Monthly Archives: March 2018

The Meaning of Meaning, and Metalanguage

“Meaning” has come to take on what seem to be two very different, well, meanings: on the one hand, it refers to the shared use of linguistic items—if we know what a word or sentence or passage of texts “means,” then we can use or discuss it with other intelligibly; but, of course, “meaning” has also taken on a more ponderous, or pretentious, “existential” sense, as in the “meaning of life”—a phrase that is endlessly parodied but still seem to pass as verbal currency with undiminished value. People still speak unironically about finding meaning in their lives, their work, their relationships, their families, etc. The persistence of such a, strictly speaking, meaningless, term, suggests that it’s signifying something that couldn’t be signified otherwise, and perhaps its continuing power lies in the fact that there is really only one “meaning.” In other words, when someone speaks of a loss of meaning in the “existential” sense, they are really speaking of a loss of meaning in the “literal” sense, i.e., words (and signs more generally) don’t “mean” anymore, they have no shared sense and reference, and so no longer help us find our place in the world.

Meaning is ultimately grounded in ostensivity—to put it crudely, any utterance points at something, tells you what to notice. Even the most abstract theoretical discourse makes some distinction between one way of using a concept and another. Of course, whether that distinction will “mean” something depends upon what the concepts themselves point to, and what whatever they point to points to, and so on. At the end of it we don’t necessarily get to “that guy, over there,” but we get to an ongoing conversation, in which the references can be traced back and held onto by those intensely interested in that conversation. What seems like unintelligible jargon is very often a way of phrasing some claim that has resulted from the cumulative responses to attacks on a dozen previous ways of phrasing it. But for any utterance there needs to be a center of attention for the utterance to make sense, or “mean.” “So, I’ll see you tomorrow at 8” makes perfect sense to the friend you been arranging dinner with; if you said it to a stranger on the subway, it would seem senseless, bizarre, even menacing. You know what each of the individual words means, of course, but if someone said that right out of nowhere you might not even comprehend the actual words—even framing sounds to yourself as meaningful words and sentences requires some preparatory context. And then they would seem like they might have multiple meanings, none of which would be easy to exclude.

So, a lot needs to be in place for utterances to “mean”: a language, perhaps a particular dialect, a slang, but also a community, an institution, and a history of all of these things. The converse, then, is also true: when utterances “mean” consistently, it means that all of those things are in place. If all those things—a language, a community, a family, an institution, a vocation, and ways of thinking about all these things that don’t insult our morals and intelligence—are all we want, then all we want is for all of the linguistic acts we perform and witness to mean. The things we associate with an existential lack of meaning—a purposeless job, a lack of understanding within one’s family, alienation from the morals and (no longer) shared purposes of one’s community—really come down to signs that don’t find their way to ostensives. The “sense” of a job is an activity in which you earn your living by doing some work of value to others; the “sense” of family is a privileged space of love, affection, solidarity and the transmission of a heritage to the next generation—but these words have no “referents” in your actual job and family. Words like “job” and “family,” and other associated ones like “love” and “purpose” literally don’t mean anything, or perhaps, sinisterly, mean the opposite of what they are supposed to.

If liberal modernity, as it has often been accused of doing, in fact destroys meaning, it is on this level of linguistic meaning that we should be able to identify its effects. If we just look at the most basic liberal concepts we find a junkyard of meaningless phrases: “individual,” “equality,” “autonomy,” “rights,” “freedoms,” and so on. These are all intrinsically corrosive concepts: one asserts one’s individuality against the norms of the community: we can understand the norms (although there’s something corrosively liberal about “norm”) because we can constantly apply them to our own and others’ acts, but we can’t understand what it would mean to be against or outside of those norms. “Equality” is asserted against a perceived “inequality,” but no one has any idea what “real” equality would mean—even the complaint against “inequality” attacks an established order in the name of emptiness. “Rights” is a good example of a word that has been rendered meaningless by liberalism: it means something for a peasant to assert his rights, say for grazing land for his sheep, against the lord, because the rights refer to longstanding practices overseen by mutually accepted authorities. Today, “rights” have almost exactly the opposite sense, that of a claim upon other’s money, or respect, or attention that has never been acknowledged and, increasingly, never even imagined before. A “right” now is a demand that meaning be conferred where it hasn’t been previously, but that is precisely the way “meaning” doesn’t work: meaning is the name given to an emergent site of shared attention. Demands for rights are deliberately destructive of meaning, because the world of meanings is what prevented attention from being lavished on the plaintiff. The most obvious example is transgenderism, which demands that we accept that gender is both all-important and absolutely irrelevant—an almost perfect sink of meaning. It follows from this that persistent, precise, unapologetic linguistic analysis of almost any utterance in a liberal order should prove devastating for liberalism.

