Originally published on Jacket2

Illustration of creatures mentioned in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky,’ by John Tenniel.


Adjacent to the house where I once lived, with its four residents and one other volunteer, sat a private cottage where Joe[1] lived in a world of his own making. The idiosyncrasies of this world formed around the ceaseless churning of Joe’s brain: as his particular neuroses reframed his memories through recurrent paranoias. Like a tangent, Joe ran adjacent to what was around him. Every day, he picked himself up and anchored down in the few relatively quiet spaces scattered throughout the different houses. It was a small honor when Joe chose to sit down with you in your living room.

When we were alone, Joe would be comfortable enough to ask, “Will the College of William and Mary come down upon me for going off to la-la land?” Joe would sometimes exchange the institution in question for a familiar standby, like the cadets at the Virginia Military Institute. With each iteration, Joe expressed genuine concern about being “come down upon” for “going off to la-la land” by some innocuous (yet well-organized) group of people. Joe would turn to me afterward, and I would always say no. Sometimes, I would walk him through each scenario and try to explain why the premise of each argument was incoherent to the point of being absurd.

Joe expressed himself in bizarrely lucid, complete sentences that formed ludicrous truth-conditional statements. Some particular group (=X) “comes down upon” Joe as a function of “the he” that either does or does not “go off to la-la land” (=Y). I used to reassure Joe by either (1) dismissing (=Y) as nonsense: with no working standard of what “going off to la-la land” could plausibly mean; or (2) by undermining the function of group (=X) as categorically incoherent and vague in regards to what “coming down upon him” would even mean, assuming it was something that could truly happen.

I wanted to assure Joe that there is no place or state of mind that represents “la-la-land.” And if it is logically impossible for some particular group (=X) to “come down upon him” in any meaningful or intelligible way, then the answer to these types of questions will always be, “No, Joe. They, whoever ‘they’ are, will not come down upon you. And you are not going off to la-la land.” Joe followed what I was saying, but some ways of thinking are carved too deeply into the way our brains make sense of the world.

When Joe felt satisfied with my initial assurances, he would then cycle between other people or groups who could “come down upon” him instead. After working through this choreographed setlist, Joe would look up and flash a boyish grin: as if to thank me for taking the time to play in his world. After a natural lull in the conversation, Joe would abruptly ask for a piece of toast. He eventually asked everyone he interacted with throughout the day for a piece of toast. Between three or four houses, that adds up to a lot of toast. Apparently, the side effects of his medication made him crave carbohydrates; but perhaps Joe just liked toast.


Cora Diamond begins “What Nonsense Might Be” with six observations, abridged below, from Anette Baier’s entry on Nonsense in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

A sentence’s elements do not have to correlate to something real to make sense. Rather, its constitutive elements need to make sense as they come together as both a linguistic act and a complete sentence.

Diamond attributes the following example of a validly constructed, yet still nonsensical statement to G. E. Moore: “Scott kept a runcible at Abbotsford.”[3] The relation of one of its parts (i.e. “a runcible”) toward the others (i.e. “at Abbotsford”) is left vague by the absence of meaning between the unspecifiable “content” of “a runcible” and “at Abbotsford.” “A runcible” could be intelligible, however, if it took the categorical form of a noun (that is quantifiable); whereas “at Abbotsford” would need to function as the proper name of an actual place.

If “a runcible” was specified as “three cows,” then the sense of the resulting sentence, “Scott kept ‘three cows’ at Abbotsford,” would form a valid truth condition that is either true or false — assuming Abbotsford is an actual place in which Scott either does or does not keep three cows. “A runcible” could alternatively be read as a category of adjectives that modify nouns. “Scott kept a runcible at Abbotsford” becomes “Scott kept a runcible _________ [ + “noun”] at Abbotsford.” This was the original sense of “runcible” employed by Edward Lear’s “a runcible spoon.” These function expressions bind two or more compatible, categorical elements together in a complete sentence. “A runcible spoon,” for example, completes the expected mode of circulation between an adjective (i.e. “runcible”) that modifies a quality of the noun (i.e. “a spoon”) that follows after.

