Category Archives: GA

The Grammar of Technology

Here’s why I talk so much, and so abstractly, about language: my goal is to develop a way of thinking that would really be a way of speaking and writing that would dismantle and reassemble the utterances in which it participates and would do so in the process of participating; while at the same time just talking. This implies the possibility of people who would want to train themselves and each other in this manner of discourse. Why? Because it would make it possible to apply more focused and concentrated force upon all the weak points of the reigning ontology and construct a solid one out of its ruins. Central to this project is an account of technology, and ultimately contemporary technology, in terms of originary grammar. I touched a bit on this in a recent post (Technology and Magic, Doings and Happenings), but that is still preliminary. Ultimately, we need a way of creating an absolutist ontology out of the ways people already speak about communications and information technology. I’ll take another run at it here.

I must first review the concept of “imperative exchange,” which I have made much use of and still see much promise in. I should emphasize that this is not a concept of Gans’s, but one I have developed through a reading of some of the early chapters of Gans’s The End of Culture. An ostensive culture is one that takes for granted the presence of the object, so only gestures are necessary—the most basic elements of ostensive culture are warnings which can be assumed to be immediately intelligible, like “look out!” These kinds of utterances can sound a lot like imperatives, and can even be imperatives, grammatically speaking, but if I tell you to “look out!” because there’s a bee flying around your ahead I’m not telling you what to do; it may not even clear what you should do, other than be aware. Human culture was originally ostensive, but it’s clear that it still contains a thick ostensive layer, and always must—the fact that we still have names testifies to that.

The imperative emerges (is discovered/invented) when the ostensive fails, or is issued “inappropriately.” One person names or refers to an object assumed to be present—the situation here must be less immediately urgent than “look out!,” perhaps involving some kind of cooperation—when the object is in fact absent, leading the other person, who wants to maintain linguistic presence, to retrieve it. Now we have an imperative. There is a lot involved here—to see how much procure the forthcoming re-issue, in streamlined form, of Gans’s seminal The Origin of Language—the beginnings of social hierarchy, but also a kind of intellectual hierarchy insofar as the person receiving the order understands the desire of the other better than the one giving orders does; we also have the beginning of a specifically human temporality, because, unlike the immediacy of the ostensive, here there is at least some lapse between the sign and its “completion.”

On the originary scene the center doesn’t “speak,” but for the members of the group the center is repelling their desire—that is, a kind of intentionality is attributed to the center, and registered in the sign, but this intentionality cannot be given “voice.” This becomes possible with the imperative. It becomes possible to make requests of the center, and to construct commands coming from the center. It’s impossible to imagine the members of the group making requests without framing that request in terms of their response to a command, since doing so would be tantamount to placing themselves outside of the sign and community. By the same token, compliance with any command from the center must be considered as looking toward an ultimate reward—first, it was the consumption of the central object itself, but as new imperatives are developed, the rewards to be expected from obedience will become more varied. Hence my claim that all interactions with the center take the form of an imperative exchange.

The next step is to posit that imperative exchange constitutes all of our relations with objects. If I work with a hammer, I am commanding the hammer to drive in the nail, while the hammer is constructed in such a way as to command me to hold it and swing it in just such a way. We see this most clearly when we make a mistake, or misuse a tool, and are forced (commanded) to ask, in essence, what does this thing want me to do with it? If we fix, refine, or improve our things, we are stepping back and giving them second order imperatives: we are telling them to work a certain way so as to tell us to work a certain way. With the development of technology, “we” (this “we” becomes increasingly problematic) create an imperative order, in which we command things to command other things to command yet other things… until, finally, the command makes its way to the end users. The end users then engage in imperative exchange with the technological object as it presents itself to them, which of course occludes the entire technological or imperative order that brought it to them. Facebook or Twitter users could, of course, propose changing some elements of the social media they use, but only a very few could ever do so with the entire medium, and all the decisions made along the way, present in their thinking—and even if they are aware of it, there’s nothing they can do regarding the longer decision chain, and will ultimately end up busying themselves with the available options.

Along the way, of course, the development of the declarative proceeds parallel to imperative culture. To recapitulate briefly several earlier discussions, the declarative identifies something that prevents the completion of the imperative exchange. The earliest discourse was myth, which involved narratives of the central figure—usually some animal. The animal-ancestor created the group, supplies the group with its necessities, punishes the group, fights against the groups enemies, offers words of wisdom, etc. If the people were saved, it was because they needed saving, and if they needed saving it was because they failed to uphold their end of an imperative exchange, or perhaps the central figure didn’t hold up its end (it must have its reasons), and the narrative comes along to demonstrate what needs to be done to bring the system of exchange back into accord. It eventually becomes possible to tell stories of members on the group, modeled on the stories of the central figure—what I have been calling “anthropomorphization.” Within the mythical and magical system, the distance between creators and end users remains very small—one could say it hardly exists at all. When we are nostalgic for “unalienated” conditions, in which all members of the community were in sync with each other and therefore with themselves, that is what we are yearning for.

And it is, of course, what we can’t have. “Alienation” begins with the usurpation of the center by a member of the group, the Big Man. All imperative exchanges henceforth go through the Big Man. The Big Man himself emerges out of the process of imperative exchange: in the gift competition, whereby various tribal chiefs try to best each other in showing their ability to provide for the community, the Big Man is the one who so out-gifts the others that the competition is rendered moot. The Big Man is first of all the center of distribution: gifts come to him and he recycles them back out to the community. This in itself won’t change the system of production, but once the Big Man must mobilize the community in battle against other communities, led by other Big Men, and once the victorious Big Man dislocates the “subjects” of his enemies and must find some use for them himself, new modes of production are initiated, first of all based on slavery and war. The new modes of production require at least some degree of abstraction, as the sovereign now acts directly upon subjects outside of their established social settings and traditional modes of life.

