GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

December 20, 2009

The Grammar of Desire and Resentment

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:15 am

It seems to me that Julia Kristeva was on to something important in her Lacanian-Maoist synthesis in the 60s and 70s, a synthesis predicated upon the notion that desire “pulverizes” what Kristeva called the “thetic”—essentially the kind of meaning packaged in propositions, or declarative sentences. The truth is that, strictly speaking, desire cannot coincide with meaning: the purer the desire, the more any interference with that desire must be destroyed, intellectually and physically, if possible. Desire cannot tolerate an independent reality within which the object might embed itself and thereby resist possession. And by possession, I mean absolute, unquestioned, permanent possession—which is what desire aims at. To put it in grammatical terms, desire involves the object issuing imperatives to the subject—come and get me; be who you can be once you have me; protect me from all others, etc.—but insofar as the object then resists possession, or breaks the promises implicit in its beckoning, the subject is reduced to issuing imperatives to the object, with all those commands reducible to some version of “remain exactly what or who you were in that instant when you first drew my attention to you.” These commands are impotent, and their impotence appears as the object’s situation at the intersection of a range of imperatives: the object is calling forth other suitors, and they in turn are (more successfully) commanding the object, making one or more of them its more authentic owner.

Meaning, indeed, in the sense of confirming a community of sign-users sharing a world of objects, cannot be articulated under such conditions—where Kristeva goes wrong, of course, is in valorizing this state of affairs as some kind of primordial freedom that will overturn the bourgeois order and institute utopia. In other words, she completely ignores the violence constitutive of the desiring condition, or justifies that violence as a salutary destructive force. Kristeva herself came to realize this soon enough. What interests me in all this is thinking through the transition from the grammar of desire to the grammar of resentment, which is the process of meaning constitution. This instant when the world appears as a grid of intersecting, multiplying and intensifying imperatives seems to me to be where we can locate the interrogative. The interrogative is a prolonged imperative, which is to say an imperative that understands it may not be obeyed. Questions acknowledge the opacity of the other: if I ask you your name, or where some object is, I assume that my desire will be better satisfied by giving you a choice than by demanding you disclose your identity or produce the object immediately. I need something in your possession that only you can provide. The question introduces resentment into the field of desire, because the question manifests not only the subject’s resentment at being denied immediate access to some desired object but also the subject’s conversion of the field of imperatives into a field of resentments, symmetrical to one’s own. And the question is answered, or “settled,” once the object demanded is secure as a sign in the field of semblances, or “reality.” Questions with no real answer are (leaving aside rhetorical questions, which are essentially exclamations) intensified imperatives that tear at the fabric of reality, as exemplified in the well known joke, “when did you stop beating your wife”?

Meaning, then, is the maintenance of the field of semblances, that is, the condition where all signs are objects and all objects signs, in varying degrees and articulations. Once even something so trivial as a piece of food (where there is plenty) becomes only food and not at all a sign of some mode of sharing, meaning collapses; once even the most abstract or stylized articulation of signs can no longer be “inhabited”—converted into a set of practices—the same thing happens. But the way we get through the question to the settlement of the field of semblances is, it seems to me, through the evolution of the imperative. When the desiring subject makes demands upon the resistant object, the demand that the object remain ever fresh, ever enticing, and ever yielding leads to madness—or to another demand, for further imperatives guiding the subject in possessing the object. These imperatives are invocations, and result in new imperatives from the center proposing self-reformation that might make one worthy of the object, or capable of displacing rivals. The invocation is the mediation that makes the question possible, because only the invocation can bring resentment into play, as the invocation already concedes the need for mediation.

There are plenty of satisfied desires and, even more, desires whose instigation, pursuit and fulfillment has created moral and ethical goods. Must these be less intense, “neutered,” inauthentic desires? It is better to say that they are desires constructed in such a way as to receive the blessing of the resentment of the center. They are desires turned towards the signness of their object, their opening onto infinity—a surrender of absolute possession and the complete displacement of rivals in the name of the continual hearkening of the center to one’s invocations. Such desires are not directed at a single consummation, but at something more sustained, something requiring a rule governed space wherein the object of desire can be continually augmented rather than diminished through enjoyment. If the iterated imperative becomes invocation, the iterated invocation—the invocation that draws in an ever wider circle of desires—becomes rule. This transformation as well, though, must take place through the intermediaries whose invocations collide and converge with the subject’s—that is, through events settled by the emergence of new sets of tacit and overt rule following. But all this is just to say that desire can be converted into love: the imperative to support the freedom and signifying power of the object.

