GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

June 25, 2019

From Metapolitics to Politics

Filed under: GA — adam @ 10:55 am

Let’s say neoabsolutism is the organization of those who seek out commands from the central authority, in distinction from those who make demands upon the central authorities. In distinction from, not in opposition to (even if opposition is sometimes necessary)—this distinction runs through as well as across individuals, and neoabsolutists try, not to “purify” themselves by refraining from making demands, but to keep making demands increasingly subordinate to commands—ultimately, demands should be converted into requests for materials needed to fulfill commands. You make demands when you see yourself as being in a transactional relation to the demandee; since no one is ever actually in a transactional relation with the central authority, demands are meaningful insofar as they are in fact at the lower end of a chain of commands issued by the central authority itself, as it has been captured by one or another faction. If your demands are not at the end of a chain of command issued by the central authority, they are simply delusional. If they are, they are commands followed in disguise. So, for starters, neoabsolutists don’t make meaningless, delusional, demands—this in itself is enough to distinguish us from all other political factions.

Commands come to us through names. Names institute originary centers: a name refers to an object that is, or might be, desired, and therefore a source of rivalry; naming the thing makes the object available or divisible in an authorized and orderly way. This is the case for intimate nicknames that add a layer of protection to comrades or loved ones, slowing down the movement from attention to resentment just as much as for the names of cities which are thereby brought under central authority. The named object commands us to refrain from violently centralizing it. We refrain from violent centralization by deferring to the central authority conferring and redeeming the name: we do nothing to the object that authority would prohibit; even more, we protect it as that authority would have us do. We can always do this, even when the name is contested. Take a frivolous example: some eccentric who insists on calling New York “New Amsterdam” because his own historical inquiries have revealed to him that the British never had a right to succeed Dutch sovereignty over the city. While you are speaking with him, which is to say while the name “New Amsterdam” is in play, and you have no responsibility for preserving the name “New York,” and there is no harm in entering his imaginary space, respecting “Dutch sovereignty,” and finding out what this place, New Amsterdam, is (even if the DMV and Post Office won’t be able to indulge his fantasy). The same is true in more serious cases, where the name of a city or country is the stake in a war, insurrection, or civil war. Even when your enemy’s name is in play, you can recognize and respect the buffers he places around his name for the place or site because doing so is a way of eliciting in his speech and actions the sovereign resources that may or may not back the name. “Tell me about your [   ]” serves as both a kind of truce and a way of measuring the forces arrayed.

We are always most fundamentally naming, which is to say designating centers, not only ostensively and imperatively but declaratively—when someone asks the “point” of a book, he is asking what has been named by it. The only way we can name, which is also the only way we can speak about anything, is by providing the means to “point” to its relation to some more inclusive center; which is to say, some desire provoked by what one points at, some resentment at that desire’s at least partial or potential frustration, and some self-centering by any and all involved that would be a sign of resentment deferred. Within a ritual, mythical, magical, i.e., predominantly ostensive-imperative world, this means outlining someone’s relation to a specific set of figures and the ritual and narrative traditions determining the relations between them. If something goes wrong, the gods are against you, and if the gods are against you, you have displeased them in some way, and there are specific, and known ways in which the gods are displeased. A very rich universe, which is to say, a rich set of names, is generated out of such descriptions.

In a post-ritual, post-sacrificial, world, the disciplines take up the slack, and the centers we deal with are entities like “society,” “selves,” “community,” “morality,” “profession,” “economy,” and so on. These are all normative arenas, and if things go wrong, you have violated some of those norms by being lazy, stupid, dishonest, uncooperative, neurotic, and so on. You accept the judgment of the disciplines, or imagine yourself in a counter-discipline, where you debunk some established discipline and establish a marginalized research canon—but these counter-disciplines are invariably hyper-literal intensifications of the existing disciplines. Much of my work over the past few years has been aimed at clarifying the relationship the originary hypothesis is to have to these disciplines. It should be a transdisciplinary relationship, as GA inhabits the disciplines, turns their discourses against themselves, and essentially replaces the disciplines as GA’s minimal vocabulary of “center,” “mimetic,” “desire,” and “resentment,” and its articulation of the ostensive, imperative, interrogative and declarative speech forms comes to account for everything the other disciplines had purported to account for. This is ethical, reparative activity—the central object of the disciplines is the imperium in imperio, or, let’s say, “super-sovereign,” that is intended to reunite the signifying center and the authoritative center, fractured with the fall of sacral kingship. The demystifying, secularizing, rationalizing agenda of the disciplines (starting with philosophy) is an attempt to give names to the nameless practices and figures that fall out of the fracturing of sacral kingship, but these names can only designate proxies of would be occupants of the central authority, and the naming procedures necessarily conceal the proxy character of the named precisely because this unknowing is a condition of naming as recruitment.

In that case, our discursive naming goes directly towards the desire, resentment and center implicit in what others have said: we can be wrong, but we are always making a hypothesis regarding what the other is doing by way of deferring violence in whatever he says or does. We can make these hypotheses increasingly explicit, and the other can, of course, respond that our hypothetical naming of him as a center of desire and resentment is really an articulation of our own self-centering of desire and resentment by which he can name us. On the face of it, and sometimes in actuality, this would lead to a kind of comically reductive cycle of accusations and counter-accusations, but if the analyses are conscientious the desires and resentments would have to be embedded in the institutions and in relation to the projects that would be their objects. In fact, naming the other would also entail naming those institutions and those in responsible positions within them, as the institutions themselves are represented as concentrations of deferred desires and resentments. But the better names will be the ones that are brought to an identification of some constitutive paradox of origin and being situating the other within the field of desire and resentment: a particular way of being inside the institution while being outside of it and representative of it.

