Cognition as Originary Memory

This is the paper (leaving aside any last minute editing) that I will be reading (via Skype) June 9 at the 11th annual GASC Conference in Stockholm.

Cognition as Originary Memory


The shift in focus, in cognitive theory, from the relation between mind and objects in the world to the relation between minds mediated by inter-subjectivity, brings it into dialogue with originary thinking. Michael Tomasello’s studies in language and cognition have become a familiar reference point in originary inquiries, which have drawn upon the deep consonance between his notion of “joint attention” and the originary hypothesis’s scenic understanding of human origin. Peter Gardenfors, in his How Homo Became Sapiens, builds on the work of Tomasello and others so as to include the development of cultural and technological implements, in particular writing, in this social understanding of cognition. Much of the vocabulary of cognitive thinking, though, still retains the assumption of separate, autonomous selves: sensations, perceptions, ideas, thoughts, minds, feelings, knowledge, imagination and so on are all experiences or capacities that individuals have, even if we explain them in social and historical terms. My suggestion is that we think of cognition, of what we do when we think, feel, remember and so on directly in linguistic terms, as operations and movements within language, in terms that always already imply shared intentionality. In this way we can grasp the essentially idiomatic character of human being.


Eric Gans’s studies of the elementary linguistic forms provide us with an approach to this problem. His most extended study of these forms, of course, is in The Origin of Language, but he has shorter yet sustained and highly suggestive discussions of the relations between the ostensive, the imperative and the declarative in The End of Culture, Science and Faith, Originary Thinking, and Signs of Paradox. In The End of Culture Gans uses the succession of linguistic forms to account for the emergence of mythological thinking and social hierarchy, in Science and Faith to account for the emergence and logic of monotheism, in Originary Thinking, among other things, to propose a more rigorous theory of speech acts, and in Signs of Paradox to account for metaphysics and the constitutive paradoxicality of advanced thought. It makes sense to take what are in these cases historical inquiries and make use of them to examine individual or, to make use of the Girardian term, “interdividual,” cognition, which is always bound up in anthropomorphizing our social configurations in terms of a center constituted out of our desires and resentments.


In The Origin of Language Gans shows how each new linguistic form maintains, or preserves, or conserves, the “linguistic presence” threatened by some limitation in the lower form. So, the emergence of the imperative is the making present of an object that an “inappropriate ostensive” has referred to. Bringing the object “redeems” the reference. The assumption here seems to me that the loss of linguistic presence is unthinkable—the most basic thing we do as language users is conserve linguistic presence. Another key concept put to use early on in The Origin of Language is the “lowering of the threshold of significance,” which is to say the movement from one significant object in a world comprised of insignificant ones to a granting of less and less significance to more and more objects. I think we could say that lowering the threshold of significance is the way we conserve linguistic presence: what threatens linguistic presence is the loss of a shared center that we could point to; by lowering the threshold of significance we place a newly identified object at that center. So, right away we can talk about “thinking” or “cognition” as the discipline of conserving linguistic presence by lowering the threshold of significance.


This raises the question of how we conserve linguistic presence by lowering the threshold of significance. If linguistic presence is continuous, then our relation to the originary scene is continuous—in a real sense, we are all, always, on the originary scene—it has never “closed.” In that case, a crisis in linguistic presence marks some weakening of that continuity with the originary scene—the crisis is that we are in danger of being cut off from the scene. But in that case, continuity with the scene must entail the repetition of the scene or, more precisely, its iteration. As long as we are within linguistic presence we are iterating the original scene, in all of our uses of signs. Any crisis must then be a failure of iteration, equivalent to forgetting how to use language. The conservation of linguistic presence, then, is a remembering of the originary scene. Our thinking always oscillates between a forgetting and remembering of the originary scene. But this oscillation must itself be located on the originary scene, which then must be constituted by a dialectic of forgetting and remembering, or repeating and iterating. For my purposes, the difference between “repeat” and “iterate” is as follows: repeating maps the sign onto the center; iterating enacts the center-margin relation.



