September 6, 2020

Hypothesis/Practice Vs. Narrative: The Iterative Center

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:38 am

In my previous post I found myself in possession of a neat and very promising distinction between the ritual/myth nexus, on the one hand, and the practice/hypothesis nexus, on the other. This means that the hypothesis, or, more precisely, hypothesizing the present, has the same relation to practice as myth does to ritual. Myth provides a narrative explanation for the vagaries of the imperative exchange that is ritual: the community gives what is prescribed to the central being, who, in return, ensures that the community will have more of the sustenance out of which a portion is returned to the central being. This exchange is, of course, not 100% predictable and successful, and if the central being doesn’t provide what it has promised, some accounting needs to be provided: perhaps the community didn’t, or didn’t “really,” conform to divine instructions; perhaps the divine being has some lesson to teach, or some longer game in mind. These possibilities provide a rich source of narrative possibilities, all of which must ultimately reconstruct an origin of the ritual itself—and therefore of the exchange arrangement which is constantly being revised and examined. This can work for a very long time because what the ritual and myth actually does is produce communal coherence along with a set of practices and discursive rules for negotiating differences and sustaining coherence. Along the way, we can assume ritual and myth reciprocally inform and transform each the other. All this presupposes, though, that at the end there is a central object to be divided and consumed equally, in the sense of including all members.

A practice, meanwhile, is stripped of any pretensions to imperative exchange: its relation to the center involves a higher form of reciprocity.  A practice iterates the originary scene as a whole—the possibility of refining and perfecting our scenic aptitude is itself the gift from the center, and the commitment to refinement and perfection is the return. A practice aims at producing an ostensive sign: as a result of the practice we can all see something that is there only because of the practice, and we see insofar as we participate in the practice—even as an observer, which is a role many practices provide for. We can speak of scientific practices, or ludic practices (games, sports), or artistic practices, but every time we try to clarify or agree upon the meaning of a word we construct a practice. Let’s say we want to define “courage,” which is really to say we want a model of courage. But we must want a model of what courage means here and now, an example of a contemporary possibility of courageousness. We can then construct a practice which treats other practices, whatever their aims, as exemplifying either courage or cowardice. If we want the best example, we would seek out one where the boundary between courage and cowardice is thinnest—where some action that seems like cowardice from the outside, or to those with undeveloped practices of discrimination, is in fact the most courageous for this very reason. We are practicing seeing and hearing, and directing attention to what normally goes undetected. If we turn out to be wrong in a particular case, the results of the study remain applicable; indeed, realizing our mistake would be a result of the further perfection of the practice. Getting clearer about what you’re looking for is more important than finding it in any instant.

Such a practice contains and generates within itself the hypotheses which it also tests. The hypothesis is the generation of minimal possible differences in the course of conducting the practice. “I thought that guy was courageous but then he goes ahead and does X.” Here, one’s practice of courage detection has produced evidence of imperfection. Something I took to signify courage must have signified cowardice; or, something I’m taking now to signify cowardice in fact signifies courage. There’s your hypothesis: what does this action, or word, or gesture, actually mean? If he now does Y, it means cowardice; if Z, courage. And then he does something that’s not quite Y or Z, and you refine the hypothesis. The analogy with the articulation of myth and ritual is very precise. For the sake of the hypotheses, the whole world becomes nothing but possible signs of courage and cowardice—that’s the practice of transformation, one which can, of course, carry over into your interactions, as you test this or that individual in order to elicit such signs. Any argument can be reframed this way: should we “take action” now or lay the groundwork for when “conditions are ripe”? Here’s a hypothetical approach: what could you be doing right now that would be equally meaningful—more meaningful than anything else, even—whether the possibility of contributing directly to the kind of transformation you want arises 5 days or 50 years from now?

