GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

December 2, 2013

A brief note on terminology

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:03 pm

I have always been dissatisfied with the use of the term “ostensive” to designate the originary sign. Yes, the sign is ostensive—it involves, necessarily, some kind of pointing—but it is not only ostensive and, more importantly, “ostensive” is a commonly used concept in linguistics and cognitive psychology and in those contexts has a much more narrow meaning. “Ostensive” in those contexts means pointing to an object under conditions where sign users already know what it means to point, and in discussions of language in particular it gives the misleading impression that the originary hypothesis is vulnerable to the critique of Augustine’s model of language learning advanced by Wittgenstein in the opening pages of his Philosophical Investigations. The distinction Wittgenstein makes there, between language as designation of objects, and language as following a set of mostly tacitly understood rules is foundational for contemporary thinking about language and much else. The term “ostensive” makes it sound like GA is on the wrong side of this divide when in fact we are most certainly not: that signs only make sense on a “scene,” within an “event,” means that central to sign use is the configuring of complex scenes and events, whose ultimate constitution lies beyond the comprehension of any participant. Language is a tacit, open-ended, rule governed activity for GA no less than for any Wittgensteinian derived mode of reflection or inquiry. We just insist that the rules have an origin in the urgency with which human beings must defer the ever-present potentiality of violence.

If not “ostensive,” then what? Well, the originary sign is also iconic—it represents because it is “similar” to the act of appropriation it aborts; it also, in its completion, imitates the object (qua God) itself in urging that renunciation. But it is also not just iconic, because “iconic” as some of the same problems as “ostensive”—what counts as “resemblance” is itself culture bound and therefore can’t unproblematically account for the origin of culture. The originary sign is iconic and ostensive, because it is constitutive—that is, it establishes the very conditions under which iconic and ostensive signs are possible; but it does so ostensively and iconically. So, we need all three of these concepts to grasp the originary sign in all its paradoxicality. Fortunately, there is much overlap between the three words, making a portmanteau possible. “Icon” contains the “con” with which “constitutive” begins, and “constitutive” contains the “st” near the beginning of “ostensive” (with an “o” separated from the “st” by a rather unobtrusive “n”), allowing us to compose the following: the “iconstitensive” sign. (The “ut,” as far as I can determine, does not comprise part of the root of “constitute,” so we can lose it.) The stuttering “ostensive” one might hear in “iconstitensive” reflects, we might say, the hesitation that is also an essential ingredient of the originary sign, and one can hear all three words in this new one out of many without that new word being unduly difficult to pronounce, it seems to me.

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