Wittgenstein’s philosophy also accounts for the disastrous state of Internet discourse today. The shift to online communication, textual interactions separated from accompanying physical practices, has had a persistent and egregious warping effect on language, and one that most people don’t even understand. It has made linguistic practice more limited, more universal, and more ambiguous. More people interact with one another without even realizing they are following different rules for words’ usages. There is no time or space to clarify one’s self—especially on Twitter.
It is this phenomenon that has affected political and ethical discourse in particular. To take some hot-button issues, use of the words privilege and feminism and racism is so hopelessly contentious that it’s not even worth asking for a definition—even if you get one, no one else will agree with it. In situations where misuse can get you savaged on the Internet, I’ve simply stopped using a word. Let me know when everyone else has worked it out.
1. I did take a Wittgenstein course in college, in my senior year, fall 2003; in it we read only Philosophical Investigations, very, very slowly, and I think we stopped somewhere in the middle, not that it is a finished book in any case.
2. My professor was the celebrated philosopher John McDowell; while brilliant, he was also about as gnomic and cryptic as Wittgenstein himself—and very softly spoken. I was reading a text that posed a set of difficult questions with an interpreter whose method of reading said text was to pose, somewhat inaudibly, a set of difficult questions in turn. At the time, I found this frustrating; now I think it ingenious. We spent almost a week on the first two pages of the Investigations, and when Wittgenstein writes that the passage from Augustine with which he opens provides “a particular picture of the essence of human language,” McDowell said, “Do we need a picture of the essence of human language?” Well, I knew that I did not. Perhaps all pedagogical remarks should be phrased as questions.
3. The class was held in the Indian room. At the University of Pittsburgh, you see, humanities classes often take place in the nationality rooms of the Cathedral of Learning: these are classrooms designed to reflect the cultural heritages of the various ethnicities comprising Pittsburgh, representatives of which groups funded the construction of the rooms. I for the most part sat behind a wide stone pillar, where I could scarcely hear McDowell. (So in fact I am more to blame than he is for my inability to hear him. Or should the blame fall on the architect, who placed a chair behind a pillar? The architect’s dubious choice, McDowell’s modest voice, my fearful and passively expressed truculence: innumerable factors make experience what it is.)
4. One memorable thing McDowell repeated a number of times was that Wittgenstein thought that it would be better to abandon philosophy altogether and “repair motorcycles” instead. I have never read McDowell—while I cannot repair a motorcycle, I mostly do not read philosophy these days—but Wikipedia asserts that he is a “quietist,” one who believes that philosophy should not pronounce upon human problems and should lead us only to accept existing conditions. As an artistic quietist, I am happy to agree with this.
5. I read Disgrace extracurricularly that semester (a friend—then on his way out of the Ph.D. program in philosophy, at least partially, I believe, under Wittgenstein’s influence—had given it to me). As I read, I saw and heard McDowell, a white South African, as David Lurie in my mind. I pictured them all, Lurie and Wittgenstein and McDowell and Coetzee, letting their intellectual quarry go and retiring to care for sick dogs, and I knew even then that I would probably not be able to follow them. (I was raised, by people who had experienced poverty, to desire riches. I have not attained riches, but in my heart’s core I still desire them.)
6. As for my performance in the class, I said not one word the entire semester, though McDowell praised my essays. I think I had a slightly easier time understanding the later Wittgenstein than the philosophy majors did because I was used to poststructuralist (i.e., radically anti-essentialist) accounts of language from my literature courses.
7. What most intrigued me about the Investigations was its play of voices, its internal disputation. Wittgenstein, I would later learn, loved Tolstoy, as I did. But then why not write a novel?
8. I do remember being chided at the time on Livejournal by that platform’s resident Wittgensteinian, a Sarah Lawrence undergrad named Michael, for confusing Wittgenstein with an orthodox postmodernist. Michael was right to scold, I see now. I guess that was before I understood that it made a difference how much Marxism you took with your postmodernism: was there nothing outside language-games (the vulgar pomo position you could find in many a ‘90s movie or comic book) or were language-games produced in and by social systems of material reproduction? Not that I think Wittgenstein’s theory implies any particular politics; if anything, it probably accords better with a kind of Burkean conservatism than with Marxism proper. Is this not what David Foster Wallace (whom I read, insofar as I am able to read him, as a conservative) came to understand?
9. I read about half of Monk’s biography before Wittgenstein, due to what I took to be his ludicrously self-aggrandizing faux-humility, annoyed me too much and I carried the book back to the library (I think it was the last book I ever checked out of Hillman Library, in fact). I am somewhat ashamedly annoyed by all the twentieth-century culture saints—Kafka, Beckett, Wittgenstein, Weil. They seem unhealthy (in the Nietzschean sense). It is healthy to pursue life; to set up a system of ethics to deny life to yourself and others out of some opulent guilt is a bad-faith position if you plan on continuing to live (Weil, to be sure, escapes this charge). Such saints seem ethical because they have impossible standards for how a society ought to be organized (or a text to be composed) so that no one suffers or goes without (or so that language does not seduce and bewitch and go on holiday); but the truth is that what is not possible cannot be ethical.
10. I doubt I would have agreed with that then. I was protesting the war, all war really, and was in love with someone else’s girlfriend, now my wife. In the fall of 2003, I wanted only the impossible, for everyone. Even then, though, something indefinable put me off about Wittgenstein. I inscribed on the first page of the Investigations Hamlet’s motto about “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I also, and perhaps this is embarrassing, thought about putting this, from Emerson’s “The Poet,” there too: “For poetry was all written before time was, and whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, we hear those primal warblings, and attempt to write them down, but we lose ever and anon a word, or a verse, and substitute something of our own, and thus miswrite the poem.” It was probably no less embarrassing then, which is why I did not do it. I am not a neoplatonist, not an occultist; but my sensation (not my belief or my opinion or my argument but precisely my sensation) is that the words, when I write, are coming from somewhere else. And that is all I can say about that.