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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6 Jan '06 09:23:48 PM

I don't know what they're saying most of the time in 'Walk Into the Sea'. But the song affects me more than perhaps it's meant to. Every time they sing 'time's the great destroyer', my heart sinks. It always sounds like they're capitulating and I'm convinced they don't have to.

Or I want to be convinced.

6 Jan '06 08:57:43 AM

'His whole nature fails to persuade; that is because he has never remained silent about any of his good deeds.'

5 Jan '06 10:21:47 PM

A fantastic Christgau phrase: 'Young Jeff is a syncretic asshole'.

5 Jan '06 02:51:24 AM

For whatever reason the full weight of the double meaning to the chorus of 'Hi-Life' never hits me until the song is almost over.

4 Jan '06 06:36:35 PM

Every once in a while I need to remind myself (or ought to remind myself) that the opening to §524 could just as well introduce anything, and be worthwhile: 'Don't take it as a matter of course, but as a remarkable fact'...

4 Jan '06 06:50:09 AM

'unexpectedly heartfelt': 'I hope this song finds you fame / I want schoolkids on buses singing your name'

(I would be a little disappointed if it turned out that when playing the song live they didn't adjust the mention of the elapsed time to suit the occasion of performance: '9 months, 3 weeks, 4 days, 6 hours, 13 minutes, 5 seconds'.)

3 Jan '06 10:14:47 PM

'I love it but I don't really need it.'

3 Jan '06 06:46:30 AM

Tonight I came across a very subtle reminder of the broader significance of Wittgenstein's digression, starting at §66, dealing with games - among other things, with whether or not it is possible to define what a game is by saying what is common to all games. Of course, I'm fond of these passages, but I've always felt a little wary about them because they seem to lend themselves readily to a misreading of Wittgenstein that goes something like this: aha! Wittgenstein is saying that language is just made up of an overlapping collection of language-games, and his reason for not trying to define what language is (§65: "You take the easy way out! You talk about all sorts of language-games, but have nowhere said what the essence of a language-game, and hence of language, is") is that he thinks games themselves cannot be defined. Charges of intellectual laziness and carelessness follow quickly (for example, why should we accept his characterization of language as made up of language-games, when he's hardly said what those are? has he even tried to give a good definition of 'game' in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions?). Or, I suppose, superficial knowingness, because this sort of reading of Wittgenstein also looks like the one casually thrown around by people who support it.

But the line of thought is more carefully phrased than that reading recognizes. The remarks about games serve at the very least as an example of what he has just previously said, in §65, in response to the complaint that he has not said what the essence of language is: 'And this is true. &emdash;Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all,&emdash;but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all "language". I will try to explain this.' §66 begins immediately after this: 'Consider for example the proceedings that we call "games".'

So his explanation (for 'erklären' my dictionary has, besides 'explain', 'illustrate (an einem Beispiel by an example)', interestingly) is by example. But it's a strategically chosen example. Presumably if all he wanted to do was further explain how it is he thinks that a word could be used for a number of different phenomena and yet not admit of a definition in terms of the commonalities between those phenomena, there are plenty of words that would make good examples. And the subsequent remarks say a number of very general things about, for example, ways of defining a word, explaining a concept, using a concept whose proper use has not been circumscribed, and so on, often relative to the example of games but without depending for their significance on the example being games.

So it is interesting to me to notice that one of the dialogical voices (from 'the interlocutor', or some interlocutor) itself recognizes the significance of the choice of example; that is, that the voice sees that in a sense Wittgenstein was free to choose another example, but also that the example says more than it needs to simply to serve as the example it was meant to be. Notice the voice's scare quotes in §68 (the double quotes mark the introduction of a criticism):

"But then the use of the word is unregulated, the 'game' we play with it is unregulated."

I'm sure I could make more of this.

2 Jan '06 06:50:57 AM

William M. Johnston's description of Karl Kraus calls to mind Borges' Funes the Memorious:

'Kraus's idolatry of language sprang from a photographic memory. He claimed that he could remember every occurrence undergone since age two, and he was such an uncanny mimic that those who heard him recite Nestroy or Shakespeare deemed his the definitive interpretation of every role. If Kraus had left a legacy of phonograph records instead of books, he would, suggests Willy Haas, rank as one of the greatest of actors. So accurate was Kraus's recall of quotations that he endured a kind of permanent anamnesis: "Much of what I experience for the first time I can already remember." Small wonder that Kraus excelled at weaving quotations into sardonic prose. One third of his "mammoth-drama," Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (Vienna, 1922), consisted of excerpts from the daily press. Similarly his conviction that linguistic usage reflects morality stemmed from a tyrranical memory for words. Like that other superb listener, Freud, Kraus averred that every slip of the tongue - or increasingly, every printer's error - betrayed some deeper intention. Whatever Kraus's mind recorded, he interpreted with unrelenting literalness, as if the speaker had meant exactly what his words said. Kraus could not stomach anyone who lacked command of words.

That Kraus regarded memory as a mixed blessing is amply illustrated by the poem, "Return into Time" [Rückkehr in die Zeit]:

Mein Zeiger ist zurückgewendet,
nie ist Gewesnes mir vollendet
und anders steh' ich in der Zeit.
In welche Zukunft ich auch schweife
und was ich immer erst ergreife,
es wird mir zur Vergangenheit.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Ich bin mein truester Begleiter
und lebe das Gelebte weiter,
und Neues kann mir nicht geschehn.
Von einem Urbild war gesegnet,
was mir zum erstenmal begegnet,
und ist mir wie ein Wiedersehn.

My watch is turned backward,
Never is what's past over for me
And I stand differently in time.
Whatever future I may reach
And whatever I graps for the first time
becomes for me the past.
. . . . . . . . . . .
I am my own truest companion.
I relive what I have lived before,
and nothing new can happen to me.
What I encounter for the first time
Has been blessed with a primal form
And is to me like a second meeting.

Kraus yearned to experience something genuinely new, unsullied by memory. Overwhelmed by a sense of déjà vu, he juggled an unending supply of Platonic models, which he used to classify and judge whatever might occur. Imprisoned by what his mind had etched upon it, he flailed at solecisms and disharmonies of contemporary speech, which he could not avoid assimilating. This satirist suffered the agony of a musician blessed with perfect pitch, yet fated to spend a lifetime listening to the tone-deaf.'

(Borges' narrator, on Funes: 'It was hard for him to sleep.')