Monthly Archives: May 2018

Center and Centrality

If the metalanguage of literacy is both the equivalent and the vehicle of the imperium in imperio, the ethical practice that follows is reducing the metalinguistic dimension of language to its most minimal, which is the necessity that any use of language reference, iterate and modify some other use. The minimal metalanguage would simply be showing rather than concealing this dependence on differential repetition. Now it is possible to articulate the (meta)linguistic problem with the thought of the center. The way to do this is to address a problem in centered thinking that I have alluded to (and somewhat more) on a few occasions (it could hardly be completely avoided) but have not addressed directly and in a sustained way: the distinction and relation between the desired and ultimately consumed central object, and the subsisting center, which remains in the memory and praxis of the group subsequent to the event itself. It is the imagined central object, or, to borrow Jacques Lacan’s orthographic practice, the Object, that is the target of the group’s resentment and the source of its newly discovered/created communal being.

We can imagine a very minimal difference between the two, for starters. We could hypothesize that the sign issued on the originary scene would guide the group through its consumption of the object (the sparagmos) by serving, in that frenzied feast, to maintain sufficient order so as to prevent a new violent outbreak. Once the meal is completed, the participants might just walk away and return to their pre-human hominid existence—it’s possible that the scene was forgotten many times before it finally “took.” What would have made it “take” would have been, I would suggest, a final issuance of the sign, gesturing toward the inedible remains of the animal, which would have completed or “closed” or “sealed” the event as an event. More of a metonymy than a metaphor, this representation of the continuity of the relation between margin and center would have inscribed the sign in the group’s memory. Nothing might change in their everyday interactions for a while, but every fresh kill would re-ignite the same mimetic crisis and call forth the remembered sign. The Object, or centrality beyond center, would be nothing more than this memory and the maintenance of the unity of the repeated event.

And we can imagine a maximal difference between the two. When the tiniest object, event, or gesture can take on enormous, maybe even world-historical significance, we have the maximal difference between the center, some point on which attention converges, and centrality, or the capacities and supports that articulate that point along with numerous others to a distant social center. Let’s take, for example, the question much discussed on the American right, whether the Iran “deal” is, in fact, a “deal,” and, if so, between which entities—the Obama Administration and Ayatollah Khamenei, or the United States and Iran. In the end, there is something we could look at, physically direct our attention towards: specific language in a document, the actual signatures of specific, well known people—signatures that could be “authenticated” by handwriting experts (who have themselves been “certified” by experts at “recognized” institutions, etc.). But the fact that people (and it would be carefully selected people) would look carefully at such things is due to the various international political protocols and domestic legal traditions and practices in the US and Iran and that would make such looking meaningful. The object here is some scribbles on a piece of paper; the Object is the alignment of power that follows the ascertaining of international “legitimacy,” which in turn references an entire history of “legitimacy.”

It’s clear that the maximal difference between center and centrality, object and Object, is the mark of a more civilized order. We can also see all the potential for degeneration and de-civilization in this distance. This potential lies in the possibility of making the abstracted norms sites of power struggle. Linguistic metalanguage (beginning, it can’t be stressed enough, with writing and the creation of alphabets, grammar, and diacritical marks) results from the study of language and represents the linguistic elements required for a workable writing system. In the process it shapes language—for example, a literate population will speak in more standardized and grammatically correct sentences than a non-literate population. (A non-literate population won’t even understand what a grammatical error is.) For subsequent metalanguages, predicated upon print culture and literacy, like philosophy, literature, and eventually the social sciences, such features as correct grammar and the logic developed out of it also seem to be “in” language, and therefore in the language users themselves: they come to “naturally” represent these cognitive “skills” and “capacities” as “in” the individual (like Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device, somehow planted in the brain). As a result, that such features are dependent on language can be forgotten, and cognition can be spoken of as if language were just an incidental means of representing cognitive activity already going on. Within the disciplinary and empowered metalanguages, then, the objects of thought and praxis are constructs of the metalanguage itself.

The metalanguages acquire their power by representing and enframing human and social “attributes.” History and tradition are displaced from the scene, even in the disciplines devoted to their study: what ends up getting studied is the development of the attributes of the human that the disciplinary metalanguages have singled out and made available for study and transformation. This is the equivalent of the imperium in imperio: a vast body of disciplinary knowledge that Power cannot help but draw upon and use to frame its own means and ends. We have a center, then, that obscures centrality—you could say I’m putting Heidegger’s notion of the “forgetting of Being” in originary and absolutist terms. The center is now whatever can be attended to—defined, treated, assessed, categorized, manipulated—by disciplinary metalanguages. There is no centrality because those disciplinary metalanguages cannot attend to themselves, which is to say their origins. Sociology cannot say why there is such a thing as society; psychology why there is a “psyche” or mind; linguistics why there is language; anthropology why there is Man, or men; economics why there is exchange and money, and so on. A simulated “human being” is projected onto a screen as a placeholder for the attributes identified by the discipline.

What writing represents are scenes and events of language, not “language” itself. Along with writing, scenes and events of pedagogy are constructed—a text comes prepared to serve as the source of new texts, oral and written. A text is always a pretext. Language learning is lifelong—entering a new disciplinary space is learning a new language. The way you learn a language is to repeat what speakers of that language say, get it wrong a lot of times, and finally start to get it right. To use a word mistakenly is to overlay one rule or imagined context with another—the word, phrase, sentence or discourse you are using works in some other context you are familiar with, and you assumed that context could be transposed onto the one shared by speakers of that language. Language comes in chunks that are transportable—we’re using the same words and expressions as English language speakers have been for centuries, often in very similar ways—but also very site specific: bits of language are shaped for specific uses.

