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.


  1. I try to place my experiences into this theoretical categorization of speech. I’ve had dealings with what some call ‘sociopaths.’ Perhaps it is just my unlucky experiences but i’m coming across more and more in my life, as if society is moving in that direction. This type of person evaluates every situation he/she is faced with and seeks to say the thing that most likely yields good results. It gets refined over time having said certain things in previous similar situations with bad results or surprisingly good results. It is a sort of trial and error entirely divorced from any notion of truth telling except avoiding the “gotcha” of being caught in a lie.

    Today the individual speaks into the web of human relations and then evaluates what he said by the combined reaction of the web, readjust content and then try again, reevaluate, refine… It is very much like politics and the refinement of a “platform” which has no truth value only performance measured in votes. Perhaps that is the inevitable result of our new ease of communication (?).

    That is where we are today. Is that also where we began? The originary speech act had no truth value? Simply emit this clever sign and violence will be deferred? GA imagines the first sign to mean non-appropriation, but surely a physical act of appropriation, regardless of any speech act, would have gotten one’s head bashed it.

    “I do … for now, for as long as you make me happy (felicitous speech act)” Your portrayal of the wedding vow is less than a century old. Divorce was very rare before that. Did what Arendt say ever really have traction? Was there a time between an originary speech act and today’s felicitous speech acts when what Hannah observed was actually true? Is there a separate category of speech for this:

    ““The remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty to make and keep promises … binding oneself through promises, serves to set up in the ocean of uncertainty, which the future is by definition, islands of security without which not even continuity, let alone durability of any kind, would be possible in the relationships between men.”

    You know, somewhere in the Torah there is the commandment that a promise made by a woman was not legally binding and could be undone by the patriarch of her family. This implies that a woman is too apt towards felicitous speech acts – to say whatever is necessary to get something. Is it a coincidence that the overthrow of the patriarchy coincides with the rise of felicitous speech acts?

    Sorry for the rant. It is a catharsis.

    Comment by tommy704 — November 8, 2017 @ 8:28 am

  2. Once it becomes possible to speak about speech in terms of an external causality, the door is open for all the consequences you mention here. Arendt is trying to arrest that process, by finding the cause and consequence of what one says in the form of speech itself–a promise cannot be “broken down” into its component parts, it is what it is and does in the speech situation. Once we say something like “all human activity is ‘really’ an attempt to gain power/wealth” then we can break the speech act down into its components and measure its effects: this part of the statement will have one effect on audience X and this part will neutralize what someone in audience Y might say, and the result will be they will do what I want, i.e., I will have more power over them. Perhaps this goes back, in a more localized way, to the sophists, but I think Hobbes and his successors based modernity on this way of thinking. And it has the consequences you point to–I also think, though I don’t know how to prove it, that there has been a dramatic increase in psychopaths and sociopaths even in my own lifetime. Almost everyone in public life seems to me to be a bit of a psychopath–I don’t even know how you could enter public life today otherwise.

    So, the rant is well taken, and of course I’m trying to think of a way of resisting and reversing this process. Your examples of what we might call infelicitous felicitous speech acts make the point that we would need to be a lot clearer about what counts as “felicitous”–it makes good sense for the examples Austin uses, but applying the term to every speech situations has always been problematic–and, as you point out, even those “core,” “obvious” examples can get eroded. Clearly, we’re talking about what would be both a moral and political revolution–or restoration. Both small things and big things would have to happen: individuals would have to form groups, formal or informal, in which they preserve the integrity of discourse; and someone with the power to do so would have to act decisively, out of disgust, against psychopathic disorder.

    But, was it ever any different–what was the originary sign? Aren’t “truth,” “sincerity,” “fidelity,” “trustworthiness,” etc. just words we retroactively apply to (because they aid in) our attempts to get some nourishment without getting our heads bashed in? Gans sees the division between public and private scenes as going all the back to the originary scene, in part because we attribute such a division to each other–we imagine that he is really just saying that before it occurs to me that I could just say it. We could judge things by the results–we’re not killing each other right now, you’ve got plenty at and video games besides, so what are you complaining about–but that’s really part of the problem: once we think in terms of results, one’s focus becomes engineering the results one wants, and imposing a kind of coup d’etat on the scene.

    Is there something that can’t be faked? Well, maybe we have a private, internal scene (although I don’t think that’s any more than our rehearsals for possible public scenes), but we can’t have a private language–Wittgenstein did demonstrate that pretty decisively. Words like “truth” and all the rest therefore have some meaning or history of use irreducible to any attempt (even successful attempts) at faux felicity. Power seeking, pathological uses of language are still parasitic on the peace giving sign, the Name-of-God. If the patriarch can overrule a foolish promise made by a woman, then that just defines felicitous conditions under patriarchy–the woman’s promise wasn’t, in fact, felicitous. It’s more important to know who can utter felicitous acts, under which conditions, and to fully “invest” those acts’s felicitousness than to lower the standards of felicitousness in the interest of providing greater access to it.

