GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

January 16, 2008

Political Syntax (III) and Originary Thinking

Filed under: GA — adam @ 10:30 am

We will only have moved beyond metphysics once we have inculcated ways of describing thinking as a series of moves with and within language and, more broadly, semiosis.  Anything is meaningful to the extent that it is a sign, that is, iterable as an operation on the field of semblances.  We can account for the origin of metaphysics in social and historical terms as a partial transcendence of tribal and ritually determined identities under the conditions of the market, the spread of writing, etc., first of all in the Greek polis; but from another standpoint the strength of metaphysics results from its ability to describe the invisible operations of mind better than its contenders.  For metaphysics, the realm of the invisible we occupy when thinking is populated by permanent ideas (what we seek, what attracts and holds us as we question our daily judgments of what is good, just, beautiful or true); it makes sense to focus upon and even adore those permanent ideas which appear (and, as signs, are) immune to the changes of material things; and, having come this far, it is logical to view any difference between these “Ideas” and the reality we see daily as the result of a kind of deterioration, or obscuring of the real vision we obtain while concentrated on the adored object/sign.  This set of assumptions provides a powerful way of describing thinking as the process of striving for an ever clearer view of these Ideas by constantly brushing aside the various contingencies of history, daily life, traditions, passions, etc., that clutter the space upon which the Ideas appear.  The declarative would, from this perspective, appear to be the primary linguistic form insofar as meaning is produced by making one Idea permanent by devoting oneself to progessively associating it with ever less inadequate predicates.

Iterating the sign as operating on the field of semblances provides a way of talking about the invisible motions of mind in ways that acknowledge the “eternity” of the sign along with the reliance of the sign upon our collaborative sustaining of it.  The sign becomes sign through iteration; and yet it must have already been sign if it was to be iterated.  This paradox leads one to posit a kind of internal, constitutive iteration, represented on the originary scene by the return of the sign to the first “signifier” so that he simultaneously acknowledges and forgets what he first put forth.  The field of semblances is where signs index objects and are indexed by them in turn, thereby both “measuring” and “mapping” themselves as both points and projections of possibilities within the field characterized by fluctuating proportions of “signness” and “objectness”; signs, then, represent lines of force and constellations within the field. 

The reciprocal conversions, incorporations and articulations of ostensive, imperative and declarative provide us with ways of representing while enacting these processes within the mind, where we order ourselves to look at something, where “ideas” appear suddenly and unbidden, where we wrestle with the question of which out of a range of imperatives to ourselves would best comport with a declarative to which we feel we can only think in loyalty to, where the inadequacy of such a declarative forces us into the chaos of examining the consequences of that set of demands to which it has proven inadequate, and so on–indeed, such processes ultimately lead to a new declarative which, if we increase our own self-transparency, we must admit appears to us from God knows where at least as much as we produce it ourselves.

Once again, what, exactly, would be required so that a new, unfamiliar articulation of familiar terms would defer the impossible imperative that creates the crisis of originary nihilism?  I began by thinking that “God” must replace the object of the impossible imperative because only a word that already carried along with it repellant force could do the job in a memorable way (“God is presencing otherwise than as___”).  Then, I considered that, at the very least for the purpose of deferring conflict over that admittedly counter-intuitive suggestion and for the sake of staging the analysis of actual sentences along with other inquirers (both within and outside of GA), it was necessary to set aside such specific speculations and focus on the kinds of articulations that would represent an absent object, regardless of what the first declarative or proto-declarative might have been.  So it is necessary, at any rate, to theorize under the assumption that the basic “spear/hut” type of conjunction might very well serve us as the originary declarative form:  even in that case, we would have to account for the fact that someone, somewhere on the scene is saying it, and that built into the declarative in this case as well is the speaker implicitly leaving himself open to ostensive verification by virtue of the utterance.  I am also considering whether the orginary declarative might stay much closer to the repetition of the negative ostensive, but changing the “tone” and, at some point the words (in as minimal a way as possible) so as to represent and thereby defer the intensification of some demand–models in fully developed language would be those circular, “meaningless” formulations we resort to when we are acknowleding both the demand and our inability to address it:  “first things first”; “that’s just the way it is”; “it’ll be ready when it’s ready,” and so on.  So, if, on the “declarative scene” the demand, in its “impossibility,” has degenerated to a simple calling on the person or the end point of the demand (“you! you!” or “here! here!”) we might imagine a minimal conversion of that repeated term so as to distance it from the violent outcome it is, so to speak, backing itself into:  “him! him!” or “there! there!” would have a certain intelligibility and the necessary distractive force. Finally, we might imagine a doubled imperative as the originary declarative form–either a synthesis of two of the circulating imperatives bound up in the crisis (“there [where the object is now]”/”here [where I am pointing that it needs to be]”) placed in a sequence (leading to the “naive” declarative) or an added, supplementary imperative [“him [the one you are all pointing to]”/”[should be allowed to go] there”).