In the relation between the mistake and the accepted use lies the relation between center and centrality. “Mistake” is a very broad concept: the way a lot of philosophers use the word “object” would be mistaken in a lot of ordinary situations. It would make the users in those situations laugh, just as philosophers might laugh at an untutored use of the word. It is in such instances that we demonstrate to ourselves that language is in its shared use, not in the things and qualities in the world it purports to refer to. There is reference, but we refer, language doesn’t. So, the language/metalanguage distinction is displaced by the center/centrality relation, which presents as the differing degrees and modes of mistakenness identified by a group of users. Not all mistakes are equal, which is to say not all of them are equally revelatory of the centrality of the center. Some mistakes point more pointedly to the origins of the use of a particular “chunk” wherein centrality is obscured by a new center.

There’s no need to advocate that people deliberately make mistakes (if you do it deliberately, is it still a mistake?). It will happen whenever we press on those points in a discourse where the discourse seems to hang together by an equivalence between an “attribute” or “quality” and a metalinguistic concept. If you try to dislodge such concepts from their representational relation to an inner substance, you cannot but use them mistakenly. I certainly am advocating lots of “wild” theorizing, with abductions and hypotheses too big for the “data set” they draw upon. But also innovative writing, in particular writing that infiltrates the standard forms and disciplines, revealing their bureaucratic origins and ends, along with the modes of inquiry they’ve made impossible. The only inescapable absolutes are centers and origins.

Can originary disciplinary spaces founded on mistakenness, eschewing imperium in imperioambitions, provide useful knowledge, to the center or anyone else? The knowledge gained in such spaces is both knowing that and knowing how, above all, knowing how to enter various spaces and be useful within them. Schools and universities would be more explicitly what they already are, training camps preparing the young to act and improvise within the constraints set up by the articulated social hierarchy. The metalanguage of literacy installs a new imagined possibility, one which would be inconceivable prior to writing: that everyone could, eventually, be led to agree—potentially, on everything. If there is a single reality represented by language, and through the perfection of logical and empirical methods every single claim could be deemed to be either in agreement or disagreement with reality, then there is nothing preventing us from producing a complete map of reality and having that map already here, in potential, contained in the most advanced methods but also in every human mind or soul. But even two people saying exactly the same thing are not completely in agreement, because one says it after the other, or they say it in different contexts, or in response to different questions or exigencies, and with different audiences, different consequences and implications. The physical sciences approximate the production of universally agreed upon statements most closely, which is why the social sciences are so tempted to promote those sciences, at least nominally, as models.

The striving toward universal agreement is propelled by the development of declarative culture as the negation of imperative and ostensive cultures. This is the imperium in imperioof proceduralism, which likewise imagines the possibility of a world completely mapped by declarative sentences—in the case of proceduralism, explicit agreements and regulations promulgated by authorities who are authorized to do so by other explicit agreements or regulations. The fantasy is that the imperative order will be erased, or that we will all be induced to participate in the fiction that that is the case (that inducement would be the only remaining imperative). Even the insistence that one agree with oneself, from moment to moment, from one topic to another, interferes with the effort to hear older imperatives from the center. Declarative culture will always have the tendency toward metalinguistic imperialism, but also opens the possibility of infra-language, a term used by Bruno Latour: “language used by analysts to help them become more attentive to the actor’s own dully developed metalanguage, a reflexive account of what they are saying.” There will always be metalanguage in literate cultures, and the use of infralanguage is to take metalanguage from outside the discourse it regulates and have it circulate within that discourse. The compulsion to agree reflects a desire for anonymous discourse, to say what anyone could and should say; but only someone can point to the center. The Object, the Center, Centrality is indicated in the difference between metalanguage and infralanguage, where the object framed by metalanguage is given an infralinguistic and infradisciplinary originary structure: we see that at one point that thing provided for the organization of a new form of attention.

Primus and Skunkworker

Equality simply means the same, in some respect. If you see equality as a value in itself, there’s no reason not to make people equal in more and more respects. Making people equal in more and more respects means uncovering inequality (difference) in previously overlooked respects. This process need never end because people who have been made the same in some respect can, by virtue of that construction of sameness, turn out to have been made different in some new respect.

But (and this is quite elementary) sameness implies some form of measurement so that the objects in question can be reduced to that measure. All things are equal insofar as they have mass, and can measured by a scale, or length, insofar as they can be measured by a ruler. Then, of course, some things are heavier and longer than others, with the Procrustean solutions implicit in the decision to measure in the first place. In social terms, this entails reduction to a single center. Members of a club are equal insofar as they are members of a club, and subject to a set of by-laws and whoever enforces those by-laws. Members of a modern state are equal insofar as they are all directly subject to the state, and the laws it governs by.

Thus, the “moral equality” which Larry Seidentop (Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism) sees as having been introduced by the gradual reshaping of the Western social order through the middle ages by the Catholic Church cannot be sustained in a post-Christian world where the only shared center is the state. The moral equality of Christians is equal in relation to God. Everyone deserves moral consideration as a member or potential member of the Church and child of God, not as a bare “human being.” Let’s frame this in Girardian terms: the Christian revelation discredits scapegoating and human sacrifice by displaying what we can anachronistically call the “bad faith” of such means of maintaining social stability. The selection, as an object of violence, of someone stigmatized in some way, follows not from any genuine knowledge of social relations or divine-human relations, but the logic of mimetic rivalry and crisis. So, from now on, violence against individuals is proscribed, because intrinsically tainted by scapegoating tendencies, while those who engage in violence can be prevented and punished, but only according to rules designed to ensure that such prevention and punishment is free of traces of mimetically motivated hostility. So, everyone is equal in being accorded such protection from mimetically motivated violence.

But what of citizens of a liberal order which knows not Christianity, or sees Christianity as part of the order that needed to be smashed for that liberal order to emerge? What if shared protection from mimetically motivated violence is itself productive of a form of inequality insofar as some members of the social order seem to navigate the system established by that proscription better than others? On what grounds can a member of “civil society” claim that the right to disable, hunt down, indelibly mark members of the “privileged” group is any less valid than the right to be given a fair trial? If equality is now equality in relation to the state as central power, and the state itself is driven by the imperative to ensure that more citizens, and more aspects of their life, are equalized, the benefit of the doubt will always be given to whomever can claim to have uncovered a previously neglected, and therefore all the more scandalous, form of inequality—even if it’s just some feature of social life that hasn’t been subject to any regulation up until now, or even some new form of life generated by the latest equalization campaign.

