Category Archives: GA

The Discourse of the Center

We are not free, autonomous centers of moral and intellectual activity; nor are we talking apes, whose behavior can be explained by its adaptability to evolutionary pressures, which have caused certain traits to be selected for. We are beings bound to the center: everything that we say, think or do is homage to the center. If there is a logic to history it is a very uneven one: we are all working to bring all of the centers, from the mundane references we make daily, to the authorities we obey and commands we convey to others, to the divine beings we worship, to the originary event itself, into alignment. The logic is uneven because it follows the path of the linguistic presence that is constantly threatened and constantly retrieved. The first imperative was an inappropriate ostensive: someone named an object without realizing it wasn’t there, and another member of the community retrieved it, so as to “make good” on the sign. A new form is thereby created. We can assume all cultural creation proceeds this way, a little bit sideways as one is sent astray by a mistake, and then forward as a new iterable form is produced. The ostensive sign is transformed by the introduction of the imperative, both projectively and retroactively: the ostensive sign, from then on, not only creates linguistic presence in the actual presence of some object, but is the source of new imperatives; meanwhile, the interdiction on the originary scene on appropriation of the central object can now be seen as having an “imperatival” quality to it. This also involves some abstraction from the originary object and scene: the central locus, which subsists beyond the consumption of the object, is somewhat less bound to the form of that object. It now receives imperatives along with issuing them, and is therefore increasingly defined by this dialogue with the community, what I have been calling an “imperative exchange.”

The question, as always, is what is the center telling us to do? Answering that question was once the shaman’s job, then the prophet’s, but the academics and intellectuals who have succeeded them are far less credible (there always seemed to be more false prophets than true, anyway). A very interesting essay by Marshall Sahlins, “The Original Political Society” (in the new book he co-edited with David Graeber, On Kings) challenges the notion of the egalitarian primitive community. Such communities were (and are), in fact, extremely hierarchical—it’s just that the hierarchy includes lots of non-human actors. Ancestors, animals, various gods and spirits (“metapersons”) all play roles in governing the community, and they do so in an extremely domineering and terrifying way. Sahlins sees himself as disproving Durkheim’s claim that the supernatural figures that populate the collective imagination of primitive peoples are “merely” projections of and means of consolidating the actual social relations within the group. He makes the point that the metapersonal governing “elites” in these communities have far more complex structures than the communities themselves, and include lots of positions and rules that have no equivalents within the community itself. I’m not sure this really proves what Sahlins claims (there’s no reason an interpretation or projection of social relations couldn’t be more complex than a straightforward description of them would be), but it provides a very good example of what we might consider the axiom of the sufficient center: human societies will discover/invent the centers they need in order to generate the command structure necessary to control resentment. If two young men are about to fight, I might stop them by saying “your late, sainted, mother would be ashamed of you!”—insofar as I succeed in conjuring up the late mother of one of the combatants I have invoked a center capable of issuing imperatives. For a whole society, I would need lots of mothers, fathers, other relatives, forces of nature, animals from whom the group claims to have descended, and so on, to impose the necessary measure of shame.

The sainted mother, then, who is “ventriloquized” by the peacemaker, represents a center (she serves to redirect attention, leading to the deferral of violence); and she does so by in turn referencing previous centers, which can also be invoked, if the need grows greater. (She was a stalwart at Church, she had sainted grandparents herself.) So, what the center says to us, what it commands, depends upon what kind of violence needs to be deferred in the present, and what kind of inherited resources are available (do we have a God who said, “Blessed are the Peacemakers”?). But discovering what the center wants is easier in an emergency situation (even if compliance requires more courage); finding ways to channel it for the sake of serious thinking, in the midst of complex situations that nevertheless require decision after decision to be made on schedule, is something else. It becomes an epistemological question. An epistemological question must frame an imperative, leading to an ostensive: do this in order to see that. The relation between language and metalanguage, which I have been working with in recent posts, can be put to epistemological use. I have been focusing on writing as a metalanguage, the first fully explicit metalanguage, as in representing speech writing must inquire into what, exactly, constitutes speech. But, just as David Olson points out that the features of language revealed by metalanguage were already part of language, the possibility of metalanguage must also have been internal to language, which means that something like the language/metalanguage distinction goes back to the origin of language. The repetition of the first sign issued was a commentary on that sign, selecting and singling out certain features as opposed to others. This is simply a reminder that language is self-reflexive and recursive, which is part of its paradoxical nature. The language/metalanguage distinction and relation is one particularly important instance of the differential repetition constitutive of language.

Only in the fully developed metalanguage that Olson identifies with the assessment of prose (which he, in turn finds most characteristically exemplified in “classic prose,” which seeks to reproduce the scene which the writer purports to witness), though, could we grasp the epistemological implications of metalinguistic awareness. Metalinguistic terms, for Olson, tell us nothing about the practices involved in producing the text; I’ve been treating that observation as implying that canonical metalinguistic terms are unable to generate operable imperatives. Perhaps the most widely used metalinguistic term for referring to writing is “clarity.” Writing (and, then, speaking) can be clear or unclear. This makes perfect sense on the terms of classic prose, which aims at providing an unobstructed view of a scene, reduced to its essentials. The addition of details which don’t help make the scene one upon which everyone would presumably see the same thing reduces the clarity of the writing, speaking or thinking; likewise with the absence of details required to make the scene a “complete” one. If we read enough prose, we know what we think is clear or unclear—no matter how certain we are of our own judgment, though, telling someone to “be clearer” is perfectly useless. He thought he was being clear. Now, if you tell someone that he has to give us more information about a particular figure in his narrative because otherwise we can’t know why he acts as he does at a certain point, that could be turned into an imperative, although still a limited one: what, exactly, needs to be known? You could tell him, but then you usurp the position of writer. In other words, the imperative that follows from even a more specific observation is still something like “read my mind.” You’re simply telling someone to assimilate you as a model, but without already being you, how is that supposed to work? This kind of empty or meaningless metalanguage silences the center, putting established models and their guardians in its place.

