from tuning by david antin pages 105 to 121 1984 new york new directions books isbn number 0 8112 0894 x
ive called this talk tuning and you probably have no very good idea of what im going to talk about and it gave me a certain freedom from expectation as it gave to you for it is part of my generosity and self indulgence simultaneously that what i will take for myself i will allow to others which seems only fair now i gave a title to this piece long before coming here and if the title i gave was not intended to offer you a very precise image of what i was going to do and if you see me fiddling with this tape recorder its mainly because i have no very precise image of what im going to say though i have a considerable notion of the terrain into which i tend to move and the only way im going to find out whether it was worth doing or not is when i hear what ive got which has been my way of entrapping myself and the reason ive chosen to entrap myself rather than to prepare in advance a precise set of utterances has been that i felt myself ive written things before this in the natural vacuum that is the artificial hermetic closet that literature has been in for some time and the problem for me is in the closet confronting a typewriter and no person so that for me literature defined as literature has no urgency it has no need of address there are too many things no there are not too many things there are only a few things you may want to talk about but there are too many ways you could talk about them and no urgency in which way you choose to talk about them there are too many ways to proceed too many possibilities for making well crafted objects none of which seem particularly necessary i dont think im unique in feeling the absence of urgency in constructing a literary object its in fact i think a fairly recent aberration the existence of literature conceived in a tight framework there is some sense of urgency out there a passing police car they have an audience they have an audience and a need and they may respond to it badly but they have their sense of urgency the most exotic example i can think of and the most striking example i can think of which i have thought about recently and which is not something i want to spend a great deal of time thinking about here is a kind of post napoleonic commitment to producing an amazingly important object balzac say i dont really want to talk about balzac except that hes an example of incredible arrogance and ambition with nothing to say a man goes into a closet in order to say it a half baked kid decides to be a great writer to be like napoleon to take over the empire of letters what would he do? whatever was going to be great what would be great? classical tragedies that was what was great in paris what else would be great in paris? racine what else? he would write plays now its very difficult you go with nothing in your mind in particular except your own future greatness you go there to paris to write great plays because thats where they write them you go there mainly to exercise your dominion balzac is a good example he couldnt speak he had nothing to say coffee black coffee was the answer self intoxication late at night what came out presumably ive never seen an autograph manuscript of balzac and i dont know anybody who has but ive seen early proof sheets he obviously managed to achieve finally utterance a string of clichés an incredible propulsion of garbage an incredible group of commonplaces flowing one after another but they flow after endless cups of coffee which presumably finally killed him second proof sheet third proof sheet i never saw a second or third proof sheet presumably i saw eleventh proof sheets or something of that order theyre filled with literary high class the flow of clichés the flow of platitudinous trash is interrupted primarily by self conscious reflexive high class prose that enters into the flow one thing was flowing and it was nonsense but it was at least flowing after that there were second thoughts and third thoughts and fourth thoughts balzac criticizing balzac getting smarter learning little bits and pieces of junk embedding a mosaic of early 19th century cleverness going swedenborgianism going sociology going real worldism going whatever to take away the embarrassment of this fluent trash which flowed all the way through unrealized and absurd clichéd scenes followed largely by modifications that add respectability and slow down the pace of the prose till finally in what? the 22nd proof sheet we have the brokenbacked mosaic of a balzac novel a monster what we have is a fluency of utterance and energy broken and restrained in a disastrous mosaic which is an image of what an image of class an image of mentalism an image of whatever it was the now nearly worthless currency of 19th century hip that had value then for that reason that it was their currency and there are strata in balzac and all the strata appear together pressed in various sized fragments onto the surface of the text a balzac novel is an archeological trove its not so much a work as it is a series of self conscious reflections on his inability to let his talk fall where it fell because he wanted to be great its very bad to want to be great because theres no reason in the world why you should be great until the world decides that you are great which is all that greatness consists of now i didnt start from a critique of balzac and im not interested in laying balzac open to this critique that could apply almost as well to so many other writers but balzac is an enormously interesting case for the reason that he is