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The Disciplines, the Imperative of the Center, the Generative Thought Experiment

The disciplines claim knowledge of the mind, the social, religion, customs, the state, beauty and so on, as things in themselves, while for the disciplinary space of originary thinking the practices given these names are all representations by those on the margins of the center. The study of this practice of representation is what I have been calling, on occasion, “anthropomorphics.” The originary sign inaugurates the human, but the most “human” figure there is the central object, the prey/God of the group. The central being is most fully intentional participant on the scene: he “understands” the desires animating the members of the group, along with the ruin to which they lead, while, finally, repelling the violent approach to itself. To the extent that the human participants grasp any of this, it is through the center as a kind of mirror of each other’s intentions. This relation to the center continues as the ritual repetition of the originary scene is explained mythologically, as stories in which the central object is, first, the only, and, then, the main, “character.” Only gradually are the participants on the margin attributed a kind of centrality and therefore agency of their own—still, though, only borrowed from the center. This remains the case today, and will remain the case for as long as there are humans, because this is what or who humans are: the modes of central being we now borrow from are now figures called “society,” “ideology,” “the unconscious,” “the media,” and so on. The disciplines study these figures, anthropomorphizes them (we rebel against, resist, try to channel, these entities), and derives imperatives from them. And the disciplines’ relation to these entities is approximately the same as the relation between myths and ritual: they can be a source of knowledge, but ultimately accept as givens those relations regarding which the most basic questions need to be asked. Let’s recall why.

Writing, as recorded speech, supplements the speech scene. Writing is practiced as a repetition of reported speech, aimed at closing any difference between the media. The initial focus is on the attitude of the speaker: how did the speaker say whatever he said about whoever he said it? Here we get the variations on “say,” “think,” “want,” “see,” and “do.” This is meant, as per classical prose, to simulate a scene which writer and reader view. Writing aims at putting you “right there.” There is no scene upon which writer and reader stand, participate or act. They, then, are kept rigorously sceneless. The way to guarantee their scenelessness is to saturate the scene, which then becomes the imperative governing prose. Every possible difference between writer and imagined reader leads to a “bulking up” of the represented scene, so as remove all possibility of such a difference. This defers attention paid to the scene of reading and writing, the disseminated disciplinary scene. Everything added to the represented scene serves to defer another scene which might attend to the disciplinary scene of representation. For this purpose the metalanguage of literacy is deployed: relations between nominalizations deposit in the scene what might otherwise be looked for in the disciplinary scene of representation. Here is where we have the origin of the disciplines: in relations between nominalizations that are recognizable as scenes by the sceneless. (“Social structures” lead to predictable “change,” “cognitive structures” lead to typical “behavior,” etc.) Enhancing the density of the presumed causality is the way we avoid paying attention to our modes of attention.

All the arguments within a discipline, then, concern the proper degree of saturation. This spreads the metaphysical distinctions that took shape in Plato: essence/appearance, unchanging/contingent, cause/effect, etc. An effect for every cause, a cause for every effect; to get at the unchanging essence is to avoid over or under saturation. But how can the right degree of saturation be determined in other than circular terms that reiterate the metalanguage itself? Writing must sustain linguistic presence, which means it must imagine linguistic presence around a center. For classical prose, the center is the model of sufficient saturation; for anthropomorphics, the center is a model of possible gestures of deferral; the more distant the center, the more stripped of specific attributes the gesture—the more replete with possibilities. A simple example: a sociologist determines that institutions functionto reproducecertain norms. We could construct paths to nominalization producing these concepts, which are metaphors drawn from machinery and statistics. A model gesture, meanwhile, is a marginal increment in deferral, itself a heeding of an imperative from the center to do precisely that; an imperative which the analyst shares. The language for the model of activity comes from the activity itself (it is infralinguistic)—the model is a probe we place on the scene as a representative of our own disciplinary activity, aimed at making our disciplinary activity a scene. The aim of attending and thinking together is to makes the elements of the originary scene present, that is, originary memory. To do so, we must abstract those elements from all the intervening and intermediary scenes—but it precisely in some of those scenes where the disciplines stake their claims. Such claims are claims to occupy the center, and to issue tacit imperatives from there.

What does the concept, “imperatives from the center,” do that can’t be done otherwise? However much we might believe in “free will,” we would all acknowledge that there are dimensions of our thinking and doing that lie beyond conscious decision. The fact that we happen to be faced with this choice, here and now, is beyond our conscious decision. The language and traditions we have to confront the situation or choice lie beyond our conscious decision. So, how do we talk about this, at the very least, “residue” of the unchosen? This, to a great extent, is what the disciplines are for, including sacramental disciplines: saying that the trauma caused by my parents, or unjust social structures, or unconscious desires, etc., are not all that different from saying I was tempted by the devil. And there may be some truth in any of these “explanations”—at any rate, any of them is better than nothing. But they’re all really black boxes, sites of proxy wars for power—a particular psychology or sociology empowers a particular set of interests, within the disciplinary institutions and beyond. To be master of the “unconscious” is to be master of much more.

Here is where originary thinking cuts through the disciplines. We can certainly attribute to mimetic desire the “cause” for a particular act, but mimetic desire is always mediated through language. If another boy is more popular with the girls I can: a) smash him over the head with a rock; b) try to figure out what makes him attractive and imitate it; c) simmer in resentment and console myself with having a “deeper” intellect or personality; d) despise the girls who fall for someone so “superficial”; e) recognize my envy and try to acquire the self-control and higher ends that would prevent me from being dominated by it; and, no doubt, there’s an f, g, h, and so one along with all the possible variations on a-e. So, what does our young man do; or, rather, how do we best account for the meaning of what he does? (He is himself accounting for the meaning of what he does before doing it.) I think the simplest and most realistic answer is to say he is listening to differing commands: hurt that kid! Wait for your time to be popular! Get stoned! Don’t do anything stupid! Just focus on your homework! These are all versions of commands he’s heard in various contexts, many times. Imperatives often come with no expiration date. In this particular case the imperatives are coming first of all from the other boy himself, as an object of resentful attention (he really is “making you do” whatever you do)—but any imperative coming from one center can be traced back to other, more inclusive centers.

