Poem as Place / Pictures of a Face

Ever and again comes the thought that what we see of a sign is only the outside of something within, in which the real operations of sense and meaning go on. 1

We are again and again using this simile of something clicking or fitting, when really there is nothing that clicks or that fits anything.2

                                                               –Ludwig Wittgenstein

John Keats’ concept of “negative capability” suggests that dwelling in uncertainty, beyond justification or reason, is the key to the creation of a true aesthetic product. In this paper, I try to enact this concept while loosely circumnavigating what Wittgenstein says about the indefiniteness of our concept of inner speech, what it means to be a living being, and seeing (distinguished from “knowing”). The ultimate goal is to link this indefinite seeing with what I see as Wittgenstein’s non-prescriptive, aperspectival, ethical self-position. The concept of dwelling in (self-)uncertainty is linked to Wittgenstein’s various wonderments and insistences: that we ought to be puzzled by our sight, that we must not take it for granted that we know “how to see” or “how to read,” that we ought to be struck by motives for actions. This is akin to the various concepts Wittgenstein takes up at the end of his Philosophy of Psychology: the notion (which he enacts) of “imponderable evidence,” which convinces us of a picture’s genuineness non-argumentatively, through the subtleties of glance, gesture, and tone, and whose cause is only in its effect; the ability to learn correct “judgments” through experience and application, but which establish rules that are unlike calculating; and finally, this “indefiniteness” of expression itself, with which he struggles to picture his insights, always straddling the line between correct aesthetic expression and the potential that his ethical view is being distorted by it. This is why we “only occasionally” make fruitful connections; yet in this slow, uncertain trek, we develop our eye, our aesthetic/ethical judgment. In hope of enacting this type of “development,” I have tried to present a picture of my idea of the poetic, based on various insights from Wittgenstein’s ethical non-positioning.

Poem as a Picture of (Theological) Indefiniteness

            Not how, but that the world is: this is the mystical, the inexpressible, and it shows itself: it is the world. Is this not the same feeling Wittgenstein has when he asks us to puzzle over why we are so fascinated by pictures and narratives? We needn’t discard our puzzlement; rather, we must acknowledge it. If we can make this step, then we are no longer held captive by pictures, but rather potentially set free by them: this is the highest potential of Wittgenstein’s investigations and the concept of poetry I am trying to present. It is not the cause of art that matters to us (how), but rather the complexity of the effect it has on us (what); the same seems to apply to the world as well– and to being oneself. The aesthetic-ethic journey leads from genuine wonderment at this raw what, the effect of things, art, and the world to the how of these effects, to the mastering of techniques, to the invention in language (though, as we will see, there is no grasping ones own method as such, no encapsulating the extent of the how). The how is seen to be caught up in a vast web of histories, perspectives, and influences, with no reference on which it might rest. And yet the how, the way we go about things (though largely beyond our grasp), is expressed everywhere in our grammar (where the what and the how necessarily meet): in the minutest details of any occurrence, in our slightest expressions. And yet contrary to the position of assertion and assuredness, which repeats “This is how things are,” we begin to see that “this” is merely the way we trace and frame what actually is. From there, a response is developed, a signature is signed, far from deciding who signed it. A poem, itself an investigation of “how it is,” is written.

I would like to begin this paper with reference to the few times Wittgenstein refers to poetry. In the Investigations, it occurs when he discusses the two applications of the concept “understanding”: “In one case, the thought in the sentence is what is common to different sentences; in the other, something that is expressed only by these words in these positions. (Understanding a poem.)”3 Does this parenthetical remark refer to the second clause after the semi-colon? or to both clauses? We must be quick to note that “these positions” applies to the text’s position on the page and its unique articulation, the tone of his voice/thinking, the pauses incorporated, the moments of “looking up,” etc. When referring to the correct reading of a stanza, Wittgenstein remarks that the important thing is not that each reader read it the same. One leads another to the understanding of a poem by reading it, for to read it is to touch another, outside any established line of referentiality or meaning: in this way an “exact experience is conveyed.”4 But the inflections, the pauses, etc. will be different. This is why Wittgenstein suggests that hearing a word in a certain way can be its meaning– totally particular to the hearer, even though the “why” or “how” of this meaningfulness would always ask for description (if the listener didn’t simply remain silent). Similarly, he recounts being bored by a certain poet until his rhyme scheme “clicked,” upon which Wittgenstein’s enjoyment and understanding of the text greatly increased. He did not arrive at a “correct reading-application”; rather, he entered the linguistic-rhythmic field of the text itself, letting it decide, and from there his aesthetic judgment only grew (a sort of preparation for new contexts).

