Monthly Archives: January 2018

Order and Repetition

Anna Wierzbicka’s Natural Semantic Metalanguage and her associated analyses of the English language should be devastating to the modern social sciences. All of those moral and political principles presumed to be universal, to be imposed everywhere, all of those concepts meant to be of universal theoretical application—they don’t even necessarily translate into other languages. Evidence, rights, fairness, justice, experience, sense—the imperatives to be drawn from such words are limited to the language in which they are embedded. Wierzbicka doesn’t discuss in detail concepts like liberty, equality, justice, individual, and so on, but not doubt historical limitations would be identified with all of these as well. And what about the objectivizing terminology of more recent political theory and discourse: system, structure, network, institution, norms, theory and so on? How far do they translate?

The implication here is not that we should only conduct political discussions in Wierzbicka’s Natural Semantic Metalanguage; rather, it is that we should treat all of these terms as historical, whether as weapons of intra-social warfare or genuine discovery, or some of both. And if they are genuine discoveries, they remain marked by the conditions of their emergence: concepts are answers to specific questions, and once they circulate free of those questions they degrade into propaganda tools. Bloody Shovel, in his latest Leninism and Bioleninism post claims that the most consequential invention of the 20th century was the power-seeking clique; but the real discovery was the discipline, of which the clique is a degraded shadow. That all knowledge is generated through collaborative spaces in which shared attention is paid to some object defined by the space itself was first asserted, as far as I know, by Charles Sanders Peirce, but has been a thread through the most significant 20th century thought-currents, with thinkers like Canguilhem and Bachelard in France, R.G. Collingwood, Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn in the Anglosphere, Wittgenstein and Fleck in Germany, and others, contributing to the only understanding of knowledge consistent with the hypothesis of the originary scene.

This theory of knowledge, which assumes that objects of knowledge are constructed by a collaborative, ultimately institutionalized space of knowledge, may sound relativistic, but there is no need to deny that some concepts, once constructed, can endure and become embedded in successive disciplinary spaces, ultimately becoming traditions that continue to yield truths. It is also the case that the boundary between “pre-scientific” and “scientific” knowledge must be drawn differently in discussing the social world than in dealing with the natural one. Important differences already exist in the natural sciences: no value can meaningfully be introduced into any of the concepts used to construct equations in quantum physics, but biology is meaningless without concepts like “health” and “sickness,” which are inherently value-laden. Likewise, in the social world, the concepts taken up scientifically must have had their origins in in the lives of communities, where the scientists themselves originate. So, for example, even the most unintelligent person in the most secluded and ignorant community has, as long as that community has a hierarchy (has moved beyond hunter-gatherer conditions), about as good an idea of what a “king” is as any of us do. Insofar as absolutism is the science of the implications of “kingship,” our discipline is continuous with, even as it radically breaks with, that peasant’s.

In human affairs, in fact, the disciplinary space must continuously be distinguished from and set up against non-disciplinary spaces. In general, a disciplinary space emerges when enough people realize that some word or network of words can no longer be used in the taken for granted way it has been used, and that it’s worth stopping and thinking about what those words mean and where they came from in the first place. This stopping and thinking will always be a minority taste, but if the disciplinary space is to created out of the non-disciplinary space there must be something disciplinary about the non-disciplinary space as well. The electrons physicists think about don’t have a shared focus of their own but the people we think about do. Fads, fashions, enthusiasms, cults, fanaticisms all constitute little spaces of a kind of expertise that qualify people to enter and disqualify people from entering them. These spaces are at their most disciplinary precisely when they’re not trying to imitate and import terminology and methodology from some adjacent science. They are at the very least expert in sustaining shared attention, or linguistic presence, under conditions that otherwise would disperse it. This has nothing to do with “respecting” these spaces, although that’s not a bad approach unless there’s a very good reason to approach one of them otherwise. But since such spaces by definition do point at something, a test of any social science is whether it can point at the same thing within a more integrated conceptual vocabulary and a reality that doesn’t require the inquirer to be at the center. All of the words we use scientifically must have had their origins in some non-scientific use, from which they were lifted and transformed.

In this case the fundamental starting point for any social scientific disciplinary space is the difference between the disciplinary space and what we could call the “attentional” spaces it inhabits. Within those attentional spaces the disciplinary inquirer finds materials and attracts recruits. The disciplinary space is also a pedagogical space. The difference between the two spaces can only be revealed by displaying some content from the attentional space in two ways: one, as it appears within that space itself and, two, the way it appears within the disciplinary space. That material is shown to be repeatable in two different ways, depending on which side of the boundary it is placed. This further means that the most direct object of inquiry of the discipline is the different ways things get repeated; which is to say the fundamental object is differential repetition. Differential repetition is also constitutive of the sign, which must be repeated as the same sign in order to have meaning, and which can never be repeated in the same way. We can then bring all our inquiry into the vast array of social rituals, customs, norms, laws, institutions, modes of government, and so on within the frame of differential repetition. The sign depends on its repetition for its existence, which means it depends upon its hearer, reader, percipient, or viewer. Gans’s model for the succession of elementary speech forms is extraordinarily useful in thinking about how this happens. Someone names an object, assuming it is available; another realizes it’s not there, but, not wanted to break linguistic presence (and increase the risk of conflict) procures the object—an ostensive has, through differential repetition, become an imperative; at least it has once it is repeated as an imperative.

All institutional and historical developments can be explained along these lines: someone repeating a sign which in turn requires some supplementation to itself be completed and that supplementation entails some institutional innovation. Struggles for power follow from someone pointing to the place of power in time of need and someone seizing that place because no one seems to be there to redeem the sign. Of course, we can be wrong about this, and signs can be supplemented with cynical or hostile intent. But we could only know that within a disciplinary space carved out of the attentional space of power. History is the history of relations between attentional and disciplinary spaces and, as I have been suggesting in recent posts, ending history (history in the sense of a succession of empires each purporting to be the empire to end all empires because it is the redemptive empire) means implanting disciplinary spaces firmly within attentional spaces. Attentional spaces, like all spaces, are implicitly absolutist—they want the world held steady while they pursue their interest—but they can’t know themselves to be so, and can easily get distracted by and drawn into schemes of subversion which provide compelling centers of attention. Disciplinary spaces can know themselves to be absolutist because their participants know that only within an ordered state can the activities of the discipline be fully self-generated and therefore genuinely disciplinary. Nothing is more deadly to the disciplinary space than the infusion of power struggles and nothing is more favorable than power resting upon the competent pursuit of a mission.

