The second bite eating from the tree of knowledge; considering style, selfconsciousness and grace in man and machine.


Was part of the talks at SERIOUS CHILLER LOUNGE in Munich 94.

Style - Innocence Lost And Regained

Style seems to belong to the category of things which change as soon as we take a sharp look at them, like the capricious quarks or the expression on a human face. As a kind of shadow, attached to every human action or its product, "style" functions unproblematically as long as it stays in peripheral perception. This is not just the usual dissolution that happens to every word once you put it under the microscope of inquisition or repetition. Some notions have that habit of becoming vague when in focus more than others. I will try to sneak a little closer by circular motions, without however trying to catch its meaning in the narrow trap of a definition.

Style is not only a shy animal, it also belongs to the class of creatures able to lose their innocence. It has a paradoxical relationship to the notion of convention, and a very fragile and questionable one to "intention" and "will". The complexity of its relation to intentionality seems to lie in a strange kind of indexicality: being sensitive to first/second/third person perspective, to tempora and modi, as well as to degrees of selfconsciousness and artistic skill.

Style is a retrospective category. Even when an artist characterizes his or her work as a struggle with problems of style, we cannot infer from this that this artist aims at "having this or that style". Cezanne did not intend to paint in Cezanne-style. Most of our products can be described as having a particular style while they are produced with no thought of style whatsoever. As soon as style-as-such is intended, we seem to get into dangerous waters, into the realm of mannerism, or at least into its neighbourhood. Style is sensitive to the degree of self~consciousness of the one who produces it, but the ways in which this sensitivity manifests is all but clear. For sure, there is no simple correlation with quality, although Schleiermacher, still one of the major thinkers about style and its interpretation, seems to pronounce a general intuition that mannerism is lurking about when self-consciousness is reaching a certain degree, and that mannerism is a movement "downhill".

Ist aber etwas nicht aus der persönlichen Eigentümlichkeit hervorgegangen, sondern angelernt und angewöhnt, oder auf den Effekt gearbeitet, so ist das Manier, und maniriert ist immer schlechter Stil.

But if (... ) something does not come forth from personal individuality but instead is learned or made a habit or is produced aiming at a specific effect, then this is mannerism, and mannerism is always bad style. (Translation D.F.)


In his literary-philosophical essay "On the theatre of Marionettes", Heinrich von Kleist talks about the devastating effects of (self-)consciousness on the natural grace of a human being. What distinguishes humankind from animals and automats as well as from gods, is a dubious feature: namley the capacity of "Ziererei", i.e. affectation and artifice in our way of acting. The physical metaphors for this loss or lack of grace is that our movements can issue from other places than the gravitational centre of our body, in which, according to Kleist, the "vis motrix" or soul is located. In contrast to this, the movements of a marionette can never start from anywhere else. This accounts, Kleist explains, for their unfailing gracefulness. In terms of a single polarity, the animal, the machine and the god are all on the positive side of the scale of grace, and we humans on the other, the gods having infinite consciousness and the machine and the animal none. Erring is our privilege.

But Kleist depicts the evolution of our species, from an animal-like innocence to the absolute consciousness of a god, not as a linear but as a circular or spiral movement. Since we have been exiled from the garden of paradise through our eating from the Tree of Knowledge, and there is no way of sneaking back past the cherub with the flaming sword, we have no other choice than to go forward, hoping, because the world is round, to ultimately end up at the garden's back entrance. Or in other words, since we cannot uneat the first bite, we must try to eat from the fruit of the tree a second time.

Kleist's essay is written in the form of a conversation between the I-narrator and an acquaintance who is a famous ballet-dancer and, to the amazement of his interlocutor, an amateur of marionettes. The dancer recalls the Genesis story of our exile from the garden of paradise in his argument to justify this seemingly vulgar predilection.