Although associations, he suggests, aren’t why we read poetry, the function of the poem is to return us to our immediate surroundings, to bring us to a halt in our presuppositions, to have us question (maybe interrupt) the “sense” of the world. He speaks of a poem’s sensations, images, and impressions in this way: “They got their significance only from the surroundings, through the reading of this poem, from my familiarity with its language, with its meter and with innumerable associations.” He sees the poem as able to pierce us insofar as we “let our thoughts roam up and down in the familiar surroundings of the words.”5 I think we ought to take this in the broadest sense, especially since Wittgenstein emphases that “aesthetic judgment” is tied up in a complex web of life. This means that we will never stumble onto the ‘correct meaning’ of the poem, but rather that we ought to enter a mode of seeing which is transitional or transfigurational: “Phrased like this, emphasized like this, heard in this way, this sentence is the beginning of a transition to these sentences, pictures, actions. ((A multitude of familiar paths lead off from these words in all directions.))”6

A thought that is common to many sentences and can describe things in different ways is different than a thought that can only be said in a certain way; and yet all thoughts give themselves to further description. There is no “ideal language” in poetry or philosophy; rather, each endeavor culminates as the investigation of language, the ways it is used to relate, and who uses it to relate. The ideas expressed there lead to countless (ethical) paths, even though they are crafted with utmost attention to aesthetics. We can see that Wittgenstein’s whole corpus navigates this tension: a word means its use in a context: that is where we must learn its uses. And yet concepts like “seeing” and “thinking” force themselves upon us. They come to be constellated in specific and nonnegotiable ways in his text, with various logics involved (especially displaced and dispersed in Wittgenstein’s case, as is often the case with a poet’s body of work). This doesn’t compromise the uniqueness of his endeavor, but rather grants it its transitional quality of always fostering new discoveries. Similarly, a poet’s work must always exceed itself, must always go toward others to receive them. In this way, “understanding a poem” reaches both meanings of “understanding” for Wittgenstein: reading thoughts particular to their positions are always articulated singularly, lending themselves to their reader as a sentence lends itself to new sentences.

Engaging the Text as Dispersing Thinking

            On the page of poetry and philosophy, what is seen structures a linguistic field as an arena for thought. Only in a movement as this field (or as Wittgenstein’s corpus, if that is the case) does thinking occur when reading it, especially insofar as this text (or any) does not itself have a definite “thought” to purport. As we have seen with Wittgenstein’s considerations of poetry, moving as this field returns us to the surrounding environment and our connections there. As exhibited in Wittgenstein’s work and crucial to any relevant theoretic-poetic, what is essential is frankness of vision or voice, which I try to show below places being and seeing (that) over knowing and seeming (why or how). For Wittgenstein, this culminates in the abandonment of philosophy altogether. But to earn this abandonment, we must attend to the text with the same frankness. To move as the theoretical or poetical text is to engage its thought movements, to allow associations to encroach and divert, to open it at random, to let it rest, and to never let it rest. His work, if anything, tries to open up on itself, to allow new discoveries with each entry, even if this means returning to what we always-already “knew.”

