Sketches on a Train: Thinking Thinking in The Artist

Michel Hazanavicius’ film The Artist begins with a self-reflexive gesture that calls attention to both its genre as well as its status as a film. That is, its status as a film is pushed upon the viewer by placing the actors behind the screen, and placing the camera behind the audience in order to highlight the fact of one’s viewing of the film. Its genre moves to the foreground as our protagonist appears in a role in which he’s tortured brutally as a means of information extraction. Cleverly, he will “not speak”. In fact, in the face of brutal physical torture, foreshadowing the later developments, he refuses to speak. In addition, later in the film, he refuses in the face of marital threats to speak with his wife about their lackluster relationship. The film constantly calls attention to the fact of construction. Perry realizes her own construction as a pawn of new film medium after recalling the advice and mark granted her by George with he claims, “Find something no one else has”. George also realizes his own construction after encountering his belongings outside their normal environment, being pushed from his habitual engagement with the world in which he’d achieved remarkable financial and social success. The end of the film portrays both Perry and George “dancing in their chains” and the camera pans to reveal yet another meta-shot of the filming of the dancing.

Two important sequences in the film interest me. First, a dream sequence in which George is thrown into a world in which everything “speak” but him. This is an interesting dream-sequence in terms of Descartes skeptical dream experiment. That is, on what grounds can we prove that everything we experience as real and structured according to the memory-narrative according to which we live our lives is not a well-constructed dream. Furthermore, the dream-weaver has constructed a mechanism that triggers an awareness of the dream-weaver. Our meta-relation to the dream-world as a dream-world is part of the dream. That is, we also can’t prove that the reflexive realization of the dream is not itself programmed into the dream itself.  Dream-arguments generally function as a skeptical gesture to call attention to the lack of grounds for our beliefs in an external world. The question then is the following: How does the dream sequence in the Artist initiate a skeptical moment in which the dream’s argument foregrounds the fallibility of George’s real-world beliefs? What does George believe? He believes, prima facie, that talkies are temporary fashions, a mere fad, soon to pass. He represents pure filmmaking at its best, as he says, “I’m an artist”. Here, there’s an interesting moment of ontological skepticism. OS, understood as the claim that our first-order discourse necessarily fails to refer propositionally to its possibility-condition, the possession of an ontology. Ontology, here, refers to the position of a network of presuppositions that ground and make possible truth-apt claims about the external world. Here, Carnap’s distinction between external and internal questions is important. For, there’s an multiplicity of worlds, a multiverse, if it’s the case that one can adopt more than one ontology, again understood as a possession of fundamental, grounding, or world-forming presuppositions, jointly necessary and sufficient for one to make truth-apt assertions about the internal questions that may arise within a first-order discourse. To destroy one’s axiomatic set of presuppositions is to destroy one’s world. Hence, upon such destruction, it is necessary to engage in world-construction…”ways of world-making”. Why is George an artist? Or, why does he believe himself to be an artist? It may help to call attention to Wittgenstein’s claim regarding philosophy that one can only perform philosophy poetically. That is, philosophy as performance art. Philosophy as a performance art calls attention to our world-constructions, or theories of totality, as contingent. How does The Artist call attention to itself as a contingent construction, or always already capable of being otherwise? I’ve already hinted at the performative nature of ontological skepticism when I claimed that one cannot propositionally refer to or know the World. Instead, one must perform the World. We can know our world only through non-knowledge. Second-order knowledge that one can’t successfully refer to or know one’s world without ipso facto generating a new world and thus leading to an infinite grounding regress leads to the knowledge that in this very attempt to refer to and know the World we are performing the essence of human nature. This dance between transcendence and immanence defines the fundamental nature of human beings. Hence, Wittgenstein’s quietism isn’t a retirement from philosophy; on the contrary, his move toward quietism, instead, affirms philosophy’s negative moment of non-knowledge. The intrusion of language designates the moment of naming the absolute, naming the World. What precisely does he say? Let’s address that in the next section.
Second is the important moment late in the film when George decides to speak. Does the move toward language for George initiate an optimism in which he takes on the task of making explicit our merely implicit world-forming axiomatic presuppositions? That is, does he overcome his performative ontology and move into a Spielraum in which, while engaged in a drunken dance, he again attempt so name the absolute? (It’s also interesting to note that, in Germany, films of a certain genre are called Spielfilm.) One can compare George’s optimism to Hegel in the Phänomenologie des Geistes when he writes, “It is not difficult to see that ours is a time of birth and transition to a new era. Spirit has broken with the world it has hitherto inhabited and imagined, and stands prepared to submerge it in the past and in the labor of its own transformation”. The claim that the upon the solipsist’s death we therefore lose the world is true. Doubtless, the individual things comprising the world will continue to evolve and persist without concept-mongering creatures like ourselves. However, the World will not. With the extinction of the human, comes the extinction of the World and fate along with it. Contingency reigns in a non-human world.

