Tuesday, April 15, 2014

I Mean...You Know What I Mean?

I'm not completely sure I know how to write this post. I've never taken a literary theory course, so my grasp of the concepts herein - especially hermeneutics - is based on clumsy research and hasty in-class explanations from professors. Despite these dangers, the topic has hounded me to create a blog post about itself over the last few weeks, so here we go.

A month ago, in my experimental lit class, our professor introduced the concept of "ostension." My notes say it this way:
the writer (& reader?) is hurled outside of language into a pre-hermeneutic state - the place where you know what something refers to w/o translating it into language (DFW?)
I needed more. I Googled ostension, and found only two results that actually helped instead of muddying things further: the book of the guy, Paul H. Fry, who applied the word to literary theory, and a book called (Re)Writing Craft by Tim Mayers. Much of the latter is available online from Google Books, and this is the relevant passage:
...there still exists a phenomenon called "ostension" in which the act of writing occasionally hurls the writer (and by extension the reader) into an ontologically prehermeneutic realm - a "place" where there is no meaning, only existence.
By "pre-hermeneutic," I think these people are referring to a place where there is no interpretation of language, nor any of the fuzziness and human baggage that interpretation brings to meaning. Instead, there is just an it - an ineffable whatever that really fine writing communicates directly to the reader's brain.

Have I bugged you to read "Good Old Neon" recently?* It's likely my favorite short story, perhaps my second favorite piece of writing altogether, and I think it succeeds at ostension by the time it reaches its conclusion, giving the reader thoughts and feelings that would be too confusing to explain easily in words but that are nevertheless pure and clear. (Although it might just be all the paradoxes piled on each other that create this impression.) Initially, though, the story labors in an obvious way toward clarity, to explication rather than intimation.

Despite my note in class, I think Wallace's goal is not generally ostension, but that his task is using excessive language to make meaning utterly clear to any reader [who owns a dictionary]. I think one of his central concerns is trying, through maximalism, to mitigate the hermeneutics problem - the problem of all those brains, all those varying worldviews, set to the same hunk of language.** So these are kind of two approaches to the same problem: ostension, which creates pre-hermeneutic meaning through weird linguistic/architectural techniques; and maximalism, lurching toward meaning through pages and pages of skilled and seductive overexplanation.

The book we were talking about in class when this ostension thing came up was This Is Not a Novel, an experimental work by David Markson, about whom Wallace himself was quite effusive in the late 1980s. The book creates ostension through parataxis - another term I learned that day which I still haven't quite learned - placing hundreds of factual sentences next to each other in order to create a certain effect. I loved the book, finding that it made me think and feel unique things about death, the human lifespan, coincidence, art, the act of creation, etc. (It was not well-received by everyone in class.) Few of these themes were brought out specifically in the text, but all the unadorned, uninterpreted facts in juxtaposition for 190 pages meant that my mind leapt to these places nonetheless.

Incidentally, you'll get some weird shit if you Google ostension, because it
means completely different things to philosophers and folklorists. 

I recognized something like this feeling from reading Faulkner. I told Matt while we were reading As I Lay Dying in my other class that I found Faulkner maddeningly vague and yet repetitious. He doesn't give you anything like the full picture, but he repeats certain details over and over in varying ways so that you feel like you have a good grip on the situation. Is that ostension? Or is that just...what Faulkner does?

Of course, being that I can hardly recognize ostension as a reader, I doubt I'm capable of bringing it into my work as a writer. It's a high bar. Communicating right to the reader's brain is the whole point, and doing so with technique and language rather than with less expensive tricks, like a cipher protagonist or exotic backdrops, is a nice goal to have in mind for my work. By the year 2026, maybe.

*If you can't make it through "Good Old Neon," here's an article about it that communicates the essentials. I disagree with some of the author's opinions, but it's still really helpful. I feel it necessary to note that the story's continuous waltz with the theme of suicide is probably irrelevant to David Foster Wallace's actual ending of his own life. His illness was well-controlled at the time he wrote the story.

**Although not in all his works. I don't claim to know what he was up to in Infinite Jest, but I think if it was this, it was not a consistent goal for the whole text. Certainly in his nonfiction, though, and later short stories, I recognized this endeavor.

***Do not use me as a source. If you know more about this than I do, please, please, please leave comments correcting me.***

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