GABlog

June 19, 2019

GASC 2019 Paper

Filed under: GA — adam @ 11:53 am

The Linguistic Turn and Generative Literacy

I’m going to begin with the assumption that the linguistic turn entails the rejection of any attempt to find legitimation for what we say in language in some reality taken to be outside of language, whether this outside be truth, nature, human nature, reality, any form of interiority, the greater good, or anything else. This means that language, rather than being primarily representational, that is, trying to provide an adequate and therefore legitimating picture of what is outside of language, is generative—that is, it is relationships intrinsic to representational structures that create what we call truth, reality, nature, good and so on.

To say that language is generative is to say that the meanings of signs are to be found in their effects on other signs, not in reference to reality: the main question, then, becomes, what are the levers or mechanisms within sign systems that make transformation possible? To put it in pragmatic terms, to take the example of public discourse, instead of trying to prove that your discourse represents reality better, the point is to transform language so that your discourse works steadily within it to the point of becoming it.

Anna Wierzbicka’s discussion of modern English in her Experience, Evidence and Sense: The Cultural Legacy of English provides us with an example of what this means: she shows how the entire language was transformed as a result of one intervention: Locke’s theory of knowledge and politics. She traces a whole series of terms, such as “experience,” evidence,” “empirical,” “sense,” and others back to Locke’s usages, and points out not only the historical contingency and cultural specificity of these terms, but that these are among the very words English speakers take to be most universal and commonsensical. It’s no coincidence that these are the words taken to provide us with access to what is outside of language. It lies outside of Wierzbicka’s inquiry to explain how these words operated generatively upon the English language, but I would suggest that raising and answering that kind of question is, in the wake of the linguistic turn, central to any aesthetic, moral, ethical or political inquiry. It may very well be all such an inquiry entails.

The generativity of language, at least in the post-structuralist forms given it by Derrida’s claim that there is no outside of the text or Rorty’s notion of an ongoing conversation of civilization in which everyone participates, is generally taken to be a pluralist doctrine in which the difference inhabiting the sign is irreducible. But the sign that constitutes the originary scene is absolutely generative, insofar as the sign creates the scene and the human, while at the same time presupposing complete unanimity. And, in fact, I think that the linguistic turn, understood through originary thinking, poses a very different kind of problem, to which we can, in fact, reduce all human problems: that of ensuring that all participants on a scene issue, and know themselves to be issuing, the same sign. This is a problem because it never really is the same sign (the linguistic turners are right about that)—since signs only take on meaning within a scene, a sign on one scene cannot be identical to a sign on another scene, no matter what measures we take or what rules we construct to ensure the sign will be recognized as identical—indeed, we take such measures and construct such rules precisely because there is no internal essence of the sign that makes it the same.

There are two ways in which the identity of the sign can be established. One, all participants on a scene can agree that the sign is the same according to some agreed upon criteria for identity—in other words, some metalanguage, which will then have to be grounded in a metaphysical reality outside of language. Or, we can establish the identity of the sign by deliberately and self-referentially constituting a scene upon which the sign directs us to some center. Here, we would embrace what Johanna Drucker’s calls “inscription,” suggesting there is no sign without its embodiment and embedment in material and historical enactment. The problem with relying on metalanguage, or what Drucker calls “notation,” of course, is that any metalanguage is subject to the same self-difference as the language it tries to control.

Language is going to be generative even if we act as if it is representational—pretensions to a secure metalanguage really serve to guarantee a moral or political certainty that avoids the problem of creating in some space of language the shared attention directed towards some center. We can find the origin of this logocentrism in literacy. David Olson has shown that writing was created out of an inquiry in language, including the speech scenes upon which language is used. More recently, Olson has used the notion of classic prose (taken from Mark Turner and Francis Noel-Thomas’s book, Clear and Simple as the Truth) to show that the telos of the metalanguage of literacy is to simulate a scene, modeled on a presumed original speech scene, upon which writer and readers are all present. It is for this purpose that the metalanguage of literacy establishes norms regarding the correctness of sentences and the uses of words—which is to say, it is literacy that enshrines the declarative sentence as the primary form of language—metaphysics is just further elaboration on this.

Insofar as we rely on notation and metalanguage, then, we imagine ourselves to be present on a simulated, always already constructed scene, with guarantees provided in advance that we all use the same sign. We can then proceed to eliminate deviants—the ungrammatical, the illogical, the unclear—which further proves that those of us remaining are all in possession of the same sign. This metalinguistic imaginary elides the difference, constitutive of the declarative sentence, between the scene of utterance and the represented scene. Since the scene of writing and reading can be represented on that scene itself, introducing a difference within the scene, this elision generates anomalies within metalanguage.

These anomalies open the intrinsically imitative and therefore pedagogical dimension of language use that metaphysical presence occludes. This pedagogical dimension can only be enacted “infralinguistically,” to use Bruno Latour’s term. In place of the hierarchy between language and metalanguage we have the performance of the difference of the metalinguistically guaranteed sign through its representation until its event nature is elicited. These efforts aim at making visible and inescapable the event-character of the sign, which is to say the sign’s inextricability from histories, traditions, the various ways in which it has used by different groups in different situations and, above all, from some event, some act of deferral, some origin, the participation in which is the only the way we can reciprocally “authenticate” one another’s use of the sign.

I have been implicitly suggesting an infralinguistic strategy or vocation for GA, whereby we speak and write in “originary” and “generative” English (or any other language). The basic concepts of GA, such as “desire,” “resentment,” “center” and others don’t really allow us to remain unimplicated in the objects of our analyses—on what basis could I claim to be unresentfully drawing the contours of another’s resentment? GA, then, despite its distinctive (if minimal) conceptual vocabulary, is ill-suited to be a metalanguage. I am asking, what kind of knowledge is GA? If it’s a new way of thinking, it’s a new relation to language. For starters, I’m contending that literacy is itself a second revelation, broadly parallel to the emergence of the Big Man—the revelation here being, as I pointed out before, the autonomy of the declarative sentence.

