Moral Thresholds

If morality entails maintaining linguistic presence, then a further exploration of morality in these terms would look into the strengthening and extension of linguistic presence. We’re rarely in danger of the complete collapse of linguistic presence, and if we were it would probably be too late to do anything about it—the goal would be to defer ever further even the merest indications of such an eventuality. And, if we can sustain linguistic presence in, say, a two-person conversation, we can go on to sustain it in a three-way conversation, and then a larger group, across different media, at different levels of centrality (power, sovereignty), and so on. So, a theory of morality can set aside all the liberal obsessions with dialogue, respect, equality, dignity, and so on, and develop ways of thinking through the terms of enhancing linguistic presence wherever one happens to be.

The emergence of the successive linguistic forms (ostensive, imperative, interrogative, declarative) provide us with our model for studying linguistic presence: I continue to assume that “originary” refers not to something that happened once and for all, but to a founding event and structure that is iterated in innumerable ways and increasing degrees of complexity throughout the existence of the thing in question; indeed, that the thing in question is nothing but this continual, recursive, iteration. I also propose dissolving the distinction between speaking and acting into the succession of linguistic acts by simply saying that any act can be understood as an ostensive sign, emitted in response to some perceived or intimated crisis or potential crisis. Shaking someone’s hand, slapping someone’s face, ordering a hundred people to line up, those people lining up, walking down the street, preparing to go to sleep, etc.—all ostensive signs, maintaining some linguistic presence. So, questions about why someone does what they do, or what someone should do, can all be answered in terms of what kind of signifying succession, structure and presence your action would enter into, maintain, and initiate. Likewise, all desires (I want this, I want that) can be constructed as imperatives directed to some center, a center from which the desirer has or will receive corresponding imperatives upon obedience to which compliance with the petitioner’s request will be contingent (the imperative exchange).

So, actions (ostensive, in Peirce’s terms, iconic, signs) “throw off” imperatives: someone doing something demands that another respond in some way. If necessary, explicit imperatives are issued when the example itself is insufficient. As long as the other obeys these imperatives, he “confirms” or “authenticates” the action/sign, supplying the attention it needs to sustain the center it “orbits.” Depending upon how one obeys, the center can be more or less compelling. If the other disobeys, linguistic presence is put in danger, and the moral thing to do is find some other way of maintaining it. One can carry out another act, creating a new center that might attract those drawn to the previous one. One can draw out the imperative into a question, a request for information regarding the chain of actions and its “initial conditions.” In the meantime, the further consequences of the initiating action are not pursued. The question raised is whether the center that has been posited is really there, or still there, or what it was assumed to be. The answer will be in the form of a declarative sentence, and the declarative settles the case (if it “works”) by conveying the imperative the originating act was performed in obedience to (the “reason” for the act). Or, conveying the imperative that invalidates that act and transferred (has “always already” transferred) centrality to another act, conferring presence on a more originary center.

So, knowing or figuring out the right thing to do involves hearing the command whatever action you are currently in the midst of undertaking is performed in obedience to. If you hear and follow that command clearly and unequivocally, your act will generate the right imperatives, which will in turn create new conditions leading to questions regarding the further extension of those imperatives, and to framing sentences making the command you are following more explicit to others, in turn leading to new actions. This assumes that the higher command is always right, and that doing wrong involves suppressing or mishearing that command. But people hear “voices” (more or less literally) telling them to do all kinds of things. We can probably all think of times when we followed some intuition and were absolutely certain we were right, and turned out to be completely wrong. So, why should the higher command be right, and how can we be sure that we are capable of hearing it clearly and completely? What function does reasoning about moral decisions and character have in this process?

We need to have faith in language. There are a lot of ways of discussing faith in language, probably as many ways as there of discussing faith in God. I’m going to suggest one approach here. Anna Wierzbicka, whose work I have mentioned several times, has, along with her collaborators, identified a small group of words she claims exist in every language and have the same meaning in every language. She calls them “semantic primes.” The only value terms among the semantic primes are “good” and “bad.” So, we know that every human group distinguishes between good and bad. We also know that all other evaluations can ultimately be “translated” into some distinction between good and bad. By definition, we want good things, not bad ones, we want to act well, not badly, to be good, not bad, people. The “speech words” among the semantic primes are “say,” “words,” “true” (not even “false”). Saying the truth comes before lying: all humans agree on this, simply by virtue of speaking some language. The “mental predicates” among the primes are “think,” “know,” “want,” “feel,” “see,” “hear.” We can see what is good and distinguish it from what is bad, we can think and say what is true, we can know what is true and good—if we use language, we “believe” all this, even when we use language to deny it.

Wierzbicka categorizes these words as “primitives” because they cannot be defined in terms of other words that wouldn’t in turn depend upon these words for their definition. In other words, we just know what these words mean by being able to use them. This is surely true—I’m definitely not arrogant enough to challenge Wierzbicka’s scholarship or reasoning here. But since I have an originary theory of language, I can ground these words in ostensives and imperatives. For example, all of her time and space terms would at some point need to be accompanied by pointing. Now, if we treat the verbs Wierzbicka counts among the semantic primes as imperatives, something interesting happens. We may not be able to define “think” in terms of simpler words, but we know when we tell someone to think: mainly, when we don’t want them to act just yet (when we think they might “do” or “move” in a way that will be “bad”). When do we tell them to “say” something?—well, when we think they “know” something that we also want to know—when we think that “good” things will come from saying what they know. When do we tell them to “know” something?—when we think or know that now they only “think” it. So, we start to see how all these words are related in a kind of borderline imperative-declarative language, one in which moral clarity is virtually certain. All moral questions come down to when we should tell someone to think, to say, to know, to want, to do, to feel, to see, to hear. And in deciding when to tell someone to do or not do any of these things, we are thinking, knowing, saying, etc., and someone has told us to do so, even if not immediately or directly, someone has told us that it is “good” or “bad” to think, know, say, do… this “kind” of thing when something “happens” “like” “this.” So, the imperatives that have told us to do things that turn out to be good, that now, therefore, also tell us to see one “now” or “moment” as like another, will get amplified—assuming we want to keep doing the things that not only everyone would see as “good” now, but that people will continue to see as good once other things, lots of other things, will have happened.

