GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

August 7, 2018

Hypothetically Speaking

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:29 am

It’s interesting to see people get offended and angry in online discussions—they curse each other, threaten each other, try to demean and humiliate each other. In other words, they act according to codes of an honor society in a medium that renders those codes completely irrelevant. That irrelevance has long been the case with print, as well, but online communication seems to revive the remnants of oral cultures because the exchanges take place in the present. The culture of meme-ing, meanwhile, makes it clear that online communication favors brief, memorable “detournements” of powerful images and clichés, frame-switching of opponents’ arguments, and casual taboo breaking. Such memes can travel nearly instantaneously, are immediately intelligible, and force responses that reveal something about the responder we might not have known otherwise.

This is to make the obvious point that meaning depends upon medium. But there are some less obvious consequences to this observation. Relying upon David Olson’s analysis of the metalanguage of literacy and classic prose, I’ve proposed that we can see writing, in relation to speech, in mimetic terms, as seeking to “saturate” the assumed speech situation represented in writing. In an oral situation, constituted by physical presence, you can shake your fist at your interlocutor—undoubtedly that once has a real meaning, showing that one was refraining from violence for the moment, but was making no guarantees should things escalate. It’s hard to imagine someone doing that now, even in the most heated argument. This doesn’t mean that the written text needs the equivalent of shaking one’s hand in anger—the fact of widespread literacy transforms social order, or entails a transformed social order, such that a certain distance from violence can be assumed, rather than having the line at which we pass into violence represented regularly. This is the first problem with classical prose, then—it simulates a speech situation—the reader and writer as interlocutors made present on a shared scene by the writer’s prose—that is really an ersatz one.

Marshall McLuhan was at least partially right to say that the content of a new medium is the older medium it is replacing or supplementing. Certainly, radio tries to reproduce the intimacy of a one on one conversation, and, for a long time, TV shows were basically filmed theatrical productions and extended vaudeville skits. And they try to saturate the space they purport to merely reproduce: in radio it might be the cultivation of (not necessarily “authentic”) regional idiosyncrasies, or an avuncular, reassuring vocal presence; in the TV shows of the 50s and 60s, a kind of artificial national idiom was created, probably based on some variant of Midwestern speech. Not surprisingly, these are the features of older samples of these media that both evoke nostalgia and are easiest to parody (which makes them a great source of memes). If we are committed to submitting all of the concepts and categories presented to us by the liberal order to painstaking, unrestrained interrogation, we should accept the modernist aesthetic dictum that the capabilities and possibilities of the media as media should be explored, rather than thinking in terms of representing the same content in one form or another. The concept of a “disciplinary space” is meant to help us do that—if there is a universal across all media, it is not content or ideas, but that any medium is a distinctive way of organizing attention.

The problem with classical prose, and, more generally, the imperative to saturate the scene of one media with terms and tropes from another is that a lot of material that hasn’t been properly “inspected” finds its way into your representations. It’s easiest to reach for the familiar in filling in the gaps left in trying out new media. One of the most revelatory effects of Goggle’s Ngram reader is the realization that concepts, words, that seem so natural as to be permanent features of the social landscape are quite recent creations and, in fact, deliberately created artifacts of the propaganda needs of World War II and then the Cold War. “Liberal democracy,” “Judeo-Christian,” “separation of Church and state,” “free market,” “nation of immigrants,” “racism,” and much more—none of them pre-date, in any significant way, World War II. The problem (well, one problem) with contemporary conservatives is that they’re still fighting the wars against the Nazis and the Soviets, like the proverbial Japanese solider lost on a Pacific island and never hearing about his country’s defeat. These terms are in turn embedded in larger networks of terms, which are in turn rooted in the disciplines upon which we rely in order to say pretty much anything. (The “separation of Church and state” becomes a serious topic in political science.) All of our thinking apparatuses need to be thoroughly overhauled.

These concepts, which weigh down our thinking in ways that require continuous effort to notice, are in turn only the visible feature of habits, gestures, reactions and reflexes and that just as grounded in media, histories, and power struggles as the concepts themselves. Part of the purpose of the “originary grammar” I keep returning to, that is, the attempt to reduce all discourse to some relation between ostensive, imperative and declarative signs, is to help us in stripping all discourse and all disciplines of everything “unvetted,” everything bearing liberal assumptions or implications, precisely in the most take for granted places. Part of contemporary reactionary thought, of course, is the return to “old books” and therefore old and discarded concepts, and nothing I say here counters that practice at all, since retrieving, for example, the distinction between warriors, craftsmen and priests in the ordering of communities serves the same corrosive effect upon liberal concepts. But, of course, maybe society can no longer or should no longer be ordered in that way—these older concepts also need to be tested against what I think is the one criterion all post-liberals and anti-liberals can share: a privileging of order over freedom, however defined. We want to make order where we see disorder, and I think order can only mean defense of a center. If in fact, no social order can now be reduced to warrior/craftsman/priest that by no means invalidates the concepts (in general, we can be in much less of a rush to invalidate concepts—why not keep them around in case they prove useful at some point?); rather it renders that trichotomy a source of hypotheses and thought experiments.

