July 17, 2019

Media as Scene

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:00 am

It seems to me we have a very simple way of speaking about “media” in a way consistent with GA: the “media” is whatever enables the constitution of a scene. A sign directs participants on a scene’s attention in a particular way and thereby constitutes the scene; but, reciprocally, relying on the elements of the scene makes the sign possible. I think of the originary scene as having a circular structure, because that would maximize the power of the sign: everyone on the scene would see both the object and the others, so they could see each other seeing the object. In that case, the circular configuration would be the medium, or the condition under which the sign could be effectively issued. At the same time, the bodies of all the participants are media—or are the bodies part of the sign? After, what functions as a sign here is not obvious: if we assume a pointing gesture, the sign, most minimally, is the extended fingertip—but, of course, the fingertip functioning as a sign might depend upon how the hand is held, and the gesture as a whole would depend upon posture. So, where does sign end and media begin? Sign shades off into its medium, and the medium is concentrated in a particular sign. What is important is not to draw a line separating the two, but to bring into focus whatever is necessary for a particular inquiry.

Writing is a medium—it generates scenes around a text; film is a medium—it generates scenes around a screen; radio is a medium—it generates scenes around broadcast sound; and so on. Are pen, typewriter, microphone, projector, DVD, large darkened room, also part of these media? Yes, but the various elements, settings or implements of the media are more or less contingently associated with or necessary for that medium. When is it the “same,” and when is it no longer the “same,” medium? Again, it’s best to avoid the trap of using concepts to establish classifications, but we could say the following: the originary media, upon which the subsequent ones are modeled, is the singular irreplaceable scene upon which participants shape the scene reciprocally. So, let’s say, a speech scene. This can be contested—is, for example, sending signals into space meant to be picked up and understood by some alien form of intelligence out there a medium modeled on a speech scene (which, for GA, is ultimately modeled on another scene, but on most occasions there’s no need to insist on this)? I think so—when speaking about other media, no matter how technologically advanced and no matter how much temporal and spatial distance they put between the users, we always, I think, use terms from a speech scene (“conversation,” “dialogue,” “discuss,” etc.—even “transmit” presupposes the same kind of reciprocity and replicability).

Seeming exceptions, but I think really complements, are terms used to refer to media that generate a series of scenes: terms such as “broadcast” or Derrida’s favorite, “disseminate.” Writing, to take the most obvious example (but why do we still say that the “author says…”?) generates innumerable scenes. The scenes of reading, commentary, and discussion generated by a text all, at least, share that text as a center—so, if I read a poem by Juvenal, do I have a scenic relation to an ancient Roman who read it? We’re not looking for yes/no answers here: if we take that as a genuine question, we would try an answer it by expanding our conception of “media” to include the process of preservation, canonization, translation and publication (all media, or part of the medium of “writing”) that made it possible for me to read a text that is at least in some sense the “same” as that read by an ancient Roman. The discipline of hermeneutics understood the transmission of texts to be an ongoing dialogue between readers and the text, and readers amongst themselves—hermeneuticists wouldn’t have a problem saying that “my” Juvenal and some 1stcentury Roman’s Juvenal were the “same.” Post-structuralists would dispute this by drawing attention to all the historical differences, registered in all the cultural, philological and critical discourses that “produce” the text for me. But, if the name “Juvenal” is not just a complete mystification, there must be some continuity, some “sameness.” Knowing all the cultural forms that mediate the text for me in ways unimaginable for that 1stcentury Roman might itself be a kind of “dialogue” with him.

That the model for any medium is the speech scene, with bodies and voices all put to work in the signifying act, is an insight David Olson makes regarding writing, and which I have extended to all media. Olson, as I have discussed many times, sees writing as supplementing everything in the speech scene that can’t be directly represented in writing. “Good” writing induces in us forgetfulness that we are not sharing a scene with the writer, and whomever or whatever he is writing about. A “good” movie or TV show, by the same logic, “draws us in” and makes us feel like we are observers present on a scene. I think reading most movie and TV criticism would bear this observation out—“bad” movies are those in which we can’t believe the events are actually happening, in which a sequence of events doesn’t play out the way we would expect it to in the real world, in which characters aren’t “relatable” or sympathetic, i.e., we wouldn’t want to imagine ourselves on a scene with them. The same with radio—we have to feel we are, and are happy to be, in the same room with the host. The other possibility always exists, and is sometimes exploited—that of foregrounding precisely what is unique in the medium you are using, that which makes it different from the speech scene and all other media. This involves abstraction and the generation of thought experiments, like, what, exactly, makes film, film? What’s interesting in this case is not, say, using the scenic medium to supplement what would be expressed differently in a novel (preserving the “same” content), but to show precisely what couldn’t be expressed in or mediated by a novel. This has been the position of the avant-garde which has never, needless to say, occupied the center of culture, but is always retrieved by those with a low threshold of tolerance for clichés, and this is fortunate because some kind of direct attention to the mediumistic conditions of any sign is necessary for their intelligent “consumption.” The implication of my argument here is that even experiencing the most avant-garde works is modeled on the speech scene, but with the possibility of recognizing all the ways we contribute to constituting that scene.

These concepts—sign/scene, speech scene/other media, unique scenes/iterable scenes—provide us with a powerful way of examining all media phenomena, and one that allows us to never lose sight of the central question: how does this sign, on this scene, defer more or less imminent mimetic violence? The complementary concept pairs allow us to oscillate between them, using what we identify in some case to be the “sign” to direct our attention to media conditions of that sign, or encompassing more and more of what we see as surrounding that sign (e.g., ownership of a particular station as part of the “medium,” or the scenic condition of those words coming out of that actor’s mouth), which in turn helps us refine our analysis of that sign. Academics like to use such concepts to systematize, but their real purpose is to open up discussions and move them in new directions, often in directions those “behind the scene” would prefer it didn’t. This is the kind of knowledge that goes, at least tacitly, into “meme-ing,” for example.

