March 24, 2020

The Stack, the City

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:13 am

This will be my first run at Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack (2016), a book that is extremely interesting in its own right (and likely to continue to be so) while also representing a new area of inquiry—familiar with postmodern theory, and drawing heavily upon thinkers like Foucault and Deleuze, while taking full account of all the implications of “planetary-wide computation.” As I mentioned a little while back, while Bratton, and his colleagues at the Moscow Strelka Institute (from which much more is promised) and the e-flux journal, is certainly “leftist,” he can barely be bothered to even pay lip service to the trendy race, gender, sexuality issues, or gesture toward “power and wealth disparities.” Rather, his politics is almost exclusively concerned with climate change, and in reading Bratton and some of his colleagues it become fairly obvious that what most fascinates in ecology is the pretext it provides for design projects that would match the scope of the supposed problem and draw upon the resources available through planetary computation. In fact, if, rather than obsessing over trying to minimize (and even shrink) the amount of carbon in the environment, we were to say, “well, why don’t we just accept that all the things the climate changers say is going to happen—melting polar caps, flooded coastlines, super-storms and the rest—will happen and redesign our human habitat in response,” we’d have an “absolutist” or “autocratic” project precisely parallel to Bratton’s in scope, ambition, and disregard for present political pieties.

Bratton sees planetary scale computation as a challenge, not necessarily insurmountable, to existing forms of sovereignty. He shifts Schmitt’s “nomos” from the earth to the “cloud,” as in cloud computing. The “stack” is the vertical and “accidental” articulation of different “layers”: the Cloud layer, the Earth layer, the City Layer, the Address layer, the Interface layer, and the User layer. This model is clearly meant to replace or significantly “update” our outdated models of nations, sovereignty, citizenship, rights, and all the rest—but the problem of articulating all these levels coherently leaves open the possibility that some kind of traditionally conceived sovereignty (political will) might be beneficial or even necessary to help create the “stack of the future.” This opens the possibility for very interesting discussions. Before saying a little about each of these layers, and zeroing in on one in particular, I want to point out that, with the exception, I suppose, of the “Cloud” and “Earth” layers, which seem to be clearly the highest and lowest, respectively, the layers seem to me to be less piled on top of, than wedged (in very complicated and uneven ways) into each other.

The Cloud is the layer of the accumulation and processing of the massive amounts of data now produced, intentionally and inadvertently, through all of our daily activities. The Cloud sovereigns are Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook (I’m not sure whether Bratton would—or should—put Twitter, or others—into this pantheon). Google seems to be primus inter pareshere. I don’t think anyone needs to be convinced that whether and how these “polities” transcend and subordinate (or eliminate), on the one hand, or are integrated into, on the other hand, traditional forms of sovereignty, is one of the more pressing medium-term questions of the present order. The Earth is the earth as the source of the massive ongoing extraction of raw materials required to keep the Cloud going—the entire earth being scoured for minerals and power sources, in the use of which planetary-scale computation dwarfs by a great deal all other forms of power use. And, of course, the Earth absorbs all the consequences of this enormous burning of energy. Needless to say, all kinds of questions of economic and political control enter into ensuring continual access to (and responsibility for) Earth. The Address layer is where institutions and individuals (the latter increasingly through institutions) gain access and make themselves accessible to the Cloud; as an Address, we are each of us entered into the Cloud in various ways, from various points of entry. The Interface layer is the ways in which users are provided access to the Cloud and through it to institutions. There is always an Interface, and, the Interface level is the one where the vocabulary of the Stack most overlaps with more familiar vocabularies—we start to notice that every human interaction involves (or can be described in terms of) some kind of “interface,” which is probably going to replace the older, more philosophical term “mediation.” The Interface is a site of interesting design problems—the way the website looks and works, the series of clicks one must employ to “enter” some online enclave is enormously consequential for the shape of the subsequent “exchange.” And we all know what the “User” is, since we are all users, all day long, at various sites. Bratton seems to me to suggesting pretty strongly that “User” (with its, as I’ve seen others point out, connotations of addiction and dependency) is coming to replace “citizen” as the way we are all identified within and participate in the Stack.

