Monthly Archives: November 2007

Originary Grammar and Political Transparency

Continuing the line of inquiry intitated by Eric Gans’ Chronicle, “The Four Freedoms,” we can suggest that the three main linguistic forms correspond to three modes of political accountability.  The ostensive, to unquestioned fealty to a shared sacred center; the imperative to the rule of “big man” who runs society as what we might call, depending upon our tastes, a protection racket or a more or less benign paternalist order characterized by the unconditional compliance with privileged imperatives; and the declarative, of course, to an open, liberal order, in which no decision is legitimate until everyone has had their say.  All this is fairly uncontroversial.  What I would like to add, so as to make this a new discussion, is the hypothesis that the higher linguistic forms do not supersede the lower ones but, rather, articulate them in new spatial and temporal configurations.  So, the imperative clearly relies upon the ostensive in the sense that compliance must be confirmed:  I must be able to point, along with others, at the object produced or act carried out, in accord with the specifications implicit or explicit in the imperative.  Similarly, the declarative must include reformed or redirected imperatives and ostensives, and this is a rather more complex matter.

Let’s stick with the ostensive-imperative relation for a moment.  If I have given an order to a subordinate, I presumably know what it would mean for that order to be carried out–if I say the “report must be on my desk by 3” I know how to tell time, have a clock available, know what desk is meant, and know what would count as an acceptably completed report; and, my subordinate knows all this as well.  Furthermore, I have some idea (perhaps increasingly vague as the work done to complete the report becomes more individualized) of where the subordinate should be at a particular point in the work, and there may be all kinds of good reasons for me to want to check on those intermediate points as well (everyone has heard horror stories about the intrusive means of surveillance that have become commonplace in the contemporary corporation).  The point is, not only does the imperative rely upon the ostensive for its verification, but it generates a whole series of new ones, that in turn complicate the imperative order itself.  The boss is checking on one thing (is the employee embezzling, or just lazy) and finds out something else (he is cheating on his wife) raising new questions about the employer-employee relationship and, in particular, the employer’s authority (it’s easy to say that employees should only be judged by their performance at work, but that already assumes a “declarative” model of justice rather than an imperative order in which the superior’s central concern is the condition of continuing to issue successful imperatives, in which case I may want to know if my employee is committing adultery and will therefore be brining all kinds of other issues into the workplace in ways I can reasonably predict even if the effects have not yet appeared). 

I want to suggest that the interaction between ostensive and imperative produces the possibility of something we might call “originary nihilism,” which is to say, a situation in which, due to colliding imperatives, or later imperatives that undermine the earlier ones, or subsidiary imperatives that don’t fit the central ones, there is no longer an “object” the parties involved can point to in order to verify compliance with the imperative.  I furthermore want to suggest that we need to hypothesize such a situation to account for the emergence of the declarative in the first place, which is to say that the declarative emerges as the deferral of the impossible imperative and the transcendence of originary nihilism.  The first “claim” made by the declarative (and here I am working with the basic topic/comment form proposed in The Origin of Language) is that things can be “otherwise” than proposed by the impossible imperative–which, interestingly, means that things can be both more “realistic” (the declarative offers something “possible”) and otherwise than could have been previously imagined.

I would like to minimize the kind of scene we would have to imagine to thus read the declarative as the result of an event, which is to say a leap to a condition which was not contained in the imperative, or its extension to the negative ostensive.  We would have to assume a crisis of the imperative, in which the incompatibility of the various imperatives offered in a given situation (either with each other, with reality, or with the established form of issuing and obeying imperatives) leads to the possibility of collective violence that no imperative, nor the rather weak negative ostensive, could prevent:  the “possibility” that is offered by the emission of the declarative is first of all of de-escalating the situation by listening to someone (and then another, and then another…) who is putting two familiar words together in an unfamiliar way.  So, a formulation like “spear/hut” would at the very least draw attention to itself and be iterable–if it gets repeated enough times perhaps someone runs back to the hut and the crisis is resolved; but before that could happen, the linguistic innovation itself has to become a new center of attention.  Insofar as it becomes a new center of attention, it can redirect the imperatives by presenting a new one, which redirection is a condition of “hearing” the declarative as an intelligible sign:  the imperative is to be ready for a new kind of object, one which can only be identified ostensively; that new object is the possibility of another sentence.  Simultaneously, the declarative reorders the existing imperative-ostensive nexus by extending the space between an imperative and the ostensives that will satisfy it, precisely by introducing the possibility of intermediate objects, creating in effect a whole world of possible objects, some of which happen to be “missing.”  We might say that metaphysics’ elevating of the declarative to the status of primary linguistic form relies upon displacing the generative dimension of the declarative (the creation of the next sentence as the ostensively idenitifed object) by the “packaging” dimension; this displacement reduces the world to a finite set of possible objects, all of which could, in principle, be made present.  Metaphysics effects this displacement by treating the infinite series of sentences as nothing more than so many containers of an essentially finite world of ideas. 

