GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

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.

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