So, when assailed by competing imperatives, which one do you listen to? We can reinstate the free willing homunculus, or we can say: the one that comes from the highest authority. Which that will be for the boy in question will depend upon which authorities have demonstratively stood behind their own words in his experience: your parents nominally are the higher authority, but if they tell you to do your homework while not seeming to care what the homework is for, while your cool friend at school is at least consistently and courageously transgressive, he might be the higher authority in fact. But once we’re no longer children the imperatives competing for our attention and obedience are no longer personified in such local terms (or at least not only). The cool kid may have commanded you to respond to social rejection by becoming cool yourself, or an adjunct to his cool, but one learns that the command to “screw your parents and the popular kids by going goth (or whatever today’s equivalent is) or far left” hasn’t originated with that particular kid. In other words, we trace the imperatives back to the highest authority we can find. And in doing so, we are following a command to do so. And that command must have been “heard” at the intersection of incompatible, but equally compelling commands.

We all approach this with differing intellectual resources, but the command that will win out is the one that tells you what to do that that intersection, which will have to be at least somewhat different, somewhat more abstract, older, from either of the commands that got you stuck there in the first place. Now, the higher authority might be wrong, but that will lead you to another intersection, with that authority’s command itself being one of stalemated commands, and you get another chance to trace that command to yet another authority. The immoral person becomes such by refusing to recognize such intersections, which involves obeying the commands telling you to ignore them. The moral person keeps obeying the command to notice the intersections, and keep ascending to a higher authority. Now, of course we have been provided with such an authority from our childhood—you can always tell the child to heed God’s word, however that has been transmitted and institutionalized through some tradition. It would be too much to expect people to discover the path of ascent all by themselves. But even if the actual words remain the same, the word of God is not the same for someone who has been asked to repeat them ritualistically as they are for someone who as learned to look for possible intersections. For the latter, that word continually issues new commands, targeted with increasing precision, heard with increasing clarity. This is what I mean by the “imperative of the center.”

So, in seeking out the meaning of what people do, I propose hypothesizing the competing imperatives that person is hearing, and further hypothesizing the intersections at which the higher authority would be sought and hypothesized by the person himself. This is opposed to what I described above as “saturating the scene.” If anything, we want to subtract from the scene, and only add that which we can represent as a network of imperatives, traceable to the center. This is the meaning of the kind of “thought experiment” proposed in my previous post: represent the participant on the scene as obeying, on the one hand, an extremely overdetermined imperative and, on the other hand, an extremely undetermined, highly improbable, barely heard, one. Imagine, for example, someone who is by all appearances a saint following the command to indulge his own vanity and resentments in an extremely refined way (Nietzsche can help you with this), and interpret all his actions in this way (this heads towards a kind of “saturation”)—the “appearances” or signs you began with all get revised or suspended in this way. Then let’s say he’s following the command to serve God with all his being. Where, exactly, would the difference lie? How could we distinguish one from the other? Make the difference as minimal as possible—locate it in a hardly noticeable gesture, issued in obedience to the imperative to let those devoted to God learn something about what such service entails, while dispossessing of their cynicism those caught up in resentment. (What series of ascending imperatives would he have to have followed to craft precisely that gesture?) You will then be able to say what “serving God” means, even if it’s not clear how you get a doctoral dissertation out of this particular inquiry. We can say, then, that the utmost imperative of the center is precisely the one commanding you to articulate a practice demonstrating the difference between obedience to the center and obedience to imperatives that display all the signs of obedience to the center but the one through which, as you are showing now, that obedience is unmistakably evident.

Learning, Discipline and the Thought Experiment

A sign has to have meaning before it can be true or false, and so setting one’s filters for discourse ingestion on meaningful/meaningless should be more effective than setting them for true/false. Setting one’s filter to sift the meaningful out from the meaningless also opens another option denied the one who stays set on determining truthfulness: the option of conferring meaning on an otherwise meaningless sign. Distinguishing between truth and falsehood is a waste of time unless we are situated within a disciplinary space with shared frames and criteria—insisting that we are telling the truth while our opponents are lying is almost always an attempt to jigger the rules so one can declare oneself the winner. The left looks for statements it can find deficient in truthfulness as measured by some fact-checking mechanism also established by the left, so that it can then accuse the speaker of being a “liar” and attach “liar” to that person’s name every time it is mentioned, like a Homeric epithet. They can then frame their questions as follows: how can you believe what he says, since he has racked up 273 lies over the past 3 years? But when the right does the same thing, even if I’m more likely to agree with where the truth lies, it ultimately serves the same purpose of forcing everyone to line up in qualified vs. unqualified terms. Everyone is throwing everyone else out of their playpen. But focusing on meaning allows us to be both more generous and more disabling, as the situation calls for.

Here’s one of Charles Sanders Peirce’s most famous statements, in this case offering a definition of, essentially, “meaning” (for Peirce, the whole purpose of pragmatism was to determine the meaning of signs):


Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.


So, what is our conception of, say, a dog (what is the meaning of “dog”)? It will bark under certain conditions, it is different from a cat in certain ways, from a wolf in other ways, if it is your dog it will be loyal and obedient if well trained, when you pat it it wags its tail and looks up at you, and so on. We can get extremely abstract (a four legged mammal…) or concrete and intimate (it brings your slippers) depending on the attentional or disciplinary space in which the word “dog” is used. Nothing in Peirce’s definition requires the more “scientific” meaning. The definition of a dog in terms of its devotion to its owner (when I come home he comes running and wagging his tail) will generate new questions that will add to “our conception of these effects” just as much as a definition found in a biologist’s taxonomy. However, unless said ironically, or in some fictional context, or as part of some insider discourse, the sentence “the dog is flying home” is meaningless. Of course, though, that sentence can be made meaningful in another way: as an example in a discussion like this.


What a disciplinary space is created to do is to take “given” meanings and make them relative or regional. A dog is devoted to its master; but sometimes dogs turn on their masters; so the meaning of “dog” must include the devotion and the possibility, however minimal, of “betrayal”; and the new meaning will include both in a less anthropomorphic and anthropocentric frame: dogs generally respond to certain cues of dominance, which accounts for the “devotion” and, when those cues are “processed” under specified conditions, the aggression to their masters. Or whatever—I don’t know much about dogs. Within one space, “dogs are devoted” retains its significance; within another, it is meaningless, and is replaced by “dogs respond to cues of dominance.” And that will in turn be replaced by something else. At each point along the way a new given is introduced, waiting to be relativized or regionalized. And the biologist studying canines goes home and pets his dog, and there is no cognitive dissonance.

