Mimetic Culture, Liminal Culture

There are two kinds of moral innovations: one, upward, in which more distance is created between desire and appropriation; and the other, downward, in which that distance is shrunken by the violation of some prohibition with impunity (the innovation lies in the intimation of unlimited possibility, which mimics the generation of human possibility by the originary act of deferral). The great “axial age” moral innovations upward took place during the period of manuscript culture, where writing (and alphabetic writing, in particular, at least in the West) had been invented and was in use among a scribal elite and/or a small reading public sharing rare texts—manuscript culture was still deeply embedded in orality (texts were used to facilitate oration, or memorization), while making it possible to memorialize oral scenes and confer upon them the prestige and permanence of the written word—it is telling that the figures of Moses and the Hebrew prophets, Socrates, Confucius, Jesus and the Buddha are all very often situated within “quiet” scenes, dialogues with a few participants, or God, bordering on and often entering a silent inner dialogue with(in) the self. Words are inscribed in one’s heart, and can be recited exactly as they were originally said as many times as desired, enhancing the sacrality of those particular words, enabling the construction of communities devoted to their preservation and effectuation.

Print culture (McLuhan’s “Gutenberg Galaxy”) spreads the results of manuscript culture far more widely, while introducing the capacity and compulsion to fragment and reassemble, and therefore criticize, parody, and re-contextualize those results. Manuscript culture strives to approximate writing not just to speech, but to speech between co-participants in discussions over what is worthy to be preserved; print culture strives to make speech more like writing—normative, widely intelligible, uniform. (Part of the prodigious fertility of the Renaissance period lies in the interplay of the norms of manuscript and print culture, and of expanding literacy and the more varied layers of orality brought within the orbit of the written word.) Certainty, rather than proximity to the origin, becomes the primary value of reason, actions start to seek out widespread publicity rather than recognition as an enduring model, and thought aims at material transformation rather than contemplation. This transformation involves significant moral innovations, in particular those associated with rigors of life in the modern marketplace: punctuality, frugality, patience, politeness, respect for rules, large scale coordination, etc., along with a much less widely shared, but at least generally valued, fearlessness before the unknown and untried. It has also abetted new and unprecedentedly brutal forms of violence and empire, as control from the center was eased considerably, and made difficult to resist by the increasing specialization at the margins.

What about our emerging electronic and, especially, transparent and algorithmic culture? The intensified culture of celebrity and publicity thereby generated most obviously privileges the transgressive over the continent, the brash and boastful over the modest—the invisibility of the virtues of manuscript culture is intensified by the demand that everything be made visible, literal and blatant. The brazenness and self-exemption from morality print made available to the inventors and adventurers of the modern period are now available to anyone, and it is hard to see any reason why one should display even the most minimal patience. Most people, whether they realize it or not, assume that every individual is a god unto him (or her) self. At the same time, practical learning and participation are strongly encouraged, and can curb the excesses of self-idolatry. I will return to the question of the actual and possible upward innovations native to our now native culture.

Let’s imagine, as a conceptual baseline, a near absolute mimeticism. That is, imagine that every desire is immediately and comprehensively expressed in posture, gesture and word, and every posture, gesture and word is in turn immediately and comprehensively responded to by whomever it is directed towards, and whoever witnesses it. Such an order would involve constant mimetic contagion and hence aggression and violence; it could build no institutions and have no learning. Not exactly none, though, because insofar as it is a human community, the mimeticism could only be near absolute—our barely human community is at least able to restore if not maintain order through the emergence of spontaneous forms of unanimity, in which mimeticism is transformed momentarily into a stabilizing force, directed at more or less arbitrarily chosen targets of discipline and punishment (a very Girardian model, but I don’t assume that actual scapegoating, in the sense of human sacrifice, is necessarily the primary institution).

Something of this absolute mimeticism still resides in every human, and we still respond automatically to a smile or frown, a hint of aggression, a subtle offer of reconciliation, etc. But, of course, these spontaneous reactions are already highly mediated, as there would be no “hints” or “subtle offers” in the originary human community I have hypothesized—everything would be directly out in the open. The point of the originary barely human model is to provide us with a way of measuring moral innovation. The first step beyond near absolute mimeticism would have to be someone not responding immediately, repeating the originary hesitation, allowing an aggressor to have his way, while signaling (and having that signal received) that he will not continue to have his way indefinitely. Upward moral innovations are always of this kind: a new hesitation, but one that organizes posture, gesture and word together in a new way so as to present an imitable mode of hesitation. And downward moral innovations recognize the fragility of such ascents, and recover and display against them the sheer power of a more direct action-reaction cycle. We could see human history as the fluctuation and dueling of upward and downward innovations.