We could think of the media as the fractal conditions of whatever signs and discourses we produce. Any action you propose, or any imperative you obey, presents itself as a whole: so, for example, maybe you are determined to “challenge the liberal assumptions” of a prominent blogger who nominally rejects liberalism. Now, “challenge the liberal assumptions of” is one of those phrases that comes very easily and dissipates just as easily. What counts as a “challenge”? What counts as an unavowed “liberal assumption”? How could we tell that the assumptions have really been challenged—what are the “metrics” here? As soon as you start to break down “challenge the liberal assumptions of” into a set of practices, you start constructing scenes and models of the way others will respond to your “challenge” by stripping away some of the credibility of the putative anti-liberal—or, maybe, you envisage them questioning him in a new, friendly but forceful way. You would want the liberal assumptions, once they are exposed, to be replaced by genuinely non-liberal ones—not slightly less obviously liberal ones. You’d want to provide certain “scaffolds” that would enable your target to know where the line between liberal and post-liberal is to be drawn here. In other words, your discourse aims at peopling a landscape, as if you were modeling lots of little “challenges to liberal assumptions” to be extracted from your discourse. This is what I mean by “fractal”: explicating a practice asserted in strictly declarative terms that represent a reality without any firm referents by including the components of that practice as, simultaneously, its model.

When you think this way you’re thinking in terms of the media conditions of your utterances. “Challenging the liberal assumptions of” gets converted into a scene, or a series of possible scenes: someone saying this, someone writing that, someone broadcasting something else, a flurry of tweets following up in some way, etc. The purpose is to transform the “target” into a different kind of sign across various media. “Thinking” about media is equivalent to producing discourse that travels through various media. There’s something in your writing that will sound just right read aloud; a few things that are tweet-worthy; something that’s an implicit response in an ongoing dialogue with some other position; something that satirizes a TV personality in a way that can only be done in writing, and so on. The reason why phrases like “challenge the assumptions of” need to be fractalized is that they are completely logocentric: they “work,” i.e., go unnoticed, insofar as they generate the illusion of us all being on the same scene where we consent to “see” that “challenge” in front of us as vividly as we could see one boxer knocking out another (and, of course, people refer all the time—mostly somewhat ironically, though, I think—about people being “destroyed” by this or that tweet or meme). That logocentrism, that we see in concepts that construct phony simulations of battles between familiar opponents, is what is to be targeted most persistently. It’s not so much that specific “beliefs,” “principles” and “convictions” need to be dissolved as that the very concepts of “belief,” “principles” and “convictions,” among many others need to be dissolved into scenes that make them meaningful. What are you doing when you “believe”? If you “have” principles, where are they? These are just ways of saying, “you know that thing I just said—I’m not just BSing it”—which is the surest proof that that is exactly what they are doing. Better than believing and having principles is surrounding a discourse by leveraging media so as to interfere with its “wave structure.” The imperative is to embed the declarative in a scene, which in turn elicits its originary structure.

July 9, 2019

Language Paradoxed

Filed under: GA — adam @ 3:43 pm

The discourse of the center bypasses concepts such as “desire,” “resentment” and “mimesis.” Using these concepts, as I mentioned last post, exempt you from the very things you are describing: insofar as your own desires, resentments and modeling are infecting those you are examining, the real topic of your discussion is your own practices; in which case, why not make it directly so? But, then, you couldn’t present your own self-centering without presenting others, so the problem becomes how to do it all at once. The solution lies in beginning with an account of what you’re hearing from the center. The center doesn’t call to say everything’s OK: intuitions of the center indicate something out of order, and at least a preliminary re-ordering (a mark of a better society would be that its members spend ever more time anticipating potential disorders than addressing immediate ones). But “something out of order” means someone positioned where they “shouldn’t” be; to be even more direct, someone positioned where you should be. That’s the elemental core of resentment: the other is in your place, and the center allows him to be there. You can detect the “texture” of resentment in any “sample” of language, including, of course, this one—in this case, perhaps, toward all those maintaining centeredness through distancing declarative language, and toward the center for not sufficiently amply revealing itself.

You can pursue this resentment head on, and there’s no doubt a cognitive yield in doing so: how did he get into that place, how has he secured it, with the help of which henchmen dispatched by the center, with what other displacing effects, how to extract him from there and replace him with the spot’s true inhabitant, etc. This is pretty much the structure of all analysis—this is what it looks and feels like to examine something “critically.” We get to a kind of basic “humanness” here, because everyone can be taught to notice such logics in others but very few wish to examine the circumference one has constructed around oneself as center in similarly meticulous ways (of course I’m resentful, don’t you see what they’re doing…!); even more importantly, it’s not like we can invent another way of thinking. In figures like Jesus or Dostoevsky’s Alyosha we can see what another way of thinking would be, in which every thought of the other would be infused from the start by infinite love, mercy, and compassion. But that could only be the result of a long process of ascesis, itself involving some tremendous wrestling with outsized resentments—plus, one could only attain such a condition at the cost of not really being able to do anything, and how merciful and loving (I ask resentfully) is that?

Maturity means being able to notice more and more distinctions—and all distinctions are on some level invidious—while attending more and more to the formalizing of those distinctions, rather than to seeking out their justifications. The most egalitarian world possible would instantly turn into the most inegalitarian one: imagine we could all be placed in a state of nature, with equal physical and intellectual capabilities. As soon as we got started doing something, status distinctions would emerge—someone notices something first, someone gets a little more of something, someone, maybe for random reasons, is a bit more attractive than others, etc. Even if the differences were minute and rapidly changing they would loom large. So, everyone would be immediately, and constantly, faced with the choice: you can think, how do I get as much as that person (or reduce him to as little as me); how do I make myself as attractive as that person (or reduce his attractiveness), and so on; or, how can these status distinctions be formalized, so that what it means to have access to things, to identify new centers, to be the center of others’ attention can be made explicit and therefore a source of order. You might still want more things, to have more power, to be more attractive, and you might use others as models to acquire these things, but you would do so in such a way as to strengthen the meaning the center has conferred upon such practices.

Every utterance points a way to resentment and a way to transcendence, or what I would prefer to call “presencing” and “centering.” If there is one point of unanimity in the modern world, it is that there is no center. All secular people will insist on this once the question is raised, while the religious will insist all the more forcefully on their center to the extent that they must also insist others can only acknowledge it on their terms. In a way, this is also a concession of the general centerlessness. But our language always tells us otherwise—at the very least, when you say something, you are presenting yourself, or what you say, as a center. And not only as a center in itself, but as a center pointing to another center, as will become clear if you ask someone, why did you say that? You were assuming that those who might be listening to you were paying attention to something else (what, exactly, did you imagine they might be paying attention to?), and you want their attention wrenched away from that to this other thing. What did it say about them that they were focused on something else, and what would it say about them to redirect their attention as you propose? The resentment is in the demand for the attention shift (and that demand’s implication that others were lesser for “refusing” to look at your thing); the centering will be in the new nomos, or division of participatory roles, implicit in getting engrossed in this new thing.

