Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Wittgenstein and the Chair

This is what I wrote -- in it's entirety. Only the first part of this (the fable) was shared in class.


Imagine the following scenario:

There is a room, with 15 men in it (there are no women allowed in this room). In the center of the room is a chair. One man asks: “What does that chair mean? What is the essence that it communicates to us?”
Another responds: “I don’t know, but it is signed by its maker – why not look him up and ask?”
“And if he is dead?”
“Surely he left some writings – we can consult them.”
Another man responds to them both: “Why are you talking about the chair’s maker? He doesn’t know what the chair means, he was only the builder. Maker’s are only imaginary, or – at best – produced by the culture in which their built objects persist.”
“Where do we look then?” asks the first man.
The other responds: “We look to the chair itself, and between the chair and that table over there – they are all connected, and their meaning is only in virtue of that connection; it is a slippery matter.”
Another man says, “That sounds too mystical; besides – there was a maker. How could we imaging a chair without imagining that somebody, a person with a biography, intended to make it as such.”
“But that person with a biography is not the one we’re looking for. We want the maker of the chair – and that person is not necessarily the actual person who …”
Somebody else interrupts him: “Why don’t we just look and see what the community that uses this chair has to say about it. There’s no point in fretting about the chair’s maker, or about the relation between the furniture in this room – the chair is only …” And another: “But we need to look at the intention of…”
Still another: “But you are all fools – we cannot make a theory about this. There is nothing to discuss: it is clear that someone built that chair… can you imagine sitting on a rock that you found on the beach – and calling it a chair! How silly that would be. Haven’t I solved you’re problems?”
A man from earlier responds: “But that doesn’t answer any of our questions? What is the meaning of …”

And this continues for hours. Finally, however, a 16th man – who has been listening all the while – enters the room. He wears a blue dress shirt unbuttoned to the base of his neck; his hair is matted and un-kept; his eyes are fixed firmly on the chair in question. “What are you speaking about?” he says. “I have been listening for hours, and I have heard only vacuous tautologies and rhetorical fallacies. Let me explain to you something simple.” He walks to the center of the room and points to the chair. “This,” he says, “is a chair.” “Here,” he demonstrates, “is how we sit in chairs.”
“But what is the meaning of the chair?” somebody asks.
He responds, tepidly: “No such thing was in question.”

* * *
This Wittgensteinian fable is a caricature; but it is not so exaggerated as to be un-instructive. I think that it is instructive, and that what it instructs us about is the nature of the sort of conversation depicted. To be frank, my claim is this: there are no authentic problems regarding authorship, biography, or intention; there is no such thing as a transcendental interpretive criterion; there is no literary content that must be decoded. We can raise very real and very important questions about hermeneutics, ethics, aesthetics, etc. (in fact I think that many of the essays we read do raise some of these issues, if only tangentially). We cannot, however, do what so many theorists seem to want us to do – we cannot put ourselves out of business by making the task of interpretation a matter of getting clear about the nature of literary meaning, of authorial intent, of readerly practices, or of any other surrogates for necessarily difficult work at hand.
Interpretation requires work, it requires creativity – and that will not stop any time soon. Creativity, it seems, regardless of any attempted assassinations, will not die after all – and if by maintaining this I am as a consequence calling for the ‘death of literary theory,’ then literary theory was never alive in the first place… and I have never had a taste for thanatology (nor, for that matter, for taxidermy).
What I’m aiming for here is a healthy level of skepticism (or even, dare I say it, of epistemic relativism). I want to say that there are two possible propositions that we can assert, and either one of them will do:
(1) There is no clear way to unearth the golden interpretation-grounding criteria (the specific nature of what that criteria are of – ‘literary meaning,’ ‘propositional content,’ ‘contextual semantic value,’ ‘authorial intention,’ etc. – is of no consequence for this position).
(2) We can assert that there was – in principle – no such criteria to begin with (and again here the specificity is of no import).

No comments: