David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: wittgenstein (page 5 of 8)

Fun with Consciousness

I love the philosophy of consciousness. Is there any other field of philosophy that proceeds with so few objective reference points, where people spend so much time fighting over pure first principles? Yes, probably, but they aren’t as interesting to me as consciousness. Some (like a certain eliminativist I was arguing with earlier tonight) argue for its nonexistence; others (Descartes, anyone?) argue that it’s all that there definitely is. And throughout, language is thoroughly inadequate of providing referentiality to any of it. Late Wittgenstein isn’t the only one who would agree with that; early Wittgenstein would agree too.

Quick crash course for those who are not quite as obsessed with these things: consciousness = internal, subjective experience. It means that when I poke you, you don’t only react with behavior indicating pain (yelping, yelling, etc.), but you also have some internal, private sense of actual pain. These two things, as one can read over and over in later Wittgenstein, have no apparent necessary connection to one another. But at least for me, it’s a rather significant assumption I make that other people have rather similar private subjective experience to mine that matches up with their behavior in similar ways.

See also Thomas Disch’s Fun With Your New Head. “Taste, see, smell, and ‘pain’ with a HEAD. Every minute is different from the next minute in incredible thought-chaos of a HEAD.”

Steven Shaviro reviewed a new s-f novel called Blindsight by Peter Watts. It sounds a little pulpy, and it’s unlikely that I’ll get around to it any time soon, at least not until I finish Thomas Metzinger’s marvelous  Being No One. But Shaviro has conveniently described some of the consciousness aspects that come into play:

What really distinguishes the aliens is that they are zombies: not in the George Romero, living dead sense, but in the sense that the term has been used by cognitive science and the philosophy of mind. A zombie is a being who acts just as you or I do, who shows clear signs of language, intelligence, and so on; but who is inwardly devoid of sentience or consciousness. It’s the old Cartesian/solipsist dilemma: I know that I have consciousness, interiority, and a sense of self; but how do I know that you have all these things? For all I know–since all I really know (according to Descartes) comes from introspection, everyone else in the world may well be a machine, or an
automoton, only simulating consciousness. 

Now, there’s a caveat here, in that the aliens aren’t actually philosophical zombies, because these aliens don’t act like you or I do, or even as conscious aliens would. Watts provides clear behavioral indicators for what non-conscious intelligent beings would act like and how they would differ. I’ll get to those in a moment. A real zombie, in the sense that David Chalmers and all put it, requires the assumption that there are no behavioral or linguistic (or even neurological) cues that peg someone as having subjective experience or not. The Waggish-zombie would claim to be conscious, just as I do.

Given the possibility of true zombies, consciousness is epiphenomenal, i.e., it has no bearing whatsoever on physical events. Epiphenomenal consciousness lacks causal force, and it is superfluous to any causal chain of events. This leads to some fairly bizarre scenarios, like this one that Raymond Smullyan describes (he actually uses it against dualism, but it works against epiphenomenalism as well):

Then came the discovery of the miracle drug! Its effect on the taker was to annihilate the soul or mind entirely but to leave the body functioning exactly as before. Absolutely no observable change came over the taker; the body continued to act just as if it still had a soul. Not the closest friend or observer could possibly know that the taker had taken the drug, unless the taker informed him.

Then a person who wishes to have no more subjective experience (to escape various pains and traumas), but not to hurt anyone by committing explicit suicide, takes the pill. And of course, he promptly says, “Damn, it didn’t work!”

Right then. Epiphenomenalism also leads to boring books! Reading about the difference between people who do and don’t have consciousness but act the same either way is not terribly exciting. (Actually, I can think of one way in which it would be interesting, but I’m keeping it a secret in case I write about it some day.) So Watts cooks up a few differences to keep things going:

By the end of the novel, the difference between conscious beings and zombies seems to be that only conscious beings possess aesthetics. The aliens in the novel are a bit like logical positivists: they have no aesthetic sensibility, and find aesthetic and affective statements to be, strictly speaking, meaningless. They can carry on complex conversations, despite not “understanding’’ what the words mean; but they can only regard non-functional expressions as a sort of spam. In this way, Watts’ Darwinism ends up confirming Kant: the defining attribute of the aesthetic is that it is unavoidably “disinterested,’’ that its purposiveness of structure serves no actual (empirical or utilitarian) purpose. In other words, an aesthetic sensibility — which at this point we can pretty much equate with consciousness tout court — is not an evolutionary adaptation, but mere nonadaptive byproduct.