Furthermore, Bratton makes it clear that Users are not necessarily human—in fact, the vast majority of them are not—or, at least, that will eventually be the case. Companies and institutions can set up proxy users, automated users with addresses through which business can be transacted. And this brings us to another aspect of what, for now, I’ll call “the thought of the Stack”—its development of tendencies within posthuman and postmetaphysical discourses that relativize or, better, “relationalize” the human in relation to the non-human—the mechanical and algorithmic as well as the animal, vegetable and mineral. To put it simply, humans are not the only agents—although the question seems to be left open (Bratton often seems to be ready to close it, though) as to whether humans are a particularly important or special kind of agent. The transcendence of liberalism would be the transcendence of humanism as well, so there are legitimate questions for postliberals here as well—certainly, if we assume that desire and resentment are always of the center, that we only have being in and through the center, we’re not exactly “humanists” either, insofar as humanism means putting humans at the center. I would insist on the distinctiveness of joint attention, but animals certainly exercise attention, the metabolics and chemical composition of other materials can be said to have some form or “tendency” analogous to attention (we could invoke Aristotle here, or point out that “attention” might be on a continuum with something like  “responsiveness”) and our machines have simulations of attention and intention programmed into them—so, humanity’s “specialization” within the Stack can be acknowledged while we see a continuum along various “layers” of being. Anyway, I just mark these as questions to be taken up as more of us, I hope, familiarize ourselves with Bratton’s and his colleagues’ work.

This brings us to the City layer, the one that I think really stands out here—all the rest of the layers have come into existence over the past few decades, but there have been cities for 10,000 years. The city is, by definition and etymology, a political entity. Bratton, it seems to me, ultimately wants to see the city insofar as it is integrated into the other layers—as a conglomeration of users and architectural interfaces that allow the Cloud nomos to organize production, circulation and consumption. But it’s impossible to avoid questions of power here, and Bratton draws upon Deleuze’s concept of a “society of control,” which Deleuze saw as replacing Foucault’s ‘disciplinary society”—whereas the disciplinary society, through institutions like schools, prisons, militaries, factories, etc., worked directly on the bodies of its subjects, the society of control “modulates” the interfacial means providing ingress and egress to various institution and interactions. This distinction has always seemed to me overstated, insofar as Foucault’s notion of “panopticism” already includes the idea of self-regulation in response to anticipated responses to one’s possible behavior, but we don’t need to “relitigate” this debate within postmodern theory here (or anywhere else, probably). Either way, controlling behavior by making it clear that certain kinds of decisions will give you a bad credit rating a decade down the line is far more effective than constantly punishing or shaming people for trivial purchases—at least on a systemic, if not always on an individual level. (Distinguishing between those who need constant “stimuli” and those who can find patterns and anticipate is also a good way of sorting people out.)

Bratton’s discussion of the City layer, like all of his discussion, is complex, interesting and rather breathless—he refers back to ancient cities as the city of temples, sacrifice, and distribution (not much, if anything, on palaces and kings, though), discusses airports as a model for thinking the contemporary city, and much else. Still, the fact that the capitals of countries, where the government is seated, are cities, seems to interest him less, as does the imperial nature of at least the major cities. Cities are the center. Like markets and money, to which cities are constitutively related, cities seem to have generally (if not invariably) been created by the imperial center. Jane Jacobs makes a very interesting, counter-intuitive argument in her The Economy of Cities, to the effect that the urban precedes the rural—that, in fact, agricultural communities were established to feed the city rather than, as seems more “natural,” cities being a result of the development of farming to the point where extensive exchange became possible (this seemingly natural assumption is strikingly and suspiciously similar to the seemingly natural assumption of barter growing to the point where money became necessary to mediate the sheer volume of exchanges). At any rate, the better we get at discussing “the City,” the better we will be able to argue that it is within the City layer that the agency needed to make all the layers of Stack more consistent, internally and with each other, will come from within the City. And, unless you believe in the possibility of technocracy (as Bratton does), that is the kind of argument you will need to make.

