Morality and Reference

An always accessible starting place for disclosing imperatives from the center is whatever you happen to be looking at, talking about, or thinking about at the moment. If you are looking at something, your attention is bringing some feature of the foreground into focus against some background; if you’re speaking, your sentences have referents, however abstract they might be. The remotest ancestor of either is the object on the originary scene, which came into view as an object because it was desired, because the group refrained from appropriating it, and because they all indicated to each other that they were doing so. Even a casual glance at something or a trivial reference is marked by the history of deferral and discipline initiated on the originary scene. Let’s stay focused on the intrinsically public use of language: any time you say something about something, you bring to attention some feature, element, use or context of that thing that had not been noticed previously. Even if all you do is completely agree with what someone else just said you are adding to the “interestingness” of the object in question, which means you are consolidating its centrality.

I want originary thinking to be a form of moral reasoning, one presupposing nothing but center, origin and deferral, without reliance on any particular creed of tradition of thought—or, more precisely, beyond such reliance, at the point where you can no longer rely on the “belief system” because it doesn’t apply in an unequivocal way in the case before you. One still solicits the intellectual resources of the traditions enabling one to think, but in a way none of those traditions would completely authorize. It is in such margins that moral reflection takes place. To practice such reflection means being able to start anywhere, including, as I just suggested, whatever you happen to be talking or thinking about right now, or whatever you find yourself gazing at. Referring to something implicates one in an attentional space: you’re adding to the attentional “load” of something other have been, are, or might be talking about. This means you’ve set up something that elicits desire and restraint—there’s something someone might want to do with or to whatever you’re referring to but there’s also something holding us back from doing so, at least enough for us to talk about it.

So, whatever it is you’d like to talk about, you can begin thinking by asking why you want to talk about it. The first response likely to come to mind, for most of us most of the time, will be something like: it’s important! People need to see the truth! These responses might be accurate, but less accurate than “other people are looking at something else,” or “other people are looking at this thing in a different way” and “I want to provide a new look.” You may be right, they may be wrong, you may be substantive and they may be trivial, but you are both facing the same center, insofar as you are in some way referring to the same thing. The most fundamentally moral act, I am assuming, is to sustain linguistic presence by keeping that shared center in view. That doesn’t mean you are obliged to keep a useless and banal conversation going—it might mean startling the other participants in the conversation with something provocative or vulgar; it might mean walking demonstratively away from that conversation. That would just mean you determined that it was the conversation itself that was destroying linguistic presence, by taking for granted an increasingly diffuse center, one that couldn’t be sustained under scrutiny (if other people, or other kind of people, entered the conversation). A new center would then be created, one way or the other, but you wouldn’t be the one helping sustain it, so you would be failing, morally. So, you create a new center: you shocking everyone, you walking away, etc. Such an act falls outside of the boundaries of determination of truth/falsity, but it is undeniably meaningful. And meaningfulness precedes truth claims—you could say lots of true things that are meaningless.

So, in everything you do or say you are making assessments of the status of the most proximal center: here’s what it needs to keep it strong, it can’t be strengthened or protected and so a radical shift in attention is necessary, etc. If you then represent to yourself what you have said or done (no one can be completely present to himself in any speech or action, so explicit self-questioning—why did I do that? is necessary here), you will reveal another, more distal center. That center was always there—you were attending fromit tothe more proximal center (I am using Michael Polanyi’s terms here) and you cannot notice the ground on which you stand when noticing something else. So, now this new center comes into view. The introduction of metalanguage, incidentally, serves the purpose of shutting down the inquiry at the emergence of a particular center—that center then provides the terms on which you assess your actions on the more proximal scenes. So, if you regret walking away from the conversation because that was “rude,” you have installed a metalanguage of etiquette, derived from a more distal center (the norms of a particular community, to be applied in certain social settings) that sets the limits for your actions in relation to the more proximal center. (Of course, “rudeness” always needs to be interpreted, and, exceptions being the plague of any metalanguage, you can always save the metalanguage by invoking a “decision” here as well. If this anomaly troubles you, you either shut it down and carry out what you judge to be the most widely accepted course of action, or you open it up, which returns us to the continuing inquiry.)

