July 10, 2018

Learning, Discipline and the Thought Experiment

Filed under: GA — adam @ 12:25 pm

A sign has to have meaning before it can be true or false, and so setting one’s filters for discourse ingestion on meaningful/meaningless should be more effective than setting them for true/false. Setting one’s filter to sift the meaningful out from the meaningless also opens another option denied the one who stays set on determining truthfulness: the option of conferring meaning on an otherwise meaningless sign. Distinguishing between truth and falsehood is a waste of time unless we are situated within a disciplinary space with shared frames and criteria—insisting that we are telling the truth while our opponents are lying is almost always an attempt to jigger the rules so one can declare oneself the winner. The left looks for statements it can find deficient in truthfulness as measured by some fact-checking mechanism also established by the left, so that it can then accuse the speaker of being a “liar” and attach “liar” to that person’s name every time it is mentioned, like a Homeric epithet. They can then frame their questions as follows: how can you believe what he says, since he has racked up 273 lies over the past 3 years? But when the right does the same thing, even if I’m more likely to agree with where the truth lies, it ultimately serves the same purpose of forcing everyone to line up in qualified vs. unqualified terms. Everyone is throwing everyone else out of their playpen. But focusing on meaning allows us to be both more generous and more disabling, as the situation calls for.

Here’s one of Charles Sanders Peirce’s most famous statements, in this case offering a definition of, essentially, “meaning” (for Peirce, the whole purpose of pragmatism was to determine the meaning of signs):


Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.


So, what is our conception of, say, a dog (what is the meaning of “dog”)? It will bark under certain conditions, it is different from a cat in certain ways, from a wolf in other ways, if it is your dog it will be loyal and obedient if well trained, when you pat it it wags its tail and looks up at you, and so on. We can get extremely abstract (a four legged mammal…) or concrete and intimate (it brings your slippers) depending on the attentional or disciplinary space in which the word “dog” is used. Nothing in Peirce’s definition requires the more “scientific” meaning. The definition of a dog in terms of its devotion to its owner (when I come home he comes running and wagging his tail) will generate new questions that will add to “our conception of these effects” just as much as a definition found in a biologist’s taxonomy. However, unless said ironically, or in some fictional context, or as part of some insider discourse, the sentence “the dog is flying home” is meaningless. Of course, though, that sentence can be made meaningful in another way: as an example in a discussion like this.


What a disciplinary space is created to do is to take “given” meanings and make them relative or regional. A dog is devoted to its master; but sometimes dogs turn on their masters; so the meaning of “dog” must include the devotion and the possibility, however minimal, of “betrayal”; and the new meaning will include both in a less anthropomorphic and anthropocentric frame: dogs generally respond to certain cues of dominance, which accounts for the “devotion” and, when those cues are “processed” under specified conditions, the aggression to their masters. Or whatever—I don’t know much about dogs. Within one space, “dogs are devoted” retains its significance; within another, it is meaningless, and is replaced by “dogs respond to cues of dominance.” And that will in turn be replaced by something else. At each point along the way a new given is introduced, waiting to be relativized or regionalized. And the biologist studying canines goes home and pets his dog, and there is no cognitive dissonance.

The (anti)political attempt to establish centrality by dispersing the fogs of liberal obfuscation operates on several levels. It must honor all the traditional forms of life targeted and demolished by liberalism, even if it can’t restore them (although avenues of restoring what can be should be explored); it must engage in historical analyses of those forms of life, or their vulnerabilities and the intellectual and physical weapons used to attack them; it must distinguish, in the contemporary order, between what can be attributed to the civilizing and centralizing work that started long before liberalism and what can be attributed to liberalism itself; it must develop theoretical and eventually institutional means for suppressing liberalism, in all its forms and all the nooks and crannies in which it hides, while extricating healthy social and technological relations and materials from its deformations; and it must inhabit and rework all of today’s institutions and disciplines in order to accomplish all this. (It must also acknowledge irreparable harm done, and that would unavoidably have been done, to traditional modes of life by any, even the most orderly, form of centralization.)

