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.

 

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