So, as language users we want to be people who “do good,” who are the kind of people who do good. The more we want to be that kind of person, the more we want to insist that we can see, hear and feel the relations between seeing, hearing, thinking, saying knowing and doing. If we want to do good, we want to know when we think something and when we know it; we want to know when we should say what we think or know, when we should do what someone says, and when we do something “because” someone else has said to. Being good, or, leaving NSM behind for a moment and moving into a more complex vocabulary, being virtuous, courageous, truthful, trustworthy, faithful, and so on, simply involves “factoring” the NSM into those “composite” terms. What does it mean to be “courageous,” for example? Wierzbicka’s method of translation is very interesting and challenging, but I’ll give just a very partial taste here. I would say that “courage” means to do what is “good” even though one “knows” that something “bad” can “happen” to you if you do. So, to be courageous means that you want to do good, and that you want to know if something bad can happen (if you don’t want to know that you’re just reckless), but you don’t let this knowledge drown out what you now know, simply by persisting, to be a command to do good; others may say to you that this bad thing and that bad thing can happen, but you hear whoever has said to you to do good more than you hear those who say that. Now, can you be courageous and still do the wrong thing? Of course! But that means that courage also means wanting to know after you have tried to do good whether you in fact did do good, even though bad things can happen if it has turned out to be bad, and others will say that to you. And this courage will then help you to know that what you thought was good because it was like something else that you knew was good was not, in fact, like that other thing. So you are better prepared to identify such likenesses in the future. You may even find that the original good thing that has serve as the measure for goodness was something you only thought was good—but that can only happen because something else has better stood the test of goodness and can now serve as the measure.

In each social order the vocabulary made up of primes and a great number of composites all provide, in a way specific to that order and language, the means for searching out, thinking about saying to others, hearing from others, knowing, what the highest or most originary command is turning out to be. Deciding what you should do becomes a process of studying what you are doing, what others tell you to do, what others do as a result of what you do, how one situation can be likened to and differentiated from others, and which actions most tenaciously attract particular attributes. And the way to get it right, and serve as an example that will help others get it right, is to have faith in language; a faith that can now be far more informed than ever before.

Centrality, Power, Sovereignty

We can model all centrality on the originary scene, where all participants constitute themselves as members by representing and imitating the desired and (therefore) forbidden central object. On this scene there is what I have been calling “centered ordinality,” which means that one member hesitates and successfully communicates that hesitation first, followed by another and eventually the entire group (with the last few perhaps compelled more by the force of numbers than of deferral). Nevertheless, while there is differential proximity to the center, nobody occupies the center.

But such differential proximity means that someone, eventually, will come to occupy the center. All it would take is some renewal of the mimetic crisis endemic to humanity which cannot be quashed by the normal signs and rituals, and requires mediation by an individual whose mediation is trusted because it has been applied in less critical situations. This occupation will, eventually, become permanent, and when that happens, all forms of centrality are re-ordered: mimetic rivalry takes on the added dimension of a testing of the occupant of the center, and the invocation of his authority in deferring conflicts constitutes what are now lower levels of social life. We can call this kind of occupying centrality “power.”

Centrality can now be modeled on power, and new power centers can emerge. New power centers will first of all seek to accommodate themselves to central power, while central power must now find ways to differentiate itself from these orbiting centers. By enhancing its own sacrality, which is to say multi-layered centrality (mediating not just between members of the community by between the community and other communities, the community and the gods, the community and the universe), the central power gives the “orbitals” a choice: contribute to this centralization by conferring more loyalty, creating more layers between the central power and potential rivals, and refining the “mission” of the central power along with their own; or, defend their own centers while waiting for opportunities to supplant the ruler.

As long as the first option is selected, there will not be much need to formalize the supremacy of the central power—it will be beneficial for all involved to emphasize the cooperation between the ruler, the priests, the soldiers, the merchants, etc. It is under such conditions that the work of elaborating a moral culture can be best undertaken: all the different kinds of goods and virtues, in their orders and institutional forms, can be knit tightly together. But it seems that a time will come when the second option is chosen, and the ruler, whether the traditionally anointed one or his usurper, will have to assert sovereignty, a new mode of centrality that claims and enforces the right to be the judge of last resort in all disputes involving lower centers of power.

Sovereignty can be de-moralizing, as all other institutions are now directly subordinated to the needs of sovereign power. The sovereign must judge disputes between different power centers, or disputes within power centers that those centers have been unable to resolve themselves, but the sovereign will also be sorely tempted to use this role to play different power centers off against each other to preserve his own supremacy. In so doing, the sovereign will give credibility to de-centering discourses that will eventually endanger his own rule. Moreover, the sovereign judges, but how? According to what standard of right or equity? It’s hard to see how the sovereign could generate, simply out of an insistence on his own sovereignty, any standards appropriate to the new conditions: rather, he will apply standards immanent in the power centers themselves, with an eye towards preserving those power centers in their properly subordinate form and calibrating the relations between power centers. But this just keeps the resentments simmering, leaving all holders of power to prepare for the nearest chance to force a recalibration. The failures of this form of rule will give further credibility to decentering discourses and power centers.

