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A Note on Inscape, Descriptionism and Logical Form.

By ALAN WALL.

TOWARDS THE END of the eighteenth century, Coleridge believed that there could be no conflict between rational endeavour and the tenets of a valid religion. His Unitarianism dispensed with the accoutrements of traditional Trinitarian Christianity. His radical politics dispensed with the absurdities of antique social pomp and structure. And his poetry, along with that of Wordsworth, sought a language unfettered by the triteness and pat phrasing of clichéd allusiveness and poeticism. It seemed for a moment that all forms of genuine intellectual endeavour were pointing in the same direction. As Coleridge remarked in his Notebooks, if new knowledge conflicts with established belief, then established belief had better shift itself to accommodate the recent intellectual discoveries.

In 1879, Gerard Manley Hopkins first used the word ‘inscape’ to describe how forms in nature or art express themselves through the luminosity and precision of their language.

A hundred years later the situation was radically different. And yet there was still a clamour to achieve clarity of language and formal precision of thought, in both art and science. It was in 1879 that Gerard Manley Hopkins first uses the word ‘inscape’ in a letter, to describe how forms in nature or art express themselves through the luminosity and precision of their language. Three years later, in 1882, Ernst Mach first employed the idea of science being ‘economy of thought’, and at the same time Frege was developing the notion of ‘logical form’, a sense of the sharing of formal identity between sundry modes of expression by means of formal homology. Karl Pearson’s The Grammar of Science first appeared in 1892, but the thoughts it contained had been circulating over the previous two decades. This was a way of thinking known as Descriptionism, which believed that science explained nothing, and should not attempt to. All it could do was describe, with scrupulous exactitude and logically scrubbed language. Even words like ‘cause’ and ‘causality’ arrive carrying metaphysical implications. Many of these debates were carried on in the pages of the Fortnightly Review.

It was Wittgenstein who took up where F.L.G. Frege had left off in regard to logical form. What do a performed piece of music, the score for that music, and a vinyl record of the same all have in common? Logical form. The way the notes are arranged on the page, the height and depth of the grooves on the record, and the combined effect of all the instruments generating sound waves during a performance, all share something: the logical form that expresses a central identity, namely the structure of the composition itself. We might also note that in 1879, the same year Hopkins wrote his letter to Bridges employing the word inscape, Cézanne was painting The Bridge at Maincy (above), in which he finds in nature the geometry underlying it, and he struggles to portray it in paint. This is economy of thought, expressed in art not science. Nor does it seek to explain, in any allegorical manner: this is descriptionism rendered in pigment. This is how form encounters subject in a specific modality.

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As any scientist knows, economy of thought is useless without economy of notation. And notation, through its silent endeavours, can generate thought. To write is not merely to memorialize a pre-existing thought: writing is a cognitive activity, and generates its own intellectual heuristics. To formulate the perfect proposition is to find a correlate between the natural world as we are able to perceive and understand it, and a way of expressing those relations in linguistic or mathematical form. This applies to Wittgenstein’s early propositions. It also applies to Hopkins’ notion of inscape: a logic of coherent expression, a structured principle of articulated lucidity. The exploration of the appropriate form is the expression of inscape in a particular medium. It is a discovery in the shape of expression that bespeaks an inscape. Inscape in art elicits a perceptible and coherent identity in the perceived object or situation. And, in propositional terms, if this set of words describes this situation adequately, logical form is shared between words and situation. To formulate a valid proposition means to make language conform to the facts of the situation. All the facts of all the situations are what Wittgenstein called ‘the world’.

In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein writes: ‘Form is the possibility of structure.’ Form announces what the structural possibilities are, though the process can often be dialectical. For example, the word atom announces that the entity designated has no structure. It is atomos, and therefore indivisible. In 1897, Thompson discovered the electron. That meant the atom did have a structure after all. And in 1911 Rutherford encountered the nucleus. Although we have stuck with the word atom, its etymology now contradicts what we know about its structure, and therefore its form. The concept of the form has had to be adjusted in relation to discoveries about the structure. Neither Thompson nor Rutherford were looking for what they found. Their knowledge was securely harboured until it broke its moorings. Then they had to rethink the ‘form of the atom’. Our forms of knowing often need fracturing. We settle into them like lime casings. Wallace Stevens put it well:

