GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

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.

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