GABlog

February 25, 2020

Hunger Artistry of the Word

Filed under: GA — adam @ 1:25 pm

The hunger artist of Kafka’s story ultimately reveals that he has spent much of his life eating no more than was absolutely necessary to barely stay alive not as an astonishing feat of asceticism but simply because he could never find any food he really wanted to eat. I’m working on putting GA on an equally rigorous diet for a similar reason—while GA is already extremely minimal, there are several concepts that pose problems of digestion. The ideal would really be to have just two concepts—and, then, to get gluttonous and set forth into the world and repurpose the rest of language into GA concepts. The centrality of Anna Wierzbicka’s work to my thinking also comes into play here—I find her contention that any theory should be articulable in the primes, and therefore universally intelligible, compelling—especially for a mode of thinking with the kind of universalist and “absolutist” pretensions GA claims.

Let’s start with “resentment,” the most problematic of all. Resentment is the emotion (?) or attitude (?) one has towards whomever denies you your desire. On the originary scene, this is the sacred center, which “withholds” itself from the desiring community, and becomes even more desirable as a result. This resentment toward the center must alternate with love for the center which has, after all, saved and even created the community. It then follows that anyone who denies a desire after the originary scene is taken to be doing so on behalf, or in the name, or under the authority of, the center (how else could another have the power to deny one’s desire?). The originary desire is for the center as such—to be recognized by, or even possess, the center—while subsequent desires would be for one’s “proper” allotment from the center. So, if someone denies you your “allotment” (and what this is can, of course, never be fixed once and for all), say, by robbing, cheating, or even out-maneuvering you through some “creative” interpretation of the rules, your resentment may be directed first of all towards that person but ultimately toward the center itself, which must have “allowed” this “injustice.”

This is all coherent and powerful, but I don’t see a consistent way of identifying “resentment” in a practice. It all seems to be “internal”—as I suggested above, a “feeling,” “attitude” or “sense of things.” But if we want to speak of someone acting resentfully, what are the markers of resentment in that act—presumably the other way of acting beyond desire is in love, so what marks an act as undertaken out of either love or resentment? Even if we take an extreme, revenge porn style example, like hunting down the guy who attacked me and responding in kind, couldn’t I be said to be acting out of love for his potential future victims just as much as out of resentment for the injury done me? We’d need some protocols for reading the particulars of the act itself upon the scene of its enactment, making “resentment” a hermeneutic or heuristic principle—in that case, though, more fundamental would be the interpretive practice through which we identify markers of resentment. If we zoom in close, we may see resentment, while if we pull back we see love—in that case, the question is, how do we decide to focus? Presumably out of resentment or love ourselves, which means someone must be reading our reading in turn. None of this necessarily invalidates or vitiates the concept, but it does make its use contingent on what kind of scene that application of the concept helps maintain.

Bound up with this is the moral and intellectual status or meaning of resentment. Can resentment be justified, or is it intrinsically wrong (at least as a “motive” for action)? If it is justified, is it still resentment? Is “justification” or a refusal to justify itself simply another act of resentment? To gesture towards “love” as the transcendence of resentment is to beg the question: what counts as “love”? Eric Gans in his latest Chronicle(#649) seems to suggest that the sharing of food provides a model of love, but it’s always possible to claim that food has been shared “unfairly.” And, if resentment is toward the center, wouldn’t love also have to be first of all for the center? Is resentment a form of insight, or even cultural productivity, or is it merely a source of violence and conflict to be repressed or controlled? If it can be either, how could we tell whether the kind of resentment we’re looking at in a particular case is one or the other? We can find examples of these opposing ways of discussing resentment across the literature of GA, without, as far as I know, there being any real attempt at reconciling them.

