GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

February 12, 2019

Paradox, Discipline, Imperative

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:12 pm

If the signifying paradox is constitutive of the human, then humanistic inquiry, or the human sciences, really involves nothing more than exposing and exemplifying that paradox in forms where it had previously been invisible. The paradox here is that we know what we’re going to find, but we’re going to find it, if we’re searching properly, precisely where we assumed our search for it was paradox free. I’ve been hypothesizing that what constitutes the post-sacrificial disciplines has been the concealment of the scene of writing (and subsequent media) upon which those disciplines depend. Drawing upon David Olson’s discussion of “classical prose,” in which he shows that writing historically took the form of a supplementation of the speech act represented in writing, I’ve been arguing that this supplementation occludes of the scene of writing itself. What the scene of writing reveals is that words (and ultimately all other signs) can be separated from their scene of utterance and the intentions of those on that scene and iterated on further scenes and taken up by other intentions. As Derrida claimed, writing reveals that what is truly originary in the sign is its iterability, not its meaning or the intention behind it; we can take the next step and say that its iterability, which guarantees the possibility of future human scenes, is its meaning, and is the intentionality of anyone issuing a sign. So, the meaning of the word “dog” is something like “I reference, with varying degrees of directness, all previous uses of the word ‘dog’ in order to enable a potential ostensive that will enhance scene construction in more or less vaguely conceived future instances of emergent mimetic conflict.”

The disciplines, starting with the mother of them all, philosophy, want to abolish paradox. An acceptance of paradoxicality would situate the disciplines as supplemental to the paradox of imperatives issued by the center: the narrower and more precise the imperative, the more all of its intended subjects must make themselves ready and worthy of obeying it in unanticipated settings. Inquiring into this paradox would be all the human sciences we ever need, but in this case the disciplines would have to “abdicate” their self-appointment as those who provide the criteria upon which we judge the legitimacy of the sovereign. Is the sovereign doing “justice,” is he protecting and respecting the “rights” of his subjects, is he meeting their “needs,” adhering to “international law,” enforcing the “law,” ensuring “prosperity,” “wealth creation,” “growth,” etc.? Has he been selected and does he rule according to procedures in a way satisfactory to all those who have themselves been appointed by certain procedures; all of which procedures merely lead us back to the establishment of those procedures according to other procedures, which…? If no, then he’s not the “real” sovereign, and in order to know whether he is or not you have to be a political scientist, a legal theorist, an economist, a sociologist, etc. To maintain that position, you must suppress the paradoxicality of your own utterances. You must provide certain, clear, unequivocal declaratives yielding universally available virtual ostensives that lead to only one conclusion regarding whether the central authority is rightly distributing whatever it is your science assumes he must be distributing.

The human sciences claim they conduct inquiries modeled on the experimental sciences, with their process of hypothesis generation and testing, but they really don’t. (Do the physical sciences? Shouldthe physical sciences? I leave these questions aside for now.) I worked my way to this realization through reflection upon my own little field, the teaching of writing. I came to see that all the criteria used to determine whether student writing was “good” or “improving” was circular—terms like “clarity,” “precision,” “deep analysis,” “reading comprehension” really don’t mean anything, because what it means to be clear, precise and all the rest depends upon the situation, i.e., the discipline. The assumption is that the instructor him or herself knows what clear, precise, analytical, etc., reading and writing because, otherwise, what would he or she be doing teaching writing at an accredited institution? But that means that all of these supposed concepts really translate into the teacher saying “become more like me.” And how can the student tell what the teacher is “like” (since the condition of the student is defined precisely by being unlike the teacher)? Well, I’ll tell you when you are or aren’t. So, for most writing or English teachers out there, this is why your students always ask you “what you want”—they have intuited that the entire structure of your pedagogy is predicated upon you desiring from them a reasonable facsimile, not of who you really are (that would be hard enough) but of who you imagine yourself to be.

From this I concluded that what is to be rejected in this conception of teaching and learning is that its “standards” do not provide “actionable” imperatives. No one can obey the imperative “write more clearly,” unless there is already a shared understanding of what “clarity” entails for the purposes of that communication. And, again, in the educational setting, such imperatives are issued precisely because the student doesn’t have access to such a shared understanding. So, I concluded that the only kind of “fair” and effective pedagogy is one that provides students with imperatives such that they can participate in creating the shared understanding making it possible to determine when those imperatives have been obeyed. This generally involves something like “translate (or revise) X according to rule Y,” i.e., some operation upon language from within language. I don’t want to go any further here (but if anyone is interested…–butthe point here is that the conclusion applies to all the human sciences (which are all, really, if unknowingly, pedagogical). That is, a genuine human science would have to participate in its “object” of study, producing imperatives aimed at improving the social practices it studies, along with generating the shared criteria enabling the practitioners to assess the way and degree to which the imperatives have been fulfilled. (Of course, political scientists, sociologists, economists and the rest make suggestions to policy makers all the time—indeed, they are routinely hired and subsidized for this very purpose. But the results of these suggestions and proposals can only be assessed in the language and means of measurement of the disciplines themselves—they therefore represent different ways of imposing a power alien to the practice in question. They are attempts to give imperatives to, rather than receive imperatives from, the central authority.)

