Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer


The works’ achievement—“triumph,” we might even say—resides precisely in their ability to make both things simultaneously apparent. Admission or acknowledgement alone would have amounted to mere acceptance, resulting in something simply, flatly decorative, and detached from any engagement with the world. Conversely, antipathy or avoidance on its own would have been tantamount to a denial of how much painting (and the world around it) had changed in the first decade or so of the twentieth century. It is finally this doubledness, I would argue—the works’ acknowledgement of loss and their stubborn refusal to be reconciled to it—that makes them the compelling, occasionally haunting, images they are.
What I’ve been calling the work’s performance is nothing other than the causal account of its production, the kind of account you can give for any work of art. The difference is just that Chang has folded the process through which the work was produced into the experience of seeing it. This is a difference that matters.
[W]e frequently do not, strictly speaking, hear the meaning of a poem so much as we hear a poem as occasioning a question of meaning, a question we devote ourselves to answering if we are to make sense of the encounter with meaning a poem initiates. In the context of poetry, we usually take meaning to be a destination and not a point of departure.
But how can one person actually feel another person’s a? More plausibly, we might think that the causal chain involves a proliferation of effects from the same a — not different subjects having the same feelings about a, but the same a producing different feelings in different subjects. But then we also have a different source of pathos — how can I tell if my a is the same as your a? Not how can I feel another person’s a, but how can I know another person’s a?
Do literary conditions have their own forms of entitlement? Would such conditions—say, Wittgenstein’s particular scene-setting, thought experiments, aphorisms, and dialogues—amount to an alternative form of justification? Could a tactful or artful (or beguiling or captivating or worrisome) ordering of words—what we might simply call a style—itself generate the criteria for claiming? How exactly can, as Cavell puts it, “an ordering of words [be] its own bottom line, [and] see to its own ground?”
Just as “confidence” is hope cut free from its surrounding dangers, so too a “reminder” is an invitation cut free from a discursive environment of argument and persuasion. It is a performance of knowledge that causes anxiety to lapse, that opens our eyes to the obvious without insisting upon it. Or to put the point slightly differently, the idea of a reminder is the idea of a poetry of ease.
As a boy, Stendhal searched for the perfect mathematical equation: “At the age of fourteen, in 1797, I imagined that higher mathematics, which I have never known, contained every or almost every aspect of objects, so that by going on I would come to know certain, indubitable things, which I could prove to myself whenever I wanted, about everything.” But the inescapable pressures of the social world turn even mathematics into an occasion for hypocrisy, rather than knowledge. Stendhal’s development of a theory of vagueness seeks to redress the failure of certainty and indubitability, to explain all the ways language can go right in a social situation, and all the not-unrelated ways it won’t.
Narratives are indeed a crucial tool by which many of us make sense of our lives. The problem comes in identifying selves too directly with the lives they live. If we drop the insistence on life-long autobiographies in favor of many short overlapping stories, we can hew more closely to the role narratives typically play in everyday self-representations; but then we also stand in need of a new criterion for unifying those stories into a coherent self.