So, absolutist politics within a liberal and democratic environment, or “auditioning,” is the ongoing demonstration and performance of differential repetition. It’s as if we’re always saying, what you want and demand doesn’t really make sense in the current order, while at the same time being an expression of the actual disorder that is current; but that just means that you do want something, and you do want it to make sense, and since we are always capable of making sense of things we can discuss the kind of order that might translate your desire into something worthy and attainable. And we really should learn how to translate others’ actual words and actions into worthy and attainable goals within a genuine order—genuine because it generates precisely these goals and the words and actions by which they are framed. The disciplinary space joins the attentional space and works on making it disciplinary by making the relation between subject and object, between those with the desires and resentments and the reality resistant to it, itself the real object of study. We turn their ostensives into imperatives and take their imperatives through interrogatives to declaratives. Each experience and fear of disorder has its own imaginary of order, and that imaginary of order can always be made explicit and distinguished from other forms of order. Everything that happens can then be taken as indicative of the divergent possibilities of those respective forms of order, and increasingly rigorous test of them –and then we have a disciplinary space emerge within the attentional one.

 

Technology and Magic, Doings and Happenings

In Eric Gans’s analysis, in The Origin of Language (a new, streamlined edition of which is forthcoming), of the invention/discovery of the declarative sentence he identifies the first act of predication as an “operator of negation” in response to an imperative (instead of complying with the imperative). An operator of negation is an imperative issued to not do something: don’t smoke! Don’t cross the street when the light is red! Don’t talk to strangers!, Etc. This kind of imperative is clearly more complex than imperatives that can be fulfilled, and “verified” or “authenticated”: if I say “bring me a glass of water” and the water is brought, I say thanks, and we’re finished—nothing in the imperative is left hanging. But if I tell you not to smoke, you will never be done not smoking. The attitude the imperator has to the one issued the operator of negation is what Gans calls “normative awaiting”: checking in, keeping an eye on you, more broadly setting in place expectations and, if I really want you to obey, pointing the way toward the formation of habits that will keep you on the straight and narrow. The operator of negation must originate in the original prohibition, created on the originary scene, directed toward the group’s desire, converging on the central object.

The operator of negation is really a remarkable solution to the problem Gans has taken on here—a problem, it is worth saying, I don’t believe anyone has ever posed as such, much less tried to solve, much less actually solved. Part of this original sentence, or proto-sentence, is what Gans calls the “negative ostensive,” a paradoxical term that involves confirming the presence of the desired object in the other’s imagination while refuting the implicit assumption of its actual presence. There is a sense in which the word is proffered as a replacement for the thing. But why would this work? There seems to be no force behind it—either the imperator will pursue his demand, in which case nothing has been settled; or he will cease, but why would that mean anything more than that he has not the power he would need to enforce the demand? Why, for that matter, would the one issued the demand think to repeat the name of the requested object? How would he be trying to sustain linguistic presence? The negative operator provides the necessary counter-force, meeting imperative with superior imperative—operator of negation would likely have been used previously in situations where waiting and therefore patience is necessary, and counseling patience always confers authority—there is no greater mark of charisma than superior self-control. So, on one level, the one who issues the command is confronted with a counter-command, one to which he can have no ready response. But this still wouldn’t, as predication must, tell us anything about the object. For that to be the case, the operator of negation must simultaneously be directed toward the demanded object: it is the object which is told, or has been told, to absent or withhold itself. The first predicate simply modifies the name of the object as not present or not available—but, even more, as rendering itself absent or unavailable in obedience to a higher command. This latter, higher command is conveyed by the predicator, but not issued by him—he certainly wouldn’t want to claim to have “disappeared” the object, as that would intensify the potential conflict. So, there is a horizontal (person to person) dimension to this initial predication and a vertical (group to center) dimension—since the two are not sorted out, we still have more of a proto-sentence than an actual one.

We have real predication when we have verbs. Of course, we can predicate adjectivally—the sky is blue, that wolf is big, that couch looks uncomfortable, etc. Adjectival predication, though, generally presupposes the availability of the object—much adjectival predication can be seen as a prelude to appropriating, possessing and distributing the object in question. It can also be a way of indicating the danger of the object, but even that is a prelude to “managing” the object in some way, perhaps by avoiding it. It is with verbal predication that the at least potential unavailability, the unavailability of the object in principle, is presupposed—even if I say “a whole school of fish is heading our way” (while fishing), I am assuming they could just as easily be heading some other way. So, it is fair to say that a completely declarative sentence and culture is weighted toward verbal predication.

So, what is a verb? Verbs most fundamentally represent actions, as the standard view (right, in this case) has it. But if we take (and I’ll get to how we should take in just a moment) the constitutive or definitive core of verbs to be acts intentionally and observably performed, once we move beyond that core things get very interesting. As is so often the case, Anna Wierzbicka’s Natural Semantic Metalanguage is illuminating here. Wierzbicka reduces “actions and events”  to three primes: do, move, happen. That all actions and events can ultimately be distilled to these three is very interesting. The most easily and universally used of the three verbs is “move”: things move all the time—there’s no problem saying that any particular thing moved—you could put any noun in the subject slot. But it’s almost impossible for specific things to either “do” or “happen” in this sense—“does,” in a sentence with a subject, when it’s not functioning as an auxiliary (specific to English) is almost always an answer to a question, and almost always a specific and implicating questioning, one that assumes accountability and a prior reference. Without a lot of context, “I’m doing” makes no sense, while “I’m moving” could easily mean quite a few things with very little context. Also, “do” is used in the most forceful imperatives—“do it,” “do that,” etc., and it inherently presupposes that the one taking orders already knows what should be done and perhaps should already be doing it—“do it” implies a minimum of ambiguity (which is the same as saying it is embedded in a dense context). Meanwhile, it is similarly almost impossible for something specific to “happen”: we use pronouns or generalities with “happen” (shit happens), we use “happen” in very open-ended questions (what happened), and it’s very hard to imagine using “happen” in an imperative. Whatever you would order to “happen” should in fact be ordered to do whatever that entity does. A person, place or thing doesn’t “happen,” unless we are using “happen” in a deliberately anomalous way.

