Monthly Archives: November 2017

Semiotic Engineering

There is always a center—the origin of language, which is to say the origin of the human, lies in the shared “positing” of a center. Since then we have gone from one center to another, to another. So, if there’s one thing we can say human beings “should do,” i.e., an absolute moral imperative, it would be “sustain the center.” The center is shared, joint, attention, so it’s not a stretch to say that all evil originates in distraction. But evil projects can be carried out with a concentrated focus, can they not? Surely attention itself cannot serve, not merely as a basis for morality, but as the whole of it. If the work is evil, then the focus dedicated to it is itself a distraction from a prior center. But how far back can we go—can a whole tradition, a mode of attention transmitted over centuries, be a distraction from a more real tradition, and if that can be the case, how can we tell, or adjudicate between the contending claims? These questions derive from the liberal tradition, so they are themselves distractions. You sustain the center by recuperating, not denouncing, distractions—if they are distractions, they are distractions from a particular center, and can therefore be treated as iterations of that centrality in a particular way: if they are answers to questions that emerge from the commands constitutive of that tradition, then those questions can be recovered and answered differently; if they are themselves questions, posed violently, even incoherently, those questions can be clarified and rooted in the order of commands; if those distractions are forms of obedience that have run amok and threaten to destroy the larger command structure, we can take them as adversarial call to restore the hierarchy of imperatives that prevents one imperative from being obeyed at the expense of the whole. There can be no rule for determining the true center, but those interested in having their actions traced back to it will “look” and “sound” different than those who want to make polemical hay out of the warring claims to centrality. You can even ask those who persist in asking “but how do you know…?” to cooperate in tracing your disagreement, or their resentment of your certainty, to a shared origin; their response will tell you what to make of their question and the imperative they obey in asking it.

There is a term that Gans uses throughout The Origin of Language that I think can be translated directly into “sustain the center”: “linguistic presence.” Maintaining linguistic presence is the urgent imperative that takes us through the succession of speech acts, from the ostensive, through the imperative and to the declarative. At each point a potential break in linguistic presence, which always means a potential outbreak of violence, is what forces the transition from one speech form to another. The imperative emerges from an “inappropriate ostensive”: one speaker, for any one of a number of reasons we could hypothesize, “points” to an object that isn’t there—this threatens linguistic presence, that is, a common reality constituted and acknowledged linguistically. Another member of the group brings the object, restoring linguistic presence, and in the process creating a new speech act: the imperative, through which a common reality can not only be acknowledged and constituted, but created, magically, through words, as it were. One speaker, later on, issues an “inappropriate imperative,” one that cannot be fulfilled (the act is impossible or the object unavailable); again, linguistic presence is threatened, and violence menaces. The declarative, in the form of the negative ostensive “forbidding” the further prosecution of the imperative due to the absence of the object, restores linguistic presence. This time, though, linguistic presence is restored through reference to an external presence, a world of objects that go their own ways, of mediated and invisible centers that must be inferred from the visible ones.

A strictly linguistically or semiotically based morality, then, is focused on, directs attention to, the problem of mediating the linguistic presence of members of the community of language users through the reality (that which exists whether we like it or know it or not) that language names and organizes for us. The order of emergence of the speech forms analyzed by Gans in fact provides a good model for how to sustain linguistic presence through the ongoing constitution of the non-linguistic presence. When your interlocutor names something, run and fetch it—turn the name into an imperative. And we are always naming things, in every utterance—all of the speech forms include the lower ones (no sentence could make sense without a pre-existing universe of names) and in fact iterate the lower ones: every sentence is itself a kind of naming of a piece of framed reality. “Fetching” the named object might be done literally, metaphorically, or farcically, depending upon the necessities of maintaining linguistic presence, and upon whether the name itself was a distraction from a more extended chain of linguistic presents. Acting in obedience to imperatives, actual or extracted from declaratives, in the manner I discussed in the previous post, can help sustain linguistic presence (in a sense this serves to retrieve the lower speech form embedded and concealed within the higher), but so can demonstrating the absence of the object or act explicitly or implicitly demanded or commanded, and thereby introducing a new declarative layer. (To demands that we extirpate racism, or bemoanings of its continued presence, one can simply point out that the thing doesn’t exist, and therefore can’t be brought forward for excoriation. What, then, might be found in that blank space now left in all those sentences where the word “racism” would have been?) (I have presented this as a model for engaging others, but it would be equally useful in organizing the progression of one’s own discourse.)

But the form of linguistic presence that includes all and is really the most “anti-fragile” is that provided by the present tense itself. Einstein revolutionized physics in part by pointing out that simultaneity needs to be constructed: two events that happen simultaneously from one point of observation do not happen simultaneously from another, since light, like any carrier of “evidence,” of that which can be registered and measured, has to travel from one place to another and light from different starting points will reach measuring devices placed differently at different times. The declarative sentence, in articulating linguistic with non-linguistic presence, constructs simultaneity; the more “declarative” the sentence, then, the more abstracted from immediate imperatives and the more unobstructed a conduit of the absolute imperative, the more it gathers up all its references into the present tense. Consider what is called the “literary present”: when we are analyzing or studying Virgil or Homer, we don’t say “Virgil said,” or “here Homer showed…”—we use the present tense in discussing texts written thousands of years ago. This is testimony to the fact that language, even more obviously in the deliberate preservation of linguistic artifacts in the form of textuality, creates a single present. The most distant path and all of the most distant conceivable futures all exist in the mark they have made, or can be made to have made, on the present, or in anticipatory fragments which will be made more present.

