GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

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.

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