Peg O'Connor, Morality and Our Complicated Form of Life: feminist Wittgensteinian metaethics, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008
Words such as ‘tapestry,’ ‘fabric,’ ‘web,’ ‘spin,’ ‘knit,’ and ‘weave’ tirelessly inform descriptions of dance-works. This crisscrossing practice of critical language pictures a tangled web of concepts. It is, however, a tangled web (and peace to Sir Walter Scott) that describes rather than deceives. And so, in the language game of dance criticism Peg O’Connor’s Wittgenstein brightened book, “Morality and Our Complicated Form of Life, Feminist Wittgensteinian Metaethics” and her concept of human life as a “felted contextuality” find aesthetic as well as meta-ethical possibilities.
“How can I describe the world,” writes O’Connor in her book’s fourth chapter titled “Felted Contextualism: Heterogeneous Stability,” “In a way that highlights the myriad ways in which all the elements of our world are imbricated, and mutually constitutive, dependent, and enmeshed?” One quickly connects both to O’Connor’s sense of the world as well as her search for the right word or the acceptable image when ‘dance-work’ stands in for ‘world’ in her question. In her search, O’ Connor, for example, rejects words often used by Wittgenstein such as ‘mish-mash,’ ‘hurly-burly,’ ‘weaves,’ ‘patterns,’ and words used by others such as ‘entanglement,’ ‘networks,’ and ‘entwinement’ as “too hard to depict.” She settles, however, “on the image of a felted sweater.” She writes, “Felting is a process that transforms wool fibers-often yarn- into a dense mat, in which individual fibers can no longer be distinguished.” The neat rows of knitting disappear. Heat, soap, and agitation cause the hooks and barbs of “wool fiber shafts to tangle up, becoming tighter and tighter until they cannot be separated.” And once composed, she illumined her ‘felted world’ picture with the critical light that, “Our world is one in which human agency, facts of nature, social practices, and so forth are felted together, where fibers have opened up and closed down over one another, creating a weave that cannot be untangled.” If indeed “our world is one…” as O’Connor depicts it, then the fibers of aesthetics close down over those of ethics and cannot be untangled. In O’Connor’s felted world Wittgenstein’s statement that, “Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same,” can be so.
But to make this felted world so, however, O’Connor challenges as Wittgenstein challenges in his “Philosophical Investigations” the ‘world –language divide.’ This dualistic image reports that, first, there is a world and that, second, there is language; the philosophical question is: how does one graph this relationship, or how do the dots of world and language connect. For the ‘realist’ in their world of empirically or logically verifiable propositions, a hard durable line of correspondence connects world and word. For the ‘anti-realist’ in their world of chance, an intermittent, squiggly, and erasable line plots but passing connections. For the ‘realist’ the logo “In God We Trust” in some way mints the straight connection between world and word and thereby guarantees a word’s or proposition’s meaning or truth. In contrast, the ‘anti-realist’ argues that because language is an invention of humans a word’s connection to the world is contingent, arbitrary, and relative to a person’s culture and particular time. For the ‘anti-realist,’ then, the line of Trust between world and word is capricious. In Wittgenstein’s as well as O’Connor’s view, however, both the ‘realist’ and ‘anti-realist’ arguments illustrate aspects of rather than the foundations of language use; nevertheless, both realist and anti-realist err in their assumption of a world-word divide.
In the realm of arts criticism, for example, the world-language divide is a dream of reason that produces monsters. One such monster, for example, reasons that poems, whose words are now after Nietzsche bereft of their God minted guarantee of meaning, speak as if they were a severed head. Poetry, the oracular severed head, speaks in many voices that come from nowhere; and too in this meaning un-minted world, ‘soul’ is ‘just’ another pronoun. Similarly, in a recent study of Tudor’s works, the writer claims that ‘meanings’ float (circulate in fact) like the Cheshire cat’s smile free from the anchorage of any one face. All of this is to say that because language lacks any minted, whether by divine, logical, or empirical, guarantee of reference or correspondence to the ‘real’ world the lines of connection between world and language must ‘always already’ be fleeting and doubtful. This is a dream of reason: there is a world; and above it language floats. And in this dream the value of ‘meanings,’ that is the capricious representation of the world by language, exchanged by humans happens upon a currency backed only by tenuous convention.
But in O’Connor’s ‘felted’ world, however, going to the supermarket to shop for Wittgenstein’s ‘five red apples’ is hardly an issue of world and its ‘capricious representation’ by language. How, for example, does the shopper know what five, red, and apples mean? Because, as Wittgenstein has written, the shopper speaks, in this instance, English; and to use a language is to know, to live in a form of life. And that means to see a fellow shopper is to see a fellow soul rather than just another shopping pronoun; and this ‘seeing’ is not an opinion, but rather a ‘given’ in ‘our form of life.’ Here the concept of seeing felts together with thinking (ethically) and feeling and acting (morally) and responding (aesthetically) and more without hesitation-no metaphysical or vulgar political guarantee of meaning required. Simply stated, language constitutes rather than represents. And the minted authority or in O’Connor’s words the “heterogeneous stability” of any language, or grammar, hardly rests on either divine intervention, transcendental logic, or ‘political’ form of agreement, but rather looms from the myriad of filaments generated by its uses and users. To see, to speak, and to gesture (e.g. to dance and to create dance-works) is to spin in and with the conceptual threads of our “complicated form of life.” It is as if to say that, “we write our lives with a felt tipped pen. And that our lives are a work in progress; and that persons are always on the way and always making choices. And those choices are deeds; and these, to borrow the words from Arthur C. Danto’s definition of art, ‘embody thought, have content, and convey meaning.’” In this felted world, Tudor’s “Dark Elegies,” for example, offers possibilities of being; it offers an array of threads for the weaving of one’s life whether for the moment only or into the tapestry of one’s memory. In one’s view, O’Connor’s felted world image draws Wittgenstein’s argument that “ethics and aesthetics are one and the same” near.