GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

May 31, 2020

Deriving the Sample to its Source

Filed under: GA — adam @ 12:11 pm

When you “signify” in any way, there are two ways of thinking about what you have done: first, you have conveyed or communicated some meaning, or content, in a package, so to speak, to be delivered to some recipient; second, you are modifying the mass of signifying material transmitted to and circulating around you from the totality of language users. The problem with the first way of thinking about it is that whatever content you believe yourself to transmitting is not something outside of language but is, rather, made up of transmitted and circulating signifying material, which references, then, other “contents,” which are themselves comprised of…. Leading us to infinite regress. The problem with the second way of thinking about the process is similar: that great mass of signifying material is signifying material because it is signifying “something,” something that is presumably not reducible to the signifying material itself. Here, again, we are led into infinite regress, as we can only track the various paths taken by signifying chains by referring to their to some extent at least extra-linguistic referents (i.e., “content”).

This antinomy is a metaphysical one, insofar as it presupposes the primacy of declarative culture, where we need to keep providing content for sentences but the content can only be more sentences. The originary hypothesis transforms this antinomy into a generative paradox by positing the ostensive sign as the first sign, so that the sacred object at the center is also the first “content,” but content only made available through the act of signification itself. So, there is indeed some “content” “outside” of any act of signification, but it is a content that is the content of that particular act of signification, under those conditions of signification, within a specific event of signification, which thereby produces that content. Since that act, event, and those conditions must be the performance of positions, rules and possibilities created by the entire history of language and humanity, the creation of that content could just as easily and accurately be described as a modification of signifying material transmitted and circulating—kind of like pulling a switch that directs a chain of signification of one path onto another.

There is “content,” then, because we can use the “same” sign pointing, or providing a kind of map enabling us to point, to the “same” thing. This is really a single problem, because the “same” sign is the same because it is pointing to the “same” object. What makes this possible is what I call a “disciplinary space,” but it would be more precise to say that this is what a disciplinary space is. But we can just as readily use Eric Gans’s terms from The Origin of Language: “linguistic presence,” which is maintained or restored by “lowering the threshold of significance.” The only really satisfying answer to the question, “what do you mean by that?,” is some version of “look at this.” The whole problem then resides in being in the same “place,” “facing” the same “direction,” undistracted by other things one might look at which might obscure “this,” and so on. And this is a problem that can only be solved within some practice, a practice constructed at least in part in order to solve it, here and now. (What “here and now” means is also determined by a disciplinary space: there can be a “here and now” stretching across the earth and the millennia—we can share a disciplinary space with the “recipient” of an ancient divine revelation.) All of our conversations are shaped by some form of the question the novice asks the expert when told to look through some specialized device of observation: “what am I looking at here?”

The implications of the paradigm-specific nature of knowledge has been studied extensively, by Gaston Bachelard, Ludwik Fleck, Thomas Kuhn and others—the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser has some interesting things to say about Bachelard’s notion of an “epistemological break” separating one paradigm from another—Kuhn’s “scientific revolution.” For a contemporary thinker who goes over this material in an informed and thorough (and accessible) way, I would recommend Hans-Jorg Rheinberger, whom I just came across myself. But my own ambition is to bring “paradigm dependency” into the realm, not only of the human sciences, but that of normal and idiosyncratic signifying activity, which is to say, social interaction. This would also bring the question into the moral and ethical fields: it would be immoral to ignore the “anomalies” that bring an established “paradigm” into “crisis,” because in doing so you would be abetting the crisis. But what this means in, say, a conversation between two people, or a political debate, must be very different than what it means in an established scientific discipline. The trick of a certain kind of progressive is to ignore these differences so as to license themselves to harangue their political enemies with what might at best be slightly more “qualified” claims from some “expert” domain. But if you ask such a progressive for the theory of social interaction and signifying activity informing such bullying, you’re very likely to draw a blank. He won’t be able to tell you what he’s doing, and what could be more important to thinking about what is “good” and what is “bad” than being able to say what you are doing?

The best way of infiltrating all discourse with some translation of paradigm dependency is to articulate all the speech forms identified in The Origin of Language, and explored in various directions in Anthropomorphics: An Originary Grammar of the Center. Any speech act, in any medium, articulates the ostensive, imperative, interrogative and declarative levels of discourse. We can borrow from Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack, and, as I have been doing already without remarking upon it, refer to the “grammatical stack”—those levels of discourse are articulated in what we could call a particular “slice” of the stack (one might say a “cross-section”) in any utterance. The “meaning” of an utterance (and, like “here and now,” what we mean by “utterance” is determined within a disciplinary space: an epic poem, even an entire tradition, can be treated as an utterance) is the way it slices the stack. And another language user or (risking confusion) “signifier” acknowledges this meaning by slicing the stack in a way that is possible only because of the previous slice. We all can tell the difference between meaningful and meaningless statements. For example, a billionaire insisting on the need for greater “equality” while ordering his sub-minimum wage illegal alien domestic worker to scrub a stain is not really making a “meaningful” statement: “hypocrisy” is the ready at hand word for this kind of meaninglessness. But what does anyone mean when they “call” for greater “equality”—where is the route from that declarative statement to a set of ostensives and imperatives that would lead to a result we could point to together and say, “yes, that’s what ‘greater equality’ looks like”? If you can’t answer that kind of question, what you say is just as meaningless as the virtue-signaling of the most transparent hypocrite. And if this doesn’t strike you as an important problem, your pretensions to being a moral actor are perfunctory, at best.