The narrator, feeling slightly provoked by his friend's argumentation, wants to demonstrate his own understanding of the myth, by relating a concrete .example of lost innocence: a fall from grace that he himself had witnessed, and in fact triggered, in a young man of his circle of acquaintances. - He had taken a bath together with this particularly graceful adolescent of about sixteen years of age, shortly after a visit to an exhibition where they had both seen the well-known Greek sculpture of a boy pulling a thorn from his foot.
Now, as the young lad was drying his foot, he happened to cast a glance into the mirror and was reminded of that statue. He told this to his friend, who in fact had noticed this similarity too. But, in order to tease his young friend, or to counter these first traces of a vanity he had lately found in him, he pretended not to see the likeliness and challenged him to repeat the gesture. A response with devastating consequences: With each attempt to repeat the original graceful act, his movements became more tense and awkward, until he gave up in embarrassment. From that day, the previous grace and charm of the boy left him more and more, and was totally gone within a years time.

It is obvious how this story applies to the case of style. To focus on ones own style means to become self-conscious - in the negatively connotated meaning that this expression carries in English. (In German, "selbst-bewusst" means something quite different: a kind of assertive self-confidence, which can be naive or in any case contains no trace of embarrassment. But it also presupposes social context where the person in question is aware of being perceived by others). From the anticipation of how one is perceived by others it is a small step to affectation or distraction by mere form.
I hope to return to this stylistic predicament later on. The notion of style itself seems to describe the arc of the fall from - and the hoped-for rise back into grace. Talking topically about style seems to risk the fatal self-consciousness which produces the decay of "original" or "natural" style into calculated mannerism. Why is it that style wants to be noticed as if out of the corner of the eye? And what makes the most demanding stylists among artists and writers strive for a style that is "style-less"? How is this preference for "no-style" related to the fact that the predicate "natural" is always a positive appraisal of style and "artificial" always a negative one? In what sense can human-made texts or other artefacts be expected to be "natural" at all?


What happens when someone gives me a texts to read and says: "Don't pay attention to the style!" This sounds like a paradoxical request, but it isn't!
There are texts which draw attention to their style and others which don't. Whether they do or they don't is a stylistic feature itself. But inspite of the mentioned problem with being focused on, this feature says nothing about the quality of the style.


Although, in Kleist's terms, we are striving towards the infinity of consciousness of a god, it is obvious (but remains mysterious as to why) that a higher degree of consciousness is not always preferable to a lower one, at least as far as it concerns awareness of one's style. Self-reflection seems to be a mixed blessing. While on the one hand, in the process of communication, there can hardly be enough empathy or "Einfhlung" with the interlocutor, this concern turns bitter when too much attention is paid to the anticipation of one's perception in the eyes of the other. Where and how does the reflection get corrupted?


Whether we chose and succeed in having a style or a "no-style" style, style is inevitable.
Style is the home of difference, the irreduceable residue of individuality, the objective trace of concrete incarnate subjectivity. As such it should be impossible to interpret (since it cannot be governed by general rules), but it isn't. On the contrary - it can hardly be misunderstood. Style seems to be a trace of having a body, like a quality of voice, a kind of body-language. It is as impossible to have no style as it is to leave no traces in a field of fresh snow.


Is style proof of a "tertium datur" between token and type, form and meaning? It is not the meaning that the form is carrying but the meaning of the form itself. It is highly dependant on cultural context, and yet it seems to communicate in a direct, unmediated way outside of the discrete coded codes. It is not a system, not a sign. Although it cannot escape becoming conventionalized once it is perceived and valued as such, it does not originate in convention. The interpretation of style then seems to us, so enslaved by our need of system, little less than miraculous. And indeed, Schleiermacher calls the essential part of the procedure by which we understand style "divination", - in contrast to the technique of grammatical interpretation. Understanding style is an art, an art we all seem to know, although it hardly rises to consciousness.

The act of divination is based on the analog nature of style and a symptom for the fact that language is not entirely in the grip of arbitrariness. Under the ruins of the Tower of Babel - to bring another myth into play - it has preserved layers of evidence and motivation.


The notion of divination, especially when we talk of successful divination, suits neither the analytic optimist nor the sceptic of communication. "Tertium datur" again?

Everyday life contains for all of us both experiences of success and of failure to communicate, of satisfying and unsatisfactory understanding, superficial exchanges and precious but rare instances of deep communion. Neither a shallow idea of a kind of total, rule governed communication, nor the radical principled doubt about the possibility of any non-haphazard understanding describe the actual variety of our experience and the variability of the depth of communication considered sufficient at a given occasion. Hopes and fears concerning communication became operational articles of faith in our theories of language, while the actual variation in the actually experienced quality of communication remains rather unexplored.

