GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

November 22, 2019

Languaging Practices

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:12 am

The declarative was invented in the course of deferring the imperative, so it follows that one trajectory of the declarative is to imagine the abolition of the imperative. Not of the ostensive, though, insofar as the declarative is also a simulation of the ostensive, presenting the existence of an object as its presence. The declarative, then, would leap over the imperative to the ostensive. But this tendency of the declarative could only be realized with the invention of writing, which makes the declarative sentence its primary object, composing it out of individual words and grammatical rules. Classical prose is the result of this tendency of the declarative sentence, as classical prose is the simulation of a scene upon which reader and writer stand in front of some other scene. Since the abolition of the imperative is a destructive fantasy, the problem posed by the hyper-declarative order enabled by literacy, then, is how to work with, or “carry,” declaratives so that they contribute to rather than neutralize the ostensive-imperative world.

In an oral culture, declarative sentences stay close to ritual, which is to say, the ostensive-imperative world. Here, the declarative primarily serves to ensure the identity of the ritual order over time, in the form of mythology. Ritual is an exchange with the center: the participant fulfills some command of the center while making a request of the center. It is an asymmetrical imperative exchange. Sometimes the transaction doesn’t conform to the terms of the exchange—the benefits requested from the center are not conferred. The originary purpose of the declarative, to supplement a failed imperative with a “real” that preserves the relations implicit in the failed imperative, is activated here. The center was going to provide the promised benefit, but something intervened: another figure occupying the center had other ideas in mind; some present or past violation on the part of the ritual participant, or a relative or ancestor, must first be remedied. Once there are multiple figures at the center, their relationships to one another will take shape parallel to relations among figures at the margin, and relations between the two sites can proliferate endlessly. All these narratives remain tied to the world of ritual.

There is a middle ground between oral and literate cultures—the culture of manuscript, or scripture. Lore and laws are written down, but are not accessible to most of the population and serve, for scribal and priestly elites, primarily as memory aids, surrounded, furthermore, by traditions that continue to be preserved through memory and transmitted via tightly organized pedagogical relations. Here we have a growing gap between the language of written scripture, which naturally remains the same, and the language of the people. (In an oral culture, the language of ritual would probably remain archaic relative to spoken language, but there’s no reason to assume the mythology preserved through memory and pedagogical transmission wouldn’t change along with spoken language.) Here is where the transfer-translations examined at length by Marcel Jousse (and no one else that I have come across so far, but I continue looking), and discussed in my latest post, become of interest. The formulas recorded in scripture, themselves residues of earlier traditions, need to be translated into formulas within the new spoken language. In a development analogous to the supplementation of imperative ritual “failure,” the process of creating and employing transfer translations, for ritual and legal purposes (which covers all of life), generates a declarative culture concerned with demonstrating that the two versions, original and translation, are the same. The choice of one formula over other candidates in the target language would generate narratives, proverbs, maxims, and exemplary events and figures as perennial reference points.

In a literate culture, modeled on classical prose, discourse focuses on ensuring we are on the same scene, the simulated scene generated by the more or less anti-imperative declarative culture. I’m going to take an uncompromising position and say that that is all we talk and write about—except insofar as residues of oral and manuscript culture persist, and so we discourse regarding the remaining ritualistic and scriptural and formulaic elements of culture. The problem of ensuring that we all remain on the same scene is that, of course, we aren’t, and to the extent that we are, we aren’t in any symmetrical or commensurate way. Think about how much discourse—the way arguments are presented—still presuppose a kind of classical model of public discourse: we all share certain goods in common, we all accept the “reasons” for one thing or another being “good” in a particular way, we all believe that some kind of “agreement” can be reached at the end of a discussion, and that this agreement can issue, in ways no one can really explain, in someone doing something (and then someone else doing something else, etc.) in such a way that those on the scene of “agreement” would recognize that series of doings to be in conformity with that “agreement.” Without this set of assumptions, how many discussions would make any sense at all? In the meantime, of course, all those people doing all those things are talking as well, but in much more transactional, ritualistic and, in a sense, traditionalistic ways (drawing primarily upon precedent, etc.). And, then, another kind of talking becomes necessary to show that what was done has some recognizable relation to what was agreed upon—in fact, the very notion of “agreement” corresponds much more closely to this after the fact “mythic” scene talking about what happened than to the original discussion. A lot of power players moving a lot of bureaucratic pieces around in ways that will have effects only partially grasped by everyone involved, and barely at all by the public, is translated as “the American people decided…”