so typical of the arrogance of literature as a construction that will eventually claim to equal the career of a progressively accumulated intelligence that the world had just come to call science and this new career would be something like a science a quasi science of the real world what "real world" the world of common sense made to seem as if it was more than common sense? or less than common sense? the world of if A then B the truth table its the plausible world of the marriage novel the plausible world of the money accumulating novel the plausible world of the success story its all plausible but its plausible but its plausible only afterwards because before that what is it its an opera or a fairy tale because balzac writes basically a romance or an opera which he then subjects to a somewhat cynical critique a 19th century critique of this romance and the critique is called realism now theres a kind of comedy to this because the critique is a kind of afterword its as though balzac expects to be judged why does he expect to be judged its an interesting question he expects to be judged because hes going to have an object in front of the world and the world will have the leisure and the desire to examine it once and then examine it again and then examine it again and then again and its as if he was back in school and he was preparing to face a board of examiners and he was turning in his examination booklet that this board of examiners was going to scrutinize over and over slowly turning its pages to see if they pass now theres one issue in a book its that a book is always reinspectable when you recall a passage it is always the same which is unlike talk which you can also recall but is never the same and is never reinspectable except in your memory that is you may believe that its the same but you have no certainty that its the same and the talk goes out into the world and its gone and its not worth any more than anyones confidence in you or confidence in their ability to perform the interpretive act upon the discourse with you because the discourse is the one thing that youre sure of theres a situation and you respond to it now this lust to produce this unassailable object this examination passing book is a common enough lust and balzac is only an early example of the lust to produce such a thing and there is this book and it is produced as an object which becomes an object of scrutiny and if it passes this examination it becomes an objet d'art and you know its there and becomes precious it becomes valued and winds up in libraries a critical apparatus discusses this thing as if it were more than the provisional activities of a man the provisional talk of balzac in some situation and balzac is a very interesting man in spite of the fact that it is a tissue of clichés that emerges from his mouth because clichés are the commonplaces by which we begin a discourse there is no way to put down cliché in the beginning because if there was nothing in common in the utterances with which we addressed each other thered be no way that we could understand what we were saying in some sense there is no adequate theory of how we understand what we say to each other one of the most depressing things about the present attempts at knowledge is the array of formal machines we have for explaining how we know what we say and how poorly they explain it for a while i was involved in formal linguistics chomskyan linguistics and i gave it up when it became apparent that chomskyan linguistics promised no intelligent rationale for dealing with semantics because all of chomskys proposals and thats all they are is proposals and all of roland barthes proposals suggest and sometimes even claim that the troops in back of them will soon come in and mop up all the details in the beginning there is a brilliant proposal and it has this form there is a sudden flash of illumination that is quite brilliant and momentary and it is all dazzling virtuosity you see we have this set of rules that will describe the fundamental basis for the understanding of language by all of its speakers now you may realize that these rules that were writing are in themselves provisional the particular rules that were writing are to be sure only baby examples of the real rules we are setting out to write rules that are part of the fundamental grammar and we happen to be using the real words of english to apply them to and this shouldnt really be done that way because our rules apply to much more general formatives because you see we are really beginning by referring to a universal phonetics a universal phonetics is moderately well established it begins to break down only at the neurological level but there is a universal phonetics a fundamental set of phonic classes that we have characterized by a set of features these are universal features that we have derived in part from their manner of articulation generation in the mouth say and partially acoustical features derived from the way they seem to sound or seem to sound to instruments devised to characterize certain aspects of the way they sound to the human ear anyway we have these features which we may not entirely agree upon that nevertheless constitute the reservoir of the moderately well grounded universal phonetics that are more or less agreed upon and which the men in back of me are very busily in the process of working out the details of the agreement of and these are to be mapped by a set of phonological rules that have not been entirely formulated but the men in back of me are about to finally formulate them into a systematic set that will