The (anti)political attempt to establish centrality by dispersing the fogs of liberal obfuscation operates on several levels. It must honor all the traditional forms of life targeted and demolished by liberalism, even if it can’t restore them (although avenues of restoring what can be should be explored); it must engage in historical analyses of those forms of life, or their vulnerabilities and the intellectual and physical weapons used to attack them; it must distinguish, in the contemporary order, between what can be attributed to the civilizing and centralizing work that started long before liberalism and what can be attributed to liberalism itself; it must develop theoretical and eventually institutional means for suppressing liberalism, in all its forms and all the nooks and crannies in which it hides, while extricating healthy social and technological relations and materials from its deformations; and it must inhabit and rework all of today’s institutions and disciplines in order to accomplish all this. (It must also acknowledge irreparable harm done, and that would unavoidably have been done, to traditional modes of life by any, even the most orderly, form of centralization.)

The theory of disciplinarity I have been advancing is meant to help with this. Disciplinarity in a strong sense is a result of the grounding of science in the laboratory and the experiment, which seems to emerge slowly in the later middle ages (e.g., Okham’s razor), get presented more explicitly with Galilleo, and doesn’t really get institutionalized until the 19thcentury. I am pretty sure that Peirce was the first to treat the experimental method as a model for thinking in general, defining signs as such as means of inquiry (you can always conceive more effects of an object). Attempts to restore the originary structure of Christianity, for example, will rely on the disciplinary modes (and a careful sifting of what is valuable from them) of textual and historical analysis developed far more recently, i.e., on treating Christian texts, documents and histories as one would treat any texts, documents and histories. At the same time, though, disciplinarity is a form of discipleship, a mode of authority and inquiry into the divine that reaches back into antiquity and is central to the founding of Christianity; moreover, discipline is simply a more deliberate form of deferral, so Peirce’s definition of the sign as, essentially, anything one could form a disciplinary space around, is continuous and consistent with the originary hypothesis, which sees signification and meaning as an effect of deferral. Disciplinarity and discipleship alike are landmarks in the history of modes of deferral, which becomes the history of civilization—Peirce was also clear that the purpose of signification was to conduct such inquiries as would modify “conduct,” which for him meant “self-control,” i.e., discipline. To use the word “dog,” then, is to initiate an inquiry into all our possible relations with dogs, an inquiry that transforms our relations with dogs into one vehicle through which we modify our conduct in shared and deliberate ways—so as to enable us to conduct more inquiries. One effect might certainly be to make us better dog owners.

Disciplinarity in this, now, broader sense, one that acknowledges the equal legitimacy of all modes of inquiry, is characterized by discovery and revelation. This is really what the laboratory brings to the surface: it isolates one specific thing that we don’t know, and it sets up a scene in which we can come to know it. The scientist sets something up that comes unbidden in divine revelation—but is that completely true? Doesn’t divine revelation, or the more secular revelation provided by a startling poem, for example, require some kind of preparation and openness, even if one doesn’t know exactly what one is preparing and being open towards? In more ordinary circumstances, when one is, for example, worried about whether someone else can be trusted, one finds a way to bring the question of their trustworthiness into focus—to abstract it from all their other “characteristics,” to gather “evidence,” to “test” it, etc. In the process those other characteristics, which have been “bracketed,” enter back into the inquiry, transformed by it. The less of life that is covered by ritualistic prescription of behavior, the more must be covered by such “procedures.” The trick of progressivism is to attribute this kind of learning to society as a whole, as represented by self-certifying experts, and the state that employs them. So, for example, once “we” have concluded that “race” is a meaningless concept, “we” can go about abolishing all social distinctions based directly or indirectly on “race.” We can, in response, make a Hayekian argument about the distribution of knowledge throughout society, or invoke Chesterton’s fence, but we can also simply take the claim head on: lots of people use the word “race” in lots of different ways and choosing a specific, narrowly genetic meaning, and to purport to settle that meaning in accord with an arbitrarily chosen criterion (like the fact that there are more genetic differences within than between races) is to offer a power rather than inquiry based conclusion. The approach I am suggesting asks about the meaning of words; it doesn’t decide in advance that specific disciplines have the sole right to determine those meanings. And it also keeps in mind that those disciplines never have a final meaning either.

The adoption of any kind of dissident stance implies constant testing of prevailing assumptions, for others as well as for oneself. The cross-disciplinary means of doing so is the thought experiment, which we can get better at constructing and enacting. A thought experiment tests the meaning of a word, or a particular use of a word, or a sentence (a proposition), or a broader argument or mode of thought. The goal is always to de-anthropomorphize, to take a sign that has a (received) meaning in itself and treat it as a sign that has meaning for an (actual or possible) disciplinary space. All exchanges should target some element of the other’s discourse for disciplining—it is a favor we do each other. Look for some “hinge”: something in the sign that, if the rest of its meaning were left constant, but the meaning of that part of the sign changed, would lead to incommensurable uses. Make one of the possible meanings as obvious as possible, and the other as unlikely as possible (the range can then be narrowed as needed). Peirce’s approach is a good one: what form of conduct would follow from adopting one shade of meaning as opposed to another? Inflate the differing consequences while compressing the difference in the “shading”—constructing the greatest diverging effects from the smallest differences yields the most information. This method for the instantaneous creation of a disciplinary space should work equally well for solitary musing as for engaged, even confrontation encounters with allies and enemies alike. The criterion is internal to practice: which form of conduct improves existing and generates new spaces of inquiry? Self-control is simultaneously the control of the effects of practices; others are invited to replace meaninglessness with meaning.