So, we could imagine “move” as the first verb (what better way to account for the unavailability of an object than that it has moved?), but it’s hard to imagine “do” or “happen” as even a particularly early one; their presence among the primes implies that the primes are a distillation of the essential spectrum of verbs, rather than the original ones. At one end, the verb merges with the imperative; at the other end it approaches eventhood beyond imperative; in the middle, it captures what any entity does in response to an imperative: move closer to or further away from some center. Essential verbness, then, refers to motion towards or away from a center, which also means it is something we say about entities, rather than some self-generated “action” of entities. The “will” is an optical illusion of certain verbs, like “want,” but when do we say that we or another “wants”? In making demands, in answering questions about what we are doing, in trying to predict another’s actions, etc. We certainly do all those things, but they don’t add up to a “will.” Those verbs that most evoke intentional actions are actually those best suited for imperatives: “I went for a walk” sounds like a description of the most autonomous of actions, so it’s not surprising that “go for a walk” is a perfectly natural imperative—an imperative to either approach some center (one’s composure, for example) or distance oneself from a dangerous one (a conflict or crisis where one is presently located). Meanwhile, consider “he died,” or “he drowned”—the verbs here are not really “actions” at all—what do we imagine someone “did” in dying or drowning? These are rather events that “happen” to one, and they happen as a result of the failure to obey some imperative, to stay out of deep water, to keep your strength a bit longer, to find some way to maintain your health, etc. So, we have a verbal spectrum from imperatives we can completely obey to a complete inability to comply with imperatives. Now, it is with “happenings” that inquiry begins: someone died even though they did the things, obeyed the commands, that keep you alive—how did those imperatives become inoperative? (If all we did was to do things questions would never arise.) What we took to be a doing was in fact a happening: but at first “happenings” must involve other imperatives overriding the one I attempted to comply with. That, in the most literal sense, is how things must first of all appear: some entity was ordered to take his life (primitive peoples never see death as an accidental or natural occurrence). The river god sent the flood to drown him. We must appease the river god; but what happens when appeasing the river god doesn’t seem to help? Someone else is giving orders to the river god. Logically speaking, we can imagine this chain of reasoning bringing us all the way to a single god who issues all commands, but we know that such abstractions don’t occur in this linear manner. It will always make sense that the river god keeps drowning people, and that we don’t always appease his anger, until we start building boats to go down the river and have to make more complex requests of the god. And that requires a new structure of authority, which is to say someone giving a wider range of commands to people, upon which new requests to the gods can be modelled. Positing a penumbra of happening beyond any doing makes this possible.

So, coming to see doings as happenings, and therefore finding ways to pay attention to the ways in which our obediences and deferences “taper off” into gray zones where they intersect with interfering commands, also implies coming to see happenings as doings. After all, we can say “stuff happens” as a way of shrugging off some unanticipated failure, but if we look more closely at what happened we will also find all kinds of things people were doing or not doing. This would be a good way to define knowledge: finding happenings within doings and doings within happenings. In fact, finding doings within happenings is precisely what we do when we establish laboratory conditions in order to reduce something that happens to something we do. Meanwhile, anthropological and moral knowledge comes from finding happenings within doings: taking identifiable, completed and coherent acts (i.e., acts that could be carried out in response to imperatives) and paying attention to what precedes the act (the name that is the source of the imperative) and what exceeds it (what new imperatives does the act disseminate). The best explanation of what someone did will always involve, first, identifying, even if hypothetically, the imperative he is following; second, the chain of command, both spatial and temporal, that imperative is a link in; third, from what sacred name the imperative is derived from; and, fourth, what imperatives have the action, or series of actions, left for others. And we always pursue these inquiries by observing, producing or simulating some movement on the part of the subject (what if a particular part of the process was accelerated or decelerated? Pushed in more, or fewer, directions?). Finally, we also know that inquiry is conducted through questions posed to phenomena—we can’t set up an experimental or hypothetical situation without asking “what happens if we do_____?” The question is formed out of the latest doing/happening articulation. Something happened that can’t be deemed an effect of what was done. So, we have to do something else, or imagine something else done, and see if that leads to the residue of happening we couldn’t account for.

Technology, then, involves introducing more and more, and more and more precise—reducible to simple imperatives—doings within all the gaps within happenings. A technological order is one in which we look at things that happen and imagine how they would be otherwise if they were reduced to things done. I think such an order is wholly compatible with a more fully moral and esthetic order in which our doings are interrupted by happenings, in which habits are displaced, disrupted and/or displayed: perhaps the forgotten name one mindlessly derives imperatives from is forced back into remembrance; perhaps, the more complex components of what has come to seem a simple act are separated so they can be noticed; perhaps one is implicated in the train of subsequent imperatives set in motion by those imperatives one has come to consider self-contained and inconsequential. All this induces mindfulness.