So far, we have the basic right-left configuration in liberal social orders. The left finds some new inequality, remedy for which it appeals to the state in the prescribed terms; the right, meanwhile, defends the existing form of equality against this new discovery. The best strategy the right can think of within this order is to try and counter leftist encroachments by claiming that those encroachments will in fact create new forms of inequality: so, the equalization of income promised by the welfare state makes blacks more unequal by undermining black family structures, or mass Muslim immigration will lead to a renewed persecution of homosexuals. But these stopgaps can’t work very well because the right always positions itself so as to erect or resurrect some discredited form of inequality: the bourgeois family form that blacks supposedly need oppresses “sexual minorities,” the warning against Muslims is Islamophobic, etc. It is always only a matter of time before the state realizes its equalizing power is aggrandized by recognizing the new form of equality.

If the state is exhaustive of social centrality, or, more precisely, if a state dedicated to liberal equality, as the successor and eviscerator of Christian moral equality is exhaustive, this problem cannot be solved. Perhaps restoring or recreating a divine center to which the sovereign would be subject would solve it, but only by recreating the old problem of a “real” sovereign to which the actual sovereign must be subject, thereby opening a space for other powers claiming to speak for the real sovereign. But let’s say, with Andrew Willard Jones, that the problem is with the concept of “sovereignty” itself, with its assumption of an original violence, ready to break out as soon as social control is lifted, and therefore the need for an ultimate, unquestioned source of law and order. The mimetically motivated violence targeted by Girard is not a Hobbesian war of all against all, it is an all against one which only works if a kind of intellectual dishonesty is shared by all: the lie of scapegoating and human sacrifice is that the sacrality lies in the victim rather than in the terror of a center that no longer defers, whose power of deferral is overridden by the sameness, the equality of mimetic desire.

The social center is the monarch, or, perhaps, we can say the primus. Someone has to occupy the center because all attention converges on the center, so an occupant who can turn back that convergence is indispensable to social order. By the time resentful attention has all converged upon the center, it is too late, so resentful attention must be dispersed through localized centers—establishing and constraining these centers is the highest priority of the primus. This involves the differentiation of forms of attention: a craftsman’s resentment over a perceived degradation in the social status of his profession over the last generation will not readily join in a common cause with the philosopher resentful over his latest opus not receiving what he considers its due appreciation. But, of course, this means that the craftsman must be a genuine craftsman, the philosopher a genuine philosopher (the priest a real priest, the teacher a real teacher, and so on), or, more precisely, that we can measure any particular practitioner against the standard established by the tradition of that practice. In that case, there is a kind of equality among craftsman and aspiring craftsman, which is enforced within the discipline and sanctioned by the primus, who insists that the standards of craftsmanship be maintained, and a kind of equality amongst the various orders insofar as all have constraints imposed by the primus. There is a lot of what we could call “equality” here, but they are different forms of equality incommensurable to each other. Resentment can never converge toward a single target, like the rich/white/straight/cis/male who is the virtual and permanent antithesis of equality. A non-sovereign center would restore a “middle,” not of social status and estates (at least not necessarily—I don’t mean to exclude anything) but of diverse modes of deferral and discipline.

But how can the primus assess the effectiveness of his constraints? The weakness in the order I am describing is that the primus is dependent upon the primus among craftsmen, the primus among academics, the primus among scientists, and so on, and the equality provided by the standards of each practice or discipline can just as readily be used to set in motion the process of uncovering inequalities as demands for equality within a liberal order. Aside from the politicizing of the disciplines, if the disciplines are governed by nothing more than a top-down mode of authority, it is hard to see how the primus could prevent more commonplace forms of corruption, like cronyism, bribery and so on. And entrenched forms of power that only simulate adherence to the traditions grounding their authority must in turn attempt to influence the social primus as well.

The only solution for this problem I can think of is for the primus to have eyes and ears within every discipline and institution. These eyes and ears must be agents simultaneously loyal to the primus and to the practice of the discipline in question—“equally” loyal to both, in fact, or, better, refusing any distinction between the two loyalties. They are equal amongst themselves in relation to the primus, and participate in the form of equality constitutive of the discipline. They are normal participants in the discipline, and if the discipline and its practices proceed in accord with its own center, the object or aim that elicits the capacities the discipline is established so as to elicit, no one need know they are there, and they need never do more than issue occasional, perfunctory reports to the primus—if that.

If these agents, let’s call them “skunkworkers” in a bit of a misnomer, detect derogations in the disciplines, they first of all work within existing channels in order to remedy them. That is, they first of all leverage their own “rights” within the institution to correct its course. Having exhausted all such means, they report to the primus with suggestions regarding personnel changes and revisions of the founding constraint of the discipline. Sometimes the skunkworkers will be known as such by their co-workers; sometimes they will be undercover—different situations call for different approaches. Sometimes the skunkworkers’ proposals will be rejected by the primus; sometimes the primus will see the skunkworker as the source of the problem, and someone so relied upon must be severely punished in that case (sometimes the primus will be wrong, sometimes the skunkworker will genuinely fail, or even “go bad”). The skunkworker accepts this risk as part of his higher form of loyalty.

The skunkworkers would set the moral tone of the social order: they are the bearers of the moral center informing, but not conflicting with or presuming to judge, the social center occupied by the primus. Everyone would wonder whether this or that co-worker were or might be a skunkworker—like any form of social control, this might sometimes be frightening, but the fear of being accused wrongly by a skunkworker would be proportional to a broader breakdown in social and moral order. The only solution would be for the primus to recruit new skunkworkers, perhaps to spy on the existing ones or, in the most extreme cases, for the skunkworkers who remain committed to disciplinary excellence to shift their allegiance to a new primus. If order is well-maintained, the skunkworkers whill be admired and imitated, and everyone would aspire to be a kind of apprentice skunkworker. And that, indeed, is how skunkworkers would be selected in the first place.

