April 29, 2009

Syntactic entanglements

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:28 pm

My reading of contemporary history places the events of 9/11 as the pivotal event in the postmodern world governed by Auschwitz theology.  9/11 had, broadly speaking, two possible outcomes:  an overturning of Auschwitz theology,  White guilt, and the capitulation to victimary blackmail it compels; or a resurgence and intensification of that theology and guilt, as its adherents fight, as we all do, to preserve what is sacred to them.  I will maintain this reading of history until I see overwhelming evidency of some fallacy disabling it–from that standpoint, it is impossible to deny that the second outcome has, in fact, attained decisive ascendancy over the first one.  Ultimately, the overturning of Auschwitz theology required the dismantling of too much that is sacred, everything tied to the general reading of social reality in victimary terms.  The radical restructuring of our modes of pooling risk required for civilizational survival are simply unthinkable–no political figure would now suggest even something as moderate as Bush’s proposal for partial privatization of Social Security.  And yet the cultic Presidency of Barack Obama can’t solve any problems–if there is a meaningful politics now, it is in holding on to forms of understanding, to narratives, to habits and maxims, that can survive the coming wreck.  My own attempts to think of such a politics, in my essay on “Marginalist Politics,” in some recent posts, and in my posts on the JCRT Live blog, in terms of originary grammar, of the originary entwinement of norm and error and that I find to be embodied in habits, comprises the focus of my own work now.  How could I recommend it to others, though?    I have been recommending the courage of our habits, which is to say idiosyncrasy and eccentricity–where error, innovation and freedom overlap. 


Perhaps a trivial example:  Miss California, Carrie Prejean’s answer to a question about gay marriage at the Miss USA contest:

Well, I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anyone out there, but that’s how I was raised, and that’s how I think it should be between a man and a woman.

For someone who teaches writing, this kind of thing is of the greatest interest (there was a bit of talk about some of Sarah Palin’s syntactical anomalies in impromptu speech during the campaign–I may go back and look through some of that, but I suspect I would find some similar phenomena as I will point out here).  “Well, I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other.  We live in a land where you can choose same sex marriage or opposite marriage.”  Perhaps Americans as a people, governed democratically, can choose one or the other–this would be an axiomatic reference to the terms of self-government.  Maybe it is a reference to state’s rights–the people of each state can choose one or the other.  This would be more accurate in terms of the progress of gay marriage through the political system; but it would also have a different resonance, more sinister for the cultural elite by which Prejean is being questioned and monitored here, but therefore also a more overtly political claim.  Or maybe it is a reference to the choice of each individual American–this would be an inaccurate claim, but, perhaps drawing upon the hopeful naivete granted to the beauty pageant contestant, it would position her more sympathetically.  And the very odd reference to heterosexual marriage as “opposite” marriage would then be either a very canny or completely serendipitous gesture towards the deconstruction of cultural norms she is presumably resisting.  The very grammar here resists being nailed down, keeps tailing off into near incoherence–and yet we kind of know what she is saying.  “And you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman.” If you are going to ask, and we’re just expressing our own personal, non-binding opinions–“And you know what”–in my country (an assertion about American “values”?  the imagining of her own, private, America?), in my family (defending the family as the ultimate source of values, a family values supporter; but, at the same time, an implicit recognition that there are many families, many different kinds of families, from each and every one of which would issue a different set of beliefs, perhaps even a different “country”) “I think that I believe” (this is probably just “stuttering,” a nervousness about finally getting to the point here, making sure that a couple of layers of subjectivity buffer her from her interrogators) “that a marriage should be between a man and a woman” (At this point, is her support for heterosexual marriage as the norm anything more than her assertion of her own intention to marry a man?–and yet it still manages to be “controversial”!).  No offense to anyone out here (precisely her attempts to buffer and defer her expression of her very personal and almost inescapable belief–it’s her family and country, after all–might generate resentment, so the more explicit neutralizing of resentment is perhaps even more necessary) but that’s how I was raised (there are root causes),  and then the positively poetic “but that’s the way I feel it should be between a man and a woman.”  Probably, “that’s how I feel it [i.e., marriage] should be:  between a man and a woman,” but why not take her to be evoking some way of being, some transcendence of these degrading arguments, “between” a man and a woman (what is “between” them, connecting them, separating them?). 

This is an idiosyncratic, even idiomatic “grammar,” produced by the intersecting pressures of the traditional woman in the modernized version of the traditional worship of femininity, beauty and fertility, the hyped, sensationalized, and yet by now strangely antiquated “beauty pageant,” and the virulent, punk, self-ironizing but no less Puritan political correctness by the “celebrity blogger” whose position as a judge is meant as a kind of revenge upon the beauty pageant from within; and/or, perhaps, and attempt to maintain its legitimacy by bringing into accord with the very norms that make the pageant a kind of mini-scandal. 

Perhaps it is in such cultural/syntactical anomalies that the possibilities of resistance and change will emerge–perhap Ms. (Miss?) Prejean here is giving us an exemplary model of deferral by defending the traditional through the singular and ambiguous to the point of resisting hostile analysis, and therefore welcoming a sympathetic one.