Thus, nonsense disrupts the sense of the whole sentence through words that withdraw from their expected modes of circulation — between (1) the parts and the whole of the sentence and (2) the reality they designate and give meaning to as words and concepts. Diamond quotes Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: “When a sentence is called senseless it is not as it were its sense that is senseless. But a combination of words is being excluded from the language, withdrawn from circulation.”[4] Nonsense exists either (1) as the unresolved absence of meaning assumed by unspecified elements within a sentence or (2) as the unresolvable relationship between two or more incompatible categories.


Along the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, around a one-mile loop, lies a smattering of group homes, private cottages, and even an adjacent multi-winged estate with an animal sanctuary for horses and alpacas. The residents of this community have fine-tuned their daily schedules: for peace drips slow here and the smallest changes make for the biggest meltdowns. Lawrence lumbers over this community at six feet, five inches. Here he maintains his own standard of independence, which includes things like being able to take his own medication regularly and doing his laundry as needed. Today, however, it was raining and windy.

Lawrence wasn’t expecting to have to walk through a storm as he collected his laundry. He rested his laundry basket on the picnic table as he adjusted his raincoat. A gust of wind swept the basket off the table. Lawrence fumed as he stomped around the table — as if trying to physically corner and intimidate it — but backed off once he realized the table was unable to betray him in the deeply personal way he had initially encountered it. Lawrence then swung his arms around as he aimlessly paced back and forth, mumbling loudly under his breath.

As the waves of cosmic absurdity crashed against his frazzled psyche, Lawrence cursed, “SHITDAMNFUCKHEEEEELL-UH!” Once more with relish, he yelled, “SHIIET-UH! DAYM-UH! FUUUUUUUUUCK! HEEEEEEL-UH!” Lawrence kicked the trash can next to him and snapped out of his trance. It flew far. He was taken aback by how the very wind he had just cursed had now assisted him in his small act of existential obstinance. Emboldened, Lawrence grabbed on to the side of the picnic table and tried to flip it over. After his third failed attempt, he picked up his clothes and put them back into his basket before looking around one last time. The storm had cleared, and Lawrence walked back home.

This seemingly arbitrary stringing-together of curse words does not amount to a complete sentence. Yet as a set of linguistic fragments, they function as something more than the absence of meaning. The act of cursing indexes the subjective encounter between Lawrence and the weather as the unpredictable and indifferent force that knocked his laundry basket off the table.


Cora Diamond’s “What Nonsense Might Be” sketches an intellectual history of nonsense during the linguistic turn, which revolutionized twentieth-century analytic philosophy. Both Gottlob Frege and Ludwig Wittgenstein advanced differing accounts of nonsense, sentence construction, and speech acts — outside of the early, rigid truth conditions of Tarski and Boole — which centered on the absence of meaning and the categorical errors that do not resolve into stable relationships (i.e. into coherent sentences that function as traditional speech acts).

Diamond highlights three principles from Frege’s Grundlagen der Arithmetik: “The first is always to separate the psychological from the logical, the subjective from the objective; the second is that the meaning of a word must be asked for in the context of a sentence and not in isolation; and the third is to keep in view the distinction between concept and object.”[5] People, in other words, do not communicate in a vacuum. One does not arrive at the meaning “by following such directions,” nor by correlating something with it, but by making it make the sense. The hearer and the speaker’s sentence constructions and the hearer’s understanding of them are close: “the hearer has in a sense to make the sentence his, but using the rules.” The speaker, hearer, and user of language “is a thinker of senses according to the rules.”[6]

In short, meaning “must be asked for in the context” and “not in isolation. Psychological subjects are more than merely entailed by pronouns that “point to” [and bracket] reality as the context-dependent content that forms most speech acts. Most spoken linguistic acts depend on the use of indexicals, which include most pronouns, like “I” and “it,” and words like “here” or “yesterday.” Indexicals imply a specific, context-dependent relationship between two or more elements in a sentence (with respect to subjective space or time). Indexicals complicate the relatively flat picture of linguistic meaning, which acknowledges sentences as true or false.

