The Sovereign Remembering of Names

How do we recognize the truth? A statement refers to something in the world, and we look at (or for) the referent, and see whether it is there. Or, we look at the different parts of a statement, and see whether one part negates another part. If all the parts of a statement cohere, and we are able to find the referent in the world, then we can certify the truth of the statement. This works if we know how to identify the thing in the world that corresponds to the referent—but that, then, relies upon prior statements being taken as true, and upon my having taken on faith another pointing to a referent (lots of referents, before I had any idea what they were, or that they could be separated from the shared observation) and confirming that I have successfully pointed at it myself. There is a relation of faith, a pedagogical relation, and a disciplinary relation involved here. I’m already systematically involved with others before claims about truth become possible. Also, the (metaphysical) approach to truth we are considering works if we banish paradox from the realm of truth, since a paradox is where one part of the statement negates another part. But statements themselves rely upon a paradox: we all see the same thing in our common orientation to truth because we have already affirmed the same thing as a common orientation to truth (which required some kind of common orientation to truth). As Eric Gans points out, this means that ethics precedes cognition: we have deferred violence by representing the desired object and thereby letting it be; only then can we talk “about” the object, and say true or false things about it. The paradox is contained within the ethical dimension as well: the deferred object becomes all the more desirable the more barred from appropriation it is. The beginning of ethics and truth is looking at what the other is looking at and showing the other I am looking at it alongside him. This is an extremely complex maneuver: I must correctly identify what the other is looking at, I must realize I am looking at it because he is, and perhaps he because of I (or some third), I must be able to convey a sense of the worthiness of the object as a locus of attention, I must demonstrate to the other that I am looking along with him and that what I take myself to be looking at is the same thing he takes himself to be looking at. Pretty much all of culture, or the order of representations, operates so as to ensure a sufficiently high level of success in executing this maneuver. We certainly don’t need to be aware of all these elements of representation in executing successful representations (in fact it’s best to be aware of only what distinguishes this representation from others), but anyone at any time may be obliged to attend to more of the representational situation than usual.

To point at something, the same thing, together, is to confer a name on the thing. Before truth, before agreement and disagreement, before arguments, there are names. The first human word, on the originary scene, was “God”—the name of the object that saved and established the community by withdrawing itself from appetitive aggression. A name already preserves the memory of the object as pointed to in common—naming and memory are inextricably bound up with each other. This also means that memory is shared before it is private, personal, or internal. It further means that even when memory is private, personal or internal, it is still shared, as Maurice Halbwachs pointed out in On Collective Memory—the most private memories are composed out of language, public narratives and the imagined gazes of others. Names can be changed and disputed—this happens all the time and is a well-worn means of waging cultural and ideological warfare—but only some names, while we continue to rely on the unquestioned reliability of yet other names. You couldn’t speak while suspending or undermining the meaning of every word you are presently using to speak; but you also can’t know which might get undermined at any particular time.

We ordinarily think of names as words referring to unique individuals—as serving an ostensive function. But declarative sentences are a way of naming as well. I will refer, as I have done several times in recent posts, to Eric Gans’s analysis (most importantly in Science and Faith) of the name that God provides to Moses, I Am That I Am, as “the Name of God as the declarative sentence.” The point here is that to give your god a singular name is to make it possible to invoke God—to enter into what we could call an “imperative exchange” with your god, in which you can bind him to perform a favor for you in exchange for a favor you do Him. The imperative exchange is embedded in a sacrificial economy: the subject demands more and more of God, as each form of salvation brings another form into view, and so God correspondingly demands more in return: in the end, the most treasured possession, i.e., your first born. The God whose name is the declarative sentence breaks the imperative exchange and the sacrificial economy not by demanding less of His devotees but by demanding more: by demanding all of you, all the time. You are to dedicate your life to exposing and resisting the imperative exchange and disengaging from the sacrificial economy, with its endless vendettas and scapegoating.

The declarative sentence is in the first instance an act of faith in the invisible. As Gans shows in The Origin of Language, the declarative emerges through the deferral of a demand for an object: the imperative is countered with a “negative ostensive” that “refers” to the object in its absence. The sentence works insofar as the interlocutors accept the present unavailability of the object and, in exchange, receive some information about the object—first of all that it’s not here, but, then, that it’s there, or that so-and-so is retrieving it, or that it doesn’t really exist in the manner you believe it to, etc. The declarative sentence was always the Name of God, as we can see if we consider that to make a claim about anything is to assume that some authority would, “in the long run,” be able to authenticate that claim, even if no such authority is actually available or imaginable in any concrete way. To utter a statement is to assume you and your interlocutors will be able to continue to speak and/or act in the way licensed by that statement (to look at something, to remedy some situation, to cease some activity), i.e., to understand it; to assume that is to assume something like a guardian of the shared understanding that allows for further discourse and action, i.e., God, even if He hasn’t been named yet and in a more conventional sense never will be. (It’s also worth pointing out here that in his inquiry into the genesis of grammar in The Origins of Human Communication, Michael Tomasello argues that the earliest declarative sentences—utterances beyond the imperative—concerned commentary on the reliability of other individuals as potential participants in common activity. That is, the earliest “vocation” of sentences was to establish reputation and authority—the very thing needed to authorize the sentence itself.)