  1. As an earlier commenter on an earlier post exclaimed so very gleefully, his hoiliness the pope could not have said it better! And forgive me for repeating!

    My mind is never more ringingly clear and thoroughly ‘re-booted’ than when reading a new posting by AK! This may or may not be tangental, but there is one anomalous feature within which puzzles me – and which relates very directly to what has always seemed to me a majorly sacred tenet of what you have summed up here so niftily and usefully as simply ‘Auschwitz Theology’.. i mean the statement that ‘from each and every family would issue a different set of beliefs’

    This claim that there are really & truly that many beliefs in this world has always gobsmacked me, and, speaking as one who lives with untold tourists, day in day out, i hear it surely offered up to me by individuals with near- ironclad certainty that the very assertion-of-such itself will ensure that these, their alleged beliefs & opinions will never require expression, and most-of-all that they will never be challenged… \

    just so long as they pronounce them ‘unique’ (read ‘sacred’_

    i reckon it was the ‘celebrity philosopher’ himself, Mr McLuhan, who described the tightly-held tenet of unique belief as simply ‘defending the right to ones own ignorance’ and, if i recall right (which i do!) this was in the context of examining the newly communistical aspects globe of what we fondly call ‘capitalism’!

    anyways, perhaps it all turns on the your deployment therein of the ‘would ..issue’ And now i’m off to read the newie at JCRT
    i sincerely hope it is not a waste of your time sir to expand on this a little..

    Comment by lightweed — April 29, 2009 @ 11:21 pm

  2. There are those who assert individuality and then there are those who genuinely stumble upon it. And wouldn’t individuality have to be a result of avoiding challenges–yet without losing your focus on the object (is that the originary source of signs themselves)? Individuality involves remaking the surrounding semiotic material in some way, but it must be real, otherwise it couldn’t be falsely asserted so often. But maybe it’s not so much a question of “beliefs,” which, in the end, are, like “ideas,” a dime a dozen, but of the conveyance of a mode of ostensivity. Perhaps it is those with their own little private Americas who will save the “real” one.

    By the way, I noticed an error in the original post, which I’m afraid to correct because I fear it may erase the comments–the final sentence in the penultimate paragraph should read “an attempt to maintain its legitimacy.” We regret the error.

    Comment by adam — April 30, 2009 @ 5:28 am

  3. As you see, I didn’t have a problem commenting here, lightweed. Maybe you just need to try again?

    Comment by adam — May 2, 2009 @ 5:43 am

  4. okay, here we are again, safe at home in the lovely little box, already scalded by the unmarked before i can even decide on a single mark or keystroke.. but Adam, you really are gonna have to unpack, even defend for goodness sakes, the thought that CP represents the defense of the traditional by way of the ‘singular and ambiguous’ .. i can be S & A until i am blissed in the fist, but the point at which i’d know that my mischief was participating in the D of the T, is, frankly, still quite beyond me.. your comment on reshaping the semiotic material around us of course stands my most response-able whisker on end like a grounded oar; but i still have no idea how to interact with those who deform my intent with every detonation and re-distribution of normative fragments in my frightened midst!

    Comment by lightweed — May 7, 2009 @ 9:53 pm

  5. You are asking how the singular, the idiosyncratic, the eccentric, resonate and reverberate in the world of signs, but that’s the kind of question that can only be answered after the fact or promoted in specific cases and even then the odds are very much against it. Either Gans or someone else within GA has suggested that there might have been many, many, failed “trials” before the originary scene finally “took,” and I believe that–who knows what was different about the successful one? I am likely wrong about Miss Prejean (not that I have been predicting anything, just looking for an exemplary form), and I notice that since the pageant she as transitioned into a rather conventional spokeswoman for the defense of marriage (nothing wrong with that) and has has been countered by the predictable, maniacal, scapegoating onslaught of Leftist propaganda (plenty wrong with that). But all I can say is that I see something linguistically new resulting from her attempts to dodge, under pressure and without preparation, precisely such an onslaught (which she clearly sees she was being set up for): “in my country, in my family, I think I believe…”–I simply like this very much: the “thinking” and “believing,” grammatically speaking, is happening “in” “her” country and family, while the rhetorical parallel between “country” and “family” draws “country” into the personalized sphere of the “family.” I see her creating and preserving “her own” America, in which she can still “think she believes,” and it is her intuition of the totalitarian intentions of her inquisitor that has led her to this formulation, both minimal and iterable. It’s up to others whether they want to find esthetic value in this, or similar expressions.