The most basic form of rule following is language itself, in the form of grammar. The rules of grammar vary widely across languages, even if we could at least find exclamations, imperatives and declaratives in all of them—and nouns, verbs and adjectives, keeping in mind, though, that distinguishing individual words, much less word-types, might be problematic in societies without writing. The diversity in rules of grammar as well as in the specific forms taken by other social and cultural rules, along with the possibility of anthropological generalizations and, more pragmatically, translation, suggests that language evolution is driven by the grammar of desire and resentment—which are also both given to broad generalization while being highly contingent in their articulations. We could say, though, that rules come into existence simultaneously with mistakes—the first rule would be ruling something out, straightening some “deviation.” That rule, then, would be the work of resentment, the resentment of the center, however limitedly conceived, resentment countering some use of language taken (or mistaken) to provide an opening to, or to be a sign of, unregulated and unlimited desire—in this case conducted through an improper invocation.

The resentful grammarian’s stance might be mistaken in what it takes to be mistaken, but it is correct in intuiting the specter of unlimited desire in grammatical anomalies, improprieties and infelicities. Nobody makes grammatical errors in the idiom within which they learned to speak—errors are made in some linguistic community one is trying to enter. They are the visible results of failed attempts at imitation, of attempts to speak from the center, and thus they stand out as markers of mimetic desire. Anyone can see that the desire on display in the solecism is potentially unlimited and so the resentment (the resentment of the center towards attempts to mock and subvert that center) countering it must be unyielding. There is so much that is arbitrary in grammatical rules and so much for which there is no substitute for prolonged immersion in the culture of the linguistic group in question—especially if we expand our notion of “grammar” to include rules governing propriety of phrasing, intonation, acceptable degrees of repetition and redundancy, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, widely used clichés and commonplaces, and any other conventions aiding reciprocal intelligibility—that mistakes easily serve as markers of the fragility of the community. (Last year, in my writing class, we looked at a student paper written by an English as a second language speaker. It was easy enough to understand what she was trying to say, but it would also be easy enough to find, in a single paragraph, at least a dozen mistakes that would be unthinkable coming from even the most mediocre elememtary school graduate native speaker. Even more, it was easy to notice how “irrational” many of the violated rules were, which is to say how little obeying those rules contributed to conveying the meaning of the sentence. Not surprisingly, those are often the rules whose violation is the most distracting: no information is conveyed by having verbs in the third person singular conjugated with an ending s—why “he walks” instead of “he walk,” as long as we are keeping the pronoun?—but the error here is grating to the ear of the Standard English speaker. I doubt that more than one or two of the students experienced my sense of what a house of cards the entire structure of grammatical regulation is.)

As I suggested in my previous post, then, desire threatens to reduce the entire composition of the community to a disarticulated assemblage of gestures and “pieces” of language. The more that is invested in the particular forms of such composition, the more challenging the desire, which is also to say the more subversive cultural power to be accessed by divesting from the grammatical order. I neither valorize nor denounce such subversive power, as it can be used for either nihilistic and Gnostic purposes or for the ends of esthetic and cultural renewal—the difference, it seems to me, most often lies in what kind of resentment lays claim to exploiting the desire detectable in the mistake: whether the subversion places the desire it is drawing upon in opposition to some scapegoated form of normal resentment, or the cultural agent in question simply carries out his or her project in the spirit of playfulness, experimentation and workmanship, leaving the leading forces of resentment to recoup and reconfigure the results as they will. In the former case, the resentment is toward the very composition of the normal, while in the latter case the resentment is directed towards the margins and therefore the overreach of the normal, acting in the interest of the emergence of new idioms, with new expressive powers, which might otherwise never have come into existence.

