GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

November 7, 2017


Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:10 am

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.

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