Sentences, however, may be valid outside of their expression as truth-conditional. Indexicals reframe sentences as a speech act: entailing inter- subjective and context-dependent worlds, necessary for their function as an intelligible speech act (i.e. recognizable as such by others who share that language). To utter a sentence as a speech act is, on one level, the expression of a linguistic character that categorically holds over a number of varied contexts; and, on another level, the actual content being “pointed to” and “bracketed” as a pronoun or a proper noun that is understood as existing in this shared world.


Jessica grabbed on to my shoulders before pressing her forehead against mine. Every incoming word of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” rang through her like a transmission in which muscle memory gave way to an extralinguistic stream of her consciousness:


Long sentences with unconventional grammar and no readily apparent point poses a problem for David Lewis’s account of language. In “Meaning Without Use: Reply to Hawthorne,” Lewis dismisses these speakers as “trying to win a bet or set a record, or feigning madness or raving for real, or doing it to annoy, or filibustering, or making an experiment to test the limits of what it is humanly possible to say and mean.”[7] Lewis fortifies his account of languages by suggesting that these longer sentences could be rewritten into shorter, more conventional ones: rendered as either true or false. If these unconventional sentences are really an expression of a language (or L), then our attempt to rewrite them as true-false statements sets them apart from L as L*. Yet are we really speaking a language (L), or are we merely speaking a neutered version of it as L*?

Instead of reducing language to the semantic conventions and language games of their community of speaks, Lewis demonstrates how a population of speakers (P) of a language (L) sustains their language through an interest in communication, which entails trust: the speaker of L could rely on the truthfulness of L to further their interest in communication with other speakers of L. This amounts not to the reduction of L as L* but to the addition of L+ to L. In “Language and Languages,” Lewis proposes:

In this account, L+ either (1) is reinscribed by P back into L through P’s acknowledgment of “a regularity of trust” in the utterance of L+ (vis-a-vis the changing conventions of L); or (2) simply remains “garbage sentences” from the perspective of L. The latter, according to Lewis, does not mean that L+ lacks a possible convention of truthfulness by P (i.e. the speakers of L). Rather, L+ is not sufficiently sustained by an interest of communication in P through the conventions of L.

In What Are Poets For?, Gerald Bruns defends the garbage sentences of L+, by asking, “So why write paratactically? What underwrites or justifies the juxtaposition rather than interconnection of phrases?” Parataxis, Bruns continues, “is the figure or form of writing that defeats the giving of reasons (the question of why) because it breaks up consecutive reasoning (because, if-then, in order to),” which the venerable hermeneutical circle relies on for “the integration of parts into a whole, or the formation of contexts, on which intelligibility depends.” The basic anarchic principle of fragmentary writing, “in which contexts fail to form,” utilizes how “in parataxis the part is insubordinate to anything larger than itself.”[9]


William Wordsworth envisions, under “Residence at Cambridge” (Book Three) of his autobiographical “The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind”:

In the 1931 forward to Isaac Newton’s Opticks, Albert Einstein claims: “In one person [Newton] combined the experimenter, the theorist, the mechanic and, not least, the artist in exposition. He stands before us strong, certain, and alone: his joy in creation and his minute precision are evident in every word and every figure.”[11] To behold Newton is to bear witness to the particular experiments he conducted as a greater voyage through the strange seas of thought. Newton’s insights are beyond their reduction to scientific theories: as if they were solely offered as quasi-scientific speech acts, to be validated or abandoned by subsequent scientists.

Newton published two main treatises in his lifetime. Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica was published first, in Latin, and was the more esteemed of the two, adhering to an austere, “geometrical” mode of expression still challenging for the layman to follow. Principia is read and remembered as a classic text that laid the foundation for classical physics and calculus. Yet the subsequent Opticks: or, A Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colour of Light was the more widely read of the two. Opticks was written and published in Newton’s native English, which helped establish English as the dominant language for increasingly technical scientific inquiry. In it, Newton devised an astonishing range of experiments on the nature of light and its refraction through lenses.