So, what replaces, in the upward moral innovation, the direct, automatic, spontaneous, full and commensurate response to an other’s expression of desire or resentment? It would be trivial to say, “an indirect response,” as that would beg the question—we must imagine, then, an equally direct, automatic, spontaneous, full and commensurate response, but to the other’s expression of desire or resentment as a sign, rather than appropriative act. A sign is, in the first instance, a truncated act; to treat the other’s act as a sign is to treat it as a truncated version of a larger act, an act that entails consequences signified even if not materialized in the act itself. Treating an act as such an exemplary sign involves an audience other than the actor himself—the third person we now assume on the scene is part of the shaping of the act, one that the potential respondent, but not the actor, accounts for in his response. The act would set in motion a chain of consequences that would require for its closure the intervention of the third and perhaps other parties; that future closure is what makes it possible to treat the act as a sign. Treating the act as a sign is an attempt to obtain the closure without the consequences. And in turn, the respondent becomes an exemplary sign.

To paraphrase Aime Ceasire, Western men and women speak all the time of freedom but never cease to stamp out freedom wherever they find it. The current rampage of the victimocracy is no accident—demands for freedom on the liberal and democratic models are really demands for revenge against those who one imagines have expropriated one’s freedom. But the first freedom is the freedom from one’s own desires and resentments, and only in the most extreme instances is the acquisition of such freedom not within one’s own grasp (one just has to stop grasping at something else); at the same time, such freedom is always provisional, always suffused with doubts, always needs to be recovered, and can have no external guarantees. Demands for economic and political freedom are only sustainable insofar as they aim at the space needed to practice and exemplify that first freedom. Has a single modern political theorist ever said that? Maybe—I haven’t read them all—but it’s certainly not any part of our liberal democratic commonsense—even the awareness one finds in thinkers like de Tocqueville and the American founders to the effect that moral responsibility must attend the individual freedom democracy unleashes see such responsibility as a concession to reality by enlightened self-interest—in other words, a more effective way of getting what one wants (or, in more theological terms, of imposing one’s own law on reality). (Only high manuscript culture, forged in self-adopted or embraced exilic relation to monstrous imperial orders and broader social decadence [by prophets, monks, small communities of teachers and disciples, self-lacerating disaffected elites], has ever understood this first freedom—which is no doubt the source of its continuing power today.)

Environmentalism admonishes us to shrink our “footprint”—they mean carbon, a trivial matter, but the metaphor is a nice one for thinking through the possible moral innovations enabled by the transparent and algorithmic. It does seem to me that a highly moral way of passing through this life is to leave only the slightest traces of footprints, i.e., identifying markers that can be definitively traced back to ones own intentions and efforts. Rather than clearly demarcated and strategically located footprints, better to do something to reveal the world as a world of signs, and oneself as just another one of the signs, one that has lowered the threshold of significance for yet to be revealed signs. Revealing the world to be a world of signs is to reveal the world as composed of truncated, fractured, fragmented actions unmoored from the desires and resentments that originally motivated them (a radical de-mimeticization) and arriving far away from their intended destinations. Even those bits and pieces of actions can be broken down further—excessive exposure to them would restore their wholeness and render them sentimental and sensationalistic, assimilating them to one or another “classical” model—as can the very act of breaking them down. This is not just a contemplative position within our transparent and algorithmic reality, in which everything already tends to get reduced to a gesture to everything else—it is always possible to withhold the mimetic response and represent the other’s act as an incomplete one and hence a sign, a sign of which one tacitly pledges to be the bearer. The algorithm makes it possible to project hypothetical transformations across unlimited, virtual fields—the fall of a sparrow can be aligned with various possible initial conditions to produce mappings far into the future and across vastly divergent causal chains, the point being to facilitate the reduction of any act to a fluctuating data point, and hence radically uncertain in its effects but maximally significant in its articulations with other signs. This moral innovation would install, there where mimetic culture presently is, liminal culture, a culture that continuously lowers the threshold at which we perceive, feel, and intuit emergent meanings. Old cultural forms like the maxim and the epigram might make a comeback, as such literary forms can be put on a t-shirt, a web page, or tattooed on one’s skin—but maxims and epigrams that subvert and invert some vapid or bullying slogan or public imperative.

