GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

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.

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