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.

1 Comment »

  1. […] Blog has a great post on Languaging Practices, which put simply is how language use applies to […]

    Pingback by Cantandum in Ezkhaton 11/24/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores — November 23, 2019 @ 11:12 pm

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