As an example, let’s take Jonathan Chait’s recent amusing claim that Trump has been a Russian sleeper agent since 1987.What are all the effects of our conception of this object, this sign? Here we can see the limits of truth testing: there’s no way any of us can prove that Trump has not been a Russian sleeper agent since 1987. (The more “verifiable” truth claims become the only legitimate form of discourse, the more you, paradoxically, incentivize the production of claims that are absurd but cannot be falsified.) One of the effects is that we can imagine everything Trump has done the last 30 years as spy work, providing what might be entertaining explanations of “The Apprentice,” his buildings in Manhattan, his proclivity to take wives from the former Soviet bloc and so on. Who knows what and whom else might be swept up in this net? Another effect is that we are left to consider why his Soviet and then his Russian handlers seem to have had a sharper sense of, or concern for, the interests of Americans than American leftists (or many conservatives, for that matter) seem to. Another effect is that we can assume everyone who is similar to Chait ideologically either agrees with his theory, or will eventually come to embrace it (it’s a, if not necessarily the, logical conclusion of the whole Trump collision narrative), so they can all be asked to endorse or repudiate it. Yet another effect is that we can now frame every other political figure of even (what the hell!) public figure in terms of all the signs suggesting that some other country might be pulling his or her strings.

We can use the boundary between “Trump is a Russian sleeper agent” and Trump is, well, Trump, as a way of generating conceptual distinctions, hypotheses and conduct—in this case, for the most part, potentially very productive meme-ing and trolling conduct. The claim itself means something. The fact that this particular person makes in this particular venue means something. That others who respond in certain ways to the statement means something. That the statement can be seen to be modeled on previous claims and campaigns means something. That other statements can be modeled on it in turn means something. The way to generate all these meanings is to, on the one hand, take the claim as literally as we possibly can, enter the world it constructs, let that world invade the world of the things we normally take literally; and, on the other hand, mark everything in the reality that we know that does not require the Trump as a Russian sleeper agent hypothesis to make sense. In the end this will get us to the truth, because with a truthful sign the invasion by the world constructed by the sign we are studying of the world as it exists without that sign would not provide a jarring juxtaposition; it would fit in seamlessly. Even after repeated tests.

Prolegomena to the Study of the Origins of the Disciplines

Here’s the problem I’m trying to solve: absolutist ontology implies a specific way of thinking, which we could call “the supplementation of sovereignty.” This way of thinking assumes that the sovereign center is to be preserved through supplementation by the attentional center. If something seems wrong, if there are unfulfilled desires and unsatisfied resentments, your own or those of others, the end of thinking about it is to identify an imperative from the sovereign center that would remedy them. Maybe the effect will be to demystify and defuse the desire, maybe to give it a more realistic focus; maybe it will reveal the resentments as unworthy, or maybe it will suggest a frame within which it might be addressed. All these possibilities are to be considered, which means the desires and resentments in question are not simply accepted as a default, natural starting point. What is important is a more fully installed sovereign. It is the anarchist ontology which sees desires and resentments as forces of nature around which the social order itself must be constructed. The justification of the liberal state is that it prevents desires and resentments from colliding into each other too violently. It must therefore claim to maintain some kind of equilibrium amongst these “passions,” whether it idealistically calls this equilibrium “justice” or cynically calls it a “balance of forces.” This means that the sovereign is justifiably assailed for failing to fulfill this impossible to define task; indeed, the logic of the anarchist ontology is to encourage such assault—after all, the only source of information available to the state comes from playing out of these passions.

Unsurprisingly, virtually the entire universe of discourse in a liberal order is of the anarchist variety. When someone hears of something objectionable, the spontaneous impulse is to criticize power—the government, corporations, the 1%, the patriarchy, whatever. It in fact takes considerable effort to break this habit of thought. That such attacks on power just empower another power is a well-known complication that we can set aside for now. This anarchist habit of thought goes much further back than victimary thinking, and even further back than liberal and democratic thinking more generally. What we really have to start with is the very notion that government needs to be “justified,” that it exists for a “purpose”—rather than just being the default condition, the representation of the irreducible social center.  Once you grant the need for a “political philosophy,” you grant the possibility of an arbiter of the legitimacy of any government; once you grant the possibility, you grant the reality. The political purpose of my study of disciplinarity is to get at the discursive roots, the roots in a habit of thinking, of “political philosophy,” in all its forms, including the most everyday, “popular” ones. A disciplinary space serves the center by inquiring into commands from the center; a discipline assumes the subordination of the center to the object (the center) of that discipline—philosophy presupposes a state conducive to philosophy, sociology a state conducive to rationalized monads, and so on, and advises the state accordingly. The potential for confusion (the word “discipline” works in very different ways, respectively, in the two concepts) is unavoidable since there is a dialectic between the two: disciplinary spaces are institutionalized into disciplines and disciplinary spaces are generated within and across the disciplines. Disciplines are delegations that drift and are pushed into autonomy and therefore come to house various forms of imperium in imperio, but what makes this a difficult problem is that we don’t yet have a discourse of the center that can account for sovereign control over the disciplines because all the discourses of sovereignty we have until this point are indebted in a constitutive way to the disciplines. Since the end of sacral kingship there has not been a state which has not relied upon unaccountable disciplines for its “legitimacy.” Hence the need to solve the aforementioned problem.

To reprise: Writing represents speech, but must develop means to represent the non-lexical elements of the speech situation that cannot be directly represented. Writing is from the beginning an inquiry into language, identifying meaningful sounds, words and sentences. There is a continuum between the representation of these basic elements of language and the further means devised by language to supplement speech with means of indicating the elements of the speech situation unrepresentable as such in writing (such as tone, posture, “body language,” context, history). The metalanguage of literacy is developed so as to assess writing, distinguishing between correct and incorrect spellings and pronunciations, proper and improper uses of words (as judged by dictionaries), and grammatical and ungrammatical sentences. None of this is possible or even meaningful without a literate culture. Classical prose develops as the norm of written discourse, based on the principle of transparency (placing, in the reader’s imagination, the reader on the scene with the writer), but including the vast expansion of the study of grammar called “logic” and the notion of “proof” or evidence, which are really just specifications of transparency (involving a comprehensive view of the presumed scene).