We can see, then, how science and technology had to have been, and perhaps still need to be carved out of magic: magic (and mythology) were the initial ways we attributed imperatives to happenings, or saturated the space of happenings with doings: science and technology involve putting imperative exchanges to the test, as humans must have been doing, in however limited a way, from the very beginning. Everything we do with texts and in laboratories can ultimately be traced back to a long series of questions extracted from failed imperative exchanges—some kind of conjuring or divination. Divination is human imagination, and the way we do that now is primarily through nominalization, which creates new objects. Look at what happened above: the verbs “do” and “happen” morphed into the nouns “doings” and “happenings,” and this happened as soon as it became possible to examine the relationship between them. Asking why “do” and “happen” happen to be at different ends of a primitive verbal spectrum forced those two words into a new relationship, which transforms them into “entities.” I think a far-reaching model of inquiry and epistemology could be derived from the process of turning relationships between verbs into relationships between nominalizations (which, then, as above, create space for those verbs to act and interact in new ways). Of course, nominalization can freeze discourse into jargon, which is why using them to generate more verbal activity (so we don’t end up with cartoonish relations between the nominalizations themselves) is central. Breaking up new clusters of jargon is the scientific equivalent of de-mythification—it’s a question of refusing the imperatives the nominalizations start giving you, the imperative exchanges they lure you into (the belief that this terminological tweak with solve the problem).

Programming, Power and Declarative Culture

For originary grammar, the history of civilization is the history of the distancing of the declarative speech form from the imperative. In the mythical and magical world, declaratives are subordinate to, and provide narrative structure for, imperative exchanges. To review: the primary relation to the center is through the ostensive sign, through which the community confers sacrality on the central object by deferring consumption of that object. The imperative speech form emerges from the inappropriate ostensive—one interlocutor names the object, but the object isn’t there, at which point the other interlocutor supplies the object. That accidentally discovered effect of the speech act can now be repeated deliberately. This takes place on the margins of the community, once the threshold of significance has been lowered sufficiently so that a variety of less than sacred objects can be named, for various purposes and not just the reinforcement of communal cohesion (although the accomplishment of any communal purpose at least indirectly reinforces that cohesion). Once the imperative has been discovered/invented, it can now be brought to the center and used to enhance ritual practice: requests can be made of the center, but if members of the community make requests of the center, they must imagine the center acceding to those requests only in exchange for obedience to a command from the center itself—a command that is a prolongation of the original “refusal” on the part of the object to be consumed, its repulsion of the desires of the group. This is what I have been calling “imperative exchange.” The declarative, as well, emerges on the margin, in the way I have examined in some recent posts, through the failed imperative, but also comes to be put to use in constructing narratives of “activity” at the center, activity that are in turn re-enacted ritually. In Gans’s account in The End of History, this is the origin of myth—narratives of the central figure surviving the predatory designs on it, conferring the gift of life upon the human community, and interacting through commands and benefits with that community. As long as we remain within mythological thought, and its magical adjunct, the declarative remains subordinate to the imperative—even if the declaratively constructed narratives, by virtue of the essence of the declarative, which is to at least defer the imperative exchange, must raise, in however muted a way, some question regarding its viability.

This liberation from the imperative is always relative: in refusing one imperative (in the first instance because one simply sees no way of fulfilling it), any declarative allows another one to be heard—an older one, but also one informed by the limits of the imperative exchange in question. To imagine we could be free of imperatives is to imagine we could be free of ostensives, which is to imagine ourselves outside of the world—a fantasy that is implicit in a more fully declarative culture. The imperative channeled by the declarative is, first of all, “don’t fulfill your side of the imperative exchange you have entered into”; but, second, this further entails directing your attention to something you couldn’t have noticed within that exchange—some consequence of continuing in that exchange that would ultimately cancel it. An imperative always comes from a center, so the more absolute imperative comes from a center both more ancient (reaching further back to the originary scene) and more powerful than the center one has been in commerce with. This absolute imperative is, over time, pared down to “don’t break linguistic presence,” and this entails bringing some repetition of the originary scene in to supplement the failing linguistic presence. The growing distance between declarative and imperative exchange involves the greater independence of the declarative linguistic form as such. Linguistic presence can be created in a greater variety of ways as the magic of words dissipates. Linguistic presence can be directly subordinated to attention management, which comes to include attending to the means of maintaining linguistic presence itself, i.e., letters, words, sentences, discourse more generally, but also the means of communication, the various possible positions taken by “communicants,” culturally significant layers of tacit meaning, and the institutions constraining discourse: all these elements of any utterance can now become the target of another utterance. The invention of writing in, of course, a huge leap in this regard, and the connection between alphabetical writing and the atomic (proto-scientific) view of the world has long been noted. More recently noted is the connection between the voicelessness of the written word and the monotheistic God to whom no qualities can be attributed. In very different ways, a single source of absolute imperatives is posited, and this in turn allows for unlimited analytical power: just as any utterance, and therefore any “piece” of reality can be broken down into its smallest, most basic components, so a divine voice speaking the absolute imperative that is both eternal and internal enables unprecedented examination of inner states of mind, conscience and feeling.

Such has been the trajectory of the Axial Age acquisitions and the modern scientific revolution (the laboratory) that is ultimately indebted to them. Many of the pathologies we can identify with modernization, such as rootlessness, alienation, and dispossession are also consequences of this trajectory. (And some would also trace these pathologies back to the Axial Age acquisitions.) We can’t know for sure that we can preserve the acquisitions without the pathologies, but I don’t see any plausible way of proceeding other than by assuming we can. I have suggested that the laboratory, generalized as the discipline, which both constitutes and is constituted by central power provides a way of targeting the pathologies while maximizing the acquisitions. The discipline is a social form that keeps “drilling down” below ever lower thresholds of significance, and this activity applies equally to the study of quarks and of conscience. The “solution” of the discipline is possible because the information age has introduced a new dimension to the “detachability” of the declarative from the imperative: the quintessential activity of the information age, programming, is a process of generating imperatives from declaratives. These are not the passive-aggressive imperatives of liberalism, which command you not to commit to obeying any commands (“Question Authority”!). If we think, rather, of a sentence that can be dismantled and reconstructed according to some rule, we can automatically generate imperatives that would bring us from the state of affairs represented by one declarative to that represented by one of its alternatives. The more independent declarative culture we have inherited is imperative-phobic, and “demands” (there are all kinds of paradoxes here) that we only carry out actions that can be fully justified on the norms of declarative sentences (reason and logic). We can develop a new kind of declarative culture that embraces imperatives by creating new ones out of the analysis of declaratives.