It may very well be that we don’t need a punctual origin for the declarative–we need one for the originary sign because we can’t imagine what a “part” or “piece” of a sign would be, so the whole thing must emerge at once, but we can very easily imagine “pieces” or “fragments” of the declarative doing some work on their own, coming regularly to suspend the rush to violence instigated by the impossible imperative, with that iteration ultimately allowing for the introduction of some “content,” or an imperative-ostensive articulation.  We might even go further and argue that the exploration of these various possible originary declaratives (and, certainly, others I haven’t considered yet) might in itself be generative–that is, perhaps for heuristic and “disciplinary” purposes it is useful to leave the question open. At any rate, I can leave it open and stick with my contention that the relation between “topic” and “comment” must mimic, measure and transcend a dangerous asymmetry in the distribution of attention brought on by a crisis of the imperative; and that this transcendence must involve a recentering of the “object” of that crisis, a recentering that is both enacted and represented in the sentence.  That contention gives us enough to work with to see, first of all, if it provides us with a powerful tool for the analysis of discourse.  I would also contend, then, that the best sentences to study for this purpose are those that rely as completely as possible on their own “materiality,” their distinction, self-referentiality and openness for the attention they are able to draw–as opposed to sentences that work because they are similar enough to other sentences that have worked, and hence simply set in motion a set of habits (ways of articulating imperatives and ostensives), making such sentences very close to rituals.

Similarly, if politics involves the activation of new lines of imperative-declarative convertibility other than those secured by current “legal” discourse, politics is going to be most anthropologically revealing when the law recedes from those areas it has been “covering.”  If you shelter illegal aliens, you dare the FBI to arrest you and shut down your Church or shelter; if the FBI takes you up on your dare, they are daring you and those associated with you to resist and come to your defense and force a “scene”; if the rest of the community does so, you are daring the Feds to round up the lot of you, and at each point along the way each side is daring wider circles of the society to step in or step back.  The “law” has become irrelevant here somewhere along the way–in fact, we are at the point where it would be difficult to resolve the situation without quite a few laws (against unlawful arrest and searches, excessive force, to give a couple of examples) getting bent and broken. 

My account of political syntax reverses the trend in democratic politics toward the victimary, in which policy intitatives start at the margin and end with those at the center competing among themselves to appease more successfully.  I am arguing that a genuine politics starts at the center.  Those forms of politics that have added something substantive to our stock of political concepts and practices throughout the 20th century, civil disobedience and the “dissident” of the totalitarian world, both started at the margin by presenting themselves to the “gaze” and relying upon the generosity of those at the center.  Such politics sought to “scramble” the various declarative-imperative pathways by acting as a wedge between the moral and the legal.  In looking at the civil disobedient or the dissident (it is certainly significant that in common usage we almost always use “dissident” and almost never “civil disobedient”) one is forced to determine which imperatives can undergo a translation into some shared declarative form and which cannot.  But it seems that the “heroic” era of civil disobedience ended with the abolition of legalized racial segregation, and that of the dissident with the fall of Communism (although perhaps a revival of both is possible in the Muslim world and even against the rise of encroachments upon freedoms by the new global human rights regime) with the power of the victim being transferred to terrorism and its completely instrumental interest in the center.

But the readiness to disobey “legal” declaratives–in the broader sense I have been giving it, of stabilizations of declarative-imperative convertibilities, not just the law–might also be incorporated into politics in a systemic way consonant with the advanced market order so as to further undermine the remaining distinctions between “marked” and “unmarked” constitutive of White Guilt; and, beyond that, to establish a new regime to replace the decrepit post-World War II welfare state.  I have spoken in previous posts of boycotts as such a politics, insofar as it involves a suspension of normal transactions in the name of revising the terms of such transactions (and very rarely for the purpose of destroying them)–furthermore, calling for a boycott will provide you very quickly with very reliable information about where everyone really stands on your “issue.”  (We should not be put off by the currently more popular, and execrable, boycotts of the Left–most notably against Israel–the simplest way to counter that would be to boycott everyone who boycotts Israel.  I’m willing to see who gives up first.)  To take just one other example, privately organized foreign policy missions, which run against the grain of official policy without overtly opposing or undermining it (and thereby “comment” on it) would also fit this model (say, the private attempt to establish Christian schools in Muslim countries “allied” with the U.S.).  Such a politics would gently and gradually, but firmly and inexorably, erode a certain “establishmentarianism” in American politics involving the construction of a whole range of boundaries and maxims regarding the limits on partisan policy differences, the relations between religion, politics and society, the role of political parties, the function of the media, government’s role as guarantor of private risks, even the relationship between the three branches of government (the sacrality of Supreme Court decisions, for example) and so on–an establishmentarianism that has outlived its usefulness and has anyway been almost completely taken over by the Left.  At the same time, I of course realize that such an unsettling would affect things that I, as well, might wish to remain remain settled.

Declarative-imperative convertibility is a semiotic way of talking about “conscience,” and it is essential to human freedom that we don’t force anyone’s conscience out into the open where it is examined publicly beyond what any individual can be expected to bear; or attempt to operate directly on the conscience of any individual.  What we can do for each other is point to “blockages” in certain well-trodden pathways between the two linguistic forms and open up some new paths through examples; we can also establish “observation posts” whereby people might examine their own consciences in unwonted ways.  This is the role of generative declaratives, “principles” in the literal sense of what must come first, starting right now in the middle.