Now, let’s leap ahead to the linguistic form in which we do most of our thinking: the declarative. The declarative has its origins in the “negative ostensive,” the response to the “inappropriate imperative,” where the object cannot be provided, the imperative cannot be fulfilled, and linguistic presence is therefore threatened. But Gans is at pains to distinguish this “negation” from the logical negation that can come into being only with the declarative itself. He refers to the negation in the negative ostensive as the “operator of interdiction,” which he further suggests must be rooted in the first proto-interdiction, the renunciation of appetite on the originary scene. This remembering of the originary scene further passes through other forms of interdiction which entail “enforcement” through what Gans calls “normative awaiting”—he uses examples like the injunction to children not to talk to strangers. As opposed to normal imperatives, these interdictions can never be fulfilled once and for all. Now, even keeping in mind the limited resources available within an imperative culture, this is not an obvious way to relate the information that the demanded object is not available. The issuer of the interdiction is told not to do (something)+the object. Not to continue demanding, perhaps; not to do more than demand, i.e., not to escalate the situation. None of these alternatives, along with repeating the name of the object, seems to communicate anything about the object itself. But we can read the operator of interdiction as referring to the object—the object is being told not to present itself. But by whom? Clearly not the speaker. I think the initial declarative works because both possibilities are conveyed simultaneously—the “imperator” is ordered to cease pursuing his demand, and the object is ordered, ultimately by the center, to not be present, which in turn adds force to the interdiction directed back at the imperator, who donates his imperative power to the center. In essence, the declarative restores linguistic presence by telling someone that they must lower their threshold of significance because the object of their desire, as they have imagined it, has been rendered unavailable by, let’s say, “reality.” The lowered threshold brings to attention a center yet to be figured by actions, from a direction and at a time yet to be determined.


Now, the embedding of the declarative in the imperative order is not very important if once we have the declarative, we have the declarative, i.e., a new linguistic form irreducible to the lower ones, in the way biology is irreducible to chemistry, and chemistry to physics. But biology is still constrained by chemistry, and chemistry by physics. So is the declarative constrained by the imperative order it transcends and, of course, the imperative by the ostensive. The economy of the dialectic of linguistic forms is conserved. Just as on the originary scene remembering the sign is a way of forgetting the scene, immersion in the declarative dimension of culture is a forgetting of the imperative and the ostensive. To operate, to think and communicate in declarative terms is to imagine oneself liberated from imperatives. This gets formulated, via Kant, in imperative terms: to be a “declarative subject” is treat others as ends, never as means, to will that your own actions embody a universal law binding on everyone. We could call this an ethics of the declarative. This imperative remembers the origin of the declarative in a kind of imperative from the center to suspend imperatives amongst each other. We could say that logic itself recalls an imperative for the proper use of declaratives, one that allows no imperatives to be introduced, even implicitly, into the discourse at hand—but, of course, this is accomplished in overwhelming imperative terms, as all manner of otherwise perfectly legitimate uses of language must be subjected to interdiction. Even more, these imperative uses of the declarative include the imperative to not rest content with any particular formulation of that imperative: what, exactly, does it mean to treat another as an end or means, how can you tell whether another is really taking your action as a law—what counts as adjudication here? If you take to treat others only as ends in consequence of your devotion to the categorical imperative, aren’t you treating them as a means to that end? The paradoxes of declarative culture and subjectivity derive from the ineradicability of the absolute imperative founding them.