So, gradations, or centered ordinality, are implicit in every utterance, at least insofar as you were less for paying attention to that and will be more for paying attention to this. And whoever follows up on one utterance will construct another order. Listening to the center entails generating finer distinctions along with a center ordering them. In a sense this would be the most originary, and therefore egalitarian way of inhabiting language—far more so than using language to point out that others have something you don’t and demanding some remedy for it. Here, we are all perfectly equal, which is to say the same, for the center, which is more important than where any of us “should” be. It’s very important to keep in mind how impossible this all sounds within a liberal order. I think I’m referring to an extremely mature social order and populace—but not at all utopian—in which people get better and better at doing the things they are asked to do, by whoever is asking them to do it, into ways of sharpening a distinctive practice that will serve as a model for others. But to someone bred and indoctrinated within liberalism it will sound like you’re condemning them to a robotic and/or militarized existence (your language will be full of impossible imperatives for them)—simply because you’re not reserving for them (or promising them) some space outside of sociality where they can imagine themselves as self-starters, or an originating center.

Enacting and speaking in centered ordinality is the only way back to the center. This involves both openness of speech, parrhesia, the explicit articulation of the distinctions evident, first of all, in the other’s discourse; and centering, making explicit the new nomos also implicit in the other’s discourse. The point is not to say, “here’s what everything will look like when we’re done.” The point is to elicit from others the kind of center that might make their demands meaningful. In a way it’s good that argumentation has become completely useless, now that the different camps occupy incompatible worlds of “facts.” Argumentation was always pointless anyway—nobody changes their mind because they’re provided with a better set of pros and cons than they were working with previously—and if they do, they’ll change it right back as soon as they come across another set of pros and cons. This has to be the least effective means of political engagement. To do it right, you would first of all have to determine which subsets of the population, which 5% or so, is worth engaging with; and you would then have to assume, insofar as they are really worth engaging with, they’re not looking for a list of facts but a “scene” within some paradigm they are working with that can be tested for anomalies. If you help some audience exhaust one paradigm by exposing its anomalies, and lend them a hand in transitioning to a new one, you might have actually done something.

But social and political paradigms are not equivalent to scientific ones. There’s no closed experimental space. There’s only language. We just keep going from the resentful demands implicit in the other’s discourse to the centered commands that would render them meaningful—or not. You could say there’s a resentful demand implicit in this blog post: think and speak completely differently about politics, damn it! What makes that any different than “I wish the left would stop being so hypocritical about the border crisis!”? The only thing that would make it different is if it creates, intensifies, or helps to resolve some paradigm crisis. The presence of anomalies indicates obedience to some super-sovereign; the super-sovereign supplements some resentment, positing an imaginary agency and a space within which that agency will satisfy your resentment. A really democratic culture, equal rights, a government that listens to the people, a citizenry that holds its leaders accountable, a return to republican virtue, rising above special interests to embrace the common good, restoring the Constitution—you can make your own list of clichés. These are all super-sovereign supplementations, and we could trace their long history through the disciplines, going back to ancient philosophy.

If we learn to listen very carefully to these super-sovereign supplementations, we can generate anomalies by subtracting them from the discourse. What would people say if they didn’t have recourse to them? That’s at least an invitation to a thought experiment; if the invitation proves less than enticing, it’s easy enough to render all of these concepts incoherent. The paradoxes that inhere in all of them are descendants of the first philosophical paradox that we meet right at the beginning in the Platonic dialogues: is what the gods command good because the gods command it, or do the gods command it because it is good? The disciplines of Western culture have never gotten past this (this was one of the most valuable insights of Derridean deconstruction). In self-government, what’s the relation between the self doing the governing and the self being governed? Similarly intractable questions can be asked about all of them. You’ll know you’re getting somewhere when the other sputters (I say somewhat resentfully) “alright, so what’s your solution?” What’s your rush? Isn’t it helpful to keep working through the supplementations? Ultimately, we’d work our way towards sheer power analysis, which is extremely disconcerting for a liberal, but, then, what is power? Once we start to see it everywhere, we can start stripping it of all those same supplementations meant to make power “accountable” to some imaginary super-sovereign. So, you really mean brute force, don’t you?! The more we find power everywhere, the more it must be just about the exact opposite of that. Why do you listen to, or follow someone, as you surely do sometimes—we can see in your own language the kind of reliance you have on others, the trust and faith you have in them—after all, every single word you say can be sourced to some claim circulating about, or to some tradition. You confer power on them, and assume power yourself within the same space. And you do it without demanding elections or suing to have your rights recognized. What’s going on, then? The answer will lie in the distinctions, the gradations, their suggested operationalization—the centered ordinality we can locate in every utterance

July 3, 2019

Mistakenness Revisited

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:04 am

The ritual order provided models, along with comprehensive initiatory practices to enable members of the community to adopt and inhabit those models. The demise of the ritual order means the end of any harmonious or pre-arranged fit between models and aspirants of social membership. There are plenty of models, but no way to know which we are fit for, or, for that matter, which are “fit.” Our first approach to models, then, is to get them wrong. All of modern culture is a result of the misfit of models and aspirants, which is to say our fundamental mistakenness. This mistakenness is generative of the disciplines: social scientific and humanistic knowledge is essentially knowledge of all the human dispositions and social relations that interfere with our adaptation to models. All the making explicit, in secular and purely “human” terms, of what we are capable of, how we depend upon each other, how what we are capable of undermines our dependencies and vice versa—all the nominalizations and reifications of “attributes” and “characteristics”—is so many attempts to construct as necessary “steps” from one practice to another what was once acquired through a seamless network of ritual, kinship and myth.

