GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

November 20, 2018

Logocentrism, Media, and Originary Satire

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:33 am

Jacques Derrida’s concept of “logocentrism” posits that Western metaphysics presupposes that writing is a representation of speech, and therefore approximates speech in a secondary, dependent way. Speech, in logocentric terms, involves “self-presence”: the speaker is identical to his intentions, which are therefore transparent to the speaker. Derrida deconstructs logocentrism by pointing out that the features attributed to writing by logocentrism, like distance, difference, repetition and mediation (all of which means interpretation, and erring), are in fact constitutive of speech and all sign use as well. We are not identical and transparent to ourselves but are—this seems obvious, once stated—constituted by a world of signs and meanings that we inhabit and deploy without ever coming anywhere near exhausting their implications. We are signs among signs, and signs mean deferral.

David Olson confirms Derrida’s deconstruction of logocentrism (I’m not at all sure how much Olson—or Derrida—would accept that description of his work) by showing, through historical studies, how writing was developed as a representation and supplementation of speech acts within speech situations. Writing has to represent not only what was said, but how it was said and the context within which it was said, all of which would have been available to the listener but is unavailable to the reader. So, to use Olson’s example, if I’m speaking to people, and I want to report the speech of someone else, I would simply repeat what that person said in the way that he said it. So, if what I want to report that another says that the soldiers are on their way, my tone and expressions would vary depending upon whether the original speaker was hopeful, skeptical or certain; and, although Olson doesn’t explicitly say this, according to my own assessment of his reliability (I could repeat what he said in a slightly mocking tone, for example). Writing needs to supplement all these extra-linguistic elements of the speech situation (as we become literate we no doubt become far less overtly mimetic), so I would have to write that the speaker “believed” the soldiers were coming, or “hoped” they were, or “assumed,” or “claimed,” or “insisted” they were. All of these words mark some assessment of what we are to make of the statement in question: not just the meaning of the statement itself, but the meaning of it being stated.

What further happens, according to Olson, is that we turn these verbal markers into nouns, thereby creating new mental entities: “beliefs,” “assumptions,” “suggestions,” “implications” and so on; we then deposit all these entities in a container we call the “mind” and perform all kinds of analyses on them. We assume they are simply there, that the mind contains thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, intuitions and all the rest. All the modern disciplines are founded on constructing relations between such entities. Meanwhile, what then governs the development of writing is the imperative to simulate the speech situation, to place the reader “in front of” something he witnesses along with the writer. This construct is what Olson refers to (drawing on the work of Mark Turner and Francis Noel-Thomas) as “classical prose.” Whenever we talk about whether or not a piece of writing is clear, comprehensive, logical, and accurate, we are invoking the norms of classical prose: we are attesting to having been put before a scene such that we have virtually forgotten that it is a text that we have used to evoke that scene. If we put all this together, we can see how it becomes possible to speak about things like “social structures” and “economic growth” as if they were there before us, and we could see structures strengthening or crumbling, growth slowing and accelerating.

My discussion so far gives off the vague idea that there’s something wrong with all this, which both is and is not the case. It may be that all media must in some way gesture towards their origin in a scene in which the interlocutors are present to each other in the sense of seeing each other’s faces, hearing each other’s voices and being able to respond to each other. There is, on such a scene, a center (what people are actually looking at and talking about) while references or pointing to the center circulates among the members. But once we have writing, the situation is asymmetric, with the text “infiltrating” the reader’s (along with many other readers, unknown to one) silent monologue or perhaps installing such a monologue in the first place. The inner monologue of the reader matches the one imputed to the writer, between whom there is the feeling of a kinship. At any rate, this is the case as reading is privatized and separated from its own original contexts within liturgy and collective study and memorization of texts. The more the reader is isolated and marginalized in relation to the center represented by the text, the more the reader feels free and like a creator of a whole world opened up by the text. Insofar as writing is the representation of speech acts, a “scripto-centric” practice of writing would refrain from filling in the “gaps” to complete the imputed speech situation and would, rather, enact the various possible uses and contexts of speech acts (that is, foreground the iterabiity of the sign made visible by writing).

What interests me here is the possibility that the post-literate media share the same duality: on the one hand, in actuality, creating greater distance and enhanced deferral vis a vis an hypothetical “original” speech act, while on the other hand supplementing the representation of the speech act so as to obscure the mediation and leverage the intuitions of the listener or viewer and thereby produce a fantasy of presence. An obvious feature of all media beyond a speech setting is its institutionalization: a lot of work and organization goes into placing a book in the hand of a reader; even more goes into putting the viewer in front of a TV set or movie screen. One demand especially forcefully insisted upon by the artistic avant-garde has always been to make these mediations visible, to demystify them. That anchor on the TV screen telling you what happened today is not speaking personally to you, telling you what she and her colleagues have found out about the world that day by diligently seeking out events you might consider important and interesting, but a frame is carefully constructed so as to make the viewer feel that way and it can be a hard illusion to break, maybe impossible for many. If television found ways to bring onto the screen the vast institutional and technological networks that produce the screen, there would be no illusion—it would be alienating at first, but people would learn the new “grammar” of television. The only way to become a critical “consumer” of both news and entertainment is to “adumbrate” what you watch with the possible decisions, maneuvers, and conflicts and imagine some “they” who wants you to see these things (and not some other things) in this way. To help others along this path, then, would involve disrupting the imagined “speech situation” that “installs” the view in the desired position. Almost all media representations (including social media like Facebook and Twitter), in fact, aim at simulating a personal, “face to face” relationship with what is on the page, or the screen, or the CD, or the airwaves (indeed, there is outrage and disgust or at least bad reviews when this is not done successfully)—by locking the audience into “spontaneous” oralized reactions (like wanting to sing along, feeling like you’re letting the TV family “into your living room,” or arguing with an anchor or columnist— wanting to “shout at the screen”), it becomes very easy to pump the memes of the day into us. What’s insidious is the fabricated intimacy—an insight, by the way, one can find in the dreaded “cultural Marxists” of the Frankfurt School like Adorno and Horkheimer, not to mention Bertolt Brecht. There is something here that probably goes back to the sensationalist popular press of the 19thcentury, looking for sob stories and horror stories that “could happen to anyone” and “bring the nation together.”