However we imagine such a “declarative event,” the validity of my analysis must rest upon the power with which it enables us to analyze actual sentences and discourses.  I believe this power is considerable.  To sketch out just a couple of possibilities, it enables us to account in a new way for Roman Jakobson’s famous axes of meaning, the axis of combination (metonymy) and the axis of selection (metaphor).  The generative force of the deferral of the impossible imperative accounts for the logic of combination:  the topic of the sentence is such an object, however mediated by the discourse in question, of an impossible imperative; the axis of combination (which types of “comments” can be attached to the topic) is determined by the need to represent that object otherwise than as demanded, as a newly possible object.  The axis of selection, meanwhile, or, which of all the possible comments (or, for that matter, which of all the possible names for the topic) belong (the “poetic” axis) is determined by the running deferral of the series of imperatives, produced by and running parallel to the construction of the declarative itself, that a particular kind of sentence be produced.  In other words, each declarative is split between the need to produce more, genuinely new sentences out of its own material and the need to produce materially available objects within an acceptable range of intermediation.  Sentences that last are the ones that defer “unreasonable” or impossible instances of this latter demand, which is equivalent to deferring the demand for immediately and transparently operationalizable statements, while incorporating the deferral of this demand itself into their construction.  More forgettable sentences are those which provide some information (readily verifiable and/or accessible ostensives) which then absorb the attention given to the sentence itself.  At any rate, each sentence should be decomposable into the external and internal impossible imperatives (the originary nihilism it responds to and the one it then must simulate) that are its constitutive elements; as well as into the new ostensive-imperative articulations that make it intelligible. 

Now, I would like to use this analysis of what I would call “originary grammar” to examine a problem posed by the “grammar” of politics in a free society.  David Brin’s (still) neglected The Transparent Society addressed a series of issues and leaves open one serious problem that I would now like to address “grammatically.”  Brin starts with the assumption that our society will continue to become more and more transparent–the means of observing others, with or without their permission, will continue to expand beyond the capacity of our current legal or moral systems or inhibitions to regulate–and this will be the case for government, private individuals, and institutions alike.  If someone down the block, or half-way across the world, really wants to know what goes on in your bedroom every night, they will soon be able to find out, if they can’t already.  Brin proposes that we meet this situation “proactively” by giving up on privacy as a core liberal value (which he anyway claims it never really was–liberty he considers the genuine core value, and completely detaches the two concepts) and making transparency reciprocal and linking it to expanded and revised norms of accountability:  on the one hand, we would all be well advised not to do anything our reputations couldn’t survive having broadcast to the world; on the other hand, we should raise the threshold of tolerance to include everything that any one of us is likely to be caught doing on some occasion or another.  Meanwhile, if we, as individuals, are to concede that we won’t be able to keep anything from the government, we should in turn impose the same expectations upon the government:  if the government will ultimately wrest the right (to match the already existing capacity) to know and see everything about us, we should have cameras in police stations and…here is where the argument gets problematic…and cabinet meetings?  special forces undercover operations?  When it comes to the police, Brin’s argument is unproblematic and enormously liberating–why not have cameras in interrogation rooms and police vehicles, why not post the evidence used in trials on the internet so it can be inspected by all?  The main effect would be to raise both the level of police and prosecutorial behavior along with public expectations of what these agencies can accomplish and what should be considered reasonable limits on their powers.  When it comes to national security secrets, though, especially those with thousands, perhaps millions of lives, and in extreme circumstances, even national existence, at stake, how can we concede?  But, even more to the point, what if it’s not up to us–if Brin is right, the capacity to place means of transmission anywhere, to break into any computer, will soon enough be available–maintaining a low threshold when it comes to classifying information may lead to a situation in which our enemies know more about what is going on than we do.