The skunkworker is also the form taken by the continuity between our present order and a future one governed by the articulation of primus and skunkworker. What the skunkworker does is what we can all do, in whatever discipline or institution we are placed: we can all represent the originary structure of the discipline and expose distortions and corruptions, even if there’s not really anyone to expose them to. The exposure must be expected to create the audience for it. In doing so, we assume, on the one hand, maximal continuity between the present order, no matter how bad things may be, and a genuine centered ordinality—we operate under the assumption that all that’s really necessary is for everyone to clarify the terms of the disciplines, and that such clarification is a simple matter given than those terms are immanent in the discipline itself, once all extrinsic considerations (power, prestige, wealth, etc.) are “controlled for.” We also assume, on the other hand, that we are perpetually dissolving concentrations of resentment towards the center, simply by proposing new disciplinary practices and the incorporation of currently undisciplined practices within disciplinary ones. All people need is a compelling center, and all people need that, and so we counter all attempts at equalization by contributing to the construction of a center that would render such skirmishes irrelevant. Rather than erecting one center after another (whether political, intellectual or spiritual) to control the going astray of the previous center, we have the center of last resort (the primus) and the delegated powers of deferral that, all together, are “equal” in their actual composition of the power of the primus.

Linguistically Constructed Empires within Empires

It’s not long in any dispute before one side or another enlists the rules on his side: logical rules, rules of evidence, a theoretical method, rules of fair play, rules of the particular discursive space or discipline, precedent, etc. The disagreement gets to the point, that is, where you realize that there must be something you agree on in order for the disagreement to make any sense; but the hope is that you can invoke the rules in order to have yourself declared, by some putatively impartial and sovereign agency, the winner. You implicitly concede power to decide the issue to an imagined logician, or arbiter, or judge, on the model of the civilized man ceasing to pursue his vendetta and allow a court of law to determine the issue. This is the right thing to do in a civilized order, but is highly destructive when applied to thinking and speaking. Even if your debating opponent can marshal superior facts and logic and refutes your claims in a way you cannot respond to, you’d really be a fool to concede and change your mind. After all, all the other person is proving is that they are better at logic, have gathered more information (or deploy it more skillfully), and have perhaps honed their arguments over the course of more such contests than you have. What it doesn’t prove is that they are right and you are wrong. It’s a good idea to be highly suspicious of anyone who thinks you should accept that it does prove this. Maybe someone who agrees with you but with greater logical and argumentative skill will make your opponent look the fool. Why not assume he’s out there?

A discussion, a conversation, a space of inquiry, has its own center and therefore its own order. Part of that order is a particular logic, a particular way of identifying, vetting and organizing “facts,” testing “truth-claims” and so on. What people within that order should want is to make the disciplinary space better, which means making everyone within the space better. Of course, it might also mean excluding people from the space and welcoming newcomers in. It may also involve, and must, if one wants a first class disciplinary space, testing the “method” against that of overlapping spaces, perhaps through staged encounters, various forms of “devil’s advocacy,” or infiltration of other spaces. But the originary structure of the space must trump any externally imposed methodological standard. (That standard ultimately derives from some other space, that constructed it for its own purposes.) The originary structure of the space is the question or problem it is concerned with that no one else is (if some other space is concerned with exactly the same question or problem, you should join forces and amalgamate—if that proves impossible, then, setting aside purely personal motivations that vitiate the space, what has been proven is that it’s not exactly the same question or problem). Abandoning a disciplinary space before all its possibilities have been exhausted, merely because its hypotheses have more apparent weight against them than for them, is the intellectual equivalent of selling your soul to the devil.

This intellectual equivalent of the imperium in imperiois the law of the declarative sentence. The law of the declarative sentence is that any declarative sentence, in order to be considered “acceptable,” must be capable of being disassembled and reassembled by other declarative sentences in a reciprocally inclusive way. So, take, for example, a sentence like “All men must obey the law.” There is an entity, “man.” This entity includes all the single entities we call “men.” There is a difference between a single being and the category to which it belongs. The single beings belong to a category because they are the same in some way. Men are the same in that they are able to obey the law. To obey means to perform an act dictated by another. The law dictates obedience to general forms of actions. Men are therefore the same in being capable of conforming to general forms of actions. This is why all men should obey the law. Etc. This could be done better, and certainly far more comprehensively—but never comprehensively enough. One would still have to establish, in declarative form, the meaning of words like “entity,” “being,” “single,” “category,” “same,” etc. No matter how far you go, it would all be perfectly circular, with everything being defined in terms of everything else. And the introduction of “facts” doesn’t change things, because the existence and significance of facts can only be established in the same way, by “grounding” general categories in other general categories and specific “observations” in general categories. “I saw a tall man yesterday” means I frame an event in terms of the categories of “I” “see,” “tall,” etc.

When someone tells you that your argument is illogical or insufficiently “supported” by “evidence,” they are telling you that something is missing in these tacitly assumed self-referential declarative chains. And no doubt there is! That doesn’t change the fact that there’s something you’re trying to figure out. Proceduralism is a fraud in the disciplinary space no less than in the sovereign order. What you’re trying to figure out may be determined externally, say by the state gathering together a group of social theorists to generate proposals for a body of law, but it still will not be the case that you have competed your inquiry once you have finished following a set of methodological rules for conducting such an inquiry. As a disciplinary space, your inquiry has either split off from another entity that has become (in the opinion of the splitters) exhausted or sidetracked, having lost sight of its originary structure; or, it has emerged to pursue a new line of inquiry opened by what might still be a quite fertile field. What sustains the space is being faithful to its origin, and if disassembling and reassembling the declarative sentences out of which the discipline is composed is going to be helpful, it will be subordinate to that imperative.