The picture is a lifeless thing, enlivened only by the stream of thought and life that enters it. With engagement– (un)imaginable insofar as it engages (non)sense– the text comes alive. The gaze sends a look and then goes out to meet the text, but equally the text structures this look. We might even think of these texts of poetry and theory as vacated, not as though a machine had authored them, but as a conscious desire for anonymity itself, a conscious desire for the dissemination and displacement of ones own voice, an awareness our indeterminateness when (we present the) “we think.” It is a writing strategy that aims for “objectivity,” in the sense that it knows it must create a kind of vacation from reality, a negative space that the subject enters: here, it sees aspects. Then, it imagines them and itself otherwise: new aspects dawn. Wittgenstein links aspect dawning to experiencing the meaning of a word, which seems to us to be “half visual, half thought”7. We might add, in terms of poetry: new rhythms and pauses. This suggests that Wittgenstein’s investigations are poetic, insofar as all these subtle factors participate in his presentation as well. As Wittgenstein writes, “A great deal can be said about a subtle aesthetic difference.” First judgments of words (poetic, philosophic, or otherwise) are not the last say, “for it is the field of the word that is decisive.”8 To borrow a distinction of Jean-Luc Nancy’s, the “truth” involved here is not so much verifiable as verifying: it makes us true, it is not made true by us. In this gesture, one hands-over oneself to the picture’s space, which is required to inhabit its insights. This venture into the artifice of the aesthetic allows the ethical imagination to reflect on the world and the self, ultimately to return to the local picture– especially to the expressions on faces, where we encounter the most exact articulations of a place, that for which poems are only a substitute.

The ethics involved with a written work, impossible to express with logic or in the picture, can only arise from out of the correct reading-application of an aesthetic picture, its grafting on to the life its specific reader-context. But what can this mean: “correct reading-application of an aesthetic picture”? This paper argues that, like Wittgenstein’s text, the “correct application,” its meaningfulness in going forward, resides solely in the reader of the text. This is the link between aesthetics and ethics: the ethical does not know precisely what its expression will engender, for it must never cease attending to and describing its expressions. It does not know beforehand what its aesthetic expression will be any more than a reader knows what the poem will say before its read. The reading of a text might not engender the ethic it thought it would, just as Wittgenstein considered his Tractatus misinterpreted when it was first published. But misinterpretation is part and parcel with the “correct seeing” of Wittgenstein’s text, even if it discourages the author himself: a formalized openness makes room for all these (mis)interpretations. The frankness with which the ethical underpins every expression, such that it expressly is or crafts an aesthetics causa sui, (notwithstanding the various constraints of language, the world, and the subject, all of which are addressed and related in the Tractatus), ensures that seeing it will be bounded by the text in a way that any operation on it, or interpretation of it (right or wrong), will fall within its ethical boundaries, even as these exceed the knowledge of their author. It seems this is an indispensible activity of dispersing thinking, which the volume of Wittgenstein scholarship only attests to, even if some endeavors are dead-end roads. In short, any ethic able to adequately respond to its world cannot be prescribed, never determinately deduced, but rather indeterminately induced. In this way, each ethical path is made genuine without being held captive by any picture of itself. 

Pictures, like Keys Clicking 

            That said, and in that spirit, I would like to turn to my interpretation of the “correct reading application” of Wittgenstein’s text and how it relates to our engagement with poetry. I interpret his emphasis on seeing rather than thinking or knowing as a way to rid of us our false self-conceptions: to return from our interpretations to seeing. His work engages our conceptual confusions in a way that might render them null, such that the genuineness of the indefinite might respond locally, far outside the reading reach of philosophy or poetry (though this response may very will lead to the creation of new aesthetic pictures, i.e. new fields of/for ethical growth or vision). The function of the aesthetic picture is to return the viewer of the picture to his or her immediate surroundings and to respond there, albeit with a sense of strangeness of the ordinary re-injected into ones world-idea. The highest potential for responding-there necessarily involves the negation of (untenable) self-positions, though again, it is only within ones self that the untenability of its position might be seen and “negated.”  This requires that we ultimately discard the text (picture) as being nothing in itself. His reader enters a (theoretical?) field that (along with Jean-Francois Lyotard) immobilizes; or one that (along with Jean-Luc Nancy) suspends or interrupts sense. Rather than a delve into “nonsense,” this is a passage to the limit of sense, which inevitably returns us to the context at hand. I think that, if read “correctly,” Wittgenstein’s text immobilizes the gaze and interrupts its presuppositions, and that this is what makes it ethical without prescription. The remainder of the paper explores moments in Wittgenstein’s text that enact these potentials, which I have tried to show are the same potentials for poetry.

