GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

April 25, 2020

Nominalization, Imperativity and Reading, Quick or Patient

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:50 am

David Olson makes nominalization, in particular the nominalization of verbs, central to his theory of the metalanguage of literacy. To review: the metalanguage of literacy supplements those elements of the speech scene that cannot be directly represented by writing. These elements can be helpfully reduced to all that involve the relation between the speaker and the speech of another which he is reporting. Whatever could be enacted in a speech scene—anything on the continuum from reverence to mockery—through tone, body language, etc., must be represented lexically. (This means that the spread of writing means the partial neutralization of mimesis—or its transformation into a more mediated, long-term affair.) Most of our conceptual vocabulary is comprised of variants of “say,” with “think,” “know,” “do,” “want” “happen,” and “feel” taking up the rest of the space. (A lot of what is usually associated with thinking, and even knowing, I would suggest, is really concerned with the supplementation of “saying.”) It’s also worth pointing out that studies of academic discourse have shown that what distinguishes academic, or disciplinary, discourse from “ordinary” discourse is the pervasiveness of nominalizations and noun phrases, especially operating as the subjects of sentences. Anyone who reads an article from any academic journal can easily verify this.

It seems, then, that nominalization must be central to the generative logic of translation I started working on a few posts back. Wierzbicka’s primes are very verb heavy: we have say, want, do, happen, feel, happen, see, hear, know, and touch. The nouns, meanwhile, are very generic: someone, people, all, something, thing, this, one, I, you—mostly pronouns, along with a few others like “place” and “time.” This makes sense, as neither names of people, names of places, nor names of gods could be in the primes, even though they must have been part of human language from very early on. Still, it’s interesting that even very simple nouns, like “food,” or “ground,” or “sky” or others one might imagine (body parts that all humans have, for example) are absent. Perhaps they were too particularized through being associated with deities or some kind of divine presence; perhaps what seems to us to be, self-evidently, a separate “thing,” can in fact be thingified in various ways. Verbs for various bodily functions, like breathing, are sources for many words denoting invisible objects (like “spirit”), but the invisible world is overwhelmingly populated by nominalizations of these prime verbs and those invented to supplement them.

The process of nominalization precedes its acceleration under writing—all of the verbs included in the primes have nominal forms, mostly deriving from some conjugation of the verb itself (at least in English, but I would assume this is generally the case); at most requiring a prefix or suffix (which perhaps marks that nominal as later)—thought, knowledge, feeling, want, doings or deeds, touch, hearing, sight, etc. What is the ontological status of these entities? We can trace a progression (relying, of course, on English grammar) from nominalizations that would be at one remove from the scene first represented: for example, if someone thought something, it is not a leap to refer to “a” thought, “the” thought, or “that” thought that they had; to the removal of determiners, getting us to “thought” as such. As the word is stripped of determiners, it becomes intelligible as the “object” of a specialized discipline. An oral world could have “thoughts,” but not “thought,” I assume.

Now, once we have a noun like “thought,” we can start attaching adjectives to it: political thought, cultural thought, critical thought, etc.; we can turn the noun into an adjective, like “thoughtful,” or “thought leader.” The center of gravity of the noun is the name, and so the tendency to generate nominalizations is rooted in the need to generate names, or centers (“nominalization” itself, of course, ultimately means “make into a name”). Verbs can’t be referred to, or placed at the center in the same way—the verb “think,” by itself, can only be an imperative. So, nominalization, which is the linguistic and therefore more fundamental form of “reification” and “hypostatization” is a descendent of the originary sign. A nominalization is “redeemed” in the same way, through the organization of “congregants” who can generate ostensives singularizing the nominalization. This is what a disciplinary space is: everyone in that space can say something about “thought” that everyone else in the space will recognize as saying that thing about “thought.” It’s circular, but so is all of sign use, and the circle is complete when the participation of our nominalization in events gives us something to point to, like, say, a text or “way of saying things” that we could describe as an “instance” of “thought transcending itself,” or something along those lines. (Attaching verbs to nominalizations so that they can starting “doing” things is a further step toward entrenching them. The similarity to mythical beings is transparent, and has been noted many times. Maybe this is what at least some mythical beings originally were.)