We can make further use of Olson to get a sense of what the implications of bringing this revelation to the fore as part of the linguistic turn might imply. Olson points out that the metalanguage of literacy serves the purpose of “supplementing” the presumed scene of recorded speech with verbs referring implicitly to mental acts that would have been performed in a speech situation. If I say someone assumed that something to be the case, I am reporting what another said, while also distancing myself from it—the other person was presumably more certain than I am in reporting his speech. In an oral setting, this would have been reflected in the tone—perhaps mildly mocking—in which the speech was reported; since we don’t have that tone, literacy introduces supplementary terms like “assume.” This allows for another innovation of literacy: the distinction between the meaning of an utterance, and the speaker’s meaning—we can now represent all kinds of ways in which the two can be at odds.

These verbs then get nominalized and we get new entities, like “assumptions,” and whole new disciplines organized so as to study them. All the human sciences are derived from such nominalizations, and much of everyday discourse (which has been transformed by literacy and the disciplines) as well. Even universally available words like “thoughts” and “ideas” are probably constructs of literacy. What this means is that there are vast domains of linguistic usage that are entirely dependent upon elaborations of the metalanguage of literacy, and also completely oblivious to this fact. We ourselves, within GA, are also thoroughly immersed within the metalanguage of literacy—the difference is, we can know it, and know why, and propose new disciplinary articulations that show such words to be scene and event dependent.

Working “inscriptively,” then, would involve accepting that writing is scenic itself, rather than an attempt to construct a universally shared and permanent speech scene. One of Derrida’s central observations is that there is no single scene of writing—writing, rather, involves a dissemination of texts, each of which would serve to constitute a scene that might reference more or less directly any and all of the other scenes organized around the disseminated text. This means that writing generates samples of language, no more directly related to one particular scene upon which they are iterated than any other. Charles Sanders Peirce argued that knowledge is always of the relation between a sample and the population of which it is a sample. Once we abandon attempts to supplement the source, then, we have samples of language, and we generate hypotheses regarding their relation to language as a whole.

Treating pieces of language as samples involves creating anomalous uses, or, really, acknowledging that all uses are anomalous, and accordingly situating ourselves on the boundary between talking about something and no longer/not yet quite talking about something—“sampling” is a call, or imperative, to generate a new center with an object at it. If we’re obeying the imperative derived from a concept, like, say, “infralanguage,” or “inscription,” then we are looking for samples of language serving as models of these concepts, and looking for ways to make sense of less obvious instances, even seemingly counter-instances, in terms of these concepts—for example, noting the infralinguistic dimension inseparable from the most rigorously applied metalanguage.

Insofar as we have a new center, that center wants to be more central: if we have a center we are using the same sign, and its identity is affirmed in the self-reference that situates one scene generated by the sign in a history of scenes with an origin that is continually marked. Imperatives from the previous scene, like “find new ways to talk about X,” or “use the conceptual resources you have generated to replace some less differentiated way of saying something,” generate the subsequent scenes. Words that bear with them histories distributed across self-referential networks are going to be more generative.

Metalinguistic terms resist operationalization—what, exactly, are we doing when we “assume” something? Are we always assuming what we assume? If not, what’s the difference between when we’re assuming and when we’re not? The later Wittgenstein was fascinated and perhaps appalled by the evanescence of the “referents” of such meta-linguistic terms. It is precisely such terms we can operationalize infralinguistically. If we make a study of “assumptions,” it is not to define and categorize them or to leverage “hidden” assumptions against explicit statements, but, perhaps, to figure out when they come into view, and what kind of thinking is going on when they don’t. Perhaps we can imagine “assumptionless” linguistic performances; or performances that are all assumptions, right there on the surface. The purpose here being to show that such imagining would require new forms of joint attention.

If language is the deferral of violence, the only thing we are ever talking about is how we are going about deferring violence. Forms of language that can be moved across scenes make it possible to defer not only immediate forms of violence but possible future forms, even ones that we can’t yet imagine. In more critical discussions, where we’re interested in the “viability” of concepts, what we’re really inquiring into is how many possible uses for deferring violence a particular constellation of words might have. If we know this, but others don’t, in talking with others all we are doing is helping them to know this. This knowledge must lie in their own discourses, their own vocabulary—if they are going to speak GA with us they would first have to see that their own discourse is always already GA.

We’re all always and only talking about how we are deferring violence but if we don’t all always know this it is because the sign can only refer to a single center, not centeredness in general. So, in entering others’ discourse we identify those signs where reference to a single center interferes with the reference to centeredness as such. This would transform the conversation into one centered on eliciting the distinction between centering and centeredness. This distinction is elicited by treating every utterance as both hypothesizing the way some other sign refers to a center and being, as a sample, a possible center. Our interest in that possible utterance, or sample, then, is in how it can iterated and disseminated in ways that would make more explicit our talking about the way we are deferring violence.

It is this practice of sampling, taking pieces of language and pointing them at new centers, that makes language generative, memorable and effective. The reason for the linguistic turn is that the metaphysical scene of humanism, predicated upon the metalinguistics of literacy, could no longer effectively defer violence. For one thing, by asserting the unity of humanity humanism, the late form of metaphysics (locating the ultimate reality within rather than without), keeps dividing humanity. Deferring violence now requires making explicit the constitution of scenes upon which we take our own uses of language as the center—this demands that we minimize our assumptions regarding what counts as a scene of knowing, and let the object, the “samples,” organize such scenes. The more generative discourses will be those that can create revelatory scenes of the origin and identity of the sign out of the greatest differentiation in sign use. It is the discourse that knows that all we’re ever doing is talking about how we’re deferring violence without it ever being possible to be completely explicit about that will be the most generative one.

 

June 12, 2019

Language Policy

Filed under: GA — adam @ 4:41 am

A sign is the deferral of violence. The first sign deferred imminent violence; subsequent signs may also do so, or they may defer intimations of merely possible violence, raising the threshold of what would count as a cause for violence. And not just violence in in general, but mimetically driven violence that would, if undeferred, consume all. So, in choosing our signs, we aim at deferring the possibility of some violence that will, in almost all cases, not erupt on the scene upon which we cast the sign—we are hypothesizing at several or many steps removed. In developing high level concepts, for example, we hope to defer forms of violence that threaten under conditions we can’t even imagine at present.

Once a human has taken over the center, the most feared form of violence is scapegoating frenzy directed towards that central figure, and so that must be prevented; still, it must happen sometimes, and its consequences could be more or less destructive; so, rituals and institutions and their linguistic underpinnings must also provide for less destructive consequences. Once we are post-sacrificial and anyone can become a center and hence a target of centralizing violence, the most compelling form of violence—that which holds some marked individual responsible for some imminent catastrophe—is also the kind that must be deferred. Force will, of course, have to be used against enemies and criminals, but only force that maintains the centered ordinality or orderly hierarchy.

