GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

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.


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