Translation of multi-tensed sentences into present tense ones will always make them more rigorous, if not always more elegant. Take a sentence of mine from a couple of paragraphs up: “Acting in obedience to imperatives, actual or extracted from declaratives, in the manner I discussed in the previous post, can help sustain linguistic presence…” Here, a rather clumsy and reluctant reference to a previous post is a distraction—almost as if I’m asking the reader to stop reading this post and go look up that reference. A slight change, such as “Acting in obedience to imperatives, actual or extracted from declaratives, to return to the practice discussed in a previous post…” keeps the reference to something past (“discussed,” “previous”) but the entire sentence is now in the present tense and compelled to represent an ongoing discourse, rather than different claims to be connected artificially. “Presentifying” sentences require that we find ways of referring to the past in terms of marks made upon, and identified and shaped within the present; it also means devising means of representing the future not in terms of “wills” and “shoulds” (although it is interesting that, strictly speaking, we have no future tense in English, but rather various ways of indicating futurity) but in terms of the way (not equally) possible outcomes present themselves to us now. Presentifying sentences also brings to the fore the point of observation, the point from which simultaneity is constructed (markers retrieved from the past, indicators and intimations of future possibilities, pressing concerns of the moment all co-represented), which means less a encouragement of subjectivity than a demand for responsibility. An infinity of real presents can be included in any particular linguistic present, creating an incentive to treat actions through their textual traces as well. (Homer may have composed the Illiad, but his composition of the Illiad bears upon some present question…)

I agree with Vox Day that ultimately science must pass the test of engineering—especially today, when no one wants to get sucked into the replication crisis. The purpose of “linguistifying” all discourse about humans, including moral and political discourse, is to propose ways of transforming uses of signs that can then be monitored and assessed. This effort, which breaks down the theory/practice distinction, has its precursors in some strands of modern philosophy and aesthetics, with Charles Sanders Peirce as its leading avatar. (I would revise Peirce’s definition of a clear idea, or meaning, though. From “Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then the whole of our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object” to “Consider what further uses of language, issuing in ostensive uses, we consider our utterance of the sentence to make likely in varying degrees. Then the modification of the relative likelihood of those uses effected by our utterance is the whole of the meaning of the sentence.”) What I propose engineering is a tissue of discourse with built-in immunities to anarchist ontology and the anarchist imaginary. The aim would be to engineer ways of speaking, writing and thinking that make it possible to infiltrate liberal spaces (almost all spaces today), dissolve liberal chains of command and naming practices, and create out of the ruins an absolutist imaginary. Something well beyond “leftists are the real racists/fascists/misogynists,” etc., in other words.

The prototypical liberal utterance makes a (declarative) claim about reality (e.g., “America is a racist society”) meant to maneuver the other into obedience to a tacit, embedded imperative (“cleanse America of racism”) while concealing the entire ostensive-imperative realm, which is to say, evading the act of naming. If America is a racist society, to eliminate racism in America would be to eliminate America itself; but the problem is that “we” (the “we” accepting the embedded imperative) would be doing so in the name of a presumably racist-free America (otherwise, why single out “America” as the realm to be cleansed?). This paradox of naming must be suppressed—the liberal can say that “America” has been racist as a republic, was racist as a group of British colonies, was racist as a Spanish dominion, etc., but the fact that it was named (not always “America,” of course) by each of these entities in turn and that in even referring to “America” we participate in this chain of naming cannot be acknowledged. To acknowledge this chain of naming would be to acknowledge a “spiral” of centrality, the continuity of linguistic presence, and that invoking “America” is to participate in this presence and assume the obligation of sustaining it—which, in fact, one does in the denunciation itself while fantasizing a “reset” of “America.”

The absolutist anarchist-resistant discourse seeks to increase the likelihood that its utterances will issue in ceremonies of naming, with practices and orders that follow. Even (but why “even”?) discourses that take their mission to be slicing and dicing liberal BS should do this. To the liberal presupposing an anarchist sovereign imaginary we counter-presuppose sovereign naming. All liberal concepts can be chased back into their lairs, where we will discover their founding in some constitutive distraction, some imperative to break the real chain of naming and replace it with a fantasized origin of another chain. (The Google Books Ngram feature is extremely useful here, at least for more recent distractions. Perhaps it will be taken down, or at least certain magical words made unsearchable.) We need not seek to destroy those fake concepts—they come to name certain predilections, certain pathologies, temptations, disguises.