Again, though, this is ultimately an arbitrary and suppositional distinction. There’s no necessary reason why beings without consciousness and subjective experience couldn’t have an aesthetics, just as there could well be an aesthetics amongst a group of people who each saw a different color of the spectrum. Under Wittgenstein, aesthetics remains a series of rule-application speech acts, wholly independent from private subjective experience.

Shaviro hypothesizes that it is putatively nonadaptive behavior like aesthetics that constitutes “human-ness,” but I’m frankly surprised that a Marxist like him would claim that aesthetics ever indeed is disinterested. (He may simply be playing this out as a consequence of Watts’s views.) Yet the moment consciousness becomes more than purely epiphenomenal, it is completely up for grabs as adaptive, precisely because it must manifest itself in particular types of behavior, but without any contingent restrictions on what those behaviors could be. To imply a particular link between consciousness and certain types of behavior (such as the href=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_test>mirror test, which
proves self-awareness but hardly indicates anything about subjective experience) is wholly speculative. The epiphenomenalists go too far in the other direction by saying that there cannot be any necessary connections between behavior and consciousness; the answer is that we simply don’t know yet.

Now, the book is speculative fiction; my issue is that the speculation assumes too much. This is no worse a sin than many consciousness philosophers and neurologists, but as a hypothesis for behavioral differences, I don’t find the aesthetics argument particularly compelling at first glance. If there were general behavioral differences between beings with and without subjective experience, my intuition suggests that they would be far greater than mere aesthetics, and I’m all for the next writer who wants to take a shot at guessing what they would be.

Harold Brodkey

Jonathan Baskin assesses Harold Brodkey in Bookforum. For however obscure Brodkey is now, I remember his Vintage Contemporaries paperbacks–the first collection and then the big one–as two books that were everpresent in the small fiction sections of suburban bookstores in the days before Borders and Barnes and Noble made extensive selection de rigeur. Then his mammoth The Runaway Soulcame out and Brodkey disappeared overnight, victim of universally bad reviews excoriating his self-indulgence and florid prose. Then a few years later I heard about him again, when he died of AIDS. Now his books are out of print, though readily available for pennies.

Random House and Penguin controlled much of the contemporary fiction that I read as a teenager, and so I read Brodkey with a mixed response. I never connected with his writing, and his story “Puberty” was outright disturbing, a vision of teenage sexuality foreign from anything I knew. The sex writing, which might constitute a good 50 percent of his verbiage, taught me little about either.

Baskin wonders if Brodkey will make a comeback. I don’t think he will. Far from “the American Proust,” Brodkey’s writing is strikingly bad, the sort of thing from which one can learn because its defects are so apparent. Of the passages Baskin quotes, it’s only the final one, reflecting on his imminent death, that carries the clarity and immediacy of good prose. The others avoid it with a secondhand narcissism that illustrates the most common fallacy of aspiring writers: that if the feeling accompanying the writing was sincere and intense, the writing must be instilled with that same significance. Writers learn to look back and see with a detached eye how they failed to communicate. Brodkey, it seems, took longer than most.

Consider (and I must quote from Baskin’s exemplary passages here, since my own Brodkey books are long gone), from “S.L.”:

The elephant-gray mass and rumble of the air, and the itchy, carpetlike closeness of Da’s heat. . . . My face snakily writhes against the fat, resilient bicep of Daddy’s arm. I am now largely on my belly in his arms. “From the backside you look just like everyone else, kiddo–you look like an asshole.” I hang, I arch–like a bowsprit–a branch of the rubbery, muscle-and-spine, oaken pounding-along tree of that man: this is in the state of Illinois, in the now quickening rain; he is running toward the gate of the park: I see the torn rooms of the out-of-doors. Dad says, “NO,” and refolds me in his arms, defining me as Error and A Fool and someone he wants bodily near him, someone whose bodily welfare concerns him: it’s interesting and I start to laugh.

Note how the prose acts as a damper on the emotions that are in play. The word “snakily” throws a wedge into its sentence, conjuring the wrong associations of the scene. Describing “closeness” as “carpetlike” is more confusing than it is enlightening. To “hang” and “arch” is to denote two separate images combined together without explanation. His fathers tree is overloaded as rubbery, muscle-and-spine, andoaken. Dad defines him in an unspecified manner as three divergent things in close succession. The narrator’s response is that he finds it “interesting” and then he laughs. Well, I suppose I often laugh at interesting things too.