For Wittgenstein, the logic of “how things are” is linked to “how things seem to be,” or what we “think to be the case.” We ought to remember this whenever we go on to discuss “reality,” “oneself,” or “the world.” Thinking does not know “what” it thinks, but simply that it thinks– that “I think.” Thought is not something that can grasp itself as such. ((This is why it is correct to say here “I know what you are thinking,” but not “I know what I am thinking.”)) Wittgenstein is quick to note that, while conceptually different, thinking and talking (silently or aloud) are intimately related in this way: the truth of our speech and our thinking lies beyond our justifications and intents, in requirement of “outward criteria.” So too with the text of poetry. To try to grasp it, to pin it down, ignores the symbolic nature of its “arguments” (and the philosopher’s disease is the myth of the symbolic). The “truth of thinking” is not characterized by an assured resting on “the facts,” knowledge or interpretation; in that case, we are merely dealing with pictures or beliefs. The real “content” of truth, the real joy of meaning, occurs when our perspective shifts, the blending of self-concepts like the blending of colors– the dawning of a new aspect, even and especially if we are left with an indefiniteness of perspective (this, indeed, poses the only limit on ethical thought, for it alone clears the path for a new perspectives).

Precisely how the text is “interpreted” is a doing that involves the what of this thinking. But that the text is seen (Wittgenstein expressly intends to make puzzling the very notion of seeing, of aspects dawning, of seeing in three dimensions, etc.) is a state quite other than the doing of interpreting. Wittgenstein’s clearest example of this distinction is in regards to other’s pain (or our own): we see and respond without “knowing” or “knowing about.” We must read poetry in the same way: itself an acknowledgement of being or of being-pain, poetry asks that we not analyze it. Similarly, Wittgenstein advises us not to analyze our inner experience. Wittgenstein suggests in §191 of the Philosophy of Psychology:

When should I call it just knowing, not seeing? — Perhaps when someone treats the picture as a working drawing, reads it like a blueprint (Fine shades of behavior. — Why are they important? They have important consequences).

Poetry cannot engage thought when it is considered as referencing, making an argument, or “working” at all, but only when it is allowed the space to breath and be and be seen– that of which, we must add, the poem is often mightily uncertain: it has no stability outside its moment of engagement, always a singular sighting. Indefiniteness, negative capability, cannot operate according to a calculus because it aims to see and see-as rather than to think, which takes us beyond exact knowledge of “how things are” and back to the awareness of “that they are there.”9 In the following two sections, I try to link this acknowledgement to what Wittgenstein says about seeing and the “owner” of the visual room (the “metaphysical subject”).

Absent Owner, Visual Room

            Wittgenstein suggests that the gaze is unique among the senses in that it sends a look, whereas the other senses simply receive; and yet there is no way to trace this going out backwards to a source, no more than we could understand this look without the whole expression of the face and body. To say “This is me!” always carries with it a certain purpose, a reason for usage, an intention, but it fails to be a criterion for identity: it establishes a line of projection that requires a description. Conceptually, he rejects any picture of thinking as a “mental process,” or that it is solely “located” in the brain, or that thinking somehow accompanies action as if removed from it. It is this line of projection between sight and the presupposed “seer” (the eye and the “I”) that Wittgenstein challenges: “From nothing in the field of sight can it be concluded that it is seen from an eye” (§5.633). When discussing the visual room, he says that it cannot have an owner; or, the owner is “of the same nature as the visual room.” But if the latter is the case (if we accept the division between the viewer and the visual), we encounter nonsense: the owner “isn’t inside” the visual room and “there is no outside” of the visual room.10 And so no owner, no visual room. But rather than dismissing this as nonsense, Wittgenstein suggests that this very formulation is a dawning discovery, a new experience. This is only a riddle if we turn it into one, that is, if we try to grasp it with thought, rather than by simply looking. In §412 of the Investigations, he writes that “to turn my attention on to my own consciousness” is an extraordinary proposition: it is actually just an act of gazing out, not in, and “not at any particular point or object.” We can plainly see this, Wittgenstein says, if we merely inspect the “seer” in relation to “sight”: this gaze of ours is vacant.

