According to a new pedagogical technique, called “flipping the classroom,” instead of using class time to provide the educational content (the lecture) with out of class time (homework) used to fulfill some assignment aimed at reinforcing what was heard in class, students learn more from providing the lecture online, so that students can listen to it at home and class tome then used to raise questions and probe the student’s understandings. I have seen the same approach proposed for the academic conference, where it seems to me to make even more sense: instead of sitting and listening to a complex paper, which one can hardly process and formulate pertinent questions for on the spot, with a meager 10-15 minutes left for discussion, why not post the papers in advance so that they can be read and the conference time used for more advanced and productive discussions? At any rate, I thought I would give it a try, and I invite others to do the same in this space, or to begin any discussions now, to be continued at the conference. Of course, I don’t preclude the possibility of further revisions, but here it is, in what seems to me a pretty much finished form:
Attentionality and Originary Ethics
However paradoxical it may seem, I venture to suggest that our age threatens one day to appear in the history of human culture as marked by the most dramatic and difficult trial of all, the discovery of and training in the meaning of the ‘simplest’ acts of existence: seeing, listening, speaking, reading – the acts which relate men to their works, and to those works thrown in their faces, their “absences of works.”
Louis Althusser, Reading Capital, 1968
“In all the years in which I have attempted to explain GA in writing and in speech, I have tended to place the major emphasis on representation, and in particular on “formal representation” or language. One of the points I have insisted on is that human language is qualitatively different from animal “languages”; the researches and insights of such as Terrence Deacon have essentially ended the debate on this point. But it follows from my very “definition” of the human as the species that poses a greater problem to its own survival than the totality of forces outside the human community that the primary transformation of the proto-human into the human was ethical. Language and more broadly, representation emerged, per the originary hypothesis, to defer conflict, not to provide a cognitive or ratiocinative tool. But in the configuration of the originary event, the moral model of the reciprocal exchange of the sign is just as indubitably unique a human creation as language, and indeed more essential to the success of the event—and to the consequent emergence of our species. The urgent need that the event fulfills is to find a model of behavior that can defer violence within a community for which one-on-one animal hierarchy no longer provides an adequate solution.” Eric Gans Chronicle 431, “Originary Ethics.”
The distinction Gans posits here, between the sign as a formal representation of a transcendent object, on the one hand, and the sign as a result or manifestation of reciprocity seems to me one that the originary hypothesis itself transcends. In other words, “formal representation” is itself ethical, is indeed the origin and resource of any ethics, so that ethics cannot be thought outside of it. At the same time, formal representation cannot be thought outside of ethics, since the “formality” of the representation lies in the shared attention it effects, and in this shared attention lies any ethics. In shared, or joint attention, is the fundamental equality that constitutes the human. All the resources we need for thinking about ethics lie in joint attention, in our ability to point to something, and approaching ethics in this way might enable use to create more minimal, more pared down, ethical vocabularies.
To start with, if we can fold moral reciprocity into the shared attention constitutive of the scene, couldn’t we say that what is immoral and a denial of reciprocity is whatever interrupts that shared attention? There are two ways shared attention can be interrupted: first, through some kind of distraction; second, through some kind of fixation. Distraction (distracting others; allowing oneself to be distracted) tears us away from the scene of joint attention and thereby demands a renewed, necessarily risky effort to redirect attention in the object—that is, distraction raises the threshold of significance; fixation involves tearing oneself away from the scene and, ultimately, turning the other participants into objects of rather than participants in, that singular attention. Both distraction and fixation abort the scene, but both are also complementary possibilities of the originary structure of joint attention: the actuality or fear of distraction favors the formation of fixations. If we consider that anyone enters a scene by following a line of attention—by looking at what someone else is looking it and deferring appropriation as the other does in order to continue looking—one has not fully joined the scene until that line of attention has passed through oneself, and has been seen to do so. In other words, attention is not joint until all the participants show, through signs, that they are letting the object be so as to see what it has to show—in which case, each participant must be inspected, so to speak, or credentialized, by having the sign they put forth validated. For one’s joining of the line of attention to become evident and thereby accepted as legitimate, that attention must first land on oneself making oneself its object—in other words, each new participant on the scene represents a potential interruption of shared attentional frame. At this crucial point upon which one’s entry into the scene depends, one can only avoid becoming a distraction and potential source of fixation in others by doubling that attention back on oneself by joining it, becoming a sign and hence invisible, insofar as others are redirected back to the scene through you. In that case, you will have shown others that the line of attention passes through your own eyes; unless, of course, your self-referentiality simply intensifies your distractiveness. Whether a distraction has taken place will depend upon whether those attended to or, in Louis Althusser’s term, “interpellated,” as potential objects of resentment or desire can restore the line of attention by incorporating the interruption into the scene’s founding sign. I would call this the “loop” in the line of attention, and undergoing this looping is what I would call “ostentation,” which is where ethical being is located. Whether one can undergo or go through the loop depends upon the group’s ability to see you as restoring the line of attention as well as your ability to do so—ethics involves both ostentation and conferring a completed ostentation upon others, or the conversion of attentionality into intentionality. And this means that whether one has distracted or patched together the continuity of the line of attention, or fixated or proactively identified a break in that line can only be known in the aftermath on a new, converted scene of joint attention.