An ongoing practice of naming that also keeps renaming the system of names within the names have their place is a metapolitical approach, similar, say, to saying that politics concerns realizing the relation between “man” and “technology.” But what does it mean for institution and organization building, strategy and tactics? What is to be done? We can bring our metapolitics closer to politics by saying that the goal is to create incrementally less reactive individuals. However someone engages you, you learn not to respond in kind, or to respond in kind only when it serves some broader purpose that includes this encounter. In other words, you respond to others demands—that is, you respond within their parameters, you pay them attention in a, to them, satisfying way, you recognize their resentments—by positing and obeying a command you all might have in common. This need not be conciliatory: the command might be that the other follow your lead; it might be that he surrender himself to you. At any rate, it’s a command that makes explicit the chain of command that would make the others’ demands more or less meaningful. This is in fact the outcome of the reciprocal naming practice.

So, the political project is to lower reactivity; and to provide ways for those engaged in lowering reactivity to find each other and collaborate; and this includes distinguishing oneself from, while surveying as possible recruits, the (so far) more reactive. The issues people normally associate with politics are secondary to building models of a post-liberal, post-sacrificial order, but that doesn’t mean they are irrelevant. Nor does it mean that neoabsolutists should not fully participate in all liberal institutions, including elections. What should be done is whatever will clarify some link in the chain of command by naming a center that will incorporate demands into that chain of command. Pro-choice people demand free and funded abortion; pro-life people demand an end to abortion. Where do we see violent centralizing here: that is, where do the respective sides each imagine its own super-sovereign, the foundation of its discipline of naming, predicated upon sacrificial markings? The embryo is not, even in purely biological terms, reducible to a “set of tissues,” or “tumor”; nor is a pregnant woman who negligently falls down, thereby causing a miscarriage, guilty of “manslaughter.” (That the pro-lifers realize the woman would be centralized in a violent way is evident in their absurd claim that only doctors would be punished for violating abortion laws.) The language of both sides is driven by the discourse of rights (and the hysterical, highly conformist political organizations the discourse requires) to have recourse to a super-sovereign conceptual order to imagine coercing the central authority. Abortion is wrong, as we can see from the somewhat demonic enthusiasm with which its promoters come to defend it against criticism; but it’s not wrong in the way the pro-lifers say. Extract “rights” from the equation and you eliminate the mobilization of the state against one’s enemies in the guise of self-protection; and if the initial move is not to imagine the mobilization of the state on one’s behalf (a kind of unknowing self-proxy-fying) then we can participate in naming practices that are articulated into more systemic practices.

To have neoabsolutists capable of deconstructing the standardized formulation of “issues” in this way requires both a “doctrine” in which all are schooled and to which all contribute as they can, and, of course, the institutions that can support such study; and infiltration in the dominant legal, scientific and other disciplines. It may be that the contemporary liberal order, that of the “victimocracy,” or “woke capital,” has evolved in such a way as to make both sides of this equation especially difficult. The tech oligopoly is designed so as to take out emergent intellectual threats, while the requirement, within the dominant institutions, of virtual loyalty oaths to the endless assault of the fringes upon the center means that a great deal of neoabsolutist politics will involve creating conditions under which training and infiltration become possible. The weakness of pre-WWII liberal institutions was that they had no consistent way of keeping the enemies of liberalism out of liberal institutions—we can see the current order as a solution to that problem, transitioning from fighting World War 2 and the Cold War to developing prophylaxes against their recurrence.

What are the weaknesses of these institutions, then? One is certainly that they don’t provide a public space wherein the ruling class can freely discuss the various challenges and options available to it—such discussions can obviously be held more privately, but not only does the current regime make that more difficult, but a more open loop is necessary if decision makers are to have the necessary feedback. This implies the possibility of elite defection, and raises the question of the means available of punishing such defection, and at what point those means would become insufficient. Another is that it is creating possibly intractable problems of governance for itself—divide and rule, via mass immigration and identity politics, might be a good strategy for a while but at some point it interferes with basic law and order and the production of a competent work force, and new generations of middle and upper leadership. A third is the corrosion of media, education, legal and other, maybe even scientific, institutions, to the point where they become useless. Where the emerging order is likely to be especially deficient, then, is in the middle, in the officer class, understood more generally, or middle to upper management. Proving worthy of elite defectors and providing at least some of the officer corps even for reluctant elites awash in SJW intrigue would then seem to be the goal of a large scale neo-absolutist politics; more proximately, what would help is seeing is the victimocrats brought out into the open so that they can be seen as the petty and vicious hands behind the curtain pulling the de-platforming levers, and made into an embarrassment. So, to take just one example, it seems to me that, preferable to Missouri Senator Hawley’s bill that would require the Big Tech firms to be certified as  “neutral” by the government so as to retain their designation as service providers rather than publishers (which would make them liable to libel lawsuits) it might be better to simply change the designation and have the DOJ initiate or support a wave of lawsuits so that the conversations, texts, emails, love affairs, etc., of the petty bureaucrats doing the banning and de-platforming within those companies can all be brought to light. The elites need to be shown, and they need to be seen to be shown: these are the people you have running things, deciding on information to be available to the public and peoples’ livelihoods.

