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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27 May '15 07:22:20 AM

In order to associate the possibility of fraudulence with modernist art, Cavell situates it and its counterpart, trust, where they (grammatically) belong, in our openness to the present and the art of the present. But the latter, he contrasts with a sort of pre-validated future, one in which it is envisioned that things will have sorted themselves out, in whatever ways they do that ('Music Discomposed', pp. 188–89):

'… the possibility of fraudulence, and the experience of fraudulence, is endemic in the experience of contemporary music; … its full impact, even its immediate relevance, depends upon a willingness to trust the object, knowing that the time spent with its difficulties may be betrayed. I do not see how anyone who has experienced modern art can have avoided such experiences, and not just in the case of music. Is Pop Art art? Are canvases with a few stripes or chevrons on them art? Are the novels of Raymond Roussel or Alain Robbe-Grillet? Are art movies? A familiar answer is that time will tell. But my question is: What will time tell? That certain departures in art-like pursuits have become established (among certain audiences, in textbooks, on walls, in college courses); that someone is treating them with the respect due, we feel, to art; that one no longer has the right to question their status? But in waiting for time to tell that, we miss what the present tells—that the dangers of fraudulence, and of trust, are essential to the experience of art.'

One of Cavell's broadest characterizations of modernism ('the modern', he calls it) in Must We Mean What We Say? comes in the book's original forward. It, too, schematizes the idea in terms of past and present (p. xxxiii):

'The essential fact of (what I refer to as) the modern lies in the relation between the present practice of an enterprise and the history of the enterprise, in the fact that this relation has become problematic. Innovation in philosophy has characteristically gone together with a repudiation—a specifically cast repudiation—of most of the history of the subject. But in the later Wittgenstein (and, I would now add, in Heidegger's Being and Time) the repudiation of the past has a transformed significance, as though containing the consciousness that history will not go away, except through our own perfect acknowledgement of it (in particular, our acknowledgement that it is not past), and that one's own practice and ambition can be identified only against the continuous experience of the past.… But "the past" does not in this context refer simply to the historical past; it refers to one's own past, to what is past, to what has passed, within oneself. One could say that in a modernist situation "past" loses its temporal accent and means anything "not present." Meaning what one says becomes a matter of making one's sense present to oneself.'

It's no accident that Cavell looks unfavorably on the 'test of time' as a solution to the problem of fraudulence in the way that he does, i.e., by voicing a not-too-implicit suspicion of those eventually treating 'certain departures in art-like pursuits' 'with the respect due… to art'. Later, he will join the bankruptcy of philistine audiences with that of avant-garde audiences. In much the same ways, they fall prey to the epistemology of genuine response that he sketches (section IV, pp. 189–193) for the purpose of the exposure of fraudulent art (and validation of the genuine article), an epistemology pregnant with cynical possibilities (pp. 192–93):

'This seems to me to suggest why one is anxious to communicate the experience of such objects. It is not merely that I want to tell you how it is with me, how I feel, in order to find sympathy or to be left alone, or for any other of the reasons for which one reveals one's feelings. It's rather that I want to tell you something I've seen, or heard, or realized, or come to understand, for the reasons for which such things are communicated (because it is news, about a world we share, or could). Only I find that I can't tell you; and that makes it all the more urgent to tell you. I want to tell you because the knowledge, unshared, is a burden—not, perhaps, the way having a secret can be a burden, or being misunderstood; a little more like the way, perhaps, not being believed is a burden, or not being trusted.'

So if there is such a burden, especially in knowing what one knows about the art of one's (modernist) present, liable to be regarded as fraudulent in the relevant sense by others—does it make more plain anything about the suspicion of others expressed in Cavell's dismissiveness toward the 'test of time'? The latter is formulated in terms of the establishment of tastes, the institutionalization: textbooks, walls, college courses. Later in the essay, he will propose (just after mentioning the bankrupt philistine and avant-garde audiences) that 'genuine responses to art are to be sought in individuals alone' (p. 206), which makes it seem as if his suspicion of the institutionalized response as ungenuine stems from some kind of consideration of how unlikely it is to have derived from the sort of 'perfect acknowledgement of history' that reaches all the way into (and beyond, I guess) the self, into one's own history, own past. As if it would never have been 'owned' enough. Or, in a somewhat more neutral, diplomatically skeptical tone: as if the institutionalization of a response would settle the issue of its genuineness, which could only ever be settled individually, one by one.