What we are always talking about then, however directly or indirectly, is whether some person who has been singled out, named, is being prepped for or disqualified from sacrificial violence. Our linguistic intuition always enables us to tell the difference: either we are loading excess guilt onto the individual, placing him below the threshold at which norms regulating the use of force are activated, perhaps because time is of the essence or the regular forms could not do justice to the singularity of this guilt; or, we are constructing reasons not to proceed against the individual, conferring upon him motives and embedding him in conditions that not only stay our hand but lead us to shape the surroundings so that forms of authority are invoked and reinforced.  These contending possibilities are not only in our language, they are our language. The conferral of an unhindered chain of imperatives upon a central authority is a result of the ascendancy of the moral imperative over the transgressive temptation: the more our language is saturated with ways of naming the impossible victim, the less it can consider centralized violence against the central figure without whom a cessation of violence is unthinkable.

Always naming impossible victims is the most moral way of speaking and writing; such a practice eventually entails naming ways of determining when, where and how the impossible victim is to be named. But, of course, the chains of command are never quite unbroken, and the temptation of transgression can never be eliminated—in fact, it is always encroaching. So, in naming impossible victims we entrain the naming of those persons as possible victims—such an implication is part of the same language in which we name the impossibility of their victimization, because deferral only makes sense if shaded by mimetic crisis. So, the possibility and impossibility of victimization must be made foreground and background of each other, parenthetical references, subordinate clauses, absolute and prepositional phrased within the sentences where the other is named. Representing both poles in their interdependence is the way in which the impossibility of victimization is represented. The representation of the temptation of transgression within the impossibilization of victimization is originary satire.

We are always presenting, at different levels of explicitness and awareness, hypotheses regarding the desires and resentments informing others’ actions. This also means we read others’ representations of ourselves as hypotheses regarding our own desires and resentments. But if we can say this, doesn’t it follow that we should always make our respective hypotheses more explicit, and be more aware of them? Note that I just drew an imperative from a declarative, or a prescriptive from a descriptive: if this is what we are always, already, doing, then we should do it explicitly and knowingly. This is essentially what it means to see declaratives as studies of the ostensive-imperative world, aimed at producing more possible ostensives.

But perhaps making more explicit our respective hypotheses regarding one another’s “mimology” interferes with the imperative to defer resentments. After all, at least sometimes, there is no better way of inflaming resentments than naming them. So, here we have a case of competing imperatives, both them with fairly firm “pedigrees.” They must both be preserved—that’s an even older imperative. There might be lots of ways of making my own and the other’s respective mimological hypotheses more explicit, and some of them might generate more uncontrollable forms of resentment than others; also, not all forms of resentment are equally enduring, or convert equally readily into violence. So, we aim at maximum explicitness articulated with minimal incitement to direct violence. We don’t want to drive the other into a blind fury; we want give him a new name, and part of that new name is “observer of the old names to which he belonged.” So, this means maximum separation from the old name, with minimal separation from the space of naming itself—the more confrontational one might be, the more the confrontation should be situated within an arena in which there is a shared distinction between fair and foul play.

This maximizing and minimizing is the realm of the thought experiment, which is the arena within which our mimological hypotheses are played out. If I’ve made the other’s hypothesis a bit more explicit than it was before, where can I find in his own language a way of making it yet more explicit? This imperative-interrogative articulation implies that there is something obfuscating his hypothesis. This something is some disavowed agency, displaced onto some supplementary representation. In the pre-literate, ritual world, this supplementary representation would be of a sacred agent—when I struck him, the god of rage, or whoever, filled my breast and guided my hand, etc. A ritual response would then be the proper recompense. In the literate world, following the “second revelation” (somewhat parallel to the “second revelation” of the Big Man), these disavowed agencies and supplementary representations are provided by the disciplines. These include concepts of freedom and responsibility that come primarily from legal discourse—the concepts needed to determine how to convict and punish once “blood prices” are no longer the means of settling disputes become “internalized” or, I would say, incorporated into our respective namings of each other.

Since the disciplines are ways of making sense of imperatives coming from the center, it is precisely this relation to the center that is obfuscated. So, let’s say someone commits a crime and confesses, taking full responsibility. Well, that’s better than having recourse to another discipline, like psychiatry, and claiming “temporary insanity,” or whatever, because at least in this case there is an openness to self-inspection. But locating the source of one’s actions in oneself is a denial of the mimetic nature of those actions, and this concealment is sure to show up in the confession itself. Somewhere in there we will find some slippage from being free of a desire to do wrong to being possessed by that desire. Here’s a place to introduce competing hypotheses, via a satiric thought experiment: something happened within that slippage that you don’t want to or can’t see. Wouldn’t part of taking responsibility be hypothesizing how you came to construct your responsibility as you did? In confessing, you heed an imperative from the center. Let’s first lay that out, in whatever moral, theological and legalistic language you have at your disposal. Then let’s see if we can hypothesize regarding the origin of those concepts in your own representation of your actions. I don’t mean empirical origins (“my father first taught me about guilt when I was 6 years old…”); I mean their origins in this very discourse—what in your story and self-accounting would leave you desiring or fearing violence towards or from others without the introduction of those concepts? Here is where we can represent an obscured resentment maximally while leaving minimal pathways toward acting on that resentment because we have strengthened our mutual adherence to the imperative to name oneself as the doer of this deed. There will be some supplementary concept here that, if we repeat it enough times, in sufficiently different contexts, will help us bring its origins to light. If we get rid of, for example, the “freedom/determinism” binary we can find a previously obscured imperative from the center.

This kind of thinking mostly involves converting imperatives into declaratives: “I had to do this” becomes “this other was blocking me from the center,” which in turn issues new imperatives like “discover a center such that it must have been acknowledging both of you equally, in however different ways.” The declaratives one constructs in the process lead one all the way back to the originary scene, where one in fact places oneself and one’s interlocutors; and all the way forward into the future, as one provides the linguistic material or “samples” that can be used in as yet unimaginable ways to defer unanticipated forms of violence. Your own gesture always borrows from another, to whom you attribute the first one—the more your own gesture is “really” first, the more it will confer firstness on the other. This is the position on the originary scene. The more you represent or adumbrate the resentments potentially generating by this present gesture of yours, along with counter-resentments and possible donations of these resentments to the center in the form of new mediations that would redirect our resenting attention from each other to a new mode of distribution (beyond our control) of the center, the more your discourse takes on futurity.

