through some recent visual and poetic artworks.
By JAIME ROBLES.
2.141 The picture is a fact.
– L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
I AM SITTING in a library in south Berkeley. Seated around me are a number of people staring into their computer screens. They are clothed casually: jeans, T-shirts, hats, because even inside we hold the memory of sun beating down in what is one of the worst droughts in the region’s history. The drought is another ominous signal of climate change and the havoc unto demise we are currently wreaking on the planet. It is constantly on my mind. It shines a questioning light on the things I do.
A woman stands up at the table next to mine. She is wearing a hat and very dark sunglasses. She is also wearing a crocheted top, and her skin is visible beneath its knotted beige cotton yarn. What she is wearing is permeable to sight, intimate and disclosing, revealing to us – all of us that she passes near – a kind of nakedness. Again, her sunglasses are completely dark, her eyes unseeable. She looks at me; at least I think she is looking at me, her face is pointed in my direction, but she is expressionless.
What am I to make of her? She’s gone now: no more details can be parsed into her description. Her physical contradictions, as I remember them, can be formed into analogues that can be reduced into statements of meaning. Or not. The potential meaning of her now-disappeared physical presence – what it may convey to the observer – sways through my mind, separate from the sun and heat of the room and its windows, evaporating like the history that is our memories.
What I want to point out here is a nexus: a convergence of details of physical presence, linguistic description and definitions of truth and meaning. Personally, I don’t believe that such a nexus is definable or that it adheres into a coherent, that is to say, inseparable and predictable, whole. But what seems to be the current habit of the world is that the first and second presences of the first sentence in this paragraph – physical presence and linguistic description – are not entirely capable of being integrated, nor are they swappable. If that is true, where does that leave meaning in those practices known as art?
Wittgenstein’s picture theory of language requires for the two practices – verbal and visual – to be transparent; does he suggest, therefore, that we overlay them in order to create statements that are closer to meaningful? I believe “overlay” is the correct word. The picture theory that was essential in the early writings of Wittgenstein, the The Tractatus, would change in his later work, including Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty. In The Tractatus, language and the visual might overlay in so far as it is possible for meaning that is comprised of aggregated logical units (the atomic view that was part of Bertrand Russell’s sense of a logical description of the world) to do so. The later writings show that Wittgenstein thought that imprecision was inevitable, and something to embrace, pointing out that philosophers’ tendency to fix meaning into theory is and would be continuously undermined by language’s fluctuating meaning – meaning defined by concrete as opposed to abstract usage.
The idea that language is necessarily tied to the physical appeals to both visual and verbal artists, and Wittgenstein’s adherence to the fluidity of linguistic meaning aligns with a theme that is a clear focus of contemporary poetry. This article addresses a number of artworks that strive to connect visual arts and language arts in material ways. It is in some ways a continuation of the study by Marjorie Perloff, Wittgenstein’s Ladder (1998), which addresses the question of why many literary writers in the later decades of the twentieth century used Wittgenstein’s ideas as a stimulus for their own writing:
It is the strangeness of the language we actually use – Wittgenstein’s own language and that of the poets and artists who have climbed through, on, and over the rungs of his ladder – that is my subject. (xv)
This article differs from Perloff’s emphasis not only because it is an article and not a book, but because it looks at work from a specific artistic practice that differs from work composed primarily of language: that of text-based visual art. All of the works discussed here were conceived of as unspoken and existing off the page, their artists concocting mixtures of literary and visual art. The conception of text-based visual art begins by breaking several boundaries associated with language: that it is to begin with aural, use-bound and, when physically transcribed, or written, unaffected by the concerns of typography. Further, these works are more noticeably objects than speech is. In their very nature they connect, directly or indirectly with questions brought up by Wittgenstein’s philosophical inquiries into language, pointing over and over to the inscrutability of language and how it forges – or not – links between abstract thought and ‘the world’. And finally, attempting to move closer to understanding why language is imprecise but effectual in surprising and unpredictable ways.