The implication is that the secular disciplines (the metalanguages of literacy) begin with trying to figure out how we have gone wrong, while the only way of distinguishing right from wrong is imagining some non-alienated condition modeled on the ritual and mythical order. Let’s imagine a social order in which everything, every figure and every practice is named, and all the names are taken to be given by the center. The procedures for generating new names (for babies, captured slaves, etc.) are also named. Such a community, in principle, can continue indefinitely—many no doubt did so for millennia—and we can all feel, intuitively, how wrong it would be to interfere with it, however it offended our modern sensibilities. But what is of interest to us is what happens when anomalies creep into such a system, in particular due to its successes. My reflections here are in part inspired by Fustel de Coulanges The Ancient City, which traces the consequences of such anomalies, in the form of groups that couldn’t be “incorporated” into the sacred hearth of the family home, and, later, of the city—for example, the plebeians, or even younger sons without any inheritance. It is the attempts to find names for such anomalous figures that generated the “secular” in the first place: their names can only be some version of “that which cannot be fit into the system,” so they can then only be understood in (resentful) opposition to some figure recognized by the system, and this in turn ends up defining that named figure by its opposition to the “other.” What this leaves us with is a social order describable solely in terms of conflicts (patricians vs. plebeians, etc.), and the only way to imagine reconciling those conflicts is through one of those cant political terms that are still with us today: “justice,” the “common good,” the “public interest,” etc.

But these purely conflictual terms, which we can only systematize through some notion of “balancing,” generate all the abstractions that also enable us to diagnose this essentially shattered system. (Whether they enable us to “repair” it as well is a different question.) All secular social scientific terms are essentially versions of “that which has been expelled from the center and takes on its meaning through antagonism to other expelled non-members.” Of course, “expel” is itself such a term. And GA is itself a beneficiary of this devastating process of abstraction, as “mimesis,” “desire,” “resentment,” “sign” and so on are all names of what is nameless within any sacred order. GA’s ambition is to do what can only be done through the secular disciplines—point the way to a renewed practice of naming. In part, this involves getting more minimal, and in that sense more abstract and “secular” (de-mythicized) than the other social sciences; in larger part, it involves collecting and “collating” a vocabulary that can take us so far beyond the concealment of the sacred in the secular disciplines as to show us that even the concept of the “sacred” itself is a later accretion, already reactive and “abstract.” And here I think the concept of the “center” is critical, and unique to GA, as the center constitutes any name (like “God”) we might give to the center. If we want to get a little Heideggerean here, we can say that the center is “thisness,” what we can point to because it is “capable” of being pointed to, as shown by our pointing to it, etc. “This” is even one of Anna Wierzbicka’s Natural Semantic Primes. Restoring our relation to the center as the source of names, recovering “thisness,” is the neoabsolutist project in a nutshell.

Describing ourselves and each other to each other and ourselves is the only way forward here. On the one hand, I have been suggesting that virtually our entire secular vocabulary needs to be junked; but, on the other hand, the only way of doing that is by using all those vocabularies mistakenly to show that whatever sense they have is due to their references to some center, whether acknowledged or disavowed. Everyone wants things, knows things, thinks things, does things, sees things, has things happen to him: Wierzbicka’s primes need to be part of GA because we can see a kind of minimal, “secular,” abstraction constitutive of language here. All the secular vocabularies are more complex articulations of the primes: people knowing what they think, thinking that they want, someone seeing that what another thinks he is doing can be something happening to that person, and so on. And whatever you say about someone else is what you think you see or hear.

The mark of the secularity of words like “desire,” “imitation” and “resentment” is that in using them you feel you are exempt from them—to refer to someone else’s desire or resentment is to be free of it, to point out how another is mimicking someone else is proof that you are not doing so—if your noticing was implicated in what it noticed, how would noticing even be possible? An openly desiring, resentful, imitative discourse would be, by definition, “illegitimate.” Naming these dispositions in others generates the appearance of having transcended them. To put it even more strongly, discourses on these “topics” are attempts to establish a cordon sanitaire around the “contagion” they carry. Originary grammar, in renouncing (or at least bracketing) sanitized terms like “theory, “determinations,”” and “norms” with the more elemental speech forms (ostensive, imperative, interrogative, declarative), is an attempt to remove that cordon sanitaire. This is necessary because that cordon sanitaire, or social immune system, will leave us endlessly proposing new ways of “balancing” the various social elements that can only be named in opposition to each other, as is the case for all discussions of “class,” “race,” “ethnicity,” “nationality,” “gender” and “sexuality.” The compulsion to self-immunize has us looking for something slightly more nameless so as to put it into opposition to something slightly less nameless. But the only way we can explicitly “own” our desires, resentments and imitations is to make them explicitly desires, resentments and modelings of the center.

In this way, you claim to be exempt from the disposition you describe, but the claim is made explicit and the path out of desire, resentment, and contagious imitation made part of your “explanation.” And, of course, you could be wrong—the desires, resentments and mimicry you renounce might be all too evident in what you say and do. In that case, you have provided the terms on which others could point that out—in that way, we would be engaged in shared inquiry into the desire for and resentments of the center. In fact, the person claiming some relation to the center is most vulnerable to suspicions of being “hypocritical,” of being guilty of the very undisciplined resentfulness of which he “accuses” others. And these suspicions would themselves be resentment of your perceived usurpation of the center. Much of liberalism’s self-immunization process is aimed at pre-empting precisely such discussions over relative proximity to the center. And liberalism detects a genuine danger here. The way to respect that intuition is to never explicitly claim the “mantle” of the center, which would anyway put the declarative cart before the imperative horse, while unapologetically shaping the actual, imminent or potential crisis into a deferral and reframing of some violent centralization. The more you act for the center, the less you must claim to do so—must claim, in fact, to be doing the only thing that could be done because no one else seemed to be doing it. The “proof” here will be whether you thereby give others things to do that wouldn’t be done otherwise.

There is always a kind of linguistic test for implicit derivations of one’s performance from central imperatives. The greater your indebtedness to the imperatives of the center, the greater the disproportion between the center’s presence in your language and your own centeredness there. You will be talking about how others, your subordinates as well as your superiors, need to be attended to and followed; you will narrow down your centering of any other participant to their precise role within the system, and, to the extent possible, within the operation in question—someone may be corrupt, cowardly, or treasonous, and none of this should be concealed (because concealing it will force you to violently centralize others who do notice it), but it should all be referred to the inherited means for addressing these vices and crimes. In other words, not “get that guy!,” but “let’s treat Y the way X was treated,” even if you have to construct the way X was treated in a more coherent and sustainable way than was actually the case, and have to stretch the “similarity” between the case of X and the case of Y. Everyone’s resentments towards the coward, corrupter or traitor will be acknowledged, and, indeed, the precise details of the violation will be presented more openly and coherently than in “rushes to judgement,” but in such a way that the more important result is that we have further fortified ourselves against future instances of the same.

