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).

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