Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Right of the Idiom, Yet Again

A few months ago I saw a student wearing a t-shirt with the words “Us vs. Them” on solid background (I don’t remember the color of the shirt or the lettering). It seems to me an example of minimalist brilliance. It first of all must be read ironically, as criticizing all the ultimately “arbitrary” divisions in the world, all which would reduce to this single, “irrational” or “primordial” gesture of demonizing some other. But such a critique proves too much—if that is, indeed, what we are doing all the time, isn’t the implication that we can’t do otherwise? Even more, what else is the wearer of the t-shirt herself (it was a young woman) doing other than constructing an “us” (those aware of the arbitrariness of conflicts) and “them” (those who actually believe in the causes of the conflicts)? I think we can work with the assumption that the irony is meant to bounce back upon the wearer of the shirt in this way, but that doesn’t end things: there is still some marginal difference between the one who stays completely and uncritically invested in his community’s battles and the one capable of stepping back, however momentarily and provisionally, and attaining a more anthropological insight into the sources of those battles. In that case, the second “us vs. them,” that of the anthropologists vs. the merely mimetic human, which is in fact a division within each of us rather than between some of us and others, interferes, however weakly, with the rush toward the center—it is, that is, a kind of originary gesture, all the more meaningful for acknowledging its own implication in the anthropological truth it reveals.

An idiom is this articulation of group membership, the sharing of a sacred center, and its anthropological “surplus,” or awareness that the signs designating that center might be otherwise and in fact are otherwise, having their equivalents in every other group. The preservation of an idiom, moreover, depends upon sharpening the differences between equivalents rather than ironing them out—the attempt to create more general signs that would smooth out idiomatic differences is really just the process of creating new groups, albeit ones that claim to speak (and may do so more or less meaningfully) in the name of, say, “humanity.” One sign of an autonomous idiom is the proliferation of individual styles, as the idiom becomes rich enough to gather influences from a range of other idioms as a way of enhancing its own distinctiveness—a very good example is the copious wealth of Renaissance English, with its avaricious devouring of Latin, Italian and French influence, its engagement with the emergent sciences, and the problems of translating the Bible, establishing national unity and devising a specifically Anglican form of Christianity.

There are three ways in which human beings share things: we can divide them literally and materially; we can exchange them through a gift economy; we can exchange them on the market through the universal medium of money. Historically, we have moved, unevenly, from the first to the last, but just as Eric Gans acknowledged recently that the gift economy still pervades our market one, we should further acknowledge that we are never done, once and for all, with any of these economic systems. A family sitting down for dinner will cut up a single piece of meat and distribute sections to each member, according to some convention or the urgency of individual requests (no problem if there is enough, but possible problems if there isn’t); a group of college kids will pass around the bong, each taking one “hit” (if people still do this); a baseball team gives each batter a certain number of hits during batting practice (and this may be done on the basis of equal number of chances or need), and so on. As Gans noted, if you invite me to dinner this Friday night, I’m expected to invite you, not Saturday night (which would make it look too much like a payback, or like I’m trying to free myself of an onerous obligation) but, perhaps, next Friday night—but gift exchanges go well beyond this into emotional, cultural and intellectual areas of existence: where else but in a gift economy does my writing of this blog entry belong, as the only exchange I can hope for is a comment, a reference on some other blog, or a more general diffusion of my ideas? Within any large company, for that matter, employee survival and advancement depends largely upon the effective calculation of whom and how much one should gift—helping someone else develop an idea, taking someone else’s place when they’re sick, doing a bit of overtime for the boss, etc.

If material division, gift economy and market all co-exist, it stands to reason that some kind of healthy co-existence is possible and necessary, along with more unhealthy varieties, in which one economy interferes with the workings of another. Indeed, what is socialist economics other than an imposition of the economy of material division upon the market and gift economies, treating the total social product as if it were one big “piece” and distributing it according to some notion of need or desert? Less crudely, Keynsian economics does this by expanding the money supply, which Mises saw as benefiting those who received the money first, and principle which can be applied to all forms of government regulation, which favor, or direct money towards, those currently best equipped to comply with them and hence gain advantage over their competitors. Gifting introduces firstness into economics, as primitive egalitarian division depends upon some kind of ritual principle (even in the modern examples I gave above, where the solidarity of the group is foremost)—someone has to give the gift first and impose an obligation on others, an obligation which can be accepted and converted into a new mode of firstness with greater or lesser grace. The modes of firstness developed within the gift economy are too intense and unstable, and ultimately give way to “Big Man” modes of social organization and tributary mode of social distribution, with the genuine market emerging on the margins of despotic empires and corroding their authority. The “Big Man” is, for that matter, still and always will be, with us, and the return to the more primary, “authentic” and “rational” strict division or allocation by need, along with the central bureaucratic authority needed to make that happen, are, in the market context, resentful parodies of the more genuine firstness finally created in the form of the entrepreneur, who creates new desires and thereby transforms the social division of labor, but does so by submitting himself to consumer “sovereignty.” I think we can assume that this resentful counter-firstness, or secondness, will be a permanent feature of free societies.

