Anyone familiar with TV crime shows knows how pervasive the figure of the serial killer has become in American popular culture, and how stereotyped—there is the imputed traumatic foundation of the killer’s addiction to violence, there are the idiosyncratic and extremely regular habits, the fixed idea of grievance, the ideal victim, and so on. And, of course, the serial killer is invariably brilliant and omni-competent—a scientist and artist (and performance artist, as they carefully manage their public image and the police investigation itself—and escape artist—no prison seems capable of holding them). Serial killers are a good match for serially produced entertainment (create an intriguing killer and your season writes itself), but their popularity, even their mythical status, lies, ultimately, in their implications for mimesis, and what we might see as a postmodern crisis in cultural mimetic modeling.
The show Dexter makes this relation between serial killers and mimesis very clear. The titular character is a serial killer who works for the Miami PD as a blood spatter expert, and whose victims are themselves serial killers. Dexter is compelled to kill, he is presented as completely addicted to the thrill of the hunt and the procedures he has invented and perfected for stalking and killing his prey, but he has harnessed this compulsion to the doing of justice—thanks to his adoptive father, a police officer, he has trained himself in the norms of the super hero, another still pervasive mythical figure in American popular culture, who sacrifices all to fight evil and protect the innocent.
It has become extremely difficult to imagine such dedication to the good in contemporary culture as anything other than the result of a pathological compulsion subjected to equally pathological self-control, and Dexter simply takes this cynicism or relativism to its ultimate conclusion. But what interests me more about Dexter is the way the show insists on the “inhuman” character of its protagonist—Dexter simply doesn’t feel what others feel. He is, emotionally, but also ethically, autistic, experiencing nothing outside of his compulsion and the rules he has created for managing it. But he must always interact with others, first of all at work and with his sister, but later on with his wife, her children and their new baby. And each interaction brings with it the problem: how would a normal person comport himself here? What you and I know tacitly—how to respond to a greeting, how to recognize when and why someone resents us, how to acknowledge a gesture, whether people around you are tense or relaxed, etc.—Dexter has to negotiate through induction, guesswork and trial and error. Everyday life becomes a never ending series of strategy sessions. At the same time, though, Dexter is very good at strategizing, and to that extent knows the semiotics of everyday life better than anyone else.
We might imagine this form of pathology as an instance of lastness on the originary scene. If we imagine that the scene takes shape through the de-escalation the dangerous mimetic rivalry, then each person must not only watch the others closely but must “identify” with them—that is, each must anticipate the effects one’s own presentation of the gesture will have on each other’s oscillation between gesture and grasping; and, if one must thus anticipate, one must also experience, virtually, the other’s response. But if we further imagine that the scene has taken shape before all have emitted the sign, then we have a certain number for whom the scene is presented as a fait accompli, and against whom the others would now be organized enough to prevent by force from approaching the central object. For the last, the sign is objective but has no subjective component—he sees that it works, but it doesn’t work for him. He therefore sees enough to make it work for him, in the sense of to his advantage, without being “taken in” by it, because the sign must, furthermore, appear to him as an illusion that the others buy into out of their own fear—a fear he has also not experienced. At the same time, he would harbor a resentment unmoored to any desire for the object—he did, indeed, desire the object like all the others, but his resentment has never passed through the resentment of the center, and his resentment is therefore directed at the entire scene. It would be a resentment that produces the desire to prove to everyone that the sense of safety and mutual trust they have acquired through the sign is a deadly fraud.
At any rate, under such conditions, when the iconic bases of self-evidency utterly sever one person from others, the only way to hold things together is through elaborate and inevitably idiosyncratic rules. These rules can be shared and taught, explicitly and tacitly, but it will never be possible to refer them back to some shared nature outside of those rules and the spaces they regulate. Dexter, and the serial killer as icon, are obviously extreme examples, but it does seem to me that as victimary culture has come to be virtually the only public culture we have, and as victimary culture has itself become an elaborate set of often arcane, constantly changing and mutually incompatible rules, Dexter provides a helpful hypothesis of contemporary conditions, as long as we understand that, just as Dexter comes, in his own way to “love” his wife and child, and to enact and at least minimally experience the responsibilities that come with his new role, our lives within uprooted regulatory conditions are just as authentic as any other once habits and tacit knowing of our way around sets in. It just may be, though, that they never set in all the way.
