06 June 2011

A Conference viewed Sub Specie Aeternitatis

The third day of the Wittgenstein conference was terrific.

I missed the first paper due to sleeping in a little late and then having to prepare for leaving town etc. It was about "Count Eberhard's Hawthorn", which is the poem of which Wittgenstein, in a letter to Engelmann, famously said "Uhland’s poem is really magnificent. And this is how it is: when one does not attempt to utter the unutterable, then nothing is lost. Rather, the unutterable is, – unutterably – contained in what is uttered." I would've liked to have heard the discussion of this, but I definitely needed the extra sleep for the drive home at the end of the day. If anyone reading this was at this part of the conference, I'd be interested to hear how it went.

The second paper discussed was a piece Michael Fried has published in Critical Inquiry vol. 33 no. 3, "Jeff Wall, Wittgenstein, and the Everyday". Fried is fantastically interesting to see speak, and his passion for this material is infectious. I know nothing about art history or art criticism, but here's some of what I took away from his talk:

The previous day of the conference, someone had mentioned that Gilbert Ryle and Wittgenstein had bonded over their love of movies. Wittgenstein claimed that there could not be a great British movie, and Ryle conceded that there had not yet been one (at this point Conant interrupted "And the evidence has mounted ever since!"). Wittgenstein blamed this on British actors being too theatrical: even in a movie, you could tell they were acting as if they were in front of an audience, etc. Fried said that a similar sort of worry had struck Diderot in the 18th century, that stage-acting was too manifestly stage-acting to really have the sort of impact he wanted it to have. So Diderot introduced the dispositif of the "dramatic tableau", basically an invisible "fourth wall" of the stage, with the actors acting as if there was nothing outside of the walls of the stage (while still being conscious of themselves as acting, and so not having this hinder their ability to project to the back of the room etc.) (I am sure my presentation of this is woefully inadequate, but I'm out of my depth here.) In this way you can portray "ordinary" life on the stage without it being obtrusively theatrical: you can put ordinary happenings in front of an audience and have them seem ordinary, not staged. But this isn't quite the right way to put it: ordinary events in life are not seen in this way (not usually), so the ordinary happenings which are seen "as ordinary" on the stage are in fact seen in a way different than how they would ordinarily be seen. To get the audience to see the ordinary as the ordinary, you have to give it to them on a stage which they don't notice. Fried also related this to the photography of Jeff Wall, an artist & friend of his, in particular his photo of Adrian Walker, where you see Walker absorbed in his work, but can also see both his sketch of a hand and the model he's sketching from. Many of the works Fried discusses in his paper are striking because in them we see figures totally absorbed in what they're doing, but (says Fried) before Wall this was not thematized, but merely taken advantage of: every decade or so, an artist would stumble upon the idea of depicting someone totally absorbed in what they were doing, and this would amaze everyone, and then people would get tired of it and forget about it until someone else discovered it a little later. In Wall's Adrian Walker photo, Wall both takes advantage of the aesthetic appeal of absorption and shows us an artist copying something, thus making us realize that we are not seeing the everyday, but an artificial copy of it. (I suspect that this paragraph is worse than a freshman Art History major could write. Fried's article is good.)

Fried has been a friend of Stanley Cavell's for years, and it was through Cavell that he became interested in Wittgenstein. Fried stressed that he is "not a philosopher, and couldn't do philosophy", but that Wittgenstein (Cavell's Wittgenstein) was still hugely important for him and his work. Fried said that while he was working on his Diderot book he wished that Diderot and Wittgenstein could've met each other, somehow -- "and then when I read this passage from Culture & Value, I realized that they had!" -- here Fried proceeded to read the following passage C&V 6e-7e, from 22 August 1930. I wish someone'd been filming it, his reading was so animated; he noted and emphasized each punctuation mark with little hand-gestures. Delightful. Anyway, the passage, as he has it in his paper:

