Jody Azzouni


Numbered Paragraphs: An Essay on Aesthetics

Originally published in The Lust for Blueprints, 1999, 2001
Added 10/03/2013
Download PDF

Send in Your Comments

Numbered Paragraphs: An Essay on Aesthetics

Critique | Jody's Notes

Jody's Notes

Of course I had Wittgenstein's Tractatus in mind--although not particularly in mind. I don't know (and didn't worry about) what he took his own numbering system to indicate. What I borrowed from him I understood to indicate a sequence of statements accompanied by footnotes themselves involving further footnotes, and so on. (I rather like footnotes, and so a structure primarily composed of a system of interated footnotes appeals to me.) I also thought it important to indicate what sort of say/show distinction I was willing to commit myself to, and how it would play out in a particular bit of aesthetics.


Because it was published in a book of poetry, more than one individual thought it actually was a poem. That would have involved quite a bit of textual irony--given especially the footnotes to the footnotes to ... to the footnotes to line 3. But it's not a poem.


It's a piece of philosophy--but an odd sort of philosophy: one where all the arguments (pretty much) have been left out. Still (or so I'd like to believe) what the arguments have to be can be reconstructed by the assiduous reader. You, for example. 

1                      We express our personality by what we say and by what we do.


1.1                   What is said with words can be described in words easily. (We can put

quote marks around what we said.)


1.2                   What we do, we do in many ways, and all these ways “show” a



1.21                 “Style” is a word sometimes used to describe this. Style is the invention of

                        a pattern of variations where variations are allowed to be invented.


1.211               (It cannot be seen ahead of time what variations are allowed to be



1.212               Personality is shown when variations coalesce into a pattern we can



1.2121             (Consistency is not required of such a pattern. What would it mean to be

                        inconsistent? To open and close a door simultaneously?)


1.213               Those who invent a pattern of variations that is not allowed to be

                        invented always show the same personality—the outlaw—as long as

those variations are not allowed. (Later retrospection can reclassify outlaws as showing distinct personalities.)


1.2131             “Outlaws are capable of anything.” (Of course this is never true.)


1.22                 “Body language” is not a language. (Body movements show things; they

                        do not say things.We do not “do” languages; we speak languages.)


1.221               Sign language is a language. But, of course, sign language is not “body



1.222               Just as we can talk about words, we can talk about actions. We can talk

                        about what actions show. (But we can’t use quote marks. We can use

                        videotape and point out things to each other.)


1.2221             Perhaps we sometimes confuse what actions show with how we can use

                        terms about those actions to refer to what actions show.


1.23                 We cannot speak without acting. (We cannot speak without showing



1.231               And our actions always show more than we say. (Unless they don’t

                        coalesce into a pattern. Unless we are outlaws.)


1.232               Actions are often habitual, and the actor can be unaware of them.


1.2321             We usually communicate more than we are aware of by what we show.

                        (We “reveal” more than we realize.)


1.2322             (Unless we are professional actors.)


1.2323             We often dislike someone because he has shown us something, revealed

                        something—his personality. And yet his words are impeccable: they

                        reveal nothing like what they show. We too, sometimes, can’t put what

                        we’ve seen into words. We “smell” trouble.


1.23231           (We need to practice coining new words.)


1.23232           “Personal chemistry” is always more a matter of what is shown rather than

                        of what is said. (We sometimes like or dislike a person more for how she

                        pauses between words or for how she arranges words in a sentence than

                        for what she says.)


1.233               I can say a sentence, and wave my hands (a certain way). I can say a

                        sentence, and pause between phrases (a certain way). I can say a sentence,

                        and make facial movements (a certain way). I can say a sentence, and

                        pitch the sound of my voice (a certain way).


1.2331             “A certain way,” must always be used here. This is because current

                        vocabulary fails us. Videotape is needed. (Or, a choreographic language

                        for what accompanies utterances is needed.)


1.23311           New vocabulary can always be invented.


1.2332             We can call the actions of the human accompanying the utterance the

                        “body” of the utterance.


1.23321           What is shown by an utterance is always shown by the body of the

                        utterance. (But not every aspect of the body shows something.)


1.23322           “Accompanying” suggests a metaphysical distinction where a

                        metaphysical distinction may not exist.