This may be the postmodern condition, but it also seems to me the modern one: ultimately we are capable of learning how to mark and unmark one another’s gestures, but the process has become more abstract and less iconic; or, to use Peirce’s term for abstract iconicity, our relations have become diagrammatic. We have always (to draw upon the title of Eric Gans’s talk at the latest GA conference) been modern in the sense that modernity is placing things in-between us, or multiplying mediations, means and middles, but there is a tension between that process and the shared central object that crises refer us back to—I don’t know when the decisive point would have been passed, but by now the claim that the things we place in the middle are proxies for, pieces of, or likenesses to that shared object are rarely tenable. At this point, the things we place between us, at least culturally (the technological middle is another discussion), are improvised attempts to unmark oneself, which is to say aborted and simulated attacks on oneself that others might translate into their own terms. In that case, we are always engaging one another across these improvised zones whose borders must be subject to increasingly explicit negotiations.
I’m sure a lot of people like this and a lot of people don’t, but if I’m right it is just becoming the reality and a couple of generations down the line people will speak much more directly about the norms and rules governing everyday interactions than they do now—a TV show like The Office, most of whose comic situations are generated by the mismatch of rules to situations on an individual or collective level, points in this direct, and so did Seinfeld a while back. It also seems to me that my students are never so comfortable as when they have a very clear set of rules to follow, and they don’t concern themselves so much with the rationale or legitimacy of the rules. Students of the type that were so common in my youth—romantic strivers for authenticity and full of resentment towards all rules—seem to be an almost extinct species. They show up once in a while but stand out like sore thumbs. And the increasingly exposed and interconnected nature of individuality facilitated by social networking like Facebook and texting pushes things in the same direction, towards elaborate, ever changing and idiosyncratic intersecting rules. (I think that such a condition may make the desire for overarching bureaucratic regulation more intense—if only someone could just set and enforce the rules once and for all!—while subverting all actual attempts in that direction.)
You can be comfortable talking about “content” only when questions of “form” have been settled. The referential bias of metaphysical discourse, which insists upon the transparency of language and hence the possibility of and therefore responsibility to represent reality (human nature, fact, ideas, feelings—everything resisting complete semiotic representation) in unambiguous, accurate and consensual ways is an understandable attempt to promote deliberately established disciplinary discourses over ordinary speech situations and, further, to raise the qualifications for entering sanctioned disciplinary spaces. Such a bias may have been necessary for the integration of writing and then print into social communicative processes, for the creation of universities and the emergence of modern science and politics. But do I really need to cite all the reasons why such a bias is no longer sustainable—it is enough to recognize that while in some areas (like, say, best sellers read by beach goers) traditional representational forms still sell, attentiveness to forms, rules, conventions, and the various possible modifications, mistakes, convergences and so on that they entail prevails in most of the more emergent modes of communication. Young people can still often be startlingly literalistic and sincere—I don’t mean to suggest that we are seeing the world populated by savvy cynics. But they are literalistic and sincere in their relation to a particular set of rules circulating in a given space.
The alternative to administering CPR to one or another brand of metaphysics is to treat all discourse as disciplinary, as fundamentally engaged in inquiry, which is to say, interested in generating ostensives that might spread. One way of approaching such a project is through conversations modeled on the work of thinkers like Ludwig Wittgenstein and JL Austin, which is to simply ask “what we mean when we say…” or “do we use that word in this way,” and so on—Wittgenstein’s notion of the “grammar” of a word, rather than its meaning, points the way: which verbs or prepositions does a particular word work with, in which situations does its use seem “odd,” and so on. Wittgenstein and Austin are still sparring with metaphysics, though, and are overwhelmingly interested in showing that the way language works in ordinary settings is at odds with the way it works in the artificial spaces of philosophy (and, I would say, the social sciences as well). This is still a worthy project, especially since metaphysics has penetrated ordinary discourse, especially when that discourse is compelled to enter unfamiliar terrain—if you listen to the way in which people use terms (I have students in mind here in particular) like “society,” “closeminded,” “opinion,” “diversity” and so on, you can see the residual functioning of metaphysics as a kind of socially congealing cant.
