GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

September 11, 2018

Signing Up

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:42 am

The human is that being for whom repetition is problematic. A sign has meaning insofar as it can be repeated, which is to say, repeated as the same sign. We can go further and say that the meaning of a sign is precisely the various ways and occasions upon which it can be repeated. One’s understanding of a sign is demonstrated by the ways one is able to repeat it and have it accepted as that sign. But since a sign refers to a shared center, others, whose cooperation, or even attention, cannot be ensured, meaning can never be guaranteed in advance, just like you can never be sure whether a joke will fall flat. It is conflicting desires and resulting resentment that makes signs possible, necessary, and problematic. All culture is created so as defer violence and protect the center that enables us to do so, but in that case it might be more minimal to say that all culture is concerned with making repetition as certain as it needs to be—to ensure that this sign remains this sign for as long as and for whom it is necessary.

The originary hypothesis assumes an event at the end of which one thing is significant (the gesture of aborted appropriation) and one thing is sacred (the central object)—meaning is completely concentrated in that gesture—the rest of the world is (now) “meaningless.” If meaning is articulated by the ostensive gesture, though, it must articulate the entire bodily posture of the individuals involved. Pointing toward the central object while standing still, and bending slightly backwards, would help endow the sign with meaning in a way that pointing toward the object while leaning, or creeping, forward would not. There would be a tendency to saturate the human bodies with meaning as the originary event is repeated, both in ritual and in its extension to other practices. Certain situations would call for certain kinds of accentuation, and certain kinds of downplaying, of rendering “null,” certain components of the sign. We learn to calibrate the accentuation and nullification—any English speaker can make out, for the most part, the same sentence as spoken by an American Southerner, a New Yorker, a Midwesterner, a Brit, an Australian, etc., which is to say we can control for accent when we’re interested in a specific kind of meaning (semantic); at the same time, the accent can at times become an important part of the meaning.

I would assume that the ability to exercise such control is a consequence of millennia of learning and the development of media that singled out specific features of meaning, the most important of which media I would consider to be writing. The earliest sign users must have moved quickly from that one, single, meaning, to a world bursting with meaning. The slightest move by another member of the group would take on the form of some kind of menace, suggestion or invitation, which must be directly responded to, because there could be no question as to the meaning of the movement, and that meaning must be “verified” or extended, which is to say, repeated, by a complementary sign/movement. The surrounding world would also be replete with meaning—every animal, plant, change in the weather, etc., would be saying something. And those signs would be repeated as well. A “system” would develop, but it would look nothing like Saussure’s “system of differences,” or grammatical or logical systems; rather, it would be a system of what Marcel Jousse called “gestes,” in which sound/gesture/posture articulations, each with its own balance and rhythm and communal meaning, would complement other such articulations, in a never ending process of generating social coherence. Coherence would result, which is to say repetition relatively ensured, by making this gestural-oral system finite and exhaustive, such that every sign can be seen as indirectly referring to all the others. It is the textual reduction of meaning that creates the infinite system. (Is there, then, a tendency in the “secondary orality” of electronic communication, to return us to exhaustive finitude?)

In a finite, exhaustive, or ergodic system, all signs must ultimately be coming from the same place: the center. All individuals are mouthpieces, or enactments, of the center—this doesn’t imply a lack of individualization on the part of early, gestural-oral communities; in fact, there are many reports that the more primitive communities contain a greater richness of individual differences than our more civilized ones, and I think this is credible because trying to speak for the center might easily generate far more diversity than striving to distinguish oneself from it, which actually gets monotonous pretty quickly. It is also the center that would enable a hierarchy of significance, making it possible to distinguish between higher and lower stakes events—every gesture by any other member of the group that suggests in the slightest one’s lesser value within the group doesn’t necessarily have to be answered with maximum and immediate force. But you know that because the center, in the form, say, of a ritually consecrated ancestor, who is at the same time you, tells you so. This is to say that most insistently and carefully repeated signs create a tissue and texture that helps ensure consistent repetition all around—unvarying repletion of meaning would be extremely wasteful.

The most consistently and completely meaningful system, then, would have been sacral kingship—there, all meaning flows from the center and is directed back to the center, with that center claiming its centrality by way of its descent from the origin of the group, which is to say humanity, itself. After sacral kingship, we no longer speak from within the center. I hope it’s needless to say that no nostalgia for sacral kingship is implicit here: the point of remembering it is to explain why the reductions of meaning that followed sacral kingship tended to assume the surest way of maintaining stable repetition was by distinguishing the individual from the center. Just as the distribution of money to buy victims for the sacrifice replaced the collective presence of the group on the scene, the distributibility of the center leads one to focus on the rules for distributing the pieces. This involves a diminishment of meaning, or “disenchantment.” It’s logical to assume that the trajectory to be followed here is to keep “clarifying” meaning, and distributing it in discrete, measurable chunks. There will always be significant power centers that find this trajectory convenient, and those power centers will have large constituencies, precisely because it produces conveniences more broadly.