Needless to say, there have been lots of cities and many different kinds of cities. But perhaps we can say that cities are where individuals are abstracted from kinship and cult relations and related directly to an at least potentially desacralized authority. Even when there’s a cult of the city, it’s a cult abstracted from and shared by the separate tribes and families with their traditional cults. The city is where divine kinship replaces sacral kingship, and where the mobilization of masses of instrumentalized and de-socialized slave laborers is initiated. The city is therefore the site of intensified and distributed mimetic activity, of endless mimetic crises and deferrals, which are in turn converted into models of governance. The pastoral, the aesthetic mode that celebrates the natural and virtuous countryside to the artificial and vicious city is itself a product of and reflection upon urban life—the “artificial” city is the source of “Nature” (part of Bratton’s project is to eliminate the entire notion of “nature” as well as “culture” by acknowledging the artificiality of everything—a development heralded by the city). The city is the cynosure and produces cynosures (“celebrities”). Cities are modeled on other cities and are modeled and remodeled on themselves, or some imaginary project of themselves. To capture the city is at least a precondition to capturing the entire country—sometimes it actually seems to be a sufficient condition.

Cities have an egalitarian tendency, due to their abstractness, but they are above all centers generating satellites: other cities, suburbs and countryside, geopolitical peripheries. It is from the standpoint of the city—Washington D.C. in relation to New York and LA, in relation to Des Moines, Dallas and Orlando, in relation to the “heartland”; in relation to London, Paris, Beijing, Moscow, Dubai, Jerusalem, Cairo, and so on, and through these centers to other peripheries (and feel free to contest my American-centrism if you think another order is emerging)—it is only by subordinating the Stack to a coherent ordering of these center-periphery relations that the Stack can be integrated into the human order, rather than the reverse. But these reflections are, I emphasize, by way of laying the groundwork for engaging these new disciplinary spaces.



After writing this post, I happened to come across an essay (“On Anthropolysis,” published in 2018) by Bratton that touches on the question of human origins. Here are the first two paragraphs:


Anthropogeny is the study of human origins, of how something that was not quite human becomes human. It considers what enables and curtails us today: tool-making and prehensile grasp, the pre-frontal cortex and abstraction, figuration and war, mastering fire and culinary chemistry, plastics and metals, the philosophical paths to agricultural urbanism and more.Given that Darwinian biology and Huttonian geology are such new perspectives, we may say that anthropogeny, in any kind of scientific sense, is only very recently possible. Before, human emergence was considered from the distorting perspective of local folklores. Creation myths, sacred and secular, have been placeholders for anthropogeny, and still now defend their turf. When Hegel was binding the history of the world to the history of European national self-identity, it was assumed among his public that the age of the planet could be measured in a few millennia (103 or 104 years), not aeons (109 years). The fabrication of social memory and the intuition of planetary duration were thought to operate in closely paired natural rhythms. While the deep time of the genomic and geologic record shows that that they do not, the illusion of their contemporaneity also brought dark consequences that, strangely enough, would actualize that same illusion. In the subsequent era, the meta-consequence of this short- sighted conceit is the Anthropocene itself, a period in which local economic history hasin fact determined planetary circumstances in its own image.The temporal binding of social and planetary time has been, in this way, a self-fulfilling superstition.

As such, how is the anthropos of anthropogeny similar to or different from the anthropos of the Anthropocene? Are they correspondent? Does the appearance of the human lead inevitably toward, if not this particular Anthropocene, then an Anthropocene, and some eventual strong binding of social and geologic econo- mies? Whether the two anthropoi are alike or unlike in origin, can they converge or diverge? Instead of becoming human, does a sharp temporal linking also speak to becoming something else? That is, in what ways is a post-Anthropocene—a geo-historical era to come, eventually—aligned with “anthropolysis”or the inverse of anthropogeny—a becoming inhuman, posthuman, unhuman, or at least a very different sort of human?


The Anthropocene is that period in the history of the earth where the earth is decisively marked, even made over by, human activity. There is some interesting equivocation in Bratton’s discussion here. On the one hand, human origins can only be seriously explored after the scientific innovations of Darwinian theory and modern geology—prior to that, there was plenty of talk of human origins, but all of it mythical and folkloric (Bratton’s Voltairean contempt of anything smacking of religion or myth comes out especially strongly in this essay). In other words, only in the Anthropocene could a plausible account of human origins emerge—even if Bratton doesn’t consider the question important enough to do more than gesture towards brain development, war, fire and food. What we discover in and through the Anthropocene is that the earth and its history have no regard for human scale. At the same time, the delusional belief that the history of the earth was tailored to human needs and purposes, and was therefore to be mastered, was the very attitude that, in a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” produced the Anthropocene, the age in which the human transforms and even endangers the earth. It then makes sense for Bratton to ask whether “the appearance of the human lead[s] inevitably towards, if not thisAnthropocene, at least someAnthropocene.”

