December 25, 2018

Distribution from the Center

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:41 am

I’ve been overlooking the most obvious and (materially) important thing the center does: distribute. Examining the way all distribution is from the center will take us a long way towards addressing all kinds of economic questions: it all becomes a question of what, exactly, is being distributed. On the originary scene, we assume a roughly equal distribution of the central object. Everyone who has issued the sign gets a piece. But why should this be the case? Why couldn’t one or more members of the group get shoved aside once a symmetrical relation to the center has been established through the sign—say, one or two particularly weak or non-contributing members of the group, who pose no threat to anyone, and therefore were less important than others in addressing the danger created by the mimetic crisis? I think the answer is that the event could only be remembered and repeated if equivalence between issuing the sign and being a member of the group is absolute. If it turns out, in the midst of the sparagmos, that one or more members who participated in emitting the sign were closed off from consumption, the pre-human pecking order will have been reintroduced into the new human group (or violence will erupt again), meaning that the “humanization” of the group has failed to “take.”

But this still doesn’t mean everyone gets an identical piece. It would be impossible for us to determine exactly what that means now, much less for those eating together on the originary scene. We must assume an at least minimal hierarchy on the originary scene—a hierarchy now mediated by the use of the sign, which I assume must be flashed repeatedly in the course of the sparagmos. The stronger member will defer to the weaker member, but as the stronger to the weaker, just as the weaker defers to the stronger as the stronger. In this new situation there will be enough uncertainty about who, in the total scheme of things (the alpha having been displaced), is actually “stronger,” and by how much, to allow for a balance to emerge. We could call this a spontaneous emergence of order, but, in fact, it is the sign, continually pointing to the center, which allows for the portions to be “allocated.” The center is the source of distribution, and the proof of this is that when the originary scene is formalized as ritual, the distribution most approximating total inclusion, that is, pre-established “equal” pieces, will be adhered to—with any exceptions being due to special functions any particular member plays in the ritual. The group itself must assume and insist that apportionment is determined by the center. What matters most is that inclusion in the group—even of a member despised or mocked—is beyond all question. The most terrible consequences of liberal individualism come from the destruction of this assumption that all individuals, before all else, have their entire existence within the group.

Once a human occupies the center, distribution is determined by the central authority. At this point, equal distribution is no longer a consideration. The central authority will distribute in accord with merit and loyalty. This also means that possession of what has been distributed will be contingent upon continued shows of merit and loyalty. The most skilled hunter might get the largest share of the game for himself and his family or tribe; the bravest warrior will likewise receive goods and honors commensurate with his significance. Over time these “aristocrats” will become centers of distribution themselves. I will assume that it is first of all subsequent to conquest that land will be distributed among the conquerors, in accord with rank and contribution to the war effort.

This is all unproblematic as long as sacral kingship holds, which is to say as long as there is no differentiation between the occupant of the center and the subsistent center (corresponding to the central object on the scene, and what keeps the center the center once the object has been consumed). Tribute comes into the central authority, which is simultaneously the ritual center, and is distributed from there. Differentiation between the two modalities of the center sets in with the discrediting of sacrificial practices, which is to say practices which assumed a moral correspondence between tribute flowing to the center and distribution flowing out from it. Once an exchange between what is given to the center, and the benefits in life one receives can no longer be believed in, the occupant of the center and the subsistent center must be made commensurable again. This is the yet unsolved problem of humanity.

The first attempt to solve the problem is through the concept of “justice,” one of the first concepts explored by the first discipline to liberate itself from the sacral order, philosophy. Justice: each gets his due. Unmoored from a juridical system relying on precedents and limited to questions of property damage (which would include crimes like murder and rape), the concept immediately becomes unworkably complicated. This is also the condition of possibility of imperium in imperio—the measure of a good ruler is that he acts justly, preserves justice, which means that a ruler who does not do so is not a “genuine” ruler. “Justice” is the subsistent center, to which the occupant of the center is subordinated. How many rulers have been overthrown, how many failed attempts at overthrowing rulers have been made, in the name of justice? The assumption, though, is still that distribution comes from the center: justice is the distribution to each of his due, whatever that means and however it is to be determined. What is being distributed here is not something possessed by the recipient; rather, it is access to a mode of decision making, a recognition of something like a “right” subsisting in the claimant in the justice system.

The new philosophical, theological and legal disciplines study “justice,” and the rulers are dependent on their conceptual constructs. Those conceptual constructs are inherently divisive, unlike strictly prescribed ritual distribution, because each player within the social order can articulate the conceptual order to his advantage (such concepts enable one to be conscious of this possibility)—this is possible because the real content of these conceptual orders is the possibility of extracting rights from the sovereign. All subsequent disciplines, all the human sciences, from political economy to sociology to anthropology even, I would say, seemingly unrelated disciplines like psychology fit the same pattern. They are all constructing entities, groups, subjects, categories of belonging, that can be managed by and activated to make demands on the center. The post-literate order more or less coincides with the post-sacral order, and these disciplines are constructed in accord with the logic I’ve been exploring in my posts on the disciplines: supplementations of speech acts required so as to make writing a simulation of speech are turned into nominalizations which then designate entities, ultimately mental (even the most “materialistic” disciplines, like economics, are ultimately comprised of mental entities, like “choice,” “utility,” “value,” etc.) that can be the recipients of the rights distributed by the center. Even a state law for institutionalizing the mentally disabled will be constructed in terms of the “right” to treatment of the patient and the “right” to protection of society. The disciplines are essentially studies into the simulacra known as “rights”—what they are, what they entail, who can have them, who decides on their implementation, etc. We are still really within the frame of “justice.” Goods and property are no longer distributed by the center; various kinds of rights to access, or compete for access, to goods and property are distributed (of course these rights translate more or less directly into actual goods—the indirectness offers lots of wiggle room to sovereign and activist players alike).