The only way to provide sovereignty with an appropriate form of justice is to give discursive articulation to the difference between power applied so as to preserve the social order and power applied in obedience to a power greater than the sovereign. There are dangers here. The identification of some power greater than the sovereign will be made possible by some synthesis of the de-centering discourses that will have been circulating. Some judgments made by the sovereign have been “better” than others, and those better judgments can be used to judge the worse ones. Only a de-centering discourse will be able to insist on this distinction, which can be formulated in terms of judgments which have led to a more “perfect” peace as opposed to those which failed, or in terms of judgments that reference a more ancient and revered law as opposed to those perceived to have departed from it. One event (an event that is then, via myths and legends, further “purified” and “elevated”) is transformed into a model for other events. It then becomes possible to say that a particular judgment may have worked perfectly well on its own terms—it kept the peace and left all sides satisfied—but nevertheless compromised the real norms of judgment. This kind of questioning will lead to the identification of victims of and sacrifices to these compromises: in general, the judgment worked, but in the specifics we can identify those who didn’t receive a true judgment. This involves a lowering of the threshold of significance. The danger is that this process lays the groundwork for judging the sovereign in terms of a higher power. But the opportunity is for sovereignty to clarify its own centrality by instituting justice in accord with this “higher power” and “true law,” and by tracing his own lineage to the founding event.

The way to do this is to command the construction of all sites of power in accord with that same “elevated” event. But the answerability of all these institutions to the sovereign leaves the question of the sovereign’s own accountability to the elevated event and higher law it embodies unanswered. What makes an event subject to “elevation” is that it iterates, repeats under new conditions, the originary scene, which is to say a mode of centrality prior to power. Successful sovereignty and all the institutions of power can “activate” this mode of centrality. The most basic form taken by pre-power centrality is that of the “team.” If we analyze the “team” in terms of an absolutist ontology, we can identify a mode of leadership that does not rise to the threshold of “power” because the norms and project of the team are so embedded in its practices that whoever leads is only marginally less exchangeable than the others, and can lead with little more than gestures. The team requires the support of the institution and ultimately the sovereign, which set its broader goals and can dismantle it at will, but is set free by the institution in order to embark on some inquiry and/or practice the results of which can’t be determined in advance.

The more secure the sovereign, the more comfortable he will be relying on teams. A surprising example comes from the Twitter feed of Thomas Wictor, a military historian (among other things), who claims that the Saudi government, on the model of the WWI German military, has transformed its entire armed forces in special forces, i.e., teams made up of highly motivated and multi-competent individuals set forth to solve some problem or advance some objective. Another example I just came across is from Jack Cashill’s column on the American Thinker website November 30, 2017, where he discusses Charles Campisi’s book, Blue on Blue, on the systematic use of sting operations to reform the corrupt NYPD. Stings, like undercover operations more generally, involve extensive reliance on teams and individuals closely tied to and trained within team settings. So, let’s say that any contemporary recovery of sovereignty will tend more and more towards teamwork; perhaps, even, we should imagine an asymptotic movement towards everyone being “teamed up.” Think about the kinds of individuals required for sting, undercover and special forces activities—they must be able to remember exactly what they are doing and why in the middle of pretending to be someone completely opposite, the type of person they are trying to stop. They must maintain several lines of communication simultaneously—one, to those amongst whom they must blend, and one to other members of the team and another back to the institutional home. If investing in the institutional forms needed to create more people like this is what we mean by “individualism,” then as an absolutist I’m in favor of it. (And this is not even to address the necessity of small, independent teams in scientific and technological innovation.)

As the clarification of sovereignty and the teaming up of society proceed hand in hand, the accountability of the sovereign to the higher law or elevated event becomes less and less of problem because the regime itself is breeding people both loyal and incorruptible. At a certain point we would all be “stinging” each other, in the sense that each and every member of an institution would be ready to identify and curtail abuses of the institution’s mandate. Yes, for some this will evoke the informant of the totalitarian state, but why not refer, more prosaically, to the kind of “whistleblower” we are all expected to be if the institution we are in is engaged in illegal practices? Or, for the matter, the routine and often ludicrous performance reviews employees undergo at pretty much any institution? The stingers could represent the institution and sovereign in such a way as to render the entire legal and penal system virtually obsolete. If you’re incapable of joining a team engaged in some kind of assessment, i.e., if you can’t demonstrate a basic understanding of the norms and their enforcement, you don’t have a place in the institution. Perhaps you can join a laxer institution—certainly, they won’t all operate with the same rigor. Teams will be assigned to monitor institutions less able to effectively monitor themselves, while those less effective institutions will still be expected to act on the information and recommendations provided by the external monitors. Bad behavior will be stemmed at its roots. And if one team fails there will always be another ready to self-form and seek appointment by the relevant institution. A kind of iteration of the originary scene thereby becomes part of the sovereign order, which can now test itself uncompromisingly against the “higher” without being threatened.