There is another stress test for meaning that, while exploited and exacerbate by liberalism, must be attributed to the centralization of institutional power advanced by, but irreducible to, liberalism. We can attribute the centralization that has been given one, particularly baleful, shape by liberalism to literacy. Literacy pretty much guarantees social hierarchy. The reason for this is the metalanguage writing already is, and which it ceaselessly generates. I have recourse here again to David Olson, who points out that since the invention of the alphabet to record utterances required a study of language in order to determine what, exactly, had to be recorded, writing is essentially an inquiry into language. Once we have writing, we can distinguish between proper and improper, correct and incorrect uses of language—distinctions that could never occur within an oral society except, perhaps, within the very controlled setting of ritual utterance. Once the form of a grammatical sentence is set, it becomes possible to make grammatical errors and to be “illogical.” Writing first of all represents a speech act in a specific setting, and must supply everything that is lost in the absence of the actual interlocutors—a whole metalanguage emerges to enable the reader to understand that not only did someone say something, but he said it in a particular way, one that would be evident to those present on the scene—he “suggested,” he “implied,” he “insinuated,” etc.

From this representation of a speech scene comes the creation of what Olson, following  Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner (in their Clear and Simple as the Truth), calls “classic prose,” which is a transparent form of writing aimed at ensuring that the reader sees and hears exactly what the writer does. From classic prose emerges a whole new metalanguage, used to distinguish writing that more closely approximates the norm of classic prose from writing that doesn’t. All the commonsense ways we have of praising or condemning writing and thinking derives from the metalinguistic norms of classic prose. Writing or thinking is “clear” or “obscure,” “understandable” or ‘incoherent,” “organized” or “confused.” More precise rules for writing can be further derived from these values, including how to structure sentences, paragraphs and essays (the infamous five-paragraph essay inculcated into every American high school student is an instantiation of the values of classic prose).

It would be very good if everyone were proficient in classic prose (although maybe not if that were all they were proficient in), but the problem with these metalinguistic terms is that they are, strictly speaking, meaningless. As Olson points out, they allow us to assess a piece of writing, but they tell us nothing about how the writing was produced. A brief discussion with any college student, barely literate or hyper-literate, will confirm this. Ask him what he was trying to do: well, I just wanted to be “clear.” Why did you choose this word—well, it seemed to me to make things clearer. These metalinguistic terms have a sense and referent for those practiced in assessing writing (although even here one will find wildly differing assessments of the same piece of writing from equally “qualified” individuals) but none at all for the person doing the thinking and writing. Now, if this were all there were to modern metalanguage, the teaching of writing would be the extremely frustrating profession it is, but the smarter students, given a chance to read serious books and asked to write challenging papers, would still, through sheer will and more or less obsequious imitation of their professors, figure it out, so we’d still have our academics and other specialists in the metalanguages of the literate arts.

The problem is that the devastation of meaning wrought by metalanguages extends across the entire field of civilized society. Here is Olson on the way in which the literate order, which is also the bureaucratic order, transforms virtues into values:

In a modern bureaucratic world, knowledge, virtue and ability take on a new form. Institutions such as science preempt knowledge, justice systems preempt virtue, and functional roles preempt general cognitive ability. Thus, ability, knowledge and virtue are construed and pursued less in the form of private mental states and moral traits of individuals than in the form of competence in the roles, norms, and rules of the formal bureaucratic institutions in which they live and work.

We can see metalanguage at work all the way through here. “Science” emerges from metalanguages created to assess individual claims to “know” something; “justice systems” emerge from metalanguages assessing competing claims regarding the “goodness” of someone’s acts; thinking like a lawyer, or a doctor, or a history professor are the results of institutionalized metalanguages which reduces the person who talks, however intelligently, about well-being, or the law, or history to a “buff,” or a “crank.” An ordinary claim to “know” something is rendered meaningless, while the professional doesn’t speak of knowing anymore because he makes claims that undergo a formal vetting process that has its own internal norms: the point is not whether what you say is true, but whether it has been verified. And, as I pointed out in my previous post, the metalanguages become vehicles of power and sites of power struggles—if you control the metalanguage, you not only can “assess” others without any accountability but you couldn’t even tell them how to do better if you wanted to, because the metalanguage only, in a circular manner, can tell its subjects to do what they aren’t doing now. When central power is secure, the metalanguages co-exist with ordinary languages—the academic need not police the claims to “know” things made by laymen, and may even accept that within that attentional space “knowing” is in fact the relevant goal. When central power is insecure and a site of struggle, the metalanguages are occupied by those who wish to expand their power and can only do so by delegitimizing non-metalinguistic spaces; in turn the metalanguages themselves abandon their primary function of aligning reality with authority and become power-crazed.

We can’t reject metalanguage, of course—even the most basic mental verbs, belonging to Anna Wierzbicka’s Natural Semantic Metalanguage, like “think” and, certainly, “know,” have something proto-metalinguistic to them. “Know,” in particular, is after the fact and evaluative: does someone really know what they claim to know, or do they just think it, or want it to be true? Epistemologies never really tell you how to get better at knowing things—they just provide models for assessing claims to knowledge. Even “thinking” can only be described in its effects—treatises on “how to think” are really logic handbooks, or lists of tests or questions you should submit your claims to knowledge to. In that case, the focus on metalanguage provides us with insight into the nature of language, which must always presuppose a referent because there was one on the originary scene, but is really “about” the gathering of a community around something that constitutes them as a community. Referring to people thinking, wanting and knowing allows us to make sense of the various acts we see people engage in, but the words generate the illusion that there is something “behind” the words, some mechanism or homunculus inside doing something that we call “thinking.” In other words, there’s no “real” thinking, knowing, wanting, saying or feeling that we would get to once we peeled away all the metalanguage. So, the explosion of metalanguages does us a service by letting us see that all linguistic acts take on their meaning within a community of users who need to maintain a shared center.

