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.

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