GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

July 9, 2019

Language Paradoxed

Filed under: GA — adam @ 3:43 pm

The discourse of the center bypasses concepts such as “desire,” “resentment” and “mimesis.” Using these concepts, as I mentioned last post, exempt you from the very things you are describing: insofar as your own desires, resentments and modeling are infecting those you are examining, the real topic of your discussion is your own practices; in which case, why not make it directly so? But, then, you couldn’t present your own self-centering without presenting others, so the problem becomes how to do it all at once. The solution lies in beginning with an account of what you’re hearing from the center. The center doesn’t call to say everything’s OK: intuitions of the center indicate something out of order, and at least a preliminary re-ordering (a mark of a better society would be that its members spend ever more time anticipating potential disorders than addressing immediate ones). But “something out of order” means someone positioned where they “shouldn’t” be; to be even more direct, someone positioned where you should be. That’s the elemental core of resentment: the other is in your place, and the center allows him to be there. You can detect the “texture” of resentment in any “sample” of language, including, of course, this one—in this case, perhaps, toward all those maintaining centeredness through distancing declarative language, and toward the center for not sufficiently amply revealing itself.

You can pursue this resentment head on, and there’s no doubt a cognitive yield in doing so: how did he get into that place, how has he secured it, with the help of which henchmen dispatched by the center, with what other displacing effects, how to extract him from there and replace him with the spot’s true inhabitant, etc. This is pretty much the structure of all analysis—this is what it looks and feels like to examine something “critically.” We get to a kind of basic “humanness” here, because everyone can be taught to notice such logics in others but very few wish to examine the circumference one has constructed around oneself as center in similarly meticulous ways (of course I’m resentful, don’t you see what they’re doing…!); even more importantly, it’s not like we can invent another way of thinking. In figures like Jesus or Dostoevsky’s Alyosha we can see what another way of thinking would be, in which every thought of the other would be infused from the start by infinite love, mercy, and compassion. But that could only be the result of a long process of ascesis, itself involving some tremendous wrestling with outsized resentments—plus, one could only attain such a condition at the cost of not really being able to do anything, and how merciful and loving (I ask resentfully) is that?

Maturity means being able to notice more and more distinctions—and all distinctions are on some level invidious—while attending more and more to the formalizing of those distinctions, rather than to seeking out their justifications. The most egalitarian world possible would instantly turn into the most inegalitarian one: imagine we could all be placed in a state of nature, with equal physical and intellectual capabilities. As soon as we got started doing something, status distinctions would emerge—someone notices something first, someone gets a little more of something, someone, maybe for random reasons, is a bit more attractive than others, etc. Even if the differences were minute and rapidly changing they would loom large. So, everyone would be immediately, and constantly, faced with the choice: you can think, how do I get as much as that person (or reduce him to as little as me); how do I make myself as attractive as that person (or reduce his attractiveness), and so on; or, how can these status distinctions be formalized, so that what it means to have access to things, to identify new centers, to be the center of others’ attention can be made explicit and therefore a source of order. You might still want more things, to have more power, to be more attractive, and you might use others as models to acquire these things, but you would do so in such a way as to strengthen the meaning the center has conferred upon such practices.

Every utterance points a way to resentment and a way to transcendence, or what I would prefer to call “presencing” and “centering.” If there is one point of unanimity in the modern world, it is that there is no center. All secular people will insist on this once the question is raised, while the religious will insist all the more forcefully on their center to the extent that they must also insist others can only acknowledge it on their terms. In a way, this is also a concession of the general centerlessness. But our language always tells us otherwise—at the very least, when you say something, you are presenting yourself, or what you say, as a center. And not only as a center in itself, but as a center pointing to another center, as will become clear if you ask someone, why did you say that? You were assuming that those who might be listening to you were paying attention to something else (what, exactly, did you imagine they might be paying attention to?), and you want their attention wrenched away from that to this other thing. What did it say about them that they were focused on something else, and what would it say about them to redirect their attention as you propose? The resentment is in the demand for the attention shift (and that demand’s implication that others were lesser for “refusing” to look at your thing); the centering will be in the new nomos, or division of participatory roles, implicit in getting engrossed in this new thing.