Classical prose has its uses—if there is a very high degree of agreement over what we are talking about and why, or we concede a great deal of authority to the speaker, the “conceit” of classical prose that we are all on the same scene and can just “look at that” facilitates conversation. But what is ultimately indefensible in classic prose is the pretense, already latent in the declarative form itself, that language stands in unmediated relation to reality, rather than, primarily, in relation to other language, or other uses of language. As soon as some disagreement creeps into what we’re “looking at,” we must return to the language we have used to describe it, and it will turn out that our disagreement lies there. If we start with the assumption of disagreement, at least potential, over whether we are talking about the “same” thing, then that disagreement or difference should be inscribed in our linguistic practices from the start. The first disagreement any utterance entails is with some other utterance, or, more precisely, some other utterance that might have been uttered instead of this one, which would also be a different way of carrying forward the history or tradition of practices from which both actual and possible utterance derive. This means treating previous linguistic use as a repository of possible utterances. And doing this requires treating “language” as “prepackaged” and revisable formulas, chunks and constructions—that is, as templates for future utterances. This means approaching language mimetically, as a collection of models to be iterated, emulated and revised.

Instead of generating discourse regarding the question of whether we are on the same scene in front of some pre-linguistic scene, we would now be generating discourse regarding the extent to and way in which our utterance is the same as other utterances, actual and possible. “Why did he say X instead of Y” is our way into reality, facilitated by one saying a bit more of Y or Z than he did.

This kind of practice re-embeds the declarative order in the ostensive-imperative world by working directly with models that dictate particular uses. If a word (in all its customary and authorized phrases) used by the discipline—even better, a word without which the discipline is unthinkable—is now applied to the discipline, any conversation amongst participants in the discipline must be replete with ostensive uses of the word, along with imperative derivatives, because psychologists (say) would have to keep telling each other what is involved in deploying their cognitive capacities in studying cognitive capacities. I will briefly note that GA would be perfectly comfortable with this practice, as participants in that discipline are aware, and are ready to demonstrate awareness, of the primary purpose of language—to defer violence by gesturing toward the center. So, we can carry this practice into the other disciplines.

If the vocabulary and grammar of the discipline are, then, to be objects of the discipline, the history and “heritage” of those words becomes equally central. If we have to ask if (how, to what extent, within which context…) one use of the word “cognitive” is the same as another, we also have to ask where either or both are the same as the accumulated uses of the word. And we will naturally find that the word has an origin, and that origin will be bound up in some originary event of the discipline (some seminal essay, or foundational conference, or central figure). Our enormously enhanced access to archival material and internet tools like the Google Ngram searcher make inquiry into the origin of words within their disciplines far easier than it once was. When, exactly, did we become “cognitive” beings? And where? After all, as Anna Wierzbicka can tell us, there will not be equivalents to “cognitive” in every language, most of which will probably just import the word so as to be able to participate in Anglo-dominated psychology discourses.

You can see that we are sticking with the same question as that central to the transfer translation: what makes the word, through its various uses, contexts, redefinitions, borrowings and translations, the same word? Or phrase, or sentence, or larger chunk of discourse? All the disciplines then are inquiries into language and, more precisely, the creation of the metalanguage(s) of literacy out of language. So, we’re now working on two levels, which really serves as a pincer move within any discipline: on one level, the question is something like, what does “cognition” mean as we study our cognitive capacities as they are employed in the study of cognition; on the other level, we introduce the question, what makes “cognition” the same and not the same as a prime word like “know,” as mediated by a vast spread of scenes upon which people speaking about knowing are recorded and simulated. In this way one lays one’s hands on the originary structure of the discipline while being even more fully a member of that discipline than anyone else. We are using and enhancing the language of the discipline, using it to generate new problems, and drawing others more completely into the discipline by implicating them in their own commitments to its vocabulary and grammar—while at the same time holding the discipline in permanent question, making it contingent on its historical dependencies on all the other disciplines.