A generative logic of translation wants to target nominalizations, then—not to destroy or discredit them, but to produce new disciplinary spaces out of them. You want to turn references to “thought” into practices of thinking, which you do before, but manifest in, saying—perhaps so that saying can also become knowing. Constructing relations between the primes keeps us focused on the “destiny” of these verbs. The reference to thought is telling you to think, to think about thinking, in fact, which is to say it is issuing an imperative. I want to be very practical here—I am thinking pedagogically, like a teacher, who wants to help others learn how to do things they didn’t know how to do before. In this case, I’m also learning (a teacher who doesn’t learn things in teaching is a bad teacher). A generative logic of translation is a reading and writing practice; more succinctly, a practice of literacy (“literacy” is ultimately a “re-nominalization” of “letter”). As a teacher I’m very hostile to references to “understanding” things, which usually means something like “talking about them more or less the same way I do” (people tend to think others “understand” them when those others speak of them more or less the way that person would). I want to provide means for rewriting, or translating—from one statement to another, or to a question or command. I much prefer a translation practice that “misunderstands,” that gets things completely wrong, to a show of “understanding” that flatters the teacher but really privileges the more mimetic student, the one who has learned how to game the system—a translation that gets it “wrong” might at least initiate a series of responses that creates a new space, while “understanding” wraps things up like a test question. You understand things when you want to prove how smart you are; learning (or teaching) something plunges you into imitation and the risk of being stupid.

So, I propose deriving imperatives from nominalizations—references to “thought” are, quite literally, telling you to think about thinking. Discourses about “thought” or, more modernly, “cognition” in general, which have these nominalizations “doing” all kinds of things and possessing all kinds of capacities and characteristics are houses of cards—but the point is not so much to collapse them as to locate the point at which they would collapse most readily at the slightest movement. These points, I would hypothesize, are where “think” or “know” most closely bounds, to the point of overlapping with in part, the other primes—think and know with each other, either with want, or say, or feel, or see or hear or do or can. This provides us with a fulcrum. Of course, the cognitive sciences can speak of the relation between “cognition,” “desire,” “discourse,” “action,” and “sensation,” but only to show how they “influence” or “distort,” not constitute, each other—some pressure on those terms will fold them back into think or know, want, say, do and feel. You will always be able to locate some point where, for example, what one knows is “contaminated” by what one wants or, for that matter, what one hears, or touches. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean one doesn’t “really” know that thing, it just means that knowing is a different kind of thing than we might have imagined.

I want to again insist on putting “say” at the center here. There is something irreducible and irreplaceable about the exact words someone says, here and now—not a paraphrase, not “well the point was,” not “what they were really getting at,” but what they actually said when the moment called for words. All these are translations, which can be interesting as translations, not “clarifications.” And there is something infinitely generative about taking that utterance and translating it into all the idioms, contexts and media in which one has some degree of fluency. All thinking, doing, wanting and so on find their way through what someone says. Every nominalization can be folded back into something like “when (if) X happens, someone says (can say) Y.” To ask someone speaking of human “behavior” in some conceptual framework, something like “what would this figure of the human you are constructingsayif…” is a way of demanding the further minimalization of the hypothetical underpinnings of the claim. It’s very productive to force the transition from a statement like, say, “denial of emotional investment in relationship double binds is highly characteristic of…” to “what would one of these individuals in such a double bind say if someone else said…”? This creates a space for the oral within the literate while making explicit the scenic accretions effected by literacy. This fulfills one of the dreams of postmodernism, to make all writing “literature,” while also making “literature” a rigorous vehicle—to capture the entire meaning of a highly nominalized statement would require the construction of a complex scene, and perhaps alternate scenes, perhaps a long novel. But when time is an issue, one can write flash fiction.

These would be scenes, moreover, on which both interlocutors are present, even if though an interface. What kind of double bind is constructed in the sample statement provided in the previous paragraph, and what is your investment in it, one might ask the author (for whom, in one’s own discourse, one would have to hypothesize answers). What would you, gentle author, say if… Now that you mention it, maybe this author has already said it—let’s look around. And then you’re reading the text in a very directed, “interested” way. You’re not writing 19thcentury style realist fiction, but a self-referential text exposing its own “devices”—but always to get at that question—what would someone say if…. What could someone say? What do I say? What will you say when…” And when you saythat, what do you thinkothers will do? What will you be able to say after they do it? For that matter, what are you saying right now? We always return to the crucible of the primes. We have a logic that moves from the highest level of generality, enters the most complex discourse, while remaining rooted in the most elementary relationships, where the primes overlap, interrupt and supplement each other. A reading and writing practice that can facilitate a quick intervention in a twitter burst or the writing of a doctoral dissertation. With plenty of room for playfulness, experimentation, and extending the margin of error while developing new ways to test for error. The purpose of logic is to anticipate and address objections in advance; even better, though, is to have possible (and even impossible?) objections converted into broadcasters of what you say.