provide for all the significant distinctions that are made among sound classes in all of the languages of the earth that will allow us to map these distinctions into a set of formatives which you may be more familiar with when they are called morphemes or even more colloquially words which are then mapped into sets of possible and distinguishable arrangements we could call the syntax of the language and while these are also not yet quite worked out quite satisfactorily the men in back of me are busily working this out also all we then have to do is map this entire system into a thorough and sufficiently abstract lexicon that will contain all of the rules for relating the possible lexemes words these formatives that point toward anything in the world to the range of their possible meanings references and senses which should all be found in this lexicon also to be prepared by the people in back of me some of whom have yet to be born now they are working away at this i suppose at m.i.t. which is relatively close or theyre working away at it at the university of california perhaps which is not so close to you but a lot closer to me are they really? are they really working away at it? in what sense? in what sense is it possible to write a systematic semantics? in what sense do we understand language that we could write a fundamental and systematic semantics presumably we would use a feature theory because it worked so well in phonetics or has almost worked so well in phonetics and is about to work perfectly in phonetics and there would be for any word lexeme sounds good technical lexeme high class twenty third proof sheet lexeme basically we ought to be able to reduce the lexicon to a presumably finite set of lexemes though there are problems in that because at the same time that it will have to be finite it will have to be potentially nonfinite because you can always coin new words from old ones or parts of old ones or merely from new arrangements of phonemes by a set of rules from the word generating system which would have to be a part of the systematic lexicon this would be the word generating part of the lexicon and this set of words would presumably have new meanings different from the collection of old meanings which they might well so that as the world filled up with distinguishable new things or new states or new acts or modalities the lexicon would have to fill up with new meanings to distinguish them but this is only the potentially nonfinite part of the lexicon what we would expect to find would be a finite if fairly large set of quite general or abstract features and some kind of rules for combining and partitioning these into all the words that have been and may have to come to be though this might sound overly ambitious even to a language scientist at m.i.t. or to a structuralist at the ecole des haute etudes though there is no accounting for what would sound overly ambitious to them since there are so many people standing in back of them working out just these problems still more modestly you might want to ask of this lexicon that it lay out at least a fairly compact set of features to generate the system of references and senses of a significant segment of the words currently used in a particular natural language like english now how would they do this by a feature theory that proved so successful in phonetics now the nucleus of the lexicon will consist of a set of features and what kind of features will they be you know they will be binary contrasting features sets of opposing pairs like hot and cold or hard and soft but much more abstract perhaps so they could apply to a great variety of words to some degree and form a kind of feature system thesaurus of the language and each feature would be two poles of a kind of axis with one end positive and the other negative or one end zero and the other one oddly enough it will resemble somewhat machine computer language and that may surprise you but it shouldnt be too surprising because so many things now are analyzed in this way which is clear and unequivocal and convenient for the machines which we now have so many of and which seem so reasonable now that we have so many people acclimated to working with these machines and it is of course easy to distinguish zero and one the empty set and the full set that it might seem simple even reasonable to approach the lexicon this way marking each lexeme as a bundle of features that are scored zero when they are absent and one when theyre present and say you only bother to mark features that are present otherwise these features are absent now lets take a pair of words like "generous" and "thrifty" say we could probably find an axis that ran through them unfortunately we could find many more than one axis but lets take an axis an axis is a good word it suggests so much a kind of space through with it runs a kind of semantic globe domain? hyperspace? anyway lets call it an axis because this axis is like a line that will be determined by two points like any other straight line thats nice straight lines are convenient and friendly from our days in geometry and they are all so nicely determined by two points and these two points are its poles one at each end of the line and one pole lets say the positive pole is called "open" and the negative pole the one on the other end of this axis line is called "closed" "open"/"closed" thats our feature we call it "1" when its "open" and we call it "0" when its "closed" ok this is one of our features say and weve got two words we happen to want to deal with "generous" and "thrifty" now im sure you can see how easy it