Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Right of the Idiom, 3

Disciplinary spaces are both open and closed: when you just enter a disciplinary space, a space with a real focus, an evolved vocabulary, and means—both explicit and tacit—for rerouting the attentions of the others within the space; when you just enter such a a space you don’t really know what’s going on. Even more, you read it in terms of what you do know. At the same time, if it’s a genuine disciplinary space, it provides various transitional terms that both de-familiarize what you thought you understood about the shared attentionality demanded and provide you with the means to participate in disciplinary events. We can formulate this inside/outside relationship as follows: the probability that anyone will iterate signs put forward within the discipline approach 100% the more they have entered the disciplinary space and randomness the further they are outside of it. We can think about it this way: imagine standing in front of a contained representation, like a painting or photograph, with someone else—you could conduct your discussion almost completely in deictics or shifters, that is, “look at that”; “how close would you say this is supposed to be to that?”; “do you mean him or her?”, etc. You, with your eyes on the same thing, can be completely mutually intelligible to each other; anyone without their eyes on this scene could not even begin to make sense of your conversation. That’s what a discipline is—we all know we are looking at the same thing, and can proceed from there. At the same time, we can welcome others into the scene, and welcome the new perspective they bring with it; and, even more, we have to continually refresh and check our sense that we are, indeed, looking at the same thing. Within a discipline, it becomes especially evident when we are not, as we believed, looking at the same thing: the deictics lose their referential power.

We can contrast disciplinary discourse with what I called, in the previous post, “crowded” (and crowding) discourse—that is, partisan discourse organized around gaining access to the state’s power to protect and divide property. Those inside one crowd and (of necessity) outside the other, understand equally well, but in the opposite manner, what goes on inside the other crowd. In other words, those on the left understand “Obama is a socialist” just as well as those on the right; those on the right understand “Palin is a fraudulent woman” just as well as those on the left—in both cases, the meaning of the statement is saturated, and marks an entire field along with the oppositions that constitute that field. It’s as if each crowd has a map that overlaps perfectly with the other crowd’s map, but with all of the places named differently. This has nothing to do with right or wrong, and I’m not claiming that political opponents are morally equivalent with each other—the war against Nazism worked this way, and the struggle against communism even more so, and while this insight into mimetic modeling can help is to identify excesses and distortions that can be curtailed and ameliorated, there is still a substantial difference between democracy and totalitarianism.

I would like to define language as the from which we attend to each other’s attending to. I am using the idiom of Michael Polanyi’s understanding of tacit knowledge, more specifically his The Tacit Dimension. According to Polanyi, we are always attending from one thing to something else, with the thing we are attending to that of which we are aware—what we attend from is essentially invisible. He gives the example of using a stick to stay in contact with the wall in trying to find your way out of a dark place—you are aware of the wall, not the stick. Of course, if the stick breaks, you will become aware of it—but that just means you will be attending from something to the stick—perhaps from your hand, which you now touch the end of the stick with, in order to determine how much of it remains.

If we attend from language to each other’s attending to, we are attending from language not merely to some object of shared attention, and to others’ attending to that object, but to both: language always implies not only something we are or might be talking about but the others with whom one might be talking about it—the two are bound up inextricably. The implication of my description is that language is ordinarily invisible—we don’t notice ourselves speaking, we don’t think of ourselves as adding one word to another as we speak, much less as making sounds that we could “listen” to by bracketing their meanings. Except for when, as in the example of the stick, language doesn’t work—when a foreign accent forces you to focus carefully on the sounds of the words, or a grammatical mistake forces you to hypothetically reconstruct the other’s meaning, etc. That’s when we have to look at language, which we do, of course, with language. Metaphysics is the attempt to rectify language when such events force language into self-reflexive states so that we can continue to look through language; originary grammar tries to articulate looking at language and with language with looking through language.