“Yes,” comes the defense, “but he still communicatesa feeling.” I disagree and say that Brodkey throws out so many ambiguities that he tricks the reader into imposing conventions onto the scene. The sheer vagueness of the word “interesting” (which I, like you all, was banned from using in high school and which has taken on a wry, ironic cast as I’ve aged) leaves a blank space for readers to fill: they come up with how it was interesting, because Brodkey doesn’t tell them. No doubt Brodkey had a specific image and sensation in his mind, but his sheer failure to convey it is appalling. Brodkey worked with raw, universal material that was familiar to everyone who read him: childhood, love, sex, family. Had he written about something more particular or foreign, his books would have been blatant muddles of confusion. Yet because people can figure out something like what he was trying to say, they mistakenly credit him with having said it in a new way.

I don’t trash Brodkey out of spite or play, but to try to illuminate via negativa what writing must do and how it can fail, as well as how readers can compensate for it. (And more pertinently, why they compensate for it.) Consider in contrast Stephen Dixon, who has been working with similarly quotidian material for over thirty years. Yet where Brodkey is nebulous, Dixon has always been insistently specific, drawing every distinction and particular out of common experience. It’s not that this sort of concreteness is necessary or even desirable for the material, but even for its sheer lack of flash, Dixon’s writing is far more evocative than Brodkey’s. Brodkey treats himself far more seriously than he treats language. My opinion? To cross Yeats and Wittgenstein: In language begins responsibility.

Thoughts on Genre: Blogs and Practice

Some responses to the earlier entries brought up the issue that many blogs (and indeed mine) utilize a very essayistic format, and so the contrast I set up between autonomous work and the stream of blogging isn’t so black and white. I partly agree with this, but I want to keep the focus on the blog qua blog; locating a blog entry as an essay via Google does not in any way distinguish a web site as a blog. What defines the blog is its day-by-day composition, and the effects that this composition has on the work produced.

This emphasis–on new material rather than revision of old, on small incremental pieces rather than self-contained monsters–affects how bloggers tend to write. Blog entries are by nature quickly written, quickly published, quickly forgotten. They are not posted in a “final” state, in that finality implies that it be remembered for posterity. Given the short horizon of the content, any revision after the initial posting will only be noticed by a fraction of the blog’s readers. When blogging, the question of “Is this exactly how I want it?” is less important than in writing a book; if it’s not, you can always try again after the entry has receded into the distance.

Revision makes itself known through future entries. This leads to the content redundancy that I mentioned earlier, where bloggers tend to overpost rather than underpost, but it allows for more dynamic restatements than if the original content were fixed in view.

Blog entries, then, never reach a final state. This is most likely what drives some bloggers to complain that blogging is a waste of their time: the lack of clear finished product. But ultimately it potentially provides virtue as well. In the absence of the finished product, in the absence of a primary authorial personality, there remains two things: one, the ever-becoming practice of writing, and second, the continuity of the practice.

As the entries blend together in a stream, what becomes visible is an unfinished, open stream of information. No matter how open-ended a book might be, how many questions it raises, at the end of the day you still close the book and archive it in your mind. Not so with a blog, which, as long as you keep reading it, will maintain its continuity of topic until those abstractions settle in your mind and are brought up again when you next read it. The gestalt is never fully formed, always open to revision. And unless bloggers have an endless stream of new ideas, they need to engage in revision of their own previous thought to keep posting.

A few authors have adopted the open-ended revision model in the past. Wittgenstein in his late work is an exploding polyphony of fallible interrogators and tentative responses. Stephen Dixon’s fiction examines a certain strain of modern American life from conflicting, mutating vantage points. Kim Deitch has built towering edifices out of small pieces of trash culture, and continues a career-long pullback that continually redesigns the architecture of all his previous work. [These are only the three that first spring to mind; there are surely great examples that I’m overlooking.] Even in these cases, the chunking of their work into discrete books and/or collections is initially deceptive, implying a closure that is not actually present. Blogging declares the closure to be void.

It does so by requiring frequent work. In the absence of continuous practice, blogs do die, and collapse into low-pagerank white dwarfs of content only to be found via lucky web searchers. It requires the author’s constant effort (and the readers’ responses) to remain viable. To declare a blog finished is to declare it dead. It is the open-ended form that defines blogging.

