December 11, 2020 / 10:46 pm

A Glimpse into Wittgenstein’s World: Codeine’s “Castle”

Written by Max Power

This track is “Castle” by Codeine. In my opinion, Codeine’s best track, but funnily enough it didn’t appear on any of their records; it was only released on a collection of demos included in the reissue of their catalogue that was put out in 2012, more than a decade and a half after their breakup. Codeine was a band of Oberlin students who signed to Sub Pop in 1990 and released two albums and an EP before disbanding in 1995. They are considered by most to be the first full-fledged Slowcore band.

To start out, the intro is one of the best I’ve ever heard – with the inertia from that frantic call-and-response guitar slamming the listener headlong into a rough-hewn wall of distortion. Walls are the lyrical topic of this song – “There’s a castle in her heart/the walls go up for miles”. Each strum and cymbal stroke does indeed stretch on for miles, seemingly reaching up into a black and gloomy sky.

A curious lyric comes at the bridge, and we know it to be the lynchpin of the song in the way the music escalates in order to platform it upon the highest terrace, and the way it is drearily but insistently repeated: “She’s the king in Wittgenstein’s world”. That must be referring to early 20th century German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, which is perhaps an odd reference to hear coming from a rock band, but I cannot think of a better philosophical counterpart to Codeine’s music than Wittgenstein, whose meticulous attempts to rectify what he called “linguistic confusion” in philosophy perfectly mirror the meticulous, brittle, and ponderous music of Codeine. There is a mathematical precision to Codeine, mirroring Wittgenstein’s liberal utilization of mathematics in his work. Both deconstruct and react to the traditions which precede them with a painstaking reevaluation of their tropes and presuppositions; they stretch everything apart so that all can be examined, understood, and organized. Each beat and each word is given enormous weight, the burden of which accounts for the two’s torpor.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

But this is a Sisyphean task, as the fatalistic tone of both camps attests. By the end of his life, Wittgenstein had denounced almost all of his prior work and almost thrown up his hands in exasperation at the prospects of creating a coherent epistemological system out of language, which is infinitely self-referential and paradoxical. It’s also a lonely and alienating task. This “Wittgenstein’s world” which Codeine paints in this track is reminiscent of Theodore W. Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s assessment of the analytic tradition in philosophy in their work “Dialectic of Enlightenment”, a critique of Enlightenment thought, and, by extension, the logical positivism of those such as (early) Wittgenstein. To them, Enlightenment modes of thinking directly reflect the structure of the society of lordship. From a distance, from his stronghold, from the tower where “you can see everything” as per the song, the Lord dominates his carefully delimited property of fields, gardens, granaries, storerooms, barracks, etc., populated by his diligent servants who tend to and defend it in his stead. Quote Adorno and Horkheimer, “The self which learned about order and subordination through the subjugation of the world soon equated truth in general with classifying thought, without whose fixed distinctions it cannot exist”. In this “classification”, everything is “kept apart”, just as the subject of Codeine’s song “keeps everything apart” from the castle in her heart. Philosophy and thought itself become mere instruments, and eventually are rendered as autonomous and automatic as the machines they themselves produce, tending to the system in the Master’s stead.

Drawing from Hegel, Adorno and Horkheimer argue how this mindset is alienating not only for the servants who are dominated, but also for the Master. The “autocratic intellect”, the subject, distances itself from the object; it becomes sequestered inside its immovable castle around which everything else is congregated. It looks out from this castle but cannot venture forth and engage itself directly through sensuous experience, it must erect walls and moats and monitor carefully what is allowed in and out – like the example Adorno and Horkheimer use of the Odyssey, wherein Odysseus ties himself to the mast of the ship so that he can receive the sirens’ song and satisfy his curiosity and listen for any information which may assist his journey without being enthralled by it, while meanwhile the rowers’ ears are plugged with wax so that they cannot hear but may continue dutifully rowing. The traveling jesters are allowed into the court so that the King may be entertained for an evening, but the purpose is only temporary alleviation of the monotony of isolation, and they bring him only a glimpse of the lands beyond the walls which he can never journey to, as he is bound to his duties and his realm.

Such is the state of art in Enlightenment society. It is like the siren’s call. We are bound inescapably to our economic endeavors – just one example being our jobs, in which we lord over our workspaces and are lorded over in turn – and are allowed to hear the siren’s call of music, but we cannot ever break free from our bonds and plunge ourselves with abandon into the ocean. We have to content ourselves with the experience of the unbearable ache which it evokes within us. True art is a “limit experience”, according to Georges Bataille, thus called because these experiences bring us to the limit of what is known and to the edge of the unknown, into the “night of non-knowledge” as Bataille calls it. Adorno and Horkheimer show how Enlightenment cannot reconcile with art, doesn’t know what to make of it, precisely because Enlightenment is the pathological aversion to the unknown. The only things which it can extract from art are those things that are useful; Bataille would concur that in the cross back from the night of non-knowledge into the day of knowledge the only things which don’t evaporate in the sunlight are useful things. Thus art becomes a tool just like everything else under the instrumental reason of Enlightenment. At most innocuous, it is merely used as a stress reliever or to educate; at most insidious, it becomes an instrument of pacification or propaganda. But never is total immersion permitted, nor really is it possible; the Master must remain tied, and the servant keep rowing.