2                      Contemporary poetry is not an oratory art; it is a written art.


2.1                   Sometimes poetry is read aloud or is acted with great skill, but

                        nevertheless it is evaluated solely on the basis of what is communicated on

                        the page.


2.11                 This can change; this may change. But it is true now.


2.12                 Sound is communicated by words on a page just as sound is

communicated by a score. But this is not the same sound as what we hear

during any performance—even if the performance is one where we read

aloud to ourselves.


2.121               We can read something aloud in many different ways, and yet the sound

                        communicated by what we read is always the same.


2.2                   An inscription has a body just as an utterance has a body.


2.21                 The body of an inscription is both auditory and visual.


2.211               There is more to the body of an utterance than the auditory aspect of the

                        body of an inscription.


2.22                 The body of an inscrption always shows more than it says.


2.221               “The cat is in the hat,” says, “the cat is in the hat.” It shows this at least: its

                        second word rhymes with its sixth word.


2.222               What is shown by an inscription can be said elsewhere (in another

                        inscription, for example).


2.2221             Correction: What is shown by an inscription can be described elsewhere

                        (by another inscription, for example).


2.2222             To say what something shows is not to provide a translation into words of

                        what it shows. A pen is red (it shows its color); “The pen is red,” is not a

                        translation of this property of the pen; it is a statement that the pen has this



2.223               What is shown can be missed even if what is said is completely grasped.


2.2231             This is why there is literary criticism.


2.2232             We can explain poems. We can’t explain jokes. Why?


2.22321           Jokes have “punchlines”: they require knowledge, and they require a

                        surprise ending. Poems don’t require a surprise ending. The literary critic

                        can say what a poem shows (if we need it said to us), and after doing so,

                        we can read the poem again, and see what it shows directly while we read

                        what it says.


2.22322           (We can experience it again and aright after we’re prepared with

                        background knowledge. A poem that is “spoiled” after its first read, or by

                        being explained, is not a good poem.)


2.22323           (It’s pleasurable seeing what a poem says and seeing what it shows at the

                        same time. Poems are designed to be pleasurable in this way.)


2.224               “Skyscrapers are acupuncture needles,” is a metaphor. (For that matter,

                        “skyscraper” is a metaphor.)


2.2241             “Skyscrapers are acupuncture needles,” says something that isn’t true.


2.2242             Does it show something that is true? If we put what it shows into words

                        will we find that it shows something true?


2.22421           What is shown is neither true nor false: it just is.


2.22422           If we say what is shown, we say something that is true. (What we say is

                        shown is indeed shown, and that is why what we say is true.) But this is

                        not to make what is shown true. How would we do that?


2.2243             Suppose we say that what “skyscrapers are acupuncture needles” really

says is that skyscrapers look like acupuncture needles. But this isn’t what it says, so this isn’t what it really says either.


2.2244             Does “skyscrapers are acupuncture needles,” show that skyscrapers look

                        like acupuncture needles? How would it do that? An inscription only

                        shows its own properties, and some properties of its narrator, not the

                        properties of anything else.


2.2245             Does a pen’s redness show that the sunset is red? Does a pen’s redness

                        show that the sun is yellow? Does a pen’s redness show anything other

            than the pen’s redness?


2.2246             If an utterance is true, doesn’t it show something about what it says? No. It

says something, and what it says is true. But this is not to show anything about what it says.


2.2247             (Things only show things about themselves. Sentences only show things

                        about themselves and about those who say or write them.)


2.2248             Suppose we say that skyscrapers really look like acupuncture needles (or

                        that they really look like that if we’re in certain states of mind), and

                        suppose we say the poet was trying to attract our attention to this fact.


2.22481           We could say this. But what would this fact (if it were true) have to do

                        with Aesthetics?


2.22482           What is part of Aesthetics is the fact that the identification of skyscrapers with acupuncture needles makes associations that connect to other parts of the poem. This is shown and not said (by the entire poem).


2.22483           Not everyone would think to identify skyscrapers with acupuncture needles. This is not shown (but that the narrator purports to identify these things is shown).


3                      Personality can become an aesthetic object. It can be related to aesthetically. (These mean the same thing.)


