The Holy Grammar of Presence

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.


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8 thoughts on “The Holy Grammar of Presence

  1. lightweed

    Adam, i wondered if i might take the opportunity of this, your newest post (which i can hardly say i have fully digested yet) to go back a ways (in hopes of catching up more completely to what you’re writing today), to one of my favourite essays of yours that was first weblished at NER, the one you headed ‘Fifth Generation Warfare, or a Calculus of Covenants’.. i am on about my, oh, sixth or even seventh re-reading of this one now, and yet i still cannot get get my inedible head (anag. deniable hide) past that point where you first begin to enjoin the idea that it is quite possible to bypass, so to speak, a lot of what we normally think of as the primarily-diplomatic mission of our leaders & statesmen, and proceed to make genuine covenants with persons on the erm, ‘other side’.. covenants that are, moreover, covenantal to the degree that they are ‘witnessed by God’, and this despite the – gasp – ‘fact’ that no single mediating centre of that kind is supposed to really obtain anymore – so my enquiry seems quite desperate in that i(t) still can’t really imagine anything even coming close to the point where we and those persons we have never met (let alone those people that we have met), “agree to share the same sacred object” .. and that most everything which now follows will be in the firm business of estimating how far we have strayed from or how close we have stayed to this mutually-declared objective, most creative compromises notworthsteaming!

    Rocking on up as a proxy IP address for the Iranian rebels is as desirous as it gets for the technologically-infatuated Left brigade, but what sort of promissorial act might be entailed there?

    Why, even on the presumably homeliest front of all here, attempting to participate in this country’s most fertile and perpetually active blog, i have been zapped with the accusation that my posts are “not made in good faith”, and that i must “chill out”, and finally am just routinely deleted on the spot by the moderator.. and if i was to thereupon introduce something like your distinction between freedom as ‘providential interference with each other’s habits’ and tyranny as the ‘attempt to re-order them in accord with some template’ i am quite sure i would be ridden out of the web on a rail

    and here, submitted in sincere hope for your amusement at least as english instructor, is an example of the kind of response to my efforts that i get on this site.. These otherwise very sharp people waft on in the usual glib manner about ‘myths’ and ‘stories’ and how participation in Maori celebrations affirm the “continuum of myth, astrology and astronomy” and don’t require their assent to a “literal truth” like that awful Christianity; the following extends to this day almost exactly what i experienced in school

    “Your excessive verbiage, and your lack of punctuation and well-formed sentences, make your posts very hard to decipher. (In fact, so much so, I usually do not bother reading them).
    For example, you wrote :

    the principal, minimal requirement for anything one can properly call viable science – ie, independent-of-cultures and ultimately transmissable across all of them – is the ability to make statements sufficently generalized as to freely obtain out of any *context* or ritually-confirmed narrative of causality

    Having now read this 6 times, I think I have an idea of what you’re getting at, but I am not sure (No, please don’t explain it for me).

    If you were to write more clearly, in shorter sentences, in shorter posts, and use punctuation and capital letters correctly, you may be taken more seriously.

    Compare your posts to others. Although you may understand what you are alluding to, your purpose in writing is to communicate your thoughts to the reader. You are not doing that very successfully (if at all).

    Hope this helps.

    Oh, and preview is your friend… “

  2. adam Post author

    It seems to me that you understand rather well what I was getting at in that essay, Don–helping out the Iranian rebels in the way you mention, and then sustaining those connections even after (if) the movement is suppressed, keeping the names of those involved–those killed and imprisoned, and those stil struggling–all this seems to me to qualify as a covenant. Once specific names, dates and places become part of the public memory, and reminding others of them causes some kind of pause or “interruption,” then we are in the presence of the sacred. Of course, in those more optimistic days, I saw the bypassing of governments and the treatment of individuals as “units” of international law and relations as something we might encourage our governments and other institutions (universities, corporations, etc.) to do.

    With regard to your style and its rejection by the normalizing bloggers you cite, I woud hope that this entry bears on that. We should revere those instances when language reveals its infinite generativity, not prune it down to easily communicable bits. Trading cliches is, I suppose, a form of exchange and better than nothing, but it’s not a path to salvation. And your singled-out statement seems readily intelligible to me, and to anyone else interested in dialogue rather than gathering “evidence.”

  3. lightweed

    ulp! treatment of individuals as “units” of international law? i thought the whole thrust and thirst of yr discursivities railed against such, and that these weakened from the get-go anything like what is required of men for constitution of nationhood.. i have to say i am just ‘a leetle’ dismayed by your response here, because i really do not understand how anyone unmet (sounds like an arabian name already) would necessarily or even otherwise come to believe themselves to be guided by their relation to the very same *sacred object* – fairly obvious objective maybe, but how is it that it appears to be leftLEANing whizzos who are most obviously adept in the (mainly) technologically/generatively oriented pursuit of this? Those who have no bearing on or even care for the explicit sacral provenance of their impetus at all? MUCH more education is needed on my part to get any kind of perspective here – i would like to go all the way back to that very point AK where you came to the reckoning that foremost among the reasons for GWB’s monumental scapegoating was the “sea change” in the mediums of communication themselves…!

    but back to the (t)ask at hand now

  4. adam Post author

    I’m pretty sure that I’ve always been clear that I accept the Nuremberg trials as the foundation of a new political/ethical order following World War II, and fundamental to that order is that the abuse of individuals and the denial of their rights supersedes and might even abrogate claims to sovereignty. Of course, someone would have to enforce such a legal order, which is what I took the “Bush Doctrine” to propose. This can’t undermine the constitutional capacities of people (or a people), since both a willingness to defend the rights of other, allied or potentially allied, peoples, and one’s own collective self-presentation before the world are part of that constitutionalism.