April 13, 2020

The Pursuit of Appiness

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:38 am

Think about how medical treatment currently works—it invariably involves some kind of intervention from the outside. Of course, there’s preventive care, or simply taking care of yourself, by paying attention to diet, exercise and so on—taking care of yourself relies upon the body’s own metabolic interactions: ingesting too much sugar induces certain biochemical reactions that ultimately lead to weight gain or diabetes (which in turn affects the operation of certain organs such that…). Intervention, whether surgical or pharmaceutical, starts with the assumption that the body can no longer manage itself—decisions about lifestyle can no longer prevent certain metabolic interactions, or the failure of certain organs to “process” the results of such interactions (which itself would be a metabolic failure). And, so, some “cause” is introduced from the outside that targets in order to suppress or enhance certain metabolic interactions. A lot of this seems to be ad hoc—quite often, it seems that no one is sure why a particular treatment works as it does—we can just verify, within some margin of error, that it does usually have the desired effect. And then it becomes necessary to monitor the body and run separate tests checking for “side effects,” i.e., consequences for other metabolic processes than the one being targeted for suppression or enhancement.

In other words, there is, in current medical research and practice, no totalizing engineering approach to human health, an approach that would transcend the natural/artificial distinction and make the organic metabolisms self-regulating even in response to breakdowns in normal metabolic operations. In fact, if we had such an approach, there wouldn’t really be “breakdowns”—the “mechanism” introduced into or, better, elicited from, the metabolic organization one is born with would include sensors that detect, well in advance, the signs that such “breakdowns” were likely in a given organ or process—and trigger, automatically, counteracting metabolic activity that, furthermore, is coordinated with metabolic activity throughout the body so effects somewhere don’t disrupt satisfactory operations elsewhere. Such mechanisms would most likely be “placed” or “induced” near the genetic level of human functioning, somewhere along the line where genotype produces phenotypes. Maybe these mechanisms would work, in part, by leading the human organism to spontaneously reject the unhealthy and embrace the healthy—for example, by inducing disgust at those foods it would be worst for you to eat right now and hunger for those foods that would be most beneficial.

The kind of mechanism I am discussing here, and which is really not all that hard to imagine becoming reality in the coming decades, would essentially be an “app.” An app is an interface that creates a relation between a user and the cloud. The kind of biological app that is the object of my speculations here would place the individual human body in relation to the entire, continually updated, database of biological, chemical and medical research produced by global research; included in this database would be the archived information about all human bodies, past and present, upon which information (gathered by the vary apps that are plugged into our bodies, which also become part of the archive) the individual app would draw in controlling the totality of internal metabolic activity. It’s hard to see how one could be against such developments—both in the sense that it’s hard not to see it as a tremendous improvement in human well-being and in the sense that it’s hard to imagine what could stop it. We might still die, because organs and functions might still “wear down” beyond the capacity of our total health app to complete reverse, but even death would be modulated so that we “ease into it” (as people occasionally do now, after a long, well-lived life) in a relatively painless, predictable way.

