GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

August 28, 2020

Hypothesizing the Present

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:34 pm

This post will deal with the implications for knowledge production of the meta-practices of converting the ritual-mythic nexus into practices and the Big Scene into an articulation of centripetal disciplinary spaces. I haven’t explicitly connected the ritual/mythic and the Big Scene, but it’s not hard to see the connection: if you are imagining the social order (at any level: local, national, or global) on the model of the originary scene with its shared sacrificial center, then you can only think in terms of imperative exchanges with that center. Those imperative exchanges, moreover, will have to involve imagined forms of propitiation through some form of redistribution, material and/or symbolic. Put simply, you will be compelled to believe that relieving some kind of “inequity” between groups will lessen the total sum of resentment in the social order. This, in turn, dooms you to moving pieces around on a fantasy game board: will formal recognition of national independence propitiate? A check for X billion dollars? Opening new factories in a depressed area? Closing factories in an exploited area? This is all magical thinking and cargo-culting. An absolute precondition for any serious project of social renewal is the unqualified rejection of it.

The Big Scenic cargo cult is obsessed with big pictures and all-encompassing narratives—telling the story of a civilization or nation can employ the same tropes and formulas as a domestic melodrama, with anger, manipulation, conciliation and so on attributed to mythically constructed actors. The underlying pretense is that the center is no more than various ways these groups leverage power, which would mean the center is divisible and shareable—again, just like on the originary scene (more precisely, in the sparagmos, which is where Big Scenic thinking is always located). This kind of fantasizing can make someone feel powerful, because you can imagine building a big enough lever. But keep in mind that when someone pieces together various (reported) events and concludes that Trump is either a lazy, easily distracted incompetent being jerked around by “Javanka”; or, that he is a patient, calculation mastermind who is taking years to properly roll out a plan to drain the swamp, control the borders, neutralize the left, and reorder economic relations to the benefit of American workers—this someone doesn’t really know. These are hypotheses supplemented by attributions of familiar motivations and “plot devices” needed to make the narrative work.

Now, it is also important to say that of course they are hypotheses, because that’s all we have. I want not to eliminate hypothesizing but to make it more “austere” precisely by eliminating the melodramatic flourishes that allow us to find a role for ourselves. We have nothing but samples and are nothing but samples ourselves. We have to hypothesize the present out of a single sample, which in turn produces a new sample out of which one again hypothesizes the present. You keep initiating an ongoing inquiry in which your practices are both the objects and experimental systems. When Trump leaves some “traitor” subverting his policies in place in, say, ICE, well, maybe he’s being played, or maybe he’s letting the deep staters expose themselves, maybe he’s allowing for a distraction while something else is happening somewhere, maybe he doesn’t take his own policies seriously, maybe he’s allowing for an unavoidable “slack” in the system, etc. One or more of these hypotheses, or others, necessarily present themselves upon hearing the report (which is itself, of course, sliced out of a “thicker” layer of events)—we can’t make sense of anything without generating hypotheses about it. If you withhold the narrative props, though, you can freely oscillate between these hypotheses and use them to generate further “if… then” hypotheses predicated on each of them. This is an especially advanced form of deferral. This horizontal spreading of various possible presents is what generates the vertical because we also have to make decisions at every point along the way and the strongest decisions, the practices most in accord with the central imperative to iterate the originary scene, is the one that operationalizes in a consistent way the horizontal “slice” that allows for the completion of a practice while keeping all the other possible presents in reserve. If your hypothesis doesn’t enable the perfection of some practice—if you can’t say that doing what you do changes the conditions under which you do it—then both the sample you are working with and the sample you presently are are of tangential relevance at best.

We now have the question of how such a hypothesis and practice are bound up—what does a streamlined hypothesis, free of the narrative devices needed to make us feel like we’re present on a scene, look like? First, I want to bring this question into an intersection with another one, which I have tried out various solutions to over the years. When I first starting working on “originary grammar,” I wanted it to do the kind of work a traditional linguistic analysis would do, like analyzing a particular sentence as an articulation of ostensive, imperative and declarative. I realized that such an analysis would be overwhelmed by the contextual determinations one would have to take into account, and this enabled me to see that the grammar itself could not be complete without grounding it in the center, which is what grounds any ostensive in the first place. So, in Anthropomorphics, I did a different kind of work with the originary grammar, on an anthropological, moral, political and historical level. But I’ve never given up on the original intention, and continue to think that further inquiry will provide the materials so as to reframe the problem and make it generative. The recent work I’ve been doing on algorithmic thinking, self-appification and data immersion seems to provide a promising “context.”

