GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

November 23, 2009

Political Marginalism, Originary Grammar, Cultural Generativity

Filed under: GA — adam @ 11:46 am

A marginalist politics begins with the observation that any situation can be reduced to a binary:  do a or b.  Even there are, in principle, many choices, as soon as you inch closer to one the world splits into that or not-that—and you are always inching.  Self-reflection upon any situation reduces itself to such binary—I am this, not that, here, not there, etc.  Similarly, the binary situation immediately confronted is the product of a long series of bifurcations—my choice is now a or b, because previous choices have eliminated c, d, e, and so on.  This binarism derives from the binary on the originary scene:  to continue reaching for the central object  (to pursue the mimetic path of least resistance) or to imitate the newly formed sign and withhold one’s grasp.  Since the right choice was made on the scene, it is impossible for us not to think of ourselves as making the right choice now:  even if I egregiously violate the terms of the scene I am on I will reconstruct another scene upon which no such violation took place—yes, I cheated, but everyone cheats; or, my situation was different than others’; or that was wrong but it wasn’t really who I am, etc.  And if I fully confess my inexcusable violation, I can only do that because I am now on some other scene, whose terms I can represent my choice to confess (rather than further dissimulate) as confirming.  Indeed, I can reconstruct any scene, any time, on the spot, reconfiguring the binary choice, from say, cheating/not cheating to maintaining the harmony of the scene/disrupting the scene by letting my cheating be discovered.  But binary there will always be.


Each binary retrojects the series of bifurcations it has emerged out of—if I now determine that effecting change by peaceful means is impossible, I reference and construct a history in which violence has been rejected many times, and earlier choices in which violence didn’t even appear as one of the alternatives, and so the current choice is the distillation of that entire series of resentments (resentment is itself essentially binary—he shouldn’t be there, I should, or someone else more deserving, but first of all him or not-him).  Criteria for choosing one way or another are always embedded in the binary situation, but only become explicit after the fact, once the act has disclosed the scene I am on now. I have “inched” before I realize I have done so.  Leading up to the event, the criteria are tacit—I will feel at a certain point that I can’t go on the old way anymore, but trying to explain why I now, all of a sudden, feel that way, could only lead me to reference some other experience whose roots would be tacit—say, for the first time I noticed how demoralized my fellow citizens seem to be, but what changed among my fellow citizens or in my own attentiveness that led me to notice that?  There is some threshold that has been crossed—from beaten down but not hopeless to thoroughly demoralized—that I detect before I am able to explain how I detected it.  I could, of course, be wrong, in which case I didn’t “really’ detect it—but realizing that I was wrong must also be an event articulated through a binary point wherein I located that threshold elsewhere, which in turn confirms the possibility of such a threshold, or the real threshold which was concealed behind the one I imagine and has now achieved such a threshold of presence as to be revealed to me.  And continuing in my wrongness will simply exemplify that threshold in my own failure to observe it.  There must always be such thresholds—for there to be a scene is for the scene to be capable of collapse into the desires and resentments it has deferred; and for it to contain the resources to transition into a new scene that extends the prevailing sign.  And, of course, noticing a threshold is part of my being on a scene as well—I am drawn along with others pointing to that threshold, or my identification of that threshold is part of my recoil from others, who seem to me unwilling to notice something, even something they and I know not. 


The politics that follows from marginalism is the creation of new binary “forks” out of any situation.  On the one hand, of course any course of action produces new “forks” in the road all by itself; on the other hand, though, one can either continually narrow the area in which forkings become possible, or one can widen the area, increasing the visibility of the series of choices embedded in any event.  Even if one chooses violence, schism, or secession, for example, one can fight or sever ties in such a way as preserve conditions for a possible peace and for others to register their own choices in ways that may lead more quickly to a cessation of violence or new associations.  The premium, in other words, is on practicing freedom in such a way as to invite others to do the same; to make the consequences of choices as visible as possible, because this is the best way of placing the full range of available resentments on display, and putting that full range on display is the best way of inviting everyone to propose ways of channeling those resentments in the interests of the center. 