One of the primary metalinguistic terms is the distinction between “mention” and “use”—the latter involves the use of the word in “natural language,” while the former involves referring to the word as a word. The way to create meaning against encroaching metalinguistic facilitated meaninglessness is to move back and forth across the (meta)language border, which is to say, using and mentioning words simultaneously. (For example: “word” is a four letter word.) This is how you make it clear that you are always within language, and create disciplinary spaces within the metalinguistic disciplines. This could produce a metalinguistic vocabulary that produces imperatives, tells you what to do, rather than assessing you from a putatively unassailable position. Of course, if we list a set of rules for doing this we’d just have another metalanguage. Use the words others mention, and mention the words others use, and use and mention them in turn yourself, and you will develop new practices of (meta)language. This by itself won’t bring order to the world of referents liberalism has disordered, but oscillating between the use and mention of words will create the kind of disciplinary spaces that keep checking reality along with the linguistic means we develop for attending to reality. Such spaces will have an advantage over a liberalism that is spiraling out of control by swinging back and forth between aimless decentering and punitive assessing.

Declarative Culture and Imperium in Imperio

Marx and Engels have been heavily criticized for not providing a detailed model of the communist society they hoped would succeed capitalism, but on this point, at least, they were right. Leaving the details out allows for steady focus on the contradictions you want to exploit; providing a detailed model provides you with something new to argue about, even if there’s absolutely no way of settling all the questions without having power in the first place. So, it provides you with a distraction. I think that we can push this point even further: once a political project has a canonical model, filled with procedures, organization structures, required policies, and so on, it also has a permanent basis for political conflict based on the claim that the actual leadership is not in conformity with the “real” project. This argument is really a corollary of the argument for personal, non-procedural rule central to absolutism.

There are good reasons why this kind of conflict is endemic with political movements in general, and particularly those aiming at substantive change. The creation of a “doctrine” and a “program” is itself a response to conflict—movements usually start by being for and against something very specific but the specific things they are for and against become vaguer and more complex the closer you get to achieving them; what was originally thought to be “the problem” turns out to be just a subset of a larger problem, and maybe the first “solution” just brings that larger problem into view, and even creates new problems itself. So, the only way to quell all the arguments about “what are we trying to accomplish here” is to get something down on paper that can garner enough agreement among the leadership so that the rest can be bullied into line. Still, everyone knows that if this or that detail of the doctrine or program has to be modified or jettisoned in the interest of gaining greater proximity to power, it will be—thereby confirming that managing internal power dynamics is the real purpose of the doctrine and program. That’s why the insider who knows where all the pieces are will generally win out over the one who has best mastered the doctrine and program.

We can formulate the problem, and thereby a way of avoiding it, in a more fundamental way. A doctrine aims at logical clarity: it proposes certain premises, and then claims that, if those premises are accepted, certain other claims must be accepted as true; and, if those claims are accepted as true, given certain values, certain conclusions must “therefore” be reached and subsequent actions taken. “Programs” are structured the same way, usually in long lists of declaratives and the imperatives that logically follow from them. We are completely within ‘declarative culture” here, and declarative culture is predicated on the banishment of imperatives and ostensives that don’t “follow” from declaratives. Once you have banished imperatives (in particular, because if the imperatives go, the ostensives go with them), you are wiping the slate clean and setting all prior obligations, commitments and loyalties aside. You take as your starting point the attempt to construct a discourse which everyone will be “compelled” to agree with, at least if they accept the basic premises of declarative culture. And the basic premises of declarative culture are that, first, in using words, you rely upon established (i.e., through the dictionary, or through some accepted theory) uses of words; and, second, that in constructing relations between words and sentences, you base such relations solely on grammatical relations, which is to say, the substantive-predicate relation (substance-quality, for logicians) and hierarchy, and words (also to be used in formally established, with increasing rigor as declarative culture deepens) like “because,” “therefore,” “if,” and so on.

