December 2, 2019

Conditions for an Enduring Technostructural Civilization

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:26 am

The most destructive thing about liberalism is the systematic falsification it imposes on all of reality. One could say that this has gotten worse—that, for example, mid-20thcentury liberalism didn’t so adamantly demand fealty to obvious lies—but this only means that our social orders were less liberal then. At this point, there are very few things one can tell the truth, or seek the truth, about, even in private life, without some kind of “backlash.” The reason for this is that liberalism is founded on the oxymoronic practice of imposing equality from above (which is the only way of imposing “equality”). The purpose of imposing equality from above—from a centralizing power position—is to demolish intermediate layers of authority. You need to demolish intermediate layers of authority when you can find no way of integrating them into the power dynamic you need to set in motion in order to undermine some other power center’s dynamic. The consequence is that you destroy reality, because reality can only be comprehended and apprehended from within positions of power and authority, where you need to make decisions whose results are visible and important to others who have to make decisions. And then you have to redouble your attacks on anyone who gestures towards a reality outside of your egalitarian imperative. This process has already significantly corroded the sciences and engineering, and can only continue to do so.

The creation of a new order would have to involve more reality. That is, people would have to be rewarded, not punished, for speaking and seeking the truth; or, more precisely, for putting forward disputable hypotheses within recognizable intellectual traditions. There will always be borderline hypotheses, where one or more of those traditions are radically called into question, thereby raising questions of institutional authority, but even there a wait and see approach can be maintained, while that sphere of inquiry is “quarantined” without being squashed. Truth (or reality) friendly regimes have so far only been possible within protected spheres deemed essential to central authority. To extend such regimes further requires further increments in solving the fundamental human problem of mimesis. If I am to look at what someone else says—something unfamiliar, something troubling, something potentially harmful to my status—and ask questions that allow that statement to be further fleshed out rather than denounce it as heresy, then I must have constructed a model of behavior for myself modeled on central authority rather than on some rampaging power agency solicited to advance my rivalry with some resented other. And there must be a sufficient number of others doing this as well, so that I don’t have to denounce before I am denounced. This means that for a sufficient number of people discourse is sufficiently abstracted from mimetically driven rivalries so that statements can be commented on outside of a “who, whom” frame.

The most radical form of traditionalism is one that sees mimesis, mimetic rivalry, communal expulsion (what I call “violent centralization), and mimetic crisis, along with the myriad ways mimetic relations are reconfigured through the deferral of actual and potential crises, as the problem with which all of human culture, which is to say all of human language, is occupied with. Every myth, every ritual, every political order, every work of art, is above all concerned with this problem, and represents an attempt to resolve it in a form that accounts for the particulars of a given case or scene, while still being enduring. A denial of mimesis might be the purpose of the self-generated individual posited by liberalism. In moral and anthropological terms, the “individual” is created as a form of deferral—the individual is the one protected from violent centralization, or scapegoating. In this case, who the individual is doesn’t matter—it’s precisely the individual who “triggers” certain forms of rivalry within the community who must be protected, precisely in the name of controlling the escalation of rivalries. The individual, in that case, as one created in the image of God, is a cause for reflection upon our own “sinful” nature, with “sinful” meaning “mimetic”: driven by lust, envy, and hatred—by a relation of “reciprocal usurpation” with some other. But if the individual is self-creating, and is the foundation rather than product of a social order, on what grounds can mimetic desires be criticized? Indeed, to criticize them is to attack the “individual,” to be “authoritarian.” In that case all of inherited culture represents arbitrary impositions on freedom.

Liberalism makes much harder what is in any case very difficult: realizing that we are thoroughly mimetic and mediated beings. It’s almost impossible to desire something while simultaneously thinking that you desire it because you imagine someone else desiring it—it’s “cognitively” difficult, and we’d rather not do it, because it saps desire. The satisfaction of desire becomes much less satisfying if such considerations are kept in mind. But where else do you imagine desires coming from? Yes, outside of any human order one would want food, drink, sex, shelter—animals want those things, and work on obtaining them. Some food would taste better than others, some potential mates be preferable to others, etc. But, absent mimesis, we wouldn’t want a particular “object of desire” more because we have been denied it, or because we imagine someone else enjoying it. And this also means that without mimesis we wouldn’t think in “non-pragmatic” ways about things, because what we think about are what we desire, what or who we fear will abscond with what we desire, those who interfere with our desires, and the ways in which this entire configuration is characterized by ongoing fluctuations: an object seems irresistibly desirable, but, then, not; someone seems unattainably admirable, but then maybe a bit contemptible; a particular struggle seems existential, but then rather silly. All of these events happen through language, which is what first of all allowed us to desire something while still deferring appropriation of it but while still desiring it, etc. And it is through language that all of this can become “interesting,” which is to say worthy of sustained and self-reflective attention.