The approach I prefer is to create little ripples in language by constructing idioms out of the rules of grammar and language use itself. The anyown advances its rights by pressing such idioms and transforming the way anyone can talk about things. An idiom is created by identifying, within one form or medium, the constituent element of a lower form of medium: writing identifies a constituent element within speech, and speech within gesture (of course, we will have to talk about TV, film, computers, music, visual images, etc., but all of that will be so many variations of gesture/speech/writing articulations). When asked what something means, you can respond by working within the same system, putting forward more familiar elements as substitutes for the unfamiliar ones (like a dictionary definition which uses words you presumably understand to define words you don’t); ultimately, though, the guarantee of understanding is something that could be pointed to or grasped—showing something, or how to do something, or how one would say something. Declarative sentences are best explained in terms of what questions they might be answering, interrogatives in terms of what command or demand they extend, and so on.
The simplest way of creating idioms is by adding, subtracting or moving one element in a system, one element whose presence, absence or displacement transforms the system, which is to say permits a lower level to present itself within that system. We could talk about the ways in which we question, challenge and ridicule others in those terms—subtract the institutional position from which someone speaks and respond to what they say minus their authority, and a transformation of its meaning in ways unfavorable to the speaker is practically guaranteed. Institutional position and authority are essentially constitutive gestural elements, situating one person closer to the center or more “vertically” than another. I would propose idioms that generate one such rule, presented on the surface of the discourse, involving the addition or subtraction of (or the addition to or subtraction from) a particular “role” or “post” within that discourse (for example, some modification in a narrative function like “adversary,” or “audience”; or excluding a commonplace distinction like inside/outside); along with second rule that iconically represents the explicit rule within a lower or more tacit system, such as grammar, and then brings that tacit system into the discourse (say, a rule for converting a certain number of declaratives into interrogatives and interrogatives into imperatives, so as to represent the dialogue with authority concealed by declarative discourse; or the representation of the replacement of internal/external oppositions by configurations through the limitation of prepositions to, say, “about” and “around”); and, finally, a more arbitrary rule that reminds one of (that iconically represents) the generative capacity of the tension between the iconic and abstract within language itself. Richard Kostelanetz, for example, has poems made up of additions or subtractions of one letter to the previous word:
Booth Boot Boo
Bounce Ounce Once
Bramble Ramble Amble
Brat Bat At
Breaker Beaker Baker
Capon Capo Cap
Caret Care Car
Chair Hair Air
Kostelanetz is exploiting the existence of the letter as the constituent element of the writing system, and the interaction between that constituent element and other constituents at other levels, such as sound (with its complicated relation to letters) and word. In looking at (“reading” might not be the right word) Kostelanetz’s poems one learns to see words within words and sounds and meanings overlapping with each other, and the minimal element of the letter sending possible discourses in one direction or another. New categories would emerge—some words must contain lots of other words within them while I would imagine there are also quite a few upon which the operation wouldn’t work and are therefore something like “irreducible” elements themselves; or one might refine the rules to make it work—I can get from “would” to “old” by dropping two letters, for example—now, we would start to look for new rules so as to uncover words within words. (An enormous amount of political satire today works in such a way—slightly changing a spelling or the sound of a word, exploiting the orthography of someone’s name, or a pun—and I imagine it has always been that way.) The same goes for Kostelanetz’s “string poems,” in which the final letter, or final two, or three, letters of one word makes up the first, first two, or three letter of the next word: “stringfiveteranciderideafencerebrumblendivestablishmentertain…” This kind of poem iconically represents “overlapping” and teaches us to find the beginning of the next word, and, by implication, the beginning of the next utterance, in the one now coming to completion, and the prelude to what we are now saying in what just was or might have been said. More broadly, I would take it to iconically represent our broader social condition which, as Michael Polanyi argued regarding scientific discourses, and as is implicit in Wiggentstein’s notion of “family resemblances,” involves no broader commonality but overlappings and varying degrees of separation and levels of mediation with no totalization.