We can articulate an account of the originary scene in the Polanyian terms I have just introduced with the theory of “markedness” first constructed by Roman Jakobson and by now a staple of much of contemporary linguistics. I will make markedness theory do a lot of work, but I will also use it in some idiosyncratic ways—as is necessary to make it fully compatible with the originary hypothesis. Jakobson intensified Saussure’s insistence on the constitution of language through a series of differences by arguing that these differences are, most fundamentally, asymmetrical binary oppositions: always an opposition between an unmarked and a marked element. This opposition already does quite a lot of work for Jakobson and his followers, enabling them to account for phonetic, grammatical, semantic and other relationships; it can easily be taken even further, as in Eric Gans’s definition of White Guilt, as the guilt of the unmarked toward the marked. As Gans’s definition suggests, to be “unmarked” is to be generic, the norm, the taken for granted, or, in Polanyi’s terms, the tacit, what one attends from. To take a couple of simple examples, the present tense in English is unmarked, the past is marked (we add endings to the word): you look for the word “love” in the dictionary, not the word “loved,” which presupposes that “love” is the normal form of the word and “loved” the modified form. To take another, more semantic example, we ask how “tall” someone is, not how “short” they are (someone is 5 feet tall, not 5 feet short)—“tall” is the unmarked term, which means that referring to someone as “5 feet short” would add more information, implying, for example, an ironic stance on the part of the speaker. It would, in other words, be drawing attention to the word chosen, in a way “he’s 5 feet tall” wouldn’t.

We can locate (un)markedness on the originary scene in the distinction between sacred center and profane periphery. Indeed, the center must be marked first of all, insofar as the participants in the event attend from the sign/gesture to the object; but the effect of this shared attention is to have everyone attend from the object as sacred to each and every one’s profane desire for the object, culminating in the regulated sparagmos. The sign, then, signifies doubly: it refers to the object, but also the Object (everyone else’s blocking of the object) as the possibility of a normative approach to the object. The sign simultaneously marks and unmarks the object and thereby constitutes the unmarked/marked distinction in the first place. All that remains to be done is to show how the subsequent development of language, from the ostensive, through the imperative and the interrogative to the declarative, through the development of grammatical categories and rules and so on, is nothing more than the application of this “method” discovered on the originary scene. Once we have a meaningful unit, meaningful units can be combined into new units; and that unit can itself be broken down into units, meaningless in themselves, but meaningful in new combinations—just as the gesture on the originary scene is “analyzed” in the attempt to imitate it “correctly.” In this way we would have an originary linguistics and (my preferred term) grammar, which is to say an originary way of thinking through all the possible relationships between linguistic elements, or all the ways we think through, at and with language.

In every sentence, even every word, one part is stressed in relation to another—we attend from the unstressed to the stressed; or, from the part that would ordinarily have been stressed to the part that is stressed this time. What is stressed in “I didn’t expect to see you here,” for example: the “I,” the “you,” or the “here”—or, perhaps, the “see” (maybe you were expecting a phone call). The stressed is marked, that part of the utterance that provides the most, or most pertinent, information—just as the center itself is empty or silent, while being an inexhaustible source of knowledge regarding attempts to obey, violate or modify its commands. The theory of (un)markedness in turn makes the issue of “deictics” especially important: deictics, or shifters, are those words which take on their meaning from other elements of the message or the speech situation—for example, “him” or “that” depend upon what has been referenced in a previous sentence, or someone present who can be pointed to. I doubt I am the first person to observe that we can identify a deictic element to just about every part of any utterance, which is to say that the meaning of any statement has a scenic component—at any rate, attending from the unmarked to the marked pervades every use of language, to the point where one could pretty effectively and thoroughly describe the meaning of any utterance just by following all the ways in which the unmarked, present in the scene or utterance, or implicit in our knowledge as language users, directs our attention to whatever it is the utterance would have us mark. Indeed, the point of any utterance could be described as follows: to preserve, modify and/or expand the realm of the unmarked by marking whatever most immediately demands others’ attention—because, as those familiar with the originary hypothesis know, whatever is marked is a potential source of rivalry, crisis and violence.

Distinguishing between the unmarked and the marked raises new questions—simply, unmarked and marked for whom, in what setting, according to what criteria, etc.? The distinction is always made in some event, on some scene, and must ultimately lead us to an ostensive gesture—this word, this act, is marked because it is set off from some norm in the following way; “distinctive,” or “distinguishing features,” to use Jakobson’s terms, can always be indicated. In other words, distinguishing between marked and unmarked takes place on a disciplinary scene, however rudimentary and tacit. Whereas Jakobson would, understandably enough, distinguish between the speech situation and the represented scene we can locate in any speech act, and identify the deictics in play accordingly (“someone was standing to the left of John” functions deictically on the represented scene, assuming John has been placed on that scene; “over there” functions deictically in the speech situation, but wouldn’t on the represented scene), I would approach that necessary distinction as follows: there is what can be identified on the disciplinary scene, or what I will also call the scene of presencing; and there is what can be represented by those on that disciplinary scene to those outside of it. What can be represented to those outside of a disciplinary scene are the results of that scene: what emerged in a continuous, spontaneous manner (the disciplinary scene always culiminates in and maximizes deictics—“look at that… now see what happens here… go back to that…) is now represented as completed, in a narrative or conceptual form.