Semiotic Engineering

There is always a center—the origin of language, which is to say the origin of the human, lies in the shared “positing” of a center. Since then we have gone from one center to another, to another. So, if there’s one thing we can say human beings “should do,” i.e., an absolute moral imperative, it would be “sustain the center.” The center is shared, joint, attention, so it’s not a stretch to say that all evil originates in distraction. But evil projects can be carried out with a concentrated focus, can they not? Surely attention itself cannot serve, not merely as a basis for morality, but as the whole of it. If the work is evil, then the focus dedicated to it is itself a distraction from a prior center. But how far back can we go—can a whole tradition, a mode of attention transmitted over centuries, be a distraction from a more real tradition, and if that can be the case, how can we tell, or adjudicate between the contending claims? These questions derive from the liberal tradition, so they are themselves distractions. You sustain the center by recuperating, not denouncing, distractions—if they are distractions, they are distractions from a particular center, and can therefore be treated as iterations of that centrality in a particular way: if they are answers to questions that emerge from the commands constitutive of that tradition, then those questions can be recovered and answered differently; if they are themselves questions, posed violently, even incoherently, those questions can be clarified and rooted in the order of commands; if those distractions are forms of obedience that have run amok and threaten to destroy the larger command structure, we can take them as adversarial call to restore the hierarchy of imperatives that prevents one imperative from being obeyed at the expense of the whole. There can be no rule for determining the true center, but those interested in having their actions traced back to it will “look” and “sound” different than those who want to make polemical hay out of the warring claims to centrality. You can even ask those who persist in asking “but how do you know…?” to cooperate in tracing your disagreement, or their resentment of your certainty, to a shared origin; their response will tell you what to make of their question and the imperative they obey in asking it.

There is a term that Gans uses throughout The Origin of Language that I think can be translated directly into “sustain the center”: “linguistic presence.” Maintaining linguistic presence is the urgent imperative that takes us through the succession of speech acts, from the ostensive, through the imperative and to the declarative. At each point a potential break in linguistic presence, which always means a potential outbreak of violence, is what forces the transition from one speech form to another. The imperative emerges from an “inappropriate ostensive”: one speaker, for any one of a number of reasons we could hypothesize, “points” to an object that isn’t there—this threatens linguistic presence, that is, a common reality constituted and acknowledged linguistically. Another member of the group brings the object, restoring linguistic presence, and in the process creating a new speech act: the imperative, through which a common reality can not only be acknowledged and constituted, but created, magically, through words, as it were. One speaker, later on, issues an “inappropriate imperative,” one that cannot be fulfilled (the act is impossible or the object unavailable); again, linguistic presence is threatened, and violence menaces. The declarative, in the form of the negative ostensive “forbidding” the further prosecution of the imperative due to the absence of the object, restores linguistic presence. This time, though, linguistic presence is restored through reference to an external presence, a world of objects that go their own ways, of mediated and invisible centers that must be inferred from the visible ones.

A strictly linguistically or semiotically based morality, then, is focused on, directs attention to, the problem of mediating the linguistic presence of members of the community of language users through the reality (that which exists whether we like it or know it or not) that language names and organizes for us. The order of emergence of the speech forms analyzed by Gans in fact provides a good model for how to sustain linguistic presence through the ongoing constitution of the non-linguistic presence. When your interlocutor names something, run and fetch it—turn the name into an imperative. And we are always naming things, in every utterance—all of the speech forms include the lower ones (no sentence could make sense without a pre-existing universe of names) and in fact iterate the lower ones: every sentence is itself a kind of naming of a piece of framed reality. “Fetching” the named object might be done literally, metaphorically, or farcically, depending upon the necessities of maintaining linguistic presence, and upon whether the name itself was a distraction from a more extended chain of linguistic presents. Acting in obedience to imperatives, actual or extracted from declaratives, in the manner I discussed in the previous post, can help sustain linguistic presence (in a sense this serves to retrieve the lower speech form embedded and concealed within the higher), but so can demonstrating the absence of the object or act explicitly or implicitly demanded or commanded, and thereby introducing a new declarative layer. (To demands that we extirpate racism, or bemoanings of its continued presence, one can simply point out that the thing doesn’t exist, and therefore can’t be brought forward for excoriation. What, then, might be found in that blank space now left in all those sentences where the word “racism” would have been?) (I have presented this as a model for engaging others, but it would be equally useful in organizing the progression of one’s own discourse.)

But the form of linguistic presence that includes all and is really the most “anti-fragile” is that provided by the present tense itself. Einstein revolutionized physics in part by pointing out that simultaneity needs to be constructed: two events that happen simultaneously from one point of observation do not happen simultaneously from another, since light, like any carrier of “evidence,” of that which can be registered and measured, has to travel from one place to another and light from different starting points will reach measuring devices placed differently at different times. The declarative sentence, in articulating linguistic with non-linguistic presence, constructs simultaneity; the more “declarative” the sentence, then, the more abstracted from immediate imperatives and the more unobstructed a conduit of the absolute imperative, the more it gathers up all its references into the present tense. Consider what is called the “literary present”: when we are analyzing or studying Virgil or Homer, we don’t say “Virgil said,” or “here Homer showed…”—we use the present tense in discussing texts written thousands of years ago. This is testimony to the fact that language, even more obviously in the deliberate preservation of linguistic artifacts in the form of textuality, creates a single present. The most distant path and all of the most distant conceivable futures all exist in the mark they have made, or can be made to have made, on the present, or in anticipatory fragments which will be made more present.

Translation of multi-tensed sentences into present tense ones will always make them more rigorous, if not always more elegant. Take a sentence of mine from a couple of paragraphs up: “Acting in obedience to imperatives, actual or extracted from declaratives, in the manner I discussed in the previous post, can help sustain linguistic presence…” Here, a rather clumsy and reluctant reference to a previous post is a distraction—almost as if I’m asking the reader to stop reading this post and go look up that reference. A slight change, such as “Acting in obedience to imperatives, actual or extracted from declaratives, to return to the practice discussed in a previous post…” keeps the reference to something past (“discussed,” “previous”) but the entire sentence is now in the present tense and compelled to represent an ongoing discourse, rather than different claims to be connected artificially. “Presentifying” sentences require that we find ways of referring to the past in terms of marks made upon, and identified and shaped within the present; it also means devising means of representing the future not in terms of “wills” and “shoulds” (although it is interesting that, strictly speaking, we have no future tense in English, but rather various ways of indicating futurity) but in terms of the way (not equally) possible outcomes present themselves to us now. Presentifying sentences also brings to the fore the point of observation, the point from which simultaneity is constructed (markers retrieved from the past, indicators and intimations of future possibilities, pressing concerns of the moment all co-represented), which means less a encouragement of subjectivity than a demand for responsibility. An infinity of real presents can be included in any particular linguistic present, creating an incentive to treat actions through their textual traces as well. (Homer may have composed the Illiad, but his composition of the Illiad bears upon some present question…)

