GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

December 25, 2007

Political Syntax I: Mythical and Legal Declaratives

Filed under: GA — adam @ 11:19 am

The most exemplary declarative probably issues from the ideal court when it simply declares what the law is:  “statute x violates the First Amendment”; “y has no standing to speak here”; “fact z is legally irrelevant”; etc.  Such sentences sustain a world comprised solely of utterances governed by rules of internal coherence; they are situated at the crossroads of demands that can only made commensurable within the legal system; and they correspond to the generative character of social reality (drawing upon precedents and leading to appeals, translating external conflicts into ones internal to the system).  The judge as umpire or arbiter ensures the “proper” alignment of deferred imperatives and imperative-ostensive articulations that goes into making a declarative order:  facts are only allowed into evidence if a “chain” of custody can be established ostensively at each point along the way, the reliability of testimony is rigorously allowed for, in part through the exclusion of testimony which is intrinsically below a certain threshold of reliability (“hearsay”), those facts must touch directly upon some violation which has been alleged, etc., etc.

The law itself is somewhat less exemplary as a declarative, insofar as any law verges on the imperative; nor, however, is the law a body of commands.  Whether we are speaking of general, constitutional laws, such as “The power of the executive will be vested in the President” or “homocide will be punished by…” or “a Department of Health Services is hereby established pursuant to” some previous statute requiring such a department for its activation, what laws do is authorize someone to issue imperatives within a restricted sphere of activity.  But wherein, exactly, does this “authorizing” lie?  The law doesn’t create the world of imperatives, even if it adds to it, prodigiously–it takes a prior world of imperative-ostensive articulations as given.  The law, as an independent reality, must emerge as a transcendence of some crisis in that world of articulations, a crisis in which the demand that others recognize the same ostensives as oneself becomes impossible.  The separation of the imperative and the judgment of its provenance and legitimacy is the result–this separation is “law.”

In my previous posts on “originary grammar,” I have posited a crisis of the imperative which I have called “originary nihilism”:  due to incompatability between imperatives and/or between imperatives which cannot be rescinded and a reality which cannot be adjusted to satisfy them, the interlocutors lose the common object which makes the completion of the imperative possible in the first place–the crisis gets to the point, in other words, where the crisis is intensifying while knowledge of what would count as its resolution recedes.  Now, I would like to add to this analysis the assumption that what the impossible imperative ultimately demands is the “total” presence of the one to whom the imperative is issued:  the more the imperative goes unfulfilled, the more the “will” and “good faith” of the one expected to carry it out becomes the issue, and the more the crisis-ridden demand swerves into one that the subject of the demand “saturate” the linguistic space with “proof” of his bona fides; but it is precisely such “proof” that is always impossible to provide in a satisfactory manner.

This analysis would link, loosely (as part of a long term process of consolidation), the emergence of the declarative with the emergence of the big man in the post-egalitarian community.  The declarative event, that is, preserves the memory of the imperative crisis which itself provided the first indication that a crisis of the community tended to single out some member as origin of that crisis.  Further, it seems reasonable to assume that the emission of the first declarative would not have been by the focus of the crisis, who would be too busy trying desperately to fulfill the impossible demand and would himself be “saturated” with the expectations flowing his way; rather, it would be some relatively unassociated member of the community who would place the term for the demanded object (or some object singled out among the swirling demands) next to a term for some other familiar element of the community’s common reality and redirect the group’s attention to the possible reality evoked by that articulation. If, as Eric Gans contends in his “Originary Narrative,” “narrative is the declarative reading of the originary sign,” the declarative is simultaneously the translation of the originary scene into a narrative, the movement from one center qua site of crisis to another center qua site of transcendence.  And this translation is necessarily a “misreading,” or at least a “mythical” reading, insofar as the declarative must locate the source of transcendence in the seamless continuity between the “struggles” of the subject of the impossible imperative and the ostensive verification by the group that the center has been restored as a result of those “struggles,” even if the “verification” can only be in the formation of the declarative “distraction” itself.  To put it otherwise, the fully originary declarative must align within a single vector all the criss-crossing imperatives:  one imperative must be represented as a response to another leading to some concluding fulfillment of an inner or outer demand.  At any rate, the division between storyteller and actor, king and shaman/priest, etc., is already implicit in the originary declarative, which is why I associate the emergence of the declarative with the emergence of the minimal conditions for the big man, which, again, need be nothing more than a recognition that crises tend to establish a “force field” in which attention gravitates toward a specific “responsible” member.