However, the analytic prospect of an "ideal" language, in the sense of logical, objective and intersubjective, is vanishing with its own illusory foundations, as far as it hasn't materialized in technological tools. Related to this modern ideal was a radical version of the idea of a style-less language: a language of which the last traces of subjectivity and individuality, which only obscure the clear presentation of facts, has been removed. The post-modern counter-position of unredeemable subjectivity on the other hand, cannot be more than a strategic subversive topos, because the position it claims cannot truly be inhabited by the thinker who endeavours to communicate this position, - just as little, by the way, as the logicians could do without our messy ordinary language before, after and around their formulas.

What we are looking for, I think, is not another theory but another attitude towards language: one that allows the thinker (as speaker, writer, hearer or reader) to try to live up to ones own declarations concerning language.


Great philosophers are great stylists as well. In fact, the best of them approximate the stylistic ideal that style and content echo each other in close correspondence This is not the same as the above mentioned ideal of a style-free logical language, but ultimately it comes from the same desire for a language without "Ziererei", without detours for the sake of form alone or distracting traces of self-conscious vanity. (In fact, logics has realized this ideal of coinciding form and content in its own radical and elegant way, albeit at a high price: meaning had to be sacrificed, - as Wittgenstein has showed in the Tractatus.)


So let me continue with some remarks from (later) Wittgenstein, who in my opinion was more consequent in drawing the "moral" conclusions from the failure of the modern project of total communication than many of his later post-modern colleagues. While he pointed to the limits of the sayable (in the Tractatus already), such that the sayable appears as a tiny island in the vast indefinite space of the unspeakable, another way of expression emerged: that which cannot be said but "shows" ("was sich zeigt" . His style is testifying this. He did not talk much about the fragmentation and "liquidization" of present-day thinking, his talk and writing became fragmentary out of inner necessity. His position could no longer be systematically identified and fixed at any singular statement (note the static terminology!), but rather must be gathered between the lines, in the movement from sentence to sentence. (In German "Satz" means both "sentence" and "leap".) Nevertheless I think that the following notes can be taken as valid statements without the whole process from which they are taken.

The first note refers directly to Wittgenstein's own practice of style:

Ein stilistischer Behelf mag praktisch sein, und mir doch verboten. Das Schopenhauer'sche "als welcher" z.B. Es würde den Ausdruck manchmal bequemer, deutlicher, machen, kann aber nicht von dem gebraucht werden, der es als altväterisch empfindet; und er darf sich nicht über diese Empfindung hinwegsetzen.

A stylistic device may be useful and yet I may be barred from using it. Schopenhauer's "as which" for instance. Sometimes this would make for much more comfortable and clearer expression, but if someone feels it is archaic, he cannot use it; and he must not disregard this feeling either.

For a literary writer such a remark might be considered trivial (given a desire to avoid a "marked" archaic style), but for a philosopher in the analytic tradition it is not obvious to have an esthetic principle overrule values like clarity and economy of expression. But then, clarity as such is not sacrificed here; he aims at at higher order clarity which would be obscured by the distraction of an unwanted stylistic effect. He makes the clarity of representation subordinate to the authenticity of subjective expression. The stylistic intuition has equal say in the process of cognition and expression, or, if I may say so, of truth.

This remark reflects the direction in which the notion of truth changed in his writings, - and not only his, in the course of this century: from "objective" truth to "subjective" truthfulness. This (subjective) ethical notion of truth appears again in the following remark. (Note the semicolon after the first phrase.)

Man kann die Wahrheit nicht sagen; wenn man sich noch nicht selbst bezwungen hat. Man kann sie nicht sagen; aber nicht weil man noch nicht gescheit genug ist. Nur der kann sie sagen, der schon in ihr ruht, nicht der, der noch noch in der Unwahrheit ruht und nur einmal aus der Unwahrheit heraus nach ihr langt.

