An Aesthetics of the Unsaid

An Aesthetics of the Unsaid

Andrew Lindquist

Andrew Lindquist reviews Michael LeMahieu’s Fictions of Fact and Value, examining the influence of logical positivism on American literature of the postwar era.

In the opening to Fictions of Fact and Value, Michael LeMahieu argues that logical positivism, “[m]ore than either existentialism or deconstruction … defined the philosophical problem field out of which ‘postmodern’ fiction emerged” (2). More specifically, the influence of logical positivist philosophy on writers and literary critics alike engendered the central literary preoccupation of the postwar era: the fact/value problem. Critics and theorists in most literary circles perceived logical positivism as the scientific and empirical “death” of “imagination as metaphysics” and took Ludwig Wittgenstein as the philosophy’s primary representative (LeMahieu 1). Yet as LeMahieu points out, the rejection of logical positivism by postmodern theorists on these grounds stems from an overgeneralization of the philosophy and, more troubling, an overt misreading of its supposedly founding text, the infamous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He thus makes an important distinction between the philosophy as inscribed in postwar literary works and described by supposedly postmodern authors and critics (notice how LeMahieu brackets “postmodern” with quotation marks in the first excerpt). Indeed, while postmodern theorists vehemently denounced logical positivism, postwar writers, in their very responses to the philosophy, were instantiating the Tractatus’s fundamental principles. LeMahieu lays out his intentions quite concisely: “rather than simply looking for the tenets of logical positivism exemplified in the works of postwar novelists, this study examines how the logical positivist articulation of the fact/value problem informs the aesthetic strategies of postwar fiction” (21). In particular, Fictions of Fact and Value lays special emphasis on the “and” in the book’s title. In his brilliant literary approach to this philosophical problem, LeMahieu demonstrates how five postwar authors—Don DeLillo, Flannery O’Connor, John Barth, Saul Bellow and Thomas Pynchon—followed the Tractatus’s aesthetic model to take issue with any clear distinction between real facts and unreal values, preferring instead an “entanglement of facts and values” (21).

Importantly, LeMahieu addresses the wider scope of reasoning behind positivism’s unpleasant critical reception. He points to the “narrowing” and “domestication” of logical positivism in America as a point of issue (129, 19). As its European progenitors relocated to the United States after the second World War—teaching at the universities attended by some of the postwar writers discussed in the book—logical positivism’s once “radical intellectual ambitions” were reduced to “an ahistorical and apolitical philosophy” (19). George Reisch and John McCumber trace this transformation to the rise of McCarthyist paranoia, arguing that the depoliticization of logical positivism—moving toward a more neutral “philosophy of science” (LeMahieu 19)—helped it to avoid possibly detrimental associations with more radical philosophical worldviews. LeMahieu, citing Michael Friedman’s Reconsidering Logical Positivism, notes that “[t]his blunting of logical positivism allowed for its American domestication and identification with ‘a rather simpleminded version of radical empiricism’ ” (19). Here, however, LeMahieu does not develop what appears to be a crucial link between the “domestication” of logical positivism and its role in economic discourses of the postwar era. If we consider the economic stakes involved at the time—the ethical obligation of democratic capitalism to immunize the communist epidemic—the neutralization of logical positivism into a scientific philosophy can be understood in a different light. The immediate postwar era witnessed the ascent of the highly rationalized, mathematics-driven theory of neoclassical economics. The repositioning of economic discourse into a “hard” science—a process E. Roy Weintraub has called “the ‘scientificization’ or ‘mathematization’ of economics” (Weintraub)—served to legitimate the unfurling of capitalist production through its very naturalization: by reformatting capital flows into reproducible (and predictable) mathematical equations, economists developed an understanding of economic activity as not the results of specifically motivated agents but the natural behavior of the market itself. Indeed, it is such an understanding—according to which, in economics, “there is no room for argument” (Putnam 2)—that Hilary Putnam has taken issue with in The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy. For Putnam, the understanding of facts as “objectively true” and values as “incapable of objective truth” rests on “untenable arguments and on over-inflated dichotomies” (1). In particular, he argues, the fact/value dichotomy stems from a misinformed interpretation of Kant’s distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments. For Kant, synthetic judgments, in which truths are established based on a given context, are no less factual than analytic, “definitional” truths (Putnam 2). The problem, for Putnam, is that while Kant “took it for granted that synthetic truths state ‘facts’ ” and indeed perceived the practice of mathematics as “both synthetic and a priori,” logical positivist philosophy—in which mathematics as a hard science plays a central role—asserts that only analytic truths are capable of stating facts (3). The notion that value judgments are by definition non-factual is thus based on tenuous philosophical understandings. For Putnam, the assertion that facts are logically superior to values and the subsequent reframing of the study of market behavior as an accordingly verifiable science is a deeply troubling issue. Taking Putnam’s economic approach into account, the fact/value problem can be reinscribed as the failure of verifiable exchange-value to account for unverifiable use-value within late capitalism.