The theory of disciplinarity I have been advancing is meant to help with this. Disciplinarity in a strong sense is a result of the grounding of science in the laboratory and the experiment, which seems to emerge slowly in the later middle ages (e.g., Okham’s razor), get presented more explicitly with Galilleo, and doesn’t really get institutionalized until the 19thcentury. I am pretty sure that Peirce was the first to treat the experimental method as a model for thinking in general, defining signs as such as means of inquiry (you can always conceive more effects of an object). Attempts to restore the originary structure of Christianity, for example, will rely on the disciplinary modes (and a careful sifting of what is valuable from them) of textual and historical analysis developed far more recently, i.e., on treating Christian texts, documents and histories as one would treat any texts, documents and histories. At the same time, though, disciplinarity is a form of discipleship, a mode of authority and inquiry into the divine that reaches back into antiquity and is central to the founding of Christianity; moreover, discipline is simply a more deliberate form of deferral, so Peirce’s definition of the sign as, essentially, anything one could form a disciplinary space around, is continuous and consistent with the originary hypothesis, which sees signification and meaning as an effect of deferral. Disciplinarity and discipleship alike are landmarks in the history of modes of deferral, which becomes the history of civilization—Peirce was also clear that the purpose of signification was to conduct such inquiries as would modify “conduct,” which for him meant “self-control,” i.e., discipline. To use the word “dog,” then, is to initiate an inquiry into all our possible relations with dogs, an inquiry that transforms our relations with dogs into one vehicle through which we modify our conduct in shared and deliberate ways—so as to enable us to conduct more inquiries. One effect might certainly be to make us better dog owners.

Disciplinarity in this, now, broader sense, one that acknowledges the equal legitimacy of all modes of inquiry, is characterized by discovery and revelation. This is really what the laboratory brings to the surface: it isolates one specific thing that we don’t know, and it sets up a scene in which we can come to know it. The scientist sets something up that comes unbidden in divine revelation—but is that completely true? Doesn’t divine revelation, or the more secular revelation provided by a startling poem, for example, require some kind of preparation and openness, even if one doesn’t know exactly what one is preparing and being open towards? In more ordinary circumstances, when one is, for example, worried about whether someone else can be trusted, one finds a way to bring the question of their trustworthiness into focus—to abstract it from all their other “characteristics,” to gather “evidence,” to “test” it, etc. In the process those other characteristics, which have been “bracketed,” enter back into the inquiry, transformed by it. The less of life that is covered by ritualistic prescription of behavior, the more must be covered by such “procedures.” The trick of progressivism is to attribute this kind of learning to society as a whole, as represented by self-certifying experts, and the state that employs them. So, for example, once “we” have concluded that “race” is a meaningless concept, “we” can go about abolishing all social distinctions based directly or indirectly on “race.” We can, in response, make a Hayekian argument about the distribution of knowledge throughout society, or invoke Chesterton’s fence, but we can also simply take the claim head on: lots of people use the word “race” in lots of different ways and choosing a specific, narrowly genetic meaning, and to purport to settle that meaning in accord with an arbitrarily chosen criterion (like the fact that there are more genetic differences within than between races) is to offer a power rather than inquiry based conclusion. The approach I am suggesting asks about the meaning of words; it doesn’t decide in advance that specific disciplines have the sole right to determine those meanings. And it also keeps in mind that those disciplines never have a final meaning either.

The adoption of any kind of dissident stance implies constant testing of prevailing assumptions, for others as well as for oneself. The cross-disciplinary means of doing so is the thought experiment, which we can get better at constructing and enacting. A thought experiment tests the meaning of a word, or a particular use of a word, or a sentence (a proposition), or a broader argument or mode of thought. The goal is always to de-anthropomorphize, to take a sign that has a (received) meaning in itself and treat it as a sign that has meaning for an (actual or possible) disciplinary space. All exchanges should target some element of the other’s discourse for disciplining—it is a favor we do each other. Look for some “hinge”: something in the sign that, if the rest of its meaning were left constant, but the meaning of that part of the sign changed, would lead to incommensurable uses. Make one of the possible meanings as obvious as possible, and the other as unlikely as possible (the range can then be narrowed as needed). Peirce’s approach is a good one: what form of conduct would follow from adopting one shade of meaning as opposed to another? Inflate the differing consequences while compressing the difference in the “shading”—constructing the greatest diverging effects from the smallest differences yields the most information. This method for the instantaneous creation of a disciplinary space should work equally well for solitary musing as for engaged, even confrontation encounters with allies and enemies alike. The criterion is internal to practice: which form of conduct improves existing and generates new spaces of inquiry? Self-control is simultaneously the control of the effects of practices; others are invited to replace meaninglessness with meaning.

