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Notes and Fragments WITTGENSTEIN AS A MODERNIST PHILOSOPHER by Michael Fischer Much attention has recently been given to Martin Heidegger and his disturbing relationship to fascism. I want here to look at another philosopher in this context: Ludwig Wittgenstein. As a source of insight into the politics of modernism, Wittgenstein would seem to have at least three strikes against him. His explicit political pronouncements are rare; his relationship to literary modernism is unclear; and the political implications of his philosophical writings are notoriously difficult to assess. Perhaps for these reasons, discussions of modernism usually omit Wittgenstein, and discussions ofWittgenstein usually ignore modernism. Stanley Cavell is an important exception to this tendency, and his early essays collected in Must We Mean What We Say?1 will be my starting point here. I will be reviewing in very general terms how Cavell defines modernism; how his definition encourages us to read Wittgenstein as a modernist philosopher; and, finally, how aligning Wittgenstein with modernism can shed light on its troubling politics. Cavell's comments on modernism initially concern painting, sculpture , and music. He is interested in how modernist forms of these arts touch off radical uncertainty in their audiences. According to Cavell, when we confront a sculpture by Anthony Caro, a painting by Morris Louis, or a composition by Arnold Schoenberg, we wonder, not whether the particular piece is good art but whether it is art at all. Fraudulence, in other words, is always a possibility risked by modernist art, not a threat that disappears over time when the work commands a high price or an academic following or is housed in museums or heard in concert Philosophy and Literature, © 1993, 17: 279-285 280Philosophy and Literature halls. Commenting on the vain hope that time will tell whether a given work is really art, Cavell skeptically asks What will time tell? That certain departures in art-like pursuits have become established (among certain audiences, in textbooks, on walls, in college courses); that someone is treating them with the respect due, we feel, to art; that one no longer has the right to question their status? But in waiting for time to tell that, we miss what the present tells—that the dangers of fraudulence, and of trust, are essential to the experience of art. (pp. 188-89) We trust that a given modernist piece is art—we cannot know for sure— and that trust can always be betrayed. That is the risk we run in experiencing such art, the risk that arises when we feel that someone always has the right to question the work's status as art: hence the many legendary stories of the riots and walkouts and outrages that have marked the reception ofmodernist art when audience members angrily suspect that they have been taken in or used. "It is as though," Cavell writes, "the impube to shout fraud and storm out is always present, but fear of the possible consequence overmasters the impulse" (pp. 2056 ). From this point of view, we may keep quiet, or stay seated, out of anxiety rather than conviction. We fear that in rejecting a work, we may be exposing ourselves, revealing our own lack of sophistication or taste, not the work's. Put a bit differently, we do not know whether our attention to the work isjustified by the work or by what others say about it. Because the reception of modernist art is so uncertain, manifestoes and prefaces typically try to influence our response to it, as if the art does not simply benefit from explanation but stands in need of it. For me, Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads illustrates this problem. Like the modernists discussed by Cavell, Wordsworth suspects that his readers will "struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness" when they encounter his work: "they will look round for poetry" and be disappointed by Wordsworth's prosaic style.2 To orient these readers, to help them feel more at home with what he has done, Wordsworth reluctandy writes a preface, hoping to explain his poetry but not explain it away by assimilating it to poetry as his readers conventionally regard it. According to Wordsworth, we appreciate his poems not...


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