GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

November 28, 2017

Semiotic Engineering

Filed under: GA — adam @ 1:39 pm

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.

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