To return to David Olson, the scholar of the history and consequences of literacy I have been referring to in recent posts, writing is itself a metalanguage identifying elements of and relations within (but invisible to) previously existing oral language. The development of logic is the further development of the metalanguage already implicit in literacy: it uses the relations between words abstracted in in the creation of written language as a way of assessing and regulating the use of language. In other words, once a discourse has been produced, we can use a model of logic to determine whether it is “logical,” “rational,” “true,” and so on. But, Olson emphasizes, these metalanguages tell us nothing about how the discourse is actually produced in the first place, which is to say they tell us nothing about how we actually think. This should be obvious if we consider an even more basic metalanguage than logic: grammar. We can easily see when a sentence has a grammatical error, and we can, if we are informed regarding grammatical terminology, identify the error very precisely, but no one composes a sentence in their mind according to grammatical rules (no one thinks, “now I have to connect a predicate to this subject, now I need an adverb to modify the predicate,” etc.). Interestingly, Olson himself has virtually nothing to say about what we are actually doing when we think and compose sentences in our mind—he seems to hope the metalanguage will seep in sufficiently to make us somewhat better at it.

But we can develop a pretty good idea of what we are doing when we compose sentences in our mind, and Michael Tomasello’s Constructing a Language is very helpful here. The answer, according to Tomasello, is simple, and fairly obvious in retrospect: in constructing our own utterances, we work with the utterances we have heard and used many times already; what he calls “chunks” of discourses, or what rhetoricians call “commonplaces,” and grammarians call “constructions.” Better and more experienced writers and thinkers have a wider range of “chunks” available to them and, just as important, acquire the skill of varying, and “riffing on” the chunks they are familiar with in accord with the present “rhetorical situation.” Even more, we can learn to identify the chunks others are using, and put them to new uses by situating them in relation to some of our “our” chunks. Along the way, you probably will get more grammatically proficient and “logical,” but, even more important, you will get more discerning, more comical, more satirical, more alert to the manipulation of clichés, more capable of subverting others’ clichés without falling into your own, more patient when it comes to looking over sentences so non-obvious absurdities can strike you, more detached from the metalanguages so as to be able to mix them up with the “primary” languages they want to expel from their own precincts, better at staying within a particular “topic” past the point where all the conventional things have been said about it so it becomes necessary to find something new to say, etc. These are the kinds of things we are doing when we are “thinking.”

Tomasello’s “user-based” model of language points to the ways in which we can avoid being mesmerized by metalanguage, or declarative culture. Privileging metalanguage, or declarative culture, and therefore the “doctrine” and “program,” is like setting up a permanent imperium in imperio in your own mind, or in the collective discursive space you inhabit. It will always be possible to show how some discourse violates the rules of logic or reference and is therefore “invalid.” If it’s not possible, those rules can always be refined further so that it becomes possible. Whoever is most proficient in mastering the metalanguage has a permanent power base, while being unable to actually rule, because that would leave him vulnerable to the very same criticisms, thereby undermining his power base. (Every organization has those who are always referring to “rules” and “procedures” in frustrating any attempt to arrive at a decision, doesn’t it?) But the installation of the imperium in imperio in the shared thinking of even the more decisive or “alpha” members of the group is the more devastating effect, because it blocks real thinking and inhibits initiative and a willingness to experiment. It may take a dozen violations of logic and regulations in order to arrive at a direction that will in fact be far less vulnerable to charges of “fallacies” than one arrived at under the strict supervision of logical regulators. This, I suppose, is what is meant by “anti-fragile.”

Hopefully, it’s needless to say that I’m not arguing for “spontaneity.” The first point to be made is that hierarchy and a clear chain of command is prior to the specifications of doctrine and program. But the hierarchy itself must of course presuppose whatever it is the hierarchy is for. We do need to start with a clear intellectual, conceptual distinction, and a minimal model. Social relations precede individuals; relations are always articulated, and therefore hierarchical; the center is ontologically prior to the margins; any relationship (institution, society, etc.) has an origin; origin is essence; and so on. In working with the “chunks” of language presented to us by an overwhelmingly liberal social order, we keep bringing these distinctions and the models they presuppose to bear in reworking those chunks, turning them against their origins. Inflexibility regarding the basic distinction and model allows for maximum flexibility in “de-chunking” the constraining metalanguages and generating new chunks to send out into the world (what we might call “memes”).

Instead of thinking in terms of striving to conform and force others to conform to logical models, we can learn to think, more productively, in terms of thought experiments. This is already closer to the way most of us think, which is by using examples to probe a particular situation or bring a problem into focus. A thought experiment is essentially an example transformed and given greater reach by being “processed” through our a priori distinctions. How would a particular discourse look if we hypothesized the origin of its governing concepts? How would one of the “we should…” quasi-imperatives compulsively issued by pundits and would-be power brokers look different if we imagined the concrete hierarchy and series of practices that would be required to implement it? How can we place an “individual choice” in a new frame by embedding it in the extensive network of relations that make it seem more like automatized mimicry than a “choice”? In a sense, “all” this really involves is repeating the chunk in sentences and discourses where it doesn’t really “belong,” which dissolves its naturalness in an acid bath of highly constructed and power-mediated discourses and chains of command.