The imperative, as I suggested above, contains a double asymmetry: on one side, it is a command, in which one person obeys another; on the other side, what is for the imperator or commander already done (the imperative for the one issuing it is really just a time-delayed ostensive) is for the recipient of the imperative a mere possibility. The one who will compose a declarative exploring the conditions of fulfilling the imperative will be he who has to carry it out. This is essentially the relation between the king and the priests: the priests need to construct a reality that enables the king’s command. This was the function of astrology, the foremost “science,” physical and political, in the ancient kingdoms. The heavens represented a hierarchical, orderly world, just like the one on earth, and the high degree of predictability studies of the movements of the stars provided implied that such control was also possible on earth. The technological accomplishments of antiquity, their imperative order of things, comprised mostly extending the power and celebrating the glory of the God Emperor.

The axial acquisitions involved making the originary scene, rather than duplications of the worldly hierarchy, the model for both “priests” and “merchants.” The ruler must do justice and must give back to his people. The imperative order of things is gradually extended from massive hydraulic projects and war to industry. The model stays the same: the new proletariat is driven off their ancestral lands and atomized in cities, just like the slave hordes were once ripped from their now-destroyed communities. The industrialists are essentially generals. The command chain, leading from those who initiate the imperative order of things, and going through all those who extend the chain and standardize the “links,” until the end users, keeps getting longer. The end users are now located somewhere in the production chain as well, but the most constrained end users are also those most distant from the origins of the production chain. The chain becomes more communicative, as innovations at one end transform the possibilities for those at the other end more rapidly. A technological system, like a discipline, is self-referential: everything signifies insofar as it directs us from one element of the system to another. Unlike the discipline, which the absolute imperative retrieved in the axial age commands us to form, the origin of the technological system is obscured by the system itself.

This really is the fundamental problem of modernity, the one chewed over endlessly by Marxists and traditionalists alike: how to address the incommensurability between the constantly transformed and extended imperative order of things and those who occupy only one link on the chain? This really means everyone, even if the alienation is most evident with those who overwhelming receive, and rarely issue, commands. But one more thing: the development of post-axial imperative orders of things coincided with the post-axial deconstruction of the imperative order of people—industrial and post-industrial armies and reserve armies have also been pawns and proxies in the power struggles of the elites; and, just as important, the imperative order of things has never been made to conform to the imperative order of people. The state, in its process of centralization (creating an iron chain of command that somehow keeps producing broken links) has made itself a vehicle of masters of the imperative orders of things who want political order to be modeled on their own self-representation to the end users. The end users are locked into the liberal ratchet while the imperative order of things verticalizes and the imperative order of sovereignty sprawls (which sprawling in turn provides the model for orders to the end users). “Alienation” doesn’t quite cover it.

The path to order is to seek out a straight line of imperatives, as far back as you can go, and start obeying them. Let your declaratives expose the reciprocity that line of imperatives demands of you, and point out where those imperative exchanges have failed. At least some of those failed imperative exchanges can be reconstructed, and you can treat some power center as if it is more explicit about its place in the imperative order than it appears to be. That makes you a producer in the sovereign order, with some relation, however distant, to a possible end user. Producers attract other producers. Most of us will remain end users in the imperative order of things. Still, anyone can get to work on exposing the imperatives bearing down on the end user. Perhaps the most prominent one right now is to present yourself as data to be looted. But what could be more social than the data that regularly peels off of us? Our resistance to our conversion into data might simply the humiliation of having our final liberal illusions shredded. Data is itself converted back into the command to adhere to the norm, to contribute to the averaging out. Each such command can be placed on the boundary between absolutist and liberal ontologies: “they” want your data to sell you things, to sell you yourself as someone who transcends the data; but data unrolls difference after difference that the liberal order wants veiled but which can be so easily exposed with just a little nudge, a marginal inappropriateness in your obedience to some command. The averaging out has more than a hint of mob rule, in which the imperative follows directly upon the ostensive; that’s a time to hearken back to an imperative that has been raised above the ostensive and provides a little model of secure rule: a model, a norm, rather than an average.

Regime Transplantation

How to replace a liberal democratic regime with an absolutist one? We’re clearly not thinking in terms of a revolution, which would replace the liberal democratic regime with an even more radically democratic one. There might be elements of regime change similar to military coups, but military regimes don’t really change anything—they’re just placeholders until the powerful and propertied can get their act together and re-establish some mixed authoritarian/liberal regime. Some portion of the “high” (the corporate elite, the top military brass, perhaps presidents of universities and heads of other institutions) would have to break from the high-low vs. the middle action and work on preserving the middle against the high-low coalition. Today’s populism, which is primarily interested in order, stability and normalcy, and directs its resentments towards those who undermine all three, is a kind of faint image of what that might look like. Presumably, we have to imagine some deep crisis, with liberalism confronting problems it has no solution to and, perhaps, rivals it can no longer contend with—“we” are then prepared to be prepared to be the ones with solutions, the ones who can contend. A lot of people, at different levels of the social order, would have to have their minds very clear. And that’s really all we can do now—keep clarifying out minds.

In my previous post I argued that the marginal security force is a kind of fulcrum and measuring rod upon which to focus energies: when the security forces start obeying the people they would have been arresting a short time ago, things have demonstrably changed. I’ll suggest another, more political, focus, here. Consider the question, why anyone is obliged to pay attention to the ravings of Black Lives Matter, Pussyhat feminists, LGBT, antifa, immigration activists, and all the rest. Reactionary Future made a very good point a while back (it certainly wasn’t the first time he said something along these lines), asking, why pay attention to what these lunatics say, when we can just go right to the top and see who supports, funds and promotes them? The only reason to worry about being called a racist is because you can lose your job, get kicked off social media, be targeted by on and off-line mobs, and be permanently ostracized. And obviously the BLM people themselves have no means to do all that; the Left as a whole has not the means to do all that. Only corporations, foundations and other institutions (universities, media companies) have the power. So, the real question is, why does a corporation like Kellogg’s fund an organization like Black Lives Matter? And the answer is simple: anti-discrimination law.

