GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

August 5, 2009

Beginnings in the Middle: Presence and the Infinitesimal

Filed under: GA — adam @ 11:44 am

Transcendence suggests something outside of us sustaining us; presence involves all of us sustaining the same object of attention.  This mutual attending is overlapping and continuous—your attention attracts mine, which takes on a different shape and intent, which attracts a third in some new manner, which finally comes back to you as you take a new look at the object in question.  What keeps this attention chain going?  We want to keep things going—we occupy a scene jointly, and we want to remain on the scene because if we are not on a scene we are nowhere.  This absolute need for scenicity accounts for the ecstasy of the mystic and the teenager driven by boredom to do just about anything.  We are always complementing a scene, completing it, creating a scene within a scene, entering a meta-scene purporting to include the scene we are on—drawing upon the resources of the scene so as to remedy some felt deficiency.  Indeed, any scene requires some feeling of deficiency; otherwise there’d be no need to keep it going.  Transcendence has us protect the separateness of the object; presencing is interested in the continuity of the scene—the object, then, would tend to devolve into a series of more or less premeditated pretexts for doing so.


We keep scenes going by iterating the sign which constitutes it—there are so many ways of doing this that they couldn’t be catalogued in advance; indeed, any iteration only discovers what it is doing in the midst of doing it.  Fulfilling an order iterates a sign, as does defying it; answering a question or asking one; redirecting attention from speaker to statement, or statement to speaker; introducing or subtracting irony; shifting the distribution of silence and speech among the participants in a conversations, etc., etc.  All that matters is that each element of the scene can be related to every other element in however roundabout a manner—if there’s cross referencing, there must be something getting crossed in the references, and we could call that something the articulation of sign and object providing the scene’s “texture.”  Of course, all this is extraordinarily complicated, as complicated as we want or need to make it.  On the most elemental level, though, one scene is always passing out of existence and a new one coming into being.  Indeed, how would we know when a scene has ended if not from within a new scene?  How, then, did we transition from one into another?  That a scene must be organized around some mimetic crisis—actual, imminent, anticipated, simulated as a kind of rehearsal—which the sign constitutive of the scene frames and defers sharpens the question:  how and when do we know when a scene has been closed and what does this knowledge consist of?


We must posit, I would suggest, a third scene, a disciplinary scene constituted so as to identify the boundary between the two scenes; to identify the boundary is also to identify the transition from one to the other, because it is the transition that creates the boundary.  Let’s say any scene has a beginning, middle and end.  Our problem is to get from an end to a new beginning.  We could say that a scene ends when a sign is generally shared, which will then set the terms for the restarting of mimetic desire and rivalry—we could posit a clean break between any two scenes.  Of course, I am proposing an ideal reconstruction here—there are millions of scenes passing through each other all the time.  That obvious observation doesn’t help us, though, if we consider the scene the basic “unit” of social, cultural and historical analysis.  If we want, for example, to treat the Holocaust as a scene, we must assume it began and ended, and we could argue about where to place those dates.  Or, we can say that in a sense it hasn’t ended, and that the sign that emerged in its wake is still active, still tenuous, and has not given way to a new one.  We could argue over this as well and, for that matter, develop a mode of analysis that compares differing ways of circumscribing the scene; but, again, these arguments and analyses only make sense if we assume it would be meaningful to posit a beginning and end.  And we can’t help but do so—it is built into our language.


The third, disciplinary, scene, then, has its beginning in the middle of the old scene, its middle on the boundary between the end of the old and the beginning of the new scene, and its end in the middle of the new scene.  In the middle of the first scene, the sign has begun to circulate and divergences in its emission have emerged, making an inquiry into its modes of iteration possible; the middle of the disciplinary scene is the midst of its own (reflexive) process of iteration and norming, and in that light the boundary between the two scenes can appear as a distribution of sign users normalizing the previous sign and sign users issuing the new one.  To put it another way, when we are single-mindedly focused, as artists in making the minutest and most crucial marks or scientists in detecting the slightest shifts, on figuring out what counts as the sign we are ourselves iterating, then we are prepared to see the new sign emerge on its background. 


The point of these “methodological” speculations is to provide a model for dealing with infinitesimals in originary thinking.  I know that infinitesimals are an important topic in mathematics, but I don’t really understand any of that.  What I mean by infinitesimals is boundaries and thresholds, where we must account for the emergence of something qualitatively different, the emergence of which, then, cannot be completely accounted for in terms of what came before.  Between the mimetic crisis and the sign is an infinitesimal—the crisis is itself insufficient to account for the emergence of the sign.  The infinitesimal is inexhaustible—if I were to hypothesize, as the boundary between crisis and sign, a relation between figures on the scene, one of whom is accelerating his grasp and the other recoiling, so as to posit a “turning point”—well, within each of those figures we could likewise posit a boundary, locating someone accelerating his own grasping in response to another’s more intense acceleration but nevertheless slowing his rate of acceleration, and so on, ad infinitum.  The infinitesimal must be felt at the time but could only be represented after the fact; moreover, representations of the infinitesimal keep producing more, including within our representations.  I am proposing, I suppose, albeit in a very different sense than some theologians, a God of the gaps.  Insofar as our conflicts always involve a relatively stable object of desire at some measurable distance from us, the infinitesimal interrupts our rush towards the object by, in the manner of Zeno’s paradox, always introducing intervening steps conditioning our possession.