The counter to this process is a re-embedding of meaning irreducible to its calculated distribution. Clearly, a return to pagan ritual and sacral kingship is not an option here. In this case one must accept the cliché that in order to get out one must go through. The new mode of thinking initiated by the originary hypothesis provides us with a conceptual vocabulary for describing, with great detail and accuracy, every single desire and resentment, and to do so in terms that would not be chosen by the bearers of those desires and resentments but that would be simultaneously very difficult for them to deny. This kind of “parrhesia” provides for a convergence of GA with much of the alt-right and neo-reaction, both of which similarly wish to map out, openly and honestly, the “mechanics” and rules of interaction between individuals and groups. It is only such a peeling back of illusions and ideologies that can make a “formalist” political project, in which actual power relations are formalized, possible. (Without a disciplinary space trained on all the various articulations of power, how could the actual relations be formalized?) Pursuing such an inquiry is the highest vocation of the human sciences.

The question, then, is how does this contribute to the re-embedding, the re-repletion of meaning? First of all, I will note that an indication of how depleted meaning is for us is that the most meaningful thing one can do today is mock, ruthlessly, the circulation of the clichés and commonplaces that have hidden large chunks of reality for decades. What is eminently mockable is diminishing in meaning (the mocking accelerates this process) which means that a process of diminishing returns is in play here. It’s very interesting to consider that, for example, as Jean Baudrillard proclaimed long ago (and Slavoj Zizek, among other postmodern thinkers, have a good sense of this as well), we can all cease to believe in any of the propositions of the “dominant ideology”—we can all come to realize that liberalism, equality, democracy, rule of law, etc., are all jokes—and that the system can go on, because of as much as in spite of this. But Baudrillard, Zizek and the others don’t know that meaning is deferral.

To describe desire and resentment in “long form” is to make explicit much of what is usually left tacit; it is to put what usually remains on the ostensive and imperative levels into declarative sentences. X resents Y at work for getting the better office. It would take quite a few sentences to unpack this resentment into a series of explicitly stated relations of difference, power, signs of status, the limits of possible responses to this “injustice,” the concept of ‘injustice” itself, the reasons for the limitations on possible responses, and so on. Think about explaining things like desire and resentment to intelligent, non-human beings. This has always been the goal of metaphysics, and more narrowly, the human sciences, even if mathematics replaces some of the propositions that would be required. But metaphysics and the human sciences have done so to reduce to a minimum the hold ostensives and imperatives have on us—the liberal millennium, which not coincidentally looks a lot like the singularity, would be the complete replacement of the ostensive and imperative realm by the declarative. That would inaugurate the “Age of Reason,” but we would find all those declarative themselves devoid of meaning, since they would never actually be referring to anything; or rather, they would have pure power meanings, as they would be built to subjugate anyone insufficiently proficient in their articulation.

But if we are creating a new human science that has a different goal, which is to use declaratives to study the intricate networks of ostensive, imperative and interrogative sentences that in fact make them possible and are inscribed within them, we are free to note the inherently parodic results of precisely the most accurate and detailed transcriptions of desires and resentments. There is a good reason that pretty much all good modern literature is in one way or another a satire of disciplinary or, more broadly, “hyper-declarative,” thinking. The explosion of language generated by the human sciences can so easily be used to show the desires and resentments of the human scientists themselves. This satiric take on the disciplines is effortlessly included in the new, originary, human science, which defuses desires and resentments by exposing them, while also revealing the social relations we assume and therefore the obligations we take on in nevertheless experiencing slightly more deferred desires and resentments.

So, the “red-pilled” or “uncucked” right, whatever it will be called and whatever it will be, is inherently a satiric operation (perhaps the first constitutively satiric politics ever). Not “satiric” in the narrower sense of criticizing present day norms, mores, and “follies,” but more like what Wyndham Lewis called “metaphysical satire,” one directed at humans as repeating beings who never quite get repetition right. Satire, more than other literary forms, is based on repetition—it purports, unlike “realism,” to represent actual and not merely possible actions (for satire, even when fictionalized, to work we need to have specific targets in mind), and to do so in a way that is “distorted” from the standpoint of the target but truer for the satirist. It is therefore also the most responsible form because its goal is to help continue to check and improve our iterative capacities (is that portrait like so-and-so or not? How can we tell?). It therefore is well suited for the project of replenishing the world with meaning again, as it implicates the fundamentally paradoxical nature of our being as sign users (signers?). with its help, we can see signs of the origin of our human being everywhere.

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