So, as desire—the desires of new members of the community, including those new entrants into our culture we so carelessly and ceaselessly generate within our families—in wave after wave pulverizes the language (usually in very localized ways), we can point to the most entrenched form taken by the imperative as both the most resistant to and most complicitous with this ongoing erosion—habit. Habits are those rules that have become so tacit that it requires special acts of attention to notice their very existence. Habits are idiosyncratic sets of orders we give ourselves and rules we set for ourselves, while at the same time intersecting with the habits of others in myriad ways—the modes of intersection are themselves habitual. Habits are both scandalously libertine (the special pleasures of that afternoon walk in one’s favorite place, of that coffee with newspaper in the morning…are indescribable) and strangely ascetic (our habits preserve us from all kinds of temptations, which, as violations of the habit, appear to be taboo). And habits are deeply rooted in language—language is unthinkable without it (I know just how habitual some of the stylistic gestures I have made in the last couple of sentences are—the parallelism of “scandalously libertine” and “strangely ascetic,” with the accompanying parenthetical remark in each case, the short sentence connected by the dash to the quasi exclamatory intensification of the statement, etc.) The most profound cultural innovations are ones that work on the level of these and other habits.

Regulated habits of linguistic innovation then becomes a—I would like to say the most—ethical stance in today’s victimary world. One way of thinking of becoming a practitioner of such regulated innovation is consider oneself an anthropologist at one remove from the mimetic crises and holy wars going on around one—at one remove precisely so as to be able to simulate esthetically the contending and evolving imperatives and rules at stake in such crises and battles but without being drawn in. You can’t innovate while in the midst of a struggle for your life, soul, or sanity, but you also can’t innovate without giving idiomatic expression to such struggles. It seems to be plausible to hypothesize that the first signifier on the originary scene was not himself in hand to hand combat with his rival, because withdrawal from the battle could hardly be meaningful in that case—it would simply be surrender to the animal higher in the pecking order. Much more likely, it seems to me, is that the first signifier saw the deadly combat begin somewhere at the margins of the scene (the signifier, then, is on the margin of the battle) and it was his refusal to enter the field of combat (his visible resistance to the impulse common to all to rush in) that was meaningful. Similarly, it seems to me productive to assume that the declarative sentence, emerging out of the negative ostensive and also various combinations of ostensives and imperatives, and imperatives with counter-imperatives, was generally the work of interested “bystanders” and mediators in disputes—and, probably, usually not the most contentious and dangerous disputes, but first of all those given to mediation (while bearing a family resemblance to the more ferocious ones), thereby creating the cultural forms capable of being transferred to more central concerns. Of course, one might say that this little, marginalist, argument on the priority of linguistic inventiveness is just a self-congratulatory account of the way I see myself shaping my own habits at present, so by all means factor that into account in assessing the argument.

December 12, 2009

More problems in the concept of imitation

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:53 am

To imitate is to take imperatives from the actions or another—this first of all must be taken in a very literal and local sense: you see the other smashing a coconut with a stone and you are told by that to “do this.” This kind of imitation of individual moves would lead to local rather than cataclysmic conflicts.

I understand the anachronistic, anthropomorphic nature of my vocabulary here: I am describing imitation in terms of imperatives before there are any, but any vocabulary that would enable us to “enter” the process of imitation would be anachronistic and anthropomorphic.

Imitation becomes more dangerous when it involves taking the other’s activity as a rule—that is, in Michael Polyani’s terms, when you attend from his moves to the intended result of those moves. In this case, action aims at some kind of privileged access to the object.

At this point, then, one attends from the model’s attention to the object to the object as attended to by the model, but insofar as you see the model you don’t see the object and insofar as you see the object the model must be eliminated from the scene. So, there are conflicting imperatives: do this (move toward the object); look at that (eye the object)—but this second imperative, precisely in proportion to the model’s interest, would better be formulated as look at me.

