Monthly Archives: December 2010

Language, Inquiry

Only after reading Eric Gans’s recent Chronicle (#403, “Heuristic Necessity”) did the obvious relevance of Gans’s definition of God as that word whose signified and referent are indistinguishable to originary linguistics and grammar strike me. But, then, since, as Gans also notes elsewhere, ultimately every word (but also, then, sentence, discourse, etc.) is the name of God, then the indistinguishability of signified and referent is definitive or constitutive of meaning as such. This indistinguishability applies, in other words, to ostensivity—which is when our pointing to something, or directing attention to something, right here and now, is what we “mean”—and all meaning is ostensive insofar as it’s impossible to imagine gesturing, speaking or writing without wanting to direct someone’s attention from one’s gesture, speech or text to something else.

The distinguishability of signified and referent, then, poses the real problem. That distinction must have been necessary for sign use to have moved beyond the ostensive or to create the “portable” and “reassemblable” ostensives that we could say constitute semiosis. My solution to that problem explains, for me, why Gans’s definition of God didn’t connect with my linguistic and grammatical thinking until just now—I haven’t really been using the traditional linguistic terms of “signifier/signified” and “referent.” First, I worked on developing a way of talking about language drawn exclusively from the succession of emergences of the ostensive, imperative, interrogative and declarative speech forms; more recently, I have been trying out ways of using the notion of unmarked/marked derived from the Prague School of linguistics, and to assimilate that distinction to the more originary one of norm/mistake. But we can articulate these various distinctions through another one I have worked with on occasion: that between the exchange of signs between participants upon a scene and the exchange of signs between a participant upon one scene and another, a “stranger” to the scene to whom one presents the results of the scene: I call the first scene the scene of presencing and the other the scene of representation. The best example of the scene of representation would be summary, which generally serves the purpose of providing another what they need to know so as to save them the trouble of reading the text itself.

These two scenes (and a third, constitutive scene that articulates them) are folded into the originary scene itself, insofar as that scene must involve the initial forming of the sign and the iterated circulation of the formed sign, and it is this doubled scene that then mediates the transition to the sparagmos: in the sparagmos the imminently chaotic devouring of the object threatens to overwhelm the agreement established by the shared sign, a tendency which can be mitigated only by the repetition of the sign throughout the consumption of the object at every indication of overreach on the part of a neighbor. In this case, the participants in the sparagmos are essentially summarizing the scene to each other. It is this latter use of the sign that distinguishes the signified from the referent: the signified, in other words, is the sign in its capacity to articulate a scene by composing the elements of an emerging scene on the model of and out of the remains of previous scenes; the sign as referent directs one’s attention to an object upon a scene already in place. The signified is the object as deferring and powerful; the referent is the object as available for orderly appropriation.

When we “understand” each other, what happens, then, is that the signified and referent coincide for us—if I say “it’s late,” you understand me insofar as you acknowledge my reference to this particular lateness, the one that, say, conveys a shared sense that whatever we have been doing has proven to be more important than something else we had planned to do, and has therefore carried us away, resituated and redefined us, etc., and in a way we can realize right here and now. To the extent that signified and referent don’t coincide, our understandings are overlapping and, of course, that is always the case, even while the overlap implies a zone of coincidence. Your remark points out the “lateness” to me and then I might make a remark that shows I have observed that particular lateness and that establishes a site of “joint attention,” or “disciplinary inquiry,” or “presencing”—or, what I will try calling an “anythisness agreement.” At the same time the “lateness” is not quite the same, at exactly the same time, for both of us, but we now have some sense of how to identify that signified/referent, how to look for it, how to conjure it: the imperative steps in to supplement the ostensive, as the object now tells us how to go about tracking, appropriating and preserving it, and we tell the object to appear before us. These imperatives, emerging from the ostensive, become the rules, or grammar, of the object and the convergences and divergences of the object as signified and referent—rules are imperatives marked by ostensivity. Part of this grammar is the prolongation of the imperatives into interrogatives, as the object doesn’t appear as commanded, and we fail to obey the object, and as we command the object to renew its commands, and extend and mitigate our demands upon it, these interrogatives take on the declarative form of hypotheses—all declaratives, indeed, are intrinsically hypotheticals.