There is no way to follow a line of projection back to an “owner” of the gaze. This does not mean we should dispel the words “me” or “I,” nor should we digress into a discourse on “non-self,” as these would just contradict everyday experience; rather, we ought to pay close attention to how these terms are employed, with what intentions, etc., and from a stance that never quite knows exactly what we are dealing with (or what stance to necessarily take). The realization that “there is no seer to own their own sight” is, I think, the highest potential of Wittgenstein’s investigations and the highest goal of “poetic language”: it returns us to the fractal, impermanent, and shared nature of the voice, thinking, and the visual. It is to take us beyond logical analysis and into a “reflective reconstruction of the nuances of intuition,” where explanation halts and we return to  ‘seeing by seeing.’ 11 We are called to see as if we were the room itself, molded and adaptive to any setting, for it is the situation that will tell us how to act if we are responsive and attentive to its exposing us. The “owner” of the visual room (and the many pictures, text, and expressions “inside it”) is that “not-inside-it” that sees and discovers that there is “no outside-it.” In the picture, proposition, or logic, no mention can be made of this subject, for it exists outside it. –I’m not here, on the page. I’m what “goes on” in the room, only.

“Metaphysical Subject” as the Visual Room’s Local Color

            §5.6 of the Tractatus is preceded by the discovery that a priori, elementary propositions fail and that nonsense ultimately takes their place: all the symbolism of “truth” is but a picture, dissolving into color patches. This includes the a priori “knowledge” or “order” we presume to have of ourselves, whatever is deemed “ours.” The limits of language and the world find their “location” in this world-language-limitation that is the “thinking, presenting” subject– but there is no such thing (§5.631). We do not discard of this limit, however, but merely open on to it. The metaphysical subject, at its highest potential, is the self-opening-up to the very alterity the visual room is, a handing-over the reins to what comes unexpectedly, a suspension of the “authority” of any presumed self-position. Admittedly, Wittgenstein’s nonsense toes a fine line at the end of the Tractatus. On the one hand, it seems like he is suggesting that the non-psychological, metaphysical “I” is the very limit on the world, transcending it while immanent, in the world like an intervention into it, but in no way of that world. On the other hand, the real purpose of philosophy is to unmask and debunk all metaphysical statements that neglect to give meaning to certain signs, perhaps most especially the meaning given to the “I” of psychology. This latter caution would seem to dismiss any notion of the I’s substance at all, inside or outside the world. But if the “I” is not psychological, is it visual, or is it invisible?

To see the world as a limited whole is to see that whatever or however I conceive the world “to be,” I have only crafted a picture, and I have crafted it from the untenable and impossible position of “I am my world,” where everything is tautological. In terms of the visual field, any drawing I might make is going to be from my perspective and will therefore be limited. In short, I am a fable. Nevertheless, it is true that “I am my world,” and just because my picture of the world, or the picture I create to depict my place in it, is limited, does not mean that I experience it as limited. Rather, the limitedness of the language-world-self is returned to the unlimited sense of puzzling at it, seeing it, and puzzling at seeing itself– puzzling even at seeing itself seeing itself. Our response returns us to the shared nature of this dazzling sight. We might suggest (quite nonsensically) that the metaphysical subject is “the opening of the invisible onto the visual”– at least to the extent that it “sees itself” as nothing more than this opening-up to the visual. ((Keep §6.432 in mind here: “God does not reveal himself in the world”)) Not a process, and without ownership, quite simply, it dawns upon us. We must allow ourselves this ethics of “disappearance”: a “subjective stance” that sees itself, its language, and its world as limited only insofar as it is presumed to be “mine” to own or know, limited only insofar as it thinks it appears, or “thinks of its appearance.” The more vacant this seeing can be, the greater the space for alterity, the greater chance that this impossible metaphysical subject might take on a local color, a local expression and position that, while beyond logic and justification, nevertheless meets the other precisely where they are. And this is precisely what the vacated picture or poem can also do: to take on a local color, such that its reader might proceed transformed by local color. “Disappearance” (the ethic) is co-extensive with its picture (the aesthetic) to the extent that the picture has been engaged by the gaze, whereupon the picture then seems to be nothing more than a disappearance, aligned with its once-only local color.

“But then who goes towards whom?”

