GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

July 20, 2009

Idioms of Inquiry

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:28 pm

The originary hypothesis creates a “new way of thinking,” as Eric Gans has so often said.  A way of thinking involves a new vocabulary and grammar; it puts words to new use, generates new questions and imperatives.  Any new way of thinking would do this; all the more so must one founded upon an account of the origin of language; all the more so an account of the origin of language that sees language as constitutive of the human.  It seems worth trying to generate such a vocabulary and grammar through linguistic terms themselves—all discourse must be conducted through ostensives, imperatives, interrogatives and declaratives, so the way these utterances work in relation to each other must provide us with an exhaustive account of any discourse; and if of any discourse, of all human activity.  That we can do it does not necessarily we that we should—but I’m going to proceed on the assumption that it’s worth the effort.


Let’s start with a simple observation:  it must be possible to read any sentence as an answer to a question.  This is the case insofar as the first predication, the negative ostensive posited by Gans in The Origin of Language, is itself a response to a question.  Questions, moreover, are “softened” imperatives, or imperatives cognizant of the possibility that they won’t be obeyed.  Think of how far just these observations would already take us:  if the sentence is designed so as to answer questions (I don’t think “answer” is quite originary enough for our purposes here, but we can leave that aside for now), then any sentence might be answering more than one—each word in the sentence could be read in terms of the question it is answering, of the anticipated follow up question it is answering; word placement could be read in terms of answers to questions regarding how to answer the question, which would in turn reveal something of the relation between the interlocutors.  Which imperatives get obeyed, which get resisted, which get mistaken, deliberately or accidentally, and so on; which imperatives get prolonged into the uncertainty of the question?  I would suggest that focusing on such questions would teach us far more than all the speculations and accusations regarding “power relations” occupying so much of postmodern discourse.


Imperatives, in turn, can be grounded in ostensives:  following the cry of “Fire!” (one of Gans’ most used examples) we would expect “Follow me!,” “Head for the exit!,” “Stay close to the ground!,” “Call 911!,” etc.  Even more commonplace imperatives (to take another of Gans’ privileged examples:  the surgeon requesting “Scalpel!”) could be understood in these terms:  if the surgeon needs a scalpel it’s because he realize that “it’s time!” (to start cutting).  Moreover, the boundaries between these modes of utterance are fluid, with one mode often “presenting” as another, as with the rhetorical question.  If declaratives can be read as, let’s say, presenting a reality (in which other imperatives might be obeyed) in exchange for the desire involved in the question, they can also be read as embedding imperatives.  If someone says, “The door is open,” maybe they want me to close the door, maybe they want me to leave, maybe they want me to look over in that direction, but the sentence is telling me to do something.  Any sentence is—or, if one likes, any sentence can productively and revealingly be analyzed as doing so; such commands, on one level, are those which any sign puts forth, which is to iterate the sign itself, to operate within the space it opens.  Aside from the kind of practical imperatives I just suggested, iterating the sign might involve adding an adjective to the noun, suggesting an ostensive that might confirm the subject-predicate relation articulated by the sentence, along with, perhaps, attending to the next sentence, etc.—these are acts the sentence might be “telling” us to perform.


I consider imperatives to be central here because only imperatives can make anything happen beyond the centered attention effected by the ostensive—indeed, we could say that even the ostensive put forth on the originary scene might be considered unique and expansive enough to imply an imperative like “Stop!”  I think that the hypothesis that verbs are originally imperatives is an extremely fruitful one, but leave that aside.  More pragmatically, I would propose that the world appears to us as the effect of (indeed, created by) imperatives, with things and people telling each other and themselves what to do all the time.  If you start paying attention, you can start noticing how deeply embedded imperatives are in ordinary language—it is imperative that, our imperative here is…., etc.  So, if someone does or attempts something, we can analyze it as obedience to some imperative, regarding the source, aim and force of which we could hypothesize.  We could also re-conceptualize our fundamental categories of thought and action, including those constitutive of GA, in these terms. 


So, to get started, thinking is obeying the imperative to suspend all imperatives:  in this suspension, imperatives approach or occur to one, appearing as possibilities which the thinker in his/her detachment follows; ultimately, the emergence of one imperative after another leads us to the founding imperative of thought, to cease obeying commands directing us to efface the ostensive sign.  Politics, we might say, is obedience to the imperative to generate declaratives that can harmonize the incommensurable commands with claims upon us—what we might also discuss as the convertibility of imperatives and declaratives.  Morality follows the command to map imperatives onto declaratives—every imperative, to pass the test of morality, must be seen as derived from some declarative (the “thou shalts” rely on “I am the Lord thy God,” or more recently, “x is wrong”).  Ethics, meanwhile, follows the imperative to align imperatives with ostensives (treat others fairly is a moral imperatives, but what counts as fair in a given situation—what we will point to, authenticate, as an instance of unfair treatment, belongs to ethics); we are engaged esthetically when we obey the command to attend from one element of a sign to another, indefinitely; and so on.