The question then concerns the relative power of the imperatives issuing from the model and the object, respectively—once the desire for the object, the imperative to model oneself on its possession, attains ascendancy, the imperative to destroy the other follows, since one can only imagine such possession if the other no longer exists. To destroy the other’s relation to the object is to enter the entirety of his relation to the object, to inhabit his tacit and explicit tendency toward the object.

When the destruction of the other proves more difficult then imagined, one returns to the object for another imperative, elucidating the first one; the imperative returned is now in the form of a rule: keep the other away from the object, the object commands you, but in imitating the issuer of this command you become the guardian of the object and must obey that same command yourself: keep the other away as you yourself refrain from seeking to possess the object—imitate the issuer of this command, the presence superintending the object, and preserve the object as that presence does.

Now this attitude of deferral and solicitude towards the object can be imitated, as the other members of the group attend from the power of the presence guarding the object transmitted to the bearing of the first signifier—but here, imitation is insufficient, because the gap between what you attend to and the range of moves you could attend to from that cannot be closed; each must iterate the gesture, apply the rule to the infinitesimal; i.e., find a way to signify that they have signed on to the gesture.

These relations between immediate imitation and mediated imitation, between imitation and iteration, and between imperative and rule, are permanent features of the human condition. Even in the most mediated mimetic relations, say, where I model my scholarly activity on a teacher’s, and must therefore have studied the style in which that model poses questions, pursues lines of inquiry, distinguishes implicitly between more and less important observations, etc., there will be those occasions where I ask myself, in trying to solve some very specific problem or address a very specific challenge, “what would x do,” right here and now—as if all distance were abolished and we occupied the same frame. (Perhaps it is precisely at those moments, when one thoroughly incorporates one’s teacher, that one leaves a bit more of that teacher behind—with all the possible violence that implies, or simulates.) However playfully I treat my model, taking it as an occasion for all kinds of inventive iterations across various genres and social domains, in the end I must be able to line up what I am doing with something my model could have been observed doing in a one-to-one manner—that is, I am still imitating. And, however sophisticated a set of rules, and however complex the interaction between their tacit and explicit dimensions, in the end rules are only rules if they issue imperatives when needed—the rules “tell” me that this one is allowed to stay and that one must go.

At the same time, more advanced forms of mediated imitation, iteration, and regulation have transformed what will count as immediate imitation, imitation, and imperatives, respectively. The judge’s order that someone be removed from the courtroom for unruly behavior can be issued in the simplest imperative imaginable (“remove him!”), but that simplicity relies upon the extraordinary complexity of court procedures, understandings of acceptable behavior in civilized settings, the rule of law, and so on. We can recognize the attempts of a graduate student to mimic the stylistic features of an eminent theorist as a very naïve, even comical instance of imitation, but at the same time it’s obviously very different than scratching yourself because someone else itches (and we might as well remember that we still imitate on that level as well).

Resentment is the imitation of the central presence, the enactment of the rule that is derived from the object in the midst of the failure to clear the field for desire. I know that Gans situates resentment subsequent to the issuance of the sign, viewing resentment as that of the desiring subject whose access to the object has been barred. There is, certainly, resentment at that instant, but for the sign itself to be issued and iterated by the other members of the group each must not only refrain from appropriation but ascertain that all others are doing so likewise—and I don’t see another disposition with which one could thus surveil the others aside from resentment; and I don’t see where this disposition could be acquired other than by imitating the presence who, rather than beckoning one to come and take, is now insisting that if all can’t partake, none can. The first sign institutes this resenting disposition. Since resentment also imitates some model, the sequence of modifications of imitation from immediate through to iteration, and from imperative to regulation, applies here as well: I resent the guy who looks like he’s looking to take my seat on the bus even though I saw it first; I resent the politician who exploits some gray area in the constitutional order to implement a policy that will undermine freedom; I am angry with myself for cutting some corner in my personal relations or intellectual work, even if no one else will ever know about it; I feel compelled to clarify some conceptual distinction which I have noticed in another thinker—in all these cases, I am resenting with the resentment of the center. And insofar as I resent the barred access to the object by the center itself, even that is the resentment of the center: my desire must be more “justified” (more urgent, more deserved, more intensely felt, etc.) than the others’.