What I am here calling the “law of the declarative sentence” is what I have also been calling “metalanguage” and “metaphysics.” It is a necessary function of language, to develop ways of assessing other uses of language, but the metalanguage of literacy, which also in a way creates the declarative sentence (insofar as it identifies it as such), is what has created a maximal metalanguage arrogating to itself the right to call up for inspection any and all uses of language. It is significant that the emergence of literacy coincides with the emergence of a literate class, in service to the state, which can only come into existence with a bureaucracy, which itself requires writing (there may be marginal exceptions). The metalanguage of literacy is an intellectual or ideological bulwark to the state, while also providing the material for decentering power by appealing to transcendent models to which the sovereign must adhere. The alternative, which is possible today, is a minimal metalanguage which serves uses of language within disciplinary spaces by distinguishing between those uses that are within and those without the disciplinary space. A minimal metalanguage would be used for saying things like “that’s not what we’re talking about” because “you’re assuming an answer to a question we are still asking,” or “you’re raising a question the answer to which our current inquiry is predicated upon (if that inquiry breaks down, that might be a time to raise that question again).” The minimal metalanguage, or the declarative consultant, helps out by identifying questions which have been “begged,” and formulating those questions.

A metalanguage can be minimal because it has one absolute presupposition: that there is an origin, an origin to the disciplinary space and to the field of inquiry it opens, and therefore also an origin to everything else, and that knowledge of anything is knowledge of its origin or, to minimize disputes at this point, its originary structure. The metalanguage prods us to stay within the originary structure, and to keep marginalizing and eliminating conceptual structures that don’t derive from that structure. To say there is an origin is tantamount to saying there is a center, because the center is what constitutes the origin. Declarative social theory, which includes most if not all modern, and probably quite a bit of ancient, theory, is committed to structures without origins and centers. Such theories constitute the “ideological superstructure” of the metalanguage of literacy. But “saying” there is an origin and center is beside the point—we couldn’t say anything in the first place if there weren’t. To assume an interlocutor can understand anything I say, to assume he even knows that I’m talking to him, is to assume a shared center. And to focus on winning debates before an imagined tribunal is to eschew inquiry into that shared center while taking it for granted and identifying it with its most readily available historical instantiation. Once you have won, then what? Try and use Power for mopping up?

The equality and brotherhood of all humanity is a destructive Enlightenment myth because it serves as an indiscriminate battering ram against any form of “discrimination”; but an understanding of humanity as a potential, and yet never to be realized, disciplinary space can have only productive effects. Whatever I am paying attention to I can point out to another—not everyone all at once, certainly not everyone with equal ease, maybe not some until other things have been pointed out, but there is no need to exclude any pedagogical possibility in advance. Think about when a scientist invites a layman to look into a microscope—the first question, from the layman will be “what am I looking at?” Knowing what you are looking at without being told is being inside the discipline, but everyone at some point had to have it pointed out. This disciplinary and pedagogical process is not necessarily a peaceful one: armies at war with each other establish a kind of disciplinary space, in the explicit and tacit rules of engagement they establish and the reciprocal process of imitation and learning they engage in—the mimetic rivalry this process might evoke could easily lead to escalation. But it’s also the only way the conflict can be brought to a decisive end, one in which both sides understand that it has to end and why. The disciplinary space in which the warriors, or their most disciplined representative, participate, will ultimately reveal potential consequences that will be unacceptable to all sides, relative to any possible aim sought; and it will reveal means of de-escalation and precise trade-offs that might satisfy, to some extent, the needs and honor of both sides. By comparison, a pacifist can only utter platitudes.

“Every man should defy the law.” This counter-intuitive, paradoxical, impossible claim might be far better to think with than the more easily supported “every man should obey the law.” Maybe “the” in “the law” should be taken literally, and we’re just referring to a single law here (and, yet, what holds for one could hold for all, couldn’t it?). Maybe there are ways of defying the law without the authorities even noticing (what could “defiance” mean, in that case)—maybe the injunction is to seek out such means of defiance, and maybe doing so would reveal various gray areas between law, obedience and enforcement. Maybe once enough men have defied some law, or all law, other men will have to intervene and defy other laws in order to counter that defiance and restore balance, and the law, once again—without the possibility of making sense of “every man should defy the law,” maybe obedience to the law would be merely mechanical and mindless and, therefore, a kind of defiance itself. Opening up such disciplinary spaces within disciplinary spaces is the antidote to the compulsion to construct disciplinary empires within empires.

Center Alignment

Since it seems obvious to speak about liberalism as a derogation from a period of more secure and legitimate authority, it follows that we have had secure, absolutist rule, have somehow lost it, and must now try to get it back. But, of course, the further back you go in seeking the causes or crucial events in this derogation, the more it becomes clear that power has never been completely secure, there has never been an unqualified shared relation to the center and that even moments of good rule within teleologically articulated social orders contained the “seeds” of degeneration. One of the fascinating and instructive things about Graeber and Sahlins’s On Kings is just how varied the forms of kingship have been, and how obviously flawed each and every one of them. But what is equally evident in any historical survey is that there is always a center, and the fact that people accepted even such bizarre arrangements as some of the “divine” kingships Graeber discusses, where, for example, it may be necessary for the king to periodically carry out random massacres so that his people will know that he is alive, is if anything a demonstration of the unintelligibility of any social order without a center. Even a horrible center is better than trying to imagine its absence. In that case, we can reverse our perspective and replace any lingering nostalgia for ideal kingdoms of the past and see ourselves as participating in the single project that encompasses all of humanity, the revelation of the commands of the center. All previous relations to the center can be studied for their accomplishments and failures, and, more importantly than either, the possible terms and forms of a community’s relation to its center that each reveals.

The originary relation to the center is, of course, that of the hypothesized originary scene, in which mimetic desire generates the mimetic fear that issues in the issuing of the sign modeled on the central object’s vulnerability and power to impose restraint. We resent the center for imposing restraint, while that resentment itself enhances the center’s constraining power, as it locks our attention on it, making it the source of meaning, of augurs of life, prosperity and death. In the most radical act in human history, the Big Man acts on this resentment of the center, appropriates the center, and becomes himself the object of resentment and source of life and meaning. There are no rules regarding how this relationship is to be played out, and the resentments and counter-resentments between center and periphery, and along the periphery itself, could not be mapped out in advance. All of the rich panoply of forms of rule explored by Graeber and Sahlins can easily be analyzed in terms of a particular trajectory taken by some field of resentments around the center—they realize something like this on one level, as Graeber periodically points out how relevant Girard’s theory of scapegoating is to so many of the arrangements he studies, while, of course, keeping his anarchist hopes alive by asserting that Girard’s theory is ultimately all wrong.