We are in the middle of some very interesting paradoxes here. What kind of being must this human be if it was “destined” to produce some Anthropocene? Presumably a being compelled to see itself as essential to the world, to see the world as created for its own sake. Why should developments in the cortex, the mastering of fire, and so on create such a being? That the human leads to the Anthopocene, and the Anthropocene leads to Anthropolysis, the “breaking up” of the human into the “inhuman, posthuman, unhuman, or at least a very different sort of human,” is very suggestive. But most of the rest of this essay is an attack on contemporary ‘reactionaries,” who wish to return to national ethnic, religious, etc., fairy tales and reject the science that will remake humans into—what, exactly, and why?—finally drifting in and out of various science fiction visions. The limits of Bratton’s anthropolysis lie in his refusal to take seriously the question of anthropogenesis. But he does end with the following thought:

If the Anthropocene binds social time to planetary time, then let the former scale up to the latter, not the latter down to the former. With maximum demystification, make human economies operate according to the geologic scale we found hiding under the rocks. This inversion of the temporal binding we have is the kind of good definition of the post-Anthropocene that we need, and the inversion of the humanist position and perspective it would require is the anthropolysis we want.

In a way, this formulation parallels that of the inherently anthropocenic human—in both cases, it seems essential to have the human scale match the planetary scale. The human must make itself a match to the planetary; or, to put it in terms that might repel Bratton, the human has to make the planet a home. I’ll appeal here to Walter Ong, who, in his posthumously published Language as Hermeneutic: A Primer on the Word and Digitizationargues that the ongoing “analysis” of reality through the process of breaking it up into smaller and smaller “bits” in fact raises more questions of “interpretation” at each point along the way. Similarly, the process of anthropolysis, of becoming a “very different sort of human” (aren’t we always becoming a different sort of human?), raises questions of anthropogenesis. GA has not, perhaps, paid enough attention to the human as a world maker, but the originary hypothesis has us zero in on the human as a scene maker, or, we might say, stage designer. Bratton is right: our stage is now the planet, and we will be designing it, one way or another. Bratton, though, seems to want to clear the stage of the clutter caused by those who still want to reduce the planetary to their all-too-human scale. The anthropomorphic way of thinking about it is to see our discoveries regarding the materials with which we are to design, and the spaces upon which we have to stage our shows, as, simultaneously, revelations regarding the new roles we and our fellow players might inhabit. We can be patient as we (diligently) elicit these possibilities, and try out different ways of scaling things up, or restaging—and, really, Bratton can afford to be patient too, because whatever sponsors he might have in mind are not going to scale up to the dimensions of his project anytime soon.

March 17, 2020

Declarative Culture, Properly Understood

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:15 am

The declarative sentence makes explicit what remains implicit in ostensives and imperatives. Ostensives and imperatives “work” because a whole scenic configuration is already in place and goes unnoticed and unremarked upon. Not noticing and remarking upon this configuration is a precondition for the operation of ostensives and imperatives, and remarking upon them is an interruption of their operation. But sustained imperative orders include provisos involving the solicitation of periodic feedback, which is an invitation, in a limited form, of declarative culture into the ostensive-imperative world. You could say that all of “politics” concerns the way this happens, and whether the representatives of declarative culture (the disciplines) support or usurp the ostensive-imperative world.

Postliberals, or autocrats, have a problem in this regard: we must be ruthlessly critical of everything existing, but what we are ruthlessly critical of is primarily the subversion of the ostensive-imperative world by ruthless criticism. We want to identify and pre-empt every encroachment of the declarative upon the ostensive-imperative, while recognizing that the existing ostensive-imperative world is largely comprised of the accumulated results of centuries of such encroachments. We have to be more explicit about scenic orders than liberals can afford to be, while doing so in the name of a restoration of implicitness to its proper place.