The violation of the norms of primitive division produces defilement within the community, and the only response is expulsion and/or some form of ritual purgation—the more modern and less destructive form of this is embarrassment, and which I have situated within what I call originary mistakenness. Within the gift economy and the hierarchies that begin to emerge within it, we start to see honor and shame as governing principles—honor and shame are the only ways of enforcing group norms and the authority of the Big Man without legal sanctions and an impersonal governing authority. As we know, the more interiorizing and individualizing concepts of sin and guilt come later, but we are never rid of defilement, honor and shame either. It is fascinating to note how regularly polemicists against the horrors following from Islamic notions of honor and shame (in particular in the form of violence against women) appeal to the honor of their readers as citizens of a democratic society and attempt to shame them out of their passivity—as with the various economies, the problem is always one of articulation and conversion, rather than the elimination of previous cultural forms. An enormous amount of destruction has resulted from attempts to utterly eliminate more primitive norms, and by now we should be able to see that a purely “enlightened” or “modern” notion of reason or rights has nothing to replace them with in the vast majority of everyday social settings. Indeed, how much of contemporary politics is driven by the sense of defilement, shame and honor on the part of the “enlightened” as they seek to impose their own idiom on the rest of us?

Parallel to the distinctions I have just explored, historians of literacy like Eric Havelock, Walter Ong and David Olson (Tom Bertonneau, well known to those familiar with GA, has written some excellent essays developing these arguments) have described the invention and spread of writing as a watershed in human consciousness and therefore society. To sum up the point succinctly, what writing makes possible is, first, an understanding of first of language but ultimately reality as something which can be broken down into ever smaller parts (words, syllables, phonemes; molecules, atoms, quarks…); second, a coherent, linear and therefore causal representation of events (one of which follows another just like one word, one sentence, one page is seen to follow the other); third, the distinction between (deceptive) appearance and essence which founds epistemology (and between signifier and signified which founds linguistics, as particular signs can be seen as windows to particular sounds and meanings). In this case, even more than in the others, it is clear that any healthy social and intellectual order will find ways of articulating these elements, rather than trying to privilege one over the other—the ways of thinking made possible by writing are, of course, to be preserved, disseminated and enhanced, but who would want to argue that we are not, nevertheless, thoroughly immersed in orality through much of our existence—an orality that has, of course, been shaped by our history of literacy, but which shapes the latter in turn and, in fact, makes it possible in the first place: in the end, even when we read silently to ourselves we are experiencing the words as sounds.

This account of language, though, is far from complete without taking into account gesture as well. We assume that the first sign was a gesture, which means that it was iconic or self-evident—not only are we just as immersed in gesturality as we are in orality (orality is itself unthinkable without gestures), but gesturality, in the broader sense of the alignment of human bodies with each other, is itself embedded in the physical structures in which we house ourselves and provide access to one another. Gesturality is also embedded in language in some very fundamental ways—most obviously in deictics, but more subtly in our prepositions: we can’t use language which means we can’t think without being inside or outside, above or below, before or behind, near or far, etc., etc. These terms all derive from fundamental spatial orientations, and however abstract prepositions become, I would defy any to suggest where else they could come from; and, those of us familiar with GA in particular should be aware of the importance of words like “above,” inside,” central,” and so on in installing a basically scenic human reality within language. Even beyond that, it’s very probable that most if not all words can be traced back to basic experiential distinctions between well and ill, large and small, strong and weak, straight and bent, and so on. The gestural or iconic elements of language pervade writing as well as speech (as the innovative writer Ronald Sukenick once remarked, if you change the traditional Gutenbergian make up of the written page people go berserk—what is, then, the iconicity of that homogenous line of print going predictably from top to bottom of page after page?), and the explosion of new media over the past century should be accounted for as a resurgence of gesturality as well as orality within a world presumably conquered by the printed word.