Such “mythical” declaratives constitute narratively an existing but incoherent (from m the new position required by the emission of the declarative) field of imperative-ostensive articulations, primarily by assimilating new articulations into that field.  What the law does is destroy the a priori ordering of imperatives that the declarative would initially help to establish and consolidate, so that “judgment” takes over at least some portion of the function of myth.  In transcending originary nihilism, the declarative is also modelling the intelligence of the center by enabling a mode of centering within what I would like to call the “field of semblances” opened up by the sign:  by “semblance,” I mean any thing that is simultaneously sign and object, something that can be localized, possessed and controlled, while at the same time it (in our very desire to localize, possess and control it) directs out attention elsewhere.  All objects and signs are semblances, but in varying, even widely varying proportions–all objects, that is, except the originary one which, as the source of all signs, always itself resides at least a little beyond signification.  At the same time, there is a certain “signness” that resides slightly beyond objecthood,” in our very freedom to issue new signs.  Any thing we might actually confront or point to in the world, though, is a semblance within the field of semblances, with absolute object and absolute sign serving as guarantees of some minimal coherence of the field.

The field of semblances requires, as I suggested, various centerings, nodal points (what Lacan called “points du caption”) that provide patterns and regularities within the field.  The declarative enables us to produce such centerings by registering the impossible demand, which could emerge at any point and, at least as important, could always be anticipated as a result of some shift in the field of imperative-ostensive articulations, and ordering such demands within a new, projected, reality.  Any sentence, any string of sentences, is modelling a new way of assembling semblances.  The declarative both imitates the chaos of demands it simulates an extrication from and models an appropriate scene upon which such demands would be neutralized because upon that scene the demands would be irrelevant, replaced by new, more manageable and interesting ones.  In such imitation and modeling lies, respectively, the “style” and “content” of the sentence.

So, laws don’t “tell” individuals not to do x or y–the law against murder does not command me, personally, not to commit murder; the laws of taxation do not command me to pay my taxes.  The law authorizes the chain of imperatives that would ultimately lead to my incarceration for murder or tax evasion.  But, again, “authorize” can’t simply mean to conjure up out of thin air–there have always been, since there have been imperatives, individuals whose suppression of certain activities at certain times and places would not be interfered with, and would in fact receive the necessary assistance.  What the law does is separate those authorized functions from specific “imperators,” i.e., those at the highest end of a chain of imperatives.  If the originary declarative establishes the conditions for the big man by interrupting and ordering the colliding imperatives directed at some proto-big man (or, rather some image, even a “negative” one, of a possible big man); which is to say, if the declarative emerges by speaking of the big man, or speaking the possibility of the big man into being (the declarative formally announces the possibility of a concentration of imperatives–and the line between being the target of the concentrated force of ordered imperatives and being the author of that force is an extremely thin one–precisely by deferring the consequences of the chaos of impossible imperatives)–the declarative order, by contrast, effects a transformation from the symbiosis of “imperator” and “declaimer” in the “mythical” declarative to the convertibility of the two positions into each other.

