GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

October 8, 2007

Ostensive Freedom All the Way Down (More Commentary on Chronicle #348)

Filed under: GA — adam @ 12:32 pm

Metaphysics is the assumption of the primacy of declarative sentence.  What is the source of this assumption; and what is our concern with it?  Is it simply that metaphysics is wrong in its occlusion of the primacy of the ostensive, or are there ethical stakes involved?  Gans has observed that the denial of the ostensive in metaphysics (the mode of thought of post-ritual order) may have been necessary to distance that order from the charged nature of the ostensive; perhaps the ostensive becomes “charged” once the recognition emerges that there is no way of satasifactorily arbitrating between mutually exclusive ones.  In that case, is it equally, or even more, necessary now not to place too much pressure on the declarative “order”?  Do we enter dangerous territory when we engage in the deconstruction or dismantling of Western metaphysics–a pedestrian academic exercise these days, I know, but does that mean we have accounted for the broader social consequences?  Or, on the contrary, are such exercises doomed to remain esoteric and ineffectual:  if declarative freedom, our freedom to determine together the nature of the imperatives by which we will be bound, is constitutive of liberal democracy, then isn’t liberal democracy the apotheosis of metaphysics, insofar as it attributes ruling force to the declarative?  And what, exactly, leaving aside the claims of philosophical purity, would be one’s objection to that?

(What follows will be in large part a reading of Eric Gans’ account of the emergence of the declarative sentence through transformations in the ostensive and imperative forms in his The Origin of Language.  It would, it seems to me, be tedious in this forum to “account” for my reading.  I will leave it to my readers to note which parts of Gans’ analysis I am addressing, which neglecting, what I am adding or revising, and what, perhaps, I am simply misreading.)

The ostensive names the central object and thereby constitutes it as sacred Being.  Once one object has been thus designated and thereby preserved as the ritual center of the emergent community, the same mode of signification can be applied to the naming of other objects–we should imagine that instances of imminent mimetic crisis will still provide the motive for such gestures, but the instances would become less urgent, more “routine,” as the gestures involved come to mediate more and more practices.   Once the sacred “buffalo” has been named in an event that saves/creates the community, the more “profane” “rabbit” can be pursued by two or more hunters in a more coordinated manner than would otherwise be possible.  As a stock of names thus accumulates, the appearance of what Gans calls the “inappropriate” ostensive, emitted in the absence of the object, being accepted as an imperative to produce the object (again, accepted as a way of deferring conflict), becomes increasingly probable.  It would seem that the “successful” imperative is less likely to take place with regard to the object of some pursuit, which could not be readily produced upon demand, than with some implement of the hunt (or equivalent activity) which could have already been named in one of the less high stakes events I just referred to–like, say, a spear.

Finally, we would have, as a reply to an “inappropriate” imperative (in some situation in which the object cannot be produced), the “negative ostesnive,” in which the name of the object is simply repeated, deferring the anticipated response to the unfulfilled imperative.  If this response is accepted (if the demand is not pursued to the point of crisis), the negative ostensive becomes the germ of the declarative, since it “refers” to the absence of the object.  For the negative ostensive to become a genuine declarative (with what Gans calls here a relation between “topic” and “comment”), something must be said “about” the topic, or object in question.  This something must come from the stock of names or nominals already generated by the community of sign users.  What is the nature of the comment upon the topic in such a situation?  The negative ostensive, which sometimes works, hasn’t worked in this instance:  the absence of the object must be presented in some more “persuasive” way.  I would suggest that the comment must involve more than representing the absence of the object as a proximal presence–that is, it must be more than “spear over there” or “spear home”, because such a response would likely exacerbate rather than quell the crisis by intensifying the demand that the object be retrieved and produced. 

The more likely name to be introduced in lieu of the failure of the negative ostensive, I propose, is the Name-of-God, of the originary, sacred object.  The Name-of-God does more than designate a particular object; it communicates the repulsive force of the center and, I would hypothesize, this repulsive force would be needed to enable the leap into a new linguistic form predicated upon the object’s absence and its replacement by the presence of the linguistic form itself.  The object’s absence is substituted for by God’s presence.  So, the first declarative would be something like “God (here)/(not) spear.”  “God/spear” would call for the same response on the part of the “imperator” as the Name-of-God effected for all the participants on the originary scene.  The iteration of this linguistic form for other objects would then be generalizable along the lines of “God presences otherwise than as_______” The verb form would first of all name God’s presencing here, and could then be applied to all other forms of “presencing.”  Other objects could be inserted into this formal structure, as originally took place with ostensive.

