GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

July 3, 2019

Mistakenness Revisited

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:04 am

The ritual order provided models, along with comprehensive initiatory practices to enable members of the community to adopt and inhabit those models. The demise of the ritual order means the end of any harmonious or pre-arranged fit between models and aspirants of social membership. There are plenty of models, but no way to know which we are fit for, or, for that matter, which are “fit.” Our first approach to models, then, is to get them wrong. All of modern culture is a result of the misfit of models and aspirants, which is to say our fundamental mistakenness. This mistakenness is generative of the disciplines: social scientific and humanistic knowledge is essentially knowledge of all the human dispositions and social relations that interfere with our adaptation to models. All the making explicit, in secular and purely “human” terms, of what we are capable of, how we depend upon each other, how what we are capable of undermines our dependencies and vice versa—all the nominalizations and reifications of “attributes” and “characteristics”—is so many attempts to construct as necessary “steps” from one practice to another what was once acquired through a seamless network of ritual, kinship and myth.

The implication is that the secular disciplines (the metalanguages of literacy) begin with trying to figure out how we have gone wrong, while the only way of distinguishing right from wrong is imagining some non-alienated condition modeled on the ritual and mythical order. Let’s imagine a social order in which everything, every figure and every practice is named, and all the names are taken to be given by the center. The procedures for generating new names (for babies, captured slaves, etc.) are also named. Such a community, in principle, can continue indefinitely—many no doubt did so for millennia—and we can all feel, intuitively, how wrong it would be to interfere with it, however it offended our modern sensibilities. But what is of interest to us is what happens when anomalies creep into such a system, in particular due to its successes. My reflections here are in part inspired by Fustel de Coulanges The Ancient City, which traces the consequences of such anomalies, in the form of groups that couldn’t be “incorporated” into the sacred hearth of the family home, and, later, of the city—for example, the plebeians, or even younger sons without any inheritance. It is the attempts to find names for such anomalous figures that generated the “secular” in the first place: their names can only be some version of “that which cannot be fit into the system,” so they can then only be understood in (resentful) opposition to some figure recognized by the system, and this in turn ends up defining that named figure by its opposition to the “other.” What this leaves us with is a social order describable solely in terms of conflicts (patricians vs. plebeians, etc.), and the only way to imagine reconciling those conflicts is through one of those cant political terms that are still with us today: “justice,” the “common good,” the “public interest,” etc.

But these purely conflictual terms, which we can only systematize through some notion of “balancing,” generate all the abstractions that also enable us to diagnose this essentially shattered system. (Whether they enable us to “repair” it as well is a different question.) All secular social scientific terms are essentially versions of “that which has been expelled from the center and takes on its meaning through antagonism to other expelled non-members.” Of course, “expel” is itself such a term. And GA is itself a beneficiary of this devastating process of abstraction, as “mimesis,” “desire,” “resentment,” “sign” and so on are all names of what is nameless within any sacred order. GA’s ambition is to do what can only be done through the secular disciplines—point the way to a renewed practice of naming. In part, this involves getting more minimal, and in that sense more abstract and “secular” (de-mythicized) than the other social sciences; in larger part, it involves collecting and “collating” a vocabulary that can take us so far beyond the concealment of the sacred in the secular disciplines as to show us that even the concept of the “sacred” itself is a later accretion, already reactive and “abstract.” And here I think the concept of the “center” is critical, and unique to GA, as the center constitutes any name (like “God”) we might give to the center. If we want to get a little Heideggerean here, we can say that the center is “thisness,” what we can point to because it is “capable” of being pointed to, as shown by our pointing to it, etc. “This” is even one of Anna Wierzbicka’s Natural Semantic Primes. Restoring our relation to the center as the source of names, recovering “thisness,” is the neoabsolutist project in a nutshell.

Describing ourselves and each other to each other and ourselves is the only way forward here. On the one hand, I have been suggesting that virtually our entire secular vocabulary needs to be junked; but, on the other hand, the only way of doing that is by using all those vocabularies mistakenly to show that whatever sense they have is due to their references to some center, whether acknowledged or disavowed. Everyone wants things, knows things, thinks things, does things, sees things, has things happen to him: Wierzbicka’s primes need to be part of GA because we can see a kind of minimal, “secular,” abstraction constitutive of language here. All the secular vocabularies are more complex articulations of the primes: people knowing what they think, thinking that they want, someone seeing that what another thinks he is doing can be something happening to that person, and so on. And whatever you say about someone else is what you think you see or hear.