Desire could be in “error,” I suppose (obviously it is of the nature of mimesis that we often choose objects that are unattainable or illusory, that cause us more harm than good, that are dissatisfying once we obtain them, etc.), but only as observed by the resenting subject who can see the delusions of desire as a result of the unfairness of the world, or one’s own lack of luck, or as a deserved result of foolishness or selfishness, etc. In itself, desire is just what it is, the imperative power bestowed upon an object through and in proportion to its possession by some actual or possible normative rival (or rivals). In the end, it’s not all that interesting. (Perhaps unfortunately, desire is even less interesting when it is carefully channeled, properly mediated, and leads to real enjoyment—but who knows, maybe that’s just a Romantic prejudice.) Resentment, on the other hand, can be misplaced and misdirected in all kinds of ways, as measured and judged by other more mature (or sometimes even just different) forms of resentment. It is extraordinarily difficult to distinguish between resentment that is genuinely of the center and resentment that is a mask and tool of desire—especially since, given the imitative nature of resentment, even resentments of the center generate new desires and rivalries that pervert their origin. This is just another way of saying that I am much more interested in the composition of the scene than in the mimetic crisis impelling its emergence.

Not only must the first signifier compose something new, but the other members of the group who successively repeat it must do so as well, and their task may be the more difficult one. The first signifier need not know what he is doing: he aborts his gesture of appropriation, which is to say he stops or hesitates. Those who come after must show that they know what he “meant”—that is, they must construct his gesture as sign: the aborted gesture becomes the gesture of aborted appropriation. The third must somehow even out the discrepancies between the first and the second, and the fourth must strike the average or norm that is emerging, and so on. These emergent humans already had a repertoire of primate gestures (and grunts, and so on)—that entire repertoire must have been available to convey the resentment of the central presence, with each element necessarily put to some use, perhaps the exact opposite of the one it had previously. There is already a preliminary combination, or grammar, but the norm or rule that is coming into being could just as easily be described as a series of mistakes, of the gesture mis-taken over and over, since none could know what their gesture would look like to the others. The constant would be a rough equidistance between the members and between the members as the object; but the variables would be whatever motions each discovered to ensure their fellows that they would maintain those distances—but also step in to insist the others did so as well.

Not all mistakes are iterations, but all iterations look something like mistakes. Iteration involves applying the rule to the infinitesimal: for example, if I’m imitating someone’s style, or following the rules, tacit and overt, constitutive of that style, when I make a tacit rule overt; or apply an overt rule to a portion of the discourse that resists what I take to be the distinctive markers of the style; or turn a style of writing into a style of living—then, I am iterating. Iteration is applying the rule to the unseen boundaries within which the rule operates. Indeed, whether an iteration will work, or take, or turn out to have been a mistake, can only be known after the fact—maybe at an indeterminate distance from the fact. The prerequisite of an iteration is positing the equidistance of all the elements and materials on the scene from each other—that is, no combination is ruled out in advance. This is what Gertrude Stein attempted, first on the level of events, emotions, actions, and so on, in her earlier, more representationalist writings (and through her later, autobiographical ones); and then, in later, more innovative ones, with the linguistic materials themselves. And the second move in the iteration is the presentation of a combination that will serve as a rule, while still keeping the elements and materials in their evenly distributed state.

In this case models can be treated as absolute, as they must be if they are remain models—they are the source of all imperatives and rules. And one could strive to be a model, based upon the productivity of the rules one proposes. But there is no need to destroy such models—they create space rather than monopolizing scarce space. To the extent that the rules, procedures, moves, and so on necessarily produce different results with each user, there is really nothing to attack, or to feel contained by. All we would need to “sacrifice” is the belief that our models are models because they imitate a higher, more real reality. In looking for models to iterate, I can deliberately choose those which seem most alien to my own talents and habits; or I can choose a high cultural model and derive rules for the production of popular cultural object from it, or vice versa; I can choose a model based on its most despised or neglected attributes; I can treat a tragic model comically or a comic model tragically; I can rewrite a text reversing the relative proportions of all of its nouns; the possibilities, needless to say, are inexhaustible, and anyone could do and teach these moves with always surprising, often amusing, and almost invariably instructive results. This is play, but very serious play—such play generates idioms, and the proliferation of idioms is what is most likely to save us today. The resentment of the center would then be directed towards any attempt to make us all—or any two of us, for that matter—derive the same imperatives from the same names.