Originary Grammar and Political Grammar

The highest purpose of political discourse is to expose the political imaginaries of everyone participating on the scene. How do you solicit someone’s political imaginary? Very simple—ask them what they want, perhaps in commonsensical political terms (“I want universal healthcare”), but not necessarily. If you can determine what kind of sovereign would have to be in place for them to get what they want, you have constructed their political imaginary. The process is much like that new makeapp that subtracts the effect of makeup on a photographed face: everything existing that interferes with the political desire gets subtracted. “I want a world without racism.” OK, how would our raceapp approach this? We would have to identify all the “markers” of racism, about which we now have an enormous wealth of information thanks to the it’s not ok to be white movement: we can, in great detail, itemize the differences in wealth and power, the choices in mates, friends and even children, the intellectual proclivities (do you like math?), the gestures, the neighborhood you live in, and so on. So, we must imagine all that eliminated (which means we must imagine those who will perform, and those who will suffer, the elimination)—which further means we have to inquire into what other social relations support all of that, determine the various causal linkages tying the supports to the markers to be expunged, and then imagine a process by which those supports are re-engineered into supports for a world in which all of our abilities, our sexual desires, our sense of humor, our sense of beauty, our bank accounts, living arrangements, posture and much else are radically transformed—and all this as required in vastly differing ways for each individual, as we are all unique carriers of racism. What kind of sovereign are you then imagining? One who commands a vast guerilla army of mindless, heartless human resources drones following a rigid playbook that gets rewritten constantly leaving their present efforts obsolete as they are expended so that the next wave of race drones come after them, until the prototypical racist/target is distilled from the continuous investigation. But we’re not done, not by a long shot—how does the never again racism sovereign incorporate the never again sexism, never again homophobia, etc., modes of sovereignty?

“I want a world without racism” is just a subroutine of the apparently more moderate “I want everyone to be treated equally.” Here, as well, one imagines a sovereign with knowledge of the infinite number of markers of “unequal” treatment, or, more precisely, a sovereign constantly engaged in collecting and punishing examples of “unequal” treatment, identified by a previous, so far rough, estimate of those markers of unequal treatment that most need to be addressed, leading to the constant accumulation of knowledge of more and more kinds and indicators of unequal treatment, many of them products of previous attempts to remedy some form of unequal treatment. A sovereign, in other words, which is the enemy of all the people it governs (in differing degrees, at different times). You would have to be constantly enraged, inhabiting such a vicious imaginary. This imaginary could be considered liberal, it could be considered statist or totalitarian, but, despite the seeming paradox (or because of it), it is best seen as anarchist: it presupposes a circulation of equal units prior to any authority, and the job it assigns to the state, to restore that original anarchy by slicing through layers of inegalitarian accretion, is enough to drive anyone mad. By contrast with the anarchist imaginary, the absolutist imaginary is a thing of simple, almost tautological beauty: all of our wants translate into a desire for a sovereign that is sovereign. We imagine a sovereign commanding subordinates to command their subordinates to fulfill the purpose of their institutions as he does with his own. Institutions have purposes we can discern because all human interactions serve some purpose, which is to say they serve the center that has constituted them. Our absolutistapp erases everything intervening between sovereign decision, its implementation, and the feedback required to ensure the next decision is similarly unobstructed. I think these are really the only two political imaginaries worth considering today—all others would resolve themselves back into one of these two.

The anarchist imaginary only makes sense as a form of resentment towards the absolutist imaginary. Historically, of course, this is the case: liberalism is a process of defectors from monarchy trying to find space within monarchy, to influence monarchy, to transform monarchy, and ultimately to destroy monarchy. The point of attack is always the command structure: no one in a position of command can ever give a completely satisfactory account of why it should be him giving the command, and why he gave this command. On the question, why him?, the only real answer is that I inherited, seized or was delegated this power, which really just sends the question back into an infinite regress. Regarding the this, an imperative is always irreducible to declarative explanation (even though, of course, such explanations can be given) since it depends upon circumstances and exigencies that could always be reconstructed after the fact in a way they couldn’t have been in making the decision itself. And even such after the fact reconstructions will send us back to inheritances and traditions that can never be fully excavated. The absolutist imaginary attributes a good faith faithfulness to the best of those traditions to the decision maker; the anarchist imaginary replaces this with a bad faith faithlessness.

The anarchist imaginary introduces declarative criteria into the selection of responsible agents and into the process of decision. It does this not to provide feedback to those making such decisions, but to establish a perpetual show trial of the imperative as such by demonstrating that it must always fall short of declarative criteria. Whatever names and attributes are given to the leader are translated into a series of predicates that can be subjected to inquiry one by one, according to criteria that could never be stated in advance because the declarative is itself first of all the interdiction on issuing some imperative, in this case the one issued by the sovereign. Is the king the “protector of his people”? But what counts as “protection,” and are his people really more protected under his rule than they might be under some other possible one? (A series of questions is always the wedge displacing the imperative and introducing declarative rule.) In what sense are they “his” people—how do they come into his possession? For that matter, are they even “a” people—what constitutes a people? Etc. The same goes for decisions actually made, which can always be compared with plausible alternatives with better outcomes which could never be conclusively dismissed. Such criticism after the fact can be very useful if undertaken from the standpoint of the actor, but that is not the purpose of the declarative coup, which seeks to discredit the structure of command and temporal chain of imperatives altogether. Any “given” can be further dissolved into presumably free agents that have somehow been welded together in a hierarchy. The free individual, conceptually, is the precipitate of the erosion of sovereign command—the most free individual is whoever can be posited as most resistant to the current sovereign command.

