The web that coheres the world

I watched Black White +Grey last night and was fascinated. It put a face on Sam Wagstaff that surprised me—I haven’t often considered collectors as thinkers. The root of aesthetics is pleasure, and Wagstaff is pleasure’s poster-boy. The film makes it clear that he received great pleasure from photographs, and the short clip above defines that pleasure as private and non verbal—in exaggerated discomfort, he brands it onanistic.

The uncut interview was taken from a symposium at the Corcoran museum occasioned by the exhibition of selections from his collection in 1978, and the credits of the limited footage list a tantalizing line-up of commentators. Several sections of Wagstaff’s comments during this symposium fascinate me, not he least of which the profound separation between photography and A-R-T that is echoed and riffed upon by virtually every modern commentator after the photo secession. But I must save that for later; what interests me most for now is the relationship between photography and language.

Exploring the Sam Wagstaff papers online after the film unearthed a typescript titled “Pictorial Logic” from another speaker, photographer Fredrick Sommer that runs parallel to Wagstaff’s comments. It also deals with the relationship between words and pictures, deserving full transcription below the fold.

What can be said at all can be said clearly. What can be shown at all can be shown clearly. Pictures and propositions are not complementary descriptions of the world, but complementary states of existence. To speak of what is presumes the complementarity of language and pictures.

With the idea of existence we cleave the world into position and occupier. Occupiers are what we name and positions are where occupiers are located. Existence is the twinning of position and occupier, and we acknowledge existence by pointing and exclaiming. Degree of existence is a measure of the bond between language and position. The divisibility of the world is of the same order as the divisibility of language and position.

We taste existence. Our taste is doubly in our tongue, in our language as well as in our taste buds. The structure of the world is just as fine and no finer than we can name it. We cannot taste what we cannot name. Taste is not a matter of choice. Taste is the matter of life.

A map is a bounded multiple twinning of positions and occupiers. A thing is a bounded association of language with position. In art, as in the world at large, a thing is defined by its relationships to other things around it, by the ways in which it occurs in states of affairs. The positional structure of a map, its geometry, is a function of the occupiers which inhabit it.

Words and things are stepping stones, and logic is what allows us to traverse the world, to get from one word, one thing, one position to the next. The things of this world exist at distinct levels of naming. Each level of naming is accompanied by a logic. Logic coheres a map by reuniting it across the lines by which it tends to come back together when it is stretched apart. In being somewhere on a coherent map, we are everywhere on it.

An idea is a map which is coherent on every level at which it is named. It is the linguistic and positional boundaries of a map which enable it to have structure. An unbounded map has no logic because logic is the relationship of boundaries. This is why ideas have boundaries. Logic can be no more precise than the precision of boundaries.

When a painter begins working on a surface, the physical boundaries of the picture are usually determined. As he proceeds, the picture becomes a vast overlay of logical levels. The artist must clarify its internal structure, the meeting of conditions both within and between the logical levels, justifying the physical boundaries of the picture by seeing to it that each logical level either cancels or reflects those boundaries.

Photography is perhaps the most sophisticated means available for non-linguistic mapping. A photograph can give us pictorial abundance before we name the subject matter at all, but the richness of the photograph is the result of the richness of the photographer’s language.

In standard photographic practice the negative serves as a positional sketch for the final picture. Regardless of the care taken in photographing and processing, the characteristic way in which the negative distributes light will in all likelihood need to be modified in making an effective print because the requirements for precision in art are greater than the predictive capabilities of science.

The photographic medium is light. The light structure of a photographic print is adjusted by alternately adding and subtracting tone from areas of the picture. Although the placement of things in a photograph is determined by the negative, their effective visual positions are flexible and can be modified by tonal changes. The positional and tonal sensitivity of a print is a measure of the quality of its logic.

The printer of a photographic linguistically presents to himself the situation he confronts. He can improve the print only to the extent that he can point to its shortcomings. A worker without a language to address the logic of visual structures can perform only the most primitive operations based on how he feels about the picture rather than on what he sees on the sheet.

The words “art” and “nature” are used in many ways because art and nature are not absolutes. They are systems of naming. A photograph is neither nature nor not nature. It is a map that may be named with the same words that constitute our naming system of nature. Nature is defined by its boundaries, by what surrounds it, and photography can show us what lies on either side of nature. The challenge of photography is not to photograph a state of affairs, but to construct a state of affairs photographically. The point is not to make it difficult for the viewer to name what he sees, but to extend the possibilities of naming.

What keeps a picture alive is the people who see it, for they invest it with language. With more comprehensive organization a picture can be invested with language in a multiplicity of ways. The history of the relationship between pictures and propositions, of the linguistic logic which arises out of display, is the history of art and science. Art is literally the reshaping of language, and the structure of what we see yields to a freshly coherent linguistic map.

[text shifts to single space, perhaps as a blockquote? It is labeled ©Alexander Jamison—it is unclear whether Jamison is the source of the single-spaced section or the entire transcription.]

Logic does not stand outside of the world. It is the web that coheres the world. Logic is linguistic because language is what separates things and logic is what brings them together. The limit of language is the limit of logic. Mystery is only as deep as clarity.

[remainder damaged or missing]

1 thought on “The web that coheres the world”

  1. Very,very interesting! I can only repeat your words ..I watched Black White + Gray 2 days ago at night, and I was fascinated! Here is all, then I only want to add these few words ..

Comments are closed.