Sunday, 8 September 2013

"it is not about something it is that something.” Wittgenstein and Beckett

“When someone says ‘I hope he’ll come’ – is this a report about his state of mind, or a manifestation of his hope?” (Philosophical Investigations). 

Wittgenstein tends toward the latter conclusion. When we say ‘I hope x will come’ we are not describing or reporting on a mental state (the state of hoping) but directly hoping. As a cry or sigh manifests pain or excitement, so “I hope he will come” is the audible part of our hope. It is hoping. 
What came to mind here is Beckett on literature, when he says apropos Joyce's work, “it is not about something it is that something.” This very early assertion from Beckett is consistent with many later underlinings that his work is not about anything. He does not mean it is nonsensical or meaningless. Rather Beckett’s insistence should lead us to think of what the words on the page directly are, like Wittgenstein’s ‘i hope', not what they are about

Of course, in Wittgenstein’s example, the statement has the appearance of being about something, of relating to something, but is in fact that very something in its raw state. And so with the writer, or the artist: the appearance might be that of reporting on something, but in reality the something is directly present, it IS.Wittgenstein’s example is regarding a relatively simple affect, hope*. Perhaps with literature we are dealing with more complex and extended affects – which the words conduct and which cannot be prised therefrom. 

Literary Criticism often asserts that the work is a perspective on or about a particular state, subject, condition or affect which is already constituted. The prose, the lines running through and between the words address something, point to something, take up a position in relation to X. In fact it is the critic who’s typical mode of existence is that of relating to something, of taking up a position. The writer by contrast is concerned with bringing something into being.

 *Although perhaps not in another sense. Any hope, as expressed by an individual will be a compound – i.e., any statement as expressed with voice and gesture (not simply written down) will be a unique amalgam – of anxiety, expectation, sentimentality , and perhaps other things – annoyance, uncertainty.. It is these things, or their facsimiles, that an actor would introduce in interpreting the line as it is simply written. The actor would embed the line within a new compound.


  1. Replies
    1. re Expressionism, isn't "what is expressed" in literature or art immanent to the 'means' of expression'? I've tried to sketch out some thoughts on this and related matters elsewhere:

  2. Hope is other than the word 'hope'. Not all utterances are performatives. Some are, of course. And of those that, some are more than such—especially when we get into the realm of artworks such as novels.

    1. I would agree of course that hope isn't simply a form of words. But to take the analogy of a cry or sigh - resignation or pain are not only cries or sighs, but nor are cries or sighs ways of 'reporting on' or speaking 'about' resignation or pain. They do not 'mean' resignation or pain, they are direct indexes or manifestations of those things. So I think i was trying to use that idea as a lead in to what Beckett might be suggesting. But as you imply, literary language is a very special kind of language use..