The mark of the secularity of words like “desire,” “imitation” and “resentment” is that in using them you feel you are exempt from them—to refer to someone else’s desire or resentment is to be free of it, to point out how another is mimicking someone else is proof that you are not doing so—if your noticing was implicated in what it noticed, how would noticing even be possible? An openly desiring, resentful, imitative discourse would be, by definition, “illegitimate.” Naming these dispositions in others generates the appearance of having transcended them. To put it even more strongly, discourses on these “topics” are attempts to establish a cordon sanitaire around the “contagion” they carry. Originary grammar, in renouncing (or at least bracketing) sanitized terms like “theory, “determinations,”” and “norms” with the more elemental speech forms (ostensive, imperative, interrogative, declarative), is an attempt to remove that cordon sanitaire. This is necessary because that cordon sanitaire, or social immune system, will leave us endlessly proposing new ways of “balancing” the various social elements that can only be named in opposition to each other, as is the case for all discussions of “class,” “race,” “ethnicity,” “nationality,” “gender” and “sexuality.” The compulsion to self-immunize has us looking for something slightly more nameless so as to put it into opposition to something slightly less nameless. But the only way we can explicitly “own” our desires, resentments and imitations is to make them explicitly desires, resentments and modelings of the center.

In this way, you claim to be exempt from the disposition you describe, but the claim is made explicit and the path out of desire, resentment, and contagious imitation made part of your “explanation.” And, of course, you could be wrong—the desires, resentments and mimicry you renounce might be all too evident in what you say and do. In that case, you have provided the terms on which others could point that out—in that way, we would be engaged in shared inquiry into the desire for and resentments of the center. In fact, the person claiming some relation to the center is most vulnerable to suspicions of being “hypocritical,” of being guilty of the very undisciplined resentfulness of which he “accuses” others. And these suspicions would themselves be resentment of your perceived usurpation of the center. Much of liberalism’s self-immunization process is aimed at pre-empting precisely such discussions over relative proximity to the center. And liberalism detects a genuine danger here. The way to respect that intuition is to never explicitly claim the “mantle” of the center, which would anyway put the declarative cart before the imperative horse, while unapologetically shaping the actual, imminent or potential crisis into a deferral and reframing of some violent centralization. The more you act for the center, the less you must claim to do so—must claim, in fact, to be doing the only thing that could be done because no one else seemed to be doing it. The “proof” here will be whether you thereby give others things to do that wouldn’t be done otherwise.

There is always a kind of linguistic test for implicit derivations of one’s performance from central imperatives. The greater your indebtedness to the imperatives of the center, the greater the disproportion between the center’s presence in your language and your own centeredness there. You will be talking about how others, your subordinates as well as your superiors, need to be attended to and followed; you will narrow down your centering of any other participant to their precise role within the system, and, to the extent possible, within the operation in question—someone may be corrupt, cowardly, or treasonous, and none of this should be concealed (because concealing it will force you to violently centralize others who do notice it), but it should all be referred to the inherited means for addressing these vices and crimes. In other words, not “get that guy!,” but “let’s treat Y the way X was treated,” even if you have to construct the way X was treated in a more coherent and sustainable way than was actually the case, and have to stretch the “similarity” between the case of X and the case of Y. Everyone’s resentments towards the coward, corrupter or traitor will be acknowledged, and, indeed, the precise details of the violation will be presented more openly and coherently than in “rushes to judgement,” but in such a way that the more important result is that we have further fortified ourselves against future instances of the same.

You can always tell, and can get better at telling, when someone is speaking in this way, or coming closer to speaking in this way. It’s how you can tell who you can trust but, even more importantly, this is the path towards a renewed naming-from-the-center. I’ve been using the concept of “centered ordinality” for a while now, but haven’t drawn that much attention to it. What the concept refers to is the way, once we identify a center, we all fall into rank behind whoever first identified it. As is often the case, the best examples here are drawn from emergency situations—if, in such a situation, one person sees the “way out” and points it out to others, they will all follow him and the one a little ahead of each of them in figuring the precise way “out.” Of course, in fluid situations the order can change often, but if everyone simply rushes to the way out, the order collapses and the way is no longer out. The more centered ordinality, the less rivalry and therefore the less chaos. What marks centered ordinality is that the naming it involves increases in proportion with the ordering itself—you can’t get a more precise set of “names” than “first, I do this, then, you do that, then he does something else”—even the shift from first, to second, to third person pronouns marks the shift from ostensive, to imperative, to declarative. To the extent that any situation is ordered, everyone is “this one doing this thing right now.” Secular discourse tells you you’re this one in opposition to all these other ones to be balanced by my unnaming of all of you on the Big Scene. The discourse of the center tells you who you are here and now by asking you to ask yourself who you are such that you can be who you are here and now. And that is the form taken by one’s ascension to their name.

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