This is no longer classical prose because insofar as we are all on the same scene it is the scene of writing, which is a singular scene by virtue of being a mere generator of other possible scenes towards which we all take up some relation by the way of the imperatives we hear on this one. As we turn descriptives into prescriptives, the scene is distributed. In the end we are all shaping a collaborative project, not of representing reality, but of deferring mimetic violence as far into the future as possible (a lot of reality does need to get represented for this to take). And so the imperative is to become ever more explicit about this, and in such a way as to advance the collaborative project itself. We must always have recourse to the most direct, explicit, and rigorous thinking of desire, resentment, and the center that we have, which is to say the strongest GA we can make is imperative. But if we’re also going to be using GA to make other discourses more rigorous by eliciting their own discourses of the center, then once we’ve eliminated disavowed agencies and supplementary concepts there would be no difference between GA and all other discourses. We would all be engaged, in infinitely various ways, in the study of our constitutive relation to the center. Our satirical thought experiments would always be necessary because our cleaving to the imperatives from the center that have so far named us will always interfere with hearing a more minimal version of that absolute imperative, but those satirical thought experiments would take the place of the disciplines. That, at least is the project, which is to be made indistinguishable from our language.

We can describe, in the most immediate and accessible way, this project as the determining and revealing of the meaning of words. This means the retrieval of words from their disciplinary appropriations (their passage through the nominalizations constituting the metalanguage of literacy) and their emplacement within centered ordinality. The question is, how would a given word be used within sentences and discourses that present the hierarchy dictated by the center named by those sentences and discourses? You could say that determining the meaning of words is the formalism of language: what a word like “action” means is the way it is used by someone capable of action, or of commanding action, or of abstaining from action in order to distinguish one mode of action from another, ultimately for the sake of those yet to make decisions. What a word means, that is, is how it is used by someone authorized by the “situation,” which is to say, some center, to use it. And even someone expelled from the center is authorized to name the terms of that expulsion. This also means that becoming a student of meaning entails becoming authorized to use the words you study, which means founding a scene of their use, before you can know whether others will join you there.

June 4, 2019

Center and Origin: The Name-of-the-Center and Centered Names

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:04 am

Any center is fit out with a link to the origin—therein lies its power. Even more, any center is itself an origin, an ever emergent origin. Any use of a sign entrains the entire history of sign use and any articulation of joint attention iterates the originary scene. Sometimes, due to semiotic and bureaucratic drift, the origin needs to be retrieved, but that just means a particular element or moment of the scene has replaced the scene as a whole. The most likely “culprit” is the deceleratory moment of the scene, when all the participants conform their respective gestures to the norm that has emerged on the scene. This “settling in” would be the most memorable part of the scene, and the one that would be confirmed and conformed to even more precisely in ritual. We regularly have recourse to this element of the scene—even in the course of some innovation or disruption much of the scene must be held steady as a kind of “control” so that the novelty can stand out by contrast. When engaged in the “producers desire” to remember the origin this need for control is forgotten, and only the resistance of others on the scene can establish limits to the unfamiliar gesture.

Whatever or whoever is at any center succeeds in a direct line to the central object on the originary scene. The most mediocre president of a fourth-rate country carries this lineage; for that matter, so does a bored substitute teacher in a classroom in a failing urban school. Everyone looks to the center to determine what to do, even if what to do is to defy or ridicule the center, because the central figure is telling you, in not so many words, that he has not inhabited or impersonated the resources the center provides for exercising the power of deferral. If the figure occupying the immediate center allows the baton passed from the object on the originary scene to drop, all those present on the scene are obliged either to prop up that center or turn to a new one. If the central figure can’t or won’t issue those commands that will tie this scene to the history of scenes so as to provide those present with the roles or masks they need to organize themselves ordinally around the center, they will treat the central figure as a negative indicator pointing to the commands that should have been uttered, that have been uttered under “analogous” conditions, that can be obeyed even without having been uttered. Once someone is placed in a position where he has to lead or clog things up, those he is responsible for can build their own little centers around the clog or treat him as if he is leading—whether either approach turns out to be subversive or galvanizing will depend upon the response of the potential leader, or the emergence of a new one.

This discussion is necessary because while I have been generating a new way of using the concept of the center within GA I have not sufficiently insisted on the fact that “origin” and “center” are complementary ways of referring to the constitution of the event. This can make it sound like central power stands and commands on its own, which comes close to sounding like an exercise of brute force, while in fact central power resides in the power of the origin. If we need to make the distinction between “power” and “authority” we can say that “power” draws upon the power of the origin while “authority” carries it forward and extends it. You need both—even mere drawing upon and preservation of the center implies at least some “extension.” Now we can speak of something equivalent to “legitimacy,” or the intrinsic relation between ostensive and imperative, as residing in the more specific origin of any community. The communist or liberal or revolutionary or usurpationist origin of the country where you find your obligations, then, cannot be “illegitimate.” What can be the case is that, because the origin of the existing mode of power has weakened or interrupted the line of origins, the commands issued by that central authority cannot be filled in or complemented in the act of obedience. There is always a gap between the imperative issued and the imperative obeyed, and that gap is filled in by complementing the imperative with the enabling imperatives preceding it. Those enabling imperatives don’t just confirm the authority of the commander (like asking the manager whether your supervisor can really have you do this) but provide essential information regarding how to do it.

Eric Gans has referred to the emergence of the Big Man, i.e., the “usurpation” of the center by a person, as a “second revelation.” I have been arguing that the development of literacy represents a similarly second revelation in relation to the oral/ritual world. Tying these two revelations together is the one Gans refers to as the monotheistic revelation, enacted for a single people via the Mosaic revelation and then for all humans in the Christian one. (As I usually do in these discussions, I’ll make the necessary but inadequate gesture towards equivalent developments in the East, in Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism.) This “post-sacrificial,” or “charismatic,” revelation of the “absolute imperative” (to defer rather than sacralize centralizing violence) is the revelation that completes that of the Big Man and that of literacy. What has happened is that we now have a center irreducible to the central authority who issues imperatives, a center with which we no longer have direct access to via “imperative exchange.” These enormous upheavals involved a radical break and alienation from the origin of specific groups, much less the origin of humanity, which as a consequence has to now be retrieved through practices enacting the heeding of the absolute imperative. Such practices require declarative formulation, because the remnants of those specific events (the revelation on Mt Sinai; the crucifixion) upon in which the absolute imperative was heard must be supplemented for communities (that is, all communities) which cannot live and sacrifice on the actual site of the revelation.