If God presences otherwise than as ______, then He presences as the sentence itself, insofar as it “makes sense” or is “understood.”  If the listener thus accepts the sentence (he doesn’t pursue his demand), then he has accepted the speaker’s “invitation” to see the presencing of God in other declaratives which will be as fleeting as the one just heard, which vanished in the instant in which it was “understood.”  This “invitation,” moreover, must be accepted by the listener as an internalized imperative now directed toward himself, a directive to be prepared to treat the next declarative ostensively, as pointing to a new form of sacred Being (an “otherwise” form of God’s presencing).  Insofar as it defers the impossible imperative, or perhaps colliding imperatives, by thus internalizing and redirecting the imperative form toward a new kind of ostensive gesture, the declarative transcends but also includes these lower linguistic forms.  So, for the listener (which includes the speaker as well as listener to his own sentence), each declarative (in its internal iteration, its “making sense”) would have the general form (which could be “diagrammed”) of:  “Present yourself before the space where God’s otherwise presencing will be revealed.”  In turn, the increasing range of application of the declarative would increase the range of possible imperatives and the compelxity of various interactions between imperatives and their “softened” form,  interrogatives; which would, then, push the declarative form to unfold more of its potential.

The problem with the primacy of the declarative in metaphysics is that it reduces all meaning to the distinction between true and false, or (a softer version) substantial/acccidental.  The verification conditions can never be made commensurate with the statement to be judged, though:  in the end, one has to “see” the object whose reality is to be ascertained, and no rule can account for what would count as doing so.  In the political context, this leads us to endless arguments over incommensurable models of the social.  The problem here is not that the arguments are endless; rather, it is that the models of the social in question are not only incommensurable with each other but with the forms of power articulated so as to “realize” one or the other.  On this point, Richard Rorty is right when he points out that, say, John Rawls’ model of originary equality, while apparently meant to authorize a version of the modern Western welfare state could just as easily be used to justify an extreme libertarian argument–one simply needs to contend that it is the unlimited workings of the free market and expanding individual freedom vis a vis that state that will improve the conditions of the least well off.

Even better! one might respond:  that’s precisely what makes it a viable model–it allows for a range of legitimate arguments while excluding the extremes destructive of the liberal order (although, whether one could find a way to use Rawls to justify fascism, apartheid, or communism perhaps remains to be seen; or, rather, depends upon forms of interpretive ingenuity we haven’t yet seen). But leave aside the creeping cynicism of such an approach (once one knows that it is only “my” Rawls that enables me to argue for my pet project, can I continue to make the argument in good faith? [what role does “good faith” argumentation play in liberal democracy?]).  Even more problematic is its mind numbing monotony–how long does it take before one has figured out every possible move in public, gladitorial-style contests over the re-application of the favored models?    

The possibility of treating the declarative sentence ostensively, as a calling into being of a world centered upon ourselves as sign-producers and renewers of sacrality is what makes Gans’ fourth, “discursive,” freedom, possible.  The most powerful declarative would be the one capable of the most varied searches for ways of placing oneself before the space in which God’s otherwise presencing will be revealed.  Such a declarative will enact or embody such a search, which is perhaps simply a way of reminding ourselves that when and where one makes a declarative statement matters.  “All men are created equal” is not always equally charged–it matters whether the one saying it is placing his freedom and life on the line in doing so. (How else could we ever know what such a phrase really meant?)

The freest declarative, then, will be the one that places itself at the intersection of “unreasonable” (impossible) imperatives, demanding that those issuing the imperative either enforce that demand in the face of the speaker’s refusal (a refusal on the grounds that its implementation would close the space of God’s otherwise presencing or, more simply, the space in which successive declaratives could be issued) or echo the “universal” principle (universal because allowing for unlimited iterations) which has, in that case, demonstrably inhibited one’s will to enforce. 

For the metaphysical supporter of liberal democracy, our arguments over the election of representatives and the laws they then make and enforce is all there is.  Those who violate or fail to enforce laws, those who take responsibility for deploying the power they have been delegated in unauthorized ways to meet unprecedented circumstances, those who fail to adhere to the rules of public discourse (argumentation following an accepted or “certified” model of the social) are simply unintelligible or worse.  A metaphysical liberal can easily accept the results of the civil rights movement after the fact (the results conform to a very recognizable model); would his liberalism have given him the moral grounding for supporting it when doing so would earn him the opprobrium of neighbors, co-workers and family?  Setting aside my own thinking on the matter, while those conservatives who take an “enforcement first” stance on illegal immigration have an impeccable theoretical stance (who could be against enforcing the law–if you want more immigrants, change the law accordingly) they miss, it seems to me, this “ostensive” dimension to freedom:  how will people respond when they are asked to turn in their neighbors and co-workers, or when they are asked to enforce laws requiring them to round up and deport entire families?  Neither the conservative imperative nor the liberal declarative is enough to account for our politics, on the boundary between the victimary on one side deliberately determined forms of reciprocity on the other.  Metaphysical liberalism doesn’t want to change the nature of imperatives; it wants to ensure their legitimacy and hence certainty.  A post-metaphysical, generative liberalism would embed imperatives in structures of transparency and accountability that produce new imperatives by checking others, placing each of us on both sides of the imperative in as “equally” distributed manner as possible; modelling the social in novel forms of solidarity, responsibility and reciprocity, rather than applying a model of the social.