The common-sense interpretation of George’s stubbornness in relation to talkies is to invoke some kind of conservatism and resentment regarding the intrusion and shock of the new. However, is it possible to read this differently? Can we look on askew to his behavior? We do have a stock-market crash in which the comforts of capitalism have been erased.

An essential interest of Hegel’s is the emergence of freedom within the modern world. Something about the modern world welcomed or, even, initiated the emergence of autonomous freedom into the world. However, Hegel claims that one can’t have a theory of freedom without a proper metaphysics. It is therefore crucial to grasp the precise nature of Hegelian metaphysics in order that one doesn’t make the interpretive mistake, too often the case, of rendering Hegelian metaphysics as a return to a pre-critical extravagance of metaphysical bacchanalian orgy. Metaphysics, according to Hegel, consists in a “clarification of our consciousness and our understanding of ourselves and of our world” (Houlgate 27). Ontology, then, as Anton Friedrich Koch says in the Preface to his magisterial Versuch über Wahrheit und Zeit ontology is “Tiefphilosophie”, an investigation into the axiomatic presuppositions comprising our theories of the world. Our microscopic truth-apt claims gesture in the space enlightened by the possession of a world. Ontology functions then as an ontology of worlds. The engagement with ontology, or the second-order reflection on our world as a world is the essence of human freedom. The reflexive gesture that examines our first-order gestures and makes explicit the contradictory nature of human behavior: the dance of contingency and fate. That is, our freedom to make explicit the contingent structure of our world must overcome the equally all-too-human drive to impose fate upon the world, that is, to behave as though fate governs the world.
Thus, there’s a clear connection between metaphysics, ontology and freedom. (Here, it would be important to determine the precise nature of Spinoza’s interest in both freedom and metaphysics and to what extent he sees a positive connection between them.) Houlgate makes the following claim, “What is needed therefore is not an outright rejection of metaphysics in the name of “practice”, but the transformation of metaphysics from an enquiry into elusive “entities”, such as an independent soul, into a modern discipline concerned to articulate the essential nature of free, self-determining spirit”…”a reformed metaphysics of freedom”…in order to provide the contemporary world with a clear self-understanding it requires if it’s to believe itself capable of engaging in free actions. Abstract thought, then, is the proper vehicle of human freedom.  The power of abstract thought is rendered thus in Hegel’s Encyclopedia Logic,

“In earlier times people saw no harm in thinking and happily used their own heads. But, because they pushed on with thinking in this way, it turned out that the highest relationships in life were compromised by it. Thinking deprived what was positive of its power. Political constitutions fell victim to thought; religion was attacked by thought; firm religious notions that counted as totally genuine revelations were undermined, and in many minds the old faith was overthrown. In this way thinking asserted its validity in the actual world and exerted the most tremendous influence.”

It’s difficult to articulate the precise degree to which Hegel’s ideas are influence by Kant’s. However, Hegel’s ideas are also profoundly influence by Descartes insofar as Hegel pilfers the idea that, as Houlgate writes, “philosophy may take nothing for granted in its search for truth and that thought is the principle of doubt or criticism that frees us from the authority of habitual but unwarranted belief”. Hence, here we see the important connection, perhaps more implicit that explicit in the work of Descartes, between abstract thought and freedom. This merely implicit connection in rendered more explicit in the practical philosophy of Kant. Houlgate claims correctly, “What Hegel learns from Descartes and Kant is that human thought frees us from arbitrary authority by subjecting everything to the scrutiny of self-determining reason”.