Let’s take a simple, descriptive sentence like “he had his main opponent arrested” and reverse engineer it. First, treat the sentence as composed of parts that could be replaced—“he” by “she” or “I”; “had” by “will have” or “could never”; “main” by “marginal”; “opponent” by “ally”; “arrested” by “executed” or “promoted.” We could right away see that the simplest sentence “contains,” as possibilities, dozens, even hundreds of other sentences. These sentences can be ranked in terms of their probabilities, given the original, sample sentence as a center around which the possible ones fluctuate. (They are all the things you didn’t say.) We can further treat the sample, central sentence as produced by or selected out of the narrowing of that field of probabilities, as a result of all the “paths” the sentence has, quantum-mechanics style, “always already” taken. This field-narrowing can be accomplished by converting the sentence back into the questions it might be answering: who had his main opponent arrested?; who did he have arrested?; which opponent did he have arrested?; what did he do to his main opponent?; etc. Each question would have emerged from a particular field of concern: everyone has been wondering what the president would do next, or what was going to happen to a prominent figure—the question opens up one or another concern. The entire field of probabilities is generated by the deferral of an imperative, one side of an imperative exchange that has been refused. The imperative is a set of expectations: be ready for what will happen to the main opponent/watch what the president will do next/look for that oppositional leader’s profile to be raised. Maintaining the expectations involves a kind of readiness—the sentence now relieves you from those imperative expectations by violating them at least in part and commands you to configure a new field.

Keep in mind that we are focused on the utterance, not the topic of the sentence—on who is making the claim about the (presumed) leader, and not the leader himself—but also that there must be a line between the imperative obeyed, respectively, by the subject of the sentence, the utterer of the sentence, and the hearer of the sentence—such a line is a condition of intelligibility. Configuring a new field of expectations means generating a new field of probable sentences, of which we look for the one that best promises to maintain linguistic presence regardless of which expectations are realized, i.e., which allows us to thread the absolute imperative through a broader range of actual outcomes. We can identify that imperative by making the imperative represented by the sentence, the imperative obeyed by the utterer of the sentence, and the imperative obeyed by the “recipient” of the sentence “line up” more closely. We then make that imperative available for further iteration—it could turn out to be something like “become a marginal ally so as to accomplish what you would wish to as a main opponent.” The historical form of the absolute imperative will be a “remix” of the materials provided by the field of possible sentences: in this way, something that is imaginable and yet seems extremely unlikely can bolster a preparedness which grasps the broader reality but has failed catastrophically in some particular. Think of this thinking process as a maxim generating machine—the problem with generally true maxims, in politics and morals, is that without other maxims telling you how to apply them here and now, they’re really worthless. Originary programming is a kind of maxim assembly kit, making maxims adjustable for the occasion.

The absolutist assumption is that we all obey the same imperative, if we trace it back far enough. We don’t all clarify this imperative in the same way because the mining process involves extracting it from the vast mass of subsequent imperatives which have both made it more absolute (defer the most compelling imperative exchange) and thoroughly obscure it. The work of interpretation is ordering all imperatives in accord with the absolute one. This means we do assume that the king who had his main opponent arrested 3,000 years ago, the chronicler who recorded it 2,000 years ago, the scholars mulling over this chronicle for hundreds of years and those of us contemplating it today are all bound by the same chain of imperatives—to “understand” what that king did is locate ourselves within that imperative chain, and then to defer it, however slightly—to understand how it was is to imagine it might have been different. The way to do this is to generate forward that modified imperative chain. So, actual sentence A defers imperative X somewhat more agilely than possible sentence A1 and somewhat more pointedly than possible sentence A2; imperative X is now modified as the question we construct a given sentence as answering, and it takes the form of a “tell me…” command. That “tell me” command can in turn be converted to a command to make present or make available, which in turn brings us to a sacred or significant name of something to be made present or available in whatever way it makes itself present or available. Someone, at some point, wanted the intentions of that “main opponent,” and even his will, made present, in the name of central power. Those who read such a sentence today also want central power made present, even if now we obey the command to take into account and assimilate in advance the kinds of opposition that bedeviled previous rulers. We can convert the opponent’s aims and the king’s decision into “information” contained in our “stock” insofar as we ultimately obey the same command as both of them, and use that information to carry that command forward.

In principle, this practice could be a source of algorithms: an algorithm has fed into it selected features of an object or situation, along with the weight to be given to those features, separately or in combination, so as to set in motion a response: so, a male of race A, appearing (according to another algorithm for assessing likely age) to be age B, dressed as a member of social class C, with a posture indicating D level of potential aggressiveness, etc. (however complex we need it to be), is not to be allowed onto the premises, or is to be subject to a stricter degree of scrutiny (with “strictness” also being a term of art to be established algorithmically). We could eventually use computers to game out possible “auditioning” outcomes. But the qualitative dimension of assessment and decision is irreducible and always grounded in language—the more complex and targeted we make an algorithm the more its dependence upon humanly set values is evident. (The desire for a non-violent environment is a human value.) And political discourse is more interested in exposing presuppositions about power and sovereignty than in making supposedly rational decisions—the most rational decisions will be those that render those assumptions the most transparent. (The best argument for absolutist rule is that the distance between formal and actual power should be brought as close as possible to zero.) Since we can’t work with all of the sentences in the constitutive field of the sample, or nodal, sentence, we have to choose a few; these will be the few we feel we can best use as levers to make a link in the imperative chain visible that previously was not. This makes trolling, rather than logic, the model for the most powerful political discourse: trolling aims at eliciting responses from various actors that reveal things those actors would rather not reveal. It’s a way of issuing imperatives, to enemies and allies alike—the imperative is to show us which commands you really obey. Then all you have to do is reiterate, in perfectly declarative terms, the name and character of the god she obeys, the imperative exchange upon which she hangs her hopes—and present the clearer form of the same imperative, the one you obey.

