Hinges and doors of perception

Wittgenstein’s self-portraits in a photo booth.

” . . .  certain propositions seem to underlie all questions and all thinking (On Certainty, 415).” — Wittgenstein, on “hinge propositions”

That’s a quote from Wittgenstein, in his last book of notes, published after his death. It intrigues me because of the notion that something pivotal and impossible to prove underlies thinking itself–yet isn’t knowledge. He’s talking about his notion of “hinge propositions.” For him, they are simply a given, an unquestionable element of the world. It makes no sense to doubt them unless you doubt everything else in the world. I believe this would qualify as a hinge proposition from Little Orphan Annie: “The sun will come up tomorrow.” This example makes it sound as if a hinge proposition is just something so obvious no one would think to question it. Or notice it, for that matter. I think he was exploring the idea in order to circle around something harder to say: such as, what’s ever-present is sometimes impossible to single out and scrutinize. (But that isn’t it either.)

Since I went back to reread On Certainty last year, this idea of hinge propositions has been on my mind relating to the role painting can play in human awareness. I have been thinking of this term as a distant metaphor of how art works–as well as the mind itself.

I think all forms of art can have a particular kind of impact, of conveying a world, and painting’s (as well as music’s) distinguishing capacity is to be able to do it in an entirely perceptual way.

I don’t think Wittgenstein’s idea of hinge propositions has anything to do directly with painting, since a painting isn’t a proposition–and I don’t think a work of art can be reduced to “knowledge.” Yet this term might work as a metaphor of a similar relationship between one’s conscious awareness of things and a larger “background” awareness of the world itself, in which what occupies consciousness is simply the tip of an iceberg. Trying to be aware of the whole iceberg is, well, a bit of a challenge.

In a way, if you were to try to be aware of the world as a whole isn’t it something like the reverse of Stephen Wright’s joke: “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” The corollary here might be: “You can’t picture the entire world. Where would you put your picture in it?” Being a part of the world, as it were, your awareness can’t step back far enough to see everything–including yourself, and your act of seeing–which you would need to do, since they are a part of the world. And yet I think a “background”, or subliminal, awareness of the world now and then shows itself. But how does one become aware of all that, of what’s in the background?

It isn’t something you can make happen. It’s a frame you can’t see (in the sense of the frame of lumber that holds up a house) which holds up the meaning, the matrix, of what you do see and hear and feel. It’s what makes possible the whole network of your experience, and yet–similar to the way a hinge proposition can’t be proven or doubted–you can’t call this background awareness forth so that it becomes an object of awareness or thought. You can’t know it. It’s behind your gaze; it grounds it. It’s what holds up the act of believing and doubting, in the context of the life you live. You experience life the way you see figures in a carpet, always aware of the individual patterns, the shapes and repetitions and color, rarely reaching for an awareness of the entire carpet, as a whole. But even if you do, are you confronted with something you can objectify as “knowledge”? Maybe a better way to put it is that this particular carpet is so large, it includes you, so it’s impossible to step back far enough to see anything but details in the surface, the forefront, with the “background awareness” always behind both you and whatever is the object of your attention. There’s always a level of awareness prior to whatever it is you’re attending to–so that you can never be entirely aware of being aware.

Yet it’s there, this background awareness, the carpet itself, and it holds together all the details of what you do see and hear and touch. It makes meaning possible, in the vague sense of that word, though not so much in the agreement between a word or symbol or picture and what it’s intended to mean. I think a person is this subliminal world-awareness–it’s the fiber that unifies everything you do and think and experience. And yet it’s inaccessible. Similar to the way a hinge proposition is immune to proof. The difference is that I understand a hinge proposition: it’s entirely transparent and intelligible. I can get a look at it. “I had two parents.” It’s always true for everyone. Nothing to prove here. No way to doubt it. Move along.

A “hinge awareness” of the world would be something else–though it’s also immune to doubt, but in this case that’s because it can’t be observed or objectified. It’s hidden in whatever it is that motivates you to reach toward it. I actually think that behind all of Wittgenstein’s strenuously rational philosophy was this unsatisfied yearning for a way to actually point to the entirety of life–or the mind as a whole–through the clarity of logic. He knew it was impossible.

Isn’t it what artists also want to do, also aware that its impossible? In a much more modest way, painting is a sidelong attempt to become aware of life itself–the whole of things–or at least aim toward it without ever disclosing it in some conclusive way.

Yet is it always hidden?  How is it when I look at Vermeer, or when I watch Stalker, by Tarkovsky, it seems I’m actually glimpsing both time and something timeless, not as an idea or thought, but almost as if these abstract notions have become visible? It’s as if your heart opens its eyes. How does that happen? That background somehow emerges with an intense experience of “meaning” and then, once again it withdraws. An entire world emerges from the little spot of color Proust talked about and then is gone . . . and that same effect can come from a novel or poem, but when you try to locate it in particular words and sentences, it isn’t there; it’s something extra, in the background, but also present in every detail of the work.

So I suppose a postmodernist or semiologist would say all I’m talking about is language as “the background,” an entire structure of what I perceive and think, governed by social and economic and political forces. I’m an expression of those forces, without fully understanding them, or being able to even objectify them. I’m governed by that world I can only struggle to see clearly, a world embodied in my language. Language would be the background. But I don’t see “background awareness” as conditioned by anything the way language would be for a postmodernist. It’s something more fundamental and timeless: in October, your awareness of autumn has nothing to do with a network of “signs” and “what’s signified” but is an encompassing world, unconditioned by thinking. That, for me, is what painting can attempt to make manifest: this ground of awareness that holds up thinking, but isn’t thought. If I see a bed of brown leaves, or smell leaf smoke or that scent of dry leaves under a hot sun–you might say I “behold” autumn, though it’s a verb no one uses anymore. It’s more than seeing. And I don’t think it. I see-smell-hear-and-feel elements of it, as well as the unity of all of those perceptions, and the word autumn signifies that whole, that unity, which shows itself to me through particular sensations, and is more than the sum of those sensations. It isn’t a perception or a thought. But it discloses itself through perception. Not thought.

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