sound structures or verse forms. No wonder, then, that theory (as opposed to formal philosophy, on the one hand, poetry on the other) has largely ignored Wittgenstein's existence. The Tractatus (1922), for example, seems to have been wholly unknown to the Russian Formalists, the Prague Linguistic Circle, and the Frankfurt School of the thirties, even though Wittgenstein's questions about language and culture had so much in common with, say, Roman Jakobson's or Walter Benjamin's. No doubt, this neglect has much to do with the original presentation and reception of Wittgenstein's book: the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was, after all, first presented to the world by Bertrand Russell (in C. K. Ogden's translation) as a treatise on the logical structure of propositions and the nature of logical inference. As such, its interest was for philosophers and mathematicians--hardly for literary theorists.

Benjamin, in any case, died long before the Philosophical Investigations were published in 1952. But Theodor Adorno, who read it soon after publication, was generally hostile to this book as he was to the Tractatus. In Against Epistemology, he declares:
As long as philosophy is no more than the cult of what 'is the case,' in Wittgenstein's formula [the reference is to T #1.1, "The world is everything that is the case"] it enters into competition with the sciences to which in delusion it assimilates itself--and loses. If it dissociates itself from the sciences, however, and in refreshed merriment thinks itself free of them, it becomes a powerless reserve, the shadow of shadowy Sunday religion. (19)
And, more pointedly, in Hegel: Three Studies:
Wittgenstein's maxim, 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent' [T #7], in which the extreme of positivism spills over into the gesture of reverent authoritarian authenticity, and which for that reason exerts a kind of intellectual mass suggestion, is utterly antiphilosophical. If philosophy can be defined at all, it is an effort to express things one cannot speak about, to help express the nonidentical despite the fact that expressing it identifies it at the same time. Hegel attempts to do this. (20)
Here, as I shall be suggesting in later chapters, a critique like Adorno's mistakes the famous (perhaps too-famous) conclusion of the Tractatus. Far from being a "gesture of reverent authoritarian authenticity," Wittgenstein's aphorism "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" is no more than the common-sense recognition that there are metaphysical and ethical aporias that no discussion, explication, rationale, or well-constructed argument can fully rationalize-- even for oneself. In this sense, Wittgenstein's "philosophy" is indeed intentionally "antiphilosophical," its purpose being precisely to determine in what circumstances philosophy should be "against" philosophy and why.

The refusal, in any case, of the "effort to express things one cannot speak about" has made Wittgenstein equally suspect (if not merely irrelevant) in French post-structuralist circles. This is not the place to take up the vexed question of Wittgenstein's relationship to Jacques Derrida; suffice it to say that whatever homologies betwen the two have been posited, (21) Wittgenstein plays little role in the work of Derrida or Michel Foucault, Maurice Blanchot and Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze and Paul De Man. And in such rare exceptions as Jean-François Lyotard's The Differend (1983), a book that not only cites Wittgenstein on page after page but even models its discourse on his short, numbered aphoristic units, the Wittgensteinian proposition is given a curious moral spin. Consider Lyotard's preliminary definition:
As distinguished from a litigation, a differend [différend] would be a case of conflict, between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgement applicable to both arguments. One side's legitimacy does not imply the other's lack of legitimacy. However, applying a single rule of judgment to both in order to settle their differend as though it were merely a litigation would wrong (at least) one of them (and both of them if neither side admits this rule). Damages result from an injury which is inflicted upon the rules of a genre of discourse but which is reparable according to those rules. A wrong results from the fact that the rules of the genre of discourse by which one judges are not those of the judged genre or genres of discourse." (22)
This sounds Wittgensteinian enough, Lyotard concluding the paragraph with the assertion that "a universal rule of judgment between heterogeneous genres is lacking in general" (DIF xi). But this seeming rejection of essentialism is more apparent than real for the Lyotardian "differend" is less a paradox than a sophistry. For example: "To have 'really seen with his own eyes' a gas chamber would be the condition which gives one the authority to say that it exists and to persuade the unbeliever. Yet it is still necessary to prove that the gas chamber was used to kill at the time it was seen. The only acceptable proof that it was used to kill is that one died from it. But if one is dead, one cannot testify that it is on account of the gas chamber" (DIF 3).

Wittgenstein would have dismissed this "argument" as specious. Since when, to begin with, is our "knowledge" of what happened in the past based primarily on what we have "seen with our own eyes"? As for the meaning of the term "gas chamber," "We may say: only someone who already knows how to do something with it can significantly ask a name" (PI 31). To ask whether a gas chamber could cause death, in other words, is to admit the gas chamber's existence. Thus the doubt as to its efficacy says more about the questioner than about the gas chamber's purpose. "The definition . . . will depend on the circumstances under which it is given, and on the person I give it to" (PI 29).

