April 2, 2020


Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:09 am

Hamlet, before following his father’s ghost’s demand to avenge his death, decides to put on a play. The play is to reproduce the event of Claudius’s murder of his brother, Hamlet’s father, and the reasoning is that if Claudius is indeed guilty he must betray that guilt in watching a performance in imitation of the murder he committed. It works even better than Hamlet had expected—not only is Claudius visibly disturbed by the performance, but it sends him to Church in a repentant mood, where Hamlet hears him virtually confess to the murder. In fact, for Shakespeare scholar Harold Goddard, the real tragedy of the play is that Hamlet does not continue to pursue this so far successful method of working through Claudius’s conscience to weaken his will to persist in enjoying the fruits of his crime. Perhaps Hamlet fears that having to confront a penitent Claudius andthendecide what to do would leave him even more paralyzed than we see him being throughout the play.

Hamlet’s abandoned method is a model of political-pedagogical engagement—a much more effective one than accusations of some kind of betrayal, or attempts through argument to convince the other with lists of pros and cons or some kind of proof. Accusations and arguments work on the margins, when much is already agreed upon and we are confronting, together, a decision that has to be made. A general who wants to win a war, or a surgeon general who wants to stop an epidemic, can find the evidence provided by one subordinate supporting one path of action more convincing than the evidence provided by another subordinate for another path because they are all on the same page, they all know what the goal is, what success would look like, what counts as a reasonable risk assessment, and so on. Within those parameters, you can expect an objective case to be heard fairly. Similarly, accusations are effective motivators when we are committed to making the same sacrifices in the name of a shared objective—it would obviously be ridiculous to accuse your enemy or a neutral of betraying you. Hamlet’s aesthetic approach, though, can be made to work under any conditions, for any audience, even if Hamlet’s own version of this approach is itself limited—it would have been much less effective, we must assume, if Claudius had been aware of what Hamlet was up to; and it would be even less effective for audiences less naively willing to suspend disbelief for fictional representations.

The aesthetic-political pedagogy involved, then, doesn’t necessarily involve putting on a literal reproduction of the failings or crimes of your antagonist or interlocutor—we’re all too suspicious of such transparent attempts at manipulation, anyway. Rather, it involves soliciting and representing the other’s sovereign imaginary. There’s never any neutral engagement—the other doesn’t address you “individual to individual”; you are always addressed as a friend or enemy, collaborator or potential collaborator or obstacle, leader or follower, etc. Furthermore, you are always addressed on a particular scene, in a particular medium, with a particular actual or possible audience—even a private conversation is likely to be repeated and ramify in various ways, in various settings. The aesthetic-pedagogical stance is to accentuate the mode of address—to make what is implicit in it a bit more explicit. You may be wrong—we can easily misread each other—but even then the other is solicited to represent the scene in another way, producing a new mode of address, and you can go from there. You need to accentuate the mode of address enough so that it can be noticed, but not enough to collapse the scene—the point is to exhaust the implications of the scene.

To turn an implicit role into an explicit one is to foreground the mimetic and scenic character of all social activity. There’s always a scene but there’s no set script, just fragments derived from previous, “similar” scenes—so, it’s not a question of line reading but of constructing the scene together. You do this by formalizing moves made as explicitly as possible—explicitly, not necessarily literally (but there might be quite a bit of literalness as well—we tend to feel stupid when we ask for things to be made literal, but sometimes it’s the most intelligent thing to do). Any scene is a descendant of a long line of previous scenes, and is nested in a vast complex of other scenes. One could try and step outside of the scene and provide a “history” or “sociology” of the scene. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you know that this involves stepping out of one scene onto another, not a transcendence of scenicity itself. But that’s not what interests me here. The kind of aesthetic-pedagogical practice I’m proposing here involves soliciting the boundaries of the scene within the scene itself.

Another model: Freud’s therapeutic practice of transference. We can leave aside what we think about Freud’s psychology or the efficacy of psychanalysis—Freud’s theory of transference, contrary to much of his own theory, is part of the 20thcentury turn away from metalanguages and towards an understanding of knowledge as participation. Freud realized that if you told, say, some young man that his inability to (for example) accept authority figures is a result of his love for his mother and hatred of his father (etc.), you won’t get anywhere. In fact, he might “agree” with you, and it still wouldn’t make any difference—the agreement would simply be recuperated as part of his “repression” and “resistance.” (You will find exactly the same thing if you explain to some conventional conservative the real power relations producing the concept of “freedom” he takes for granted.)

What does work is eliciting a response to yourself that is really meant for the resented authority figure. When the analysand starts accusing the analyst of constantly demeaning him, of deliberating frustrating his ambitions, of never really wanting him to succeed, and so on, then we’re getting somewhere. The analyst clearly can’t be doing any of these things, which means these accusations aren’t meant for him, and the analysand can be allowed to get to the point where the discrepancy between the accusations and any possible response to them on the part of the analyst becomes so obvious as to be inescapable. The unthought mimetic structure of the analysand’s resentments can be laid out on the table. Knowledge can then take the form of a(n ostensive) revelation rather than a (declarative) proof. The disinterested (although not exactly, because Freud also came to theorize a “counter-transference” on the part of the analyst) analyst is in a position to present the “blank” surface upon which the analysand can project repressed scenes and desires; the equivalent of that surface in the kinds of encounters and performances I’m suggesting models for here would vary, but the need for a kind of carefully prepared “trolling” is implicit. The point isn’t to generate outrage, but the possibility of a revelation of some disproportion between the resentment expressed by the other and any possible responsibility for generating that resentment on the part of oneself. The goal is to be able to say something like, “you can’t be this angry—or angry like this—with me; you’re imagining yourself on some other scene.” That scene can then be unfolded, in a spirit of inquiry—if the interlocutor wants to turn around and suggest you’re carrying some scenic baggage around with you as well, then, fine—we can open that up as well.

It seems to me that a very close examination of and engagement with language as the form of events is being marginalized today. Benjamin Bratton likes to reverse the Derridean slogan: “almost everything is outside of the text.” The outside of the text is everything that can be handled mathematically and “materially”—engineering, computing, design. These are all languages one can speak. It’s possible to lose patience with the history and forms of appearance of words and other pieces of language, and just say, “but the point is…” The “point” is our entry into a metalanguage whose a priori clarity we must pretend to in order to enter—often presented as the “common sense” we all know. But people always say things one way rather than another, and words, phrases and constructions have acquired specific centering powers for a reason. Bratton’s own style is one we might call “ultra-declarative”—every word in every sentence can be traced to some metalanguage, some discipline, creating a kind of forbidding inter-discipline—there is nothing “ostensive” or inviting, no privileged experience being appealed to, no “we.” He doesn’t “touch base” with you. If you read Buckminster Fuller you’ll see something similar. This is a form of writing with its own power and it produces a kind of utopian or perhaps “heterotopian” effect. But it’s definitely a form of writing, one that implicitly asks you whether you’d like to be addressed as a “user” or a ‘designer”—if the former, we’re talking about you, not with you.

It’s in the language that we use that the boundaries of the scene are constituted and made evident. It’s always possible to try and contain the scene for making explicit rules about what can be said here. Boundaries need to be set, but if they’re set defensively they’re more likely to fail because such attempts are always, like old generals, fighting the last war. It is other scenes that make you a delegate on the present scene. Your responsibility to share some task distributed across contemporaneous scenes, or to continue some project sent to you from previous scenes is what constitutes the boundary of the scene. Maximizing your responsibility for the things you can be responsible for (because you have the “quantum” of power enabling you to enact such responsibility) and treating others as co-responsible in accord with their powers is what creates the boundaries of the scene. Maximum distinction from other scenes is also maximum embedment of the present scene in those scenes. Self-presentation relies upon the possibility of such a moral relation with the other, while surfacing and representing the interference other scenes exercise upon that relation.

