GABlog

April 30, 2019

Moebius Strip

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:05 am

At one time I set myself the task of generating a discourse on social reality completely in terms of the originary hypothesis—that is, without any supplementations or borrowings from other social theories, disciplines or everyday discourse; or, at any rate, if such borrowings were to be made, the borrowed or supplementing terms must be shown to be fully convertible into GA, with the use of external terms to be a mere matter of convenience. This line of thinking led me away from the more spatial and “geometrical” vocabulary of GA—center/margin, vertical/horizontal, etc.—as well the more anthropological vocabulary—desire, resentment, transcendence—and towards grammar: ostensive, imperative, interrogative, declarative. This seems to me the most rigorous approach: from within the other vocabularies, there is no way of speaking of grammatical relations, so that the relations between, say, the imperative and declarative (as modes of culture), go unexplored and these seminal concepts remain stunted. Meanwhile, within the grammatical vocabulary, all the other terms can be assimilated: we can speak, and more precisely, albeit in more roundabout ways, about the relation between center and margin in terms, for example, of imperatives derived from ostensives; and about desire and resentment in terms of the “same” ostensive on different scenes and imperatives that cannot be obeyed.

Eventually, I found that I had to make one exception to the exclusivity of the grammatical vocabulary, and that was the concept of the “center.” The concept of “attention” has already to be entered into grammatical discourse, because some minimal mention of the mode of being capable of using these signs is necessary even to speak of the signs, and there’s no way of speaking about “attention” other than through some center thereof. From ostensives through imperatives and declaratives we have an increasingly complex reciprocal relation with the center. And, of course, once we admit the center, we also bring in “scene” and with it the entirety of the spatial and anthropological categories. Of course, my purpose was to enrich, not impoverish GA, so I have no objection to the re-emergence of these categories in a new frame. If the spatial and categorical terms are now in a dialectical relation with the grammatical terms, they undergo a kind of “askesis” themselves, relying less of inherited and intuitive uses and more on their commensurability with a grammatical analysis.

The work of internalizing all discourse within the grammatical categories is paralleled by the work of internalizing all discourse within scenic categories. If, for example, the meaning of a sentence or discourse is the deferral, conversion and re-institution of a particular ostensive-imperative field, then the constitution of a scene involves making simultaneous the signs of the previous and surrounding scenes within that scene itself. A scene is itself comprised of wholly scenic materials. The center and periphery of one scene have been transported or transposed and, of course, transformed in the process, from other scenes; desire and resentment involve a misalignment of scenes, or the differing locations of the same center on different scenes—coming from being the center of one scene to the margin of another means that the “same” ostensives won’t work on the new scene, leading one to “desire” their previous or remembered transparency; while the imperatives fulfilled seamlessly on the previous scene are overridden by other imperatives, or simply bereft of “objects,” on this new scene.

It then becomes possible to speak of the source of the “imaginary,” in its constitutive as well as its illusory forms, as the “supplementing” of a newly constituted scene with the simultaneity of all the other scenes it is comprised of. On the originary scene itself, what was no doubt a fluctuation of a series of awkward and uneven gestures around a center becomes representable or iterable in the ritual form in which it is repeated afterward, in which everyone issues the gesture simultaneously and identically. This is then the way the scene is remembered. (Notice how we can now bring in new terms from “surrounding” vocabularies, like “memory,” “imagination,” “error” and so on as specifically scenic concepts—this is how we “interface” with more traditional discourses). In the same way, when we act as if everyone on the scene were fully present on that scene, we give the scene a memorable form while effacing the constitution of the scene, which necessarily took place through the articulation of elements extended and differentiated from other scenes. We could put this in simple terms: consider all the projecting you have to do in order to make sense of what anyone else is doing, even on the most familiar scenes—you must assume motives of others’ behaviors and in doing so take as given various psychological or phenomenological concepts that enable you to identify and “verify” those motivations. You assume, that is, that the person is behaving “like” that person has behaved before in “similar” situations, and “like” other people, “comparable” to this individual in “relevant” ways, have themselves behaved in other “similar” situations. Anything that can’t be familiarized is either “interpreted” in such a way as to render it compatible (“he didn’t quite understand what I was asking him…”) or pathologized (“he’s weird,” or “he’s not himself today”).

The other way of engaging a scene is to make more explicit your own and everyone else’s constitution of the scene and attending to the way in which each presents himself as a center is a selection and articulation of modes of centering from other scenes. And what is selected is selected so as to maximize whatever center holds this scene together. If we assume the presence of the scene, we maximize the centeredness of the participants at the expense of the scenic center. If we constitute the simultaneity of the scene, we minimize the participants in the name of maximizing the scenic center. Each of us is nothing but the semiotic capacities we are able to marshal so as to contribute to bringing the center bringing us here into view. The problem here is that the semiotic capacities most demanded by the scene might wreak havoc, for the participants, with the modes of centrality that sustain them elsewhere. In other words, it can strip them down—nothing they’ve done anywhere else really counts, except insofar as it provided the attentionalities demanded here. You have to love the center of the scene to want to make this “exchange.” There is usually something more comforting in seeing the scene you are on, not as an opportunity to shed yourself of the “badges” of former scenes, but as a compulsion to engage in the familiar contest of competing centralities.

We can get at this from a different angle. It is only a residue of the belief that words have magical powers that leads us to assume that the same word used on different occasions means the same thing; or is, in fact the “same” word. As I suggested in a previous post, all we can ultimately care about is whether the sign (and by extension, the entire semiotic system) remains the same sign across different uses. One way of reassuring oneself of this is to rely on an official meaning and attack all deviant uses; the way to ensure oneself of the sameness of the sign, though, is to distinguish its use on one scene from its use on all other scenes in such a way as to direct everyone’s attention in a way that situates the sign onthisscene. For those assuming presence, the sign is the sign is the sign—any divergences are due to inattention or mal-intention. For those constituting simultaneity, the sign is different from these other previous uses of the sign in all of these different ways, because those of us on this scene are distinguished from those constituting all those other scenes in all those different ways. The point here is not to criticize others for not sufficiently differentiating the scene on which they “sign” from other scenes but to go ahead and introduce a differentiation.