The reliance on common sense and context displayed in these propositions, the repeated demonstration that "the meaning of a word [e.g. "gas chamber"] is its use in the language" (PI 43) has evidently proved to be a stumbling block, even for those deconstructionist theories which take language to be a differential system. The criterion of use, we read in one of the less genial passages in The Differend, is "prey to anthropological empiricism" (DIF 76). Like Adorno, Lyotard cannot, in the end, accept the anti-closural bent of Wittgenstein's investigative mode, his refusal to press toward theoretical definition. A similar discomfort may well motivate such Anglo-American Marxist critics as Raymond Williams, David Harvey and Fredric Jameson--critics who have largely ignored Wittgenstein's existence. In his important early critique of Russian Formalism The Prison-House of Language (1972), Jameson groups Wittgenstein with the Formalists under the "empiricist" umbrella, arguing that "The vice of Anglo-American empiricism lies indeed in its stubborn will to isolate the object in question from everything else, whether it be a material thing, an 'event' in Wittgenstein's sense, a word, a sentence, or a 'meaning'." Indeed, given his own Marxist conviction that "philosophy [must] include within itself a theory of its own particular situation," Wittgenstein is found wanting, for "what the philosopher is describing is not language in the absolute, but only the peculiar linguistic habits of philosophers." (23)

Ironically, this distinction is quite accurate, the odd thing being that, as late as 1972 when these words were written, a theory of "language in the absolute" should still have been considered a desirable possibility. Jameson may well have been thinking of Heidegger, whose philosophy does "include within itself a theory of its own particular situation," and who, unlike Wittgenstein, had specifically written on poetic subjects, most notably in his now classic essays on Hölderlin. But with the breakdown of disciplinary boundaries that has characterized the last decade, a shift is beginning to occur, a shift, I shall want to argue, poets, novelists, dramatists, and artists had anticipated a good deal earlier.

"You often quote Wittgenstein--why is that?", an interviewer asked the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in 1985. And Bourdieu replied, "Wittgenstein is probably the philosopher who has helped me most at moments of difficulty. He's a kind of saviour for times of great intellectual distress -- as when you have to question such evident things as 'obeying a rule'. Or when you have to describe such simple (and, by the same token, practically ineffable) things as putting a practice into practice." (24)

Strong words, these, coming as they do from a writer as "scientific" and as generally impersonal as Bourdieu. No doubt the "times of great intellectual distress" are associated in Bourdieu's mind with what he dismissively refers to, in the same interview, as "the totalizing ambition that is usually identified with philosophy" (PBOW 19). For example:
I've always had a pretty ambivalent relationship with the Frankfurt School: the affinities between us are clear, and yet I felt a certain irritation when faced with the aristocratic demeanor of that totalizing critique which retained all the features of grand theory, doubtless so as not to get its hands dirty in the kitchens of empirical research. The same goes for the Althusserians, and for those interventions, both simplistic and peremptory, that philosophical arrogance enables people to make. (PBOW 19).
"Totalizing critique," "grand theory"--in our post-Marxist era, these have increasingly come under suspicion. "I wanted," says Bourdieu, "to reintroduce agents that Lévi-Strauss and the structuralists, among others Althusser, tended to abolish, making them into simple epiphenomena of structure. And I mean agents, not subjects. Action is not the mere carrying out of a rule, or obedience to a rule. Social agents, in archaic societies as well as in ours, are not automata, regulated like clocks, in accordance with laws which they do not understand" (PBOW 9).

The critique of "grand theory" with its concomitant turn to the examination of the "ordinary," has been carried further in the remarkable writings of Jacques Bouveresse. In half a dozen books, written between the early 1970s and the present, Bouveresse has painstakingly distinguished Wittgenstein's writings from those of logical positivism on the one hand and Husserlian phenomenology on the other. His close readings of the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations trace Wittgenstein's dismantling of the metaphysical tradition "in order to preach and practice the spirit of radical poverty in philosophy," and he remarks that Wittgenstein's way of tackling philosophical problems is best called "aesthetic" in its imaginative deployment of exempla, apposite images, parataxes, and sudden leaps of faith. (25)

