Prolegomena to the Study of the Origins of the Disciplines

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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