I’ve pointed out before that words like “sexism,” “racism” and “homophobia” don’t really mean anything—no one could give you a clear definition of any of them; indeed, they’re not meant to be defined, they are “always already” weaponized. The meaning of “racism” is that you use the term to identify “racists.” But this is because “racism” is the ideological expression of anti-discrimination law. Once you have laws forbidding discrimination on the basis of race, you need a concept like “racism” so that you know who to punish for breaking the law. Paradoxes abound here. Once “discrimination” is against the law, no one will ever admit they are discriminating—so, if we have some employer who doesn’t want to hire blacks, he’ll just tell prospective black employees that they’re not qualified enough, or they don’t fit into the company’s culture; or he’ll fire them quickly for being lazy or insubordinate. But, of course, that means that all those criteria—qualifications, competence, industriousness, loyalty, obedience, etc., all become proxies for “racism,” and will eventually be seen to be coded “white.” Also, while anti-discrimination laws are originally formulated in impeccable liberal, individualist terms, forbidding discrimination against whites as well as black, it’s perfectly obvious that no one would ever consider such laws if racial discrimination was seen a randomly distributed occurrence, with blacks discriminating against Mexicans here, Jews discriminating against Chinese there, blacks discriminating against Pacific Islanders somewhere else, etc. No, the laws are implicitly (at least) collectivist and reparationist from the start, impugning the majority as “discriminators,” making them inherently suspect. The notion that America is a racist or “white supremacist” culture is simply a necessary ideological “superstructure” upon the anti-discrimination “base.” There’s no other way to use these laws other than to make such assumptions. Ironically, it is here that “profiling” is actually built into the enforcement of the law.

Now, it is because of anti-discrimination laws that Kellogg’s funds BLM. Corporations can be sued for discrimination, and the lawsuits can be very damaging in monetary terms and also in terms of reputation. There is no real defense against them, and the inevitable extension of anti-discrimination laws to cover women, gays, etc. renders institutions even more defenseless. How do you prove you haven’t created a “hostile workplace”? Well, the courts will tell you what to do, which means the attorneys for the “victims” will tell you, and what they will tell is, first of all, give us and the institutions sponsoring us lots of money. But they will also tell you to restructure your internal corporate relations in such a way as to provide yourself with a prophylaxis against further lawsuits: quotas, beefed-up human relations, diversity officers, employee workshops, community outreach, the works. In short, the entire victimary movement comes down to the government as a shakedown racket. (The Obama Administration cut out some middle men and perfected it as an art form, but there’s really no other way anti-discrimination law can work.) In the end, the people who really believe in this stuff and will implement it enthusiastically take over the positions of power—after all, they’ll be better at it than anyone else. Meanwhile, the institutions that replenish the ranks of the elites and essentials make sure to train people so as to take up those positions. I apologize for taking so much time to state the obvious—we all know this, right? I have to state a little more of the obvious: the reason for anti-discrimination law is because such law is pretty much the Platonic form of the high-low vs. the middle strategy used by Power, in this case the State, to centralize power. “Discrimination” is precisely what makes the “middle” the middle: standards, gradations, deferences, differential loyalties, etc. Attacking discrimination in the broadest sense is the most effective means imaginable of demolishing all social constructs that can’t be reduced to the relation between the individual and the state. The very commandeering of the word “discrimination” for the purpose has proved prophetic, as it has become sometimes illegal, but always immoral, to discriminate in favor of intelligence against stupidity, good against bad, beautiful against ugly, competent against incompetent, and so on.

So, anti-discrimination law delenda est. Nothing much new there, and if anyone who wanted to had the power to do something about it, we wouldn’t have to talk about it. The only thing to do is to “become worthy,” and the way to do that is by scouring our minds clean of any remaining anti-discrimination debris and learning how to be unresponsive in the right ways when others wish to echolocate in their social environment by pinging their virtue squeaks off of us. It makes a difference, how much it’s impossible to tell, to have individuals in institutions who are recognizably human in all ways to the SJWs but refuse to provide even the slightest indication of being on board. No “sure I believe in civil rights but sometimes it seems things have gone too far…”; no “whatever happened to Dr. King’s dream that we would be judged by the content of our character…”; no “of course we need strong sexual harassment laws to provide a safe work environment for women but there must be safeguards for the accused…”; etc. Maybe there’s nothing new here either—we have to be completely uncucked, which has been obvious for a while. The racket has been rigged from the start—no nostalgia.

You want to be the one they want to get, but can’t. They can tell there’s something not right about you—you’re silent when you’re supposed to contribute the obligatory cliché, you seem amused rather than appalled in hearing about the latest Trumpocity, you redirect virtue-signaling sessions back to overlooked points of fact and law, you bring conversations about fairness and equity back to the primary function of the institution, you come across as a little bit more naïve than possible when asking them what, exactly, is wrong with making some forbidden statement (why is that racist?). But they can’t quite pin anything on you. You even seem like a kind of nice guy, and maybe good at your job, and it doesn’t compute. Those who want to know will see that you’re a discriminating man, though, and they will sense, tentatively, at first, that they can talk with you. As more companies and institutions go crazy, like Google, and become subject to anti-anti-discrimination lawsuits or just mere scandal, and the release of documents and testimony from the inside becomes more common and feared, everyone will wonder whether you just might be the guy to do something like that. All conversations, work-related and otherwise, in your presence will come to have a certain “pre-leaked” character to it. You represent the possibility of a kind of counter-surveillance and exposure, which they will model in their imagination precisely on what they would like to do to you. And how many of you are there? They’ve noticed you (and even there they’re not quite sure) but who haven’t they noticed?