Now, think about how difficult civilization is. Civilization requires hierarchies and divisions of labor. This means accepting that there will always be others who have better things than you, and can order you around, and being able to consider yourself unworthy for dwelling on this fact. And why, exactly? Maybe those with more than you are “better” in some relevant way, but maybe not—such claims can be neither verified nor falsified, so you can tell yourself what you like. More subject to proof is how the power of your superiors is used: we can tell, at least to some extent, whether an enterprise or community is well run, whether problems are solved or allowed to fester, how this particular authority measures up to others we are familiar with. Still, it’s precisely when things are being run well that we might imagine ourselves most capable of running them—it seems so easy, and therefore all the more “unfair” that this guy gets to do it rather than me. And when we have the “right” to complain about things being run poorly, how much of that arrogated right depends upon us not knowing all kinds of things that are involved in “running things”—and, then, how can we tell how “justified” our complaint really is? (A simple example: I recently saw some figure, respected or at least more respected on the “nationalist” or “dissident” American right than “Conservatism Inc.” say something like, “it’s time to focus on our rivalry with China rather than getting bogged down in endless wars [in the Middle East, etc.],” with this sentiment being met with approval, as rejecting “endless war” has been a password providing entry to the new right. But: will not China seek to extend its influence where it can, including those areas from which the US withdraws its influence? And will not getting serious and directing our attention to our rivalry with China therefore not involve countering such attempts by extending our own influence? In other words, is not rivalry every bit as “endless” as our recent wars, and in fact the cause of them? Unless, of course, “international relations” can be reset in new, cooperative, terms. Why not?—but doing so will involve controlling rather than exhibiting resentments.)

A properly civilized attitude, then, requires one to be inquisitive regarding the exercise of authority, including over oneself, while ensuring that this inquisitiveness leaves permanently open the question of what one does not and cannot know as an inquirer without access to the very power one is questioning. You have to be aware of your place within a system while being simultaneously aware that you don’t know the system. And the system itself would have to encourage this level of maturity. As a mimetic being, you must imitate your model as closely as possible while still maintaining an inviolate distance from him. Now, in the tradition of advanced civilizations, sustaining this equipoise becomes difficult because the system drifts further and further from its founding principles and becomes more reliant on exploiting the hierarchies that were creating under other conditions, in accord with another principle of merit, but that are now primarily sources of self-enrichment available to those most skilled in intrigue and flattery. Here is where the constant revolutions introduced by a technological social order may improve the prospects for the civilized attitude, and provide a means of exiting the seemingly permanent “cycle” of rise and fall. The proper technological attitude is rather similar to the properly civilized one: one must recognize oneself first of all to be a means of much larger, impersonal systems, i.e., to de-personalize and fragment oneself, in order to imagine the ways one might be an end of such systems.

The first, ancient, technologies were predicated upon the power to move around masses of people who didn’t need to be considered as people, i.e., as named within some sacral order. (We can distinguish this from crafts and techniques, which can always be contained within a relation to some cult, transmitted through pedagogical apprenticeship relations.) It was the ancient empires, with millions of slaves gathered from conquered peoples, which had such power, and used it for various construction and destruction projects. All the parts became homogeneous because all the people who were the parts could be made so. The availability of the masses of nameless slaves was equiprimordial with the imperial vision which could imagine god-like projects, i.e., projects of world destruction and creation. This is the origin of the technological world view, which is therefore mimetic to the core: the ancient emperors modeled projects on the power of Gods and technologists today model this imperial vision. The technological vision excludes consideration of human ends irreducible to the project itself, even when enacted for the purpose of improving the human condition, and even when it does, in fact, improve the human condition. But there are good reasons why the technological vision didn’t, for the most part, engage in the transformation of materials rather than the movement of masses of people until starting from about half a millennium ago.

If you are to advance the technological vision beyond the imperial one, you need to expand the range of practices that might become models for technological transformation. Rather than abstracting mass organization from social interaction, the observation of social interaction itself would have to become the source of models for technological transformation. The development of machinery out of the very careful examination of the cooperation, often indirect, of workers, as noted by Adam Smith and then Karl Marx, might be “dehumanizing,” but it first of all required attention to minute human practices and “sub-practices.” Modern technological development is predicated upon explicitly posing questions that have already been implicitly posed by collective practices, and then further sub-dividing so as to replace machinically the practices that posed the question in the first place. So, it becomes evident that more rapid communication across great distances would facilitate practices already in place; so, “communication” must be analyzed and disassembled into its elements (signals, vibrations, spread out temporally, “codes” and decoding processes, etc.), which can then be simulated and transmitted through wires, and so on. And, as a result, even “face to face” communication becomes “distanced” in new ways.

