The Grammar of Technology

Here’s why I talk so much, and so abstractly, about language: my goal is to develop a way of thinking that would really be a way of speaking and writing that would dismantle and reassemble the utterances in which it participates and would do so in the process of participating; while at the same time just talking. This implies the possibility of people who would want to train themselves and each other in this manner of discourse. Why? Because it would make it possible to apply more focused and concentrated force upon all the weak points of the reigning ontology and construct a solid one out of its ruins. Central to this project is an account of technology, and ultimately contemporary technology, in terms of originary grammar. I touched a bit on this in a recent post (Technology and Magic, Doings and Happenings), but that is still preliminary. Ultimately, we need a way of creating an absolutist ontology out of the ways people already speak about communications and information technology. I’ll take another run at it here.

I must first review the concept of “imperative exchange,” which I have made much use of and still see much promise in. I should emphasize that this is not a concept of Gans’s, but one I have developed through a reading of some of the early chapters of Gans’s The End of Culture. An ostensive culture is one that takes for granted the presence of the object, so only gestures are necessary—the most basic elements of ostensive culture are warnings which can be assumed to be immediately intelligible, like “look out!” These kinds of utterances can sound a lot like imperatives, and can even be imperatives, grammatically speaking, but if I tell you to “look out!” because there’s a bee flying around your ahead I’m not telling you what to do; it may not even clear what you should do, other than be aware. Human culture was originally ostensive, but it’s clear that it still contains a thick ostensive layer, and always must—the fact that we still have names testifies to that.

The imperative emerges (is discovered/invented) when the ostensive fails, or is issued “inappropriately.” One person names or refers to an object assumed to be present—the situation here must be less immediately urgent than “look out!,” perhaps involving some kind of cooperation—when the object is in fact absent, leading the other person, who wants to maintain linguistic presence, to retrieve it. Now we have an imperative. There is a lot involved here—to see how much procure the forthcoming re-issue, in streamlined form, of Gans’s seminal The Origin of Language—the beginnings of social hierarchy, but also a kind of intellectual hierarchy insofar as the person receiving the order understands the desire of the other better than the one giving orders does; we also have the beginning of a specifically human temporality, because, unlike the immediacy of the ostensive, here there is at least some lapse between the sign and its “completion.”

On the originary scene the center doesn’t “speak,” but for the members of the group the center is repelling their desire—that is, a kind of intentionality is attributed to the center, and registered in the sign, but this intentionality cannot be given “voice.” This becomes possible with the imperative. It becomes possible to make requests of the center, and to construct commands coming from the center. It’s impossible to imagine the members of the group making requests without framing that request in terms of their response to a command, since doing so would be tantamount to placing themselves outside of the sign and community. By the same token, compliance with any command from the center must be considered as looking toward an ultimate reward—first, it was the consumption of the central object itself, but as new imperatives are developed, the rewards to be expected from obedience will become more varied. Hence my claim that all interactions with the center take the form of an imperative exchange.

The next step is to posit that imperative exchange constitutes all of our relations with objects. If I work with a hammer, I am commanding the hammer to drive in the nail, while the hammer is constructed in such a way as to command me to hold it and swing it in just such a way. We see this most clearly when we make a mistake, or misuse a tool, and are forced (commanded) to ask, in essence, what does this thing want me to do with it? If we fix, refine, or improve our things, we are stepping back and giving them second order imperatives: we are telling them to work a certain way so as to tell us to work a certain way. With the development of technology, “we” (this “we” becomes increasingly problematic) create an imperative order, in which we command things to command other things to command yet other things… until, finally, the command makes its way to the end users. The end users then engage in imperative exchange with the technological object as it presents itself to them, which of course occludes the entire technological or imperative order that brought it to them. Facebook or Twitter users could, of course, propose changing some elements of the social media they use, but only a very few could ever do so with the entire medium, and all the decisions made along the way, present in their thinking—and even if they are aware of it, there’s nothing they can do regarding the longer decision chain, and will ultimately end up busying themselves with the available options.

Along the way, of course, the development of the declarative proceeds parallel to imperative culture. To recapitulate briefly several earlier discussions, the declarative identifies something that prevents the completion of the imperative exchange. The earliest discourse was myth, which involved narratives of the central figure—usually some animal. The animal-ancestor created the group, supplies the group with its necessities, punishes the group, fights against the groups enemies, offers words of wisdom, etc. If the people were saved, it was because they needed saving, and if they needed saving it was because they failed to uphold their end of an imperative exchange, or perhaps the central figure didn’t hold up its end (it must have its reasons), and the narrative comes along to demonstrate what needs to be done to bring the system of exchange back into accord. It eventually becomes possible to tell stories of members on the group, modeled on the stories of the central figure—what I have been calling “anthropomorphization.” Within the mythical and magical system, the distance between creators and end users remains very small—one could say it hardly exists at all. When we are nostalgic for “unalienated” conditions, in which all members of the community were in sync with each other and therefore with themselves, that is what we are yearning for.