Another problem, connected with the above, is that resentment might be a very good “third person” concept but it is certainly a very bad “second person” concept. In other words, however useful it is for speaking about others, it is useless and harmful for speaking to others. To point out someone’s resentment to them is to accuse that person, which means that one is generating resentment in that person, thereby interfering with the observation one was purportedly making. Even more, it would be hard to deny some resentment on the part of the one making the “accusation,” which even further introduces more of the “disease” in the process of “diagnosis.” Even if it’s necessary to reveal another’s resentment to that person, there are better ways of doing so than telling that person they seem a bit resentful. And if our concepts are to serve the purpose of social interaction and engagement, our concepts should be just as helpful in second as in third person situations.

One can see in much GA literature the suggestion that resentment can be alleviated in some way—either by conceding something to the resentful subject or learning how to control resentment. But this raises the following question: if resentment can be minimized, it can then be minimized further, and if it can always be minimized yet further, can’t it eventually be eliminated? If the answer is yes, all of moral and political discourse within GA should be oriented toward this possibility. But if the answer is no, presumably because resentment is so basic to the configuration of the human, then it follows that resentment can’t really be reduced or controlled either. In that case, what, exactly are we doing when we engage in all kinds of actions and institution building that certainly seems aimed at protecting us from resentment? Is resentment simply “deferred,” like violence—is civilization building just an endless deferral of what remains a steady “quantity” (and if we don’t want to speak about resentment in terms of quantity, how would we do so in terms of “quality”?) of resentment, which must mean an awful crash lies at the end of it all. That conclusion might be convenient for those of certain passive and cynical habits of mind, but the implication would be that the human is ultimately a failure as a species, so why are we talking about this in the first place?

Next up: “Violence.” I’ll first note that Wierzbicka mentions “violence” as one of those specifically Anglo words that doesn’t translate into other languages. I don’t remember where she says this, or her precise reasoning, but my guess as to what makes it specifically Anglo is that its contextless “doing bad things to people’s bodies” presupposes the possibility of a neutral application of physical force. More important is that, as I was reminded recently in discussions with Joel and Josh regarding the constitutive GA definition of “representation,” in arguing for the primacy of the “deferral of violence” one has to be very specific about what kind of violence is meant. We can, for example, imagine on the originary scene that some members of the group, after discovering and sharing the sign amongst themselves, had to then turn on some “unsigned” members and use physical force to restrain them from approaching the object. Even if we assume that a great deal of “violence” had to be used in thereby saving the scene, violence that we would have to accept as necessary, even beneficial, it would not change the fact that another, very different kind of violence must have already been deferred to make that collective effort possible. In this context I will also mention something I discussed years ago—that, in fact, the kind of pan-destructive violence conjured by specifically mimetic crisis could never have actually occurred. If the participants on the scene did, indeed, overrun the pecking order and begin attacking each other, there’s no reason to think it would continue until all, or even most, or even many, of the group had been killed. Most likely, everyone would forget what they were fighting about and the former order would be more or less restored. The kind of violence deferred on the scene, then, is a phantom.

None of this vitiates the power of the originary model—quite to the contrary, I would say. There’s no reason why a kind of omni-destructive imaginary couldn’t both lie at the origins of the human, and be a kind of fantasy. In fact, it makes a lot more sense than assuming that language was founded on a kind of accurate “risk-assessment.” But this reading of the scene makes the kind of “violence” we are talking about even more specific, and calls the usefulness of the concept of “violence” here further into question. What we would really need is a word for a kind of violence that is an intimate betrayal, an exploitation of one’s most vulnerable and irremediable weaknesses, by the last person in the world you would expect to commit such a “violation,” and at the worst possible time. (Maybe the “deferral of violation” is better—but “violation” often refers more specifically either to rape or to more commonplace transgressions.) Like, say, your twin brother stabbing you in the back as you’re about to confront a shared enemy. But this means that the “violence” in question doesn’t simply come before the sign, and the sign doesn’t just halt it. It would mean that the emergence of the sign and the near climactic perception of imminent violence are simultaneous. There is a moment where the sign is put forth and sharing it has begun and this emergence both incites and registers an even more frenzied mimetic surge toward the center. In other words, only as framed by the sign could this very precise form of “violence” be perceived, feared, and deferred. The “ultimate” terror is of the shattering of this novel form of solidarity—and, the “ultimate” violence is towards those upon whom the grace of the center shines. But this also means that this “satanic” violence need not be particularly violent, or even threatening, physically. In issuing the sign, the first signers create the conditions for and defer the “violence” of a refusal of solidarity when it’s most needed. This, in turn, is possible because at this moment the center emerges as “self-aware” and both bestows sameness on the group and demands they constitute themselves as and around an other.