We could say that things get more complicated when we take into account that “health” includes “mental health,” and “mental health” is always going to be assessed by criteria that are at least in part historical, cultural and therefore political. But it may be that advances in research connecting brain states to mental conditions can help limit the abuse of treating people outside of the norm in terms of taste, interests or opinions as thereby “abnormal.” We do, apparently (suspending, for now, the justified skepticism regarding what anyone claims to know to a scientific certainty right now), know that schizophrenia, for example, is very directly correlated with, and therefore likely “caused by” identifiable abnormal brain states. (Otherwise, how could we have drugs that modify the experience of schizophrenics?) Anyway, it’s hard to imagine resisting developments in this area either. I recently had occasion to read a paper, written by a student at a fairly elite liberal arts college, in which the issue of mental illness came up, and noticed that where the word “normal” (or “healthy”) would previously had been the word “neuro-typical” now is. One can see how the distinction between “neuro-typical” and “neuro-atypical” would replace the distinction between “normal” and “abnormal” (or “healthy” and “sick”) in a victimary as well as more strictly medical framework. If we locate different behaviors within a range of brain activity somewhere upon a bell curve, then judgment is removed while the question of treatment can be made more “consensual.” Perhaps a highly neuro-atypical individual can be made cognizant of how his brain activity contributes to his idiosyncratic behavior or thinking and, as long as that individual is not unduly disruptive or dangerous, he might not only be permitted to “embrace” his neuro-atypicality but compel others to respect it as well. It’s easy to see the emergent ethic here: if you’re not ready to enforce medical intervention or, after the total health app has been installed, the cloud finds this person to be safe enough to leave to his habitual functioning, then you need to adjust to him just as much as you expect him to adjust to you.

All questions about “the good,” then, would become questions of designing apps that would “materialize” or “concretize” the cloud in a particular way. I’ve been using health care as a particularly illustrative example, but all of human life is taking shape along these lines: all practices are becoming apps, or, at least are, or could easily be, “appified.” Perhaps there will be decisions made on the cloud level and those made on the app level. At the cloud level, it would be determined, say, how neuro-atypical people can be permitted to be (depending upon a whole range of “factors”); on the app level, individuals would coordinate their neuro-atypicality with other individual types and institutional imperatives. Of course, there are apps that establish a very simple relation between the user and his environment—e.g., an app that lets you know the nutritional content of all the food in your refrigerator. But a lot of apps take the form of social experiments. Traffic apps fall into this category: if you use something like Waze to navigate, you not only rely on other people (who must be incentivized in some way) to warn you of speed traps, accidents up ahead, road work, potholes, etc., but you participate in a kind of paradoxical activity because the more people that are aware of present traffic conditions the more their knowledge will transform those conditions. So, a good traffic app would have to know how many people use that app, how they adjust their driving behavior accordingly, and what are the consequences of a certain number of people coming to learn that traffic will be lighter along one path than another an hour from now. Won’t that make traffic heavier along that path, and wouldn’t the app need to account for that?

Cloud policies will be determined by those in the clouds, but we can think about app policy as providing the feedback any cloud policy would depend on. What I want to bring out here is the difference between app practices and “normal” political practices. Normal politics can be seen, by analogy, as a very crude version of the interventionist practices characteristic of contemporary medicine. Something has “gone wrong,” and you try to apply some arbitrary principle (“equality,” “democracy,” “freedom,” ‘balance of powers,” some institutional “best practice,” whatever) to “fix” it. Needless to say the situation in politics is far worse than in medicine—no one really knows what the cause and effect relations, along with all the “side effects,” of any policy (always introduced, it should be noted, in a highly compromised, proviso-ridden way—almost as if you couldn’t prescribe a drug to lower cholesterol without that drug also including some mood-adjustment “amendment”) are—certainly not beyond the very short term (if you give people money, they will have that money, at least for 5 minutes; if you bomb a building, you will destroy the building, etc.)

“Appy” practices, meanwhile, would mimic the kind of self-regulation we could see to be already at work or possible within existing practices in some enhanced and explicit form. The goal is to act on the “genetic,” or generative, or scenic level and help bring order into the institutional “stack.” Much of this kind of work will have a satiric character. Take, for example, the way interventionist politics deals with the media—both sides, left and right, complain that it is “biased” and influenced by (or “in the pocket” of) “special interests” of one kind or another. Of course, there’s a lot of truth in such accusations. But they always are predicated upon a fantasy of a disinterested press serving a general public sharing the same perspectives and interests. The more media companies and institutions are independent centers of power, the less they can be anything other than information laundering extortion rackets whose sole purpose is to wield power over and on behalf of selected enemies and friends. Direct mouthpieces, whether of the government or specific institutions, would be more reliable, because at least you could imagine why that source wants to provide you with this information. But there’s little point to simply saying this, either—it doesn’t really help in filtering the vast swarm of information and disinformation swirling around us.

