GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

January 4, 2008

Political Syntax II: Generative Declaratives

Filed under: GA — adam @ 10:17 am

What I called in my previous post (Political Syntax I) “mythical” declaratives I am now going to call “naive” declaratives; what I called there “legal” declaratives, I am now calling “normative” declaratives.  Here are the slightly revised definitions:  the naive sentence presents as its center a fulfilled imperative; the normative sentence presents as its center a distinction between an imperative violating the sanctity of the center and one affirming the center. (The change from “legal” to “normative,” unlike the one from “mythical” to “naive,” is more than cosmetic, but only slightly so:  the normative sentence, by distinguishing acceptable from unacceptable imperatives, does not yet accomplish but lays the necessary groundwork for the reciprocal convertibility of imperatives and declaratives.)  In either case, order is placed in a whirlpool of “untotalizable” imperatives by placing one name next to another so as to, first, distract attention from the target of the imperative crisis and, second, to produce a object (or entry into the field of semblances) that, in effect, involves the dissolution of the entire imperative arena. 

We can distinguish between the uttered sentence and the intelligible sentence: this distinction would exist for both speaker and listener (the speaker as hearing her own sentence, the listener as repeating it for himself), but it does presuppose that differentiation.    The uttered sentence wants to create distance from the imperative arena, or space between any of the imperatives and their (disastrous) enforcement; the intelligible sentence has embedded within it an imperative directing the listener regarding to the new mode of appropriation indicated by the unfamiliar alignment of familiar terms. The naive sentence orders the listener to repeat it when called upon to do so (when intimations of the imperative crisis appear) and thereby situate the fulfilled imperative as a center or “eddy” within the field of semblances; the normative sentence orders the listener to issue, obey, and testify to the fulfillment of, imperatives that confirm the capacity of the declarative to continue to prompt such obedience to that and “similar” imperatives. 

A statement of fact would present a fulfilled imperative as its center by offering ostensive verification of the reality proposed by said imperative, the imperative which has subordinated (such is the wager of the sentence, its constitutive “fiction”) and transformed the others:  here, the object demanded has been made available.  This ostensive verification is offered by the speaker, who stands in for the ultimate availability (its availability, that is, an an entry point into the field of semblances) of the desired object or an approved equivalent, and must be shared by the listener.  Similarly, in a simple narrative (“he/bear”–i.e., he found the bear) presents such a transcendence–out of the swirl of imperatives (find the bear, kill the bear, run from the bear…) a seamless “accomplishment” or “victory” (or, for that matter, a defeat, which would in its way similarly cancel and hence “fulfill” the imperative) is attributed to an agent. 

Meanwhile, normative sentences would be judgments, whether moral or esthetic:  x/good, x/bad, Godagainst/x, etc.  Another way of judging the object, or of promising it for possession, is thereby implicitly or explicitly indexed negatively:  this speaker, at least, will not assent to those other characterizations.  The rejected imperatives can be left aside in the imperative arena from which the interlocutors have escaped, and, meanwhile, some content has been added to the sacred center.  The normative declarative ensures that the distinction it draws will have to be drawn repeatedly, which means that the imperatives it authorizes will have to return to the declarative which, in an a priori manner, clears the ground of competing imperatives.  Such declaratives might have primarily ritual focus until, in a fully developed legal order, they become the property of each individual, thereby achieving full declarative/imperative convertibility.

The completion of the taxonomy I am proposing requires a third sentence type:  the generative.  The generative sentence emerges out of the distinctions between and within the naive and normative sentences, respectively.  Whether or not we want to call a given sentence naive or normative can only be determined through the utterence of another sentence, which must itself be naive or normative; indeed, such a classification would only be valuable insofar as creating such sentences distinguishing between sentences were itself an intrinsic component of language use.  Furthermore, whether or not a given sentence is naive or normative itself depends upon the articulation of that sentence within a larger discursive and cultural “syntax”–“the dog is brown” might seem like a simple, “naive” statement of fact (and, in our terms, a representation of a fulfilled imperative:  here is the brown–not black–dog you asked for; or a brown dog which is better than the black one you asked for and should have been your demand; or anyway a dog, which is more important than the color, even though I remembered what you asked for, etc.) but not if the dog has been presented for sacrifice within a ritual system in which brown has been designated “unclean” (so, the sentence would be normative insofar as the imperative in question has not been fulfilled, which is to say, ostensively verified as completed, and first of all “certified” as calling for fulfillment). What makes a sentence generative is that it occupies the boundary between naive and normative, where the naive merely presupposes that the normative question is settled and the normative unsettles the naive, and thereby calls for more sentences.