Now, I would like to overlay the vocabulary of “markedness” on this succession of speech forms. Just as I think Gans’s analysis of the succession of speech forms opens up so far unimagined areas of inquiry into grammar, it seems to me that setting the unmarked/marked distinction upon the originary scene helps us to use that distinction to tie together various cultural, semiotic, social and anthropological levels. The unmarked is what you attend from to the marked—it is the water the fish swims in, pervasive, normal, and unattended to. But the originary hypothesis shows, I think, that only through a very extreme form of marking could unmarkedness emerge: first of all, the central object is marked as desirable, as we attend to it from everyone else’s approach to it; this markedness then spreads to the other participants on the scene, as we attend from the object to these obstacles to our possession of it. Markedness, first of all, then, has the meaning of targeted, and targeted for destruction. In attending back and forth from object to rivals, the hesitation or gesture is put forth, and we now attend from the sign (unmarking the sign-giver, first of all oneself) to the object, from which we can now attend to the shared cessation constituting the scene, thereby unmarking the object. What is now marked is any break from “protocol,” that is, any slide from gesture back into grasping, including any mistake indicating such a slide—and as I suggested before, the transition back into appropriation is mediated by the “referential” sign, assuring each other that one is taking only one’s share and warning each other to do the same. Everyone can now attend from the sign to transgressions which confirm it, so the marked now becomes the abnormal, anomalous, transgressive, idiosyncratic. (This, by the way, is why the politics of White Guilt—indelibly marking the unmarked, as in “white male knowledge”—will have so many unanticipated consequences: the unmarking of “knowledge” and, indeed, those European males who constructed the term along with it, saved us all from much worse forms of violence than is represented by the imposition of an unmarked, and extendible, “knowledge.” Once “knowledge,” “truth,” “justice,” “reality” and so on are irremediably marked we will find a catastrophic decline in our ability to talk about all kinds of things.) Subsequently, the unmarked/marked distinction can itself be unmarked, in this case de-escalated, so as to become a means of generated the distinctions needed by the signifying system—phonetic distinctions, word-type distinctions, tense distinctions, etc., etc. And this can all happen without the originary distinction being overturned—even now, as much as ever, being marked is being placed in some kind of danger.

The unmarked, or abstract sign, the “version” that has survived the norming process on the originary scene, and has received, so to speak, the full faith and backing of the central object, is the site for what I would call “everythatness agreements” upon the scene of representation: we move from “any,” or singularizing, to “every,” or spreading and eternalizing; and from “thisness,” or presence or firstness, to “thatness,” or reportage or secondness. Both dimensions are present whenever we use signs so as to make meaning, and they are present on the third, or constitutive scene, or semiotic use proper, where one or the other dimension is accentuated in constituting a field of semblances (the population of the world by object/signs). The third, or constitutive scene is where we use signs to make a difference by creating a new ostensive, and we do that by marking and then re-un-marking a particular use of an unmarked sign, thereby modifying the field of relationships between the marked and unmarked. To return to the succession of speech forms, we make meaning by turning an ostensive dimension of sign use into an imperative one (shifting register from an anticipated “I see” to “show me”), from imperative to interrogative (“look at this”—“where?”), and so on, or vice versa (treating declaratives as interrogatives and imperatives, etc.). In each case, one marks the unmarked, treating a portion of the scene assumed in any agreement or joint attention as defective, but ultimately not irreparable (even the most radical critique implies the possibility of some other scene, composed out of the elements—out of what else, after all?—of the present scene).

Markedness provides an excellent frame for conducting inquiry, not only because it allows us to travel from the phonetic way up to the highest cultural levels, but because it combines invariance (we all, all cultures, all individuals, make sense of things by (un)marking them, with plenty of striking cross-cultural similarities) and great variability: to take a simple example, in the word “nurse,” the feminine is unmarked; but that is just another way of saying that “nurse” is marked female. In other words, what is marked and unmarked depends upon the question being asked—meanwhile, even though this means the application of the terms requires judgment and involves disagreements and arguments (good things for any mode of inquiry), proof is often readily available in fairly convincing forms: we will never say “female nurse,” while “male nurse” is so commonplace as to be an easy punchline (especially since “nurse” also tends to be marked not only “female,” but “sexy female” in certain commonplace fantasies—which is why a markedly unattractive nurse also functions as an easy punchline). And, needless to say, all this can easily change rapidly, and undoubtedly already is doing so, as women become doctors in numbers almost equal to men and men (probably, but interestingly this change doesn’t seem so rapid) migrate into nursing in growing numbers.