One can translate other discourses into the rule bound idiom you invent or you can simply write in that idiom, noticing what kind of work language does when you employ it in such generative terms and reconnecting the highest, declarative and discursive levels of language with their basis in gesture and spacing. This is a kind of work I am going to try, and I think the purpose is more to open up possibilities of composition for others to work out in more popular ways than to be a mode of discourse in its own right—just as the point of poetry is not to have everyone speak that way but to expand the metaphorical resources of language. Adding, replacing and subtracting constituent elements generates thresholds; generating thresholds leads to novelties; and novel signs provide new ways for people to compose themselves.
So, let’s try translating the final paragraph of my previous post—
If a politics of redemption is a defense of the rights of the anyown, then it is a defense of the right of the anyown to spend money as anyown sees fit; but, then, that must also be a right to use whatever form of money the participants in an exchange agree to. Regarding the right of the anyown, fiat money is the first expropriation. It’s hard to imagine the titanic struggle that would be required to overturn the regime of fiat money. But it might be much easier to imagine directing attention to all the favors and gestures that we will never know but might have been exchanged, all the means that might have been created, if not for the systematic expropriations that are only possible because of fiat money—because the government can take money away from productive citizens by creating more money to give as largesse to their favored constituents.
—according to the following rule: first, a subtraction of narrative elements; second, a translation of at least 2 complex sentences into sentences including an imperative; third, every sentence must include a word that adds or subtracts one letter from a word in the previous sentence (starting with the second sentence, of course).
A politics of redemption is a defense of the rights of the anyown, it is a defense of the right of the anyown to spend money as anyown sees fit, it is a right to use whatever form of money the participants in an exchange agree to. Expropriate using fiat money—that’s how you violate the right of the anyown, of us. The regime of fiat money is an overwhelming show of force. Direct attention to all the favors and gestures, don’t take your eyes off the disappeared means; resist the systematic expropriations of fiat money. Creating more money, taking money away from our productive citizens, giving largesse to favored constituents—that’s the fiat regime.
The how is through a show, use is taken from us, of threatens to take off, and your and our must collaborate; we now have a series of imperatives embedded in cumulating, quasi-ritualistic parallelisms. Against a background of conjurations, first of the politics of redemption and finally of its antithesis, orders are given one way and the other, the prominence of the shifters “your” and “our” represents the instability of the situation and the rapid movement between the occupation of different roles. It seems to me that reliance of the existing reality upon everyone’s or anyown’s will comes out more strongly in this revision. And we are now on the threshold of the creation of maxims for political thinking and action, through such means as grammatical inversions and the inversion of marked and unmarked. Fiat money expropriates use and makes violation right; attend to the disappeared means and the favored gestures will direct you. Whatever one thinks of such maxims, that fiat money turns justice upside-down is a “real” idea that we have arrived at; and so is the notion, however paradoxical, that if we look for the means of cooperation that state coercion has disappeared, we will discover new, favorable gestures that might be durable signs of resistance to that coercion.
The novelist Ronald Sukenick was aware of the techniques of the Oulipo literary group and incorporated some of them into his work fairly regularly, but he distanced himself from “strong” forms of Oulipo by, at least in my reading, deriving rules by marking features of narrative that attending to narrative made distinctive and by following and recursively accentuating the rules discoverable in one’s own mode of work. In other words, if you pay attention to your own writing and thinking, you can identify rules you seem to be following—habits and regular gestures—and make those rules explicit stakes in the discourse. The point of working with Oulipean methods, and developing new methods out of the rules of grammar, is ultimately to get to the point where your own thinking becomes the source of rules for transforming that thinking.