It is now clear to me that the conversion of ritual/myth into practice/hypothesis implies the opposition to narrative, which is really the continuation of myth. Narrative is always sacrificial, regardless of the best efforts of its most sophisticated practitioners. Proof of this is not only in the invariance with which the moral truth of narrative can still only be proven through the trial of the protagonist, but in the very fact that there is a protagonist along with other, dispensable characters who are essentially props, butts of jokes, and so on. A narrative in which all the characters are equally important, and in which actions and events are so open-ended as to make it impossible to draw “repeatable” conclusions from the consequences of those actions and events would not be recognizable as a narrative. This is no less true of high cultural than of popular or mass cultural narratives. The point is not that the sacrificial character of narratives makes them “bad,” or not worth preserving and enjoying—I’m not interested in that question at all. The point is that in a post-sacrificial order and for a post-sacrificial practice, such narratives suffer a credibility defect—like myths do, once the rituals to which they are adjunct fall into disuse. We no longer have a sacrificial center which can be shared and devoured, and about the distribution of whose parts we can therefore argue meaningfully. But we do have a center, which is occupied, which cannot be sacrificed, and through which we also cannot sacrifice ourselves by opposing it. The center we have can only be perfected through the perfection of our practices, by iterating the originary scene in the creation of ostensives—which is to say, names. The center we have abolishes sacrifice along with the vendetta, and replaces them with an articulation of practices that can be entered into through other practices. A world of disciplines and practices cannot be interested in narrative.

But wait! How can we do without narratives? I mean, things happen, and we have to recount them, don’t we? First A happened, then as a resultB, and then as a result of that, C, etc. Yes, but what makes a narrative a narrative is the skeleton it provides for hanging “attributes” to characters, fleshing them out in order to produce the sacrificial moral lesson. We can recount events without that. And it’s true that causality will get thinned out along the way—indeed, causality is reduced to those charged with specific responsibilities and allotted specific powers with doing what they can and should, or not, through some imperfection in their practices. But those occupying delegated centers and sustaining or derogating them in some manner is really nothing more than the iteration of the scene itself. Everything that happens answers to a particular hypothesis regarding the constitution of the scene. An instance of violent centralization directs our attention to a lapse in responsibility or a misallocation of power somewhere on the scene, not to the trials and agony of the victim. So, if someone in a position of authority delegates power to a subordinate because that subordinate has displayed the requisite mode and degree of courage in previous assignments, the hypothesis constructed above regarding the meaning of “courage” finds its place within a practice. We can become students of courage in order to formulate and test such hypotheses as effectively as possible, but we will never exhaust all the causes of courage and cowardice and so we will always have to restrict our hypotheses to the fitness of this person for this task. Maybe, in fact, his relation to his father (for example), or some childhood trauma, is relevant here; but, maybe not, and, at any rate, no possible “causes” can become independently interesting in relation to determining the meaning of “courage” in this case. (Of course, as a kind of data, it can be preserved and might become relevant for later hypothesis formation.)

So, what was once narrative becomes scenic intelligence. As we come to know that we are intrinsically scenic beings, we aim at making our scenicity more overt and subject to practices—which counters the reliance on narrative formulas. I’ve drawn before on a model of scenic temporality drawn from Charles Sanders Peirce, and this seems helpful here. How can you determine the borderline between the inside and outside of an object, or between two objects? Everyplace you try to draw it, some of the outside is inside and some of the inside outside. So, Peirce says, the border is where there are an equal number of particles of both objects, or inside and outside. We look toward a distribution rather than an ontologically replete object. The equivalent of this for time, Peirce says, and the way we can therefore distinguish when one event is over, and another has begun, is as follows. The beginning of any event is the middle of another event and the end of yet another (to just stick to the strict, narrative, which is also to say, scenic, beginning-middle-end parameters). So, the end of one event is identified as the beginning of another and the middle of a third event—all within the same space. In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Gregor’s death coincides with his sister’s rebirth, and marks the resumption of his parents’ normal middle class life, once they’ve cleaned up Gregor’s room. Kafka’s novella is certainly a narrative, but perhaps it contains something anti-narrative as well, and that’s something we can learn to look for.