The demand for autonomy explicitly made by the bearer of rights is therefore a demand for greater centralization. This is the major paradox of the mature liberal order, and at least a part of the cause of all its major dysfunctions. So, in a post-sacral order, what, other than rights, is there for the central authority to distribute, and to do so in a way complemented by the subsistent center? I think the most radical break with liberal utilitarianism is necessary here, and we have to say that what the center distributes is opportunities to make a complete donation of oneself to the subsistent center. There are only two possibilities that follow from the abolition of the imperative exchange of the sacrificial order: the endless struggle between claimants for ever more obscure rights, i.e., “justice”; or, replacing the donation of a part of your property to the deity in exchange for continued life, health and prosperity, with a complete donation of all that you are to whatever is “highest,” or most central. What this entails is something I have discussed many times: embedding the commands of the occupant of the center in all social practices. There is a constitutive gap between the command given and the command obeyed: self-donation entails the effort to enhance the consistency of the command given with the command obeyed—you could say, to make the command better than it is while ensuring it is a form of obedience that would be recognized by the occupant of the center as obedience to the command he has issued. The human sciences, then, are transformed into studies of imperatives from the center, tracing them back to earlier imperatives, speculating regarding possible imperatives, hypothesizing regarding the extension of present imperatives into networks of future ones.

The full donation of one’s self to the subsistent center is demanding—not everyone will be equally capable (everyone will be somewhat capable). But once we have dispensed with “rights” and “justice,” except for within very sharply circumscribed settings, authority can be distributed in accord with evidence of self-donation. This is not mere self-sacrifice—it’s not a question of placing someone who gives all of his possessions to charity, or can refrain from proscribed actions more consistently than others in charge of important institutions, by virtue of those “sacrifices” alone. Demonstrations of self-donation involve some clarification of the imperative order, some “competency” in translating the commands of central authority into sustainable practices. Nor is this a matter of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” which is just a modification of “justice.” Those granted more authority will also be rewarded, because the rewards include greater command responsibility. Only in this way could we, on post-sacrificial terms, reverse modernity’s collapse into distribution according, ultimately, to “feelings,” and establish an order predicated upon raising the level of discipline.

One of the most powerful critiques of modern liberalism coming from a postmodern standpoint is that, despite its formal inclusiveness, the rights-based order must always locate some group or type of person unworthy or incapable of bearing rights. “Rights” are possessed by “humans,” so the argument simply becomes one over who counts as “human.” I would say the real basis of the critique is that there is always someone who, if granted rights, would subtract from the rights of others. If some minority is to have its rights guaranteed, then whoever is deemed a threat to those rights must have their own curtailed. There is always some exclusion, and exclusions from a social order provide leverage for subversion by those in power disaffected with that order. Receiving the gift of the opportunity to donate oneself to the subsistent center necessarily includes everyone within the order. Everyone is expected to give themselves, and what each is expected to give and receive is commensurate to the contribution made to deferring violent centralizing. The enhancement of the command received by the command obeyed is effected by embedding the command in some practice of deferral. Everyone can be expected to engage in such deferral, and we need never abandon the possibility that even the most reprobate may eventually do so. So, there is no need to place any “category” of human outside of the social order.