3.1                   We call the personality of the artist, when viewed aesthetically, “sensibility.”


3.11                 Personality and sensibility are not the same things.


3.111               There is a fact/value distinction in Aesthetics. (Perhaps it is even called a fact/value distinction.)


3.112               How can such a sharp distinction exist in nature? It does not exist in nature. It is stipulated by us.


3.1121             There are places where gardens are art. (Not among us, of course.)


3.1122             Venetian noblemen masturbated, viewing the very same paintings that Schopenhauer, some centuries later, would claim the contemplation of which extinguishes sexual desire. These noblemen regarded the paintings aesthetically, just as Schopenhauer did. They were not confused about what they were looking at.


3.11221           (They didn’t think they were looking in windows.)


3.11222           To say that Schopenhauer was right and the noblemen wrong, or vice versa, is to suggest there is some fact of nature that will tell us when a psychological response to something is an aesthetic response and when it’s not.


3.1123             There are no psychological dispositions that come marked in nature as aesthetic responses, no psychological responses (even pleasurable ones at the sight of sunsets or birds) that automatically are aesthetic ones; there is no aesthetic faculty—in the visual cortex, say—no aesthetic module in the mind. (Or in the brain.)


3.11231           An aesthetic reaction to something is surely a reaction of pleasure, we’d say. Of course. But not just any pleasurable sensation is aesthetic—tickles, for example, are not aesthetic (so we say).


3.11232           And, we also say, some things that do not give us ordinary pleasure neverthless give us aesthetic pleasure.


3.112321         But this is a mistake. We see two people yelling at each other on stage, and we think, “If this were happening for real I would be repulsed.” But we cannot imagine what we think we can imagine: To take away the audience and the stage is to change the experience. To leave the audience and the stage, but change the assumption that what is happening is staged, is still to change the experience. And, of course, if it were happening for real, and I did not know it, I would not be repulsed.


3.1124             We stipulate which pleasures are aesthetic and which are not. And the proof is that different cultures stipulate these things differently.


3.1125             All sorts of (causal) factors influence where we stipulate the border between aesthetic pleasure and mere pleasure. Call the study of this the sociology of art. It looks striking that we are so labile in what we treat as aesthetic only if we forget that the border is stipulated.


3.11251           It is a hard question to answer to what extent what gives us pleasure is biologically fixed and to what extent it is not.


3.11252           (But this is not a question in Aesthetics.)


3.113               A fictional narrator can speak in the first person, and her sentences can show things which are not true of the author. But this is not the source of the fact/value distinction in Aesthetics. For even if the fictional narrator says everything that the author believes to be true, and if her sentences all show things which are true of the author, there is still the distinction between the personality of the author and the sensibility of the fictional narrator.


3.114               We say that the sensibility of the fictional narrator is depicted by the work of art (if it is) or shown by the work of art. (Or both.)


3.115               We never say that the personality of the author is depicted or shown by the work of art (unless we are confused). We say that the personality of the author is the cause of the work of art.


3.116               We can aesthetically condemn the sensibility depicted or shown in a work of art. We can’t morally condemn that sensibility. (But if we are confused, we can try to.)


3.1161             (When we are confused, we sometimes try to do something impossible. We succeed in doing something else, which is what always happens when we try to do something impossible.)


3.1162             (We seem to morally condemn characters in fiction: “Raskolnikov is a bad man,” we might say. And we might even say this in an angry tone of voice. But this is like saying “Raskolnikov has a sister,” or “Pegasus has wings.” We often say such things (and so it is alright to say them), but we should be clear about what we’re doing (and saying); what we must be doing (and saying).)


3.117               We can morally condemn an author. (We may, for example, aesthetically condemn the sensibility depicted in a work of art, and morally condemn the author for creating that sensibility.)


3.118               Dostoyevsky is a racist. His German or Polish characters are always presented quite negatively. Are there aesthetic flaws in his work as a result? Secondary characters in novels can be one-dimensional—good or bad—or just minor. (This is allowed aesthetically.) Doestoyevsky’s Polish and German characters are always minor ones.


