In Defense of Ambiguity

In his review of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a seminal experimentalist novel by David Markson, David Foster Wallace describes Markson’s narrative technique as “deep nonsense.” That novel tells the story of a woman who lives alone in a house on a beach, believing, rightly or wrongly, that she is the last human being on Earth. She recounts, presumably as a way of maintaining her sanity, every fact she can remember about Western civilization. But we soon notice that these facts are endlessly repeated, and that every time, a detail or three is changed. Einstein has become Churchill. It is not Proust who is gay, but Joyce. We start to read these “facts” not for the truth of their words, or even their literal sense, but for their incantory quality and for the desperate loneliness they reveal. Though the narrator is unnamed, and though she tells us almost nothing about her previous life or what happened to everyone else, we grow to know her via a sort of metaphorical and emotional through-line that allows continuity of meaning even while shattering the agreed-upon bonds between common signifiers and signifieds. The title of the book is no accident: the woman herself is Wittgenstein’s mistress; she is a speaker of the “private language” that Wittgenstein rejects in his Philosophical Investigations. If language is no longer communal then it means whatever its “author” chooses it to mean. However, the very fact that we are reading and understanding her words actually supports Wittgenstein’s argument: her language is not private after all. And hence the term “deep nonsense” to explain how words that are detached from their original meaning nevertheless manage to communicate.

Deep nonsense is, of course, not nonsense at all. Its sense is simply not the traditional, or superficial, one. This is where the word “deep” comes in. But how does a writer use language to create that sense of depth? How does he avoid mere nonsense? It seems to me that this is what the best surrealist film does; it is the aim and duty of certain poetry; and it is the effect of the lyrics of some of our greatest bands – to achieve a rich and suggestive ambiguity, while avoiding opacity.


Music, in particular, can be a great vehicle for deep nonsense. It operates not just on our linguistic sense, but on our auditory sense. As we listen to it, we are often engaged in other activities – driving, cleaning the house, mingling at a party. The lyrics can seep into our brain without too much active analysis. When we are confronted with a poem, on the other hand, we are alone with the words and there is a kind of obligation and challenge to understand them immediately. For this reader at least, the brain often butts up against a wall of inscrutability and grows frustrated. We live in an impatient age; we don’t want to read a poem 20 times. A song on the other hand, can be played over and over without much effort; all that is required is opportunity and time. And slowly a private meaning (which is not the same as a private language) creeps in. It may not be the lyricist’s intended meaning – nor, in fact, did the lyricist necessarily have an intended meaning – but it is the meaning we have made, and there is a joy that is both intellectual and visceral at having unlocked the puzzle’s secrets. Once we have decided on a song’s meaning, it sticks with us, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. What comes to mind is an episode of the Aaron Sorkin comedy Sports Night, where sports anchor Dan Rydell, convinced of impending trouble, references the song “Hide Your Heart, Girl” by Three Dog Night. When fellow anchor Casey McCall tells him that the “Eli” in the phrase “Eli’s coming” is not an occult symbol of impending doom, but rather an “inveterate womanizer,” Dan replies that he knows, but that that’s the way he interpreted it at first and it has always stuck with him. Like the readers of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and like the narrator herself, Dan has constructed an alternate meaning behind the literal one.


Let’s move to a more specific example of how one listener – this listener – constructs meaning from seemingly nonsensical lyricstuff. Here, in their entirety, are the lyrics to “Soft Pyramids” by a now disbanded postpunk outfit from Washington D.C., Q and Not U. The dashes in Line 1 indicate that the words are spelled out, letter by letter.

S-o-f-t p-y-r-a-m-i-d-s e-v-a-p-o-r-a-t-e at daylight.
Internationally fashioned like d-i-sease.
Patterns, a-l-w-a-y-s yes, maybe no.
This soft is building the softest buildings.
This soft is raising the firmest ceilings.
This soft is dimming the brightest cities every night.
Midnight, midnight.
Midnight, midnight.

How can we ask for a blanket and a habitat?
How can we ask for a place?
We can’t imagine that.
How can we ask for the brightest cities every night?
Midnight, midnight.
Midnight, midnight.

Select a color for your checklist.
Color for your checklist, na na na.
Kiss every comma in your checklist,
Commas in your checklist, na na na.
Ah-ha, commas in your checklist,
commas in your checklist na na na, na na na.
Please pick a color for your checklist,
Color for your checklist, na na na, na na naaaa.