This process looks a bit like the “high-low vs. middle” power “mechanism”—it’s as if the “high,” the technologist, organizes the “low,” the particulate, “unconscious,” elements of signification “against” the actual speakers of a language. And we could further see how disciplines like linguistics, communications, and information are marshalled in this “campaign.” This might be because the conditions for a “breakthrough” of the HLvM process are the same for the technological breakthrough: a social order that is simultaneously desacralizing and resacralizing. Desacralizing, because the old sacrificial cults have been torn down (and who knows how long the war against their remnants continued even after the cults were officially overthrown), by Christianity in the West, but by the Axial Age more broadly across the board. Resacralizing, because what replaces the cult is not ‘secularism,” not even for philosophy, but the cult of the innocent victim targeted by cultic and imperial power. It is this latter cult that is responsible for the inviolate “individual” discussed above, and that led to new and very intense forms of attention being paid to human individuals. But this is unsustainable as a cult claiming to be outside of, or above, power. For Christianity to find a way to govern the West again, it would have to be a Christianity that makes explicit the entire set of power relations it in fact presupposes: the sovereignty Christianity projects onto God would have to be mapped onto the kind of human sovereignty being projected, with all of the political and economic categories of Christianity (“redemption,” “hostage exchange,” “shepherd,” etc.) spelled out.

So, we cannot and will not make humans masses of nameless slaves again; but we will continue to detect in the practices other humans perform the elements of new practices inclusive of but unimaginable within the older ones. In the process, technologists mobilize us all to do (including to ourselves) what we “cannot and will not,” even if we disavow doing so all the more vociferously. It may be that a lot of contemporary resentment can be mapped onto such disavowals—it may even be that this is part of the reason it seems to be becoming easier to see each other (and to act?) as enemy “bots,” i.e., cogs in political machines, indistinguishable from pre-programmed responses to utterly predictable “provocations.”  The kind of governing authority that could guide a post-sacrificial technological order is one that accepts the absolute responsibility to name everything, established and emergent, within the human order; while knowing that naming does not close but rather opens the order to new possibilities. Naming things, persons, practices, institutions, entails placing them at the center, and the creation of a new center in turn creates new peripheries.

If you take responsibility for naming, you reject—and name—the position that pretends that reality names itself, that wishes to have the names without the resentable namer. In that case, you want the names to last, because you want your name, as you have tried to inhabit it, to last. So you want the names to be able to stand on their own, with you, or a proxy, providing the most minimal backing possible. That means they must encourage a stance of deferral over resentment: those most capable of deferring their resentment and therefore looking carefully at those named objects most likely to incite their resentment must be those who find the most use in the name. This is what will make the names honest and truthful. And these are also the names that will most evoke expansive tacit realities. Stable, ordered, named institutions will create individuals who know their names mark events, and that these events can be replicated through the naming of others and self-re-namings. We could come to see our practices, individually and collectively, as the sources of new technological processes we would participate in sovereignty over. First of all, soliciting and enabling such participation would be made intelligible, and become a practice. As a practice more available to some than to others, it would generate resentments, all the more so because the practice has become available—why should the other be a more fully technological subject than me? So, then, the practice is replicated and extended to meet that resentment. The most basic precondition for an enduring technostructural civilization, then, is the generalized practice of responding to others’ resentments by extending to them a practice; and, of course, a general preparedness to accept such pedagogical gestures as an answer to one’s own resentments, resentments such answers will have explicitly formulated (because to be a subject of resentment is to be at least partly blinded to the mimetic investments generating those resentments). So, in response to a complaint: here’s something you can do—and, even if it had on the face of it nothing to do with your complaint, you do it, and find that it did, and so you can then replicate the practice for others.

November 22, 2019

Languaging Practices

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:12 am

The declarative was invented in the course of deferring the imperative, so it follows that one trajectory of the declarative is to imagine the abolition of the imperative. Not of the ostensive, though, insofar as the declarative is also a simulation of the ostensive, presenting the existence of an object as its presence. The declarative, then, would leap over the imperative to the ostensive. But this tendency of the declarative could only be realized with the invention of writing, which makes the declarative sentence its primary object, composing it out of individual words and grammatical rules. Classical prose is the result of this tendency of the declarative sentence, as classical prose is the simulation of a scene upon which reader and writer stand in front of some other scene. Since the abolition of the imperative is a destructive fantasy, the problem posed by the hyper-declarative order enabled by literacy, then, is how to work with, or “carry,” declaratives so that they contribute to rather than neutralize the ostensive-imperative world.