I agree with Vox Day that ultimately science must pass the test of engineering—especially today, when no one wants to get sucked into the replication crisis. The purpose of “linguistifying” all discourse about humans, including moral and political discourse, is to propose ways of transforming uses of signs that can then be monitored and assessed. This effort, which breaks down the theory/practice distinction, has its precursors in some strands of modern philosophy and aesthetics, with Charles Sanders Peirce as its leading avatar. (I would revise Peirce’s definition of a clear idea, or meaning, though. From “Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then the whole of our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object” to “Consider what further uses of language, issuing in ostensive uses, we consider our utterance of the sentence to make likely in varying degrees. Then the modification of the relative likelihood of those uses effected by our utterance is the whole of the meaning of the sentence.”) What I propose engineering is a tissue of discourse with built-in immunities to anarchist ontology and the anarchist imaginary. The aim would be to engineer ways of speaking, writing and thinking that make it possible to infiltrate liberal spaces (almost all spaces today), dissolve liberal chains of command and naming practices, and create out of the ruins an absolutist imaginary. Something well beyond “leftists are the real racists/fascists/misogynists,” etc., in other words.

The prototypical liberal utterance makes a (declarative) claim about reality (e.g., “America is a racist society”) meant to maneuver the other into obedience to a tacit, embedded imperative (“cleanse America of racism”) while concealing the entire ostensive-imperative realm, which is to say, evading the act of naming. If America is a racist society, to eliminate racism in America would be to eliminate America itself; but the problem is that “we” (the “we” accepting the embedded imperative) would be doing so in the name of a presumably racist-free America (otherwise, why single out “America” as the realm to be cleansed?). This paradox of naming must be suppressed—the liberal can say that “America” has been racist as a republic, was racist as a group of British colonies, was racist as a Spanish dominion, etc., but the fact that it was named (not always “America,” of course) by each of these entities in turn and that in even referring to “America” we participate in this chain of naming cannot be acknowledged. To acknowledge this chain of naming would be to acknowledge a “spiral” of centrality, the continuity of linguistic presence, and that invoking “America” is to participate in this presence and assume the obligation of sustaining it—which, in fact, one does in the denunciation itself while fantasizing a “reset” of “America.”

The absolutist anarchist-resistant discourse seeks to increase the likelihood that its utterances will issue in ceremonies of naming, with practices and orders that follow. Even (but why “even”?) discourses that take their mission to be slicing and dicing liberal BS should do this. To the liberal presupposing an anarchist sovereign imaginary we counter-presuppose sovereign naming. All liberal concepts can be chased back into their lairs, where we will discover their founding in some constitutive distraction, some imperative to break the real chain of naming and replace it with a fantasized origin of another chain. (The Google Books Ngram feature is extremely useful here, at least for more recent distractions. Perhaps it will be taken down, or at least certain magical words made unsearchable.) We need not seek to destroy those fake concepts—they come to name certain predilections, certain pathologies, temptations, disguises.

Originary Grammar and Political Grammar

The highest purpose of political discourse is to expose the political imaginaries of everyone participating on the scene. How do you solicit someone’s political imaginary? Very simple—ask them what they want, perhaps in commonsensical political terms (“I want universal healthcare”), but not necessarily. If you can determine what kind of sovereign would have to be in place for them to get what they want, you have constructed their political imaginary. The process is much like that new makeapp that subtracts the effect of makeup on a photographed face: everything existing that interferes with the political desire gets subtracted. “I want a world without racism.” OK, how would our raceapp approach this? We would have to identify all the “markers” of racism, about which we now have an enormous wealth of information thanks to the it’s not ok to be white movement: we can, in great detail, itemize the differences in wealth and power, the choices in mates, friends and even children, the intellectual proclivities (do you like math?), the gestures, the neighborhood you live in, and so on. So, we must imagine all that eliminated (which means we must imagine those who will perform, and those who will suffer, the elimination)—which further means we have to inquire into what other social relations support all of that, determine the various causal linkages tying the supports to the markers to be expunged, and then imagine a process by which those supports are re-engineered into supports for a world in which all of our abilities, our sexual desires, our sense of humor, our sense of beauty, our bank accounts, living arrangements, posture and much else are radically transformed—and all this as required in vastly differing ways for each individual, as we are all unique carriers of racism. What kind of sovereign are you then imagining? One who commands a vast guerilla army of mindless, heartless human resources drones following a rigid playbook that gets rewritten constantly leaving their present efforts obsolete as they are expended so that the next wave of race drones come after them, until the prototypical racist/target is distilled from the continuous investigation. But we’re not done, not by a long shot—how does the never again racism sovereign incorporate the never again sexism, never again homophobia, etc., modes of sovereignty?

