This is waterDavid Foster Wallace
This is water
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.Ludwig Wittgenstein
Being quite aware that the title of this post is quite pompous, maybe even preposterous, I can assure you that I am not intending now to write a philosophical tractatus. Instead, I want to offer some thoughts on what a photographer might want to say without words.
First, however, I might have to explain the two quotes. The first one is from a well-known commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave 2005 to a graduating class at Kenyon college. It talks about, at least in my reading, how we might miss reality (the “water” in the quote) in the noise of our inner monologue. He ends his speech quite poignantly like an old Zen master by saying “this is water”.
Now, I don’t know about you, but my inner monologue happens in language. While it is never safe to speak about what and how other people think, I suspect that all of us do the same: endlessly speak to ourselves – even in our dreams.
This inner monologue, Wallace said, steers our perception of reality, of the “world” and by changing its narrative we can change how we respond to, and live, in this reality.
This, I think, are wise thoughts.
The quote from Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus” reminds us that language creates a certain structure of reasoning, which forms the basis of our view on reality. I read his statement as a warning against metaphysical speculation, against a use of language that goes beyond the formation of statements about facts and conclusions.
At the same time I deeply suspect that language evolved as communication tool only, not as a tool for investigation of reality. At least I think it would be a pretty poor tool for that.
To dust off an example I have used earlier: it might be useful for our conversation and interaction to say that something is green – as in green fruits or green leaves. The characterisation as green might help us to prevent eating unripe things or to determine the season. The problem there lies in the weight we tend to give the word “is” as if it would indicate objective reality or truth. But as I mentioned in earlier posts, the green leave on the tree is anything but “green”. (The leaf cells don’t absorb but reject and reflect green light.) There is no “green-ness” anywhere in the processes that form a leaf.
With this in mind, Wallace’s reminder becomes a serious issue of whether, through our inner monologue, we are caught in a permanent act of deluding ourselves by language. I am not the only one being concerned about this. I think one can identify a whole school of human thinking, a sceptical school, that cautions us not to mistake the finger pointing to the moon with the moon. Yes, this is a famous Zen quote but the thought comes up in various cultures and philosophies.
But if you can agree with me in the assertion that language is a rather poor vehicle to convey absolute truths about an absolute reality, what is then the consequence of this? To shut up (or rather stay within the realm of what is possible by language) as Wittgenstein said?
There was always also the hope that we can gain insight and even communicate beyond the limitations of language. Imagine two people sitting silently and watching a cute little kitten taking its first steps into life. The two people look at each other and smile. This form of joint experience and understanding is far richer than language could have conveyed.
I think poetry has this aspect that it is always about more than mere thoughts. It uses the musicality of words and the ability of language to trigger non-verbal experiences quite in the way the silent joint smile does. One of the more extreme examples for this is famously the poetic form of the Japanese haiku, which is never about statements and all about this trigger-effect of words and verbal imagery.
And this is what I see as the possible connection (and I keep repeating myself here) between poetry and photography. Or any visual art at that. Successful photographs, I think, communicate beyond their subject matter.
Recently a viewer told me how nice my landscape photographs from Finland were, but that these landscapes were “oh, so melancholic”. To which I responded that the melancholy maybe was more a matter of the photographer than the geography.
Afterwards, I thought to myself that this must have been one of my more successful photographs if it was able to trigger this impression or emotion. The sweet topic of melancholy is too complex and has to wait for another post at another time. But whenever a picture succeeds in conveying more than what it shows I kind of feel I am not doing it all wrong.
In the end, photography deals with its own language but even there the truth always seems to be between the lines. And in order to understand, we have to silence first our inner monologue and switch into a mode of silent experience. This is water, this is water.