GABlog

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.

1 Comment »

  1. Deep stuff….and interesting read.

    Btw, just wanted to mention it looks like the article links from your homepage are broken (there is an extra % symbol on the end).

    Comment by Brian Armstrong — January 15, 2010 @ 10:29 am

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