We keep the line of attention going by language learning—every loop in the line of attention involves an encounter of idioms. While it would be absurd to say that each of us speaks our own language, I think it makes perfect sense to say that at the margins we all differ in the emergent idioms we speak and that it at such margins that real ethical questions emerge: when I think I’m following your discourse and taking the next “logical step” but you think I am falsifying your most basic intuitions then a difference in language has emerged. Michael Tomasello, along with many others has made the argument that we learn language not as collections of single words with discrete meaning that then get combined in sentences, or as a series of grammatical rules applied to single instances of language use, but as pre-packaged chunks of discourse—phrases, formulas, commonplaces—that we can repeat appropriately insofar as we occupy scenes of joint attention with our elders. (I remember, for example, when I was very young, hearing “next door neighbor” as “neck store neighbor,” without it impairing my understanding of the phrase at all. Why should “neck store” refer to “proximal”? Who knows? How many other phrases couldn’t be made sense of through a strict following of the literal meaning of the words? If asked, perhaps I could have come up with an improvised etymology—I certainly would have believed one told to me.) Over time our language base extends through discovering iterable patterns in and analogies with those chunks, noticing similar contexts, mixing chunks, exchanging elements of the chunks we are familiar with, and so on. This process never ends, continuing, say, for we academics, when we read the sentences of one thinker through the sentences we have assimilated from another. We can identify patterns because we can arrange center-margin relations on scenes and still recognize them as the “same” scene (when I am done speaking and someone else takes “center stage,” it will still be the “same” scene); and we can identify analogies because the materials of one scene can be “plugged into” other scenes. Iterating (repeating differently) chunks, patterns and analogies, that is, is the ways we follow the sometimes bumpy line of attention.
The ethical stance is not so much learning the language of the other, or teaching the other one’s own language, because “language” is not a static entity that can stand still long enough for it to be the same language once it has been learned as it was when it began being taught. Rather, ethics involves learning the emergent language that arises at the margin or rough edges of the convergent idioms. Joint attention is always liable to lapse, prey to distraction and fixation, must always be checked and re-engaged—when we mistake ourselves and each other we realize that we have not been attending to the same thing after all, and our recourse is to attend to what we normally attend from: language. We have to check our use of words and expressions, to inform one another that I meant this word in that sense, or that I meant it figuratively or ironically rather than literally, or that I was alluding to what I thought was a common reference, or even just to pronounce the same word with a slightly different emphasis so as to distinguish it from a homonym, and so on. And from there attention can perhaps be redirected back to some signified. Explaining and justifying our actions to each other—the traditional content of ethics—is itself such an engagement with signs (our actions and bodies along with words) that threaten to fray some shared attention.
A useful model for the mode of ethical thinking I am proposing is the transference relation in therapeutic situations, in which the therapist allows himself to be interpellated by the patient, who projects upon the therapist scenes that have nothing to do with the therapist, transforming the therapist into a screen upon which repressed fantasies can be displayed and made available for analysis. While, as Philip Rieff has argued, the “triumph of the therapeutic” has eroded moral discourse by undermining the balance of interdictions and remissions constitutive of traditional culture, tipping the balance decisively toward remissiveness (the therapist is always trying to help the patient liberate himself from some social inculcated inhibition) the therapist’s own position comes with a strict set of ethics, one deriving from the ethics of disinterest and transcendence cultivated in the monotheistic and scientific traditions. To the extent that we are all, if not therapists to each other, inevitably objects of transference for each other, then transference provides a way of describing the way through and out the loop of attention issuing in ostentation.