If we go ahead and differentiate amongst the constitutive elements of the present scene, we will do so grammatically: ostensives put forward on one scene have been transmitted to another scene; imperatives issued on one scene are outstanding and yet to be fulfilled on another; the ostensives and imperatives that had been effaced or disavowed by the declaratives on some previous scene emerge on a later one when their declarative force weakens. Now, once we start articulating these speech forms on a given scene, and ask ourselves what imperative we are following, and how might follow it further up to its source, or extending it further to the point where it could be formed as a question to generate new sample declaratives, the differentiation between scenes disappears from our scene of inquiry. We are simply on and in our present scene. But if we have to ask why someone continues to try and obey an imperative with no “correlate” on the scene we are thrown back into the problem of introducing scenic differentiations. The differing vocabularies are both incommensurable and transition into each other. Hence the “moebius strip” of the title of this post—if you follow one vocabulary to the end it “obverts” into the other, complementary but “indigestible” one.

It’s possible to think about the relation between the spatial and anthropological, on the one hand, and grammatical, on the other hand, concepts, analogously to distinctions between esoteric and exoteric and emic and etic. The “method” of scenic differentiation is more suited to a traditional social scientific analysis than the grammatical one, while the grammatical approach “implicates” one—what imperative are you following now, as you do what you are doing? On the other hand, the grammatical “method” could in principle enable the construction of a far more intricate and penetrating analysis of events than the scenic differentiation approach—it would be the only way of approaching the immense complexity of Peirce’s projected (but rarely, if ever, conducted) semiotic analyses, meant to include all forms of knowledge and all practices of inquiry. And it is just as easy to imagine asking someone, how did you come to be on this scene, given the way you are signifying on it? Where the moebius strip obverts itself is the center, both the center of whatever scene we construct as our site of inquiry and the center of the scene upon which we conduct the inquiry. The most objective analysis reaches its end when we can say, on the scene we construct analytically, what the center wanted of those gathered there and how those on that scene heard, heeded, or evaded the commands of the center. But that scene is only “closed” when it turns into an ostensive sign eliciting imperatives from the center of our scene of inquiry. And inquiry into another scene becomes an inquiry into the scenic conditions of our own inquiry, which in turn leads into other inquiries. It is this paradoxical self-referentiality of sign use that our moebius strip models and enacts.

So, the broader implication of this mutual implication and reciprocal distancing of grammatical and spatial/anthropological originary thinking is that it suggests the need for a moebius strip style of thought. Think in terms of starting a sentence on one side of the strip and continuing it on the obverse, in such a way as to come back to the first side, but with some reversal of the elements. This is the logic, for example, of my notion of “donating your resentment to the center.” Within the earliest human communities, in which hierarchies between humans are not established, a sacrificial logic emerges in which commands from the center are obeyed in exchange for favors from the center: an imperative exchange. As the center becomes a site of intra-communal hierarchy, the exchange becomes increasingly unbalanced and untenable: nothing one could give to the divine king, including all of one’s possessions, one’s first born, etc., could ever match the boon of life provided by the king. We have imperatives that can no longer be fulfilled, which means the sacred center is no longer a reliable “target” of ostensives. Rather than abandon the imperative exchange with the center, which is unimaginable, one makes the exchange incommensurable on both sides: to the center we give everything, all the time, but not to the center as occupied by the God-Emperor. Rather, we give everything to the center that commands us to present ourselves and address others as centers. And everything includes, more than anything, that which we hold most dear: our grudges, our pride, our righteousness. Once, that is, the grammatical form is pushed to its limits, it becomes necessary and possible to imagine corresponding changes to the spatial/anthropological form. Now, this, of course, is not the kind of empirical claim that could be “proven” or “tested,” even if it provides (for example) a new way of thinking through the historical material associated with the emergence of the Axial Age. (For example, it has enabled me to hypothesize that the emergence of a justice system once honor culture has been, if not eliminated, “trimmed back” considerably, necessarily leads to the emergence of exemplary victims that could become cultural icons.) Rather, it’s a way of converting, conceptually and “praxically,” one mode of centrality into another: from a mode of centrally in a constant struggle for space with other self-denominating centers to a mode of centrality that confers names within a new space within which that struggle is converted into a joint operation.

April 23, 2019

Some further inquiry into HLvM

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:46 am

In formalist terms, the left is the cadres of militants levied by those elites interested in furthering the power directly exercised by the state over the individual, by undermining intermediate power centers. Power over individuals can always be further centralized: the state can arrest you for all manner of crimes, including crimes generated by your interactions with the state, and can surveil you for a wide range of purposes—but it can’t yet tell you what to eat for breakfast. It would be very easy to show how each leftist advance enables the state to single out something new for attention in each individual.

It still needs to be explained, though, how those agents interested in more direct state power over the individual go about mobilizing the masses they need, or, for that matter, why they want this centralization. Regarding the latter, there might be all kinds of reasons: corporations want to open up markets, which might require breaking up local monopolies and regulatory and tax regimes; for those within the state apparatus itself, it might be felt necessary for making uniform rules of operation across the country, and eliminating various logjams created by the diverse and often confused local prerogatives. In each case, some kind of resentment towards central authority is involved, ultimately for not being central and authoritative enough, as proven by the fact that one can challenge, revise and circumvent it in these very ways.

But the “low” is not simply bribed, even if there is also some of that going on—leftism is always a racket, among other things. But extortion rackets must also depend upon resentment: information can be used against someone because the dissemination of that information would change the way others interact with that person, and that depends upon the social norms dictating the grounds on which we resent. The left establishes rackets at vulnerable “choke points” in the social field of resentments—sites where attempts have been made to minimize resentments, and where the levers for exacerbating them also therefore exist. To say that those resentments subjected to minimization efforts were themselves ginned up by previous centripetal movements would be true, but ultimately leads us to an infinite regress if we can’t assume an originary form of resentment that sets the whole machinery in motion.