Now a personal word from me: I said that the blog medium wasn’t particularly germane to what I wrote, since I figured I’d write the same sort of thing regardless of the format. I was wrong. It was the unfinished-ness of the blog that allowed me to write in this way in the first place, and it has been quite productive. Egos fly around blog genres, as they do in any other publishing venture, but I find them easier to deal with. People aren’t resting on their laurels after having a finished piece published in magazine X or Y. Instead, the question we ask each other is this: are you blogging? Are you continuing towards the unreachable end point of your work, and keeping your work alive?

Brett Bourbon: Finding a Replacement for the Soul, cont.

When we last left off in Part 2 (also see Part 1), Finnegans Wake, classified as nonpropositional nonsense, was being held up as an exemplar of “our variable relation to and participation in language,” and we noted that the act of reading was not quite a language game, nor quite the self-contradictory “private language” of Wittgenstein. Bourbon finds the significance of such a reading (and writing) act in the idea that in this ambiguity can be found the titular soul replacement. In the modern/contemporary absence of the authority that fuels oracular pronouncements, this irreducible “humanness” and intentionality of meaning is not negated (as Henry Adams would have it), but contained in acts that do not have fixed meaning. Thus:

We do not say that “souls are examples of nothingness”; to do so would be to understand “nothingness” as if it were like a thing. Nothing is not a special kind of something, just as nonsense is not a special kind of sense. (215)

I have two associations with this passage. The first is the madhyamika school of Buddhist philosophy, originating with Nagarjuna, which most clearly delineated the ideas of a “nothing” (sunyata) that is not a something nor the absence of something. And the argument does seem to resemble the old talk of nirvana:

If nirvana were not existent,
How could it be appropriate for it to be nonexistent?
Where nirvana is not existent,
It cannot be a nonexistent.

If nirvana is
Neither existent nor nonexistent
Then by whom is it expounded
“Neither existent nor nonexistient”?

Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamakakarika (tr. Jay Garfield)

I.e., to predicate nirvana/souls is to construe them in such a way that they fit into the schema of “things” (samsara, if you will), which is exactly missing the point that they don’t fit into such a propositional/representational schema.

The second association is with the infamous beetle-in-a-box of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. The surrounding context is available as Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument, but the key passage is this:

293. If I say of myself that it is only from my own case that I know what the word “pain” means — must I not say the same of other people too? And how can I generalize the one case so irresponsibly?

Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case! Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. — Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. — But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people’s language? — If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. — No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

304. “But you will surely admit that there is a difference between pain — behavior accompanied by pain and pain — behavior without any pain?” — Admit it? What greater difference could there be? — “And yet you again and again reach the conclusion that the sensation itself is a nothing.” — Not at all. It is not a something, but not a nothing either! The conclusion was only that a nothing would serve just as well as a something about which nothing could be said. We have only rejected the grammar which tries to force itself on us here.

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

The key point is that the pain (or the beetle, or the soul) is “a something about which nothing could be said,” as it is intrinsically private. Ironically, in light of the heavy weight of Wittgenstein on Bourbon’s book, Nagarjuna’s passage seems more apropos, as Wittgenstein seems content to let the metaphysics of the private sensations remain ambiguous, while for Nagarjuna and for Bourbon they are ultimately the focus of the inquiry.

But if nonsense is not a kind of sense (as the private beetles and nirvana are not things) and nonsense is something about which nothing can be said, it is, as said earlier, something which will can only be located in the gaps of meaning, or as Bourbon puts it, in “the ways we find ourselves nonsensical, which is just to find ourselves within and in relation to language.” This best illustrates the technique of Bourbon’s enterprise, which is via negativa. By attempting to show that there is not nothing in those nonsensical gaps (though hardly a something), he is looking for a metaphorical black hole by the absence of light around it. And what is outlined there he calls the soul, or the human, and it is reached through language, envisioned through literature.

We partially constitute events and actions by virtue of our descriptions and understandings.

We also partially constitute what we are, what we exist as, by how we describe and understand ourselves…We are that kind of thing that to say or show that we exist is to say or show as what we exist; to say or show what we exist as is to say what kind of thing we are. To be something that one cannot say what it is is to ask if it is something at all, and we are also this. (214)

(The aggregation of “say” and “show” here reads like a concerted rebuke to early Wittgenstein!)