Is Wittgenstein’s understanding of language applicable to the weather, that is to say today’s world? It’s hard to say at this point; our understanding of our physical future on the planet is hypothetical, both limited and narrow. What can be said though is that Wittgenstein lived in a different world, one with its own apocalyptic events, which nonetheless did not promise to be as dire, globally. What can also be said is that the world that shaped his thought is the one we continue to live in: a world with an event-based human history – past and future.
I WOULD LIKE to look, first of all, at pieces by Johanna Drucker, who is a longtime book artist, painter and poet. Though she is most known in academia for her theoretical work and her association with digital humanities, her art practice has always been connected to the physical rendering by her hand of what she has seen or imagined.
The piece, Wittgenstein’s Gallery, which was done in 1989, consists of some 100 small drawings and paintings; even the largest is under eighteen inches on the longest dimension. Most of the drawings are like studies that would be done in an art class: there are chairs, squares of red, pieces of fruit and vegetables, corners of rooms; the styles and media span from abstract to traditional representations, graphite to collage. Each of these drawings, which come in series of two to twelve renderings of the same object newly configured in each drawing, is accompanied by text. The text rather than representational is often conceptual. In 2010 Drucker converted the piece to book form.
According to Drucker, the series “is an investigation of the properties of words and images interrogating the illusion of their similarity in order to foreground the elements of difference between them” (Wittgenstein’s Gallery. Introduction, unnumbered page). Drucker attempts to unloose the idea of visual arts as narrative – an approach that has dominated the plastic arts for centuries – while at the same time trying to “force images to imitate language, and vice versa”. She asks, “How to conjugate an image?” How to “See the shadow of a word?”
Some of the correlations between drawings and verbal representations are clear and obvious, such as the series of self-portraits in graphite, “As Well As I Know My Own”. This series of twelve drawings repeats an image of the artist’s face, only each portrait is incomplete: one drawing is only a mouth, another is the left side of the face with the right-hand side pencil strokes smudged, as if they had been erased; one is of the eyes only; another of the right side of the face with the left-hand side erased; one shows the space around the head filled in by using diagonal strokes of the pencil. We can imagine that if the marks were superimposed on each other and stacked, a complete and detailed portrait would appear.
Similarly, the type above each portrait is a symbolic verbal fragment (and I’m including numerical symbols in the category of symbolic verbal) of the artist’s identity: her birthdate, social security number, phone number, blood pressure, etc. As in the drawn portraits, only a part of her identity is shown, and these bits of data become more difficult to define as the drawings proceed: what, we might ask, is meant by 02143? It is only the context, the familiar meaning of the other symbolic verbal fragments that allows us to assume these are connected to the artist’s identity and her place in the social structure.
Where the two streams of visual and verbal representations veer away from each other is in their origins. In all of the portraits the mark of the artist’s hand is essential to the portrait, she determines entirely how she is seen. All of symbolic verbal fragments, however, are tied to the external world. Even the date of her birth has been enacted upon her.
Other series in Wittgenstein’s Gallery are closer to Drucker’s stated goal of “forc[ing] images to imitate language, and vice versa.” In the series “Meta(f/m)or(phosis)” four gouache paintings of parts of the body along with metaphoric – often allegorical – objects are placed next to sentences in which grammar and syntax collapse into the inexplicable. The third painting in the series – “body” – shows a cartoonish naked body among the variants of a door as it undergoes perspective changes that delineate the door’s movement through space from near to far. The accompanying text reads:
(body) the threshold of pain was only a little larger than the objects that needed to go through it, so they unblocked the natural responses and made them again to measure.
THE TEXT IN this pairing requires a complicated metaphoric jump using the idiomatic expression “the threshold of pain” as the link between the rendering of the body and the door. There are two places where the text spins off in unexpected directions: at the word “objects” and at the phrase “they unblocked”. The words following the phrase undulate between the expected and the unpredictable, which are set up by the phrase and the conventional meaning of “unblocked”. The complexity of the thought in the text is mirrored in the painting in the reduction of the image of the door to a series of receding rectangles and the reduction of the body to a ragdoll shape decorated with Xs. The Z-shaped marks above the rectangles, the suggestions of red shadows, and the light blue marks that fall in a vertical line on the left-hand side of the drawing are similar to the language following the phrase “they unblocked”: they suggest meaning but their function remains undefinable. All of this takes place on the surface of black paper, the antithesis of light.