Those on the periphery model themselves on the center—so, in primitive communities with a sacred, ritual center the members of the community will participate in and inhabit (or be inhabited by) the mythological figures generated out of their ritual relation to the center. When a human comes to occupy the center, the members of the community model themselves on that, and come to see themselves as potential occupants of the, or, and this is crucial, somecenter. This is what the “individual” is: a center, and a possible center. To be an individual is to imagine vectors of attention directed toward oneself, and to imagine oneself arranging those vectors, drawing in some, deflecting others. The Axial Age acquisitions, which exposed the incompatibility of mass sacrifice with civilized order, aim at spreading centrality throughout the social order. Everyone must see him or herself as a center, and so everyone must be enabled to do so in a way that preserves a social and moral center. We can say that liberal and romantic forms of individuality were attempts to do this; we can also say they were disastrous attempts, because they set the individual against the social center, as if the individual could only stand out against the norm, thereby creating a social order predicated upon reciprocally hostile and centripetal centers. But the romantic individual, as Gans shows through his studies of romanticism, especially through the figure of Rousseau, is also trying to imitate Jesus, by displaying in his own person the universal hostility a universal benevolence toward all humankind inevitably brings upon one. The problem with the romantic individual is really that he wants to monopolize this attention, to exploit it politically and on the market. The moral use of attention centered upon the self is to display the possibilities for converting resentment into love, in which case one may accept, deflect, or reverse the slings and arrows, but in any case will do so in such a way that the one slinging and shooting sees and displays, if not the arbitrariness, at least the over-determination of his show of resentment. In this way, one converts one’s centrality into a moral and esthetic sign precisely by making space for other centers.

The more individuals turn themselves into such moral and esthetic signs, the more aligned they will be with the social center, and the entire system of “works” that ultimately signify that center. One thing that really enrages the liberal and especially romantic individual is the fact that an entire world consisting of institutions and technological imperatives pre-exist the individual and are essentially indifferent to his existence. This massive reality diminishes even the fantasy of killing and replacing the king, because it would all still be in place; and, if one intensifies one’s fantasy so as to demolish it all, what would be the point of being king? Part of the purpose of building up that imperative order is to ensure, in a world of spreading centrality, that the social center is clearly distinct from any individual one. The resentment toward the humanized center is thereby transformed into resentment toward the dehumanized or reified apparatuses supporting that center. This resentment is more easily converted into love, because it provides for a wealth of positions of responsibility tending to the apparatus. You can resent the one who got promoted over you, you can resent the boss who keeps screwing everything up, you can resent the fact that your sector of the economy is neglected despite the evident importance of the work done there, but all these resentments are made intelligible and acceptable insofar as they are framed as attempts to improve the system. Your resentment may be overwhelming your concern for clarifying the center, which is to say you might be wrong in your criticism, but you must, to maintain the level of centrality to which you have become accustomed, stand ready to be corrected in those criticisms (which means being willing to accept the centrality of others). A well ordered system would encourage these developments, while cutting off recourse to more desperate attempts to assert centrality, through attention grabbing acts of violence, for example.

Now, I would like to use this more expanded analysis of centrality, or centered ordinality, than I have yet given, to solve another problem I have been working on in these posts. That is the problem of the (meta)linguistic boundary, the boundary between using language and directing attention to the use of language. I am hypothesizing that the specific kind of metalanguage that emerged through writing, as a part of the emergence of “classic prose” as the ideal form of discourse, is the source of the “metaphysics” that pretty much all post-medieval thinkers have been trying to dismantle, and for good reason—regardless of how aware any of these thinkers may have been to this dimension of the problem, “metaphysics,” or the assumption of the primacy of the declarative sentence, represents a permanent imperium in imperiothat irremediably hinders attempts to construct centered orders. The power of metaphysics lies in the assumption that certain truths stand outside of the centered order, and can therefore be used as a standard to judge any such order. This shifts sovereignty from the occupant of the social center to whoever makes the most compelling claim to represent the superior metaphysical order, whether that order is called “God’s will,” “human nature,” the “laws of nature,” the “laws of the market,” or anything else. So, the problem, in equal parts moral, political and spiritual, is to have a way of commenting on uses of language that feeds back into the centered order, that clarifies the center itself, and draws out its commands, rather than setting up an external standard.

The way I have framed the question is in terms of the metalinguistic dimension of natural semantic primes like “think,” “want,” “know,” “say,” “good” and so on. These words seem exclusively words used to refer directly to things in the world, in particular, human activity. “Consider,” for example, is metalinguistic because it tells us about how someone is “thinking,” and is therefore an implicit commentary on the use of “think.” The metaphysical reading of such words is to posit an essential reality in which they represent an internal or transcendent quality or activity of which the word is a secondary reflection—but this is just a case of commentary or “mention” overriding use, which in the case of all these words is far more variegated than any essence posited could suggest. But the simplest way of eliciting the metalinguistic dimension of any word or, more precisely, any utterance, is by deploying it as a comment on a previous use of language. When one person responds to something said by another, the metalinguistic element of the reply lies in the way that response singles out, accentuates, draws attention to, some elements of the previous utterance rather than others.