How can we ask for a blanket and a habitat?
How can we ask for the best?
We can’t imagine that.
The softest blackout is soft and black
outside and in.
Clue me in.

We should begin with the title, since that offers a critical legend by which I map the rest of the song. When I hear the phrase “soft pyramids,” one thing comes to mind, and it is not a Salvador Dali painting. I am thinking of the pyramid, with its embedded Eye of Providence, found on the reverse side of the US dollar bill. Money being made of paper, this pyramid is of course “soft.” We also get the connotations of “soft money” and “pyramid schemes,” two capitalist phenomena associated with corruption, greed and the illusory appearance of sturdiness. Line 1 spells out, in a kind of ironic cheer, this impermanence. This is no “Y.M.C.A.”; the singing of individual letters is not meant to celebrate, but to fragment. Without reading the lyrics, it is very difficult to determine what is being spelled. But the last two words are said in their whole: “at daylight,” in other words, under the “harsh light of day.” These soft pyramids will not bear up to real scrutiny.

This idea is further expanded in the Line 4: “this soft is building the softest buildings.” Apart from its nice punning quality, this line is essential to the meaning of the song. “This soft [i.e. – money] is building [structures of impermanence].” The next line is harder to parse, as it seems to contradict the idea of impermanence, but it’s possible that “ceilings” refers to the limits set by capitalism for certain groups. Remember that this is a private meaning I’ve created, mostly by associative accident, and that not every detail has to fit into the schema. In fact, some are flat-out ignored if they can’t immediately be made to cohere. However, this idea of the natural oppressive limits of capitalism is buoyed by the next “stanza” (I use poetic terminology because this song lacks clear verses and choruses).

This stanza asks a series of rhetorical questions, presumably from the point of view of the disenfranchised. “How can we ask for a blanket and a habitat?” is another way of saying, “How can we, the disenfranchised, expect food and shelter in this corrupt system?” This idea of impossible expectations carries into the next line: “How can we ask for the best? We can’t imagine that.” The speaker’s very imaginative capabilities are stunted by a system that has taught him not to ask for too much. The last phrase echoes a phrase in the first stanza: he/they cannot ask for “the brightest cities every night,” the same brightest cities that are “dimmed” by “this soft.”

Now comes the tricky part. For a long time, I chalked the next stanza up to pleasant and nonsensical wordplay. But recently, I’ve come to see them as a critique of another societal superstructure, bureaucracy, and its fetishism of forms and irrelevant details. What could be more irrelevant than the color of a checklist? The idea brings to mind multicolored, triplicate forms. That it is a fetish, and not just a baroque accident, is emphasized in the phrase “kiss every comma in your checklist,” which stresses the punctilious nature of bureaucratic systems while vaguely sexualizing them.


So what do we get when we add it all together? For you, perhaps nothing. But for me, we get a critique of the corruption of the capitalist façade, the way it uses “soft pyramids” to erect “soft pyramids,” an endless feedback loop which can be seen as a metaphor for money itself. It only has value insofar as we agree that it does. Like the bureaucracy that manages it, it has a “shared value.” Sound familiar?

I do not know Christopher Richards, guitarist and vocalist for Q and Not U, personally. I have never had the opportunity to ask him what “Soft Pyramids” means to him. Does it even mean anything? Perhaps it is all just witty wordplay and sonic free association. But it is suggestive: I am able to construct from these ambiguous materials a definite meaning. But because the materials are ambiguous, the meaning is not predetermined. It is flexible, variant. And this seems connected to the project of good art: to avoid the overdetermination of meaning while suggesting possible interpretations. There is more than one way to do this. Some art presents a crystal-clear surface that only later yields its ambiguities (the poems of William Carlos Williams might be a good example). Some, like “Soft Pyramids,” operates on the principle of deep nonsense. This art is not willful or disobedient. Rather, it uses language, image or narrative in non-traditional ways, challenging us to not simply interpret, but to reinterpret whole systems of interpretation – to find the shared language in the seemingly private. This strikes me as an endlessly fertile project worth defending.