    Comment by adam — November 8, 2017 @ 9:30 am

  3. Thanks Adam. Really.

    GA is the one big idea, the quill pig at the top of the page. I understand the essence of this one big idea as the originary event of the discovery of language and the beginning of humanness (and all that entails). Gans suggests that we might better find our way today by revisiting that originary scene. I very much like all of it. But it seems to take me to a different place than it does for the GA group.

    “Power seeking, pathological uses of language are still parasitic on the peace giving sign, the Name-of-God” (…) “But, was it ever any different–what was the originary sign? Aren’t “truth,” “sincerity,” “fidelity,” “trustworthiness,” etc. just words we retroactively apply…”

    Well of course those words are retroactive but the idea the embody is essential to the originary scene. Minimally, essentially, pared down to the most simple instance, the concept of language is a correspondence between abstract representation and the real world. The great epiphany that occurred to all the individuals present at the originary scene would not, could not, have happened unless this core nugget was there to be cognitively grabbed. The concept of language as a-magic-utterance-that-gets-you-what-you-want has no effectivity on the real world in the same powerful way that abstract language/thought has given mankind – or more precisely homo-faber- the power to control and eventually dominate the real word.

    After Homo-Faber developed his highly productive technologies, Mrs Homo-Faber emits a-magic-utterance-that-gets-you-what-you-want such as a flutter of her eyelashes. Gans speaks so much of the victimary and firstness. In CLR 563 he juxtaposes the mathematician against the victimary humanist:

    “We should understand this form of thought as an extreme humanism, one that takes no account of the objective world and is solely concerned with the internal relations of the human community.”

    The original utterance had to take account of the objective world. It became the host upon which parasitic languages fed. The whole concept of parasitism is foundational to human social organisation. And this concept is not inseparable from gender distinctions where the female has always done the heavy lifting of reproduction and maintains a high priority on focusing her effort on “concern for the internal relations of the human community.”

    Comment by tommy704 — November 9, 2017 @ 9:29 am

  4. The “extreme humanism” is ultimately inhuman, as I think Gans knows. He has spoken about Girard in similar terms, as displaying complete disregard for the material world.

    The transition from magic to knowledge of the world is, linguistically, the transition from the imperative to the declarative. But we still rely on imperatives and ostensives, even in order to join forces in mastering the external world. But part of modernity is a hostility to this dependence on “magic” and the “inter human”–the resentment of the masters of the declarative towards their own parasitism on the “lower” speech forms. But I see no reason to assume this pathology is irreversible (even if it is, what good would it do to assume it?). It’s interesting to think (if this is what you’re suggesting) that the concern for the inter human, the “extreme humanism,” is really the province of women. That might provide a way of accounting for gender difference linguistically (but I want another term–“linguistic” is too misleading).

    Comment by adam — November 9, 2017 @ 1:23 pm

  5. In my simplistic view of language the abstract sign corresponds to something in reality. Faithfulness of this correspondence is Truth. Usually just going to the root etymon produces easily imagined real things or real actions. E.G:
    imperatives – to produce or get
    declaratives – to shout (speak clearly)
    ostensives – to stretch out in front (in plain view)

    There is a form of language, I’ll call faux-language, that doesn’t correspond to reality. It is a form of deceptive magic which exists in and around real language taking the trust that people have in the real language and all the associated correspondences to the real world that it has. (To decieve is ‘to take from’) This faux-language can not exist on it’s own, i.e. it is parasitic. This is the simple folk story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. When correspondence is thrown out (the word ‘wolf’ and a real wolf) language ceases to function, the boy’s felicitous language ceases to bring the villagers.

    In the originary scene there was one sole instance of language – the original prototype of language. In my simplistic view it HAD to have been real effectual language with actual correspondence to the real world. It could NOT have been parasitic faux-language because there was no other language in existence that it could be parasitic upon.

    Is the GA hypothesis that we began with a lie, a meaningless ‘abracadabra,’ and eventually, millenia later, learned to tell the truth, to connect abstract signs to the real world?

    Yes. Until very recently men have been the bread winner and women the bread distributor. Men go off into the real world to procure and women provide aid, care and comfort for the group, children foremost but also the aged and the infirmed, and then comfort for the man when he returns. The woman is the mediator between every element of society. Despite rhetoric to the contrary these gender roles have not been overturned.


    Comment by tommy704 — November 10, 2017 @ 11:40 am

  6. No, GA agrees with you: the original use f language had to involve a real, effectual, good faith correspondence to the world.

    Comment by adam — November 10, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

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