In this regard, Bouveresse's Wittgenstein recalls Stanley Cavell's. Indeed, among Anglo-American philosophers, Cavell is surely the central disseminator of the notion that, in the case of Wittgenstein, the "philosophical" and the "literary" are inseparable. In This New but Unapproachable America (1987), for example, Cavell writes movingly of Wittgenstein's anti-totalizing stance, his "leaving the world as it is," which he relates to Heidegger's Gelassenheit. (26) For Wittgenstein, he argues, the most "simple" thing--like "putting a practice into practice," as Bourdieu puts it--is understood to be the most ineffable. The Investigations," writes Cavell, "exhibits, as purely as any work of philosophy I know, philosophizing as a spiritual struggle, specifically a struggle with the contrary depths of oneself, which in the modern world will present themselves in touches of madness" (SCUA 37). Cavell is referring to the struggle between competing emphases in the consideration of human discourse--"an emphasis on its distrust of language or an emphasis on its trust of ordinary human speech" (SCUA 32). Both emphases are quite proper and therein madness lies for which is it to be? Ordinary language procedures, Cavell notes, "inherently partake of the uncanny" (SCUA 47), for example:
Of course, if water boils in a pot, steam comes out of the pot and also pictured steam comes out of the pictured pot. But what if one insisted on saying that there must also be something boiling in the picture of the pot? (PI #297)
Here logic is indeed both foolproof and perhaps therefore slightly mad.

And Cavell proceeds, as he did in his earlier studies, (27) to relate Wittgenstein's sense of "poverty as a condition of philosophy" to Emerson's "recognition of the power of ordinary words . . . to be redeemed, to redeem themselves" (SCUA 82).

The emphasis on spiritual struggle and redemption should not, however, obscure what we might call the côté avant garde of Wittgenstein, the obsession, not only with the "power of ordinary words," as in Emerson's case, but with their strangeness:
Imagine that a child was quite specially clever, so clever that he could at once be taught the doubtfulness of the existence of all things. So he learns from the beginning: "That is probably a chair."

And now how does he learn the question: "Is it also really a chair?" (Z #411)
Such riddling is what Guy Davenport seems to have in mind when he links the author of the Tractatus to Kafka. This Wittgenstein is an obsessively playful grammarian, whose riddling, disconnected sentence sequences bring to mind those of a fellow avant-gardist Wittgenstein never read, never met (and would probably have thoroughly disliked if he had met!) --namely Gertrude Stein. "Strangely simultaneous in their stylistic concerns," writes Guy Davenport in The Geography of the Imagination, "the two were at work from 1917 onwards on identical linguistic phenomena: the splashed meaning of chattered language, language which is gesture, politeness, and social formula. . . . Gertrude Stein is not interested in the absurdity of language but in the astounding implications that can be flushed from its ordinariness." (28) And Davenport cites the early Stein play An Exercise in Analysis (1917), which ends with the lines: (29)

Part LX

Not disappointed.

Act II

Not in there.


Call me.

Act IV

Call me Ellen.

"Call me," "Call me Ellen"-- no sentences could be more "ordinary" and yet "call me" means one thing in Act III and quite another in Act IV when it is followed by a proper name, Ellen. In the first instance, we could substitute "phone" for "call," but obviously the construction "Phone me Ellen" (without a pause, represented in writing by a comma, after "me") makes no sense. A similar situation obtains in the case of "Not disappointed" and "Not in there": the first "not" functions as a qualifier, the second as a more emphatic negative, as the stress and pitch contour of the sentences suggests. And further: these two acts (or "parts") have no visible relationship to Acts III and IV.

"Distrust of grammar," Wittgenstein had posited in the early Notes on Logic, "is the first requisite of philosophizing" (NB 106). And, by extension, of poeticizing as well. For although the later Wittgenstein was to argue that grammar is precisely the key to understanding a given proposition, that there is no essence above and beyond a specific grammatical structure, one nevertheless must "distrust" grammar in the sense of interrogating it as stringently as possible.

It is in this sense, that grammar may be said to replace theory. In 1931, when his Cambridge colleague C. D. Broad was lecturing on the three "theories of truth"-- the Correspondence Theory, the Coherence Theory and the Pragmatic Theory-- Wittgenstein remarked dismissively, "Philosophy is not a choice between different 'theories.'" For:
We can say that the word ['truth'] has at least three different meanings; but it is mistaken to assume that any one of these theories can give the whole grammar of how we use the word, or endeavour to fit into a single theory cases which do not seem to agree with it. (30)
In the same year, Gertrude Stein wrote in her "Arthur A Grammar," "What is a grammar ordinarily. A grammar is question and answer answer undoubted however how and about." (31)
"Call me. Call me Ellen." Such conundrums provide a baseline for a whole series of texts that act out, as it were, Wittgenstein's obsession with the "distrust of grammar." From the Stein of Stanzas in Meditation to such post-World War II works as Samuel Beckett's Watt, to Thomas Bernhard's Wittgenstein's Nephew, and Ingeborg Bachmann's Malina, to the recent experiments in "language poetry" and conceptual art, we find a poetics based on what Wittgenstein called the "enormously difficult" "synopsis of trivialities" (LEC1 26). For example: "A dog believes his master is at the door. But can he also believe his master will come the day after to-morrow?" (PI 174). "Face to face with this literalness" says the French poet Claude Royet-Journoud, "face to face with this manifestation of a demented logic, you tell yourself that through the literal you can perhaps recover a sense of your body and of the displacement of your body." (32)