The purpose of the generative sentence is to generative new ostensives; it is intelligible under the condition that one witnesses to the interdependency of naive and normative; more precisely, that one sees, testifies to, the judgment required for the “fact” to be acknowledged and/or the facts that one now sees underlay the judgment.  We might say that naive sentences represent a victory or defeat, allows one imperative, that is, to emerge definitively as the strongest or central one, reducing all others to vassalage.  The normative declarative, meanwhile, seeks to spread victory and defeat around–somebody wins in the court case or in the determination of the qualifications of an object offered for sacrifice, but the structure of the sentence makes it, more often than not, a qualified victory; and, anyway, it is always the “system,” above all, that wins:  the imperative is “certified” to the extent that it confirms a declarative that is, in turn, now even more capable of producing new imperatives.  The generative declarative resides in the intermediate zone both the naive and the normative declarative must forget:  the mutually cancelling imperatives that get linearized in the naive declarative and those imperatives that show up “in between” the declarative and imperative in the normative ones.  I must order myself to follow orders; I must see myself seeing the object; and adherence to the declarative extends to infinity the delay in the implementation of the imperative it would authorize–such are the paradoxes that are a source of energy for the generative declarative and such paradoxical states are what the generative sentence “measures”.  The way out of such double binds is to generate new ostensives, pointing to new possible worlds, or new centers in the field of semblances, in which those ostensives would be embedded.  They accomplish this either by decentering the distinction at the center of a normative sentence by juxtaposing it to a naive sentence upon which it would, hypothetically, depend; or, vice versa, by decentering a naive sentence (finding a wedge between different possible impositions of a factual statement or narrative on the imperative arena) by juxtaposing it with a normative sentence the acceptance of which would have (hypothetically) enabled the ostensive verification of the naive sentence in the first place.  How did you order yourself to acknowledge that fact; where are you repeating what is in fact a judgment as a “given” linchpin of some reality–these are the kinds of questions the generative declarative has us inhabit.

As an example of such a declarative I will present (slightly revised) a thought experiment I have used a couple of times.  At the start of the Israeli incursion into Gaza following the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit I proposed the following:  the Israeli government should offer Israeli citizenship to any Palestinian who offers useful intelligence on the location of Shalit or the identity of those holding him.  The purpose of such a thought experiment or “generative declarative,” is to generate meaning; not to accurately categorize a world of objects or make a moral distinction, but to make visible (ostensively) what would, without the linguistic reality, not only not be visible but not even exist.  In testing how much of a pull the promise of Israeli citizenship would exercise on Palestinians weighing the risks and examining their own consciences and prospects regarding such a radical break with their community, the Israelis would effectively surface and make available for measurment certain crucial faultlines in Palestinian society; in testing whether Israelis (who would also, of course, have to approve of the idea) could offer inclusion to those with nothing to offer but an intrinsically dubious solidarity in a moment of distress, trust their own institutions to make such solidarity genuine and lasting, and, not incidentally, subtley shift the condition of inclusion in the Jewish State, would likewise yield valuable information about the potentialities of Israeli society (and it would even let us see whether the Israeli Left might be willing to adopt a strategy of eliciting dissent on the Palestinian side to match its own dissent, rather than displaying such dissent through the appeasement of internationally approved Palestinian elites).   In more “grammatical” terms, the possibility of competing self-imposed imperatives (in effect, incommensurable realities) is provided to (or forced upon) the Palestinians; while for the Israelis a new, commonly held field of imperatives (defend Palestinian dissidents) might become possible.  As a thought experiment, what is interesting is not only the likely consequences of implementing such a proposal, but disclosing the conditions that make it “discussable” or not–who would say what about it and what would that lead us to say about them?  In other words, we are interested less in a proposal, much less a “programme,” than in creating a little center of political discourse, an “eddy,” if you will, within the swirling pools of semblances.  Very literally:  what kinds of sentences, obeying what syntax, become possible now?  Once we have, in other words, displaced a normative sentence (something like, “the Palestinians should return their captive” or “the Israelis must do everything in their power to rescue him”; or, more broadly, “the Palestinians must negotiate in good faith” or “the Israelis must grant the Palestinians their right to self-determination”) by representing to ourselves some way in which such sentences might be aligned with imperatives and ostensives, or reconciled with each other, many other sentences in which, for example, observations of Palestinian and Israeli behaviors might take on new normative dimensions, and normative judgments lead us to, say, seek out what might be promising exceptions, become possible.