The implication is that this is how we come to “mean.” To the extent that language loses sense in these acts of description and understanding, we find whatever it is that we are. So the title of the book is meaningful as an act in progress, as we are forever “finding” the meaning-generator through language, nonsense, etc.

So we return to the initial quote: “The deformations of our variable relation to and participation in language are the only legitimate things that we can read through literature” (259). From the arguments that literature is non-propositional and nonsensical, this would seem to follow, but it is obviously a strict reading of literature. I am not certain what an alternate argument would look like following from his precepts, but it connects to what most weighed on my mind in reading the book. Bourbon speaks of constructing other people through reading nonsense into their language, but, pace Wittgenstein, these nonsensical spaces are fundamentally private. They cannot be spoken about, and they can only be identified in the negative. When “we” read through literature, who is the “we” that is reading? It is not, I think, the collective “we,” but a multitude of independent “I”s; books become that through which we read a private version of the soul. If this is the case, we gain meaning in a near-solipsistic way; we read it in others only through being able to manufacture it in ourselves. The attribution of meaning to people and nothing else appears chauvinistic, as we lack evidentiary proof that other humans have those nonsensical spaces through which they make meaning. (And so, meaning becomes private itself.) The fundamental dialogue is not between people, but between every single person as a subject and a linguistic text as an argument.

I can’t help but think of this view as bleak, in the same way that Finnegans Wake can seem bleak when gazing on its dense pages. Personally, I would prefer to look in the language game correlates of literature itself for meaning; that is, look in the usage patterns of literature’s language in public speech between people (actual language, as Wittgenstein would say) rather than in the private spaces. Literature may not be propositional and may be nonsensical, but I do not see where this prevents it from being part of a Wittgensteinian language game. This has two negative effects, however. First, it deprivileges literature from giving us special access, and second, it deprivileges the particulars of meaning and of the human, as it only requires linguistic interchange, and the internals of the participants are irrelevant. These are significant sacrifices to make, and ones that I suspect Bourbon would be loath to accept. I don’t know about myself; I think I would.

Brett Bourbon: Finding a Replacement for the Soul, cont.

(Please see Part 1.)

A third disanalogy between Wittgensteinian and everyday criteria indicates that, and why, although Wittgenstein’s immediate audience was the empiricist tradition of philosophy, his views are going, or ought, to offend an empiricist sensibility at every point — which is only to say that this conflict is an intimate one. Go back to the first element of my lay-out, the one I label “Source of Authority”. There one finds “American officials”, “I”, “Africans”, “Anna Freud”, “Shanley”…Wittgenstein’s source of authority never varies in this way. It is, for him, always we who “establish” the criteria under investigation. The criteria Wittgenstein appeals to–those which are, for him, the data of philosophy–are always “ours”, the “group” which forms his “authority” is always, apparently, the human group as such, the human being generally. When I voice them, I do so, or take myself to do so, as a member of that group, a representative human.

Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason (18)

This quote illuminates some of the problems that Bourbon faces in separating the human from the non-human (e.g., machines). When Wittgenstein uses “we” to generalize over a metaphysically strict notion of people using language (which seems to me a more precise term than “human”), the criteria used are de facto implied by the usage of the words themselves. A word means by virtue of its use, and authority stems from use rather than, for example, a particular set of sense data.

Bourbon does not quite have that avenue open to him, since he is interested in a criteria of being human. What for Wittgenstein was an effect of usage is here inverted, as language takes on a role in elucidating what it is to be human. If the book is to answer this question, he has to engage in debates such as, “Women, narratives, poems, and the like can be understood (1) as expressive of human beings or (2) as analogically like human beings” (170). To do so he cannot rely on language use alone, but on language’s interaction with certain types of ontology (say, “what it is to be human”). This, I think, is the most radical move made in the book. Not coincidentally, there is a tension between the “we” and the “I” in the book–both are used liberally–that implies a more voluntary notion of humanity than the version that Wittgenstein mandated. But for all that, it sometimes is straightforardly ontological:

Human beings could cease to be human only if the world were not our world. (204)

The challenge is set here: to find a version of humanness that has in its very ontology a relation that is illuminated by our relationship to the non-propositional language in fiction.