Deictics introduce the marked/unmarked distinction into grammar, because some words, originally meant to accompany a gesture or direct our attention to something on some disciplinary scene, is now redirected so as to draw our attention to something else in the sentence. We attend from relative pronouns like “which” and “that” to a clause we are to place in relation to the previous one. Personal pronouns direct our attention toward someone who has previously been named and commented upon. As we transition or transform our relations from presencing to representational ones, verbal elements that were involved in constituting the scene by establishing symmetrical shared attention are turned to the purpose of reconstructing the scene by placing the names of participants on the scene and the character of events transpiring upon it into grammatical relations with each other.

The first declarative was an “answer” to an interrogative. This makes perfect sense because any sentence can be read as an answer to a question. Indeed, most sentences can be read as answers to multiple questions, questions implicit in other questions, questions asked by various, perhaps opposed, inquisitors, questions occurring to the speaker him/herself as he/she composes the sentence in response to another question, etc. Questions and types of questions repeat themselves over time, and language economizes—one very important thing grammar does is build types of answers so as to pre-empt a whole series of questions into the structure of the sentence itself. Conjugating verbs packs together the answer to the question what is done with the question who does it. In English, for example, the adjective almost invariably precedes the noun it modifies—on the one hand, we are deprived of a possible marker of style (maybe “hat red” would carry subtle, yet genuinely different connotations than “red hat”); on the other hand, we are saved from what might be an unworkable level of confusion regarding what is modifying what, thereby answering a potential question in advance. Grammatical rules, along with the vast number of linguistic formulas (of greeting, of marking agreement, of providing recognition, etc.) unmark vast swathes of language and can arouse great resentment when violated or mistaken—precisely because such violations open up questions, and through those questions, imperatives and contradictory imperatives thought to have been silenced. In all of these cases the same process is at work: words which once had scenic, presencing force, are turned into terms from which we attend to whatever the sentence and larger discourse would have us attend to. The linguist Guy Deutscher, in his excellent The Unfolding of Language, provides a fascinating analysis of the development of the word “going” into an auxiliary verb and ultimately into the phrase pronounced “gonna,” by now an independent grammatical marker (as Deutscher notes, we don’t say “I’m gonna the store”—“going to,” in its original sense of moving toward some destination, still exists, but separately from this other, evolved, form). Conjunctions and prepositions are evolved adjectives, which are in turn evolved from participles and language is dead metaphors all the way down. Ultimately language evokes and constitutes events and the participants thereon by naming and tracking them with specialized means of directing attention: when you represent a scene for someone who was not a participant, the only way of doing so effectively is by using or creating metaphors (say, an imperative become a verb become, via a participle, a condition) from which others can attend to their own disciplinary locales. We can articulate all of language out of ostensives become substantives, imperatives become verbs and decitics with all subsequent complications resulting from the new ability created by the declarative sentence to quell all questions (behind which lurk threatening imperatives) by referring them to a reality subject to its own imperatives which override those with which we presume to approach it.

Using Jakobson’s distinction between the axis of combination (the relations between words in a sentence, or grammar) and the axis of selection (the choice of one word over others that could go in its place, or semantics), we could say that the conventions of grammar allow us to mark a particular element of the sentence as that which the sentence is most significantly conveying: if I say “I am going home” I can emphasize the “I,” as in you might stay on, but not me; or the home, as in you might have some other destination in mind, but as for me, it’s home. The “I” or the “home,” then, is the marked element. At the same time, selecting “home” unmarks home in relation to, say, one’s address, or as opposed to “out of here,” both of which might be implicitly marked as mocking or excessively provocative. Finally, the one who hears the sentence, who, in Jakobson’s terms will “decode” it—but I prefer to describe language iconically, as a mapping, which the listener or reader navigates, or fails to navigate—will in turn iterate the act of (un)marking, in what he or she says, does, and doesn’t say or do (in the common tripartite division of the materials of linguistics, grammar, semantics and pragmatics, this final move is the pragmatics).