I contend that this is a kind of power. Just as no regime can do without competent, loyal security forces who will nevertheless not allow themselves to be wantonly attacked even by friends of the regime, no institution can completely do without those who fit the profile of the discriminating guy. Some people have to be doing real work, and many others have to at least gesture toward it. The elites who realize that things have gone too far and are in a position to do something about it will be aware of the discriminating guy—they will be heartened by his presence and know how to use him. (And he will know how to be used.) The discriminating guys will have acquired intimate knowledge of the enemy, and will be relieved to be able to deal with them ruthlessly. Entering the new regime, ensuring its transplantation with minimal disruption and immediately evident positive effects, will just be a continuation of what all these guys have been doing all along. They will be at the point where not only does talk of “non-discrimination” fill them with disgust, but where the stupidity of mass culture, mass propaganda, electoral politics, and elections themselves are becoming pretty clear. (The greatest service the left is providing us now—it’s really beyond estimation—is a demystification of liberal freedoms—speech, assembly, vote—far more powerful than anything we could have disseminated. No one could say, “but here at least you’re free to say what you like” in any Western country with a straight face anymore.) Just like I just want to get my job done here, it will be easy to understand how the new national leadership just wants to get its job done as well—endless “debate” catering to the lowest common denominator, majority rule, a scandal-mongering media wouldn’t help me become a better engineer, doctor, teacher, manager, business owner, so why should it help him be a better sovereign? The only question I have is, how many discriminating guys and marginal security forces need to read analyses like this in order to be prepared to do what they must?

Force and Education

The fulcrum of any regime is the security force that maintains public order. The sign of regime change is that the security force is replaced or, far more common, stops obeying one master and starts obeying another. The purpose of public protest is to test the security forces, which must repress, contain or protect the protesters—or some combination of all three. The point might be to demonstrate that the security forces will protect you against enemies (counter-protesters), confirming that you are an integral part of the regime. Or, it might be to test the security force’s loyalty to the regime—if you provide the security forces grounds for arresting or physically attacking you (by attacking them, or violating the rules they establish for you), or if you know that the regime is hostile to your protests and has or may have ordered the security forces to suppress them, then you confront those forces with a choice: either attack the protesters in the name of the regime or signal disaffection with your superiors by refraining. If your aim is to change the regime, then your entire analysis and strategy can be reduced to this fulcrum: what could you do that would increase the chance of security force defection? We could refine the question further: what could you do to increase the chance that a sample of the security forces will defect, and to in turn confront their own brethren with the choice of loyalty or defection. And not just any sample, but a sample that might serve as a “tipping point.”

It’s easy to minimize the role of such mass protests in revolutionary change and to point to the “real” shift in power going on behind the scenes. And, no doubt, powers antagonistic to the sovereign, indigenous and/or foreign, must be supporting the protesters for them to have gotten to this point. But those antagonistic forces are no more in complete control of the outcome than the sovereign—they lay their bets, put their fingers on the scale and see what happens. And what happens does depend on that confrontation on the front lines. The proxies do have to fight it out. So, if your politics are focused on regime change, you want to be able to game out the possibilities of such confrontations. And all serious politics regards regime change, either advancing it or preventing it—if you’re the sovereign, you want to ensure that the security forces make the right choice in that encounter. So, we can reduce all the things we talk about in politics, all the policy issues, all the outrages, all the big ideas, to that single question of the marginal security force: what will tilt the balance one way or the other when the regime hangs in the balance. The competent sovereign who wants to ensure that things never get anywhere near that point nevertheless will do so by reasoning backward from that point, and taking measures to ensure that each rogue move by some power center that might push us slightly closer to crisis is never taken. At the same time, keeping that fulcrum in mind helps us understand the forces of disorder better: with greater or lesser awareness, all the efforts of the left are aimed maximizing the likelihood that when push comes to shove, the security forces will take orders from them, or those favorable to them. Even the formation of paramilitary extra-governmental forces aims at the existing security forces—no one could ever expect to come anywhere completely replacing the existing forces with one’s own.

So, in a roundabout way, even discussions about, say, tax policy, are ultimately aimed the marginal security force. That marginal security force is more likely to obey the guy you like because the security force considers, however distantly, that change in taxes to make the system as a whole more worth defending; or, perhaps, it will make the guys on your side richer, and the security force will consider it a better bet to obey the wealthier side. Needless to say, the other side tries to give your policy proposal a completely different implication, trying to convince the marginal security force that it would make the order embodied by your side less worth defending. And that’s really what it comes down to: what’s worth defending, with the gun in your hand right now, in solidarity with your comrades, rather than more abstract considerations of “legitimacy.” This seems to me a very good way to focus our attention on political issues: we have in our mind whom, what type of figure, we’d like the marginal security force to obey in a crunch, and whatever we support or oppose should be with an eye toward making that force likelier to do so. You could say that it’s very hard to predict what the marginal security force might find worth defending some balmy May day in 2028, but that just means we should always be singling out what is most worth defending here and now, and then tomorrow, and next year, because this doesn’t change radically continuously, and it will change less the more it is emphasized and inculcated.

One very good consequence of this approach is that it is a way of constantly baiting the left to support exactly those things that are least likely to lead the security forces to support them. What the marginal security force must find worthiest to defend are competent hierarchies, professionalism, loyalty, and courage. These are precisely the institutional structures and virtues the left has the greatest contempt for, because all of them presuppose a social and moral core that sets the tone for the rest of the social order. To put it in today’s parlance, all these forms are “white.” The left cannot attack them as such, but since rigorous adherence to them will inevitably “privilege” the majority and best prepared culture, the left will have to attack them as exclusionary. The precise formulations will change, but we can say, for now, that our goal should be for the marginal security force to not care when he is told his competent, loyalty and courage implicate him in white supremacy and patriarchy. He should be prepared to immediately identify these charges as indicating low status and uncontained resentment on the part of those making them—the charges themselves should lead to the conclusion that we are dealing with people to whom no mercy can be shown. Bringing up “whiteness” in any discussion must be made to seem the most incendiary thing there is, veritable fighting words.