Neoabsolutists would also be ruthless in devastating commonplaces and sentimentality regarding geo-politics, speaking straightforwardly, naming, imperial and hegemonic relations, assigning potential responsibilities to those actors with the power—rather than proposing, or fantasying, implicitly or explicitly, drastic leveling of relations between states. Yes, the US, to take the most obvious example, is everywhere, but every state is everywhere it can be. If the US is everywhere in chaotic, absurd and destructive ways, with, for example, the State Department, Defense Department and CIA all pursuing their own foreign policies, that is largely because of the liberal democratic ideologies, involving the defense of nonsensical chimeras like “human rights,” that makes it so. Here as well neoabsolutists make no intoxicating demands (“no more war!” “national self-determination!’), but, rather, carry on a continuous audit of the assets under the command of specific states which leads to the naming of institutional linkages that would best allot, within domains supervised by one or a team of powers, responsibilities for peace-keeping and coherence in government among subordinate powers. The same practice of seeking patronage of defecting elites and self-presenting as a more effective officer corps would apply here as well. In this case we can speak of a kind of “internationalist” politics, insofar as neoabsolutists in different countries wouldn’t so much collaborate with as model themselves off of each other, as all try to increase non-reactivity in their respective spaces.



June 19, 2019

GASC 2019 Paper

Filed under: GA — adam @ 11:53 am

The Linguistic Turn and Generative Literacy

I’m going to begin with the assumption that the linguistic turn entails the rejection of any attempt to find legitimation for what we say in language in some reality taken to be outside of language, whether this outside be truth, nature, human nature, reality, any form of interiority, the greater good, or anything else. This means that language, rather than being primarily representational, that is, trying to provide an adequate and therefore legitimating picture of what is outside of language, is generative—that is, it is relationships intrinsic to representational structures that create what we call truth, reality, nature, good and so on.

To say that language is generative is to say that the meanings of signs are to be found in their effects on other signs, not in reference to reality: the main question, then, becomes, what are the levers or mechanisms within sign systems that make transformation possible? To put it in pragmatic terms, to take the example of public discourse, instead of trying to prove that your discourse represents reality better, the point is to transform language so that your discourse works steadily within it to the point of becoming it.

Anna Wierzbicka’s discussion of modern English in her Experience, Evidence and Sense: The Cultural Legacy of English provides us with an example of what this means: she shows how the entire language was transformed as a result of one intervention: Locke’s theory of knowledge and politics. She traces a whole series of terms, such as “experience,” evidence,” “empirical,” “sense,” and others back to Locke’s usages, and points out not only the historical contingency and cultural specificity of these terms, but that these are among the very words English speakers take to be most universal and commonsensical. It’s no coincidence that these are the words taken to provide us with access to what is outside of language. It lies outside of Wierzbicka’s inquiry to explain how these words operated generatively upon the English language, but I would suggest that raising and answering that kind of question is, in the wake of the linguistic turn, central to any aesthetic, moral, ethical or political inquiry. It may very well be all such an inquiry entails.

The generativity of language, at least in the post-structuralist forms given it by Derrida’s claim that there is no outside of the text or Rorty’s notion of an ongoing conversation of civilization in which everyone participates, is generally taken to be a pluralist doctrine in which the difference inhabiting the sign is irreducible. But the sign that constitutes the originary scene is absolutely generative, insofar as the sign creates the scene and the human, while at the same time presupposing complete unanimity. And, in fact, I think that the linguistic turn, understood through originary thinking, poses a very different kind of problem, to which we can, in fact, reduce all human problems: that of ensuring that all participants on a scene issue, and know themselves to be issuing, the same sign. This is a problem because it never really is the same sign (the linguistic turners are right about that)—since signs only take on meaning within a scene, a sign on one scene cannot be identical to a sign on another scene, no matter what measures we take or what rules we construct to ensure the sign will be recognized as identical—indeed, we take such measures and construct such rules precisely because there is no internal essence of the sign that makes it the same.

There are two ways in which the identity of the sign can be established. One, all participants on a scene can agree that the sign is the same according to some agreed upon criteria for identity—in other words, some metalanguage, which will then have to be grounded in a metaphysical reality outside of language. Or, we can establish the identity of the sign by deliberately and self-referentially constituting a scene upon which the sign directs us to some center. Here, we would embrace what Johanna Drucker’s calls “inscription,” suggesting there is no sign without its embodiment and embedment in material and historical enactment. The problem with relying on metalanguage, or what Drucker calls “notation,” of course, is that any metalanguage is subject to the same self-difference as the language it tries to control.

Language is going to be generative even if we act as if it is representational—pretensions to a secure metalanguage really serve to guarantee a moral or political certainty that avoids the problem of creating in some space of language the shared attention directed towards some center. We can find the origin of this logocentrism in literacy. David Olson has shown that writing was created out of an inquiry in language, including the speech scenes upon which language is used. More recently, Olson has used the notion of classic prose (taken from Mark Turner and Francis Noel-Thomas’s book, Clear and Simple as the Truth) to show that the telos of the metalanguage of literacy is to simulate a scene, modeled on a presumed original speech scene, upon which writer and readers are all present. It is for this purpose that the metalanguage of literacy establishes norms regarding the correctness of sentences and the uses of words—which is to say, it is literacy that enshrines the declarative sentence as the primary form of language—metaphysics is just further elaboration on this.