So, our hypothetical lapse in the exercise of authority is a kind of end, as the authority becomes no longer authoritative; but we can locate in it the beginning, somewhere on the scene, of a more adequate form of authority (maybe even the same person in a different incarnation), in the midst of more and less adequate exercises of authority in adjacent practices distributed across the scene—the beginning and middle “measure” the end. In this scenic auto-generation, the scene reconfiguring itself out of its own (a)symmetries, we have the source of our hypotheses. Whether or not the authority in question has in fact become less authoritative, if what looked like courage is in fact cowardice, is going to be measured by the middles and beginnings stretched out across this end. We have the elements of a narrative but we stay in the present as those middles are supporting and auxiliary practices of the supposed end, and the beginnings are its continuations, refoundings, sproutings, or repudiations. Our focus is not narrative, even if it’s temporal, invoking overlapping temporalities—our only interest is in perfecting our practices of inquiry by introducing hypotheses into the practices we examine.

Narrative, with its mythical, sacrificial roots, is a kind of addiction. Everyone speaks of “The Narrative,” and the need to have a counter-narrative. The practice/hypothesis nexus will prove to be more powerful than narrative. Narratives make people hysterical and it pumps them up like a drug because they don’t really believe it, because has no ritual grounding—and attempts to provide, e.g., demonstrations with a ritual form are just as pathetic as the narratives themselves. Large scale, “big scenic” narratives that have generalized agents (unified groups with coherent motivations) are just preparations for lynch mobs, whether the agent in question represents potential perpetrators or victims. Rather than counter-narratives, hypotheses should be used to dismantle narratives and to show that people are capable of things no one has yet seen. And we actually have a model of this in President Trump, whose presidency continues to astonish despite all the carping by people who supplement dubious news stories with the narrative fleshing out they crave. Whatever happens in what remains of his presidency, whether it’s 5 months or 5 years, will continue to be a rich source of models for hypothetical interventions in practices. A practice of studying Trump under the assumption that he knows what he’s doing better than you do would yield far more than turning Trump into a prop in your own narrative. It’s amazing how few people with even the most marginal public persona are capable of admitting that they are learning from someone else.

So, instead of narratives, we have the generation of scenes out of scenes, as a beginning is treated as a middle, a middle as an end, and so on. If the originary scene must have taken a while to pervade all human activities, once it did, it’s only possible to think about one scene from within another scene, and that other scene must more and more come to be just the foregrounding of the scenicity of the scene itself. But we could have only arrived at this point through the emergence of expanded scenes that completely absorbed and demolished local scenes. I’m referring to the ancient empires, which no doubt destroyed thousands of little worlds, a process that has continued in various forms since then. Without the imperial scene of demolition, there would be no “meta” scene. The meta derives from the imperial external position. It also derives from the “minor” scenes that preserved their scenic memory and posited a “meta” that transcended the imperial. From the Axial Age moral acquisitions, in other words.

The meta is only fully accomplished once the fantasy of installing a “genuine” center to monitor and control the occupied center has been relinquished. (Perhaps there are various layers of trauma that are being worked through in this connection.) At that point, and in a sense this is that point, we can speak of the “iterative center,” and not merely the “post-sacrificial.” Instead of trying to institute a global scene modeled on the originary one, with the inevitably apocalyptic consequences, we can accept the imperative to iterate the originary scene in practices where new ostensives can be affirmed, and practices named. Such practices don’t stand alone—they overlap with each other, and report upward and downward in other, pedagogical practices. We accept the center acting at a distance, because the ostensives it allows us to generate also replenish the center in ways we can hypothesize as samples. The point, again, is not to think small, but to ask the biggest questions of the center in a way commensurate with our practices at a certain level of perfection.

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