Now, we have two questions:  first, how to describe these bifurcations, or choices; second, how to describe the threshold in which we are suspended, infinitesimally, before each one?  My answer is with originary grammar.  The basic structure of the declarative sentence, the topic/comment relationship Gans works with in The Origin of Language, is the record of such a completed choice, or branching off:  the topic, deriving ultimately from a name, represents the object of a demand, or a proposed replacement for such an object, a demand that, through some possible series of concatenations (refusals and counter-demands), could lead to the unraveling of the signs constituting the community; the comment, meanwhile, places the topic beyond reach, at least for the present, embedding it in some reality that resists our imperatives.  So, a choice has been made to defer imperatives and a further choice has been made to defer imperatives in this particular way—as opposed to some other sentence which, presumably, would have been more likely to inflame rather than quell the upsurge in “demand” (perhaps by dangling the topic in front of some part of the audience, rather than removing it from the reach of all).  A discourse, then, is the articulation of a whole series of such choices and, of course, with political documents, especially founding ones, people will argue over every single sentence, every single word and punctuation mark.  The grammar of the sentence, furthermore, iterates the “grammar” of the originary scene, where my choice to imitate the aborted gesture rather than the gesture itself is “predicated” upon everyone else doing the same—in that case, using grammatical terms to structure the scene for us, the one aborting his gesture give us the “topic” and those who imitate him in turn are “commenting.”  Similarly, “understanding” a sentence means knowing how to restore or maintain a proper relation between declaratives and imperatives:  where and how to match the declarative with a symmetrical declarative, where and how to take the declarative as an occasion to reframe the imperative.  So, the relation between a sentence and succeeding sentences is itself one between “topic” and “comment.”


Complying, for now, with traditional grammar, we can reduce all sentence types to four:  the declarative, the interrogative, the imperative and the exclamatory.  The exclamatory is what I propose to represent the ostensive on the grammatical level, so the entire sequence from ostensive to declarative can be represented grammatically, and each sentence analyzed as some articulation of all types.  What a beautiful day!  How I love you!  These are the prototypical exclamations, and I think we could usefully annex to the exclamation on one side what would ordinarily be classified as interjections (oh my God!), and on the other side what might be classified as ostensive or deictic references (in declarative sentences)—there it is!  That’s it!  It’s a boy!  The exclamation calls the attention of the interlocutor to some present object and both embodies and proposes some attitude attached to attending to that object.  In that case, “thank you,” “I promise” and other “ostensive” (in the originary sense) expressions can join the category as well.


Each kind of sentence has a range of possible responses and extensions built in:  the declarative can lead to other declaratives, it can transition imperceptibly into imperatives (the door is still open… ok, I’ll get it), it can call forth questions and exclamations, and we could analyze any discourse in terms of which possibilities get actualized.  Imperatives get obeyed, more or less precisely, more or less sincerely, or they are refused, with greater or less power; imperatives transition into interrogatives, and we could trace any interrogative back to an imperative that has been prolonged, suspended, and converted into a more or less open field.  The grammar of the exclamation is to evoke a matching exclamation:  Yes!  And I you! So it is…  And, of course, one sentence type can easily stand in for others:  “you’re kidding!” is often an exclamation masked as a declarative, while “are you out of your mind?” is one masked as an interrogative—and in each case the masking is possible because the expressions are impossible if taken literally.  It also seems to me that the exclamation has a special relationship to the first person, the imperative and interrogative (more obviously) to the second person, and the declarative to the third person.  I won’t explore this now, but Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy has an analysis of the differences, which can best be called “grammatical,” between the statements “I love you,” “you love her,” and “she loves him” that transcend the fact that all happen to be, formally, declarative sentences.  In my terms, the disclosure “I love you” functions much more like an exclamation, calling for a matching or symmetrical response confirming the shared reality; “you love her” is as impertinent and intrusive as any unauthorized imperative, and translates easily into “admit it, already”; while “she loves him” is the only properly declarative of the three, with its topic’s presumed distance from either of the interlocutors. 


