GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

July 17, 2018

The Disciplines, the Imperative of the Center, the Generative Thought Experiment

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:57 am

The disciplines claim knowledge of the mind, the social, religion, customs, the state, beauty and so on, as things in themselves, while for the disciplinary space of originary thinking the practices given these names are all representations by those on the margins of the center. The study of this practice of representation is what I have been calling, on occasion, “anthropomorphics.” The originary sign inaugurates the human, but the most “human” figure there is the central object, the prey/God of the group. The central being is most fully intentional participant on the scene: he “understands” the desires animating the members of the group, along with the ruin to which they lead, while, finally, repelling the violent approach to itself. To the extent that the human participants grasp any of this, it is through the center as a kind of mirror of each other’s intentions. This relation to the center continues as the ritual repetition of the originary scene is explained mythologically, as stories in which the central object is, first, the only, and, then, the main, “character.” Only gradually are the participants on the margin attributed a kind of centrality and therefore agency of their own—still, though, only borrowed from the center. This remains the case today, and will remain the case for as long as there are humans, because this is what or who humans are: the modes of central being we now borrow from are now figures called “society,” “ideology,” “the unconscious,” “the media,” and so on. The disciplines study these figures, anthropomorphizes them (we rebel against, resist, try to channel, these entities), and derives imperatives from them. And the disciplines’ relation to these entities is approximately the same as the relation between myths and ritual: they can be a source of knowledge, but ultimately accept as givens those relations regarding which the most basic questions need to be asked. Let’s recall why.

Writing, as recorded speech, supplements the speech scene. Writing is practiced as a repetition of reported speech, aimed at closing any difference between the media. The initial focus is on the attitude of the speaker: how did the speaker say whatever he said about whoever he said it? Here we get the variations on “say,” “think,” “want,” “see,” and “do.” This is meant, as per classical prose, to simulate a scene which writer and reader view. Writing aims at putting you “right there.” There is no scene upon which writer and reader stand, participate or act. They, then, are kept rigorously sceneless. The way to guarantee their scenelessness is to saturate the scene, which then becomes the imperative governing prose. Every possible difference between writer and imagined reader leads to a “bulking up” of the represented scene, so as remove all possibility of such a difference. This defers attention paid to the scene of reading and writing, the disseminated disciplinary scene. Everything added to the represented scene serves to defer another scene which might attend to the disciplinary scene of representation. For this purpose the metalanguage of literacy is deployed: relations between nominalizations deposit in the scene what might otherwise be looked for in the disciplinary scene of representation. Here is where we have the origin of the disciplines: in relations between nominalizations that are recognizable as scenes by the sceneless. (“Social structures” lead to predictable “change,” “cognitive structures” lead to typical “behavior,” etc.) Enhancing the density of the presumed causality is the way we avoid paying attention to our modes of attention.

All the arguments within a discipline, then, concern the proper degree of saturation. This spreads the metaphysical distinctions that took shape in Plato: essence/appearance, unchanging/contingent, cause/effect, etc. An effect for every cause, a cause for every effect; to get at the unchanging essence is to avoid over or under saturation. But how can the right degree of saturation be determined in other than circular terms that reiterate the metalanguage itself? Writing must sustain linguistic presence, which means it must imagine linguistic presence around a center. For classical prose, the center is the model of sufficient saturation; for anthropomorphics, the center is a model of possible gestures of deferral; the more distant the center, the more stripped of specific attributes the gesture—the more replete with possibilities. A simple example: a sociologist determines that institutions functionto reproducecertain norms. We could construct paths to nominalization producing these concepts, which are metaphors drawn from machinery and statistics. A model gesture, meanwhile, is a marginal increment in deferral, itself a heeding of an imperative from the center to do precisely that; an imperative which the analyst shares. The language for the model of activity comes from the activity itself (it is infralinguistic)—the model is a probe we place on the scene as a representative of our own disciplinary activity, aimed at making our disciplinary activity a scene. The aim of attending and thinking together is to makes the elements of the originary scene present, that is, originary memory. To do so, we must abstract those elements from all the intervening and intermediary scenes—but it precisely in some of those scenes where the disciplines stake their claims. Such claims are claims to occupy the center, and to issue tacit imperatives from there.

What does the concept, “imperatives from the center,” do that can’t be done otherwise? However much we might believe in “free will,” we would all acknowledge that there are dimensions of our thinking and doing that lie beyond conscious decision. The fact that we happen to be faced with this choice, here and now, is beyond our conscious decision. The language and traditions we have to confront the situation or choice lie beyond our conscious decision. So, how do we talk about this, at the very least, “residue” of the unchosen? This, to a great extent, is what the disciplines are for, including sacramental disciplines: saying that the trauma caused by my parents, or unjust social structures, or unconscious desires, etc., are not all that different from saying I was tempted by the devil. And there may be some truth in any of these “explanations”—at any rate, any of them is better than nothing. But they’re all really black boxes, sites of proxy wars for power—a particular psychology or sociology empowers a particular set of interests, within the disciplinary institutions and beyond. To be master of the “unconscious” is to be master of much more.

