June 25, 2009

Indicative Culture

Filed under: GA — adam @ 3:04 pm

The Holy Grammar of Presence

Filed under: GA — adam @ 12:09 pm

Eric Gans’ talk at the Ottawa GA conference on June 20 ( articulated the problem of victimary discourse in relation to the originary scene in what, I think, is a new way.  Gans had already re-situated scapegoating (for Rene Girard the founding moment of the human) within the emergence of hierarchical orders, which themselves emerged as the “big man” centralized distribution as kingly priest thereby transcending the unstable and more egalitarian gifting order.  Using the concept of “firstness,” Gans now situates the possibility of hierarchical order on the originary scene itself, well before such firstness could be given any institutional embodiment.  Gans can now speak about two paradoxes of the human:  the paradoxical relation between God and human, wherein we define ourselves as mortal by reproducing the immortal sign; and the “ethical” paradox, in which hierarchies must be affirmed in language which is itself essentially egalitarian–both the slave and slaveowner understand the words by which the former’s dispossession and domination is affirmed.  The advent of victimary discourse in the post-Auschwitz era has, for the first time, subordinated the primary paradox to the secondary one, leading to the widely shared assumption that the elimination of hierarchies between subjects would abolish all conflict, thereby forgetting the need for a mechanism of originary deferral, regardless of the terms of social order.  Gans concludes:

But it is the very excess of victimary thinking in the postmodern era that has provided the impetus for the return to the primacy of the transcendent, understood this time from a minimally anthropological perspective.

This is true as an account of the origins of GA, but it would be a mistake to take this “return” as one likely to be replicated socially.  (Gans doesn’t seem to be suggesting something along these lines in this talk–it is overwhelmingly analytical rather than presciptive.)  The victimary order has installed itself not only by reversing the priority between transcendence and inequality; it did so by “implicating” transcendence in inequality–that is, victimary thought scapegoats representations of transcendence as “alibis” for the continuance of social hierarchies.  Attempts to reverse the hierarchy of human-divine and intra-human relations once again would be instantly “tagged” as calls to return to traditional, hierarchical orders:  even on esthetic grounds, the notion of “elevation” implicit in “transcendence” is too reminiscent of the “heights” oppressors placed themselves upon vis a vis the oppressed. 

The re-prioritization of the human paradox, then, must take on another form.  I would first of all suggest that we can stop speaking of the immortality of the sign–first of all, because it’s not strictly true, as human beings could destroy themselves and leave the universe devoid of signs; second, because it leaves the human as a sort of spectator, gazing at the sign–as Gans insists, the transcendent sign is always in some relation to what has been transcended, but nothing in the notion of transcendence implies the dependence of the transcendent upon those “acquainted” with it.  But the sign is, of course, thus dependent.  And if the fundamental human paradox is to brought back to the center of cultural life it will have to be through an awareness of the way all of us need to contribute to the subsistence of the signs that sustain us.  At the end of the event, with all the participants arrayed at the periphery, the sign and object would appear simply to be there; but, if acknowledgment of “firstness” is the initial step towards rooting hierarchy and its discontents back in the scene, we should also note that firstness simply points to the sceneness of the scene, i.e., to the fact that something happens, which means something happens first, then second, then third, and so on, until the last.  And along the way each “iterates” and “norms” what the others have done–that is, each puts forth the sign in a way that both highlights the distinctiveness of an earlier emission and adds to its “contours” so as to facilitate its further assimilation by the group.

Indeed, what we can call the “transcendent” quality of the sign can equally be referred to as its iterability.  The problem “transcendence” addresses is why the word “dog” is the “same” word when I use it now and when some other English speaker across the world uses it years from now (of course, words change their meanings, but that’s a distraction right now–they aren’t completely changing their meaning at every moment, so the problem I am addressing here remains).  The simplest answer to the question is that signs are iterable because they are iterated.  I would like to distinguish “iteration” from “imitation” here:  you imitate when you follow the rules embodied in another’s activity, but you iterate when you apply the rules another is following to that activity itself.  This distinction can be articulated with the one Richard van Oort ( draws from Michael Tommasello’s study of primates and humans, between “emulative” learning, in which “the disciple focuses not on the model’s particular behavior but on the objects with which the model is interacting” and “imitative” learning where one “enter[s] into the model’s particular intentional stance toward the object.”  The difference between imitation and iteration, then, can be put as follows:  if imitation enters into the model’s particular intentional stance toward the object (what I just called “following the same rules”), then iteration is the next act in a series initiated by the interaction between the intentional stance and the object (applying the rules to the subject’s behavior).  To put it in colloquial terms, imitation plays the man while iteration plays the ball— in activities where we must obey the same set of rules but towards opposite ends, and our roles are therefore distinct as well as reversible, I need to be able to act within the “field” your activity is generating.  To return to the originary scene, the iteration of the sign is the imitation of the central object, which “attends to” the organization of the group as a whole as its collecting intelligence.  By anticipating, facilitating and channeling one another’s moves we simultaneously sustain the game itself; and, since social life is ultimately more open-ended and therefore play-like than game-like, we keep playing by inventing new rules out of the anomalies of the existing ones.  We keep things going, and protect the rules not by exclusion but by improvising tactics for inclusion.