Engelmann [Paul Engelmann,Wittgenstein’s close friend and faithful
correspondent] told me that when he rummages round at home in a drawer full of his own manuscripts, they strike him as so glorious that he thinks they would be worth presenting to other people. (He said it’s the same when he is reading through letters from his dead relations.) But when he imagines a selection of them published he said the whole business loses its charm & value & becomes impossible. I said this case was like the following one: Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing someone who thinks himself unobserved engaged in some quite simple everyday activity. Let’s imagine a theatre, the curtain goes up & we see someone alone in his room walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, seating himself etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; as if we were watching a chapter from a biography with our own eyes,—surely this would be at once uncanny and wonderful. More wonderful than anything a playwright could cause to be acted or spoken on the stage.We should be seeing life itself.—But then we do see this every day & it makes not the slightest impression on us! True enough, but we do not see it from that point of view.—Similarly when E. looks at his writings and finds them splendid (even though he would not care to publish any of the pieces individually), he is seeing his life as God’s work of art, & as such it is certainly worth contemplating, as is every life & everything whatever. But only the artist can represent the individual thing [das Einzelne] so that it appears to us as a work of art; those manuscripts rightly lose their value if we contemplate them singly & in any case without prejudice, i.e. without being enthusiastic about them in advance. The work of art compels us—as one might say—to see it in the right perspective, but without art the object [der Gegenstand] is a piece of nature like any other & the fact that we may exalt it through our enthusiasm does not give anyone the right to display it to us. (I am always reminded of one of those insipid photographs of a piece of scenery which is interesting to the person who took it because he was there himself, experienced something, but which a third party looks at with justifiable coldness; insofar as it is ever justifiable to look at something with coldness.[)]
But now it seems to me too that besides the work of the artist there is another through which the world may be captured sub specie æterni. It is—as I believe—the way of thought which as it were flies above the world and leaves it the way it is, contemplating it from above in its flight.

Fried seems to be entirely right to connect the Diderotian tableau, his theme of absorption, and this passage: Wittgenstein's imaginary scenario about a theater is pretty much what Diderot wanted. And then the final lines connect all of this back with the Tractatus and the 1916 Notebooks. Lot of stuff going on here.

One thing to note: the passage I underlined is italicized in Fried's paper. Joachim Schulte noted that this was a place where "Culture & Value" had an unfortunate critical apparatus: the passage is underlined with a squiggle in the manuscript, but C&V has it underlined normally (and then Fried converted all the underlinings into italics). But squiggly underlines are how Wittgenstein marked words he wasn't sure about. So when Wittgenstein says "the work of art compels us to see it in the right perspective", "right" is a word that's not quite right, here.

Another thing to note: Fried thinks the shift from das Einzelne to der Gegestand is significant: art makes us see an ordinary Gegenstand as something Einzelne. This fits very well with the October 7 1916 Notebooks passage:
The work of art is the object seen sub specie aeternitatis; and the good life is the world seen sub specie aeternitatis. This is the connexion between art and ethics.

The usual way of looking at things sees objects as it were from the midst of them, the view sub specie aeterinatis from outside.

In such a way that they have the whole world as background.

Is this it perhaps--in this view the object is seen together with space and time instead of in space and time?

Each thing modifies the whole logical world, the whole of logical space, so to speak.

(The thought forces itself upon one): The thing seen sub specie aeternitatis is the thing seen together with the whole logical space.
One of the (many) ideas here is that seeing something as a work of art is seeing it not "from the midst of things" (as we ordinarily see things) but "from outside": with space and time instead of in them. The object is seen as with the whole world, not as part of it: it stands out from the whole world, which recedes as into a background.

This is redolent of the way Schopenhauer thinks of artworks: the importance of artworks is that in viewing them my individual will is quieted, and I apprehend things as a "pure subject of knowing", as a non-individual subject.

The third book of "The World as Will and Representation" is Schopenhauer's aesthetics, and begins with a lengthy discussion of "the Platonic Ideas". The Idea which a particular object manifests is always one and unchanging, but the objects which manifest the Ideas are always many and changing. Schopenhauer takes this Platonic distinction between the Many and the One to be at heart identical with the Kantian distinction between the phenomena and the thing-in-itself: plurality, change, duration, extension are all mere forms of our awareness, and do not condition the things themselves (Plato's ontos on, the proper objects of episteme as opposed to doxa, knowledge rather than opinion). Schopenhauer takes as one of his main additions to philosophy the idea that we can become aware of this distinction not only "in abstracto" through philosophy, but also "in exceptional cases" intuitively: the work of art shows us the truth of transcedental idealism/Platonism. Spelling this out and making it plausible is the task of book three of WWR.