So, gradations, or centered ordinality, are implicit in every utterance, at least insofar as you were less for paying attention to that and will be more for paying attention to this. And whoever follows up on one utterance will construct another order. Listening to the center entails generating finer distinctions along with a center ordering them. In a sense this would be the most originary, and therefore egalitarian way of inhabiting language—far more so than using language to point out that others have something you don’t and demanding some remedy for it. Here, we are all perfectly equal, which is to say the same, for the center, which is more important than where any of us “should” be. It’s very important to keep in mind how impossible this all sounds within a liberal order. I think I’m referring to an extremely mature social order and populace—but not at all utopian—in which people get better and better at doing the things they are asked to do, by whoever is asking them to do it, into ways of sharpening a distinctive practice that will serve as a model for others. But to someone bred and indoctrinated within liberalism it will sound like you’re condemning them to a robotic and/or militarized existence (your language will be full of impossible imperatives for them)—simply because you’re not reserving for them (or promising them) some space outside of sociality where they can imagine themselves as self-starters, or an originating center.

Enacting and speaking in centered ordinality is the only way back to the center. This involves both openness of speech, parrhesia, the explicit articulation of the distinctions evident, first of all, in the other’s discourse; and centering, making explicit the new nomos also implicit in the other’s discourse. The point is not to say, “here’s what everything will look like when we’re done.” The point is to elicit from others the kind of center that might make their demands meaningful. In a way it’s good that argumentation has become completely useless, now that the different camps occupy incompatible worlds of “facts.” Argumentation was always pointless anyway—nobody changes their mind because they’re provided with a better set of pros and cons than they were working with previously—and if they do, they’ll change it right back as soon as they come across another set of pros and cons. This has to be the least effective means of political engagement. To do it right, you would first of all have to determine which subsets of the population, which 5% or so, is worth engaging with; and you would then have to assume, insofar as they are really worth engaging with, they’re not looking for a list of facts but a “scene” within some paradigm they are working with that can be tested for anomalies. If you help some audience exhaust one paradigm by exposing its anomalies, and lend them a hand in transitioning to a new one, you might have actually done something.

But social and political paradigms are not equivalent to scientific ones. There’s no closed experimental space. There’s only language. We just keep going from the resentful demands implicit in the other’s discourse to the centered commands that would render them meaningful—or not. You could say there’s a resentful demand implicit in this blog post: think and speak completely differently about politics, damn it! What makes that any different than “I wish the left would stop being so hypocritical about the border crisis!”? The only thing that would make it different is if it creates, intensifies, or helps to resolve some paradigm crisis. The presence of anomalies indicates obedience to some super-sovereign; the super-sovereign supplements some resentment, positing an imaginary agency and a space within which that agency will satisfy your resentment. A really democratic culture, equal rights, a government that listens to the people, a citizenry that holds its leaders accountable, a return to republican virtue, rising above special interests to embrace the common good, restoring the Constitution—you can make your own list of clichés. These are all super-sovereign supplementations, and we could trace their long history through the disciplines, going back to ancient philosophy.

If we learn to listen very carefully to these super-sovereign supplementations, we can generate anomalies by subtracting them from the discourse. What would people say if they didn’t have recourse to them? That’s at least an invitation to a thought experiment; if the invitation proves less than enticing, it’s easy enough to render all of these concepts incoherent. The paradoxes that inhere in all of them are descendants of the first philosophical paradox that we meet right at the beginning in the Platonic dialogues: is what the gods command good because the gods command it, or do the gods command it because it is good? The disciplines of Western culture have never gotten past this (this was one of the most valuable insights of Derridean deconstruction). In self-government, what’s the relation between the self doing the governing and the self being governed? Similarly intractable questions can be asked about all of them. You’ll know you’re getting somewhere when the other sputters (I say somewhat resentfully) “alright, so what’s your solution?” What’s your rush? Isn’t it helpful to keep working through the supplementations? Ultimately, we’d work our way towards sheer power analysis, which is extremely disconcerting for a liberal, but, then, what is power? Once we start to see it everywhere, we can start stripping it of all those same supplementations meant to make power “accountable” to some imaginary super-sovereign. So, you really mean brute force, don’t you?! The more we find power everywhere, the more it must be just about the exact opposite of that. Why do you listen to, or follow someone, as you surely do sometimes—we can see in your own language the kind of reliance you have on others, the trust and faith you have in them—after all, every single word you say can be sourced to some claim circulating about, or to some tradition. You confer power on them, and assume power yourself within the same space. And you do it without demanding elections or suing to have your rights recognized. What’s going on, then? The answer will lie in the distinctions, the gradations, their suggested operationalization—the centered ordinality we can locate in every utterance

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