Left at that, we could see this as an endless sequence of responses which, for no discernable reason, highlight some feature or another of the previous utterance. But it’s not left at this, because any response is seeking to maintain linguistic presence, and that will determine the nature of the response and the commentary on the previous utterance. And the way to maintain linguistic presence is by showing the previous utterance in its relation to the center, or some center, a center to which the new utterance also claims some relation. On the originary scene, whoever first emitted the sign couldn’t have quite known what he was doing until others iterated (responded to and commented on) his sign; even more, his own sign could not have been anything more than a more formalized version of another’s more instinctive hesitation—the non-instinctive hesitation is a “reading” of the instinctive variety in relation to a shared center. So, when I respond to another’s utterance, I see them in a relation to the center, which I can share, while in seeing them (while they don’t see themselves), I attend to something new in that relation to center, making that my relation to it. We develop abstract concepts around which disciplinary spaces can be constructed in this way by putting some words to a specialized use, for the purposes of that disciplinary space, in drawing attention to uses of language in relation to a particular center.

So, the primarily “useful” primes become metalinguistic, or their metalinguistic dimension is elicited, when we think about thinking, or want to want, or know about knowing, or say things about the things we say. We can, in each utterance we hear, imagine or hypothesize what that utterance is responding to, how the words it is using, the way it is piecing together chunks of language, are themselves implicitly commenting on another utterance. Here we can conduct all kinds of thought experiments, in which we imagine two or more utterances identical in every way but one (perhaps some subtle difference in tone or context), and that difference would comprise the point of creation of the shared center in which the utterances participate. All of our disciplines, even those in the physical sciences, operate this way, because they are all predicated upon revising existing hypotheses and the paradigms enabling them. We can be aware that this is all we are doing, and that this is quite enough. The center wants us to enter some proximate field of utterances and generate a new shared center, one that reveals something not yet visible in the center enabling the utterance. The shared project of ordering our centers therefore has its linguistic grounding, which means its grounding in meaning, and in thinking and knowing—a grounding with no ground other than the inquiry into the center itself.

The Architecture of the Center

When we speak about the absolutism of central power, the point is less that whatever the occupant of the center says goes (so that if something he says doesn’t go he must have said the wrong thing, but in that case was he really occupying the center?) than that no one can imagine anything happening without reference to the center. If I want to do something, I imagine the conditions under which the central power will allow or support it—if I think in terms of how I can do it by evading central power, I am still thinking of the center as a general constraint that must structure my thinking. If I want to bring about some social change, whatever form of cooperation with others I hope to organize, I ultimately assume the change must be channeled through the center, even if that means changing its occupant or even trying to occupy it myself. The center as referent and constraint on meaning is implicit in all of our uses of language—if the role of the center in a particular instance is not obvious, it is necessary to invent it. The centered nature of reality is what provides us with the general imperative to support a centered ordinality, which is to say an order in which the articulation of power from the center through the ranks it establishes is rendered transparent and consistent.

There has to be a center because humanity is constituted through joint attention, and attention must be attention toward something, and if attention is joint that something must be at the convergence of the respective lines of vision of the attenders. The only way this object of attention can be held in place is if it is desired by all of those attending upon it, and the only way it can be desired rather than appropriated is if its appropriation is proscribed; and the only way its appropriation can be proscribed is if the participants on the scene constitute this proscription by offering signs to each other that they will suspend any attempt to appropriate the object. The source of the sign(s) offered must be a reversal of the movement towards the object, and this reversal must result from the fear of violence produced by this novel, collective, unconstrained rush toward the object. Now, up until this point in our reconstruction of the originary event, there is in principle nothing that the participants on the scene couldn’t talk about and arrange deliberately among ourselves. That is, so far, there would be some justification in seeing the originary scene as a kind of social contract, if we were to set aside the problem of there not being any language in which the terms of the contract could be set. But we have left out one thing: precisely because there is no language within which a “negotiation” could take place, the injunction against appropriating the object can only come from the central object itself.

Now, one could take the atheist position and say that imagining the central object ordering everyone to stand down is a mere “illusion,” generated by the unspoken balancing of the “odds” and projection of motivations onto each other by the participants on the scene. Maybe one could map it out and mathematize it. But it’s an illusion that returns each time we use language and “understand” each other—the atheist can rationalize the scene in retrospect in terms of a parallelogram of forces, but he couldn’t show us how its participants could have done it then; he can also imagine that he’s rationalizing the world scene on which he acts today, but unless we make the completely  irrational assumption that everyone is rationalizing equally and simultaneously such rationalization is really just an attempt to marshal, or imagine marshaling, all of the scientific and technological capacities bound up with the very possibility of rationalizing in the attempt to destroy by force the “problem” of human meaning.

An illusion which cannot be filtered out of “reality” is not really an illusion—it is what Hannah Arendt called a “necessary appearance,” or what we could call an “imaginary.” In this case, a central imaginary—that is what we can’t think or speak without. All of culture is human beings placing things at the center, which is indistinguishable from being told what to place at the center by the center, and charting and narrating the movements of whatever is at the center. As I suggested in the previous post, we are always trying to get word from the center, no less when we generate complex genetic and psychological typologies than when we consult with demons and spirits. There is a continuity between magic and science and technology, as evidenced by the fact that the vanguard of each new scientific revolution accuses its predecessors of some variant or residue of “magical” or “mythological” thinking. This progressive relation to the center is what I have been calling “imperative culture,” or the “imperative order,” or “imperativity.” The center issues commands, commands with their origins in the injunction to suspend appropriation of the object on the originary scene; the participants on any cultural scene make requests of the center. These requests are often refused, and when that happens new cultural forms must be created: the request may have been refused because it was made improperly, which means that the center orders more formalized and supervised forms of petition; it may have been refused because the one making it was not worthy of having it granted, meaning that the center orders new modes of self-examination and purification—these are the ways in which resentment at the center’s refusals are made productive. The relation to the center is in this way refined, and the means of yet further refinement created.