What is terrifying in Brin’s scenario is the dramatically increased possibility that anyone, any time, could be singled out as a scapegoat–the largely lost, and much regretted (and for good reasons) bourgeois norms of civility and reticence served to make it possible to present oneself publically in rule governed ways that enabled one to avoid the most likely marks of difference that could in turn make one a viable scapegoat.  In this case, reciprocal transparency serves as a theory of deterrence, ensuring that citizens and the police, as well as the citizens amongst themselves, have the goods on each other and will therefore limit scapegoating to those relatively rare instances where one could not be turned into a target oneself. The vast increase in visibility, in other words, opens up a vacuum in which new ostensives will rush to meet the supply of new desires and rivalries, and we would legitimately fear that time dishonored but convenient modes of deferral would fill that vacuum.  Brin addresses this argument by pointing precisely to our enhanced post-Christian suspicion of scapegoating mechanisms, admitting the possibility of the scenario I just outlined while asserting that the emergence of higher levels of restraint and tolerance is at least as likely.  And we can grant him that argument, at least for the sake of argument.

The larger problem, though, is that increased transparency would aid liberalism’s century long project of discrediting imperatives; or, to be (a little) fairer, imperatives that are not so engirded by declaratives legitimating in advance and checking after the fact that they are no longer, in any meaningful sense, imperatives.  Declaratives cannot in any way translate directly into action in the world, which is to say into imperative-ostensive articulations; only declaratives-with-built-in-imperatives sutured onto imperatives-with engrafted-declaratives can effect such action.  This suturing is the imperative I issue to myself and in turn obey, what we refer to colloquially as “putting your money where your mouth is”–declaratives that don’t lend themselves to placing a “bet” should be almost as suspicious as the use of sheer force or the assertion of naked will in social relations. 

So, how do we distinguish declaratives that lay down a bet from those that don’t?  If the sentence is founded on the transcendence of originary nihilism, then it completes this transcendence by calling upon us to restore the object of annihilation by defending it against the carriers of such nihilism.  The first duty of the declarative, its condition of intelligibility, then, is the creation of a possible object that exceeds or resists the grasp of those gripped by the impossible imperative. The world of possible objects generated by the declarative doesn’t map the world of actual objects; rather, it models ways of forming appropriative relations with actual objects.  The imperative to oneself that makes action possible involves singling out from the “fictional” declarative world a form of appropriation that might act on a proximal intermediate imperative-ostensive articulation.  The intermediate “command” given is to embody and shape that form.  Now, it is true that much action is carried out without these explicit thought process (one can even question whether our “decisions” are actually causally related to our actions or are merely the “foam” generated by the general swirl of activity that in the aftermath looks like an “act”); it is also true that we are faced with a problem that I would call “infinite ingress” here:  directing our attention toward an intermediate imperative-ostensive articulation that would enable the fulfillment of a larger one of which the one we are attending to is a component part implies that we can further direct our attention to the intermediate instances constitutive of the one we are presently attending to, and so on.  I would propose that originary grammar cuts through all these problems and questions by noting, first, that the problem of infinite ingress really includes the problem of the conscious component of action insofar as when we act we are necessarily attending to some imperative-ostensive articulation that inevitably carries along with a train of other, possible, ones; and that the possibility of attending from the one we are directly engaged in (even in “planning”) to the others that come into view as a result is nothing other than the source of those subsequent declaratives which will  retroactively represent the “decision” in a more complete way because it is the  center of a new, possible world.  The proliferation of the intermediate steps that lead to genuine action, in other words, is the generative source of the yet to be produced sentence as a possible object of the sentence currently in play. 

