Tragedy, Farce, and a Bungled Re-Make: American, Kakania, and Language

After more than forty years, Janik's and Toulmin's demanding Wittgenstein's Vienna (1972) holds up remarkably well. Their argument situates Wittgenstein's first major thoughts in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in the milieu of the generalized crisis of communication, and the problem of the limits of language and expression that was felt across many disciplines, from architecture, design, music, literature, and drama (including opera).  

They move from the broad (a description and analysis of culture and politics in Hapsburg [or Habsburg] Vienna) to very fine-grained analyses of philosophical positions and projects undertaken by inheritors of Kant, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard –especially Ernst Mach, Heinrich Hertz, Ludwig Boltzman, and Fritz Mauthner.  Janik and Toulmin see the Tractatus as fundamentally an ethical deed. The famous aphorisms found late in the text (especially Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen = Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent) were significantly misinterpreted by the positivists in the subsequent Vienna Circle (1920s) as meaning that such statements or expressions cannot be important: they "had equated the "important" with the the "verifiable" and dismissed all unverifiable propositionas "unimportant because unsayable" whereas the concluding section of the Tractatus insisted "though to deaf ears–that the unsayable alone has genuine value." (p. 220, the authors' emphases).

Janik and Toulmin then move outward from these fine-grained considerations back to the wider cultural impact –and in some cases mis-appropriation– of Wittgenstein's first and second thoughts.  (His second thoughts being his return to philosophy from the late 1920s to his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations.)  Throughout his work, Wittgenstein maintained a strong ethical interest in mapping what can be said, and what can be considered truthful under which circumstances.  His fundamentally polemical tone and strong ethical interest –highly individualistic, and tending to disregard historical change and development– were quite possibly his only effective way to communicate.  The professionalization of culture, which Viennese cultural originators (such as Wittgenstein, Loos, and Schoenberg) ironically and inadvertently set loose, created a new "orthodoxy" which in turn was susceptible of overthrow by cultural movements and developments which remain –despite discord– also the legitimate heirs of fin de siècle revisionist critiques.

The conditions of Austria "illustrate the ways in which famiiar processes of communal life manifest themselves, so to say, under conditions of abnormal pressure and temperature," and those conditions were provided –and amped up– by the reactionary assumptions and policies of the Hapsburgs from Francis I, Metternich, and Francis Joseph (Franz Josef).  The double-talk, avoidance, and utter fallacies of Austro-Hungarian politics and culture have an eerie ring in the contemporary world, especially in America, and the rising of a strong man to sweep all that aside is uncomfortably close to the Austrian politics of the 1920s and 1930s.  Janik and Toulman write,

If the experience of our own times gives us a new feeling for the Habsburg situation, so too –conversely– a greater familiarity with the life and times of men like [Karl] Kraus and Wittgenstein can help us see our own situation more clearly.  Nowadays as much as in the years before 1914, political dishonesty and deviousness quickly find expression in debased language, which blunts the sensitivity of the political agent himself [sic] to the character of his own actions and politics.  So the intention to deceive others ends by generating self-deceit. (p. 269)

Is there any better description of American politics of the 21st century?  Janik and Toulmin go on:

In other respects, too the Krausian problems about communication have counterparts in contemporary America.  However much the United States sets out to b a melting pot in which the children of former Europeans –and, to a lesser extent Asians and Africans–would learn to live together as a single American nation, this idealistic hope has been relaized in practice only in part.  The ethnic rivalries of Central Europe . . . [and] the prejudices of the Europeans toward [others] . . . all of these have been muted rather than forgotten, and every economic setback has the power to revive ethnic bitterness and racial feeling.  So, in the United States today, we often seem to be watching, while only half understanding, a bungled remake of some political drama originally played out in the last days of the Habsburg Empire. (p. 270)

This was published in 1972! –during the political dishonesty of the Nixon years.  How little seems to have changed –and the prejudices now are not even muted.  If there are any general lessons, the first the Janik and Toulmin find is: "a culture which erects insuperable barriers to meaningful discussion and real and urgent problems becomes, in a certain sense, pathological.  The pretense that things are other than they are cannot be kept up indefinitely. . . . Wherever constitutional theory and political practice part company for long enough from the realities of an actual situation, similar pathological syndromes can be expected." (pp. 272-273)  Further comment is hardly necessary: global climate change.

Karl Marx' famous observation that "all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice . . . the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce" must be extended in 2017.  Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte assumed dictatorial powers in France in 1851, a farce of the original Napoleon, the tragic.  We might add that tragedy of Hapsburg Europe, re-enacted as tragical farce by Richard Nixon in the United States, now returns . . . as a bungled re-make.  A bungled re-make that is comprised of equal parts of stupidity, incompetence, and malevolence: in a word, pathological.  Perhaps the only way forward now –while fully conscious of the a-historical, too-individualistic tendencies of the original –is to subject language and language games to vigorous and sharp critique, so that "language games "might have genuine force and application, only to the extent that they are themselves rooted in authentic forms of life." (p. 273)

What authentic forms of life are possible now?  How can we avoid a reactive revolution that will merely install a new false consciousness? How can language games rooted in authentic forms of life avoid deception –and self-deception, the kind of self-deception at the root of the pathological American politics of the present time?

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