Einstein lists some of Newton’s most enduring contributions:

Opticks advanced what scientists would later dismiss as the more primitive, corpuscular theory of light. These results were considered scientifically valid for at least a century after their publication, before the subsequent revolution in gravitational wave theory. By 1804, Thomas Young demonstrated the wave nature of light through a double-slit experiment, supplanting Newton’s theory of light as streams of particles that refracted into a spectrum of colors.


Language is the putative science according to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human: “mankind set up in language a separate world beside the other world,” which “he really thought that in language he possessed knowledge of the world.” The sculptor of language did not settle on merely giving things designations, but believed “that with words he was expressing the supreme knowledge of things.” “Language is, in fact,” Nietzsche continues, “the first stage of the occupation with science.” Only now, a great deal later, does it dawn “on men that in their belief in language they have propagated a tremendous error.”[13]

Nietzsche suggests language conflates its linguistic designations of reality as itself, the actual expression of the supreme knowledge; and not as some humble, context dependent designation of reality, merely offered through language. The sculptor who adds and subtracts from an existing slab of context resembles the writer, as they draw together and exclude the sufficient shorthand of words through their sentences. The expression of language in evolutionary terms, as something we revise in the pursuit of this supreme knowledge, privileges the supremacy of our current concepts or conventions in relation to our old ones: as if concepts evolved “naturally” to supplant outdated ones.

Yet science, Nietzsche argues, is more like mathematics, “which would certainly not have come into existence if one had known from the beginning that there was in nature no exactly straight line, no real circle, no absolute magnitude.”[14] What happens, then, to these outdated scientific concepts, like the existence of perfectly straight lines or symmetrical circles in nature, once they are abandoned by the prevailing scientific consensus? Do these discarded concepts become artifacts from the perspective of the prevailing consensus: merely reproducing their theoretical image as one that fundamentally misrepresented our reality?

Cora Diamond offers the following point in “How Old Are These Bones,” which she attributes to Richard Rorty: “before Newton’s discovery, [Newton’s laws] were neither true nor false.” If someone in the tenth century uttered the same “Latin sentence which Newton used in the seventeenth century to state the principle of inertia,” then “it would not then have been a truth-value candidate.”[15] Rorty argues that Newton’s laws did not become a candidate for truth verification until the seventeenth century. The method of verification needed to reproduce Newton’s experiments and understand how those findings then validate Newton’s laws on motion would not be comprehensible to someone from the tenth century.

Their tenth-century speech act would be neither true nor false — until after, at the very least, the establishment of scientific consensus during the seventeenth-century and onward: which tied the meaning and use of new concepts to the scientific methods of verification used to posit them. This does not, however, mean any possible communication between humans — across different groups of people, separated by time, language, and place — is impossible. That tenth-century person may not have had the proper concepts in place to understand what “inertia” or “gravity” could possibly mean, especially if they also held other “outdated” views commonly accepted during their time: like, for instance, that the world is only six thousand years old or that the Sun revolves around the Earth.

Yet there may be plenty of common ground — across disparate communities, separated by time, place, or language — that remain translatable or co-intelligible between the two. We have no reason to believe, for example, that what we currently refer to in English as “water” cannot be adequately translated into the Latin “aqua” used by the hypothetical tenth-century utterer of Newton’s laws. Even if our methods of verifying water purity have advanced significantly, the concept of “water” still roughly means and is experienced in the same ways across multiple human societies.

To blindly and dogmatically rely on the most current scientific consensus alienates one from other cultures’, perhaps distant or anachronistic insights, epistemological paradigms, and cosmological world-views. This scientism is biased towards scientific verificationism, peer-reviewed research, and expert consensus. Instead, Cora Diamond champions “a conception of human beings as beings with whom communication is possible.” And secondly, that “a picture may be important in determining whom we take to be incapable of communicating.”[16] In short, humans are intrinsically geared toward communication with each other. The possibility of this intra-communication relies on certain conceptual “pictures” or schemas they share. In the absence of these shared pictures, the possibility of communication becomes difficult. But what about the members of our own communities, who function at the margins of language, yet communicate through alternative pictures of joy and pain; sound and fury?