December 23, 2018

Towards a Globalist-Victimary Unified Field Theory

Filed under: GA — Q @ 4:57 pm
  1. The American left’s political program, especially but not only “democratic socialism,” is based on repairing “disparate impact,” which is a polite term for describing discrimination based on race, class, gender or any such ascriptive category. The argument is that all races, sexes, and ascriptive groups are equal in ability and discipline (any individual differences presumably balance each other out within a group). Therefore any statistical differences in material circumstances between groups are caused by discrimination. The government’s duty in this situation is to prohibit and prosecute any discrimination; but that, for various reasons, such efforts are bound to be inadequate; therefore the government should, by taxes and various welfare programs, redistribute income more equally, first, among all inhabitants of the US, and also all oppressed groups worldwide. Furthermore, anyone who opposes efforts at reparation is by definition a racist (sexist, etc.). Whereas previous socialisms were based on thesis that the capitalists oppressed workers, the new socialism is based on the idea that “white males” oppress all other groups, and that such oppression is “systemic” or “structural,” that is, not dependent upon the intention of any particular individual.
  1. Economic success in the 21st century West depends largely on what might be called “technological literacy,” exemplified by computer programming and other skills. This is a relatively new development. Many individuals and groups are unable to compete successfully in the new “information” economy, which depends upon technology and the manipulation of symbols, as in computer programming—leading to some of the inequalities, and resultant resentments, noted above.
  1. The irony of this political situation is that the rich and privileged, who presumably benefit the most from systemic discrimination, are some of the most vocal and active supporters of the left. On the one hand, this can be understood as a hypocritical effort at publicity, which can affect the success of corporations, and even more so, politicians. The “socialist” program consists largely of public gestures which have little or no concrete effects; and when they do, usually make problems worse, just as rent controls are well-known to make affordable housing more scarce.
  1. Eric’s most original insight, however, is that the benefits of “battling discrimination” are more than simply publicity. That “democratic socialism” actually supports the economic system it purports to combat. This is the only way to explain how and why technological leaders really seem to believe in the battle, such that they are not tempted to vote Republican even in the privacy of the voting booth. This point is rather opaque to me. But it seems to be about how modern Western democracies manage resentment. On the one hand, resentment can result in violence and therefore must be deferred. But the anomalous nature of Modernity is such that the economy actually depends upon the stimulation and production of resentment, which fuels a large part of our economy. The most obvious example is social media, but also includes media in general. Perhaps the main export of the West is our music, movies, and television shows. The “productivity” of resentment also applies to our education system, especially the University. But our economy is still substantially based on the production and consumption of material objects and services: food, cars, medical care, housing, and other consumer goods. And it’s not clear how the production of resentment can help supply the material goods upon which our lives depend. Perhaps this is Eric’s point, that resentment is “productive” only up to a point, but ultimately it might be our downfall. It’s certain that the attempt to put democratic socialism into effect would have disastrous effects upon our economy, and result in drastically lowered standards of living for all.
  1. In any case, it’s not clear that the GAFA CEOs really get a “free pass” on resentment by publicly condemning racism etc. Mark Zuckerberg’s position is now threatened, and Google employees are protesting to great publicity.

December 18, 2018

The Name of God, Technomedia, and the Model of the Work of Art

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:20 am

A simple way of settling, or at least minimizing, theological disputes, and especially the tiresome atheist vs. theist one, is by replacing the question of whether God exists with the question of whether the word “God” means anything. I’ve seen theists flip the question towards atheists in a clever way: who, or what, exactly, do you say doesn’t exist? If the atheist has no answer, what is he arguing about? If he gives an answer, the theist can always say, but I never said God was that, or, perhaps, well, then, let’s say God is something other than that (I don’t and can’t know who or what God is). What is revealed is that both sides believe that the word “God” means something. This doesn’t prove that there is an entity somewhere that goes by this name (and of whom we can have some kind of certain knowledge), but it leaves open the possibility (it makes unforeclosable the possibility) of some referent. So, what does “God” mean? Nothing other than this possible referent—as Eric Gans has put it, “God” is the only word whose meaning is the same as its referent. “God” is nothing other than what we refer to as a condition of everything else we say—it is essentially a verbal ostensive gesture. After one has finished defining all known words in terms of other known words, and arrived at the words—Anna Wierzbicka’s Natural Semantic Metalanguage—that can only be defined by other words that have those words themselves as part of their own definition, and pointed to all the objects that we have given names to, the question of how we are able to do all this or how do we know that these things, events  and acts are called by these words can only be answered by saying “God tells us so.” We can speak because we can say “God.”

Gans has also said (but has never, to my knowledge, dwelled upon this) that every word is the Name-of-God. All we ever do is name God (how does the atheist know that the words he uses mean what he thinks they mean? Well, others used them before and he learned from them, but how did they know…?) in His infinite acts and manifestations. Everything that happens as a result of a shared ostensive gesture is an “extension” or “elaboration” of that gesture. Languages are defined by the possibility of novel utterances—and, depending upon what we mean by “utterance,” we could say that every utterance is novel, while relying on all previous ones. Every utterance is the name of God because every utterance tries to anchor some imminent or distantly imagined crisis in a lineage of utterances that have deferred such crises going back to the first one. All our arguments are over which names clear away defunct imperatives and adjectives (“attributes”) while conveying the imperatives and adjectives that have been occluded. The way to do this is to surface the imperatives others are obeying and embedding in their discourses and isolating the one that would include them all. (The ultimate counter to any political argument, it seems to me, is to point out that whatever one wants would require a particular kind of central authority to establish and maintain—but that such a central authority may not do what you want, so what we all want is first of all the authority that that is presupposed in our other wants.)

We are always naming God, but some names include others within them because they represent the continuity from the central authority back to the originary scene by creating a disciplinary space addressing the commands of the central authority. Since the Big Man occupied the center through superior deferral, commands have come from a human at the center: disciplinary spaces, organizations of shared attention, retrieve the open center transcending the central object by studying those commands so as to extend them through practices. Disciplinary spaces studying the production and dissemination of signs generate new forms of media, each of which then, distances itself from while presupposing a scene comprised of participants capable of attending to and dividing an object amongst themselves. In other words, I’m arguing for a certain kind of presence always implicit in representation, even in some technofuture where humans only engage each other in mediated and simulated forms. This presence is a collective, centered presence, and not the phenomenological self-presence (in which my intentionality is fully “borne” by my utterances) Derrida deconstructs, but a presence nevertheless. We could say it’s the presence of the present tense, without which past and future make no sense, while being implicit in any use of those tenses (in the “I say” constitutive of any utterance). To say someone does something, someone says something, something happens, is to assume that someone could witness that something alongside me. This faith is preserved in experimental science, which assumes we could construct a scene that anyone could reproduce to test any hypothesis worth testing—even if that scene involves noting data recorded on an instrument sensitized to measure movements far too small to be seen or even imagined.