It is actually the more fully developed declarative culture that supports implicitness. The use of declaratives to undermine authority (the ostensive-imperative world) by positing a more real “super-sovereignty” against which that authority can be measured (“nature,” “justice,” “equality”) but can’t be trusted to measure itself is simultaneously a refusal to use declaratives to examine the desires and resentments that lead to the relentless targeting of authority. The declarative culture inhabiting the cloud-cuckoo land of super-sovereignty, then, is really more the outgrowth of a competing, rogue, imperative order than a properly declarative one.

So, one can target the existing “health care system,” pointing out the “greed,” “waste,” corruptly disordered priorities, inequities, and so on, all the while presupposing a completely unexamined model of what a “good” health care system would be. If you ask someone consumed with the ruthless critique of “insurance companies,” or whatever, well, how, exactly, should a “health care system” work, you will most likely be provided an idealized description of some end result: everyone should have “access,” health care should be “affordable” or even “free,” no one should go bankrupt because of a long term illness, etc. In other words, you get a consumer’s rather than a designer’s perspective. If you then probe a bit further and ask, for example, about the training of medical professionals, and which medical professionals should address health “issues” at what level; or how priorities should be set regarding planning and preparing for unanticipated contingencies (or, for that matter, how to determine which contingencies—or, rather, “types” of contingencies—should be more or less “anticipated”), providing preventive care, allocating responsibility for conditions conducive to better health at various levels of authority, including that of families and individuals; upon what other institutional structures does “health care” rely upon; and, finally, what effects the preferred policy of the moment might have on all these imperative orders, you will most likely get a blank stare. And understandably so—everyone is encouraged to play at being president, with immediately implementable opinions; no one is encouraged to think and operate at the level at which one’s feedback might be help (except, minimally, as a private consumer).

When you “want” something like “universal access to health care,” however that is pictured in your mind, you really want an entire social order which you could never fully articulate. The left can make it to this point with us, but then they short-circuit it when this “entire social order” dissolves into babble about “disparities in wealth and power” or the like. They want to imagine a social order in which everyone is exactly equal in wealth and power but such a social order is unimaginable—it’s a kind of declarative sublime. As soon as you were to say something like, “well, doctors would have to…,” you invoke an entire order in which doctors are produced, certified, guaranteed a certain income and social status relative to others, embedded in institutions in which that “have to” would be actualized, and all that in turn implicates a whole series of hierarchies and command structures. The proper use of declarative culture is to articulate all this, and engage others in its articulation.

Such a practice of declarative culture, and the cultured declarative, will invariably have a satiric dimension. Someone says, “I just want to be able to take my kid to the emergency room without going bankrupt” and you say something like, “so, you want a slave class of emergency room physicians forced to work 16 hours a day for subsistence”; or, coming at it from the other end, “so, you want a redirection of resources to medical innovation freed from certain FDA strictures and a redesign of health care professional training so as to provide for more precise layers of qualification”; you will get a “wait—what?” kind of response. But something like that really is their desire, properly laid out. And you thereby initiate a conversation—should the other wish to pursue it (and this is a good way of determining very quickly which discussions are worth pursuing)—about what kind of conditions would leave us with harried, exhausted, over-educated and low paid doctors or a well ordered hierarchy of medical professionals and institutions (and associated research institutions, and educational institutions that supply them, and so on). And at the end of such questioning is the question of who could we expect to provide for the preferable alternative. What kind of orders would have to be given at what level, and what kind of people would be capable of giving and implementing such orders? In other words, we would be speaking about the imperatives we hear from the center.

