Friday, May 18, 2007

A Few Words About Language

French poet Yves Bonnefoy writes, “Now night has fallen (Maintenant, c’est la nuit): if by these words I claim to express my sense-experience they promptly become merely a frame from which presence has disappeared. The portraits that have seemed to us the most lifelike turn out to be mere paradigms. Our most private words become myths once we have let them go” (107). This is both a critique of language and an affirmation of its only possibility of communication. What is most intimate, coterminous with the thoughts and emotions it expresses, is simultaneously exterior and utterly other: my language is both mine and not mine at all. Similarly, physical sensations can only be articulated and vicariously shared by being turned into abstractions, virtual feelings.

Language exists in and as a liminal state between the material and the immaterial, thing and idea: it is neither sheer marks on the page, sounds in the air, nor sheer ideality, but rather it is their contingent and temporary union. (This would be Saussure’s union of signifier and signified that together produce the sign, which Saussure brackets off from the unattainable, and unsayable, real.) It cannot veer too far in either direction without losing its character as language. (The poetic avant-garde seeks to discover how closely language can approach either pole without losing its language character.) Language is neither object nor concept but their articulation. Words hover and hesitate over the abyss between being and non-being, presence and absence. They embody a non-Aristotelian logic of both/and, in which A need not equal A and simultaneously equals B, as well as some third term that’s both their combination (A/B) and some other item altogether (a not A/not B not quite reducible to C).

The notion of direct, unmediated presentation of the “as is,” Pound’s demand for “direct presentation of the thing itself,” is itself a metaphor, a speaking of one thing—the things of the phenomenal, event-full world—in terms of another—words, which are at once tangible and intangible, which are both things and non-things. The world is, for us, always a tropological world.

Language converts the intangible into the tangible (thoughts or feelings that are events into words that are objects) and the tangible into the intangible (trees or dogs or the skin of a lover into words that cannot as such be touched, heard, or even seen, yet only function as words by being heard or seen, by their materialization): poetry foregrounds this travel between realms of being, this transfer of contents. (The word “metaphor” means “transfer” in Greek.) As Mexican poet and critic Octavio Paz writes, “Language is symbolic because it tries to relate two heterogeneous realities: man and the things he names. The relation is doubly imperfect because language is a system of symbols that reduces, on the one hand, the heterogeneity of each concrete thing to equivalences and, on the other, constrains the individual man to use general symbols. Poetry, precisely, proposes to find an equivalence (that is the metaphor) in which neither things in their concrete particularity nor the individual man will disappear” (227). Language is by its very nature metaphorical, calling a near infinity of unique, individual entities all by the same name, “chair” or “fig tree” or even “person,” calling an unlimited range of movements all the same action, “walking” or “laughing” or even “writing.” The name asserts that all the phenomena it points toward are if not identical then equivalent: this is like this is like this is like this, or even, this is this is this is this.

The poem always aspires to be an object in itself (as all art aspires to the condition of music), but is always also a thing about things. The thingness of language is an asymptote (neither marks on a page nor sound in the ear is language per se): language is by definition both object and meta-object. Thus there cannot be an abstract poem in the way that there is abstract music or abstract visual art, with no content but its formal procedures, for language is not a discrete entity the way sound and color and shape are: like Gertrude Stein’s Oakland, when examined closely, there is no there there.

“Abstraction” in art is the foregrounding of the materiality (as against the referentiality) of the medium (in this sense, “abstract art” is the opposite of abstract). Given language’s tenuous materiality, its capacity to foreground that materiality and still remain language (as shapes and colors are palpable and perceptible as such even when not “representing” anything) is limited. Compared to music or painting or sculpture, language has no “as such,” which puts stricter limits on the degree to which one can successfully experiment with it as a medium. Art critic Clement Greenberg characterized the history of modern art as the process of each form stripping itself of all that is not unique to its medium, an Hegelian coming to awareness of its own essential nature. In this sense, literature has no unique medium. What poetry captures isn’t things or events, but mind’s relation to objects and events. Perhaps this is what literature has/is that is unique: all relation itself, it is perfectly suited to enact and embody relation.

The poem performs a double transformation: translating feelings (in the sense of physical sensations) into feelings (in the sense of interior phenomena), and also vice versa (thought-feelings become sense-feelings, including the words themselves as sensory experiences). It turns conceptions and emotions into analogues of sensuous experience (by turning thoughts into images) and simultaneously turns both thoughts and images into, if not the intangible, then the not-quite-tangible: that is, into words, which can function as a shared medium precisely because they are not specific to individual sensations, while at the same time they are sources of sensation.

