Virality and Sovereignty

Eric Gans has defined metaphysics, historically the dominant mode of Western thought, as the belief that the declarative sentence is the primary form of language. In other words, metaphysics sees propositions, which can be true or false, as the basic form of language. This must be wrong, because whenever human beings began using language (and therefore became human beings), they could not have started with subject-predicate relationships (how would anyone have known what that was?). Rather, as Gans has shown, the first sign must have been an ostensive sign, designating a desired object and signifying the community’s deferral of appropriation of that object. From the ostensive sign we can trace the emergence of the imperative, the interrogative, and finally the declarative, as Gans demonstrates in his The Origin of Language.

To see the declarative sentence as the principal linguistic form means, first, that the concepts represented by the words one uses exist in a higher reality, a realm of ideas—so, I can call someone a “good man” because the ideas “good” and “man” already pre-exist their expression in language. Somehow we just discover or have revealed to us their meaning. If you start with the declarative sentence, there’s no other way to explain why words mean anything at all, unless you want to say that we all agreed upon a meaning for “good,” but in that case, in what language did we arrive at that agreement? Second, it means all uses of language can be (as any proposition can be) determined to be either true or false even though, clearly, all kinds of very fundamental uses of language (greetings, promises, commands and demands, exclamations of joy or sorrow) are off the true-false axis (even if they can be wrenched back onto it, at great cost to linguistic and cultural understanding). Third, this means the world is most fundamentally a source of information, or series of “bits,” to be processed through the binary of truth/falsehood—even if this last consequence of metaphysics does not fully unfold until modern positivism.

In sum, the effect of metaphysics is to efface language by, paradoxically, dividing the world into everything that is language from everything that is not language. If all language does is accurately reflect the (non-linguistic) reality outside of it, then, like a good window or mirror (whichever metaphorical path we wish to take), you don’t notice it when it is working. The origin and purpose of metaphysics are thoroughly political—metaphysics emerged in Ancient Greece, with the emergence of the creation of relations between rulers and ruled and the suppression of the sacrificial rites of more primitive communities. The replacement of the ostensive gesture with the declarative sentence as the primary linguistic form is the original “Enlightenment”—rather than the identification of a victim (human or animal) to sacrifice, metaphysics proposes the arrival at the true meaning of words as a basis for community. At the same time, metaphysics is the first (admittedly abortive) political proceduralism, trying to regulate the unstable regimes of the ancient city-states (especially the democracy-oligarchy cycles of states like Athens) by making adherence to truth and reason a basis for legitimacy.

Socrates and Plato did what they thought they had to in order to maintain some possibility of a just order in decadent times; our purpose today can only be to understand the power, limits and consequences of the intellectual devices they invented. Modern philosophy has essentially been one attempt after another to “dismantle” metaphysics, with Jacques Derrida finally deciding that metaphysics can only be “deconstructed,” which means we can never be free of it once and for all, so deeply is it embedded in our language, but we can at least know that. Originary thinking accomplishes the task, though, and without all the histrionics of thinkers like Heidegger and Derrida, by simply recognizing that the true meaning of declarative sentences lies in their derivation from imperatives and, ultimately ostensives, the purpose of which is to defer community-threatening violence. We use declarative sentences and the discourses built out of them to direct attention to a new domain, which is to say, to form disciplinary spaces in which we can reciprocally assure each other we are seeing more or less the same thing in more or less the same way. Then we can talk about things rather than fight over them.

The critique of metaphysics carried out by Derrida and other post-metaphysical thinkers (including writers—for example, the notion that language is a virus has been most forcefully stated and enacted by William S. Burroughs) is valuable, though, because it showed that metaphysics generated the very contagion it sought to contain. The whole purpose of drawing a clear line between language and non-language is to prevent the ostensive and imperative signs, which make human language more of an extension of the objects it engages with, from governing human communities and keeping us addicted to the violence of sacrifice. But as soon as we use this clearing out of “reality” from the supernatural and magical to cast our rational gaze over it we start “reading” reality as a language, or a proliferation of languages. Already in the ancient world Lucretius advanced the analogy between the division of language into meaningful sounds by the letters of the alphabet and the division of the material world into infinitesimal atoms. As modernity has progressed, the reading of the material world in terms of language, stated bluntly already by Galileo, referring to the language of mathematics, has become pervasive—everything, from genes to neurons to human decision making to the ever receding physical structure of the universe, is “coded” as “information.”