I should say that I see no problem with “mimesis,” both because it is not a specifically human concept and because I see a fairly easy way to translate it (and its escalation into mimetic crisis) into the primes, indicating its universality: “Someone can say: ‘I see you do something.’ This person wants to do like this other someone. This person wants to have what this other someone has. This someone wants to be this other someone. This someone knows this someone cannot be this other if this other lives.” The “center” may turn out to be problematic, but I would eventually like to speak about the center in terms of a “this-it” relation or oscillation. “This,” what we are looking at, becomes “it” (or IT) as we all see it through the other members of the group. “Desire” I find much less problematic than “resentment,” but it’s certainly not a universal term, and it would be more coherent to see desire as coming from the center than from the subject—desire would be a kind of “ITwardness,” which we “feel” or “know” when some “this” becomes “it-like.” Terms less directly tied to the necessities of describing the originary scene, and which are even more clearly indebted to very specific intellectual and ritual traditions need not detain us long. I don’t see any need for a word like “transcendence,” for example—“presence” is a much better word for our purposes, and is more easily translated into the primes: all can say “all see the same thing now”—not to mention that it is a grammatical tense, which we assume to be the first one, the first to create a world that both is and is not “here and now.”

What would replace all this would be the oscillation between mistakenness and presence. In terms of the primes, this involves the shift from “It’s not the same” to “You can say it’s the same.” I’ve reviewed the concept of “mistakenness” recently, and so I’ll now emphasize the subtle but decisive shift in the way it leads us to speak of human intentions. The metaphysical, which has become the commonplace, way of speaking about “intention” is to imagine a kind of internal map that projects some transformation in the world (itself always already organized as a map). We could then speak of an intention realized if the world is made over to look like that internalized map (which can, of course, be externalized and made public). And we can speak about degrees of realization depending upon how different the intentional and actual maps are from each other.

Instead of this “picture,” we would think in terms of someone wanting to do what someone else has done—i.e., we start with a model, who commands you to emulate, conform to, continue some work, etc. The more faithful you are to the model, the more certain you are to mistake the imperatives issued by and through the model, because you must fulfill imperatives issued from a previous scene upon a new one. Your actions will be mistaken according to the “rules” implicit in the imperative itself, as well as according the rules of the new scene or field, to which you are bringing something at least to some extent unprecedented. Your action will have to be redeemed within the scene, by participants who will have to stretch or bend the rules so as to make them applicable to the novelty you have introduced. So, you don’t really know what you’re doing until you see what they take you to be doing. Your “intention,” then, is really a prolonged act of attention, carried over from your original attraction to the model to the signs of reception given and given off by your audience or collaborators. And if at points along the way you stop and state in explicit terms what you’re trying to do, how, and why, that itself is an act, and one which involves you following some model and seeking “redemption” in some shared scene.

Talk of intention can therefore shift to the question of what makes any act the same in the course of its performance, what makes any agent the same over the course of carrying out successive actions, what makes a scene the same from the start of an event enacted within it to the completion of that event. We know that in each case the “object” in question can be treated as not the same: the act can be seen as broken or inconsistent, the agent as a fraud, the purported scene in fact a product of shared illusions and reciprocally cancelling actions. We know this because on the originary scene this was the first problem nascent humanity had to solve—determining where all members put forth the same sign as the others and none were advancing some design upon the central object. This is the problem we solve through names, designations, rituals, repetitions, self-referentiality, markers of authenticity—and pretty much everything else we do. The first command from the center is to determine that your gestures be the same.

