Monthly Archives: April 2018

On the Culling of Cant

The word “cant” has two meanings, which are distinct but have an important area of overlap: on the one hand, “hypocritical and sanctimonious talk, typically of a moral, religious, or political nature”; on the other hand, “denoting a phrase or catchword temporarily current or in fashion.” One can be hypocritical without being fashionable, and vice versa, but being fashionably sanctimonious and sanctimoniously fashionable involves occupying a specifically liberal linguistic zone. Fluently employing the latest argot, imposed and enforced by an elite, becomes the marker of morality. “Cant” is a particular form of metalanguage. Metalanguage turns language itself into an object of inquiry, even on the most basic level: children learning the alphabet are studying language. Once we have metalanguage, pointing to the uses of language becomes a normal part of language use. The boundary between language and metalanguage then becomes one more of different uses than of separable regions of language. So, there’s no sense in which language is more real than metalanguage; and metalanguage is just as much a use of language as any other: it directs attention to uses of language, while language directs our attention to the centered world, but language is itself part of the centered world. Metalanguage is the pedagogical dimension within language, which means that the primary sin of metalanguage is assessing uses of language without issuing operable imperatives: assessments of the language use of others devoid of operable imperatives is the way I would define “cant.”

The most useless imperative is one that tells you to do what you already thought you were doing, like your writing teacher or editor making the marginal note “be clear!” or “unclear!” on your text. Presumably, you thought you were being clear, so what we have here is the case of an imperative masking a declarative: “be clear!” really means “I’m the kind of person who knows what clarity entails, and you’re not.” It seems to me that a great deal of the language we use in discussing writing and thinking falls into this category: attributing “richness,” “insight into human nature,” “a deep exploration of emotional life,” etc., to a novel, for example, are all, for the most part meaningless, i.e., cant—think about what it would mean to command someone to “improve your insight into human nature.” This is just way of saying that the labels we apply to the novels we approve of we refuse to apply to this novel. Any use of the word “deep” will fall into this category (“go deeper!”). Another excellent example is “critical,” which is very popular these days, especially in the form of “critical thinking.” David Olson claims that the more advanced literacy enabled by the metalanguage surrounding “classic prose” allows its possessors to “think critically,” but he doesn’t seem to consider that this just applies one term within the metalanguage to other terms.

“Critical” at least has a real philosophical genealogy, going back, of course, to Kant’s Critiques, and then working its way through Marx to the Frankfurt School. But while I’m certainly not going to try and make this argument here (or, most likely, anywhere else), I will still suggest that maybe Kant and the others are not doing much more than expanding the possible uses of the metalanguage built into literacy. Philosophy, or metaphysics, which, as Gans has pointed out, takes the declarative sentence as the primary or prototypical form of language, is metalanguage on metalanguage. But philosophy can also involve awareness of this. Whenever you use one concept, you use a word within a particular system of words, and that concept therefore depends upon all the other concepts (words) within that system; and, for that matter, within other systems as well. When you use a concept, all this is not present in your mind, so it’s easy to fall into the illusion that in using the word you are simply referring directly to something out there in the world. The “critical” standpoint is there to remind you that it can only refer indirectly to something out there in the world.

But it’s still futile to urge a “critical” attitude upon someone, to tell someone to “be more critical,” either in general or towards something in particular. These are really just ways of calling someone stupid, or telling them to shut up and listen to you. “Being critical” requires that one be part of a disciplinary space that takes as its center of attention the “foundational” concepts of another discipline—and this is possible because anomalies in the various uses of those concepts have already become evident. As a metalanguage attached to a form of literacy, it is meaningless. Which is to say, it is cant. So, what wouldn’t be cant? Metalanguage that issues operable imperatives—imperatives whose successful completion could be “authenticated” by anyone familiar with the imperative itself. These would be imperatives whose completion would be as easy to judge as an imperative like “pass the salt.” If the salt makes its way from the person asked to pass it to the person making the request, imperative accomplished! If we think about metalinguistic imperatives in a pedagogical context, such a “meaningful” imperative might be something like “identify all of the words in this text that refer to something in the world and all the words that refer to something in the text itself.” This would be asking students to distinguish between linguistic and metalinguistic elements in the text. The assignment would surface differing tacit assumptions regarding the significance of the elements of the text, but it would be situated within a shared ostensive field in which we could keep lowering the threshold at which phenomena can be attended to. And the student would gain far more from this seemingly simple and basic assignment than from the best-intentioned request to read “critically,” or “logically,” or “deeply,” or “carefully,” or with an eye to “themes,” images,” “evidence,” “characters,” etc. Once we direct our attention to the uses of language and metalanguage the ground of all inquiry in the “human sciences” shifts. The culling of cant follows from this shift.