What has been coded must have a coder, which means the belief in an informational universe is essentially theological; and whatever has been coded can be recoded and, moreover, can never be ascertained not to have been recoded, introducing the possibility of proliferating powers which remain hidden by the very vehicle through which they exercise power (if you can recode some part of reality, you can write any awareness of yourself out of the code). This intellectual frame is the form of modern forms of political paranoia, of which very few are free, since modern political paranoia is virtually co-extensive with modern political thought, and which has its “objective correlative” in the severely unstable, divided power of the liberal order. The paranoia, then, is not exactly out of place, because the possibility of recoding (the genes, the psyche, the brain, gender identify, the social order, etc.) encourages new trials of power, but it is just about always misplaced, because the nature of divided power is to have no clear location.

Now, since we have to worship something, there are worse things to worship than language, but not in its declarative form, which is, paradoxically, the most viral form language takes: in the end you see nothing but algorithms, all the time, which encourages the most extravagant fantasies of transhuman transformation mega-state manipulation. It’s a good way to end up thinking that God must be an evil genius. But, consider (another insight of Derrida’s) that what trips up assertions of the clear truth (the “metaphysics of presence”) is the reliance of language upon iteration. To see the truth as a singular correspondence between sign and reality is to suppress the fact of iteration—that signs only have meaning because they can be repeated, which means any use is first of all a repetition and not a direct relation to reality. By projecting codes onto reality, metaphysics ends up generating viral, which is to say uncontrolled and metastasizing, models of reality, rampant iteration mocking unequivocal assertions of a readily packaged reality.

But the necessary iteration of the sign can be seen not as a parasitic intrusion, but a welcoming of the return of the sign, and its peace giving powers. There is no higher reality that we grasp by freeing our minds of emotions and imagination; there are disciplinary spaces, in which we all attend to the same articulations of signs with forms of reality made intelligible through signification. Philosophy itself is one such disciplinary space, and when someone engages in philosophy today, he participates in the very space founded by Plato in his Academy around 2500 years ago. Disciplinary spaces do “elevate” us above our desires and resentments—in order to participate, you need to be willing and able to see things the way others do, which means suspending the way you would prefer things be seen. But there are lots of disciplinary spaces, and there is no a priori reason for seeing any one of them as the “realest.” The transcendence of the sacrificial egalitarian primitive community implicit in the spread of disciplinary spaces indicates the emergence of an additional layer of protection against violence, which is to say sovereignty; and the sovereignty modeled on the disciplines would be one as absolute as the disciplines themselves, which concern themselves solely with devotion to their respective centers of attention (try to imagine a democratic or liberal scientific discipline, or even common workplace).If any conscientious worker in any field were to think honestly about the best way to govern a community, and to use what he knows best as a model, he would not advocate for a democratic or liberal order.

So, the sovereign disciplines and the discipline of sovereignty counter viral iteration with a restorative iteration. Think about how difficult it is to convince someone with diametrically opposing views of the reasonableness, let alone truth, of your position. It’s impossible because political antagonists occupy different regimes of truth, different realities—their “facts” are not your “facts,” their “causality” and “reasoning” is not yours. You inhabit different disciplinary spaces, and can only talk past, and ultimately insult, one another. We can see this mini-tragi-comedy playing itself in the comment section of any political blog. People are not ‘convinced,’ unless they already really agree with you; people are converted, though, which is an entirely different matter. The most effective way of converting people is by repeating their own discourse, often, and in varied contexts—through exaggeration, through parody, by taking it to its logical conclusion, by acting out the roles it ascribes to various “characters” in its narratives, by treating its metaphors literally, by separating it from its tacit social conditions, by spinning off unanticipated examples. In a sense, one participates in and precipitates its virality. A funny thing happens when you deliberately repeat something over and over—it starts to become meaningless, and the fact that it is only held together by the common desire for a victim becomes evident (genuine disciplinary spaces, held together by rapt attention rather than violation, are only fortified by iteration—that’s how we can tell the difference between the two). But the fact of iteration itself—that we can follow the discourse through all these variations—creates a new disciplinary space, one organized around a shared devotion to the signifying order. This new disciplinary space entails a new relation to reality, in which reality is filled with meaning—the meaning of the disciplinary spaces themselves articulated through the discourses they iterate, generate and make peace amongst. And this disciplinary space imagines a sovereign order in which conversions can take place all the time, in which viral iteration can become restorative—and that sovereign order is one that unifies the power whose division instigates viral metaphysics in the first place. The iterative inquiry into all those viral possibilities is the way of imagining the sovereignty that would eliminate them. Absolutist ontology, that is, inhabits the imaginary fueling the desperate viral discourses of liberal ontology. While Sylvia Plath may not have been right that “every woman loves a fascist,” the anarchist thinker or artist most certainly does want a world ordered so that she can appear as sheer sign, a gesture we can all be transformed through the recognition of, without violent consequence. The nihilism of much modern art and modern thought is best understood as a protest bemoaning the absence of such a world. Only an absolutist order can provide it. (Herein lies the basis of an absolutist “cultural studies.”)

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