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  • Perloff’s Wittgenstein: W(h)ither Poetic Theory?
  • David Kellogg (bio)

Though Marjorie Perloff has been one of the most powerful forces in contemporary poetry studies for some time, her work has not received the critical attention it warrants. Her latest book, Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary, provides an opportunity for reflection on a body of writing remarkable both in its consistency and its constant reinvention. Indeed, reading Perloff through Wittgenstein’s Ladder throws her other work over the last twenty years into a new light, as many concepts crucial to her vocabulary—not only theory but also modernism, artifice, avant-garde—are here turned around and forced into new roles. To ask whether and to what extent Wittgenstein’s Ladder constitutes a break in her career is simultaneously to raise the question of critical and poetic theory.

Theory Inside and Out

“It is in this sense that grammar may be said to replace theory,” writes Marjorie Perloff in the introduction to Wittgenstein’s Ladder [18]. The sense in question is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s, or rather the sense of the late (post-1929) Wittgenstein inflected through Perloff’s post-poststructuralist sensibility. As the sentence preceding this remarkable claim puts it: “For although the later Wittgenstein was to argue that grammar is precisely the key to understanding a given proposition, that there is no essence above and beyond a specific grammatical structure, one nevertheless must ‘distrust’ grammar in the sense of interrogating it as stringently as possible” [17–18].

Of course, formulations of theory as a style of distrust have been a commonplace in theoretical discourse for some time. It would not be difficult to argue that Perloff’s explicit advocacy of grammar through Wittgenstein—whose philosophy, she argues, “is indeed intentionally ‘antiphilosophical,’ its purpose being precisely to determine in what circumstances philosophy should be ‘against’ philosophy and why” [12]—is of a piece with recent attempts to think the limits of theory in theory itself. But such a reduction would seriously misread Perloff’s project. We would do well to question, for example, the obvious similarities between Perloff’s description of a duplicity in the project of grammar/theory and the model it might be taken as at once pointedly evoking and evading, Paul de Man’s now-classic essay “The Resistance to Theory.” Despite their apparent similarities, the startling claims of Wittgenstein’s Ladder have little in common with de Man’s suggestion that “resistance may be a built-in constituent of [theoretical] discourse,” and that “the polemical opposition, the systematic non-understanding and misrepresentation, the unsubstantial but eternally recurrent objections, are the displaced symptoms of a resistance inherent in the theoretical enterprise itself” [12].

For one thing, de Man explicitly distances his conception of a theoretical project deeply threatening to the claims of knowledge from one rooted in concepts of grammar: [End Page 67]

[A]s long as it remains grounded in grammar, any theory of language, includ-ing a literary one, does not threaten what we hold to be the underlying principle of all cognitive and aesthetic linguistic systems. Grammar stands in the service of logic which, in turn, allows for the passage to the knowledge of the world. The study of grammar, the first of the artes liberales, is the necessary pre-condition for scientific and humanistic knowledge. As long as it leaves this principle intact, there is nothing threatening about literary theory. The continuity between theory and phenomenalism is asserted and preserved by the system itself. Difficulties occur only when it is no longer possible to ignore the epistemological thrust of the rhetorical dimension of discourse, that is, when it is no longer possible to keep it in its place as a mere adjunct, a mere ornament within the semantic function.

[14; emphasis added]

In other words, de Man places grammar opposite the project of criticism, which he identifies with rhetoric and ultimately with reading. What de Man refers to as “the latent tension between rhetoric and grammar” is resolved decidedly in favor of the former: “the grammatical decoding of a text leaves a residue of indetermination that has to be, but cannot be, resolved by grammatical means, however...