A useful criterion (a kind of minimal metalanguage) for the creation of thought experiments would draw on the old appearance/essence distinction: imagine an entity or situation whose appearance is both almost indistinguishable from, while also diametrically opposed to, its essence; for example, a very close friend who simulates trustworthiness almost perfectly while systematically betraying you at every moment. What would be the single, barely discernable “tell” that would enable us to identify the essence behind the appearance? We could answer this question in various ways, for various kinds of friendships (or relationships relying upon trust in general), various forms of betrayal, and so on. That’s why it’s an experiment, to be talked about as long as it’s useful to do so, and not a logical conclusion to be deduced. This is similar to the proposal I’ve made in previous posts for treating declaratives as imperatives: in order for me to really “believe” (belief, for Olson, is a metalinguistic term affirming the “sincerity conditions” of an utterance—it doesn’t refer to some “inner state”) a purely abstract, logical argument, purporting to depend upon nothing more than the established meanings of its words, firmly established referents, and non-fallacious connections, what commands would I in effect have to follow, and would in fact already be following? Part of the purpose here is to bring out of the shadows the vast array of authorities that must be acknowledged and obeyed without question in order to “believe” anything whatsoever; the other part of the purpose is to be able to obey them in a way that winnows out all those within the chains of command who don’t, in fact, command anything, leaving it to those who do command to actually do so. With the declarative imperium in imperio, thinking is engineered so as to undermine hierarchies; with imperative de-chunking, thinking is designed so as to bring hierarchies into sharper focus.

Centerism

The danger of titling one’s political position “centerism” is that it is bound to be confused with “centrist,” which will undoubtedly one day become a synonym for “stupid.” (Even spellcheck wants it to be “centrist.”) But centerism ties together ontology and practice in a way that is not necessarily explicitly absolutist, but certainly undergirds absolutism. Centerism entails always supporting the center or, more precisely, donating your resentment to the center. How do you know where the center is? It doesn’t necessarily always announce itself unambiguously, after all. But it’s always there, whenever you talk or think, on both the most micro and the most macro level.

If you utter a sentence, you direct someone’s attention to something different, maybe even only slightly different, than what they have been attending to. What you direct their attention to may be something they simply didn’t know about, but in some way they must have not been completely prepared to see it as significant. “Significant” is identical to “central.” You are redirecting, with your utterance, their attention from one center to another. We are never centerless, but one center is marginal relative to another. So the problem is distinguishing the central (or perhaps it’s best to say “centeral”) from the marginal. It is when what you have been taking to be a center enters into crisis that its subsistence upon another center becomes evident.

Let’s take the example of two criminals, with a prisoner-type dilemma. They are about to be captured, and each could find a way to abandon the other and cop a plea; or, they can take their chances sticking together in trying to escape or refusing to cooperate. In talking or thinking about it, they put their “partnership” at the center; we can identify in what this partnership consists more precisely: specific events, which included or implied certain commitments (certain imperatives) which, retroactively, is constructed as a “bond” they share. What has sustained that center up until this point is mutually profitable enterprises, but maybe other things as well—shared threats, close calls which enhanced trust between them, maybe they like each other, etc. Now that this center is coming under pressure, it must either transcend the form it has taken so far (as the likelihood of future profitable enterprises becomes vanishingly tiny) or collapse—in the latter case, in will be replaced by some more sustainable center (like repentance for criminal activity) or reduce each man to an even smaller center, his own selfishness.

To be a centerist is to seek out the more sustainable center, and do your part to make it even more sustainable. For the criminal, that might mean abandoning the co-conspirator/friend and finding in the legal process that now frames him examples and signs of significance to which he can convert; or, it might mean sticking with his friend and sacrificing himself in the name of a friendship that now means something more than it did previously. Even in the latter case, assuming the two survive, the fact that a new center has been found might open both of them to yet other centers, centers that it’s no longer so easy to dismiss as relevant only to the less lucky, brave, or skilled. Maybe the two friends can now encourage each other in self-reformation projects. Their resentment toward law, or order, or civilization, or respectability, or whatever it was, must now be donated toward that center in order to make it more capable of ordering such self-reformation projects.

Liberal GA focuses on one element of the originary scene while absolutist GA focuses on another. The question is which can frame the other. Remember the originary scenario: a group of hominids, more advanced than other species in the sense of being more mimetic, surrounding some object which they all hunger for, with the hunger of each mimetically inflaming the hunger of the others. The pecking order, which would have the alpha eat first, then the beta, etc., cannot contain this mimetic contagion, and some new form of order is necessary. One member of the group, perhaps the alpha under the sudden, unprecedented pressure of mass resistance, but at any rate probably someone close to the ‘top” and therefore likely to be noticed, converts his gesture toward an appropriation of the object into a gesture of deferral—pointing to the object in such a way as to demonstrate that he will not fight others for the object. By some process, which we can imagine unfolding in any number of ways, the newly invented sign is used by others, as the mimetic contagion is reversed, and all stand pointing to, designating, the object.