While for Plato the actual is that which is graspable by the senses but fleeting and ultimately insubstantial, whereas imperishable but not immediately apprehensible Ideas comprise the real, for Kant the never to be attained Ding an sich is exactly the naked, unmediated physical existence—it is not the material world but mental phenomena to which we have immediate access. Following in Kant’s very regular footsteps, in his Speaker’s Meaning Owen Barfield maintains that it is not our thoughts but our physical sensations that are unique to us as individuals: anyone can have the same thought that I have had (and I can share any thought I have with another), but no one can experience the same sensation on biting, for example, into a ripe Bosc pear on a May morning at nine: I can attempt (hopelessly) to describe it, but I cannot share it with anyone. (From this perspective Williams’s poem “This Is Just to Say” assumes a wider significance than its unassuming surface pretends to: the taste and feel of the cold, delicious plums the speaker’s wife cannot experience at breakfast because he has already consumed the fruit are a figure for all physical sensation, private and unshareable.) I would assert that thoughts are more events, and thus unrepeatable in identical form, and sensations are more things, and thus reproducible, than Barfield acknowledges. The distinction he draws between thoughts and sensations, events and things, is too sharp; it is exactly the double sense of the word “feelings” (which double-faced word can here stand in for language as such) that exemplifies their interpenetration.

Works Cited

Barfield, Owen. Speaker’s Meaning. Reprint. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1984.

Bonnefoy, Yves. The Act and the Place of Poetry: Selected Essays. Ed. John T. Naughton. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Paz, Octavio. The Bow and the Lyre. Trans. Ruth L. C. Simms. Austin: U of Texas P, 1973.

This piece is excerpted from the essay “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Coat: Nuances of a Theme by Stevens,” which will appear in my forthcoming collection Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry, to be published in the University of Michigan Press Poets on Poetry series in 2008.


scotland said...

Dear Mr. Shepherd, at least one question occured to me after reading this post. Can abstraction be freely responded to? A sentence if I'm allowed to deconstruct might read, (! pOli nac read on....uo(Y)DEAR can .1) I'm curious as to responces under conditions where source is not known, lets say as if two different people wrote,typed or spoke the same abstraction and consistancies of responce were considered. This approaches what I thought was the two sided nature of the word feeling. Are there or not any consistent observations that could be made.

Lawrence LaRiviere White said...

This post nicely captures the unique function poetry has in these questions of language. Poetry revels in its liminality, in its being between the worlds, while theory always hops between the two poles, as if its feet were burning.

It is a personal tic but I always hesitate to prioritize the role of mind in all this. What interests me are what things in my mind are not mine. Mind seems to me more a window than a room. But my scruples here could very well be misunderstandings.

& if I can turn around & contradict myself, isn't there a sense that memories, unlike concepts, are unique entities?

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Scotland,

Thank you for your comment and your question. I think that you are asking whether abstraction in language (written language, in your example) can be responded to in the same way that abstraction in music or visual art can be, as a pure sensory experience.

I'm not sure that it can be, because while we cannot help but recognize that written letters are components of language, the letters in your example are not functioning as language, and yet that awareness of their at least potentially linguistic character inhibits a response to them as pure visuality. Another way to put this is to say that to the extent that we can respond to writing as sheer visuality, it is only to the extent that we can ignore or forget its function as language.

Dear Lawrence,

Thanks for your comments. I note at the end of this piece that thoughts are more events, and thus not wholly reproducible and shareable, than Barfield allows. I understand the distinction that you make between concepts and memories, especially given the existence of sense memories, which are not discursive. But both concepts and memories are both mental phenomena, and in that sense are the same type of thing. I think that there is also a way in which concepts are non-discursive events, and thus, as you say, unique entities.

Again, I did touch on the uniqueness of thoughts at the end of my piece, but I could well have explored it more. Then again, that's why we have a future, or hope for one, so as to continue the tasks left unfinished in the present.

Thanks again to you both for reading and commenting.

Mak Thorpe said...

It is unclear to me what you meant by the reference to Speaker’s Meaning. Barfield frequently makes statement like “what we perceive is structurally inseparable from what we think”. I have often been baffled by the density of Barfield’s writings, but I believe that what he means by man’s “directionally creator” relation to the world is that he refers to a forceful participation of thought in the act of creating the representations of reality. Although he is a transcendental idealist, Barfield is actually building on Coleridge here, not Kant. The act of sensing the world is what Barfield calls figuration and what Coleridge referred to as being governed by the primary imagination. A sensation is unique in the same mode as the sensation of a rainbow is unique. To the degree that we see from the position of the same mind, employing the same mental language in the same way for representing the world, then we see the same things. But this is never the case.

We may see with the same eyes, but we do not see with the same minds. And as our collective consciousness as expressed in language changes, so the perceived world changes. No longer can we ask plants what medicinal properties they possess. Barfield spent a good deal of his early career studying how language has evolved. As it evolved so too has the world evolved. But it is a different sort of evolution than that spoken of by scientists. It mirrors the evolution of consciousness. So these sensations are neither constant across individuals nor are they constant across time.

To the extent our language and use of it is populated with literal equivalencies for objects, then the sensations participated by that language consciousness is replicable. But as Coleridge advocated, we must not fall into the lethargy of custom as we apprehend the world. We must like good lawyers do the best we can to represent the mass of information our senses feed us- to save as much of the appearances as possible.

That perhaps makes sensation a felt event of mind and therefore unique to your way of thinking. Perhaps it was my misunderstanding of the distinction you wished to make, but I could not help but think that perhaps there was some confusion here about what it was that Barfield was saying.

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