In this case, what we are also equipped to talk about is the way in which the disciplines are themselves transfer translations for practices conducted across social institutions. Discussing “cognition” is also a way of talking about (“translating”) ways of testing, treating, evaluating, instructing and so on people throughout the social order. Here is where there is an intrinsic moral and political component to the intellectual activities carried out within the disciplines. If we’re able to bring into focus the origin and history of “cognition,” or “dysfunction,” or “ethnic conflict,” we will also be able to show the ways the use of these concepts presuppose the existence of large numbers of people in positions to manage, control, sort out, and categorize people in certain ways. This is also part of the meaning of a word like “cognition”; that is, this circulation among and translation into other disciplines is part of what makes the word the same across these uses. This observation will alert us to specific sources of power, and we will look into funding, foundations, the ways in which universities help govern, and so on. But even more compelling and convincing than that is showing that the concepts only make sense when considered within a “who, whom” framework: who decides whose “cognitive abilities” qualifies them for this or that institutional role? We will find such questions inscribed in the uses of the concept itself, sometimes accounting for its coherence, sometimes for its incoherence. And, as always, the purpose is not to discredit and delegitimate but, first, to make explicit that everyone’s place within the social order is in fact a result of decisions that are made in ways we can articulate; and, second, to provide better ways of talking about how institutions might do this.

November 5, 2019

Some Paradoxes

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:25 am

My previous post set up a couple of paradoxes, which we can formulate as elements of a historical dialectic.

First, I advanced the notion of history as a process of desacralization, or secularization, which brings into view the essence of the sacred, which is presence on a shared scene. Attempts to supplement the vanishing sacred through the disciplines advance secularization while revealing the means to replace the sacred with explicit representations of our sociality.

Second, I proposed that secularization is an ongoing attack on tyranny, itself a product and construct of secularization, which makes the deferral of charges of tyranny the path to the originary responsibility.

In both cases, there is the further paradox that the remedy for desacralization or, more provocatively, desecration, and the fully conflicted order it presupposes and generates, must be a retrieval of traditionally grounded knowledge from the hyper-declarative order that razes traditions to the ground. But we don’t need to recover traditions of rituals and ideas to re-traditionalize knowledge—all of the tacit underpinnings of our semiotic practices represent traditions that can then be represented. Part of my purpose is drawing upon thinkers like Anna Wierzbicka, David Olson and Marcel Jousse is, beyond beginning to construct a new tradition drawing upon traditions of questioning metaphysics on a linguistic level, to develop ways of uncovering those more tacit traditions, or the obscured ostensive-imperative world that always surrounds us

According to Jousse, the extensive commentaries generated by the early Jewish and Christian communities concerned themselves with the “transfer translations” those communities composed in so as to preserve traditions preserved in now dead languages: first of all, from Hebrew to Aramaic, but, then, from Aramaic to Greek. These transfer translations involved finding formulas in the target language to correspond to formulas in the source language. These formulas are memorized and steeped in tradition and ritual practices, as well as the idiomatic and metaphorical resources that have been exploited within that particular language, so the problem here is not merely semantic.

But this raises a larger question, regarding the image of language we’re working with. Most literate, educated people take for granted an image of language as a vast collection of individual words that speakers of the language articulate according to grammatical rules more or less firmly installed in their minds. This image of language, which almost all philosophical discussion relies upon, is very obviously a reification of what David Olson calls the “metanguage of literacy.” In making language conform to writing, language must be treated as an object of inquiry—that is, it must be broken down into parts or “elements” that are articulated in some way. These elements are things such as phonemes, syllables, words and sentences. Everything in the language must be reduced to these concepts. Most important for our purposes here are words and sentences—the development of prose, which is always an “official” matter, requires that words be seen as identical to themselves, and that the possible relations between words and sentences be subjected to rules. This requires definitions and grammatical rules. Think about how many arguments are ultimately over the definition of words, when it is undeniable that the meanings of words vary over time and space. Likewise, think of how many arguments are over logical, which is to say, grammatical, connections between words and sentences.

The image of language that Jousse and his contemporaries and successors who developed the study of oral cultures and thereby provided us with awareness of the form of our own, literate, culture, is as follows: language is a vast array of formulas, phrases, commonplaces, and proverbs that can be articulated in various ways with each other. When you listen to someone speak, or read a text, you don’t disassemble the words you see and hear and then reassemble them in your mind or brain, like going through the Star Trek transporter; rather, you assimilate the particular articulation of formulas you’re are confronted with to your own set of formulas, revising as necessary along the way. It takes a great deal of discipline to respond to precisely that in the other’s utterance that is not reducible to your own system of formulas—and even then, you are performing a kind of revision of your own formulas under this new pressure, and not some abstract “thinking about it.”