These practices are constructed through the naming of events of origin—more precisely, origins of a particular revelation of the absolute imperative (which is always revealing itself in new ways). A country, an institution, an organization, must have such an origin if the commands issued by its central authority are to be effectively obeyed. We can say that all individuals are named because all individuals are such sites of origin: when a new baby is born, we refrain from sacrificing it, certainly literally, but also in the sense of claiming to control or predict who that baby will become. If something changes, it retrieves or repudiates its origin, in the process creating a new one. Insofar as we are all centers, we are all events of origin, and named as such—not just our given name, although the importance of that never completely disappears, not just new names we adopt, titles, nicknames, and so on, but the declarative names people give us and we give, or try to give, ourselves: statements, descriptions, stories and so on—insofar as they single us out, they name us.

The center as named provides us with a way of rejecting familiar ways of speaking about “the society and the individual.” I would reject all talk of the “individual” within GA, as well as the concept of an “internal scene of representations” which Eric Gans uses to refer to a kind of privatized space we can trace back to the sparagmos. The individual is always constituted in relation to, which means hearing imperatives from, the center—everything that we do is in obedience to a command from the center. We can speak of a relation between the name-of-the-center and the centered name. We are nothing more than our names, beginning with the socially recognized name to be found on our driver’s license, paychecks, tax returns, diplomas, and so on, but, revolving around that name all the other names that refer to it more or less directly. What the “second revelation,” in the totality I just presented, means in these terms is a shift from a name of the center we can be named after to a name-of-the-center that can only be named in its namelessness. Naming, I am assuming, was originally a way of commemorating and affirming obligations to ancestors, who were worshipped; we are still often named after ancestors, but we don’t worship them and what we worship we don’t take as a source of names—rather, what we worship is the source of naming as an act.

At the same time, as Gans has pointed out on more than one occasion, every word is the Name-of-God. We have to take “every word” in the broadest possible sense here—a sentence can be the Name-of-God; indeed, the name of God in Exodusis, as Gans has often emphasized, a sentence. A book can be the name of God. Our individual names, then, are also the Name-of-God, but the Name-of-God as given within a particular historical stream, at a particular point within that stream. And names change, while referring to previous names when they do. I came across a quote from Richard Feyman recently: “knowing the name of something doesn’t mean you understand it.” Within its context, Feynman’s statement is obviously true, but I am arguing for a diametrically opposed way of thinking about it: if you don’t understand something, that just means that you don’t know its name—its “proper” name, its “real” name, or, if we want to be a little technical, its name in the event of naming. Coming to know or understand something is coming to name it in the disciplinary event of deciding it needs to be named, trying out different names, arriving at one, testing it, and so on. This is an event within which some unnamed object within a system of names becomes available for ostensive reference, and must be named in order to maintain the completeness of the system of names.

I think these formulations have important consequences. Not only do a whole set of pseudo-problems regarding the “individual,” his interiority, his identity, evaporate, or get resolved into the single, always asked, never conclusively answered question, “who are you,” but if all we have in a social order are names everything is part of the social order in a constitutive, originary manner from the very beginning. You are not in the world until you have entered through your name. The way we constitute and present ourselves as centers is through entering or inhabiting our names, projecting a possible new name for ourselves, repudiating an old or attributed one, among other possible acts. Even more, these formulations advance the mode of engagement I have been coming to propose through the concept of “originary satire.” Not always, but often, satire works through conflating individuals with their names, and with the satirist himself taking on a name so as to move through the system of names he has reduced the surrounding impersonations to. Satire is an attempt to further refine names until they position someone or something or some event on the originary scene, retrieved prior to the second revelation. That is, to refine the names until they name something on the scene at its most scenic, where the issue is in question, where the sign has not yet been normalized, and where our own naming therefore completes the scene. The satiric dimension within the esthetic is this moment of the scene at its most scenic, where we have what Gans once referred to as the “fearful symmetry” where each is at once potential victim and potential attacker, threatening and vulnerable simultaneously. The scene is completed simply by having a “critical mass” of participants see each other this way, because enough people seeing each other this way and showing that they see each other this way isthe sign. When we’re speaking with each other we’re really just naming each other and everything that makes us each other. Realizing this can make our discourse very ad hominem; but it could also make it very ad deum; at any rate, focusing exclusively on each other’s names as named by the unnamable Name-of-the-Center, which is itself nothing but the space opened up for receiving our names, would make us extremely ad centrum.

May 28, 2019

Market Capillarism

Filed under: GA — adam @ 3:00 pm

I’m going to follow up on this definition of the “market” that I offered in my “The Event of Technology” post: “what people without direct authority for maintaining the social center do with knowledge, information and skills when they are being protected and bounded but not directly supervised by such authorities.” The market, in its most abstract, praxeological terms, is understood as the interactions generated by the free choices of individuals. As an ontology, this is absurd, if for no other reason than that no one chooses the language in which these choices are made. But it makes good sense if we think about the market as those interactions that take place under the radar of some kind of direct supervision, especially if we consider that such “radar” is never absolutely comprehensive (we couldn’t even imagine what “absolutely comprehensive” supervision would mean, since each form of supervision would generate margins for decision making undetermined by the supervision itself). So, if I’m supervising a group of children, and I give them a strict schedule of activities and distribute roles in a hierarchical manner amongst them, and focus mostly on making sure they are doing what the schedule says they should be doing and receiving reports from the individuals in charge at certain points I leave open plenty of space for the children to exchange responsibilities and resources amongst themselves. So, one of the children’s duties is to sweep the classroom; another is to clean the dishes—one child who assigned sweeping duty asks some child who has playtime to sweep for him and, in exchange, the first child will do the dishes for the other later. We have the makings of a “market” here, and there’s not necessarily any reason for me to concern myself with it, as long as it doesn’t interfere with and perhaps even enhances the functioning of the institution. I can raise and lower the threshold of supervision depending on how beneficial the “market system” seems to be, and I can make sure the threshold doesn’t get high enough so that my own position gets implicated in the market.