In an oral culture, declarative sentences stay close to ritual, which is to say, the ostensive-imperative world. Here, the declarative primarily serves to ensure the identity of the ritual order over time, in the form of mythology. Ritual is an exchange with the center: the participant fulfills some command of the center while making a request of the center. It is an asymmetrical imperative exchange. Sometimes the transaction doesn’t conform to the terms of the exchange—the benefits requested from the center are not conferred. The originary purpose of the declarative, to supplement a failed imperative with a “real” that preserves the relations implicit in the failed imperative, is activated here. The center was going to provide the promised benefit, but something intervened: another figure occupying the center had other ideas in mind; some present or past violation on the part of the ritual participant, or a relative or ancestor, must first be remedied. Once there are multiple figures at the center, their relationships to one another will take shape parallel to relations among figures at the margin, and relations between the two sites can proliferate endlessly. All these narratives remain tied to the world of ritual.

There is a middle ground between oral and literate cultures—the culture of manuscript, or scripture. Lore and laws are written down, but are not accessible to most of the population and serve, for scribal and priestly elites, primarily as memory aids, surrounded, furthermore, by traditions that continue to be preserved through memory and transmitted via tightly organized pedagogical relations. Here we have a growing gap between the language of written scripture, which naturally remains the same, and the language of the people. (In an oral culture, the language of ritual would probably remain archaic relative to spoken language, but there’s no reason to assume the mythology preserved through memory and pedagogical transmission wouldn’t change along with spoken language.) Here is where the transfer-translations examined at length by Marcel Jousse (and no one else that I have come across so far, but I continue looking), and discussed in my latest post, become of interest. The formulas recorded in scripture, themselves residues of earlier traditions, need to be translated into formulas within the new spoken language. In a development analogous to the supplementation of imperative ritual “failure,” the process of creating and employing transfer translations, for ritual and legal purposes (which covers all of life), generates a declarative culture concerned with demonstrating that the two versions, original and translation, are the same. The choice of one formula over other candidates in the target language would generate narratives, proverbs, maxims, and exemplary events and figures as perennial reference points.

In a literate culture, modeled on classical prose, discourse focuses on ensuring we are on the same scene, the simulated scene generated by the more or less anti-imperative declarative culture. I’m going to take an uncompromising position and say that that is all we talk and write about—except insofar as residues of oral and manuscript culture persist, and so we discourse regarding the remaining ritualistic and scriptural and formulaic elements of culture. The problem of ensuring that we all remain on the same scene is that, of course, we aren’t, and to the extent that we are, we aren’t in any symmetrical or commensurate way. Think about how much discourse—the way arguments are presented—still presuppose a kind of classical model of public discourse: we all share certain goods in common, we all accept the “reasons” for one thing or another being “good” in a particular way, we all believe that some kind of “agreement” can be reached at the end of a discussion, and that this agreement can issue, in ways no one can really explain, in someone doing something (and then someone else doing something else, etc.) in such a way that those on the scene of “agreement” would recognize that series of doings to be in conformity with that “agreement.” Without this set of assumptions, how many discussions would make any sense at all? In the meantime, of course, all those people doing all those things are talking as well, but in much more transactional, ritualistic and, in a sense, traditionalistic ways (drawing primarily upon precedent, etc.). And, then, another kind of talking becomes necessary to show that what was done has some recognizable relation to what was agreed upon—in fact, the very notion of “agreement” corresponds much more closely to this after the fact “mythic” scene talking about what happened than to the original discussion. A lot of power players moving a lot of bureaucratic pieces around in ways that will have effects only partially grasped by everyone involved, and barely at all by the public, is translated as “the American people decided…”

Classical prose has its uses—if there is a very high degree of agreement over what we are talking about and why, or we concede a great deal of authority to the speaker, the “conceit” of classical prose that we are all on the same scene and can just “look at that” facilitates conversation. But what is ultimately indefensible in classic prose is the pretense, already latent in the declarative form itself, that language stands in unmediated relation to reality, rather than, primarily, in relation to other language, or other uses of language. As soon as some disagreement creeps into what we’re “looking at,” we must return to the language we have used to describe it, and it will turn out that our disagreement lies there. If we start with the assumption of disagreement, at least potential, over whether we are talking about the “same” thing, then that disagreement or difference should be inscribed in our linguistic practices from the start. The first disagreement any utterance entails is with some other utterance, or, more precisely, some other utterance that might have been uttered instead of this one, which would also be a different way of carrying forward the history or tradition of practices from which both actual and possible utterance derive. This means treating previous linguistic use as a repository of possible utterances. And doing this requires treating “language” as “prepackaged” and revisable formulas, chunks and constructions—that is, as templates for future utterances. This means approaching language mimetically, as a collection of models to be iterated, emulated and revised.

Instead of generating discourse regarding the question of whether we are on the same scene in front of some pre-linguistic scene, we would now be generating discourse regarding the extent to and way in which our utterance is the same as other utterances, actual and possible. “Why did he say X instead of Y” is our way into reality, facilitated by one saying a bit more of Y or Z than he did.