3.12                 No work of art is autobiographical.


3.2                   Poetry is the most idiosyncratic of written artforms.


3.21                 One aim of good prose is to show sensibility despite the apparent uniformity of what prose shows.


3.22                 In poetry we are expected to show new sensibilities honestly.


3.221               This is a directive to poetry: this is a point about how poetry and prose are institutionally divided today; we can feel this difference between them because of what we are allowed to do.


3.2211             (There are always exceptions. And some of the greatest work is exceptional.)


3.23                 It is always easier to like new prose than it is to like new poetry.


3.231               You have to get used to new poetry. You have to get used to new people.


3.2311             (Unless, of course, they’re just like people you’ve met before. Or: they speak—pretty much—like people you’ve met before. Or: you avoid being intimate with them.)


3.232               Once upon a time, poetry was popular.


3.2321             Once upon a time, poetry had a different role. It did not show sensibility. (That was not its job.)


3.2322             It is hard (nowadays) for poetry to be popular. It is hard for people to be popular and intimate with the people they are popular among.


3.23221           (This is not a remark about lack of time.)


3.23222           The work of any poet is an acquired taste.


3.23223           (Except in cases of love at first sight.)


3.233               Originality in poetry today is only a matter of creating a new sensibility.


3.2331             (New to the canon, of course.)


3.2332             There are no schools in poetry. (“School,” in the sense of “school of fish.”)


3.23321           Poetry does not “celebrate one’s ethnicity.” Or one’s “gender.”


3.233211         (I could have written: “Poetry should not ‘celebrate one’s ethnicity,’” for, just as with logic, merely stipulative constraints are often transformed into the normative language of law and proscription.)


3.2333             Formalist experiments in poetry have a way of looking alike (the variations introduced don’t coalesce into patterns, or if they do, they seem to be the same patterns other formalist invent.)


3.23331           (We sometimes suspect all formalist poetry has been written by the same person, even if the tricks are different.)


3.23332           (They all show the same sensibility.)


3.22334           Confessional poetry fails when it doesn’t show a new sensibility.


3.23341           (New to the canon, of course.)


3.23342           Sylvia Plath didn’t have a new sort of personality: narcissistic rage, hysteria, melodrama, delusions: we’ve seen all this before.


3.233421         (Sylvia Plath couldn’t write short stories.)


3.23343           Sylvia Plath invented a new sensibility: We hadn’t seen that “voice” before. Not in poetry. (Where it matters.)


3.2335             Lyric poetry is not autobiography.


3.23351           Lyric poetry imitates autobiography.


3.233511         “Imitate,” is a good word. It puts a gap between the thing being imitated and the thing doing the imitation.


3.233512         Nevertheless, we often confuse the thing imitated and the thing imitating.


3.2335121       (Perhaps it is no coincidence that the poet—in English—we know least about is one we think is the best.)


3.23352           Poetry does not settle scores.


3.233521         Have poets taken revenge on relatives and friends through their poems? Of course.


3.2335211       (People stab each other with screwdrivers too. And yet, no instruction manual on screwdrivers describes the best way to do this.)


3.2335212       Have mathematicians taken revenge on others by proving new theorems? Perhaps. Perhaps some have thought they were doing this.


3.2335213       (The psychological process of transference is confused.)


3.23522           The desire for revenge (in an author) may cause a poem to have certain qualities.


3.233523         We can condemn an author (morally) for creating a poem with certain qualities.


3.233524         We cannot condemn the poem (aesthetically) because certain causes gave rise to certain qualities in it.


3.2335241       (God may visit punishment of the father’s sins unto his children: We are more logical than that.)


3.233525         We can only evaluate a poem’s qualities aesthetically.


3.23353           Poetry is only designed to provide aesthetic pleasure.


3.233531         This may make us think: If that is true, only gods could write poetry.


3.233532         But we have created an unreal problem.


3.2335321       Pleasure is an end in itself.


3.23353211     Sexual pleasure is an end in itself.


3.2335322       Perversity is the introduction of goals other than pleasure into the process of enjoying a pleasure.


3.23353221     (De Sade was a pervert.)


3.2335323       Those who have sex for the purpose of procreation are perverted.


3.2335323       (This doesn’t mean, of course, that someone who wants offspring is perverted.)


3.2335324       (Evolution’s “purposes” cannot be our purposes.)