A more “appy” approach would be to attribute a plausible purpose to the media—say, to help people decide more intelligently whom they should vote for—and then translate all media pronouncements into something like “this source says that you do—or should—vote for politicians for X reason.” Let’s say some cable news anchor accuses or purports to prove that a particular politician has “lied” (always at some specific distance from some “truth”—attested to by someone, who we either know or don’t know much about, who has “attested” to other things of varying degrees of truthfulness; always in a specific context, always in a relation to other things said which may be more or less true, always given certain assumptions about what the “liar” actually knows and doesn’t; always with specific presumed consequences, and so on). Well, then, that source is telling you that you’re the type of person who is less likely to vote for someone who lies in that way, to that degree, in that context, with those consequences, and so on.

Our “app,” then, would generate a mapping of all politicians (maybe past as well as present) who have told that precise “type” of lie (of course, what counts as a particular “type” of lie is the kind of question the app would draw upon the cloud to answer), along with, perhaps, politicians who have told “types” of lies that more and less closely approximate that type, with varying criteria introduced to determine which kinds of “lies” are “worse” (in which conditions, etc.); along with which “types” of voters voted for and against all those different “types” of lying politicians. Now, the point of an “appy” practice of political pedagogy is not to produce such a map but to allude to or indicate or enact its possibility and its necessity if that particular report of that politician’s “lie” is to meansomething. In this way we learn to introduce, to use the idiom of contemporary media and politics, as “poisonous” a “pill” as possible into the relations between rulers, media and public. In the end, we would want to narrow down the question into a very specific “slice” of the “stack”: what are people with specific responsibilities saying, how and why, and how are those of us further downstream of those responsibilities listening to what they say—and how can we do so in a way that brings the way we listen into closest possible conformity with what our own modicum of power (the reach of our apps) best enables us to do. This is the app we try to install; or, this is the mode of being as an app we wish to install. The politics of planetary computation is the politics of converting users into interfaces. I’m a political app insofar as, in listening to me, you become an interface yourself by creating a slice of the stack as a grammatical stack: a failed imperative, prolonged into a question, issuing in a declarative revealing a new ostensive from which you derive a new imperative. At the very least you can generate a wider range of responses (hear a broader range of imperatives) to being told a politician has lied (why was he obliged to tell the truth on that occasion, anyway?) well beyond the reactive interventionist one, demanding he be “held accountable”—and into appier regions, as we start to build up self-regulatory inhibitors and activators that come to take in more of the system, in its totality of utterances.

April 2, 2020


Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:09 am

Hamlet, before following his father’s ghost’s demand to avenge his death, decides to put on a play. The play is to reproduce the event of Claudius’s murder of his brother, Hamlet’s father, and the reasoning is that if Claudius is indeed guilty he must betray that guilt in watching a performance in imitation of the murder he committed. It works even better than Hamlet had expected—not only is Claudius visibly disturbed by the performance, but it sends him to Church in a repentant mood, where Hamlet hears him virtually confess to the murder. In fact, for Shakespeare scholar Harold Goddard, the real tragedy of the play is that Hamlet does not continue to pursue this so far successful method of working through Claudius’s conscience to weaken his will to persist in enjoying the fruits of his crime. Perhaps Hamlet fears that having to confront a penitent Claudius andthendecide what to do would leave him even more paralyzed than we see him being throughout the play.

Hamlet’s abandoned method is a model of political-pedagogical engagement—a much more effective one than accusations of some kind of betrayal, or attempts through argument to convince the other with lists of pros and cons or some kind of proof. Accusations and arguments work on the margins, when much is already agreed upon and we are confronting, together, a decision that has to be made. A general who wants to win a war, or a surgeon general who wants to stop an epidemic, can find the evidence provided by one subordinate supporting one path of action more convincing than the evidence provided by another subordinate for another path because they are all on the same page, they all know what the goal is, what success would look like, what counts as a reasonable risk assessment, and so on. Within those parameters, you can expect an objective case to be heard fairly. Similarly, accusations are effective motivators when we are committed to making the same sacrifices in the name of a shared objective—it would obviously be ridiculous to accuse your enemy or a neutral of betraying you. Hamlet’s aesthetic approach, though, can be made to work under any conditions, for any audience, even if Hamlet’s own version of this approach is itself limited—it would have been much less effective, we must assume, if Claudius had been aware of what Hamlet was up to; and it would be even less effective for audiences less naively willing to suspend disbelief for fictional representations.

