GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

November 14, 2017

Declarative Imaginary

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:07 am

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.

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