Let’s return to the originary structure of the declarative as the deferral of the impossible imperative and the transcendence of originary nihilism.  Pursuing a grammatical analysis further, our focus would be on the kinds of imperatives that might induce such a crisis along with the ways in which the initial declarative would attract, mimic and deflect them; and what new imperatives, freed from impossibility and nihilism, would the declarative open a space for?  We would, I would suggest, be looking for demands for a particular kind of loyalty or (to speak grammatically) ostensive (to cite Othello, “ocular”) proof that one unhestitatingly complies with imperatives.  In other words, the source of the imperative crisis would be located in the absence of such proof and the irremediability of the crisis in the impossibility of the proof one demands; as I said in the first installment of this series on Political Syntax, the only proof that could now be accepted in the wake of such a crisis is the kind of complete saturation of the imperative space by the subject of the demand that could never be satisfying enough.  The thought experiment, then, iterates the double bind constitutive of the originary declarative, which changes the subject and proposes new, potentially shared, imperatives.

Continuing the analysis of the syntax of the thought experiment, we can see that the topic of the sentence (Israel) is clearly in an asymmetrical relation to the other party (the comment concerns possible action toward that party)–it is, further, the site of impossible imperatives, and perhaps the focal point of the most intense nihilism in the world today.  These conditions would then be central to political syntax, which is not to say that it would be meaningless to ask the Palestinians to change their behavior, simply that the Palestinians have relatively few ways available to them of modifying Israeli behavior, and that in fairly predictable ways–in which case, declaratives placing the Palestinians at the center would simply be less generative.  The asymmetry we noted on the declarative scene, in which the imperatives come to single out some individual, is reproduced here.  We then look for the greatest disproportion between the size of the gesture we are proposing and its potential effects, and we situate that disproportion at what seems to be the site of the greatest crisis.  (Hopefully, it’s needless to say that these are all heuristic criteria, meant to generate many declaratives, not simply the “right” one).  We try to contrive a possible topic/comment reversal (in which the comment points to some action or presently absent capacity of the more dependent party that would be required to make the declarative fully intelligible–some supplemental fact that would make the adoption of the norm attributed to the agent visible and contingent; some norm that would have to be adopted or enhanced so as to effectively “cover” the field of facts) that might be inscribed in the declarative, while realizing that such a reversal depends upon some unilateral act on the part of the more powerful party that establishes a zone of symmetry, which would be the first step toward a possible reversal.  The effect of the thought experiment we are examining is to introduce difference into the more “compact” community while simulating a point of unity in the more powerful, pluralistic one; the reversal, though, would simultaneously indicate a new mode of unity for the former (on liberal terms) and a new difference (a new criteria for citizenship) for the latter.  And so one generates the comments:  one “absorbs” by mimicking the charge that Israeli tramples on the rights of Palestinians while deflecting that charge by framing Israeli’s dereliction as a failure to help individual Palestinians who might wish to express dissent from their own authoritarian regime.  At the same time, the demand of Israelis that the state keep faith with each and every individual who willingly offers up his or her life for it (a demand whose “impossibility” lies in part with the tension with the international demand that Israel respect Palestinian rights but also in other political and military considerations–for example, that one can’t simply let a few kidnappers determine every time you go to war) but in an innovation that communicates both a desire to de-escalate the conflict and a readiness to escalate in the name of innocents on all sides.  In grammatical terms, the field of imperative-declarative convertibilities would be “jostled” and made available for reworking on both sides.