You can always tell, and can get better at telling, when someone is speaking in this way, or coming closer to speaking in this way. It’s how you can tell who you can trust but, even more importantly, this is the path towards a renewed naming-from-the-center. I’ve been using the concept of “centered ordinality” for a while now, but haven’t drawn that much attention to it. What the concept refers to is the way, once we identify a center, we all fall into rank behind whoever first identified it. As is often the case, the best examples here are drawn from emergency situations—if, in such a situation, one person sees the “way out” and points it out to others, they will all follow him and the one a little ahead of each of them in figuring the precise way “out.” Of course, in fluid situations the order can change often, but if everyone simply rushes to the way out, the order collapses and the way is no longer out. The more centered ordinality, the less rivalry and therefore the less chaos. What marks centered ordinality is that the naming it involves increases in proportion with the ordering itself—you can’t get a more precise set of “names” than “first, I do this, then, you do that, then he does something else”—even the shift from first, to second, to third person pronouns marks the shift from ostensive, to imperative, to declarative. To the extent that any situation is ordered, everyone is “this one doing this thing right now.” Secular discourse tells you you’re this one in opposition to all these other ones to be balanced by my unnaming of all of you on the Big Scene. The discourse of the center tells you who you are here and now by asking you to ask yourself who you are such that you can be who you are here and now. And that is the form taken by one’s ascension to their name.

June 25, 2019

From Metapolitics to Politics

Filed under: GA — adam @ 10:55 am

Let’s say neoabsolutism is the organization of those who seek out commands from the central authority, in distinction from those who make demands upon the central authorities. In distinction from, not in opposition to (even if opposition is sometimes necessary)—this distinction runs through as well as across individuals, and neoabsolutists try, not to “purify” themselves by refraining from making demands, but to keep making demands increasingly subordinate to commands—ultimately, demands should be converted into requests for materials needed to fulfill commands. You make demands when you see yourself as being in a transactional relation to the demandee; since no one is ever actually in a transactional relation with the central authority, demands are meaningful insofar as they are in fact at the lower end of a chain of commands issued by the central authority itself, as it has been captured by one or another faction. If your demands are not at the end of a chain of command issued by the central authority, they are simply delusional. If they are, they are commands followed in disguise. So, for starters, neoabsolutists don’t make meaningless, delusional, demands—this in itself is enough to distinguish us from all other political factions.

Commands come to us through names. Names institute originary centers: a name refers to an object that is, or might be, desired, and therefore a source of rivalry; naming the thing makes the object available or divisible in an authorized and orderly way. This is the case for intimate nicknames that add a layer of protection to comrades or loved ones, slowing down the movement from attention to resentment just as much as for the names of cities which are thereby brought under central authority. The named object commands us to refrain from violently centralizing it. We refrain from violent centralization by deferring to the central authority conferring and redeeming the name: we do nothing to the object that authority would prohibit; even more, we protect it as that authority would have us do. We can always do this, even when the name is contested. Take a frivolous example: some eccentric who insists on calling New York “New Amsterdam” because his own historical inquiries have revealed to him that the British never had a right to succeed Dutch sovereignty over the city. While you are speaking with him, which is to say while the name “New Amsterdam” is in play, and you have no responsibility for preserving the name “New York,” and there is no harm in entering his imaginary space, respecting “Dutch sovereignty,” and finding out what this place, New Amsterdam, is (even if the DMV and Post Office won’t be able to indulge his fantasy). The same is true in more serious cases, where the name of a city or country is the stake in a war, insurrection, or civil war. Even when your enemy’s name is in play, you can recognize and respect the buffers he places around his name for the place or site because doing so is a way of eliciting in his speech and actions the sovereign resources that may or may not back the name. “Tell me about your [   ]” serves as both a kind of truce and a way of measuring the forces arrayed.

We are always most fundamentally naming, which is to say designating centers, not only ostensively and imperatively but declaratively—when someone asks the “point” of a book, he is asking what has been named by it. The only way we can name, which is also the only way we can speak about anything, is by providing the means to “point” to its relation to some more inclusive center; which is to say, some desire provoked by what one points at, some resentment at that desire’s at least partial or potential frustration, and some self-centering by any and all involved that would be a sign of resentment deferred. Within a ritual, mythical, magical, i.e., predominantly ostensive-imperative world, this means outlining someone’s relation to a specific set of figures and the ritual and narrative traditions determining the relations between them. If something goes wrong, the gods are against you, and if the gods are against you, you have displeased them in some way, and there are specific, and known ways in which the gods are displeased. A very rich universe, which is to say, a rich set of names, is generated out of such descriptions.

In a post-ritual, post-sacrificial, world, the disciplines take up the slack, and the centers we deal with are entities like “society,” “selves,” “community,” “morality,” “profession,” “economy,” and so on. These are all normative arenas, and if things go wrong, you have violated some of those norms by being lazy, stupid, dishonest, uncooperative, neurotic, and so on. You accept the judgment of the disciplines, or imagine yourself in a counter-discipline, where you debunk some established discipline and establish a marginalized research canon—but these counter-disciplines are invariably hyper-literal intensifications of the existing disciplines. Much of my work over the past few years has been aimed at clarifying the relationship the originary hypothesis is to have to these disciplines. It should be a transdisciplinary relationship, as GA inhabits the disciplines, turns their discourses against themselves, and essentially replaces the disciplines as GA’s minimal vocabulary of “center,” “mimetic,” “desire,” and “resentment,” and its articulation of the ostensive, imperative, interrogative and declarative speech forms comes to account for everything the other disciplines had purported to account for. This is ethical, reparative activity—the central object of the disciplines is the imperium in imperio, or, let’s say, “super-sovereign,” that is intended to reunite the signifying center and the authoritative center, fractured with the fall of sacral kingship. The demystifying, secularizing, rationalizing agenda of the disciplines (starting with philosophy) is an attempt to give names to the nameless practices and figures that fall out of the fracturing of sacral kingship, but these names can only designate proxies of would be occupants of the central authority, and the naming procedures necessarily conceal the proxy character of the named precisely because this unknowing is a condition of naming as recruitment.