So, the role-playing or enactment I began by talking about ultimately aims at maintaining the boundary of the scene as maximal distinction and/as embedment. This involves ordering what we might call the “grammatical stack”: the articulation of ostensive-imperative-interrogative-declarative. Ostensives generative imperatives; but not all of those imperatives are heard, and therefore many go unheeded—we could say they never “make a sound.” Imperatives extend themselves into interrogatives, but here, too, there is much leakage, as plenty of imperatives trail off into oblivion. And interrogatives are converted into declaratives, but not all of them can be at a given moment. There are stray linguistic acts scattered around, but they’re all there in some form. Your speech (or media enactment, or interfaciality) is good when it articulates a form of the grammatical stack: your declaratives answer the most precise questions that emerge from the most urgent imperatives that were generated by the most anomalous ostensives. This is how one acts appropriately, as needed, “in the moment.” You can only do this by reaching into others’ declaratives, though. It is in representing the mismatches of the other’s articulation of the stack that your own stack takes shape. And there’s always some mismatch, even if only because the other’s stack has generated new ostensives that you now can, but the other couldn’t have, draw imperatives from.

This means that we have to be readers of texts of all kinds, including the texts of each other’s self-presentation. I’m defending “close reading,” but I want a form of close reading that travels a bit more lightly than the kind I learned as a graduate student. The closeness of your reading is manifested in the way you accentuate the role the other attributes, not completely knowingly, to you—getting it “right,” or approximating and translating more precisely as a scene unfolds. There’s still very much a place for detailed readings of complex texts—it’s becoming a lost art and fewer and fewer people know the power of this practice. But a future post will lay the groundwork for a practice close reading that will also be a quick and selective, “on the ground,” reading. (Somehow I have come to imagine myself on a scene where I am the target of the accusation of defending an antiquated form of linguistic practice, and have elected to plead guilty with circumstances so extenuating that they invalidate the accusation.)

So, we don’t need to implicate one another in murder—just in being less “present” than we might be to the traditions, obligations and discourses we participate in. One refuses the imperative exchange offered up—competing claims to centrality, whether personal, ideological or moral that can’t be settled. So much current discussion is modeled on the debate and courtroom forms of contestation, as if some transcendent judge will step in and declare us victorious, rather than an inquiry model. In the former you look for weak points, while in the latter you look for anomalies and paradoxes. After all, someone very interesting, with new things to say, might contradict himself more than someone who only makes safe and boring statements. There’s always some hypothesis implicit in someone’s discourse—really, anyone’s discourse can be articulated as a “stack” of hypotheses, in various relations of dependence upon each other—that’s being stretched in any utterance. If you derive some such hypothesis from the other’s discourse, including the other’s “accusations” directed at you (we are all stacks of walking, talking hypotheses) then your response can transform the scene by offering a test of that hypothesis.

March 24, 2020

The Stack, the City

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:13 am

This will be my first run at Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack (2016), a book that is extremely interesting in its own right (and likely to continue to be so) while also representing a new area of inquiry—familiar with postmodern theory, and drawing heavily upon thinkers like Foucault and Deleuze, while taking full account of all the implications of “planetary-wide computation.” As I mentioned a little while back, while Bratton, and his colleagues at the Moscow Strelka Institute (from which much more is promised) and the e-flux journal, is certainly “leftist,” he can barely be bothered to even pay lip service to the trendy race, gender, sexuality issues, or gesture toward “power and wealth disparities.” Rather, his politics is almost exclusively concerned with climate change, and in reading Bratton and some of his colleagues it become fairly obvious that what most fascinates in ecology is the pretext it provides for design projects that would match the scope of the supposed problem and draw upon the resources available through planetary computation. In fact, if, rather than obsessing over trying to minimize (and even shrink) the amount of carbon in the environment, we were to say, “well, why don’t we just accept that all the things the climate changers say is going to happen—melting polar caps, flooded coastlines, super-storms and the rest—will happen and redesign our human habitat in response,” we’d have an “absolutist” or “autocratic” project precisely parallel to Bratton’s in scope, ambition, and disregard for present political pieties.

Bratton sees planetary scale computation as a challenge, not necessarily insurmountable, to existing forms of sovereignty. He shifts Schmitt’s “nomos” from the earth to the “cloud,” as in cloud computing. The “stack” is the vertical and “accidental” articulation of different “layers”: the Cloud layer, the Earth layer, the City Layer, the Address layer, the Interface layer, and the User layer. This model is clearly meant to replace or significantly “update” our outdated models of nations, sovereignty, citizenship, rights, and all the rest—but the problem of articulating all these levels coherently leaves open the possibility that some kind of traditionally conceived sovereignty (political will) might be beneficial or even necessary to help create the “stack of the future.” This opens the possibility for very interesting discussions. Before saying a little about each of these layers, and zeroing in on one in particular, I want to point out that, with the exception, I suppose, of the “Cloud” and “Earth” layers, which seem to be clearly the highest and lowest, respectively, the layers seem to me to be less piled on top of, than wedged (in very complicated and uneven ways) into each other.

The Cloud is the layer of the accumulation and processing of the massive amounts of data now produced, intentionally and inadvertently, through all of our daily activities. The Cloud sovereigns are Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook (I’m not sure whether Bratton would—or should—put Twitter, or others—into this pantheon). Google seems to be primus inter pareshere. I don’t think anyone needs to be convinced that whether and how these “polities” transcend and subordinate (or eliminate), on the one hand, or are integrated into, on the other hand, traditional forms of sovereignty, is one of the more pressing medium-term questions of the present order. The Earth is the earth as the source of the massive ongoing extraction of raw materials required to keep the Cloud going—the entire earth being scoured for minerals and power sources, in the use of which planetary-scale computation dwarfs by a great deal all other forms of power use. And, of course, the Earth absorbs all the consequences of this enormous burning of energy. Needless to say, all kinds of questions of economic and political control enter into ensuring continual access to (and responsibility for) Earth. The Address layer is where institutions and individuals (the latter increasingly through institutions) gain access and make themselves accessible to the Cloud; as an Address, we are each of us entered into the Cloud in various ways, from various points of entry. The Interface layer is the ways in which users are provided access to the Cloud and through it to institutions. There is always an Interface, and, the Interface level is the one where the vocabulary of the Stack most overlaps with more familiar vocabularies—we start to notice that every human interaction involves (or can be described in terms of) some kind of “interface,” which is probably going to replace the older, more philosophical term “mediation.” The Interface is a site of interesting design problems—the way the website looks and works, the series of clicks one must employ to “enter” some online enclave is enormously consequential for the shape of the subsequent “exchange.” And we all know what the “User” is, since we are all users, all day long, at various sites. Bratton seems to me to suggesting pretty strongly that “User” (with its, as I’ve seen others point out, connotations of addiction and dependency) is coming to replace “citizen” as the way we are all identified within and participate in the Stack.