So, in iterating the sign I not only do what you do but I spread what you do–I enter your relation to the object but I also recognize that the object is encompassed by that relation as well.  Here the object is the social relation itself, which is constituted by the thing we let be between us, but also by the infinitely varied ways that thing can mediate our relations.  Your use of the sign requires my use to be complete–if the first gesture had been ignored in the rush to the center, it wouldn’t have been a sign–and so my sign both completes yours and “requests” that another do likewise for me.  The word “first,” indeed, is the superlative form of “for,” in the sense of “before,” ahead of, representative of, holding the place of–the first is the “most for,” the “for-est.” It implies, and only exists as first, if others are coming after, who will be first in a way as well since others will keep coming. 

This sustaining relation towards the sign I would call “presence” rather than “transcendence.”  Presence is the open acknowledgement that the central object is amongst us and we part of it.  Presence was present on the scene, before its “closure,” but it would have been far too risky to make it explicit in a ritualistic order where claims of human contribution to the center would destabilize it, while introducing it would have introduced conflict into a hierarchical order, since the politics of “presence” under such conditions would be insupportably radical (of course it did emerge in the various known and unknown revolts and heresies through the ages).  But now that the hierarchical order has been sufficiently pounded by the victimary barrage, while the awareness that the absolute elimination of all hierarchies can only lead to terror is widespread, ways of turning or renaming hierarchies into or as provisional forms of firstness as the inflection of presence can be freely discussed.  Each of us, in some sense, has been “delegated” to watch over some region of signification at each moment, and in that region we are the guarantors or “spreaders” of meaning.

The shift from transcendence to presence, meanwhile, would further involve shifting sacrality or holiness away from specific objects, even transcendent ones, to language itself.  The “linguistic turn” of 20th century, post-metaphysical thought was inextricably caught up in victimary discourse, perhaps most forcefully in Derrida’s work, where metaphysical hierarchies are transcribed into social ones, so “logo-centricism” easily flows into “phallo-centrism,” “Euro-centrism,” etc.  But this need not be the case–indeed, the understanding of language as constitutive, rather than derivative of something more fundamentally human, true, or permanent, might be the antidote to victimary thinking.  Victimary claims address themselves, perhaps above all to language–the source of “political correctness” is the awareness that language does constitute our shared world, while at the same time the formulation of those claims must, needless to say (or, inevitable to say) take place in that very same language.  Perhaps we have a third paradox here, between the expression of resentment and the donation of that resentment to the circulating center.

Victimary thinkers are scandalized by the implication of language in inequalities while universalists are horrified by the recruitment of language for narrowly partisan ends, so as to define, so to speak, oneself into power–perhaps the deferral of this rivalry (which may, in the end, run very deeply through all aspects of at least Western politics) will lie in the shared attention to those elements of language which evade all conscious control.  In other words, not simply language, but language’s infinite generativity is holy–the very fact that neither the most “hierarchical” terminology (the universal “Man,” for example) nor the most politically engineered jargon (like, say “homophobia”) can escape the generative processes through which terms get treated ironically, descriptions get mixed up with prescriptions, the boundaries between exclamations, imperatives,interrogatives and indicatives are constantly blurred and redrawn, and so on, might provide us with endless resouces for sustaining presence.  Moreover, attempts to exploit language’s infinite generativity would not exhaust it–quite to the contrary, such attempts would further deepen our sense of it–the more we attend to language, the more of it there is to attend to.  Language is separate enough from us to be worshipped, as every utterance becomes other the instant it is “released,” without ever really being separate from us.  The creation of idioms, the problem of translation–these are ever-present realities of profound moral, ethical and political import, and into which all, as users of signs, are capable of inquiring and inscribing their situation within the field.


Powered by WordPress