GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

January 15, 2019

The Declarative Order and Inquiry

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:14 pm

If declarative sentences are inquiries into imperatives, it is also through declarative sentences that we engage in inquiries into declarative sentences. We can hypothetically construct any sentence as asking, regarding a particular imperative, what are the conditions of its fulfillment? An inquiry into declaratives would, then, address the question, how might we simultaneously hypothesize the conditions of fulfillment of imperatives that are preconditions of or consequences of, some primary imperative? To say, “John is not here,” is to answer (most likely) the actual or anticipated question, “is John here?”; to answer that question with “I haven’t heard from John since last night” is to broaden the scope of the questions one is answering—one provides information not only regarding John’s whereabouts but an expected follow-up question regarding my usefulness as a source for tracking John’s movements. The sentence is, correspondingly, significantly more complex.

This kind of declarative self-reflexivity is intrinsic to language, and there’s no doubt such sentences are common in oral cultures. More abstract and sustained inquiries into the possibilities of declarative sentences are only possible in a literate culture, though. The very concept of a “sentence” is only possible in a literate culture, which can isolate the sentence as a unit of speech, settle upon rules for using them properly, and devise various stylistic alternatives for their deployment. In a literate culture, then, the range of imperatives, and imperative chains, that can be accounted for intellectually increases dramatically. So, if “where is John?” is a “softened” version of “show me John,” what the declarative allows for here is an avoidance of the violence likely to follow from one insisting, through sheer lack of linguistic resources, that John be produced immediately. Likewise, the more complex “I haven’t heard from John since last night” allows me to demonstrate that I am sympathetic to your attempt to locate John, thereby forestalling, for example, your concluding that I’m lying and commencing a search of my premises or some more violent approach. Of course, I could be lying about when I heard from John, but my answer already sets up a relation between two different scenes, so if you want to further challenge me you might have to implicate other witnesses or imagine possible scenarios. Again, this allows for deferral.

If I say, “like you, I haven’t heard from him since last night,” I introduce yet another scene. This is essentially what declarative and cultural complex entails: being able to keep various scenes, past, present and future, completed and still ongoing, within our power to change and beyond our power, etc., suspended simultaneously and interdependently. When we’re talking, reading or writing, or thinking, this is what we are doing it about: whether each of those scenes holds together, and whether each scene supplies what some other scene requires for it to hold together. Each of these scenes has an ostensive-imperative articulation at its center: the “like you” in the hypothetical sentence above imagines a scene upon which I received information that I think is true regarding your latest contact with John (if I haven’t heard this from you, I’m presupposing another scene in which someone found this out from you in order to convey it to me; and, either way, another scene upon which you heard from John). Upon that scene, John was referenced (a “simulated” ostensive sign), and this reference carried along with it an imperative to find out more about John’s whereabouts. If you now tell me that I’m misinformed, and you haven’t heard from John for days, something happens to the entire structure of interdependent scenes, even if it’s not obvious what.

Now, there must be a dialectic relation between a discursive order that allows for the articulation of all these suspended and delayed scenes and a power structure that allows for predictable suspensions and delays. I don’t think there’s any point to trying to determine empirical correspondences between intellectual complexity and social order: in the midst of a social breakdown, one lone scholar, with a good library or excellent memory, can lock himself away and write an extremely intricate history of the decline of that social order. The real point, though, is that in doing so, that scholar presupposes and embeds in his history the possibility of a social order that would allow for a series of suspensions and delays that would have indefinitely deferred that social breakdown. Even if the history presents the social breakdown as inevitable, it presupposes the possibility of something that will break down, but hasn’t yet; or, the possibility of another order less affected by the very vulnerabilities the “inevitablist” history has shown. We can’t imagine dispersion through interconnection without presupposing a center. If I am going to figure out whether it matters that the scenic series that led me to say “like you” has collapsed, I can only do so by assuming a shared “(disciplinary”) inquiry into John’s whereabouts (all our sentences and questions are leading us back to the imperative to enable us to ostensively refer to John), even if part of that inquiry might now include a subsidiary inquiry into whether some of those who should be helping locate John are in fact interfering with the search.