At any rate, to conclude this discussion, which I see has not yet gotten to either rights or idioms, our distinction between disciplinary spaces and crowded spaces, scenes of presencing and scenes of representation, can be determined not so much in terms of quantities of marked and unmarked elements as in the extent to which what is unmarked and marked is determined on the scene: more precisely, the more disciplinary, the more presencing, a scene, the more anything might be attended to just as easily as it can be attended from; the more crowdy, the more representational, the thicker the commonplaces and predictable phrases one need merely attend from; the more disciplinary, the more diverse the imperatives flowing from reality and the more intermixed they are with imperatives and interrogatives put, nevertheless, to reality; the more representational or metaphysical, the more unilateral, irresistible and univocal the imperatives flowing from reality. Which is really a way of repeating my first couple of paragraphs, and laying a little groundwork from really getting to the right of the idiom next time.

The Right of the Idiom, 2

The elemental form of freedom is that of the discipline: a shared, inviolate and inexhaustible locus of attention. Sciences are disciplines, developing vocabularies and histories, and framing their objects so that another “layer” of understanding can always be sought. But so are congregations around some object of faith or communities of criticism around some esthetic object or domain. All that matters is the collaborative act of sustaining the centered attention, and the capacity of each in the discipline to contribute to new modes of attention on the part of the others. Even when we think to ourselves, we are participating in a discipline, whether it be the discipline of the varied voices in our mind, or the possible discipline of thinkers past and future with whom we engage. The discipline has its original on the originary scene, when we all stand in equipoise before the central object, and attend to the object along with one another’s attention to it.

The most basic political rights, then, are those associated with participation in the disciplines: speech, association, religion, press, etc. It becomes possible to assert such rights once the originary scene has divided into several scenes, each with its own disciplinary logic. The power of the several scenes will depend upon the power exercised by the ritual center, and the defense of the rights of the disciplines will depend upon the conversion of the imperative space tied to the ritual center into a declarative space, or a public discipline, concerned with identifying the nature of rights and the means of securing them. The emergence of talk of rights, then, will be connected to the right of each discipline to establish and sustain itself, and to publicize itself before others—and the insistence upon such rights will be modeled on the rights which emerge within any discipline, the rights involved in getting a communicable view of the central object.

The sacred is what holds our joint attention and enables us to attend to each other’s attending to. The profane, then, is whatever can be used, consumed or destroyed in service to the sacred, on terms allowed by the sacred, or in violation of the sacred. All unfolding from the originary scene, then, results from mistakings of the boundary between sacred and profane and takings that inscribe the mistake within a new idiom or exclude it in accord with the existing norm. Politics emerges when the community has to do more inscribing than excluding. That’s when we would start speaking in terms of rights, sacralizing first of all groups and institutions (disciplines as a whole) but ultimately individuals, in their right to join and leave disciplines.

Property emerges out of the profane—it is the acquisition on the part of the discipline of the means to preserve the discipline, to serve the sacred at its center. I would suggest that the sign continues to be issued in the course of the sparagmos, as each participant presents it to the other whenever the other tries to grab more than his share: property is modeled on this relatively orderly but also competitive division of the object. With the emergence of property comes the asymmetry of the disciplines, an asymmetry which struggles over access to the public disciplinary space will seek to remedy or support. Hence the emergence of parties, which aim at guaranteed access to the state, and turn the spread of disciplinary discourse into the crowding of party discourse. In other words, disciplines disperse and distribute the individuals involved by placing them equidistant from the center; parties draw upon the interest of diverse property holders in access to the state and, on the model of the sparagmos, are concerned with drawing lines, taking parts and dividing to one’s advantage.

If one is political, there is no avoiding parties and partisanship, but one can establish disciplinary spaces at the margins of parties so as to place limits on crowding and make the public disciplinary space (parliament, congress) genuinely disciplinary itself. What these disciplinary spaces concern themselves with is the political consequence of whatever the disciplines from which they derive concern themselves with. Whatever can be presented as an object within a discipline can be a subject of rights: “nature” (or some portion thereof), things and technologies, the dead and the yet to be born, and more. I am proposing this kind of “rights talk” as a counter to the signal strategy of the Left, which is to supplant individual rights (the rights, as I am presenting them here, to participate in disciplines) with collective rights requiring expanded state activity and, ultimately, severe restrictions on individual rights. I am suggesting, in other words, a metaphorical rights talk, which calls upon citizens, not the state, to expand the range of sacred objects they wish to protect.