In its fully developed form, liberalism posits the agreement of solitary, ahistorical, self-interested individuals as the original basis or cause of social order; somehow, this original agreement was usurped, and then history can be read as a continual process of its recovery. This means reading history as a sequence of events in which explicit agreements between individuals subject to no command serve (or fail) to overthrow orders predicated on an inherited structure of command, i.e., imperatives derived from accepted names. Explicit agreements that don’t depend upon the individuals entering into them because conformity with the agreement will be judged by those legitimated by that very agreement to judge them according to protocols that can be read out of or into the agreement is the declarative condition. Why did you do______? Because I was authorized by an agreement arrived at through free deliberation by all concerned parties and publicly recorded. This declarative politics swallows its own tail because its inheritors can always come along and play the same game and its initiators: what made the deliberations “free”? Who was counted as a “concerned party”? Some already existing authority must have made such determinations. And such agreements in practice must present themselves as pledges and promises, i.e., ostensives: you have to swear loyalty, you can’t just claim that your objective analysis of conditions accounts for the extreme likelihood that you will be loyal—because everyone knows that analysis will be conducted in order to justify your continued loyalty or defection. But that just means that what makes declarativity a powerful weapon against the imperative order keeps it a powerful weapon against the inevitable recrudescence of imperativity within the declarative order.

Absolutism defends the imperative order within the present declarative one, operating under the assumption that the imperative order, and the ostensive order (the network of names upon which it rests) can never be utterly eradicated. Everyone giving orders and everyone taking orders wants orders to be clear; everyone who begs, solicits, summons, requests, forbids, suggests, demands, prays wants, not necessarily every one of these imperatives to be obeyed, but for us to know whether they are or not, and to be certain we could tell. Everyone has an interest in clarifying their felicity conditions. (Such declarative defenses of the imperative order should be kept to a minimum.) We have seen the advantages declarativity has long exploited in subverting the imperative order, but the imperative order has its advantages as well. Not only can the declarative order never separate itself from its imperative substratum, but that imperative order is inscribed within the declarative itself. If we conclude a meeting and someone says, “good, then we’re all agreed,” it does not need to be stated explicitly that this agreement commands each participant to act their respective part in seeing it fulfilled. Separating imperative from declarative is as impossible as separating fact from value, and for the same reason: every declarative, even the most neutral sounding description or explanation commands some response. “It’s going to rain tomorrow”=”bring your umbrella.” “City x is located at __ degrees longitude and ___degrees latitude”=”set your navigating instruments accordingly”; “remember to write that for your exam tomorrow.” So, in listening to any sentence, your question should always be, what is this sentence demanding of me?

In the first instance, it’s demanding that you reassess something it presumes you want. It’s interrupting some demand it takes you to be making upon reality. Which means it’s also disrupting the fabric of your imaginary, either to destroy it or enable you to immunize it against some threat. (You can, of course, turn attempts at the former into instances of the latter.) It’s throwing a shadow of doubt on the conditions of some imperative exchange you are in the middle of—it’s encouraging you not to hold up your side of the exchange, not to obey the command directed your way, because the other side will break faith. It’s demanding that you look at, and look to, something you have neglected, or have been unaware of.  As my examples above indicate, we can often restate in declarative terms the tacit, constitutive imperative of some declarative. That ultimately entraps you within the declarative order. So, for example, arguing over who is the “real racist,” or “what racism really is,” is simply a way of surrendering in the war on imperativity. Even making a clear argument about how evil and ridiculous it is to desire a “world without racism” is feeble—the conditions of declarative felicity will always leave open the possibility of retrieving “hope” of such a world. The more all-encompassing approach is to strive to obey the imperatives, to perform the deferral the sentence implicitly demands of you. Acting as someone set out on the hunt by the declaration of the need to abolish racism short-circuits the declarative-imperative wiring far more effectively. Even the most hardened (or softened) SJW hasn’t really taken in what it would mean to take their tacit imperatives literally.

Situating yourself thusly on the border between imperative and declarative is not just a way of counter-culturally subverting the Cathedral (although it is that, and I do think it provides excellent formulas for memeing). The practice I’m proposing serves a winnowing purpose. Seeking to obey all the imperatives coming our way is the only way of finding out which can really be obeyed, and obeyed without contradicting other imperatives that, taken alone, could also be obeyed. In other words, these are the means by which the imperative order can be recovered and restored. And while we extract imperatives to obey from the sentences/discourses surrounding us, we comment on them declaratively—the most powerful political discourse today would probably be a kind of traveler’s account of one’s attempts to obey the imperative lodged in the most widely circulated declaratives. In that way, the desires instigated by those declaratives can be put on display and thereby deferred, the liberal political imaginary exposed and the absolutist imaginary summoned from its cracks and crevices.