Once we cease treating our declaratives as saturated scenes in which all the necessary objects are made present, in which the map is conflated with the territory and we “logocentrically” presuppose that communicability of is equivalent to acquiesence in, our judgments, we resort to our resentments as a starting point and donate them to the center once they no longer adequately measure the actions of others.  And how would we know that they no longer measure if not as soon as we become conscious of ourselves as entangled with a chain of consequences which must ultimately be incommensurable with the resentments that initiated (and are now provoked by) them?  This awareness–or self-appearance, seeing oneself in the middle of incommensurable resentments–is also the starting point of the sentence as the transcendence of the infinite regress of resentment.  The forward motion of the sentence enacts a scene (the unfolding of the sentence itself) commenting on another scene (the transformation in the field of semblances in accord with a new centering) and this doubled scene is registered from within a third scene (this one, where we note the distinction and simultaneity of the two scenes and hence the entrance–noted by yet another sentence–of the sentence into the modified field of semblances).  Thinking is composed of such scenes, in which we order ourselves to look for some semblance whose existence along with the section of the field it holds together seems to be in peril until you see yourself emerging holding that nodal point at which point the you holding it is no longer the you seeing it and we are left with a sentence which instructs us to place another sentence within a scene of common origin.

Metaphysical sentences synthesize, in a seamless way, naive and normative sentences; they accomplish this by producing naive accounts of the emergence of the normative.  For metaphysics, the invisible Ideas are available ostensively like any other object, and one successfully accesses them through a quest which can be reproduced in narrative.  The formal coherence of the legal declarative (of declarative-imperative convertibilities), bounded as it is by the finite field of ostensives, can therefore be made visible and universally available through the proper intellectual, ethical and political pedagogy:  through, that is, an essentially mythical series of intiations and conquests. 

Insofar as the generative sentence emerges out of the distinctions within and constitutive of the naive and normative sentence, respectively, and out of the process of drawing the distinction between them; and, insofar as drawing such complex and always qualified distinctions depends upon a larger discursive and cultural “syntax” (with reversals and redistributions of topic and comment, margin and center) we could say that the very distinction between naive and normative sentences is first of all carved out of the broader generativity of the sentence as such.  Indeed, it is precisely the most naive sentences that can be the most generative given only the slightest shifts in context, those shifts which serve to remind us of everything that needs to be in place for sentences, or signs, to work.

The distribution and overlapping of naive, normative and generative declaratives enable us to account for how declaratives get bundled and thereby protect themselves from the imminence of the imperative crisis which gave birth to them.  Such bundling means that the crisis is generalized or indemnified; each kind of declarative can be applied to the sort of crisis specific to it, while also being called in to assist some other declarative type–for example, heroic, mythical declaratives being called in to reorganize some field of legal ones.  But there will be a general form to the crises leading to such patchwork:  they will be initiated by a series of demands that cannot be met, both singly, each on their own terms, and collectively, as they collide with each other; the crisis will always take on the form of scapegoating, which involves identifying the beginning of the crisis with a figure who can be pointed out.  What the sentence teaches us is that mimetic crises (like evil) have no origin and no history–all true beginnings are in the steps, however preliminary, toward the transcendence of the crisis through a willingness to stand where the scapegoat is about to be placed.  That is where an intelligible sentence, whether naive, normative, or generative stands; while the naive and normative declaratives can be overtaken by such a crisis this cannot happen with the generative; by the same token, the generative cannot establish anything or hold anything together because it suspends naive undergirding of the normative and the hidden normativity of the naive claim, and a stable reality cannot remian thus suspended.  The generative generates new demands internal to the sentence itself, prolonging its composition, making another sentence, decomposable into naive and normative forms, necessary to complete the previous one. 

Charles Sanders Peirce spoke of a necessary “vagueness” attendant upon any sign, which is to say some point, due either to minuteness of application or expansion of range, at which the range of possible interpretations of a sign cannot be reduced further; at such points, any use of the sign becomes, in a effect, a new sign.  If I ask you to determine what, in this sentence, cannot be reduced to naive or normative form, no single answer will emerge, but, if you take on the request in good faith, you will notice something in the sentence that exceeds the naive and normative, you will name that something, and in construing the sentence in those terms, you will composing a new one, with its own vagueness. This vagueness is the generative component of the originary declarative, that which makes it irreducible to any particular ostensive, imperative, or ostensive-imperative articulation–what makes any sentence capable, that is, of generating more sentences, making a conclusive meta-language impossible while making conversations regarding “reasonable” interpretations possible and meaningful.  If I announce now that this post is over, I make a simple statement of fact that simultaneously represents a hope that it’s not “really” over, a hope containing the normative statement that you, the reader, should not let it be forgotten or misunderstood; and, already, a statement of fact that is no longer true because, as I continue to write and reflect upon that statement, the post continues.  But now it is really over.

Adam Katz

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