Here is one axiom I developed long ago for determining what should count as a model sentence: it is predictable in direct proportion to the “recipient”’s participation in a given disciplinary space. So, if we imagine a sentence being uttered following a previous sentence and therefore an entire speech situation, which itself has roots in other speech situations more or less available to and recallable by other participants on the scene, that sentence can either come as a complete surprise to one, or be heard almost as an echo of what one was already thinking—or, of course, anywhere in between. The model sentence creates a continuum, which is a measure of one’s participation in a space with a history of speech situations, so that the sentence seems inevitable to those participants most immersed in the space. It now seems to me that a better way of formulating this is to say the continuum from astonishment to obviousness should be produced for all recipients, regardless of where they are situated in relation to the disciplinary space, with the difference between insiders and outsiders rather being in the rapidity with which one would move across the continuum. So, you want to say something that, for a peer, someone equally immersed and practiced as you, is astonishing, and then instantaneously intuitively obvious. For an outsider, meanwhile, the astonishment opens the prospect of a long period of study and initiation into a space, with the promise of intuitive obviousness lying at the end of the road.

This axiom is modeled on the creation of a new ostensive. Think in terms of what is involved in pointing out something new to someone, that is, creating a new space of joint attention. If it’s something the person has never seen before, you will have to single it out of a mass of “distracting” material—no, not that, no, look a little higher, yes, but only part of that, etc. That’s what declaratives are for—to make the negations and distinctions that eventually enable everyone to home in on what is being pointed to. And we can see how imperatives are necessary at each point along the way in order to bring the other into the ostensive space you already occupy. So, the axiom for the model sentence aims at creating sentences that rehearse the pedagogical practice of showing someone something new. Such a sentence, which arranges its audience so as create a virtual representation of the entire process of identifying something new and being able to say that we are seeing the same thing, may never actually exist. How could you prove you have it? But that doesn’t matter—it exists as a model, against which we can measure other sentences, and determine the extent to which they reveal and iterate this pedagogical practice. This differs from Turner and Noel-Thomas’s model of “classic prose” by, rather than pretending everyone hearing the sentence is on the same scene, constructing the emergence of the scene and the uneven ingress to it on the part of the audience. We can then take a single sentence as a sample and hypothesize various possible oscillations between that sentence and the model one from which it must in some ways and to some extent deviate. And this analysis could descend to the level of the embedded phrase, individual word and grammatical choices, and so on.

So, to return to the question of a single-sample based hypothesis inextricably bound up in the perfection of a practice, we can say that the proof is in the writing, or, even, the style. If I’m going to make a claim about Trump based upon a report about the actions of a mid-level bureaucrat in some department, the purpose of that is to lower the threshold of significance regarding Trump and Trump-related events (and which events are not Trump-related at this point?). To lower the threshold of significance and make my attention more laser-like is to produce a condition of enhanced readiness. Readiness for what? Well, that’s what’s bound up in the hypothesis. Readiness to contribute to Trump’s efforts; readiness to pick up the pieces after Trump’s failure; anything in between. Full spectrum readiness attunes us to all of these possibilities, and is a readiness to transition seamlessly from one to the other. I remember at some little league training session I took my son to many years ago the trainer showed the kids the ready position for a fielder in baseball. He then showed the ready position to receive a serve in tennis, and to start a play in football, and I think he mentioned a couple of other sports as well. It was the same position, which even he seemed to find astonishing. We want to write, think, and practice our way into the equivalent of such a position in participating in our various modes of centered ordinality. A good hypothesis/practice is one that creates that position with an ever so slight orientation to the most likely move you will be called upon to make.

A hypothesis/practice (a binary symmetrical to the myth/ritual one) is always a relation between something you (and others) do and what you (and others) say—a relation that you want to make as close and necessary as possible. What you say is the boundary between what happens and what you do. My opening and continuing criticisms of “Big Scenic” thinking may suggest that I’m in favor of thinking small, but that’s not the case—I’m just against imaginary solutions to real problems. “Trump is saving the world,” a hypothesis he himself put forth in a recent press conference, is a perfectly viable and even operationalizable hypothesis. The extent, means and forms in which Trump is saving the world directly impact your positions within the scenes in which you participate. You can convert yourself into a sample of Trump saving the world and, simultaneously, of a sample of the intractability of the present world to being saved on those terms. Everything in the world can be framed in those terms, and every action guided and representable by them—even if, of course, that not the only hypothesis that might take the shape of a practice The practice involves making the boundary (Trump saving the world/the world’s intractability) visible, so that any event can be placed on one side of the boundary and then the other, and in this way become a useful source of information. As for which boundaries to take an interest in, I think those which entail a rapid conversion of astonishment to intuitive obviousness on the part of your close colleagues, and presuppose a more arduous conversion for more distant potential colleagues, provide a good starting point. Of course, identifying those features involves hypothesizing as well.


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