If we look more carefully at these metalinguistic representations and supplementations of the scene of speech we find (I’m still following David Olson, this time his 1994 The World on Paper, very closely) a wide array of words that are complications of NSM primes like “think,” “say,” “want” and “know”: to represent uncertainty or hedging, “he supposed”; to represent a claim aimed at challenging another and meant to be challenged in turn, “he asserted”; to represent a process of thinking, “he considered”: to represent sincerity, “he believed”; to represent the end of a process of inquiry or discussion, “he concluded”; to represent claims that must have already been accepted in order for a particular statement to make sense, “he assumed”; and so on. In addition, we have the “reification” of “think,” “say” and “know” into the nouns “thoughts,” “sayings” (or “statements”) and “knowledge.” This is the basis for disciplines like philosophy and rhetoric (and more recently psychology), which are inquiries into metalinguistic artifacts like “suppositions,” “assumptions,” “beliefs,” “assertions,” “knowledge” and so on. In pointing out that “knowledge,” for example, is a construction of the metalanguage of literacy (and would therefore be unintelligible in oral cultures) is not to say that there is no such thing as knowledge (or beliefs, assumptions, etc.). It is to clarify the ontological status of these categories. If they are taken as first order realities we must look for a place to locate them, and we will construct such a space, calling it the “mind,” the “intellect,” or whatever. And then we will develop theories of this constructs, theories which are really just reiterations of the metalanguage of literacy itself. If we recognize them as second order realities, derivative of the metalanguage of literacy, though, then their meanings can never be separated from some disciplinary space of inquiry: “knowledge,” then, exists and claims regarding it can be disputed, but always in the form of “what we mean by knowledge in addressing this set of questions is…” In this case, these terms do not refer to “entities” with a specific “location.” They are, explicitly, ways of organizing shared attention.

So, we have several moves specific to the metalanguage of literacy: supplementation of a presumed scene; the nominalization of those supplements; the treatment of those nominalizations as entities, that can be studied and analyzed as composed of “parts,” with a “structure,’ causal relations and so on, “contained” in a space. Once these moves have been completed, an entire internally consistent metalinguistic vocabulary can be constructed by analogy with the one or few terms initially created. We then have disciplines, which study those locations or spaces—locations like “mind” or “intellect” for philosophy, psychology and related disciplines, but also “language,” “society,” “information,” “belief,” and so on for others. All of our cherished interiorities—will, intention, ideas, principles, reason, etc.—are retrojections of the metalanguage of literacy: they are depositories of nominalized entities, which replace what are more simply imperatives from the center. Again, it is not the reality of these objects that is in question, although they might be, of course, if they are superseded by other conceptual formations within the discipline; rather, it is the kind of reality that is in question. Obviously, studies of specific disciplines, or analyses of such studies, would need to be done, but I want to present the following hypothesis: all of the disciplines share the originary structure of the metalanguage of literacy. And this would also mean that engaging in skunkworks (creating disciplinary spaces) within the disciplines requires converting that originary structure into an infralinguistic one.

The metalinguistic disciplinary structure plays a kind of shell game with scenes, so this is a good place to probe a bit further. Any written text represents a speech situation or, let’s say, a scene of speech. It always does this implicitly—even reported dialogue in an account of an event is the report of that report. This concealment is maintained by the fiction that is perfected in classical prose which, as Olson, following Thomas and Turner, argues, purports to put the readers on the same scene as the writer. The writer-reader relation is set on two scenes simultaneously: the imagined speech scene and the equally imagined scene of the text. The reader needs to be able to make sense of the metalinguistic dimension of the text, and the writer must help him to do so, for both to be present on the essentially holographic speech scene. A great deal of attention management is necessary for the transparency of classical prose to emerge, and for it be taken for granted.

Some very promising implications for the study of literate cultures follows from this doubled structure of the written text. Writing, in the form of classical prose, which itself follows from abstracting the declarative sentence from imperatives and ostensives, is inherently duplicitous. In that case, we don’t need to focus so much on deceptive intentions in studying writing as a source of propaganda, ideology, manipulation, social control and so on—we can attribute these effects of writing to a lack of awareness of the structure of writing itself, to the writer and reader simply taking the transparency of classical prose for granted. Of course, this doesn’t imply any Socratic or Rousseauian opposition to writing—of course one can write honestly and intelligently, and need not deceive one’s readers. It’s just that doing so involves more than the intention to do so. At a minimum, this involves drawing or allowing for attention to the opacity which complements the transparency of prose. Furthermore, the presumed transparency of writing in classical prose has been transferred to all the media following writing, especially electric and electronic media—the same hunger for and belief in transparency prevails across the board. The promise of a less mediated ascension to the center guarantees allegiance. The mediation, the opacity, is itself the imperative from the center to derive, with others, further imperatives.

The disciplines in the human sciences do constitute a counter to the immediate transparency of literacy. Every discipline begins with the realization that this(some eminently predictable, automatic, clichéd statement) is what can be said about X (a novel, a social protest, a primitive ritual, a painting, a political campaign, a famine, etc.); however, saying thisreduces what you are referring to the limits of your own vocabulary. The naïve subject from whom the discipline breaks believes himself to be on the scene of speech, treating that imagined scene as a real one. The discipline, by contrast, plants itself explicitly in the literate scene, and knows it can only represent the speech scene in a mediated way. The naïve subject calls the violent protester a “traitor,” or “ruffian,” or maybe “hero”; the disciplinary subject calls him a “radical” or “extremist,” because he has lifted that figure from a shared scene (which the naïve subject feels himself to occupy) to a disciplinary scene where one “radical” or “extremist” can be compared to others, in different contexts and cultures, and the “elements” “constituting” radicalism or extremism can be itemized and broken down into yet more elements.

But the disciplinary subject is just as naïve as the naïve one. He believes in “radicalism” as an essentially tangible entity just as much as the naïve subject believes in “treason.” If you are reporting the speech of someone who shouts “Treason!” and you are aware that you are reporting that speech you can’t simply say “treason” yourself, because you have taken upon yourself the responsibility of reporting the entire speech event, providing your reader with a way of viewing that speaker, and therefore cannot simply repeat what he has said. You need to set up a new context, and a comparative context, in which one act of “treason” can be placed next to another, with the understanding that the second act of treason might be heroic to the first accuser, which requires that you establish a new common denominator: “radicalism,” or “extremism.” In the process, though, you have not abandoned all alliances and affiliations; you have just moved from one set to another. The discipline is itself a side, and so is the institution in which it is housed, and the sovereign which it serves: “radicalism” and “extremism” provide far more flexible terms and found far more useful conceptual vocabularies for the purpose of social control than narrowly legal and more emotive terms like “treason.” But the disciplinary subject can’t see that he is doing that any more than the naïve subject can see that his shouts of “treason!” can be seen as identical to those condemning his own leaders as traitors. For him, it is the disciplinary scene that is transparent, as he and his fellow subjects look, as through a microscope, at the various interactions of entities like “radicalism,” “extremism,” “alienation,” “violent tendencies,” and so on.