In that case, our discursive naming goes directly towards the desire, resentment and center implicit in what others have said: we can be wrong, but we are always making a hypothesis regarding what the other is doing by way of deferring violence in whatever he says or does. We can make these hypotheses increasingly explicit, and the other can, of course, respond that our hypothetical naming of him as a center of desire and resentment is really an articulation of our own self-centering of desire and resentment by which he can name us. On the face of it, and sometimes in actuality, this would lead to a kind of comically reductive cycle of accusations and counter-accusations, but if the analyses are conscientious the desires and resentments would have to be embedded in the institutions and in relation to the projects that would be their objects. In fact, naming the other would also entail naming those institutions and those in responsible positions within them, as the institutions themselves are represented as concentrations of deferred desires and resentments. But the better names will be the ones that are brought to an identification of some constitutive paradox of origin and being situating the other within the field of desire and resentment: a particular way of being inside the institution while being outside of it and representative of it.

An ongoing practice of naming that also keeps renaming the system of names within the names have their place is a metapolitical approach, similar, say, to saying that politics concerns realizing the relation between “man” and “technology.” But what does it mean for institution and organization building, strategy and tactics? What is to be done? We can bring our metapolitics closer to politics by saying that the goal is to create incrementally less reactive individuals. However someone engages you, you learn not to respond in kind, or to respond in kind only when it serves some broader purpose that includes this encounter. In other words, you respond to others demands—that is, you respond within their parameters, you pay them attention in a, to them, satisfying way, you recognize their resentments—by positing and obeying a command you all might have in common. This need not be conciliatory: the command might be that the other follow your lead; it might be that he surrender himself to you. At any rate, it’s a command that makes explicit the chain of command that would make the others’ demands more or less meaningful. This is in fact the outcome of the reciprocal naming practice.

So, the political project is to lower reactivity; and to provide ways for those engaged in lowering reactivity to find each other and collaborate; and this includes distinguishing oneself from, while surveying as possible recruits, the (so far) more reactive. The issues people normally associate with politics are secondary to building models of a post-liberal, post-sacrificial order, but that doesn’t mean they are irrelevant. Nor does it mean that neoabsolutists should not fully participate in all liberal institutions, including elections. What should be done is whatever will clarify some link in the chain of command by naming a center that will incorporate demands into that chain of command. Pro-choice people demand free and funded abortion; pro-life people demand an end to abortion. Where do we see violent centralizing here: that is, where do the respective sides each imagine its own super-sovereign, the foundation of its discipline of naming, predicated upon sacrificial markings? The embryo is not, even in purely biological terms, reducible to a “set of tissues,” or “tumor”; nor is a pregnant woman who negligently falls down, thereby causing a miscarriage, guilty of “manslaughter.” (That the pro-lifers realize the woman would be centralized in a violent way is evident in their absurd claim that only doctors would be punished for violating abortion laws.) The language of both sides is driven by the discourse of rights (and the hysterical, highly conformist political organizations the discourse requires) to have recourse to a super-sovereign conceptual order to imagine coercing the central authority. Abortion is wrong, as we can see from the somewhat demonic enthusiasm with which its promoters come to defend it against criticism; but it’s not wrong in the way the pro-lifers say. Extract “rights” from the equation and you eliminate the mobilization of the state against one’s enemies in the guise of self-protection; and if the initial move is not to imagine the mobilization of the state on one’s behalf (a kind of unknowing self-proxy-fying) then we can participate in naming practices that are articulated into more systemic practices.

To have neoabsolutists capable of deconstructing the standardized formulation of “issues” in this way requires both a “doctrine” in which all are schooled and to which all contribute as they can, and, of course, the institutions that can support such study; and infiltration in the dominant legal, scientific and other disciplines. It may be that the contemporary liberal order, that of the “victimocracy,” or “woke capital,” has evolved in such a way as to make both sides of this equation especially difficult. The tech oligopoly is designed so as to take out emergent intellectual threats, while the requirement, within the dominant institutions, of virtual loyalty oaths to the endless assault of the fringes upon the center means that a great deal of neoabsolutist politics will involve creating conditions under which training and infiltration become possible. The weakness of pre-WWII liberal institutions was that they had no consistent way of keeping the enemies of liberalism out of liberal institutions—we can see the current order as a solution to that problem, transitioning from fighting World War 2 and the Cold War to developing prophylaxes against their recurrence.

What are the weaknesses of these institutions, then? One is certainly that they don’t provide a public space wherein the ruling class can freely discuss the various challenges and options available to it—such discussions can obviously be held more privately, but not only does the current regime make that more difficult, but a more open loop is necessary if decision makers are to have the necessary feedback. This implies the possibility of elite defection, and raises the question of the means available of punishing such defection, and at what point those means would become insufficient. Another is that it is creating possibly intractable problems of governance for itself—divide and rule, via mass immigration and identity politics, might be a good strategy for a while but at some point it interferes with basic law and order and the production of a competent work force, and new generations of middle and upper leadership. A third is the corrosion of media, education, legal and other, maybe even scientific, institutions, to the point where they become useless. Where the emerging order is likely to be especially deficient, then, is in the middle, in the officer class, understood more generally, or middle to upper management. Proving worthy of elite defectors and providing at least some of the officer corps even for reluctant elites awash in SJW intrigue would then seem to be the goal of a large scale neo-absolutist politics; more proximately, what would help is seeing is the victimocrats brought out into the open so that they can be seen as the petty and vicious hands behind the curtain pulling the de-platforming levers, and made into an embarrassment. So, to take just one example, it seems to me that, preferable to Missouri Senator Hawley’s bill that would require the Big Tech firms to be certified as  “neutral” by the government so as to retain their designation as service providers rather than publishers (which would make them liable to libel lawsuits) it might be better to simply change the designation and have the DOJ initiate or support a wave of lawsuits so that the conversations, texts, emails, love affairs, etc., of the petty bureaucrats doing the banning and de-platforming within those companies can all be brought to light. The elites need to be shown, and they need to be seen to be shown: these are the people you have running things, deciding on information to be available to the public and peoples’ livelihoods.