"The world which is baldly whatever is the case," writes Terry Eagleton with reference to the famous opening sentence of the Tractatus, "whose value and meaning is always elusively elsewhere is familiar enough to us from the great experimental art of the early twentieth century" (WTE 6-7). In exploring the relationships between Wittgenstein's own avant-garde practices and those of his contemporaries and later versions, I want to begin, as Wittgenstein himself began, with the composition of the Tractatus, and specifically with that book's departure from the work of Wittgenstein's mentor Bertrand Russell. The contrast between Russell and Wittgenstein in the World War I years is particularly instructive, the former preaching on war from the sidelines, the latter engaging in war in the trenches, an engagement that led to the particular form the Tractatus took. The status of the Tractatus as a war book as well as an avant-garde one has received little attention from philosophers, whose central concern has primarily been to make sense of the "picture-theory" of language which Wittgenstein's "treatise on logic" expounds. My own interest is less in what the Tractatus " says" about propositionality, tautology, etc. than what it is, especially in its later sections which break abruptly with the "clarity" of its opening and turn to matters of ethics and religion in a series of gnomic utterances--"The world of the happy is quite another than that of the unhappy"(T 6.43); "Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is" (6.44)-- whose formulations "solve" nothing.

The genesis of the Tractatus from the notebooks Wittgenstein kept during the war is the subject of Chapter 1. In Chapter 2, I turn to the great work of Wittgenstein's maturity, the Philosophical Investigations. Again, I am less interested in the central "argument" of the Investigations --a topic on which philosophers have produced a huge library--than in what Cavell calls the "spiritual struggle" dramatized in its pages, as well as in those earlier versions like the Cambridge lectures of the early 1930s and the jottings collected in The Blue and Brown Books, in which Wittgenstein tested and endlessly revised his formulations. What makes Wittgenstein, in Bourdieu's words, such a "saviour in times of intellectual distress," is his gradual recognition that everything happens exactly as it does, but that, at any given moment, we also conjecture that it might have happened otherwise (see CV 37). In the same vein, the question that has dogged literary theory throughout the twentieth century --"Is there a distinction between ordinary and literary language, and, if so, what is it?"-- disappears, Wittgenstein demonstrating (1) that there is in fact no material difference, but that (2) the use to which we put language varies so much that words and sentences become, as it were, unfamiliar when they reappear in a new context. When I say "I have a pain," to take one of Wittgenstein's favorite examples, does the word "have" mean the same thing as when I say "I have an apple"? And since the "pain" in this sentence is obviously "mine" (otherwise, how could I recognize it as pain?), why not just use the single word "Pain!" to express my feelings?

The concept of the "language-game," which is as central to the Investigations as it is ultimately undefinable, can be discussed from at least four different, though interrelated, perspectives, all of them applicable to the poems and fictions and art works produced in the wake of Wittgenstein's writing: (1) the emphasis on the strangeness, the enigmatic nature of everyday language; (2) the awareness that "the world is my world [which] shows itself in the fact that the limits of the language (the language which I understand) mean the limits of my world" (T #5.62), a proposition the later Wittgenstein never abandoned, although the solipsism of "my" gradually gave way to "our," to the continuous struggle everyone encounters in the "bumping of one's head" against the walls of one's language-cage in the drive to understand one's world; (3) the recognition of the self as, in no small measure, a social construct, a cultural construction. Wittgenstein was not a Marxist but, as we shall see, he shares with Marx and with later cultural materialists, the notion that the languages of the self depend on social context, culture, and class. "The subject does not belong to the world but it is a limit of the world" (T #5.632). There is no unique "I" ("The thinking, presenting subject; there is no such thing" [T #5.63]), subjectivity always depending upon a language that belongs to a culture long before it belongs to me. Language is thus a set of rule-governed practices, but one that can be adapted in a myriad ways. And finally (4), the discovery that there are no propositions of absolute value, no causal or even temporal explanations. "When we think of the world's future, we always mean the destination it will reach if it keeps going in the direction we can see it going in now; it does not occur to us that its path is not a straight line but a curve, constantly changing direction" (CV 3e). Humean as this rejection of causality may sound, it differs from Hume's skepticism in that, for Wittgenstein, such rejection of "straight lines" is a compositional as well as an epistemological principle, his own "conclusions" never being more than tentative, open, and to-be-revised.