What this means, as per the Olsonian model I have adopted, is that more mediated forms of representation (where the poles of communication are separated temporally and/or spatially) have two alternatives open to them: the supplementation of the represented speech act with whatever means the medium provides for simulating the presence of the represented scene (“classical prose” is the first virtual reality, remarkably immersive); or, the representation of the speech act as one variably probable utterance on the variably probable scenes that medium can represent. Examples of the first alternative are chummy asides in the written essay, “fleshed out” characters in fiction, and a “grammar” of film that lets us know, for example, that a particular type of character is going to precipitate a particular kind of plot twist. People cry at movies: that can only be effected by heavy duty “supplementation.” The best examples of the second alternative are “defamiliarizing,” “alienating” and self-referential devices and techniques like those of some modern artists (but by no means only modern artists—ancient satire, Cervantes, Rabelais, Stern and many others discovered such methods long ago). For that matter, consider what radio, and only radio, could do with human voices. This alternative corresponds to an inquiry based culture, one in which we know ourselves to be hypothesizing and devising thought experiments, always on the lookout for new disciplinary spaces. The argument has always been that only sentimental pap could succeed on the market, but even if we accept this and set aside the Marxist counter-argument that this only holds for an alienated and narcotized pseudo-public, we can look at Generation Z, and the alt-right contingents in particular, and ask: what kinds of aesthetics are they going to demand? People who have grown up chopping up mass culture and political clichés into brutally satiric memes may not be suckers for romcoms and holiday specials. They may want something a bit more demanding. It may be that mass entertainment so far has been suited to the simulated equality of the early modern marketplace, but becomes less suited the more people see the hands pulling the puppet strings.

Supplemented presence is continuous with the imperium in imperio of “legitimacy”—subordinating state sovereignty to some more real form of sovereignty (whether it be God or the people—although, of course, it’s been quite a while since too many people have seated God in that role) is to demand and produce simulated forms of presence that produce formulations like “the American people want…,” which asks us to imagine some scene upon which hundreds of millions of American citizens declared some desire with absolute simplicity and unanimity. And still desire it now, when you claim they do, with that same simplicity and unanimity—they are permanently upon a scene where they do nothing but utter this desire in unison (do you see how the satirical possibilities start to present themselves, just by turning this everyday language around a bit?). Claims of spontaneous opinion formation morph instantly into visions of puppeteering. Every formulation of liberalism or democracy is like this. Popular sovereignty is like constantly crying at the same clichéd cinematic climaxes. If one’s program is to name God, this conditioning provides a challenge. These supplemented presences have seeped deeply into our language and uprooting it from the nooks and crannies in which they entrench themselves would itself just about constitute naming God—because God definitely wants us to repudiate all that. This is what art, what Hannah Arendt called “thought-things,” is for.

There’s a particular form of poetry I’ve been working on, periodically, as a kind of exercise, for a while, that’s an attempt to serve as a model for the kind of art that would convert supplemented presences into variably probable distanced presences. I’m pretty sure that it’s impossible in English (but definitely not in many other languages—maybe it’s actually a genre somewhere), so it stands as a kind of permanently failed form of poetry. It consists of three words, each of which could play each of the three grammatical roles in the sentence. We could call it a rotating triangle. So, in an adjective-noun-verb sentence, each word could in turn, be adjective, noun, and verb; the same with a subject-verb-object sentence. The rigors of word order, the almost universally required use of articles with the singular, and the use of “s” in both conjugation and plural marking in English seem to make this impossible, even while the ease with which so many English words can be used as various parts of speech makes it very tempting. It does become more possible if we allow for imperative sentences. To give you an idea, here’s an example: model gut fish. So, the goal (or the game) would be that the sentence could be read as a model gutting a fish, or a gut modeling a fish, or a fish gutting a model, or a fish modeling a gut, or a gut fishing a model, or a model fishing a gut. If we loosen the restrictions and allow for the necessary grammatical modifications, we can get many of these. Like I said, if we allow for imperatives (and punctuation to make it clear), we can get quite a bit as well (especially if we allow for both adj-noun-verb and subject-verb object sentence forms): model: gut fish!; model gut: fish!; model gut: fish!; model gut fish! (this last one entails telling someone to model a particular kind of fish, the gut fish).

So, we start with an impossible rule, which we gradually relax, producing absurdities that reflect back on the absurd “idealism” of the original rule. We must search through a mass of linguistic material to find words that meet very specific parameters. We then use those words, not for their meanings, but for their possible functions within sentences—but, of course, their meanings can’t help but shine through in comical ways. The more liberties we take with the initial rules, the more we might get interested in that satiric dimension. We take a specific kind of interest in objects: we are looking for ways to highlight both their interchangeability and their uniqueness. We inculcate an ethics of making as complete and multifaceted use of all of one’s materials as possible. This kind of interest we can take not only in words, but in people, events and institutions. There are roles, processes and results—these categories are transformed into one another in all kinds of ways. The “modifying” parts of institutions (like rules and forms of adjudication) become the “substantive” part; actions get caught up in their designations. We can imagine ways of dismantling mediated transmissions, by rearranging the relations and sequences between imagined, implicit scene, its mediated construct, and its various sites of reception. We can train ourselves to become absurdist satirists, which is going to be the only way to intellectually penetrate a liberal order that metastasizes as it decomposes.