No one can speak the truth; if he has still not mastered himself. He cannot speak it; but not because he is not clever enough yet. The truth can be spoken only by someone who is already at home in it; not by someone who still lives in falsehood and reaches out from falsehood towards truth just on one occasion.

"Truth" appears here in two different positions, which are identified under specified conditions: truth as something that can or (more often) cannot be said and truth as a place, wherein our mind should dwell (in German "ruht" i.e. "rests"). This particular state of mind is the conditio sine qua non of truthful statements; an incidental effort to match words and facts cannot achieve this. "Truthcondition" is the condition of the speaking subject.

How can we understand this being in truth? I am hearing in these words a faint echo of the invocation at the beginning of one of Hölderlin's late fragmentary hymns:

Lass in der Wahrheit immerdar / mich bleiben

Let in the truth me stay always

How can we get a glimpse of that place where truth is spoken because the speaker lives in it?

I am afraid that this question cannot be put so bluntly. Could the answer be one that cannot be said but that must emerge ("sich zeigen") by itself - in the right circumstances? At any rate, how could I claim to stand in that truth in order to be able to say something about it? - The ground is getting too hot under my feet and I am wandering off into some more detours.


Du musst die Fehler deines eigenen Stils hinnehmen. Beinahe wie die Unschönheiten des eigenen Gesichts.

You have to accept the faults in your own style. Almost like the blemishes in your face.

The impalpable whimsical nature of the notion of style is due in part to its bemused relationship with the notion of control. Here the sensitivity to first, second and third person in the perception of style comes to take effect. I can work at my style, I produce my style, but I cannot really intend and see my style as a whole, as limy style".
Like our handwriting or our voice, it is so much a part of ourselves, that the view from the inside differs radically from the one from outside. Looking back from a certain distance in time, we seem to do a little better, but this is just because we are not the exact same person anymore.

Man kann den eigenen Charakter so wenig von Aussen betrachten, wie die eigene Schrift. Ich habe zu meiner Schrift eine einseitige Stellung, die mich verhindert, sie auf gleichem Fuss mit anderen Schriften zu sehen und zu vergleichen.

It is as impossible to view ones own chrakter form outside as (it is) one's own handwriting. I have a one-sided relation to my handwriting which prevents me from seeing it on the same footing as others' writing and comparing it with theirs.

The first-person blind spot for our style is symptomatic for the "physicality" of style: it shares with the body the fact that we cannot see our own face. This similarity goes further. While the body is the only thing in our immediate control, this control in fact is limited: there is the "givenness" of most of its qualities, the physical limits of what we are able to do and the limited access to a number of autonomous functions.

But also, here, as with style, the limits of control and the awareness of it differ from person to person and from moment to moment. So, in contrast to the more conventional aspects of meaning , we perceive a certain style of another person without knowing how much of it is intentional. Wanting to get an "authentic" view on the other's personality, we might even prefer the spontaneous, "natural", i.e. uncalculated expression of style, because where one has no control one cannot lie or manipulate. So the blind spot for ourselves is not necessarily a systematic default!

On the other hand, the parallel between body and style might not carry us too far. We can say for instance: "I haven't found my style yet", or "what I did there wasn't like me/ wasn't my style". Here we are facing the crux of writing and other arts: that we assume we have a "natural" style, a style that is truly ours, and, on the other hand, it is not given to us without an effort, we have to search in order to find it.
Is this an example for Goethe's motto "Werde, wer du bist!" (Become who you are!)? - Unlike the modelling of the body, the search for our style is not like plastic surgery, it seems more like looking for a clear and unobscured mirror, the mirror or our actions or products, reflecting our selfs to ourselves.

So it seems that style is a labyrinthic zone, where the reach of control ends somewhere in its inaccessible middle, - the labyrinth we are (to) ourselves. Where exactly our insight and control ends is unpredictable and certainly not visible from the outside. It does not follow generalizable laws, and this is intrinsic, not "because we are not yet clever enough". Interestingly though, this limitation of control and intention does not prevent us from interpreting and evaluating the style of others in depth and to respond instinctively with respect to even its subtlest features.

We can choose a style, we cannot choose our style, we have to keep struggling and searching for it. For everyone who does not want to settle with mere routine this quest will never end, as we remain a riddle to ourselves. But then style will function as a faithful mirror, an indispensable aid on the road of the Delphic advice "Know Thyself!"

