GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

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.

1 Comment »

  1. […] GA Blog on some paradoxes raised in his prior post. […]

    Pingback by Cantandum in Ezkhaton 11/10/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores — November 10, 2019 @ 6:46 am

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