Any mode of inquiry, then, unmarks some newly marked object, and singles out the rules according to which that object works as a “constituent element” of some structure at a particular level of inquiry. Again, it seems to me as if we can work completely within the terms of the successive emergence of the speech forms here, since the ostensive, the imperative, the interrogative and the declarative comprise distinctly different and complementary elements in the process of inquiry. An object becomes marked because it no longer works according to its normal rules, which means we can no longer attend from that object to others—our attention is now drawn, imperatively, towards the object, as we attend from the now failed rules of its operation within a system to the rules of its own constitution, from one of its constituent elements to another, and so on. We see what seems to still fit together—we command the object to compose itself in such a manner that we could against attend from it to other things—and what refuses our command leaves our command prolonged, hanging, so to speak, converting it into a question: what should be re-positioned so as to make things fit again?

All language is inquiry, and markedness allows us to see the stakes of the inquiry in a way that is made invisible in those spaces we have explicitly set aside and unmarked (made safe) for inquiry—an object that doesn’t work according to its normal rules, for example, might be a good friend or loved one, who is behaving “suspiciously” (to suspect someone is, obviously, to mark him or her). That person has so far acted as a sign for me, allowing me to attend from him or her to a range of other things in the world, a set of habits which the person is him or herself also a part of—that the person is unmarked doesn’t mean I neglect him or her, just that I can unproblematically enjoy the pleasures he or she brings me (and unproblematically soften and contextualize the pains). Once he or she becomes marked I will not be satisfied until I have succeeded to unmark her once again, by reducing the intrinsically anomalous “suspicious” behavior to some new set of rules, to which I can assign a formula (“she’s having trouble at work”) which identifies a new constituent element of a modified reality (the relation between home life and work has shifted) and which is in turn accommodated to a modified set of habits, which means I have unmarked him or her once more.

Terms like “constituent element,” “component part,” and “rules” are also, of course, both indeterminate enough to be used in many different ways and on every level of reality, and precise enough to produce the definitions and delimitations we need to hold the things in place long enough to get a good look at them. We seek clarification along these lines all the time (were you referring to x or y?) and often enough get it. I want to conclude by making another point, though, which is in fact what I wanted to get to all along. It seems to me that the mark or measure of a strong language and, by implication, a healthy culture and civilization, is that it allows for the simultaneous existence of varied and incommensurable “constituent elements” (identified within distinct idioms, each with its own “rights”). The mistake of modern scientism was to insist upon a single vocabulary to describe all of reality, which leads one to ruthlessly extirpate all other vocabularies, as they can only appear as obfuscating competitors. What I have in mind is a society in which we could analyze the psyche by, for example, breaking it down into “ego,” “id” and “superego,” or even a complex tree of stimuli and responses, without thereby disabling a word like “soul,” which would identify a “constituent element” within an integral structure every bit as real as “ego.” We would, then, be mature enough to live with “soul” being marked as unscientific in some discourses, while, say, “damaged soul” remains operative (unmarked) for marking certain sources of evil in other, moral and spiritual discourses. (The best example I have of such a richly plural and yet coherent linguistic reality, and which I hope to find a way of exploring in this connection, is the English of Tudor and Elizabethan England, the language of Tyndale, Cramner and Hooker, culminating, of course, in Shakespeare’s language and the King James Bible.) At this point, originary grammar comes into its own as a mode of cultural and social criticism, one which enables us to attend to the unmarked without feeling compelled to mark the unmarked permanently, in revenge for hiding itself. And, finally, the use of constraints or deliberately formulated rules so as to govern one’s own analytical discourse becomes a way of finding and generating new constituent elements, of shaking them loose, so to speak, from the unmarked formulas embracing us.

Sarah Palin, Anyown, and the Constitutional Reformation

I will lay down a marker right away—for me, the main criterion for supporting a Presidential candidate is that he or she knows what the left is; anyone who thinks that a Republican president will be able to settle into the White House in 2013, put on the green eyeshades, and start balancing the budget in a sober, bipartisan manner is criminally naïve, and I don’t want anyone like that anywhere near the Presidency. Normal America and free America are at war with the Left, and anyone one who is not ready to fire back when fired at need not apply. Sarah Palin seems to know what the Left is, and none of her potential contenders seems to have a clue. At this moment, the ability to create and run a political and economic media empire is more pertinent to presidential aspirations than the ability to balance a budget with your bare hands, which you can hire someone to do anyway.