The above poem form is just presented as an example of how we might take up naming—I think that today that’s going to involve out-hypothesizing liberalism. The race realists who decompose various ideological stances into a range of genetic profiles (like this from VDARE: be very effective, but one has to recognize that the effectiveness is satirical, not scientific (even if the broader stance is far more scientific than the leftist hysteria being debunked). Calling humanities professors who wax hysterical over discussions of race and intelligence genetically determined neurotics who therefore go into the humanities and can therefore only sputter pointlessly about race and intelligence is very funny and an excellent way of “flipping” a particular “script.” What’s important here is not the verifiability of genotype> phenotype>field of specialization (although maybe there’s something to it!) but the way of getting inside of the other’s discourse and making them very uneasy about speaking about such things in the future. Once we laugh, we are in a better position to ask, ok, what’s sending this wave of wailing academics against this one guy who wrote a dissertation and got a teaching job? Once the “motivation” of the “protest” has been scrambled, we can take a close look at the contending imperatives, and therefore the competing sovereign imaginaries, in play. The satirical move of situating people in different roles—from defender of victims to victimizer, from defender of “science” (against “unscientific” “race” science) to object of science (genetically inclined to neurotic “critique”)—defers the move toward centralized violence, which requires its victim be taken completely literally. Lifting literalness a bit is already to hypothesize and to start naming God as the one who commands deferral of the naming that commands immediate and total expulsion.

December 11, 2018

On the Proper Use of the Declarative Sentence

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:22 am

The proper use of the declarative sentence is, first of all, to expose the ostensives and imperatives embedded in another declarative sentence. A declarative sentence is the tip of an iceberg. It rests upon a vast extent of events that have been witnessed, things that have been noticed, and reports, second, third, fourth and so on, hand, of what has been witnessed and noticed; and, upon a deferral of imperatives to demand and seize what has been noticed, to silence and ignore witnesses. A single sentence has roots going back to the origin of language. Needless to say, any sentence directly refers to only a tiny island within this vast sea, while alluding, more or less indirectly, to the rest of it. If we take any sentence as a response to another sentence (maybe by the same speaker or writer, maybe in the same text), then the question is, which “island,” which cluster of ostensives and imperatives is to be surfaced, made ostensively available, in the present sentence? The utterer’s decision paves one path to the center over other possible ones.

The first referent was the central object on the originary scene, the object that repelled appropriation and elicited and was nominated by the first sign. We are always on the originary scene, which has never been “closed”—every referent retains some of that repellent force of the originary referent, however diminished. The sign, in referring to the thing, lets it be, and in letting it be, lets us share attention devoted to the thing, rather than contend for it. So, the referent lets us be as well. But I don’t really mean to say that, in discussing the relative merits of domestic vs. imported beer in a local bar, we are refraining from plunging into a death struggle over… what, exactly? What is going on is, of course, more complex, and I will now proceed to do the same for the model I’m working with. The argument over beer (which, could, of course, if enough of it has been consumed, conceivably lead to fisticuffs) provides us with a referent (beer) which is sufficiently interesting, which promotes conviviality, and which is low-stakes enough to keep us from arguing about something else which would be less of all these things, which might be more likely to lead to breaches of the peace. Of course, even that more provocative topic would be less dangerous than another possible topic, maybe more contained (it might lead to a fight between individuals, but not a melee consuming the entire bar)—there are layers of deferral here, and this is much of what we mean by “civilization.” The ultimate danger is an irreconcilable struggle over the entire mode of distribution of goods, powers, responsibilities and referents, which is kept at a distance but many buffers, one of which is the dispute over beers. And, in fact, discussions over things like beer can be interesting in their own right in large part because of this vastly extended setting.

So, whenever we’re engaged in any form of discourse, we are aware, more or less vaguely, of a more or less distant possible crisis that would make the referents of our discourse impossible; and, we are somewhat more aware of the “tripwires” that, once broken, would disable the particular buffer we happen to be relying on at the moment. Many are the possible paths from the weakening of any one buffer to the initiation of a more general crisis—there is really little else that the human sciences should be studying. Each of us has some explicit, and far more tacit, knowledge about some of these paths and their relative dangers. Our discoursing is always concerned with preserving and enhancing the general buffering system, if not necessarily any particular buffer. Even those we consider most destructive are, by their own lights, trying to do this—they may simply think that vast buffering regions must be razed to protect the buffering order as a whole. If, then, any sentence exposes the ostensives and imperatives of another sentence, it does so in order to make more visible the ostensives in danger of being obscured and whose obfuscation would make them less effective as anchors of reality, and to clarify those imperatives which, having been confused, are being obeyed in ways that escalate conflict rather than increasing coherence. Of course, a particular sentence, or a particular discourse, might be (necessarily is, to some extent) a discovery process aimed at surfacing ostensives and imperatives to see if, indeed, their clarification points towards greater coherence. Knowledge here involves various degrees of vagueness.