The most decisive liberation of the declarative from the imperative can be seen in the cognitive ramifications of writing, as explained most rigorously, I think, by David Olson in his The World on Paper. Olson argues that it is the invention of writing, alphabetic writing in particular, that turns language into an object of inquiry: something we can break down into parts that we then rearticulate synthetically. These parts are first of all the sounds to be represented by letters, but just as much the words, or parts of sentences, that are identified through writing for the first time. The grammatical analysis of the sentence treats the sentence as a piece of information, makes it possible to construct the scene of speech as a multi-layered dissemination of information about that scene, and thereby provides a model for treating the entire world as a collection of bits of information, ultimately of an event of origin through speech. We could see this as a declarative cosmology. In that case the world can be viewed as a constant flow of information conveyed through everything that could be an object of an ostensive, that is, effect some shift of attention.  This declarative metaphysics only comes to fruition in the computer age. We keep discovering that each piece of information is in fact just a piece of a larger piece of information that perhaps radically changes the meaning of the piece we have just assimilated. This is an intrinsic part of scientific inquiry, but subverts more local and informal inquiries with a much lower tolerance for novelty because of a greater reliance on ostensive and imperative culture. Declarative culture promises us we will only have to obey one imperative: the imperative of reality. In that case, we should be able to bracket and contain potentially subversive inquiries into reality by constructing institutions that introduce new increments of deferral and upward gradations of discipline and therefore social integrity, facilitating the assimilation of transformative knowledge. Olson himself, in his Psychological Theory and Educational Reform seems to think along similar lines by pointing to the intrinsic connection between a literate population and large scale bureaucracies, which is to say hierarchical orders predicated upon the ongoing translation of language into disciplinary metalanguages that simultaneously direct inquiry and impose discipline. However, if we take declarative culture to provide a mandate, an imperative, to extirpate all imperatives that cannot present themselves as the precipitate of a declarative, then those flows of information come equipped with incessantly revised imperatives coming from no imperative and ostensive center, subjecting imperative traditions to constant assault from hidden and competing metaphysical centers.


There will always be imperatives that cannot be justified declaratively because the lowering of the threshold of significance generates new regions of ostensivity that generate imperatives in order to establish guardianship over those regions, in turn leading to requests for information, i.e., interrogatives, which themselves presuppose a cluster of demands that attention be directed in certain ways. In the long term most, maybe all imperatives could be provided with a declaratively generated genealogy, but only if we for the most part obey them in the meantime. This constitutively imperative relation to a center could be called an “imperative exchange.” I do what you, the center, the distillation of converging desires and shared renunciations, commands, and you, the center, do what I request, that is, make reality minimally compliant. We must think in this way in most of our daily transactions—the alternative would be to be perpetually calculating on the basis of extremely limited and uncertain data, the probabilities of the various possible consequences of this or that action. For the most part, we have to “trust the world,” since we as yet have insufficiently advanced internal algorithms to operate coherently without doing so. The development of declarative, that is, literate, culture, heightens this tension by establishing with increasing rigor both a comprehensive centralized, which is to say imperative, order and an interdiction on referring to that order too directly. The absolutized imperative founding the declarative order forbids us to speak and therefore think about it.


The revelation of the declarative sentence as the name of God, analyzed by Gans in Science and Faith, his study of the Mosaic revelation of the burning bush, cancels this imperative exchange, which leads one to place a figure at the disappointing center, and replaces it with the information that since God has given everything to you, you are to give everything to God, which is to say to the origin of and through speech. There is no more commensurability and therefore no more exchange. You are to embody the conversion of imperatives into declaratives through readiness to have those imperatives converge upon you. Imperative exchange is ancestor worship, and the absolute imperative embedded in I AM THAT I AM is to suspend ancestor worship and remember the originary scene—that is, remember that it is the participation of all in creating reciprocity that generated the sign, not the other way around. But imperative exchange cannot be eliminated—it is embedded in our habits, it is the form in which we remember the sign and forget the scene—if I do this, reality will supply that. Thinking begins with the failure of some imperative exchange—I did this, but reality didn’t supply that, and why in the world should I have expected it to, since it’s not subject to my commands or tied to me by any promise. The declarative sentence, then, is best understood as the conversion of a failed imperative exchange into a constraint—in thinking, you derive a rule from the failure of your obedience to some command to garner a commensurate response from reality. This rule ties some lowering of significance to the maintenance of linguistic presence, as this relationship requires less substantial or at least less immediate cooperation from reality. We get from the command to the rule by way of the interrogative, the prolongation of the command into a request for the ostensive conditions of its fulfillment. The commands we prolong are themselves embedded in the declaratives, the discourses, we circulate through—raising a question about a claim is tantamount to identifying an unavowed imperative, some attempt at word magic, that claim conveys. This is how we oscillate between the imperative and ostensive worlds in which we are immersed and the declarative order we extract from and use to remake those worlds. A good question prolongs the command directed at reality indefinitely, iterating it through a series of possible ostensive conditions of fulfillment, which can only be sustained by treating the declarative order as a source of clearer, more convertible commands.


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