Given this account of metaphysics and ontology, when can we say that thought is free? That is, when is the concept-mongering biped free? One must resist the intuitive pull of negative freedom as its conceived and articulated within utilitarian political thought and “negative freedom” perhaps best expounded by Isaiah Berlin. If freedom does consist in the mere abstraction from one’s inhabitance within a theoretico-socio-political world, in what then does it consist? Is freedom merely the making explicit of and realization of those axiomatic presuppositions comprising our possession of a world? The becoming-conscious of the Lichtung that is the possibility condition for our truth-apt claims? How does such a concept of freedom apply to socio-political freedom? Is theoretical freedom compatible or useful to practical thought? Today’s freedom has little use for thought. On the contrary, it consists merely in the intuitive knee-jerk reaction against intrusion into one’s illusory private space. To Americans, incorrectly regarded as bastions of human freedom in the civilized world, any and all intrusions into a subjectively defined sphere of privatization is regarded as fascism and socialism. However, little thought comprises these conservative gestures. To itch one’s nose upon the immediate realization of intrusion doesn’t constitute a wise criterion of thought. Here, then, is the real Ticklish Subject. The spontaneous but equally as thoughtless swatting of intrusions into privatized space. Here, we see Socrates’ actions as worth of radicality; that is, regarded as a gadfly, he tickled those human-islands of thoughtlessness until they laughed themselves to death. Our Republic has ostracized thought; thought functions today as Plato’s Poets, and the Poets have been excommunicated.
In some sense, then, this transcendental ontology functions analogously to Kant’s metaphysical deduction insofar as one locates traces of our axiomatic presuppositions within the analysis of our truth-apt judgments. Furthermore, it resembles Kant’s transcendental deduction insofar as the possession of a World, or the possession of an axiomatic network of axiomatic presuppositions, is the condition for the possibility of a synthetic world. Hegel’s criticism of Kant occurs precisely here. While Hegel praises Kant’s act of placing the categories within their proper coordinates, that is within thought, he equally criticizes Kant’s refusal to take modernity to its end and allow thought itself to determine its categories. Instead, Kant merely deduces the categories of thought from Aristotle’s subject-predicate judgments. Therefore, the nature of thought itself is veiled by the imposition of an alien criterion, namely forms of judgments. Thought is rendered explicit according to the conditions of language and the forms of judgment.

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Wittgenstein and the “really magnificent” poem

Wittgenstein’s friend, Paul Engelmann, published their correspondence, as well as a memoir, in order to supplement the hegemonic reading of the Tractatus as a text predominately about logical theory. That is, his correspondence sought to reveal the ways in which, during and after the war, Wittgenstein’s thought had become influenced more than a little by “mysticism”. Many had, indeed, known this. However, reading the Tractatus and taking seriously its relation to mysticism had been downplayed as evidenced not only in Russell’s horrid introduction to the text, a condition for its publication sans horridity, and Russell’s letters to Wittgenstein. Engelmann sent a poem to Wittgenstein called ‘Count Eberhard’s Hawthorn’ and in the letter he added the following: “Almost all other poems attempt to express the inexpressible; here that is not attempted, and precisely because of that it is achieved.” To the poem Wittgenstein reponded thus: “…really magnificent…and this is how it is: if only you don’t try to utter what is unutterable then nothing gets lost. But the unutterable will be –unutterably– contained in what has been uttered!” Here’s the poem:

Count Eberhard’s Hawthorn

Count Eberhard Rustle-Beard,
From Württemberg’s fair land,
On holy errand steer’d
To Palestina’s strand.

The while he slowly rode
Along a woodland way;
He cut from the hawthorn bush
A little fresh green spray.

Then in his iron helm
The little sprig he plac’d;
And bore it in the wars,
And over the ocean waste.

And when he reach’d his home;
He plac’d it in the earth;
Where little leaves and buds
The gentle Spring call’d forth.

He went each year to it,
The Count so brave and true;
And overjoy’d was he
To witness how it grew.

The Count was worn with age
The sprig became a tree;
‘Neath which the old man oft
Would sit in reverie.

The branching arch so high,
Whose whisper is so bland,
Reminds him of the past
And Palestina’s strand.

Wittgenstein would later write somewhere, “I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy when i said: philosophy outght really to be written only as a poetic composition“.

Wittgenstein then advocates, in the Tractatus, a method of philosophical quietism insofar as the philosopher must keep in mind that what she wants to say cannot be said and, therefore, must be shown. The unutterable will inhere within the uttered.

Eminem makes a Wittgensteinian point to this effect in his tune Rainman. Just at the conclusion of the song Eminem exclaims, “I just did a whole song and I didn’t say shit”. The use-mention distinction is important here. If Eminem mentions the word “shit” then his claim is false as, in the first verse, he in fact uses the word “shit”. But, of course, this is silly. Better to understand Eminem as uses the word. So, what could he possibly mean that he didn’t say shit? He said nothing meaningful? He said nothing of importance? He spoke nonsense? Can he mean this? Apparently not given that most listeners catch most of the references, humor, and intent of the song. Wittgenstein too has such a problem. It’s well known that in the Tractatus he encounters various performative contradictions. As when he for example exclaims that the person who understands the text  will soon realize the propositions therein to be nonsensical. However, how can one who understands the text understand nonsensical propositions? Because they are understood not in their nonsense but AS nonsensical? Similar to Hegel’s claim regarding the manner in which the indeterminate become determinate insofar as it’s determined as indeterminate.

I’m not going to offer something like an interpretation of the Tractatus here…to many delights of my (small number of) readers. To do so would be to attack the very foundations of the book I believe. I’m not in a position to do so. Perhaps another time.