Agnes Martin, White Flower, oil on canvas, 1960. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.


by Felix Macnee

“There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.”1

A simplicity attends the writings of Agnes Martin, Wittgenstein, and Christopher Alexander. Each is concerned with certain types of architecture. Alexander addresses towns and buildings, the physical spaces that make our world; Martin investigates the architecture of form and feeling in art and the nature of inspiration; Wittgenstein pursues the architecture of language and form to arrive at the structure of worlds. And within each discussion is a kernel of each of the other elements. This relationship articulates a triadic system whose vertices are these architectural ideas. If this triad is regarded as an isomorphism of semiotic structure, one notes its tendency to collapse into a dyadic or even monadic system, each term stacked atop the other (this is possible in a non-geometric space). Here then the discussion is not concerned so much with the terms as with the translation, or lines, between the terms. Finally, the supporting ground, the space within which this collapsing triad exists, can be regarded as the “quality without a name.”

“I hope I have made it clear that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect — completely removed in fact — even as we ourselves are.”2

Words are about meaning as Agnes Martin’s works are about perfection. Several of Wittgenstein’s propositions address the “aboutness” of words (2.173 specifically addresses the picture, which is itself a type of word):

3.11 — “We use the sensible perceptible sign (sound or written sign, etc.) of the proposition as a projection of the possible state of affairs.

“The method of projection is the thinking of the sense of the proposition.”

3.12 — “The sign through which we express the thought I call the propositional sign. And the proposition is the propositional sign in its projective relation to the world.”

3.13 — “To the proposition belongs everything which belongs to the projection; but not what is projected. …”3

2.173 — “The picture represents its object from without (its standpoint is its form of representation) …”4

Distance from perfection, a perfection of meaning, defines “about.” This distance is inevitable and necessary. In fact the concept of meaning itself contains the necessary element of distance. Perfection is such that it can be intellectually understood only by remove. (I make this distinction because there is a type of understanding that is non-intellectual, and not filtered through translation. Every religious text refers to this understanding, though none provides it. We infer its existence just as we infer the existence of consciousness in others.) If perfection were present we would imagine it weren’t. Paradoxically, it is present. But we don’t come to know this simply by stating the fact. Stating the fact removes us from truth, by an increment equivalent to the thickness of the sign circumscribing the experience.

On the other hand, knowing itself, the unframed state of being, is an instantaneous sensation, an internal “quality without a name.” It is the sensation pursued by artists, philosophers, and mystics, et al, and its temporary apprehension (“apprehension” is not the correct word, but there can be no correct word, since it will always slide between its object and the reader, and in so doing, silently, falsely ascribe this same circumstance to the depicted action) is always registered with a sense of giddiness or even loss. Something profoundly impersonal inheres in the great work of art, the great thought, the great belief. This is the root of its difficulty. Good works of art can be personal — but to move beyond them we must move beyond ourselves, our sense of identification with or possession of the work of art. To become the servant of art in this sense marks the advent of true progress. We must constantly leave ourselves behind.

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”5

Clearly, by “language” Wittgenstein here means any depictive faculty or system, that which translates being into the known. (The glib use of the word “known” is not meant to assert a delusional belief in some completeness of apprehension; rather it intends to convey only the nominal sense in which things are ordinarily “known.”) The word “world” now comes into question, for we see that its dimension apparently is fluid. Of course this is only true to the extent that a world depends on a language. Wittgenstein seems to make the dependence total — but this is defused by the modifier “my.” As soon as we lose “my” we lose this dependence.

So language is a translator (though it itself must be translated), but what is mysterious is not the often hazy product of translation, but the action of translation itself. It is essentially blind and inferential; it points backward in time through itself to being (even where we conceive of the knowing as instantaneous). This is why a common philosophical view equates being solely and rigorously with the known — in order not to travel backward in time. Another mystery is the form of language itself, how one can truthfully assert its remove from reality, yet equally well assert the creation of universes from linguistic structures. Language is a property of arrangement whose inception follows intent, but whose conception outstrips expectation; its grammar is a physics, and its words are uncracked atoms.

