Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why "the ostensive moment"?

I was looking for a title for this blog, something that would bounce around in my head creating damage wherever it went. In other words, I wanted a concept that I couldn't wrap my mind around too easily because I needed a way to get the blog process rolling. And what better way than to stumble across a literary concept that I am in no way prepared to write about; one that forces me to read and reflect on the process (and reception) of writing?

The concept I stumbled across was "the ostensive moment," from a book called A Defense of Poetry: Reflections on the Occasion of Writing by Paul H. Fry. It fit my needs precisely. However, reading this on Google Books, I was only able to get a taste of Fry’s theory before I ran out of free pages. And, because I'm a writer (i.e. relatively broke) and irresponsible with library privileges, I can neither afford to buy the book nor borrow it. So instead, I have to think about ostension from a position of incomplete information and personal reflection. Much like the experience of life itself.

I also read a few reviews. Here's a passage from Michael Bernard-Donais that quotes Fry as he introduces the core of what is being discussed:
"What resists writing is the "ostensive." "My aim in this book," Fry says in his introduction, is to "claim that poetry (literature, expressive communication), unlike other forms of discourse that exhaust themselves shaping or making sense of things, is that characteristic of utterance, defined as 'ostension' ... which temporarily releases consciousness from its dependence on the signifying process." Later on he suggests that ostension "is that indicative gesture toward reality which precedes and underlies the construction of meaning. It is ... the deferral of knowledge by the disclosure, as a possibility, that existence can be meaning free," a state in which literary language "alienates us from the presence to ourselves of the nonhuman."
This can be complicated further by referring to my own notes from the book's third chapter ("Ostension in Language") where Fry states a thesis of the chapter: "I shall argue that the ostensive impulse realizes itself in a dialectic movement of estrangement from instrumental language which enables its reappearance within language as such."

Perhaps you can see why this bounces around in my head creating damage or, more precisely, creating thought by bumping up against the mutations of other half-digested literary concepts that have taken up residence in the untidy shambles of my continuously tangential mind. I have to digest the meaning of these quotes (not to mention, quite importantly, other passages) and figure out what they really mean. Incidentally, to merely list the quotes without expanding on them is, to my way of thinking, a form of ostension: as digested thus far, ostension might also be considered a matter of pointing at the conceptual object of discussion and saying, "look at this signified concept; this is what I want to engage."

From a more concrete, i.e. material, standpoint (which is what Fry is talking about in the first place) it’s like holding up a pack of cigarettes and saying, "want one?" Ostension is the gesture which lets the object occupy its own space in a context of language or communication. We don't speak it (releasing "consciousness from its dependence on the signifying process") but, instead of naming, we point at it.

Why is this important as an understanding of "literature"? Well, beyond the unavoidable problem that the ostension Fry speaks of occurs in the human abstract construct of literature via the signifying process of language (the problem of which, I seem to recall, he addresses), Fry makes some very interesting points. Mainly that, in his reasoning, ‘the ostensive moment’ is a gesture that precedes construct. Hence, the notion that “the ostensive impulse realizes itself in a dialectic movement of estrangement from instrumental language which enables its reappearance within language as such." By which I think he means, via his use of the words “instrumental language,” that ostension in literature estranges itself from the rhetorical process of communication. As if literary ostension were less a means of communication and more an act of inducing experience

An interesting distinction Fry makes (relating 'the ostensive moment' to 'insignificant' detail) is this: "... insignificance is itself the sole theme specific to literature ..." In other words, he isolates a literary focus on objective details that are mobilized in a synchronic mode for the purpose (as I currently understand it) of creating a sense of experience, as opposed to a diachronic mode, or sense of meaning.

One way to look at "the ostensive moment" would be to note the difference between an overly didactic poem that is trying to create a sense of purposeful meaning (over-reliance on metaphor and symbolism, perhaps) as opposed to a poem that seeks to create a context from which a sense of meaning is not implicit but rather relies on the dynamism of seemingly insignificant elements placed in juxtaposition so as to stimulate the human process of creating or imposing meaning on and from perceptual experience. Obviously, there are problems with this opposition as simplified here, but for the sake of convenience I’ll say the former might be considered overly contrived while the latter relies on nuance and assumes a reader’s active involvement with the text.

So, tentatively, ostension seeks to activate perceptual moments as a first step in constructing a non-rhetorical literary experience from which a reader is led to consider existence for existence’s sake. More pointedly, "the ostensive moment" precedes the construct of meaningful experience, both for a writer and a reader, but is also that from which the construct arises. Problematically, in the case of literature, this perceptual experience can only be evoked through the alienating filter of language. Still, Fry points to "the ostensive moment" in literature as being "the deferral of knowledge by the disclosure, as a possibility, that existence can be meaning free".

More simply, if writing seeks to be something more than an exhaustible (and exhausting) form of meaningful representation, it needs to evoke, enact, or become, an experience in and of itself. Which is to say, from my perspective (to which most of these thoughts have currently devolved), “literature” is a subset of a human activity called “language” that, in its rested state, is particularly dynamic through its effect of inducing a pleasurable or stimulating experience not only of itself but also of the interrelated world it points to. I would further add that as a byproduct of human culture and language, literature can also be considered a social experience - even in the radical absence of its author. Or, in the writer's case, the radical absence of its reader. What remains at the center of this experience, however, is a text which, in conjunction with its reader, activates a series of interrelated ostensive moments.

Focusing on language as activity, perhaps we can even say that activity per se (whether literary or otherwise) does not need to have meaning because instead it is an experience in and of itself. And experience, even the human experience of creating meaning, trumps the historically privileged status of meaning in this discussion. Why? Because meaning derives from experience, but the inverse is not necessarily true - even if subsequent experience oftentimes proceeds on a course derived from meaning.

A blurb for this book calls ostension "a sign of the preconceptual," an evocation of objects "that discloses neither the purpose nor the structure of existence but existence itself, revealed in its nonhuman register." Which is to say, it invokes the essential unknowability of "objective reality" as an experience that precedes conceptual construct. Interesting and problematic thoughts, to say the least. But the problematic itself, I suspect, can be highly productive.

More later.

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