I’m suggesting that the high-low vs. the middle scenarios available to the elites now have their limits. Let’s say that the major corporations and foundations keep funneling money into BLM, Antifa, various pussyhat movements, the next iteration of Occupy Wall Street, violent environmentalists, etc. They have to do this because simply giving money to media outlets and politicians to try and get people to vote for more power for the left is insufficient—if it’s just a question of getting the middle to passively support the low with its votes, why should they bother, regardless of how much you harangue them? You need an army, however rag-tag, to engage in actual confrontations that will extract concessions—i.e., you need blackmail leverage. So, these groups must enter into continual confrontation with security forces, local, state and national. We already have sense of all the different ways this can go. The local politicians can tell the police to stand down and allow the leftist rioters to wreak havoc. For that matter, politicians can, as they are now doing in Europe, have the police ignore rape and spend their time arresting people who post Islamophobically on Facebook. I wonder whether this is sustainable, though. If leftist progromists know that the police will stand down, it can’t be long before they start attacking the police—passive, neutered security forces that nevertheless provide a fat target for attacking “fascism,” or ‘white supremacy,” will be too tempting to ignore. Can the security forces be ordered to allow themselves to be injured and killed? It seems to me at a certain point they will start to choose other careers, and you will have greatly weakened and ineffective security forces. But the state needs security forces, and to keep them they will have to let them do their job at least to some extent. And if they let them do their job to some extent, we are back where we started, with the security forces pondering whether it would be better for them to obey this or another source of power.

I now want to suggest that the question of the marginal security force converges with what can seem like the opposite end of the social spectrum: education. We can see education most simply as the recruitment and replenishing of what Imperial Energy calls “elites” and “essentials”—those who actually participate in rule, and those who provide the forms of knowledge and management the rulers require. (The “expendables” are also educated, but that would happen as a result of the aforementioned recruitment, simply because in order to continue replenishing the elites and essentials you’d need to cast a wide net, providing access to knowledge and skills for many who will never use them past a certain point.) The focus on the marginal security force provides us with a way of organizing education as well. A good education system will ensure that joining the security force is seen as “essential,” which is to say honored, and its code will be prioritized within the social order. Every educated individual is to be made to see himself, if not as that potential marginal security force, then as one whose own work contributes to the clarity of the chain of command within which the marginal security force is located. The hypothetical dilemmas that would form the substance of moral and ethical education would focus on obeying commands and responding to the point at which obedience must give way to judgment. You are given a general order to “suppress” a riot, but the means you would ordinarily use to do so might inflame the rioters, perhaps because the guy next to you is the marginal security force at that moment. As a sociologist your main interest might be the dispersion of mobs into small groups that make this dilemma less likely to occur, or easier to resolve if it does. As an architect you think in terms of designs that would mitigate or eliminate such situations; as a doctor or medical researcher you want any confrontations to be less deadly; as a psychologist, you develop scripts for the security forces to rehearse.

A side effect of seeing education explicitly as the process of recruitment to the elites and essentials is making “protest” unthinkable. Protest really serves no purpose other than to draw “your” elites into battle with “their” elites, by forcing them to bid for control or influence over the security forces. The more the marginal security force is made the center of political reasoning, the less sense it would make to enter into confrontation with them. In a well governed order there would be no protest. Still, such a possibility would always be considered as a frame for considering any changes in the form of the rule: would a particular change eventually, indirectly, activate the marginal security force? And by the same token we can see why in a poorly governed, democratic order, protests must be a regular occurrence—it’s the way the “reserve armies” of the various elites keep track of their standing—how expendable are they in relation to other expendables? And it’s also the way the elites keep their networks of power active. By focusing on the marginal security force, we direct our attention right to the middle of the middle, the thing all power forces must ultimately reckon with. The expected effect of any idea, action or policy on the marginal security force can give us a precise measure of its value.

Order and Repetition

Anna Wierzbicka’s Natural Semantic Metalanguage and her associated analyses of the English language should be devastating to the modern social sciences. All of those moral and political principles presumed to be universal, to be imposed everywhere, all of those concepts meant to be of universal theoretical application—they don’t even necessarily translate into other languages. Evidence, rights, fairness, justice, experience, sense—the imperatives to be drawn from such words are limited to the language in which they are embedded. Wierzbicka doesn’t discuss in detail concepts like liberty, equality, justice, individual, and so on, but not doubt historical limitations would be identified with all of these as well. And what about the objectivizing terminology of more recent political theory and discourse: system, structure, network, institution, norms, theory and so on? How far do they translate?

The implication here is not that we should only conduct political discussions in Wierzbicka’s Natural Semantic Metalanguage; rather, it is that we should treat all of these terms as historical, whether as weapons of intra-social warfare or genuine discovery, or some of both. And if they are genuine discoveries, they remain marked by the conditions of their emergence: concepts are answers to specific questions, and once they circulate free of those questions they degrade into propaganda tools. Bloody Shovel, in his latest Leninism and Bioleninism post claims that the most consequential invention of the 20th century was the power-seeking clique; but the real discovery was the discipline, of which the clique is a degraded shadow. That all knowledge is generated through collaborative spaces in which shared attention is paid to some object defined by the space itself was first asserted, as far as I know, by Charles Sanders Peirce, but has been a thread through the most significant 20th century thought-currents, with thinkers like Canguilhem and Bachelard in France, R.G. Collingwood, Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn in the Anglosphere, Wittgenstein and Fleck in Germany, and others, contributing to the only understanding of knowledge consistent with the hypothesis of the originary scene.