As an example, let’s take Jonathan Chait’s recent amusing claim that Trump has been a Russian sleeper agent since 1987.What are all the effects of our conception of this object, this sign? Here we can see the limits of truth testing: there’s no way any of us can prove that Trump has not been a Russian sleeper agent since 1987. (The more “verifiable” truth claims become the only legitimate form of discourse, the more you, paradoxically, incentivize the production of claims that are absurd but cannot be falsified.) One of the effects is that we can imagine everything Trump has done the last 30 years as spy work, providing what might be entertaining explanations of “The Apprentice,” his buildings in Manhattan, his proclivity to take wives from the former Soviet bloc and so on. Who knows what and whom else might be swept up in this net? Another effect is that we are left to consider why his Soviet and then his Russian handlers seem to have had a sharper sense of, or concern for, the interests of Americans than American leftists (or many conservatives, for that matter) seem to. Another effect is that we can assume everyone who is similar to Chait ideologically either agrees with his theory, or will eventually come to embrace it (it’s a, if not necessarily the, logical conclusion of the whole Trump collision narrative), so they can all be asked to endorse or repudiate it. Yet another effect is that we can now frame every other political figure of even (what the hell!) public figure in terms of all the signs suggesting that some other country might be pulling his or her strings.

We can use the boundary between “Trump is a Russian sleeper agent” and Trump is, well, Trump, as a way of generating conceptual distinctions, hypotheses and conduct—in this case, for the most part, potentially very productive meme-ing and trolling conduct. The claim itself means something. The fact that this particular person makes in this particular venue means something. That others who respond in certain ways to the statement means something. That the statement can be seen to be modeled on previous claims and campaigns means something. That other statements can be modeled on it in turn means something. The way to generate all these meanings is to, on the one hand, take the claim as literally as we possibly can, enter the world it constructs, let that world invade the world of the things we normally take literally; and, on the other hand, mark everything in the reality that we know that does not require the Trump as a Russian sleeper agent hypothesis to make sense. In the end this will get us to the truth, because with a truthful sign the invasion by the world constructed by the sign we are studying of the world as it exists without that sign would not provide a jarring juxtaposition; it would fit in seamlessly. Even after repeated tests.

July 5, 2018

Prolegomena to the Study of the Origins of the Disciplines

Filed under: GA — adam @ 11:50 am

Here’s the problem I’m trying to solve: absolutist ontology implies a specific way of thinking, which we could call “the supplementation of sovereignty.” This way of thinking assumes that the sovereign center is to be preserved through supplementation by the attentional center. If something seems wrong, if there are unfulfilled desires and unsatisfied resentments, your own or those of others, the end of thinking about it is to identify an imperative from the sovereign center that would remedy them. Maybe the effect will be to demystify and defuse the desire, maybe to give it a more realistic focus; maybe it will reveal the resentments as unworthy, or maybe it will suggest a frame within which it might be addressed. All these possibilities are to be considered, which means the desires and resentments in question are not simply accepted as a default, natural starting point. What is important is a more fully installed sovereign. It is the anarchist ontology which sees desires and resentments as forces of nature around which the social order itself must be constructed. The justification of the liberal state is that it prevents desires and resentments from colliding into each other too violently. It must therefore claim to maintain some kind of equilibrium amongst these “passions,” whether it idealistically calls this equilibrium “justice” or cynically calls it a “balance of forces.” This means that the sovereign is justifiably assailed for failing to fulfill this impossible to define task; indeed, the logic of the anarchist ontology is to encourage such assault—after all, the only source of information available to the state comes from playing out of these passions.