Declarative Imaginary

We think in language, which means we think almost exclusively in declarative sentences. We hear and read lots and lots of sentences throughout our lives; we remember very few of them, but we distill from all of them a stock of sample sentences. When we read or hear new sentences, we measure them against that stock: we assimilate new sentences to some in the stock and “understand” them, we find no way to assimilate those sentences and so we reject them because “they make no sense,” or we use the sentences to expand, diversify and reorganize our stock. And when we write or speak, we aim at affecting others’ stocks in the same way.

A sentence has a topic, and a comment—in the most familiar grammars, a subject and predicate. There is something to which we are being asked to pay attention, or to which it is assumed we are already paying attention, and something is being said about that thing. This presumes some “issue” regarding the topic—if someone needs to know something or be told something about the topic then something about the topic’s “identity” or existence is in question. For originary thinking, what I call “originary grammar” or “anthropomorphics,” what is unsettled about the topic is the status of some imperative directed towards it. The question is more directly associated with the sentence, but the question is asked as a way of holding the commands and demands, however distant, at bay. The comment forbids the interlocutor (however hypothetical) to press the demand further because the referent of the topic has been rendered off limits due to circumstances beyond our control. The sentence is a cease and desist order.

It is also an order to contemplate, rather than grasp, or change, or possess the “topic.” To “contemplate,” in grammatical terms, means to try out new “comments” along with the topic. These might be comments or predicates more likely to gain us access to the topic, or at least so we hope, but they might be comments or predicates that place the topic even further beyond our original desire. Eric Gans, in his The Origin of Language (of which a new, streamlined and much more accessible but equally rigorous edition is on its way) examines the “esthetics of the sentence.” For Gans, esthetics has its origin on the originary scene itself, in the moment of hesitation created by the first sign: the sign, the “aborted gesture of appropriation,” directs the participants’ attention to the central, desired object, while also forbidding that object, which turns the attention back to the sign. This oscillation between object and sign is “esthetics.”

A similar structure holds for the declarative sentence, which forbids the desired access to the object expressed in the imperative, while at the same time making that object all the more attractive by “framing” it with the “forbidding” comment. Moreover, the object as represented in (and desired as a result of) the sentence is no longer the object originally desired: possessing the actual object would abolish the object as desired through the sentence, while the sentence renders the actual object inaccessible. What Gans calls the “esthetics” of the sentence, though, I would prefer to call the “imaginary” of the sentence, since the “imaginary” is better suited for examining the foundation of communities.

What is the “imagination”? I like to work with R.G. Collingwood’s very economical and simple account from The Principles of Art. Let’s say you’re looking at a lawn, at the end of which you see a wall, beyond which you can no longer see the lawn. You can extend the lawn in your mind, “seeing” it continue past the wall by extrapolating from what you see now. You “imagine” the extended, completed lawn. So, the imagination is always an extended, extrapolated and completed representation of something “cut off” by whatever is “framing” it in your actual vision description. But the very possibility of the lawn extending indefinitely, or following any one of a number of possible “extrapolations,” is what makes it appear “framed” and “bounded” in the first place—even the extended lawn will meet and therefore, to use the Derridean term, has “always already” met, a boundary. The possibility of the object being other than it is, and the object being as it is, rather than one of those other possibilities, are both creations of the imagination.

The “imaginary,” then, is the constitutive frame of a shared reality, always implicitly distinguished from some other possible reality. If I can’t imagine my friend betraying me, and hence inhabit, along with that friend, a world in which betrayal is constitutively excluded, then that is the imaginary of that friendship—one bounded, ultimately, by the threat of betrayal, which would put an end to that world. None of the actions I have ever seen my friend perform, none of the words I have ever heard him speak, can be extended or extrapolated so as to fit into a betrayal scene—which means they negate all those indications of possible betrayal which might otherwise lead one to form expectations of its eventuality. It is through an act of faith in my friend that I have constructed his words and actions thusly.

So, the imaginary of the declarative sentence is in the process I described above of maintaining the oscillation between the sentence and the desired topic/subject/object by trying out different comments or predicates that keep the real object in sight or mind while reminding us that any appropriation must be in a mediated and transformed form that doesn’t restart the imperative crisis whose imminent or distant possibility first informed the sentence. Now, the roots of the declarative imaginary are in our imperative relation to reality. Gans speaks of an “imperative-ostensive” dialogue that precedes the emergence of the declarative. He models this on the ordering of surgical implements by the surgeon of the nurse or assistant who in turn confirms while obeying the command: “Scalpel!” “Scalpel!” We should imagine such an ostensive confirmation to imperatives to be the norm in the pre-declarative community: it would be an important way of maintaining “linguistic presence,” which is to say assuring one another that our words and gestures continue to sustain a shared world.