This theory of knowledge, which assumes that objects of knowledge are constructed by a collaborative, ultimately institutionalized space of knowledge, may sound relativistic, but there is no need to deny that some concepts, once constructed, can endure and become embedded in successive disciplinary spaces, ultimately becoming traditions that continue to yield truths. It is also the case that the boundary between “pre-scientific” and “scientific” knowledge must be drawn differently in discussing the social world than in dealing with the natural one. Important differences already exist in the natural sciences: no value can meaningfully be introduced into any of the concepts used to construct equations in quantum physics, but biology is meaningless without concepts like “health” and “sickness,” which are inherently value-laden. Likewise, in the social world, the concepts taken up scientifically must have had their origins in in the lives of communities, where the scientists themselves originate. So, for example, even the most unintelligent person in the most secluded and ignorant community has, as long as that community has a hierarchy (has moved beyond hunter-gatherer conditions), about as good an idea of what a “king” is as any of us do. Insofar as absolutism is the science of the implications of “kingship,” our discipline is continuous with, even as it radically breaks with, that peasant’s.

In human affairs, in fact, the disciplinary space must continuously be distinguished from and set up against non-disciplinary spaces. In general, a disciplinary space emerges when enough people realize that some word or network of words can no longer be used in the taken for granted way it has been used, and that it’s worth stopping and thinking about what those words mean and where they came from in the first place. This stopping and thinking will always be a minority taste, but if the disciplinary space is to created out of the non-disciplinary space there must be something disciplinary about the non-disciplinary space as well. The electrons physicists think about don’t have a shared focus of their own but the people we think about do. Fads, fashions, enthusiasms, cults, fanaticisms all constitute little spaces of a kind of expertise that qualify people to enter and disqualify people from entering them. These spaces are at their most disciplinary precisely when they’re not trying to imitate and import terminology and methodology from some adjacent science. They are at the very least expert in sustaining shared attention, or linguistic presence, under conditions that otherwise would disperse it. This has nothing to do with “respecting” these spaces, although that’s not a bad approach unless there’s a very good reason to approach one of them otherwise. But since such spaces by definition do point at something, a test of any social science is whether it can point at the same thing within a more integrated conceptual vocabulary and a reality that doesn’t require the inquirer to be at the center. All of the words we use scientifically must have had their origins in some non-scientific use, from which they were lifted and transformed.

In this case the fundamental starting point for any social scientific disciplinary space is the difference between the disciplinary space and what we could call the “attentional” spaces it inhabits. Within those attentional spaces the disciplinary inquirer finds materials and attracts recruits. The disciplinary space is also a pedagogical space. The difference between the two spaces can only be revealed by displaying some content from the attentional space in two ways: one, as it appears within that space itself and, two, the way it appears within the disciplinary space. That material is shown to be repeatable in two different ways, depending on which side of the boundary it is placed. This further means that the most direct object of inquiry of the discipline is the different ways things get repeated; which is to say the fundamental object is differential repetition. Differential repetition is also constitutive of the sign, which must be repeated as the same sign in order to have meaning, and which can never be repeated in the same way. We can then bring all our inquiry into the vast array of social rituals, customs, norms, laws, institutions, modes of government, and so on within the frame of differential repetition. The sign depends on its repetition for its existence, which means it depends upon its hearer, reader, percipient, or viewer. Gans’s model for the succession of elementary speech forms is extraordinarily useful in thinking about how this happens. Someone names an object, assuming it is available; another realizes it’s not there, but, not wanted to break linguistic presence (and increase the risk of conflict) procures the object—an ostensive has, through differential repetition, become an imperative; at least it has once it is repeated as an imperative.

All institutional and historical developments can be explained along these lines: someone repeating a sign which in turn requires some supplementation to itself be completed and that supplementation entails some institutional innovation. Struggles for power follow from someone pointing to the place of power in time of need and someone seizing that place because no one seems to be there to redeem the sign. Of course, we can be wrong about this, and signs can be supplemented with cynical or hostile intent. But we could only know that within a disciplinary space carved out of the attentional space of power. History is the history of relations between attentional and disciplinary spaces and, as I have been suggesting in recent posts, ending history (history in the sense of a succession of empires each purporting to be the empire to end all empires because it is the redemptive empire) means implanting disciplinary spaces firmly within attentional spaces. Attentional spaces, like all spaces, are implicitly absolutist—they want the world held steady while they pursue their interest—but they can’t know themselves to be so, and can easily get distracted by and drawn into schemes of subversion which provide compelling centers of attention. Disciplinary spaces can know themselves to be absolutist because their participants know that only within an ordered state can the activities of the discipline be fully self-generated and therefore genuinely disciplinary. Nothing is more deadly to the disciplinary space than the infusion of power struggles and nothing is more favorable than power resting upon the competent pursuit of a mission.

So, absolutist politics within a liberal and democratic environment, or “auditioning,” is the ongoing demonstration and performance of differential repetition. It’s as if we’re always saying, what you want and demand doesn’t really make sense in the current order, while at the same time being an expression of the actual disorder that is current; but that just means that you do want something, and you do want it to make sense, and since we are always capable of making sense of things we can discuss the kind of order that might translate your desire into something worthy and attainable. And we really should learn how to translate others’ actual words and actions into worthy and attainable goals within a genuine order—genuine because it generates precisely these goals and the words and actions by which they are framed. The disciplinary space joins the attentional space and works on making it disciplinary by making the relation between subject and object, between those with the desires and resentments and the reality resistant to it, itself the real object of study. We turn their ostensives into imperatives and take their imperatives through interrogatives to declaratives. Each experience and fear of disorder has its own imaginary of order, and that imaginary of order can always be made explicit and distinguished from other forms of order. Everything that happens can then be taken as indicative of the divergent possibilities of those respective forms of order, and increasingly rigorous test of them –and then we have a disciplinary space emerge within the attentional one.