It is as if
We had come to the end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

‘An inert savoir’ is a wonderful phrase for knowingness. Knowingness is lethal for any serious endeavour in science or art. If you already know, what on earth would be the point of searching? Any genius is a genius at not knowing. Isaac Newton was the only fellow in Lincolnshire during a plague year who did not know why an apple fell to the ground when it snapped off the twig. Everyone else knew. ‘That’s what apples do, Izzie. Apples go down; birds go up. Don’t have to go to Cambridge to crack that one, sunshine. Might as well stay here in your stepfather’s orchard. Picking apples.’ But Isaac stuck with his not-knowing, even though it made him gauche. The others went on as usual, ‘inanimate in an inert savoir.’ He wrote Principia Mathematica.

The diagrammatic quality of Cubism makes the images it created the most supremely intellectual endeavours in the history of art.

WE CANNOT THINK about atoms without using diagrams. Photographs are problematical; no lens is fast enough to record sub-atomic movements, and our photographic intrusion alters what we are perceiving. At the same moment that Rutherford was confronted with the nucleus in 1911, art was moving in a diagrammatic direction. This movement was called Cubism. A diagram is not committed to a particular moment in time, in the way an illusionistic painting is. It can examine functions from different viewpoints and combine them. The first time people saw Cubist pictures in Paris, the nearest model to what they had been looking at could well have been the diagrams of Leonardo da Vinci. Here, in assembled and exploded form, a machine would be taken apart, and then put back together. All in a single image. The Cubists disassembled the unitary composite held in the sensorium, and displayed the individual components. They were trying to get rid of the spurious causality of the illusionistic image. They were being as mechanical as possible with the elements of vision. Like the Descriptionists, they wanted to hunt down the various glues and adhesives with which we hold our visions together, and put them under severe questioning. The diagrammatic quality of Cubism makes the images it created the most supremely intellectual endeavours in the history of art. And the process of visual analysis began, as both Picasso and Braque fully acknowledged, with Cézanne.

So we have Cézanne in painting; Hopkins in poetry; Frege in logic, and Wittgenstein in philosophy all within decades of each other striving to achieve the same thing in different fields: a lucidity and economy of thought and description which cuts away all inessentials, so as to present us with luminous facts, luminous because their light is unimpeded by clutter. Brancusi spoke of the break from realism to modernism as a release from that ‘confusion of familiarities’. Pearson in The Grammar of Science spoke of ‘the routine of our perceptions’. If we furnish our minds with a clutter of familiarities then we will, to use Blake’s phrase, only see with the eye, not through it. Wittgenstein was better suited to navigate his way through this world than his fellow students at Cambridge, because his education had been diagrammatic.

Wittgenstein learned to think diagrammatically. Theorizing was a last resort; first, you had to grasp the practice. We see the result in the Tractatus

The undergraduates around him at Cambridge had been trained in the classics. Wittgenstein had been trained in engineering, studying how machines work, seeing how to fix them, devising ways to make them function better. The way of thinking through these problems was the diagram. Probably providing him with his first realisation that what you can show with great clarity you can’t necessarily say at all. At the Technische Hochschule in Charlottenberg, Wittgenstein learned to think diagrammatically. Theorizing was a last resort; first, you had to grasp the practice. We see the result in the Tractatus: propositions are assembled and exploded, as in a competent diagram. He thought as an engineer about the engineering of language. He was searching for the recurrent inscape of meaning. His mind attuned itself to the occupation of logical space.

There is another way of putting this. All the main characters in the constellation sketched above, in their radically different fields, were hunting for significant form. Significant form is an escape from that choral confusion of familiarities that can come to constitute daily life, and its routine of perception. Routines of perception so easily become ‘an inert savoir’.

The phrase was first used by Clive Bell in 1914. It was part of the endeavour he shared with Roger Fry, to grasp the potency of post-impressionist painting. Both saw Cézanne as the key figure. He had foregrounded formal arrangement, so that in his paintings the formalities of composition transcend the significance of subject-matter. A pot, a glass, a flower, a table, become epic in their proportions, because they provide all that is necessary for the formal imagination, the ultimate wit of the artistic decoder, to discover and enact significant form. As Flaubert put it: ‘…everything in art depends on the execution: the story of a louse can be as fine as the history of Alexander the Great.’ There is no hierarchy of subjects. Method and form reign supreme.