Yet LeMahieu’s decision not to expand on empirical, positivist philosophy’s “incorporation” into the rationalized worldview of late capitalism should not be perceived as a major shortcoming of his text; his rigorous critical re-reading of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus along with his meticulous use of primary source material more than serves the book’s purpose. To be sure, as Timothy Yu has recently pointed out, there is no shortage of scholarship addressing Wittgenstein’s influence on literary works. LeMahieu is working alongside a number of other scholars in addressing the peculiarly literary quality of the Tractatus. These critics, in turn, have built from the shift to what Rupert Read and Alice Crary term the “resolute” reading of Wittgenstein’s text, centered by the works of Cora Diamond and James Conant. Conant and Diamond work against readings of the Tractatus as endorsing a purely logical form of language. Like the Vienna Circle, “standard” readers of Wittgenstein’s text took his opening statement—that “the world is all that is the case”—as its underlying theme (“Ethics” 599); as such, the Tractatus’s more mystical, unverifiable statements simply must be overlooked. For Diamond and Conant, however, Wittgenstein’s typically baffling conclusion in the Tractatus—that all of his preceding propositions are nonsense—must be taken seriously. Wittgenstein’s philosophical intentions, as Conant argues, are thus not to construct the foundations for a purely logical form of language but to “undo our attraction to various grammatically well-formed strings of words that resonate with the aura of sense” (Conant 344). Thus, as Ben Ware has pointed out, most literary readings of the Tractatus position the text as emblematic of a two-fold modernist approach to language. Ware asserts that modernist writers implemented language in an effort to either purify it or lament its failure to adequately express complex ideas and relations. Such aesthetic practices parallel the “standard” and “resolute” readings of the Tractatus, respectively. But LeMahieu, much like Ware, separates himself from typical literary readings of the Tractatus by exposing not its affirmation but its critique of a modernist approach to language. For Ware, “the aim of the Tractatus is to help readers … to see that discourse about the ‘problems of language’ is, in a certain sense, empty” (“Wittgenstein” 196). In Ware’s reading of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein is not evincing a particular philosophical approach to language but in fact demanding that the reader self-reflectively admit the nonsensical nature of philosophical approaches to language in general. In other words, Wittgenstein “does not try to prove to someone that they are speaking nonsense, but rather attempts to enter into their nonsense in order to use nonsense against itself” (“Ethics” 606). For Ware, then, the Tractatus neither attempts to purify language nor admits its failure, but in fact embraces such linguistic perspectives “in order to deconstruct them from within” (“Wittgenstein” 196). Yet while LeMahieu would certainly agree with Ware’s conclusions (due most likely to their nearly contemporaneous publications, Ware’s work does not find its way into LeMahieu’s bibliography), LeMahieu takes the immensely important step of tracing the aesthetics of logical positivism within the body of postwar literature.

