GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

June 29, 2020

Toward a Media-Moral Synthesis

Filed under: GA — adam @ 12:27 pm

Haun Saussy, in an excellent book on the relation between orality and literacy (and media history more generally), suggests a way of thinking about orality that reframes the whole question. Rather than trying to define empirically how to sort out what in (or “how much” of) a community is constituted through orality, what we are to count as “writing,” what criteria we are going to have for “literacy,” and so on, he suggests thinking about orality as ergodic in its constitution. Here’s the online dictionary definition of “ergodic”:

relating to or denoting systems or processes with the property that, given sufficient time, they include or impinge on all points in a given space and can be represented statistically by a reasonably large selection of points.

With regard to language, this means a signifying system that is finite: given enough time, all the different “elements” of the system will be used. This view of language runs counter to the assumption shared, I think, by all schools of modern linguistics, which is that language is constituted by a set of combinatorial rules that make possible utterances unlimited—new things can always be said in the language, and always are said, and not necessarily by language users who are particularly creative or inventive. Language is intrinsically generative and therefore infinite. If we follow up on Saussy’s suggestion, though, this is in fact only the case for written languages. Languages in a condition of orality are constituted by a finite number of “formulas,” or “commonplaces,” or “clichés,” or “chunks,” that are not infinitely recombinable.

This new way of framing the question could raise a whole series of questions. One could say that language was always “potentially” infinite, and so modern linguistics would still be essentially right—and there must be some sense in which this is true. One could say that it is the specifically metalinguistic concepts introduced in order to institutionalize writing (and writing was institutionalized from the beginning), like the “definition” of words, and, especially, grammatical “rules,” that introduced the infinitization of language. One might even want to argue that, perhaps, we are wrong in thinking languages even in their literate form are inexhaustible—after all, how could we really know? What I will do is follow up on some hypotheses I’ve taken over from thinkers of orality/literacy like David Olson and Marcel Jousse and explore the relation between the emergence of literacy and Axial Age moral innovations.

Remember that for Olson the entry point into the oral/literate distinction is the problem of reported speech—telling someone what someone else said. Under oral conditions, the tag “X said” would be used (which reminds us that “say” is one of Wierzbicka’s primes), but the reporting of speech would be performed mimetically—the one reporting the speech not only wouldn’t paraphrase or summarize, but would say the exact same thing in the exact same way. That’s the presumption, at least, even if an outside observer might notice discrepancies. What is said is shared by the two speakers, and this presumption is strengthened by the ergodic nature of language under orality, which means that no one can say anything that hasn’t already been said, and won’t be said again. Individual speakers are conduits of a language that flows through them, and that they are “within”—and the language of ritual and myth would, further, be the model and resource for everyday speech, as everyone inhabits traditionally approved roles. Everyone is a_________, with the blank filled in by some figure of tradition.

When writing, you can’t imitate the way someone said something, so everything apart from the actual words needs to be represented lexically. This leads to the metalanguage of literacy, involving the vast expansion of words representing variations on, first of all, “say,” and “think.” You can’t reproduce the excited manner in which someone said something, so you say “he exclaimed.” This is, of course, an interpretation of how it was said, and so, one could say, was the imitation, but this difference in register makes it harder to check the interpretation against the original—it would be easier for a community to tell whether you provide a plausible likeness of some other member than to sort out whether he indeed “exclaimed”—rather than, for example, simply “stating.” Proficiency in the metalanguage provides authority—you own what the other has said—which is why an exact replication of the original words would become less important.

What is happening here is that while a difference is opening up between the original speaker and the one reporting the speech, differences are also opening up between the reporter and the audience and, eventually, within the speaker himself. This is the creation of “psychological depth.” Did he “exclaim” or “state”? Or, for that matter, “shriek”? That would depend on the context, which could itself be constructed in various ways, and never exhaustively. The very range of possible descriptions opened up the metalanguage of literacy generates disagreements—defenders of the original speaker would “insist” he simply firmly “stated,” while his “critics” would “counter” that he in fact, was losing it. It then becomes possible to ask oneself whether one wants to be seen as stating or exclaiming, to examine the “markers” of each way of “saying,” and to put effort into being seen as a “stater” rather than as “exclamatory.” Which then opens up further distinctions, between how one appears, even to oneself, and what one “really” is. On the surface I’m stating, clearly and calmly, but am I exclaiming “deep down”? (Of course, the respective values of “exclaiming” and “stating” can be arranged in other ways—what matters is that the metalanguage of literacy necessarily implies judgments regarding the discrepancy between what someone says and what they “really mean,” whether or not they are aware of that “real meaning.”)

Oral accounts involve people doing and saying things; the oral accounts preserved most tenaciously are those in which what people do and say place the center in some kind of crisis, a crisis that is then resolved. Such narratives will remain fairly close to what can be performed in a ritual, and thereby re-enacted by the community. Writing is neither cause nor effect of a distancing of the community from a shared ritual center, but it broadly coincides with it. Writing begins as record-keeping, which right away presupposes transactions not directly mediated by a common sacrifice. Record-keeping implies both hierarchy—a king separated from his subject by bureaucratic layers—and “mercurial” agents, merchants, who move across different communities, sharing a ritual order with none of them. The earliest form of literacy is manuscript culture, where a written text serves to aid the memory in oral performances. The very fact that such an aid is necessary and possible, though, means we have moved some distance from the earliest “bardic” culture.