All this is to fortify, not dismantle, the notion of truth. To speak the truth is to name God in the world in a way that deserves to be remembered. People properly disciplined away from the sacrificial economy and therefore toward what is resistant to our desires in the world would answer the question you are answering the same way you do. If we don’t want to speak of God we could speak (paradoxically) of “indirect ostensive authority.” The inherited metaphysical concept of truth that ultimately reaches its dead end in positivism eliminates the indirect ostensive authority and would have us focus exclusively on the clarity and indisputability of the reference, ignoring the question of how reference is possible. An originary understanding of truth includes the indirect ostensive authority in the utterance. All attempts to proclaim the truth do this—no one ever succeeds in subtracting from one’s utterance everything but the logically isolatable meanings of the words and sentences uttered; everyone relies upon internal and external echoes of other utterances, upon distinguishing marks of some relevant context, and even upon the sound-shape of language (patterns of sound, repetition, alliteration, rhyme, etc.), indeed, all features of language, written and spoken. Why pretend otherwise, then—a more multi-dimensional notion of truth would be more, not less, truthful, as it would more effectively gather its audience into a disciplinary space attending to the truth revealed there, rather than winnowing out non-specialists in accord with some institutionally determined method of presenting truth. And if something deserves to be remembered, you should do everything in your power to make it memorable.

Our intellectual exchanges, then, are attempts to retrieve and establish a shared hierarchy of names. R.G. Collingwood uses the term “dialectic” to refer to the process of converting disagreements into agreements. To refer to Reactionary Future’s recent “Monkey Shrieking Sophistry” post (while modifying the example), if I say that “capitalism” is an economic system based on private property and free economic exchange while you say that “capitalism” is a system of exploitation of wage labor, the disagreement may seem insuperable—how could we even be referring to the same thing? But there will be something on the margins of my definition that can be brought into alignment with something on the margins of your definition—if I can agree that exchanges between private property owners generate asymmetries in exchange, while you can agree to gradations in “propertylessness” and then we can at least achieve partial reciprocal translatability. If we can achieve partial, we can strive for more. Of course, new disagreements emerge as well—I might see gradations in propertylessness as a vindication of the capitalism system while you might see it as an impediment in the struggle against it, and hence to be undermined. (At a certain point, one of us will benefit more in cutting off the conversation.) Nevertheless, to achieve partial reciprocal translatability is to presuppose (name) indirect ostensive authority, and to assume indirect ostensive authority is to presuppose (leave open a space to name) a sovereign who is undivided to that extent at least. (That’s why one of us will cut off the discussion if the proportion between agreement and disagreement remains unfavorable to further dialectic—we will realize that we recognize different sovereigns. But to recognize the irreconcilability of sovereigns as an insuperable impediment to continued discourse is to acknowledge the need for undivided sovereignty. The system of names depends upon sovereignty and the hierarchies it oversees.) If there’s one shared human world that at least potentially contains all possible shared referents (we could never place an a priori ceiling on how much shared attention we could harvest), then undivided government that would prevent power struggles from multiplying disagreements at the expense of agreements is also possible. After all, the introduction of new power sources increases the interest in struggling over indirect ostensive authority and in subverting any shared and conclusive authority—it therefore aims at increasing the indeterminacy of language (it’s obviously no coincidence that theories asserting the indeterminacy of reference and undecidability of meaning proliferate as power multiplies (still, we can agree with deconstruction and other such theories regarding the interdependency of meaning and sovereignty)). It is therefore destructive of the most fundamental purpose of language, which is to Name God in the world, or preserve indirect ostensive authority. There will always be disagreements—they result from agreements—but we can come to agree that these disagreements are attempts to elicit further signs of indirect ostensive authority. The source of memorability is the enactment and display of this eliciting of agreement from disagreement. We can transcend resentments in a shared search for information from the sovereign center, or we can resentfully decenter authority and assail others’ efforts to affirm or restore it. We can work on ensuring that names become and remain part of the reality they name or, as nominalists, weaponize names in a war against shared reality.

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