will all be "generous" will be "open" and we will mark it "1" and "thrifty" will be "closed" and well mark it "zero" what could be easier unless you want to ask what happens to "stingy" which might seem to lie a lot closer to the "closed" end of this axis of meaning closer to "zero" so to speak but what could that mean that a word could lie closer to the same axis than another it could mean that we will have to find only pure opposites or antonyms lying at ends of feature axes and that all the words in the system will have to be plotted by the intersection of various axes their spatial coordinates in some kind of hyperspace so that we know just how far off the axis of "closed" and "open" "generous" and "thrifty" may really be and how close they lie to an axis of "big" and "small" for example or "soft" and "hard" how many features will we need to map any lexeme how many features are there is there a feature axis that can be constructed by drawing a line between any two words that can be regarded as opposites seen from some point of view will we have to connect every word with every other word in practice in principle dollars and doughnuts if not will there be a finite set of such contrasts? and how will we select them and is this finite set potentially infinite? will we have to have a rule system for feature construction as there is a system for word building? and supposing this is so will we be able to determine the distances angular or other that separate words that are not opposites from the polar positions that separate "thrifty" from "generous" and "stingy" which may happen to lie on an axis and will we know if a word is intersected by more than two axial lines for two lines determine a plane and if whether the three or four or five lines lie in one or two or three different planes still its a terrific idea if we have all of those people there in back of us working away the way they always seem to be in the marvelous flashy and ultimately trivial proposals made by transformational grammarians and french structuralists now trivial in what sense for these are all glamorous proposals backed up by regiments of intelligence and diligence packing away facts all over the world and subordinating them to the wonderfully clear and commonsensical ideas and yet and yet how could you ever use them these great unclosing enterprises supported by equally unending granting institutions i remember once commenting on the rather similar theory that i.a. richards held for language contrasts within something as commonplace as a poem now richards held a fairly commonsensical notion that a poem was constructed of a series of utterances that you could consider as a series of pushes or pulls in one direction or another which certainly had the advantage of being a dynamic theory of a poem but what he was offering was a kind of vector analysis of a poem and this is very similar to a binary contrast analysis because a vector is a directed magnitude a line of a certain magnitude moving in a particular direction and what you mean by a magnitude is the force of the utterance and the direction is the sense of the line and that sounds reasonable enough and from that it might follow that a poem is a composition of forces but unfortunately to deal with this even in an uncomplicated way you need to be able to specify certain things whether all the statements utterances of the poem lie in a single plane and if not how these planes are related to each other and how these forces lines are measured off against a specified set of coordinates which is all that will allow you to measure them anyway and what means you will take to compose all these fortunately for richards he was not so thoroughgoing and seemed to suggest that all of these lines lay pretty much in one plane that they were merely a matter of push and pull one line or image for or against another which sounds terrific unless you try to do it so suppose we take a poem by auden say and imagine he said "they lived in houses that were colloquial and blue" we could probably say that "blue" lies closer to the pole of an axis called "concrete" and "colloquial" lies closer to its other pole "abstract" and that part of the energy of that line its dialectic arises from the collision of these two differently directed adjectives directed at their "houses" maybe at least that axis makes some kind of sense to us because after all "blue" constitutes an experiential fact it is an outcome of vision it marks their houses when we look at them and "colloquial" well its an overall judgment of the style in which they live so it seems further from the physical reality now there are other axes that run through "colloquial" and "blue" probably too many to do this conveniently and presumably richards would never have undertaken this without the help say of fodor and katz or a variety of other generative semanticians whose help richards probably never know he was about to receive and probably never would except that i am in a generally helpful frame of mind and will provide it now for the sake of the provisional convenience that is the universal characteristic of this approach let us pretend that these are the two most important features that this is the axis that counts so in what sense is "blue" concrete only in the sense that you suppose "blue" to be some kind of physical phenomenon the name of a particular range of electromagnetic frequencies or the like which it is not or more naturally that it is the name of a physical experience and that "colloquial" is a loose denomination for a kind of behavior for a kind of act somewhere on the scale of