GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

May 15, 2018

Linguistically Constructed Empires within Empires

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:09 am

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.

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