Insofar as we rely on notation and metalanguage, then, we imagine ourselves to be present on a simulated, always already constructed scene, with guarantees provided in advance that we all use the same sign. We can then proceed to eliminate deviants—the ungrammatical, the illogical, the unclear—which further proves that those of us remaining are all in possession of the same sign. This metalinguistic imaginary elides the difference, constitutive of the declarative sentence, between the scene of utterance and the represented scene. Since the scene of writing and reading can be represented on that scene itself, introducing a difference within the scene, this elision generates anomalies within metalanguage.

These anomalies open the intrinsically imitative and therefore pedagogical dimension of language use that metaphysical presence occludes. This pedagogical dimension can only be enacted “infralinguistically,” to use Bruno Latour’s term. In place of the hierarchy between language and metalanguage we have the performance of the difference of the metalinguistically guaranteed sign through its representation until its event nature is elicited. These efforts aim at making visible and inescapable the event-character of the sign, which is to say the sign’s inextricability from histories, traditions, the various ways in which it has used by different groups in different situations and, above all, from some event, some act of deferral, some origin, the participation in which is the only the way we can reciprocally “authenticate” one another’s use of the sign.

I have been implicitly suggesting an infralinguistic strategy or vocation for GA, whereby we speak and write in “originary” and “generative” English (or any other language). The basic concepts of GA, such as “desire,” “resentment,” “center” and others don’t really allow us to remain unimplicated in the objects of our analyses—on what basis could I claim to be unresentfully drawing the contours of another’s resentment? GA, then, despite its distinctive (if minimal) conceptual vocabulary, is ill-suited to be a metalanguage. I am asking, what kind of knowledge is GA? If it’s a new way of thinking, it’s a new relation to language. For starters, I’m contending that literacy is itself a second revelation, broadly parallel to the emergence of the Big Man—the revelation here being, as I pointed out before, the autonomy of the declarative sentence.

We can make further use of Olson to get a sense of what the implications of bringing this revelation to the fore as part of the linguistic turn might imply. Olson points out that the metalanguage of literacy serves the purpose of “supplementing” the presumed scene of recorded speech with verbs referring implicitly to mental acts that would have been performed in a speech situation. If I say someone assumed that something to be the case, I am reporting what another said, while also distancing myself from it—the other person was presumably more certain than I am in reporting his speech. In an oral setting, this would have been reflected in the tone—perhaps mildly mocking—in which the speech was reported; since we don’t have that tone, literacy introduces supplementary terms like “assume.” This allows for another innovation of literacy: the distinction between the meaning of an utterance, and the speaker’s meaning—we can now represent all kinds of ways in which the two can be at odds.

These verbs then get nominalized and we get new entities, like “assumptions,” and whole new disciplines organized so as to study them. All the human sciences are derived from such nominalizations, and much of everyday discourse (which has been transformed by literacy and the disciplines) as well. Even universally available words like “thoughts” and “ideas” are probably constructs of literacy. What this means is that there are vast domains of linguistic usage that are entirely dependent upon elaborations of the metalanguage of literacy, and also completely oblivious to this fact. We ourselves, within GA, are also thoroughly immersed within the metalanguage of literacy—the difference is, we can know it, and know why, and propose new disciplinary articulations that show such words to be scene and event dependent.

Working “inscriptively,” then, would involve accepting that writing is scenic itself, rather than an attempt to construct a universally shared and permanent speech scene. One of Derrida’s central observations is that there is no single scene of writing—writing, rather, involves a dissemination of texts, each of which would serve to constitute a scene that might reference more or less directly any and all of the other scenes organized around the disseminated text. This means that writing generates samples of language, no more directly related to one particular scene upon which they are iterated than any other. Charles Sanders Peirce argued that knowledge is always of the relation between a sample and the population of which it is a sample. Once we abandon attempts to supplement the source, then, we have samples of language, and we generate hypotheses regarding their relation to language as a whole.

Treating pieces of language as samples involves creating anomalous uses, or, really, acknowledging that all uses are anomalous, and accordingly situating ourselves on the boundary between talking about something and no longer/not yet quite talking about something—“sampling” is a call, or imperative, to generate a new center with an object at it. If we’re obeying the imperative derived from a concept, like, say, “infralanguage,” or “inscription,” then we are looking for samples of language serving as models of these concepts, and looking for ways to make sense of less obvious instances, even seemingly counter-instances, in terms of these concepts—for example, noting the infralinguistic dimension inseparable from the most rigorously applied metalanguage.

Insofar as we have a new center, that center wants to be more central: if we have a center we are using the same sign, and its identity is affirmed in the self-reference that situates one scene generated by the sign in a history of scenes with an origin that is continually marked. Imperatives from the previous scene, like “find new ways to talk about X,” or “use the conceptual resources you have generated to replace some less differentiated way of saying something,” generate the subsequent scenes. Words that bear with them histories distributed across self-referential networks are going to be more generative.