Here is where originary thinking cuts through the disciplines. We can certainly attribute to mimetic desire the “cause” for a particular act, but mimetic desire is always mediated through language. If another boy is more popular with the girls I can: a) smash him over the head with a rock; b) try to figure out what makes him attractive and imitate it; c) simmer in resentment and console myself with having a “deeper” intellect or personality; d) despise the girls who fall for someone so “superficial”; e) recognize my envy and try to acquire the self-control and higher ends that would prevent me from being dominated by it; and, no doubt, there’s an f, g, h, and so one along with all the possible variations on a-e. So, what does our young man do; or, rather, how do we best account for the meaning of what he does? (He is himself accounting for the meaning of what he does before doing it.) I think the simplest and most realistic answer is to say he is listening to differing commands: hurt that kid! Wait for your time to be popular! Get stoned! Don’t do anything stupid! Just focus on your homework! These are all versions of commands he’s heard in various contexts, many times. Imperatives often come with no expiration date. In this particular case the imperatives are coming first of all from the other boy himself, as an object of resentful attention (he really is “making you do” whatever you do)—but any imperative coming from one center can be traced back to other, more inclusive centers.

So, when assailed by competing imperatives, which one do you listen to? We can reinstate the free willing homunculus, or we can say: the one that comes from the highest authority. Which that will be for the boy in question will depend upon which authorities have demonstratively stood behind their own words in his experience: your parents nominally are the higher authority, but if they tell you to do your homework while not seeming to care what the homework is for, while your cool friend at school is at least consistently and courageously transgressive, he might be the higher authority in fact. But once we’re no longer children the imperatives competing for our attention and obedience are no longer personified in such local terms (or at least not only). The cool kid may have commanded you to respond to social rejection by becoming cool yourself, or an adjunct to his cool, but one learns that the command to “screw your parents and the popular kids by going goth (or whatever today’s equivalent is) or far left” hasn’t originated with that particular kid. In other words, we trace the imperatives back to the highest authority we can find. And in doing so, we are following a command to do so. And that command must have been “heard” at the intersection of incompatible, but equally compelling commands.

We all approach this with differing intellectual resources, but the command that will win out is the one that tells you what to do that that intersection, which will have to be at least somewhat different, somewhat more abstract, older, from either of the commands that got you stuck there in the first place. Now, the higher authority might be wrong, but that will lead you to another intersection, with that authority’s command itself being one of stalemated commands, and you get another chance to trace that command to yet another authority. The immoral person becomes such by refusing to recognize such intersections, which involves obeying the commands telling you to ignore them. The moral person keeps obeying the command to notice the intersections, and keep ascending to a higher authority. Now, of course we have been provided with such an authority from our childhood—you can always tell the child to heed God’s word, however that has been transmitted and institutionalized through some tradition. It would be too much to expect people to discover the path of ascent all by themselves. But even if the actual words remain the same, the word of God is not the same for someone who has been asked to repeat them ritualistically as they are for someone who as learned to look for possible intersections. For the latter, that word continually issues new commands, targeted with increasing precision, heard with increasing clarity. This is what I mean by the “imperative of the center.”

So, in seeking out the meaning of what people do, I propose hypothesizing the competing imperatives that person is hearing, and further hypothesizing the intersections at which the higher authority would be sought and hypothesized by the person himself. This is opposed to what I described above as “saturating the scene.” If anything, we want to subtract from the scene, and only add that which we can represent as a network of imperatives, traceable to the center. This is the meaning of the kind of “thought experiment” proposed in my previous post: represent the participant on the scene as obeying, on the one hand, an extremely overdetermined imperative and, on the other hand, an extremely undetermined, highly improbable, barely heard, one. Imagine, for example, someone who is by all appearances a saint following the command to indulge his own vanity and resentments in an extremely refined way (Nietzsche can help you with this), and interpret all his actions in this way (this heads towards a kind of “saturation”)—the “appearances” or signs you began with all get revised or suspended in this way. Then let’s say he’s following the command to serve God with all his being. Where, exactly, would the difference lie? How could we distinguish one from the other? Make the difference as minimal as possible—locate it in a hardly noticeable gesture, issued in obedience to the imperative to let those devoted to God learn something about what such service entails, while dispossessing of their cynicism those caught up in resentment. (What series of ascending imperatives would he have to have followed to craft precisely that gesture?) You will then be able to say what “serving God” means, even if it’s not clear how you get a doctoral dissertation out of this particular inquiry. We can say, then, that the utmost imperative of the center is precisely the one commanding you to articulate a practice demonstrating the difference between obedience to the center and obedience to imperatives that display all the signs of obedience to the center but the one through which, as you are showing now, that obedience is unmistakably evident.

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