In his preface to the fourth edition of Opticks, I. Bernard Cohen claims that any enduring scientific masterpiece is difficult to objectively view: the prevailing view centers on the legendary and historical weight of its author and their place in the scientific canon. Whereas, the others are “free” to probe its actual content and rescue its meaning through their own specific engagement with it. The first view traces a historical chain from Newton to Young, to Fresnel and Arago, to Clerk Maxwell, and eventually to Planck and Einstein. [17] The alternative views are thus burdened by this historical chain leading to the now prevailing consensus.

The seemingly dual nature of Opticks features, Cohen claims, both “an exposition of the ‘wrong’ (i.e., corpuscular) theory of light — even though it also contained many of the basic principles of the ‘correct’ (i.e., wave) theory.”[18] The first point of view is thus inclined to throw away Opticks for violating, Cohen argues, “one of the major canons of nineteenth-century physics, which held that wherever there are two conflicting theories, a crucial experiment must always decide uniquely in favor of one or the other.”[19] Yet later scientists, operating further down the same “historical chain” as Newton, did not envision their own work as merely eclipsing the relevance of those who preceded them.

Thomas Young, for example, had gone to great lengths to show how Newton’s Opticks both directly and indirectly inspired his own revolutionary theories on light. Young drew directly from the data Newton obtained, Cohen recounts, “while studying the interference rings produced when the curved surface of a plano-convex lens was pressed against a flat optical surface.”[20] Moreover, Young once claimed in “Reply to the Edinburgh Reviewers” that his theories on interference were actually inspired indirectly by Newton: not by what Newton had to say about the nature of light, but from the seemingly paratactic discussion Newton had offered elsewhere, on the combinations of tides in the Port of Basha.[21]

Young, however, was worried that future scientists would look back and think “Newton was but a sorry philosopher,” with nothing interesting left to say in relation to the current scientific consensus on subjects like gravitation.[22] Opticks, however, is still read today: less so by the scientific specialist interested in trying to reproduce the results of Newton’s experiments in a contemporary scientific setting and more so by the nonspecialists that keep returning to the thirty-one queries Newton had accumulated by the end of Opticks.


Charles Bernstein distinguishes “art” from “artifact” throughout Attack of the Difficult Poems. Modernist poetry projects futures as it experiments with and expands on the possibilities of poetic form. “The more I try to pin the poem down,” Bernstein claims, “the more it eludes me and elates me.”[23] If art retains its ability to elude and elate its audience, then it continues to project futures. Once Every year, high-school students dust off the same handful of frequently anthologized poems for National Poetry Month. These poems are reread because they encourage students to identify their own experiences with the poem’s respective subject matter: projecting little outside the status quo. The politics of poetry, however, has more to do with the politics of the poetic form and less to do with the politics of its respective poetic subject matter.

John started asking what day it was. “It’s Tuesday,” Michael responded. John became increasingly confused. As John paused, I could see the fog move over his eyes, from which wrinkles stemmed, like the kind of lines that children draw when depicting the smiling sun. John wasn’t overcome by rage, at least not like Lawrence was when the wind knocked down his laundry basket. I still don’t know what I saw move across John’s face. I am used to emotions being directed toward things — as the consequence of how people deal with things that happen to them or at least their memories of those things.

Difficult people are like difficult poems: you have to go out of your way to experience them. They elude the “normal” or “expected” forms of communication used to get through your day. They elate human existence and elevate the possibilities of communication between two people outside of language. What they may communicate has more to do with the context in which it is received by others and less to do with the content of its respective form. Language, however, does not have a human face or common origin: it is the evolving interface of human points of contact between their inside and outside worlds.