Unsurprisingly, virtually the entire universe of discourse in a liberal order is of the anarchist variety. When someone hears of something objectionable, the spontaneous impulse is to criticize power—the government, corporations, the 1%, the patriarchy, whatever. It in fact takes considerable effort to break this habit of thought. That such attacks on power just empower another power is a well-known complication that we can set aside for now. This anarchist habit of thought goes much further back than victimary thinking, and even further back than liberal and democratic thinking more generally. What we really have to start with is the very notion that government needs to be “justified,” that it exists for a “purpose”—rather than just being the default condition, the representation of the irreducible social center.  Once you grant the need for a “political philosophy,” you grant the possibility of an arbiter of the legitimacy of any government; once you grant the possibility, you grant the reality. The political purpose of my study of disciplinarity is to get at the discursive roots, the roots in a habit of thinking, of “political philosophy,” in all its forms, including the most everyday, “popular” ones. A disciplinary space serves the center by inquiring into commands from the center; a discipline assumes the subordination of the center to the object (the center) of that discipline—philosophy presupposes a state conducive to philosophy, sociology a state conducive to rationalized monads, and so on, and advises the state accordingly. The potential for confusion (the word “discipline” works in very different ways, respectively, in the two concepts) is unavoidable since there is a dialectic between the two: disciplinary spaces are institutionalized into disciplines and disciplinary spaces are generated within and across the disciplines. Disciplines are delegations that drift and are pushed into autonomy and therefore come to house various forms of imperium in imperio, but what makes this a difficult problem is that we don’t yet have a discourse of the center that can account for sovereign control over the disciplines because all the discourses of sovereignty we have until this point are indebted in a constitutive way to the disciplines. Since the end of sacral kingship there has not been a state which has not relied upon unaccountable disciplines for its “legitimacy.” Hence the need to solve the aforementioned problem.

To reprise: Writing represents speech, but must develop means to represent the non-lexical elements of the speech situation that cannot be directly represented. Writing is from the beginning an inquiry into language, identifying meaningful sounds, words and sentences. There is a continuum between the representation of these basic elements of language and the further means devised by language to supplement speech with means of indicating the elements of the speech situation unrepresentable as such in writing (such as tone, posture, “body language,” context, history). The metalanguage of literacy is developed so as to assess writing, distinguishing between correct and incorrect spellings and pronunciations, proper and improper uses of words (as judged by dictionaries), and grammatical and ungrammatical sentences. None of this is possible or even meaningful without a literate culture. Classical prose develops as the norm of written discourse, based on the principle of transparency (placing, in the reader’s imagination, the reader on the scene with the writer), but including the vast expansion of the study of grammar called “logic” and the notion of “proof” or evidence, which are really just specifications of transparency (involving a comprehensive view of the presumed scene).

If we look more carefully at these metalinguistic representations and supplementations of the scene of speech we find (I’m still following David Olson, this time his 1994 The World on Paper, very closely) a wide array of words that are complications of NSM primes like “think,” “say,” “want” and “know”: to represent uncertainty or hedging, “he supposed”; to represent a claim aimed at challenging another and meant to be challenged in turn, “he asserted”; to represent a process of thinking, “he considered”: to represent sincerity, “he believed”; to represent the end of a process of inquiry or discussion, “he concluded”; to represent claims that must have already been accepted in order for a particular statement to make sense, “he assumed”; and so on. In addition, we have the “reification” of “think,” “say” and “know” into the nouns “thoughts,” “sayings” (or “statements”) and “knowledge.” This is the basis for disciplines like philosophy and rhetoric (and more recently psychology), which are inquiries into metalinguistic artifacts like “suppositions,” “assumptions,” “beliefs,” “assertions,” “knowledge” and so on. In pointing out that “knowledge,” for example, is a construction of the metalanguage of literacy (and would therefore be unintelligible in oral cultures) is not to say that there is no such thing as knowledge (or beliefs, assumptions, etc.). It is to clarify the ontological status of these categories. If they are taken as first order realities we must look for a place to locate them, and we will construct such a space, calling it the “mind,” the “intellect,” or whatever. And then we will develop theories of this constructs, theories which are really just reiterations of the metalanguage of literacy itself. If we recognize them as second order realities, derivative of the metalanguage of literacy, though, then their meanings can never be separated from some disciplinary space of inquiry: “knowledge,” then, exists and claims regarding it can be disputed, but always in the form of “what we mean by knowledge in addressing this set of questions is…” In this case, these terms do not refer to “entities” with a specific “location.” They are, explicitly, ways of organizing shared attention.