You can already find discussions of health care that approximate the kind I’ve been simulating—anyone with any responsibility or knowledge of the field knows that these discussions involve institutions, resources, large scale decision making, and so on. But there are whole fields of desires and resentments where this is much more tenuously the case, and which are therefore especially rich fields for rogue imperative-qua declarative super-sovereignties to enter. These are the desires and resentments generated by the grotesque superstructures of anti-discrimination law, the fields of race, gender, and sexuality, where fortunes can be made or lost on the interpretation of a joke or a gesture. “I just want, as a woman in the workplace, to be treated with respect, and not as a sexual object.” Well, yes, but “respect” and “sex” are historical, deeply tradition-laden concepts, which require elaborate translations if their meaning is to be determined outside of a given institution’s Code of Conduct (which has processed those terms through political structured legal innovations)—or even if we are to make sense of that Code of Conduct in a given case. The actual desire here is to have the option to be a plaintiff in a particular kind of lawsuit, presided over by a particular type of judge, produced by a law school within a system of law schools dominated by a particular judicial and political philosophy, and therefore upon certain funding institutions—and, moreover, to be represented in various media in specific ways which can be described in phrases like “having one’s voice heard,” “having one’s experience recognized,” “finally saying ‘enough’,” and so on, which one has already internalized by imitating skilled and canny female strivers represented by those same media. And this is not yet to speak of the whole history of pulverizations of intermediate institutions and authorities, a history largely forgotten but marked by the epithetical residue of demonizing and popularized terms like “mansplain.”

Even those who think such transformations were good or necessary prefer to not speak of them in other than mythical terms of underdogs overcoming transparently tyrannical forms of power. Dragged out into the light of day, they look less obviously beneficial and inevitable. Answering the rather obvious question, “how did the powerless win,” is where the mythmaking comes in. They must have had somepower in the end. Behind the mythmaking lies the rogue imperative order—someone (and we could always name names) wanted to circumvent the established order. Well, maybe there was some good reason to but, regardless, we would have a very different story in that case. It would be a story of one form of authority displacing another, each with its own hierarchies, “entailments” and “affordances.” The ultimate revelation is that every desire is the desire of the center and for the center. Here’s the model of authority entailed by your desire, and here’s the model of authority I would propose in response: where are the overlappings and incommensurabilities? Can we imagine various syntheses? What “enablements” and what defects are we presupposing, along with which potential remedies, in the form of authority, and the traditions informing it, authorizing this very discussion we are having right here and now? Let’s play a little game—how many degrees of separation are there between us discoursing here and now, and someone doing something, indebted to our discoursing, that might make some difference that wouldn’t have been made without our discoursing? How much of our discoursing is informed by the knowledge available to us regarding our remoteness from power and of the constitution of our discoursing by that remoteness? Answering the subsequent question, “well, then, what, exactly, are we doing now,” would be an appropriate use of declarative culture.

March 5, 2020

Toward a Generative Logic of Translation

Filed under: GA — adam @ 1:35 pm

Traditional logic, a central pillar of metaphysics, involves turning a subject-predicate relation into a definition, and then using that definition to “certify” another subject-predicate relation. “Old people are bad drivers”; “that man is old”; “that man is a bad driver.” A particular subject-predicate relation, along with the definitions of the words involved, is assumed to be stable, which makes it possible for logic to take on a machine-like form of operation and ultimately because the basis of new kinds of machines. This mechanism is transparently a result of literate culture’s hypostatization of the declarative sentence, which produces both grammar and definitions. Aside from the fact that words change their meanings, can have multiple meanings and, indeed, may have less “meanings” than “uses,” any definition relies upon metaphysical or anthropological assumptions that can’t be “proven” within the system itself. But it’s very helpful for a mode of thinking to have a logic, less to adjudicate disputes within the system then for pedagogical purposes—a logic helps produce shared problem-solving devices and habits upon which more advanced forms of inquiry can be built.

I think that Anna Wierzbicka’s natural semantic metalanguage (her “primes”) can provide us with the basis of a generative, “anthropomorphic” logic. Her NSM provides us with a set of words with a stable meaning, but their meaning is not fixed through arbitrary definitions produced through a particular metalanguage, but through the existence of words in every language with these same meanings. This places these words beyond definition—any words you could use to define “think,” for example, would in turn need to be defined in other words, and so on, and you will ultimately be brought back to the word “think” itself. Now, the word “think” can be used in lots of different ways, so we can question the unity and stability of the prime words as well, but a good place to begin developing the primes into a logic is to note that the prime words limit each other. So, in sentences like the following—“I think I might come”; I’ll have to think about it before I decide”; “you may think so, but wait and see”—the word is being used in fairly different senses: first to indicate indecision, second, to refer to a process of cogitation, and, third, to contrast assumption or expectation with reality. But one thing is constant across all three uses: someone “thinks” when one doesn’t “know.” Similarly, however many ways we could use the word “do,” what they will all have in common is that insofar as you’re “doing” something, something is not “happening to you.”