Where things get interesting is where the manuscripts start to proliferate, as they surely will, and differ from each other. Member of an oral culture might enforce certain kinds of conformity very strictly, but could hardly keep track to “deviations” from an original text, especially since such a text doesn’t exist. Diverse written accounts would make divergences unavoidable and consequential, because the very fact that a text was found worthy of committing to the permanence of writing (an expensive and time-consuming process) would add a sacred aura to it. As we move into a later form of manuscript culture, in which commentaries, oral but also sometimes written as well, are added to the texts, these differences would have to be reconciled—generating, in turn, more commentary. This is an early version of what Marcel Jousse called “transfer translations,” i.e., translations into the vernacular of a sacred text preserved in an archaic language—according to Jousse, the inevitable discrepancies between the translation and original, due to the differing formulas in each, respectively, generates commentary aimed at reconciling them.

Reconciling such discrepancies could involve nothing more than “smoothing out” while keeping the narrative and moral lessons essentially intact. There will be times, though, when the very need to address discrepancies allows for, and even attracts, complicating elements. Let’s say the prototypical oral, mythical narrative involves some agent transgressing against or seeking to usurp the center in a way that disrupts the community and then being punished (by the center or the community) in a way that restores the community. If there’s no longer a shared ritual space, such narratives are less likely to be so unequivocal. To transgress against the center is now to transgress against a human occupant of the center. It is possible to refer to a discrepancy between that occupant and the permanent, or signifying center. There can be a discrepancy between human and divine “accounting” or “bookkeeping,” in which sins and virtues, crime and punishment, must be balanced. The discrepancies between “accounts” will attract commentaries exploring this discrepancy. The injustice suffered, the travails undergone, perhaps the triumphs, real or compensatory, experienced by the figure of such a discrepancy will come to be incorporated into a text that is, we might say, “always already” commented upon—that is, such a more complex story will include, while keeping implicit, the accretion of meanings to the “original” narrative. This is what gets us out of the ergodic, and into the vertiginous world of essences (new centers) revealing themselves behind appearances, as well as historical narratives modeled on such ambivalent relations to the center.

Once such a text, or mode of textuality, is at the center of the community, we are on the way to a more complete form of literacy, in which the metalanguage of literacy overlays and incorporates originally oral discourses. Literacy is crucially involved in the shift in the heroic narrative from the “Promethean” (and doomed) struggle against the center to the victim who exemplifies what we can now see as the unholy, even Satanic, violence of the imperial center. This means that the figure of the “exemplary victim,” that is, the victim of violence by the occupant of the center, a violence that transgresses the imperative of the signifying center, is simply intrinsic to advanced literacy. Our social activity is therefore a form of writing the exemplary victim. Liberal culture has its own way of doing so—the exemplary victim is the victim of some form of “tyranny” and demonstrates the need for super-sovereign approved form of rule that bypasses or eliminates that tyranny. It’s almost impossible to speak in terms other than “resisting” some “illegitimate” power in name of someone’s “rights” (as defined by the disciplines—law, philosophy, sociology, psychiatry, etc.).

If “postliberalism,” or what we could call “verticism,” is genuinely “reactionary,” I would say it is in redirecting attention from the exemplary victim back to the occupant of the center, highlighting that occupant’s inheritance of sacral kingship and therefore vulnerability to scapegoating and sacrifice. The exemplary victim could emerge in the space opened by the ancient empires, where the ruler was too distant from the social order to be sacrificed, but post-Roman European kings never definitively achieved this distance, and liberalism is predicated upon putting the center directly at stake, predicating the center’s invulnerability so as to exacerbate its vulnerability. All scapegoating attributes some hidden power to the victim, which is to say, places the victim at the center; all scapegoating of figures at the margin, then, is a result and measure of unsecure power at the center; so, refusal to participate in scapegoating, or violent centralization, is really bound up with the imperative to secure the center. This means treating the victim as a sign of derogation of central authority, rather than levying the victim against that authority. So, it’s not that we can ignore the exemplary victim; rather, we must “unwrite” the exemplary victim. This may be the hardest thing to do—to renounce martyrdom, to acknowledge victims but deny their exemplarity in order to “read” them as markers of the center’s incoherence—while representing that incoherence in order to remedy it. The very fact that we are drawn to one victim rather than another—this “racist” who has been canceled, that website that has been de-platformed or de-monetized—itself tends to make that victim “exemplary,” and we do have to pay attention. Nor do we want to “victim-blame” (if only they had been more careful, etc.), even if discussions of tactics and strategy are necessary.

Insofar as we inherit the European form of the Axial Age moral acquisition, we can’t help but see through the frame of the exemplary victim—even a Nietzschean perspective which purports to repudiate victimary framings and claim an unmediated agency is the adoption of a position shaped by Romantic claims to subjective centrality and therefore sacrificiability (Nietzsche’s own “tragic” end reinforces this). The exemplary victim is constitutive of our language and narratives, which is why it needs to be “unwritten.” The whole range of exemplary victims produced across the political spectrum constitutes our “alphabet” (or, perhaps, “meme factory”). The most direct way unwrite might be to follow up on the observation that the function of the disciplinary deployments of the exemplary victim is to plug executive power into the disciplines, which then can turn on and off the switch. But these detourings of centered ordinality nevertheless anticipate some use of the executive—those most deeply invested in declarative cultures like the law want the executive to crack down on their enemies as much as anyone else. So, it’s always possible to cut to the chase and propose and where possible embody that use of executive power which would most comprehensively make future instances of that form of victimage as unlikely as possible. One proposes, that is, some increased coherence in the imperatives coming from the center (and, by implication, in the cultivation of those dispositions necessary to sustain that coherence). If we did X, this victim over whom we are agonizing would be irrelevant—we could forget all about him. One result would be the revelation of how dependent liberal culture is upon its martyrs—so much so that they’d rather preserve their enshrinement than solve the supposed problem and thereby write them off. In the meantime, we’d be embarking upon a rewriting of moral inheritances that would erase the liberal laundering of scapegoating through the disciplines once and for all.

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