GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

November 6, 2015

Theory of Language as Theory of War

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:50 pm

As I survey the field of thinkers and doers determined not just to complain about “political correctness” but to undertake to destroy it (most exemplarily, Vox Day of SJWs Always Lie) I notice one weakness in their analysis that some of us familiar with academic developments over the past half-century are well equipped to remedy. SJWs lie, they double down, they project; any apology they manage to extract will be pocketed as a confession and used to pursue further prosecutorial actions; they exploit vague “codes of conduct” and appeal to “amenable authorities” to find weak links in the organization; and they have absolutely no concern for the genuine goals of whatever project they infiltrate—indeed, as Vox Day could say, but I don’t think he does, people with genuine “projects” are the favored targets of the SJW because the enemy of the SJW is someone concerned with achievement, success, participating in civilization, and who is therefore indifferent to margins of perceived inequality. All true! All this addresses the SJWs as an enemy in an ongoing civil war (a “cold” civil war, so far), and therefore focuses on weapons, tactics, strategies, weaknesses and vulnerabilities, etc. As befits a fighter.

But Vox Day doesn’t seem particularly interested in the question of why all this works, and it does need to be explained—we don’t need an explanation for why saturation bombing and an invasion of hundreds of thousands of troops breaks the enemy’s will and leads to surrender; we do need an explanation for why everyone in a corporation cowers when a charge of “racism” or “sexism” is levied. (Of course, part of the explanation is simply that the government can exact a very heavy price for such transgressions, but not only does this just push the question back to another level [why do we comply with government rules that no one ever voted for?], it is far from always the case that complaints which are anxiously addressed rise to the threshold of legal action—the anxiety is more free floating than that.) We can pursue these questions through new theories of warfare (e.g., William Lind’s “4th Generation Warfare), which very much interests the SJW slayers, but it seems to me there’s not much there there. Why do guerilla warfare and terrorism work? We require the same kind of explanation for a kind of social and political paralysis in the face of very asymmetrical means for that as for the everyday pastimes of the domestic SJW. Of course, our own understanding of White Guilt and victimary thinking offer an explanation well beyond anything the anti-SJW camp has to offer, but it is ultimately a contemplative view of things, a description which, for reasons I hope to explain here, is not likely to interest those committed to the principle of SJWs delenda est, and for good reasons. Think tanks will not sink the SJWs. Anyway, even on the terms of a “declarative,” objective, social sciency account, references to feelings like guilt and fear tend to be like theories of soporific qualities causing sleep.

However we explain it, the source of the power of victimary politics is the assimilation, by now tacitly by most participants, of a post-structuralist understanding of language. Judith Butler tied together Derridean and Foucauldian threads from French theory with the speech act theory of Austin and Searles to provide an effective way of acting on the principle that all language is performative. All saying is a kind of doing. Whoever practices language according to this assumption will have incalculable advantages over people still adhering to what are ultimately metaphysical understandings of a detached, disinterested, objective analysis, to be presented, refined and disputed at leisure. You think you’re putting together an interesting, plausible theory that can withstand and benefit from the most rigorous scrutiny and reward the most sustained study—they see that you are building fences, prescribing behaviors, disciplining and organizing masses of people, and will act on that perception. And they can do so because they are not wrong, as adherents to the originary hypothesis should be the first to recognize: putting forth an “idea” is sustaining or undermining institutional arrangements, and establishing protocols for inclusion and exclusion regarding those arrangements.

The originary hypothesis shares with post-structuralism and speech act theory the same basic post-metaphysical premise: the purpose of language is not to communicate true statements, it is to make things happen. If we ask, to make what happen, we all depart from each other, as post-structuralism has an implicit answer (to subvert the violence of reducing language to true statements) and speech act theory, being more purely descriptive and classificatory, has none, while, of course, GA has a crystal clear one: to defer violence. The power of post-structuralist subversion lies in the antinomy it embraces: it assumes both the “declarative” or “constative” world in which claims about equality reside, and the potential of perpetually undermining that world both to redress its hypocrisies to be liberated from its responsibilities. Any time an order and therefore any mode of reciprocity is established, it is possible to expose that order as exclusionary—some practices or qualities will not fall with the sphere of prescribed reciprocities. You can thereby implicate everyone who has bought into that mode of reciprocity. There is a kind of shell game going on—you distract people’s attention away from the purpose of that reciprocity to the rules constituting it. But part of a civilized order is the capacity to reflect on rules, which is often necessary (especially once institutions evolve beyond face to face encounters), but which can only be done within the shared good faith (which also means shared purpose) of all involved (the attempt to establish meta-rules to settle disputes over how to apply the rules leads to infinite regress). There really is no statement that you can make that will be even minimally immune from such subversions. To put simply, saying that a putatively neutral and innocent claim is exclusionary is something even the most dull-witted can do at will—it’s like using a coloring book. And, stating that police acted reasonably in using force to break up a fight that could have devolved into a riot is, indeed, doing something—defending civilized norms against enemies. But the SJWs are closer to the truth when they say that statement is an act of violence than you are when you say it’s “just my opinion.” But openly defending civilized norms is a slippery slope—do it once, and you draw the enemies of civilization like flypaper, and will never be able to stop doing it.