But there is an imperative-imperative dialogue, the “imperative exchange” discussed in my previous post and prior to that. This dialogue is with the center—but it should be pointed out that all dialogues are with the center—our fellow humans are representatives of the center, or a particular manifestation or aspect of the center. Prayer is the most fundamental imperative-imperative dialogue: God, tell me what to do. We request from the center a command; a command, ultimately regarding the most propitious way of approaching the center in the future. We constantly make the same requests from all objects, ultimately stand-ins for the center: when we deal with a new device or tool, we ask it to teach us how to use it. The imperative world is a magical one in which words create realities, and when the imperative turns out to be infelicitous, that world, or imaginary collapses, and a declarative one must come to take its place.

The declarative imaginary is predicated on possible failures of the imperative imaginary: our declarative sentences are concerned with predicating all the ways all our imperative exchanges can fail. The declarative imaginary is what constitutes and “manages” our stock of sample sentences: all the sentence “prototypes” available for “retrieval” for the purposes of reading, speaking, writing and thinking are cut to size to fit the declarative imaginary. The declarative imaginary is defined, on one side, by what we could call the “marginal imperative”: the weakest but still active and therefore possibly disturbing imperative. Think about something that offends you, but just barely. Being “offended” is answering to an imperative: what has been done to you must be “answered,” even if only in your own mind. Below the barely perturbing offense there is an act that could be constructed as an offense, but you wouldn’t bother. But someone else would bother, and maybe you did yourself not that long ago. That you no longer perceive any offense means that some imperative territory has been “colonized” by declarative force: you may notice and interpret that action, introduce it into your calculations, but it no longer “compels” you—in fact, that it no longer compels enables you to notice things you wouldn’t have in a reactive mode. There is a new reality behind the action which is more worthy of attention than the action’s (minimal, as you now can see) effect on you.

The marginal imperative is varied across a culture (otherwise it would be impossible for an individual to set aside a particular imperative) but there are cultural baselines here: in a civilized culture, for example, the imperatives associated with blood feuds fall below the “margin.” But what makes this rising of the threshold of imperativity possible is what bounds the declarative imaginary on the other side: the absolute imperative. The absolute imperative derives from the original declarative scene: don’t pursue impossible imperatives that inevitably lead to violence without achieving their desire. This is a very expansive category—determining what makes an imperative possible and which imperatives must lead to violence depends upon how far down the road of a chain of consequences you can see, which is to say it depends upon how much reality your raising of the marginal imperative has allowed you to imagine. But that in turn means that the absolute imperative is translated into the command to raise the marginal imperative. And what answers to the command to raise the marginal imperative is to de-center yourself as a source of imperatives: the more you see yourself as a center, and the more you elevate your centrality and aspire to higher degrees of same, the more you must answer to and answer for. Imagine taking offense at everything that might indicate some slight, however minimal.

To work on raising the marginal imperative is to take an interest (to hear new imperatives that compel you to inquire into) in the hierarchy of imperatives. There are still things one “must” take offense at—those, then, solicit more important imperatives. That also means some “imperators” are more authoritative than others, which is to say some speak from a place closer to the center. The absolutist imaginary extends and extrapolates from this hierarchy to an explicitly recognized hierarchy in which the source and scope of imperatives is constantly clarified—clarified by our heeding and obeying them. Imperative exchanges are continually breaking down and being reconstructed here as elsewhere: the higher the marginal imperative and the more extended the absolute imperative the more effectively this declarative work, this “sentencing,” proceeds. If we de-center ourselves effectively, hear and obey the imperative to not seek to occupy the center, then we may return to the center, stand in for the center, in a new way: as one who has visibly enhanced the reciprocal action between the marginal imperative and the absolute imperative and has thereby clarified the imperative order for others who desire its clarification. Of course, there will always be a place for those who de-center themselves even from that centering, who refuse centrality altogether in the name of naming the forms of centrality that might emerge in the long run. That would be a way of life devoted exclusively to expanding the declarative imaginary, deliberately renewing the stock of sample sentences, always sentencing.


J.L. Austin, in originating the concept of “performative” speech acts, considered such acts to be “felicitous” or “infelicitous.” Performative speech acts effect some change in the world, rather than saying something “about” something, and therefore either “work” or don’t “work,” as opposed to being true or false. The canonical example is the words spoken in the marriage ceremony: “I do”; “I now pronounce you man and wife.” In this case, the groom and bride are not describing how they feel about each other, nor is the pastor describing their relationship—all three are participating in in creating a new relationship between the two. Such speech acts are felicitous if carried out under the proper, ritual, ceremonial, sanctioned conditions: if I happen to hear, in a store, one customer say to one salesman, “I do” (when asked, say, if he would like to look at another pair of pants) and another customer say “I do” (“do you like that perfume”) and I shout out “I now pronounce you man and wife,” nothing has happened, even if the two might appreciate my quick wit. The problem for speech act theory or philosophy has always been where and how to draw the line between performative speech acts and what Austin called “constative,” or referential speech acts (which can be judged true or false). As is often the case, what seems to be a simple and intuitively obvious distinction gets bogged down in “boundary cases” the more closely we examine it. Even a scientific claim, with its proof replicated numerous times, requires its felicity conditions: a “sanctioned” laboratory, a scientific journal, an established discipline, etc. Genuine theoretical advances always come from cutting such Gordian knots by subordinating one concept to the other, with the subordinate concept (like Newtonian physical laws within Einsteinian physics) becoming a limiting case of the dominant one. Within the disciplinary space created by the originary hypothesis, the first speech act was undeniably performative, creating humans, God, and a world of objects that could be referred to, the decision is an easy one: all uses of language are to be understood as performative, with the constative the limiting case.