What I suggested instead is the imperative to distinguish metalanguage from language in one’s discourse. You can always do this, and you can always do more of it because you keep generating the distinction. And it’s always productive, because you can always bring out more implicit features of your thinking, which is certainly one of the primary activities “thinking” refers to. Now, metalanguage in Olson’s sense is anything that tells you, implicitly or explicitly, how to imagine or judge a representation of events whose meaning would have been unequivocal had you been on the scene reproduced by the prose. All of those words that are essentially more specialized versions of “think,” “say” or “know” (“consider,” “examine,” “explain,” “imply,” “conclude,” “extrapolate,” and dozens if not hundreds of others) are metalinguistic. In the more expanded version I’m proposing, I’d like to push the line all the way back, to the semantic primes themselves: think, say, know, want, and so on. The metaphysical view of these terms, derived from the metalinguistic inquiry into the declarative sentence, is that there is something in us, an activity, that, once we identify and study it, we can call “thinking,” knowing,” or “wanting.” In other words, we just apply the name to something already there. There’s something there, of course, insofar as we repeat and vary phrases and sentences to ourselves, and that activity issues in things that we say, but to assume that we have a word, “think,” and that therefore there must be something inside us that “thinking” refers to, and so we can isolate, define, study and improve that activity is to create a false problem—a problem, moreover, created by the metaphysical assumption that the declarative is the primary linguistic form. “Think” is a word that is used in a lot of different ways, many of which have nothing to do with any reference to a mental activity occurring somewhere “in” us. If I ask someone, “what do you think of that?,” I’m not asking him to articulate the cognitive processes at work in his mind when he is confronted with “that.”

So, if “think” is, not so much metalanguage, as possessed of a metalinguistic dimension, in what, exactly, does that consist? First of all, it consists in the limits of using “think” as an imperative. You can tell someone to think in general, or to think about something; you can’t command someone to think specific thoughts, though. If he thought the thoughts you told him to think he wouldn’t really be thinking them. So, when we say someone is thinking we are saying we would expect him to say something different than anyone else would. When I ask someone what he thinks of something, I’m asking him to say something only he would say about it. So, when I speak about thinking, I’m really thinking about speaking. And I’m not thinking about knowing, because if we all know something, we would all say the same thing. But there is something happening when someone is asked to say something only he could say that we don’t have words for, even though it’s undoubtedly taking place in language. So, “think” is metalinguistic insofar as it refers to and assesses that process (if I ask someone what they think about something and they say exactly the same thing as someone else I’ll be disappointed—I might tell him he’s not really thinking) but without providing an operable imperative for advancing it. The way, then, of displaying the distinction or boundary between language and metalanguage in thinking, then, is to refer to some of that silent playing and working with received chunks of language that made it possible to say what only you would say, and to mention the word “think” as part and also not part of that process. Asking someone to think is asking them to be a center that iterates the originary center, and one can ask oneself to think and thereby let the center speak through you.

The discourse of the center must work its way through one, some, or all of us—someone has to speak for the center. Anyone can ask the center for something, and as soon as you do, you intuit that the center must require something from you in exchange. Help me pass this exam, God, and I promise I’ll never go out drinking the day before an exam again. If you convert this relationship into declarative form, there’s a problem: “God helps unprepared exam takers pass on the condition that they prepare themselves in the future.” The problem is, that if we present this as a statement that is true every time we say it, the preparation would never have to take place, and so it can’t be true. The declarative includes both real presents, the exam-taker’s future preparation and God’s bountiful act now in the same linguistic (which is to say, “portable”) present, in which case they have to coincide “logically,” and they can’t be made to do so without paradoxical remainder. The statement is logical in general but illogical for any individual case because the subsequent preparation could be endlessly deferred—that is, the statement would generate imperatives (don’t prepare) that cancel the ostensive base of the imperative (God helps). The imperative of declarative construction is to bring ostensives and imperatives into alignment: imperatives are issued by some ostensive, and lead us back to one. The declarative constructs a scene upon which we observe some entity in a relation to some center (approaching it, retreating, violating it, protecting it from another…), and scenic rules apply, so two incommensurable relations to the center cannot be envisioned simultaneously. (Of course, a sentence like “God helps those who don’t help themselves” could be uttered as an absurdist or caustic riposte to the commonplace, but it then makes sense as a comment on that commonplace, which is to say it shifts our attention to a different possible scene, one peopled by those overly familiar with “God helps those who help themselves.”)