You have to play on the same field as your enemies—if they transform the field, you either have to learn how to play on that field or to transform in some other way. The victimocracy creates a performative field, and I think they can ultimately be made much more conflicted about this than the SJW slayers. The power of the originary hypothesis to help us think this problem through has not been explored at all. To say that all language is performative, is to say that all language creates reality. Austin’s example of the wedding vow is still the simplest one to work with: when the couple says “I do [take this man/woman to be my lawfully wedded wife/husband]” they are not standing outside of their actions, describing them—they are transforming their condition. Of course, ritualistic settings are the most obvious examples of this use of language, but there’s nothing to prevent us from saying that even the most neutral, inoffensive, trivial claim about reality transforms those speaking with each other into participants upon a formalized scene, bound by a promise to continue speaking and acting in ways entailed by the observation in question. In our casual conversations we are also setting and re-setting an order and a mode of reciprocity—and we can therefore always point out that someone else is doing the same, and that the two orders may be incommensurable.

The vulnerability of the SJWs derives from their strength: their shell games depend upon others’ commitment to a declarative order to which they themselves remain uncommitted. But a crucial condition of a performative utterance is what Searle calls “sincerity conditions”—“I do” only effects the transformation it purports to if it is uttered sincerely, which is a very tricky concept but can be operationalized in all kinds of ways (we don’t need to read the groom’s mind to know that, if he already has a wife, he is not uttering the vow sincerely). The SJWs can always be targeted for their failure to meet sincerity conditions. They must fail to meet those conditions for the same reason they must always lie: they enter an organization for the purpose of subordinating its operations to the imperatives of “social justice,” but they can never admit this outright to those members of the organization who are sincerely devoted to its mission. Entering any organization is a performative gesture: you promise to adhere to its norms and support its purpose. So, yes, such a promise is an exclusionary gesture: it excludes everyone indifferent or hostile to its purposes. Every intervention by the SJWs can be targeted on these grounds: Black Lives Matter is transparently uninterested in making police work better; sexual harassment law is interested in generating conflicts at work, not amity; those fear-mongering about a “rape culture” on college campuses have no interest in making women safer or improving the relations between men and women on campuses (much less advancing the academic mission of the university). Just ask them! They won’t be able to give you a coherent account of what needs to be improved, much less how to improve it—to the extent that they have a coherent account, it will be a completely and obviously false one. They see their opportunities and they take ‘em. (And, indeed, they will be driven to undermine the kind of disciplinary space required for an assessment of truth claims—it is helpful to remember that truth claims are never just free floating statements that aim at garnering universal agreement and can be meaningfully confirmed or refuted in a vacuum by “reasonable” people, but resolve themselves into ostensive gestures that can only be assessed on a scene that is performatively constituted.)

A performative approach to the SJWs wars requires a transformation in those who, up until now, have mostly laid back and allowed themselves to be waylaid by the SJWs. Once they have a hook in, they can still be fought, but it’s much more difficult, and one must have certain advantages going in. Institutions and organizations must be immunized against them. Those who would protect their institutions from the SJWs must be performative themselves—they must make the promises and the sincerity conditions entailed in those promises constitutive of the institution explicit from the start, and they must embed them in daily routines and interactions. Even more, they must pounce on insincerities immediately, and use them to make the claims and acts they guarantee infelicitous. Of course, today this might put one in opposition to federal law in all kinds of ways—which means that an expanded mode of performativity, some combination of changing, weakening, blurring, evading, delaying, undermining and defying the laws must be part of such a strategy. There is no neutral ground—nothing simply is—the law is just one more means to be used in the struggle for civilization. In this way, one is ultimately restoring the law itself to its true purpose of facilitating voluntary agreements and exchanges. A call for the return of sincerity conditions, in some suitable translation, should be a winning slogan. The theory of language becomes a theory of war.

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