Metalinguistic terms resist operationalization—what, exactly, are we doing when we “assume” something? Are we always assuming what we assume? If not, what’s the difference between when we’re assuming and when we’re not? The later Wittgenstein was fascinated and perhaps appalled by the evanescence of the “referents” of such meta-linguistic terms. It is precisely such terms we can operationalize infralinguistically. If we make a study of “assumptions,” it is not to define and categorize them or to leverage “hidden” assumptions against explicit statements, but, perhaps, to figure out when they come into view, and what kind of thinking is going on when they don’t. Perhaps we can imagine “assumptionless” linguistic performances; or performances that are all assumptions, right there on the surface. The purpose here being to show that such imagining would require new forms of joint attention.

If language is the deferral of violence, the only thing we are ever talking about is how we are going about deferring violence. Forms of language that can be moved across scenes make it possible to defer not only immediate forms of violence but possible future forms, even ones that we can’t yet imagine. In more critical discussions, where we’re interested in the “viability” of concepts, what we’re really inquiring into is how many possible uses for deferring violence a particular constellation of words might have. If we know this, but others don’t, in talking with others all we are doing is helping them to know this. This knowledge must lie in their own discourses, their own vocabulary—if they are going to speak GA with us they would first have to see that their own discourse is always already GA.

We’re all always and only talking about how we are deferring violence but if we don’t all always know this it is because the sign can only refer to a single center, not centeredness in general. So, in entering others’ discourse we identify those signs where reference to a single center interferes with the reference to centeredness as such. This would transform the conversation into one centered on eliciting the distinction between centering and centeredness. This distinction is elicited by treating every utterance as both hypothesizing the way some other sign refers to a center and being, as a sample, a possible center. Our interest in that possible utterance, or sample, then, is in how it can iterated and disseminated in ways that would make more explicit our talking about the way we are deferring violence.

It is this practice of sampling, taking pieces of language and pointing them at new centers, that makes language generative, memorable and effective. The reason for the linguistic turn is that the metaphysical scene of humanism, predicated upon the metalinguistics of literacy, could no longer effectively defer violence. For one thing, by asserting the unity of humanity humanism, the late form of metaphysics (locating the ultimate reality within rather than without), keeps dividing humanity. Deferring violence now requires making explicit the constitution of scenes upon which we take our own uses of language as the center—this demands that we minimize our assumptions regarding what counts as a scene of knowing, and let the object, the “samples,” organize such scenes. The more generative discourses will be those that can create revelatory scenes of the origin and identity of the sign out of the greatest differentiation in sign use. It is the discourse that knows that all we’re ever doing is talking about how we’re deferring violence without it ever being possible to be completely explicit about that will be the most generative one.


June 12, 2019

Language Policy

Filed under: GA — adam @ 4:41 am

A sign is the deferral of violence. The first sign deferred imminent violence; subsequent signs may also do so, or they may defer intimations of merely possible violence, raising the threshold of what would count as a cause for violence. And not just violence in in general, but mimetically driven violence that would, if undeferred, consume all. So, in choosing our signs, we aim at deferring the possibility of some violence that will, in almost all cases, not erupt on the scene upon which we cast the sign—we are hypothesizing at several or many steps removed. In developing high level concepts, for example, we hope to defer forms of violence that threaten under conditions we can’t even imagine at present.

Once a human has taken over the center, the most feared form of violence is scapegoating frenzy directed towards that central figure, and so that must be prevented; still, it must happen sometimes, and its consequences could be more or less destructive; so, rituals and institutions and their linguistic underpinnings must also provide for less destructive consequences. Once we are post-sacrificial and anyone can become a center and hence a target of centralizing violence, the most compelling form of violence—that which holds some marked individual responsible for some imminent catastrophe—is also the kind that must be deferred. Force will, of course, have to be used against enemies and criminals, but only force that maintains the centered ordinality or orderly hierarchy.

What we are always talking about then, however directly or indirectly, is whether some person who has been singled out, named, is being prepped for or disqualified from sacrificial violence. Our linguistic intuition always enables us to tell the difference: either we are loading excess guilt onto the individual, placing him below the threshold at which norms regulating the use of force are activated, perhaps because time is of the essence or the regular forms could not do justice to the singularity of this guilt; or, we are constructing reasons not to proceed against the individual, conferring upon him motives and embedding him in conditions that not only stay our hand but lead us to shape the surroundings so that forms of authority are invoked and reinforced.  These contending possibilities are not only in our language, they are our language. The conferral of an unhindered chain of imperatives upon a central authority is a result of the ascendancy of the moral imperative over the transgressive temptation: the more our language is saturated with ways of naming the impossible victim, the less it can consider centralized violence against the central figure without whom a cessation of violence is unthinkable.

Always naming impossible victims is the most moral way of speaking and writing; such a practice eventually entails naming ways of determining when, where and how the impossible victim is to be named. But, of course, the chains of command are never quite unbroken, and the temptation of transgression can never be eliminated—in fact, it is always encroaching. So, in naming impossible victims we entrain the naming of those persons as possible victims—such an implication is part of the same language in which we name the impossibility of their victimization, because deferral only makes sense if shaded by mimetic crisis. So, the possibility and impossibility of victimization must be made foreground and background of each other, parenthetical references, subordinate clauses, absolute and prepositional phrased within the sentences where the other is named. Representing both poles in their interdependence is the way in which the impossibility of victimization is represented. The representation of the temptation of transgression within the impossibilization of victimization is originary satire.