Fictions of Fact and Value thus accomplishes two notable goals: it both revises the recent critical reception of the Tractatus as emblematic of modernist aesthetics and locates the connection between Wittgenstein and writers of the postwar era in a specific aesthetic form. Indeed, what makes LeMahieu’s text so original is that he not only addresses the literary qualities of Wittgenstein’s text but also traces its aesthetic form to the very works that so loudly responded to the empirical philosophy of logical positivism. As LeMahieu notes, the central tenets of the philosophy of logical positivism—stemming from the Vienna Circle’s interpretation of the Tractatus—include “an empirical approach to knowledge, a physicalist understanding of language, a verificationist criterion of meaning, an emotivist theory of ethics, and the elimination of metaphysics” (25). In other words, language can only contain meaning if its propositions can be verified; unverifiable uses of language—for example, regarding questions of religion, morality and emotion—are thus mere nonsense, and should be “pass[ed] over in silence” (LeMahieu 23). But as LeMahieu points out, the Tractatus was anything but clear on these points. Indeed, Wittgenstein’s relationship with the Vienna Circle was often rather tense, and some of the Circle’s members—Rudolf Carnap in particular—were unable to fully embrace his work without qualms. Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein’s former instructor, shared Carnap’s hesitation:

What causes hesitation is the fact that, after all, Mr. Wittgenstein manages to say a good deal about what cannot be said, thus suggesting to the skeptical reader that possibly there may be some loophole through a hierarchy of languages, or by some other exit. The whole subject of ethics, for example, is placed by Mr. Wittgenstein in the mystical, inexpressible region. Nevertheless he is capable of conveying his ethical opinions. His defense would be that what he calls the mystical can be shown, although it cannot be said. It may be that this defence is adequate, but for my part, I confess that it leaves me with a certain sense of intellectual discomfort. (LeMahieu 27).

Yet while the typical response for the Vienna Circle was to simply dismiss Wittgenstein’s more mystical uses of language—in particular, his closing remarks—LeMahieu situates these as essential to the Tractatus’s peculiarly aesthetic character. In his first chapter, LeMahieu argues that the Tractatus “strategically counters its own logical and aesthetic positivism with a form of aesthetic negativism” (LeMahieu 50); in other words, Wittgenstein takes as much interest in what is not said as in what the text explicitly states. LeMahieu cites Wittgenstein’s letter to Ludwig von Ficker—the very letter cited for similar reasons by Ben Ware in “Ethics and the Literary in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus“—in which Wittgenstein himself explains that his “work consists of two parts: of the one which is here, and of everything which I have not written. And precisely this second part is the important one” (48). In such a reading, Wittgenstein’s closing remarks—that “[w]hat we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” (LeMahieu 23)—is less an affirmation of the superiority of factual, speakable language than a critique of such a positivist linguistic approach. In LeMahieu’s own terms, “the Tractatus instantiates the logical positivist philosophy to which postwar writers would respond, even as it initiates, avant la lettre, its own response to logical positivism” (24). LeMahieu’s fascinating reading of the Tractatus thus illuminates his brief exploration of Don DeLillo’s End Zone in the introduction. For Gary Harkness, the novel’s narrator, the deconstruction of linguistic jargon toward “[t]he end zone of … pure silence” is his attempt to “begin to reword the overflowing world” (7). Silence is Gary’s alternative to a world in which, as Baudrillard has it, “there is more and more information, and less and less meaning” (Baudrillard 79).

Taking into account Wittgenstein’s aesthetic framework, the title of LeMahieu’s first chapter, “Indigestible Residues”—derived from Theodor Adorno’s “Why Philosophy?”—takes on a bit of an ironic tone. For Adorno, these “indigestible residues”—the very stuff of metaphysics, “or, in the terminology of those who know little of it, art” (36)—comprised the substances of human experience that a strictly logical positivist philosophy—which, for Adorno, LeMahieu argues, was synonymous with the Tractatus—was wholly unable to “digest.” As such, Adorno saw in logical positivism a direct threat to the production of art and, indeed, to the project of philosophy in general. Yet as LeMahieu makes clear, Adorno’s conceptualization of the Tractatus, and his haste to position Wittgenstein as the “Prince of Positivists,” stemmed in large part from a profound misreading of the text (29). Through LeMahieu’s articulation of the Tractatus’s aesthetic negativism, the irony comes full circle: “Adorno’s concept of negative dialectics supplies the terms that make legible Wittgenstein’s negative aesthetics even as they reveal Adorno to blind himself to the reading of the Tractatus that his own thought enables” (24). In any case, Adorno’s indictment of positivism and his “characterization” of Wittgenstein in fact “shaped the way that positivism was received in later postmodern theory and criticism” (29).