Furthermore, Bratton makes it clear that Users are not necessarily human—in fact, the vast majority of them are not—or, at least, that will eventually be the case. Companies and institutions can set up proxy users, automated users with addresses through which business can be transacted. And this brings us to another aspect of what, for now, I’ll call “the thought of the Stack”—its development of tendencies within posthuman and postmetaphysical discourses that relativize or, better, “relationalize” the human in relation to the non-human—the mechanical and algorithmic as well as the animal, vegetable and mineral. To put it simply, humans are not the only agents—although the question seems to be left open (Bratton often seems to be ready to close it, though) as to whether humans are a particularly important or special kind of agent. The transcendence of liberalism would be the transcendence of humanism as well, so there are legitimate questions for postliberals here as well—certainly, if we assume that desire and resentment are always of the center, that we only have being in and through the center, we’re not exactly “humanists” either, insofar as humanism means putting humans at the center. I would insist on the distinctiveness of joint attention, but animals certainly exercise attention, the metabolics and chemical composition of other materials can be said to have some form or “tendency” analogous to attention (we could invoke Aristotle here, or point out that “attention” might be on a continuum with something like  “responsiveness”) and our machines have simulations of attention and intention programmed into them—so, humanity’s “specialization” within the Stack can be acknowledged while we see a continuum along various “layers” of being. Anyway, I just mark these as questions to be taken up as more of us, I hope, familiarize ourselves with Bratton’s and his colleagues’ work.

This brings us to the City layer, the one that I think really stands out here—all the rest of the layers have come into existence over the past few decades, but there have been cities for 10,000 years. The city is, by definition and etymology, a political entity. Bratton, it seems to me, ultimately wants to see the city insofar as it is integrated into the other layers—as a conglomeration of users and architectural interfaces that allow the Cloud nomos to organize production, circulation and consumption. But it’s impossible to avoid questions of power here, and Bratton draws upon Deleuze’s concept of a “society of control,” which Deleuze saw as replacing Foucault’s ‘disciplinary society”—whereas the disciplinary society, through institutions like schools, prisons, militaries, factories, etc., worked directly on the bodies of its subjects, the society of control “modulates” the interfacial means providing ingress and egress to various institution and interactions. This distinction has always seemed to me overstated, insofar as Foucault’s notion of “panopticism” already includes the idea of self-regulation in response to anticipated responses to one’s possible behavior, but we don’t need to “relitigate” this debate within postmodern theory here (or anywhere else, probably). Either way, controlling behavior by making it clear that certain kinds of decisions will give you a bad credit rating a decade down the line is far more effective than constantly punishing or shaming people for trivial purchases—at least on a systemic, if not always on an individual level. (Distinguishing between those who need constant “stimuli” and those who can find patterns and anticipate is also a good way of sorting people out.)

Bratton’s discussion of the City layer, like all of his discussion, is complex, interesting and rather breathless—he refers back to ancient cities as the city of temples, sacrifice, and distribution (not much, if anything, on palaces and kings, though), discusses airports as a model for thinking the contemporary city, and much else. Still, the fact that the capitals of countries, where the government is seated, are cities, seems to interest him less, as does the imperial nature of at least the major cities. Cities are the center. Like markets and money, to which cities are constitutively related, cities seem to have generally (if not invariably) been created by the imperial center. Jane Jacobs makes a very interesting, counter-intuitive argument in her The Economy of Cities, to the effect that the urban precedes the rural—that, in fact, agricultural communities were established to feed the city rather than, as seems more “natural,” cities being a result of the development of farming to the point where extensive exchange became possible (this seemingly natural assumption is strikingly and suspiciously similar to the seemingly natural assumption of barter growing to the point where money became necessary to mediate the sheer volume of exchanges). At any rate, the better we get at discussing “the City,” the better we will be able to argue that it is within the City layer that the agency needed to make all the layers of Stack more consistent, internally and with each other, will come from within the City. And, unless you believe in the possibility of technocracy (as Bratton does), that is the kind of argument you will need to make.

Needless to say, there have been lots of cities and many different kinds of cities. But perhaps we can say that cities are where individuals are abstracted from kinship and cult relations and related directly to an at least potentially desacralized authority. Even when there’s a cult of the city, it’s a cult abstracted from and shared by the separate tribes and families with their traditional cults. The city is where divine kinship replaces sacral kingship, and where the mobilization of masses of instrumentalized and de-socialized slave laborers is initiated. The city is therefore the site of intensified and distributed mimetic activity, of endless mimetic crises and deferrals, which are in turn converted into models of governance. The pastoral, the aesthetic mode that celebrates the natural and virtuous countryside to the artificial and vicious city is itself a product of and reflection upon urban life—the “artificial” city is the source of “Nature” (part of Bratton’s project is to eliminate the entire notion of “nature” as well as “culture” by acknowledging the artificiality of everything—a development heralded by the city). The city is the cynosure and produces cynosures (“celebrities”). Cities are modeled on other cities and are modeled and remodeled on themselves, or some imaginary project of themselves. To capture the city is at least a precondition to capturing the entire country—sometimes it actually seems to be a sufficient condition.

Cities have an egalitarian tendency, due to their abstractness, but they are above all centers generating satellites: other cities, suburbs and countryside, geopolitical peripheries. It is from the standpoint of the city—Washington D.C. in relation to New York and LA, in relation to Des Moines, Dallas and Orlando, in relation to the “heartland”; in relation to London, Paris, Beijing, Moscow, Dubai, Jerusalem, Cairo, and so on, and through these centers to other peripheries (and feel free to contest my American-centrism if you think another order is emerging)—it is only by subordinating the Stack to a coherent ordering of these center-periphery relations that the Stack can be integrated into the human order, rather than the reverse. But these reflections are, I emphasize, by way of laying the groundwork for engaging these new disciplinary spaces.



After writing this post, I happened to come across an essay (“On Anthropolysis,” published in 2018) by Bratton that touches on the question of human origins. Here are the first two paragraphs:


Anthropogeny is the study of human origins, of how something that was not quite human becomes human. It considers what enables and curtails us today: tool-making and prehensile grasp, the pre-frontal cortex and abstraction, figuration and war, mastering fire and culinary chemistry, plastics and metals, the philosophical paths to agricultural urbanism and more.Given that Darwinian biology and Huttonian geology are such new perspectives, we may say that anthropogeny, in any kind of scientific sense, is only very recently possible. Before, human emergence was considered from the distorting perspective of local folklores. Creation myths, sacred and secular, have been placeholders for anthropogeny, and still now defend their turf. When Hegel was binding the history of the world to the history of European national self-identity, it was assumed among his public that the age of the planet could be measured in a few millennia (103 or 104 years), not aeons (109 years). The fabrication of social memory and the intuition of planetary duration were thought to operate in closely paired natural rhythms. While the deep time of the genomic and geologic record shows that that they do not, the illusion of their contemporaneity also brought dark consequences that, strangely enough, would actualize that same illusion. In the subsequent era, the meta-consequence of this short- sighted conceit is the Anthropocene itself, a period in which local economic history hasin fact determined planetary circumstances in its own image.The temporal binding of social and planetary time has been, in this way, a self-fulfilling superstition.

As such, how is the anthropos of anthropogeny similar to or different from the anthropos of the Anthropocene? Are they correspondent? Does the appearance of the human lead inevitably toward, if not this particular Anthropocene, then an Anthropocene, and some eventual strong binding of social and geologic econo- mies? Whether the two anthropoi are alike or unlike in origin, can they converge or diverge? Instead of becoming human, does a sharp temporal linking also speak to becoming something else? That is, in what ways is a post-Anthropocene—a geo-historical era to come, eventually—aligned with “anthropolysis”or the inverse of anthropogeny—a becoming inhuman, posthuman, unhuman, or at least a very different sort of human?