Seeing language as performative is easy in the case of the lower speech acts theorized by Gans in The Origin of Language; the ostensive and the imperative are, from any perspective, acts which do something in their saying: such acts only make sense if they work, i.e., change something in the world. The problem comes with the speech act traditionally defined in terms of truth conditions, the declarative. Declarative sentences are, first of all, true or false; that it be reducible to truth or falsity seems almost be a definition of the declarative sentence. So, what do declaratives do? Well, for starters, they answer questions. As R.G. Collingwood pointed out, any sentence can answer, at a minimum, one of two questions: a question about the subject or a question about the predicate. If I say “John is home,” I can be answering a question about John’s whereabouts or about who is home. Introducing modifiers increases the number of (quite possibly mutually inclusive) questions that might be answered by the sentence: “John is safe at home” answers, along with at least one of the previously mentioned questions, a question about some danger presumably or imaginably faced by John. We might say that a good sentence is one that maximizes the questions it elicits and answers. And a good question would be answerable by a declarative sentence. Of course, what makes a question answerable, and which questions a sentence might be answering, depends upon the space, ultimately a disciplinary space of historical language users, within which the sentence is uttered, written and/or read; and sentences provide us with evidence, perhaps the best we can have, regarding the constitution of those spaces. Our sentences are informed by tacit, unasked questions.

But what are questions? The fact that any question can easily be re-written in the form of “tell me…” indicates the interrogative’s dependence upon the imperative. If you look at it from the other side, we can imagine the process of transition from imperative to interrogative: get that! Go ahead, get it! Come on, get it already! Get it, please! Will you get it? Could you get it? Will you let me know whether you might be willing to get it? If the shared focus is maintained, an unfulfilled (either refused or impossible) command turns into a request for the performed action or object, and finally a request for information regarding its possibility. Imperatives themselves, meanwhile, are an immensely complicated and varied batch—from plea and prayer on one side to command and directive on the other, with summons, requests, instructions and much else in between. I have focused, perhaps inordinately, upon the imperative, and intend to continue to do so, because very few people like to talk too much about it. The reason is obvious: imperatives are intrinsically asymmetrical, implying some difference in power or access, even if momentary—if I tell you to pass the salt because it’s at your end of the table, neither of us thereby has more power, but it is precisely that kind of relation—one person in possession of something others need—that makes a more structural imperative relation possible. Linguistically speaking, the liberal fantasy is for a world without imperatives: the mere statement of facts and description of realities would be sufficient to get us all doing what we should. But what is the dominant means of production in the contemporary world, the algorithm, if not series of imperatives strung together declaratively (if A, then implement B; if C or D, implement E…)?

And, finally, what is an imperative? It has its origins in an infelicitous ostensive—the ostensive involves shared pointing at something, for which the verbal equivalents are naming and exclamations (“What a beautiful day!” doesn’t make an empirical claim but rather assumes the listener to will join in appreciation of the day). The infelicitous ostensive that leads to the imperative is naming—what happens if someone, out of ignorance, impatience, desire or naughtiness names an object that’s not there? If it happens to be nearby, someone might just go and get it, and we have a new speech act. All these speech acts, then, from pointing to the most convoluted sentence, emerge from the Name-of-God directed at the object at the center on the originary scene. Now that we have brought the center into play, we can work our way back in the other direction. The imperative, according to Gans, would have been invented (or discovered—the line between the two is very thin here) on the margins—the (ritual) activity at the center among these earliest humans would not have allowed for such mistakes (or at least would not allow for them to be acknowledged). But it would quickly come to be applied to the center. The basic relation between humans and deities is a reciprocally imperative one: we pray to God and God issues commands to us. This is what I elsewhere called an “imperative exchange”: if we do what God says we can expect our requests to Him to be honored. But the imperative exchange accounts for our immediate relation to the world more generally. In originary terms, the world consists of nameable objects—not everything in the world is named, but anything could be. Those names are all derivative of the center, the source of nameability itself. We engage in imperative exchanges with all named objects, all objects that are “invested” linguistically: we accept commands from them that require us to “handle” them in specific ways, and in return they yield to our own demands that they nourish, or guide or refrain from harming us or otherwise aid us. We of course have little crises of faith all the time in this regard. One thing we do in response is firm up the world of things, make it more articulated, make the chain of commands issuing from it more hierarchical and regular. In other words, a technological understanding of the world is essentially the ordering of all the imperative exchanges in which we participate. A very powerful theory of technology in general, and contemporary technological developments in particular, will follow from this.