“I want a world without racism” is just a subroutine of the apparently more moderate “I want everyone to be treated equally.” Here, as well, one imagines a sovereign with knowledge of the infinite number of markers of “unequal” treatment, or, more precisely, a sovereign constantly engaged in collecting and punishing examples of “unequal” treatment, identified by a previous, so far rough, estimate of those markers of unequal treatment that most need to be addressed, leading to the constant accumulation of knowledge of more and more kinds and indicators of unequal treatment, many of them products of previous attempts to remedy some form of unequal treatment. A sovereign, in other words, which is the enemy of all the people it governs (in differing degrees, at different times). You would have to be constantly enraged, inhabiting such a vicious imaginary. This imaginary could be considered liberal, it could be considered statist or totalitarian, but, despite the seeming paradox (or because of it), it is best seen as anarchist: it presupposes a circulation of equal units prior to any authority, and the job it assigns to the state, to restore that original anarchy by slicing through layers of inegalitarian accretion, is enough to drive anyone mad. By contrast with the anarchist imaginary, the absolutist imaginary is a thing of simple, almost tautological beauty: all of our wants translate into a desire for a sovereign that is sovereign. We imagine a sovereign commanding subordinates to command their subordinates to fulfill the purpose of their institutions as he does with his own. Institutions have purposes we can discern because all human interactions serve some purpose, which is to say they serve the center that has constituted them. Our absolutistapp erases everything intervening between sovereign decision, its implementation, and the feedback required to ensure the next decision is similarly unobstructed. I think these are really the only two political imaginaries worth considering today—all others would resolve themselves back into one of these two.

The anarchist imaginary only makes sense as a form of resentment towards the absolutist imaginary. Historically, of course, this is the case: liberalism is a process of defectors from monarchy trying to find space within monarchy, to influence monarchy, to transform monarchy, and ultimately to destroy monarchy. The point of attack is always the command structure: no one in a position of command can ever give a completely satisfactory account of why it should be him giving the command, and why he gave this command. On the question, why him?, the only real answer is that I inherited, seized or was delegated this power, which really just sends the question back into an infinite regress. Regarding the this, an imperative is always irreducible to declarative explanation (even though, of course, such explanations can be given) since it depends upon circumstances and exigencies that could always be reconstructed after the fact in a way they couldn’t have been in making the decision itself. And even such after the fact reconstructions will send us back to inheritances and traditions that can never be fully excavated. The absolutist imaginary attributes a good faith faithfulness to the best of those traditions to the decision maker; the anarchist imaginary replaces this with a bad faith faithlessness.

The anarchist imaginary introduces declarative criteria into the selection of responsible agents and into the process of decision. It does this not to provide feedback to those making such decisions, but to establish a perpetual show trial of the imperative as such by demonstrating that it must always fall short of declarative criteria. Whatever names and attributes are given to the leader are translated into a series of predicates that can be subjected to inquiry one by one, according to criteria that could never be stated in advance because the declarative is itself first of all the interdiction on issuing some imperative, in this case the one issued by the sovereign. Is the king the “protector of his people”? But what counts as “protection,” and are his people really more protected under his rule than they might be under some other possible one? (A series of questions is always the wedge displacing the imperative and introducing declarative rule.) In what sense are they “his” people—how do they come into his possession? For that matter, are they even “a” people—what constitutes a people? Etc. The same goes for decisions actually made, which can always be compared with plausible alternatives with better outcomes which could never be conclusively dismissed. Such criticism after the fact can be very useful if undertaken from the standpoint of the actor, but that is not the purpose of the declarative coup, which seeks to discredit the structure of command and temporal chain of imperatives altogether. Any “given” can be further dissolved into presumably free agents that have somehow been welded together in a hierarchy. The free individual, conceptually, is the precipitate of the erosion of sovereign command—the most free individual is whoever can be posited as most resistant to the current sovereign command.

In its fully developed form, liberalism posits the agreement of solitary, ahistorical, self-interested individuals as the original basis or cause of social order; somehow, this original agreement was usurped, and then history can be read as a continual process of its recovery. This means reading history as a sequence of events in which explicit agreements between individuals subject to no command serve (or fail) to overthrow orders predicated on an inherited structure of command, i.e., imperatives derived from accepted names. Explicit agreements that don’t depend upon the individuals entering into them because conformity with the agreement will be judged by those legitimated by that very agreement to judge them according to protocols that can be read out of or into the agreement is the declarative condition. Why did you do______? Because I was authorized by an agreement arrived at through free deliberation by all concerned parties and publicly recorded. This declarative politics swallows its own tail because its inheritors can always come along and play the same game and its initiators: what made the deliberations “free”? Who was counted as a “concerned party”? Some already existing authority must have made such determinations. And such agreements in practice must present themselves as pledges and promises, i.e., ostensives: you have to swear loyalty, you can’t just claim that your objective analysis of conditions accounts for the extreme likelihood that you will be loyal—because everyone knows that analysis will be conducted in order to justify your continued loyalty or defection. But that just means that what makes declarativity a powerful weapon against the imperative order keeps it a powerful weapon against the inevitable recrudescence of imperativity within the declarative order.

Absolutism defends the imperative order within the present declarative one, operating under the assumption that the imperative order, and the ostensive order (the network of names upon which it rests) can never be utterly eradicated. Everyone giving orders and everyone taking orders wants orders to be clear; everyone who begs, solicits, summons, requests, forbids, suggests, demands, prays wants, not necessarily every one of these imperatives to be obeyed, but for us to know whether they are or not, and to be certain we could tell. Everyone has an interest in clarifying their felicity conditions. (Such declarative defenses of the imperative order should be kept to a minimum.) We have seen the advantages declarativity has long exploited in subverting the imperative order, but the imperative order has its advantages as well. Not only can the declarative order never separate itself from its imperative substratum, but that imperative order is inscribed within the declarative itself. If we conclude a meeting and someone says, “good, then we’re all agreed,” it does not need to be stated explicitly that this agreement commands each participant to act their respective part in seeing it fulfilled. Separating imperative from declarative is as impossible as separating fact from value, and for the same reason: every declarative, even the most neutral sounding description or explanation commands some response. “It’s going to rain tomorrow”=”bring your umbrella.” “City x is located at __ degrees longitude and ___degrees latitude”=”set your navigating instruments accordingly”; “remember to write that for your exam tomorrow.” So, in listening to any sentence, your question should always be, what is this sentence demanding of me?