There are two ways of thinking about the “elemental” form of resentment animating the left. First, it’s a product of social and economic inequality: serfs resent lords because the lords have land, wealth and power and the serfs don’t; a wage laborer resents a corporate executive because the executive has far more money and perks, etc. I don’t think this provides a powerful mode of analysis, for the simple reason that these inequalities are constant, while shows of resentment are intermittent; furthermore, there is no clear correlation between “amount” of resentment (assuming there was some way of measuring that) and the degree of inequality—Bill Gates only recently ceded his position of the world’s richest man, but has never been a particularly intense target of either the right or the left. It may be that we will one day find a perfect correspondence between elite funding of specific resistance foundations and the manifestation of political activity along those specific lines, in which case the elites would be impeccable puppet-masters and there wouldn’t even be any way of distinguishing between more and less active modes of resentment. I’m going to assume that elite funding is more like seeding than recruiting—it is widespread and long-term, and no foundation thinks in terms of generating a protest of this size with this specific legislative impact on a regular basis, even if opportunities like that arise. So, the question of what form the basic mode of resentment of the lows takes is a real one.

The other way of conceptualizing the resentment of the lows is as a response to perceived violations of the trust dependents and subordinates must have for those with authority over them. This would mean that, even with the original victim group of the Western left, the working class, whose grievances seemed mostly focused on wealth inequality (not according to Marx, though), class resentment was more focused on the tyranny of employers and managers, and the broader encroachments upon traditional ways of life (and authority) on which the state and capitalists jointly engaged. While, even on strictly logical terms, there’s no reason to see some equation between degree of inequality and degree of resentment (does my resentment of my richer neighbor automatically go up another 10% when he gets a raise that extends the gap between our respective salaries another 10%?), when it comes to misuse of authority we can assume a direct “production” of resentment. Here, the relation is virtually axiomatic: however my level of moral maturity might enable me to process it, I can’t help but notice and therefore resent the injury done when agreed upon (tacitly or explicitly) rules are violated to another’s advantage and my disadvantage. The very form of interaction and cooperation is harmed in this way, and I have to respond by either exhibiting or disavowing resentment, and doesn’t require that I look into something far outside of my everyday sphere of activity (like average executive salaries).

So, this means that when the highs target the lows for mobilization, they will, insofar as they are effective, focus on breaches in trust and derelictions of duty indicating a failure of authority. This is important to keep in mind, because it means that insofar the resentments motivating the lows can be taken as legitimate—as is no doubt often the case—what the assuagement of those genuine resentments really requires is the restoration of stable and well-founded authority, rather than pay-offs (which mostly go to the leaders). Re-establishing authority detaches leftist foot soldiers from the left’s officer class, as the latter live off of perpetual resentment and therefore develop Big Scene theories guaranteeing its perpetuity—it is here that we see the “struggle” framed in terms of equality vs. inequality, because that opposition can never be resolved. But it also gives us a way of studying leftist propaganda, by sorting out the appeal to perceived failures of authority (including of course, attempts to raise the bar for the due performance of authority in such a way that failure is included in the very definition) along with the way such appeals are plugged into perpetual struggle models. So, if the Black Lives Matter protestor is genuinely interested in the institutions of policing and incarceration, there is a basis for discussion; once this gets framed in terms of “systemic racism,” there no longer is.

Meanwhile, insofar as the right is the “middle,” we can define that more precisely as well. The middle is those with an interest in preserving workable modes of authority within intelligible chains of command. Of course, what counts as a “workable” or “legitimate” mode or exercise of authority is not self-evident, but if you’re on the left the burden of proof is on those defending authority and if you’re on the right the burden is on those challenging it. But this focus on one’s relation to authority helps us to see all kinds of overlapping and possible shifts in position—so, for example, a black man, insofar as he is interested in patriarchal and parental authority in the home, is part of the middle; insofar as he focuses on himself as a potential victim of police violence, he is “low.” In these grey areas, then, is where we can expect to see all the ideological warfare and pedagogical activity taking place. This field is not infinitely elastic, of course—one reason why it has become open season on white men is that is very difficult to figure them as “low,” in part because most white men will themselves resist such an identification. Some alt-right activity is in fact a series of acrobatic efforts to slide white men into the low position, but since alt-right politics largely involves signaling against other low-designees, and you become low by joining more than by elbowing out others, this will probably prove impossible. White men are forced to take up the mantle of the middle, which in turn becomes part of the bill of indictment against them.

The Middle, then, is a kind of anomalous position. It doesn’t fit into the structure of incentives liberals have built, which is why leftists are always frustrated by the fact that the middle seems more concerned about things like abortion and gay rights than acquiring free medical care from the government. The constant bombardment of the middle (which can almost be a definition of liberal modernity) is multi-layered: the New Deal was really an attempt to erode the middle by bringing them into the welfare state, and European countries have proceeded much further along this path, making their middles correspondingly more flaccid. Sexual and cultural revolution, the cult of the criminal, and other measures, are far more obvious assaults. The middle persists, in part because it’s still not quite possible to abolish the material difference between lives of the middle and lives of the low—but this is itself because once you let yourself go low, you’re very unlikely to sustain the basic discipline needed to organize your life, even with government support. So, the horror of becoming low keeps people on the middle path—but this still wouldn’t maintain the middle, because the real incentive here is to give some “high” enough of what he needs to extend you support (i.e., keep you employed) while signaling along with the highs for the low. So, within the frame of liberal incentives, the prototypical middle would be a minimally competent, lazy worker within the safest regions of the corporate or public world, while presenting as hating this fellow middles not only in explicit statements but in manners, tastes, personal associations, and so on. So, why isn’t there nothing but the wealthy and powerful on one side, those who live off of grievances on the other side, and the guy I just described in the middle? (Of course, this would map out quite a bit of the contemporary world—but far from all of it.)

The Middle is the anomaly liberalism can’t account for. It persists because almost everyone has had delegated to himself some form of authority (the middle actually extends very low—and very high) and it is very difficult to treat such delegations complete cynically. We could explain this in terms of such features of social life (in which liberalism is completely uninterested) like tradition and order, but that would just beg the question of what prevents those structures from completely collapsing. Someone has to run things, but why should anyone in particular see himself as the one who should do so? I think we have to see this as a question of language and meaning. When someone asks you, “what do you do?,” what do you sound like when you answer? You have to be able to say something that you don’t mind others repeating; that you don’t mind repeating to yourself. Insofar as the highs and lows must also do this, they must find ways of making themselves sound like the middle: they are fulfilling obligations and meeting responsibilities, they are transparent, and so on. The anomalous Middle is really the pipeline to the Center.  You can demonstrate this socially by extracting and representing the “middleism” that must structure the high and the low insofar that they institutionalize themselves. But you can’t justify this on liberal terms, so any demonstrations place you outside of liberalism. It is impossible to exaggerate how terrifying liberalism must find it that in its very heart there is an ineradicable alterity (to speak in the postmodern argot of a onetime high-low articulation). Further middlizing your demonstrations, which is to say making them more law and authority abiding, will be more, not less terrifying to liberalism. But this may be an ineffable terror, difficult to articulate and act on, and so maybe easier to alleviate, assuming one is ready to accept some slings and arrows—even more, assuming one can read those slings and arrows back to those firing them as desperate cries for a sustainable authoritative structure.