Now, Gans provides for a complex derivation of the declarative from the failed (infelicitous) imperative, and I would like to preserve that complexity—this is no place for shortcuts. (In my reading, despite its natural relation to the imperative, the interrogative actually emerges after the more primitive declarative forms, filling in a gap between the imperative and declarative.) Someone in the community makes some demand or issues some command and you either refuse or (more likely) are unable to comply—the object is unavailable, the act cannot be performed. This must have happened often in the purely imperative community, but it must have also been resolved fairly quickly, because we have, of course, no record of any human community that stopped at the imperative. The problem is, how to communicate, how to find the resources for communicating, the infelicity of the imperative? We have to imagine a kind of brief equilibrium—the “imperator” is not withdrawing his command, but is presumably not proceeding to act directly on its ‘refusal” violently; the recipient of the command is presumably standing his ground, but also not eager to initiate violence; there’s some danger, therefore, enough to make some innovation necessary; but not enough to make it impossible—there’s a need to think and some space to do so.

In Gans’s construction of this (let’s say, proto-declarative) scene, the target of the imperative repeats the name of the object requested along with an “operator of interdiction.” The operator of interdiction is an imperative, forbidding in an open-ended way, some action: examples would be “don’t cross at the red light”; “don’t smoke”; “don’t eat fatty foods,” etc. The operator of interdiction is an imperative, that seems closer than any other to the originary sign itself, which is essentially an interdiction on appropriating the central object. The operator of interdiction must have emerged when one member of the community needed to bring another member into a familiar form of shared attention or “linguistic presence” in which others were already participating—think about situations where it’s enough to say “don’t” for the other to understand what they shouldn’t do; it would subsequently have been used repeatedly in cooperative contexts, when impatience or imminent conflict threatened to undermine the group’s goal: a gesture meaning “don’t move” or “don’t make a sound” would be readily intelligible in situations where it was evident that that is precisely what someone was about to do. The interdiction is a slightly asymmetrical ostensive and a very gentle imperative. The linguistic form of the interdiction would have gradually been extended over longer periods of cooperation where dense tacit understandings unite the participants, until the form became generally available.

Its meaning, though, juxtaposed to the repeated name of the object, in this novel context, seems multidirectional: what is the “imperator” being told to refrain from? Issuing the imperative itself? Proceeding from the infelicitous imperative to violent retaliation? Desiring the object altogether? The imperator will recognize an interdiction being imposed upon him, but why should he obey it? What makes it convincing? Only a realization of the absence of the object. The problem, though, is that it is on this scene that the means for communicating the absence of the object are created. If the operator of interdiction is also directed toward the object, though, that is, if the object itself is being commanded to “refrain” (from being present and available), then the two-pronged imperative can have the necessary effect. So, in this primitive declarative—the operator of interdiction is the first “predicate”—the imperator is told to cease and desist “because” the object has been ordered away. And the only possible source for the imperative issued to the object is the center itself, or God. But in that case, the interdiction issued by the speaker must have the same source, since it is intrinsically connected to that issued to the object. The declarative sentence, then, opens us up to imperatives from (to mangle Spinoza) “God, which is to say, reality.” Declarative sentences respond to or anticipate the failure of some imperative exchange by conveying a command from the center to lower or redirect our expectations, which involves redistributing our attention. Unlike the ostensive and the imperative, the declarative establishes a linguistic reality that does not depend upon the presence of any particular object or person in the world: it creates and sustains, in the face of the constant force of imperative realities, a model of the world that allows more of the world to be named. They utter the Name-of-God outside of any ritual context. That is what declarative sentences do, that is their performative effect.

This language centered discourse needs to be put to work, and that will be done. For starters, consider the following: why do you, does any of us, do what we do? We can always ascribe rational motives to ourselves by retrojecting a chain of reasoning for what we have done, but obviously there wasn’t a chain of reasoning that got you started on that chain of reasoning in the first place. Why were you interested in the thing you started thinking about, and interested in the way that started that particular line of thought? We can give psychological and even biological explanations, but there is ultimately a leap from some purported internal “mechanism” to language that can’t be bridged. No, you do what you do because you are obeying a command. Where in “reality” (material exigencies; tradition, or a long chain of commands) that command comes from, how it has been reshaped in the processes of arriving at you, how you have to modify it in order to fulfill it, when its authority lapses, and that of another imperative takes its place, are all among the most interesting questions. But we are command obeying beings.

A final, ethical conclusion. How are we to find felicity, that is, a general felicitousness of our speech acts? In the continual clarification of each of them in themselves and in their relations to each other. In the ostensive domain, we engage perpetually in the Confucian “rectification of names.” In the imperative domain, we clarify the commands we heed (and those we in turn transmit), trace them back to a larger chain of commands, and cleanse them of reactive, resentful, prideful counter-commands (the commands we heed themselves provide the resources for this). Our questions should be grounded in some imperative “blockage,” and made answerable (if not necessarily once and for all) by declaratives. And our declaratives should decomposable into such questions while letting through higher, more central imperatives, commanding us to renounce stalled imperative exchanges and the resentment towards the center they generate.