Neoabsolutists would also be ruthless in devastating commonplaces and sentimentality regarding geo-politics, speaking straightforwardly, naming, imperial and hegemonic relations, assigning potential responsibilities to those actors with the power—rather than proposing, or fantasying, implicitly or explicitly, drastic leveling of relations between states. Yes, the US, to take the most obvious example, is everywhere, but every state is everywhere it can be. If the US is everywhere in chaotic, absurd and destructive ways, with, for example, the State Department, Defense Department and CIA all pursuing their own foreign policies, that is largely because of the liberal democratic ideologies, involving the defense of nonsensical chimeras like “human rights,” that makes it so. Here as well neoabsolutists make no intoxicating demands (“no more war!” “national self-determination!’), but, rather, carry on a continuous audit of the assets under the command of specific states which leads to the naming of institutional linkages that would best allot, within domains supervised by one or a team of powers, responsibilities for peace-keeping and coherence in government among subordinate powers. The same practice of seeking patronage of defecting elites and self-presenting as a more effective officer corps would apply here as well. In this case we can speak of a kind of “internationalist” politics, insofar as neoabsolutists in different countries wouldn’t so much collaborate with as model themselves off of each other, as all try to increase non-reactivity in their respective spaces.



June 19, 2019

GASC 2019 Paper

Filed under: GA — adam @ 11:53 am

The Linguistic Turn and Generative Literacy

I’m going to begin with the assumption that the linguistic turn entails the rejection of any attempt to find legitimation for what we say in language in some reality taken to be outside of language, whether this outside be truth, nature, human nature, reality, any form of interiority, the greater good, or anything else. This means that language, rather than being primarily representational, that is, trying to provide an adequate and therefore legitimating picture of what is outside of language, is generative—that is, it is relationships intrinsic to representational structures that create what we call truth, reality, nature, good and so on.

To say that language is generative is to say that the meanings of signs are to be found in their effects on other signs, not in reference to reality: the main question, then, becomes, what are the levers or mechanisms within sign systems that make transformation possible? To put it in pragmatic terms, to take the example of public discourse, instead of trying to prove that your discourse represents reality better, the point is to transform language so that your discourse works steadily within it to the point of becoming it.

Anna Wierzbicka’s discussion of modern English in her Experience, Evidence and Sense: The Cultural Legacy of English provides us with an example of what this means: she shows how the entire language was transformed as a result of one intervention: Locke’s theory of knowledge and politics. She traces a whole series of terms, such as “experience,” evidence,” “empirical,” “sense,” and others back to Locke’s usages, and points out not only the historical contingency and cultural specificity of these terms, but that these are among the very words English speakers take to be most universal and commonsensical. It’s no coincidence that these are the words taken to provide us with access to what is outside of language. It lies outside of Wierzbicka’s inquiry to explain how these words operated generatively upon the English language, but I would suggest that raising and answering that kind of question is, in the wake of the linguistic turn, central to any aesthetic, moral, ethical or political inquiry. It may very well be all such an inquiry entails.

The generativity of language, at least in the post-structuralist forms given it by Derrida’s claim that there is no outside of the text or Rorty’s notion of an ongoing conversation of civilization in which everyone participates, is generally taken to be a pluralist doctrine in which the difference inhabiting the sign is irreducible. But the sign that constitutes the originary scene is absolutely generative, insofar as the sign creates the scene and the human, while at the same time presupposing complete unanimity. And, in fact, I think that the linguistic turn, understood through originary thinking, poses a very different kind of problem, to which we can, in fact, reduce all human problems: that of ensuring that all participants on a scene issue, and know themselves to be issuing, the same sign. This is a problem because it never really is the same sign (the linguistic turners are right about that)—since signs only take on meaning within a scene, a sign on one scene cannot be identical to a sign on another scene, no matter what measures we take or what rules we construct to ensure the sign will be recognized as identical—indeed, we take such measures and construct such rules precisely because there is no internal essence of the sign that makes it the same.

There are two ways in which the identity of the sign can be established. One, all participants on a scene can agree that the sign is the same according to some agreed upon criteria for identity—in other words, some metalanguage, which will then have to be grounded in a metaphysical reality outside of language. Or, we can establish the identity of the sign by deliberately and self-referentially constituting a scene upon which the sign directs us to some center. Here, we would embrace what Johanna Drucker’s calls “inscription,” suggesting there is no sign without its embodiment and embedment in material and historical enactment. The problem with relying on metalanguage, or what Drucker calls “notation,” of course, is that any metalanguage is subject to the same self-difference as the language it tries to control.

Language is going to be generative even if we act as if it is representational—pretensions to a secure metalanguage really serve to guarantee a moral or political certainty that avoids the problem of creating in some space of language the shared attention directed towards some center. We can find the origin of this logocentrism in literacy. David Olson has shown that writing was created out of an inquiry in language, including the speech scenes upon which language is used. More recently, Olson has used the notion of classic prose (taken from Mark Turner and Francis Noel-Thomas’s book, Clear and Simple as the Truth) to show that the telos of the metalanguage of literacy is to simulate a scene, modeled on a presumed original speech scene, upon which writer and readers are all present. It is for this purpose that the metalanguage of literacy establishes norms regarding the correctness of sentences and the uses of words—which is to say, it is literacy that enshrines the declarative sentence as the primary form of language—metaphysics is just further elaboration on this.

Insofar as we rely on notation and metalanguage, then, we imagine ourselves to be present on a simulated, always already constructed scene, with guarantees provided in advance that we all use the same sign. We can then proceed to eliminate deviants—the ungrammatical, the illogical, the unclear—which further proves that those of us remaining are all in possession of the same sign. This metalinguistic imaginary elides the difference, constitutive of the declarative sentence, between the scene of utterance and the represented scene. Since the scene of writing and reading can be represented on that scene itself, introducing a difference within the scene, this elision generates anomalies within metalanguage.

These anomalies open the intrinsically imitative and therefore pedagogical dimension of language use that metaphysical presence occludes. This pedagogical dimension can only be enacted “infralinguistically,” to use Bruno Latour’s term. In place of the hierarchy between language and metalanguage we have the performance of the difference of the metalinguistically guaranteed sign through its representation until its event nature is elicited. These efforts aim at making visible and inescapable the event-character of the sign, which is to say the sign’s inextricability from histories, traditions, the various ways in which it has used by different groups in different situations and, above all, from some event, some act of deferral, some origin, the participation in which is the only the way we can reciprocally “authenticate” one another’s use of the sign.