The social model implicit in this originary semiotics is “solar”: there is a center, around which “planets” (other centers) revolve, and then satellites revolving around these planets. If we imagine that satellites would have their own satellites, or, for that matter, that solar systems revolve around other solar systems within a galaxy that itself revolves around other galaxies, and so on, we can begin to get a sense of the complexity of it all. The complexity is qualified and mitigated, though, by the basic reality that there is a center (not to the universe, of course), without which all the revolving would come to an end. Without a social center our words and sentences wouldn’t mean anything—we’d still manage to communicate after some catastrophe that destroyed all but the most local forms of social organization, but that’s because our languages would still “remember” the more articulated social forms and because we would immediately orient ourselves to those local centers, leading to corresponding and, over time, massive changes in our language. So, those discursive beers those men are referring to are satellites around the men’s friendship (another object they could refer to), with that friendship, for each man, a satellite revolving around a broader nexus of relationships of which he is the center, and that man himself a satellite revolving around a workplace authority, which itself revolves around a communal authority, and so on. Each referable “sun” marks a certain degree of deferral from some social crisis (which could never really happen as we imagine or fear) that we always want to place a little further away.

When we speak, then, we want to keep things in orbit. We prefer one center-orbital relation over others. We have to look to the center in order to intuit, or know as best we can, how the orbits in which we spin can be maintained—within the orbit itself one doesn’t even feel motion. In the same way, if someone “offends” me, I must derive the meaning of the offense from the center—it is from the social center that the rules of personal interaction that have been violated emanate. In feeling, naming and responding to the offense, I construct the center that commands me to do so—I don’t do it out of nothing (I can’t just decide to be offended by the curve of another man’s ears); rather, I interpret and revise an existing set of rules; I modify a practice. It is when such a breach occurs that I feel I am in orbit. I am always already attached to the center, and I know this in particular when I am uncertain regarding what to do and must try to “hear” or “heed” a command from the center. That’s what we do when we “make up our mind”—try to determine which of the various commands with which I am bombarded is the oldest, comes most undiminished from the originary center. Doing so might entail mapping out a great many declarative sentences, each one aimed at surfacing a particular imperative, which brings in train other submerged ones, which I try to surface in turn.

Declarative sentences almost certainly followed ostensives and imperatives rather quickly subsequent to the origin of language, but it is only as a result of the invention of writing that we can speak about declarative sentences (which, of course, we do indeclarative sentences): it is writing, first of all a mode of inquiry into language, that gives us letters, words and sentences as “objects.” The imperatives surrounding, impelling and inhabiting declarative sentences are not represented in declarative sentences, which can therefore be taken as representing reality directly: as restoring, in effect, an ostensive condition in which we all stand in front of an absent object and view it together. To see declarative sentences this way, imperatives and ostensives must be seen as “fragmented” declaratives, “missing,” in the case of the imperative, for example, the subject, which analysts can treat as “implicit” in the imperative. Classical prose, an artifact of literacy, supplements the oral scene by verbally representing the present but unuttered elements of the scene. These supplementations are essentially partial synonyms of Wierzbicka’s Natural Semantic Primes, like “say,” “know,” “want” and “feel”: look at synonyms for these words and you will see that they are all ways of saying someone is saying, knowing, wanting or feeling under specific conditions, with certain qualifications, expressing various degrees of certainty, urgency or skepticism. David Olson analyzes the written text as reported speech, which means when we use words like “believe,” “assume,” “consider,” and so on about ourselves, we are essentially literate subjects, as marked by the fact that we are reporting our own speech in the process of uttering it. Ostensive signs direct our attention to some object, or to some modification of an object; declarative sentences direct our attention to, and therefore represent, all these abstractions fictionalizing reported speech, which become the concepts and objects of the disciplines, beginning with philosophy, the first discipline of all. The ostensive sign points to a sacralized object; the simulated ostensive of the declarative sign points to the authority of an imagined speaker.

Take a few of the terms important to the social sciences like, say, “society,” “structure” and “necessity.” “Society” cannot be traced back to one of the mental verbs among the primes, but it is derived from a Latin word meaning something more like “association,” in the sense of a fellowship or fraternity. The notion of an organization voluntarily joined by individuals who are previously unattached in relation to that organization then becomes a model for what had previously been an order bound up in levels of reciprocity. Its origins, according to the online etymological dictionary, are from an Indo-European root verb meaning “to follow,” so we have the same process of nominalization into a hypostasized abstraction as with a word like “assumption,” supplementing “say” or “know.” With “structure,” we clearly have the transference of a word meaning to “build” to a model of a pre-arranged, static form of the community. To “need” is to “want” very much, so “necessity” is an abstracted want projected onto “reality” itself. What we can see in all these cases is the replacement of the sacred center that is lost once the declarative degrades the ostensive and imperative with an impersonal center, which we have followed, which has built us, whose wants we are obliged to supply—and which is represented by the master of the discipline charged with securing its reality. In the “keywords” of all the disciplines, from philosophy on down, we can see such allusions, kept as indefinite as possible, to an implicit but unnamed center which is ultimately a self-reference to the authority of the discipline. This is the source, even more than competing power centers, of imperium in imperio, of a truer, but implicit sovereignty, which the really only nominal ruler must obey.

