GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

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.

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