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My favorite two books of the last year are Rat Girl by Kristin Hersh (2010) and Representation and Inference For Natural Language by Patrick Blackburn and Johan Bos (2005). That makes me squirm. Let me tell you why.
Hersh’s book is a memoir of her first couple of years in Throwing Muses, a rock band specializing in hard, fast tone-poems and distortion. I’m not talking just about fuzzbox distortion. Her lyrics don’t go that far on their literal meaning, or even their poetic allusion. They are physical and ornery. They need to be sung. The memoir stays in that track, conceding a lot more to literal meaning, of course. Blackburn and Bos, on the other hand, write about ways of computing logical formulas from open text in English. They aspire to get something out of language, any language, that can participate in logical reasoning. Specifically, formal deduction.
I could try to synthesize these ideas at length, but Hersh did part of the work for me in this passage. It’s a start. In
, Kristin and Leslie try to diagnose a song that keeps going wrong in the studio. Leslie is TM’s bass player. “There is a logic to it,” says Kristin. Leslie asks her, “do you know what that word means?” (pp.116-117). People in computational semantics, like Blackburn and Bos, want to put language to work for science, or science to work for language (both, I think). From what I know, linguists believe that expressions have a unique, not vague, semantic meaning. One expression, one meaning. Differing opinions on the subject are each, in fact, either correct or incorrect, whether or not we find out which is which. And its unique meaning determines exactly which other expressions logically follow from this one. Hersh almost agrees with the linguists. Hersh goes on in her Memoir about her preference for science over art, because science has “purity.” How could she not mean (by “purity”) that scientists aim to describe the world as it really is? For that, you need evidence, but you also need to use language for logical and accurate communication. Hersh insists that the songs come to her from outside. She insists they follow a logic. I don’t know how a song could follow logic (maybe lyrics can). I’m sure that Hersh knows the meaning of the word “logic;” I think her bandmate’s point is that Hersh does not live her life by logic, so why should her songs follow it? But there are strong hints in her memoir that Hersh values truth and lucidity above all, in art and in life. I agree. How can art possibly be true, or say something true? Artistic language is among the hardest to deal with by linguistic methods. Some of it is not even truth-apt, as the logicians say. It’s not a proposition, so it can’t be true or false. Or it’s ambiguous, so the expression itself doesn’t tell us what would have to be the case for it to be true. How can Hersh and I hold these values and be artists, and want to be artists?
There is an easy way out of this, if I just want to stop squirming. Language permits different uses. We should celebrate the diversity, as it were. I can use it to communicate and deduce consequences. I can use it to indicate feelings that I can’t express or share with others simply by saying ┌Hey, I feel that p. Do you know what I mean?┐ The easy way out turns out not to be so easy. It’s not obvious that artistic use of language amounts to conveying something that I feel (Hersh). This gloss of artistic language presupposes that language is for communication, which might be a scientific bias. It also presupposes that the content communicated by artistic language is that of a mental state (mine), but then artistic language is about mental states about other scenarios. Why isn’t the Wordsworth poem simply about wandering lonely as a cloud, rather than the fact that someone felt as though he were wandering lonely as a cloud? What is wandering lonely as a cloud? What is the logical form of the poem’s first line? And what happening in the world does the expression represent? The easy way out doesn’t seems easy because it raises no questions. It seems easy because the problems it gets you out of are such a mess. The mess doesn’t come from “what is language good for?” It comes from “what should I do with language?” and “what is language?” From another angle, the mess can be seen to emanate from “what should I do?” and given the answer to that question, “how should I deal with language?”
Actually, there is some significant evidence in Rat Girl that she and the band did believe that their music is for communicating feelings, for bringing people into their particular bubble of feelings. This bubble, which remains intact around the band according to them, reflects the “crap and roses” of their environment in its particular way. I get this, and I stand behind it. It’s (neo) late Romanticism, it’s Glenn Branca, it’s Patti Smith and Sonic Youth. But I’m squirming again: the bubble reflects what is beautiful about the crap and what is weird about the roses, but the music functions by communicating feelings that correspond to the beauty of the crap and the weirdness of the roses. Fine, but which of these is essential (‘the point’) for this kind of art, and which is just the modus operandi? Is the point of the music to communicate feelings, or to capture the details of feelings that accurately reflect the environment? The band emphasize that they work “in a vacuum,” without considering what others will think of their work, and that any self-consciousness only enters with the necessity of making some money. Yet they also say that songs mature, truly become themselves only when people hear them, in the feedback loop of playing live for audiences. So, the songs reflect the authors’ real environment, but function by communicating the authors’ feelings about their environment to the audience, and the essence of the song (what it is) somehow involves an audience’s experiences of hearing renditions of the song and those original feelings that index the authors’ environment. The best I can make out of this account is that the best example of a song is an amalgam of a lot of people’s experiences, each related to an original kernel of the author’s experience, which indexes something in the world. By “index,” I mean what a weather vane does for the direction of winds, for example. Something physically affects the author, changing something in the author, and the author changes something else in the environment (an instrument and air, magnetic media) that, itself, indexes that change in the author. Fine. At least one of these causal relations involves Iconic representation, though: something resembles something in the environment. Peirce is there for me, once again, with the vocabulary. The real problem, but only part of the mess I spoke of, is how this Iconic representation works. At the moment, I have no idea.