Culling cant means distinguishing between meaningful and meaningless metalanguages. Meaningful metalanguage issues imperatives for attending to normal language use that are operable, that produce ostensive results that reset attention; meaningless metalanguage issues imperatives that are nothing but double-binds—they ask you to have already mastered the model that you are being measured against. The culling of cant allows us to formulate the political goals of anti-liberalism and absolutism more comprehensively: what we want is meaningful order. Meaningful order means that institutions and positions have the power and capacity to perform the functions allocated to them, and that they do so. So, when we speak of a “university,” for example, we would have a shared use of the term that corresponds to how the participants in the university see their inheritance of and obligations to that institution. This corresponds to the rendering explicit of power hierarchies, chains of command and responsibility proposed by political formalism. Meaningless metalanguage always stands ready to be used to advance political conflicts within any institution, whether it asserts that students should be turned into “critical thinkers,” or “well-rounded individuals” or guardians of civilization or masters of civic and sacred knowledge. The most meaningful metalanguage is one that keeps attending to the distinction between language and metalanguage.

Disciplines are organized on the boundary between language and metalanguage—there are many such boundaries, and therefore many disciplines. Language directs our attention to “the world,” but what this really means is that it attests to the presence of a center and the transparency of the scene constituting it. Metalanguage directs our attention to language, which is to say to the scene of language, which has in some respect become opaque, endangering linguistic presence. In this case, the imperative is a metalanguage in relation to the ostensive and the declarative a metalanguage in relation to the imperative. There’s something metalinguistic in asking someone to repeat himself because you didn’t quite get what he said, and deliberate mimicry is probably one of the oldest forms of metalanguage. So it’s not as if an expropriating metalanguage snuck up on an innocent language—language must have always lent itself to being metasized. But literacy represents a threshold because metalanguage no longer needs to share a scene with primary language, and specialists in metalanguage and the power it provides become a permanent feature of the social landscape.

So, the boundary between language and metalanguage iterates the oscillation between center and the scene on which the center is made to appear. Meaningful metalanguage engages in this oscillation without falling into either the “naivete” of forgetting about the scene or the “cynicism” of seeing the center as a fabrication of the scene. That statement itself comes close to meaningless metalanguage by advocating for an “attitude” which the advocate presumably already exemplifies—hence his qualifications for advocating for it. (“Balancing” statements—“we must neither go too far nor try too little…” tend to be the most meaningless samples of metalanguage.) But we can issue imperatives from that metalinguistic statement—the discipline is a scene with a center of attention, and what makes the discipline disciplinary is that anything you say about the object at the center is simultaneously something you say about the history of the discipline. If sociology is a genuine discipline, it is because within sociology everything someone says about “society” is simultaneously something said about the history of inquiries into society, while such inquiries are in fact part of society—even more, society itself is nothing more than inquiries into its own constitution, even when carried out by the most “naively” accepted rituals.

Similarly, to exercise power is to treat everything in the space wherein power is exercised as effects and examples of that exercise of power. To exercise power is to have one’s imperatives obeyed, which means that power as inquiry is interested in the form, effects and ramifications of imperatives. Power involves a kind of reductionism, an interest in the world only insofar as it can be treated as transformable through imperatives. Discourse on power is metalanguage inquiring into the scenes upon which power is exercised, into the scenic conditions under which imperatives will be completed or will be revealed as meaningless. Imperatives are always part of an exchange of imperatives, albeit an asymmetrical exchange: the commander commands, while the subordinates request, even implicitly in their manner of obeying, that he keep widening his view of the “extension” of the imperatives he issues into a broader field of consequences. As you think forward into a longer chain of ramifications issuing from your imperatives, you also think back to older, more originary imperatives that you have been obeying all along, and can now obey more attentively. Discourse on power shows this larger field to be implicit in even the most immediate and trivial command, imploring the commander to bring such metaconcerns into the framing of the imperatives he issues. This leaves no room for cant.

