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.

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