This kind of practice re-embeds the declarative order in the ostensive-imperative world by working directly with models that dictate particular uses. If a word (in all its customary and authorized phrases) used by the discipline—even better, a word without which the discipline is unthinkable—is now applied to the discipline, any conversation amongst participants in the discipline must be replete with ostensive uses of the word, along with imperative derivatives, because psychologists (say) would have to keep telling each other what is involved in deploying their cognitive capacities in studying cognitive capacities. I will briefly note that GA would be perfectly comfortable with this practice, as participants in that discipline are aware, and are ready to demonstrate awareness, of the primary purpose of language—to defer violence by gesturing toward the center. So, we can carry this practice into the other disciplines.

If the vocabulary and grammar of the discipline are, then, to be objects of the discipline, the history and “heritage” of those words becomes equally central. If we have to ask if (how, to what extent, within which context…) one use of the word “cognitive” is the same as another, we also have to ask where either or both are the same as the accumulated uses of the word. And we will naturally find that the word has an origin, and that origin will be bound up in some originary event of the discipline (some seminal essay, or foundational conference, or central figure). Our enormously enhanced access to archival material and internet tools like the Google Ngram searcher make inquiry into the origin of words within their disciplines far easier than it once was. When, exactly, did we become “cognitive” beings? And where? After all, as Anna Wierzbicka can tell us, there will not be equivalents to “cognitive” in every language, most of which will probably just import the word so as to be able to participate in Anglo-dominated psychology discourses.

You can see that we are sticking with the same question as that central to the transfer translation: what makes the word, through its various uses, contexts, redefinitions, borrowings and translations, the same word? Or phrase, or sentence, or larger chunk of discourse? All the disciplines then are inquiries into language and, more precisely, the creation of the metalanguage(s) of literacy out of language. So, we’re now working on two levels, which really serves as a pincer move within any discipline: on one level, the question is something like, what does “cognition” mean as we study our cognitive capacities as they are employed in the study of cognition; on the other level, we introduce the question, what makes “cognition” the same and not the same as a prime word like “know,” as mediated by a vast spread of scenes upon which people speaking about knowing are recorded and simulated. In this way one lays one’s hands on the originary structure of the discipline while being even more fully a member of that discipline than anyone else. We are using and enhancing the language of the discipline, using it to generate new problems, and drawing others more completely into the discipline by implicating them in their own commitments to its vocabulary and grammar—while at the same time holding the discipline in permanent question, making it contingent on its historical dependencies on all the other disciplines.

In this case, what we are also equipped to talk about is the way in which the disciplines are themselves transfer translations for practices conducted across social institutions. Discussing “cognition” is also a way of talking about (“translating”) ways of testing, treating, evaluating, instructing and so on people throughout the social order. Here is where there is an intrinsic moral and political component to the intellectual activities carried out within the disciplines. If we’re able to bring into focus the origin and history of “cognition,” or “dysfunction,” or “ethnic conflict,” we will also be able to show the ways the use of these concepts presuppose the existence of large numbers of people in positions to manage, control, sort out, and categorize people in certain ways. This is also part of the meaning of a word like “cognition”; that is, this circulation among and translation into other disciplines is part of what makes the word the same across these uses. This observation will alert us to specific sources of power, and we will look into funding, foundations, the ways in which universities help govern, and so on. But even more compelling and convincing than that is showing that the concepts only make sense when considered within a “who, whom” framework: who decides whose “cognitive abilities” qualifies them for this or that institutional role? We will find such questions inscribed in the uses of the concept itself, sometimes accounting for its coherence, sometimes for its incoherence. And, as always, the purpose is not to discredit and delegitimate but, first, to make explicit that everyone’s place within the social order is in fact a result of decisions that are made in ways we can articulate; and, second, to provide better ways of talking about how institutions might do this.

November 5, 2019

Some Paradoxes

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:25 am

My previous post set up a couple of paradoxes, which we can formulate as elements of a historical dialectic.

First, I advanced the notion of history as a process of desacralization, or secularization, which brings into view the essence of the sacred, which is presence on a shared scene. Attempts to supplement the vanishing sacred through the disciplines advance secularization while revealing the means to replace the sacred with explicit representations of our sociality.

Second, I proposed that secularization is an ongoing attack on tyranny, itself a product and construct of secularization, which makes the deferral of charges of tyranny the path to the originary responsibility.

In both cases, there is the further paradox that the remedy for desacralization or, more provocatively, desecration, and the fully conflicted order it presupposes and generates, must be a retrieval of traditionally grounded knowledge from the hyper-declarative order that razes traditions to the ground. But we don’t need to recover traditions of rituals and ideas to re-traditionalize knowledge—all of the tacit underpinnings of our semiotic practices represent traditions that can then be represented. Part of my purpose is drawing upon thinkers like Anna Wierzbicka, David Olson and Marcel Jousse is, beyond beginning to construct a new tradition drawing upon traditions of questioning metaphysics on a linguistic level, to develop ways of uncovering those more tacit traditions, or the obscured ostensive-imperative world that always surrounds us

According to Jousse, the extensive commentaries generated by the early Jewish and Christian communities concerned themselves with the “transfer translations” those communities composed in so as to preserve traditions preserved in now dead languages: first of all, from Hebrew to Aramaic, but, then, from Aramaic to Greek. These transfer translations involved finding formulas in the target language to correspond to formulas in the source language. These formulas are memorized and steeped in tradition and ritual practices, as well as the idiomatic and metaphorical resources that have been exploited within that particular language, so the problem here is not merely semantic.

