We recorded forty-five-minute
conversations for thirty straight days around New York City. Half
these talks took place at a Union Square health-food store which, for
legal reasons, we call “W.F.” Other locations
included MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park, Prospect
Park and a Tribeca parking garage. For Lamination Colony’s
final issue we present a W.F. conversation that moves quickly from
rashes to Wittgenstein and phenomenology.
8:10 p.m. Tuesday, January 10
Union Square W.F.
J: …scoot down a bit?
A: This way? [Pause]
J: Ok there we go.
A: So the hair looks good but something else seems off.
J: Yes I’d I feel feverish today. I laid down for a rest then
passed out two hours.
A: Alone? Or with a furry friend?
J: The cat sensed my sickness and watched from a desk. But when I awoke
it jumped and clawed my feet, and as I brushed him away he scratched my
A: I saw; looks worse than the scar from Saturday night.
A: On Saturday you had to use vodka. Was that the case this…
J: That’s right: Lisa treated the scratch her cat gave me
with vodka. They had no rubbing alcohol. Today, since I got scratched
near my first-aid kit, which consists entirely of a tube of Neosporin,
I could treat myself, yet still felt tired. And since I was good for
basically nothing I went to get a haircut. I found a salon along
Bedford where country-rock played over small speakers. This barber
persuaded me in my my sickness to grow out the top of my hair.
Ordinarily I’d say No; I get one haircut a season. But today
I kept quiet.
A: If you want to expand the first-aid kit I have rash cream of yours
from several years past. It’s on a generic label.
J: Yeah what it is is generic…blank. We’ll have to
find the name for this rash cream. I can’t re—oh
yes, Tanactin. I bought generic Tanactin in of all towns
Manchester-by-the-Sea. One June I had a rash flare-up in Boston, and
thought I’d treat it from the North Shore. Pharmacists rate
the generic brand just as potent and soothing…
J: It solved my problems in a week, which seemed quick as far as rashes
A: Why don’t more men admit they get rashes in summer? I find
that, clean as you might be, waiting for a subway produces rash on the
groin. I’ve wondered if if this confirms a structural flaw in
the design of cities: if males need more delicate clothing down there;
if stations should stay better ventilated; or extra trains could come
on humid nights. It sounds like a preventable problem once
J: Well think…
A: into the open.
J: Right, perhaps this explains why many men take cabs during summer
months. Lots of sweating goes on in the tunnels. The only
relief’s when a train rolls down tracks producing a breeze
which, if you wear shorts, can make its way through fabric and dry off
A: I’ll spend much of August positioning my legs to to catch
that breeze. It’s nice I find, amid winter drafts (though now
it feels like flamingo country), to recall hot months when we’ll wear a sweater around the waist in case
it’s cool in a library, or subway cars—how while
summer fills us with the balm of health we still take precautions,
people at least…
A: like us. And that as natural as it seems to walk streets then, with
a light umbrella in your backpack for late afternoon, today it fits to
have a coat stifle you, to feel shoulders cramping on the subway, to
get smothered by passengers’ puffy jackets.
J: Yes I couldn’t focus on the Whitney’s Ed Ruscha
exhibit a couple years back. His [Cough]
books of photographs. Sorry.
A: Let let’s shift those coughs to the left.
J: His books appeal to me very much.
A: They’re among my favorite books because...
J: I had so much to learn from his approach and humor. The museum must
have been around sixty degrees, but I wore thin shorts and a sweaty
t-shirt. In fact, a few patrons followed me out, likewise complaining
about the cold.
A: I’ve trained myself to sleep with a scrunched neck at
Kristin’s, or [Cough]
air-conditioned gusts right in my ear.
J: How how will you sleep? Can you try...
J: Oh I see.
hard to hold all night.
J: Like a turtle.
A: Though I’ll picture turtles relaxed in bed.
J: But if they sleep in shells won’t their necks be
scrunched? Or do you think a shell’s roomy and that they hang
A: I sense ways to keep comfortable within the shell.
J: Otherwise they couldn’t survive this long? They would have
slept exposed and died off long ago?
A: Perhaps some people got stiff in the shell and no longer spawn
descendents (some turtles I meant). I’m a little ill as well.
I’d found it hard to, not to reflect, but to get anywhere
with reflection today. Kristin asked about my childhood, about the
period when my parents divorced. I filled her in but but after lunch
she said she knew no more than she had to begin with.
J: That could be a compliment.
A: Or imply…
J: In Bolinas Journal, Joe Brainard says the more you got to know
Bobbie Creeley the less you knew about her, which I think suggests
depth of character.
A: It can. Kristin distinguished between how men and women communicate.
This could also work as an um huge generality: that I didn’t
provoke an empathetic bond but simply delivered empirical facts.
J: Well that’s what David Antin has to say about the
difference between story and narrative.
A: Yes, today I read “Tuning,” a piece I like,
though my attention spreads a across the room when anyone discusses
J: Still in later talks Antin does give a lucid distinction between the
A: And I in no mean, in no way mean to slight him.
J: Oh, I know.