Technology and Magic, Doings and Happenings

In Eric Gans’s analysis, in The Origin of Language (a new, streamlined edition of which is forthcoming), of the invention/discovery of the declarative sentence he identifies the first act of predication as an “operator of negation” in response to an imperative (instead of complying with the imperative). An operator of negation is an imperative issued to not do something: don’t smoke! Don’t cross the street when the light is red! Don’t talk to strangers!, Etc. This kind of imperative is clearly more complex than imperatives that can be fulfilled, and “verified” or “authenticated”: if I say “bring me a glass of water” and the water is brought, I say thanks, and we’re finished—nothing in the imperative is left hanging. But if I tell you not to smoke, you will never be done not smoking. The attitude the imperator has to the one issued the operator of negation is what Gans calls “normative awaiting”: checking in, keeping an eye on you, more broadly setting in place expectations and, if I really want you to obey, pointing the way toward the formation of habits that will keep you on the straight and narrow. The operator of negation must originate in the original prohibition, created on the originary scene, directed toward the group’s desire, converging on the central object.

The operator of negation is really a remarkable solution to the problem Gans has taken on here—a problem, it is worth saying, I don’t believe anyone has ever posed as such, much less tried to solve, much less actually solved. Part of this original sentence, or proto-sentence, is what Gans calls the “negative ostensive,” a paradoxical term that involves confirming the presence of the desired object in the other’s imagination while refuting the implicit assumption of its actual presence. There is a sense in which the word is proffered as a replacement for the thing. But why would this work? There seems to be no force behind it—either the imperator will pursue his demand, in which case nothing has been settled; or he will cease, but why would that mean anything more than that he has not the power he would need to enforce the demand? Why, for that matter, would the one issued the demand think to repeat the name of the requested object? How would he be trying to sustain linguistic presence? The negative operator provides the necessary counter-force, meeting imperative with superior imperative—operator of negation would likely have been used previously in situations where waiting and therefore patience is necessary, and counseling patience always confers authority—there is no greater mark of charisma than superior self-control. So, on one level, the one who issues the command is confronted with a counter-command, one to which he can have no ready response. But this still wouldn’t, as predication must, tell us anything about the object. For that to be the case, the operator of negation must simultaneously be directed toward the demanded object: it is the object which is told, or has been told, to absent or withhold itself. The first predicate simply modifies the name of the object as not present or not available—but, even more, as rendering itself absent or unavailable in obedience to a higher command. This latter, higher command is conveyed by the predicator, but not issued by him—he certainly wouldn’t want to claim to have “disappeared” the object, as that would intensify the potential conflict. So, there is a horizontal (person to person) dimension to this initial predication and a vertical (group to center) dimension—since the two are not sorted out, we still have more of a proto-sentence than an actual one.

We have real predication when we have verbs. Of course, we can predicate adjectivally—the sky is blue, that wolf is big, that couch looks uncomfortable, etc. Adjectival predication, though, generally presupposes the availability of the object—much adjectival predication can be seen as a prelude to appropriating, possessing and distributing the object in question. It can also be a way of indicating the danger of the object, but even that is a prelude to “managing” the object in some way, perhaps by avoiding it. It is with verbal predication that the at least potential unavailability, the unavailability of the object in principle, is presupposed—even if I say “a whole school of fish is heading our way” (while fishing), I am assuming they could just as easily be heading some other way. So, it is fair to say that a completely declarative sentence and culture is weighted toward verbal predication.

So, what is a verb? Verbs most fundamentally represent actions, as the standard view (right, in this case) has it. But if we take (and I’ll get to how we should take in just a moment) the constitutive or definitive core of verbs to be acts intentionally and observably performed, once we move beyond that core things get very interesting. As is so often the case, Anna Wierzbicka’s Natural Semantic Metalanguage is illuminating here. Wierzbicka reduces “actions and events”  to three primes: do, move, happen. That all actions and events can ultimately be distilled to these three is very interesting. The most easily and universally used of the three verbs is “move”: things move all the time—there’s no problem saying that any particular thing moved—you could put any noun in the subject slot. But it’s almost impossible for specific things to either “do” or “happen” in this sense—“does,” in a sentence with a subject, when it’s not functioning as an auxiliary (specific to English) is almost always an answer to a question, and almost always a specific and implicating questioning, one that assumes accountability and a prior reference. Without a lot of context, “I’m doing” makes no sense, while “I’m moving” could easily mean quite a few things with very little context. Also, “do” is used in the most forceful imperatives—“do it,” “do that,” etc., and it inherently presupposes that the one taking orders already knows what should be done and perhaps should already be doing it—“do it” implies a minimum of ambiguity (which is the same as saying it is embedded in a dense context). Meanwhile, it is similarly almost impossible for something specific to “happen”: we use pronouns or generalities with “happen” (shit happens), we use “happen” in very open-ended questions (what happened), and it’s very hard to imagine using “happen” in an imperative. Whatever you would order to “happen” should in fact be ordered to do whatever that entity does. A person, place or thing doesn’t “happen,” unless we are using “happen” in a deliberately anomalous way.