But this raises a larger question, regarding the image of language we’re working with. Most literate, educated people take for granted an image of language as a vast collection of individual words that speakers of the language articulate according to grammatical rules more or less firmly installed in their minds. This image of language, which almost all philosophical discussion relies upon, is very obviously a reification of what David Olson calls the “metanguage of literacy.” In making language conform to writing, language must be treated as an object of inquiry—that is, it must be broken down into parts or “elements” that are articulated in some way. These elements are things such as phonemes, syllables, words and sentences. Everything in the language must be reduced to these concepts. Most important for our purposes here are words and sentences—the development of prose, which is always an “official” matter, requires that words be seen as identical to themselves, and that the possible relations between words and sentences be subjected to rules. This requires definitions and grammatical rules. Think about how many arguments are ultimately over the definition of words, when it is undeniable that the meanings of words vary over time and space. Likewise, think of how many arguments are over logical, which is to say, grammatical, connections between words and sentences.

The image of language that Jousse and his contemporaries and successors who developed the study of oral cultures and thereby provided us with awareness of the form of our own, literate, culture, is as follows: language is a vast array of formulas, phrases, commonplaces, and proverbs that can be articulated in various ways with each other. When you listen to someone speak, or read a text, you don’t disassemble the words you see and hear and then reassemble them in your mind or brain, like going through the Star Trek transporter; rather, you assimilate the particular articulation of formulas you’re are confronted with to your own set of formulas, revising as necessary along the way. It takes a great deal of discipline to respond to precisely that in the other’s utterance that is not reducible to your own system of formulas—and even then, you are performing a kind of revision of your own formulas under this new pressure, and not some abstract “thinking about it.”

It also follows that the formulas available to speakers of a language have been generated out of what was once a much smaller set of formulas and, if we are originary thinkers, ultimately a single one. This means that there are layers within the formulaic structure of language, and we could distinguish between more concrete formulas and those that function more as templates, whose slots can be filled in various ways. When we’re using language we’re essentially deploying formulas or filling in slots in the more abstracted templates. Needless to say, a great deal of inventiveness and ingenuity is involved here. If you just take a few clichés and switch out the words of those clichés with others more or less at odds with the meaning of the original cliché, and then at odds with the meaning of substitutes, and so on, you would find that you have pretty much all the language you need. Being able to read more complex texts, that is, texts that are the results of more extensive practices of substitution and articulation, means being able to work on those “samples” of language in the same way.

This means (to return to Jousse’s notion of “transfer translations”) that when we “use” language, we really have one thing in mind: how are the language practices that result from a process of substitution a rearticulation vis a vis previous ones the same as, and how are they different from, those they are derived from. Take what has become a very common meme template: the juxtaposition of some attack on or defense of a figure conducted by someone on the left, by someone on the right inserting “now do X.” The juxtaposition assumes some set of analogous features between the two figures; in elaborating on those analogies, along with the differences, you would be generating stories about those figures and the background or scenes they are set in—that is, you would be generating culture. So, rather than having big stories from which we then derive smaller stories and moral lessons and folk knowledge, the big stories really result from the ongoing efforts to reconcile one use of language with another by filling in the anomalies distinguishing them in order to show how they are really the “same.”

The implication is that all our stories and arguments are really aimed at demonstrating that two different practices, phrases, formulas, orders, institutions and so on are really the same insofar they are both translations of some model including them both. A disagreement, then would be each side trying to represent the other’s claim to identity as difference. The best approach to disagreement, then, is to multiply the differences as much as possible and locate the sameness in some “It” we could all still be talking about, and continue talking about. How, then, does all this bear on the paradoxes I began with? The sacral order maintained identity through ritual: people gathering at the same place, at regularly scheduled times, carried out prescribed symbolic acts, which is to say, iterating the originary scene. Secularization and desacralization is ultimately de-ritualization. The myths and ideas can’t be sustained without the ritual precisely because those myths and ideas were nothing more than representations ensuring that the rituals and the community performing them could be deemed the same over time as, of course, the communities and the rituals themselves changed. But this falling away from ritual made it possible to separate ritual itself from the great variety of rituals throughout the world and hypothesize a single scene they would all derive from—all be the “same” as.