The metaphysical sentence represents a world in which something is missing.  Metaphysics assumes a world saturated by existing objects, material and immaterial, all of which objects can, in principle, be known or made present–if nothing is missing, where does the need for the sentence come from?  The “fictional” or possible world created by the declarative is thus turned into the measure of the actual world, and since the Good can be known propositionally, the fictional world in question is already populated by those who act according to knowledge of the Good (hence any new sentence could, in principle, be predicted by someone with complete knowledge of all possible logical and true sentences); since such knowledge is available, only a deficit of will explains one’s unwillingness to pursue or act on it; and since the will is determined directly by perception of the model presented by the Good, deficits of the will are made up for through a kind of forced viewing of the model from which one has so far inexplicably averted one’s vision (how could you not see it!). This is the double bind of metaphysical thinking, which thus stabilizes originary nihilism, by at least punishing or excluding those swept up in it, but the problem of the conversion of the declarative into suitable imperatives, the “operationalization” of the declarative, has not been solved.  The fantasy of metaphysics, in other words, in one of a self-governing republic of speakers of declaratives, one in which possible worlds are directly mapped onto the actual one with no intermediate space. Which means that the question of meaning has not been answered, because “meaning” is essentially responding to a sign by opening a new world.  Originary nihilism emerges in the field of intermediate imperative-ostensive articulations, and it can be transcended only by acting on that field. 

To return to Brin’s problem, the necessary zone of secrecy surrounding the fulfillment of those imperatives demanded by the defense of the center in those arenas where action cannot wait upon deliberation takes on a new appearance in the space created by transparency, or the vastly extended region of unregulated ostensives.  Defense against the encroachments of transparency upon the prerogatives of “executive energy” are converted into the call for “auxiliary” forces.  Dismantle or at least marginalize the State Department and CIA (for starters) and any other bracnh of the civil service with the will and capacity to distinguish its interests from the agenda of the administration in power.  Transform all the activites and operations carried out by such agencies into directly delegated missions assigned to diplomatic and intelligence teams directly or mediately accountable to the President.  Clear lines of delegation and accountability all down the line.  Secrets are protected, for as long as absolutely necessary, through dispatch and small group cohesion and loyalty–a team does one thing, it does it as economically as possible, and by the time anyone catches up and finds out what they are doing, they have already done it.  The men and women on such teams are outside the law and beyond the purview of public opinion for as long as they can stay there, which will hopefully be long enough to complete the mission, a mission the law might not sanction and public opinion might view with disgust; when exposure comes, they will knowingly face penalties and opprobrium, and they will be scapegoated by the public, or they will be honored, or, perhaps, allowed to remain anonymous so as to circulate onto new teams; the President will then stand by them or throw them under the bus, taking refuge in those acts carried out in pursuit of the mission that (and there will inevitably be such) went beyond its explicit mandate; the President him or herself will, in turn, be supported by the public and Congress or scapegoated as well; sub-cultures, publications, training sites, etc., will emerge to supply the demand for operatives; the media, “mainstream” and independent, will not surrender their independence, nor need anyone ask them to–let them find out what they can and let the auxiliary forces deceive, infiltrate and distract as they must (perhaps new attitudes within the media will emerge, according to which a willingness to eschew the attempt to reveal secrets will be exchanged for fuller access and accounts afterward).  Such as system, at the very least, would provide us with a continual stream of very valuable and reliable information regarding the health of our institutions and civil society.  These auxiliaries would “willingly” subject themselves to the most rigorous regime of imperatives imaginable, but will remain bounded on both sides by declaratives:  on the “front” end, by the fundamental principles of reciprocity constitutive of the order they are sworn to protect; on the “back” side, by the judgments and narratives produced by their fellow citizens and the world at large. 

A generative declarative, in that case, points toward an arena in which the terms of the declarative could be bound by such a regime of imperativity and retain its meaning. To put it more simply, a generative declarative implicitly proposes a mision on its own behalf and volunteers to go first.  I don’t mean that if one argues in favor of war, one should therefore be first at the nearest recruiting station–the criteria I am proposing are immanent to the series of sentences involved, which means “volunteering” to defend the terms of the new, possible, reality created by one’s sentences, and presenting that reality as one to be completed only by others’ sentences. The power of such sentences lies in their focus on, or “indwelling” in the generative intermediate terrain where the “infinite ingress” of possible imperative-ostensive articulations creates new realities, first of all in language, that can stay one step ahead of originary nihilism.