Trade itself develops modes of sacrality, and enterprise can be a mode of disciplinarity. At one extreme, economic innovation, as in the high tech firms in Silicon Valley, can be a thoroughly engaged intellectual and ethical enterprise; and economic exchange, especially when conducted at the margins of a given social order, can be so risky as to require explicit signs of trustworthiness on the part of the participants. Most often, though, economic activity conducted through private property is a kind of warfare on the existing social division of labor, and trade seeks and finds the protection of states and laws. I persist in calling the kinds of technological and organizational strategies and transformations we associate with firms like Microsoft and Wal-Mart “warfare” because their focus is not merely on providing a better and/or cheaper product, but upon undermining the competitor’s market position, for which purpose they will make use of any means available. I’m not making a moral point, in other words, just trying to develop the best description—and the tactics of the enemies and competitors of these firms, such as union organizing drives, “living wage” policies and anti-trust lawsuits are no less modes of warfare than any used by these firms themselves. Those who cannot develop their property within the existing division of labor will directly target weak links in that division of labor; those whose profits are tied to that division of labor will try to reinforce it and treat innovations as usurpation. The free market libertarian theorists are right to point to the monopolistic and rent seeking character of those who profit from the existing division of labor, and breaking up monopolies so that new connections can be places new practices beyond existing state control. The victors themselves, though, immediately seek out protection from and alliances with the state. Not only that, but transformations in the social division of labor imply shifts in desires and resentments as well, creating new modes of politics aimed at staging, framing and channeling those desires and resentments. This doesn’t imply any one to one relation between economic and cultural changes: for example, enhancements in medical technologies that enable intra-uterine treatment can make abortion more routine or more horrible. Here is where idioms of rights come into it: how will the rights of the unborn child be articulated with rights of inquiry of the scientist and right to confidentiality of the mother/patient?

The family is also best seen as an imperatival, normalizing space, protecting society from the consequences of sexual desires and appetites. But the pleasures of family life seem to me to coincide with its political significance: what the family, or familial love, teaches above all else, is resentment on behalf of the other. The child concerned with his or her parents’ dignity; the parent taking up the defense of his or her child against the school or some other establishment; the sibling waging mini-wars on behalf of, or providing tutorials on “life” to, sibling; or, for that matter, the parent or child siding with society, opportunistically or pedagogically, against the more narrow desire of the family member—all this offers a wide field for the nuanced and self-distancing exercise of broadly shared resentments that get played out in less complex forms in the workplace, in friendships and love affairs and in various institutions. A “pro-family” politics, one speaking on behalf of the “rights” of the family, should find ways to speak in these terms of what it is we wish to protect about families.

At any rate, the most fundamental right, the right to have rights, can be grounded in our capacity for language use and, more specifically, our ability to participate in disciplinary spaces, which are characterized by their distinctive idiom: a vocabulary, a set of commonplaces, a shared set of imperatives and so on. Those who can’t speak, who can’t participate in disciplines—those in “vegetative” states, the unborn, very small children, people with Alzheimer’s, etc.—can be represented within disciplines. Asserting the abstract human rights of people who can’t assert their own has not worked very well: it’s easy enough to claim that the person in a coma would have wanted to die (maybe it’s sometimes true), the rights of the unborn have seemed very faint compared to the demands of the fully fledged human mother, and attempts to humanize stem cells have had, at best, temporary successes. But perhaps when the speechless enter a discourse, generated by a discipline demonstrably interested in exploring their possible wants and imposing upon the rest of us a real presence, the contrast between such a discourse and others predicated upon the irrelevance of these figures (all sacrificial discourses which accept the disappearance of one for the benefit of others, or “society” as a whole) will succeed where arguments based on an abstract humanity, life or right has not.

In its own way, the rights of the idiom takes up sides with those transforming the existing division of labor. If we follow the imperative to minimize, the disciplinary events which shape us increasingly overlap while simultaneously differentiating. I would like to present this as a problem in originary grammar, but I will save that for the next post.