I once saw a simple fish pond in a Japanese village which was perhaps eternal. A farmer made it for his farm. The pond was a simple rectangle, about 6 feet wide, and 8 feet long; opening off a little irrigation stream. At one end, a bush of flowers hung over the water. At the other end, under the water, was a circle of wood, its top perhaps 12 inches below the surface of the water. In the pond there were eight great ancient carp, each maybe 18 inches long, orange, gold, purple, and black: the oldest one had been there eighty years. The eight fish swam, slowly, slowly, in circles — often within the wooden circle. The whole world was in that pond. Every day the farmer sat by it for a few minutes. I was there only one day and I sat by it all afternoon. … It was so true to the nature of the fish, and flowers, and the water, and the farmers, that it had sustained itself for all that time, endlessly repeating, always different. There is no degree of wholeness or reality which can be reached beyond that simple pond.”6

This is the wholeness that comes from inspiration, breathing in the eloquent unknown, that which is the true self and allows the ungovernable aspect of this to articulate itself. It is a listening without category. Francis Bacon describes this sort of material listening in a discussion of his approach to painting:

“It’s an illogical method of making, an illogical way of attempting to make what one hopes will be a logical outcome — in the sense that one hopes one will be able to suddenly make the thing there in a totally illogical way but that it will be totally real …”7

This rejection of logic is really a deference to its container, that which is beyond the parameters of concept. We conceptualize a quality, and in so doing remove and falsify it. But only in our minds.8 It is just as we are able to point to some object, and on a practical level actually refer to that object, not to our sensory perception of it, though this latter, forever incomplete version is all we ever know. Even sensory reference is a function of remove. Life can be seen as a convolution of being. And if this is the case one may legitimately question how or why complexity of this sort arose. It seems as though confusion were invented as a portal to wonder.

Artists have constantly striven for higher degrees of verisimilitude, refining their languages in order to more closely represent a particular truth or set of truths. They have employed objects and methods as various as “abstract” or occult symbolism, as in the religious art of ancient cultures, cubism (where the goal was to simultaneously present as many aspects, or facets, of an object or relationships of objects as was aesthetically possible), the hyper-realism of artists such as Duane Hanson, and the one-to-one relationship of art to object in the use of “readymades.”

Even this last correspondence is not exact, though, as Arthur Danto has argued.9 An ordinary object transformed into art — for example, Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm —is no longer exactly itself: it carries with it an interpretive “artworld,” as Danto puts it, who intellectually nail an aura, halo-like, above it, while ironically lauding the intellectual audacity of the artist’s act of discarding the aura as superfluous. This tip of the hat to Walter Benjamin nearly invalidates him. Fortunately for him, we only need one snow shovel in the museum. No one is arrested or declared a philistine for using any one of the others to shovel snow. “Art for art’s sake” seeks an equivalence with itself that still doesn’t escape the internal distance of reference. For it is both “itself” and “art.” But one needn’t despair. It is enough that we can point to the quality without a name, through whatever means. It is enough to know that its location is inside and outside, to know that the border between these two realms is a shimmering, dimensionless membrane called the mind, and that this too is a facet of perfection.

“Moments of perfection are indescribable but a few things can be said about them. At such times we are suddenly very happy and we wonder why life ever seemed troublesome. In an instant we can see the road ahead free from all difficulties and we think that we will never lose it again. All this and a great deal more in barely a moment, and then it is gone.”10

–Felix Macnee, 1999


The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander, Oxford University Press, New York, 1979, pg. ix.

Writings, Agnes Martin, Kunstmuseum Winterthur / Edition Cantz, 1992, pg. 15.

2   Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Routledge, London & New York, 1995, pg. 45.

4  ibid, pg. 41.

Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Routledge, London & New York, 1995, proposition 5.6, pg. 149.

The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander, Oxford University Press, New York, 1979, pg. 38.

The Brutality of Fact, Interviews With Francis Bacon, David Sylvester, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1990, pg. 105.

8  “Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have.  When the sage says:  ‘Go over,’ he does not mean that we should cross to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least.  All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already.  But the cares we have to struggle with every day:  that is a different matter.

“Concerning this a man once said:  Why such reluctance?  If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid of all your daily cares.

“Another said:  I bet that is also a parable.

“The first said:  You have won.

“The second said:  But unfortunately only in parable.

“The first said:  No, in reality:  in parable you have lost.”

Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories and Parables, Quality Paperback Book Club, New York, 1983, pg. 459, “On Parables.”

9  see The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, A Philosophy of Art, Arthur C. Danto, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1981.

10  Writings, Agnes Martin, Kunstmuseum Winterthur / Edition Cantz, 1992, pg. 68.