It’s possible to construct a declarative version of the imperative exchange that squelches the dialogue with the center, by either taking God out of it or reducing God to a metalinguistic verification of “sincerity” or synonym for “reality”—something like “if I prepare for exams I will pass them,” or “God wants me to prepare for exams,” or “if I prepare, God will make sure I pass”—that’s what we’d end with if the exam-taker’s promise is kept and no further imperative exchanges on this topic are necessary. If this individual prepares for and succeeds on all future exams, and exam-like tasks, he may very forget the imperative exchange that made it all possible, and in that case he is no longer listening to the center. But there will be more “tests” and various conditions of “unreadiness” for them, and unless I lock myself into the pretense that I am perpetually prepared I will have to keep asking the center to advance me some capacity that will supplement my unreadiness. Passing one test makes the next one more consequential, its contours less discernable, and the reward less calculable. This process proceeds through repeated apparently failed imperative exchanges, and a series of revisions of declarative versions making a “present” out of the terms of the imperative exchange. If I keep returning to and abstracting from the center, I head towards the creation of requests to the center that are simultaneously their own answers. We will still hear the center imperfectly after all this, even if we all help each other extract the most enduring declarative forms by serving as centers for one another. But we can keep refining our power to hearken and heed.

On the Culling of Cant

The word “cant” has two meanings, which are distinct but have an important area of overlap: on the one hand, “hypocritical and sanctimonious talk, typically of a moral, religious, or political nature”; on the other hand, “denoting a phrase or catchword temporarily current or in fashion.” One can be hypocritical without being fashionable, and vice versa, but being fashionably sanctimonious and sanctimoniously fashionable involves occupying a specifically liberal linguistic zone. Fluently employing the latest argot, imposed and enforced by an elite, becomes the marker of morality. “Cant” is a particular form of metalanguage. Metalanguage turns language itself into an object of inquiry, even on the most basic level: children learning the alphabet are studying language. Once we have metalanguage, pointing to the uses of language becomes a normal part of language use. The boundary between language and metalanguage then becomes one more of different uses than of separable regions of language. So, there’s no sense in which language is more real than metalanguage; and metalanguage is just as much a use of language as any other: it directs attention to uses of language, while language directs our attention to the centered world, but language is itself part of the centered world. Metalanguage is the pedagogical dimension within language, which means that the primary sin of metalanguage is assessing uses of language without issuing operable imperatives: assessments of the language use of others devoid of operable imperatives is the way I would define “cant.”

The most useless imperative is one that tells you to do what you already thought you were doing, like your writing teacher or editor making the marginal note “be clear!” or “unclear!” on your text. Presumably, you thought you were being clear, so what we have here is the case of an imperative masking a declarative: “be clear!” really means “I’m the kind of person who knows what clarity entails, and you’re not.” It seems to me that a great deal of the language we use in discussing writing and thinking falls into this category: attributing “richness,” “insight into human nature,” “a deep exploration of emotional life,” etc., to a novel, for example, are all, for the most part meaningless, i.e., cant—think about what it would mean to command someone to “improve your insight into human nature.” This is just way of saying that the labels we apply to the novels we approve of we refuse to apply to this novel. Any use of the word “deep” will fall into this category (“go deeper!”). Another excellent example is “critical,” which is very popular these days, especially in the form of “critical thinking.” David Olson claims that the more advanced literacy enabled by the metalanguage surrounding “classic prose” allows its possessors to “think critically,” but he doesn’t seem to consider that this just applies one term within the metalanguage to other terms.

“Critical” at least has a real philosophical genealogy, going back, of course, to Kant’s Critiques, and then working its way through Marx to the Frankfurt School. But while I’m certainly not going to try and make this argument here (or, most likely, anywhere else), I will still suggest that maybe Kant and the others are not doing much more than expanding the possible uses of the metalanguage built into literacy. Philosophy, or metaphysics, which, as Gans has pointed out, takes the declarative sentence as the primary or prototypical form of language, is metalanguage on metalanguage. But philosophy can also involve awareness of this. Whenever you use one concept, you use a word within a particular system of words, and that concept therefore depends upon all the other concepts (words) within that system; and, for that matter, within other systems as well. When you use a concept, all this is not present in your mind, so it’s easy to fall into the illusion that in using the word you are simply referring directly to something out there in the world. The “critical” standpoint is there to remind you that it can only refer indirectly to something out there in the world.

But it’s still futile to urge a “critical” attitude upon someone, to tell someone to “be more critical,” either in general or towards something in particular. These are really just ways of calling someone stupid, or telling them to shut up and listen to you. “Being critical” requires that one be part of a disciplinary space that takes as its center of attention the “foundational” concepts of another discipline—and this is possible because anomalies in the various uses of those concepts have already become evident. As a metalanguage attached to a form of literacy, it is meaningless. Which is to say, it is cant. So, what wouldn’t be cant? Metalanguage that issues operable imperatives—imperatives whose successful completion could be “authenticated” by anyone familiar with the imperative itself. These would be imperatives whose completion would be as easy to judge as an imperative like “pass the salt.” If the salt makes its way from the person asked to pass it to the person making the request, imperative accomplished! If we think about metalinguistic imperatives in a pedagogical context, such a “meaningful” imperative might be something like “identify all of the words in this text that refer to something in the world and all the words that refer to something in the text itself.” This would be asking students to distinguish between linguistic and metalinguistic elements in the text. The assignment would surface differing tacit assumptions regarding the significance of the elements of the text, but it would be situated within a shared ostensive field in which we could keep lowering the threshold at which phenomena can be attended to. And the student would gain far more from this seemingly simple and basic assignment than from the best-intentioned request to read “critically,” or “logically,” or “deeply,” or “carefully,” or with an eye to “themes,” images,” “evidence,” “characters,” etc. Once we direct our attention to the uses of language and metalanguage the ground of all inquiry in the “human sciences” shifts. The culling of cant follows from this shift.