I plan to return to this extremely rich field of speculation, of course, but my point here is that thresholds and bifurcations in the social world can best be registered grammatically.  A while back, after mentioning to a friend of mine (with whom, for reasons that will become evident, I rarely stray into political discussions) my admiration for Frederick Kagan (the main intellectual architect of the so-called “Surge” in Iraq in 2007), he responded in the following manner:  “if you think it’s ok to send kids to war while you stay safe.”  Now, the argument here, such as it is, doesn’t interest me much—it’s the standard “chicken-hawk” accusation (although, incidentally, the infelicity of so many of the Left’s insults—from “chicken hawk,” which is of course an actual bird that eats chickens, not a chicken that pretends to be a hawk; to the idiotic title of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11”—“9/11,” needless to say, can’t be a temperature, and the reference to a book on book burning is oddly connected to a political crisis which had little to do with censorship, etc.; to the current slur, “teabagger,” which “plays” with remarkable clumsiness on “tea party,” while for indiscernible reasons associating those protestors with practitioners of an obscure sexual, usually homosexual, I have heard, practice—would be fascinating subject to study:  in other words, what does it say that the Left can’t really work with language, that it seems to rely on a deeply embedded system of allusions that couldn’t really be articulated explicitly if they tried?).  What do we make of the grammar, though, which I take to be very typical?  On the one hand, it could be a subordinate clause, the with main “I could see admiring him..” elided, but that doesn’t really work since no one actually contemplating such admiration would phrase its precondition in this way; you could say that the subordinate clause comments ironically on the main one, but the accusation is too thick, leaden and literalistic to qualify as “ironic.”  The expression strikes me, rather, as an exclamation, but one that can’t present itself as one to an interlocutor who won’t “match” it (to a fellow leftist it would be easy enough to just say something like “sending more kids off to get killed!” at the mention of Kagan’s name).  Which is to say that it’s a founding exclamation that can’t really take on public, “declarative” form.  Nor can it lead to any imperative:  “what a beautiful day!” leads naturally into “let’s go out and enjoy it!” or “get out and play!”; “sending kids off to die!” can only lead to an imperative like “let’s stop it!,” but to whom is that imperative addressed, outside of a quasi-ritualized sphere in which it is associated with constant affirmations, dedications, oaths, etc., to “do something”?  So, in the masking and grammatical isolation of this particular phrase, its self-cornering, we can identify the shape and position of a corresponding configuration of resentments.  Which is not to say (obviously!) that such resentments, expressed in such mangled grammatical forms, can’t be highly successful politically—that too would be subject to grammatical analysis.  And so would, or could, any counter-analysis to my own.  I think such an approach is much more promising than either “logical,” “rhetorical,” or “ideological” modes of analysis.


So, at the point of any bifurcation stands an exclamation, expressing a revelation of some new reality and its attendant possibilities; then comes the imperative, determining which path to take; followed by the inflection of the imperative into interrogatives, probing the various by-ways of the path; and by the time the declarative comes along, the choice has already been made and the speaker is in the process of inscribing that choice in reality.  Of course, how the choice gets inscribed in reality is extremely important—indeed, it is an intrinsic element of reality itself and lays the groundwork for upcoming bifurcations.  I would even say that the declarative sentence essentially articulates a series of exclamations and imperatives, presents them after the event of their interference in reality, and thereby packages, preserves and re-circulates what would otherwise have been lost in the event itself.  When we argue about a text, we are arguing about what it is asking us to wonder at and what it is telling us to do.