But leaving that aside, Palin, and the Palin phenomenon are intrinsically interesting—there seems to be widespread agreement on that, at any rate. She, in her public persona, seems to me an almost perfect complement to Barack Obama, and the Obama phenomenon—she seems destined to be his nemesis, a role she seems to relish and which she plays very well. I think an Obama v. Palin race in 2012 would dramatize all the post-Bush, indeed, all the post-9/11 conflicts; even more, it would finally bring the entire Progressive Era in our politics, dating back to the turn of the 20th century, on the stage—and I think this would be both very healthy and incredibly exciting. We desperately need such a polarization now, and it would be nice to deal a blow to the illusions of the “fiscally conservative, socially liberal center” of the country. I don’t doubt that there are many Americans, maybe, depending upon definitions, a majority, who can be described as “fiscally conservative, socially liberal”; nor do I doubt that in a certain sense they are the “center,” picking and suturing together the least antagonistic items of both right and left. It’s an empty center, though, and a campaign that showed as much by forcing the “centrists” to choose would be healthy as well—if you support the kind of judicially driven federal government needed to push through and sustain the “socially liberal” agenda, than you can forget about fiscal conservatism. Fiscal conservatism would mean federalism and expanded property rights, both of which, as the politically savvy know, mean death to “social liberalism,” i.e., abortion on demand, gay marriage and religion out of the public sphere. And I might as well also say that I can’t say the word “gravitas” without, at the very least, smiling. I think that things are going to get rough, especially if the prerogatives of those plugged into the victimary public arena are even mentioned, much less trespassed upon—we need someone whose first instinct isn’t to placate the New York Times.

Even leaving Palin aside for the moment, it seems to me (I would be surprised if no one else has used the analogy) that the Tea Party movement is equivalent to a kind of Constitutional Reformation. The liberal judiciary, like the Catholic Church, has been, for the past 80 years, interpreting the holy text for the rest of us, and according to arcane and esoteric methods that ordinary citizens can’t penetrate. If you were to ask a member of the priesthood what the Constitution said about x or y, they would gesture towards piles of unintelligible commentary which it takes many years of training to navigate. Terms like “the Commerce Clause” have taken on a magical significance, changing the citizens property’s into the state’s. The Tea Partiers have simply insisted on reading the document for themselves (unfortunately there was no way of forbidding its translation into the vernacular). But the analogy extends further—just like the return to the biblical text itself, and an insistence on the individual’s right to interpret it himself, has led to more Protestant Churches than anyone can count (unless someone actually has counted them), so will the opening of the Constitution lead to many different, and often idiosyncratic, versions of the same. Not that many—the Constitution is a lot shorter and simpler than the Bible, and there is a tradition of rational argumentation and precedents prior to its appropriation by the advocates of the Living Constitution—but quite a few more than I imagine most originalists imagine. (Maybe they do imagine it and don’t mind—I certainly hope so.) There is plenty of room for idiosyncrasy, in other words, in this return to the real center, the founding events of the nation, just as there is plenty of idiosyncrasy in Sarah Palin, who also deliberately roots herself in that very center. It is this combination or “simultaneity” of centrality and idiosyncrasy, of the general “any” and the singular “one-y,” that I have in mind when I use the term “anyown.”

This mixture of the originary and idiosyncratic is best found, I think, in one of our most basic rights as Americans, the right to bear arms—number two, right after speech and religion, but arguably more fundamental, since how could we protect those rights without the right to bear arms? (I know, the order of the amendments was not meant to imply any order of rank—and yet they do often seem to be ranked this way.) And yet, as far as I know the right to bear arms holds a comparable rank in no other national or international charter of rights—it is a distinctively American “universal” right. The centrality of the right to bear arms can be traced back to founding liberal theorists like Hobbes, who considered the right to protect your own life prior to, and unaffected by, your obligations to the state, but for this very reason it is very difficult to integrate it coherently with the more peaceably exercised rights which we expect the state to guarantee for us. Indeed, the main rationale, at least among its most fervent defenders, of the right to individual ownership of firearms, is precisely that it turns the citizen into an effective barrier to the establishment of a tyranny. How, though, can the state protect such a right unambivalently, since there can be no pre-established or agreed upon rules for what, exactly, would constitute that tipping at which legitimate government turns into tyranny? The best or most convenient definition, I suppose, would be the point at which the government starts rounding up all the guns; but such an action might indicate that, for the government, the tipping point at which citizen vigilance becomes rebellion, has been reached.