It’s important to point out that there’s no reason to assume that the prime words, any, much less all, of them, were the first words in any language. It’s best to think of them as the enduring residue of declarative language—these are the words that we couldn’t make sentences without. Part of the project of transforming the primes into a logic will involve hypothesizing “paths” through the ostensive, imperative and interrogative to the declarative on the part of the primes, but that will involve looking at the primes as teleologically oriented towards becoming the declarative “infrastructure.” The primes are the minimal language needed to talk in and about a world in which imperatives can be refused or disappointed without increasing the likelihood of inconclusive and destructive conflict. If we resist the habit of seeing words like “think,” “know,” “want,” “can” and so on as representing “inner states,” “capabilities,” “potentials,” and so on, we can see that they all allow for the “codification” of various forms of hesitation: “I want” replaces some form of “give me”; “I can” introduces some space between what one has been commanded to do and the actual doing, and so on.

Wierzbicka’s purpose in developing the primes is to develop a logic of translation—first, she demonstrates the untranslatability of the “key words” in any language, and then she introduces the primes as a means of translating them. She both proves the Sapir-Whorf thesis and transcends it. A generative logic would be more a logic of translation than of “correction.” Instead of taking one claim and validating or disqualifying it, we want to be able to translate discourses into other discourses. We then get a logic that both reduces a discourse to its minimal elements and expands it into other discourses. At a certain point I will introduce construction grammar into the equation—construction grammar is the linguistic theory that contends that meaning resides not in individual words but in formulaic constructions. This theory of language agrees best with both Michael Tomasello’s demonstration in Constructing a Language that children learn language through the absorption of “chunks” of language learned in daily interactions and with studies of oral culture that show the basis of oral poetry in fixed formulas and commonplaces. Wierzbicka herself may not see things exactly that way, but we will be able to make her NSM consistent with construction grammar. Once we do, we will be able to construct a logic that is based on translation operations carried out on familiar constructions.

Let’s take a look at a couple of prime words in relation to non-prime words that are very close in meaning. (Of course, the results of this exercise will be different in different languages.) First of all, “see,” which is a prime, and “look,” which isn’t. We can right away see a hierarchy between the words: you can see without looking, but you can’t look without seeing. Seeing is built into looking; looking is a particular way of seeing. You look in order to see something, while you see whatever is in front of you (even involuntarily)—looking adds a layer of intention onto seeing, which is intentional only in the most minimal sense of seeing something. You ask someone if they see something, or what they see, while you ask someone what they’re looking at. If you ask someone whether they see some particular thing you have in mind, and they say they don’t, you will tell (command) them to “look there.” Once they look, you ask if they see it now—“seeing” is the ostensive confirmation of the command to look.

We can do the same kind of exercise with primes like “touch,” “feel,” “want,” “think,” “say” and “know,” but none of them seem to have such an obvious “complement” as see/look—for example, the relation between “want” and “need” seems to me less complementary, as does the relation between “say” and “speak,” or “tell”—and I’m not at all sure what other words might be “closest” to “touch” or “think,” especially if we want to stick to a pre-literate vocabulary. So, we might want to have more of a method before approaching those—it will probably turn out that there are several different kinds of relationships, involving not only semantic differences, but ostensive-imperative relations, first vs. third person reporting and so on. But “hear” has a relationship to “listen” that seems to me perfectly analogous to see/look—“listen” adds exactly the same layer of intentionality to “hear” as “look” does to “see,” and the interrogative—imperative-ostensive loop also seems to me identical—you might need to listen more closely just like you’d need to look more closely. It’s certainly no coincidence that these are the two senses through which we take in “meaning”—but, of course, we have to assume that this analogy is not identical across all languages (otherwise, “look” and “listen” would also be primes).