What this convertibility really entails is something as simple, but in a sense as astonishing, as some imperators being willing to act against others without thereby arrogating the entire imperative field for themselves.  (By “act against” [or, really, just to “act”] I mean produce a new ostensive sign available to emitter and audience that will “seal” or provide the “content” of a new declarative affirming that that new ostensive can be accommodated within the possible field of semblances opened up by a prior declarative–a prior declarative which in its turn requires these succeeding ones to provide its own, ostensive, content.)  How important this is is indicated by how difficult it must have been, what a tremendous event it must have required–even now, think of how difficult it is in the most liberal, law governed countries, to get the police or military to police their own.  And I don’t mean to refer merely to some “primitive” solidarity on the part of those (in David Grossman’s terms, the “sheepdogs”) entrusted to protect us (the “sheep”) from the “wolves.”  Rather, the “sheepdogs” are simply aware as the rest of us, ever tempted to confuse the protective growling of the sheepdog for the genuinely dangerous snarl of the wolf, are not, that a far higher threshold for initiating suspicion is absolutely necessary for the sheepdogs since a far higher degree of trust is required for such institutions to function.

The law, then, is precisely this point of convertibility between imperatives and declaratives.  A lawful imperative is one that can be “translated” into a declarative:  “bring that here” is, in other words, only lawful insofar as the linguistic and institutional conditions exist for translating it into something like “for commonly agreed upon purposes it its necessary that that object be moved from its present location to the one I am indicating; and, according to commonly accepted procedures, you are the one with the responsibility to effect that movement.”  While we couldn’t really speak of “lawful declaratives,” we could speak of responsible declaratives within a law governed field of semblances, and such declaratives would be those providing for the possibility of a subsequent declarative assimilating the imperative-ostensive content of the sentence in question:  “ultimate” responsibility would be determined by those (declaratively established) centers within the field of semblances where the imperative-ostensive articulations circulate.

Such “conversions” would always be problematic, and here is where politics would enter.  Leaving aside for now the political founding event that would have been required to bring a regime of laws into existence in the first place, we could say that within such a regime politics would be situated in between the ongoing processes of imperatives-converting-into-declaratives and declaratives-converting into imperative/ostensives. At any point along the way one could sever some link required for full convertibility.  A young man spray painting graffitti on the side of a school is seen by a policeman on patrol–does the policeman pursue relentlessly, using deadly force if necessary against the fleeing perpetrator; does he shrug, or perhaps smile, and let the boy run off; does he apprehend the boy, perhaps a little roughly, and get called up on abuse charges, while the graffitti is celebrated for its authenticity and cutting edge social commentary and its creator given a scholarship to art school from donations by citizens appalled at his treatment?  Any of these scenes, and many more in between, is compatible with the formal prohibition on defacing public property, and whichever is played out will provide us with far more information regarding the quality of the regime than the mere fact of that prohibition.  The lines of force go both ways here:  the declarative stating that vandalism is a wrong against the public gets rerouted along the way to the implementation of the imperative it authorizes; while the imperator must, in a split second, consider whether the imperative he is charged with enforcing can, under these conditions, undergo conversion to a declarative acceptable to himself and his future judges:  can he “justify” the risks of injury to himself, the perpetrator, and bystanders in a pusuit carried out to some degree of relentlessness; will any imaginable enforcement of his charge likely be translated into a widely shared declarative on the order of “this policeman is hereby deemed to have abused his position through the exercise of excessive force”?  And this even leaves aside the far from negligible fact that the policeman also has to “live with himself,” which is to say, carry out the translation from imperative to declarative and back again on his own private, perhaps idiosyncratic, moral terms.

So, we are engaging politically when we produce declaratives that generate regions in the field of lawful semblances that might interfere with declarative-imperative-declarative convertibilities.  Legal declaratives (general prohibitions and licenses, whether formalized by law or not) create a space in which the carrying out of imperatives is supplemented by third party ostensive verification; political declaratives propose imperative fields that serve primarily to generate new ostensives, which is to say, show us something new regarding the imperatives people are ready and able to fulfill, refuse and resist (with refusal and resistance being nothing more than the issuance to oneself of an unauthorized imperative, but one more fully convertible–within the field of semblances centered in oneself, at any rate–with legal declaratives). 

Adam Katz

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