The puzzle remains: How can we search for something if that something is intrinsic to our very nature? It would seem that the searched-for style could only be an artifice, a case of fashionable appearance or "Ziererei". But this is not always the case. Could we say, perhaps, that in search of our style, we are in search of our future, the future where we hope to become who we are?
This sounds quite plausible and edifying, but things are more complicated than that. How can I speak of "a" style?

Must there be one common denominator in all our actions? Has not the subject as a monolithic entity been dissolved? (It has only been a theory anyway). So style of course fractures in its turn. Is this also the end of authenticity? Some post-modern thinkers seem to draw this inference. But who says that authenticity, the truthfulness in style, the style without artifice is bound to singularity? Can't we be authentic in various versions, i.e. in the different personalities of which our person consists? Each persona produces (or is produced by) a style. As an obvious example for that, Fernando Pessoa comes to my mind, who is authentic simultaneously as Pessoa and each of the many personae or heteronyms, through or as who he is writing.


Good style is a style without gestures. Both Wittgenstein and Andy Warhol, to name only one artist, explicitely formulate their disgust of "gesticulation" .

(... ) lass die Gestikulation! und sag nur was Du zu sagen hast.

stop gesticulating! and just say what you have to say.

Wittgenstein writes as an advice to another writer. And Warhol describes the insight when he tried to find his own style:

(... ) take away the the commentary of the gestures

Pessoa/Caeiro formulates this in a poem. (I give a rough and clumsy prose translation from a german edition, emphasis mine)

In one or the other way, as it succeeds or does not succeed, I write my verses. Sometimes I manage to say what I am thinking, at other times I say it badly and confused, so I write my verses unintentionally, as if writing did not consist of gestures, as if writing occurs to me like the sunlight falling on me. I try to write what I feel without thinking of what I feel. I try to nestle the words against the idea, I make an effort not to need a corridor from thought to word.

Caeiro is generally seen as the heteronym for the naive poet who creates pastoral songs in classical manner. But in this quote a more complex image of the relationship between the author (Pessoa) and one of his voices (Caeiro) emerges. Caeiro is formulating his own stylistic ideal, but in the repeated "as if" and "I try to.." the underlying voice of Pessoa is also coming through, like a consciously used pentimento in a painting. Writing does not occur to us like the sunlight falling on us, but striving towards that ideal while knowing that it is impossible, does not undermine our authenticity. It is in the inevitable corridor between thought and word where style comes in and where a style without gestures, so to speak, tries to eliminate itself.

The innocence before the first and after the second bite can look very much alike.

Eating from the Tree of Knowledge for the first time is like looking into a mirror. After Adam and Eve had eaten from the fruit, they looked at each other and they felt shame about their nakedness.
This means they looked at the other like one looks into a mirror: to see how one is seen by another. The look from the inside makes place for the look (as if) from the outside, mirroring ourselves in the eyes of another consciousness.

But, as we know, one mirror is not enough to see oneself as one is, the image is reversed. We have to reflect the reflection in order to reverse the reversal. Since we cannot go back to the pre-selfconscious innocence, - knowledge is irreversible - we have to take the way of knowledge to its very end and eat from the tree, or reflect the reflection, again.

The first reflection produces shame and loss of grace. We start to compare that which(we think) the others are seeing with what we wish them to see. We anticipate a judgement that is not our own. We are not prepared to accept the difference between the inside and the outside perspective. Unable to hold out in that difference, we are quick to "leave home".

The second reflection does not redeem the difference entirely, but it leads the look that went astray back to the looker. When I see that I confused myself with the image in the first mirror, when I see what I projected into the view of the other and how I did this, then I start to see something of myself.

When we hear or see ourselves for the first time on audio or video recordings, most of us tend to feel embarrassed. But if we could become fully conscious of the causes of this embarrassment so that we could integrate the outside with the inside view, the embarrassment might vanish. Is this the same as finding/recognizing one's style?


To make some loose ends meet, I'll have Kleist appear in one of Wittgenstein's remarks.