deviation from a notion of "propriety" say or "formality" all this seems quite obvious and yet and yet even here it is not so simple for if blue is the name we give to a particular physical experience a particular visual experience an experience of looking it is not the name of a single particular experience "blue" it is more like the name of a class of experiences to which it applies somewhat loosely as to a range of blues and even there is it not so simple because this experience this class of physical experiences to which this name properly applies is really only a part of an experience or part of a part of an experience because it is very uncommon to experience color alone in fact we have to learn than name "color" which is seldom encountered alone to determine that there is a part of the visual experience that we can call "color" and that within that experience or part of an experience there is a set of alternatives that cover a range or divide it into the colors we know so "blue" is a subset of the conception color and the conception "color" is a conceptual extraction we make from the experience of looking for example you look around the room i look around the room and youre wearing pants that somebody might say are "blue" on some days of the week and they say "hes wearing blue jeans" his pants are colloquial and blue now "blue" for an american a european which is about the same thing here is part of a vernacular color system with about 8 terms you know nonspecialized you say visual experience subset color subset nonspecialized youve got red and blue and yellow and white and black and green and purple maybe which is really seven and maybe brown and grey to throw in the two commonest tertiaries and there you are and it adds up to nine and you could be a sport and add orange and it gives you ten common terms into which you can divide the whole world of color experience more or less and in a nonspecialized way and what i mean by this is that they constitute a range in the sense that these names shouldnt cross so you couldnt confuse blue with yellow say or red with blue or black or white or green and this is nonspecialized color in the sense that "vermilion" is not part of this system because there youre moving into specialized color for example i wouldnt say that those are turquoise pants theyre not but thats not why i wont say it azure? ultramarine? think of the term "cerulean" "he wore a pair of cerulean colloquial pants" "cerulean" is perhaps somewhat more concrete than "blue" or at least it seems so but now "blue" is not so concrete anymore because we have had to remove it by a process of conceptual abstraction from an aspect of a visual experience "color" and its only within "color" that "blue" has any meaning at all and "blue" occupies a space within this system or by jakobsonian theory is one of a set of possible substituents that form the range of the color paradigm in this system "cerulean" if it is fitted into it may come to occupy a narrow portion of the space occupied by "blue" where it may come to serve as one of a set of possible substituents within the subparadigm "blue" along with a whole set of other alternatives like "azure" "turquoise" "ultramarine" "prussian" "sky" "cyan" "royal" "navy" "powder" "baby" "midnight" but i think not they are not part of this system at all just pressed up against it in a crush resulting from the collision of several other systems of color naming within the english language but within the simple vernacular system of nine or ten colors the important thing is that there should be no crossing if it is blue it will not cross red or yellow or green no my wife and i have a difference of opinion every time we look at bluish green or greenish blue i always think its blue she always think its green its true she looks at a car the car is driving in the street she says o look at that green car and i say its blue she says no no its green i say no no its blue really we dont argue about it at all i have come to expect that when she sees a certain kind of car that i would call blue she will call it green as well as she knows that when i see that same car i will call it blue though she calls that green and that is a kind of language understanding too that we speak each of us somewhat different color dialects and understand them both though only using one ourselves but to the australian aborigine an aranda say among the aranda there is i take it a different way of looking at all this or at least a different way of talking about what we have just been looking at for in aranda in the vernacular aranda system as it existed in the 19th century there were according to the people familiar with them four or actually five fundamental color terms two blacks white red and one other term for all the rest one black was purka used of charcoal and the other was urupulla which included brown and a fair range of greys white was churungura red tutuka and the other was tierga the sky was tierga a green leaf was tierga and yellow ocher was also tierga now this is a very different system for talking about seeing than ours one for red and one for the range of blue yellow and green i have no doubt that we could persuade any reasonable aranda gentleman or lady to distinguish between sky color leaf color and the color ocher and they could do this very handily this gentleman or lady an aranda painter maybe they could say that of course one was sky tierga the other was leaf tierga and the last was ocher tierga but that they were merely three different shades of the same color tierga that is that they were all the same color but modified