I propose approaching this by treating signifying acts or utterances as samples. “Sample” might seem like a narrowly scientific term, of dubious application when applied to humans, but the word has a richer history than that—it is really a “spin-off” of “example,” which means it carries the meaning of a “model,” or “match,” and is part of a family of Indo-European words with the root “em,” which means “to take, distribute” (from the online etymological dictionary, of course). So, when we “sample,” we’re passing around parts of the whole, not, in this case, to consume, but to use them to figure out what the whole consists of. Any use of language is a sample of language, and its relation to language as a whole is precisely what is in question. Here I will invoke, as I have done many times, Peirce’s assertion that knowledge involves determining the relation between some proportion between elements in the sample and the proportion between those same elements in the whole. If you could represent the whole you wouldn’t need samples, and there’s no doubt that with language you can never have the whole. So, when I say something, I’m presenting not only a sample of language (and myself as a sample of language users), but a(n intrinsically open) hypothesis regarding the relation between that sample and the whole (the hypothesis being that the study and iteration of my sample will enable you to generate samples that better approximate the whole than would otherwise be the case). This hypothesis is far more often than not implicit, but it’s definitely there insofar as my sample, or part, or slice, is a “response” to others (rather than the feeble “response,” we can say that my sample repairs a break in linguistic presence threatened by a previous sample, using the reparative means provided by that sample). One sample includes, via allusion, impersonation, citation and translation, others, and thereby proposes a better match between sample and whole.

What makes for a better match is that some “same” sign is now seen to be marked by difference as a consequence of a new same sign (or sample). We could say that the origin of the declarative is iterated: an ostensive is shown to be lacking, or referentless, or distributed among so many referents as to be inoperative; while a new ostensive realigns the field. This can be seen as a scientific practice—multiplying anomalies until the new paradigm can be constructed—it can also be seen as a moral and ethical practice of reparation, and an aesthetic practice of framing. The more we move away from established scientific disciplines and toward “everyday life” or, more precisely, more open-ended scenes, the more the latter aspects of the practice become the decisive ones. The “anomaly,” in moral and aesthetic terms, is the break in linguistic presence. It is a breach one steps into. Your sample has to be a sample ofthe missing layer of the stack presented by the other’s sample. This is the kind of practice I have discussed many times before: you might take the other’s declarative as an imperative, thereby revealing the contrary or inoperable imperatives implicit in it; one might take oneself to be named in some “meaningless” reference in another’s discourse, and act out that absence; one might repeat another’s declarative in a series of declaratives, each producing a word or phrase in the other’s sentence, thereby laying bare what we are expected to think here. Of course, this need not be antagonistic—one could use these kinds of practices to amplify another’s discourse, to accentuate the fullness of meaning. In fact, one is always doing a bit of both, because even the meaningless discourse must be acknowledged as enabling the breach one can now step into.

I’m always trying to introduce further gradients of differentiation and deferral into these hypothetical renderings of linguistico-moral-aesthetic practices. We can’t get to the point of writing all-purpose pedagogical scripts (but that may be an imperative from the center that can’t be unheard), but we can clarify an imperative and create a vocabulary for naming its “stations.” We keep putting forward samples with a relationship to the whole that is indeterminate and nevertheless more closely matched than another sample to be included within our own. Every sample is distinct—distinctiveness is the relation between the “elements” in the sample and the relation between those same elements within the whole. The sample is the same as itself, as “verified,” “confirmed,” or “acknowledged” by the other samples it generates. (You could say the determination that any sign or sample is the same is a “fiction,” but as opposed to what reality?) Insofar as the sample can be “authenticated,” though, this sample iterates and is therefore the “same” as a whole series or “sprawl” of samples.

So, you can always locate any sample at some point on a continuum where at one end we identify everything that makes the sample the same as lots of other samples, all that reduces it to a “stereotype”: the use of words and phrases in the same way, the reliance on grammatical constructions and rhetorical commonplaces, the deployment of familiar tropes, the reliance on the affordances of the media employed, and so on: this brings into focus the tasks of “media studies.” At the other end of the continuum, meanwhile, we identify everything that distinguishes this sample from any other, including time, place, audience and the various possible modifications of inherited means of expression. The breach is where you accentuate both, or represent an oscillation between the two, showing how accentuating one end of the continuum ends you up back at the other end—where the most insistent adherence to fixed models produces the greatest originality. The title of this post has the inappropriate “to” instead of “from” so as to accentuation the simultaneity of discovering and constructing the source of any sample. “Derive to” is a sample of mistakenness, interfering with the linearity implicit in the notion of “derivation.” Maybe a good sample, maybe not. Leaving your sample to simultaneously be an absolute novum and a complete copy is language learning as the definitive moral act—you discover what you “mean” by minimally but systematically differentiating your utterance from others. Anything we would take to be moral, above all refraining from projecting your own mimetic crises onto the background of others so we might see them as following the same imperative as us, follows from the derivation of the sample to its source.

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