Abstracts: MLA session on Wittgenstein and the Uses of Literature

A little while back, we drew your attention to an MLA special session on “Wittgenstein and the Uses of Literature” (here). Since then, we’ve received permission from its organizer (Maria Muresan) and her two fellow panelists to post the session rationale and the abstracts of their three papers. We are grateful to them for their permission to do so (and to Toril Moi for bringing the abstracts to our attention). Please help spread the word about this exciting panel.

It will take place on Monday, December 28, from 10:15-11:30am, in Washington C, Loews.

Special Session: Wittgenstein and the Uses of Literature

“One cannot guess how a word functions. One has to look at its use and learn from that. But the difficulty is to remove the prejudice which stands in the way of doing this. It is not a stupid prejudice” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical investigations, 340). The problem that Wittgenstein identifies is perhaps exacerbated in the literary field: the fortunes of critical trends as well as the history of critical theory often rely on the impossibility of making a clear distinction between ways of “looking at language use” and ways “of guessing such uses.” This happens, because literature allows that its “uses” in various economic, ethical and political contexts be often not only a matter of learning, but also a matter of guessing what advantage or threat such uses can have or confront in the real world. Wittgenstein is often silent on this last aspect of the word “use”.

By looking at “use” both as part of learning how to use and of guessing how to manipulate or resists through words the panel will analyze, both how Wittgenstein opens up new ways of reading literature, and how literature becomes a testing ground for Wittgenstein’s ideas. The panel will raise questions regarding three important aspects of Wittgenstein’s thought: the value of the ordinary use of language, the plurality of “games” in which a word can participate, the paradoxical claim of private uses of language.

1. “Surrealism and the Ordinary,” Alison S. James, Univ. of Chicago

Does the value of the ordinary use of language exclude the possibility of a surreal vision of the world? It is instructive to link Wittgenstein’s ideas on the ordinary, as developed in the Philosophical Investigations, to the French discourses on the everyday that emerge after World War II (Lefebvre, Blanchot, Certeau). Alison James’s paper will demonstrate that in both currents of thought, the ordinary calls into question established forms of knowledge. While Wittgenstein sets everyday language use against the metaphysical concerns of philosophers, the everyday is for Lefebvre and Blanchot a level of reality that resists linguistic articulation, an ambiguous site both of alienation and of potential transformation. The everyday is nevertheless, in Wittgenstein’s view, a field of practice and of value; it is not a realm of radical nihilism, as Blanchot claims, but rather contains a remedy for the skepticism that constantly threatens to turn the ordinary against itself. Obscured by its very familiarity, the everyday emerges into view as the strange or the uncanny, and this movement connects Wittgenstein’s philosophy to modernist modes of representation. In particular, Wittgenstein’s approach to what Stanley Cavell calls the “surrealism of the habitual” opens up new ways of understanding surrealist literary texts (Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris, Breton’s L’Amour fou—against Lefebvre’s view that surrealism, in its quest for the marvelous, merely devalues and evades the ordinary.

2. “A Poetics of Passages,” Maria Muresan, École Normale Supérieure, Paris

Can Wittgenstein make us understand better the necessity of a new poetics, in the context in which the ideal of creating a new language use in art is regarded as economically problematic? The aesthetic invention has now to be subsumed or resist commercial use. Maria Muresan in her paper will foreground Wittgenstein’s method, which consists of outlining language use both by showing directly how the same word passes in between anonymous speakers, and by letting readers guess how this word passes from one language game to another. The same word is thus made to traverse several incorrect uses, nonsensical utterances and impossible meanings until it reaches its correct use in ordinary language. Surprisingly, similarly abrupt passages between language games, and anonymous speakers are also key methods in exploring the real after World War I by several modernist writers. This procedure is meant to overcome “poetic visions”, lyrical voices, and dramatic monologues of the past in a world in which the ideal of high art has to confront the urgency of selling art (to use art). The result is the birth of a literary genre, often called the prose of art, or novel in verse (roman en vers), which can be considered the forerunner of contemporary experimental writing (écriture). This paper will analyze two literary texts, both labeled as “literary cubism”, and both meditating on the relationship between writing on the one hand and consuming or stealing art on the other. Stanzas in meditation, by Gertrude Stein and Le voleur de talan by Pierre Reverdy will illustrate the poetics of passages. It will be taken into account the fact that Gertrude Stein was familiar with Wittgenstein’s philosophical work, while Reverdy was not.

3. “The Word I in Early Modern Poetry,” James Helgeson, Univ. of Nottingham

Wittgenstein suggested, in the Philosophical Remarks, that the word “I” could be eliminated from the language. Poetic text, too, is often read as striving towards an impersonal ideal, particularly in the wake of Mallarmé’s advocacy of the “elocutionary disappearance of the poet.” Critics often claim, in a confrontational mode, that sixteenth-century poetry is in no way about first-person expression, but must always be understood solely through intertextuality (and in particular, varieties of imitation). In his paper, James Helgeson will show that such a claim is attractive, but demonstrably false. Yet to state that poetry can perhaps be taken as a variety of first-person expression is not to say that first-person poetry is the expression of a “self,” and certainly not that the “I” of the poem and the “I” of the author are equivalent. Nor is it to suggest that all genres of poetry relate similarly to the first-person stance. With a critical glance at Quentin Skinner’s work on historical method after Wittgenstein and Austin, he will ask here whether, and in what ways, poetic texts can be understood as first-person action of an indirect sort (poets being, of course, notorious liars), and will examine these questions through close readings of texts by Petrarch, Joachim du Bellay, and Pierre de Ronsard.

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