We are always presenting, at different levels of explicitness and awareness, hypotheses regarding the desires and resentments informing others’ actions. This also means we read others’ representations of ourselves as hypotheses regarding our own desires and resentments. But if we can say this, doesn’t it follow that we should always make our respective hypotheses more explicit, and be more aware of them? Note that I just drew an imperative from a declarative, or a prescriptive from a descriptive: if this is what we are always, already, doing, then we should do it explicitly and knowingly. This is essentially what it means to see declaratives as studies of the ostensive-imperative world, aimed at producing more possible ostensives.

But perhaps making more explicit our respective hypotheses regarding one another’s “mimology” interferes with the imperative to defer resentments. After all, at least sometimes, there is no better way of inflaming resentments than naming them. So, here we have a case of competing imperatives, both them with fairly firm “pedigrees.” They must both be preserved—that’s an even older imperative. There might be lots of ways of making my own and the other’s respective mimological hypotheses more explicit, and some of them might generate more uncontrollable forms of resentment than others; also, not all forms of resentment are equally enduring, or convert equally readily into violence. So, we aim at maximum explicitness articulated with minimal incitement to direct violence. We don’t want to drive the other into a blind fury; we want give him a new name, and part of that new name is “observer of the old names to which he belonged.” So, this means maximum separation from the old name, with minimal separation from the space of naming itself—the more confrontational one might be, the more the confrontation should be situated within an arena in which there is a shared distinction between fair and foul play.

This maximizing and minimizing is the realm of the thought experiment, which is the arena within which our mimological hypotheses are played out. If I’ve made the other’s hypothesis a bit more explicit than it was before, where can I find in his own language a way of making it yet more explicit? This imperative-interrogative articulation implies that there is something obfuscating his hypothesis. This something is some disavowed agency, displaced onto some supplementary representation. In the pre-literate, ritual world, this supplementary representation would be of a sacred agent—when I struck him, the god of rage, or whoever, filled my breast and guided my hand, etc. A ritual response would then be the proper recompense. In the literate world, following the “second revelation” (somewhat parallel to the “second revelation” of the Big Man), these disavowed agencies and supplementary representations are provided by the disciplines. These include concepts of freedom and responsibility that come primarily from legal discourse—the concepts needed to determine how to convict and punish once “blood prices” are no longer the means of settling disputes become “internalized” or, I would say, incorporated into our respective namings of each other.

Since the disciplines are ways of making sense of imperatives coming from the center, it is precisely this relation to the center that is obfuscated. So, let’s say someone commits a crime and confesses, taking full responsibility. Well, that’s better than having recourse to another discipline, like psychiatry, and claiming “temporary insanity,” or whatever, because at least in this case there is an openness to self-inspection. But locating the source of one’s actions in oneself is a denial of the mimetic nature of those actions, and this concealment is sure to show up in the confession itself. Somewhere in there we will find some slippage from being free of a desire to do wrong to being possessed by that desire. Here’s a place to introduce competing hypotheses, via a satiric thought experiment: something happened within that slippage that you don’t want to or can’t see. Wouldn’t part of taking responsibility be hypothesizing how you came to construct your responsibility as you did? In confessing, you heed an imperative from the center. Let’s first lay that out, in whatever moral, theological and legalistic language you have at your disposal. Then let’s see if we can hypothesize regarding the origin of those concepts in your own representation of your actions. I don’t mean empirical origins (“my father first taught me about guilt when I was 6 years old…”); I mean their origins in this very discourse—what in your story and self-accounting would leave you desiring or fearing violence towards or from others without the introduction of those concepts? Here is where we can represent an obscured resentment maximally while leaving minimal pathways toward acting on that resentment because we have strengthened our mutual adherence to the imperative to name oneself as the doer of this deed. There will be some supplementary concept here that, if we repeat it enough times, in sufficiently different contexts, will help us bring its origins to light. If we get rid of, for example, the “freedom/determinism” binary we can find a previously obscured imperative from the center.

This kind of thinking mostly involves converting imperatives into declaratives: “I had to do this” becomes “this other was blocking me from the center,” which in turn issues new imperatives like “discover a center such that it must have been acknowledging both of you equally, in however different ways.” The declaratives one constructs in the process lead one all the way back to the originary scene, where one in fact places oneself and one’s interlocutors; and all the way forward into the future, as one provides the linguistic material or “samples” that can be used in as yet unimaginable ways to defer unanticipated forms of violence. Your own gesture always borrows from another, to whom you attribute the first one—the more your own gesture is “really” first, the more it will confer firstness on the other. This is the position on the originary scene. The more you represent or adumbrate the resentments potentially generating by this present gesture of yours, along with counter-resentments and possible donations of these resentments to the center in the form of new mediations that would redirect our resenting attention from each other to a new mode of distribution (beyond our control) of the center, the more your discourse takes on futurity.