            What must be given in the picture in order for disappearing to be a manifest experience? The number of descriptions of the surrounding environment we’d need just to make this disappearing ‘make sense’– since it draws presence to absence as a making of sense— is mathematically infinite. Yet all that is required of the text is to offer entry points for this movement: that it be invested wholly in the other. Wittgenstein enters untenable self-positions, wholly invested in the sense they seem to make. The reader enters them, inhabiting the self-positions and their negations. He questions them and shows them to be nonsense; but he also shows that every statement of “how things are” partakes of nonsense and remains invested in “seeming.”  To exit the text is to have, in a sense, abandoned limitation– that is, approached a limit. One abandons the whole endeavor of having or negating a self-position in favor of seeing, which is not unlike Wittgenstein’s hope for both psychology and philosophy: that they might deliver themselves from “describing reality” (This is how it is”) to “describing their descriptions of reality,” or their mode of description (“This is how we say ‘This is how it is'”). Attention is turned to the way, the how, but only by observing as clearly as possible what is, including our current way of “making sense.” This is a more modest endeavor, aware of the fact that we can only know the “how” of a method or technique of application and not the “what” of sense and self-reference, even though it is the “what” that immediately strikes us and ultimately is the only thing that has an effect on us. The picture we make of this endeavor can only show the “necessity” of self-inquiry, frankness, and genuineness beyond justification– and (as) responding there where the other is (which is firstly my otherness to myself). This is the showing or training that cannot be explained, but rather only pointed toward and allowed.

When Wittgenstein writes of poetry that we must always remember it does not give information, even though it is composed in a language of information, this similar to saying that the pot does not boil in the picture, the ethic does not directly transmit itself. Likewise, the poet cannot even write a poem. There is no “actual” water boiling in the picture of a pot on a stove any more than there are “actual” ideas or senses “inscribed” on the page of text. The sentence requires its rider–And yet we would never say that the boiling pot in the picture wasn’t, or that the camera that took the picture wasn’t there with the boiling pot, or that a person who saw the picture couldn’t imagine where it was taken. Perhaps when seeing the picture one even senses that one’s been there before. Yet there is nothing to grasp a hold of here. In the picture, “the language of water boiling” abandons its olfactory language of lung-opening vapors, its felt language of steam and heat (potentially quite painful), and its heard language of rolling and bubbling (and if we had a video camera, we would only retain this last, auditory language, along with the visual language already captured by the photograph). In the same way, I am abandoned to this page. In discourse, poetic or philosophic, all the usual entries into sense that my body has are ceded to your body, to your experience, that you might access something of yourself.

What reaches is not in the picture, but we couldn’t say it was outside of it either. Because sight must enliven it, the seen picture is always constituted in this moment. There is no presence behind the text; rather, what’s present is directly in front of it. To read, to be, is to imaginatively reconstitute “everything.” In the same way we come to understand that some pot has boiled, we come to understand that an ethic has been sensed and lived; but we also come to understand that in the picture there is only the reading gaze reaching itself– rather, its other. That that happens is guaranteed only by engagement with the text; how that happens is dually limited by the aesthetics of the page, the ethic the reader brings to it, and the internal negotiations of the ethical made possible when reader meets the page. In the same way that there is no boiling pot in the picture, neither is there anyone “in” the text being read, not even now. But then who is this rider that the sentence requires?

I suggest a nonsensical proposition: the “reference” of the poem is always the visual room in which it is read, i.e. the local color of its reading subject. Likewise, the transition or transfiguration of said subject is made possible simply by enjoying, understanding, hearing, and reading– engaging. (The poetic speech act as the deconstruction of the “social mask.”12) The poem’s piercing us has a causal connection with our life, but we construct this with our picturing-narrating-(symbolizing-theorizing) attitude and style of being. The poem is nothing more than what it seems to be to us. All response and action must proceed from there. The reader instantiates this “cause,” because only singularly can we allow a text to “make its mark on us,” in the same way only we can live our lives. While the parameters of the poem (or philosophical text) largely structure the piercing involved here, it is always the particular path that trails out from it that matters the most. This takes us far away from knowing, explaining, facts, or information, and deep into the access of gesture, the sight of local color, and finally from a picture to an expression of the face.