Culling cant means distinguishing between meaningful and meaningless metalanguages. Meaningful metalanguage issues imperatives for attending to normal language use that are operable, that produce ostensive results that reset attention; meaningless metalanguage issues imperatives that are nothing but double-binds—they ask you to have already mastered the model that you are being measured against. The culling of cant allows us to formulate the political goals of anti-liberalism and absolutism more comprehensively: what we want is meaningful order. Meaningful order means that institutions and positions have the power and capacity to perform the functions allocated to them, and that they do so. So, when we speak of a “university,” for example, we would have a shared use of the term that corresponds to how the participants in the university see their inheritance of and obligations to that institution. This corresponds to the rendering explicit of power hierarchies, chains of command and responsibility proposed by political formalism. Meaningless metalanguage always stands ready to be used to advance political conflicts within any institution, whether it asserts that students should be turned into “critical thinkers,” or “well-rounded individuals” or guardians of civilization or masters of civic and sacred knowledge. The most meaningful metalanguage is one that keeps attending to the distinction between language and metalanguage.

Disciplines are organized on the boundary between language and metalanguage—there are many such boundaries, and therefore many disciplines. Language directs our attention to “the world,” but what this really means is that it attests to the presence of a center and the transparency of the scene constituting it. Metalanguage directs our attention to language, which is to say to the scene of language, which has in some respect become opaque, endangering linguistic presence. In this case, the imperative is a metalanguage in relation to the ostensive and the declarative a metalanguage in relation to the imperative. There’s something metalinguistic in asking someone to repeat himself because you didn’t quite get what he said, and deliberate mimicry is probably one of the oldest forms of metalanguage. So it’s not as if an expropriating metalanguage snuck up on an innocent language—language must have always lent itself to being metasized. But literacy represents a threshold because metalanguage no longer needs to share a scene with primary language, and specialists in metalanguage and the power it provides become a permanent feature of the social landscape.

So, the boundary between language and metalanguage iterates the oscillation between center and the scene on which the center is made to appear. Meaningful metalanguage engages in this oscillation without falling into either the “naivete” of forgetting about the scene or the “cynicism” of seeing the center as a fabrication of the scene. That statement itself comes close to meaningless metalanguage by advocating for an “attitude” which the advocate presumably already exemplifies—hence his qualifications for advocating for it. (“Balancing” statements—“we must neither go too far nor try too little…” tend to be the most meaningless samples of metalanguage.) But we can issue imperatives from that metalinguistic statement—the discipline is a scene with a center of attention, and what makes the discipline disciplinary is that anything you say about the object at the center is simultaneously something you say about the history of the discipline. If sociology is a genuine discipline, it is because within sociology everything someone says about “society” is simultaneously something said about the history of inquiries into society, while such inquiries are in fact part of society—even more, society itself is nothing more than inquiries into its own constitution, even when carried out by the most “naively” accepted rituals.

Similarly, to exercise power is to treat everything in the space wherein power is exercised as effects and examples of that exercise of power. To exercise power is to have one’s imperatives obeyed, which means that power as inquiry is interested in the form, effects and ramifications of imperatives. Power involves a kind of reductionism, an interest in the world only insofar as it can be treated as transformable through imperatives. Discourse on power is metalanguage inquiring into the scenes upon which power is exercised, into the scenic conditions under which imperatives will be completed or will be revealed as meaningless. Imperatives are always part of an exchange of imperatives, albeit an asymmetrical exchange: the commander commands, while the subordinates request, even implicitly in their manner of obeying, that he keep widening his view of the “extension” of the imperatives he issues into a broader field of consequences. As you think forward into a longer chain of ramifications issuing from your imperatives, you also think back to older, more originary imperatives that you have been obeying all along, and can now obey more attentively. Discourse on power shows this larger field to be implicit in even the most immediate and trivial command, imploring the commander to bring such metaconcerns into the framing of the imperatives he issues. This leaves no room for cant.

Cant is a linguistic form of imperium in imperio. So are all uses of language that don’t generate operable imperatives, which is to say, something equivalent to “look at this” or “show the difference between…” And there’s no better place to begin than the practice one is presently engaged in, which is bound to have a meaningless metalanguage ready to be circulated within the language it regulates. How clear is the demand for clarity, how critical the insistence of critical thinking? What rules is the journalist defending the rule of law following? Metalanguage purports to have its own autonomous existence, based on its system of internal references—it is fanatical about setting the rules for proper speech, and rules for proper speech are rules for acceptable representation, and rules for acceptable representation will command power to represent some nature or essence known only to initiates into the metalanguage. Asking metalanguage to represent its own distinction within language restores the center by paving the imperative-ostensive path to it. The test of a meaningful metalanguage is that it can indicate the possible sign that would necessitate the transformation of the metalanguage.


The Temporality of Sovereignty

Here’s the strongest argument on the side of those arguing for the spontaneous organization of social relations against those defending an absolutist ontology, which assumes the sovereign center is constitutive: the sovereign, no matter how absolute and powerful, can’t do just anything, can he? He can’t order his people to sprout wings and fly, right? Ridiculous, but it makes a point: the sovereign is subjected to the laws of nature. That leads us to the somewhat less ridiculous: he can’t order all husbands and wives to divorce each other and take new partners, and redistribute the children by lottery, can he? Somewhat further down the ridiculous spectrum, he can’t order everyone to adopt a completely new and alien religion, can he? (And I don’t mean something like Henry the VIII shifting from Catholicism to a Catholicized and Anglicized version of Protestantism—he didn’t try and force everyone to go Shinto.) Any sovereign command, in other words, comes up against some resistance, some “denseness” in the social material, against inherited customs, rituals, relationships, institutions, and so on. And that must mean whatever constitutes that resistance is prior to the sovereign, in which case sovereignty is raised up upon the basis of those relationships which formed external to sovereign power, making sovereign power dependent upon, and shaped by its necessary conformity to, those “spontaneously” formed relationships. Just like the sovereign must submit to the laws of nature, he must submit to the laws of human nature, or divine law, or social evolution. And the implications of such a conclusion are clear: sovereign power must also be judged, and its legitimacy determined, in terms of how it serves and corresponds to whatever is taken to precede and constitute it.