The Anthropocene is that period in the history of the earth where the earth is decisively marked, even made over by, human activity. There is some interesting equivocation in Bratton’s discussion here. On the one hand, human origins can only be seriously explored after the scientific innovations of Darwinian theory and modern geology—prior to that, there was plenty of talk of human origins, but all of it mythical and folkloric (Bratton’s Voltairean contempt of anything smacking of religion or myth comes out especially strongly in this essay). In other words, only in the Anthropocene could a plausible account of human origins emerge—even if Bratton doesn’t consider the question important enough to do more than gesture towards brain development, war, fire and food. What we discover in and through the Anthropocene is that the earth and its history have no regard for human scale. At the same time, the delusional belief that the history of the earth was tailored to human needs and purposes, and was therefore to be mastered, was the very attitude that, in a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” produced the Anthropocene, the age in which the human transforms and even endangers the earth. It then makes sense for Bratton to ask whether “the appearance of the human lead[s] inevitably towards, if not thisAnthropocene, at least someAnthropocene.”

We are in the middle of some very interesting paradoxes here. What kind of being must this human be if it was “destined” to produce some Anthropocene? Presumably a being compelled to see itself as essential to the world, to see the world as created for its own sake. Why should developments in the cortex, the mastering of fire, and so on create such a being? That the human leads to the Anthopocene, and the Anthropocene leads to Anthropolysis, the “breaking up” of the human into the “inhuman, posthuman, unhuman, or at least a very different sort of human,” is very suggestive. But most of the rest of this essay is an attack on contemporary ‘reactionaries,” who wish to return to national ethnic, religious, etc., fairy tales and reject the science that will remake humans into—what, exactly, and why?—finally drifting in and out of various science fiction visions. The limits of Bratton’s anthropolysis lie in his refusal to take seriously the question of anthropogenesis. But he does end with the following thought:

If the Anthropocene binds social time to planetary time, then let the former scale up to the latter, not the latter down to the former. With maximum demystification, make human economies operate according to the geologic scale we found hiding under the rocks. This inversion of the temporal binding we have is the kind of good definition of the post-Anthropocene that we need, and the inversion of the humanist position and perspective it would require is the anthropolysis we want.

In a way, this formulation parallels that of the inherently anthropocenic human—in both cases, it seems essential to have the human scale match the planetary scale. The human must make itself a match to the planetary; or, to put it in terms that might repel Bratton, the human has to make the planet a home. I’ll appeal here to Walter Ong, who, in his posthumously published Language as Hermeneutic: A Primer on the Word and Digitizationargues that the ongoing “analysis” of reality through the process of breaking it up into smaller and smaller “bits” in fact raises more questions of “interpretation” at each point along the way. Similarly, the process of anthropolysis, of becoming a “very different sort of human” (aren’t we always becoming a different sort of human?), raises questions of anthropogenesis. GA has not, perhaps, paid enough attention to the human as a world maker, but the originary hypothesis has us zero in on the human as a scene maker, or, we might say, stage designer. Bratton is right: our stage is now the planet, and we will be designing it, one way or another. Bratton, though, seems to want to clear the stage of the clutter caused by those who still want to reduce the planetary to their all-too-human scale. The anthropomorphic way of thinking about it is to see our discoveries regarding the materials with which we are to design, and the spaces upon which we have to stage our shows, as, simultaneously, revelations regarding the new roles we and our fellow players might inhabit. We can be patient as we (diligently) elicit these possibilities, and try out different ways of scaling things up, or restaging—and, really, Bratton can afford to be patient too, because whatever sponsors he might have in mind are not going to scale up to the dimensions of his project anytime soon.

March 17, 2020

Declarative Culture, Properly Understood

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:15 am

The declarative sentence makes explicit what remains implicit in ostensives and imperatives. Ostensives and imperatives “work” because a whole scenic configuration is already in place and goes unnoticed and unremarked upon. Not noticing and remarking upon this configuration is a precondition for the operation of ostensives and imperatives, and remarking upon them is an interruption of their operation. But sustained imperative orders include provisos involving the solicitation of periodic feedback, which is an invitation, in a limited form, of declarative culture into the ostensive-imperative world. You could say that all of “politics” concerns the way this happens, and whether the representatives of declarative culture (the disciplines) support or usurp the ostensive-imperative world.

Postliberals, or autocrats, have a problem in this regard: we must be ruthlessly critical of everything existing, but what we are ruthlessly critical of is primarily the subversion of the ostensive-imperative world by ruthless criticism. We want to identify and pre-empt every encroachment of the declarative upon the ostensive-imperative, while recognizing that the existing ostensive-imperative world is largely comprised of the accumulated results of centuries of such encroachments. We have to be more explicit about scenic orders than liberals can afford to be, while doing so in the name of a restoration of implicitness to its proper place.

It is actually the more fully developed declarative culture that supports implicitness. The use of declaratives to undermine authority (the ostensive-imperative world) by positing a more real “super-sovereignty” against which that authority can be measured (“nature,” “justice,” “equality”) but can’t be trusted to measure itself is simultaneously a refusal to use declaratives to examine the desires and resentments that lead to the relentless targeting of authority. The declarative culture inhabiting the cloud-cuckoo land of super-sovereignty, then, is really more the outgrowth of a competing, rogue, imperative order than a properly declarative one.

So, one can target the existing “health care system,” pointing out the “greed,” “waste,” corruptly disordered priorities, inequities, and so on, all the while presupposing a completely unexamined model of what a “good” health care system would be. If you ask someone consumed with the ruthless critique of “insurance companies,” or whatever, well, how, exactly, should a “health care system” work, you will most likely be provided an idealized description of some end result: everyone should have “access,” health care should be “affordable” or even “free,” no one should go bankrupt because of a long term illness, etc. In other words, you get a consumer’s rather than a designer’s perspective. If you then probe a bit further and ask, for example, about the training of medical professionals, and which medical professionals should address health “issues” at what level; or how priorities should be set regarding planning and preparing for unanticipated contingencies (or, for that matter, how to determine which contingencies—or, rather, “types” of contingencies—should be more or less “anticipated”), providing preventive care, allocating responsibility for conditions conducive to better health at various levels of authority, including that of families and individuals; upon what other institutional structures does “health care” rely upon; and, finally, what effects the preferred policy of the moment might have on all these imperative orders, you will most likely get a blank stare. And understandably so—everyone is encouraged to play at being president, with immediately implementable opinions; no one is encouraged to think and operate at the level at which one’s feedback might be help (except, minimally, as a private consumer).

When you “want” something like “universal access to health care,” however that is pictured in your mind, you really want an entire social order which you could never fully articulate. The left can make it to this point with us, but then they short-circuit it when this “entire social order” dissolves into babble about “disparities in wealth and power” or the like. They want to imagine a social order in which everyone is exactly equal in wealth and power but such a social order is unimaginable—it’s a kind of declarative sublime. As soon as you were to say something like, “well, doctors would have to…,” you invoke an entire order in which doctors are produced, certified, guaranteed a certain income and social status relative to others, embedded in institutions in which that “have to” would be actualized, and all that in turn implicates a whole series of hierarchies and command structures. The proper use of declarative culture is to articulate all this, and engage others in its articulation.