Now, when we talk about a center, we’re thinking about a circle, and a circle is defined by each of its points being equidistant from the center with all the others. It is very likely that the originary event would be remembered and commemorated in this way in subsequent rituals, and then myths, because it is the way of remembering and commemorating most likely to retain the full power of the event itself: it directs attention to its completion while disregarding the inevitably messy process. But, in fact, it is very unlikely that all members of the group would be equidistant from the center at the moment of cessation. Some would be very close, as the sign would probably have first been issued by a few co-contenders, who may have then actually have had to cooperate so as to restrain others, but would at any rate have been the model for them. We should think in terms of points distributed unevenly around a center, perhaps more of an oval or obloid, with a more complex array of symmetries. Liberal GA works with the circle model, and can therefore emphasize the equidistance from the center over the center itself—implicitly, at least the equidistance, which is to say the “equality” of all the members is what produces the center, and it is that equality that is therefore to be preserved above all. Absolutist GA, or centerism, sees the defense of the center by those who best see the threats to it as primary, since that defense is what holds together the positions arrayed around the center.

“Act so that there is no use in a centre,” declared Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons. For a centerist, there might be nothing more perverse than this imperative, but what better way to find where the center is than to act as if there is no use in it. Such “acting” might be carried out for real, in which case its destructive consequences can be studied after the fact, or it can be carried out in a controlled way, in which case it’s a discovery process. If there really is a center, we should have faith that all attempts to subvert, evade, deny ignore, etc., that center will simply reveal it more clearly. Acting so that there is no use in a center would mean multiplying imaginable actions and treating them all as equally possible, setting aside all the frames that have always already ordered possible actions in terms of moral preferences and probability. This is not for everybody, only for those conducting inquiries into the center, which is to say only those who want to follow the source of the crisis to its lair. It is the practice of a discipline, a way of training attention. The even more radical direction Stein took this in was to apply it to the sentence, treating each word in the sentence as equally important—the sentence might just as well be “about” the conjunction “and” as about the noun.

It may sound bizarre, but it’s really just a more consistent way of holding variables constant, or acting in accord with the commonplace phrase, “all things being equal.” The result (maybe not for Stein—although no one is completely sure about her, given her right-wing, philo-fascist politics—but for the centerist) is a reassembly of the elements of any event or utterance or discourse into a hierarchy of centers, much like the arrangement of scattered metal bits around a magnet. We’re talking about something now—well, first of all, what, exactly, is that “something”—let’s make sure we’re talking about the same thing, more or less. It’s good to be able to get at that thing from various angles, to zoom in or out, to track the progress of our shared focus. Whatever it is that we’re talking about, it’s something that gave us pause—we have not fully appropriated it; it resists our attempt to possess or dismiss it. It is to that extent a center. As a center it is also an example of centrality as such, and we embed it in a new center by directing our attention to that. Even if we’re just gossiping about our friend’s marriage, something about marriage, or male-female relations, or our friend, or ways of talking about any or all of these things, must be holding our attention to this. Our discussion will either find its way toward that other center, or it will degenerate into “trashing” our friend (“consuming” him, so to speak), or we will simply lose interest.

So, in every case, you either turn your attention to the center around which the center you now address is orbiting, or you “trash” or discard that center. Trashing and discarding can be of world historical importance, as liberalism has demonstrated. Now, of course, we lay the ground for a whole new set of annoying, fruitless arguments: how can we tell what is preserving and what is trashing, etc.; and, it’s true, such things are not self-evident. But a good sign that one is preserving rather than trashing is that you can (or at least are willing to) show that those you say are trashing are in fact engaged with a center that, for whatever reason (the more you can clarify possible reasons, the better), they have failed to embed in another center. There are intimations of centering in even the most violent trashing. Even liberals and leftists have their origin stories—a schoolyard bully, an obnoxious, unjust boss, stories of injustice in the old country told by your grandmother, a visceral sense of compassion for a homeless man, or even frustration at some relative’s obtuseness, etc. There will be a perfectly adequate centerist or absolutist response to all such tales of origin, while the liberal or leftist, the distracter and trasher par excellence, can never stay focused on the need to preserve the center.

This distinction, in fact, provides us with a way of engaging the liberal as needed, while strengthening our own centerist disciplinary spaces: what center are you defending, and what is the center of that center? They will be with you in the opening—I’m defending basic human dignity! Human rights! Or, even, the Constitution! But what then? If we argue about what constitutes human dignity or human rights, what guides our arguments—what makes one way of understanding “human dignity” or “human rights” more plausible, sustainable, or legitimate than any other? They will drop out quickly, and implicitly concede they are just trashers (I’m defending human dignity against…!), but any terms regarding human goods of any kind whatsoever assume reference to a disciplinary center and a sovereign center: this is the kind of thinking that has converged on this question or category, and here is where I am within that kind of thinking; here is the kind of sovereign I imagine enforcing or protecting “rights” or “dignity” and here is the kind of order that makes such a sovereign imaginable. The liberal will have dropped out by now, because it is these very questions that he is determined to trash. He’ll just point to a complaint that won’t be heard if this line of questioning continued. And why should that complaint be heard, by whom, and within what terms of reference? Well, those are precisely the kinds of questions that silence the complaint.