The examples one is forced to resort to in order to make this argument seem irrefutable suggest that the argument is not really made in good faith; still, on the other hand, one might say that the counter-arguments advanced by the absolutist side will tilt toward providing examples representing more “realistic” changes that might have been or actually have been ordered by sovereigns. What, after all, would count as the “tough case” that might settle things once and for all, something that a sovereign “should,” according to absolutist theory, be able to do, but can’t? As with all social arguments, it’s possible to say, in the case of an example that disproves one’s point, that that example didn’t really fit the parameters of the type of example I constructed as a potential test case. Indeed, the whole notion of “proof” is highly problematic, to say the least, in the social or human sciences, because laboratory conditions are not available—and if they were, they would be completely unrealistic and inapplicable to anything in any actual society. But that just means that the best way of arguing in the social and human sciences is to show how your opponent’s strongest claims can be reframed in terms of your own assumptions. If you can keep reframing, while strengthening and where necessary revising the previous “acquisitions” made by your theory, and further clarifying your founding assumptions, then your theory will either prove true in the long run or will eventually shatter upon the shoals of events that disqualify too many assumptions that have been taken for granted, even in the eyes of the theory’s own adherents. (And even in the latter case a remnant will likely remain, and it might have something to say as well.)

You should, then, be able to show that what seems to be the strongest argument against you is really the strongest one in your favor; so, that’s what I’m going to do where with the “what about the X which the sovereign couldn’t command” argument. The way to do so is to contend that what limits sovereignty, what represents the penumbra of social action resistant to sovereign command, is prior acts of sovereignty—what the sovereign is dependent upon, that is, and what the sovereign must respect and “correspond” to, are not spontaneously organized social relations but the decisions of previous sovereigns. If we could go back far enough, every social practice—every ritual, every kinship relation, every moral norm, every aesthetic criterion, everything—has its origin in sovereign decision and delegation—or in some pre-sovereign obedience to the sacred center preceding sovereignty and incorporated into it. Each new sovereign, upon taking power, is faced with the vast expanse of the results of prior sovereign decisions; the new sovereign will reverse, revise, or override some of those decisions, and he will leave the vast majority in place. This will be true even for an ambitious, reforming sovereign, because, as the adherents to the theory of spontaneous organization will attest, the sovereign decisions and delegation made (and left unmade), reiterated, and allowed to shape the tacit habits and knowledge of the ruled over the previous centuries are not just innumerable but beyond retrieval.

What makes the sovereign sovereign, then, is not that he can order anyone to do anything at any time and be perfectly obeyed; nor is it that he represents the will of God, or of the people, or that he skillfully balances an immense array of institutions and/or human capacities that exist according to their own logic, outside of his actions. Rather, it is that he occupies the center that previous sovereigns have shaped, and that his own decisions “redeem” the “down payment” on futurity made by those previous sovereigns. The implication, then, is that sovereignty is always oriented toward futurity, always a bridge between past and future. A “revolutionary” sovereign who tried to tear up and remake drastically the order he has inherited would generate resistance not because he would be waging war against “nature” or “tradition,” but because he would be disrupting previously authorized relations between the center and its margins and thereby vitiating the social center. He would be setting power centers adrift, and those power centers will be defined in terms of the previous mode of sovereignty which redeemed them, opening the possibility of a challenger appealing to that prior mode of sovereignty, which the new sovereign has failed to incorporate into his own. It’s not as if we could set some limit to “how much” change a sovereign should introduce—there may be times when much change and much disruption is indispensable, and, anyway, social change cannot be quantified—but, rather, that the threads of sovereignty must be tied up. If a sovereign undoes the work of his predecessor, or of several predecessors, it must be in the name of retrieving some other sovereign work which theyhad undone (or even work those same sovereigns had done, but undermined by what they had undone).

Thinking in terms of the temporality of sovereignty, rather than the endless debates over the state/society “interaction,” not only reframes that powerful argument I began by citing, but provides us with a way of thinking about “meaningful order” in the future, where the claims that can be made to hereditary rule will undoubtedly be much weaker than when monarchy was assumed to be the natural form of rule. So, while the transition from one sovereign to the next, the transfer of power, was always a carefully regulated process, and often a cause of significant conflict and anxiety, we could say that it will take on a vastly greater importance in future non-hereditary (or maybe partially hereditary) autocratic forms; indeed, I would go so far as to say that it will completely absorb the attention of all social institutions, and it can very readily do so in a largely beneficial way—that is, in a way that reduces, rather than inflame, resentment and violence.