The maxim of the middle is, power should be made commensurate with responsibility. If someone has a job to do, he should be given every bit of power he needs to do it; if someone has power, the responsibility that power can sustain should be attributed to him. An entire way of reading the world and therefore engaging culture is implicit in this maxim. In every problem we look for a mismatch of power and responsibility—we rush to help someone with “too much” responsibility by supplying the needed power, and someone with “too much power” by laying the groundwork for appropriate exercises of responsibility. In every utterance we listen for the evasion or adoption of the responsibility implicit in the power of the utterance itself—if one fairly ordinary person depends a bit on what you have to say, then let your discourse be turned to the needs of that individual; if thousands hang on your every word, then choose your words so as to contribute to their education, to make them communicants, and pedagogues in their turn. Seek to make those with power more responsible, not less powerful, by sharing their presumed responsibilities; in trying to fulfill the responsibilities delegated to you, try to tap into unused and misdirected forms of power. Ultimately, everyone is of the middle, except for one man, whose own power and responsibility is indistinguishable from its middling distribution.

April 16, 2019

Accessing the Ostensive within the Declarative

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:14 am

It is in the nature of the declarative to both supplant and appropriate the ostensive. The declarative comes into being by deferring some imperative and, first of all replacing it with the combination of an “operator of negation,” or prohibition on proceeding to act on the failed imperative, on the one hand, and a negative ostensive, representing the demanded object in absentia, on the other. The declarative creates a world full objects, which is to say a world of useful and desirable things that we observe and refer to without appropriating. The declarative is born in terror of the imperative and, by extension, the ostensive, the latter of which it produces a virtual version of. All developments of declarative culture involve further distancing and regulating access to imperatives and ostensives. This is the logic of “enlightenment”: all action is to be a result of the sheer accumulation of declaratives, providing such a complete account of the world, that anything one might do has already been so mapped out in advance as to not even require a “decision.”

But seeking to erase the “violent” ostensive-imperative world ends up creating a new, inverted, version of it. The more distant from the ostensive-imperative world the declarative moves, the more it becomes imperative to interpose new declarative layers in between declarative culture and the ostensives and imperatives that emerge unbidden and unanticipated in the course of social life. Replace actions with explanations whenever possible—but this only produces perverse actions, suppressing those who point out threats or try to solve problems directly, before they metastasize. This is the linguistic basis of liberalism, which becomes a generalizable possibility once the emergence of print culture creates an extensive disciplinary structure that tilts the balance, once and for all, towards the declarative and against the ostensive-imperative. A linguistic problem requires a linguistic solution or, more precisely, deferral. This is a question I have addressed in many ways, through the concept of “upclining” in one essay and more recently by proposing we think about subjectivity as the performance of paradoxes of self-reference, and the post-sacrificial, post-literate human being as “total sign.” The attempt here is to embed an ostensive dimension in the declarative in the form of a marker of the disciplinary space of attentionality that all the references made possible in the declarative depend upon. The “what” of your sentences should have, as its Mobius strip-like obverse, the “where,” “when,” and to and from “who(m)” of its utterance—not as biographical markers (I’m writing this on a porch in a farm house in Des Moines, September 32, 2016, 5:23 PM, etc.), but as a marker within the current state of language. We could think of this as an attempt to heal the oldest split within language.

This question can now be approached more precisely by drawing on my analysis of the implications of the “classic prose” that David Olson sees as prototypical of literacy. To review: Olson sees writing as representing reported speech, and identifies as the specific features of writing the supplementation of the words reported with a vocabulary designed so as to represent what cannot be represented directly in writing: tone, emphasis, bodily language—everything that can only be grasped ostensively. If I’m telling you that John says that “the enemy is on its way” and I don’t think John knows what he’s talking about I might repeat John’s words in an exaggeratedly mock-frightened tone. Since you can’t do this in writing, in conveying not only what John said but the meaning of what he said (a distinction that becomes intelligible only under literate conditions), which is to say, registering my own distance from John’s view, I might write “John claimed that he saw the enemy ready to attack.” The use of the word “claim” puts what John said in question—I make it clear that I’m not vouching for it. A substantial vocabulary serving the purpose of indicating all the possible relations the reporter of speech might have to the reported speech is developed—mastering this vocabulary is what is involved in becoming literate.

So, we can “claim,” “assume,” “suggest,” “suppose,” “contend,” “argue,” “understand,” “imply,” and so on and these speech acts get nominalized into “claims,” “assumptions,” “suggestions,” “implications” and all the rest and these nouns come to exist within the disciplinary spaces within which we speak about thinking, reading, writing and other intellectual activities. Even “thought” is such a nominalization of the verb “think”—we can have “thoughts,” but there is also a whole world of “thought,” with its own history. Drawing upon Mark Turner and Francis-Noel Thomas’s notion of “classic prose,” Olson argues that the imperative writing is under is to construct a simulated scene upon which the writer and reader all stand—and we can see in this an extension of the declarative’s paradoxical suppression and appropriation of the ostensive-imperative realm. Classic prose is a manner of writing that enables the reader to see whatever is being described as if he were there. Olson recognizes this to be a “conceit,” i.e., a kind of fiction we adopt for the purpose of reading (Thomas and Turner of course recognize this as well), but doesn’t see any objections on those grounds. The disciplines, starting with philosophy, are in turn erected on the basis of these nominalizations, and we are left with a paradox: the neutralization of the ostensive-imperative world is carried out through a mode of writing that purports to be like a window, given you a “clear” view of the topic under discussion, as if you were present on the scene.