Such a moral innovation would follow in the footprints of the print revolution, with its privileging of what Walter Benjamin called “mechanical reproduction”; but, well beyond that, it reaches back to the originary scene, where the sign was created through the truncation of an act, rendering it available for reproduction, segmentation and new articulations. Remembering forward, further de-mimeticization requires further specializations, specializations that lead, not to the mutilation of the individual but to participation in a culture of overlapping disciplinary spaces. Take, for example, the operative imperative for “Seinfeld,” “no hugging, no learning,” a slogan Eric Gans discusses in one of his Chronicles on the show. “Seinfeld” is often taken as accelerating a shift towards a more thoroughgoing irony in American popular culture, marking the point at which nothing is free from irony, i.e., the point of “cynicism.” And it is true that if you watch pre-Seinfeld sitcoms, even the “boundary pushing” ones like “All in the Family,” there is always some sentimental, preachy substratum to the humor—in the end, some things remain off-limits to laughter. To see this as a shift toward a general cultural cynicism is to miss the point, I think—it would make more sense to see this development as a form of social specialization. The point of a TV comedy is to make you laugh—it should be judged according to some measure of quality laughs per 23 minutes, not the “lessons” it teaches. Why would anyone turn on a TV show to learn about life or morality? If we really did so, that would be an alarming sign of cultural decay. You turn on a TV show (at least a comedy) to get something you couldn’t have otherwise: pieces of the world turned around so that situations that are not ordinarily funny become so. Once you realize that, attempts by the entertainment industry to tend to your character become ludicrous and insulting, and, anyway, the point of gesturing to moral pieties was always to avoid professional death by “controversy,” and was therefore always cynical itself—and, indeed, despite “Seinfeld” and all its would-be imitators, earnestness abounds in American culture. And specializing in comedy is very different than specializing in one stage in the production of pins, as it relies upon anthropological, historical and sociological intuitions—what is funny today is not what was funny 5 years ago, or, often, 5 days ago.

A similar development in higher education would be welcome, particularly in the humanities—rather than going to a literature or philosophy class in order to (at its best) enter the ongoing conversation over which works and ideas should be preserved, wouldn’t it be better for your literature or philosophy professor to provide you with a form of literacy, a way of working with language so as to generate new meanings out of existing ones that you could only with significantly greater labor and a lot of luck acquire for yourself? As with the specialist in generating laughter, the algorithmic (or what I coming to be called “digital”) humanities would enable the student to reveal new fields of signs as mutations of more familiar ones. On the level of scholarship, while mimetic theories ask what is “literature,” or “reason,” or “meaning,” or “humanity,” or “society,” and so on, liminal theories would ask, where is the boundary between all of these categories and whatever their “others” might be at a given moment—this kind of inquiry would also involve learning new modes of literacy, insofar as the boundaries are always shifting, in part as a result of the inquiries themselves. (In a sense, this would make all pedagogy and even all scholarship “remedial”—part of the problem with the traditional humanities, or at least an increasingly unavoidable part of the problem, is that students can’t really “read” Plato, Shakespeare, Joyce or any of the other “great books”—they can, at best, mimic their teacher’s reading of the texts as already read, which they must be insofar as they have already been designated “great.” Providing students with reading practices that would reveal these texts to them in their otherness, with all the messiness and stupidity that is sure to follow, might lead to something interesting, even if it’s not likely that many instructors will know what to do with it.)

I suppose this would mean that originary thinking is itself a new specialization, a discipline focused on revealing the consequences and implications of the maxim “representation is the deferral of violence.” Our project would be to show what difference this maxim makes in all of the disciplines with which ours does or could overlap. What does the originary hypothesis enable us to see that we wouldn’t otherwise? Does that mean that one doesn’t claim that the originary hypothesis is true, or gets us closer to the truth of human being than other ways of thinking? Well, to the extent that we are invested in or converted to originary thinking we have concluded that it is more revelatory than other ways of thinking available to us, which is pretty much synonymous with “truer”; but insofar as there is no neutral set of intellectual standards by which the relative truth of theories in the human sciences can be determined authoritatively, I would say we let the “long run” settle the question of truth and attend to our business of lowering the threshold of human things we can make new sense of.

To return to the concepts examined in my previous post (“Selfy”), it seems to me that the kind of disciplinary inquiry I am proposing as a moral innovation requires self-control, self-abolition and self-creation: the disciplinary self is a creation of the inquiry itself, much like the “narrator” of a novel, who is neither the author or a character (and where the narrator is a character, most obviously in first person narration, the reader posits another narrator behind the “I”), who exists only so long as the novel does, and is obliged to follow the rules of coherence and consistency constitutive of the narrative. Likewise, the disciplinary self is created by some boundary question or anomaly, and must remain the “same” insofar as questions raised must be answered or questioned in turn, and rigorous controls must be in place to ensure that the “real self” external to the inquiry, with its resentments and desires, does not interfere—even if those resentments and desires might (again, like the relation between author and narrator), properly treated, inform the disciplinary self. And into what does the disciplinary self inquire: well, among other things, the slippages within and between “identities,” a central cause of “threshold” questions in the modern world; and “personhood,” perhaps first of all the boundary between the constitutive fantasy of personhood (one’s own absolute erotic centrality) and its never completed reality of shared erotic centrality. (I refer, again, to my previous post, and in particular my reading of Andrew Bartlett’s originary analysis of personhood.)

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