In the first instance, it’s demanding that you reassess something it presumes you want. It’s interrupting some demand it takes you to be making upon reality. Which means it’s also disrupting the fabric of your imaginary, either to destroy it or enable you to immunize it against some threat. (You can, of course, turn attempts at the former into instances of the latter.) It’s throwing a shadow of doubt on the conditions of some imperative exchange you are in the middle of—it’s encouraging you not to hold up your side of the exchange, not to obey the command directed your way, because the other side will break faith. It’s demanding that you look at, and look to, something you have neglected, or have been unaware of.  As my examples above indicate, we can often restate in declarative terms the tacit, constitutive imperative of some declarative. That ultimately entraps you within the declarative order. So, for example, arguing over who is the “real racist,” or “what racism really is,” is simply a way of surrendering in the war on imperativity. Even making a clear argument about how evil and ridiculous it is to desire a “world without racism” is feeble—the conditions of declarative felicity will always leave open the possibility of retrieving “hope” of such a world. The more all-encompassing approach is to strive to obey the imperatives, to perform the deferral the sentence implicitly demands of you. Acting as someone set out on the hunt by the declaration of the need to abolish racism short-circuits the declarative-imperative wiring far more effectively. Even the most hardened (or softened) SJW hasn’t really taken in what it would mean to take their tacit imperatives literally.

Situating yourself thusly on the border between imperative and declarative is not just a way of counter-culturally subverting the Cathedral (although it is that, and I do think it provides excellent formulas for memeing). The practice I’m proposing serves a winnowing purpose. Seeking to obey all the imperatives coming our way is the only way of finding out which can really be obeyed, and obeyed without contradicting other imperatives that, taken alone, could also be obeyed. In other words, these are the means by which the imperative order can be recovered and restored. And while we extract imperatives to obey from the sentences/discourses surrounding us, we comment on them declaratively—the most powerful political discourse today would probably be a kind of traveler’s account of one’s attempts to obey the imperative lodged in the most widely circulated declaratives. In that way, the desires instigated by those declaratives can be put on display and thereby deferred, the liberal political imaginary exposed and the absolutist imaginary summoned from its cracks and crevices.

Declarative Imaginary

We think in language, which means we think almost exclusively in declarative sentences. We hear and read lots and lots of sentences throughout our lives; we remember very few of them, but we distill from all of them a stock of sample sentences. When we read or hear new sentences, we measure them against that stock: we assimilate new sentences to some in the stock and “understand” them, we find no way to assimilate those sentences and so we reject them because “they make no sense,” or we use the sentences to expand, diversify and reorganize our stock. And when we write or speak, we aim at affecting others’ stocks in the same way.

A sentence has a topic, and a comment—in the most familiar grammars, a subject and predicate. There is something to which we are being asked to pay attention, or to which it is assumed we are already paying attention, and something is being said about that thing. This presumes some “issue” regarding the topic—if someone needs to know something or be told something about the topic then something about the topic’s “identity” or existence is in question. For originary thinking, what I call “originary grammar” or “anthropomorphics,” what is unsettled about the topic is the status of some imperative directed towards it. The question is more directly associated with the sentence, but the question is asked as a way of holding the commands and demands, however distant, at bay. The comment forbids the interlocutor (however hypothetical) to press the demand further because the referent of the topic has been rendered off limits due to circumstances beyond our control. The sentence is a cease and desist order.

It is also an order to contemplate, rather than grasp, or change, or possess the “topic.” To “contemplate,” in grammatical terms, means to try out new “comments” along with the topic. These might be comments or predicates more likely to gain us access to the topic, or at least so we hope, but they might be comments or predicates that place the topic even further beyond our original desire. Eric Gans, in his The Origin of Language (of which a new, streamlined and much more accessible but equally rigorous edition is on its way) examines the “esthetics of the sentence.” For Gans, esthetics has its origin on the originary scene itself, in the moment of hesitation created by the first sign: the sign, the “aborted gesture of appropriation,” directs the participants’ attention to the central, desired object, while also forbidding that object, which turns the attention back to the sign. This oscillation between object and sign is “esthetics.”

A similar structure holds for the declarative sentence, which forbids the desired access to the object expressed in the imperative, while at the same time making that object all the more attractive by “framing” it with the “forbidding” comment. Moreover, the object as represented in (and desired as a result of) the sentence is no longer the object originally desired: possessing the actual object would abolish the object as desired through the sentence, while the sentence renders the actual object inaccessible. What Gans calls the “esthetics” of the sentence, though, I would prefer to call the “imaginary” of the sentence, since the “imaginary” is better suited for examining the foundation of communities.

What is the “imagination”? I like to work with R.G. Collingwood’s very economical and simple account from The Principles of Art. Let’s say you’re looking at a lawn, at the end of which you see a wall, beyond which you can no longer see the lawn. You can extend the lawn in your mind, “seeing” it continue past the wall by extrapolating from what you see now. You “imagine” the extended, completed lawn. So, the imagination is always an extended, extrapolated and completed representation of something “cut off” by whatever is “framing” it in your actual vision description. But the very possibility of the lawn extending indefinitely, or following any one of a number of possible “extrapolations,” is what makes it appear “framed” and “bounded” in the first place—even the extended lawn will meet and therefore, to use the Derridean term, has “always already” met, a boundary. The possibility of the object being other than it is, and the object being as it is, rather than one of those other possibilities, are both creations of the imagination.