Kleist schrieb einmal, es wore dem Dichter am liebsten, er kbnnte die Gedanken selbst ohne Worte Ubertragen. (Welch seltsames Eingest"ndnis.)

Kleist wrote somewhere that what the poet would most of all like to do would be to convey thoughts by themselves without words. (What a strange admission.)

Wittgenstein must be referring to Kleist's "Letter from one poet to another" (1811, the same year in which the "Marionettentheater" appeared). The "Letter" is a critical response to the compliments he received from another poet for the perfection of his use of poetic forms like rhythm, sound and verse. Kleist concludes from this appraisal that his colleague had not understood his intentions at all. All his (Kleist's) efforts are directed towards the one goal: to draw total attention to the thought that is expressed. Good form enables the spirit (Geist) to manifest directly, as if unmediated, or, in Pessoa's words, without the corridor between thought and word; while bad form draws attention to itself like a distorting mirror. Here we are obviously back at the theme of self-consciousness and affectation.

Obviously, Kleist and Wittgenstein have a similar stylistic ideal, the "style without style". So, in fact, the compliments show to Kleist that he has failed. Style in that sense is a cause of distraction, a painful reminder of our exile from the place where aims and means, words and things, acts and their meaning, are the same.

But can this ideal where doing and saying coincide be realised in "real life"? Can we get past the turning point, where the fall becomes a rise?

Instead of an answer I recur to Wittgenstein's crucial remark, in which he sums up his philosophy in a most unexpected way:

Ich glaube meine Stellung in der Philosophie dadurch zusammengefasst zu haben, indem ich sage: Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten. Daraus muss sich, scheint mir, ergeben, wie weit mein Denken der Gegenwart, Zukunft oder der Vergangenheit angeh"rt. Denn ich habe mich damit auch als einen bekannt, der nicht ganz kann, was er zu k"nnen wnscht.

I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy when I said: philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition (ought to be written as poetry). It must, as it seems to me, be possible to gather from this how far my thinking belongs to the present, future or past. For I was thereby revealing myself as someone who cannot quite do what he would like to be able to do.

By now, it should no longer sound like a contradiction, when Wittgenstein on the one hand strives towards the "style-less style", and on the other hand names the ideal of (his) philosophy: poetry. Poetry as the continuation of philosophy with other, in fact more apt means. But a continuation - or utopia - that he did not fully realize.

But what does "dichten". creating poetry as the fulfillment of philosophy mean? In German, "dichten" contains the notion of density. In poetry, the words have a different specific weight than in regular use. In real poetry the truth-conditions are not outside but inside the text, the text being its own verification. Ultimately in poetry "sagen" and "zeigen" coincide. The alienation between the what and the how, between meaning and style, seems at least momentarily healed. Not that the abyss of difference, the gap between every me and every you has disappeared, but the most profound poetry actually approaches the abyss, inhabits it as a dwelling place, and, once in a while, creates these miraculous fragile momentary bridges. Poetry is the language past the turning point.

There is a philosopher, in general only known as a poet, who realized (in both senses of the word) this radical conclusion. Hölderlin, central member of the triad formed with his friend Hegel and Schelling, formulated the logics of this step and in doing so, took it. Renouncing the discursive mode, the "about-philosophy" (which was clearly within his reach), he paid the high price for continuing and fulfilling philosophy through poetry. Official philosophy did not follow him on this path but stayed, with Hegel, on the side of the safe, discursive language of argumentation. The time wasn't ripe for the reconciliation, the mythic marriage between science and art of which not only Hölderlin but all the three of the friends had dreamt..

Now, almost 200 years later, this dream is still as relevant as it ever was. Wittgenstein's cruelly honest self-examination in his clear, sober and yet unmistakably personal prose did and did not fail with respect to this ideal. His writing remained prose, but a prose which now and then reveals its own past and future: poetry.

Ending on this note, the failure of this paper makes itself painfully noticeable. It fails on stylistic grounds to fully manifest the philosophy it attempts to express. And even admitting this failure, coming too close to a recursive mirror trick, fails to effect a repair. - Is there a way to stay silent until one achieves the poetic precision necessary to express exactly what one needs to say, and yet communicate with fellow philosophers during that process?