The disciplines can only add modifiers to their nominalizations. The only imperatives issued from within the disciplines involve the command to combine a couple of nominalizations, like “social justice.” A disciplinary space, meanwhile, seeks out ostensives that produce “actionable” imperatives like, first of all, point out the imperative licensing that speech or action. The project of what I have on and off again called “anthropomorphics” is to transform the disciplines into disciplinary spaces which clarify and specify the ostensive that redeems the inquiry. This can ultimately only be done from within the disciplines. The means for doing so are infra-linguistic: put the nominalizations of the discipline to work as verbs and ultimately imperatives directed at the discipline itself. What necessitates history, what are sociologists joining and following, what are political scientists structuring? What is the source of the imperatives they obey—if they are told to obey them, explicitly, what do they do? This opens the question: whom do they obey? Which traditional figures? Which authoritative, funding, institutional, political center do they follow, build for, and serve? The more the social order can be presented as a hierarchy of imperatives all leading back to an ostensive center, the more the human sciences become concerned with clarifying the chain of commands, including those that lead us to our inquiry. The proper use of the declarative sentence, then, is to surface the disciplinary imperatives and simulated ostensives and then reveal the ostensive-imperative order those imperatives and ostensives have displaced. The center-switch effected by the disciplines can be remedied. The ostensives such a declarative practice “points to” are those that minimize the distance between imperatives issued and imperatives obeyed—which is what human inquiry, finally, wants. Authoritative centrality is followed and joined; orbits are built around the center.

December 4, 2018

Esthetic Oscillations

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:05 am

I’m going to follow up here on what have been prominent, but subordinate reflections on aesthetics in some recent posts. It’s always good to go back to the beginning: in this case, Eric Gans’s location of the aesthetic on the originary scene in the oscillation, in the attention of the participant, between the sign put forth by another participant, and the central object itself. This right away distinguishes between the sacred, focused on the being of the central object, on the one hand, and the aesthetic, focused on a fellow member, on the other. This distinction is confirmed by Gans’s discussions, especially in Originary Thinking, but elsewhere as well, on the origins of secular narrative and art, which always involves a shift from sacred to human agents.

Gans focuses on the well-formed sign, the gesture itself, that presents the object as especially desirable, because desired and prohibited by the gesture itself, and which in turn sends the attention back to the object, which loses its “aura” separate from the sign, leading the attention back to the sign. The gesture is formal—indeed, this is the origin of “form” in human existence, and by “form” we can mean a part of an act or object we can single out and identify as something we see in another act or object. The other’s gesture is well-formed insofar as it is the “same” gesture we see another perform—differences between them can be seen as differences between better and worse formed signs, or, later, at a higher level of sophistication, different types of signs or gesture, but this is a way of recognizing they are the same kind of (repeatable) thing.

On the originary scene itself, the esthetic and sacred are interdependent, with the esthetic subordinate to the sacred, confirming the transcendence of the object—again, as confirmed by a very long history of sacred representation before the esthetic is ever separated and made autonomous as “art.” It is also confirmed by the fact that Gans always talks about art, and esthetic criteria like “beauty,” as concerning the representation of the central object, even if now from the standpoint of the humans on the scene. (“Beauty,” it seems, emerges as the sacred withdraws.) But it must have always been possible to assess the aesthetic component of representations, even if only to point out that something about the representation was not worthy of the majesty or dignity of the deity, and this is clearly true on the originary scene, where the “form” of the sign becomes an object of attention.

Gans, to my knowledge, never refers to anything but the sign itself, by which we mean the aborted gesture of appropriation—the means by which each participant makes it clear to the others that he will not advance further towards the central object. What counts as this gesture must then be distinguished from what is not “of” the gesture in one’s fellow participant. We ordinarily think about the gesture as a pointing, an assumption which has become increasingly entrenched in originary thinking as we have incorporated the social psychology of Michael Tomasello, with his notion of “joint attention.” I don’t dispute the centrality of pointing at all: it is very easy to understand how a grasping would become, through minor modification which need not even be deliberately introduced, a pointing (it’s odd that we don’t have a good noun here: “a pointing” is awkward). At the same time, the pointing is a tiny part of the human figure, the rest of which must at least be providing “background” setting of the “point.” The rest of the body must be in some kind of equipoise: certainly not moving, but not even leaning too much toward the object; certainly not retreating, which would indicate concession to the more Alpha, but also not leaning too far back. This equipoise is probably novel as well, indicating a new mode of self-control. Equipoise suggests balance, in this case between the other as threatening, on the one hand, and as vulnerable, on the other. This articulation of fearfulness/fearsomeness is, then, embedded in the gesture as esthetic form.

This has been the basis for my saying that the most originary esthetic mode is satire—it is satire that captures the grotesqueness of the human figure bare, stripped of any transcendence, simultaneously harmful and harmless, passively aggressive. The implication, then, is that all aesthetic representation, and all art, has a satiric dimension to it. This seems to be me confirmed by the fact that the esthetic scene, to draw the spectator’s imagination into it, must at the very least distinguish itself from some generic scene of “normal” life—to suggest that the scene that conforms to all our expectations is in fact other than how it appears is implicitly satiric. But there is clearly much more to the esthetic, and to art, than the satiric; the beautiful, most obviously. I think we can integrate all the different elements of the esthetic by identifying an oscillation within the sign-giving participant on the scene between the sign itself and the elements, evident in the entire posture of the figure, that are less formed, warring, but ultimately articulated in the sign: that fearsomeness/fearfulness balance. The conversion of that balance into a formed sign wherein it can be forgotten, and our attention directed back to the central object, is where the relation between the satiric and the rest of esthetic form resides. What is beautiful is seeing warring, i.e., potentially violent, elements, brought together in a whole that eliminates the possibility of violence while allowing for the expression of all of those elements in relation to each other. And it does seem to me that effective satire can never really be beautiful.