The “imaginary,” then, is the constitutive frame of a shared reality, always implicitly distinguished from some other possible reality. If I can’t imagine my friend betraying me, and hence inhabit, along with that friend, a world in which betrayal is constitutively excluded, then that is the imaginary of that friendship—one bounded, ultimately, by the threat of betrayal, which would put an end to that world. None of the actions I have ever seen my friend perform, none of the words I have ever heard him speak, can be extended or extrapolated so as to fit into a betrayal scene—which means they negate all those indications of possible betrayal which might otherwise lead one to form expectations of its eventuality. It is through an act of faith in my friend that I have constructed his words and actions thusly.

So, the imaginary of the declarative sentence is in the process I described above of maintaining the oscillation between the sentence and the desired topic/subject/object by trying out different comments or predicates that keep the real object in sight or mind while reminding us that any appropriation must be in a mediated and transformed form that doesn’t restart the imperative crisis whose imminent or distant possibility first informed the sentence. Now, the roots of the declarative imaginary are in our imperative relation to reality. Gans speaks of an “imperative-ostensive” dialogue that precedes the emergence of the declarative. He models this on the ordering of surgical implements by the surgeon of the nurse or assistant who in turn confirms while obeying the command: “Scalpel!” “Scalpel!” We should imagine such an ostensive confirmation to imperatives to be the norm in the pre-declarative community: it would be an important way of maintaining “linguistic presence,” which is to say assuring one another that our words and gestures continue to sustain a shared world.

But there is an imperative-imperative dialogue, the “imperative exchange” discussed in my previous post and prior to that. This dialogue is with the center—but it should be pointed out that all dialogues are with the center—our fellow humans are representatives of the center, or a particular manifestation or aspect of the center. Prayer is the most fundamental imperative-imperative dialogue: God, tell me what to do. We request from the center a command; a command, ultimately regarding the most propitious way of approaching the center in the future. We constantly make the same requests from all objects, ultimately stand-ins for the center: when we deal with a new device or tool, we ask it to teach us how to use it. The imperative world is a magical one in which words create realities, and when the imperative turns out to be infelicitous, that world, or imaginary collapses, and a declarative one must come to take its place.

The declarative imaginary is predicated on possible failures of the imperative imaginary: our declarative sentences are concerned with predicating all the ways all our imperative exchanges can fail. The declarative imaginary is what constitutes and “manages” our stock of sample sentences: all the sentence “prototypes” available for “retrieval” for the purposes of reading, speaking, writing and thinking are cut to size to fit the declarative imaginary. The declarative imaginary is defined, on one side, by what we could call the “marginal imperative”: the weakest but still active and therefore possibly disturbing imperative. Think about something that offends you, but just barely. Being “offended” is answering to an imperative: what has been done to you must be “answered,” even if only in your own mind. Below the barely perturbing offense there is an act that could be constructed as an offense, but you wouldn’t bother. But someone else would bother, and maybe you did yourself not that long ago. That you no longer perceive any offense means that some imperative territory has been “colonized” by declarative force: you may notice and interpret that action, introduce it into your calculations, but it no longer “compels” you—in fact, that it no longer compels enables you to notice things you wouldn’t have in a reactive mode. There is a new reality behind the action which is more worthy of attention than the action’s (minimal, as you now can see) effect on you.

The marginal imperative is varied across a culture (otherwise it would be impossible for an individual to set aside a particular imperative) but there are cultural baselines here: in a civilized culture, for example, the imperatives associated with blood feuds fall below the “margin.” But what makes this rising of the threshold of imperativity possible is what bounds the declarative imaginary on the other side: the absolute imperative. The absolute imperative derives from the original declarative scene: don’t pursue impossible imperatives that inevitably lead to violence without achieving their desire. This is a very expansive category—determining what makes an imperative possible and which imperatives must lead to violence depends upon how far down the road of a chain of consequences you can see, which is to say it depends upon how much reality your raising of the marginal imperative has allowed you to imagine. But that in turn means that the absolute imperative is translated into the command to raise the marginal imperative. And what answers to the command to raise the marginal imperative is to de-center yourself as a source of imperatives: the more you see yourself as a center, and the more you elevate your centrality and aspire to higher degrees of same, the more you must answer to and answer for. Imagine taking offense at everything that might indicate some slight, however minimal.

To work on raising the marginal imperative is to take an interest (to hear new imperatives that compel you to inquire into) in the hierarchy of imperatives. There are still things one “must” take offense at—those, then, solicit more important imperatives. That also means some “imperators” are more authoritative than others, which is to say some speak from a place closer to the center. The absolutist imaginary extends and extrapolates from this hierarchy to an explicitly recognized hierarchy in which the source and scope of imperatives is constantly clarified—clarified by our heeding and obeying them. Imperative exchanges are continually breaking down and being reconstructed here as elsewhere: the higher the marginal imperative and the more extended the absolute imperative the more effectively this declarative work, this “sentencing,” proceeds. If we de-center ourselves effectively, hear and obey the imperative to not seek to occupy the center, then we may return to the center, stand in for the center, in a new way: as one who has visibly enhanced the reciprocal action between the marginal imperative and the absolute imperative and has thereby clarified the imperative order for others who desire its clarification. Of course, there will always be a place for those who de-center themselves even from that centering, who refuse centrality altogether in the name of naming the forms of centrality that might emerge in the long run. That would be a way of life devoted exclusively to expanding the declarative imaginary, deliberately renewing the stock of sample sentences, always sentencing.