If your attentions on the more proximal scene reveal a crisis at the center of the more distal one, the process of inquiry continues. You realize that not only was this specific conversation essentially dead, but so are lots of others that, until recently, you were taking pretty seriously. I think that my efforts to shed light on neutralizing metalanguages and the “patron theory of politics” converge here, because the crisis of the center will always, I think, prove to be a crisis of the metalanguage imposed by defenders of that center, and the crisis is caused by the exploitation of the legitimacy of that metalanguage by specific interests. These may very well be interests sincerely devoted to the metalanguage: no doubt those who use the concepts of a putatively neutral social science to advance the cause of “social justice” consider themselves the truest sociologists, anthropologists, economists, and so on. You can try to make the center hold by defending the metalanguage but, like insufficient doses of antibiotics, that just makes the “infection” (its partisan “misuse”) subtler and more tenacious. The metalanguage is the anomaly, and therefore the crisis, not its distortions.

“Norms” are really imperatives, and that is what the center issues. “Don’t be rude” conflicts with “dump these BSers.” There’s no universally applicable imperative telling you how to choose which one to obey, but if you refrain from rudeness does the imperative to dump the BSers fade away or become more insistent? If you dump the BSers, are you haunted by echoes of the imperative to be polite? The answer to these questions won’t prove anything yet, but we can pursue the matter further. If the obeyed imperative squashes its competitor, there’s nothing more to think about. Maybe there’s nothing more to think about, and the decision was the right one; maybe you’ve decided to stop thinking, in which case the subdued imperative will act up again eventually. (Perhaps a psychopath is someone who never hears competing imperatives.) If the two continue to co-exist post-decision, then can one imperative, or its successor in a new situation, be incorporated within the other? Maybe you can obey the imperative to be polite while finding subtle ways to interfere with the BS; maybe you can obey the imperative to dump the BSers while obeying the imperative that precedes that to be polite: the imperative to establish and follow rules of sociability. You provoke, or you walk away, and you take advantage of the paralysis or outrage thereby induced to clear the air and reset the norms.

So, the way to reconcile competing imperatives issued by differing centers is to listen for an imperative from a center preceding and founding both. How do we do that if we’re not anthropologists and historians rolled into one, with a history of morality readily available for direct application? You disclose the more absolute imperative by trying to find a way to obey both the imperative to be polite and the imperative to expose BS, i.e., be candid. This requires some abstraction from both: being candid and being polite both take on various forms, even within the same normative system, and some of those forms must overlap. Imitation and practice are both important here: reflection can’t answer this question by itself. When you’ve successfully mastered politeness after fulfilling its imperatives a few thousand times, and have mastered (for most, perhaps, less completely) candor, after fulfilling its imperatives perhaps a few hundred (dozen, for the timid) times, you have some scripts to work with. What modification of the gesture or commonplace you’ve executed countless times would allow some candor in? And then some more? What modification of the careless, free speaking, outrageous lout you’ve successfully performed could be modified to allow for a compelling gesture of politeness? It is by carrying out such experiments that you will find the more absolute imperative, and that imperative will come to compete with other more absolute ones in the course of your moral education.

Seeking out the more absolute, which is a conversion of the more originary, imperative is equally a forward looking act. The problem is not just to synthesize politeness and candor; it is to do so within the existing imperative architecture. Scientific inquiry and technological advances are fields in which moral problems are tested out and moral education conducted. How can that politeness/candor articulation be achieved in the process of civilizing some of that architecture? Of course I have in mind the internet and social media, as means of and metaphors useful for redescribing human interactions. But even far more familiar inventions, like cars and air travel, have possible moral dimensions that have been unexplored. All of these features of the modern landscape will be liberal by default if they’re not seen as screens upon which moral questions are projected. What counts as politeness on the roads—where is the place for candor in traffic? Maybe the possibilities for both are drastically reduced—but rather than fantasizing their disappearance, the imperatives we would advance for acting in and thinking about these fields would be aimed at creating new possibilities, new spaces where the problem of articulating candor and politeness (just one example, of course) could be enacted. Because we want new opportunities to enact them, because acting as moral being represents the most ancient of imperatives. Looking for such chances is what we do when we point to or refer to any thing in particular. Here, working our way back to the originary imperative coincides with hearing the imperatives of the sovereign center. All of the technological apparatus, the imperative architecture, is in the service of the sovereign center, creating networks connecting the center to the various peripheries. The mode of inquiry here is homologous to the one I have been describing, as one navigates the competing imperatives of the traffic system, the google system, the financial system, and so on, articulating, for example, the tremendous pressures to conform to norms, manners, clichés, down to the slightest gesture, with the equally imperious compulsion to differentiate and market oneself. So, one tries out various ways of marketing oneself as a version of conformity that turns conforming into a sign of hierarchically ordered centers.

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