Indeed, a number of literary scholars and writers adopted Adorno’s repudiation of logical positivism. Tracing the writings of Irving Howe, Phillip Roth, Wallace Stevens and Mary McCarthy, LeMahieu argues that, for most critics, the postmodern era intensified the fact/value problem: “one cannot affirm, or even describe, the values of a given society when its facts defy belief” (56). In other words, while modernist authors sought value under the assumed stability of factual social reality, the reality of the postwar world—the facts themselves—were quite unbelievable. Indeed, the horrors of the Second World War, the Third Reich’s attempted extermination of Jewish Europeans and the imminent threat of nuclear holocaust—as “facts” defining the postwar era—were quite difficult to believe, let alone express in a narrative form. The issue for postwar novelists, as Flannery O’Connor had noted, was the seemingly impossible task of constructing a “believable society” within the body of the novel (LeMahieu 56). In his third chapter, LeMahieu notes that the instability of facts in the postwar world highlight the “narrative, logical, affective, and ethical exhaustion” that characterized John Barth’s first two novels (87). Barth’s positivist characters embody the supposedly value-less philosophy of logical positivism. Barth seems to suggest that Joe Morgan’s tendency toward domestic violence in The End of the Road stems from his perception of the world as populated entirely by facts: “Morgan’s problem, Horner suggests, the reason for his monstrousness, is that his version of the facts and his use of logic exist completely apart from any concept of value” (LeMahieu 99). Yet in Barth’s repudiation of value-less, unethical positivism, the text recalls Wittgenstein’s own discussion on ethics. In Wittgenstein’s own words, “[m]y whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language” (LeMahieu 95). Recalling that silence, the unsaid, is the very space in which ethics exists, and further that it is precisely what remained unsaid in the Tractatus that was its most significant part, Barth’s decision to close The End of the Road in a “hopeless” silence in fact embodies Wittgenstein’s aesthetic project (LeMahieu 110). In a similar manner, as LeMahieu points out in his second chapter, Flannery O’Connor conceives of the logical positivist worldview as dangerously close to nihilism. More specifically, “positivism is nihilistic in its denial of objective status to moral judgments or religious beliefs” (LeMahieu 52). LeMahieu thus lays out O’Connor’s aesthetic project in her fiction as embodying such religious and moral experiences in what O’Connor had herself termed “negative appearance” (LeMahieu 52). “Nothing,” for O’Connor, is itself a sort of negative presence. Yet it is precisely within this sort of negative presence that Wittgenstein locates the most significant aspects of the Tractatus, in what “we must pass over in silence.” O’Connor and Barth, then, in their very responses to the philosophy of logical positivism, in fact instantiate the very aesthetic form embodied in the Tractatus.

