“What Can Be Said At All Can Be Said Clearly,” Or How Not to Talk About Wittgenstein

Just when we thought that the jargon-filled criticism of the last couple of decades had fallen by the wayside it sometimes crops up again like a persistent weed.  As we know, Ludwig Wittgenstein espoused a clear writing style.  For the most part he practiced what he preached, and when he didn’t I’m sure he endured sleepless nights over it.  He worried about clarity, precision, and directness.  Needless to say, he believed that philosophical problems could be solved or eliminated by means of using language appropriately, paying close attention to its grammar and context of use.  This view had much influence in the world of Anglo-American philosophy.  In fact, the virtues of clarity and logical rigor still hold considerable sway.

Marjorie Perloff’s study entitled Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (1996) has achieved much to bridge the gap between the worlds of poetry and analytic philosophy.  Louis Armand addresses this juxtaposition in “Poetry and the Unpoetic” (Jacket 2, September 7, 2012).  At first, I applauded the effort, for Armand discusses two of my favorite writers.  Perloff  handles complex philosophical concepts while moving in primarily uncharted waters for a literary critic.  Her study begins with an analysis of Wittgenstein’s comment that philosophy can be written as a form of poetry, and her prose style is as clear and direct as Wittgenstein’s.  Although Perloff doesn’t write pithy aphorisms as Wittgenstein did, her writing serves as model prose.  Thus, it’s almost ironic that Armand completely misses the point about clear writing: philosophy can be written as a form of poetry because both types of writing aim at perspicuous representation.  I mean, that is Horace’s main point in the Ars Poetica, and, as it happens, Archibald MacLeish’s point in his own Ars Poetica.  Although I suppose we would have to admit that phrases such as “perspicuous representation” are examples of ostentatious erudition.

Here’s an example of Armand’s writing taken from the first paragraph:

Both “philosophy” and “poetry” appear in quotation marks, giving us to understand that a certain metaphorical grammar may be at work here, although equally it may be the very literality of these terms that Perloff wishes to insist upon, in order in some sense to “undo.”  In evoking this proximity of poetry to philosophy, even by way of an analogy–of an analogical writing–Perloff calls to mind, without naming, the figure (we might say spectre) of a form of “poetry” that writes as philosophy; which negates itself (as poetry) in a moment of zealous assertion of its truth (as philosophy).  Perloff’s implied interlocutor here is the Plato of The Republic….

Well, really, that should clear things up.  Honestly, this is from the first paragraph and the reading transaction is not eased or made any clearer in the remainder of the article.

Armand pens an overly long, tough-going article.   At first, I imagined that he was sipping and sloshing brandy while composing his sentences.  Well, why not?  Brandy is a lovely armchair philosophy companion.  Unfortunately for him, I think sobriety was required to complete all eight pages.   Also, he seems quite serious in filling the article with all sorts of nonsensical jargon.  Indulge my fun for a moment while I make a list.  His terms of art include the following: interdiction, Signified, Unheimlich, ‘political consciousness,’ repressed, Freudian symptomatology, subjectivized,  implexure, facticity, de-known, “possible of the impossible.”

Then he cites the originating proponents of unclarity, likely his heroes in art: Badiou, Foucault, Barthes, and Derrida.  Perloff quotes Wittgenstein and Cavell; Armand cites writers who traffic in pretentious obscurity.  His writing style violates all the suggestions of any good writing handbook, and certainly it violates the main tenets proposed in George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.”

I would love to discuss Armand’s argument, but I genuinely cannot find it.  Perhaps he’s making a political point regarding the strife between poetry and philosophy, and if that’s the case, then we would rightly recall our internal Orwellian voice harping about the decadence of the English language as having poltical causes.

If the editors of Jacket 2 find Armand’s variety of jibberish worthy of posting online, then perhaps they, too, require a freshman composition refresher course…


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