Drucker’s Stochastic Poetry (Los Angeles, 2013) was produced over the course of the past three years. She had been invited to enter a piece at a show at LACE, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. The launch was a scene. Every available hipster in LA seemed to be there, three poets were to read their poetry on the topics of child sexual abuse, the holocaust and slavery, but given the ambient noise, none of the poets could be heard, which led Drucker to question: “Is it possible for poetry to have a voice within our society? Is there any way for poetry that deals with the most terrible of human cruelties to be heard?”
This is a different question than the one of poetry’s relevance posed by many poets today, who spend thousands of words trying to link poetry to theory, especially political theory, in order to affirm poetry’s usefulness in the broader social context. Drucker’s question assumes the validity of poetry but questions the sincerity of the audience within competitive social contexts. This is not exactly the same logical course that wrangles to empower poetry within the insincerity of capitalism, although it shares its features. Rather, Drucker accepts that poetry may have no validity within this society, while at the same time suggesting that poetry exists as an impulse that even when unrecognised serves some vital and ethical function within an ahistorical human landscape.
In these pieces, which are done letterpress, Drucker disrupts the poetry she has written in a physical and material way by unfastening the lead type the poems are set in and manipulating the type manually on the press bed as if it were sculptural material. She prints a sheet of paper, then re-unfastens, manipulates and reprints the type on the same sheet. This process can occur once or several times for each page. In this way she embodies very directly Wittgenstein’s suggestion that language needs to be connected to physical realities in order to function as a carrier of meaning. This idea is developed specifically in Philosophical Investigations, found in oblique statements that refer to how linguistic meaning is derived from social interaction rather than pre-existent in physical reality:
§241. “So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?” – It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life.
§242. If language is to be a means of communication there must be agreement not only in definitions but also (queer as this may sound) in judgments. This seems to abolish logic, but does not do so. – It is one thing to describe methods of measurement, and another to obtain and state results of measurement. But what we call “measuring” is partly determined by a certain constancy in results of measurement.
The final lines of the page from Stochastic Poetry pictured above refer to the critic, Marjorie Perloff, who asked Drucker during the opening, “Why can’t I hear the poetry?” The lines, barely visible in the enlargement, read: “the senior critic herself an emigrée sat on a/ folding chair and listened intently/ keen to pull the poetry out of the chaotic air.”
THE VISUAL POETRY of John Hall, a poet and professor of performance writing in the southwest UK, is composed of groups of isolated words, whose escape from the line throws their potential meaning into question. Every word, in a way, is out of context, which heightens the dissonance between the words’ meaning; their sounds, or how we hear them interiorly as we read; and their physical representation. Although his work does not reference Wittgenstein, there is much that is reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s thought in Hall’s work, and much of this takes place in the linkage between the physical aspects of words and the interior resonances of thought. Wittgenstein places this more generally thus:
The colour of the visual impression corresponds to the colour of the object (this blotting paper looks pink to me, and is pink)—the shape of the visual impression to the shape of the object (it looks rectangular to me, and is rectangular)—but what I perceive in the dawning of an aspect is not a property of the object, but an internal relation between it and other objects.
It is almost as if ‘seeing the sign in this context’ were an echo of a thought.
“The echo of a thought in sight”—one would like to say.
(Philosophical Investigations 212)
The piece identified as a triptych was begun in 1996 as a single digital printout: the column of words in the left-hand panel reads from top to bottom: blood, bliss, full, foll, d’roll. There’s a multiplicity of repeating letters: oo, ss, ll, ll, ll. The misspelling and separating of folderol echoing and mocking the preceding blood and bliss-full, and suggesting an antique spelling. Later, Hall added the right-hand sheet, replacing – which is to say, converting or transforming, because the observer holds the words of the left-hand panel in mind if not immediately in sight – blood to bleed, bliss to bless, full to fill, foll to flow/flaw and d’roll to rule. The crossing out of the letter ‘o’ in flow to make fløw with a smaller red ‘a’ floating above and to the right of the crossed-out ‘o’ is the first real bump in our visual path. It suggests both a different language, the ‘ø’ being part of the Norwegian alphabet, and a proofreader’s mark, correcting the word flow to flaw. There is a huge gap in the affects of meaning between the two words, just as there is between blood/bliss/full and foll/d’roll. As great a gap as moving between languages.