If we continue on with these two, then, we could trace a path from see/look through all the other words used to indicate taking something in visually—“observe,” “notice,” “view,” “identify,” “spot,” “distinguish,” and so on—or aurally (a quick look at an on-line dictionary reveals that there are far fewer of these).  So, if someone “makes a distinction,” he sees something—seeing something would be the ostensive “verification” at the end of whatever trail from seeing gets us to “distinguish.” We always come back to the primes—to start spanning out a bit, if someone “speaks” or “tells” something, that person must have saidsomething—you can always ask what, exactly, they said—which is a demand that a quoted statement be provided. If someone “comprehends,” theyknowsomething; if someone “reflects” or “contemplates,” they thinksomething. If you distinguish, you see that two things are not the same (all primes). If you identify, you see one thing that is not the same as anything else. If you observe, you see something happening (or not happening). We can use the other primes to add in these layers of intentionality: you wantto see if something will happen, or if something is not like other things, or if one thing is not the same as one other thing; and once you have seen, you knowthat something happened, that things are not the same, and so on. Each layer of intentionality is a layer of deferral, and being able to say that maybewe canknow or see allows us to add more layers. And we can construct some kind of ostensive-imperative-interrogative pathway in any of these cases, which would in turn open the inquiry to questions of institutions, or where we do these things. In this way, we can develop ways of detecting the equivalent of what traditional logics call “fallacies”: if some statement can’t be brought back to “this person said,” “this person saw,” “some person could see if…,” then it has no path back to the ostensive and is ultimately devoid of meaning.

We can take any sentence and break it down into the primes to as granular a level as necessary. So, for example, “the armed robber killed the victim who resisted.” We can start with a formulaic sentence: “someone did something bad to someone else.” There are a lot of bad things people can do to each other, so we’d need to approximate further. “This someone wanted something that the other had. The other did not want this someone to have it.” Along the way you’d have to lay out the moral objection to armed robbery and murder simply by translating them into the primes—why is it “bad” to do something to another because you want something the other has? We’d work our way through “do,” “affect,” “change,” “hurt” and so on—there are good ways of affecting and changing people and bad ways. The bad ways might be when the person affected can’t do some things that person did before. But, of course, we can imagine cases in which it would be good to ensure someone can’t do at least some of things he did before—so we need to get more precise. It would be making it so that person can’t do things which are good, or that we know are good, or that all people think are good—with each of these claims calling for scrutiny in turn.

A generative logic of translation, predicated upon a fluency in the primes, would be enormously helpful in, to refer to a famous paper of Charles Sanders Peirce, “make our ideas clear.” And we could do so in a way that never loses touch with a basic human being in the world, or ethics and morality. Everything we do or say is either “good” or “bad”—or, at least, that question will always be pertinent. We can interrupt even the most abstruse chain of reasoning, filled with hypotheses, speculations, assumptions, conditionalities and so on, at any point, and ask questions like, “if you say this, what other things can you say?” “What can’t you say?” “What can you do if you think this?” “If you say this can you say that what others will do because they heard it will be good?” Shouldn’t anyone be able to answer such questions? A statement worth working with, and re-translating in turn into other spaces, would be one that can be completely dissolved into something like things that we do because we want to see that something is the same as before, because we could then say it is good—or some other articulation of the primes. It’s a kind of laboratory built into language, allowing for both the testing of hypotheses and the invention of new discursive devices.

The primes could lead us to more adventurous and paradoxical logics. I suggested above that insofar as you are doingsomething, something is not happeningto you. I meant this very literally—describing what you are doing as you do something excludes consideration of whatever might also be happening to you—which might, of course, be represented later. But maybe the mutual exclusion is the equivalent of Euclidean geometry, where we simply assume the existence of points, lines, right angles and so on. Maybe in a more non-Euclidean prime logic we explore ways in doing things is a way of having things happen to you and having things happen to you is a way of doing them. Maybe saying things is a way of hearing things and there are similarly transactional relations between seeing and thinking, doing and wanting, and so on. We could then bring this more pataphysical prime logic to bear on the layers of intentions we uncover in the disciplines. The disciplines are built so as to foreclose such possibilities, but leave themselves open to them in all kinds of ways. Imagine a pedagogical enterprise that prepares people to conduct such clarification operations.

Maybe this should be more formalized. It may be better to produce sample translations to serve as models. At any rate there’s plenty of work to do. But the end point should be to combine the traditional functions of logic (determining the clarity, consistency and truth of statements) and rhetoric (invention, responsiveness to conditions) so that anyone who acquires fluency in prime logic can intervene effectively anywhere, with a non-arbitrary base of assumptions.

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