Adam Katz


Originary Modern Individuality and Global Religion: Some comments on the Religion of Impending Disaster

The notion, put forward in Eric Gans’ latest Chronicle (349, that global warmism (as the latest and most succesful incarnation of the religion of impending disaster) is a viable global religion that might serve to defer conflict in a post-Auschwitz world is worth pursuing further.  First of all, the religion of impending disaster is surely an off-shoot of the quintessential post-Auschwitz religion, White Guilt. What marks White Guilt as post-Auschwitz is its direct representation of, human beings as precisely the kind of beings the originary hypothesis reveals them to be:  the greatest threat to their own survival.  White Guilt is extremely direct:  it provides a thorough itemization of human institutions and norms that we “know” threaten said destruction because we know the violence they have already caused; global warmism, meanwhile, mediates such destruction through inherently questionable scientific claims whose confirmation can, of course, only come in the future.  But “impending disaster” might very well supersede White Guilt if if can provide genuine solutions where WG can only exacerbate problems; its anthropological insight might be somewhat lesser if, in its ability reject the steady stream of human sacrifices WG depends upon, its anthropological instincts are superior.

The fact that contemporary ideologies seem to be coming closer to this basic originary insight (as opposed to the naivete about human goodness in both Enlightenment and Romantic discourses) raises another question: can human beings directly confront an acknowledgement that we are, essentially, the greatest threat to our own survival or would, paradoxically, a widespread acceptance of the originary hypothesis (or the closest “popular” approximation) undermine our capacity to display the saving signifying capacity that hypothesis discloses?  Even White Guilt, in the end, flinches decisively by reducing the threat to the scapegoated “dominant” group–but does that increase or mitigate its destructiveness?  How would a community of adherents to the originary hypothesis, confronting, intellectually, without any mythological or ideological interference, the primacy of their mimetic and hence potentially violent relations to each other, mediate their interrelationships?  It seems to me that the main problem here is the awareness that no particular sign of deferral can be given priority over other candidates, nothing that is simply there between us–to be modified and questioned, but still, first of all simply there.

The advantage of global warmism over WG would lie precisely in the fact that if new scientific advances could weaken the warming hypothesis, by the same token such advances could never decisively refute it; after all, yet further evidence could once again secure the higher probability of the events it predicts.  And if the “cultic” aspects of the religion have been sufficiently developed by the time the evidence starts to point against the hypothesis, that investment will itself weigh heavily in favor of maintaining it (“we are obviously making progress, why relax our guard now”?).  By the “cultic” or ritual aspects I mean nothing more invidious than Gans does in calling belief in global warming a religion:  the development of market niches and practices (inventions, fashions, etc.) that might fit the global economy rather well while calling for certain minimal “sacrifices” on the part of individuals; once the religion has become more accepted and less defensive it might become less dogmatic and therefore capable of accommodating, for example, Bjorn Lomborg’s suggestion that even if human-induced global warming is occurring, we might be better served by anticipating and countering its effects rather than trying to prevent it–in that case, a wide sphere of voluntary and compelled, large and small scale activities, all organized around the “race against time,” become conceivable; global warmism might co-exist peacefully with the world’s religions, which don’t seem to be intrinsically opposed to its hypothesis; finally, one could even imagine the integration of global warmism into the war on terror such that it comes to subsume it–terrorists and perhaps Islam itself might be designated enemies of humanity for distracting attention away from our salvation, and the drive to find other sources of fuel given divine sanction–perhaps the new religion will neutralize White Guilt and lead to its extinction.  Of course, in this final possibility lies new dangers:  who else might be thus designated enemy of humanity, even of the earth, and hence subject to annihilation?  What would the existence of a particular recalcitrant people weigh in the scales of the preservation of all life on earth?  Especially poor people, from countries with too much population increase, who demand too much economic growth…

