GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

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.

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