So, we could imagine “move” as the first verb (what better way to account for the unavailability of an object than that it has moved?), but it’s hard to imagine “do” or “happen” as even a particularly early one; their presence among the primes implies that the primes are a distillation of the essential spectrum of verbs, rather than the original ones. At one end, the verb merges with the imperative; at the other end it approaches eventhood beyond imperative; in the middle, it captures what any entity does in response to an imperative: move closer to or further away from some center. Essential verbness, then, refers to motion towards or away from a center, which also means it is something we say about entities, rather than some self-generated “action” of entities. The “will” is an optical illusion of certain verbs, like “want,” but when do we say that we or another “wants”? In making demands, in answering questions about what we are doing, in trying to predict another’s actions, etc. We certainly do all those things, but they don’t add up to a “will.” Those verbs that most evoke intentional actions are actually those best suited for imperatives: “I went for a walk” sounds like a description of the most autonomous of actions, so it’s not surprising that “go for a walk” is a perfectly natural imperative—an imperative to either approach some center (one’s composure, for example) or distance oneself from a dangerous one (a conflict or crisis where one is presently located). Meanwhile, consider “he died,” or “he drowned”—the verbs here are not really “actions” at all—what do we imagine someone “did” in dying or drowning? These are rather events that “happen” to one, and they happen as a result of the failure to obey some imperative, to stay out of deep water, to keep your strength a bit longer, to find some way to maintain your health, etc. So, we have a verbal spectrum from imperatives we can completely obey to a complete inability to comply with imperatives. Now, it is with “happenings” that inquiry begins: someone died even though they did the things, obeyed the commands, that keep you alive—how did those imperatives become inoperative? (If all we did was to do things questions would never arise.) What we took to be a doing was in fact a happening: but at first “happenings” must involve other imperatives overriding the one I attempted to comply with. That, in the most literal sense, is how things must first of all appear: some entity was ordered to take his life (primitive peoples never see death as an accidental or natural occurrence). The river god sent the flood to drown him. We must appease the river god; but what happens when appeasing the river god doesn’t seem to help? Someone else is giving orders to the river god. Logically speaking, we can imagine this chain of reasoning bringing us all the way to a single god who issues all commands, but we know that such abstractions don’t occur in this linear manner. It will always make sense that the river god keeps drowning people, and that we don’t always appease his anger, until we start building boats to go down the river and have to make more complex requests of the god. And that requires a new structure of authority, which is to say someone giving a wider range of commands to people, upon which new requests to the gods can be modelled. Positing a penumbra of happening beyond any doing makes this possible.

So, coming to see doings as happenings, and therefore finding ways to pay attention to the ways in which our obediences and deferences “taper off” into gray zones where they intersect with interfering commands, also implies coming to see happenings as doings. After all, we can say “stuff happens” as a way of shrugging off some unanticipated failure, but if we look more closely at what happened we will also find all kinds of things people were doing or not doing. This would be a good way to define knowledge: finding happenings within doings and doings within happenings. In fact, finding doings within happenings is precisely what we do when we establish laboratory conditions in order to reduce something that happens to something we do. Meanwhile, anthropological and moral knowledge comes from finding happenings within doings: taking identifiable, completed and coherent acts (i.e., acts that could be carried out in response to imperatives) and paying attention to what precedes the act (the name that is the source of the imperative) and what exceeds it (what new imperatives does the act disseminate). The best explanation of what someone did will always involve, first, identifying, even if hypothetically, the imperative he is following; second, the chain of command, both spatial and temporal, that imperative is a link in; third, from what sacred name the imperative is derived from; and, fourth, what imperatives have the action, or series of actions, left for others. And we always pursue these inquiries by observing, producing or simulating some movement on the part of the subject (what if a particular part of the process was accelerated or decelerated? Pushed in more, or fewer, directions?). Finally, we also know that inquiry is conducted through questions posed to phenomena—we can’t set up an experimental or hypothetical situation without asking “what happens if we do_____?” The question is formed out of the latest doing/happening articulation. Something happened that can’t be deemed an effect of what was done. So, we have to do something else, or imagine something else done, and see if that leads to the residue of happening we couldn’t account for.

Technology, then, involves introducing more and more, and more and more precise—reducible to simple imperatives—doings within all the gaps within happenings. A technological order is one in which we look at things that happen and imagine how they would be otherwise if they were reduced to things done. I think such an order is wholly compatible with a more fully moral and esthetic order in which our doings are interrupted by happenings, in which habits are displaced, disrupted and/or displayed: perhaps the forgotten name one mindlessly derives imperatives from is forced back into remembrance; perhaps, the more complex components of what has come to seem a simple act are separated so they can be noticed; perhaps one is implicated in the train of subsequent imperatives set in motion by those imperatives one has come to consider self-contained and inconsequential. All this induces mindfulness.

We can see, then, how science and technology had to have been, and perhaps still need to be carved out of magic: magic (and mythology) were the initial ways we attributed imperatives to happenings, or saturated the space of happenings with doings: science and technology involve putting imperative exchanges to the test, as humans must have been doing, in however limited a way, from the very beginning. Everything we do with texts and in laboratories can ultimately be traced back to a long series of questions extracted from failed imperative exchanges—some kind of conjuring or divination. Divination is human imagination, and the way we do that now is primarily through nominalization, which creates new objects. Look at what happened above: the verbs “do” and “happen” morphed into the nouns “doings” and “happenings,” and this happened as soon as it became possible to examine the relationship between them. Asking why “do” and “happen” happen to be at different ends of a primitive verbal spectrum forced those two words into a new relationship, which transforms them into “entities.” I think a far-reaching model of inquiry and epistemology could be derived from the process of turning relationships between verbs into relationships between nominalizations (which, then, as above, create space for those verbs to act and interact in new ways). Of course, nominalization can freeze discourse into jargon, which is why using them to generate more verbal activity (so we don’t end up with cartoonish relations between the nominalizations themselves) is central. Breaking up new clusters of jargon is the scientific equivalent of de-mythification—it’s a question of refusing the imperatives the nominalizations start giving you, the imperative exchanges they lure you into (the belief that this terminological tweak with solve the problem).