7.08.2017

All That: On Words, Wittgenstein, Cunnilingus, & Yoga


Matthew Ritchie paints what I see when I see signification. Words go every which way, a great ooze and flow of factors.

So I'm going down on my sweetie the other day. At one juncture, as things heat up, she begins declaring, Yes! That, that, that! But to what, precisely, does that refer? I mean, I'm doing all kinds of things with my tongue, lips, and fingers at different intensities, rhythms, and speeds. Which that is that that?

This of course made me think of the opening to Wittgenstein's Philosophic Investigations in which Wittgenstein critiques Augustine's account of primary language acquisition (needless to say, this made for a less than erotic, albeit edifying, interlude). In recounting his early learning, Augustine tells us he learned language by adults pointing at an object and declaring its name: "Pencil," says Dad pointing at a pencil. It seems simple enough. But, as Wittgenstein points out, this might work only for nouns. After all, how does one point to justice? Or doom? Or love?

But this ostensive mode of language learning fails when it comes to nouns, too. Let's return to our Dad pointing at a pencil as he says, "Pencil." What exactly does pencil designate? The act of pointing? Any writing utensil? A long, but not that long, skinny object? An off-shade of yellow?

For Wittgenstein, this suggests that words do not primarily designate or signify per se. Words are not just pointers to things or, for that matter, ideas. Rather, words are actions within the social; the use of a word is a rhetorical event before it is a linguistic event (this was the topic of my dissertation, although I never referred to Wittgenstein for a variety of reasons — mostly because after reading the Ray Monk biography, I found Wittgenstein an unpleasant shnook who was always boxing students' ears and certainly not a genius — another case of too much information!). Anyway, this is all to say, a word is always used. Even a dictionary definition is a use. A dictionarist is a lepidopterist pinning a live butterfly: the word doesn't sit still while being defined. (Ask Lohren Green of Poetical Dictionary; rather than try to pin words in place, he put himself in motion with each word he defines — a protean methodology which is a clever, if beguiling, tactic.) A word is necessarily a performance of an action that, in turn, suggests, triggers, causes, prompts other words and actions. In Wittgenstein's parlance, a word is a move within a language game, a game that includes more than the word — the affect, politics, and power that flows through and determines what can and can't be said in a given circumstance (more Foucault's territory than Wittgenstein's).

For Wittgenstein, this is really a matter of logic and certainty. If words don't signify, how do we mean anything? But in this critique of Augustine's view of ostensive language acquisition, I see something else, as well: I see the many in the one. I see webs and oozes. 

This is what I see: To point and say that is to conjure an assemblage. This is always many — a network, perhaps, or a rhizome but in any case a multiplicity. There is rarely, if ever, a direct and single line between here and there, between word and meaning, word and thing, gesture and referent. In the seemingly simple act of saying this or that, there is always so much stuff going on. Entire worlds are initiated, reconfigured, bodies aligned and realigned, opportunities spawned, possibilities hedged.

Years ago, I went to the yoga class of a friend who was visiting and guest teaching. She'd instruct the class to put our pelvises forward or lie with a natural spine or some such thing. I had no idea what she was saying and, much to her chagrin, kept raising my hand for clarification. What did any of those words mean? I couldn't correlate her words with my body. The signification kept going astray, getting lost in the shuffle of associations, memories, clich├ęs, our distinctive understandings of our bodies.

Which made me avoid yoga classes. Sure, I avoided yoga classes for other reasons, most notably the humiliation I tend to feel when being asked to use my body in public (I don't dance, either). But I also avoided yoga classes because I knew I could and would never understand how the teacher's words related to this beanpole body of mine. As the words traveled from her lips to my ears, they'd inevitably get lost in the miasma of sweat and self-loathing.

An image from the teacher training at Kaya Yoga in Davis, CA. Yoga brings to the fore the strange and nebulous path between words and meaning.

And then I did yoga one-on-one with a great teacher (the radiant Kia Meaux). When I'd ask her what her words meant, she'd deflect and instead ask: What are you feeling? What a deft move! With that simple rhetorical move, she taught me that there was never to be a direct line between words and body. Or, rather, there is always a direct line but that line is not straight; it's curved, folded, and has multiple tendrils and tangents.  (The role of words in the teaching of yoga is a rich topic for another time.) There is no single there, no singular that.  There is always an exchange of multiplicities — her words and gestures and affects co-mingling with mine and more. There is always all this and all that, all mixed up together.

I thought I knew this from Wittgenstein, from Derrida, from Nietzsche, from 30 years of reading philosophy. Yet I still expected these yoga words to refer to a very particular posture, a bend of my back or knee or neck. Silly me! Words are not arrows, even if they sometimes pierce our hearts and souls. Words are nebulae. Words are webs. They participate in flows and fluxes that are affective, historical, cultural, personal, idiosyncratic, cosmic.

How, then, do I know what to do as my face is nuzzled between my lover's thighs and she's yelling That! That! That!? Well, I always know and never know. The question remains, more or less: What am I feeling? What feels right? Which is to say, it's a rhetorical matter, not a linguistic one. It's matter of making a move within the fray of bodies and sensations, not a matter of understanding. It's a matter of leaning into the ooze and flux and feeling my way through.

And so I just keep doing what I'm doing, listening for the various utterances of her body, verbal and otherwise, feeling out the elaborate conversation that is all exchanges, physical and verbal. I keep doing all that in order to continue all that. And, sometimes, it all comes to a glorious juncture. Which, of course, just leads elsewhere. Every that is always another all that.

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