Such a practice of declarative culture, and the cultured declarative, will invariably have a satiric dimension. Someone says, “I just want to be able to take my kid to the emergency room without going bankrupt” and you say something like, “so, you want a slave class of emergency room physicians forced to work 16 hours a day for subsistence”; or, coming at it from the other end, “so, you want a redirection of resources to medical innovation freed from certain FDA strictures and a redesign of health care professional training so as to provide for more precise layers of qualification”; you will get a “wait—what?” kind of response. But something like that really is their desire, properly laid out. And you thereby initiate a conversation—should the other wish to pursue it (and this is a good way of determining very quickly which discussions are worth pursuing)—about what kind of conditions would leave us with harried, exhausted, over-educated and low paid doctors or a well ordered hierarchy of medical professionals and institutions (and associated research institutions, and educational institutions that supply them, and so on). And at the end of such questioning is the question of who could we expect to provide for the preferable alternative. What kind of orders would have to be given at what level, and what kind of people would be capable of giving and implementing such orders? In other words, we would be speaking about the imperatives we hear from the center.

You can already find discussions of health care that approximate the kind I’ve been simulating—anyone with any responsibility or knowledge of the field knows that these discussions involve institutions, resources, large scale decision making, and so on. But there are whole fields of desires and resentments where this is much more tenuously the case, and which are therefore especially rich fields for rogue imperative-qua declarative super-sovereignties to enter. These are the desires and resentments generated by the grotesque superstructures of anti-discrimination law, the fields of race, gender, and sexuality, where fortunes can be made or lost on the interpretation of a joke or a gesture. “I just want, as a woman in the workplace, to be treated with respect, and not as a sexual object.” Well, yes, but “respect” and “sex” are historical, deeply tradition-laden concepts, which require elaborate translations if their meaning is to be determined outside of a given institution’s Code of Conduct (which has processed those terms through political structured legal innovations)—or even if we are to make sense of that Code of Conduct in a given case. The actual desire here is to have the option to be a plaintiff in a particular kind of lawsuit, presided over by a particular type of judge, produced by a law school within a system of law schools dominated by a particular judicial and political philosophy, and therefore upon certain funding institutions—and, moreover, to be represented in various media in specific ways which can be described in phrases like “having one’s voice heard,” “having one’s experience recognized,” “finally saying ‘enough’,” and so on, which one has already internalized by imitating skilled and canny female strivers represented by those same media. And this is not yet to speak of the whole history of pulverizations of intermediate institutions and authorities, a history largely forgotten but marked by the epithetical residue of demonizing and popularized terms like “mansplain.”

Even those who think such transformations were good or necessary prefer to not speak of them in other than mythical terms of underdogs overcoming transparently tyrannical forms of power. Dragged out into the light of day, they look less obviously beneficial and inevitable. Answering the rather obvious question, “how did the powerless win,” is where the mythmaking comes in. They must have had somepower in the end. Behind the mythmaking lies the rogue imperative order—someone (and we could always name names) wanted to circumvent the established order. Well, maybe there was some good reason to but, regardless, we would have a very different story in that case. It would be a story of one form of authority displacing another, each with its own hierarchies, “entailments” and “affordances.” The ultimate revelation is that every desire is the desire of the center and for the center. Here’s the model of authority entailed by your desire, and here’s the model of authority I would propose in response: where are the overlappings and incommensurabilities? Can we imagine various syntheses? What “enablements” and what defects are we presupposing, along with which potential remedies, in the form of authority, and the traditions informing it, authorizing this very discussion we are having right here and now? Let’s play a little game—how many degrees of separation are there between us discoursing here and now, and someone doing something, indebted to our discoursing, that might make some difference that wouldn’t have been made without our discoursing? How much of our discoursing is informed by the knowledge available to us regarding our remoteness from power and of the constitution of our discoursing by that remoteness? Answering the subsequent question, “well, then, what, exactly, are we doing now,” would be an appropriate use of declarative culture.

March 5, 2020

Toward a Generative Logic of Translation

Filed under: GA — adam @ 1:35 pm

Traditional logic, a central pillar of metaphysics, involves turning a subject-predicate relation into a definition, and then using that definition to “certify” another subject-predicate relation. “Old people are bad drivers”; “that man is old”; “that man is a bad driver.” A particular subject-predicate relation, along with the definitions of the words involved, is assumed to be stable, which makes it possible for logic to take on a machine-like form of operation and ultimately because the basis of new kinds of machines. This mechanism is transparently a result of literate culture’s hypostatization of the declarative sentence, which produces both grammar and definitions. Aside from the fact that words change their meanings, can have multiple meanings and, indeed, may have less “meanings” than “uses,” any definition relies upon metaphysical or anthropological assumptions that can’t be “proven” within the system itself. But it’s very helpful for a mode of thinking to have a logic, less to adjudicate disputes within the system then for pedagogical purposes—a logic helps produce shared problem-solving devices and habits upon which more advanced forms of inquiry can be built.

I think that Anna Wierzbicka’s natural semantic metalanguage (her “primes”) can provide us with the basis of a generative, “anthropomorphic” logic. Her NSM provides us with a set of words with a stable meaning, but their meaning is not fixed through arbitrary definitions produced through a particular metalanguage, but through the existence of words in every language with these same meanings. This places these words beyond definition—any words you could use to define “think,” for example, would in turn need to be defined in other words, and so on, and you will ultimately be brought back to the word “think” itself. Now, the word “think” can be used in lots of different ways, so we can question the unity and stability of the prime words as well, but a good place to begin developing the primes into a logic is to note that the prime words limit each other. So, in sentences like the following—“I think I might come”; I’ll have to think about it before I decide”; “you may think so, but wait and see”—the word is being used in fairly different senses: first to indicate indecision, second, to refer to a process of cogitation, and, third, to contrast assumption or expectation with reality. But one thing is constant across all three uses: someone “thinks” when one doesn’t “know.” Similarly, however many ways we could use the word “do,” what they will all have in common is that insofar as you’re “doing” something, something is not “happening to you.”

It’s important to point out that there’s no reason to assume that the prime words, any, much less all, of them, were the first words in any language. It’s best to think of them as the enduring residue of declarative language—these are the words that we couldn’t make sentences without. Part of the project of transforming the primes into a logic will involve hypothesizing “paths” through the ostensive, imperative and interrogative to the declarative on the part of the primes, but that will involve looking at the primes as teleologically oriented towards becoming the declarative “infrastructure.” The primes are the minimal language needed to talk in and about a world in which imperatives can be refused or disappointed without increasing the likelihood of inconclusive and destructive conflict. If we resist the habit of seeing words like “think,” “know,” “want,” “can” and so on as representing “inner states,” “capabilities,” “potentials,” and so on, we can see that they all allow for the “codification” of various forms of hesitation: “I want” replaces some form of “give me”; “I can” introduces some space between what one has been commanded to do and the actual doing, and so on.

Wierzbicka’s purpose in developing the primes is to develop a logic of translation—first, she demonstrates the untranslatability of the “key words” in any language, and then she introduces the primes as a means of translating them. She both proves the Sapir-Whorf thesis and transcends it. A generative logic would be more a logic of translation than of “correction.” Instead of taking one claim and validating or disqualifying it, we want to be able to translate discourses into other discourses. We then get a logic that both reduces a discourse to its minimal elements and expands it into other discourses. At a certain point I will introduce construction grammar into the equation—construction grammar is the linguistic theory that contends that meaning resides not in individual words but in formulaic constructions. This theory of language agrees best with both Michael Tomasello’s demonstration in Constructing a Language that children learn language through the absorption of “chunks” of language learned in daily interactions and with studies of oral culture that show the basis of oral poetry in fixed formulas and commonplaces. Wierzbicka herself may not see things exactly that way, but we will be able to make her NSM consistent with construction grammar. Once we do, we will be able to construct a logic that is based on translation operations carried out on familiar constructions.