And it is, of course, what we can’t have. “Alienation” begins with the usurpation of the center by a member of the group, the Big Man. All imperative exchanges henceforth go through the Big Man. The Big Man himself emerges out of the process of imperative exchange: in the gift competition, whereby various tribal chiefs try to best each other in showing their ability to provide for the community, the Big Man is the one who so out-gifts the others that the competition is rendered moot. The Big Man is first of all the center of distribution: gifts come to him and he recycles them back out to the community. This in itself won’t change the system of production, but once the Big Man must mobilize the community in battle against other communities, led by other Big Men, and once the victorious Big Man dislocates the “subjects” of his enemies and must find some use for them himself, new modes of production are initiated, first of all based on slavery and war. The new modes of production require at least some degree of abstraction, as the sovereign now acts directly upon subjects outside of their established social settings and traditional modes of life.

The imperative, as I suggested above, contains a double asymmetry: on one side, it is a command, in which one person obeys another; on the other side, what is for the imperator or commander already done (the imperative for the one issuing it is really just a time-delayed ostensive) is for the recipient of the imperative a mere possibility. The one who will compose a declarative exploring the conditions of fulfilling the imperative will be he who has to carry it out. This is essentially the relation between the king and the priests: the priests need to construct a reality that enables the king’s command. This was the function of astrology, the foremost “science,” physical and political, in the ancient kingdoms. The heavens represented a hierarchical, orderly world, just like the one on earth, and the high degree of predictability studies of the movements of the stars provided implied that such control was also possible on earth. The technological accomplishments of antiquity, their imperative order of things, comprised mostly extending the power and celebrating the glory of the God Emperor.

The axial acquisitions involved making the originary scene, rather than duplications of the worldly hierarchy, the model for both “priests” and “merchants.” The ruler must do justice and must give back to his people. The imperative order of things is gradually extended from massive hydraulic projects and war to industry. The model stays the same: the new proletariat is driven off their ancestral lands and atomized in cities, just like the slave hordes were once ripped from their now-destroyed communities. The industrialists are essentially generals. The command chain, leading from those who initiate the imperative order of things, and going through all those who extend the chain and standardize the “links,” until the end users, keeps getting longer. The end users are now located somewhere in the production chain as well, but the most constrained end users are also those most distant from the origins of the production chain. The chain becomes more communicative, as innovations at one end transform the possibilities for those at the other end more rapidly. A technological system, like a discipline, is self-referential: everything signifies insofar as it directs us from one element of the system to another. Unlike the discipline, which the absolute imperative retrieved in the axial age commands us to form, the origin of the technological system is obscured by the system itself.

This really is the fundamental problem of modernity, the one chewed over endlessly by Marxists and traditionalists alike: how to address the incommensurability between the constantly transformed and extended imperative order of things and those who occupy only one link on the chain? This really means everyone, even if the alienation is most evident with those who overwhelming receive, and rarely issue, commands. But one more thing: the development of post-axial imperative orders of things coincided with the post-axial deconstruction of the imperative order of people—industrial and post-industrial armies and reserve armies have also been pawns and proxies in the power struggles of the elites; and, just as important, the imperative order of things has never been made to conform to the imperative order of people. The state, in its process of centralization (creating an iron chain of command that somehow keeps producing broken links) has made itself a vehicle of masters of the imperative orders of things who want political order to be modeled on their own self-representation to the end users. The end users are locked into the liberal ratchet while the imperative order of things verticalizes and the imperative order of sovereignty sprawls (which sprawling in turn provides the model for orders to the end users). “Alienation” doesn’t quite cover it.

The path to order is to seek out a straight line of imperatives, as far back as you can go, and start obeying them. Let your declaratives expose the reciprocity that line of imperatives demands of you, and point out where those imperative exchanges have failed. At least some of those failed imperative exchanges can be reconstructed, and you can treat some power center as if it is more explicit about its place in the imperative order than it appears to be. That makes you a producer in the sovereign order, with some relation, however distant, to a possible end user. Producers attract other producers. Most of us will remain end users in the imperative order of things. Still, anyone can get to work on exposing the imperatives bearing down on the end user. Perhaps the most prominent one right now is to present yourself as data to be looted. But what could be more social than the data that regularly peels off of us? Our resistance to our conversion into data might simply the humiliation of having our final liberal illusions shredded. Data is itself converted back into the command to adhere to the norm, to contribute to the averaging out. Each such command can be placed on the boundary between absolutist and liberal ontologies: “they” want your data to sell you things, to sell you yourself as someone who transcends the data; but data unrolls difference after difference that the liberal order wants veiled but which can be so easily exposed with just a little nudge, a marginal inappropriateness in your obedience to some command. The averaging out has more than a hint of mob rule, in which the imperative follows directly upon the ostensive; that’s a time to hearken back to an imperative that has been raised above the ostensive and provides a little model of secure rule: a model, a norm, rather than an average.

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