A: He’s great.
J: Oh I know. All I’m saying is that in one place (he hints
at this in the Santa Barbara talk called
“Dialogue”), stories get characterized as lists of
J: while a narrative recreates an experience, so that the audience
feels an empathic connection…
J: to it. And Antin’s point seems relevant to the
conversation you had with Kristin. I mean perhaps she’d say
you told a story when what she wanted was narrative.
A: True I’d prefer to combine disparate fact, so as not to
carry—this is what I said to her: It might seem part of me
isn’t expressed, but I don’t carry reflective
presence in that way. [Pause] Um I did enjoy, in Antin’s
piece, how eventually he mentions “blue” a lot,
just as things turn dense and theoretical.
A: Blue came up then swarms of color. I would guess that, in hearing
his talk, I’d be satisfied and aware and maybe remember color
J: Yeah, I think I’ve portrayed Antin’s
story/narrative distinction properly, or did I switch the two terms?
A: Narrative serves as as the core of the shell that becomes a story,
that provides a basis from which the story’s momentary
telling takes shape. You got it right.
J: Ok, while…
A: “Tuning” outlines Chomskian linguistics, with
Antin suggesting this this theory in no way accounts for how any one
person understands what’s said. Something precedes [Cough]
material fact of language, and it’s that prior thing, that
understanding not represented by words but embodied in living people
A: shapes what he calls narrative.
J: He says it lurks behind language but makes language possible
A: Though he distrusts ideas of “behind,” or
A: He respects Wittgenstein.
J: Yes, and perhaps Husserl. Husserl is also skeptical of depth;
still some argue he verges on mysticism when he brings up
intentionality. Antin appears influenced…
A: I remember discussing Husserl’s intentionality the night
we watched thousands of Hasid boys dance on Williamsburg choir-rafters,
and being disappointed by what Husserl meant though um I
can’t remember what it was. But much like the legal-law, the
legal-law connection—do you know that among literary (I
I’m sorry; I meant the literature-law connection), that
literary scholars started a movement in which they study law, while
lawyers study texts? I’d always conceived of this as
Nietzschean: as referring back to code, to writing as a form of memory,
to our sense of coherent identity emerging from the debts we owe
others. Really it’s just, you know what Shakespeare meant
when he made a lawyer joke. It’s boring. Husserl’s
theory of intentionality somehow recalled…
A: Or seemed in your telling…
J: Well he…
A: too obvious, a rip-off.
J: Well Husserl wants to sound obvious since he’d hoped not
to get metaphysical or build...he doesn’t want to
A: But doesn’t he…he discusses “the
A: Life-world—that seemed a metaphysical concept.
J: Um, all he wants to say with these terms
“life-world,” is when we look at an
A: Oh yeah. Ok go ahead.
J: Something in us organizes perceptions. Each time I glance at this
rooibos tea, though I see just portions of the cup, though
now I can look from just one angle, I perceive an entire cup.
Similarly: were I to rise from the table and look straight down at the
cup and inspect its lid, I wouldn’t think I’d found
a different object. I’d think Oh yes, that’s the
same cup. But these thoughts move lightning fast and…
A: Wait, hold, here problems start. I believe what you called
“this object the cup” rem remains a cultural
construct bound by your recollection of how we’ve been told
to think about cups. Does this cup include the cardboard holder that
keeps us from burning our fingertips? Does….
J: Well, well…
A: does a cup include the color...
J: Well, Husserl…
A: of the cup? The dye? Where’s this something you call
J: Well Husserl…
A: Is air inside it the cup or not?
J: Husserl would say those questions don’t need to be
addressed, since the meaning of cup comes from our life-world.
A: Right. Language…
A: is where he gets metaphysical.
J: Well no; he wants to boil down…
A: Does he mean our specific cultural milieu?
J: the use of the cup. Right exactly—how we treat it in
society. And though Husserl never read Wittgenstein as far as I know, I
can imagine him saying, with Wittgenstein, that societies could worship
cups. They might treat cups as religious objects. And there the meaning
of “cup” wouldn’t stay utilitarian (as it
does in our life-world). When I say I see…
A: What what…
J: When I say I see the cup, I see a cardboard container that holds my
A: Yet when you describe “our” life-world, it seems
no cultural homogeneity allows us to speak of “our
J: Oh I think both Husserl and Wittgenstein would find that argument
unnecessarily skeptical, since we know what things are from uses to
which we put them. We know their meanings by how we talk.
A: The difference…
J: For instance, we typically don’t think about air inside
cups belonging to cups. We treat cups as items to be filled.
A: One difference is, as an aphoristic writer, Wittgenstein sketches
our coming to consciousness, or our perception of what we call objects,
before this solidifies into some abstract concept he could then employ.
But I doubt that’s the case with Husserl.
J: Wait, say that again. You may want to redirect your breath cause
I’ll…I think I’m thinking of
A: We’ll both speak straight ahead.
A: I’d said I see…
J: Andy’s repeating what he just said.