So, we have several moves specific to the metalanguage of literacy: supplementation of a presumed scene; the nominalization of those supplements; the treatment of those nominalizations as entities, that can be studied and analyzed as composed of “parts,” with a “structure,’ causal relations and so on, “contained” in a space. Once these moves have been completed, an entire internally consistent metalinguistic vocabulary can be constructed by analogy with the one or few terms initially created. We then have disciplines, which study those locations or spaces—locations like “mind” or “intellect” for philosophy, psychology and related disciplines, but also “language,” “society,” “information,” “belief,” and so on for others. All of our cherished interiorities—will, intention, ideas, principles, reason, etc.—are retrojections of the metalanguage of literacy: they are depositories of nominalized entities, which replace what are more simply imperatives from the center. Again, it is not the reality of these objects that is in question, although they might be, of course, if they are superseded by other conceptual formations within the discipline; rather, it is the kind of reality that is in question. Obviously, studies of specific disciplines, or analyses of such studies, would need to be done, but I want to present the following hypothesis: all of the disciplines share the originary structure of the metalanguage of literacy. And this would also mean that engaging in skunkworks (creating disciplinary spaces) within the disciplines requires converting that originary structure into an infralinguistic one.

The metalinguistic disciplinary structure plays a kind of shell game with scenes, so this is a good place to probe a bit further. Any written text represents a speech situation or, let’s say, a scene of speech. It always does this implicitly—even reported dialogue in an account of an event is the report of that report. This concealment is maintained by the fiction that is perfected in classical prose which, as Olson, following Thomas and Turner, argues, purports to put the readers on the same scene as the writer. The writer-reader relation is set on two scenes simultaneously: the imagined speech scene and the equally imagined scene of the text. The reader needs to be able to make sense of the metalinguistic dimension of the text, and the writer must help him to do so, for both to be present on the essentially holographic speech scene. A great deal of attention management is necessary for the transparency of classical prose to emerge, and for it be taken for granted.

Some very promising implications for the study of literate cultures follows from this doubled structure of the written text. Writing, in the form of classical prose, which itself follows from abstracting the declarative sentence from imperatives and ostensives, is inherently duplicitous. In that case, we don’t need to focus so much on deceptive intentions in studying writing as a source of propaganda, ideology, manipulation, social control and so on—we can attribute these effects of writing to a lack of awareness of the structure of writing itself, to the writer and reader simply taking the transparency of classical prose for granted. Of course, this doesn’t imply any Socratic or Rousseauian opposition to writing—of course one can write honestly and intelligently, and need not deceive one’s readers. It’s just that doing so involves more than the intention to do so. At a minimum, this involves drawing or allowing for attention to the opacity which complements the transparency of prose. Furthermore, the presumed transparency of writing in classical prose has been transferred to all the media following writing, especially electric and electronic media—the same hunger for and belief in transparency prevails across the board. The promise of a less mediated ascension to the center guarantees allegiance. The mediation, the opacity, is itself the imperative from the center to derive, with others, further imperatives.

The disciplines in the human sciences do constitute a counter to the immediate transparency of literacy. Every discipline begins with the realization that this(some eminently predictable, automatic, clichéd statement) is what can be said about X (a novel, a social protest, a primitive ritual, a painting, a political campaign, a famine, etc.); however, saying thisreduces what you are referring to the limits of your own vocabulary. The naïve subject from whom the discipline breaks believes himself to be on the scene of speech, treating that imagined scene as a real one. The discipline, by contrast, plants itself explicitly in the literate scene, and knows it can only represent the speech scene in a mediated way. The naïve subject calls the violent protester a “traitor,” or “ruffian,” or maybe “hero”; the disciplinary subject calls him a “radical” or “extremist,” because he has lifted that figure from a shared scene (which the naïve subject feels himself to occupy) to a disciplinary scene where one “radical” or “extremist” can be compared to others, in different contexts and cultures, and the “elements” “constituting” radicalism or extremism can be itemized and broken down into yet more elements.