This is no longer classical prose because insofar as we are all on the same scene it is the scene of writing, which is a singular scene by virtue of being a mere generator of other possible scenes towards which we all take up some relation by the way of the imperatives we hear on this one. As we turn descriptives into prescriptives, the scene is distributed. In the end we are all shaping a collaborative project, not of representing reality, but of deferring mimetic violence as far into the future as possible (a lot of reality does need to get represented for this to take). And so the imperative is to become ever more explicit about this, and in such a way as to advance the collaborative project itself. We must always have recourse to the most direct, explicit, and rigorous thinking of desire, resentment, and the center that we have, which is to say the strongest GA we can make is imperative. But if we’re also going to be using GA to make other discourses more rigorous by eliciting their own discourses of the center, then once we’ve eliminated disavowed agencies and supplementary concepts there would be no difference between GA and all other discourses. We would all be engaged, in infinitely various ways, in the study of our constitutive relation to the center. Our satirical thought experiments would always be necessary because our cleaving to the imperatives from the center that have so far named us will always interfere with hearing a more minimal version of that absolute imperative, but those satirical thought experiments would take the place of the disciplines. That, at least is the project, which is to be made indistinguishable from our language.

We can describe, in the most immediate and accessible way, this project as the determining and revealing of the meaning of words. This means the retrieval of words from their disciplinary appropriations (their passage through the nominalizations constituting the metalanguage of literacy) and their emplacement within centered ordinality. The question is, how would a given word be used within sentences and discourses that present the hierarchy dictated by the center named by those sentences and discourses? You could say that determining the meaning of words is the formalism of language: what a word like “action” means is the way it is used by someone capable of action, or of commanding action, or of abstaining from action in order to distinguish one mode of action from another, ultimately for the sake of those yet to make decisions. What a word means, that is, is how it is used by someone authorized by the “situation,” which is to say, some center, to use it. And even someone expelled from the center is authorized to name the terms of that expulsion. This also means that becoming a student of meaning entails becoming authorized to use the words you study, which means founding a scene of their use, before you can know whether others will join you there.

June 4, 2019

Center and Origin: The Name-of-the-Center and Centered Names

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:04 am

Any center is fit out with a link to the origin—therein lies its power. Even more, any center is itself an origin, an ever emergent origin. Any use of a sign entrains the entire history of sign use and any articulation of joint attention iterates the originary scene. Sometimes, due to semiotic and bureaucratic drift, the origin needs to be retrieved, but that just means a particular element or moment of the scene has replaced the scene as a whole. The most likely “culprit” is the deceleratory moment of the scene, when all the participants conform their respective gestures to the norm that has emerged on the scene. This “settling in” would be the most memorable part of the scene, and the one that would be confirmed and conformed to even more precisely in ritual. We regularly have recourse to this element of the scene—even in the course of some innovation or disruption much of the scene must be held steady as a kind of “control” so that the novelty can stand out by contrast. When engaged in the “producers desire” to remember the origin this need for control is forgotten, and only the resistance of others on the scene can establish limits to the unfamiliar gesture.

Whatever or whoever is at any center succeeds in a direct line to the central object on the originary scene. The most mediocre president of a fourth-rate country carries this lineage; for that matter, so does a bored substitute teacher in a classroom in a failing urban school. Everyone looks to the center to determine what to do, even if what to do is to defy or ridicule the center, because the central figure is telling you, in not so many words, that he has not inhabited or impersonated the resources the center provides for exercising the power of deferral. If the figure occupying the immediate center allows the baton passed from the object on the originary scene to drop, all those present on the scene are obliged either to prop up that center or turn to a new one. If the central figure can’t or won’t issue those commands that will tie this scene to the history of scenes so as to provide those present with the roles or masks they need to organize themselves ordinally around the center, they will treat the central figure as a negative indicator pointing to the commands that should have been uttered, that have been uttered under “analogous” conditions, that can be obeyed even without having been uttered. Once someone is placed in a position where he has to lead or clog things up, those he is responsible for can build their own little centers around the clog or treat him as if he is leading—whether either approach turns out to be subversive or galvanizing will depend upon the response of the potential leader, or the emergence of a new one.

This discussion is necessary because while I have been generating a new way of using the concept of the center within GA I have not sufficiently insisted on the fact that “origin” and “center” are complementary ways of referring to the constitution of the event. This can make it sound like central power stands and commands on its own, which comes close to sounding like an exercise of brute force, while in fact central power resides in the power of the origin. If we need to make the distinction between “power” and “authority” we can say that “power” draws upon the power of the origin while “authority” carries it forward and extends it. You need both—even mere drawing upon and preservation of the center implies at least some “extension.” Now we can speak of something equivalent to “legitimacy,” or the intrinsic relation between ostensive and imperative, as residing in the more specific origin of any community. The communist or liberal or revolutionary or usurpationist origin of the country where you find your obligations, then, cannot be “illegitimate.” What can be the case is that, because the origin of the existing mode of power has weakened or interrupted the line of origins, the commands issued by that central authority cannot be filled in or complemented in the act of obedience. There is always a gap between the imperative issued and the imperative obeyed, and that gap is filled in by complementing the imperative with the enabling imperatives preceding it. Those enabling imperatives don’t just confirm the authority of the commander (like asking the manager whether your supervisor can really have you do this) but provide essential information regarding how to do it.