It seems to me that much if not all literature, or at least literary prose fiction, constitutes an ongoing satire of the disciplines—including literary fiction itself insofar as it becomes a discipline. My own proposal for engaging the disciplines by using the terms they apply to their domain of inquiry to their own space of inquiry is, in this sense, “literary.” It involves taking the nominalizations and turning them into verbs, and therefore imperatives, towards the end of bringing us all into the space of inquiry as both “objects” and “subjects.” This produces a scene of writing which interferes with the scene of presence represented by the writing. The paradox of declarative culture can therefore be represented within declarative culture. Once the scene of writing is established, any concept, any word, within the disciplinary discourse can be “meta-d” in this way. One could say that in infiltrating the language of the disciplines only or mainly the “most important” concepts should be addressed forcefully, but that’s “Big Scene” thinking: the most important concepts are not necessarily the ones the discipline itself thinks are most important—it might very well be something the discipline shunts off to one side and yet can’t seem to do without. This is something we can learn from deconstruction. Taking the discipline at its word regarding its own concepts leads to “debates” in which the discipline has a built in advantage—more lateral approaches even the playing field for the innovative.

On a grammatical level, this involves replacing nominalizations with verbs, in order to represent disciplinary specific concepts as signs of events. If the creation and subsequent uses of the concept can be seen as events, then the set of relations represented by the concept can also be reduced to an originary event form. Those new event forms, no doubt rich in verbs, will in turn become nominalized in a more extensive and de-familiarizing way than in the source material. Let’s take a concept within GA, like “resentment.” It’s easy to use the concept of resentment as a way of expressing resentment: accusing those you resent of being resentful allows for a perfectly exculpatory manifestation of resentment. But this means that in order to use the concept effectively, you must have deferred it: your discourse should provide signs that you withhold any resentment you might have for the resentful object of your analysis. How do you do that? You identify the center against which the resentment is directed: there is some rule which some central authority has pledged, implicitly or explicitly, to uphold, and has failed to do so. Even “horizontal” resentments derive from “vertical” ones, because it’s the role of the central authority to ensure groups don’t come into conflict with each other. If you resent horizontally, it’s because you see your object of resentment as the protégé of the “unfair” central power. Seeing resentment as resentment towards the center provides a way of exhibiting the non-resentful quality of your study of resentment, because you turn that study into a study of the center in which your own object of study, regardless of how “justified” or “unjustified” his resentment is, could conceivably join. In this way you, the inquirer/accuser can own your own resentment towards the center whose lapses enabled the other’s resentment, while converting your resentment into greater clarity regarding central imperatives.

So, I have brought the originary inquirer into the disciplinary space as both subject and object of the study of resentment. But notice the quotation marks I was compelled to place around “justified” and “unjustified.” This is a particularly difficult question in GA: how can we—even, can we—distinguish between justified and unjustified resentments? The concept itself seems trans-moral. The first resentment is toward the center on the originary scene, in response to the center barring access to the object itself. This resentment is both “unjustified” (because the center creates peace and the human through its prohibition) and completely unavoidable, and therefore justified. All subsequent resentment must therefore partake of this paradox. Some resentments will be suppressed because they make the existence of essential institutions (the purpose of which is to limit the consequences of resentment) problematic, but that doesn’t make them “wrong”—maybe a more comprehensive resentment towards the institutions themselves will turn out to be “justified” if it is possible to replace them with something “better.” What is “better”? Providing for the adjudication of a wider range of resentments, which can therefore be productive rather than being—or before they need to be—suppressed. The study of resentment that turns into a study of the center also turns into the attempt to derive from the center a way of determining the latitude to be allowed to different resentments, which must also, though, be a study of the means of transforming those resentments so that they can participate in the discourse of the center—by finding new ways of representing other resentful positions so that they can eventually participate in the discourse of the center by…

So, we begin with an attempt to “define” or characterize “resentment,” which leads us to a question regarding the relation of the one so attempting to his own resentment, which leads us into the paradoxical nature of resentment along with a means of discussing the pragmatics of sustaining and limiting that paradoxicality. We end up with complex nominalizations, like the discourse of the center, or something like “the reciprocal relation between donating one’s resentment to the center and the naming of resentments in the practice of converting them into donations of resentment to the center.” We could actually put a verb after the long noun phrase just quoted, and predicate various features and consequences of this “relation.” The ostensive within the declarative, in all the forms I mentioned earlier, are now in the fully paradoxicalized declarative itself. And the same process can be initiated with regard to any part of that noun phrase, including the by no means transparent concepts of “reciprocal” and “donate,” which themselves could be “verbalized” and reduced to originary event form and in turn re-nominalized as paradoxical articulations of center and margin. As Peirce asserted, all inquiries are inquiries into the meaning of “difficult words,” but, of course, what counts as a “difficult word” shifts as our attentions do. To return to a claim I made a few posts back (The Central Imaginary), the only real question we can have is whether, or in what way, to what extent, is an iterated sign the “same” sign as its previous iteration. The only way to answer this question is by reducing the sign to its scenic origins as the representation of those origins is embedded in the event forms of the different scenes upon which the sign was indeed iterated. If that’s all we ever do, knowing that and how that is all we ever do would have us threading the ostensive through the declarative as a matter of course.

April 9, 2019

The Big Scene is the Anthropological Basis of Anarchist Ontology

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:26 am

As sacral kingship disintegrated, and the unity of the sacred and social centers was dismembered, the response in the late middle ages in the West was to retrieve the originary scene. Going back to the scene is the only response to any social crisis: if the existing institutions and the totality of gestures they organize no longer defer violence, what else could there be to do other than discover some new gesture; and what other means could we have other than finding some central object the deferral of the appropriation of which we can organize around? Sacral kingship in its high imperial forms (i.e., “divine kingship”) is in fact anti-scenic: the sacral king of a community small enough that they might still be able to simply kill and replace the king if his powers fail is still the center of a scene; with the monstrous empires of antiquity, where the king is completely protected and most people, we can assume, pay him tribute while relying more directly on their ancestral cults, there is no real social scene. In a sense, nothing happens for very long periods of time, other than court intrigues.

