GABlog

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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