I have been implicitly suggesting an infralinguistic strategy or vocation for GA, whereby we speak and write in “originary” and “generative” English (or any other language). The basic concepts of GA, such as “desire,” “resentment,” “center” and others don’t really allow us to remain unimplicated in the objects of our analyses—on what basis could I claim to be unresentfully drawing the contours of another’s resentment? GA, then, despite its distinctive (if minimal) conceptual vocabulary, is ill-suited to be a metalanguage. I am asking, what kind of knowledge is GA? If it’s a new way of thinking, it’s a new relation to language. For starters, I’m contending that literacy is itself a second revelation, broadly parallel to the emergence of the Big Man—the revelation here being, as I pointed out before, the autonomy of the declarative sentence.

We can make further use of Olson to get a sense of what the implications of bringing this revelation to the fore as part of the linguistic turn might imply. Olson points out that the metalanguage of literacy serves the purpose of “supplementing” the presumed scene of recorded speech with verbs referring implicitly to mental acts that would have been performed in a speech situation. If I say someone assumed that something to be the case, I am reporting what another said, while also distancing myself from it—the other person was presumably more certain than I am in reporting his speech. In an oral setting, this would have been reflected in the tone—perhaps mildly mocking—in which the speech was reported; since we don’t have that tone, literacy introduces supplementary terms like “assume.” This allows for another innovation of literacy: the distinction between the meaning of an utterance, and the speaker’s meaning—we can now represent all kinds of ways in which the two can be at odds.

These verbs then get nominalized and we get new entities, like “assumptions,” and whole new disciplines organized so as to study them. All the human sciences are derived from such nominalizations, and much of everyday discourse (which has been transformed by literacy and the disciplines) as well. Even universally available words like “thoughts” and “ideas” are probably constructs of literacy. What this means is that there are vast domains of linguistic usage that are entirely dependent upon elaborations of the metalanguage of literacy, and also completely oblivious to this fact. We ourselves, within GA, are also thoroughly immersed within the metalanguage of literacy—the difference is, we can know it, and know why, and propose new disciplinary articulations that show such words to be scene and event dependent.

Working “inscriptively,” then, would involve accepting that writing is scenic itself, rather than an attempt to construct a universally shared and permanent speech scene. One of Derrida’s central observations is that there is no single scene of writing—writing, rather, involves a dissemination of texts, each of which would serve to constitute a scene that might reference more or less directly any and all of the other scenes organized around the disseminated text. This means that writing generates samples of language, no more directly related to one particular scene upon which they are iterated than any other. Charles Sanders Peirce argued that knowledge is always of the relation between a sample and the population of which it is a sample. Once we abandon attempts to supplement the source, then, we have samples of language, and we generate hypotheses regarding their relation to language as a whole.

Treating pieces of language as samples involves creating anomalous uses, or, really, acknowledging that all uses are anomalous, and accordingly situating ourselves on the boundary between talking about something and no longer/not yet quite talking about something—“sampling” is a call, or imperative, to generate a new center with an object at it. If we’re obeying the imperative derived from a concept, like, say, “infralanguage,” or “inscription,” then we are looking for samples of language serving as models of these concepts, and looking for ways to make sense of less obvious instances, even seemingly counter-instances, in terms of these concepts—for example, noting the infralinguistic dimension inseparable from the most rigorously applied metalanguage.

Insofar as we have a new center, that center wants to be more central: if we have a center we are using the same sign, and its identity is affirmed in the self-reference that situates one scene generated by the sign in a history of scenes with an origin that is continually marked. Imperatives from the previous scene, like “find new ways to talk about X,” or “use the conceptual resources you have generated to replace some less differentiated way of saying something,” generate the subsequent scenes. Words that bear with them histories distributed across self-referential networks are going to be more generative.

Metalinguistic terms resist operationalization—what, exactly, are we doing when we “assume” something? Are we always assuming what we assume? If not, what’s the difference between when we’re assuming and when we’re not? The later Wittgenstein was fascinated and perhaps appalled by the evanescence of the “referents” of such meta-linguistic terms. It is precisely such terms we can operationalize infralinguistically. If we make a study of “assumptions,” it is not to define and categorize them or to leverage “hidden” assumptions against explicit statements, but, perhaps, to figure out when they come into view, and what kind of thinking is going on when they don’t. Perhaps we can imagine “assumptionless” linguistic performances; or performances that are all assumptions, right there on the surface. The purpose here being to show that such imagining would require new forms of joint attention.

If language is the deferral of violence, the only thing we are ever talking about is how we are going about deferring violence. Forms of language that can be moved across scenes make it possible to defer not only immediate forms of violence but possible future forms, even ones that we can’t yet imagine. In more critical discussions, where we’re interested in the “viability” of concepts, what we’re really inquiring into is how many possible uses for deferring violence a particular constellation of words might have. If we know this, but others don’t, in talking with others all we are doing is helping them to know this. This knowledge must lie in their own discourses, their own vocabulary—if they are going to speak GA with us they would first have to see that their own discourse is always already GA.

We’re all always and only talking about how we are deferring violence but if we don’t all always know this it is because the sign can only refer to a single center, not centeredness in general. So, in entering others’ discourse we identify those signs where reference to a single center interferes with the reference to centeredness as such. This would transform the conversation into one centered on eliciting the distinction between centering and centeredness. This distinction is elicited by treating every utterance as both hypothesizing the way some other sign refers to a center and being, as a sample, a possible center. Our interest in that possible utterance, or sample, then, is in how it can iterated and disseminated in ways that would make more explicit our talking about the way we are deferring violence.

It is this practice of sampling, taking pieces of language and pointing them at new centers, that makes language generative, memorable and effective. The reason for the linguistic turn is that the metaphysical scene of humanism, predicated upon the metalinguistics of literacy, could no longer effectively defer violence. For one thing, by asserting the unity of humanity humanism, the late form of metaphysics (locating the ultimate reality within rather than without), keeps dividing humanity. Deferring violence now requires making explicit the constitution of scenes upon which we take our own uses of language as the center—this demands that we minimize our assumptions regarding what counts as a scene of knowing, and let the object, the “samples,” organize such scenes. The more generative discourses will be those that can create revelatory scenes of the origin and identity of the sign out of the greatest differentiation in sign use. It is the discourse that knows that all we’re ever doing is talking about how we’re deferring violence without it ever being possible to be completely explicit about that will be the most generative one.


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