To take another issue, linked in a different way to questions of obedience and disobedience on the tracks leading back and forth between imperatives and declaratives, I have devised a few thought experiments addressing illegal migration to and residence in the United States.  This issue has revealed, in recent years, an enormous gap between elites and popular opinion:  while the elite position, from the right to left, with few exceptions, has been to favor some kind of “path to citizenship” for illegals, opinion polls (confirmed by the enormous resistance in the Summer of 2007 to the proposed “Comprehensive Reform”) show at least 2/3 of the American people want the laws on the books enforced before we do anything else.  There is surely some truth in the analyses suggesting that while the elites (business interests, ethnic lobbies, political parties fighting for Hispanic votes, transnationalists) gain all the benefits from an uninterrupted flow of illegal migrants, everyday citizens bear all the burdens and costs (the drain on services, increased crime, environmental and property damage, especially in border communities, etc.).  Still, there is something more at work in the fact that the actions presumably favored, unequivocally, by a substantial majority of Americans have never even been seriously initiated, much less carried through.  We never see polls asking people, for example, whether they would like to see their neighbors, who have lived alongside them for a decade, have steady jobs, pay taxes (fill in the rest of the details yourself), simply dragged off, along with their American-born children; or whether they would like to see priests in Churches offering sanctuary to illegals arrested for obstruction, federal forces move into cities who are (presumably, at least according to some reasonable construal, illegally) educating and treating medically illegals and their children, with the ensuing conflicts with local law enforcement and political establishment, and many other predictable scenes any of us could call to mind.  In other words, the elites might simply see the unpredictable results of following through seriously on a demand for enforcement, with some of that unpredictability being that those calling most loudly for enforcement now might be most disgusted by what they see when it is actually done. (To be fair to the enforcement-first position, they claim that this is not what they want to happen, nor what would in fact happen–they claim that serious enforcement in the more egregious cases–like criminals –along with a refusal of benefits and stricter control of the border would lead to a situation where illegals start to leave on their on their own, following which attrition we could speak about what do to with those who remain.  To be fair to their critics, though, the actual terms, “enforcement first,” can’t preclude more brutal outcomes.) Here, in other words, is a field rife with impossible imperatives, and as a result there is virtually no common “object” we are all “pointing” to–and, not coincidentally, it is a field where references to the letter of the law are especially unhelpful, at least if one wants to understand what might actually follow from one’s acts, and to hypothesize regarding which imperatives will find translation into declaratives and which will fail to do so, thereby initiating the formation of new imperatives more in conformity with perceived normative declaratives and transforming the entire field.

But for those of us who see the contemporary global political scene as one organized in terms of a conflict between adherents of “international law” on the one hand and those devoted to a republican, constitutionalist nation-state and a world order increasingly friendly to that regime, on the other, the offense to sovereignty in uninterrupted illegal migration cannot be ignored.  International law is very rich in declaratives (the great pantheon of human rights documents) and ostensives (“look at that!”; “look at that!”–everything, rightly viewed, yields some kind of outrage), while being decidedly poor in operational imperatives (no one is actually authorized to suppress violations of international human rights laws–unless it be precisely those more powerful nation-states that body of law hopes to subvert) and can only acquire them by grafting itself parasitically onto the legal systems of the nation-states (the EU project might constitute a slight exception, but I doubt it, and anyway that would be a digression here) through, say, a new “right” for migrants.  So, one thing worth remembering about a situation made up of impossible demands is that it may be equally impossible to withdraw the demands–one has to think and act some way out of the situation, one can’t simply erase it. 

So, here are the thought experiments which, for me, address this originarily nihilistic condition:

1)  Give citizenship to all illegals who offer evidence that would help shut down the “coyote” migrant smuggling networks.

2)  Give citizenship to all illegals who can find (what are determined to be) reliable American sponsers, who will testify convincingly to their good character and offer some kind of “bond” for their good behavior.

3)  And, more “comprehensively”:  allow anyone (minus declared enemies of the U.S., criminals, and health risks) to enter the U.S. on, say, a two year visa, allowing them to work and study.  The visa will be renewable at incrementally lengthened intervals, on the condition that the visa holder prove he/she is employed (or studying at an approved academic institution), crime free, and not associated with radical politics; otherwise, the individual is instantly deported and remains ineligible to apply for a visa for, say, ten years. 