Going even further into a specifically originary idiom, the ostensive, imperative and interrogative elements of language are built into declarative culture—I would say no declarative could make sense that didn’t accommodate its conversion into imperatives and ostensives via a series of gradations—in a sense, what else could any statement mean other than some version of “attend to this and that will be brought to your attention”? Obviously such formulations can become extremely complex—after that is brought to your attention you will in turn need to attend to the other thing, and so on, and a very simple sentence may map out such a string of attending to each other’s attending to. An originary “parsing” of a sentence would be breaking it down into the various ostensives and imperatives it might contain, such as the indications, promises, oaths, prayers, and hypotheses (questions) embedded within it.

My plan, finally, is to treat the notion of “rights,” or the word “right” as a thread going through all these fields. “Right” is a modern notion (more precisely, perhaps, its spread maps the transition of medieval to modern life), but it registers and translates the insistence upon respect and access that constitutes any idiom; “right” began its career as a narrow political concept, but now pervades the language—it is quite common to assert, for example, that “you have no right to speak to me like that,” in which “right” has collapsed back into a more colloquial notion of “honor”; rights are generally asserted in declarative form (we hold these rights to be self-evident) but have a strong imperative and ostensive component—they forbid all kinds of encroachments, and reveal an inviolable integrity; and, to return to the starting point of my discussion of the “right of the idiom,” the integration of rights within a legal and political system presupposes the existence of writing, at least for the keeping of records and forging of agreements, while sustaining a respect for rights as something other than markers of bureaucratic power requires the convertibility of rights (or “rights”) within the gift economy (where claims will be deeply rooted in orality and gesturality) into rights within a market economy. This last point is especially important politically: only in this way can we imagine the transformation of those countries with stunted (or worse) market systems succeeding within the global market and, I would say, only in that way will be able to think through the extraordinarily complicated issues of property rights in an information economy that furthermore transforms much that has been natural (like our DNA) into information that could be traded and used.

Idioms distribute rights internally—to speak within an idiom is to have a place to speak within it, and therefore a right to that place; and speakers of idioms insist upon their rights as speakers of that idiom within other idioms. This formulation brings us up against the dilemma Jean-Francois Lyotard called the “differend,” wherein the two parties to a dispute occupy incommensurable idioms and the decision therefore will be made in an idiom alien to at least one of them. One example he gave, not very surprisingly, was that of indigenous land rights claims within a modern settler colonial society, like those of North America or Australia. The native can’t produce a land deed or any proof of occupation or ownership—the myths which account for their belonging to the land (the very notion of “belonging” to the land) are “inadmissible” within a modern court of law. There seems to me no reason why a modern legal system can’t address such issues in a way similar to Hernando de Soto’s proposal for legalizing the informal property held by migrants to the margins of so many of the world’s great cities—give credibility to the oral traditions and actual circuits of exchange visible within the community in question. A right, in the end, is others granting you an unmarked position within their idiom, and the way you do that is acknowledging that you might be marked or “markable” in ways analogous to the one asserting the right, making that common markedness a center of joint attention and thereby unmarking it.

More precisely, proposing a common markedness is to propose a mistakenness that contaminates you both and through you the entire community, even world. Mistakenness implies the violation of some rule, which can be a tacit one. Let’s say that a “rule” is a boundary between a field of ostensives and a field of imperatives—you do these things and you see those things; the doing with an eye to that particular revelation and the observance contingent upon the faithful fulfillment of the prescribed act. (I suppose we might think of this like opening a box in which sunlight enters in a particular angle at a particular time of day and produces a very specific shadow or reflection.) Failing to follow the rule leads means you obey an imperative but see something unrecognizable; or you see something that seems unmoored from any imperative that might have placed you before it. Such mistakenness marks you as a dangerous site of infinite desire—after all, the channeling of imperatives and ostensives into one another is aimed at checking desires which can’t be contained within the ritual space. Unmarking the other involves finding a way to ostensively verify the imperative they have presented themselves as following, or supplying the imperative which might account for the ostensive they have presented. Marking yourself, meanwhile, or implicating yourself in mistakenness, involves providing some ostensive sign that one of the imperatives you habitually obey has proven inadequate to this instance. It is always possible to do this, because we are always mistaken and we can always see this if we widen our sense of the scene a bit. And this approach will work with enemies as well as friends, or potential friends—to see the other as mistaken is not to eliminate the idioms of guilt or shame; to see oneself as mistaken is not to surrender one’s power of judgment—rather, mistakenness gives the other the right to speak openly of the imperatives they follow and gives you the right to present your imperatives before them. Addressing a jihadist as the “infidel” of their discourse, or a rebellious “dhimmi,” while inviting them to convert to what for them is the religious other, for example, might contain more possibilities than the legal and political terms we are currently working with. In other words, it is still us vs. them, but with that minimal anthropological surplus.