Let’s take the most extreme example, a completely non-hereditary autocracy in which, therefore, the pool of possible replacements for the sovereign includes the entire population. The autocrat himself must choose his successor, because only a sovereign decision can effect the transfer of power—we can’t even accept a method of choosing a successor since, however seemingly impersonal and objective the method, it will always be open to interpretation, “exception” and therefore power struggles. The sovereign, then, must choose a successor from the moment he enters office, and be explicit and public in either sticking with that choice or changing it. (With every “must,” the automatic question must arise: or else what? Let’s say the sovereign is ambiguous about his successor—then what? Then he’s not doing his job—so, what are the consequences of that? We’ll get to it.) Enormous social resources and energy would have to be directed towards ensuring the sovereign has a large pool of qualified successors, and in providing means for narrowing it down considerably: it might be good to have 10,000 qualified candidates, but the sovereign should only have to choose from amongst, say, 100. “Academies” in ruling would be established, with extremely rigorous entry requirements. Schools specializing in various aspects of rule—military academies, schools that provide students with advanced knowledge of political history and theory, perhaps practical, scout-style academies that give students experience in governing on a local level, under supervised conditions. One would have to excel in one academy to be admitted to the next—the candidates would be vetted all along the line, from their childhoods up.

This process would obviously be of great interest for everyone in the social order. Your own child might seem like he has a chance to compete, or your cousin, or your neighbor. There would be “local favorites.” There would be public competitions—exams, fitness contests, Army-Navy style sporting events—that would test the mettle of the candidates in an engaging way. One could imagine much of “popular culture” being caught up in the various “paths to the throne” such arrangements would generate. The candidates would make the rounds of the country—they would visit a “typical” school in one region, a “typical” factory in another, a typical neighborhood in yet another, and so on. This means that all these institutions would be constantly preparing themselves to host the candidates, making their indirect participation in the broader selection process something they would always be looking ahead to, and shaping themselves in anticipation of (they would want to ensure that all are on their best behavior, to ensure their typicality).

The condition for candidate visits would have to be, though, that the candidates themselves cannot give a single command. There can be absolutely no confusion etween the future, potential sovereigns, and the actually existing one. The candidates would always be accompanied by representatives of the sovereign, and they would give commands (“let us see how that new machinery works…”). This condition would be so strictly adhered to (arguments around the margins, which might turn into jokes—can the candidate ask for a drink of water?—would reinforce the seriousness of the overall interdiction) that any transgression would be immediately and scandalously apparent. So, the candidates could not use their tours to build a power base for themselves, develop their own clientele, etc.—they can’t do anything to help anyone. The sovereign, meanwhile, would be maintaining a public ranking of the candidates, but he would naturally be free to revise it whenever he likes, and would in fact probably do so fairly regularly. Just the normal life course of the ruler would lead to revisions—a 30-year old sovereign might want a 50-year old successor, someone whose experience and loyalty to the previous sovereign he admired; by the time that sovereign turns 60, he would more likely want a younger man whom he might have personally mentored. And, of course, the option would exist for a sovereign to simply resign, if he felt his personal power waning, or simply spotted a candidate who seemed completely ready, and likely to rule more effectively. (Since being a candidate can’t be a livelihood in itself, the candidates would serve the sovereign in other ways, far from the chain of command—so, those, the vast majority of course, who are not chosen, will be integrated in the sovereign order. But maintaining one’s candidacy would likely involve some sacrifice of other possible roles, perhaps higher ranking ones than that individual will eventually attain when removed from the list.)

So, the entire society is constantly engaged in, and therefore thoroughly informed regarding, the transfer of power or, more broadly, the temporality of sovereignty. Each individual is in some way playing a role in shaping the conditions under which the continuity of sovereignty, and therefore the entire social order, will be maintained. Under such conditions, we can also imagine how the (it seems to me as unlikely as it could be made) possibility of a manifestly and dangerously unfit ruler could be dealt with. There would always be publicly known, vetted and trusted potential successors—the very fact that they never tried to exercise even a tiny bit of sovereign power on their own would testify to their worthiness. There is the sovereign’s own list, and even if, in the case of a genuinely treacherous sovereign, he named as his own successor, or even the first few on the list, someone expected to maintain the same dangerous practices of rule, somewhere on the list there would be those less effectively “cultivated” (“groomed”?) by the unfit sovereign. In the event that the social elites—the generals, the corporate executives, the presidents of universities and academies, and so on—were, against their own will, led to the consensus that they could no longer maintain their chains of commands under the present sovereign, that he has simply visited too much destruction upon the accumulated and tacit inheritance of sovereign rule, that he had lost the “threads” of sovereignty; well, then, the conditions are in place for a relatively painless and minimally disruptive transfer of power to a worthy candidate, and one that could be justified by appeal to the sovereign’s own “higher” or better will. Needless to say, any such situation would be fraught with danger—no one could ever imagine oneself to be designing a flawless social order—but having the entire order thoroughly invested in the temporality of sovereignty, so that such an event would be extremely exceptional but also quickly made commonplace, would be the best way to minimize the dangers.

The Meaning of Meaning, and Metalanguage

“Meaning” has come to take on what seem to be two very different, well, meanings: on the one hand, it refers to the shared use of linguistic items—if we know what a word or sentence or passage of texts “means,” then we can use or discuss it with other intelligibly; but, of course, “meaning” has also taken on a more ponderous, or pretentious, “existential” sense, as in the “meaning of life”—a phrase that is endlessly parodied but still seem to pass as verbal currency with undiminished value. People still speak unironically about finding meaning in their lives, their work, their relationships, their families, etc. The persistence of such a, strictly speaking, meaningless, term, suggests that it’s signifying something that couldn’t be signified otherwise, and perhaps its continuing power lies in the fact that there is really only one “meaning.” In other words, when someone speaks of a loss of meaning in the “existential” sense, they are really speaking of a loss of meaning in the “literal” sense, i.e., words (and signs more generally) don’t “mean” anymore, they have no shared sense and reference, and so no longer help us find our place in the world.