A large part of the stupidity of liberalism is that we are forbidden to speak as if we are all looking for something together. In my hypothetical scenario, the more we look for John, following the imperative to find him, the more we must involve prior imperatives that are the sources of this one—the imperative that we remain a family, or a group of friends, or a community; in that case, the ostensive sign we issue upon finding John would be a new sign as well as revealing and confirming that older imperative. Behind that imperative, of course, are even older ones: preserve your family, friendships and community, care for others, etc. And even older ones: don’t transgress that the transgression of which will lead to resentments we haven’t the institutional terms to frame. (Or: err in favor of fulfilling your obligations.) The denser and more overlapping these reciprocal horizontal relations the more there must be a center that makes violence (or, at least, open-ended violence that can’t be stemmed) a distant resort when they are tested or frayed. The relationship between margin and center is reciprocal: the more the security of the center can be taken for granted, the less we need to invoke it in our horizontal relations. Declarative order introduces what N.N. Taleb calls “antifragility” by articulating a structure of suspended and delayed scenes that presupposes, while invoking as minimally as possible, an absolute center. (If every interaction leads to someone saying “I’m gonna call the cops,” then we’re living in a social order where the cops aren’t much help.)

The overt and institutionalized study of the declarative sentence is the origin of all the media, themselves extensions and simulations of the originary scene. New media represent scenes enacted in other media, and one way in which that can be done is by using the capabilities of the new media to supplement the meanings lost from the older media. So, to use my prototypical example from David Olson regarding the representation of a speech situation in writing, rather than reporting what the other said in a hesitant or insistent voice, one notes that the other said it “cautiously” or “insistently.” Whatever is lost in the previous medium one tries to replace in the new medium. Part of the method of supplementation is representing the scene of representation itself in terms of the older, or even oldest medium—so, the writer, broadcaster, or actor writes or speaks directly to you, the reader, listener or viewer, insinuating himself into your living room—all of the machinery of the medium, all of which differentiates that medium from a speech situation, are mobilized so as to produce the illusion or “feel” of one. The result is a vast simplification of the scene, and a collapse of all the suspensions and delays. One must obey the order to enter an illusory scene in order to participate in the medium. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, if the ruling center makes creating and managing such illusions central to its own governing strategies.

The other approach is to use the declarative capacity to articulate suspensions and delays to represent the suspensions and delays in the media and their institutions. Above, I tried to give a sense of how we could trace a particular imperative, interrogative or declarative, through a series of interdependent scenes—when we watch a movie, TV show, news broadcast, magazine article, etc., a similar, but far more complex process has in most cases occurred—a process probably a lot more interesting and illuminating than the media product itself. We don’t actually need to know what it was, but we do know that the talking head who spouts the day’s talking points has sat in the make-up chair for quite a while that morning, that he got his job because of some connection someone in his family has to someone in that media corporation, that he was herded through a particular journalistic career path by a familiar set of mentors and protectors to whom he is indebted, etc.—and all of this, really, is part of the meaning of whatever he says on the air. The more we describe what he says as entailing all of that (or as much of that as is necessary in a given situation to dissolve the smarmy illusion) the more we disable the supplementations that drape an ideological representation over an institutional one.

Every representation does need to posit some scene upon which all “receiving” the representation are virtually present. In a literate, mediatized order, this scene needs to be a doubled scene, though: the illusions generated by supplementarity must at least be gestured towards in order to construct a scene upon which participants watch the cobbling together of the illusory scene. As I’ve said before, much of this is the legacy of modernist and postmodernist aesthetics, of which contemporary absolutists can be the inheritors if they wish (or dare). A scene sustaining both unity and a maximum of cobbling together is a satirical scene. One place you can always start is with a sentence produced by the institutional, supplementalized representation and simply turn one of its words into a scene—a scene hidden by the representation. For example, institutions are always speaking in contemporary newspeak—the CIA, the FBI, the White House, the UN, etc., are always “saying” things. What are the scenes that go into and are concealed by these attributions? I’m not talking about doing counter-reporting here, uncovering the sources used, etc. (of course, it’s good that people do that—it’s just not what I’m talking about here). I’m talking about having fun, using our imaginations (as the novelist Ronald Sukenick said, if you don’t use your imagination, someone else will use it for you)—fill in gaps (thereby showing that they are gaps) with caricatures and the absurd. The model for this practice is the complex declarative sentence, which can always be made more complex, as something mentioned can always be defined, and then used, and then the conditions under which it has been defined can described, and the implications for the rest of the claims, implicit and explicit, made by the sentence of the various possible definitions explored, and some of those implicit claims made explicit, and the same done for the claims implicit in the newly explicit ones. In this way you represent the authoritative institutions as at least potentially following and defending the absolute imperative to defer.

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