Communication

Introduction:

The sentimentalist Ludwig Wittgenstein provided a model in The Philosophical Investigations for understanding sensible communication:

269. Let us remember that there are certain criteria in a man's behaviour for the fact that he does not understand a word: that it means nothing to him, that he can do nothing with it. And criteria for his 'thinking he understands,' attaching some meaning to the word, but not the right one. And, lastly, criteria for his understanding the word right. In the second case one might speak of a subjective understanding. And sounds which no one else understands but which I 'appear to understand' might be called a "private language." (Wittgenstein, 94)

The private language argument foregrounds the absolutely personal quality of any utterance; we try to connect the words others say with what we imagine might be going on inside them. A friend says she has a headache. I say I understand; I'm lying.

The eighteenth century's medical discourse promised to represent the body down to its most invisible nerves. It imagined those as a direct access to the shape and quality of another's feeling. Physical sensibility became more rather than less complicated, introducing variable after variable into the picture of feeling. If the vital soul effects the sensitive soul, and the nervous system is like an instrument played from within and without, the possibility of identifying what a given representation of feeling means remains impossibly close, and becomes completely impossible. Verbal communication has become suspicious, and secondary to the sentimental communication which, even so, remains poignantly mute.

When Yorick, in A Sentimental Journey, tries to feel through the arm of the beautiful Grisset, he seeks to communicate with her via circulation. In fact, the first chapter in which we meet the Grisset is simply entitled, "The Pulse." The person has been reduced to the one certain element of their being: the vital rhythm of the animal spirits, carrying the soul itself throughout the body. Finally, though, all the pulse tells is, "twenty pulsations," an abstracted medical moment removed from the promise of correspondence or connection.

This unique distance from isolation is manifest in all sorts of sentimental communication. The letter, for instance, accentuates its own materiality in the epistolary novel, writing the incidental, the occasional, and the temporal. We might be reading over the shoulder of someone on the bus or from a box of letters written long ago. The conditions, emotional and otherwise, under which the letters were produced are not even distant; they are absent. The readerly space created by fictional correspondence is shrill, brittle, empty, and moving. What is always at hand isn't the immediacy of another's communication with another, but the impossibility of communication at all. The letters are archeological fragments of a fictional communication, a leftover watermark from a familiar failed correspondence.

But, of course, the distance need not decrease for the project to be maintained. Communication, sensible communication becomes a translative endeavor, a drive to write the body into an assumed community, a transcontextual group of individuals connected by a feeling that feeling is familiar. The sentimental traveler assumes failure and prioritizes process over place, but continues to travel nevertheless. The important sights occur in between capitals and communication beyond connection.

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography