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.