The most compelling aspect of Fictions of Fact and Value, brought to light in the introduction, is made clear throughout its final two chapters. Through a close examination of primary source materials—letters, early drafts, annotated typescripts, etc.—LeMahieu demonstrates that the literal erasure of logical positivism from the bodies of the texts exemplifies Wittgenstein’s aesthetic negativism; logical positivist philosophy thus takes on a negative presence unto itself. Indeed, End Zone’s preoccupation with silence takes on new meaning when DeLillo’s character notes are considered. LeMahieu examines a list of potential characters to fill the role of “The Spectator,” including Rilke, Wittgenstein, DeLillo himself and “Man with flesh growing over mouth,” a figure who appears to Gary Harkness as a hallucination at the end of a football game (10). As LeMahieu argues, “the cumulative effect of these ‘spectator’ figures in End Zone is to transform the novel’s theme of silence into a meditation on unspeakability” (9-10). Indeed, the “Man with flesh growing over mouth” appears to Gary as a man with “his hand over his mouth … [who] seemed to be trying to speak to me, but under the circumstances it was not possible to tell what he was saying or even in what language he was saying it” (DeLillo 141). For both DeLillo and Wittgenstein, then, silence is not merely the absence of language but in fact a negative presence. In its silencing or erasure from postwar fiction, logical positivism takes on precisely this sort of presence-in-absence. In his fourth chapter, LeMahieu examines early drafts of Saul Bellow’s “Zetland: By a Character Witness” to show that the story’s invocation of logical positivism is accomplished through its very erasure of positivist philosophy. Bellow models Zet after his recently deceased friend and fellow writer, Isaac Rosenfeld. Like Rosenfeld, Zet was originally intrigued by logical positivism but eventually made the transformation from “logical philosopher to literary intellectual” (LeMahieu 121). The transformation, for both writer and character, was brought about by logical positivism’s failure to account for what Rosenfeld referred to as “that nonpropositional, vague, metaphysical anguish which is nonsense technically, yet morally often the watershed of sanity” (LeMahieu 118). Yet despite logical positivism’s significant influence on the short story—the philosophy is indeed embodied in its main character—Bellow makes an effort to remove it explicitly from the work. Working with the Saul Bellow Papers held by the Regenstein Library Special Collections of the University of Chicago, LeMahieu addresses the page in which Zet explicitly summons positivist philosophy by declaring, “No more logical positivism for me.” The page, however, is graced by an enormous X, stretching from corner to corner. Bellow’s conscious “crossing out” here thus serves as “an emblem for the influence and erasure of logical positivism in postwar American fiction” (LeMahieu 121).

For LeMahieu, the erasure of logical positivism, as an embodiment of Wittgenstein’s aesthetic negativism, serves as a critical revision by postwar authors of modernist aesthetic approaches. Indeed, if, as both LeMahieu and Ben Ware have argued, Wittgenstein’s aesthetic negativism offers a critique of modernist aesthetics even as it embraces the very principles of modernism, then Thomas Pynchon’s V. provides LeMahieu with a crucial literary connection. In his fifth and final chapter, LeMahieu focuses primarily on V.’s ninth chapter, “Mondaugen’s Story,” and his examination of unpublished typescripts certainly invites comparison with the work of Luc Herman and John Krafft. Herman and Krafft also make use of the material held by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRC), and they also focus primarily on “Mondaugen’s Story.” The similarities seem to end there, however, as these scholars arrive at drastically different conclusions. For Krafft and Herman, Pynchon’s use of “the dream as a vehicle of (historical) truth” is exemplary of a modernist aesthetic: “the narrative … suggests a commitment, at this early stage in Pynchon’s career, to the power of modernist representation” (Herman and Krafft 262). Even further, they argue, Pynchon’s decision to set the chapter in 1922—the year in which Ulysses and The Waste Land, along with the Tractatus’s first English translation, were published—was made not to parody but in fact to pay tribute to modernist aesthetics. In their own words,

the chapter’s augmented links with the rest of the novel and especially its promotion, near the end, of the dream as an intersubjective experience that yields insights into a reality more profound than those available in conventional realism seem to call for an interpretation of Pynchon’s historiographic approach as indebted to modernism rather than geared to the subversion of expectations raised by the year in which the chapter’s events take place. (Herman and Krafft 269)

Certainly, LeMahieu would concede Pynchon’s indebtedness to modernist aesthetics. Yet Fictions of Fact and Value concludes that Pynchon’s revisions to V.’s ninth chapter, in its very embodiment of Wittgenstein’s aesthetic negativism, serve to criticize both a specific reading of the Tractatus and modernist literary approaches more generally. If, as the Tractatus’s opening asserts, “the world is all that is the case,” for Pynchon, “the world” is a concept that doesn’t match its object: “it aspires to completeness but always remains incomplete. Herein lies Pynchon’s critique of modernism and positivism alike: their aspirations for totality are premised on a false and solipsistic concept of completeness, one that ignores that which falls outside of its purview, including questions of value and the voices of objectified colonial subjects” (156-7).