A: Husserl develops lengthy systematic arguments, those that involve a
degree of abstraction not present in Wittgenstein, so we…
A: might take deft, utilitarian formulations from from Husserl, as our
understanding of what Husserl thinks, but I’ve never found
one in his books.
J: They come in the late work—the last work in fact.
There’s a turn in Husserl as there’s a turn in
Wittgenstein. Again I’m no expert on Husserl. I know more about Witt Wittgenstein. But Husserl’s last book
A: The Science…
J: Yeah Transce, yeah ah Transcendent, or what he calls the um Crisis in the European Sciences
Phenomenology. In the Crisis Husserl comes down to earth.
Critics complain he gets far too metaphysical thinking about a faculty
“behind” language, “behind”
perceptions. Yet commonsense proofs exist for what he has to say.
Consider what’s involved when describing this room. Something
besides um impulses hitting our retina…
A: Yes grammar...
J: In other words we’d…we inhabit this world
presuming such things as objects.
A: Of course, in terms of what you keep calling…
J: I reach towards the cup and don’t think Maybe it will
vanish this time; let’s hope it doesn’t vanish; I
hope I can touch it and bring it to my lips.
A: Though Wittgenstein affirms the radical doubt in which that
J: Well Wittg…
A: Wittgenstein might think he woke in his room but no longer be in
J: Sure, he opens up that scenario in some sense, yet he emphasizes the
impossibility of believing anything so at odds with his world-view, or
world-picture as he calls it in On
Certainty. And this world-picture concept echoes
Husserl’s life-world. When when it comes to fundamental
beliefs, such as knowing where we stand in space (in England, not the
stratosphere) or knowing our names, knowing…
A: We have brains in our heads.
J: there’s a brain inside our heads, and so on, Witt Witt
Wittgenstein feels bound to his world-view, and notes an impossibility
of conceiving…notes notes the impossibility of ever agreeing
with two world-views that conflict. He can’t both believe he’s in
England and believe he doesn’t know where he is. Total
skepticism seems inconceivable. Wittgenstein asserts
that—by virtue of who we are—our horizons stay
limited, not limitless.
A: Still what about Wittgenstein the writer? I sense in his books a
comic pathos let’s say: in the wacky tone, or offbeat
examples, which suggests he’s not proving it impossible to
conceive this boundless life, but hinting it’s impractical
given human limitations.
A: There’s there’s creatureliness in Wittgenstein.
Now that’s what I don’t detect in
Husserl’s writing, ever. So while it makes utilitarian sense
to consider the world as we construe it the real world, I find (though
I haven’t read this last book) Husserl always takes a
qualitative jump beyond so-called commonsense [Cough]…
J: Yeah. Yeah.
A: beyond the vernacular explanation—which Wittgenstein
provides, however hermetic people think his...
J: Yes all my remarks on Husserl stem from his last work. Before then
he’d sought a systematic approach. But in the Crisis he says
he’ll “zigzag,” since that’s
how human minds move. And what I…
A: Does the tone sound different? Does his form feel
J: It’s written, it’s composed of short sections.
J: It looks almost aphoristic. I only mention Husserl to say his
concerns match Wittgenstein’s. He slows down time and
observes what goes into observing the world. Antin appears to share
this with his philosophical…
J: predecessors. Antin confronts us with what it means to
forget and then remember something, or what it…
A: What it means to understand at all: to to grasp something, to
J: Right what it means to tell a story, how narrative unfolds, whether
it pre-exists in our mind or we construct it word by word. He
doesn’t know if it starts like a scroll or gets patched
together as we go along, though these are important questions. And in
bringing out our uncertainty on these most basic issues, I I think
that, like Wittgenstein or Husserl, Antin wants to say we’re
by and large ignorant beings, and that we tell each other narratives,
stories and narratives, without knowing how we have these
capacities—that we live largely in the, in the dark. This insight leads him from philosophy to
A: I’ll love the erratic gaps in Antin’s
printing…formatting of his works. I’d assume a
breath pause then takes place. But I’m happy not to know why
A: appear. There’s no precise logic to them, so that they
seem part of a temporal, rather than an analytic experience. Just as
Alice Notley’s Descent
of Alette—have you read this? The book I gave
you years ago?
J: You you gave…
A: She put quotation marks around everything.
J: Yeah, you gave it to me last Christmas and it’s in my top
five, though unfortunately has not been the book on my desk.
A: One of the the best. But again, with her use of quotes and
breath-like spacing (without the whole convention of poetry that
depicts human breath and takes place in public) there’s a
continuous sense of presence, of talk itself. Meanwhile somewhat
coherent narratives occur, as you constantly slip back, trying to
remember what just happened, trying to envision what the poem
describes. The experience stays amorphous. Picture Dante’s
Inferno. I mean Ovid. People become animals and things like that. So
her her...so amid these great transformations you can trace the nodes
of time in which a story gets told. For me no coherent experience
exists of taking in a story. I’ll grasp certain parts. I
don’t know why. My sense of the whole comes through this
altered hearing. Printed talk and aphorisms—a palpable
construc…I don’t know if you saw big bulbs just,
lights went out in half this store.