GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

September 24, 2009

The Human Condition: A Commentary on Originary Signification

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:46 am

Any functional sign must involve the following:


1)  The possibility of being a lie (I borrow this from Umberto Eco’s A Theory of Semiotics).  There are better ways of putting this, as “lie” presupposes a declarative, an assertion about something in the world independent of the person making the claim.  So, when I shake someone’s hand, I am not exactly telling the truth or lying; the affirmation or gesture precedes the proposition.  But in a sense I am—my handshake can be sincere, or I could be proffering my hand so as to disguise my irreconcilable enmity towards you.  The originary scene itself is, indeed, beyond truth and falsehood—that some central object is indicated is simply constitutive of the scene; to put it another way, no object, no convergence of attention, no scene, and therefore no lie.  But that being beyond truth and falsehood will never happen again, precisely because of the scene—any future gesture could be a deception.  And the deception could only work because of the absolute trust that must have prevailed on the originary scene because there, in the phrase I consider prior to the truth/lie binary, one and then each stood as surety for the presence of the object.  Every sign, to be meaningful, or to work, must have its audience presuppose someone to stand in surety for some material or immaterial object of the sign.  Not necessarily a referent, or even a signified, but the possibility of a gathering of attention around some “thereness” to attend to.


2)  A prayer to the central presence or intelligence.  A prayer is an imperative, however politely or supinely put, to the central intelligence—most elementarily, to save or protect the supplicant.  But this demand implies the duty to obey the center; so, the subsequent prayer or, really, continuation of this same one, is a demand that the central presence provide guidance in fulfilling a divine command.  This more articulate prayer recognizes a dominion under divine sovereignty, wherein the divine command must be shared, applied and interpreted.  In claiming the invocation as a condition of intelligibility, I am pointing to the regular, or grammatical element of semiotics.  Whatever the rules in any language or idiom, I must follow them; but what are rules other than the way a particular interplay of imperatives back and forth from the center has unwound?  If I am on the verge, say, of coveting something of my neighbor’s, and I hear God telling me not to, and I beseech God to give me guidance, and I discover a way of redirecting my attention so that I covet no more, a habit and therefore a preliminary grammar is in place.  If someone then trusts me enough to ask me to help them find the way in a similar circumstance, I can present my discovery, and they will have to implore God to help them find their own way, analogous to mine—and my grammar has been transmitted, which is what really makes it a grammar in the first place.  I don’t think it’s any different with things like word order, conjugation, inflection, etc., in words and sentences—they are all habits by which imperatives have been moderated and woven into a transactional fabric where they intersect with other, often contrary, imperatives.  The equivalent on the originary scene is each of us looking at all the rest of us and ascertaining that a rule of interaction supplanting the uncontrolled surge toward the center has emerged.  To put it simply:  conscientiously following the rules, including the construction of ideal or model modes of rule following, is a form of prayer and faith that the right or needful thing to do when the rules fall short will be made present to me.  And it is a reasonable faith, because when the rules fall short, the tacit rules undergirding the overt ones, which are the imperatives we have so thoroughly embedded as to have forgotten, and which have been  preserved in the overt ones, are there as back-up.


3)  A hypothesis regarding how my audience or interlocutor will respond to my sign.  This is my misreading of C.S. Peirce, whom I take to be claiming that the meaning of a sign is all of those consequences you can imagine following your issuance of the sign.  This hypothesis must be internal to the sign itself, it must emerge with the sign.  That is, I don’t hypothesize and then issue the sign, or issue the sign and then hypothesize (one could only hypothesize with signs, after all).  The hypothesis is the sign:  whatever presence needed to be filled (signs wouldn’t be issued if some presence did not need to be filled, because sheer absence can only mean terror and extinction, whether experienced on a personal or collective level), I first put forth my sign with an inchoate sense of attempting to fill it, and as the sign is composed, and I get glimpses of its reverberations and possible mistaking, it seems to be more or less likely to provide that space with presence, to indicate that the need was in fact other than I took it to be and so my sign must be redirected or to the extent possible withdrawn, or that the sign will require supplementation which it must somehow be composed so as to solicit, and so on.  The “proof” of this hypothetical element of the sign is that when I “understand” a sign, what someone tells me, I am aware that I have been inscribed within it, that it has anticipated me and that it requires something of me.  It is up to me to render it meaningful or meaningless—it has predicted, or bet, that I would make it real.


If we have no “human nature,” then, we can have, as Hannah Arendt (who contended that for us to claim to know our own nature would be like trying to leap over our own shadow) asserted, a human condition—a set of possibilities and limits, always distributed differentially across individuals and history.  We must guarantee, and demand guarantees of, reality; we must follow (and be followed by) rules, more or less “religiously,” and insist that others do so as well; and we must anticipate, speculate, project and hope, while interfering with such on the part of others.  At our best, we preserve, within our signs, these diverse vocations, and occasionally even repair the damage that is constantly done them through resentment of our humanness; at our worst, we arbitrarily assign one priority over the other, or even betray any or all of them.

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