Hall believes the words to be “quasi-theological”, and explains that the particular words used are part of his interest in “the notion of blessing and what comprises this process of blessing”. But he also states that the meaning of his choice of words, as distinct from the meaning of the words themselves, is subsumed within his visual arts practice. In other words, he lets go of the importance of verbal meaning as he wrestles with the physical appearance of letters on the field of paper.
The central and last panel seems even more startling in its transformations: blood/bleed becomes blurt, with a suggestive nod to the word blut. Bliss/bless becomes blister. Full/fill becomes foil, foll/flow/flaw becomes foold and d’roll/rule becomes rail. In this panel, however, there are notable visual differences between the words portrayed: rather than the cooler blue and black of the outside panels, the words in the central panel are red, picking up the color from the ‘a’ in flaw. The panel itself is framed in blond wood and matted in beige board. The other panels are framed in black and matted in blue or black board matching the color of the type. The crucial letters that shift the individual word’s meaning in the central panel are in bright blue. The second word in the list – blister – has no vowel replaced or added to change the word with the addition of the ‘i’. There’s something carnival about the central panel, as if it were connected to the joy of havoc intrinsic in license. As if the artist felt a momentary glee in the mischief of playing with words and our need for their stability of meaning.
The syntax of the lists of words on the triptych further changes with the placement of the panels within space. Depending on how closely these three panels are arranged, the verbal relationships between the three sets of words are emphasized vertically, horizontally, or vibrate – tensely – somewhere between vertical and horizontal.
For Hall, however, the point of these works that isolate through physical relationship is “to be confronted” by those things that have “some kind of insistence”. An insistence that takes place and is underlined by the material world surrounding us, at the expense of syntactical relationship. Accretion and repetition are features of his practice, but they are methods used to affect abrupt change, contradiction and surprising twists of understanding. They work to disorient the viewer, and undermine his and her expectations of the meaning of language.
The piece “loss in blossom” (reprint January 2013) focuses on a solitary word, beginning with the word “loss” then breaking apart the word “blossom” to reveal the word “loss” that lies at its center, and leaving the viewer to wonder at the fragments of the word that are left behind. The words are set in sans serif in green type on a maroon background. The deepness of the red belies the idea of blossoms, presenting instead a sensual lushness, while the text is reminiscent of Japanese aesthetics, which often point to the ephemerality of the natural world – and in this case, the quixotic nature of desire and eroticism. Although impermanence is implicit in the idea of loss, the very repetition of the word hearkens back to Hall’s concept of insistence, which like the cyclical event of blossoms in a tree’s life, works in contrast to the idea of fleeting life.
“not written here” was created in early 2014. It is a digital rendering of the process of writing, a phrase is manipulated, with letters and words transformed or deleted. The variations in color suggest a set of line breaks different from those of traditional lineation. And insistence is marked in the color of the phrase “not written here,” the other words in the question – is it a question? – in paler, more ghostly colors. The uniform, mechanical quality of the lines that cross out some words and connect others indicates its digital medium, but the irregular quality of the strokes, their lack of fluidity in a digital medium, reaffirms its human author.
Originally a birthday card, the piece, being digital, is easily adaptable to other formats. For example, Byrne House, a building on the University of Exeter campus, was chosen as a potential place for the exhibition of a number of text-based works that reflect or use Wittgenstein’s philosophy. When placed on a wall in Byrne House, beneath the stark white frame of a print and to the side of a pair of fire extinguishers, “not written here” creates the effect of making the utilitarian and habitually viewed wry yet moving and mysterious. Within this setting what occurs is something like what Lautreamont describes as being “as beautiful as the chance encounter on an ironing board of a sewing machine and an umbrella.”