We could spend all of our time (I don’t say that we should) studying the discourses around us, including those of our fellow reactionaries, in search of concepts, words, phrases, even stylistic tics that have previously unnoticed tendrils reaching into the dense network of liberal power concepts. This would be time very well spent. It need not be antagonistic at all—quite to the contrary, it’s a kind of civil hygiene we would be performing for each other. Some of the most pioneering work done along these lines has been by the proprietor of the now defunct blog Reactionary Future, with its most important result to date being his Patron Theory of Politics. At least one of the future directions of such work will involve making thinking increasingly hypothetical. To question the meaning of a word or term is to treat it as a hypothesis: what follows from describing phenomena in these ways? The purpose of my concept of a “sovereign imaginary” is the same: when you say something is good or bad, right or wrong, desirable or undesirable, that we “should” or “must” do this or that, what form of central power would make possible the relation between what you say and what you take to be the “payoff” or “downstream” of what you say? Everything we say or do entails a hypothesis regarding the sovereign order making that saying or doing possible and intelligible.

In a sense, I am proposing a kind of freedom of thought, one already practiced by many on the new or dissident right (which makes it possible for me to reflect upon it). We’re not obliged, nor does it always serve our purposes, to “prove” that we have a better theory of “human nature” or “social structure,” or to provide, on demand, iron-clad “alternatives” to the seemingly carved in the stone of history liberal order. It’s not as if we shouldn’t do these things, if they seem useful—my point is that these are not rules we need play by. Liberalism thoroughly saturates today’s media-scape, and a lot of what we can do is facilitate liberalism’s own self-dialogues, its incessant, narcissistic babblings. It’s helpful to point out that the truth of the matter is almost always pretty much exactly the opposite of what the liberal says; indeed, what liberals say is almost invariably a way of avoiding some damaging truth. My own approach, which I of course hope others will find compelling, is to keep asking about origin, center, power, deferral and discipline, questions liberalism must avoid under penalty of brain death.

To think and speak hypothetically is to “de-saturate.” It’s very easy to think in terms of being a “man speaking to men,” thereby evoking a speech situation in which one anticipates responses, seeks “common ground,” appeals to approved attitudes, and so on—these are some of those deeply embedded reactions and reflexes I referred to before. Instead, why not think of one’s reader or listener as a vehicle conveying a kind of irresistible, minimal, model, whether by endorsement or opposition? I began by mentioning the absurdity of taking offense in online discussions, but it’s actually pretty absurd anywhere—if you’re not going to demand satisfaction in duel, what’s the point? Getting offended just gives others needless power over you—if they know what offends you, they know how to jerk you around. (I’m speaking here of people who actually take offense, not of the big business of taking offense for rent-seeking purposes—but, of course, the latter can only persist if the former is still practiced.) If we can learn these things through a new medium we can apply it to older ones, which in turn get situated within the “media ecology” in a new way.

I come back to that here because once we target, analytically, an archaic or useless attitude, the next step is to ask what might replace it. What would take the place of offending and being offended—an interesting thought experiment, I think. (One can say part of being human is being offended by violations of reciprocity—but we don’t know that. There are all kinds of ways of detecting, assessing and responding to violations of norms. Referring to what we must be “as humans” is one of the last resorts of scoundrels.) To be offended is to take the meaning of a remark to be some present or possible future lowering of status, it is to see oneself singled out as a more likely center of resentment and therefore target of violence. The first question, then, is whether the remark indeed portends some deleterious centering of the offended: what hypothesis regarding possible targeting is one entertaining? To pose the question is already to make it possible to defer any such danger. If you can’t really point to any danger, maybe you’re the one who is looking to attack pre-emptively. In what way might the offensive remark be fair or just? (What is the scenic meaning of “fairness” and “justice”—what sovereign imaginary comes with each concept?) If there is some way, then we are looking into the sovereign imaginary shared by offender and offended; if there is absolutely no way, if the remark must be deemed sheer, utter, vitriol, then taking offense is particularly ridiculous—the other is admitting his impotence, since he clearly wants to commit violence but realizes he can’t. Instead of taking offense and devising some “proportional” response, the situation can be used to create memes regarding the paradoxes of simultaneously denying and establishing hierarchies and paradoxes. Using situations to promote such hypothetical thinking will, eventually, lead us to the theories of the human and the social, and the “concrete alternatives” that we will need.

Now, of course, there are times when it is good policy to affect taking offense, to demand apologies, insist on reparations, etc., in whatever form a particular medium provides for. But to think in such terms is to already “de-saturate,” to distance oneself from an imagined speech situation, and to try and figure out how to generate a simulacrum. This is part of the study of meaning: how does the other’s words and actions, within a given power structure, on the margins of a particular center, commit that other in ways that make it possible to help him reveal himself? To approach meaning in this more disciplinary way is to ask what imperatives someone’s words and actions issue to him, which it turn makes it possible to try out ways of amplifying the imperative.


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