josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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13 Jan '05 09:57:43 AM

In the lectures and conversations on aesthetics that we have from Wittgenstein, he refers to the phenomenon in which an argument about art ends in disagreement because the things one person can say to another, say to try to get them to see a painting or understand a poem a different way (to get them to come around, you might say, or to open their eyes), are by their nature not compelling in the way reasons concerning other matters might be (this very difference makes one uncomfortable calling the things said in the former case 'reasons', though they serve an analogous purpose). So some disputes remain unresolved because those involved give up, either at trying to persuade or to be brought around. (At times the ones who sees it may find themselves ending up cornered, or exasperated, or with no other resort than 'don't you see?!'.) But since the reasons are not compelling, that is, since they do not compel assent from everyone who can see plainly and think as well as anyone else is supposed to be able to, it doesn't necessarily reflect poorly on either party when a dispute ends this way. Necessarily: but it may matter from circumstance to circumstance whether you can get through. A person who seems out of reach may be written off, or less trustworthy, or just that much harder to fathom.

(Wittgenstein is obviously not saying anything new by noting this. This is merely the locus for certain talk about justification of judgments about art that I'm working on, in particular from Cavell.)

Attempts at justification - putting it that way already sets the terms of the discussion a bit too much - of this sort are often described as ways of bringing something about an artwork to another person's attention. Sometimes they're made out to be just that, nothing else. This accords well with the sense the one person has of seeing say a painting in a certain way, and of not having anything else to do but try to point to aspects or features of it that seem to be important in making them think it's good, or that seem to support whatever they say about it. It has to be the painting, if they're saying something that they can get the other person to come to see. And so there's a lot of talk about finer features, things a person might understandably overlook or not see with their proper importance, perhaps because the painting is noticeably different in some more obvious way that blinds them to the smaller details that might set things right for them. Wittgenstein gives an example of reading the poet Klopstock with a slightly different accentuation, and having everything fall into place.

It's tempting to take this as a model for how any sort of successful resolution of disagreements about art must go. The details seem like they have to be minor - hard to see, easy to overlook or misinterpret or forget about. And so they seem like the source of the whole problem, so that failed attempts at resolution are failures to get straight on the details.

I'm not sure if they could be said to be the same phenomenon, but the case where one person points out some features of a work to another, but eventually gives up, is something like the case where the disagreement is total from the outset, and everybody gives up without trying. Say, if I tell you this house track is really great, and you can't get past the beat, and that's that. Often something of central importance like that is the first thing pointed to by the advocate, and the reason the argument can go on is that it's just as much a basis (or at least is marshalled as one) for the other person's disagreement, so that the advocate is forced to look for other things to point to, possibly finer things (maybe just so that the other person can't use their reasons on those things anymore). When the argument goes on, what happens to the apparent importance of the original thing the advocate pointed to? In my own experience with music I've found that it's something that's tolerated, or accomodated somehow with songs or other works that are less like that, until somehow some time down the road (if the person makes the right efforts) that feature is recognized as the centrally significant thing it was made out to be in the first place. What's frustrating about this is that as a person trying to get other people to love what you love - or to be able to love what you love, to put it less manipulatively - you want to be able to point to those things that really do seem to matter. It's even worse if you see the regular practice of trying to be indirect about it as harmful to the whole endeavor in some way - contributing directly to tokenism and related ills.

If you've read Wittgenstein the remark in the Investigations about facts of a very general character (so general that they seem obvious, or beyond mentioning, or so general that we forget that we are even observant of their importance), might come to mind now.

I suppose it's unsurprising that the way to win over a recalcitrant viewer or listener is by the details, and not by the general qualities, or large-scale ones. The latter will tend to be things that they can see for themselves but are not seeing in the way you want. (Ignoring them would be one way of 'seeing' them, I suppose.)

There's something to make of that, but I'm hesitant to choose something. Everything I can think of to say seems to involve characterizing their way of misinterpreting the whole in a particular way, and those ways are all screamingly premature. (But when I say 'whole', I do intend the hermeneutic overtone.)

13 Jan '05 06:53:06 AM

Sasha points out the chapter of critical perspectives from the research report called Reporting the Arts II. Since it's not immediately apparent in the part I linked to and I wanted to know and had to find out for myself, I note that the study is an analysis of arts coverage in twenty daily newspapers funded by a bunch of PBS sounding dudes. (PS yo Catherine T. MacArthur I don't mean to imply that you are a dude, but if you are, like, that's cool too.) In the chapter linked to, there is a history of rock criticism by Christgau (a history written by him of all rock criticism, not a history written by him or someone else about his rock criticism), as well as Sasha's thing, called 'Subject/Object: Firsthand Knowledge in Criticism'.

I have nothing substantive to say about these at the moment, or ever, possibly. This is just a note for later.

10 Jan '05 11:45:11 AM

I am taken enough by Haruki Murakami's books that I ought to be able to say something about them, but I've thought about them so little that I'm not sure that's possible.

