My propositions serve as elucidations in this way: he who understands me eventually recognises them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up over them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must overcome these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
Writers, perhaps this should be our writerly goal for 2014: to use our words as if they were hammers, chisels, pitching tools, as well as primary material (clay, wood, marble, etc.), to build temporary verbal edifices that lead our readers to new perspectives, new insights, to a glimpse of the nature, and importance of, silence itself. That, of course, was Wittgenstein’s last injunction, Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Silence. To have your reader end in that state. That would be something.
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Of course to lead our readers to silence (a stunned silence at that!) we must first find them. And that is no easy feat to do in the social media echo chamber.
At first glance, one would think that the larger one’s following (on Twitter, Facebook, etc.) the better positioned one is to find the elusive reader. The presumption is that someone out there must surely be paying attention to my verbal blitzkreigs and, impressed by my pithy tweets, scintillating quotes, and bargain price (99 cents), buy my book. If only it were so easy.
Dan Blank, founder of We Grow Media, notes that “…most people, whether it’s a brand or an individual, do very little research to really understand their audience. They like it to be as broad as possible instead of narrowing it down. So I always ask authors, “who’s your audience?” and I get these vague answers back…And it really illustrates to me that they haven’t done the research to find out who specifically their audience is.”
The problem, of course, is one of intention — more precisely, how can you measure someone’s intention to read a work based solely on their use of language (and a multi-faceted, multi-intended language at that)? Think of the difference between the intention (and reception) of a tweet and a Facebook post. The former encourages a a carney-like atmosphere where everyone is a literary barker; the latter, on the other hand, discourages overt commercialization, a delicious irony of sorts.
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For those of you unfamiliar with Ludwig Wittgenstein, he was, I believe, the only philosopher who was ever responsible for creating, or at least shaping, two different schools of philosophical thought: the Logical-Positivist and the Language School of Philosophy.
Wittgenstein’s life is the stuff of legend: born into a rich, turn-of-the-century Vienese family; three brothers committed suicide; one brother, Paul, lost his arm in World War I and went on to become famous for his one-arm compositions for piano; stints at Cambridge where he shocked the English with his genius, his teutonic disposition, and his depression; bisexuality; self-imposed exiles to Norway and Ireland where he pondered epistemological problems while walking the coasts; and early death from prostate cancer. Many novels have been written about Wittgenstein and Derek Jarman has done a film. The novelist Frank Tallis does a fine job of depicting the heady atmosphere of early twentieth-century Vienna, should you want a fictional account of the time.
Wittgenstein’s later work, his work on the nature of language, consists of a series of questions, experiments, sorties that often ended up in a linguistic maze — without a thread to rescue him. What, he asked, are the rules of language? How can we mean what we mean? How does someone understand our intended meaning? Is language similar to a game? Are there many “games” within the language game?
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What we find interesting for our purposes, which is to help writers find their readers, is his concept of family resemblances. This is the idea that “things” thought to be connected by one idea (“one essence”) are, rather, connected by similarities and traits, such as one might find in a family (you and your sister have similar noses and chins, but different eyes).
In his Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein analyzes games in a number of very famous propositions. Here is a sampling:
And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; we can see how similarities crop up and disappear.
…And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances“; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. – And I shall say: “games” form a family.
And, we might add, books form a family — as do readers. Some are close, like a brother, sister, mother, father; some are distant relatives. Our job is to ferret out the “overlapping” and “criss-crossing” between the language used to describe “a work” and that used by one’s potential readers. This enables us to construct a “proximal-distal” model, one that measures resemblance to a specific work from closest to most distant. In the process, we are able to make some educated guesses about whether someone is “predisposed” or has a higher degree of probability of reading your work.
This is fundamentally different from what Amazon, for example, does with its recommendation engine. Amazon recommends books based on the buying patterns of its customers. This is a great service, one we use all the time, but what we are interested in doing is finding, not books, but readers — your readers. And the way we are doing it is by looking at the language they use on the social web. Game on!