It also follows that the formulas available to speakers of a language have been generated out of what was once a much smaller set of formulas and, if we are originary thinkers, ultimately a single one. This means that there are layers within the formulaic structure of language, and we could distinguish between more concrete formulas and those that function more as templates, whose slots can be filled in various ways. When we’re using language we’re essentially deploying formulas or filling in slots in the more abstracted templates. Needless to say, a great deal of inventiveness and ingenuity is involved here. If you just take a few clichés and switch out the words of those clichés with others more or less at odds with the meaning of the original cliché, and then at odds with the meaning of substitutes, and so on, you would find that you have pretty much all the language you need. Being able to read more complex texts, that is, texts that are the results of more extensive practices of substitution and articulation, means being able to work on those “samples” of language in the same way.

This means (to return to Jousse’s notion of “transfer translations”) that when we “use” language, we really have one thing in mind: how are the language practices that result from a process of substitution a rearticulation vis a vis previous ones the same as, and how are they different from, those they are derived from. Take what has become a very common meme template: the juxtaposition of some attack on or defense of a figure conducted by someone on the left, by someone on the right inserting “now do X.” The juxtaposition assumes some set of analogous features between the two figures; in elaborating on those analogies, along with the differences, you would be generating stories about those figures and the background or scenes they are set in—that is, you would be generating culture. So, rather than having big stories from which we then derive smaller stories and moral lessons and folk knowledge, the big stories really result from the ongoing efforts to reconcile one use of language with another by filling in the anomalies distinguishing them in order to show how they are really the “same.”

The implication is that all our stories and arguments are really aimed at demonstrating that two different practices, phrases, formulas, orders, institutions and so on are really the same insofar they are both translations of some model including them both. A disagreement, then would be each side trying to represent the other’s claim to identity as difference. The best approach to disagreement, then, is to multiply the differences as much as possible and locate the sameness in some “It” we could all still be talking about, and continue talking about. How, then, does all this bear on the paradoxes I began with? The sacral order maintained identity through ritual: people gathering at the same place, at regularly scheduled times, carried out prescribed symbolic acts, which is to say, iterating the originary scene. Secularization and desacralization is ultimately de-ritualization. The myths and ideas can’t be sustained without the ritual precisely because those myths and ideas were nothing more than representations ensuring that the rituals and the community performing them could be deemed the same over time as, of course, the communities and the rituals themselves changed. But this falling away from ritual made it possible to separate ritual itself from the great variety of rituals throughout the world and hypothesize a single scene they would all derive from—all be the “same” as.

The disciplines, meanwhile, try to ensure the sameness of social and political practices through definitions and logic, which is to say an internally consistent system of concepts and categories that can only sustain itself by concealing the dependence of all on ostensives and imperatives. Whoever issues imperatives without proper disciplinary backing is the tyrant, and whoever insists on an event that must be iterated as the source of social order is the herald of that tyrant. This is why the best way into any conversation, rather than requesting definitions and “principles,” must be through some version of the questions, “what model are you working with,” and “who told you to say/do/think that?” The second sounds more obnoxious, but it really leads back to the first, once we get past the more or less bizarre rituals claims to self-origination that subjects of a liberal order generally feel obliged to gesture towards. We can then exchange models, read each other in terms of our respective models, determine what those models dictate or demand of us, and direct our conversation to questions like, what makes us the same as our models; and, how might our models be the same as each other?

I’m not speaking of ignoring or trying to abolish differences. Quite to the contrary, sustainable sameness can only be distilled through a full presentation of differences. You have a model, but what’s the model of that model? There’s no infinite regress here precisely because we’re not dealing with logic but anthropomorphics: human beings came into being at a certain point in time. Here is where originary thinking outstrips logic because it includes not only the question of the likeliest starting point but the question of whether it’s better to speak of a starting point and if so, what kind of starting point? Even more, what kind of starting point are we already talking about by virtue of talking and assuming there is some “it” that serves as a final reference point? We can place “It” (one of Wierzbicka’s primes) at the center—we are always referring to it, but it is never It. It must be generative of all differences: whatever represents despair for you (say, complete social isolation and betrayal by your comrades to your enemy) is the violence deferred on the originary scene; whatever represents salvation is the sign—so, then, the problem is showing that our respective despairs and salvations are the same as the originary scene and in that way, as the other. They can only be the same insofar as they were generated differently from the originary scene, which must have contained the possibility for infinite ramifications. And, then, that is what all our talk is about; and about continuing the conditions under which we can continue that talking. Maintaining that thread of the same through increasing cognizance of differences (or “thises”) is where responsibility for direct acknowledgement of our sociality (the It tacit in every this) begins.

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