The Axial Age acquisitions, then, restart history by creating centers outside of the imperial one. The Axial Age acquisitions—Greek philosophy, prophetic Judaism and Christianity and even, I think (but probably less so), Chinese philosophy, are both anti-imperial and imperial. They construct a position from which the existing emperor falls short in God’s eyes, which is to say they institute a kind of permanent resentment towards empire; while at the same time imagine an eternal and universal empire under a true, divinely ordained king. Western “history” is, we could say, the history of the deserved fall of empires until the establishment of the one true empire at the end of days. Both Marxism and liberalism fit this apocalyptic pattern. So, from the failure of non-scenic imperialism, the recovery of scenicity takes the form of the imagining of “History” as a scene. This is why the anti-imperial side of the Axial Age ultimately wins out—the only acceptable God-Emperor would be God himself, who will rule once love of Him has been implanted in all human hearts by some revelation produced by the final, cataclysmic fall of increasingly evil empires.

We can see a comprehensive iteration of the originary scene here: our evil inclinations lead to us wanting, also fearing, but finally demanding and deserving the tyrant to end all tyrants; while the gesture on this scene that prevents our final descent is the Word of God becoming our words. How violent this final apocalypse must be, and how much it depends on human action rather than divine intervention will vary according to circumstances, but the structure is unvarying right down to the present day. We are still told, in the midst of declared crises of the liberal order, that the “voice of the people” finally sets things right. We still think there is a “voice of the people”—nothing can be more commonplace than to hear commentators says the “American people want (or don’t want)” this or that. What they mean to the extent that they are accurate, is that a sufficient majority could be patched together, by hook and crook, for a particular purpose. But imagine what it would sound like if politicians and pundits spoke in that way (as they often undoubtedly do amongst themselves)—there would be absolutely no reason to grant any decision they make the slightest legitimacy. Which means there is no other way of thinking about liberal legitimacy than according to what is still a Rousseauian notion of the “general will.”

And it is also true that unanimity regarding the originary structure of a social order is necessary if that society is not to completely degenerate into warring forces devoid of any limits on the weapons used and aims pursued in the struggle. So, it’s not surprising that liberalism recognizes this. Even leftists need to reference a unanimously held originary structure. Their anti-whiteness, for example, is not asserted as a matter of taste or mere tribal hostility—they must assert that there was in fact another, truer, America all along, with its own genealogies, its own sacred events and names, its own anticipated apocalypse. These are all versions of what I would call The Big Scene, and in the end there isn’t that much to choose from among them. The Big Scene is big in size and in consequences, but most importantly it is big in the sense of limitless because it is a scene constructed, not around a center, but in order to prevent the emergence of a center. A centered scene always has limits in space and time—participants must be in a circumference a certain distance from the scene to be witnesses, and if the number of participants grows beyond the size of this original circumference, it is people in the “rows” further back who acknowledge the precedence, in space or time, of those in the front rows, so this growth can be orderly.

A scene whose participants are devoted to the suppression of any center, though, is inherently unlimited. One can organize entire countries, or the majority and most active parts of them, around preventing the emergence of some proxy for a center. One can even organize regions around it; it’s too soon to say whether the world can be organized in this way. Such scenes are like lynchings—anyone can come along and throw another stone. They tend toward egalitarianism—everyone is against the same thing, and intensity is always increasing so no one can establish real preeminence in that regard. Elections are still about selecting a government, so they must put someone, some imperial figure, at the center—but the history of democracy is the history of the effacement and disfiguring of these central figures so that they represent nothing more than “who we are as a people” at this point. No doubt part of the hysterical hostility to President Trump is the overly imperial figure he strikes—he seems to actually make decisions, rather than just being the final filter through which the information circulating among elites and specialized institutions is processed. But all of the surrounding para-governmental institutions—the media, the NGOs, the universities, and so on—are completely uninterested in governing, and are free to engage in perpetual center smashing. They support politicians, of course, and more fervently than ever, but center-smashing politicians, more interested in gestures and less in coherent imperatives. And the politicians themselves eventually assimilate to this crowd. Governing of a sort continues, by the civil servants hired to do it, but they are themselves increasingly caught up in virtue signaling and helping to take down anyone who threatens to establish order.

It was liberalism that finally tilted the apocalyptic scene towards its permanently anti-imperial trajectory. And that’s when we get The Big Scene firmly installed as the imagined retrieval of the originary scene. It is a false scene, because it imagines a world without the Big Men—in this sense, liberalism and democracy are carnivalesque. But for this very reason it seems closer to the originary scene, which had no one at the center, just an object to tear to pieces. Anyone presuming to be a Bigger Man would violate the scene, but the same must be the case for any attempt to propose a general basis for agreement on anything whatsoever because that too must merely be an attempt to sneak someone into the driver’s seat. This is why resentments cannot be remedied in this way: only resentments that are framed in terms of some discord between the social center and the sacred or paradoxical center can be addressed. But only a shared concord between both modes of centrality makes discordance a problem—if all social centers, all central authorities, are equally illegitimate because equally evanescent and arbitrary, resentments can only feed on each other.

The discourse of The Big Scene is deeply rooted in our cultural and political vocabularies. If you listen carefully, across the entire political spectrum, you will see that virtually no one criticizes anything or anyone on any other basis than the violation of one norm of equality against another. All we see is people leveraging one residue of liberalism against another. It’s all people elbowing each out of the front row in the march of The Big Scene. For example, people can acknowledge that there are relations between nations that are best described as “imperial” or “hegemonic,” but such words are only used as terms of opprobrium, and the states accused of creating such relations will insist on euphemisms disavowing them. Imagine somebody criticizing the Saudis and Israelis for not superintending the Middle East effectively enough, or China for not establishing clear rules of inter-state interaction for East Asia, or the US for not thinking seriously about the best mixture of traditional and modern social forms to promote throughout Latin America. For that matter, think about how the sting of populist nationalism would be removed, and the basic ends of such nationalisms brought closer to achievement, if we could simply acknowledge, one, that many, maybe most, societies will be ethnically mixed; and, two, that in ethnically mixed societies there will almost always be a dominant, majority ethnic group that should set the tone for, be deferred to by, and in turn offer patronage to, minority groups. All of these approaches would imply “little scenes” with a center, and therefore must be overrun by The Big Scene apocalypse.

