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.

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