The aesthetic-political pedagogy involved, then, doesn’t necessarily involve putting on a literal reproduction of the failings or crimes of your antagonist or interlocutor—we’re all too suspicious of such transparent attempts at manipulation, anyway. Rather, it involves soliciting and representing the other’s sovereign imaginary. There’s never any neutral engagement—the other doesn’t address you “individual to individual”; you are always addressed as a friend or enemy, collaborator or potential collaborator or obstacle, leader or follower, etc. Furthermore, you are always addressed on a particular scene, in a particular medium, with a particular actual or possible audience—even a private conversation is likely to be repeated and ramify in various ways, in various settings. The aesthetic-pedagogical stance is to accentuate the mode of address—to make what is implicit in it a bit more explicit. You may be wrong—we can easily misread each other—but even then the other is solicited to represent the scene in another way, producing a new mode of address, and you can go from there. You need to accentuate the mode of address enough so that it can be noticed, but not enough to collapse the scene—the point is to exhaust the implications of the scene.

To turn an implicit role into an explicit one is to foreground the mimetic and scenic character of all social activity. There’s always a scene but there’s no set script, just fragments derived from previous, “similar” scenes—so, it’s not a question of line reading but of constructing the scene together. You do this by formalizing moves made as explicitly as possible—explicitly, not necessarily literally (but there might be quite a bit of literalness as well—we tend to feel stupid when we ask for things to be made literal, but sometimes it’s the most intelligent thing to do). Any scene is a descendant of a long line of previous scenes, and is nested in a vast complex of other scenes. One could try and step outside of the scene and provide a “history” or “sociology” of the scene. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you know that this involves stepping out of one scene onto another, not a transcendence of scenicity itself. But that’s not what interests me here. The kind of aesthetic-pedagogical practice I’m proposing here involves soliciting the boundaries of the scene within the scene itself.

Another model: Freud’s therapeutic practice of transference. We can leave aside what we think about Freud’s psychology or the efficacy of psychanalysis—Freud’s theory of transference, contrary to much of his own theory, is part of the 20thcentury turn away from metalanguages and towards an understanding of knowledge as participation. Freud realized that if you told, say, some young man that his inability to (for example) accept authority figures is a result of his love for his mother and hatred of his father (etc.), you won’t get anywhere. In fact, he might “agree” with you, and it still wouldn’t make any difference—the agreement would simply be recuperated as part of his “repression” and “resistance.” (You will find exactly the same thing if you explain to some conventional conservative the real power relations producing the concept of “freedom” he takes for granted.)

What does work is eliciting a response to yourself that is really meant for the resented authority figure. When the analysand starts accusing the analyst of constantly demeaning him, of deliberating frustrating his ambitions, of never really wanting him to succeed, and so on, then we’re getting somewhere. The analyst clearly can’t be doing any of these things, which means these accusations aren’t meant for him, and the analysand can be allowed to get to the point where the discrepancy between the accusations and any possible response to them on the part of the analyst becomes so obvious as to be inescapable. The unthought mimetic structure of the analysand’s resentments can be laid out on the table. Knowledge can then take the form of a(n ostensive) revelation rather than a (declarative) proof. The disinterested (although not exactly, because Freud also came to theorize a “counter-transference” on the part of the analyst) analyst is in a position to present the “blank” surface upon which the analysand can project repressed scenes and desires; the equivalent of that surface in the kinds of encounters and performances I’m suggesting models for here would vary, but the need for a kind of carefully prepared “trolling” is implicit. The point isn’t to generate outrage, but the possibility of a revelation of some disproportion between the resentment expressed by the other and any possible responsibility for generating that resentment on the part of oneself. The goal is to be able to say something like, “you can’t be this angry—or angry like this—with me; you’re imagining yourself on some other scene.” That scene can then be unfolded, in a spirit of inquiry—if the interlocutor wants to turn around and suggest you’re carrying some scenic baggage around with you as well, then, fine—we can open that up as well.