The next question, then, is how do paradoxes generate actionable imperatives? To get to paradoxes generating imperatives, we can start with the imperative to generate paradoxes. Find the point at which the relation between the name, concept, or title becomes undecidable—that is, where it is impossible to tell whether some thing is being represented or some representation is producing a thing. This undecidability pervades language in ways we usually ignore—has it ever seemed to you that someone had the “right” name (their given name, not a nickname)? It’s absurd, of course, but, on the other hand, one’s name can correspond more or less closely to their being, can’t it? The argument over whether words represent their meanings “arbitrarily” or through their “sound shape” as well goes back to Plato’s Cratylus, and is not settled yet—whatever the truth, the fact that it’s a question, that words sometimes seem to match, in sound, their meanings, is an effect of the originary paradox.

This paradox of reference will emerge most insistently in the anomalies generated by disciplines at a certain point in their development, but can be located at any time. What is “capital,” what is the “state,” what is “cognition,” what is “identity”? If you ask, you will be given definitions, which in turn rely upon examples, which in turn have become examples because that term was used to refer to them. This is the kind of deconstructive work that opens up the question of the relation between a discipline and the intellectual traditions it draws upon and conceals. Within that loop of concept-definition-examples-concept is the founder of the discipline and the containment of some disciplinary space. A new imperative, or chain of imperatives, from the center is identified and represented as a new imperative the sovereign is now to follow—he is to create a new social order freeing capital or making the state independent, unleashing new cognitive capacities, representing pre-formed identities.

Articulating these paradoxes, then, presumably help us generate concepts other than “capital,” “state,” “cognition” and “identity.” Let’s review the process of discipline formation on the model of Olson’s study of literacy and classical prose. Writing represents reported speech, but since it does so in abstraction from the speech situation it must supplement those elements of the speech situation it can’t represent: tone, gesture, the broader interaction between figures on the scene. This generates new mental verbs: suggest, imply, insist, assume, and so on. These mental verbs are in turn nominalized into suggestions, implications, assumptions and so on (it doesn’t happen with all words—there seems no corresponding nominalization of “insist,” at least in English). These nominalizations become new “objects” of study, for linguists, psychologists and ultimately all the human scientists. These concepts are artifacts of literacy—this doesn’t mean that they can’t tell us something about processes of thinking, knowing and speaking, but it does mean that they conceal their origins and become naturalized as “features” or “mind” or “language.” Cognitive psychologists, for example, can set up ingenious experiments that test the role of, say, “prior assumptions” in decision making, but built into these studies is the literate, declarative “assumption” that it would be better if decisions were made purely through abstract ratiocination without reliance on “prior assumptions.” So, the use of power to favor what cognitive psychologists and like-minded human scientists across the discipline would recognize as “rational discourse” is implicitly favored over any attempt to, say, think through what a “good” shared set of “prior assumptions” might be.

So, let’s say we reverse the process, and dis-articulate the nominalizations back into verbs. Anna Wierzbicka’s primes can be useful here, but they’re not required. So, for example, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman “writes of a ‘pervasive optimistic bias’, which ‘may well be the most significant of the cognitive biases.’ This bias generates the illusion of control, that we have substantial control of our lives” (I’m just working with Wikipedia here). So, “we” can measure how much “control” “we” have over “our” lives, how much control we think we have, and the “distance” between the two. Those doing the measuring must have more control than those being measured—they know how “complex” things really are. The best way of measuring such things seems to be asking people how much they think things will cost. (Maybe Kahneman has a bias in favor of certain understandings of “control” and “complexity.”)

But being more or less “optimistic” is a question of wanting, hoping, thinking, knowing, trying and doing. These activities are all part of each other. You have to want in order to hope, and you have try in order to do and you have to hope in order to try. And you have to know something (not just not know lots of things) in order to hope—knowing the relation between trying and hoping, for example, and how that relation is exemplified within whatever tradition or community you are located. And the relations between all these activities can be highly paradoxical—the harder you try, the higher your hopes might be, which might mean the more deluded you are or it might mean the more you find ways of noticing your surroundings, taking in “feedback.” But can you try really hard without hoping? Sure—and consciously withdrawing your hopes from your activity, draining your reality of its aura of hopefulness, so to speak, might be a new form of hoping, one in which you accept a lack of control as part of a “faith” you have in “higher powers” or the mutual trust with your neighbors. From this you derive an imperative to hope, try, know, etc., in a specific way, within a particular paradoxical framing. (All of the binaries targeted for deconstruction by Derrida are sites of this originary paradoxicality.) None of this interferes with re-entering the entire disciplinary vocabulary from which we departed, and reading the discipline itself in terms of its hoping, trying, knowing and so on. Any disciplinary space must also be a satire of some institutionalized discipline.

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