When I was younger and read almost nothing that is conventionally considered literature I read at an astonishing pace; Murakami is more or less the only thing I now read that is still suited to that pace. It's more than obvious that his narrator character is more or less the same in every book; I don't know if it's that the fine details of the 'less' are what captivate me, or narcissistic identification with the 'more', or if I just don't care. I find myself hoping for more scenes with eating and drinking and sitting in bars and on reading them I wish my life were more the sort that meant I would be doing that, especially drinking, by myself, or when meeting someone, late at night in mostly empty joints ('joints') or in the middle of the day; I don't really see that there's anything keeping me from doing this, though - I just don't. I always used to sort of gloss over the sex in any of Murakami's books; at the time it was because I saw it as little more than arbitrary that they be included and used as a means of establishing certain relationships and interactions between the characters, as opposed to some other sort of action - but since in the past six months I've had the most intense sexual relationship I've ever had, I suddenly find myself more sympathetic to Murakami's aims. Sometimes when I think about the books I'd like to write I start to wonder if the only thing driving me to write them (understanding that word in its least driving sense) is the urge to have mentioned songs and people playing them, not necessarily with any great significance attached, like the Ellington song in South of the Border, West of the Sun, to pick a middle of the scale example, but just to have the people put a record on. The earlier books with lines in the blurbs, and thus in every review written about them, about hard-boiled thrillers, frequently make me worried that I am missing something that I need to go read Marlowe and Chandler for when I read a page and think, well that's kind of awkward. I don't especially think I'm learning anything interesting about Japan or Japanese culture when I read Murakami, and seeing other people talking as if it's otherwise for them gives me that deeply ingrained reaction where I want to dissociate myself from them and possibly even hide or suppress my own love for Murakami; this is not the only case in which I have this reaction. I think part of what makes Murakami's narratives moves so quickly is that they are written from the point of view of someone who lets things happen rather than making them happen. I wonder whether his affinity for detective stories has anything to do with the fact that often detectives have nothing to do but sit around and wait, possibly drink coffee or whiskey, have a bite to eat. There's enough of a pattern established now, especially over the past four or five years, for me to say that I tend to take out a Murakami novel and reread it (or maybe get a new one if that's possible) when I'm feeling depressed; it used to be that I would take one out when I was depressed in that particular way where I felt stuck and couldn't get anything done, and I could read an entire novel of Murakami's so quickly that the feeling of accomplishment, if that's it, would sustain me enough to get unstuck - but that's not true any more. At the moment I would be happy to be as effective as a Murakami narrator; even when their methodical resoluteness isn't emphasized as in Dance Dance Dance, they have a way of bringing themselves up, or getting themselves back in motion, by just doing what one does. Some critics found that Murakami couldn't keep his story going all through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, that it was too much for him to resolve; that never really bothered me or occurred to me, which makes me wonder whether one really needs to think of a story as a thing that will convey anyone at all through to the end of a book, regardless of their interest or attraction to the writing otherwise. Murakami's not-quite-repetition makes me wish sometimes that I could just have one book that combined the right aspects of his other books in the appropriate ways, which puzzles me a little because the pattern he has established now bears some strong similarity to the pattern some of my favorite musicians established by making strings of same-but-different records that I am happier to have in their entirety without wishing for anything else but more records. I never worry about translation when I'm reading Murakami unless I've recently read a review where they mention it; when I'm reading anything else I can be so preoccupied with translation, since I read so many things not originally in English, that I even start mistakenly wondering about things that were originally in English. I would like to give copies of Norwegian Wood to people but I am not yet determined enough in my understanding of it, and especially don't want people to mistake me because the story involves a suicide. It's probably quite true that part of Murakami's appeal for me lies in narcissistic identification with the narrator, but the flaws in the narrator (and thus in me) that that narcissism blinds me to seem to me to be the kind only shallowly dismissable from the outside; if this means that someday I will change and give up on Murakami, I'm fine with that.

Well, a few things, then. A good start.

10 Jan '05 10:50:02 AM

It may just be that I have been setting my sights too high at paragraphs rather than words.

7 Jan '05 10:53:47 AM

I'm about eighty pages into Walden and I haven't seen much mention of sex yet. I reckon Thoreau would or will have something appropriately stoic and ascetic to say about it, whether it ends up being that he affirms it or denies it for some reason. I'm just curious because the passages in 'Economy' on clothing knocked me over, but not without my thinking back to all the slutty girls I saw out salsa dancing (or not) on Saturday night. Or did mating rituals only recently develop a place for fashion?

7 Jan '05 10:43:19 AM

Among the stacks of books I needlessly buy (even those of us on the edges of commercialized life find ways to try to become by consuming), a lot of journals and diaries of famous dead people have slipped in in the past couple of years. I'm not totally sure why. High aspirations, I suppose. The hope that seeing the insides would give me an angle, a word of hope. But there's something nice in Brecht's journal from 1936 or so: a note that he stole the paper for his journal from work.

7 Jan '05 10:39:17 AM

What I mean to suggest, though, is that if that performative impulse never disappeared, it's not so clear what the last fifteen years of their records (!) are supposed to mean.

7 Jan '05 10:37:31 AM

The familiar story that holds that Sonic Youth followed fashion from album to album (somehow) always seems to ignore the performance art deadpan that their earlier records had. Did they stop taking that stance, or did it start showing up in different ways? Or, to put it another way, when did Sonic Youth start being sincere (or not)? Or stop? I think the trend-hopper line is meant to imply - I don't know what the difference would come to - either that they started trying to be sincere, trying to play along in their limited way ('now we're a grunge band! we're angry and full of hostile emotions! now we're hippies! all the world is aflower!'), and thus betraying their earlier kill-all-whatever, which was of course more punk and thus better; or that they stopped trying to be sincere, freeing them up to be able to pretend to all kinds of expressive alternatives closed off to their hazier, limited means of being true, holding fast. You know. Something like that.

6 Jan '05 12:12:00 PM

we / should / kill / time