The ultimate center is the originary event. This is an obviously outrageously ambitious claim, but the only center all centerists, which is to say all absolutists, all reactionaries, all who want to overturn completely the liberal (dis)order, could acknowledge is the sacred center generated on the originary scene hypothesized by Eric Gans. There is nothing there to offend Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Confucian, or any adherent to any other form of high culture or transcendent faith. Even more, each of these faiths of intellectual commitments would be strengthened by thinking of them as a particular form in which the originary event has been revealed and retrieved. Accepting this common origin would not eliminate disagreements, but would ensure that all disagreements remain centered, as a shared effort to discover more of the center’s imperatives and to embed them in our lives. The very fact of language proves Gans’s hypothesis, unless someone can come up with a better one (and good luck with that!). We can speak with each other because we share a center. Our speech, therefore, is always concerned with seeing the center, hearing it, protecting it, learning from it. Let all your talk be of center and origin, and you will dispel all distractions and outlast all enemies, whose curses will become blessings.

Within Language

A very common comic device is to place a character who is locked into another, usually archaic or ridiculed, set of manners, habits and assumptions, in a group of normal people. (Don Quixote is an excellent example.) The source of the humor is then the constant misunderstandings, large and small, that result—if it’s done well, the audience can see how the same incident or words can make sense in completely different, but in each case perfectly reasonable ways, by the odd and the normal characters, respectively. The device is effective for two, seemingly contradictory, reasons: first, it reassures us in our normality, telling us that we are not locked into some bizarre set of rituals, routines, and denials; and, second, it disturbs our complacency by letting us see that we are, in fact, so locked in, that under certain circumstance our tacit assumptions would make us look as foolish as the character we laugh at.

The fish and water analogy can work here: we are so much within language, moving in it, “breathing” it, certainly thinking in it, that we don’t even notice it. Language is transparent to us insofar as we only see through it to the things which direct each other’s attention to; it only becomes opaque once language itself can become the thing we attend to. The shift can be effected by something as simple as someone asking what you “meant” by using a particular word (what you meant, not what the word means)—now, you’re paying attention to words rather than things, or, to use Frege’s terms, “sense” rather than “reference.” When language is transparent we refer to things and engage each other fairly unproblematically, not necessarily without conflicts but without constant misunderstandings; by the same token, everyone not inside our language is a barbarian. When we become aware of language, formalistic and seemingly niggling disputes ensue, but we are also capable of processing a far wider variety of “language games” or discourses. David Olson locates this difference in the emergence of literacy, which makes all language users linguists, to some extent—when children learn to sound out a word according to its letters, or when anyone uses the dictionary to settle a dispute over the meaning or use of a word, they are attending to the properties of language, rather than just using it.

This ability to attend to and study the properties of language makes us vulnerable to the illusion that we are outside of language, and can examine any use of language in accord with some extra-linguistic notion of truth or good; the contrast with pre-literate peoples, whose customs and beliefs are likely to seem arbitrary, bizarre, and therefore extremely localized, encourages the literate in this vanity. In fact, it is literacy itself than generates a concern with “logic,” and turns logic into a means for assessing the acceptability of a particular utterance: “logic” is really the abstraction of the grammatical properties that become visible in a written language, and the projection of these properties onto some disembodied mind. The linguistic turn in Western thought in the 20th century derives from this recognition, which was certainly aided by both the emergence of mass literacy and mass education, and by the emergence of new media that made it possible to place writing in a broader historical context. There are metalanguages—writing itself, as I just pointed out, generates metalanguages—but there is no all-inclusive metalanguage, and each metalanguage can be treated as a language by some new metalanguage in turn. The fact that one can easily imagine a comic routine (surely some along these lines have already been created) in which a linguist shows himself incapable of using language in some situation precisely because of his hyperawareness of language demonstrates that any metalanguage is just waiting to be swallowed up by some meta-metalanguage or dissolved back into language itself.

Now, let’s talk about power. Access to a metalanguage gives one power over those without one: the history of civilization can be, to a great extent, be summed up in this observation. But having one’s power rely on possession of a metalanguage leaves one vulnerable in important ways. It becomes important to maintain a monopoly on the metalanguage, and therefore to restrict access to it and, more importantly, to make the metalanguage immune to appropriation by those it is meant to exclude—this involves distancing the metalanguage from reality in the interest of maintaining its own coherence. As power is divided, conflict is introduced into the metalanguages: if the teaching of literature becomes central to educating the next generation of elites and essentials, then everyone will want a piece of it. In a more literate society, the distinction between metalanguage and language is constantly shifting, so the institutions housing the accredited metalanguages have to keep finding new ways of fortifying the distinction, often leading to various demonizations and anathematizations that would be completely unintelligible to those not within that particular metalanguage. Those within the fortified metalanguages find their language to be both more transparent and more opaque than those who are, relatively speaking, within language: more transparent, because the metalanguage itself is predicated upon vigorously enforced exclusions, so every use of the metalanguage massively reinforced in-group solidarity against obviously deficient outsiders; more opaque, because the more institutionalized and abstracted metalanguages spawn conflicts over the terms of the metalanguage with increasingly rapidity, so that no one really quite knows what anything means.