The introduction of money into the system provides those engaged in market exchanges with more flexible means of establishing long-term interactions, while also ensuring the control of the central authority over this expanded process. Money is introduced as debt, debt which is ultimately owned by the central authority, whether or not finance is nominally controlled by privatized agencies. The more money in the system, the more the central authority is likely to be marketized as well. This is another way of saying that money is power, and this form of power competes with the form of power exercised by the central authority. The power of money is the power of abstraction—that is, the power to separate groups and individuals from the larger settings in which they are embedded. If you can separate groups and individuals from their settings you can mobilize them for your own projects. The power of money becomes the power of capital, which is the power to abstract not only individuals and groups but disciplines, which is to say knowledges, media and technologies, from the results of the abstractions those disciplines had helped to effect. The problem of containing the market system within the terms of central supervision is one, needless to say, that modern politics has not solved; indeed, the most cherished principles of the liberal social order make sacrosanct the primacy of market power over central authority—any reversal of this primacy is deemed “tyranny” or “totalitarianism.” And yet the market is still inconceivable without the central authority, reconceived as a political market, in which citizenship is defined as a certain quantity of tokens authorizing one to make withdrawals from the center.

The traditionalist opposes abstraction in the name of full embedment, but the possibility of rejecting abstraction disappeared with the rise of divine kingship a few millennia ago. By now, the forms of embedment defended against abstraction are the results of previous abstractions that have been re-embedded. The question is, in what form will abstraction proceed? Or, what kinds of mobilizations are necessary? If the market operates within the capillaries of the system of supervision, then abstractions should contribute to that system. The paradox of power is that the more central the authority, the more authority depends upon the widest distribution of the means to recognize authority; to put it in grammatical terms, the paradox of power is the paradox of the most unequivocal imperative leaving the largest scope of implementation of that imperative. To think about the scope of the market is to think about how to make this paradox more explicit. As I pointed out in “The Event of Technology” (and as Andrew Bartlett explains very thoroughly in his “Originary Science, Originary Memory: Frankenstein and the Problem of Modern Science”), abstraction always involves some desacralization or, to put it more provocatively, some sacrilege. Sacrilege can be justified on the grounds that the innovation it introduced will enable new forms of observance of the founding imperatives of the social order. So, the sacrilege should be, as Bartlett argues, “minimal,” while the new forms of observance (I depart from Bartlett’s formulation here) should be maximal. Abstraction creates new “elements,” and therefore new relations between elements. Monetary and capitalist abstractions are pulverizing, creating new elements that are identical to each other, and therefore most easily mobilized for any purpose. This is the process of “de-skilling,” with its ultimate telos being automation, that labor theorists have known of for a very long time. An absolutist mode of abstraction, meanwhile, would make ever finer distinctions between skills, competencies and forms of authority within disciplinary spaces. In this way, abstraction carries with it its own form of re-embedment.

The market economy, then, becomes a measure of fluctuations around the threshold at which the paradox of power is made explicit. All social conflicts can’t be reduced to this fluctuation, but all social conflicts are “processed” through it. This is most obviously the case for everything grouped under the concept of globalization, most especially movements of capital (at the “high” end) and migration (at the “low” end). Globalization represents a raising of the threshold at which the paradox of power is made explicit: global corporations have been released from obligations to any central authority and construct their own command chains, which include governments as subordinate partners; advocates of increased migration exercise power across borders that national states find it difficult to counter. In both cases, states are set up so that they must respond to the same “market” incentives as the corporations and migrants themselves. We could imagine a point at which the paradox of power would have to reach such a threshold to become explicit that central authorities would not be issuing “operational” commands at all—commands would just be one more incentive (or disincentive) agents further down in the chain of command would have to take into account by assessing the likelihood of any penalty for disobedience.

Within a market order, then, any action, event or relationship is characterized by a fundamental duality. On one side, however thinly, the paradox of power is in play: all actors recognize that their sphere of activity is protected by some more powerful agency and constrain and direct their activity accordingly. On the other side, to some extent, imperatives are converted into market signals—that is, a site of exchange where one person’s power to punish or reward you must be balanced against lots of other peoples’ power to do so. In both cases we find an interaction between center and periphery—in the first case, one acts in a way that redounds to the authority of the center, thereby creating space for the further replacement of external by auto-supervision; in the second case, one tries to subject the central authority to incentives and disincentives similar to the ones we are all subject to—this ranges from simple bribery and other forms of corruption to the vast avenues of influences made legal and even encouraged within a liberal social order, like lobbying, forming interest groups, political donations, think tanks, media propaganda and so on. We could locate anything anyone does, thinks or says somewhere along this continuum and study social dysfunctions accordingly.

Probably the most intuitively obvious argument in favor of the “free market” is the Hayekian claim that all the knowledge required to carry out production and cooperation at all the different social levels is far too distributed and complex to be centralized and subordinated to a single agent. This is of course true, but also a non-sequitur and a distraction. A general must provide some leeway to his subordinates, and they to theirs, and so on, and for the same reason—the general can’t know exactly what this specific platoon might have to do under unexpected circumstances, and he can’t even know all that one would need to in order to prepare them for those circumstances. There will therefore be “markets” all along the line, as people instructed to work together to address some exigency organize “exchanges” of knowledge, skills and actions amongst themselves in order to do so. The general doesn’t need to know 1/1,000 of all the specifics of these interactions to still be the general—that is, to issue commands that can be obeyed, and to place himself in a position to ensure that they will be. The same is true for those institutions charged with providing communications, health care, education, transportation, housing and so on. In each case, capillaries along the margins of these institutions can be adjusted in accord with the level of responsibility to be allowed consistent with meeting the purpose of the institution. The argument for markets is really saying no more than that you can’t do a very good job if you’re being micromanaged at every point along the way. It’s equally true that you can’t do a very good job if the terms of each move you make have to be “negotiated” with a constantly changing range of agents.