“White guilt is the guilt of the unmarked toward the marked.”  I confess that there is a lot in this definition of Gans’s that I haven’t sufficiently attended to in my own thinking on White Guilt—in particular, the notion of being either marked or unmarked, and the relation between the two.  To be marked is to be identified as a potential victim, as someone who could be violated with impunity or whose violation may even be the subject of an imperative.  In principle, one could be marked either from “above” or from “below”—indeed, if scapegoating originally targeted the “Big Man,” then marking was originally a source of privileges as well as victimage, presumably in some equilibrium. How, then, did victimage become exclusively associated with the “lower orders,” even though we still scapegoat our Big Men and Women (celebrities, political and business leaders) all the time?  I think the answer lies in the way we have managed to defer scapegoating, and make it less deadly when it occurs, in the modern world.  Rather than ritual rules for marking scapegoats, we have devised juridical, administrative and medical procedures for determining who is to be marked.  On the one hand, then, the “higher” orders are far better able to avail themselves of these processes of deferral, which in turn tend to add stigma to the lower orders, who are likely to look “guilty,” “sick,” or “unauthorized” in all kinds of ways.  On the other hand, these procedures make the powerful more predictable and therefore less frightening (indeed, rhetorical attacks on the powerful are celebrated, without necessarily having much effect), while the powerless or excluded, attended to anxiously in all kinds of ways by our institutions, appear even more mysterious and potentially disruptive.


The scapegoating of the powerless, then, was a result of the modern attempt to unmark everyone—an attempt which paradoxically made the resulting marks all the more indelible.  It’s probably a lot harder to resist being marked with “a genetic and environmental propensity to criminal behavior” then the charge of poisoning wells.  At least one could disprove the latter—who, though, could so remake the “science” involved in the former as to invalidate the label?  The guilt towards the marked thus reflects the realization that any of us could be marked, and that this modern form of deferral could engulf modern society in more hideous forms of violence than we have known.  The form taken by this guilt is, interestingly, not to continue the thankless and hopeless task of a general unmarking (perhaps we should use the term “bleaching” to describe the goal of a “color-blind” society); rather, it is to seek to establish an orthodox, ritualized system of marking, in which markers of exclusion are both tabooed and assiduously collected and in turn reversed into markers of privilege—the easily parodied and inevitably rough attempts to arrive at a hierarchy of victimage is the result.  The consequent scapegoating of the gift of firstness which, in a sense, restores the old scapegoating of the powerful to its originary position, reflects the realization that the capacity for freedom, for starting over, continually threatens to undo what has become a system of insurance (chock-full of mandates, naturally), of reciprocal indemnification from risk:  we have almost, in the minds of those self-appointed to construct the rituals of White Guilt, arrived at a new social contract everyone could sign onto (the unmarked are ready to follow the new rules of marking and the marked are willing to accept the payment of victimary blackmail in exchange for a relief from their infinite demands), and only the permanence of the capacity for freedom and responsibility threatens to undermine all that labor.


The only solution is to mark everyone, over and over again.  Not by some kind of essential characteristic (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.) but by their idioms.  Jean-Francois Lyotard’s definition of the differend as a claim or contention expressed in the idiom of only one of the interlocutors is of great value to us today.  Lyotard yoked this notion to victimary imperatives, but he also knew that it exceeded such easily formulated asymmetries.  Idioms are what resist translation—they require that you enter the grammar of another, the characteristic way in which they articulate exclamations, imperatives, interrogatives and declaratives.  But the mistranslations of idioms are just as interesting, and increasingly common in a world made up of niche markets that overlap one another in thousands of ways.  “You hit that one out of the park!” is perfectly intelligible to anyone familiar with baseball; I can barely imagine what it would sound like to someone who isn’t, or how it would get iterated further and further away from its point of origin.  Idiomatic marking would both enter others’ idioms and mistranslate, or inflect, or, simply, mistake them—make the explicit the imperative implicit in someone’s declarative (by obeying or disobeying it), supply the exclamation missing in someone’s imperative, or the line of questioning that might have led from the embrace of an imperative to its declarative, doxic, forms (and do so by exclaiming, by questioning), render a demand in the declarative form of its fulfillment, etc.    Everybody is vulnerable in this way, but not too vulnerable, and in ways that are not easily predictable or controlled; idiomatic marking would also allow for new forms of generosity, as idioms can just as easily be interpreted “up” as “down.” 


