Monday, 3 September 2012

Wittgenstein, Metaphor and the Immanence of Expression

J. Hillis Miller:

‘Ludwig Wittgenstein, in a series of brilliant sections in the Blue and Brown Books, argues against our normal, one might say our ‘Platonic’ assumption that we understand the expression on a face by comparing it to a state of mind that expression expresses.. No, says Wittgenstein, the expression is in the face, just as the meaning of a word is in the word. Neither the face nor the word refer to anything outside itself.’
Part of Wittgenstein’s problem is that the structure of language runs counter to what he wants to say. Eg, even to say ‘the expression is in the face’ spontaneously creates a picture of a container (the face), and the implication that this ‘container’ is different from and even indifferent towards what it contains (the state of mind). Having to italicise the preposition ‘in’ is itself a sign of having to push against the spontaneous meanings produced by the grammar alone. The sentence is, in its very structure, a metaphor of containment, and Wittgenstein must push against this embedded metaphor.

When I used to teach about metaphor, many students initially protested that the expression 'The past is behind me" is not a metaphor. Of course the past is behind us they said. If they did say this I asked them to turn round and pointed out that what was behind them was a wall.

Perhaps literature, be getting under the skin in such embedded metaphors, stops them from organising our perceptions for us.

The other point about the Hillis Miller quote though, is: is the meaning of a word 'in' the word in the same sense that the expression is in the face. Well, Wittgenstein means, I think, that the meaning of a word is synonymous with the way it is used, the rules that govern its deployment. On the other hand, Wittgenstein himself is of course trying to undo, constantly, the 'bewitching of our minds by means of language'. And Hillis Miller, in the quote above, and Wittgenstein before him, are trying to introduce a meaning which the words themselves resist.  The nouns and prepositions and verbs, and their customary usage, deflect meanings along pre-prepared paths, and the new meaning will only emerge fully and completely when the customary paths have been disrupted or disturbed in a certain way - italics, metaphor, parataxis, or whatever.

So perhaps literature and philosophy practice this 'disturbance' in different ways.

Now, there’s clearly no equivalent of this resistance and disturbance in facial expression. One would never say, I’m trying to express something but the inertia of my face is deflecting it along pre-given paths.In facial expression, meaning is immediately given; in linguistic expression, meaning must often make room.

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