To this end, the book alternates between passages in high analytic philosophy style (especially Davidson) and much more freewheeling reveries that owe a little to Heidegger and Levinas, but not that much. Sellars is one philosopher who I’m pretty weak on, but from what I can gather, Bourbon draws on his response to Quine in some of the more technical passages. There could be a little John McDowell in there as well, but I’m really not qualified to tell. While Bourbon is concerned with literature, philosophy and more importantly, philosophical forms of argument, take precedence over literary theory and its forms. Apart from a short passage criticizing Helen Vendler and John Ashbery of “philosophical infelicities” (for taking a facile view of meaning in literature), there is little attempt to engage with literary analysis.

The early part of the book attempts to clear some territory, using analytic-styled arguments to push literature out of the realm of philosophy by claiming that fictional sentences are non-propositional. I.e., they do not contain truth values, and therefore do not actually reflect any correspondence to reality. As such, they are nonsense. Here he dispenses with much literary analysis, saying that poems are “provided with content by conceptual means: unjustified conceptual means” (10). Further:

If it [a poem] is going to be valuable as a means of reflecting upon ourselves, then it cannot be because it offers us theories, or places to test our theories. What kind of test would that be since our interpretations can rig the results? (11)

In other words, since whatever correspondence is mandated by an act of interpretation, the meaning of a fictional text is imposed on it, rather than contained in it. Rather (and the significance of this will be clear later), “their value will come out of nonsense.”

He then dispatches the versions of humanity offered by Keats and Henry Adams. Keats in his view sees humanity as an unnatural (or non-natural) phenomenon, capable of motivation in contrast to the non-intentionality of nature. This, he says, is insufficient; it is a definition by contrast and negation. The gloomier Adams offers an inversion of Keats’s bright view, portraying humanity as a meaningless “dynamo” of fireworks and little else in this wonderful passage from “Vis Nova”, near the end of The Education:

Every man with self-respect enough to become effective, if only as a machine, has had to account to himself for himself somehow, and to invent a formula of his own for his universe, if the standard formulas failed. There, whether finished or not, education stopped. The formula, once made, could be but verified.

The effort must begin at once, for time pressed. The old formulas had failed, and a new one had to be made, but, after all, the object was not extravagant or eccentric. One sought no absolute truth. One sought only a spool on which to wind the thread of history without breaking it. Among indefinite possible orbits, one sought the orbit which would best satisfy the observed movement of the runaway star Groombridge, 1838, commonly called Henry Adams.

(Also see Ray Davis’s quotation of Adams for similarly grim times.)

Bourbon rejects this too as ultimately nihilistic and begging the question of the initial axiom, which I will quote a third time:

Human beings could cease to be human only if the world were not our world. (204)

Ergo, humanity is not merely a dynamo. Poised between the pre-modern conception of the soul and the existing deterministic, mechanistic view, Bourbon proceeds to nonsense, as embodied by the non-propositional sentences of fiction. His primary exemplar is Finnegans Wake.

Now, to claim Finnegans Wake as a representative of literature is disingenuous, since it is one of the most marginal and extreme works of fiction ever. But I don’t believe Bourbon is doing that; rather, he identifies FW as portraying the aspects he’s interested in in their rawest form, devoid of the facile interpretations that can be placed on the “plots” and “characters” of most books. Without these misleading interpretive constructs, we can get down to business.

For example, the “characters” in FW are not characters at all, but arrangements of assorted things and people that are designated by sigla and/or initials like HCE and ALP. HCE, standing for “here comes everybody”, “Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker,” etc. Such a thing resists one particular sense; “We have to learn to recognize HCE, but we also have to learn what it is we are identifying” (175). But from the argument that fictional sentences lack sense and are non-propositional, this seems an impossible feat. Thus:

FW would seem to exemplify all these ways of falling into confusion,
all of the ways words, sentences, and persons slip into obscurity. (175)

It is here, I think, that Bourbon sees the commonality with Wittgenstein, who in his later work explicated “language games” as holistic systems of linguistic practice; i.e., that words themselves lack a definite representative meaning, but rather gain what sense they have through their use between people. But what sort of language game is being played in fiction, where the use is explicitly nonsensical (so Bourbon says), and the activity is taking place not between two people but between a set text and a reader? Wittgenstein (in the view of David Pears, at least) mandated that a language be used between two people before it can properly be called a language; a language invented and used by one person who had never met anyone else would not properly be a language at all. That is not what the Wake deals in, but neither is it quite normal communication either. It is in this space between Wittgenstein’s idea of a language game and a solipsistic non-language that Bourbon fills in his idea of the human.

To be continued…

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