It is also here in LeMahieu’s final chapter that the erasure of logical positivism, as demonstrated through early typescripts, is perhaps most convincingly argued. In his examination of the typescripts of V.’s ninth chapter, LeMahieu asserts that “Pynchon’s criticisms of Wittgenstein as a modernist and positivist lead him to conclude ‘Mondaugen’s Story’ with an image that exemplifies Wittgenstein’s aesthetic negativism” (167). The chapter closes as Mondaugen leaves Foppl’s celebratory “state of siege,” meeting an injured Bondel man on the way (LeMahieu 182). The HRC’s typescripts and galleys show a chapter far more explicitly concerned with logical positivism and the fact/value problem than we are given in the published version of the novel. LeMahieu explains:

The archival evidence clearly suggests that Pynchon initially framed the chapter to instruct his readers to understand “Mondaugen’s Story” as a narrative of overcoming the fact/value problem: the Logical Positivist’s Progress not from atheism to religion but from technologocial measurement to mystical determinism, from logical positivism to Illogical Negativism… . In this sense, Pynchon’s change of title for the chapter is significant: he initially titled it “A siege-party,” and as such it clearly previewed his critique of modernism, colonialism, and fascism. In changing the title to “Mondaugen’s Story” he shifts attention to the protagonist’s Philosophenroman. Pynchon’s decision to delete this frame, and the material from that chapter that corresponds to it, functions as a literal erasure of the influence of logical positivism on his text. (LeMahieu 178)

It is the literal erasure of logical positivism that most clearly establishes its influence; within this erasure, LeMahieu locates Wittgenstein’s particular brand of aesthetic negativism: an aesthetics of the unsaid.

As LeMahieu suggests, the fact/value problem continues to linger today, well after the dissolution of the philosophical undertaking from which it was born. Indeed, if the postmodern world was characterized by the “unbelievability” of the facts, how can our “post-postmodern” world, to borrow the language of Jeffrey Nealon, be described (ix)? What roles do facts and values play in a world characterized not by the aftermath of a major global event but by a continuum of such events—a world “entering a period in which a kind of economic state of emergency is becoming permanent” (Žižek 86)? Although Fictions of Fact and Value deals with literary works up to 1975, its implications are certainly worth considering in the present. Indeed, the facts of the continual present seem to become only more and more unbelievable: shortly after events of 9/11 eroded decades of American military impenetrability and global hegemony, the 2008 global financial crisis undermined the growing faith in neoliberal capitalist practices that had brought into being a global economic system governed by institutions deemed “too big to fail” (Sorkin xiv). In these circumstances, LeMahieu suggests, literature remains the primary means by which we are to confront the fact/value problem. For just as postwar writers had embodied the entanglement of facts and values in their fictional works, so too is literature “[o]ne name we continue to give those entanglements” (LeMahieu 188).

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Print.

Conant, James. “Throwing Away the Top of the Ladder.” The Yale Review 79 (1991): 328-264. Print.

Conant, James and Cora Diamond. “On Reading the Tractatus Resolutely: Reply to Meredith Williams and Peter Sullivan.” Wittgenstein’s Lasting Significance. Ed. Max Kölbel and Bernhard Weiss. London: Routledge, 2004. 42-97. Print.

DeLillo, Don. End Zone. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. Print.

Herman, Luc, and John Krafft. “From the Ground Up: The Evolution of the South-West Africa Chapter in Pynchon’s V.” Contemporary Literature 47.2 (2006): 261-288. Print.

LeMahieu, Michael. Fictions of Fact and Value: The Erasure of Logical Positivism in American Literature, 1945-1975. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.

Nealon, Jeffrey. Post-Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism. Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2012. Print.

Putnam, Hilary. The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002. Print.

Sorkin, Andrew Ross. Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of how Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System from Crisis—and Themselves. New York: Penguin Books, 2010. Print.

Ware, Ben. “Ethics and the Literary in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus.” Journal of the History of Ideas 72.4 (2011): 595-611. Print.

______. “Wittgenstein, Modernity and the Critique of Modernism.” Textual Practice 27.2 (2013): 187-205. Print.

Weintraub, E. Roy. “Neoclassical Economics.” The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. Library of Economics and Liberty, 2002. Web. 27 April 2015.

Yu, Timothy. “Wittgenstein, Pedagogy, and Literary Criticism.” New Literary History 44 (2013): 361-378. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. “A Permanent Economic Emergency.” New Left Review 64 (2010): 85-95. Print.