Of course, the implication of this discussion is that the more absolute power becomes, and the lower the threshold of significance, and the more named and incorporated all elements of society, and therefore the clearer the imperative structure, the less uncertainty, and therefore the less need for algorithmic approaches to social order. The argument for absolutism is distilled from the acting out of the anarchist ontologists, by selecting amongst the imperatives they obey those that can be lined up with the imperatives we obey in making sense of them.

Absolutism, the Axial Age and the Laboratory

The moral and intellectual innovations of the Axial Age—from Confucianism and Buddhism in the East to philosophy and monotheism in the West—create an interesting dilemma in thinking through the implications of the abolition of imperium in imperio, or divided sovereignty. Under sacral kingship, the centrality of the king involves not just rule but ritual duties and ensuring the connection between the community and the cosmos. It may be that the occupant of the position wasn’t very secure (there would be many ways one could be found to have failed) but the position itself was. Under god-imperial rule, the occupant of the position becomes far more secure, while the sacral efficacy of the position becomes thinner and molded more precisely to the functions of rule itself—in other words, rationalized. Local and ancestral forms of worship continued to operate more directly on communities. On both levels, though, the sacred is essentially sacrificial: the origin of all benefits is identified, and a commensurate return of some part of those benefits must be made to that origin or its representative. The greater the benefit, the greater the obligation, which means that the sacrificial is always tending towards human sacrifice as its telos. This means slavery, mass armies and the conscription of large populations for imperial labor projects. As David Graeber has pointed out, these developments coincided with the introduction of coinage and debt that involved the “abstraction” of individuals from the communal and ritual forms in which they were embedded—“abstraction” through enslavement and dispossession.

At the same time, this abstraction and the development of markets on which abstracted individuals can engage in exchange leads to systems of justice: the measurement of acts against promises and obligations. So, we have two interrelated processes: one, the disappearance of situated individuals into anonymous masses; two, the singling out of individual rights and wrongs against a background of precedents and oaths, with judgment carried out by a specialized class of professionals. When “injustice” was done, it would likely appear as if the former process was impinging upon the latter: as if the individual treated unjustly were being sacrificed for some mass, impersonal, mindless purpose. The emergence of exemplary victims of sacrificial injustice would lead to the clarification of this appearance, and its articulation in legal, political and sacral discourses. It would be possible to look for such victims, and see them as implicit indictments turned back against the supposed justice system itself; more articulate victims would come to frame their plight in these terms. Critics of the justice system would come to see themselves as potential victims, and develop moral discourses of anticipatory victimage; they would gather around themselves a following, including many from among disaffected elites; and their victimization (which they would more or less deliberately be courting) would be revelatory. We would have cases in which the exemplary sacrifice would, in fact, be guilty according to the prevailing and perhaps rather sophisticated and indulgent political and legal norms; and, nevertheless, legible in their execution would be the implication of even a healthy justice system in sacrificial practices—remember, the mass sacrifice and the concept of justice have a common origin. The subsequent intellectual and moral revolution would play out differently under different conditions, but in all cases a new problem has been created: it is now possible to imagine a law that is “higher” than the law presided over by the monarch, and therefore a sacrality that supersedes that of the God-Emperor.

So, this is the problem that has gone unsolved until this day. Some Christian kingdoms of medieval Europe seemed to be close for a while, but those efforts didn’t last. We can blame competing elites for exploiting the opportunities afforded by the very concept of a “higher law” to introduce a wedge between that higher law and the “earthly” one, but the problem nevertheless remains, unless one believes it possible to dispossess ourselves of the acquisitions of the Axial Age—and no conceivable power center could do that because so dispossessing itself would not only make it too evil but too stupid to rule. In moral terms, the “axial” involves a prohibition on scapegoating: on reviving and reversing the logic of sacral kingship by imposing responsibility for the evils and ills of the community on some marginal individual or group. The way realize that prohibition is by building and fortifying institutions that ensure punishment is monopolized by accountable institutions and for offenses that have been named for the harm they do the community and the higher law. The implication is to confer a kind of sacrality on the individual: to collectively lay hands on an individual is to threaten to introduce uncontrolled violence into the community. This horror is the ancestor of today’s victimary discourses, but even before that of liberalism and democracy, with their elevation of the individual and the common man, regardless of the intellectually confused ways in which this elevation has been asserted. Now, while the implication of axial morality has been to confer a kind of sacrality on the individual (at least in the West—but could that be because it is in the West that axial logics have been vigorously pursued beyond elite circles?), that does not mean it is the only, or only possible implication.

Originary thinking, or anthropomorphics, helps us out here because it provides us with the hypothesis that the axial is in fact a recovery of the originary scene, in which the newly human community all participated in “addressing” a shared center. Such a recovery was needed in the massive dislocations, brought about at a high level of civilization, leading to the axial age. One way of superimposing the model of the originary scene on imperial civilization is to imagine a single human center: Truth, or God, toward which all can orient themselves and partake of this new center. These are the interrelated paths the West, in pushing axial logics as far as possible, have taken. But within the assumption of the global or universal center there is also the realization that the center can only be discerned within what we could call a “congregation of inquiry.” Christianity started out with small groups testifying to Christ revealing himself to them; philosophy and the ancient sciences likewise started out with small groups of adepts or inquirers who separated themselves from the confining ritual practices of the community. The “universal” radiates outward from such congregations, and can only be preserved by recreating them over and over again.