Let’s take a look at a couple of prime words in relation to non-prime words that are very close in meaning. (Of course, the results of this exercise will be different in different languages.) First of all, “see,” which is a prime, and “look,” which isn’t. We can right away see a hierarchy between the words: you can see without looking, but you can’t look without seeing. Seeing is built into looking; looking is a particular way of seeing. You look in order to see something, while you see whatever is in front of you (even involuntarily)—looking adds a layer of intention onto seeing, which is intentional only in the most minimal sense of seeing something. You ask someone if they see something, or what they see, while you ask someone what they’re looking at. If you ask someone whether they see some particular thing you have in mind, and they say they don’t, you will tell (command) them to “look there.” Once they look, you ask if they see it now—“seeing” is the ostensive confirmation of the command to look.

We can do the same kind of exercise with primes like “touch,” “feel,” “want,” “think,” “say” and “know,” but none of them seem to have such an obvious “complement” as see/look—for example, the relation between “want” and “need” seems to me less complementary, as does the relation between “say” and “speak,” or “tell”—and I’m not at all sure what other words might be “closest” to “touch” or “think,” especially if we want to stick to a pre-literate vocabulary. So, we might want to have more of a method before approaching those—it will probably turn out that there are several different kinds of relationships, involving not only semantic differences, but ostensive-imperative relations, first vs. third person reporting and so on. But “hear” has a relationship to “listen” that seems to me perfectly analogous to see/look—“listen” adds exactly the same layer of intentionality to “hear” as “look” does to “see,” and the interrogative—imperative-ostensive loop also seems to me identical—you might need to listen more closely just like you’d need to look more closely. It’s certainly no coincidence that these are the two senses through which we take in “meaning”—but, of course, we have to assume that this analogy is not identical across all languages (otherwise, “look” and “listen” would also be primes).

If we continue on with these two, then, we could trace a path from see/look through all the other words used to indicate taking something in visually—“observe,” “notice,” “view,” “identify,” “spot,” “distinguish,” and so on—or aurally (a quick look at an on-line dictionary reveals that there are far fewer of these).  So, if someone “makes a distinction,” he sees something—seeing something would be the ostensive “verification” at the end of whatever trail from seeing gets us to “distinguish.” We always come back to the primes—to start spanning out a bit, if someone “speaks” or “tells” something, that person must have saidsomething—you can always ask what, exactly, they said—which is a demand that a quoted statement be provided. If someone “comprehends,” theyknowsomething; if someone “reflects” or “contemplates,” they thinksomething. If you distinguish, you see that two things are not the same (all primes). If you identify, you see one thing that is not the same as anything else. If you observe, you see something happening (or not happening). We can use the other primes to add in these layers of intentionality: you wantto see if something will happen, or if something is not like other things, or if one thing is not the same as one other thing; and once you have seen, you knowthat something happened, that things are not the same, and so on. Each layer of intentionality is a layer of deferral, and being able to say that maybewe canknow or see allows us to add more layers. And we can construct some kind of ostensive-imperative-interrogative pathway in any of these cases, which would in turn open the inquiry to questions of institutions, or where we do these things. In this way, we can develop ways of detecting the equivalent of what traditional logics call “fallacies”: if some statement can’t be brought back to “this person said,” “this person saw,” “some person could see if…,” then it has no path back to the ostensive and is ultimately devoid of meaning.

We can take any sentence and break it down into the primes to as granular a level as necessary. So, for example, “the armed robber killed the victim who resisted.” We can start with a formulaic sentence: “someone did something bad to someone else.” There are a lot of bad things people can do to each other, so we’d need to approximate further. “This someone wanted something that the other had. The other did not want this someone to have it.” Along the way you’d have to lay out the moral objection to armed robbery and murder simply by translating them into the primes—why is it “bad” to do something to another because you want something the other has? We’d work our way through “do,” “affect,” “change,” “hurt” and so on—there are good ways of affecting and changing people and bad ways. The bad ways might be when the person affected can’t do some things that person did before. But, of course, we can imagine cases in which it would be good to ensure someone can’t do at least some of things he did before—so we need to get more precise. It would be making it so that person can’t do things which are good, or that we know are good, or that all people think are good—with each of these claims calling for scrutiny in turn.

A generative logic of translation, predicated upon a fluency in the primes, would be enormously helpful in, to refer to a famous paper of Charles Sanders Peirce, “make our ideas clear.” And we could do so in a way that never loses touch with a basic human being in the world, or ethics and morality. Everything we do or say is either “good” or “bad”—or, at least, that question will always be pertinent. We can interrupt even the most abstruse chain of reasoning, filled with hypotheses, speculations, assumptions, conditionalities and so on, at any point, and ask questions like, “if you say this, what other things can you say?” “What can’t you say?” “What can you do if you think this?” “If you say this can you say that what others will do because they heard it will be good?” Shouldn’t anyone be able to answer such questions? A statement worth working with, and re-translating in turn into other spaces, would be one that can be completely dissolved into something like things that we do because we want to see that something is the same as before, because we could then say it is good—or some other articulation of the primes. It’s a kind of laboratory built into language, allowing for both the testing of hypotheses and the invention of new discursive devices.

The primes could lead us to more adventurous and paradoxical logics. I suggested above that insofar as you are doingsomething, something is not happeningto you. I meant this very literally—describing what you are doing as you do something excludes consideration of whatever might also be happening to you—which might, of course, be represented later. But maybe the mutual exclusion is the equivalent of Euclidean geometry, where we simply assume the existence of points, lines, right angles and so on. Maybe in a more non-Euclidean prime logic we explore ways in doing things is a way of having things happen to you and having things happen to you is a way of doing them. Maybe saying things is a way of hearing things and there are similarly transactional relations between seeing and thinking, doing and wanting, and so on. We could then bring this more pataphysical prime logic to bear on the layers of intentions we uncover in the disciplines. The disciplines are built so as to foreclose such possibilities, but leave themselves open to them in all kinds of ways. Imagine a pedagogical enterprise that prepares people to conduct such clarification operations.

Maybe this should be more formalized. It may be better to produce sample translations to serve as models. At any rate there’s plenty of work to do. But the end point should be to combine the traditional functions of logic (determining the clarity, consistency and truth of statements) and rhetoric (invention, responsiveness to conditions) so that anyone who acquires fluency in prime logic can intervene effectively anywhere, with a non-arbitrary base of assumptions.

February 25, 2020

Hunger Artistry of the Word

Filed under: GA — adam @ 1:25 pm

The hunger artist of Kafka’s story ultimately reveals that he has spent much of his life eating no more than was absolutely necessary to barely stay alive not as an astonishing feat of asceticism but simply because he could never find any food he really wanted to eat. I’m working on putting GA on an equally rigorous diet for a similar reason—while GA is already extremely minimal, there are several concepts that pose problems of digestion. The ideal would really be to have just two concepts—and, then, to get gluttonous and set forth into the world and repurpose the rest of language into GA concepts. The centrality of Anna Wierzbicka’s work to my thinking also comes into play here—I find her contention that any theory should be articulable in the primes, and therefore universally intelligible, compelling—especially for a mode of thinking with the kind of universalist and “absolutist” pretensions GA claims.