What I have said about literate metalanguage more narrowly considered applies to the disciplinary metalanguages as well: they cannot issue imperatives. What happens if you tell someone to stop being “radical,” “extreme,” or “alienated.” The radical and extremist don’t really see themselves that way—they believe in something they see as true and just. The alienated individual might accept your label, but if he could stop being alienated he would and your giving his condition a name probably just reinforces it. At least the one shouting “traitor” can demand the state hang the miscreant. The theoretician of “extremism” is also issuing imperatives (soft ones: “suggestions”) to the sovereign, but they must be disavowed as such: the series of practices leading from the analytical conclusions of the sociologist to some implementation of anti-extremist measures cannot be reckoned within that analysis itself. He may be even more of a sleepwalker than the naïve subject.  He’s more abject, at any rate. At a certain point someone in the discipline will challenge the discipline by directing attention to the elements of orality ignored in literate discourse, but without an infralinguistic intervention that identifies a shared, imperative-issuing center ordering the oral, the literate and the disciplinary alike, this can only lead to a kind of primitivism.

Infralinguistic interventions involve taking a metalinguistic term used for the sake of external assessment and applying it within the discipline itself. Identify the polarities within the discipline, analyze their respective “extremisms” the way they analyze those of their targeted populations. The implicit valorization of “moderation” over “extremism” is thereby brought into play, both within the discipline and in its attention to its objects of inquiry. The discipline is made infralinguistic by having extremism used in such a way as to issue imperatives: telling the professor whose extremism you have defined in terms of what he refuses to see does, in fact, give him something to do—look for the center that enables him to distinguish between “moderate” and “extreme” in the first place. If in the end the distinction between extremism and moderation is dissolved, all the better. On this new, infradisciplinary scene, what we are looking at together is the originary structure of the discipline itself: its self-distancing from the web of imperatives and ostensives of everyday scenes, its supplementations of actions and speeches with qualifications and modifications, its reifications of those qualifications and modifications, and its treatment of those reifications as real objects that can be analyzed no less perspicaciously than a cell, or atom. In soliciting this scene, ringing its bell so to speak, we also make visible the hidden invisible threads through which it mediates between various power centers and the sovereign center. A value-free analysis of “extremism” might be suitable for a self-styled Hobbesian sovereign, which is content to know how content or dangerously discontent each of its subjects might be, but that also means such analyses target the sovereign as a source of domination that can be turned in any direction one likes as long as a convincing portrayal of “extremism” can be presented. It is the infradisciplinary analysis that can provide for a graduated series of vocabularies, each of which would develop its own meta-infradisciplinary dialectic. All disciplinary spaces obey the imperative to supplement the sovereign with the attentional spaces in reciprocal constitution with it.

On the Use of the Center-Margin Model to Displace the Left-Right Model

If power is subordinated to a higher principle or purpose, like freedom, or peace, or the greatest good of the greatest number, or equality, or the protection of rights, then it will eventually turn out that power is a site of struggle between opposing conceptions of freedom, peace, equality, right, etc. and therefore of opposing powers. If, on the other hand, power asserts the prerogative to determine what counts as freedom, right, etc., etc., then all these words are really just synonyms for “what power wants,” and therefore not “principles” at all. The absolutist project is to find a way out of this antinomy. We might consider an essential, even founding gesture of this disciplinary space the treatment of human history as a series of experiments regarding what kind of figure is to be placed at the center. We can attribute such an intent even to those figures we would consider our worst enemies and the most destructive actors—even the worst of intentions must have involved an intention to put a particular type of figure at the center. Complementary to this axiom would be the assumption that each such experiment is an attempt to retrieve the configuration of the originary scene, under conditions created by previous attempts to retrieve the scenic configuration. Such attempts are necessary because each, like the originary scene itself, opens new historical possibilities. The most obvious “experiments” are the exercises in rule by those in power, the attempts to solve specific problems any occupant of the center must confront, and the a priori and a posteriori accounts given of such attempts. But we can treat any social praxis as such an experiment, at least potentially, as any praxis involves a sovereign imaginary positing some relation between center and margin. The point is to be able to talk about everything, to move from the most macro to the most micro level, from the analysis of ongoing events to longer term projects.

The originary sign, the aborted gesture of appropriation, points to a center that is simultaneously a sheer “this” (one of Wierzbicka’s primes, incidentally), that is, the very thing that we are looking at right now, and a named object and agent, from which all other names, acts and intentions derive. Everything specific to this object goes into making up its name, and insofar as that name compels attention to and hence sustains the center the anthropomorphization of that Object will be the source of all commands, practices and even the language of the community. The retrieval of the originary configuration involves the extraction of more “thisness” at the expense of the name, which further means that other means of sustaining attention other than those maintained by ritualized repetition of the name in its increasingly varied iterations. The question is, what is to replace something like “Zeus commands that we perform the sacrifice here, now and in this manner” in answering the question, what should we do? Richard Seaford shows how universal monetization in Ancient Greece served to mediate sacrifice once distribution in accord with competition among elites replaced centralized, egalitarian distribution. Money creates a new and more indirect centered configuration under conditions where the ritual center has been usurped by the Big Man, who distributes in accord with merit and loyalty. Once money is widely available, what to do can be determined in accord with distributive principles based on equality, which comes to challenge aristocratic criteria. And these principles imply new, more democratic means of determining distribution. Laying the groundwork for a new usurper of the center to promise even more “equality,” which has more “thisness” relative to centrally organized ritual.