The problem with this, as other radical proposals, is who wants to go first?  On the one hand, what I am describing already happens all the time—it’s a large part of the way in which friends and family relate to each other:  teasing one another about each one’s idiosyncrasies, but in such a way as to make those idiosyncrasies a source of love as well as resentment.  But it rarely happens outside of such safe spaces and, indeed, would have to take on very different forms in public life.  It seems to me that the rise of the “Tea Party” movement and Sarah Palin will give us a chance to see what that might look like—a commentary which I recently read (one hostile to Palin’s influence with the Republican Party) said (I’m quoting from memory) that the Republicans “need someone familiar with all the B.S. of politics, which Palin speaks like a tourist carrying around a phrase book.”  This gets both sides of the equation right:  contemporary political discourse is all “B.S.”—does anyone really believe that phrases like “he’s going to move to the center, pick up some moderates, and then shore up his base in time for the next election” mean anything anymore?  And Palin does, indeed, try to speak it, with an intensified sincerity that exposes it as a patchwork of empty phrases, while at the same time generating the elements of a new idiom.  And as much as anything else, Obama’s unspeakably boring (except, I imagine, to listeners of NPR) fluency in a particular set of “progressive” commonplaces is likely to sink his Presidency.


There is a space here for some rigor as well, though.  For those so interested, I would suggest the methods of the Oulipo literary group, the possible applications of which to public life have been so far unexplored (to my knowledge)—although there is the amusing homophonic bumper sticker, “Visualize Whirled Peas,” and perhaps others I’m forgetting.  I would love to see the results of the application of the N+7 method to one of Obama’s speeches—maybe I’ll do it myself.  Harry Mathews, the only American member of the group, has invented what he calls “perverbs”—statements created by attaching the second part of a proverb or maxim to the first part of another one.  So, for example, from the hybridization of “Too many cooks spoil the broth” and “Let the dead bury their dead,” we get “Too many cooks bury their dead.”  Mathews then writes a little story that makes sense of the new phrase, which leads to some hilarious results (how could we get from there being too many cooks to those cooks burying someone’s—the cook’s own?—dead, etc.?) but also suggests an excellent way to puncture and disable clichés and, in the process, transform them into the material for new idioms.  The Oulipo methods elevate form and rules over substance and thereby make it easy to see how much of “substance” is simply sedimented forms and rules.


Just for fun, let’s try something with this little snippet of President Obama’s speech to Congress on health care, given in September:


Well, the time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed. (Applause.) Now is the season for action. Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together, and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do. Now is the time to deliver on health care. Now is the time to deliver on health care.


I propose that we borrow another of Mathews’s ideas, his “Algorithm,” in which (I’m simplifying enormously) a particular word or phrase in each sentence is moved down to replace the word in that position in the next sentence.  In these remarks of Obama, the key word or phrase in each sentence seems to me to be the objects of auxiliary verbs and prepositions:  “bickering,” “games,” “action,” “bring,” “do,” and “deliver”—that’s where the real political distinctions are made.  So, let’s give it a try, making the necessary adjustments for grammatical correctness:


Well, the time for delivering is over.  The time for bickering has passed.  Now is the season for games.  Now is when we must act the best ideas of both parties and show the American people that we can still bring what we were sent here to bring.  Now is the time to do health care.  Now is the time to do health care. 


I will just say that this idiomatic marking seems to me truer than the original:  the time for delivering is certainly over; leaving the “bickering” sandwiched between the first and third sentences bring outs better what is menacing in that assertion; is it ever the season for games!; “acting” the best ideas is certainly as close as they are coming to any ideas; what, indeed, have they been sent to “bring,” and to whom? (and by now there are plenty of new idiomatic, in particular taunting and boasting, uses of “bring,” like “bring your best game”); and, who can deny they are “doing health care,” with all the rich idiomatic implications, often threatening, of “do”?   


Idiomatic markings are perfect for a de-centralized popular culture, and for an intelligent one.  A lot of blows will be struck, but very few of them deadly—Obama will survive even much more artfully done and politically biting algorithmic permutations of his discourse than the one I have produced.  But some of these permutations will turn out to be very memorable, even if we could never predict which ones in advance.  And what we might come to share, what might be a “game-changer,” what might “transcend partisanship” (or “game partisanship” and “transcend change”) is our participation is remaking and rejuvenating our common linguistic material.

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