In that case, the transferential relation restores the fraying joint attention, the center, by adopting the assumption that the interpellative attention paid one is essentially random, indicative of some crisis on the scene rather than revelatory regarding oneself. One first takes on responsibility by rendering oneself interchangeable with anyone else on the scene. This assertion of a very fundamental form of equality is ethical work, rather than a presupposition, involving the neutralization of any naturalized link between the source of attention and its object. The similarity between the scene of transference and the Girardian scapegoating scene is obvious, and the ethical stance I am describing seeks to centralize the same resentments Girard theorizes, with the difference that the transferential relation aims at restoring the center by recuperating the process of interpellation within a revised set of rules, or language games. So, while Girard’s model is complicated by the question of the actual guilt or responsibility of the target, that is not the case here: even if I am guilty as charged, my ethical obligation would be to minimize the attentional space my guilt takes up and toward the redirection of attention to the repairing of the joint attention I have myself broken—of course, a precondition of accomplishing that will likely be a full confession, acceptance of the normally imposed sanctions, and laying open my actions to further inspection by the community. In this way, the resentments aroused by the attention I have drawn on myself is less likely to be a distraction, continuing to fray the semiotic texture of the community, than a restoration and enrichment of the shared attentional space. The rule of such a practice of transference is that the more attention is directed towards me the less it is about me.
Jean Francois Lyotard introduced the concept of the differend, which he distinguishes from a “litigation” in that the litigants share a common language of negotiation and adjudication, while the differend involves a double injustice done to the “claimant” insofar as the language in which she would put forth her claim is incommensurable with the language of the respondent. Lyotard used as examples, predictably if appropriately, the Holocaust victim in the face of the Holocaust revisionist (who imposes a double-bind by treating the victim’s very survival as proof of the falsity of her claim) and the Aborigine subject to expropriation via the settler’s system of property which has no way of recognizing the native’s. There is no reason not to generalize the concept, though, to include the more radical transferential relation I am proposing, in which a deliberate incommensurability is introduced at the margins of divergent idioms so as to examine the limits of those idioms in relation to something outside each of them.
Differends are found in sentences that work incommensurably in different idioms. A sentence constructs a reality, immune to imperatives, by deferring other possible realities—realities that, in the judgment of the composer, would less effectively defer those imperatives (perhaps by falsifying or fragilizing reality so as to make it more compliant towards the imperatives; perhaps by constructing a reality so distanced as to not address the imperative at all). But one, or some, of those other possible realities would work just as well if we trace the deferred imperative back further to a longstanding, unfolding one, or up closer, to a more urgent one. A differend emerges when a speaker allows an interlocutor to join him in any of the realities, but only one, and in view of the others. Imagine that the same statement would be decisive proof of the speaker’s insanity, or of his surpassing wisdom, depending upon the frame (or would require urgent action, or infinite patience, depending upon the frame); and then imagine that one has to act on one or the other frame while acknowledging the undecidability between them. And then the other, likewise, keeps both frames in play while acting within one. Both participants would be generating and sustaining the threshold between the two frames—that is what I am proposing as an ethical model.
We create differends by learning the language that is other to everyone involved, which has the paradoxical result of restoring iconism to language. The declarative sentence takes on the iconism of the originary gesture, which means what it does, insofar as the differend constitutes not only the event represented by the sentence but the sentence as event—an event in which, rather than assuming a shared reality, the participants must stipulate to a provisional reality. Under such conditions, reality must be gathered together out of signs shaken loose from normalized reality so as to realign the relation between tacit and explicit. This realignment involves rendering all elements of the speech act—gesture, tone, sound/meaning correspondences, all the scenes trailing along the signs we bear with us, everything “chunked up” in any effort to keep up with the novelty of any speech act, everything that spills out when commonplace meets event, and everything banished by the doctrine of the arbitrariness of the sign—vouchers for the reality one attests and redeems. Language is what we attend from to each other’s attending to; language learning involves attending to what we have been attending from. Attending to the tacit knowing enabling any signification recuperates distractions by using them to break up the fixations that interfere with our attending to the overlapping margins of our idioms that make language learning possible.