The cult of global warmism need not crowd out other explorations of the sacred on the terms set by our post-Auschwitz, scientific world.  The limits of global warmism would lie in the weakness of its “ostensives”:  its rituals would probably be an unwieldy combination of fastidious specificity and uncertain meaning, enshrined in both informal norms and legal codes, involving overbearing social pressures for purposes whose fulfillment must be kept at a steady distance (why must I drive only this kind of car, for 5 and not 6 hours a week, etc.; who decides and how?  Surely salvation can’t be “in” the difference represented by that one hour).  It would generate new resentments accordingly, in often comic forms (as in the currently popular carbon “offsets,” amusingly comparable to the “indulgences” sold by corrupt popes to the rich in the middle ages; indeed, if I understand the complicated mechanism of offsets correctly, Al Gore buys them from himself).  And this weakness, in turn, points to the problem of precisely a universal, completely inclusive religion:  it must be totally bereft of events.  Perhaps this is why the proponents of global warmism seem so desperate to generate and, if necessary, fabricate, events:  an increase in hurricanes?–global warming!  Forest fires?–global warming!  The necessary gradualism of long term natural changes makes the temptation to “compress” these changes into the form of packagable events irresistible:  hence the scenes of polar bears slipping off of melting ice floes, the scare tactic of claiming we will need our scuba gear to visit New York a couple of decades down the road, and so on.  I suppose I am asking whether the “divinization is altogether optional”–at any rate, if our attention to global warming were to be “weighed” along with other threats to our well being on a “scale” based on a genuine calculation of risks and benefits, that is, if the rationalistic mentality were to be applied to our interest in global warming in addition to being channeled through that interest, it would no longer be a religion, which is to say without the “value-added” of faith its efficacy in deferring violence would be nil.

To return to my earlier question, even a community made up solely of generative anthropologists would find themselves in unanticipated conflicts due to their intersecting desires which take on their true meaning only in those intersections; this community would be as obliged as any other to invent/discover that “creative compromise” which would provide for a temporary, fragile, cessation of hostilities; and that compromise would always lean toward some “default” stance that is at least remnisicent of something that has worked in the past (even the very immediate past of slowing down the escalating confrontation enough so as to consider alternatives).  Desire and resentment, in other words, along with their transcendence, involve an irreducible opacity–the more we own what we have done the more we realize that there is something we can’t quite own.  What is interesting to consider here is whether the explicit awareness that this compromise comes from no one other than ourselves, along with the equally significant consciousness that no one of us can claim authorship, that some “spirit,” ultimately inexplicable beyond a certain point, came over us; whether this awareness of our paradoxical condition is conducive or harmful to survival.  At any rate, such explicitness seems to me to point to a very different form of holiness than that of impending disaster–and one upon which we might not want to place all our bets. What would be holy in that case would be a readiness to chance transparency, to take upon oneself the condition of the sign–of being increasingly “legible” in equal measure to oneself and others and thereby of exposing a basic fundament of inscrutability; of representing in one’s person the renewal of the originary scene in miniature by allowing oneself to be the product of others’ imaginaries while minimally distinguishing oneself from all of them; of setting in motion new chains of action whose ends one concedes the ability to anticipate; of finding eternal life and prefiguring it in others in the disappearance of everything that makes one substantial.

Shelby Steele, in an essay on Clarence Thomas’ autobiography in a recent National Review, declares that Thomas is “the freest black man in America… the first black American of his generation to become–openly and irrefutably–an individual.”  This new mode of “carefully evolved individuality,” which I tried to explore a couple of posts back, this “habit of thinking for himself,” is in turn certainly connected with Thomas’ willingness to be “crucified” or “sacrificed without repercussions” (i.e., for those conducting the sacrifice); Steele doesn’t say this, but I think that even Thomas’ continued sense of resentment regarding his treatment by paternalistic elites, his unwillingness to forget even as he transcends that treatment, contributes to his sharply delineated individuality, his determination to owe nothing, either material or ideal, to anybody who would presume to judge him.  If Thomas is, as Steele contends, now an “archetype that will inspire others,” one form of that inspiration involves his refusal to scapegoat others so as to defer the scapegoating directed at him, his apparent ability to reject the mental habit of defending stances that have been attacked with the panicked reflex of either “but that’s what _____ said!” or “but what about you!”–which is to say, a refusal to broaden the target that one has become, instead taking one’s own targeting  as an occasion to invite others to embark upon a retrieval of the origins of our mechanisms of deferral–in Thomas’ case, a highly principled Constitutional “originalism” that makes him a very solitary figure, even among the Court’s conservatives.  Thomas is aware that “originalism,” far from a mind-deadening traditionalist recitation of known and well digested truisms, is the highest form of reflection upon the events outside of our renewed participation in which we cannot even pretend to think.  It seems to me that we generative anthropologists can agree that whosover would be an individual, must be an originalist.

Adam Katz