Wittgenstein and the Cub Scouts

On language's uncanny mesh, the queer resemblance between Wittgenstein' hermeneutics, and the making of a pegboard yarn painting.

Scot Hacker

Excerpted from Hermenaut, the Journal of Heady Philosophy for Teens The boys weren't quite as smart as the girls. That's why we boys always got stuck with slightly 'dumbed down' versions of the girls' activities during our respective involvements with Cub Scouts and Campfire Girls, Indian Guides and Brownies. For instance, when the girls in my sister's troupe were dabbling in the abstract, learning to balance the family checkbook, we boys were still grappling with the cumbersome physical world, learning to balance canoes on our heads. When the girls were learning to prepare multi-course meals of fruit salad and macaroni casserole, we were stuck playing cavemen to their Julia Childs, struggling just to light the fire. But there was one activity that all of us did -- not together, but concomitantly. It was our first experience using a hammer, our first experiment manipulating thread with our clumsy little hands, and our first lesson in hermeneutics.

The Den Mothers and Pack Leaders called it "Pegboard Painting," but they should have called it "A Primer in the Web of Meaning." The way it worked was, you dug around in a big cardboard box full of scrap wood until you found a piece that "resonated" for you (this was California in 1973). Then you would either paint it black or wrap it in dark fabric and inscribe on the surface a line drawing or sketch of something -- a sailboat, a railroad engine, G.I. Joe, or something op-arty like stars within circles, or concentric ovals. Then you would hammer small nails into the primary nodes, or defining points of the picture you wanted to make. Finally, you would run threads of different colors amongst the nails, wrapping and stringing and criss-crossing the field of black with bright lines that brought your picture slowly into focus.

As you did so, you were transforming an undifferentiated field, one which bore no concrete signifier, into a comprehensible visual package which both dazzled your youthful eyes and placed you in the position of being the creator of a meaningful flag, one which could relay a set of codified associations to other observers who had no part in the creation of your "painting."

As this process was taking place, the adult leader was impressing upon us the hermeneutical significance of our art. Recently I discovered in a forgotten drawer a cassette tape which had captured, almost 20 years ago, the voice of my Den Mother giving just such an explication. At the time, her words seemed nonsensical to me. All I really wanted to do was to get lost in the winding of the thread, to watch my portrait of the doghouse emerge from nothingness, and then to get outside and do a little skateboarding before dinnertime. I fault her for talking way over our heads and losing us. Nevertheless, listening back to her words as an adult brought out for the first time the real purpose of that ninny little activity, and so I have transcribed her lecture at some length here:

"At your age, the world is a confusing place... a blooming, buzzing confusion of elements which may seem unconnected. Everything you encounter arrests your attention precisely because it is new, inexplicable. Curiousity is the state of asking, "How does this fit into the/my world?" You are seeking connections, trying to lace up your experiences into something cohesive, into a picture that hangs together in the void, to bring so many disparate sensations into perspective. Already you are aware, perhaps on a subconscious level, that you and everything around you is part of a very large picture, and in order to see that picture with any clarity, you must find the ropes which bind everything to everything else.

"What you are doing now with the pegboards is so much like what is happening in your lives right now. The black background you have just painted represents the undifferentiated field of awareness from which you have all sprung -- it is amniotic security and early childhood cosmic bliss. Every nail that you have hammered into the wood represents an experience or sensation that you have had before... something that you have used in your experiential matrix. Each of these nails functions as a toe-hold in a gestalt which is at first too mammoth to grasp. But by tying a knot around one nail, you have lassooed it, understood it, made it a landmark or signpost in the terrain of your awareness. By drawing a thread from that nail to another, you have covered some ground, drawn an outline, made a connection between nodes. As this process continues, the picture before you changes. What at first was a field plus some scattered nails becomes a structured and meaningful picture. The nails and the board are still there, but they seem to fade into the distance -- they do not hold the attention in the same way that your new picture does. You have made the whole your focus, placing the details in terms of it.

We weren't listening. I think I was sliding the brass achievement award I had earned for "good citizenship" around on my blue canvas belt.

"So what does the thread represent? I want to suggest to you Cubs that this thread shall be language itself, that language is the connective tissue of understanding in our world, and that without it you would remain in a perhaps animal-like state of non-differentiation. Yes, you would still have the nails, the experiences. You could find a way across the field, from one sensation to the next, but you would be unable to draw any overarching picture at all over the top of the background. As the great Hermenaut Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, "A dog can expect his master, but a dog cannot expect his master at two o'clock on Tuesday." Without the thread of language to lay over the world, none of the arbitrary constructions which we take for truths, such as time, for instance, would be possible.

I remeber that my friend Ed Waldrop was pretending to have a broken arm. He had taken his Cub Scout kerchief and fashioned an impromptu cravat out of it, trying to get out of this "stupid project."

"It is this criss-crossing, this endless, patterned traverse to and fro across the background of our lives, that we take for meaning, and thus for understanding. Wittgenstein observed that: "[The nature of philosophical investigation] compels us to travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction..." Of course we haven't ever really understood anything in the absolute sense, because, as you might have noticed, we can create any pattern of nails that we wish. Each of you has, in fact, created an entirely different Pegboard Painting / Truth Web this afternoon, just as every culture has its own set of reference points and its own language with which to connect them. But it doesn't matter whether it's arbitrary -- so long as we use the same language, we will be able to find our way around in our culture, to navigate the nails dextrously. Where we decide to place each nail, and how we decide to run our threads around it, what color of thread touches it as a nexus, all of these essentially arbitrary decisions represent the way we use the tools of our language to navigate our world. Find your toe-holds, and when you are ready, start weaving. And please ruminate over Wittgenstein's remark on "The queer resemblance between a philosophical investigation and an aesthetic one."

Of course, all of us looked up from our work at each other when we heard the word "queer," and snickered. Or at least all of us boys did. The girls were probably too smart to find that funny.

Copyright 1994, Scot Hacker


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