At some point power at higher levels must support and incorporate these congregations—that is ultimately the only way they could actually be “universalized.” But this also seems to be the starting point of all those conflicts between higher and secular law. The solution must lie in the incorporation of the congregation of inquiry into the very form of sovereignty. In universalism, the individual is imagined as potential victim of overweening power, and the solution is for that individual to be ever further abstracted so as to be acted upon by an even overweenier power. By contrast, the individual within the corporate congregation is imagined in his service to the sovereign, in exemplifying and further perfecting the sovereign’s identification with the higher law. The corporate congregants permeate the social order, bringing their more specialized inquiry into the originary-within-the-sovereign to bear on other areas of life. The missionary or evangelical goes out among men, preaching the word, living the word, and doing so, as much as possible, within the lives and languages of those amongst whom he moves. The undercover police agent represents the law within the lawless, and must pass as the lawless, while never forgetting their loyalty to the law, lower and higher, and their other law-preserving brethren. In both cases we have the enactment of the tension between the lower and higher, but the undercover agent is the better example for us now because it is impossible for that police officer, as long as he remains honest, to do anything other than serve the sovereign. He cannot rebel, or resist the sovereign, other than by becoming a criminal himself, which is not really rebellion or resistance; moreover, he serves as a harmless but potentially powerful corrective to misuses of power within the sovereign order itself, misuses that the sovereign would want to know about. This is especially the case because we can have undercover agents not only in lawless groupings but in organizations where the lawlessness would be a deviation, but with potentially devastating consequences. The undercover agent within the normal institution, or, each of us acting as if there are undercover agents within the institutions where we congregate, or, even more, as if we might have to take on, maybe even unsolicited, that role, represents the complete assimilation of the axial acquisition to the sovereign order. Disciplinary groupings or social “skunkworkers” permeating and infiltrating all institutions by naming their relation to the sovereign center is the form taken by the retrieval of the originary scene within advanced, civilized social orders.

We can think about this in terms of the apparently very different institution of the laboratory—perhaps the highest and most consequential result of “axialism.” The laboratory constructs a space in which all possible physical interactions are excluded except for the one we want to study. Often this is done hypothetically, by randomizing the selection of subjects for the study, or introducing probability calculations to eliminate the effects of processes that can’t be physically excluded. In fact, this is the kind of thing you do anytime you are seriously thinking about what the best thing to do is, in other words moral inquiry involves setting aside one’s own resentments and desires, “controlling” for them. The mode of thought is equally applicable to religious and secular, social and physical sciences—part of the laboratory model is to think “experimentally” about these very differences. If you are thinking experimentally you are retrieving the originary scene and representing it within the actual scene, because you are thinking, what act would introduce another degree of deferral into this congregation, and make us more focused on whatever our object is? As long as you are thinking of a bounded scene, freed as much as possible from obscuring interferences, you cannot possibly think of mobilizing a mob or identifying a possible sacrifice. If such practices are being endorsed, wittingly or not, by the sovereign, you can only stand as an example against it—not as a counter-power, because your very centrality in this case depends upon you eschewing any higher order centrality, which could only introduce interference into your scene. Once the higher law is made immanent to, constitutive of, constrained by, sovereign law, all the imperium in imperio problems invented by liberalism disappear. In assessing institutions and judging actors, we always look to the corporate congregants in those institutions—if we watch and listen to them, we will learn what is going on and what needs to be done.

Absolutist Epistemology

We know that something happened because we have relied upon someone who saw it happen and recorded and reported it (even in cases where we know what happened as a result of recordings made by some measuring instrument, someone had to read and report what was recorded by the instrument). Here’s a way of mapping this out. Let’s take a scene, say a fist fight between two individuals, with a small group of spectators. Let’s call the combatants “Jake” and “Nate.” Jake started the fight for obscure reasons, Nate fought back fiercely and briefly had the upper hand, then Jake landed a few solid blows to the head, wobbling Nate, who tried to get back into things by fighting dirty, but is ultimately knocked for good by an kick to the stomach. The fight comes to an end, which is already implicit in the simple statement, “Jake and Nate had a fight,” since “a fight” refers to an event with a beginning and an end. And, of course, we can imagine a varied range of spectators, some of whom knew Jake and Nate, some of whom knew one but not the other, some of whom egged Jake on, some of whom just wandered by and wondered what the fuss was about, some of whom had a rooting interest, some of whom were disinterested observers, etc., etc. Those spectators, and the combatants themselves, will tell others what happened: “Jake kicked the sh*t out of Nate”; “Jack wantonly assaulted Nate”; “Nate put up a good fight but was caught off guard by a violent assailant”; “two pathetic losers swung at each other like 50 times and connected maybe 5 times”; etc. And then the people they have told will “know what happened.”

Now, someone who wants to know “what really happened” will seek out other observers and piece together a more comprehensive account. But no one can be interested in “what really happened” at every event we hear referenced, directly or indirectly—or even more than a very tiny portion of them. For most of us, one of those partial initial observations will become the story, insofar as the event makes its way into the community’s discourse—“do you remember, it was right here, about 10 years ago, that Jake totally demolished Nate.” At that point it would take an enormous effort to create a more comprehensive picture, and only very exceptional circumstances would lead anyone to make the effort. The “received” version of events will make its way into the community’s discourse in various ways and at various levels—in references to Jake as a “tough guy” or “bully,” or to Nate as “that poor guy” or the one who “turned his life around after being attacked”; perhaps mothers and fathers tell their sons to be, or not to be, “like” Jake or Nate. In principle, but not really in practice, we could trace the series of speech events which led to these “epithets” being attached to the two men in “public memory.” In claiming that we “know what happened” or we “know who Jake and Nate are” we are relying upon, implicitly trusting, many people, many of who we don’t know but trust indirectly because we trust directly someone who trusted someone else directly who… eventually someone who can attest to having seen what happened. When we talk about knowledge, we are talking about networks of trust and networks of meaning—if Jake and Nate’s fight has worked its way into the public memory it is because it meant something to enough people to keep them talking about it. And by “meant enough,” I mean became an event that in its representation enabled some new anthropomorphization of the community, i.e., provided a means for constructing their humannenss in a new way. Let’s widen the sphere of inquiry here considerably by noting that all of our most basic, tacit, knowledge, has exactly this same form: we are absolutely certain we know the meaning of almost all the words we use regularly and, in fact, they rarely fail us, but we only know what all these words mean because we have heard others use them who have heard others use them who in turn…