This situation provides an opening for those who access the metalanguages, obey the primary imperative of metalanguage to inquire into language, and through language into the center, who accept their being within language, which is to say accept that their own metalanguage is as bounded and centered as any language, who discern the power relations measured and enabled by the metalanguage and, perhaps most of all, understand that their metalanguage “wants” to keep crossing over into language and other metalanguages just as much as it wants to explore the world of signs it has itself generated. So, what does this entail? Think about one of the most basic ways in which we maintain linguistic presence with others: by using the same words as they have used, but to do so in such a way as to show, first, that we noticed that they used the word in a particular way, for purposes of their own; second, to show that we too can use that word in a way somewhat distant from its more normal uses, and to do so in such a way as demonstrate implicitly that we understand what they were doing with it. This way of using language can be used to undermine an enemy, to enhance intimacy with a lover, to clarify a concept or to sustain a basis for negotiation. It involves playing both ends of the use/mention continuum, both using the word literally, referentially and meaningfully and referring to the word as a word with multiple uses.

This what everyone is doing all the time—everyone is within language, always. There’s nowhere else to be. If it seems to you that you’re just talking directly about reality, that just means your language is transparent and you’re unaware of how it’s informed by various metalanguages. It seems first of all imperative, then, in the spirit of formalism, to know where you stand and speak linguistically and metalinguistically; and, you can only know that by enacting it, by referring to things only made visible by the metalanguage you inhabit and referring to the words that makes those things visible in that way. This leads you into paradoxical territory. Let’s take, for example, Moldbug’s claim that any territory is ruled by an absolute sovereign, and that therefore anything that happens in that territory is permitted by the sovereign. We can see right away this is not really an empirical claim—it can’t be proved or disproved. Point to some junkie shooting himself up in an alley, or a couple of thugs pummeling an old woman in the slums. Does the sovereign really permit these things? Well, in the sense that the sovereign issued a writ of mainlining to the junkie, and one of assault to the thugs, or that he gave orders from the top that went down through the ranks until some local precinct officer whispered to the junkie and thug to do their thing, no, of course not. But in the sense that the sovereign has set priorities, delegated powers, distributed resources and signaled intentions, and has done so in such a way as leave the junkie and thugs on the fringes of his calculations, or on the calculations he has his subordinates do, yes, he has permitted it.

So, Moldbug’s claim is about framing, rather than empirical observation. Frames contend with, and supersede other frames—Moldbug here is contesting, and trying to supersede, a liberal frame which would see in the junkie and the thug effects of the spontaneous order of liberalism, or perhaps of stupid government interference in that spontaneous order. Which frame is better? We’d like to say the one that eliminates the anomalies generated within the previous one, and that accounts for facts made observable but left unexplained by an existing frame. And to some extent that’s true, but much more so the more the knowledge in question is sequestered from power. We can try to make it as true as possible in the realm of social and political theory, but in order to do that we must fully inhabit the frame. You can’t say, well, in general I think everything that happens in this society is permitted by the sovereign, but this one thing that happened yesterday seems to me to require another explanation. It may very well be that a particular event seems better explained by liberalism, especially if it was generated within a liberal frame. But you can only inhabit one frame, which is why you must fully inhabit it, and insist, even against the evidence, that that event is explained by it, fully and only by it. If your frame is wrong, that’s the only way you’ll ever find out anyway. The frame implicit in Moldbug’s claim enables us to see the sovereign as setting priorities, delegating powers, distributing resources, signaling intentions, overseeing operations, and so on, in a way we couldn’t have seen otherwise—it also allows us to see how divided power subverts all these prerogatives of sovereignty. We can now see responsibility where before we saw only remission. You can simply reject the frame (but only from within another frame), but once you enter it, you’re in it until you’ve seen everything you can see through it.

So, your metalanguage locks you in every bit as much as language, and leaves you in the paradox, not so much of self-reference as of reference—any time you refer to something you are noticing something already there and creating that thing as a thing to be noticed: it’s not representable until it’s represented. If we can talk about an outside to language, this is it—an outside that is inside. In fact, this is the most rigorous way of approaching our traditions, as a specific set of paradoxes, the implications of which we continue to work through. “Faith” is an acceptance that certain paradoxes can never be resolved, but only lived. Moreover, you can bring others into your frame, willingly or unwillingly—their words can be resituated within your system, and provide you with both testimony regarding the paradoxes they must live and spies within their system. Of course, they might also be converted. This is the true test of the “best” frame—which can most effectively reframe the others. In the end, there will always be ostensive signs that need to be accounted for. And what about originary thinking itself, which seems to present itself as a metalanguage to end all metalanguages? Ultimately, originary thinking is a way of tracing all the frames it comes across back to their origins, and through those origins, the origin of language and humanity. If originary thinking fulfilled its wildest ambition, which is, it must be said, to reframe all frames, it wouldn’t be a monolithic discourse describing everything in an abstracted meta-metalanguage; rather, it would be a world of originary inquiries, undertaken wherever people are, within their languages, discourses and traditions and through the new idioms the inquiries themselves would generate.