THE WITTGENSTEIN VECTOR is an installation by the poetry collective Exegesis (Mike Rose-Steel, SMSteele and myself), placed on a wall on the Streatham campus of the University of Exeter, near the university’s Wellbeing Center. Each of us wrote a series of poems addressing individual propositions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Although we were constantly aware of the others’ poems as they were completed, we worked independently. There was no attempt to decide on a “version” of Wittgenstein or to edit the others’ work into the installation as a whole. The installation was a form of researching the Tractatus, and our poetry worked with and against the logic.
Mike Rose-Steel, who is a philosopher and Wittgensteinian as well a poet, describes his process thus:
Generally I started with the propositions – looking for something that would make sense (or would allow the invention of a sense) outside the context of the Tractatus’ arguments. That ruled out some of the most technical and extended propositions. The game was then to unravel the philosophical content into smaller, more human stories. But on other occasions some quirk of the language caught at me, leading to more punning responses. The majority of the poems were written down in one go, with subsequent edits being about finding the best form, and adding in some Wittgensteinian idioms and in-jokes. Towards the end of the writing stage, I did consciously select propositions that would mean the installation as a whole best represented the Tractatus, with an interesting spread of sources, avoiding too many responses being from the opening of the text or the more obviously “poetic” closing sections.
SMSteele describes her process this way:
If a proposition twinged something emotional in me I would chose it. By twinged I mean a feeling I get when I feel compelled to write poetry. It’s a physical feeling somewhere above my heart and below where the thyroid is located.
For me poetry is about wordplay or a single emotion built upon an image. In the case of The Wittgenstein Vector it was about love and trying to make sense of love. Wittgenstein is so clearly trying to make sense of an insensible world, and nothing is more insensible than love. Kind of ironic that I should write insensible about something so filled with senses.
My own approach to the project was to choose propositions that seemed entirely opaque once they were excised from the Tractatus as a whole, and to write as if the central terms meant something other than they did in the course of Wittgenstein’s logic. The approach was perverse, naïve and sensual.
ALTHOUGH WITTGENSTEIN’S WRITING – or rather C.K. Ogden’s Cambridge-trained English translation, which Perloff points out in Wittgenstein’s Ladder is very different in tone from Wittgenstein’s idiomatic German – provides a verbal cohesion to the installation in its entirety, its component parts are drawn out of three very different styles of poetry written in dialogue with Wittgenstein’s text. It seems relevant to point out this dialogue, and that most of the poems are love poems, not simply from the accepted poetic convention of dialogue finding its most emotionally charged verbal home in erotic love, but as a recognition that Wittgenstein’s commitment to logic required a level of passion that easily aligns with feelings of loss, love, desire and yearning. Wittgenstein’s method was to present a careful delineation of a logical and mathematical perception of the world, but even in its most logical form, such as the use of symbolic formulae in Tractatus, language on the page is intimate. Three voices in dialogue with a fourth – but aware of each other as the set of poems grows and subtly interacts – undo perforce the traditional narcissism of the love poem, however, and this undoing relates to visual art, which almost always lacks the intimacy of verbal art because of its open format and public nature. It is from this complication of the dialogic form that the possibility of installation becomes plausible.
I typeset and printed the poems onto cards – the proposition on one side, the poem on the other. The proposition side contained the reference and bibliographic material, which was printed along with every proposition. This provided a repeating visual element similar to a poetic refrain. The poems were set on the other side of the card. The front/back binary of the card disrupts the reader’s movement from proposition to poem while binding the two together.
Because I wanted the installation to be more than a wall of white cards, I added a series of digitally collaged cards that used objects from Wittgenstein’s life – fragments of his manuscripts, both written and typed; the heating element he designed for his sister’s house; one or two photographs of Wittgenstein himself – along with images of improbable elements in the natural world – the surface of the sun, a square of hand-written numbers, a peacock’s feather, a medieval tapestry, two swans, etc. In devising these collages I began with a square of numbers – something I read as a magic square and that appealed to me visually – superimposed on Wittgenstein’s handwritten manuscript with all its crossings out and writings in. Each card created after was a permutation of this first card. The cards were laminated in plastic and trimmed so that there was about one inch of clear plastic on all four sides. They seemed to float in the middle of a thin pane of clarity.