The first of these thought experiments is clearly modelled on my Israeli-Palestinian thought experiment;  the burden of a shift in policy places the asymmetrically stronger party at the center; while the syntax calls for the establishment of a zone of symmetry and possible reversal (a new center, in which America would honor and unconditionally include the Other) based on reciprocity.  The second shares some similarities with this structure as well, extending the logic or syntax to a wider field.  At the same time, a rather different syntax is in play here, because the parties involved are not only “Americans” and “foreigners” but the American disputants themselves:  we could read this declarative as placing at the center those Americans demanding enforcement (as the asymmetrically stronger party), willing to accede to the demands of those calling for amnesty for illegals, but on the condition that pro-amnesty Americans put their money where their mouth is by “vouching” for one or more of those whose continued presence they insist upon.  (For those who would argue that there is a sense in which the pro-amnesty elites are in fact stronger, I would answer that the thought experiment implicitly rights that imbalance as well, by envisaging a plausible scenario in which defense of the rule of law would in fact regain its deserved pre-eminence; a scenario that requires wider divisions within the elites).  At the same time, of course, the possible process of reciprocity between Americans and migrants described in the first thought experiment kicks in as well.  And who knows how many “enforcement first” conservatives will jump at the chance to combine charity to individuals with a restoration of the rule of law?

We find a similar syntax in the third one at yet a higher level of generality.  We just keep shifting the time frame and the proposed dramatis personae.  The boundary established here is between the American regime, as a whole, and the world as, essentially, a repository of potential immigrants; the assumption is that our present quandary derives from the failure, so far, to frame the issue this way on a policy level (while, ideologically, it has been framed this way for many for quite a while).  Instead of demanding individual, sharply defined, acts of reciprocity from individuals, as is appropriate in a crisis, a more general, leisurely arrived at policy hopes to avoid such crises in the first place by building the logic of reciprocity into the system.  The center, again, is asymmetrically positioned in relation to those who call for the comment or predication, and so the declarative characteristically seeks to formulate an act of openness and generosity on that side along with specifically delineated, verifiable, conditions fulfilled on an individual level on the other side.  The impossible imperative (everyone demands their right to come to America and, once here, to stay; and, even more broadly, everyone demands a “piece” of America–one sees complaints, quite often and taken quite seriously, that is is unjust that American elections are so consequential across the global and yet only Americans are allowed to vote in them) is mimicked with the qualification, it’s now up to each and everyone of you to see if you can make it on our terms, that is, the terms that made you want a “piece” of us in the first place.

The political syntax of metaphysical liberalism substantializes “human” and “equal” in terms that enables the latter to predicate the former (like the possession of the “property” of “reason”):  such a syntax leads either to the cynicism that results from finding no ostensives that can verify the description, or the radicalism of demanding an overhaul of the world so that one does.  The political syntax of originary liberalism iterates the establishment of islands of equality out of a sea of differences and presents those islands as models.  The thought experiments I have presented have “firstness” built into them–they all require that someone go first in order to activate the sequence.  This, too, is intrinsic to the political syntax I am presenting, because firstness is the preliminary experience of catastrophic asymmetry, while that experience, and its paradoxical asymmetrical placement of the one undergoing it relative to others, is also the first move toward its rectification.  The originary declarative takes us from an intensifying focal point, a center of convergence, and iterates the movement on the originary scene through which the central object is transformed into a repellant force as a result of the emission of the sign; the innovation of the sentence is the simultaneity of representation and enactment, in which the sign itself becomes the (re)center(ing) that it represents.  If the naive and normative declaratives seek to mimic the originary scene itself from the outside (presupposing–narrating and affirming–its completion, the former in possession, projected or real, of the object, the latter in the derivation of a reliable rule from it) the generative declarative undertakes the riskier project of entering the scene in its contingency.

The enactment and representation of this movement “otherwise” (than the reality proposed by the impossible imperative) then provides us with the grammar of an originary modern politics.  Everyone is going first (even those who deny it), enacting (even by rejecting) the freedom to represent the movement from one center to another, that other being the one you are presently occupying as a”comment” upon some central “topic” and an emergent “topic” to be “commented” upon.  The political question is how to make that new center transportable and enduring, and the only way to do that is to induce others to iterate one’s own gesture (to, paradoxically, imitate you in their own firstness) and establish “precedents.”  Such a politics aims at producing a particular kind of declarative in the observer, an expanded form of the “judgment” I presented in my previous post as the exemplary declarative.  The kind of declarative we would like to inspire, to inhabit, so to speak, is one which minimizes our action, both in the sense of marginalizing it against the background of a much vaster field of semblances and in the sense of reducing it to its “materiality,” whatever makes it distinct, irreplaceable and iterable–in this way, the judging declarative participates in the repairing of asymmetries intiated by my acting on “principle” (on/as a generative declarative).

Adam Katz

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