- Paperback: 306 pages
- Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (March 15, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0226660605
- ISBN-13: 978-0226660608
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 9 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #233,120 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary
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From Library Journal
Wittgenstein's writings, though not themselves poetry, are redolent of poetic elements. Still, perhaps only a poet?or a humanities professor such as Perloff (Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media, LJ 12/92) with a poetic sensibility?would find the ordinary "strange." Surely Wittgenstein argues philosophically that it is just the non-strangeness of the ordinary that is the key to solving (or dissolving) philosophical problems. Be that as it may, this fine study, in which Perloff disclaims any attempt to explain Wittgenstein and merely wants to "examine the relationship of [his] mode of investigation...to the 'ordinary language' poetics so central to our own time," manages to show a more than elementary understanding of his thinking. Proficient in German, she often gives more accurate translations of certain central passages in Wittgenstein's original than the standard English texts. A welcome addition to Wittgensteiniana from a unique perspective; for academic collections in philosophy, literature, and poetry.?Leon H. Brody, U.S. Office of Personnel Mgt. Lib., Washington, D.C.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From the Back Cover
Austere and uncompromising, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had no use for the avant-garde art works of his own time. He refused to formulate an aesthetic, declaring that one can no more define the "beautiful" than determine "what sort of coffee tastes good". And yet many of the writers of our time have understood, as academic theorists generally have not, that Wittgenstein is "their" philosopher. How do we resolve this paradox? Marjorie Perloff, our foremost critic of twentieth-century poetry, argues that Wittgenstein has provided writers with a radical new aesthetic, a key to recognizing the inescapable strangeness of ordinary language. Wittgenstein's ladder is an apt figure for this radical aesthetic, and not just in its ordinariness as an object. The movement "up" this ladder can never be more than what Wittgenstein's contemporary, Gertrude Stein, called "Beginning again and again". Wittgenstein shows us, too, that we cannot climb the same ladder twice: the use of language, the context in which words and sentences appear, defines their meaning, which changes with every repetition. Wittgenstein's aesthetic brooks no theory, no essentialism, no metalanguage - only a practice, a mode of operation, fragmentary and elliptical.
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The authors she chooses to illustrate Wittgenstein's influence seemed a little arbitrary to me though. She admits that Beckett and Stein didn't read Wittgenstein, and that Wittgenstein would probably have disliked their art. So why put them 'under his sign'? It makes more sense to me to see Wittgenstein as part of a wider generation who felt dissatisfied with the pre-war language they'd inherited. With later poets like Silliman and Waldrop, who explicitly cite Wittgenstein's writings as an inspiration, I think Perloff misses what separates them from Wittgenstein: he had no earlier model to cite. Wittgenstein's faith in ordinary language led to a manner of writing and thinking that was largely self-sufficient--an interested reader can dive right in and think through the problems for herself. His more allusive postmodern heirs rely to a large extent on your prior knowledge of texts like Wittgenstein's for their effects. Where Wittgenstein himself struggled to keep his religious and hierarchical values in check through the discipline of ordinary language--concepts like beauty, God and the self seemed to have some meaning for him, you just couldn't talk about those meanings with language--later writers' easy acceptance of notions like a language game, the 'constructed self' and the fundamental indeterminacy of language seems to drain some of the drama from their writing. You don't feel the same struggle (or modesty) that you sense in Wittgenstein's open, user-friendly illustrations. Describing one of his poems, Ron Silliman writes: "Every sentence is supposed to remind the reader of his or her inability to respond." I can't imagine Wittgenstein saying something like that.
Still, the book is an interesting take on Wittgenstein and the poetic he unwittingly inspired. Well worth reading.
To see the above uncertainty regarding the relative primacy of ordinary language over poetic language (or vice versa), as Perloff does, is to accept this uncertainty as constitutive of the inherently aporetic nature of language, particularly semantics. In other words, prior to, during, and long after its instantiation within a given utterance, every word possesses a bivalent potentiality: a certain equal "suitability" toward either ordinary or poetic usage. Thus a word's semantic value within a particular utterance is ultimately a matter of divining the strategy of the speaker in employing that word. This problem, becomes a problem of other minds, then, and not a problem of language. However, I wonder if it is possible return the problem to one of language itself. In the interest of so doing, I offer the following hypothesis: Instead of ascribing to a word a particular semiological bivalency, one should regard a word as essentially univalent, and that singular valence is its ordinary signification. Poetic use thus becomes not a particular mode of employment but a method of destruction, specifically the destruction of ordinary, singular semantic value. Thus what one sees in poetry is not the quantum movement of semantic value from one valence to another, but the ordinary semantic value of a word at its point of obliteration.
I realize of course that this hypothesis is completely debatable, yet I believe that it might be useful, if treated provisionally. I do not claim that the univalent nature of a word is a transcendental, a-historical cohesion of sign, signifier and signified; rather, the univalent nature of a word emerges from a statistical aggregate of repeated usage, which later becomes conventionally and institutionally recognized. This evolution transpires over time, and thus the univalent semantic value is also bound up in time; the value resolves and dissolves, and in the interim achieves a relative fixity for a particular duration, which emerges from a complex interaction of "bottom-up" decentralized self-organization and "top-down" strategic intervention. Absolutely essential to the hypothesis above is a certain epistemological adjustment: i.e., instead of seeing the semantic value as "fixed," one must regard it as in a state of deceleration asymptotically approaching zero velocity, which thus gives the impression of fixity. Statistical aggregation around a mean usage invites a normative assessment, which later becomes conventional-cum-institutional usage, at the level of analysis of the latter, the sign becomes fixed-it reaches it velocity asymptotically closest to zero-and thus becomes "fixed" for a time. Therefore, if the speaker's use of the word is contemporaneous with the institutional semantic univalence of the word, and if the speaker employs this word with no pretense to poetic expression, then the word's significance is univalent. For instance, my ordinary use of the word "software" in a conversation with a member of technical support at Apple Computers is quite unambiguous, because I exist at a time when the word "software'-a word that has only recently "shed" its neologistic "skin"-is an institutional signifier denoting a particular signified: the body of code that enables my computer to perform certain functions.
A word's poetic usage, then, does not exist a priori as an alternative semantic potentiality; rather, poetic use indicates a point of intervention where a countersignifying force is applied to the word, which accelerates it so violently and abruptly that the instantaneous increase of momentum gained by the word obliterates the assemblages appended to it by the abstract machine. Therefore, the aporia instantiated by poetic usage is none other than that word's deterritorialization as a result of the countersignifying violence done to it. However, every deterritorialization of a sign is followed by its reterritorialization. Analysis of a sign's poetic usage thus becomes a matter of locating/discovering "the site" of its reterritorialization.