John punched the wall and started knocking things down. When he moved toward the glass table, Michael grabbed John and wrestled him to the ground. John started to thrash and writhe underneath Michael. I quickly followed Michael’s lead, and together, we held John down until he tired out and began to speak. He eventually yelped, “No, you’re hurting me.” There was no yelling, just a forlorn whimper tinged in confusion and sadness. Once John calmed down, he was sorry. Michael suggested that they go on a walk and see some of his friends down the road. John was happy again and wanted to see his old friends. Michael put a sign around his neck with his work schedule on it, in case John forgot where he was supposed to be that day.

Charles Bernstein: “To practice poetics is to acknowledge the inevitability of metaphor, the linguisticality of perception, the boundedness of thought, the passion of ideas, the beauty of error, the chains of logic, the possibilities of intuition, and the uncanny delight of chance. In contrast to the syllogistic rationality of expository writing, poetics is situational, shifts with the winds, courts contradiction, feeds on inconsistency.”[25]

Around the early 1980s, when John first moved here, the life expectancy for people with Down Syndrome was twenty-five years. There is currently a fifty percent or greater chance that people with Down Syndrome will develop Alzheimer’s, which is what happened to John. John spent his entire adult life living in this community: which was one of the best non-institutional alternatives to a group home any parent could hope for their child with special needs. When I met John, he was in his forties and had a long gray beard. John always gave others hugs and naturally comforted them. When he saw someone he cared about, he loved to stop and say hi. This, I’m sure, was something John did his whole life: long before the Alzheimer’s. The life expectancy of people with Down Syndrome is now sixty years because of a dramatic decrease in forced institutionalization.

Charles Bernstein: “One woman’s stuttering may be the closest approximation of truth that we will ever know.”[24] Yet does this stuttering reflect this woman’s truth or the truth of the people around her?

Most group homes, however, have policies against accepting people with violent tendencies or were unable to take on someone with both Down Syndrome and Alzheimer’s. People like Michael volunteered to take turns staying overnight with John: who had to be moved to his own apartment adjacent to this community, until they could find a suitable place for him to live where he wouldn’t hurt himself or others. I do not know where John was ultimately placed, but I doubt it was anywhere as caring and supportive as the community he lived in. Watching John become increasingly stricken by bouts of confusion and anger taught me little about John. If anything, the act of holding him down with Michael taught me more about what it means to live in a community of trust than David Lewis’s ideas on language: in which communities seem more like an afterthought or an externality, like the environment does from the perspective of capitalism.

1. Names of residents and attending staff have been changed throughout.

2. Cora Diamond, “What Nonsense Might Be,” Philosophy 56, no. 215 (January 1981): 5.

3. Diamond, “Nonsense,” 7.

4. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, sec. 500, quoted in Diamond, “Nonsense,” 16.

5. Diamond, “Nonsense,” 7.

6. Diamond, “Nonsense,” 20.

7. David Lewis, “Meaning Without Use: Reply to Hawthorne,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 70, no. 1 (March 1992): 108.

8. David Lewis, “Languages and Language,” Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science 7, no. 1 (1975): 33–34.

9. Gerald Bruns, What Are Poets For?: An Anthropology of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012), 111.

10. William Wordsworth, The Prelude (Boston: D.C. Heath & Co., 1888), 34–35.

11. Albert Einstein, foreword to Isaac Newton, Opticks: or, A Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions,Inflections & Colours of Light (New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1952), lix.

12. Einstein, foreword to Newton, lix–lx.

13. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 16.

14. Nietzsche, 16.

15. Cora Diamond, “How Old Are These Bones? Putnam, Wittgenstein and Verification,” Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 73, no. 1 (June 1999): 100.

16. Diamond, “Bones,” 120.

17. Cohen, preface to Newton, xlii.

18. Cohen, preface to Newton, ix.

19. Cohen, preface to Newton, x.

20. Cohen, preface to Newton, xl.

21. Thomas Young, quoted in Cohen, preface to Newton, xliii.

22. Lord Brougham, quoted in I. Bernard Cohen, preface to Newton, xiii

.23. Charles Bernstein, Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), 54.

24. Bernstein, Attack, 75.

25. Bernstein, Attack, 73.

Omar Baig is a philosopher and art critic from the Washington D.C. area. *No chickens were caged in the taking of this meta profile picture

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