It is not surprising that once human beings, that is, kings, start occupying the center, a similar process of trial and error would be required—in fact, not only have we, or, more precisely, no political leadership, yet completely solved this problem, we could see the centuries of liberal usurpations of the center as both another attempted solution and a hysterical avoidance of the problem itself. The more we see the incoherence of liberalism, the more problematic and interesting the modern order becomes, because the modern order has obviously seen scientific, intellectual and technological accomplishments that any post-liberal order would preserve, albeit in some revised manner. So, has the industrialization and post-industrialization, the massive wealth creation, of the West, and much of the rest of the world in its wake, been accomplished because of liberalism—in which case do we have to accept liberalism along with the technology and wealth, or reject both (and in that latter case, how, exactly)?; are the material developments in spite of liberalism, in which case we can just junk the liberalism and move on to a rational and beneficial harvesting of our growing powers (this seems a little too convenient); are these developments side effects of liberalism, partly rooted in, partly separate from, that political order (in which case a perhaps more complex surgical operation, which might transform the “patient” in unpredictable ways, might be needed)? All of these ways of framing the question, in the very positing of a “we,” are implicated in magical and mythological thinking, direct translations of our hopes and fears into requests of the center.

In sacred kingship, the king is the mediator between the community and the supernatural world, or the world created at the origin. He has to resolve the paradox of the center, that it both precedes “us” and is the depository of our desires and resentments. The sacred king is responsible for all aspects of the well-being of the community—he brings rain, he ensures adequate food supplies, protects against natural disasters, and so on. This means that these are all things we expect from the center. (The fact that we can still look out the window and say “oh, no, not rain again!” means that we still expect these things.) It makes sense to assume that sacred kings would have done what they could to supply what they could, and to turn their failures back onto the community. Furthermore, they would elevate their role from mediator to arbiter, if possible, creating the distinction (made by David Graeber) between “sacred” and “divine” kings: the divine kings “make themselves the equivalents of gods—arbitrary, all-powerful beings beyond human morality—through the use of arbitrary violence.” Graeber sees sacred kingship as a way of controlling for the effects of divine kingship, but there is no contradiction in noting that divine kingship would offer a way of transcending the limitations and dangers of sacred kingship.

Violence against humans and violence against the natural world and everything in it are of a piece—it is only fairly recently that the distinction between the two could even be made. The readiest solution to sacred kingship is, then, divine violence. The imperatives issued by those on the human side of the imperative order start to become more imperious: people can start to say to “gods” and “natural” beings, “do this!” And watching very closely to see whether they obey. And, further, watching very closely for what the audience seems to accept as “obedience”—or, more precisely, what the audience can be induced or made to accept. Andrew Bartlett, an orginary thinker of the GA school (see also his Mad Scientist, Impossible Human) locates the origins of science on the originary scene in the possibility of handling one part of the originary object as a part separate from the whole, and that is what happens in the growing autonomy of the imperative order:  imperatives need no longer be issued to the center itself, but to its “messengers” and “agents.” The specialization of a few members of the community in the acquisition of such knowledge is the beginning of the disciplines, and the delegation of such powers by the king is the beginning of imperial kingship. This is the road towards the struggle for sovereignty.

So, there is a dialect between the center through which violence must ultimately circulate and the disciplines, which give, revise, and suggest compound “meanings” granted to anything and everything in the world (everything that has been loosened from sacred kingship). Technology itself, as I think Heidegger was suggesting, is itself a way of conferring upon or summoning forth meaning from nature and human capacities. For those of us in the disciplines, who if anything want even less than the pittance of power allotted us in liberal democracies that means engaging in the kinds of disputes that can only be settled by resetting attention to a lower threshold. When we think or speak we are always on a scene, or a possible scene—but all scenes are really only possible ones. None of us has created the language we use, and even if we speak to ourselves, the self we speak to is not identical to the one who listens—but it’s also very easy to forget this, since the most readily available means of assertion (I think, I believe, I am sure, etc.) give credit to the assumption that we are each of the original source of what we say.

There is no “world scene,” which is an Enlightenment fantasy, but it is possible to see all of us—“we” language users—as embarked, in all our overlapping and spread out disciplinary spaces, on a collaborative project to refine further our instructions from the center. The architecture of each discipline is a construction of a meaningful “piece” or “dimension” of reality—we undertake the construction by seeking out the failed imperatives we have issued to the center of our space, and replacing them with ones whose meaning we can now test. Imagining goals, causes and regularities, and then finding ways to test their viability is the process of participating in the disciplines. One thing that centralizing power does is widen the scope of possible disciplinary inquiries—centralizing power mobilizes collective forms of action, and demands and receives new forms of material force, and therefore provides new areas of inquiry for students of those activities and of power itself. It may very well be, then, that a form of power like liberalism, which is simultaneously centralizing and centripetal, would give a huge impetus to various disciplinary inquiries; and it is also not surprising that those inquiries vary widely in quality and sustainability. Liberalism is a kind of weird, swirling sprawl that sucks everything towards an abyss at the center. But anywhere within that sprawl one can try and slow things, redirect attention, and look at some failed pleas to the center that haven’t even been noticed as such.

All discourse is the representation of imperative exchanges in declarative, ultimately narrative and paradoxical, form. Myths explain rituals, but they’re not the cause of the ritual—the cause of the ritual is the recreation of the scene to make the central being present, and revisions of ritual are responses to some failure of the central being to appear. The new ritual changes the request, the question and the conditions of the answer: if we do this the being will appear, and the appearance of the being will take this form. Ultimately, if the appearance of the being is evidenced in the petitioner’s ability to find that presence in his own ability to defer some desire, we have reached the point of minimal ritual—ritual as continuous inspections of increasingly refined habits. This can then take the form of a narrative of some kind of intellectual and psychological self-transformation. Disciplinary spaces can arrive at the point where they essentially report on the efficacy and results of practices that maintain this minimal and continuous presence. This minimal and continuous presence is to be maintained within spaces where presence is less minimal and continuous—it is to keep working on these spaces, producing practices that with minimal input maximally increase the presence of central being. This kind of practice is what I have been examining in the last couple of posts in my proposals for the deconstruction of metalanguage, which is really a kind of mythological or magical discourse. All metalinguistic terms can be reduced to some scenic version of think, say, feel, or know, and these words can in turn be reduced to imperatives to draw new instructions from the center.