Let’s start with “resentment,” the most problematic of all. Resentment is the emotion (?) or attitude (?) one has towards whomever denies you your desire. On the originary scene, this is the sacred center, which “withholds” itself from the desiring community, and becomes even more desirable as a result. This resentment toward the center must alternate with love for the center which has, after all, saved and even created the community. It then follows that anyone who denies a desire after the originary scene is taken to be doing so on behalf, or in the name, or under the authority of, the center (how else could another have the power to deny one’s desire?). The originary desire is for the center as such—to be recognized by, or even possess, the center—while subsequent desires would be for one’s “proper” allotment from the center. So, if someone denies you your “allotment” (and what this is can, of course, never be fixed once and for all), say, by robbing, cheating, or even out-maneuvering you through some “creative” interpretation of the rules, your resentment may be directed first of all towards that person but ultimately toward the center itself, which must have “allowed” this “injustice.”

This is all coherent and powerful, but I don’t see a consistent way of identifying “resentment” in a practice. It all seems to be “internal”—as I suggested above, a “feeling,” “attitude” or “sense of things.” But if we want to speak of someone acting resentfully, what are the markers of resentment in that act—presumably the other way of acting beyond desire is in love, so what marks an act as undertaken out of either love or resentment? Even if we take an extreme, revenge porn style example, like hunting down the guy who attacked me and responding in kind, couldn’t I be said to be acting out of love for his potential future victims just as much as out of resentment for the injury done me? We’d need some protocols for reading the particulars of the act itself upon the scene of its enactment, making “resentment” a hermeneutic or heuristic principle—in that case, though, more fundamental would be the interpretive practice through which we identify markers of resentment. If we zoom in close, we may see resentment, while if we pull back we see love—in that case, the question is, how do we decide to focus? Presumably out of resentment or love ourselves, which means someone must be reading our reading in turn. None of this necessarily invalidates or vitiates the concept, but it does make its use contingent on what kind of scene that application of the concept helps maintain.

Bound up with this is the moral and intellectual status or meaning of resentment. Can resentment be justified, or is it intrinsically wrong (at least as a “motive” for action)? If it is justified, is it still resentment? Is “justification” or a refusal to justify itself simply another act of resentment? To gesture towards “love” as the transcendence of resentment is to beg the question: what counts as “love”? Eric Gans in his latest Chronicle(#649) seems to suggest that the sharing of food provides a model of love, but it’s always possible to claim that food has been shared “unfairly.” And, if resentment is toward the center, wouldn’t love also have to be first of all for the center? Is resentment a form of insight, or even cultural productivity, or is it merely a source of violence and conflict to be repressed or controlled? If it can be either, how could we tell whether the kind of resentment we’re looking at in a particular case is one or the other? We can find examples of these opposing ways of discussing resentment across the literature of GA, without, as far as I know, there being any real attempt at reconciling them.

Another problem, connected with the above, is that resentment might be a very good “third person” concept but it is certainly a very bad “second person” concept. In other words, however useful it is for speaking about others, it is useless and harmful for speaking to others. To point out someone’s resentment to them is to accuse that person, which means that one is generating resentment in that person, thereby interfering with the observation one was purportedly making. Even more, it would be hard to deny some resentment on the part of the one making the “accusation,” which even further introduces more of the “disease” in the process of “diagnosis.” Even if it’s necessary to reveal another’s resentment to that person, there are better ways of doing so than telling that person they seem a bit resentful. And if our concepts are to serve the purpose of social interaction and engagement, our concepts should be just as helpful in second as in third person situations.

One can see in much GA literature the suggestion that resentment can be alleviated in some way—either by conceding something to the resentful subject or learning how to control resentment. But this raises the following question: if resentment can be minimized, it can then be minimized further, and if it can always be minimized yet further, can’t it eventually be eliminated? If the answer is yes, all of moral and political discourse within GA should be oriented toward this possibility. But if the answer is no, presumably because resentment is so basic to the configuration of the human, then it follows that resentment can’t really be reduced or controlled either. In that case, what, exactly are we doing when we engage in all kinds of actions and institution building that certainly seems aimed at protecting us from resentment? Is resentment simply “deferred,” like violence—is civilization building just an endless deferral of what remains a steady “quantity” (and if we don’t want to speak about resentment in terms of quantity, how would we do so in terms of “quality”?) of resentment, which must mean an awful crash lies at the end of it all. That conclusion might be convenient for those of certain passive and cynical habits of mind, but the implication would be that the human is ultimately a failure as a species, so why are we talking about this in the first place?

Next up: “Violence.” I’ll first note that Wierzbicka mentions “violence” as one of those specifically Anglo words that doesn’t translate into other languages. I don’t remember where she says this, or her precise reasoning, but my guess as to what makes it specifically Anglo is that its contextless “doing bad things to people’s bodies” presupposes the possibility of a neutral application of physical force. More important is that, as I was reminded recently in discussions with Joel and Josh regarding the constitutive GA definition of “representation,” in arguing for the primacy of the “deferral of violence” one has to be very specific about what kind of violence is meant. We can, for example, imagine on the originary scene that some members of the group, after discovering and sharing the sign amongst themselves, had to then turn on some “unsigned” members and use physical force to restrain them from approaching the object. Even if we assume that a great deal of “violence” had to be used in thereby saving the scene, violence that we would have to accept as necessary, even beneficial, it would not change the fact that another, very different kind of violence must have already been deferred to make that collective effort possible. In this context I will also mention something I discussed years ago—that, in fact, the kind of pan-destructive violence conjured by specifically mimetic crisis could never have actually occurred. If the participants on the scene did, indeed, overrun the pecking order and begin attacking each other, there’s no reason to think it would continue until all, or even most, or even many, of the group had been killed. Most likely, everyone would forget what they were fighting about and the former order would be more or less restored. The kind of violence deferred on the scene, then, is a phantom.

None of this vitiates the power of the originary model—quite to the contrary, I would say. There’s no reason why a kind of omni-destructive imaginary couldn’t both lie at the origins of the human, and be a kind of fantasy. In fact, it makes a lot more sense than assuming that language was founded on a kind of accurate “risk-assessment.” But this reading of the scene makes the kind of “violence” we are talking about even more specific, and calls the usefulness of the concept of “violence” here further into question. What we would really need is a word for a kind of violence that is an intimate betrayal, an exploitation of one’s most vulnerable and irremediable weaknesses, by the last person in the world you would expect to commit such a “violation,” and at the worst possible time. (Maybe the “deferral of violation” is better—but “violation” often refers more specifically either to rape or to more commonplace transgressions.) Like, say, your twin brother stabbing you in the back as you’re about to confront a shared enemy. But this means that the “violence” in question doesn’t simply come before the sign, and the sign doesn’t just halt it. It would mean that the emergence of the sign and the near climactic perception of imminent violence are simultaneous. There is a moment where the sign is put forth and sharing it has begun and this emergence both incites and registers an even more frenzied mimetic surge toward the center. In other words, only as framed by the sign could this very precise form of “violence” be perceived, feared, and deferred. The “ultimate” terror is of the shattering of this novel form of solidarity—and, the “ultimate” violence is towards those upon whom the grace of the center shines. But this also means that this “satanic” violence need not be particularly violent, or even threatening, physically. In issuing the sign, the first signers create the conditions for and defer the “violence” of a refusal of solidarity when it’s most needed. This, in turn, is possible because at this moment the center emerges as “self-aware” and both bestows sameness on the group and demands they constitute themselves as and around an other.