I think the best way to make sense of this is to look at how artworks function, on Schopenhauer's account. In most artforms (music is an exception), Schopenhauer thinks that we see the art-object not as the particular object it is, but as the Platonic Idea which it manifests. Architecture gives us Ideas of hardness and rigidity, landscape paintings of various species of plant-life, portraiture the Ideas of various human types, etc. These are very odd claims to make, but I think I've found a way to make Schopenhauer's view look non-insane: the trick is to think of artworks as opposed to ordinary objects.

Normally, the way I apprehend objects is in terms of their practical significances for my purposes: I see the clearing as a good spot for building a fire, the fire as for cooking over, the pot as for making soup in, the soup as for eating, eating the soup as for satisfying my hunger, etc. Schopenhauer is withering about the endless nature of these fors: "satisfying" desire is an endless task, and he thinks it fundamentally misguided. The way to deal with a desire is not to satisfy it (since this brings more desires in its tow), but to stop desiring. (The Buddhist influence on Schopenhauer is obvious and self-conscious here.)

So, when we perceive an ordinary object, for Schopenhauer, this is entirely at the service of our will: we see it as for this-or-that task which we care about. We see it only in relation to ourselves (our tasks, our desires) and other things (to use it with/for). But perceiving an artwork is not like perceiving an ordinary object. So if you think about ordinary perception in the way Schopenhauer does, it's natural to think that what this means is: we see a work of art as not in relation to ourselves or other objects. We just see it by itself, not as an element of a totality which is spread out around it. We see it as One, not as one-among-many. So the idea that an artwork presents us with a Platonic Idea is not the pure rubbish it initially appears as, seen in this light. (Music is said to present us with "the will itself", and not an Idea, because music does not involve representing a particular sort of thing in the way that painting or sculpture does (or architecture, where the represented thing is identical with its representation) and so there's no particular sort of Idea it could be presenting. But the contrast is still present: listening to music involves perceiving the world in general in a way that is not related to our will or other things.)

From section 34 of WWR:
Raised up by the power of the mind, we relinquish the ordinary way of considering things, and cease to follow under the guidance of the forms of the principle of sufficient reason merely their relations to one another, whose final relation is always the relation to our own will. Thus we no longer consider the where, the when, the why, and the whither in things, but simply and solely the what. Further, we do not let abstract thought, the concepts of reason, take possession of our consciousness, but, instead of all this, devote the whole power of our mind to perception, sink ourselves completely therein, and let our whole consciousness be filled by the calm contemplation of the natural object actually present, whether it be a landscape, a tree, a rock, a crag, a building, or anything else. We lose ourselves entirely in this object, to use a pregnant expression; in other words, we forget our individuality, our will, and continue to exist only as pure subject, as clear mirror of the object, so that it is as though the object alone existed without anyone to perceive it.... It was this that was in Spinoza's mind when he wrote: Mens aeterna est, quatenus res sub aeterinitatis specie concipit [The mind is eternal insofar as it conceives things from the point of view of eternity.]

To be fair to Schopenhauer, he thinks this is a place where he's going to be misunderstood (and taken to be ridiculous). He prefaces the above remarks with the plea that "the reader must suspend his surprise at it for a while, until it has vanished automatically after he has grasped the whole thought to be expressed in this work." So this is a place where Schopenhauer is aware that he's having a hard time saying what he wants, and doesn't think anyone will understand him unless they're in a position to understand his work as a whole: the claim about what Spinoza meant by conceiving of things sub specie aeternitatis is key to all of Schopenhauer's philosophy. And it's doubtless that Schopenhauer is where Wittgenstein took the phrase from (there being no evidence he ever read Spinoza). I am still working out what to make of this, but the conference was helpful for stimulating thinking on it.

...so with all that said, back to Fried: the contrast he sees between Einzelne and Gegenstand can easily be worked out along the lines I did above, but the German also allows for der Gegenstand to just be a pronoun that refers back to das Einzelne. And the Notebooks passage talks in terms of Gegenstand throughout, except for the line where Wittgenstein says "Jedes Ding bedingt die ganze Logische Welt" (where I can't help but feel the pun as doing work). So Fried might be reading too much into that particular word-choice. The German doesn't demand his reading.

Shifting focus: Someone asked Fried if the pleasure taken in seeing a work of art in which someone is totally absorbed in their doings was not a voyeuristic pleasure. Fried was adamant that it was not: A voyeur is a hidden spectator, and there is nothing like this in viewing an absorptive work of art. One does not view an absorptive work of art as a spectator at all -- there is no place in the picture that one is supposed to be viewing from (though of course it has to be drawn/shot from a visual perspective, this is not part of the content of the picture).