Cant is a linguistic form of imperium in imperio. So are all uses of language that don’t generate operable imperatives, which is to say, something equivalent to “look at this” or “show the difference between…” And there’s no better place to begin than the practice one is presently engaged in, which is bound to have a meaningless metalanguage ready to be circulated within the language it regulates. How clear is the demand for clarity, how critical the insistence of critical thinking? What rules is the journalist defending the rule of law following? Metalanguage purports to have its own autonomous existence, based on its system of internal references—it is fanatical about setting the rules for proper speech, and rules for proper speech are rules for acceptable representation, and rules for acceptable representation will command power to represent some nature or essence known only to initiates into the metalanguage. Asking metalanguage to represent its own distinction within language restores the center by paving the imperative-ostensive path to it. The test of a meaningful metalanguage is that it can indicate the possible sign that would necessitate the transformation of the metalanguage.


The Temporality of Sovereignty

Here’s the strongest argument on the side of those arguing for the spontaneous organization of social relations against those defending an absolutist ontology, which assumes the sovereign center is constitutive: the sovereign, no matter how absolute and powerful, can’t do just anything, can he? He can’t order his people to sprout wings and fly, right? Ridiculous, but it makes a point: the sovereign is subjected to the laws of nature. That leads us to the somewhat less ridiculous: he can’t order all husbands and wives to divorce each other and take new partners, and redistribute the children by lottery, can he? Somewhat further down the ridiculous spectrum, he can’t order everyone to adopt a completely new and alien religion, can he? (And I don’t mean something like Henry the VIII shifting from Catholicism to a Catholicized and Anglicized version of Protestantism—he didn’t try and force everyone to go Shinto.) Any sovereign command, in other words, comes up against some resistance, some “denseness” in the social material, against inherited customs, rituals, relationships, institutions, and so on. And that must mean whatever constitutes that resistance is prior to the sovereign, in which case sovereignty is raised up upon the basis of those relationships which formed external to sovereign power, making sovereign power dependent upon, and shaped by its necessary conformity to, those “spontaneously” formed relationships. Just like the sovereign must submit to the laws of nature, he must submit to the laws of human nature, or divine law, or social evolution. And the implications of such a conclusion are clear: sovereign power must also be judged, and its legitimacy determined, in terms of how it serves and corresponds to whatever is taken to precede and constitute it.

The examples one is forced to resort to in order to make this argument seem irrefutable suggest that the argument is not really made in good faith; still, on the other hand, one might say that the counter-arguments advanced by the absolutist side will tilt toward providing examples representing more “realistic” changes that might have been or actually have been ordered by sovereigns. What, after all, would count as the “tough case” that might settle things once and for all, something that a sovereign “should,” according to absolutist theory, be able to do, but can’t? As with all social arguments, it’s possible to say, in the case of an example that disproves one’s point, that that example didn’t really fit the parameters of the type of example I constructed as a potential test case. Indeed, the whole notion of “proof” is highly problematic, to say the least, in the social or human sciences, because laboratory conditions are not available—and if they were, they would be completely unrealistic and inapplicable to anything in any actual society. But that just means that the best way of arguing in the social and human sciences is to show how your opponent’s strongest claims can be reframed in terms of your own assumptions. If you can keep reframing, while strengthening and where necessary revising the previous “acquisitions” made by your theory, and further clarifying your founding assumptions, then your theory will either prove true in the long run or will eventually shatter upon the shoals of events that disqualify too many assumptions that have been taken for granted, even in the eyes of the theory’s own adherents. (And even in the latter case a remnant will likely remain, and it might have something to say as well.)

