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The Grammar of Civilization

Pursuing my distinction between hostage-taking, as the form of politics characteristic of barbarism (or the gift economy, or honor society), on the one hand, and submitting to the third party, as the form of civilized politics, I note an imbalance. Hostage-taking absorbs whatever form of “political” interaction that we can imagine having preceded it amongst “savages,” or “primitive” cultures, or “hunter-gather” communities (characterized by egalitarianism, insufficient accumulation to introduce hierarchies, and intermittent violence due to naked resentments controlled through communal mechanisms and references to a local sacrality)—by deterring in advance and punishing overwhelmingly spontaneous expressions of desire and resentment. Civilization, I have hypothesized, meanwhile, can never do away with barbarism once and for all—it marginalizes it, represses it, simulates it, neutralizes it, but never eliminates it. The formulation I have proposed would explain why: if the civilized individual is willing to submit his resentments to a presumably, hopefully, impartial arbiter, what, exactly, is he willing to submit? Surely those very resentments that, under barbaric conditions, he would have settled himself, or through his protector. Someone has taken hostages at my expense—violated my property, my freedom of movement, some agreement to which we have “sworn” more or less formally and solemnly—or is charging me with same, and we follow the monumentally world transforming path of letting someone obligated to neither of us decide whether a violation has taken place, and if so, what the remedy is to be. To put it simply, the civilized justice system still exists to prevent private revenge from plunging society into chaos—if you doubt that, transform the legal system in accord with the therapeutic assumption that rapists, muggers and murderers are merely acting out some former trauma and need treatment rather than punishment, and see how their victims respond. Civilized self-restraint runs deep, and most civilized people are ill-equipped to plot and execute revenge successfully, so we might see nothing more than some angry political rhetoric for a while; and, who knows, maybe in some places (Scandinavia? The UK?) civilization has been so thorough that the population would be too enfeebled to rouse themselves to self-defense against an emboldened criminal and terrorist class—but wouldn’t that prove, even better than the more predictable emergence of Charles Bronsons and Clint Eastwoods the dependence of civilization upon barbaric impulses? Only people who want revenge can defer it through provisional trust in a justice system that will supply a more legitimate and effective equivalent. (This is all so obvious that I feel silly laying it out, but we have constructed an entire political world predicated on the denial of everything I have said.)

The civilized world mediates the myriad, if more metaphorical, acts of hostage taking we all engage in regularly. Relations between men and women, and between parents and children, are certainly far better described in terms of more and less subtle instances of hostage-taking, which laws against domestic violence and, more broadly, moral and therapeutic vocabularies of reciprocal understanding keep within bounds. Barbarism simply involves a more “gripping” economy of attention than does civilization. To take a hostage effectively (especially when we get to the more sophisticated and metaphorical forms, like White Guilt) requires that you have paid very close attention to what is most dear to your victim. A lot of things matter to us—material things, spiritual things, mental, emotional, etc. But what matters most, and how can you get a hold of it so as to compel the victim’s complete attention to you, and what you want? Within such an attentional economy, one’s attention is always trained on one’s own and other vulnerabilities (which, furthermore, shift around, become “available” in different ways, etc.), which is very riveting—look away for a moment and all might be lost, because you will have lost track of what the score is. Paying attention to a third party—whether an actual one, like a judge, teacher, supervisor, etc., or the internalized voice within, our conscience—validating their credentials, following the logic of their judgments, weighing that against any escape routes we have semi- or unconsciously prepared for ourselves from said judgments, etc. is only possible once the hostage-taking attentional economy has been interrupted and we have been wrenched out of its grip—most likely because its dense richness of motivations and possibilities has, at a certain point revealed an abyss (some consuming physical or psychic violence) to which our own actions are leading us. If the abyss is wide enough, which is to say if the consequences of not only actions undertaken or planned, but of the very inclinations and most distant desires we are capable of representing to ourselves, reveal trails leading to that abyss, then one might come to enter the world of third parties more permanently, and to discipline oneself according to the terms of that world.