3.2335325       Suppose someone says: “But there would be no sex if procreation were unnecessary.” (Amoebas don’t have sex.)


3.2335326       To talk about purposes in the case of evolution is really only to talk about causes.


3.2335326       And if A is the cause of why B gives me pleasure, it never follows that A is the reason why I pursue B. (Pleasure is always an end in itself.)


3.23353271     (Unless I’m perverse.)


3.2335328       Perversity (in poetry) is mediocrity.


3.2335329       The goal of a poet is to create poetry she enjoys.


3.23354           One’s political views are part of one’s biography.


3.233541         A poem does not express an author’s political views.


3.233542         (An author’s political views can cause a poem to have certain qualities.)


3.233543         A poem can imitate a political tract, of course. (Or a philosophical tract.)


3.233544         Only a confused author would try to change the world by writing poetry.


3.2335441       (Unless, of course, he was only pretending to write poems, and was really trying to do something else.)


3.2335442       (In this case, he would not be confused, although he would still be incompetent. And not necessarily as a poet.)


3.2336             Some playwrights have created new sensibilities. Shaw, for example. We should not confuse the sensibility shown by a writer with the fictional personae depicted (or shown).


3.2337             Can an artist create more than one sensibility? Is this what a dramatic poet does?


3.23371           Perhaps we do not allow artists to do this.


3.23372           (Unless the artist adopts a pseudonym we never discover.)


3.22373           This, too, is a matter of stipulation.


3.22374           Characters in plays show their “personalities” by what they do when they say things. Dramatic poets also have characters that show their “personalities.”


3.233741         For a character to show his personality is not the same as for the poet to show his sensibility. Even if both of them do it by means of exactly the same words. (At the same time.)


3.2337411       No narrator is only her words.


3.23374111     (This is why two types of narrators, using exactly the same words, can nevertheless show different things—have different properties that they show.)


3.23374112     (This is why nested narrators don’t create philosophical problems the way a statue and the clay it is composed of does.)


3.2337412       Everything can be imitated.


3.23374121     This is a license we extend to art.


4                      Biography aspires to be a science.


4.1                   Biography aspires to be a science the way that psychology and sociology aspire to be sciences.


4.12                 Psychology and Sociology study causes.


4.121               (This doesn’t mean psychologists and sociologists are successful at identifying causes. It is very hard to study causes, except in very simplified cases, such as in rigid-body dynamics.)


4.122               We have Mill’s methods.


4.1221             Factor analysis is a mathematized version of Mill’s methods.


4.13                 Some sciences have theories that enable us to identify causes more easily (Perhaps only such “sciences” should be called sciences.)


4.131               Freud invented no theories, in this sense. There are perhaps no theories in psychology or sociology, in this sense. (None yet, anyway.)


4.1311             (Biographers aren’t humble enough.)


4.2                   Literary criticism is not biography. Self-applied literary criticism is not autobiography.


4.21                 Suppose a poet shows a “fascination” or an “obsession” with light. Either this fascination “works” aesthetically or it doesn’t. We may not see the associations (they aren’t said), and the literary critic can point them out. (And, in this way, we can be brought to see whether the associations work or not.)


4.22                 The biographer can try to explain what caused the poet to make such associations—what is behind the poet’s metaphorical obsessions.


4.221               A great mathematician may be obsessed with triangles. This doesn’t show she wants to be a triangle, or that she identifies (in some way) with triangles, or that she is sexually attracted to triangles. Perhaps the causal mechanisms operate at some other level entirely. (Certain patterns are cognitively salient to her.) Perhaps the obsession is there only because the mathematician finds she can easily prove things about triangles, and not so easily prove things about other things.


4.2211             (Perhaps there is a genetic connection between the capacity to manipulate images of triangles, or apply algorithms to them, and certain sorts of dyslexia.)


4.222               A great poet’s obsession with things may be equally subtle (causally speaking). And also, perhaps he can easily create images about certain things and not about other things, and this has nothing to do with his psychology (as psychoanalysts would try to understand it), or with his biography (as his biographer would understand it).


4.2221             These are remarks about how hard intellectually-respectable biography really is.


4.23                 The scientist can say why gold has the properties it has. But this won’t orient us into appreciating those properties.