Meaning is ultimately grounded in ostensivity—to put it crudely, any utterance points at something, tells you what to notice. Even the most abstract theoretical discourse makes some distinction between one way of using a concept and another. Of course, whether that distinction will “mean” something depends upon what the concepts themselves point to, and what whatever they point to points to, and so on. At the end of it we don’t necessarily get to “that guy, over there,” but we get to an ongoing conversation, in which the references can be traced back and held onto by those intensely interested in that conversation. What seems like unintelligible jargon is very often a way of phrasing some claim that has resulted from the cumulative responses to attacks on a dozen previous ways of phrasing it. But for any utterance there needs to be a center of attention for the utterance to make sense, or “mean.” “So, I’ll see you tomorrow at 8” makes perfect sense to the friend you been arranging dinner with; if you said it to a stranger on the subway, it would seem senseless, bizarre, even menacing. You know what each of the individual words means, of course, but if someone said that right out of nowhere you might not even comprehend the actual words—even framing sounds to yourself as meaningful words and sentences requires some preparatory context. And then they would seem like they might have multiple meanings, none of which would be easy to exclude.

So, a lot needs to be in place for utterances to “mean”: a language, perhaps a particular dialect, a slang, but also a community, an institution, and a history of all of these things. The converse, then, is also true: when utterances “mean” consistently, it means that all of those things are in place. If all those things—a language, a community, a family, an institution, a vocation, and ways of thinking about all these things that don’t insult our morals and intelligence—are all we want, then all we want is for all of the linguistic acts we perform and witness to mean. The things we associate with an existential lack of meaning—a purposeless job, a lack of understanding within one’s family, alienation from the morals and (no longer) shared purposes of one’s community—really come down to signs that don’t find their way to ostensives. The “sense” of a job is an activity in which you earn your living by doing some work of value to others; the “sense” of family is a privileged space of love, affection, solidarity and the transmission of a heritage to the next generation—but these words have no “referents” in your actual job and family. Words like “job” and “family,” and other associated ones like “love” and “purpose” literally don’t mean anything, or perhaps, sinisterly, mean the opposite of what they are supposed to.

If liberal modernity, as it has often been accused of doing, in fact destroys meaning, it is on this level of linguistic meaning that we should be able to identify its effects. If we just look at the most basic liberal concepts we find a junkyard of meaningless phrases: “individual,” “equality,” “autonomy,” “rights,” “freedoms,” and so on. These are all intrinsically corrosive concepts: one asserts one’s individuality against the norms of the community: we can understand the norms (although there’s something corrosively liberal about “norm”) because we can constantly apply them to our own and others’ acts, but we can’t understand what it would mean to be against or outside of those norms. “Equality” is asserted against a perceived “inequality,” but no one has any idea what “real” equality would mean—even the complaint against “inequality” attacks an established order in the name of emptiness. “Rights” is a good example of a word that has been rendered meaningless by liberalism: it means something for a peasant to assert his rights, say for grazing land for his sheep, against the lord, because the rights refer to longstanding practices overseen by mutually accepted authorities. Today, “rights” have almost exactly the opposite sense, that of a claim upon other’s money, or respect, or attention that has never been acknowledged and, increasingly, never even imagined before. A “right” now is a demand that meaning be conferred where it hasn’t been previously, but that is precisely the way “meaning” doesn’t work: meaning is the name given to an emergent site of shared attention. Demands for rights are deliberately destructive of meaning, because the world of meanings is what prevented attention from being lavished on the plaintiff. The most obvious example is transgenderism, which demands that we accept that gender is both all-important and absolutely irrelevant—an almost perfect sink of meaning. It follows from this that persistent, precise, unapologetic linguistic analysis of almost any utterance in a liberal order should prove devastating for liberalism.

There is another stress test for meaning that, while exploited and exacerbate by liberalism, must be attributed to the centralization of institutional power advanced by, but irreducible to, liberalism. We can attribute the centralization that has been given one, particularly baleful, shape by liberalism to literacy. Literacy pretty much guarantees social hierarchy. The reason for this is the metalanguage writing already is, and which it ceaselessly generates. I have recourse here again to David Olson, who points out that since the invention of the alphabet to record utterances required a study of language in order to determine what, exactly, had to be recorded, writing is essentially an inquiry into language. Once we have writing, we can distinguish between proper and improper, correct and incorrect uses of language—distinctions that could never occur within an oral society except, perhaps, within the very controlled setting of ritual utterance. Once the form of a grammatical sentence is set, it becomes possible to make grammatical errors and to be “illogical.” Writing first of all represents a speech act in a specific setting, and must supply everything that is lost in the absence of the actual interlocutors—a whole metalanguage emerges to enable the reader to understand that not only did someone say something, but he said it in a particular way, one that would be evident to those present on the scene—he “suggested,” he “implied,” he “insinuated,” etc.