There are gradations, minute degrees of civilization, each one of which reiterates the distinction between civilization and barbarism. For most of us, most of the time, eating cooked meat with silverware is enough to draw the line, but if you are at a party with three different forks, each one for a different dish, using the wrong one marks you, ever so slightly, as barbaric. The same holds for things like grammatical errors, working class and ethnic accents, and much else of daily life: pretty much all resentments in the modern world can be framed in terms of someone being less civilized, or trying to pretend to a civilized condition they haven’t earned. This might be a good time to acknowledge that I am, of course, aware, how unlikely is my attempt to retrieve the concept of “civilization,” one of the most white guilty of all social theoretical concepts: the term has been stained irremediably by its use in the justification of Western imperialism. But maybe there’s another reason for the implicit ban on the term—its use presupposed a very broad consensus among Westerners regarding the vast gulf between their own social order and those of other peoples, along with a casual and unapologetic acceptance of social hierarchies within that social order. Given our far thinner skins regarding internal hierarchies, simply using the concept of civilization, refining it, clarifying it, testing and applying it, arguing over it, perhaps even quantifying it, but at any rate accepting its legitimacy, would likely make us far more aware of distinctions among us that could be and perhaps are leveraged in various ways than we could be comfortable with. We can’t talk about civilization because we can’t bear being exposed to judgments of where we are on the scale. But if we see civilization as an experiment, as it surely is, one we are working on together, we can perhaps defer the resentments that would flow from an attempt to impose a particular civilizational content. In other words, we could accept that, for the most part, we are all distributed differently across a wide range of civilizational registers in ways that could never really add up to judgments on specific individuals or groups.

“Grammar” emerges as a category and marker of social distinction within a civilized, which means literate, order. The power of correct grammar as such a marker continues unabated, regardless of the complaints (repeated in each generation) regarding the new generation’s deficiencies—students note each others’ grammatical mistakes (granted, not always correctly) and usually respond with a mixture of (feigned?) horror and self-satisfaction. The terms they tend to use to describe writing marked with pervasive error is “unprofessional,” which is a near enough synonym for “uncivilized.” If “good grammar” is needed for acceptance within a literate community, a grammar of civilization, more broadly conceived, is necessary to participate in a civilized order—and, even more, to commence the necessary thinking of that order.

Grammar most immediately refers to the maintenance of the boundaries of the declarative sentence. Organized around the basic subject-predicate articulation, every word in a grammatical sentence is related to another word (or element) in the sentence. The sentence as a whole can be denied or affirmed, which also means it can be turned into a question that can be answered either “yes” or “no.” Maintaining sentence boundaries requires that the speaker or writer can distinguish consistently between declaratives, imperatives and ostensives (grammatically speaking, exclamations). Any speaker can do this for simple sentences, requiring the provision of basic information about location, presence or absence, opinion, feelings, etc. It gets more complicated when the results of a dialogue or conversation need to be represented, and even more complicated when concepts or judgments, which is to say, re-engineered words, that have been established within a given community are implicit in sentences. At a certain point, for most writers, grammar breaks down, and the writer latches onto isolated words as clues to what kind of response (something to agree or disagree with) to the sentence might pass muster—those more familiar pieces of the sentence are then copied and pasted into simpler sentence templates. The amount of “slack” one’s grammatical capacity has marks civilizational gradations, one’s ability to participate in the “general intellect” of civilization.

What happens when one’s grammar reaches its breaking point is that one no longer knows what question a sentence might be answering, and, therefore, what imperative the sentence is deferring (by deflecting that imperative onto a reality resistant to the imperative), and what ostensive, or, we might say, “revelation” or constitutive insight, generated the imperatives. To use a simple example, a new concept of God will generate demands that “God” solve certain problems, and then questions as to the conditions under which we might make such demands upon God and then, finally, alternative answers to those questions. One will not be able to “read” a sentence presenting one such alternative answer, or distinguishing one from another, without sufficient immersion in the concept of God in question. Such a reader will be able to use and rearrange the words in these sentences, but will bring them into reference to some other concept of God, and some “wrenching” of the words out of their relationships within the sentence is bound to occur.

