GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

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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