GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

October 31, 2017

The Single Source of Moral and Intellectual Innovation

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:38 am

The graded, or staggered, model of action I presented in my next to latest post, and which I have elsewhere called “centered ordinality,” can provide us with a model of thinking along with one of morality. If the first sign appeared as a deferral of violence, then every sign appears likewise: not, needless to say, imminent collectively destructive violence as on the originary scene, but whatever would count as self-threatening violence for the thinker. (By “sign,” I mean anything that is taken to produce meaning). Even the most commonplace thoughts and ideas would fit this model—you produce a sign, i.e., you think of something, something occurs to you, as part of a feeling that something would be lost or destroyed otherwise. This is the firstness of thinking, and it doesn’t matter if the sign is original to you in some way or the most tired cliché—it’s doing what it’s doing for you right at that moment. And it’s doing it for you in the plural, even if you’re not directly interacting with others—at the very least it’s the two or several in one each of us is. We’re not the exact same person we were a second ago, if only because the thought we just had mediated the transition from one to another, and we’re always mingled in various ways with everyone else. The kind of panic, or oblivion, or complacency that shuts down thinking is a kind of violence conducted from the outside (the semiotic ecology) and imposed on oneself—if I think beyond this setting something will be unsettled that I’d like to consider settled. It is feeling the imminence of this shutdown as violence that keeps thinking going.

So, you start off thinking against this imminent violence, and it crystallizes in some encounter with another line of thinking (perhaps the line of thinking that led to the panic, oblivion or complacency) from which it must distinguish itself. This is the secondness of thought—its channeling through inherited formations. But, of course, the thinking itself could never have been outside of inherited formations—after all, the thinking must have been done in language, the most inherited of all formations. But thinking in its firstness takes its departure by rerouting what has been inherited back through its originary structure—an expression that has obviously been said by millions of people but was said by this person at this time and place in this way; a prayer you’ve repeated a thousand times but for the first time seemed to be really heard; a phrase in a book that takes on new meaning because it’s referenced by another book, etc. A sign can only be meaningful insofar as it has previously generated meaning, but it can also only be meaningful if it represents a new beginning. The secondness of thought wrenches the sign out of that originary context by imposing on it the weight of all the other, and especially the historically most weighted, contexts. The secondness of thinking makes the sign retroactively predictable.

Predictability is the both the issue and bane of thinking. We are seeing, on the alt-right in particular, a very vigorous defense of stereotypes, and it forces one to realize how stereotyped and complacent anti-stereotyping thinking has become. Of course there are differences between groups, however we might argue over explaining them, and these differences are registered in both commonsensical and more rigorous modes of thought. It has been courageous and liberating for the alt-right to affirm these suppressed truths. The acronym NAXALT (Not All Xs Are Like That) has emerged as a standing mockery of the feebleness of most attempts to “counter” stereotypes. Stereotyping is the highest form of sacrificial thinking: if someone needs to be blamed for some social calamity and excluded or made an example of, the stereotype tells you where to look and allows for no appeal—that is, it will not allow the pursuit to be hindered. We can never be completely outside sacrificial thinking (just saying that stereotyping is sacrificial is itself a kind of stereotyping and therefore sacrificial claim). And we certainly can’t refute it. But it is in the nature of sacrificial thinking and action to initiate chains of events that are unintended by and consume the initiator, because, following the laws of mimesis, invidious distinctions operate virally. You start with a clear distinction between same and other and eventually find yourself possessed by an other within. All we can do to interrupt such chains is lower the threshold of significance: if a particular group has a disproportionate proclivity to commit certain harmful acts, then you can formalize those acts and target the doers rather than the social reserve from which they sally forth. There will then remain the less violent residue of social stigma and marginalization but, first, it’s less violent and, second, from there another lowering of the threshold might be attempted, if the still remaining level of potential violence continues to provoke thought. (But let’s say the group in question is so powerful, self-interested and relentless that it blocks any attempt to formalize and institutionalize—well, then, either that group rules through the hierarchy it has established and will find itself with the same need to contain virality; or, it exploits some weakness in the ruling order and does you the favor of pointing out that weakness so it can be repaired—if you restore the capacity to destroy that group, it will no longer be a dire threat, or even the “same” group.)