Restoring the originary structure of the social order only secondarily involves getting into arguments over the officially recognized founding events: the “real meaning” of the American or French revolution, of “1688” or the Magna Carta. “Arguments” are part of the problem. The originary structure will be restored through the constitution of disciplinary scenes carved out of the many anomalies of The Big Scene. Every scene must be revealed as originary, as having a central object, even if unidentified or even unsought; every scene institutionalizes itself, even if minimally. The semiotic materials of the scene should be used to name every emergent practice on the scene. The practices on the scene at least then become objects of the scene, and the origins of those practices point to other objects to be placed at the center. Relapses into argumentative clichés can be named, as can the pedagogical moves used to circumvent them. This kind of practice in itself looks back toward other originary scenes, as it finds its precedents in them, in part by looking for models to extend its own scene. The more such practices inform and lead others to institute related practices, the more the commonly recognized founding events can be introduced, probably in a revised manner, into the discourse.

By the way, did you understand the title of this post? (Before you started reading? While you were reading? At this point?) “Anarchist ontology” might be a fairly familiar phrase, going back the Reactionary Futureblog. We’ve been contrasting it with “absolutist ontology” for a while. That one might propose that an ontology has an “anthropological basis” might not be very surprising for people familiar with GA. “The Big Scene” is a phrase new to this post, but, of course, in GA we are always speaking of scenes, the scenic, and scenicity. Perhaps the originary scene was a small scene, so this one is distinguished from it, perhaps pejoratively—that it’s the basis of anarchist ontology, which is generally distinguished unfavorably from absolutist ontology, would reinforce this impression. But if you’re unfamiliar with all of this, the title would look like sheer gibberish. It would be “unclear.” Now, that someone would say the title is gibberish and unclear, rather than saying that there are signs here of an unfamiliar disciplinary space is another way of being on The Big Scene. The norm of “classic prose” is that your writing should place all readers on the same scene along with each other and the writer. A text which some will understand but others won’t is inherently suspect. Imagining yourself on The Big Scene is the equivalent of what Marxism called “ideology.” The kinds of incommensurabilities between languages identified by Anna Wierzbicka are “retouched” through supplementations like “progress” and “cultural development” rather than seen for the originary constructs they are. There is nothing outside of the attention articulated in disciplinary spaces as they study the always distinctive and present imperatives from the center. Building distinctive spaces to study what is distinct even in those spaces under the spell of The Big Scene and being able to answer charges of merely having a little scene by ratcheting up the distinctions all around is the way you resist The Big Scene.

April 2, 2019

Total Semiotics, or Exteriorizing the Interiors

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:43 am

We have almost no way, at any level of discourse, of referring to mental and psychological states (thoughts, feelings, desires) or qualities (moral and ethical, character, etc.) other than through some metaphor of interiority. Everything about us is “inside,” “within,” “deep down,” “buried,” “kept inside,” and so on. Discussions of learning, or about being transformed by events, are invariably conducted in terms of “internalizations.” Like depth metaphors in general, we can assume these interiors are artifacts of literacy. If you say something, or want something, that’s on the outside; you can feel things inside, but in a physical sense; even thinking does not necessarily require an internal location where it takes place—it’s a way of being embedded in the world and language. “Psychology,” in a pre-literate world, would be framed in terms of voices and agencies that exist outside of the one hearing and being moved by those voices and agencies. Prompts to behavior would not be from “within.”

Interiorization is metaphysics, or the declarative culture of literacy: all the interiorizing concepts are drawn from the supplementations to the reported speech scene David Olson identifies in “classic prose.” For example, Olson points out that the word “belief” is a marker of “sincerity”: “I believe” is a way affirming under more demanding conditions what one has said. But once we have the verb “believe” to indicate a willingness to be held to one’s words with greater accountability than usual, we will have the noun “belief,” and “belief,” as a noun, seems to be a “thing,” and where could this thing be other than inside us—so, we believe “deep down.” Social scientists can then construct experiments to test the “strength” or “malleability” of beliefs, and we can rummage around inside ourselves and others to determine where inside of us our “beliefs” are shelved along with our “principles,” our “memories,” our “unconscious” and all the rest.

Eliminating metaphors of interiority and depth more generally coincides with Charles Sanders Peirce’s own anti-metaphysics, advanced through semiotics. Everything that we know is a sign. Things that are not signs can be known because they generate effects that are registered by signs, and from those signs we can infer their causes. But even “causes” are signs. That nothing is unmediated by signs, that we are all ourselves signs referring to other signs, is a necessary consequence of the originary hypothesis. Peirce’s own tripartite schema, icon, index and symbol, corresponds fairly well, but certainly not exactly, with GA’s own ostensive, imperative, declarative. So, we can be less interested in what someone believes, however deeply, and more interested in his conduct, including, of course, his discourse. But what makes someone a someone in the first place is that he constitutes himself as a center among centers, and it is this self-constitution as a center that will enable us to do all the work of the interiorizations I recommend replacing, and quite a bit more as well.

The post-sacrificial, or omnicentric social order makes us all centers—we have last names, ID numbers, histories in public institutions, credit cards, and much more—all of which requires a center around which all this “orbits.” The work you must put into making yourself a functional center involves managing attention—constituting yourself so that people pay attention to you in the “right” ways, which also means paying attention to them in the “right” ways. We might think of self-centering as a network of attentional exchanges: words and gestures through which we reciprocally confirm (and, of course compete over) each other’s centrality. Finally, you have to become, and to some extent already are, a center for yourself—Peirce himself endorsed the classical notion of the “self” as the dialogue of the soul with itself, while modifying this formulation into the dialogue of the self with the self that is presently coming into being as a result of this very dialogue (and which is also apparent in what someone says and does). He also saw the enhancing of self-control as the purpose of inquiry (and all sign use, for Peirce, is inquiry), and self-control is simply strengthening the self as center in relation to its margins.