4.231               To know about something is one thing; to react aesthetically to it is quite another. To learn to appreciate poetry is to be oriented a certain way so that we can react to it aesthetically.


4.2311             Knowledge of causal facts is irrelevant to the experience of what smells good to us and what doesn’t. (Learning why something makes us gag is one thing; gagging over it is another.)


4.23111           (Learning facts cannot put us into the relation of getting pleasure from something unless it is precisely the pleasure of learning those facts that we are after.)


4.23112           This is about relating in one way to something and relating in another way to it.


4.2312             It is not the purpose of art to educate. Which is not to say that education is not needed to appreciate art.


4.23121           If a poem says things about milking cows, these things may be true. And you might learn about these things this way (if you don’t live on a farm, for example). But a poem can say things about milking cows that are false, and be a better poem as a result.


4.23122           Poems are not didactic.


4.231221         Poems can imitate the didactic, of course. Poems can also imitate the informative.


4.231222         Suppose someone says: “To invent a new sensibility is to teach us something. It is to teach us that people can be like this. We may not have realized before that people can be like this. (We may not have met anyone like this.) People like this might not even exist until after the poem is widely read and people begin to imitate the sensibility. Then a new sort of person arises.”


4.2312221       Even if this happens, it happens by accident. (We don’t give people credit for what they do by accident.)


4.2312222       A sensibility exists on paper, or on stage, or in other artificial settings. Why do we believe that if someone imitates such a thing, they have a personality that “matches” the sensibility? Why do we believe that what we aesthetically respond to corresponds to what exists?


4.23122221     (Something can’t be a little impossible.)


4.2312223       Why do we believe that because something is new to the stage or to poetry that it corresponds to something new about persons?


4.2312224       (A philosopher may take himself to be exploring “logical space”: among the possibilities here is our actual world. The inventor of a new sensibility is not exploring psychological space. She has invented a new aesthetic product. (She is only exploring aesthetic space.))


4.2312225       (Imitation is not a form of knowledge-gathering.)


4.23123           Stipulations are conventions. And conventions must be learnt.


5                      The point of literary criticism is not to evaluate.


5.1                   (“Evaluate,” in the sense of setting standards.)


5.2                   (This is not a remark about word usage; it is a remark about what is possible.)


5.3                   To describe what is shown is not to evaluate it. Once we have all the facts (we can see what is said; we can see what is shown; we can read the poem “in real time,” let its “events” unfold for us in their designed order), we can evaluate the poem ourselves.


5.31                 Evaluation is matter of comparing one experience against another. We must have access to both experiences to be able to do this. (We cannot evaluate experiences on hearsay.)


5.311               A philosopher’s word for “experience” is “qualia.”


5.312               Some philosophers claim that qualia does not exist. (Perhaps they are right.)


5.313               Perhaps there is more than one sense in which art involves illusion.


5.4                   One point of literary criticism is to warn us, save us from having the experience. (She’s already been down that road.)


6                      We decide what is art and what isn’t.


6.1                   This is why we think we take an ordinary garbage can, put it in a museum, and make it into art.


6.11                 (This is not to say we haven’t committed an abuse by doing this. We have to be able to relate to something aesthetically: we can be oriented into doing so (by being shown things) but we can’t be commanded into feeling pleasure.)


6.12                 (Bad art is often a matter of tyranny.)


6.13                 (We can be fooled aesthetically only if we accept things on authority or because it is fashionable.)


6.14                 (To accept something as art because it is fashionable is not to stipulate that it is art. For we can take something to be art because it is fashionable and not experience it aesthetically.)


6.2                   Knowing why something is pleasurable, feeling (mere) pleasure, and feeling aesthetic pleasure, are three different things.


6.21                 Knowing about something, being (merely) angry about it, and judging that that state of affairs is immoral, are also three different things.


6.22                 To relate to something morally is one thing; to relate to it aesthetically is another. Morality has no more to do with Aesthetics than Science does.


6.221               Poetry does not supply cautionary tales. (Except by accident.)


7                      Clear distinctions are always stipulated ones. We must not forget what we have stipulated.


7.1                   (Unless, of course, we want to do something else.)