Is this, then, a place from which to ask how things are different if history goes on?

26 May '15 07:45:46 PM

('Wozu denkt der Mensch? wozu ist es nütze? – Wozu berechnet er Dampfkessel und überläßt ihre Wandstärke nicht dem Zufall? Es ist doch nur Erfahrungstatsache, daß Kessel, die so berechnet wurden, nicht so oft explodieren! Aber so, wie er alles eher täte, als die Hand ins Feuer stecken, das ihn früher gebrannt hat, so wird er alles eher tun, als den Kessel nicht berechnen. – Da uns Ursachen aber nicht interessieren, – werden wir sagen: Die Menschen denken tatsächlich: sie gehen, z. B., auf diese Weise vor, wenn sie einen Dampfkessel bauen. – Kann nun ein so erzeugter Kessel nicht explodieren? O doch.')

26 May '15 06:46:21 PM

The repairmen are considerably more chatty than Wittgenstein's builders. What they do is more coordinated by what they say, too:

'I'm gonna walk under, OK?'


24 May '15 03:55:08 AM

'… if it is in the world, it can go in the book.'

21 May '15 03:20:50 PM

'It's beginning to look like I'm not gonna get the Tonight Show.'

20 May '15 04:42:31 AM

WCW on Kora in Hell:

'But what was such a form to be called? I was familiar with the typically French prose poem, its pace was not the same as my own compositions. What I had permitted myself could not by any stretch of the imagination be called verse. Nothing to do but put it down as it stood, trusting to the generous spirit of the age to find a place for it. In the same spirit I added the original prologue… entirely separated from the rest of the text, which was an intensely private avowal, to give it a public front'.

20 May '15 03:44:29 AM

Wittgenstein as a modernist. The idea was so attractive to me, whenever I first encountered it, that I was able to accept it, take it as given, without ever really troubling myself about what it meant. I was readied by what I’d heard about other modernists, other modernisms, in the arts rather than in philosophy. Which were, in part, what I counted as art. My first real encounter with poetry, early in college, came from reading either—I forget which was first—a cheap selection of William Carlos Williams that included, among others, 'This is just to say', or a slim anthology, used, pages ready to fall out, of 'imagist' verse that included probably the Williams as well as this, by Pound:


The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

I didn’t like poetry, I didn’t understand poetry; it took me many years to get to the point of feeling like I did, or could—and I did so in reverse, really, reading about poetry, reading criticism, and criticism about criticism, before much more than Williams really started to take. The little imagist anthology made a powerful impression on me because it gave me a way to alibi my simplest reaction, startled and emphatic: this is a poem. This can be a poem.

It wasn’t a reaction in the direction that the stories about modernism usually frame things from: startled by unaccountable newness, moved by the object itself to accept it as a work of art despite its evident refusal of the standards by which all works were formerly accepted, a poem despite. Those poems hadn’t done anything for me. I didn’t have an accepted background of work against which Pound’s lines could be challenging to accept. I didn’t have anything; he gave me something, and gave me poetry, by inverting (from my perspective) the official story, so that I could trust my own, private reaction enough to insist that from that point on, anything else that I would come to see as poetry, that would count, would have to count this, too—or I could discount it.

I took my license from the criticism, the manifestos, the slogans. For a while, make it new and no ideas but in things could well have condensed the essence of art for me. (Accurately? Does it matter?)

—A similar first encounter with Wittgenstein: this is philosophy.

18 May '15 09:08:58 PM

The building next door fell down last night.

The wall really.

One wall.

Part of it; the bricks.

They had been bowed out for years. Now the space between the buildings is a pile of bricks.

It was the wind. A gust blew through my apartment so hard that I thought the boom was a window falling out.

There was nothing dynamic about the scene when I went to look. Seconds after the boom it was already just a pile of bricks.

Well, that's what that was, I thought. How about that.

Then I lost interest.

18 May '15 02:06:30 PM

'"This is a university, my friend," said one representative when asked about Axact. "I have no idea what you're talking about."'