Becoming a center is not a simple matter—drawing attention to oneself means drawing desires and resentments toward oneself. That may mean desires from some and resentments from others. It means modeling desires and resentments towards others. You can be attractive as something to be possessed and enjoyed or as a model to be imitated. If some imitate you, others are sure to resent you. No one’s centrality is self-subsisting: even the most complete narcissist must imagine himself projecting more generally admirable qualities, which means he presupposes a shared set of signs with his “audiences” which must be taken to derive from a common center. In your own signifying activity you gather together through a system of references all of the signs pointing in your direction; in gathering them together you turn yourself into a sign, in the sense that following the signs pointing in your direction can serve to defer resentment. As a sign, what you are pointing to is some other center, one that allows you and your fellow signs to co-exist and even jointly flourish.

We can generate a vocabulary of inquiry here that can abolish interiorizations. Instead of talking about things like “spirituality” and “faith,” for example, we could speak in terms of the signs you have constellated so as to turn yourself into a sign, for yourself as well as others, that can model ways of placing more signs between oneself and the desires and resentments that lead to violence—even the various violences against one’s own centrality. As an ostensive sign, in presenting one’s centrality one is also an iconic sign, “resembling” the mode of deferral one is modeling. One’s ostensivity and iconicity blend into indexicality and imperativity: your acknowledged presence issues commands and makes demands on the other precisely by occupying the same space and thereby impacting the other. Even more visceral emotions, implicitly assumed to be “inside,” like, say, anger or despair, are better spoken of in terms of ostensive power that has been weakened, imperatives that can no longer be heard or complied with, ostensives that are overwhelming in their attractive power, imperatives that cannot be resisted even if the consequences of obeying them cannot be controlled, and so on. In this way, all individual feelings can be made directly social, representing ways one is bound up with various social centers and traditions—and what are traditions, if not imperatives from some especially powerful center that have moved through the medium of a history of social practices and can still be heard as a distilled form of the original?

Replacing interiority with the embedding of the human being as emergent center in the ostensive-imperative world establishes a continuity with pre-literate discourse that has been lost. Pre-literate peoples will not see themselves as having autonomous selves, within each person following his own “conscience,” “passion,” “inspiration,” etc. They will see themselves as in constant, often hostile and distressing, dialogue with the dead and various divine figures. Someone is always telling them to do or think what they are doing—we can see this from a late orally produced and transmitted text like The Illiad, even with its significant literate overlays. Even for Socrates, everyone has their “daemon,” and one is compelled to answer questions posed by oracles. Part of my argument here is that this way of thinking about thinking, desiring and decision making is far more realistic than those framed in accord with individualistic models; in the post-literate resolution of the anomalies of the literate mind (which probably needed to define itself sharply against orality, even if just for pedagogical purposes) we are working towards our self-otherness can be described far more minimally than was possible under oral and sacrificial conditions.

Can it be experienced directly, though? That depends on whether we can distance and extricate ourselves from the still sacrificial exchanges that constitute resentful centrality. Once you have established yourself as center, you have to defend that centrality—you have to be willing to “prove” yourself, counter falsifications, address slights, avenge violations of your centrality, establish various deterrence mechanisms, and so on. You need to assert your “sincerity,” your “integrity,” “honesty,” and so on by demonstrating—and attacking anyone who doubts the demonstration—your consistency (“consistency” according to terms that you also have to establish and impose). The disciplines remain within these reifications even while “explaining” the ways they get articulated one way or another—they introduce rigor into the various “folk psychologies,” which means entering the system of self-controlling centrality and conditioning its terms upon institutional constraints so as to subject them to external controls.

The only way not to be or have a “self,” without indulging in the fantasy of a direct plug-in to the divine, is to make oneself a total sign. All of the things others can think or say about you, or do to you, are parts of how you compose yourself as a potential center of attention. Every time you so compose yourself refers to other times you have, and other times and ways you might, compose yourself. The furniture of interiorization is excluded in an a priori way—yes, you’ll still speak to yourself (have “internal dialogues”) but these are essentially rehearsals and planning sessions for possible enactments of self-representation.  Insofar as you are to be made into a center you work to defer some possible violence; this means eliciting so as to redirect mimetic crises on different levels. We’re all signs of course, signifying ostensively, imperatively and declaratively, but if you rely on the assumption that the world is a single scene (an assumption encouraged by literacy) then you array your signs so as to pre-empt any questioning of your belonging on that scene. This is “humanism”: a batch of qualities and characteristics that make you like everyone else insofar we are all on the world scene. Humanism is a prohibition on becoming a total sign and an insistence that everyone supply oneself with a full interiorization.

To become a total sign is to signify the scenes upon which those qualities and characteristics (the supplementations of the self as mandated center) are identified and thereby turn them into objects of inquiry. People get angry and offended; they can be sympathetic, caring, rude, and much more. These qualities can be treated as sites of sign exchange in which one responds in kind, or as expected, to signs of anger, caring and all the rest. You are then in a constant state of shuffling and refining these qualities, and showing them off when they can centralize you most effectively (drawing mimetic desires short of scapegoating). All of these emotions and qualities are social and involve negotiations regarding the state of the center and access to it. But why not simply formalize all this as well: to feel anger rather than act is to acknowledge some form of powerlessness commanded by the center; to be sympathetic is to imagine yourself, without much evidence, less in danger of resentment from the object of your sympathy. You can refuse the exchange by not providing the complementing sign; you can frame the terms of the exchange by treating those terms as imperatives—who told you that you should feel angry, offended, concerned, hopeful, or whatever on this kind of occasion (what kind of occasion is it—and you told you to identify it as such?). What do you think would satisfy your anger or your sympathy? When the little imperative exchanges implicit in the supplemented emotional states (where a psychological quality has filled a space left by a god) fail to come off, we are left facing the center, which we counted on to oversee the exchange. Something was telling me to be frustrated, or hopeful, or suspicious (all these “emotions” require scenic “translations”), or whatever, but now the center can tell me to preserve the space within which the exchange takes places, rather than take up one side of the exchange. Instead of an exchange of conventional gestures, we can command each other to go set up new spaces that are themselves aimed at spreading spaces irreducible to gestural exchanges. “Psychology” is still the residue of sacrificial culture, in which we all cut off little pieces of ourselves to distribute and consume. Post-sacrificial modes of being involve giving over our desires and resentments to the center in the knowledge we will have to sustain our attention towards the center so as to be worthy of when those desires and resentments come back transformed into imperatives from the center. And then we become ostensive, imperative, interrogative and declarative signs of the center.

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