We have come up against the HL v M problem. One thing we can note is that the political “content” advanced by actual or prospective occupants of the center is “always already” part of the relation to the center itself—for example, some form of “equality” is essential to political strategies simply because that is the way you construct a more direct, less mediated relation to the center, as per the originary configuration. It’s much easier to call for more money for everyone than for more honors for everyone. In any good faith attempt to make occupancy of the center and operations directed from there more secure, promoting equality in some form, cutting out some “middleman,” seems to be the path of least resistance. So, more exclusive criteria are replaced with more inclusive ones (according, of course, to some understanding of what counts as “exclusion” and “inclusion”). The mimicry of standard right wing politics in the US, for example, which is set upon showing that the left is comprised of the “real” racists, misogynists, fascists, etc., is a replication of the same assumption. The difficulty of thinking our way through this difficulty, without calling for the restoration of a historically concrete, replete name (like medieval Christian kingship) and thereby relieving ourselves of the intervening historical materials, is a sign of the hobbling power of what we could probably just call political thinking itself.  The experiment seems to have gotten into a rut early, and stayed there.

Who implements the new mode of equality? Such a question reminds us that a new dispensation simply replaces the old officer’s class with a new one. The middlemen as such are never eliminated. Even in the most totalitarian states, which supposedly pulverized all institutions, communities and even individuals into atoms related directly to the gravity of the state or dictator at the center, are thoroughly infested with the middle: party members, the various secret and political police forces, hierarchies in the schools and factories and even the pervasive difference between those better and those worse positioned to inform on others. So, it’s helpful to keep in mind that what we are always really talking about is the way the occupant of the center rules through the middle, and how the middle is selected, controlled, maintained, replaced and so on. This serves to weaken the focus on equality, which focus is always really a way of levying and mobilizing a new middle out of the lows, a process that also involves an internal competition among those seeking to ascend to the new officer class. The high and the low talk about equality; the middle talks about status, qualifications, gradations, commands, factions and so on—at least when they are talking amongst themselves, but we can see these obsessions in the bromides they produce on command for the low (which generally involve providing markers whereby they can be clearly distinguished from the low). Equality-talk can be nothing but blather; attempts to work out the terms of existing hierarchies and chains of command allows us to distinguish between obscured and dispersed, on the one hand, and easily identifiable, on the other, hierarchies and chains of command. We can see the difference between a corporal told to make his troops less “masculinist,” on the one hand, and being told to ready them for maneuvers, on the other. Informed observers know what the latter looks like. The command to make soldiers more diversity friendly, meanwhile, is a transparent attempt to install a new officer class.

Even more, saturating our talk with the middle is a better supplier of thisness than equality or rights talk. The originary scene can only consistently be represented as uneven and staggered, both in the instigating rush to the center and the “rippling” stand down. The archaic ritual scene forgets the originary event as it commemorates it ritually, and the Big Man must eventually usurp the center as a more complete remembrance of the event as uneven—even if we must later work on correcting any representation of this usurpation as being carried out in the name of equality. The center effects not equality, but order: the antipolitics of absolutism works on stretching out the middle towards the high and low, rather than crushing it between them. Equality confuses the thisness of the center by giving it one ephemeral name after another; ordering refines thisness by seeking to continually clarify the commands, tacit and explicit, issuing from the center. There is always a circularity in the relation between center and margin—in a sense, the center is the center because it is distinguished from the margin and vice versa. We’re dealing with a structural property of all social activity. But while we can refer to any old thing as “this,” in articulating our actions by reference to thisthis, more and more of its thisness comes out as the model or pattern of activity we follow as choreographed with other ever more present forms of activity by seeking out that model or pattern thisly. What would the center have me do so that I can continue to ask what the center would have me do—the more the occupant of the center represents centrality the more consistently this circular question becomes a sequence of questioning. The occupant of the center is the summation and synthesis of the gradations introduced everywhere in the social order, even temporarily and infinitesimally, which tend towards making everyone part of the middle.

So, the Left is the major key of the HL v M accelerated turnover of the officer class; the Right is the minor key, trying to decelerate or, in extremely rare cases (I can’t think of one off-hand), reverse the turnover. This is the explanatory value of the model, which we will always have to revise so as to account for exceptions and complications, but this modification of the terms we use to employ includes within our descriptions and analyses the antidote. A sovereign imaginary implies a staffing of the officer class. Brush aside talk of principles with the question, how will its implementation be staffed? What model of activity would you be looking for in this new officer class, and how do you imagine other (let’s say “pedagogical”) sections of the officer class producing the numbers of individuals practiced in that model? What kind of know-how would be required, or would have to emerge? We would now be arguing about models of activity, and about inculcating institutions, and about setting the tone for one or another mode of activity, and whom we might look towards to do that. The whole left-right framing dissipates. The closer we approximate discussing nothing but bringing power into further accord with responsibility the more thisness, unencumbered by historical accretions, but informed by the wealth of historical experiments, comes into view.



The Ends of Man

The ends of humans lie in their origins: representation as the deferral of violence. Teleology and morality are fully implicit in the originary structure. The deferral of violence through representation is what we are “meant” to do. The implications require some unfolding, though. First of all, we are not talking about just any violence—rather, we have in mind the specifically mimetic violence that intensifies desire to the point where each mimics the other’s destructiveness to the point of annihilation. This is the specifically human violence that infests all institutions, which are the very institutions created so as to defer it. Second, violence can only ever be deferred; there is no fantasy here of discovering a formula to eliminate the possibility of violence once and for all. We are always and forever mimetic beings, and deferring violence is what we will always be doing. Third, violence is deferred through representation: a representation of, simultaneously, the symmetrical positioning tending toward violence, the reciprocal awareness of that tendency (I see what you’re doing and can thereby realize I’m doing the same), and a kind of cessation before taking the next step toward the collapse of the differentiation entailed by the mimetic crisis. The aborted gesture of appropriation is the model for all representation: the indication that one progressed toward appropriation; the indication that one sees everyone else has as well; and the indication that one has ceased to progress, one has stepped down, and one is showing others this and modeling for others the way to show it to other others. All of this comes well before there can be anything like rules, agreements, promises, moral codes, laws and so on—all of which are, in fact, constructed on this foundation of deferral. Finally, there is the central object, which has precipitated the rush toward the center, and is now “credited” with effecting the “stand down.” The center is the model for all that we will henceforth do: it has made peace and created community (such words are anachronistic but unavoidable) and is therefore the fount of wisdom, knowledge and power. Our telos is to desist from mimetically and rivalrously imitating our fellows by imitating the center.