If there is a way of revering the infinitesimal it is through intensified attention to boundaries and thresholds, including viewing all events and objects through their constitution through boundaries and thresholds.  Grammatical analysis is especially well suited for such reverence for the infinitesimal.  The imperative emerges out of the “inappropriate” ostensive—there’s a boundary; the interrogative emerges out of a margin of uncertainty in the interlocutor’s obedience to the imperative—another boundary; the negative ostensive barely modifies the interrogative—ditto; finally, I believe the verb emerges as an imperative attached to the negative ostensive in the event of the former’s failure and consequent reversion to an imperative crisis—which would mean that all of the aforementioned boundaries reside in the declarative as well. 


We could note the infinitesimal on the boundaries between these different modes of utterance.  An ostensive that “presents” as an imperative (or vice versa); an imperative that presents as an interrogative (and vice versa); the same with interrogatives and declaratives; imperatives embedded at different “levels” within declaratives, and so on.  Even more interesting is to treat these boundary manifestations as presenting differently for different interlocutors and readers; even more, to treat these different presentations, and the way they would come together to compose a scene, as maximally consequential (the smallest change that would make the biggest difference is always, it seems to me, what we are looking for as theorists).  And then we can iterate those sentences, to test out those consequences.  The sentences we work with should be exemplary ones, upon which we can hang larger pieces of text, and entire texts.


So, we can read declaratives as deferrals of imperatives, dangerous, or insistent and impossible, or incompatible; deferrals effected by extending those imperatives into interrogatives (just letting an imperative sit for a moment sets this conversion in motion); the articulation of noun and verb extends the interrogative to the point where a new imperative set is created:  an imperative to iterate the noun, or name, generated in this new linguistic event—an iteration that can involve assent to the “proposition,” its modification or qualification, practical implications, etc.  All of these processes are reversible intellectually—such reversals are also iterations—and so we have the makings of a very simple mode of thinking for analytical, interpretative and esthetic purposes.  We can treat a question like an imperative and see what follows; or we can posit and examine a hypothetical array of imperatives assimilated to a declarative.  And any utterance would be bracketed by an ostensive-imperative articulation on one end and an imperative-ostensive articulation on the other, each with its own set of boundaries (when, exactly, can we say an imperative has been obeyed?)—in other words, any sentence can be resolved into a kind of “exclamation” that opens it and leads into an imperative and an ostensive that would “verify” or “authenticate” that the imperative to iterate the sentence has been obeyed.  Very often these analyses or iterations will involve little more than minor word additions and subtractions—“He will come here” can be resolved into “Will he come?” “Come!” (but also “Make him come!,” among other possibilities) and “Here!”  The imperatives embedded in sentences can, with little more difficulty, be articulated in various ways:  “I will wait” makes sense differently if we see it as a command to “stay here with me!” or “Go ahead without me!” or some oscillation between the two.


As an example of what can be disclosed through the inquiry into the grammatical infinitesimal:  much of the leftist turn in the academy (from “ideology critique” to “cultural studies”) can be reduced to the following, simple imperative:  reduce declaratives to imperatives.  More expansively, reduce the presumably innocent and apparently ennobling declaratives central to bourgeois life to a series of insidiously concealed imperatives—imperatives to accept your lot, do what you are told, blame the wrong people for your problems, etc., etc.  It seems to me we could “demystify” a lot of victimary studies in this way, simply by pointing out that of course declaratives embed imperatives, and they operate much more complexly than dominant assumptions about “dominant assumptions” tend to assume.  (On the other hand, Louis Althusser’s notion, from his essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” of “interpellation” as a “mechanism” by which we are made recognizable within the social order might become interesting in a new way.)  And if we were to treat these leftist theses as the command manuals they also are, what might we reveal?  Such an approach can include complex, detached analyses, but also the kinds of performative gestures the Left has gotten much better at than conservatives.  And, as I have already suggested, this “method” would rival “ordinary language” and “speech act” theories in drawing upon any language user’s tacit understanding of the way language works:  we all know when, to take just one example, in hearing a simple declarative sentence, we feel like we have been given an order or ultimatum.  And we are all capable of becoming much more attentive to such things, in ways and with results that would utterly confound any assumptions about “power relations.”


Now, if we convert these terms as I suggested in my previous post, into a conceptual vocabulary capable of registering all social relations, we see the significance of the infinitesimal on another level.  If we can see politics as the compulsion to ensure the convertibility of imperatives and declaratives, through the formulation of declaratives that can include incompatible imperatives, then we can scrutinize political discourse very closely in terms of which of our imperatives are convertible and which aren’t—we could assume that any political principle would reconcile only the most urgent imperatives, leaving political discourse frayed around the edges.  The main tasks of politics—the generation of new declaratives, or “principles”—would involve tying up those loose ends without letting the already established ones come undone.  “Health care is a right” is a declarative, and it must bear some relation to the declarative “all men are created equal”—what relation?  If we could find exemplary imperatives that could be “backed” by one and not the other, or that could backed by both—we would have answers, or at least sites of discussion.  Perhaps new formulations of either or both of these declaratives would embed the imperatives that don’t seem to be indicated by both—we could treat such problems as assignments, very literally:  compose a declarative sentence that would lead to this set of imperatives or that would accommodate these several; we can then impose further rules, limiting the length of the sentence, or insisting it include certain words or kinds of words, based upon an esthetics and history of the political sentence, etc.  Thus would political discourse meet grammatical analysis, as the “middle” of our grammatical analysis would produce new political “beginnings.” 


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