GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

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.

1 Comment »

  1. […] GA Blog with more wisdom on the way words work: Accessing the Ostensive within the Declarative. […]

    Pingback by Cantandum in Ezkhaton 04/21/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores — April 21, 2019 @ 7:06 am

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