The disciplines, meanwhile, try to ensure the sameness of social and political practices through definitions and logic, which is to say an internally consistent system of concepts and categories that can only sustain itself by concealing the dependence of all on ostensives and imperatives. Whoever issues imperatives without proper disciplinary backing is the tyrant, and whoever insists on an event that must be iterated as the source of social order is the herald of that tyrant. This is why the best way into any conversation, rather than requesting definitions and “principles,” must be through some version of the questions, “what model are you working with,” and “who told you to say/do/think that?” The second sounds more obnoxious, but it really leads back to the first, once we get past the more or less bizarre rituals claims to self-origination that subjects of a liberal order generally feel obliged to gesture towards. We can then exchange models, read each other in terms of our respective models, determine what those models dictate or demand of us, and direct our conversation to questions like, what makes us the same as our models; and, how might our models be the same as each other?

I’m not speaking of ignoring or trying to abolish differences. Quite to the contrary, sustainable sameness can only be distilled through a full presentation of differences. You have a model, but what’s the model of that model? There’s no infinite regress here precisely because we’re not dealing with logic but anthropomorphics: human beings came into being at a certain point in time. Here is where originary thinking outstrips logic because it includes not only the question of the likeliest starting point but the question of whether it’s better to speak of a starting point and if so, what kind of starting point? Even more, what kind of starting point are we already talking about by virtue of talking and assuming there is some “it” that serves as a final reference point? We can place “It” (one of Wierzbicka’s primes) at the center—we are always referring to it, but it is never It. It must be generative of all differences: whatever represents despair for you (say, complete social isolation and betrayal by your comrades to your enemy) is the violence deferred on the originary scene; whatever represents salvation is the sign—so, then, the problem is showing that our respective despairs and salvations are the same as the originary scene and in that way, as the other. They can only be the same insofar as they were generated differently from the originary scene, which must have contained the possibility for infinite ramifications. And, then, that is what all our talk is about; and about continuing the conditions under which we can continue that talking. Maintaining that thread of the same through increasing cognizance of differences (or “thises”) is where responsibility for direct acknowledgement of our sociality (the It tacit in every this) begins.

October 29, 2019


Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:17 am

Jurgen Habermas saw the differentiation into various spheres of life, whether in terms of public and private, or the different forms of experience like cognition, aesthetics and ethics, as central to modernity. He was right about that—the disciplinary distinctions were necessary for the dismantling of an order centered on God and King, for breaking up the grounding of the human order in the heavenly one. We can see a much earlier, preliminary form of differentiation in the ancient Greek city-state, where Aristotle could write separate treatises on logic, ethics, aesthetics, politics and metaphysics. This is possible once sacred kingship has been overturned, and sacred kingship was overturned once sacral rule came to rely on the growing plebeian population outside of the sacred order. The sacred order gives no formal recognition of conflicts: actions either conform to or violate the ritual order, so if there’s a conflict it’s between those defending the ritual order and those penalized by it. Those outside of the sacred order, though, can only be recognized in the form of a conflict, first of all between plebeians and patricians. Further social divisions, say into different plebeian classes, will then be represented on the same model. Once these conflictual models become the dominant ones, the ruler can no longer be the one who occupies the sacred center. The king is replaced by the tyrant, the inventor of the method of levying the “low” against the “middle” in order to maintain his power as the one who can balance and mediate between the contending classes.

What must the tyrant do? What is he permitted to do? Why should one person rather than another be the tyrant? The answers to these questions can no longer come from the guardians of the sacred. They can only come from the disciplines, first of all philosophy. If the tyrant becomes a separate “problem,” then human life in general can be broken down into separate problems. The way this happens will correspond to institutional diremptions from the sacred: so, for example, “aesthetics” can become a separate discipline because the theater, primarily concerned with the doings of the various tyrants occupying and contesting the center, has been created as a new center modeled on the sacred. Similarly, ethics can become a separate discipline once the family (and especially the head of the family) has been separated from the sacred order, rhetoric once arguing in the law courts becomes the way conflicts are framed and mediated, and logic once disputes within philosophy need to be settled. The proliferation of disciplines in the modern world corresponds to the proliferation of institutional distinctions. And the proliferation of institutions in the modern world is a result of the way the problem of the tyrant presents itself with the removal of the monarchs who had occupied the center since the middle ages: as a whole network of safeguards against the emergence of the tyrant. No one can occupy the center other than temporarily, conditionally, under strict supervision. Modernity is predicated not on helping the occupant of the center govern, but on ensuring he never feels at home there.