Aside from the question of how songs can have the scientific purity that Hersh loves, there’s the question that underlies it: what should I do, specifically with language, and how is the writing of songs consistent with that? Consider Minutemen’s answer:
Should a word have two meanings?
What the fuck for?
Should words serve the truth?
I stand for language. I speak the truth. I shout for history.
I am a cesspool for all the shit to run down in
(from “Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want The Truth?”)
The voice of this song clearly takes the position that all language (including lyrics) should not only represent some environment accurately, but represent the past and the present accurately, in general. This is more than an aesthetic requirement of language, like Hersh’s demand that art be authentic and songs tell the truth about their authors’ environments. It is a political requirement of language that it tell the truth about history, even more so if history is only what is essential for us about the past, rather than the whole thing. Essential to whom? For what? Even if there is some fact of the matter to answer these questions, there is also the fact that history primarily concerns humans. To demand that language represent history accurately is political, in a world that cannot agree on what the substance of history is.
I agree with the Minutemen. I agree with Hersh. I think Blackburn and Bos’s project serves that of the first, if not the second. Language should serve the truth, for politics and for science. I can answer the question, why should a word have two meanings, however. For art that is not also propaganda. Did that not occur to the Minutemen?
Again: beyond the question, what should I do with language, is the question, what is language? And the question that accompanies the last one is, does the nature of language itself prescribe what we ought to do with it? The only author I know who considers the essence of language in those terms is Heidegger. I am very far from what I take to be Heidegger’s opinion on this matter. He seems to say that language is, itself, the creation and happening of a world. Awareness, what most call “mind,” is a product of language making certain things possible, others not. It makes certain things appear, others not. Language is the building of a world, which needs us, though we do not exactly accomplish it. Heidegger thinks that art is true, but that truth is some kind of manifestation of language making some things appear and others not. Truth as correspondence to a language-independent world depends on art’s kind of truth. I think that all of the artists I cite here, as well as the scientists, disagree with Heidegger. A song’s truth for Hersh is its resemblance to the purity of science, as she puts it. The Minutemen song claims that language is to serve the truth, which is quite different from the claim that language makes up what is true in the first place, for other language (e.g., scientific language) to reflect. Heidegger’s philosophical move seems to repeal the psychologistic slant of modern aesthetics. It takes us back to the (supposed) ancient Greek belief that artistic language comes to the poet from outside, that language speaks the poet, rather than vice versa. This, of course, is consistent with Elizabeth Gilbert’s belief that a muse inspires artistic writers, recently expressed via tedtalks. Or the belief that it’s healthier for us to believe that a muse inspires us. Against William James, who might be Gilbert’s signature philosopher, I could care less what is most healthy for me to believe. I would rather try to speak the truth and be a cesspool than peruse history for healthy beliefs. Heidegger’s account of language appears to roll back the psychologism of modern aesthetics, but it subjectivizes the environment at the same time that it takes responsibility for the truth of art out of our hands. The world of crap and roses is not made out of language. I’m not even sure that all of it needs language in play to be noticed. A dog can feel it. Some of it, at least. I think that the part of it a dog can feel directly, he can also appreciate by means of music that indexes it.
All that being said, I believe that songs and language often make me happy when they tell the truth, too. Maybe a person acquires the taste for language and songs that tell the truth. Hersh seems to agree. Commercial pop music, she says, is “chemical candy,” unhealthy because it’s false, rather than vice versa. She says of Throwing Muses, “I don’t care if we are spinach, the Muses are the most happyfying spinach I ever had” (p.113). I really don’t think think that a false song is worth writing or hearing. Now I do believe, though, that I have to write the song to see if it’s true or not.