manifestos 4: a work of the hands

Don Ihde maps language as a process that begins in sound and moves through music to spoken and written word to silence. Sonically, we first encounter language as music and arrive gradually at word; through word, we arrive gradually at silence. Visually, we arrive by the same route at emptiness. Rather than beginning with silence and filling it with sound – or beginning with an empty page and filling it with writing, we begin with a world that is full and press toward emptying it. In a world of words to the end of it, we make our way toward silence through sound.

In its subtle rejoinder to Adorno, for whom music, though like language, is not language, Ihde’s sketch proposes a relationship between word and music, word and silence, in which there is no outside for human being vis-a-vis language: we may speak or write of language as though from outside; but in so doing we speak or write in language. If we try to step out, language comes with us.

This turns on pressing from music through word toward silence, which, following Paul Friedrich, Wallace Stevens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Blake, I associate with imagination. Imagination plays through word in two directions, from music toward silence and from silence toward music. The play is a tension that, as in Peirce’s explication of the sign, means a world experienced as an external force and a mind pushing back against it. More properly, what is experienced is tension between two forces. Both are internal to the tension, and neither is independent of the other: there is no experience that is not in medias res, no world that does not contain experience.

In the direction of Ihde’s analysis, children enter the world through a wall of sound, which they experience first as music. And this is the experience of anyone who is a child vis-a-vis language, regardless of age: when we encounter language we do not understand, we can hear its music long before we can decode meanings it might contain. In this direction, as we come to understand, we leave the music of the language behind and push toward a limit, silence, that is presumably opposite. But both are always present: edges give shape to centers, meaning that word emerges in interplay of music and silence.

Friedrich reminds us that poetry is language that calls attention to its own form and that all language is poetic. All language calls attention to its own form; and its form is determined by the place it occupies between music and silence. This is Stevens’s poem of the mind in the act of finding, the poem of the act of the mind. It is metaphor at work, and, as both Percy and Lakoff have argued, it invariably involves saying one thing while meaning another. Though it is saying, it is not, strictly speaking, about language. It is a cognitive function making use of language (the ultimate artifact, as Andy Clark puts it), particularly concerned with mapping. As such, it is a matter of making our way.

I am concerned with poetry as manual labor (to borrow an image from Thoreau by way of Stanley Cavell), a work of the hands that makes a space in which human being can dwell, finds a way in the process of making it.

“Finding a way in the process of making it” resonates with a number of religious traditions, including Christianity and Daoism, and is an important basis from which to consider ethics and literature, particularly poetry. As a work of the hands that makes a space in which human being can dwell, poetry is more than a “container” for ethics understood as a doctrinal system. It is more properly a locus in which ethics takes place, an ethos in its original sense as a dwelling place for animals. As the close connection between Aristotle’s ethics and his poetics (and between both and his politics) suggests, the constructive process, the praxis, of poetry is potentially a source of insight into the construction of character. More to the point, it is a construction of character that, by making a space in which human being can dwell, is the making of a city – the architectonic art, politics – within which ethics is to be understood.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.