So, in discussing epistemology, the theory of how we know, we should be focusing less on refining instruments of observation and protocols of investigation and more on clarifying who we trust, how much, and why. But this can’t be sorted out in any formulaic, quantitative manner either (I trust the NY Times 22% when it comes to political stories, 46% on the Arts and Leisure section…), nor could the chain of trust usually be followed more than a couple of links. If we flip the question, though, it might become more manageable: rather than “who do and can I trust,” the better question is “how do I present myself as trustworthy?” The former question is folded up in the latter. You present yourself as trustworthy, first, by demonstrating an awareness of the vast chains of trust implicit in any statement you make, and some preliminary mapping of the same; and, second, by letting others know which link in the chain you are tugging on. The particular “link” is the center of your discourse, and it is around that center that you provide the “mapping.” If I want to know whether Jake and Nate were goaded and lured into their battle because people were laying bets on the outcome, I’m going to be “tugging” at the chain differently than someone who wants to know whether they were drunk, because they want to show some link between alcohol consumption and violence. (What ideologies do is systematize the process of “tugging,” so the same mapping comes up every time—in the end, the chains of trust are broken and you have no choice but to trust the ideologue if you want any orientation toward events at all. If you look at our political commonplaces, you will see that they are “chunks” that can be endlessly repeated and inserted in discourse in various ways, but resist any attempt to construct even plausible, hypothetical chain of trust—that is, that can give good answers to the question, “who saw what that led them to say this?”). In order to pursue the question of what really happened, I have to approach the chain of trust with specific questions, and displaying trustworthiness entails being transparent about doing so.

I now want to approach all this in originary and absolutist terms. Every sign, or utterance, establishes a threshold: this is the level of significance at which I take note of something. Or: this thing, event, act, or feature must be marked in order to maintain the linguistic presence I have taken responsibility for. Another present, a real present, must be represented within this linguistic presence. If it must be represented in order to sustain this linguistic presence, then it must resolve some more or less pending crisis facing that presence. If I introduce that present so as to resolve or delay the crisis within this presence, I am now able to detect more distant, less probable and “thinner” crises, and represent them as well (so as to make them even more distant, less probable and even thinner or vaguer). In the process you construct a linguistic presence with feelers that keep reaching further into the past and future. But for one present to be represented within a linguistic presence, the two presents must be simultaneous. This is always possible because events “happen” when they register and are iterated so, insofar as the effects, say, of Homer speaking of Achilles slaying Hector ramify today, that event is contemporaneous with my speaking of it now. That means that the effects must be represented as effects, caught up in all the other effects of other events that are equally simultaneous. So, it’s not so much “Homer tells of Achilles slaying Hector” as it is “this is the way of referencing Homer’s narrative that I need here to displace and articulate other possible ways of referencing it (or refusing or neglecting to reference it),” making it simultaneous, here and now.

In other words, in referencing the Illiad in a particular way, I tug on a chain of trust that reaches back to Homer and his (their?) original audience. So, the “epistemological” question is whether I have tugged and therefore tightened it, or torn it. The answer lies in what will be said by others after I say this—and after I say it, I become one of those others. These others are as obliged to maintain the linguistic presence as I was, and that means proceeding under the assumption that I have both tugged the chain and torn it—like the fate of Schrodinger’s cat, we can’t know until the new linguistic presence is created. Insofar as you can see the chain being tugged, and therefore you see other chains of trust breaching the threshold of significance, you can keep tugging and tightening one of those; insofar as you see it torn, you work on repairing the breach. Both responses involve enhancing simultaneity, that is, representing my speech act as simultaneous with the presents I have represented, and as simultaneous with your own. As my reference above to the provenance of our language suggests, we are always rendering simultaneous countless presents, and we try to maximize responsibility for as many as possible. The model for this kind of semiotic presencing is sovereignty: you acknowledge that my utterance has brought into being a world you must find your way in and sustain. Even if you’re sure that I’m wrong in every possible way, morally, politically, intellectually, you will only make things right by inhabiting that wrongness.

Insofar as you have listened to my utterance you have started to obey and obliged yourself to further obedience to this imperative to submit my sovereign utterance. (Of course, we can ignore what someone says, but only because we have a prior obligation to another imperative that includes disregarding this one—that is, we are never outside of this network of trust, which has an absolutist and imperative structure.) To use a well-known example from early in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, if you are on a construction site and your co-worker says “brick” you bring him a brick—that’s what it means to “understand” him. Your responsibility to any utterance is to bring the equivalent of that brick. And what is needed is the missing present without which this particular node within the network of chains of trust might collapse. The missing present is located in whatever in the imperative (to sustain the world of the utterance) cannot be obeyed, and that present is supplied by finding a way to obey that was unanticipated in the imperative itself. If your co-worker’s wrong and you save him by bringing him, not a brick, but what he really needs you’re still obeying him. Insofar as we’re engaged in inquiry, which means we are participating in a disciplinary space, what has happened when you are not clear as to what the equivalent of “brick” is that one of the links in the network of trust has been exposed as unreliable or unaccounted for. And it must be a link that is needed now—a link we must attend to in order to attend from it to some objects framed by a new question, aiming at a new configuration of simultaneity. That link—say, an interpretation of a canonical text that someone has noticed overlooks certain assumptions underlying that text—has fallen out of simultaneity, because no threads from it can be represented in the present, which is to say the discourse in question has failed to register its effects as occurring now. That is the present that must be constituted in order to restore simultaneity, or linguistic presence. Doing so might knock other links out of simultaneity, within unanticipated ramifications. The imperative we are following in such a case is to identify who has seen what, within what set of disciplinary imperatives, and by what chain of custody has this knowledge come to us. The brick equivalent establishes an ostensive-imperative-declarative articulation that answers the question that has emerged out of the unobeyable imperative. And by “imperative” in this context, we mean primarily expectations: you follow certain rules (imperative orders) in order to elicit a specific range of responses from some sector of reality. It is when you get a response you are not prepared for, when you encounter an unnamed or even unnameable object, that the “brick equivalent” becomes necessary. In the end such a disciplinary order relies on faith and a kind of absolutism: a commitment to sustain the linguistic presence, however frayed, transmitted to you by the other.