WITTGENSTEIN AND POLITICAL THOUGHT

Introduced by Dr Robin Holt, Univ. of Southamptonon 16 December 1997

 

Politics is a concern with the ordinance of affective and affecting power. To affect and be affected requires a sense both of being and belonging which exist in a shifting state of tension: the disclosure of one's power to affect from within those institutions setting limits upon such affectivity. The conjunction of politics with Wittgenstein, then, is not so much an adumbration of any ideological message in Wittgenstein, there is none, but an investigation of the practice of setting, following and breaking of limits. These practices are grammatical, a limit being what counts as a limit within a certain language game; we have a sense of being and belonging through our use of language. In speaking a language people not only discover and confirm their identity but are forever re-inventing themselves; using rules in ways different from those previously intended. The representations under which a rule arises are in being manipulated changed by acts of appropriation. In speaking a language we are exercising our will which in turn requires the imagination to see things as one way and not another, as dawning upon us as aspects. To see aspects is to bear witness to one way of approaching reality from within a language, of which there are many possible others. What is interesting here is the power to affect and to be affected are manifest in disciplines and techniques in a reciprocal alertness which is then assimilated back into dominant language. That we are always caught by dominant languages, which we may then disrupt, reflects the inherently political nature of language. Wittgenstein makes us realise there are no proper places, no positions of possible mastery, even in politics itself. This reflects a critical return of the ordinary, refuting all would-be authorities in a continual motion towards the unknown, an overture to difference.

The implication is that Wittgenstein embodies a severe critique of those for whom politics is a science of goal application; the explicit imposition of aims upon people serves to dilute their imagination; they let language idle in generalizations. Wittgenstein himself was alive to such risks - being weaned in Kakania one can expect nothing less. Amongst the din of empty phrase, what Kraus called the enslavement of language with the prattle, stupidity and candle wax ornamentation of the Viennese, there was an endless play of imitation, of action being nothing more than a performance in accord with what works best, with what is most comfortable: a lazy and stagnant repose. Kraus despaired at such complacency, he wished to immunize himself against so much babble by the nurturing of a constantly dissolving, destructive identity. Instead of pandering to the dominant methods of organized living he would listen to no one but himself, would practice self exposure to the point that he trembled only before himself, never others. Wittgenstein's work is an embodiment of such a merciless investigation; a struggle with who we are - a sense of guilt at our own complicit state as language users, as beings in a world which, no matter how much we flail, wends and warps with us, in us.

Viewing politics from a Wittgensteinian aspect casts the practice of affected powers as one of making designations, not imposing rival designs, a practice which is followed to the extent their exists agreement to abide by regularities. It is only at this unspoken pre-political level that the recognition of how things are necessarily has grip. It is a recognition of the necessity of imagination to speaking a language whereby we can meaningfully said to be willing to be guided by rules. Here understanding gives way to pure expression. Elsewhere we are constantly exposed to the tone of things. This exposure seeps throughout different language games but the complacencies of language, its conditioning tropes, its idiosyncrasies, its experiments, its
unravelling, cannot be corralled into the sphere of imagination. Imagination is what is required to speak a language, and this aspect-seeing cannot be occluded by a specific design. A Wittgensteinian politics acknowledges the fundamentality of the imagination - it would start nowhere (with neither first principles nor effects) and would constitute recognition of the inherently political nature of language use, of how designations are fixed in language, of how language users un-fix and re-fix such designations in the following of linguistic practices.

Robin Holt.