Again--and here is where Wittgenstein's "mysticism" comes in--however impossible it may be to formulate ethical principles, it is possible to engage in ethical actions. In the "Lecture on Ethics" Wittgenstein gave shortly after his return to Cambridge in 1929, he describes ethics as the running against the boundaries of language and gives the following example. If someone says, after a tennis game, "I play badly but I don't care to play better," this is not analogous to the sentence, "I behave badly but I don't care to behave better" (PO 38-39). The difference is clear to anyone who speaks English and suggests that we know instinctively what it means to "behave badly."

The first two of these four perspectives--the strangeness of the ordinary and the "bumping of one's head" against the limits of language--are central to the work of Gertrude Stein, which I discuss in Chapter 3. Indeed, the writings of both Stein and Wittgenstein represent a side of modernism markedly different from the Futurist and Imagist collage paradigm, which has set the stage for so much of the discussion of modernism: witness the parole in libertà of Marinetti, which Stein takes on in her own oblique, tongue-in-cheek manner. The other two--the social construction of the subject, and the articulation of an ethics outside the norms of causality or explanation-- come to the fore more fully in what Wittgenstein referred to as the "dark time" in which he published the Investigations. In Chapters 4 and 5, I take up the ethical dimensions of the language-game as they manifest themselves in the works of three great postwar writers whose names begin with "B"--Beckett (who had nothing to say about Wittgenstein but writes the most Wittgensteinian of parables), and the two Austrian writers Ingeborg Bachmann and Thomas Bernhard, for whom Wittgenstein's method, transferred to narrative, became something of an obsession.

In Wittgensteinian terms, Beckett's characters--Watt is my example-- suffer from what we might call a context disorder; Watt, for instance, doesn't know what to do with orders like "You may give the left-overs to the dog," given that there is no dog on the premises. The "resistance to language," I argue in Beckett's case, must be understood in terms of the "language of Resistance," the elaborating game of coding used by Beckett and his co-workers in the Underground in the early 1940s, right before he began work on Watt. In this setting, the most ordinary sentence--for example, the piano tuner's remark that "The strings are in flitters"--becomes suspect. And in the postwar Austrian writing of the following decades (Bachmann, Bernhard, to some extent Peter Handke), incomplete sentences like "Are you really . . ." or "Later on we might. . . " have the power to drive their users mad, as do proper names like Ivan and Malina, Herman Pavilion and Ludwig Pavilion, Ungargasse and Salzkammergut.

Finally in Chapter 6, I turn to recent Wittgensteinian experiments, this time in the United States, in the articulation of a poetics of everyday life. I am less interested in "influence," always a nebulous quality, than in analogue. It is fascinating to see that Wittgenstein's stringent and severe interrogation of language has provided an opening for the replacement of the "autonomous," self-contained, and self-expressive lyric with a more fluid poetic paradigm-- a paradigm based on the recognition that the poet's most secret and profound emotions are expressed in a language that has always already belonged to the poet's culture, society, and nation, the irony being that this "belonging" need not make the poetry in question--Robert Creeley's and Rosmarie Waldrop's, Ron Silliman's and Lyn Hejinian's, the Fluxus box or the Joseph Kosuth "investigation"-- any less moving.

As someone trained in literary criticism rather than philosophy, I make no claim to contributing to the ongoing (and enormous) body of writing that seeks to explain the difficult meanings in Wittgenstein's endlessly riddling philosophical writings. Rather, I want to examine the relationship of Wittgenstein's mode of investigation, in all its contradictoriness, its stringent and severe self-revision and critique, its cryptic and aphoristic formulations and epiphanies, to the "ordinary language" poetics so central to our own time. For if, as Wittgenstein posits, "Language is not contiguous to anything else" (LEC1 112), then, its most trivial manifestations becomes interesting. For example:

Someone who doesn't know English hears me say on certain occasions: "What marvelous light! [Welch herrliche Beleuchtung!]" He guesses the sense and now uses the exclamation himself, as I use it, but without understanding the three individual words. Does he understand the exclamation? (Z #150).
Well, does he? Questions like this one have no "answer," at least not a correct (or incorrect) one. They merely open up new spaces, as "poetic" as they are "philosophical," in which to take a deep breath.

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