For Hopkins, inscape exists in nature, and it can also be achieved in language; it is as though the old Doctrine of Signatures had never died. The connection between the two, though he did not employ this language, is logical form. Homologous structures, in whatever medium, share it. And how can it be expressed? Through a precision of language, dispensing with all cluttering confusions of familiarity. Does a match cause a flame? No. A certain configuration of chemicals, excited by friction, will ignite. If there is any causality here, it is probably human.

Inscape defamiliarizes, by ridding the mind of intellectual bric-à-brac. This is why Picasso said that in modern art there was no past or future…

Inscape defamiliarizes, by ridding the mind of intellectual bric-à-brac. This is why Picasso said that in modern art there was no past or future, and that such art was tied to no particular place or time. Form rules, and it abolishes time with a brushstroke. A man ravaged by desire becomes a minotaur, even if buses pass on the street outside. Form transcends temporal and spatial conventions. A radical grasp of form, an ability to articulate it within a given medium, achieves what the Russian Formalists were later to call defamiliarization. The confusion of familiarities is banished. Though we must always be wary. We say defamiliarization, but that is not exactly what Shklovsky wrote. He wrote ostranenie, which would be more accurately translated as making strange.

THE STATEMENTS THAT make up Wittgenstein’s Tractatus exhibit a propositional clarity. They are not joined together by connective discourse. And there is a parallel between this ascetic search for logical form in a philosophical treatise, and what happens in Ezra Pound’s poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’. What had been thirty lines of discursive verse whittled itself down to a two-line poem of propositional clarity:

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

The perception starts out being analogous, and yet its final form makes it seem homologous, so appropriate does the relationship between the two images finally appear. They have achieved a significant form that grafts them on to one another, as though they were organically related, or at least symbiotically fused. The space between them ceases to be homogeneous, and becomes shaped instead. Homology signifies a shared origin in function and development. For example, pectoral fins, bird wings, and the forelimbs of mammals – all are homologous, whereas bird wings and insect wings are merely analogous. They share a function, not an origin.

The assumption that law lies behind all phenomena could be seen as theological, but it is also the assumption that drove physics during these years.

In his Journal, Hopkins wrote: ‘The shores are swimming and the eyes have before them a region of milky surf but it is hard for them to unpack the huddling and gnarls of the water and law out the shapes and sequence.’ His confidence that the shapes and sequence could be ‘lawed out’ is as scientific as it is poetic, even though here it is contradicting the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The assumption that law lies behind all phenomena could be seen as theological, but it is also the assumption that drove physics during these years. Pattern-recognition is a training that leads to the detection of inscape; it also constitutes the scientific accumulation of knowledge that results in the annunciation of a law. The laws thus sought are the laws of nature. The inscape of those laws would finally express itself in the Solvay conference in 1927, with the formulation of quantum theory. Einstein thought there was altogether too much contingency here, and not enough causality. He never bought it. Not enough had been ‘lawed out’, as far as he was concerned.

One tends not to speak of the linguistic turn in relation to poetry; instead we speak of modernism. The linguistic turn was a foregrounding of language in all cognitive activities. Pound’s two lines show how a vivid image, expressed in vivid language, can escape the cluttering discourse that usually surrounds it, which can also be expressed as Pearson’s routine of our perceptions. Hopkins criticised a painting by Holman Hunt, saying that he could find no inscape in it. There was an excess of realistic detail, but no significant form either perceived or constructed. Inscape for Hopkins is the signature of order imprinted into every item of creation. To perceive it, we need to see through the eye not with it. It used to be perceived, if a little fancifully, through the Doctrine of Signatures.

In the visual arts this momentum into a complex clarity would arrive at Cubism. Cubism sought an exit from illusionism. Art should not be a machinery to pretend two dimensions are really three (or even four). Instead it should instruct the eye how it connives in half-constructing our vision. How the image is not merely given; it is also manufactured in the sensorium.

Wordsworth put it well:

…of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, – both what they half create,
And what perceive.


Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays has now been issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, and now a second collection, this time of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, is now available. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.

More: Alan Wall on Wittgenstein.

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