This does not mean that we live constantly in fear that the least unwonted or potentially aggressive movement will be taken as hostile, or in constant suspicion that such movements by others will restart the contagion—although it is possible that much of the social life of very early humanity was consumed in such fears and suspicions. Once the initial catastrophe has been averted a sign, which is to say a kind of “method” is in place for preventing subsequent conflicts from getting to that point. The sign/gesture can be issued before anyone moves towards the object; it can be issued in the process of dismembering and consuming the meal; it can be issued once again afterward, to ensure and “certify” that all has gone as it should, that the benefits of the central being have been conferred once again. A kind of mastery is acquired over the situation, and once this happens, that same practice can be introduced into other situations, other, less dire conflicts. Eventually, if the possibility of conflict is pushed sufficiently far, signs and gestures can be used to explore new modes of cooperation—once the ability to direct and follow another’s attention has been formed, all kinds of new uses can be found for it. Such uses are never simply “useful”—the new modes of cooperation and the ends to which they are directed themselves become signs of deferral, activities that can be referred to and remembered as gifts of the central being and models of action to preserve and aspire to. Finally, we can take ourselves as sites of potential violence (including self-violence) by identifying inclinations towards envy and resentment and work on attaining self-mastery, quelling rebellions of our desiring selves, never quite satisfied by whatever recognition of our own centrality we receive.

The more you look at something, the more you notice things and the more interesting it becomes. This is especially the case if you are looking at something that and because others are looking at it (but this is the case for everything we look at) and this act of observation and engagement is formative. The thing you are looking at is shaping you in some way—how? What does it want? This is an endlessly interesting question, and it gets more interesting the more prolonged the attention you are capable of, and the more you are able to “factor” others’ actual or potential, past, present or future attention into your own (but that is really what makes prolonged attention possible). It is also the work of deferral, as what the center has to say always has to do with the detecting and diverting the various forms of mimetic violence. And the forms of mimetic violence themselves multiply and in some ways are strengthened as signs and institutions are fortified and attention is prolonged: each new social structure relies upon a new increment of shared deferral and is therefore vulnerable to refusals of deferral; and the more we can think (i.e., prolong attention toward the center, oscillate between different centers) the subtler and more tenacious forms of refusal we become capable of. Our inquiries (organizations of attention) are attempts to distinguish, even in our own thinking, between refusals of deferral and the introduction of new grades of deferral. All of this is devotion to the center.

The forms of symmetrical desire likewise become more complex and mediated, and so must our gestural and postural positioning. We give signs, but more and more become signs, all of us, in all of our appearances. We look to the center to guide us in becoming centers ourselves. People are looking at us all the time, in casual and highly personalized ways, in formal and informal settings, in mass and individualized forms, from positions of inferiority and superiority. We elicit envy and generate resentment, or we calm and de-escalate; we make ourselves contemptible or model modes of being for others; we fill up a space or make room for others. In so doing, we either refuse or enact models of deferral derived from the center—we demonstrate that the central being is just there for the plucking, first come, first served, or we show how resentful convergence can be converted into a new way of sharing space and being. This doesn’t mean always being nice, considerate, much less pacifist—sometimes evil needs to be driven out, sometimes that’s what modeling the center entails. Those who refuse deferral, even if through their own failure rather than ill will, model their own behavior on normative and admirable forms of action, using it for camouflage, probing for weaknesses—the logic of mimesis is such that sometimes these behaviors must be modeled in turn, and people must be given what they are “asking for.”

How do we, how can we, know that these are the ends of man? Why isn’t this some arbitrary construct, a form of “belief” that is more or less well supported by “reasons,” “proofs,” “logic,” etc.? In this case, we know it from our language. The languages of despair, of rage, of hope and love all have mimetic desire and the desire to control it inscribed within them. “I can’t go on any more”—this confession of a lack of inner strength is made for others even (or especially) if it is a suicide note, and the person making it asserts himself as a center that has gone unrecognized, unjustly unrecognized; or, perhaps, it is the discourse of someone who has been made too central, burdened with expectations of being able to sustain others that can no longer be met—one’s centrality to oneself is misaligned with one’s centrality to others. “How could you do this to me!”—here, another’s centrality is asserted as both false and all too real: the speaker has relied on the other, which is to say has organized the elements of a life around her, and that other has now rent that fabric, leaving desires, resentments, memories, signs, uncentered—and nothing is more terrifying than being bereft of a center. All utterances, actions, all signs, can ultimately be made sense of in this way, as creating, uncreating, asserting, denying some form of centrality, and can ultimately really only be made sense of in this way. Everything we engage in our lives defers violence in some way, however distantly, and when something we engage no longer offers itself up for engagement, some new form of deferral must be created. This is a highly tentative and dangerous condition, for individuals as well as groups. One of the biggest mistakes any one in a position of responsibility can make is to remove, weaken or destroy one center without having at least the beginnings of a new center ready to replace it.

All of the moral vocabulary and grammar we need is contained within the deferral of violence through representation. What, exactly, is the center in a particular case—what is the issue, the thing we are talking about, the model of action we draw from the space on which we appear? What is involved in giving ourselves over to it, shaping ourselves as centers in order to model it? What are our desires for it and resentments towards it? What derogates and distracts us from the center? The answers will often not be obvious, although it’s certainly immoral to deny anyone the means of constructing their forms of deferral. All of our ends are bound up in discerning the imperatives of the center, knowing it, shaping ourselves in accord with it. You could deny this, but in what language would you do so? Language that asserts a general centerlessness?—but if you say there are nothing but “processes” without purpose, why do you have to say this? (How can you say it to another, and assume the possibility of him understanding?) Why do you have to deny what you deny? Because others are stupider and less “scientific” than you—but an interest in things precedes a specifically scientific interest and where does that come from? Do you put forth yourself as the only real center? But all of the language in which you do so, your very assumption that others can make the slightest sense of your assertion, precede your assertion—and subvert it. If you already have some name for the center, like, most obviously, “God,” then wherein does the language you use discussing and addressing the center diverge, in essentials, from the grammar of the center presented here? If you proclaim the meaningless of existence, you proclaim in language which presupposes and even intensifies the very meaning you find lacking. We are always pursuing and enacting the meanings of the words we use (and we must use words), even in expressions of resentment: what is the meaning of “home,” of “love,” of “work,” and so on—or of “God.” We are to inhabit these meanings more fully by finding in them an incline toward the center.