Liberalism has generated the illusion that what appears below the threshold of direct supervision is what, in fact, determines the form of supervision; even more, that the supervision is a servant of those actors which have merely been provided some leeway. This situation produces destructive delusions, because the presumably free agents are nevertheless aware of their utter dependence upon their “servants.” Is there any businessman who thinks he would be able to protect himself against violence, fraud, robbery and extortion by those readier than him to use violence and break laws without the force of the state? No businessman believes this, but in a way they all believe it, because their political theory leads them to assume that, first, there were a bunch of individuals engaged in peaceful exchange with each other and then, only when criminals and invaders, presumably attracted by the wealth thereby created, tried to take it using force, was the state “hired” as a kind of Pinkertons to maintain order. This makes it impossible to think coherently about the simplest things, such as how a policy everyone would recognize to be beneficial might be conceived and implemented in the best way. Someone should make a “this is your brain on liberalism” public service announcement.

May 21, 2019

Beyond “Post-Sacrificial”

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:00 am

I’ve been using the phrase “post-sacrificial culture,” generally in conjunction with the “Axial Age acquisitions,” to refer to the breakdown of the “imperative exchange” constitutive of sacrifice. Sacrifice involves an imperative exchange because the human member of the community offering the sacrifice (bringing his goat, or whatever, to the altar) is following an order issued by the deity to offer up some of the fruits provided, ultimately, by that deity; while, in exchange, the sacrifice represents a request, on the part of the one offering the sacrifice, that the deity continue providing these benefits (more goats). In a sense, our culture is not post-sacrificial, and it may be that no culture can ever be so, definitively—we engage the institutional orders around us in terms of imperative exchanges all the time, simply by assuming if we “play by the rules” we will be commensurately rewarded, and in resenting the failure of the institutional center to hold up its end of the bargain. But it’s still correct to call our culture post-sacrificial, because our “sacrifices” are figurative and not directly measurable—we speak in terms of trust, consent, contract, and so on, and keep extending those terms into areas where the ”superstitious” nature of our “faith” on institutional structures would be embarrassing. But the fact that it would be embarrassing, for most, in most situations, to say we offer up a “piece” of ourselves not so much to our boss (which would feel especially ridiculous) or even the institution, but to some “idea” of the institution, even one we don’t really “believe” in, is what makes us post-sacrificial.

But any concept with a “post” (or, for that matter, a “neo”) in it is still a placeholder, and therefore unsatisfactory. Now, we can say much more about how we have arrived, through those “Axial Age acquisitions,” at a “post-sacrificial” culture. Sacrifice is “embarrassing” because it has been discredited, and it has been discredited because the violent centralizing involved in sacrifice—we commit violence against this being that we all focus on in exchange for peace and prosperity—has been revealed as fraudulent. It’s our own mimetic desires that confer centrality on the “sacred” being, not any attribute of the being itself. And we see this because all sacrifice tends towards human sacrifice and, paradoxically, as Eric Gans shows in The End of Culture, does so the more God Himself is understood in “human” terms—that is, more as a mediator between humans than a central focus precluding the emergence of humans as centers in their own right. If the gods give us food, then we owe them food in return; if God has created us out of nothing, we owe him everything, even our firstborn. But how could even that be enough?

Human sacrifice emerges along with human hierarchy, as the first figures to make a claim to permanent centrality were sacral kings, who were no doubt often killed in manners that, with immense variation across cultures, became increasingly ritualized. The sacral king mediated between the community and the cosmos, and if that mediation went wrong sacrificing the king would restore it; at a certain point it would make sense to regularize the oscillation between effective and ineffective mediation. Divine kings introduced layers of bureaucratic mediation between themselves and those they ruled, so they themselves could no longer be sacrificed. But divine kings eventually established justice systems to deal with disputes between the new centers inevitably created within those new “layers” between themselves and the people. Regularized forms of compensation are established. Large scale imperative exchanges are established between the divine king and those situated in the various layers, all of whom bring tributes to the divine king who has, of course, provided his people with everything. With a justice system, injustice becomes a possibility; if injustice becomes a possibility, it is also possible for the system as a whole, in failing to remedy that injustice, to itself be unjust. And its unjust nature could be concentrated in a singular figure, a victim who has become meaningful in a new way, by being victimized precisely as a result of revealing systemic injustice. The sacrifice of such a victim in order to resolve some crisis would take on the ritual sacrificial forms but would be impossible to “contain” within those forms. This process would set in motion the erosion of sacrificial forms, and of the imperative exchange they institute.

So, the divine king inches ever closer to demanding a “total” gift or sacrifice, but can only do so in terms that are so monstrous that the more civilized regions of the system make it possible to see those terms as an indictment of divine kinship itself. From here, those in a position to negotiate in some way with the divine center can go in one of two directions: toward cynicism and nihilism, on the one hand; or, towards another form of “total donation” on the other. Cynicism and nihilism can only be a local phenomenon indulged in by the privileged. The new kind of total donation is to a new kind of center, which cannot be embodied in a central figure, and certainly not a central ruler—this is a center that commands a refusal to engage in the discredited forms of violent centralizing. A genuinely and completely post-sacrificial center would be devoted to propagating and embodying, or signifying, this command. Very few do so wholly, but it is only a certain number, which we couldn’t determine in advance, which would necessary to exemplify the limits of sacrifice and preventing the social order from being engulfed in it.

So, if we don’t want to call this order “post-sacrificial,” what should we call it? Part of the difficulty is that liberalism “launders” sacrificial imperative exchanges through a post-sacrificial order. Needless to say, scapegoating goes on constantly within a liberal order—much of it remains symbolic, which raises a question: are we irredeemable scapegoaters, so the best we can do is make scapegoating more symbolic, and less violent?; or does a liberal democratic system predicated upon symbolic scapegoating prevent us from more decisively marginalizing scapegoating? If the latter is the case, the only way of creating an order that would be more than merely “post-sacrificial” would be the establishment of an order we might call “charismatic autocracy.” “Charismatic” in Philip Rieff’s “graceful” sense of charisma as deferral in obedience to an absolute imperative (in our terms, the imperative to defer violent centralizing). “Autocracy,” meanwhile, is essential, because as long as we have hierarchical societies, someone will be at the center, and the only way to avoid constant accusations of illegitimate usurpations of the center and hidden powers behind the temporary occupant of the center would be to place the occupant of the center beyond any external criteria of “legitimacy.” That would represent a radical curtailment of sacrificial logics, because the desire to replace the figure at the center is the most “bad faith” desire possible because it self-evidently represents an attempt to be closer to the center oneself. A general renunciation of that desire would represent a quantum leap in the deferral power of all members of the social order. The argument for such an order would be predicated upon the assumption, for which we could find a wealth of practical examples, that symbolic scapegoating is really just a “gateway drug” prepping us for the real thing. The “charismatic” component of the “autocracy,” then, is less a quality possessed by than conferred upon the autocrat, who is himself in fact desacralized and represents nothing more than the need that someone occupy the center. (This doesn’t mean a social order wouldn’t want, and couldn’t arrange for, the best possible person to occupy the position—it just means that such arrangements must themselves be bound up with the irreducibility of the central authority.)