Of course, if the lowering is not formalized and institutionalized, the lowering process can destroy itself by putting in place another even more viral distinction (between those who continue to stereotype and those who reject all stereotyping and therefore end up stereotyping their “other” especially virulently). To set yourself against stereotyping as such is to place yourself in opposition to social order and thinking itself. If society is oppressive because of stereotyping, then the deepest, most taken for granted stereotypes must be the most pernicious. You then have to destroy the most obvious things, and get outraged by boys preferring trucks and girls preferring dolls. The attempt to completely abolish sacrifice issues in the gnostic mania of monotheism; a more enduring monotheism keeps noting that whatever order you are trying to protect by conducting sacrifices really derives from another, prior and more permanent order that your sacrifice will violate, even while your sacrifice might defer, make more indirect and mitigating, another more terrible one. The creation of the sign precedes the division of the object and all the sacrifice can do is restore a practice of division that will reset the terms of mimetic rivalry. Sacrifice relieves us of the rigors of deferral by providing everyone with a fair share of the victim. Maybe sometimes we need to relax the rigors of deferral—this is what Philip Rieff called “remissions.”

The lowering of the threshold of significance constitutes a kind of renewal of firstness within secondness, and is accomplished by incorporating thirdness into the thinking process. Thirdness is the recipient and normalization of the interplay of firstness and secondness, founding and institutionalization, but it is also the position of the witness or spectator. The ability to detach yourself sufficiently from ongoing events so as to observe them as an unfolding drama is an originary source of thinking, morality and esthetics. Of course, this means being able to observe yourself, as both actor and observer, and therefore to see yourself falling into predictable roles and patterns. This self-reflexivity represents the extension of firstness into thirdness. The most moral and the most thoughtful position is one wherein you turn yourself into a sign that reveals the panic, oblivion and complacency that suppresses thought and provides a new means of deferring the violence those dispositions evade. This means inventing practices that lower the threshold of significance. The means of such invention are to be found in repetition, which has the effect of taking a sign from firstness through thirdness, as well as continually retrieving its firstness. Nothing has really happened until it has repeated, because the meaning of any sign is predicated upon its iterability. The more you deliberately repeat a sign, the more it is both stripped of meaning and becomes sheer sign, nothing but a way of centering attention. Maybe the most accessible form of repetition is satire, which pretty much anyone can do—repeat a familiar sign in a way that’s believable, recognizably not what it is repeating, distinguished by a stripping away of attributes that protect it from certain kinds of scrutiny. The moral and the intellectual come together in satire: the thing represented is “unconcealed,” and implicitly measured according to some standard of the good. To become a sign is paradoxical, both preempting and accepting vulnerability to satire, oscillating between firstness and thirdness.

A model of thinking is always a model of a disciplinary space. A disciplinary space is organized around a sign oscillating between predictability and novelty—a discipline like sociology comes into being because something unrecognizable had emerged in human groups, something that didn’t fit terms like “community,” “nation,” “polis,” “republic,” “people,” “kingdom,” etc. Genuine disciplinary spaces tend to take shape in the corners of the established, institutionalized ones, through “satirical” repetitions of their founding gestures and concepts. Disciplines are determined to make a few terms, bringing to attention a specific cluster of phenomena, work—they start with the assumption that they will work, and don’t abandon that assumption until something else comes along that might include what has been organized through a broader concept. But it should always be possible to come back to the founding paradox of a discipline—the decision to see everything one way even though everything appears utterly different than that way (if a discipline just reproduced what we already saw and knew, it would be unnecessary). Let’s say we wanted to view the same social situation as one of complete order and as one of complete disorder. We could easily do it, by adding predicates to either order or disorder—what appears to be disorder is really an invisible order, what appears to be order is really moral disorder, etc. If you keep accumulating predicates on both sides, you would get to the point where you could say, looking at this phenomenon, if we’re willing to see this set of predicates as operating hierarchically in this way so as to articulate the substantive, we’re going to see this kind of order; if we’re willing to see this other set of predicates, etc., we’re going to see this kind of disorder. As thinkers in firstness, we should always be on that boundary; as actors and artists in secondness and thirdness we will inevitably be struck by the order or disorder (or uneven combination of both) that actually appears and narrows the world of possibilities. What thinking does is make being struck in this way a starting point for thinking.


(Those familiar with the thinking of Charles Sanders Peirce will notice my indebtedness—somewhat distant by now—to his philosophy and semiotics, in particular his categories of firstness, secondness and thirdness. I would note in particular his essay, “On a Neglected Argument for the Reality of God.)

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