The cards, both textual and visual, were placed on an exterior Victorian masonry wall, green with verdigris and discolored over the years. They were attached to the iron eyes embedded in the wall for espaliered trees long gone. Mike had the startling idea of having the cards stick out perpendicular to the wall, which was challenging to arrange but allowed for the wind to move them, causing shifts in light and sound.
There is an element of irony throughout the visuals of the installation, represented most succinctly in a collage of a peacock’s feather superimposed over a pink version of Wittgenstein’s manuscript. The blazingly colorful card contrasts with the sensibility found in the studied, ascetic lines of the house Wittgenstein designed for his sister Gretl. The idea of Wittgenstein marking a manuscript on pink paper with magenta ink is both comic and poignant.
THERE IS A certain point when changing from verbal art to visual art that the artist’s concerns shift. Both poetry and visual art have physical and material presences; poetry in the orthography of letters, the breaks of lines and placement of words on the field of the page. This, however, is not its primary material manifestation, which is instead aural. Rhythm, metre and the pyrotechnics of sound are poetry’s primary physical reality. It is within this aural world – whether spoken out loud or heard in the reader’s interior voice – that poetry’s meaning is given and apprehended. These are the material concerns of poetry and, like those of visual arts, they focus and concentrate in the body. To accept the idea of our world being limited to or by our words is to deny the body’s sensual experience of the world. Language is a slow phenomenon relative to the body’s perception, experience and understanding of the world.
Clearly, it is possible to draw analogues between the two material presences of poetry and visual art. But my own experience of them is that they are different, both in the artist’s process and the observer or reader’s experience. There are stages that the production and apprehension of a text-based work proceeds through. In the visual arts stage of the work, the mind lets go of language, the process is more inchoate as is its meaning, even when a topic or theme is chosen beforehand. Likewise, the visual aspects of the work enter the mind of the viewer without linguistic constraints. None of this process is predictable or easy to formulate, even though we think of the material as predictable, subject to the scientific formulations necessary to employ when placing humans on the moon, or extrapolating the changes of climate. But what happens in the creation of any art occurs “in the mind” before it moves on to the hand, and is unquantifiable. It resembles Wittgenstein’s sense of the materiality of time: “When we think of the world’s future, we always mean the destination it will reach if it keeps going in the direction we can see it going in now; it does not occur to us that its path is not a straight line but a curve, constantly changing direction.”
Top image: Wiki. Other photos by Jaime Robles, John Hall, Mike Rose-Steel, and Cristina Burke-Trees.
Author’s note: My thanks to Mike Rose-Steel for his expertise on Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Jaime Robles has two poetry collections with Shearsman Books, Anime, Animus, Anima (2010) and Hoard (2013). Her poetry and reviews have been published in numerous magazines, among them Agenda, Conjunctions, New American Writing, Shadowtrain, Stride and Volt! She often uses her texts for artist books, including her Loup d’Oulipo (Woodland Editions, 2002) and Letters from Overseas (Woodland Editions, 2010); her bookworks are in collections at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; The Beinecke Library, Yale University; and the Oulipo Archive in Paris, among others. She has written librettos for song cycles and two one-act operas: Inferno (Peter Josheff, composer), which was staged by San Francisco Cabaret Opera (2009), and Vladimir in Butterfly Country (Anne Callaway, composer), staged in 2012. She reviews dance and opera for Bachtrack.com (UK), San Francisco Classical Voice, and the Piedmont Post, has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Exeter, and previously wrote about the elegies of Susan Howe in the Fortnightly
Johanna Drucker. Wittgenstein’s Gallery. Los Angeles: Druckwerk, 2010.
Tom Jones. Poetic Language. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014.
Marjorie Perloff. Wittgenstein’s Ladder. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Ludwig Wittgenstein. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C.K. Ogden. London: Routledge, 1922.
_________________. Culture and Value, ed. G.H. von Wright, trans. Peter Winch (quoted in Perloff’s Wittgenstein’s Ladder). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
_________________. Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. London: Basil Blackwell, 1958.