Also, would anyone want to say there is no limit to the right to bear arms? I can own a pistol, a shotgun, a machine gun—how about a basement full of dynamite? Anti-aircraft missiles? What about the first billionaire who decides he wants his own nuclear warhead? If the real purpose of the right to bear arms is to deter tyrannical tendencies in government, wouldn’t we insist that citizens arm themselves in a manner commensurate with the power of the contemporary state—the contemporary American state? After all, what good would even “assault weapons” be against the tanks rolling into New Jersey and the planes strafing Manhattan? You could say that other rights have their limits in the infringement upon the rights of others—so, my right to free speech doesn’t permit to stand in front of my neighbor’s house with a bullhorn berating him for his leftist politics. But what is the equivalent here? My stockpile disturbs no one, and by the time my basement full of explosives violates your private property rights by blowing up the block on which both our houses stand, it will do you little good to sue me.

But there is another way of interpreting the right to bear arms that preserves its idiosyncratic centrality. The government can’t be everywhere to protect everyone, and we wouldn’t want it to be; where it can’t be, armed citizens can, and can serve, while protecting themselves, as a kind of informal militia or posse, making it clear to criminals that they are safe to commit their crimes nowhere. This implies complementarity between government and people and, at its outer limits, a near merger of the former into the latter. The deterrence of tyranny can itself thereby be pre-empted by the shared obligation to secure the order whose breaches provide the very invitation needed by the tyrant to exceed constitutional boundaries. The right to bear arms in this way involves the citizen in the preservation of ordered liberty, and can be detached from that utopian resentment implicit in indiscriminate “anti-government” sentiments. At the same time, though, the boundaries separating vigilance, vigilantism and criminality are not always bright and clear, and will take different shapes across and within communities, based as they must be upon shared tacit understandings with overlap with other understandings and constantly require adjustment. The more deeply rooted the right, the more inadequate the merely legal attempts to adjudicate it, i.e., the more idiosyncratic.

Anyway, here is Palin’s forceful and borderline incoherent response to Barbara Bush’s patrician cruelty (“I once sat down next to her. Thought she was beautiful. She seems to love it in Alaska. I hope she stays there”) which not only wishes Palin out of Presidential politics but out of public discourse altogether:

“I don’t want to sort of concede that we have to get used to this kind of thing because I think the majority of Americans don’t want to put up with the blue bloods — and I say it with all due respect because I love the Bushes — but the blue bloods who want to pick and choose their winners instead of allowing competition to pick and choose the winners.”
She then invoked the economic crisis to explain her point.
“They [blue bloods] kind of do some of this with the economic policies that were in place that got us into these economic woeful times, too,” Palin said. “So I don’t know if that kind of stuff is planned out but it is what it is. We deal with it, and we forge ahead and we keep doing what we’re doing.”

The Bushes are blue bloods (ok, so far, so good), but she still loves them—nothing wrong with blue bloods except for when they try to “pick and choose their winners.” Palin has a response to Bush here, but she has cut and pasted into that response her own political “idiom” of the moment—a very helpful idiom, which has put into practice the excellent idea of changing the terms of Republican politics through primary challenges. The idiom doesn’t really work so well here, though, because wouldn’t the Bushes saying who they prefer for President be part of that open, competitive process? After all, that helps those who respect or despise the Bushes sort out their own views of the candidates. But Palin doesn’t want to come out and suggest that Barbara Bush is a spiteful old shrew, representing the retrograde wing of the party, and I think she has imposed upon herself the kind of discipline which ensures that you don’t say anything in response to new situations which has been “piloted,” so we see the limits of her repertory here. The connection to “these economic woeful times” (as I’ve mentioned before, Palin’s grammatical choices can be fascinating—recently, she responded to a reporter trying to spring a question on her at a book signing with something like “can’t we get that good enthusiasm” back, in this case using a favorite adjective of hers with a favorite noun with which that adjective just happens not to go) is even more of a reach, but, paradoxically, she is getting at something here because there is a real connection between the “elites” (what Angelo Codevilla calls the “Ruling Class”) and the kinds of political-economic machinations that led to the Wall Street meltdown. Palin knows this, and has posted cogently on it on her Facebook page, but what I think we can see in this instance is an imperfect intuition regarding how to stitch together the various arguments, slogans and commonplaces at her disposal—especially since in this case getting too explicit would also be getting far more polemical regarding the Republican “establishment” than Palin wants, and can just barely avoid (which means that she is also very aware of the political boundaries she is operating within). We see this all the time with Palin, and it’s why she can, in fact, look stupid sometimes—she doesn’t know how to weave all the clichés together in a seamless manner as do most politicians operating at her level of exposure. But that’s also a way of saying she’s not very good at saying nothing. And in that way, more than any other, she is more grounded than anyone or anyown else in the emergent idiosyncratic center.