    Comment by adam — May 8, 2009 @ 7:20 pm

  6. but do you think it is sufficiently – or better perhaps, desirably minimal in our assumption-consumption to say “intuition of the totalitarian intentions of her inquisitor” You could hardly say the same of this very-much enjoyed clip or could you? i think i mean like who is the leader here? You are saying that the combined power of all PC commentators somehow amounts to a verifiable tyranny? And in what way is this found ‘esthetic value’ to be distinguished at all clearly from simple resentment having its usual way? (((I myself btw am of the position that takes great delight in the idea of not automatically knowing where to situate oneself on the world-map, and retaining surprise and wonder at the event of one day doing so, and even attempt to get so drunk that this would well be my grand achiev(e)ment – suddenly i cannot even be sure of correctly spelling the word))) Ever since EG acknowledged in effect that finally it was all about retiring to ones no-place quarters and cultivating ones resentments in private i have had doubts about the crisis ever being alleviated *en situation” .. ever so recklessly & provisionally..L

    Comment by lightweed — May 10, 2009 @ 10:34 pm

  7. Along with (or instead of) her breast enlargement, Carrie Prejean should have had a heart (in some versions, brain) transplant. Get it? If you are against gay marriage, you are a heartless moron, and are “fair game” in every element of your existence. American public opinion is “trending” toward accepting gay marriage–so, anyone against it is so much debris blocking the forward march of history. The point is to get gay marriage declared a fundamental right on grounds of equality; then establish hate speech laws that outlaw questioning the equality of any citizen; and then you can prosecute anyone against gay marriage. This is the rule of the Left, and we are going to get a lot of it–if I can’t call the automaticity with which they all fall into line on such issues a “totalitarian intuition,” what do you propose?

    Comment by adam — May 11, 2009 @ 5:18 am

  8. you mean of course THEIR “totalitarian intention” and HER “intuition” of the TI..

    but lo, is it not an excellent juncture here to state forthrightly the objection to same-sex marriage in such a way that – how can i say -a ‘neutrally-oriented’? (yuk!) one such as i can appreciate it?

    I can honestly say that my passion is simply not unduly aroused by the issue (and this from someone who has actually read great chunks of Schillebeeckx’ locus classicus ‘Marriage: Human Reality & Saving Mystery’ – the institution of course having its origins in enormously elaborate Roman inter-familial rituals & exchanges.. )

    so far as i can see the arguments made by Eric Gans and yourself appear to pivot around the basic objection to an automatically-granted ‘equality’ – ie, merely a group possessing an equally-victimary status – and with what, no proper deference paid to the sacred norm they believe themselves to be the victims of?

    Once this whole situational structure is in place, which it clearly is now, it’s fantastically difficult to think how it might be reversed or even checked, no?

    But once again, by what criteria exactly would a person beloved of GA most straightforwardly express his objection to same-sex marriage?

    Comment by lightweed — May 11, 2009 @ 8:41 pm

  9. Actually, I did mean “their totalitarian intuitions”–they don’t really have a plan, they just know how to identify threats and unify mercilessly against those threats. But, of course, she had an intuition of this as well.

    And part of the point here is that my comments are directed less at gay marriage itself as against the intolerance towards dissent or traditional sentiments on the part of the Left–an intolerance that is intensifying now that they have power. I have no doubt, for example, that if they get the chance, they will illegalize criticism of gay marriage as “hate speech,” as they are already targeting religious institutions (hospitals, adoption agencies, etc.) that wish to act in accord with their consciences regarding homosexuality and abortion. As “global warming” becomes an officially recognized dogma, I expect to see similar developments there. In other words, there is certainly a human side to all these issues, but for the Left they are simply ways of inventing rights and using those rights to invent new powers for the state, all in the name of “progress.”

    Having said that, and certainly speaking only for myself here, modern marriage establishes responsibility for children: they are the responsibility of legally united parents, not extended families/tribes, and not the state. This symmetrical responsibility is a critical part of the free, modern individual, who can operate both on the market and as citizen. Gay marriage will further weaken this structure, most importantly, I think, by legitimizing polygamy and polyamory. Once marriage is about having your desires given ethical recognition by the state, and not preserving the obligation of one generation to the next, on what grounds can you deny this recognition to any grouping, of whatever kind or number? (Even more so if marriage if furthermore about access to entitlements from the state.) This in turn contributes to re-tribalization and refeudalization of society, as responsibility is dispersed and ultimately taken up by larger social institutions. In the end, the solution may be to privatize marriage–take it away from the state altogether–and let different institutions recognize whatever forms they want. In such a free market of marriage forms, we’ll see how traditional man-woman or, as Carrie Prejean calls it, “opposite” marriage does.

    Comment by adam — May 12, 2009 @ 4:14 am

  10. I agree that at the present pass, perhaps the only thing to do is to de-institutionalize marriage, since the institutional blessing it has traditionally received has aroused such a furious level of mimetic resentment. As Girard taught us, anything that’s defined is necessarily limited, and therefore cannot be shared (broadened) boundlessly. This scarcity gives marriage a potent share of metaphysical desire. But, as Adam points out, to extend the definition of marriage is to weaken it, perhaps fatally, better simply to make it disappear altogether. After all, if the civic purpose of marriage is to incentivize a more permanent relationship between adults that will stabilize the lives of their children, it isn’t working, as hardly anyone bothers to get married before having kids anymore. Might as well relegate it to the status of other religious rites and covenants.

    Comment by Matt Schneider — June 2, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

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