In grammatical terms, “charismatic autocracy” involves a movement past “imperative exchange” to “interrogative imperativity.” Under the regime of imperative exchange, declarative culture is ultimately a kind of scorekeeping, trying to figure out the respective “values” that are being exchanged. To this day, most discussions of morality take this form. But once the imperative is to resist or defer imperative exchanges, an interrogative, a question, is introduced explicitly into the proceedings. Not the question, “how much is this worth,” which is never a real question because it’s just a way of accommodating oneself to the powers framing the existing order; rather, the question is, what violent centralizing lies at the end of this imperative exchange? All the linguistic means by which you construct yourself as a center then become open to “interrogation,” as either demands for a better “deal” or “intimations” of the creation of new centers that would render any deal irrelevant. Only the demand for this state of questioning can satisfy the command for a total donation.

Within the imperative exchange, declaratives essentially involve haggling over prices—what one owes the gods/institutions, what they owe us, and, further down, what we owe to each other, whether in market terms or in terms of honor and kinship. Within interrogative imperativity, declaratives take on a far wider scope, that of converting possible (and impossible) imperative exchanges into a rule or constraint for deferring “analogous” imperative exchanges. The first question, rather than, “how do we get what we’re owed,” becomes more like, “what makes you think obligations can be calculated?” And then an inquiry is opened up into all the different ways people can imagined they’re owed this or that—and once the strict terms of obligation have been displaced many more such possibilities become imaginable. All the mythical and ritual imperatives you are obeying to imagine each and every one of them become evident. Narratives accordingly shift from telling of the spiraling out of control of one imperative economy until it leads to a reset, to putting all imperative economies in question, exposing the imbalance in all presumed balances.

The most powerful way of doing this is originary satire, which involves turning every threshold and boundary into a narrative wherein figures on both sides of the boundary or threshold turn into each other, so that the terms of some expected imperative exchange are reversed. That is, the “vocation” or telos of the sentence is represent other scenes within the scene of composing and hearing/reading the sentence itself. Everything grammar does—tense, mood, aspect, etc.—it does in order to articulate relationships between the scene of utterance and the other scene(s) it refers/defers to. In that case, all these boundaries and thresholds are themselves materials for originary satire: the relation between present and past, between a continual and a completed action, between possible and actual are all abstracted and re-embedded in narratives. It’s just as easy to say we spoke with each other a thousand years ago as it is to say we spoke with each other yesterday; that we are in the middle of doing something that’s been going on for decades and is further metastasizing even as we speak as it is to mention where we are right now; something that is unbelievably unlikely can be set alongside something that seems obvious; linguistically, you could be saying what I think as easily as I can. Originary satire targets chunks of language, stereotypical sentence types, which tend to harden into the marshalling of evidence for imperative exchanges, for their beneficial or inevitable nature—i.e., sentences that supplement imperative exchanges, rather than extracting samples of language from them so as to remind us that language is always received on a scene. In simpler terms, our expectations of one another rest on the bedrock of imperative exchanges, and the purpose of disciplinary spaces aimed at satirizing those expectations is so that we can see them, ultimately in order to construct charismatic and autocratic modes of interaction requiring more “input” into the construction of expectations. In truth, this is the most realistic use of language, because we are always, still, on the originary scene, which can never “close.”

The concept of “interrogative imperativity” makes it possible to pose more explicitly a question that has been implicit in my earlier discussions of literacy as a kind of supplementary originary scene: why is the scene of classical prose objectionable, or worth exposing? Because it fulfills one imperative of the declarative (to defer imperatives by “absenting” the demanded object) by renouncing the other imperative of the declarative—to articulate other scenes with the scene of language itself. This means that the literate declarative scene can only keep reiterating and justifying its own supplementations (again, all the “beliefs,” “assumptions,” “claims,” “suggestions,” “implications,” etc.) so as to sustain the unitary prose scene—it must systematically obfuscate the declarative’s grounding in the ostensive-imperative world. Classical prose and the “classic” disciplines are interested in making beliefs, assumptions, etc., unequivocal, that is, used the same way by everyone—for this reason, they cannot construct, or even imagine, the possible ostensives and imperatives that would come before any “belief” or “assumption.” Originary writing, in that case, restores this grounding, but not, of course, by pretending the literacy revolution never happened. Rather it takes the nominalizations constructed by classic prose as names which we can apply beyond their restriction, imposed by classic prose, to the unitary scene—most directly, by applying them to the disciplinary iterations of classic prose itself. So, originary writing obeys an imperative from the center discovered/invented by the nominalizations of classic prose and the disciplines. That imperative is to generate more potential ostensives and what these ostensives do is name sites of emergent dangerous violent centralization, as early on in their onset as possible. Some nominalizations will end up being genuine names for practices of advanced deferral; some will turn out to have been incitements toward violent centralization—the work of the disciplinary space is to iterate these nominalizations/names so as to discover/expose which is which (or to detour them to new uses).

When we study “reality,” that is, what we are doing is inventing and deploying concepts enabling us to detect potential sites of mimetic contagious outbreak. We can do this because of the cognitive consequences of literacy, which parallel and contribute to the discrediting of sacrifice. But classical prose and its metaphysical superstructure just contain and normalize sacrifice by classifying and ordering the markings of the potential victim rather than relying on the spontaneous crisis. Still, it is only through that prose and those superstructures that we can generate the terms of a charismatic autocracy. The supplementary concepts used to simulate a shared scene for writer and reader can be turned into means for generating new scenes of origin of deferred scapegoating. If you take a concept out of its context so as to conceptualize the context itself you create a disciplinary space within that context—that disciplinary space will either reveal that the discipline (the “context”) is too bound to its unitary scene to generate further potential ostensives, or recover and prolong the origin of the discipline/context in a recontextualized ostensive.

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