But the disciplinary subject is just as naïve as the naïve one. He believes in “radicalism” as an essentially tangible entity just as much as the naïve subject believes in “treason.” If you are reporting the speech of someone who shouts “Treason!” and you are aware that you are reporting that speech you can’t simply say “treason” yourself, because you have taken upon yourself the responsibility of reporting the entire speech event, providing your reader with a way of viewing that speaker, and therefore cannot simply repeat what he has said. You need to set up a new context, and a comparative context, in which one act of “treason” can be placed next to another, with the understanding that the second act of treason might be heroic to the first accuser, which requires that you establish a new common denominator: “radicalism,” or “extremism.” In the process, though, you have not abandoned all alliances and affiliations; you have just moved from one set to another. The discipline is itself a side, and so is the institution in which it is housed, and the sovereign which it serves: “radicalism” and “extremism” provide far more flexible terms and found far more useful conceptual vocabularies for the purpose of social control than narrowly legal and more emotive terms like “treason.” But the disciplinary subject can’t see that he is doing that any more than the naïve subject can see that his shouts of “treason!” can be seen as identical to those condemning his own leaders as traitors. For him, it is the disciplinary scene that is transparent, as he and his fellow subjects look, as through a microscope, at the various interactions of entities like “radicalism,” “extremism,” “alienation,” “violent tendencies,” and so on.

What I have said about literate metalanguage more narrowly considered applies to the disciplinary metalanguages as well: they cannot issue imperatives. What happens if you tell someone to stop being “radical,” “extreme,” or “alienated.” The radical and extremist don’t really see themselves that way—they believe in something they see as true and just. The alienated individual might accept your label, but if he could stop being alienated he would and your giving his condition a name probably just reinforces it. At least the one shouting “traitor” can demand the state hang the miscreant. The theoretician of “extremism” is also issuing imperatives (soft ones: “suggestions”) to the sovereign, but they must be disavowed as such: the series of practices leading from the analytical conclusions of the sociologist to some implementation of anti-extremist measures cannot be reckoned within that analysis itself. He may be even more of a sleepwalker than the naïve subject.  He’s more abject, at any rate. At a certain point someone in the discipline will challenge the discipline by directing attention to the elements of orality ignored in literate discourse, but without an infralinguistic intervention that identifies a shared, imperative-issuing center ordering the oral, the literate and the disciplinary alike, this can only lead to a kind of primitivism.

Infralinguistic interventions involve taking a metalinguistic term used for the sake of external assessment and applying it within the discipline itself. Identify the polarities within the discipline, analyze their respective “extremisms” the way they analyze those of their targeted populations. The implicit valorization of “moderation” over “extremism” is thereby brought into play, both within the discipline and in its attention to its objects of inquiry. The discipline is made infralinguistic by having extremism used in such a way as to issue imperatives: telling the professor whose extremism you have defined in terms of what he refuses to see does, in fact, give him something to do—look for the center that enables him to distinguish between “moderate” and “extreme” in the first place. If in the end the distinction between extremism and moderation is dissolved, all the better. On this new, infradisciplinary scene, what we are looking at together is the originary structure of the discipline itself: its self-distancing from the web of imperatives and ostensives of everyday scenes, its supplementations of actions and speeches with qualifications and modifications, its reifications of those qualifications and modifications, and its treatment of those reifications as real objects that can be analyzed no less perspicaciously than a cell, or atom. In soliciting this scene, ringing its bell so to speak, we also make visible the hidden invisible threads through which it mediates between various power centers and the sovereign center. A value-free analysis of “extremism” might be suitable for a self-styled Hobbesian sovereign, which is content to know how content or dangerously discontent each of its subjects might be, but that also means such analyses target the sovereign as a source of domination that can be turned in any direction one likes as long as a convincing portrayal of “extremism” can be presented. It is the infradisciplinary analysis that can provide for a graduated series of vocabularies, each of which would develop its own meta-infradisciplinary dialectic. All disciplinary spaces obey the imperative to supplement the sovereign with the attentional spaces in reciprocal constitution with it.

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