We can analyze the most fundamental concepts of GA in grammatical terms.  Desire involves taking a command from the object, a command to model one’s activity on the possession of that object; resentment, that refusal to accept one’s barred access to the object, might be seen as taking a command to superintend the object (if one can’t have it, one can keep one’s eyes on it; if it’s going to be distributed, one can make sure that it is done under the authority of the sign).  Imitation takes the command from the model to treat that model as a source of imperatives—the model tells me what to do, and the more it tells me the more commands I demand.  Indeed, we can describe the mimetic crisis in these terms:  I must command the model to give me commands that would let me bridge the gap between his commanding being and the consequences of my compliance.  Such commands to the source of commands create contending imperatives and turn the commanding gestures into an ostensive one indicating a common source of imperatives.  Imitation is thereby converted into iteration, as the model is seen to share the same relation to its model as one has just constructed with it.


Such grammatical analyses could never be exhaustive as it is impossible to describe ostensives, imperatives, interrogatives and declaratives without orienting oneself towards the world they constitutive—indeed, even in the definitions I have just offered, a whole series of terms, like “object,” “model” and “source” could only be defined circularly, as the origin of imperatives.  This circularity would remain even were we to go on and specify the object and model, but this is the point of a conceptual vocabulary—a conceptual vocabulary derived from the originary hypothesis just needs to be aware that if the world appears to us as result and source of imperatives it is because we are commanding and commanded by it to do so.  Since commands are both circumscribed and fallible, this circularity is a constant source of idioms.  The same is true for these descriptions I am offering, all of which aim at minimality and for that reason require (command) quite a bit of surrounding discussion. 


My argument here for the generation of linguistically and semiotically grounded idioms of inquiry is part of my argument in my previous post for the sanctification of language in the post-millennial era.  Using grammatical terms in this expanded way simultaneously places those terms within language, making them generative rather than descriptive.  I am proposing a practice of deliberately putting language to work so as to produce novel idioms that are both means and objects of inquiry.  Anyone can conduct the kind of analysis I am outlining—anyone could tell you whether the question they have just asked is really meant to function more like a command, or what they would have to see, hear or experience to better understand what you just said, or what they would like someone to do as a response to something they said, etc.  And once one’s attention is directed in this way, there is always something to talk about with others, and it may become very interesting.  Language itself, after all, is in the end a mode of inquiry into the kinds of representations that might defer violence.


Finally, it seems to me that such an idiom of inquiry helps us to formulate what might be an enlightening way of thinking about the political condition of postmodernity, which we might define in terms of a crisis in the imperative.  One of the most significant consequences of victimary modernity, and its intensification under postmodernity, has been a continual shrinking of the sphere of operative (uncontested, understood, grounded in our tacit knowledge of others, immediately complied with) imperatives.  To put it simply, no one is sure enough about whom they should listen to.  The task of modernity has been to enhance the imperative force of declaratives, but the same assumptions that led “reason” to attack rather than complement “faith” set declaratives at odds with imperatives, compliance with which must contain a substantial “irrational” element.  Events are always a sure source of imperatives, upon which victimary discourse relies heavily and has come to produce rather than discover, but that can never be enough.  The Left is bossy enough, to be sure, but their imperatives are generated by ostensives on one side (“racist!”; “fascist!”, “homophobe!,” etc.) and formulaic declaratives on the other.  “Gay marriage is a human right” is a declarative, and a very characteristic one—it presents itself, grammatically, more as a statement of fact than of opinion; it is a declarative that depends upon a long sequence of previous ones of exactly the same type (“gay marriage” simply filling a slot previously filled by other substantives), creating the reality which provides the effect of “facticity”; and its imperative force is absolute for anyone situated within that “reality” (the human rights world picture), while anyone outside of that reality is irrevocably demonized.  The fetish the Left has come to make of “lying” (as a strategic accusation, at least) makes sense in these terms as well:  distinguishing between truth and lies places politics completely on declarative terrain, while charging the declarative with imperative force.


In that case, the post-victimary imperative would be to create and obey together the imperatives out of which new declaratives might emerge.  I don’t know what those imperatives might be or how we will come to obey them—indeed, how could any of us?  The absolute and ultimately arbitrary adherence to some irresistible model which I understand Raoul Eshelman’s notion of “performatism” to be identifying as a “post-postmodernism” seems to me one productive line of inquiry.  It might also help to inscribe imperatives within freedom, which we might consider obedience to the imperative to prolong the distance between the imperative and its ostensive authentification.  Freedom, in other words, is not the opposite of obedience—it is obedience to an imperative to honor the imperative order by embedding single imperatives in prior, more inclusive ones and making one’s own obedience into a sign that is never completely formed.  I have previously defined freedom as nobody, including yourself, knowing what you are going to do next—and isn’t that exactly what is happening as one follows an increasingly impersonal imperative through ever wider circles of consequences?

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