So, from a purely esthetic perspective, we have, on the scene, an oscillation between the “formative” (but not formed) posture, on the one hand, and the (formed) sign on the other. The oscillation is not static, though, because each “swing” back to the sign also directs our attention to the object, which leads to greater preponderance of gesture over posture. By the time the group actually advances on the object (these specifically intra-esthetic oscillation accounts, then, for how one “snaps out of” the oscillation between sign and object itself and actually proceed to appropriation), posture has become a “component” of gesture. What was once jarring satire becomes harmonious in the beautiful. And the beautiful clearly is much more helpful in enabling us to get along with each other than satire would be; moreover, it’s not clear that the reformist purposes often attributed to satire (pointing out and ridiculing bad behavior so as to induce better behavior) has ever been effective, or ever could be (if you’re the target of satire, it’s  “unfair”—which no doubt it must be—if you’re not, or need not include yourself among its targets, it confirms your superior virtue)—so, the significance of satire must lie elsewhere.

The moralizing intentions attributed to satire may very well be a way of evading the possibility that satire is both, to draw upon Kant’s definition of the aesthetic, purposeful and purposeless. After all, if we’re really Yahoos, as Swift’s satire would presumably have it, what can we do about it? Somehow, it’s true both that we are Yahoos, and that it’s horrifying to imagine ourselves as Yahoos—unlike some modern materialist encouraging us to accept that we, too, are just animals, Swift is certainly not suggesting that we “reconcile” ourselves to our essential Yahooness. It is also interesting that satire gets seen as both extremely reactionary, insofar as it seems to target the new and pretentious in particular, and revolutionary, insofar as it disrupts all authority and leaves no perspective, however sacred or privileged, unsatirized. Meanwhile, while I’m not sure about this, and there are no doubt exceptions, it seems to me that devoted satirists are the least inclined of all artists to assert a political stance. The know that anything can be satirized, even the genuinely virtuous, even if they’re not sure why. The idea that there must always be some “standard” that the satirist is holding up in examining “transgressions” from it is dubious, even if satire can be used in such a way. The more basic foundation of satire is that all human action can be presented as absurd, with some shift in perspective.

That satire neither possesses not recognizes any authority makes it apparently “anarchic”; meanwhile, more favored aesthetic categories (most would probably dispute placing satire on the same level as them) like the beautiful and the sublime are very authoritative, both in themselves (one is gently subordinated to the beautiful, cowed by the sublime) and in their integration into institutions (perhaps some of the attention-seeking modern structures aim at satire, while falling into partisan ugliness, but architecture, the most unavoidable and political form of art, generally aims at beauty and/or sublimity). A ruler certainly wants his dwelling to signify vigor and harmony, not evoke laughter. But in disclaiming authority, satire also makes no claim upon it: it simply accepts that authority will be authority. Rulers really have nothing to fear from a genuine satirist (even if the satirist, like Brecht, believes otherwise). It is beauty and sublimity that can be readily mobilized for propagandistic purposes to discredit one authority in the name of another. Beauty’s assertion of disinterest makes it especially vulnerable to appropriation; satire’s more genuine disinterest lies in it being interested in anything. We couldn’t do away with beauty and sublimity even if we wanted to, and no one would really want to; but, it is still the case that satire will and should have the last word.

We can see satire as making visible the distinction between posture and gesture. This would distinguish it from, for example, irony, since the distinction between posture and gesture can be presented extremely forcefully in a non-ironic way. Nor is parody interested in the posture/gesture distinction: parody repeats the entire “move” until it is set on a different scene: the move is discredited on the new scene (it’s worn out) but left intact in its original “habitat.” Satire is imitating the ways others imitate others which, if you remove the center from consideration, is what the use of language involves. So, satire “brackets” the center, that is, proceeds as if it’s not there while knowing it is; it knows the beautiful must eventually guide us through the established mode of distribution, while simply ignoring this. Satire is not really interested in being realistic, or in improvement—it just wants to show us what inevitably gets forgotten in more acceptable forms of representation. It must be extremely difficult to be an uncompromising satirist, and it is difficult to make sense of an uncompromising satire: we want to think imitation comes to an end at some point, and it’s dizzying to think that it doesn’t. But the implication of this analysis is that satire is the enemy of all imperia in imperio, especially the source of all really important “implicit” forms of sovereignty today: the disciplines (what distinguishes the [easily satirized, implicitly satirical] “populist” is that he makes a claim to legitimacy that doesn’t depend upon economics, sociology, political science, etc.). I think that a lot of artists and writers, once promoted by the left, like, to take just one example, William S. Burroughs, whose work is really an unrelenting satire on the medical, scientific and social scientific disciplines, will become a resource for the absolutist-informed right. Disciplinary spaces (revolutionary, fractal science) aiming at clarifying the chains of command will be generated through satires of established disciplines (normal, grant-seeking, influence peddling, usurpationist science).

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