According to Elizabeth Bates (a precursor to and collaborator with Michael Tomasello’s “usage-based” understanding of language), in her Language and Context: The Acquisition of Pragmatics, the traditional tripartite division of language into “semantics,” “pragmatics” and “grammar” entails grammar articulating semantics (the meaning/use of words) with pragmatics (the speech situation and the effects one aims at within it). Grammatical conventions, the ways words work in sentences, provide an economic mechanism for articulating words scenically. Her analysis lines up very well with the progression of speech acts analyzed by Eric Gans in The Origin of Language: grammar (the declarative sentence) articulates ostensives (semantics, or words understood as embodying the possibility of some joint attention) and imperatives (what we want others to do, what they want us to do, what we want regarding what they want, etc.—all the demands, commands, requests, pleading, suggestions, hints, etc. which we use to get people to join us on a scene). Indeed, Bates goes so far as to treat the early declaratives of children as a kind of imperative, as those early sentences are not interested so much in conveying information or gaining assent as in directing attention to a particular claim about the world. Moreover, such an originary grammar finds support from Terrence Deacon’s perfectly parallel use of Peircean semiotic concepts to account for the emergence and maintenance of the “symbolic”: for Deacon, indexes are means of aligning and rearranging icons, while symbols are means of aligning and rearranging indexes. What a sentence does, then, is present a world in which imperatives, of various urgencies, intensities, and probabilities of being obeyed, and which, in turn, are formed out of desires consequent upon novel revelations (sites of joint attention), are “poised” in relation to each other. When one is in an intellectual space where one doesn’t know what would count as doing this, then one’s grammar, in the more conventional sense, meets its limits.

So, what are the most insistent imperatives the civilized order needs to defer? Most directly and commonly, the desire to take hostages in one’s relations with others—here, furthermore, there are gradations from literal hostage taking (e.g., gang warfare, or even the desire for revenge of a crime victim) to more figurative varieties (e.g., passive aggressive forms of manipulation, harping on the faults of others, etc.—much better than honor killings, of course, but not as civilized as we can be). Even more important, though, if far less common, is the imperative to become, or to submit to, the biggest man imaginable. The servility indistinguishable from early forms of civility imposed by the all-powerful monarch upon hostage taking subjects is tightly bound up with the boundless forms of ambition some men and women feel licensed to indulge and imposes a limit on the civilizing process that it nevertheless made possible. In other words, the fervor with which one might struggle to overturn the entire social order (something only imaginable in the highly artificial civilized world) is the flip side of the desire to have a more perfect, encompassing order imposed upon one and all. These are imperatives in the most literal sense: one feels compelled to resist this or that injustice uncompromisingly, or to throw oneself at the feet of the hero who promises to destroy it once and for all. (Moreover, these imperatives exacerbate more common revenge fantasies by providing them with a global arena.) The difficulty of deferring them, and disciplining oneself so as to remain bound to that deferral, cannot be overestimated. (The abstract notion of “equality” is the consequence, or dim reflection, or forgetting of the immense energy put into these deferrals—Freud’s remark on the primary resentment of the child provides a helpful formulation: if I cannot be the favorite, there shall be no favorite. Someone with an unstrained “democratic disposition” is someone who has inoculated him or herself against the desire for victory in the “final battle.”)

So, the civilized sentence will defer these imperatives. But clichés and canned sentiments about democracy, equality, fraternity, liberty, etc., don’t do it. To defer a desire or imperative requires that the thing to be deferred be made present, that its power be felt, its more insidious operations registered, the limits of any provisional constraints on it gestured towards, the fragility of one’s own discipline in resisting it acknowledged, and that it therefore be deferred in full awareness of what is entailed in doing so. We could say that a well formed, or “grammatical” (in the originary sense) sentence is a kind of invented or improvised ritual, in its enactment of the desire and fear to be warded off. But, of course, we couldn’t ask every sentence to do all of these things at once—quite often one of them is enough, as long the possibility of performing the others in another sentence is not impaired. But, at the very least, we should have a suitable measure for a civilized sentence (and one thing that characterizes civilization is that it is overwhelmingly about how we are able to speak with each other in various ways, on various levels, moving from irony to literalism, implicit to explicit, etc.): what dangerous imperative does it place in equipoise with the civilizational imperative to be worthy of the judgment of the third party?

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