All freedom is ostensive in the simple sense that freedom has to mean that no one knows what I am going to say or do next–if I am either predictable or controlled I am not free.  But “no one” has to include myself–I also must not know what I am going to say or do until I hear or see it (if I could know, others could too).  So, such freedom involves a perpetual readiness to hear and see something one has never seen and heard before; something astonishing and unprecedented, new forms of God’s otherwise presencing.  Such freedom can by no means be reduced to the political, but politically its consequence is that those who embrace such a freedom are our greatest and maybe only surety against all totalitarianisms–and the terror of such freedom on the part of any one who would like to see our imperatives obeyed unconditionally means that we will never have seen the last of the totalitarian imperative.

Adam Katz


  1. Adam, thanks for another excellent, thought-provoking post.

    I am a little unsure what to make of this part of the argument:

    The more likely name to be introduced in lieu of the failure of the negative ostensive, I propose, is the Name-of-God, of the originary, sacred object. The Name-of-God does more than designate a particular object; it communicates the repulsive force of the center and, I would hypothesize, this repulsive force would be needed to enable the leap into a new linguistic form predicated upon the object’s absence and its replacement by the presence of the linguistic form itself. The object’s absence is substituted for by God’s presence. So, the first declarative would be something like “God (here)/(not) spear.” “God/spear” would call for the same response on the part of the “imperator” as the Name-of-God effected for all the participants on the originary scene.

    It makes sense to me that in the pre-existing stock of names there will be some with a greater charge than others. I imagine this having more to do with the workings of a simple ritual/mythical order, and its somewhat arbitrary, somewhat realistic, sense of “high stakes events”, than with any possible memory of an originary, sacred object. But anyway, I don’t see how the “Name-of-God” (I take it you are retrospectively applying an idea associated with monotheism) can be readily distinguished from the less important sign like “spear” (though I suppose this becomes the whole point, the mystery the imperator must accept, in the sense that the “Name-of-God” is the effect of the successful declarative sentence and the “internalized imperative”). In a world (as I imagine it) where one “god” or mysterious force or presence is much like another, where a sacred, likely decorated or marked, object like a spear is thought to have mystical powers and thus always to represent the presence of something supernatural, and where there is thus more than one way to signify the repulsive force of the center, isn’t the “negative ostensive”, the mere repeating of the name “spear/spear”, with appropriate body language, already sufficient to say “god(here)/not spear.”?

    Apparently not, but i remain puzzled as to what is the key to allowing for the internalized imperative, or the effect of the more complete declarative, that makes the fuller sentence necessary. Anyway, if/as one does need to substitute another name for spear, making more explicit the relation between topic and comment, in order to indicate the presence of a god, wouldn’t the choice of a more important name from the stock of more important names be somewhat arbitrary, or dependent on (a forgettable) context? If so, what are the implications for understanding the nature of the declarative? I guess you are beginning to answer this question when you go on to discuss the problem of verification conditions for the declarative and further call on us to ditch metaphysical models of society, recognizing that we can never have the certainty about the imperative’s legitimacy that today’s liberals want. So is the internalized imperative all a question of good faith/responsibility/openness to the demands of new contexts? Or is there something more to say about the substitution that is confusing me?

    Comment by John — October 13, 2007 @ 10:54 pm

  2. Thanks for the comment, John. It seems to me that you are answering most of your own very interesting questions here. I don’t think I am associating the Name-of-God retrospectively with monotheism–that would be a problem, of course. All I need assume (and you seem to recognize this) is a hierarchy of Names-of-God, some, and ultimately, one, of which would be most assiduously recalled through ritual and as a model for deferring conflict in new situations; and gradations of sacrality in terms of events and objects–even in the sense that a spear which, as you say, would be sacralized itself, would in some instances be treated in more utilitarian terms (in terms, as you say, of a somewhat arbitrary, somewhat realistic, drawing of lines).

    The bigger question is the next one, regarding the internalized imperative. Upon reflection, I would revise the part of the discussion pertaining to the kind of event that would prompt the “leap” into a new linguistic form. It now seems me that we must see this not in terms of an absent object (or, at least, not necessarily in such terms) but as a crisis of the imperative, which in that case, rather than being impossible, is refused or resisted; and the reason for this would be that the imperative in question was taken to violate the originary equality and reciprocity. In that case, the reason for the insufficiency of the negative ostensive, and for a recall of a higher mode of sacrality than the one currently governing that particular scene, and (especially) for a “reformed” (and internalized) imperative become clearer: an “excessive” imperative (or, rather, the violence threatened by that excessiveness as well as the resistance it has generated) is what threatens reciprocity and a higher linguistic form serving as a control on the imperative is necessary. In this case, the declarative, on the one hand, remains in the shadow of excessive and colliding imperatives; on the other hand, it would be a liberation from them by being predicated upon the acknowledgment that reality could always be “otherwise” (other than the present object-world before us).

    Comment by adam — October 15, 2007 @ 6:56 am

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