Bedrock, Erosion, and Form: Jorie Graham and Wittgenstein

By Leubner, Ben | Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Bedrock, Erosion, and Form: Jorie Graham and Wittgenstein


Leubner, Ben, Twentieth Century Literature


  Few phenomena gave me more delight than to observe the forms which
  thawing sand and clay assume in flowing down the sides of a deep cut
  on the railroad.
  --Thoreau (344)

  On the floor of the empty carriage lay five or six kernels of oats
  which danced to the vibrations and formed the strangest patterns--I
  fell to pondering over it.
  --Kierkegaard (169)

One of Marjorie Perloff's projects in Wittgenstein's Ladder is to delineate a "Wittgensteinian poetics" (181) by reading several contemporary poets directly influenced by Wittgenstein, among them Robert Creeley, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Ron Silliman. I try to continue this work here by reading Jorie Graham's poetry (though it may have been influenced by Wittgenstein only indirectly), not so much with a Wittgensteinian poetics in view as with the aim of advancing what Wittgenstein calls "that understanding which consists in 'seeing connexions'" between cases (Philosophical Investigations [section]122), an understanding less occupied with constructing a theoretical edifice than with illuminating points of contact between things that are already in front of us. I also try to follow the work of Thomas Gardner on Graham's poetry, but again with a difference: where Wittgenstein is usually left hovering, though no doubt significantly, in the background of Gardner's work (particularly in Regions of Unlikeness), I bring his writing to the foreground, especially On Certainty. One reason for doing this is to make a case for the importance of thorough applications of Wittgenstein in literary studies, where references to his philosophy, even in the work of astute critics, are often cursory and misleading. Take, for example, Angus Fletcher's claim that Wittgenstein "see[s] nothing good in the Transcendental" (73), a claim that would lump Wittgenstein with the logical positivists from whose misreadings of the Tractatus he took such pains to distance himself. While Perloff and Gardner, along with James Guetti, Walter Jost, and others, have done much to bring Wittgenstein to literary studies, there is still more, I think, to be done. First, a few words on the supposed rift between Wittgenstein and Continental thought seem called for. Wittgenstein was, of course, first and foremost a Viennese, a Continental, and yet his philosophy is more regularly represented as "analytic" and therefore opposed to the writings of, say, Derrida. This has obscured their often similar conclusions, particularly concerning how language functions according to an inherent errancy that guarantees meaning via the ever-present prospect of its breakdown. Both Wittgenstein and Derrida propose this picture of language, though they do so in different ways--Derrida by decentered, playful discourse and Wittgenstein by associative remarks and condensed similes. Reading one without the other risks the calcification of interpretation against which both caution us--and against which Jorie Graham's poetry is constantly on guard.

From the first poem of her first book, Graham has taken up the question of how meaning is simultaneously generated and frustrated, secured and set adrift, by language. In "The Way Things Work" "things" would seem to include language itself, which functions "by admitting / or opening away" (Dream 3), by "solution" (both answer and mixture). Graham believes in several particular things--"ingots, levers and keys," cylinder locks and pulleys--and early in the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein famously likens the function of words to "the tools in a tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw-driver, a rule, a glue-pot, nails and screws" ([section]11). Similarly in Graham's poem, things, including words, function by a variety of mechanisms, some of which fasten while others loosen: "The way things work / is that eventually / something catches." What things are doing when they aren't catching is the very condition by which they eventually do catch; the possibility of intelligibility (of grasping or catching the drift of something) is ensured by unintelligibility, evasion--a dynamic that Graham's work also investigates, laments, celebrates, and lets go (both liberates and allows). …

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