You should, then, be able to show that what seems to be the strongest argument against you is really the strongest one in your favor; so, that’s what I’m going to do where with the “what about the X which the sovereign couldn’t command” argument. The way to do so is to contend that what limits sovereignty, what represents the penumbra of social action resistant to sovereign command, is prior acts of sovereignty—what the sovereign is dependent upon, that is, and what the sovereign must respect and “correspond” to, are not spontaneously organized social relations but the decisions of previous sovereigns. If we could go back far enough, every social practice—every ritual, every kinship relation, every moral norm, every aesthetic criterion, everything—has its origin in sovereign decision and delegation—or in some pre-sovereign obedience to the sacred center preceding sovereignty and incorporated into it. Each new sovereign, upon taking power, is faced with the vast expanse of the results of prior sovereign decisions; the new sovereign will reverse, revise, or override some of those decisions, and he will leave the vast majority in place. This will be true even for an ambitious, reforming sovereign, because, as the adherents to the theory of spontaneous organization will attest, the sovereign decisions and delegation made (and left unmade), reiterated, and allowed to shape the tacit habits and knowledge of the ruled over the previous centuries are not just innumerable but beyond retrieval.

What makes the sovereign sovereign, then, is not that he can order anyone to do anything at any time and be perfectly obeyed; nor is it that he represents the will of God, or of the people, or that he skillfully balances an immense array of institutions and/or human capacities that exist according to their own logic, outside of his actions. Rather, it is that he occupies the center that previous sovereigns have shaped, and that his own decisions “redeem” the “down payment” on futurity made by those previous sovereigns. The implication, then, is that sovereignty is always oriented toward futurity, always a bridge between past and future. A “revolutionary” sovereign who tried to tear up and remake drastically the order he has inherited would generate resistance not because he would be waging war against “nature” or “tradition,” but because he would be disrupting previously authorized relations between the center and its margins and thereby vitiating the social center. He would be setting power centers adrift, and those power centers will be defined in terms of the previous mode of sovereignty which redeemed them, opening the possibility of a challenger appealing to that prior mode of sovereignty, which the new sovereign has failed to incorporate into his own. It’s not as if we could set some limit to “how much” change a sovereign should introduce—there may be times when much change and much disruption is indispensable, and, anyway, social change cannot be quantified—but, rather, that the threads of sovereignty must be tied up. If a sovereign undoes the work of his predecessor, or of several predecessors, it must be in the name of retrieving some other sovereign work which theyhad undone (or even work those same sovereigns had done, but undermined by what they had undone).

Thinking in terms of the temporality of sovereignty, rather than the endless debates over the state/society “interaction,” not only reframes that powerful argument I began by citing, but provides us with a way of thinking about “meaningful order” in the future, where the claims that can be made to hereditary rule will undoubtedly be much weaker than when monarchy was assumed to be the natural form of rule. So, while the transition from one sovereign to the next, the transfer of power, was always a carefully regulated process, and often a cause of significant conflict and anxiety, we could say that it will take on a vastly greater importance in future non-hereditary (or maybe partially hereditary) autocratic forms; indeed, I would go so far as to say that it will completely absorb the attention of all social institutions, and it can very readily do so in a largely beneficial way—that is, in a way that reduces, rather than inflame, resentment and violence.

Let’s take the most extreme example, a completely non-hereditary autocracy in which, therefore, the pool of possible replacements for the sovereign includes the entire population. The autocrat himself must choose his successor, because only a sovereign decision can effect the transfer of power—we can’t even accept a method of choosing a successor since, however seemingly impersonal and objective the method, it will always be open to interpretation, “exception” and therefore power struggles. The sovereign, then, must choose a successor from the moment he enters office, and be explicit and public in either sticking with that choice or changing it. (With every “must,” the automatic question must arise: or else what? Let’s say the sovereign is ambiguous about his successor—then what? Then he’s not doing his job—so, what are the consequences of that? We’ll get to it.) Enormous social resources and energy would have to be directed towards ensuring the sovereign has a large pool of qualified successors, and in providing means for narrowing it down considerably: it might be good to have 10,000 qualified candidates, but the sovereign should only have to choose from amongst, say, 100. “Academies” in ruling would be established, with extremely rigorous entry requirements. Schools specializing in various aspects of rule—military academies, schools that provide students with advanced knowledge of political history and theory, perhaps practical, scout-style academies that give students experience in governing on a local level, under supervised conditions. One would have to excel in one academy to be admitted to the next—the candidates would be vetted all along the line, from their childhoods up.