December 3, 2009

Classicism, Romanticism and Marginalism: Problems in the Concept of Imitation

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:44 am

Classicism is the imperative to refer one’s work to a model; not just any model, but the best model, which represents the heights of human excellence, which is to say a more permanent human reality (human reality, moreover, as embedded in a natural and divine order). Romanticism is the imperative to reject the authority of any particular model, because any model would be finite and therefore arbitrarily close off actual and potential areas of experience and discovery. I would like to inscribe marginalism in the complementary antinomies each position must confront: classicism must impute the imperatives of reality to its models in order to produce its own semiotic authority; while the romantic gesture of overthrowing models must be compulsively repeated, which in turn establishes the most tyrannical of all models. Marginalism finds in the model an imperative instituting the rule one will already have been following, thereby turning the model into a constitutive, inexhaustible, source of rules.

We follow one model rather than another because it directs us toward the acquisition of a more attractive object. This is a bit circular, though, because how else could we come to know objects, and distinguish between their respective attractions, without models? One model replaces another by offering us a model that is more attractive, even on the terms of our previous model—that’s how we know. A healthy relation to models, then, always places the object in the center, so that some criteria for judging the pedagogical relationship can be generated. But if the object in question is finite and indivisible, the mimetic relationship reaches its limits in the mutual desire for possession. So the object in the center must be infinite and indivisible—in which case it can’t be possessed in any stable way and relies upon one’s acceptance as a model by others, that is, upon one being taken as issuing imperatives that give way to a rule. This is the way the “possession” of attributes like “honor,” “goodness,” and “respect” is established.

But the attention to such intangible objects, including the ultimate intangible object, God or, perhaps more precisely, God’s blessing, leads us back to the model again. It is precisely in a civilized order, where the central objects are intangible and beyond the reach of ritualized practices, that models confront us as embodiments of abstract norms. This makes the inversion of the healthy relationship between object and model not complete (there are still plenty, and ever more, material goods out there), but inevitable. In other words, how can I know what it means to be a moral, God-fearing, compassionate, loyal, etc., individual, other than by following very closely the example set by those considered such? And following very closely means not only deriving my actions and attitudes from those I see erected as models, but seeking the approval of those models and the circles that have approved of them. Cultural pedagogy, in that case, involves the reversion of the proper relation between object and model: the models must direct attention from themselves to the intangible, invisible objects underpinning their legitimacy.

This is a complex maneuver, though, because the attention directed toward the model must first of all be used, and the rules emanating from that model reinforced and enforced in very literal ways. I think that one of the attractions of what are essentially enormously popular, millennial-style cults on the Left like Global Warmism and White Guilt is that they satisfy this need for an unproblematic, self-confident pedagogy. They tell you exactly what you have to say on every question, they model the appropriate modes of self-presentation in great detail, they provide a pantheon of heroes, they tell you exactly who the enemy is and how to confront and confound him. Responding to such true believers with the injunction to “think for yourself” is not very effective: alternative modes of thinking are a priori designated as bought and paid for by the oil companies, or mark one as a troglodytic denizen of “far right wing” caves.

A marginalist cultural pedagogy would present the rules founding an idiom. If there is one generalization I can venture regarding today’s “youth,” it is that they are allergic to lectures, in any context. Any insistence that, in order to believe one thing that you say they already have to believe something else you say is met with an iron wall of boredom and suspicion. The exceptions seem to me to be those who see their prospects in succeeding to positions in the dominant forms of victimary pedagogy in the arts, education, politics and media. Needless to say, no privileged or “classical” model of inquiry, creation, or accomplishment, has the slightest chance of surviving beyond very small and protected circles. At the same time, though, I don’t think young people today are particularly “romantic” either—they are very attuned to the demands made upon them and determined to follow the rules imposed, without necessarily “believing” in these demands or rules.