    As to how the “unmet” can share the same sacred object, well, isn’t this a question you’d have to ask of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc., etc.?

    As for the prominent role you give Lefties in forming such alliances today, or in the technological savvy which is helpful in forming them, I don’t know whether that’s the case–if it is the case, then it must bring the lefties into conflict with their present day leader, who supports Third Worldist thugs over their people; and if it’s the case today there’s no reason to assume it will be the day after tomorrow.

    I have never given the media, or the new media, any role in Bush’s scapegoating–if anything, that was a phenomenon of the old media, but that doesn’t explain it either. Indeed, I am often dismayed by my own lack of an originary theory of “communications.” If anything, I tend to think the new, de-centralized communications, if and when they come to replace the old “mainstream” model, will make such concentrated scapegoating more difficult, or at least easier to resist.

  5. lightweed

    pasted below are those much earlier assertions of yours Adam that i was thinking of! – reading them yet again i am still a little flummoxed by their shape.. The ‘Similarly’ sequitur – between say, “really more about our own civilizational dispositions” and “almost all of the antagonism can be traced back to organisational/institutional interests threatened” is nearly a non one for this reader; but i would dearly appreciate it if you saw fit to expand on a little of this.. i must apologise if it is inappropriate in any way to be seeking such recap in the midst of yr present work here..

    “The blogosphere is the site of the new birth of freedom that will find its social medium in this new war which is really more about our own civilizational dispositions and not a rather pathetic and parasitic enemy that takes all of its strength from our self-doubts and self-loathing. (Similarly, I suspect that almost all of the antagonism to the war on terror, to the Bush Doctrine, whether from the realist right or the pacificist and internationalist left, can be traced back to organizational and institutional interests threatened by this sea-change in the information and communications environment.)

  6. adam Post author

    I’m certainly overstating things in this passage you quote, but even here here the focus is on the “interests” that are “threatened,” rather than the means of communications themselves (which are threatening primarily because–and therefore insofar as–they embody a new “birth of freedom”). If I tone down the “almost all” to something like “an important element of” then I think I’m not so far from what I say in my last paragraph in my previous comment–the centralized media encourage the scapegoating of whoever messes with their narratives; an increasingly decentralized media would make this much more difficult (and hence would be a threat to those dependent on the centralized media). But those “threatened” “interests” would still be rooted in victimary thinking and White Guilt. I suppose I should have thought of the way in which those interests would invest themselves in the new media as well, in the far more virulent and hysterical forms of the DailyKos, Huffington Post, etc.

  7. Q

    Without commenting on the whole of your post, but just one small part: You’re right about the attack on “transcendence” in post modern discourse, and its implication in inequality. But what is ushered out the front door is welcomed from the rear, in disguise. Visual studies is a good example, in which the visual is often held to be resistant to any kind of verbal equivalence or analysis; the visual is virtually fetishized (cf. the “body”). Or for example, the general consensus now that the ambiguity surrounding the (quasi)sacred in Kafka cannot be reduced to rational categories; ambiguity is virtually an end in itself. What is Derrida’s “differance” but another version of the holy, that which can’t be explained or put into words because “undecidable”? Derrida’s turn to religion in his late work in effect acknowledges that the sacred is inevitable. As soon as one form of transcendence is demystified as “logocentric” or what have you, intellectuals promptly find another, but usually without calling or even recognizing it as such.

    Part of the scandal of GA is that it resolutely explains transcendence, instead of trying to displace it. Even Girard, certainly one of the great demystifiers, found that he couldn’t do without supernatural intervention in his theory. Gans consistently explains transcendence in rational, ethical terms;

    it’s an interesting question why humans always need some kind of transcendent “other.” A difference which can’t be explained or rationalized. Apparently nothing else will do. Our ambivalence about the sacred doesn’t go away, even in the most highly intellectual pursuits. We insist on demystifying, but then turn around do the same thing again. Derrida observed this tendency correctly in Rousseau’s On the Origin of Language.

  8. adam Post author

    You may be right that much dismissal of transcendence in postmodern thought is shamefaced, in the way you say. And I would certainly agree with you that the sacred is inevitable. But “sacred” and “transcendent” aren’t exactly the same thing (otherwise, why would we need two words?). We could acknowledge that our relation to language is always paradoxical and outside of our ability to control, and in that sense our agreement not to try and control it would mark our language as sacred. But this relation to language (or representation more broadly), while ever present, would disclose itself in unexpected ways in specific situations (that would be part of our paradoxical and open-ended relation to language). I suppose you could call these interruptions of habit “transcendence,” but transcendence to me (and I think Gans reiterated this in his talk) suggests something “outside” or “above” mimetic relations, whereas what I am referring to is something in relation to the Object that makes the relations between us something other than mimetic.

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