Let’s return to the problem of turning “resentment” into a second person concept. We would have to be able to say that what we now call “resentment,” which Eric Gans in his latest and aforementioned Chronicledefines, in its originary form, as “the hostile reaction to the object’s self-refusal,” as a “mistake.” It’s not much of a stretch—since the object’s self-refusal is the basis of the foundation of the community, “reacting” in a hostile manner is a “misreading” of the situation. (In relation to what “correct” reading, though?) But we could look a bit more closely at that “reacting.” First of all, it seems that the resentful member doesn’t really do anything, insofar as the scene holds, so the reaction is either “internal” or delayed—say, until the sparagmos, when the central victim can be torn apart with special ferociousness. I don’t see any way of positing anything “internal” to the human at this point (or any other—but that’s a different issue), since the center hasn’t yet provided a model for anything that could be described in that way. So it’s delayed—but if the sparagmos is, in fact the central being giving itself up, wouldn’t that “appease” rather than exacerbate any resentment? Isn’t it simpler to say that the sparagmos is the first trial run of the new sign, and the “aggression” displayed by members of the group are tests of its deferral capabilities?

If the members on the scene “experience” (more indigestible words) “hostility,” it must be because the central object first of all drew them all in, led them on, gave a promise of itself. It was a tease. In taking his fellows as models, each member was taught to approach the object in such a way as to confer more power of compulsion on that object in the course of approaching it. We don’t have an imperative yet, but the central being is “telling” one and all to become more and more like the others—and it continues to tell them this, but suddenly in a totally different way. Everyone was told to be the same in one way, and now to be the same in an utterly opposed way. The mistake was in thinking all could be the same in appropriation; a mistake that would be revealed as the approach of the others toward the object progressively close off one’s own opportunities to approach: the central being then becomes other. This mistake is corrected with the new practice of sameness in restraint, and distribution, and, even more precisely, in relation to an other (another prime word); but the central being cannot help but provoke that same mistake forever. Even the practice of deferral participates in that same mistake by making the central being more estimable and desirable. What we call “resentment” is seeing and hearing the other as we become more the same. But that practice of having the other emerge as sameness reaches its limits and then revising the terms of sameness might include much that we wouldn’t call resentment, but would be included under this seeing and hearing the other.

So, we can then get rid of psychological terms like “resentment,” “reaction,” “hostility,” and so on, and speak in terms of signs emitted from the center that are mistaken. The mistakenness-presence oscillation is a same-other-same dialectic. We tried to be the same—the same as each other, the same as the being modeled by the center, the same as ourselves—but we mistook the signs needed to verify that sameness and found otherness instead. The mistake is then taken as a sign of presence—everyone is here now before the other—which compounds and redeems it. We need never leave the space of imitation, centrality, mistake, presence, sign, same, other. We must imitate, and we always get imitation wrong; certain ways of getting imitation wrong are prolonged and reversed into a new form of imitation that includes imitating the being we thought was pulling us in, vortex-like—but was in fact arraying us, vertex-like.

The mistakenness of any practice will become apparent in unforeseeable ways, as will the redemption of that mistakenness. This doesn’t mean we can have no goals, projects or purposes. It means having goals, projects and purposes that include generating scenes upon which our mistakes will create presence. The more aware and attentional we become regarding our models—the deep and vast streams of traditions inflowing all our practices—and the more explicit we make our indebtedness to them, the more obvious must all the ways we are mistaking them also be. Once upon a time we could call these mistakes sins and expiate them through sacrifice. Now, we can present our mistaken practices as calls for presence, as innumerable ramifications from the present each of which faces the other and faces the others as other and asks to be redeemed as the same.

Nor do I mean to suggest that we should stop using terms like “resentment,” “violence” and the rest. It’s important to undergo the rigors of conceptual clarification—a hunger strike, if you like—so that we can know better what we’re doing with the conceptual resources at our disposal. Afterwards we can gorge on our inherited vocabulary. It’s good to know that we can go without using familiar terms so that we get clearer about how we use them when we do—and maybe in more and different ways than we tend to realize. It’s good to be able to slim down to the dimensions of Wierzbicka’s primes—maybe it will even be helpful to someone doing translations somewhere down the line.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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