This process would obviously be of great interest for everyone in the social order. Your own child might seem like he has a chance to compete, or your cousin, or your neighbor. There would be “local favorites.” There would be public competitions—exams, fitness contests, Army-Navy style sporting events—that would test the mettle of the candidates in an engaging way. One could imagine much of “popular culture” being caught up in the various “paths to the throne” such arrangements would generate. The candidates would make the rounds of the country—they would visit a “typical” school in one region, a “typical” factory in another, a typical neighborhood in yet another, and so on. This means that all these institutions would be constantly preparing themselves to host the candidates, making their indirect participation in the broader selection process something they would always be looking ahead to, and shaping themselves in anticipation of (they would want to ensure that all are on their best behavior, to ensure their typicality).

The condition for candidate visits would have to be, though, that the candidates themselves cannot give a single command. There can be absolutely no confusion etween the future, potential sovereigns, and the actually existing one. The candidates would always be accompanied by representatives of the sovereign, and they would give commands (“let us see how that new machinery works…”). This condition would be so strictly adhered to (arguments around the margins, which might turn into jokes—can the candidate ask for a drink of water?—would reinforce the seriousness of the overall interdiction) that any transgression would be immediately and scandalously apparent. So, the candidates could not use their tours to build a power base for themselves, develop their own clientele, etc.—they can’t do anything to help anyone. The sovereign, meanwhile, would be maintaining a public ranking of the candidates, but he would naturally be free to revise it whenever he likes, and would in fact probably do so fairly regularly. Just the normal life course of the ruler would lead to revisions—a 30-year old sovereign might want a 50-year old successor, someone whose experience and loyalty to the previous sovereign he admired; by the time that sovereign turns 60, he would more likely want a younger man whom he might have personally mentored. And, of course, the option would exist for a sovereign to simply resign, if he felt his personal power waning, or simply spotted a candidate who seemed completely ready, and likely to rule more effectively. (Since being a candidate can’t be a livelihood in itself, the candidates would serve the sovereign in other ways, far from the chain of command—so, those, the vast majority of course, who are not chosen, will be integrated in the sovereign order. But maintaining one’s candidacy would likely involve some sacrifice of other possible roles, perhaps higher ranking ones than that individual will eventually attain when removed from the list.)

So, the entire society is constantly engaged in, and therefore thoroughly informed regarding, the transfer of power or, more broadly, the temporality of sovereignty. Each individual is in some way playing a role in shaping the conditions under which the continuity of sovereignty, and therefore the entire social order, will be maintained. Under such conditions, we can also imagine how the (it seems to me as unlikely as it could be made) possibility of a manifestly and dangerously unfit ruler could be dealt with. There would always be publicly known, vetted and trusted potential successors—the very fact that they never tried to exercise even a tiny bit of sovereign power on their own would testify to their worthiness. There is the sovereign’s own list, and even if, in the case of a genuinely treacherous sovereign, he named as his own successor, or even the first few on the list, someone expected to maintain the same dangerous practices of rule, somewhere on the list there would be those less effectively “cultivated” (“groomed”?) by the unfit sovereign. In the event that the social elites—the generals, the corporate executives, the presidents of universities and academies, and so on—were, against their own will, led to the consensus that they could no longer maintain their chains of commands under the present sovereign, that he has simply visited too much destruction upon the accumulated and tacit inheritance of sovereign rule, that he had lost the “threads” of sovereignty; well, then, the conditions are in place for a relatively painless and minimally disruptive transfer of power to a worthy candidate, and one that could be justified by appeal to the sovereign’s own “higher” or better will. Needless to say, any such situation would be fraught with danger—no one could ever imagine oneself to be designing a flawless social order—but having the entire order thoroughly invested in the temporality of sovereignty, so that such an event would be extremely exceptional but also quickly made commonplace, would be the best way to minimize the dangers.