I should say that I see no problem with “mimesis,” both because it is not a specifically human concept and because I see a fairly easy way to translate it (and its escalation into mimetic crisis) into the primes, indicating its universality: “Someone can say: ‘I see you do something.’ This person wants to do like this other someone. This person wants to have what this other someone has. This someone wants to be this other someone. This someone knows this someone cannot be this other if this other lives.” The “center” may turn out to be problematic, but I would eventually like to speak about the center in terms of a “this-it” relation or oscillation. “This,” what we are looking at, becomes “it” (or IT) as we all see it through the other members of the group. “Desire” I find much less problematic than “resentment,” but it’s certainly not a universal term, and it would be more coherent to see desire as coming from the center than from the subject—desire would be a kind of “ITwardness,” which we “feel” or “know” when some “this” becomes “it-like.” Terms less directly tied to the necessities of describing the originary scene, and which are even more clearly indebted to very specific intellectual and ritual traditions need not detain us long. I don’t see any need for a word like “transcendence,” for example—“presence” is a much better word for our purposes, and is more easily translated into the primes: all can say “all see the same thing now”—not to mention that it is a grammatical tense, which we assume to be the first one, the first to create a world that both is and is not “here and now.”

What would replace all this would be the oscillation between mistakenness and presence. In terms of the primes, this involves the shift from “It’s not the same” to “You can say it’s the same.” I’ve reviewed the concept of “mistakenness” recently, and so I’ll now emphasize the subtle but decisive shift in the way it leads us to speak of human intentions. The metaphysical, which has become the commonplace, way of speaking about “intention” is to imagine a kind of internal map that projects some transformation in the world (itself always already organized as a map). We could then speak of an intention realized if the world is made over to look like that internalized map (which can, of course, be externalized and made public). And we can speak about degrees of realization depending upon how different the intentional and actual maps are from each other.

Instead of this “picture,” we would think in terms of someone wanting to do what someone else has done—i.e., we start with a model, who commands you to emulate, conform to, continue some work, etc. The more faithful you are to the model, the more certain you are to mistake the imperatives issued by and through the model, because you must fulfill imperatives issued from a previous scene upon a new one. Your actions will be mistaken according to the “rules” implicit in the imperative itself, as well as according the rules of the new scene or field, to which you are bringing something at least to some extent unprecedented. Your action will have to be redeemed within the scene, by participants who will have to stretch or bend the rules so as to make them applicable to the novelty you have introduced. So, you don’t really know what you’re doing until you see what they take you to be doing. Your “intention,” then, is really a prolonged act of attention, carried over from your original attraction to the model to the signs of reception given and given off by your audience or collaborators. And if at points along the way you stop and state in explicit terms what you’re trying to do, how, and why, that itself is an act, and one which involves you following some model and seeking “redemption” in some shared scene.

Talk of intention can therefore shift to the question of what makes any act the same in the course of its performance, what makes any agent the same over the course of carrying out successive actions, what makes a scene the same from the start of an event enacted within it to the completion of that event. We know that in each case the “object” in question can be treated as not the same: the act can be seen as broken or inconsistent, the agent as a fraud, the purported scene in fact a product of shared illusions and reciprocally cancelling actions. We know this because on the originary scene this was the first problem nascent humanity had to solve—determining where all members put forth the same sign as the others and none were advancing some design upon the central object. This is the problem we solve through names, designations, rituals, repetitions, self-referentiality, markers of authenticity—and pretty much everything else we do. The first command from the center is to determine that your gestures be the same.

Let’s return to the problem of turning “resentment” into a second person concept. We would have to be able to say that what we now call “resentment,” which Eric Gans in his latest and aforementioned Chronicledefines, in its originary form, as “the hostile reaction to the object’s self-refusal,” as a “mistake.” It’s not much of a stretch—since the object’s self-refusal is the basis of the foundation of the community, “reacting” in a hostile manner is a “misreading” of the situation. (In relation to what “correct” reading, though?) But we could look a bit more closely at that “reacting.” First of all, it seems that the resentful member doesn’t really do anything, insofar as the scene holds, so the reaction is either “internal” or delayed—say, until the sparagmos, when the central victim can be torn apart with special ferociousness. I don’t see any way of positing anything “internal” to the human at this point (or any other—but that’s a different issue), since the center hasn’t yet provided a model for anything that could be described in that way. So it’s delayed—but if the sparagmos is, in fact the central being giving itself up, wouldn’t that “appease” rather than exacerbate any resentment? Isn’t it simpler to say that the sparagmos is the first trial run of the new sign, and the “aggression” displayed by members of the group are tests of its deferral capabilities?

If the members on the scene “experience” (more indigestible words) “hostility,” it must be because the central object first of all drew them all in, led them on, gave a promise of itself. It was a tease. In taking his fellows as models, each member was taught to approach the object in such a way as to confer more power of compulsion on that object in the course of approaching it. We don’t have an imperative yet, but the central being is “telling” one and all to become more and more like the others—and it continues to tell them this, but suddenly in a totally different way. Everyone was told to be the same in one way, and now to be the same in an utterly opposed way. The mistake was in thinking all could be the same in appropriation; a mistake that would be revealed as the approach of the others toward the object progressively close off one’s own opportunities to approach: the central being then becomes other. This mistake is corrected with the new practice of sameness in restraint, and distribution, and, even more precisely, in relation to an other (another prime word); but the central being cannot help but provoke that same mistake forever. Even the practice of deferral participates in that same mistake by making the central being more estimable and desirable. What we call “resentment” is seeing and hearing the other as we become more the same. But that practice of having the other emerge as sameness reaches its limits and then revising the terms of sameness might include much that we wouldn’t call resentment, but would be included under this seeing and hearing the other.

So, we can then get rid of psychological terms like “resentment,” “reaction,” “hostility,” and so on, and speak in terms of signs emitted from the center that are mistaken. The mistakenness-presence oscillation is a same-other-same dialectic. We tried to be the same—the same as each other, the same as the being modeled by the center, the same as ourselves—but we mistook the signs needed to verify that sameness and found otherness instead. The mistake is then taken as a sign of presence—everyone is here now before the other—which compounds and redeems it. We need never leave the space of imitation, centrality, mistake, presence, sign, same, other. We must imitate, and we always get imitation wrong; certain ways of getting imitation wrong are prolonged and reversed into a new form of imitation that includes imitating the being we thought was pulling us in, vortex-like—but was in fact arraying us, vertex-like.

The mistakenness of any practice will become apparent in unforeseeable ways, as will the redemption of that mistakenness. This doesn’t mean we can have no goals, projects or purposes. It means having goals, projects and purposes that include generating scenes upon which our mistakes will create presence. The more aware and attentional we become regarding our models—the deep and vast streams of traditions inflowing all our practices—and the more explicit we make our indebtedness to them, the more obvious must all the ways we are mistaking them also be. Once upon a time we could call these mistakes sins and expiate them through sacrifice. Now, we can present our mistaken practices as calls for presence, as innumerable ramifications from the present each of which faces the other and faces the others as other and asks to be redeemed as the same.

Nor do I mean to suggest that we should stop using terms like “resentment,” “violence” and the rest. It’s important to undergo the rigors of conceptual clarification—a hunger strike, if you like—so that we can know better what we’re doing with the conceptual resources at our disposal. Afterwards we can gorge on our inherited vocabulary. It’s good to know that we can go without using familiar terms so that we get clearer about how we use them when we do—and maybe in more and different ways than we tend to realize. It’s good to be able to slim down to the dimensions of Wierzbicka’s primes—maybe it will even be helpful to someone doing translations somewhere down the line.








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