Here Conant added some remarks related to his work on film (he's part of the Film Theory group at Chicago): In an ordinary objective shot in a film, the question "Where is the camera in this space?" is something he says "has no application". There are ways of shooting a scene such that this *is* a question you can ask, like with point-of-view shots or tracking shots, but it is not a question you can intelligibly ask about an objective shot. Fried added that you can splice together things shot with different cameras or at different times, such that no camera in any location could've taken the shot you end up with in the film, which I think makes Conant's point more vivid.

In an objective shot, we are not seeing things from a place in the space of the film: thus it is natural to say we are viewing it from "outside" the space. But it is easy to be misled by this: Saying we view things from "outside" the space of the film is not to answer the question "Where in the space of the film is the camera located?" but to refuse it: viewing things "from outside" is not viewing them from any place. "Viewing things from outside the space" isn't a matter of having the things in the space being related to some point outside it, but is a matter of how the whole of the space is arranged. Shooting something "objectively" is a style of shooting, not a special position you're shooting from. To view things "from the point of view of eternity" is not to view them from a special point of view, eternity's, but to have the way one views things differ from the normal in some other way.

Conant related this to what he sees as the central concern of Wittgenstein: he is criticizing the idea that we need (or could have) a "view from outside", what McDowell calls a "sideways-on view", of our lives/thoughts/practices, in logic, in ethics, and in aesthetics. ("Skepticism is not irrefutable, but is obviously nonsense" is a pregnant Tractarian slogan here, for those familiar with Conant's writings.)

A sidenote: Someone asked Conant how the C&V passage relates to part two of Philosophical Investigations and its discussion of aspect-seeing, given that one thing Wittgenstein says in C&V is that Engelmann is "seeing his life as God's work of art". Conant's "gut reaction" was to say that this was a metaphor, and that you could push it too far, but that there was a similarity here: In both cases you see things the same, and you see them differently. The same drawing is now a duck, now a rabbit; similarly, Engelmann's life is not different when he views it as God's work of art and when he views it as he normally does, but there is a difference between those two. I'm not sure how Conant thinks you could push this line too far (and in fairness, he said this was only his gut reaction, not a considered opinion). Perhaps what he had in mind was that you can capture the aspect-changes of a duckrabbit by making different judgements: "I see a duck" vs. "I see a rabbit". It's not clear you can do this with seeing Engelmann's life normally and seeing it as God's work of art -- and more to the point, I think the author of the Tractatus would adamantly deny that any differences in judgements would capture the distinction he wanted. ("In the world there is no value -- and if there were, it would be of no value.")

That's about all I have noted for Fried's talk (and I've missed/left out a lot -- it was a very fun two hours), but I'll close with a Walter Benjamin quotation that David Wellbury drew our attention to, because I don't have it quite right and I'm failing to google up the source: "What is the difference between this world and the world messianically redeemed? The difference is everything, but miniscule."

This post is probably already too long, so I'll leave my notes on Ray Monk's paper for another post. It was easily my favorite paper of the conference. Skipping past it: I really enjoyed the reception at the end of this day. I feel like this was the first conference reception that I really "got" how these receptions are supposed to go; the socializing was fun and stimulating and I didn't end up sitting in a corner sipping on a drink. I spoke to Ray Monk for around half an hour about Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein, which was good times. He thinks that when Wittgenstein refers to his first philosophy as "a Schopenhauerian idealism" he probably is referring to something he'd outgrown before he ever met Frege or Russell, since his interests had by then shifted to the foundations of mathematics. (Before he'd written to Russell he wrote a letter to Philip Jourdain about the axiom of choice.) But there's no knock-down evidence about this. More interestingly: I mentioned in passing that there wasn't any evidence Wittgenstein had read anything beyond the first volume of "The World as Will and Representation", and he said that he was pretty sure he'd mentioned "On the Fourfold Root of Sufficient Reason" once. I pressed him on this, and his best guess was: He thinks that Anscombe had told him in conversation that Wittgenstein had mentioned it in conversation!

Also, Irad Kimhi said that the first "Twilight" movie was "beautiful", but he didn't like the second one. I just want this to be out there in the public record: Kimhi liked the first "Twilight" movie. He also seemed to be really enthusiastic about "Cowboys and Aliens".

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