The aesthetic form is part of Wittgenstein’s charm, which he sees as crucial to his presentation of a new style of thinking, and that the object of his study is best apprehended when understood with pleasure. While he cautions that the psychoanalyst can only persuade his patients to a new aspect or interpretation on their life, he admits that his style and thinking is also a sort of persuasion.13 I have tried to show how this persuasion towards vacancy is enacted in parts of the Tractatus and in the visual room material (it is any writer’s ghostly persuasion); further, I have suggested that this functions like an immobilization of presupposed self-positions or an interrupting of sense might return us to a wonderment at the world, seeing, sense, reference, thinking, etc., that somehow escorts us to the limit. This is accomplished by the dispersal of thought, gaze, and voice that requires we genuinely take up “these positions,” singular at each entry. This allows the subtle movement between the text and environment, between aesthetic and ethic. In terms of aesthetics, taking up these positions in reading (by seeing and not by interpreting; qualified not by ‘poetic knowledge’ but by genuineness and frequency of engagement) leads to gestures of approval, intense experience, the development of aesthetic judgment, and a “learning to see what is in it.” But this only amplifies the fact that the meaning of the aesthetic picture lies in the aesthetic reaction– precisely where “aesthetic reaction” reaches the limit of “ethical action.” It destabilizes the meaning of poetry, to be sure, but it affirms the realm of response. It affirms those multiple, yet familiar paths: the tone of the aesthetic reaction is of utmost importance, for this is the ethic. The symbolic gesture of vacancy must absolutely weighed, by the body and by thought, for from this contemplation comes “going on” and “going towards,” though its presentation and its symbolic form will always seem to be “another matter.”

Coda: Meaning as Between-Going-Towards

            In §457 of his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein writes, “Yes, meaning something is like going towards someone”: to mean is to be set in motion. With/in meaning, we go towards. Under this concept of meaning we might describe what “goes on” with poetry. But when it comes to written works, whether Wittgenstein’s Investigations or otherwise, we are only presented with pictures. As David Schubert writes, “A poet who observes his own poetry ends up, in spite of it, finding nothing to observe.” Can we stress this enough? Poetic language, perhaps more so than philosophic language, estranges one from oneself, just as the poem’s written language is estranged from its source and page. The ethics involved with a written work, impossible to express with logic or in the picture, can only arise from out of the “correct reading-application of an aesthetic picture,” its grafting on to the life its specific reader-context. Criteria for “correct” is both given and not given in the text. It has to be felt. Context must always come to the picture in order for transformation to come out of it. This is the trick of it all, this myself-taking-place in you, as you, where I can never be: our peace, our night, an en-route seed. A poem that is reaching “you” (extended, distended, and to-come) needn’t exclude “me.” —And yet it is impossible for us to touch here: this is the limit (where) poetry and philosophy think. This is the impossible touch that, touching upon your own extension, just now, feeling it as extension, its being-farther-away-than-this, its being-closer-than-that, doubles over with sense, en l’entre-deux, in the between-us, there where we open up to ourselves.

May 11, 2010


1. Zettel, 140
2. Lecture on Aesthetics , pt III, sec. 5
3. Philosophical Investigations. §531
4. Lectures and Conversations. p 40.
5. Zettel. §161-179
6. Philosophical Investigations.  §534
7. Philosophy of Psychology. 140
8. Philosophy of Psychology  297
9. Oppen, George. “Psalm.” New Collected Poems. New York: New Directions, 2008. p 99. Online access at: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/guide/177375
10.
 Philosophical Investigations. §399
11.
 Cobb-Stevens, Richard. “Being and Categorical Intuition.” The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Sep., 1990), pp. 43-66. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20128980
12.
 Mandelstam, Osip. The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam. trans. Brown, Clarence and W.S. Merwin. New York: New York Review of Books. 1973. p 106
13. Wittgenstein’s view of psychoanalysis as a method of persuasion is incorrect. Early on, Freud emphasized that analysis had nothing to do with “suggestion.” Rather, it depends on the analyst’s neutrality with regard to the patient; and on the analyst’s ability to let the subject work-through his or her own resistances in whatever time this may take. 

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