From this representation of a speech scene comes the creation of what Olson, following  Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner (in their Clear and Simple as the Truth), calls “classic prose,” which is a transparent form of writing aimed at ensuring that the reader sees and hears exactly what the writer does. From classic prose emerges a whole new metalanguage, used to distinguish writing that more closely approximates the norm of classic prose from writing that doesn’t. All the commonsense ways we have of praising or condemning writing and thinking derives from the metalinguistic norms of classic prose. Writing or thinking is “clear” or “obscure,” “understandable” or ‘incoherent,” “organized” or “confused.” More precise rules for writing can be further derived from these values, including how to structure sentences, paragraphs and essays (the infamous five-paragraph essay inculcated into every American high school student is an instantiation of the values of classic prose).

It would be very good if everyone were proficient in classic prose (although maybe not if that were all they were proficient in), but the problem with these metalinguistic terms is that they are, strictly speaking, meaningless. As Olson points out, they allow us to assess a piece of writing, but they tell us nothing about how the writing was produced. A brief discussion with any college student, barely literate or hyper-literate, will confirm this. Ask him what he was trying to do: well, I just wanted to be “clear.” Why did you choose this word—well, it seemed to me to make things clearer. These metalinguistic terms have a sense and referent for those practiced in assessing writing (although even here one will find wildly differing assessments of the same piece of writing from equally “qualified” individuals) but none at all for the person doing the thinking and writing. Now, if this were all there were to modern metalanguage, the teaching of writing would be the extremely frustrating profession it is, but the smarter students, given a chance to read serious books and asked to write challenging papers, would still, through sheer will and more or less obsequious imitation of their professors, figure it out, so we’d still have our academics and other specialists in the metalanguages of the literate arts.

The problem is that the devastation of meaning wrought by metalanguages extends across the entire field of civilized society. Here is Olson on the way in which the literate order, which is also the bureaucratic order, transforms virtues into values:

In a modern bureaucratic world, knowledge, virtue and ability take on a new form. Institutions such as science preempt knowledge, justice systems preempt virtue, and functional roles preempt general cognitive ability. Thus, ability, knowledge and virtue are construed and pursued less in the form of private mental states and moral traits of individuals than in the form of competence in the roles, norms, and rules of the formal bureaucratic institutions in which they live and work.

We can see metalanguage at work all the way through here. “Science” emerges from metalanguages created to assess individual claims to “know” something; “justice systems” emerge from metalanguages assessing competing claims regarding the “goodness” of someone’s acts; thinking like a lawyer, or a doctor, or a history professor are the results of institutionalized metalanguages which reduces the person who talks, however intelligently, about well-being, or the law, or history to a “buff,” or a “crank.” An ordinary claim to “know” something is rendered meaningless, while the professional doesn’t speak of knowing anymore because he makes claims that undergo a formal vetting process that has its own internal norms: the point is not whether what you say is true, but whether it has been verified. And, as I pointed out in my previous post, the metalanguages become vehicles of power and sites of power struggles—if you control the metalanguage, you not only can “assess” others without any accountability but you couldn’t even tell them how to do better if you wanted to, because the metalanguage only, in a circular manner, can tell its subjects to do what they aren’t doing now. When central power is secure, the metalanguages co-exist with ordinary languages—the academic need not police the claims to “know” things made by laymen, and may even accept that within that attentional space “knowing” is in fact the relevant goal. When central power is insecure and a site of struggle, the metalanguages are occupied by those who wish to expand their power and can only do so by delegitimizing non-metalinguistic spaces; in turn the metalanguages themselves abandon their primary function of aligning reality with authority and become power-crazed.

We can’t reject metalanguage, of course—even the most basic mental verbs, belonging to Anna Wierzbicka’s Natural Semantic Metalanguage, like “think” and, certainly, “know,” have something proto-metalinguistic to them. “Know,” in particular, is after the fact and evaluative: does someone really know what they claim to know, or do they just think it, or want it to be true? Epistemologies never really tell you how to get better at knowing things—they just provide models for assessing claims to knowledge. Even “thinking” can only be described in its effects—treatises on “how to think” are really logic handbooks, or lists of tests or questions you should submit your claims to knowledge to. In that case, the focus on metalanguage provides us with insight into the nature of language, which must always presuppose a referent because there was one on the originary scene, but is really “about” the gathering of a community around something that constitutes them as a community. Referring to people thinking, wanting and knowing allows us to make sense of the various acts we see people engage in, but the words generate the illusion that there is something “behind” the words, some mechanism or homunculus inside doing something that we call “thinking.” In other words, there’s no “real” thinking, knowing, wanting, saying or feeling that we would get to once we peeled away all the metalanguage. So, the explosion of metalanguages does us a service by letting us see that all linguistic acts take on their meaning within a community of users who need to maintain a shared center.

One of the primary metalinguistic terms is the distinction between “mention” and “use”—the latter involves the use of the word in “natural language,” while the former involves referring to the word as a word. The way to create meaning against encroaching metalinguistic facilitated meaninglessness is to move back and forth across the (meta)language border, which is to say, using and mentioning words simultaneously. (For example: “word” is a four letter word.) This is how you make it clear that you are always within language, and create disciplinary spaces within the metalinguistic disciplines. This could produce a metalinguistic vocabulary that produces imperatives, tells you what to do, rather than assessing you from a putatively unassailable position. Of course, if we list a set of rules for doing this we’d just have another metalanguage. Use the words others mention, and mention the words others use, and use and mention them in turn yourself, and you will develop new practices of (meta)language. This by itself won’t bring order to the world of referents liberalism has disordered, but oscillating between the use and mention of words will create the kind of disciplinary spaces that keep checking reality along with the linguistic means we develop for attending to reality. Such spaces will have an advantage over a liberalism that is spiraling out of control by swinging back and forth between aimless decentering and punitive assessing.