Eric Gans has referred to the emergence of the Big Man, i.e., the “usurpation” of the center by a person, as a “second revelation.” I have been arguing that the development of literacy represents a similarly second revelation in relation to the oral/ritual world. Tying these two revelations together is the one Gans refers to as the monotheistic revelation, enacted for a single people via the Mosaic revelation and then for all humans in the Christian one. (As I usually do in these discussions, I’ll make the necessary but inadequate gesture towards equivalent developments in the East, in Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism.) This “post-sacrificial,” or “charismatic,” revelation of the “absolute imperative” (to defer rather than sacralize centralizing violence) is the revelation that completes that of the Big Man and that of literacy. What has happened is that we now have a center irreducible to the central authority who issues imperatives, a center with which we no longer have direct access to via “imperative exchange.” These enormous upheavals involved a radical break and alienation from the origin of specific groups, much less the origin of humanity, which as a consequence has to now be retrieved through practices enacting the heeding of the absolute imperative. Such practices require declarative formulation, because the remnants of those specific events (the revelation on Mt Sinai; the crucifixion) upon in which the absolute imperative was heard must be supplemented for communities (that is, all communities) which cannot live and sacrifice on the actual site of the revelation.

These practices are constructed through the naming of events of origin—more precisely, origins of a particular revelation of the absolute imperative (which is always revealing itself in new ways). A country, an institution, an organization, must have such an origin if the commands issued by its central authority are to be effectively obeyed. We can say that all individuals are named because all individuals are such sites of origin: when a new baby is born, we refrain from sacrificing it, certainly literally, but also in the sense of claiming to control or predict who that baby will become. If something changes, it retrieves or repudiates its origin, in the process creating a new one. Insofar as we are all centers, we are all events of origin, and named as such—not just our given name, although the importance of that never completely disappears, not just new names we adopt, titles, nicknames, and so on, but the declarative names people give us and we give, or try to give, ourselves: statements, descriptions, stories and so on—insofar as they single us out, they name us.

The center as named provides us with a way of rejecting familiar ways of speaking about “the society and the individual.” I would reject all talk of the “individual” within GA, as well as the concept of an “internal scene of representations” which Eric Gans uses to refer to a kind of privatized space we can trace back to the sparagmos. The individual is always constituted in relation to, which means hearing imperatives from, the center—everything that we do is in obedience to a command from the center. We can speak of a relation between the name-of-the-center and the centered name. We are nothing more than our names, beginning with the socially recognized name to be found on our driver’s license, paychecks, tax returns, diplomas, and so on, but, revolving around that name all the other names that refer to it more or less directly. What the “second revelation,” in the totality I just presented, means in these terms is a shift from a name of the center we can be named after to a name-of-the-center that can only be named in its namelessness. Naming, I am assuming, was originally a way of commemorating and affirming obligations to ancestors, who were worshipped; we are still often named after ancestors, but we don’t worship them and what we worship we don’t take as a source of names—rather, what we worship is the source of naming as an act.

At the same time, as Gans has pointed out on more than one occasion, every word is the Name-of-God. We have to take “every word” in the broadest possible sense here—a sentence can be the Name-of-God; indeed, the name of God in Exodusis, as Gans has often emphasized, a sentence. A book can be the name of God. Our individual names, then, are also the Name-of-God, but the Name-of-God as given within a particular historical stream, at a particular point within that stream. And names change, while referring to previous names when they do. I came across a quote from Richard Feyman recently: “knowing the name of something doesn’t mean you understand it.” Within its context, Feynman’s statement is obviously true, but I am arguing for a diametrically opposed way of thinking about it: if you don’t understand something, that just means that you don’t know its name—its “proper” name, its “real” name, or, if we want to be a little technical, its name in the event of naming. Coming to know or understand something is coming to name it in the disciplinary event of deciding it needs to be named, trying out different names, arriving at one, testing it, and so on. This is an event within which some unnamed object within a system of names becomes available for ostensive reference, and must be named in order to maintain the completeness of the system of names.

I think these formulations have important consequences. Not only do a whole set of pseudo-problems regarding the “individual,” his interiority, his identity, evaporate, or get resolved into the single, always asked, never conclusively answered question, “who are you,” but if all we have in a social order are names everything is part of the social order in a constitutive, originary manner from the very beginning. You are not in the world until you have entered through your name. The way we constitute and present ourselves as centers is through entering or inhabiting our names, projecting a possible new name for ourselves, repudiating an old or attributed one, among other possible acts. Even more, these formulations advance the mode of engagement I have been coming to propose through the concept of “originary satire.” Not always, but often, satire works through conflating individuals with their names, and with the satirist himself taking on a name so as to move through the system of names he has reduced the surrounding impersonations to. Satire is an attempt to further refine names until they position someone or something or some event on the originary scene, retrieved prior to the second revelation. That is, to refine the names until they name something on the scene at its most scenic, where the issue is in question, where the sign has not yet been normalized, and where our own naming therefore completes the scene. The satiric dimension within the esthetic is this moment of the scene at its most scenic, where we have what Gans once referred to as the “fearful symmetry” where each is at once potential victim and potential attacker, threatening and vulnerable simultaneously. The scene is completed simply by having a “critical mass” of participants see each other this way, because enough people seeing each other this way and showing that they see each other this way isthe sign. When we’re speaking with each other we’re really just naming each other and everything that makes us each other. Realizing this can make our discourse very ad hominem; but it could also make it very ad deum; at any rate, focusing exclusively on each other’s names as named by the unnamable Name-of-the-Center, which is itself nothing but the space opened up for receiving our names, would make us extremely ad centrum.

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