What perhaps can be provided by the pedagogue are minimal rules, practices and spaces that allow for the creation of idioms. Working on the production of such rules and practices directs our attention away from both model and object and toward the sign. The model uses signs to direct attention away from himself and toward a world of objects, but the elaboration of signs at a permanent distance from any particular configuration of those objects can become the center of attention. I don’t think there’s much value today in “dialogue,” either interpersonally or in the more cultural sense as postmodern liberalisms would have it—there is rarely any reason to assume that any two or more of us are really speaking about the same thing. What may be valuable is saying “why don’t you try this?” And this, of course, means you need to have something worth trying.

We can all generate things worth trying, minimal moves that, butterfly-effect like can have unknown reverberations through the world. We are all following and inventing rules, tacitly and explicitly, all the time; we are always following and inventing contradictory sets of rules; and we are always mistaking those rules in ways that we can occasionally notice. Cultural pedagogy authority can be used—it will always have enough capital for this—to present the rules that would account for the legitimacy of that mode of cultural authority. In politics, political entrepreneurs in a possible future in which avenues into public life can evade party filters (or in which parties themselves become different kinds of animals) could present a set of rules, grounded in basic imperatives (which your own experience would quickly teach you), regarding influencing public opinion, deal-making, compromise, the composition of legislation, and also the leveraging of firm principles in various pragmatic situations. In academic settings, in specific disciplinary sites, we can construct minimal rules regarding what counts as inquiry into language, history, biology, etc.

Pedagogy then involves putting students on the path to formulate their own idiosyncratic versions of these rules. For example, in the human sciences we can say that a basic move any scholar needs to be able to make is to take a word from one text or context and use it to describe something in another text or context. That’s a fundamental imperative: we recognize a scholar in the human sciences by the fluency with which they effect such transfers of meaning. Indeed, such work with signs reveals the basic object of the human sciences: the human being as source of signs. In that case, one can simply tell students they need to do that: take a text, and, say, use some word or phrase in that text to describe something happening someplace else in that text. One could multiply such imperatives and rules simply by looking at the kinds of things we do as thinkers: for example, one very common way in which we create new concepts is by placing “the” before an adjective (“the Good”). So, tell students that they have to place “the” before x adjectives in a particular text, and then use the resulting concept to describe something they see in the text, or something they are doing in reading the text. Never mind the results, for a while at least—you will get, obviously, mistakes, clumsiness, barbaric formulations rather than Platonic dialogues. But the mistakes, subjected to inquiry, can become the source of new idioms—what is important is that the invented concepts be expanded, multiplied, intertwined, and applied. As long as texts and ever-mutating rules are placed at the center, and students are obliged to assess and rework one another’s idioms, the things students are learning they can do with language will enable them to see the very odd things the texts we honor in the academy have done with language. (We can perhaps come to see how texts and artifacts “succeed” precisely by wrenching the present constellation of signs out of their habitual slots—something our fluency in such texts and artifacts blinds us to.)

Perhaps the culture as a whole is ready for such practices—the degree of self-reflexivity has so intensified that discussion, even in the most popular media, is increasingly about how something can be taken in one way or another. What are the rules one is following when one seeks fame in a particular manner or area of endeavor; what are the rules that underlie genuine excellence and accomplishment? Any consumer of popular culture can answer the first question in detailed and savvy ways. The second question, of course, is the harder one, but it’s not a fundamentally different one: real, lasting accomplishment is the result of discipline—discipline not just in the sense of managing passions and desires and establishing the habits that allow one to marginalize distractions (resentments that will lose their object tomorrow but can absorb all your energies today), but in the sense of exploring and inventing the rules of the activity and doing so along with others—competitors and collaborators—in unpredictable fields. What are the most basic things political organizers need to do? Reporters? Poets? There are a lot of ways of answering these questions, and each answer will yield different rules and then different idioms. Inventing catchy puns might be just as important, at this point, as crafting complex policy positions—and I don’t think this is a bad thing, as inventing catchy puns can not only be an equally demanding discipline but can do something far more valuable than policy positions, which is create channels of spontaneous exchange.

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