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer

In the first exegesis of Dialectic of Enlightenment, titled “The Concept of Enlightenment”, Adorno and Horkheimer quote Schelling to illustrate the enlightened bourgeois attitude towards art: that it is “the prototype of science” [Schelling], it comes into play “where knowledge forsakes mankind” [A + H]. Just as how the shaman carefully draws the ritual circle within which his magic is effective, science draws its circle around the “actual”, the “concrete”, the “measurable”, “existence”, and is unable to bring any bearing upon what lies outside. This is strikingly similar to some comments Wittgenstein made: his famous quote which closes the Tractatus, “that whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must pass over in silence”, is an early example of the realization of this limit, but he formulates it most clearly in a letter to his friend Paul Engelmann regarding a poem he had been sent by him, “Count Eberhard’s Hawthorn” by Ludwig Uhland (which I recommend you quickly look up and read – it’s a short but beautiful piece). In the letter, Wittgenstein praises the poem with these words: “And this is how it is: if only you do not try to utter what is unutterable, then nothing gets lost. But the unutterable will be — unutterably — contained in what has been uttered!” In this, Wittgenstein acknowledges the ability of art to say something beyond what is contained in the words themselves, an ability which language and science cannot attain, and if ever they make the attempt, they invariably spoil this extra-textual content. It cannot reckon with it – it is incommensurable. From the tower of Codeine’s castle, “you can see everything, but she shows me nothing” – she is incapable of “showing rather than telling” (telling as in making crudely perceptible). Better to leave the unutterable unuttered – art knows how to gesture towards, and not to say outright. But this is anathema to Enlightenment and its pathological aversion to the unknown, to ambiguity, and to the imperceptible.

The sparseness and obliqueness of Codeine’s lyrics, and the vocals’ consignment to the backseat as merely another instrument meant to contribute their meager content to the overall impression of the ensemble, acknowledges this limit which Wittgenstein so well explains. Codeine chooses to allude, rather than to state outright.

Adorno and Horkheimer have been criticized for lumping Wittgenstein in with the Anglo positivists. This is perhaps rightly so, though it’s worth noting that, at the time of Dialectic of Enlightenment, only Wittgenstein’s first work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, had been published. In the paper “On Ladder Withdrawal Symptoms and One Way of Dealing with Them”, T. P. Uschanov argues for an idiosyncratic reading of Wittgenstein which posits him as in fact a satirical writer of sorts, where the Tractatus is a reductio ad absurdum of logical positivist philosophy, a comedy of errors, a demonstration of “how little is achieved when these problems are solved” (Wittgenstein’s own words in the Tractatus). Amusingly, according to Uschanov, he is misinterpreted by analytic philosophers who take his words at face value, for whom the style of the text – parodying their own dogmatic, just-so sort of language – is too convincing.

The members of Codeine. From left: Chris Brokaw (drums), Stephen Immerwahr (bass, vocals), John Engle (guitar)

Similar is Codeine, about which Chris Brokaw, original drummer, has said “people couldn’t get past how impossibly slow the music was, when to me, we were about much more than that”. The style, an extension of rock bombast and melodrama, channeled into its dreariest and most sad-sack proclivities, is almost an impediment to understanding the deconstructive nature of Codeine, a deconstruction that borders on parody of the rock idiom, and demonstrates how little is accomplished thereby, how futile it is. Codeine feels like “the last rock band”. Any artist succeeding them has merely failed to properly reckon with them, else they would surely give up rock music entirely; just like Wittgenstein and the logical positivists.

In fact, Wittgenstein is a rebuttal to the Enlightenment thought that Adorno and Horkheimer so vituperatively critique in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Uschanov elaborates in the article upon the uncanny, eerie thought experiments which Wittgenstein often used in his work – “a mouse is born spontaneously of grey rags and dust… chess pieces move by themselves and memories of their places also change… God creates for two minutes an area in the middle of a desert that is an exact copy of a part of England, including all the events that happen in that part of England”. These glimpses which Wittgenstein entreats us to take into a surreal world in which anything that is could be otherwise are precisely glimpses into the incommensurable world, into the “night of non-knowledge”, the “unutterable” element which Enlightenment is willfully nescient of and incapable of penetrating into. Wittgenstein, beyond demonstrating for the positivists how clumsy and inadequate their tools are, tries to present to them what is neglected by these tools, what is the wrench in their apparatus, the undefinable variable in their equations, which leads them to bizarre conclusions and threatens to topple all their work at any moment. In Codeine’s castle, “the TV’s somehow wrong, nothing seems to fit” – the TV is this window into a world where everything is somehow wrong. Nothing seems to fit because this world cannot be assimilated into the Enlightenment gestalt.

Castle by Codeine, then, is an aural depiction of “Wittgenstein’s world”, the one which Wittgenstein held up in warning to philosophy and to the world at large, but that he nevertheless necessarily occupied himself. It’s a warning that has not been properly heeded, as today we only persist, locked in our course, in the Enlightenment project, whose brittle presuppositions threaten to buckle under the weight that’s been incessantly constructed on top of them the next time its insatiable gullet imbibes something it cannot digest.

Rock music could also stand to heed Codeine’s forewarning by example of its fate (a fate it seems to have fallen into regardless) and be much invigorated thereby — its lassitude finally remedied.

The Max Power Hour is on 99.1 WIUX every Friday from 9 to 10 PM EST while IU is in session. Tune in for more music and commentary like this. More written articles to come.