by some other aspect of vision that weve chosen to call "shade" which would be somewhat similar to our "light" and "dark" or "deep" or "thin" or "saturated" or "not" but we really wouldnt have any appropriate name for this feature of vision that we have just called "shade" but which applies to a somewhat different range of visual experiences because their word "color" would also not apply to quite the same visual experiences of looking as ours or would apply in a different way so their word "shade" which would depend for its significance on their word "color" as our word "shade" depends on our word "color" would not be at all the same and we would simply not have any word for it that came conveniently to hand though we might very well know what they mean by it and this leads to interesting conclusions because it seems that "blue" occupies a different semantic space to use our old formalist conception of word meaning a different semantic space than our word "blue" and that not only that their conception of "color" probably has a different spatial configuration in the semantic domain of aranda looking than our notion "color" what interesting effects this should have upon an aranda critic of a fauve painting an aranda critic of a fauvist painting what a terrible idea because it is virtually a certainty that where a fauve painter would have placed blues and greens next to each other with deliberate assertiveness an aranda would not see two colors placed edge to edge just one color the aranda critic would surely reduce the fauve color system to a smaller numbered system with wider ranges so it would come to pass that a painting which consists of five colors for us could consist of three for an aranda an aranda painter hes looking at a different painting provided that what hes looking at is the color it will be an entirely different painting because the space will be partitioned entirely differently within the world of color this semantic space it seems then from this analysis that blue is a very abstract term that it is very far from being the name of a concrete physical experience but it is based on a very elaborate system of inferences and abstractions and that the physical act of seeing intersects with a socially preserved historically developed set of partitioning devices that will facilitate us and hinder us selectively in our seeing and so blue lies very close to the abstraction pole of the feature axis concrete/abstract when it is seen from this point of view which is a consideration when youre considering how close something seems to be to something else and even then we dont know how close but forget that how close the question that is more important is where we are standing im standing were standing youre standing somewhere facing somewhere in this semantic space if there is such a thing as semantic space we are standing in it because there is no looking without standing sitting? somewhere with your eyes looking out of the front of your head and not behind it now youre standing somewhere and im standing somewhere in semantic space and theyre not the same place because i find it hard to imagine us all or any of us standing in precisely the same place even in semantic space now supposing from where im standing "blue" looks pretty close to abstract and from where youre standing it looks pretty close to concrete i can imagine your position and you can imagine mine how can we each get to imagine the others position how come i can imagine your position as well as mine? how do you get to imagine my position as well as yours? if auden had written this poem in which he said "their houses were colloquial and blue" we would feel that "blue" was intended to be a concrete term that from audens position in semantic space "blue" looked fairly close to the pole marked concrete that it was intended to be a concrete term a primitive term perhaps such as one familiar to the experience of children one of the five hundred basic words of english or 1000 and that colloquial is not such a term belongs to the social world of adults or linguists or university graduates and therefore abstract now how do we do this come to understand each other? now this may be a bad term to understand but let us use it for the moment because we will know what we mean by it here now anyone who is going to have a theory of language will have to have a theory of how we use it to come to understand each other how we come to an understanding how we may not be at an understanding when we begin to talk and how we may arrive at an understanding when we are through or something of the sort they dont have to have merely a grammar they have to know to what the grammar applies and when to apply it that way or the grammar is a fairly meaningless construct if you cant propose some set of rules though thats a bad term rules some system for orienting ourselves to understand other peoples uses of language what they are saying and its relation to some kind of practice you don't understand their language you and an aranda cannot have a conversation at all until you somehow learn what an aranda uses those words for and under what conditions now theres no grammar in the world that can provide for that nor is there any theory of grammar that will do that for you nor is there any theory of language that will do that for you now the reason i chose to talk about tuning i was proposing a way of looking at how we understand things how we come to understand things come to an understanding with each other about things through language has something to do with a notion process i would like to call tuning . . .