It seems to me that a very close examination of and engagement with language as the form of events is being marginalized today. Benjamin Bratton likes to reverse the Derridean slogan: “almost everything is outside of the text.” The outside of the text is everything that can be handled mathematically and “materially”—engineering, computing, design. These are all languages one can speak. It’s possible to lose patience with the history and forms of appearance of words and other pieces of language, and just say, “but the point is…” The “point” is our entry into a metalanguage whose a priori clarity we must pretend to in order to enter—often presented as the “common sense” we all know. But people always say things one way rather than another, and words, phrases and constructions have acquired specific centering powers for a reason. Bratton’s own style is one we might call “ultra-declarative”—every word in every sentence can be traced to some metalanguage, some discipline, creating a kind of forbidding inter-discipline—there is nothing “ostensive” or inviting, no privileged experience being appealed to, no “we.” He doesn’t “touch base” with you. If you read Buckminster Fuller you’ll see something similar. This is a form of writing with its own power and it produces a kind of utopian or perhaps “heterotopian” effect. But it’s definitely a form of writing, one that implicitly asks you whether you’d like to be addressed as a “user” or a ‘designer”—if the former, we’re talking about you, not with you.

It’s in the language that we use that the boundaries of the scene are constituted and made evident. It’s always possible to try and contain the scene for making explicit rules about what can be said here. Boundaries need to be set, but if they’re set defensively they’re more likely to fail because such attempts are always, like old generals, fighting the last war. It is other scenes that make you a delegate on the present scene. Your responsibility to share some task distributed across contemporaneous scenes, or to continue some project sent to you from previous scenes is what constitutes the boundary of the scene. Maximizing your responsibility for the things you can be responsible for (because you have the “quantum” of power enabling you to enact such responsibility) and treating others as co-responsible in accord with their powers is what creates the boundaries of the scene. Maximum distinction from other scenes is also maximum embedment of the present scene in those scenes. Self-presentation relies upon the possibility of such a moral relation with the other, while surfacing and representing the interference other scenes exercise upon that relation.

So, the role-playing or enactment I began by talking about ultimately aims at maintaining the boundary of the scene as maximal distinction and/as embedment. This involves ordering what we might call the “grammatical stack”: the articulation of ostensive-imperative-interrogative-declarative. Ostensives generative imperatives; but not all of those imperatives are heard, and therefore many go unheeded—we could say they never “make a sound.” Imperatives extend themselves into interrogatives, but here, too, there is much leakage, as plenty of imperatives trail off into oblivion. And interrogatives are converted into declaratives, but not all of them can be at a given moment. There are stray linguistic acts scattered around, but they’re all there in some form. Your speech (or media enactment, or interfaciality) is good when it articulates a form of the grammatical stack: your declaratives answer the most precise questions that emerge from the most urgent imperatives that were generated by the most anomalous ostensives. This is how one acts appropriately, as needed, “in the moment.” You can only do this by reaching into others’ declaratives, though. It is in representing the mismatches of the other’s articulation of the stack that your own stack takes shape. And there’s always some mismatch, even if only because the other’s stack has generated new ostensives that you now can, but the other couldn’t have, draw imperatives from.

This means that we have to be readers of texts of all kinds, including the texts of each other’s self-presentation. I’m defending “close reading,” but I want a form of close reading that travels a bit more lightly than the kind I learned as a graduate student. The closeness of your reading is manifested in the way you accentuate the role the other attributes, not completely knowingly, to you—getting it “right,” or approximating and translating more precisely as a scene unfolds. There’s still very much a place for detailed readings of complex texts—it’s becoming a lost art and fewer and fewer people know the power of this practice. But a future post will lay the groundwork for a practice close reading that will also be a quick and selective, “on the ground,” reading. (Somehow I have come to imagine myself on a scene where I am the target of the accusation of defending an antiquated form of linguistic practice, and have elected to plead guilty with circumstances so extenuating that they invalidate the accusation.)

So, we don’t need to implicate one another in murder—just in being less “present” than we might be to the traditions, obligations and discourses we participate in. One refuses the imperative exchange offered up—competing claims to centrality, whether personal, ideological or moral that can’t be settled. So much current discussion is modeled on the debate and courtroom forms of contestation, as if some transcendent judge will step in and declare us victorious, rather than an inquiry model. In the former you look for weak points, while in the latter you look for anomalies and paradoxes. After all, someone very interesting, with new things to say, might contradict himself more than someone who only makes safe and boring statements. There’s always some hypothesis implicit in someone’s discourse—really, anyone’s discourse can be articulated as a “stack” of hypotheses, in various relations of dependence upon each other—that’s being stretched in any utterance. If you derive some such hypothesis from the other’s discourse, including the other’s “accusations” directed at you (we are all stacks of walking, talking hypotheses) then your response can transform the scene by offering a test of that hypothesis.

Powered by WordPress