There is quite a bit of irony in the fact that the inquiries of the artistic and theoretical avant-gardes of the 20thcentury, originally devised, with a few exceptions, in the hopes of some kind of “anti-capitalist” revolution, are now of interest only to the dissident right. The alt-right is the inheritor of Dada and the Situationist International. It is also amusing to be reminded that Fredric Jameson, in his “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” obsessively poured over by graduate students in the humanities in the early 1990s, complained that “satire” was now irrelevant as a cultural mode: the critical distance and objective standards presupposed by satire had been abolished by the commodification of the world, which (as Baudrillard had been insisting for decades) “flattened out” all representations and realities in a condition of universal equivalence. All that was now possible was a politically impotent “parody.” What had in fact happened, though, was that leftist critiques had been absorbed into and neutralized by the liberal world order—as if they had ever really been outside of that order in the first place. But the irreverent satire on the alt-right (how far back would we have to go to find a satirist equal to the Chateau Heartiste?) is, it seems, not all that easily “absorbed.” If it were, its practitioners would be receiving generous job offers from the New York Times, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, etc., they’d be drawing hundreds of thousands in grants from the NEA, etc. Instead, they are de-platformed and doxed, while every effort is made, by some of the most powerful institutions tht have ever existed, to destroy their lives and taint anyone who has had even the most tenuous association with them. Maybe satire has some life in it, after all. (One important thing to keep in mind about satire is that it can be dialed up and down, made more or less subtle, depending on exigencies—indeed, sometimes simply repeating, without comment, what another has said, in a carefully constructed context, can be satire enough.)

The alt-right knows its media—it knows how to deploy a twitter feed, the podcast, to spread memes, to create street art—the only thing it hasn’t mastered yet is actual, physical, presence. Such presence will clearly need to be stealth, which is hard to master. These kinds of observations have sent me back, in recent posts, to the originary scene, and Eric Gans’s reflections on the origins of the aesthetic. Gans locates the aesthetic in the oscillation in attention on the part of the participant on the scene between the sign issued by his fellows and the central object drawing everyone in and repelling everyone back. The aesthetic, then, involves the human, not the divine—it is our way of representing to each other the kinds of “poses” struck by other members of the community that guarantee (or fail to) that they are suitable to accompany us to sites of social distribution. In other words, aesthetic representations test out the various ways we can recognize each other as human (which means that for the aesthetic, the human is always a question). Aesthetic representations that transcend or perfect humanity, or purport to, are really representing institutions, not poses, postures and gestures on a scene. How do we look to each other as potential guarantors (and potential violators) of reciprocal presence on a scene marked by mimetic crisis? As both threatening and vulnerable; i.e., grotesque. Exacerbate these conflicting postures, and you get satire, with its figures bombastic and craven, domineering and slavish, perennially pumping up balloons to be punctured. We see such representations, and we can see others and ourselves, and we can laugh at what goes into and is nevertheless deferred in our everyday representations of ourselves and others. But satire also, of course, bites—what satire reveals is who can survive being punctured and go on in common knowledge of our human faults; and who is really the kind of monster satire teaches us to detect and avoid becoming.

Satire that dispenses with logocentrism once and for all would represent the difference between logocentric, “conversational” representations and the vast networks of technology and power (the imperative field) propping them up. The current NPC meme (is it still current?) is a perfect example. The discipline of satire enters the other disciplines and exposes their reliance on global pseudo-markets, frenzied egalitarian crusades, elite vendettas, as well as cheesy narratives, dead metaphors, sickly clichés, underpaid writers, stagehands, and the blithering idiots produced by the contemporary schools of journalism. (Indeed, all these postures and positions must be traced back to the supplementation of imagined speech situations.) “Debate” or “dialogue” with anyone dependent on mainstream funding and approval is obviously pointless. Sure, they’re human, but they’re also puppets, and the strings are increasingly visible. They’re walking collections of talking points. They’re tiny people, and also big, blundering people, and crazed scientific frauds, and yahoos. Satire doesn’t rely on or desire fake experiences of presence, communion, or F2F encounters—it revels in the distances and alienations that make it possible to carve the caricature, defamiliarize the comforting illusion, de-activate the automatized gesture. If it’s written in classical prose (as we may say of Swift’s satires) it is simultaneously a satire on the transparent, reasonable world classical prose presupposes. Post-liberal politics will be at its best when it’s a giant, open, school of satire.

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