The vocation of the disciplines, then, is to train a population that can sustain the revolving center. This involves disciplining for obedience, but obedience to the same rules that obligate the ruler. This calls for an odd combination of self-reliance, insistence on self-origination, adherence to bureaucratic rules, resentment toward anyone whose life seems less strictly rule-governed, romantic resentment of those rules, an attraction to scandals, and the compartmentalization of “selves.” Such an order is intrinsically hostile to anyone who acts as a “tyrant,” that is, exercising authority and making decisions that can’t be completely traced back to the rules determining legitimacy. The levying of masses against responsible authority figures by elites competing over access to the center is therefore a natural fit to this order. Patriarchal power, the power of a coherent and dominant ethnic group, parental power, policing power, even the self-control that enables one to exercise or conform to these modes of power, are all, at root, tyrannical. Attempts to subject these tyrants to rules will only succeed in exposing those ineradicable tyrannical roots. The disciplines both lead the attempt to formulate the rules for tyrants, and encourage the rebellion against them.

The restoration of authority that can only appear tyrannical to liberal thinking is therefore bound up with dedifferentiating the disciplines. When we think in terms of the relation between morality and power, for example, we are conceding the differentiation of the disciplines: morality is defined in one arena (“Philosophy,” “Ethics”), and power in another (“Political Science”). This is no different than agonizing over distinctions between public and private, political and economic, and so on. But it’s not easy to package all these categories together coherently, so that when we’re talking about power we’re also speaking about morality, and authority, and economics and aesthetics and technology and media and so on. After all, the words exist and refer to different things, in different traditions of inquiry. The path to dedifferentiation is through the undoing of desacralization, of secularization. This doesn’t mean a restoration of previously ruling churches, or the restoration of the sacred. Rather, it means more direct, explicit and formal representations of our sociality, which is what the sacred is in the first place. The gods may have been more coherent representations of sociality, embedded in ritual practices, than what the disciplines provide us with now, which is an ever revised system of reaction-formations to system that is simultaneously and acceleratingly totalizing and individualizing. The disciplines help us to figure out ways of, say, leveraging legal power against imagined patriarchal power. Out of such things media representations and “identities” are constructed. But this doesn’t mean people could ever take the gods literally again, or that we could restore such a sacrificial order in good faith.

When someone speaks of “equality” it’s always possible to say: any way of filling in the blank in the sentence “equality means_______” is going to be just as meaningless as any other way. So, let’s play a new game: by all means tell me what you think equality means, but only under the condition that you describe to me who you envision instituting and enforcing that version of equality. This is an excellent way not only of exposing the antinomies and infinite regresses of “equality” (shouldn’t the means of determining who will implement “equality” also be determined “equally”?) and of exposing the assumptions regarding institutions and power underlying various arguments about equality. If there’s a version of “equality” that is consistent with a coherent way of enforcing “equality” then I’ll take it and we will find that we are no longer talking about equality at all but formal inclusion, which is to say naming.

When the objects of the disciplines appear as separate and autonomous it is because they are being separated in practice, and what separates them in practice is accusations of tyranny in some form or, more generally, charges of usurpation. No one really has unassailable reasons for being in the place they are, so it’s always possible to accuse the other of usurping yours or another’s. This always latent accusation is the kernel of secularism, which is to say the creation of new disciplines to monitor tendencies to tyranny in the old ones, and refusing it by saturating the other’s space serves morality, authority, coherent power and aesthetics alike. The other is not sacred, but we must model acknowledgment of the other’s centrality on the sacred (or, really, originary), while realizing that it is only by accepting this inevitably failed acknowledgement and representing this acceptance that the other can be secured against charges of usurpation. Our involvement in scenes, and contribution to their construction, which is to say our participation in media, is then geared toward deferring the accusation of usurpation: whatever our ultimate relation to the other, we can grant that the other is indeed in his place, to which we are happy to supply a name. Meanwhile, technology, which is to say our immersion in a network of devices that have synthesized collective practices and articulate us in other yet to be completed collective practices, can take on forms that lay us open to charges of usurpation or squash such charges. Efforts to discern and realize one form or the other, meanwhile, require awareness of the power relations working through technology. And this cannot be thought outside of the layers of distribution from the center referred to as “economics.”

In abolishing charges of usurpation, what is recovered of the originary order is the practice of naming—naming always comes from the center, and we are always ensuring that everyone is named, all practices and significant objects are named, and that all persons and things are named rightly, or are the same as their names. This is the case whether they are kings or criminals. Part of naming is providing for the destination inherent in the name, whether that’s the throne or prison. Wrongdoing or conflict derive from actions that require one to be renamed; good acts entail living into the names you’ve been given, and making oneself suited to unoccupied or newly formed named positions. There is also the possibility of inventing or creating a previously unimagined position, and awaiting acknowledgement from the system of names. This might turn out to be criminal, but the chances of that are reduced if the invention follows from working out to its limits some available model and name and presenting the invented position as meeting needs that those circulating around the extant ones didn’t know they had, but now can see they do. Invention then follows from resisting charges of usurpation and removing from one’s own actions gestures that would evoke such charges. You can insist on your place while insisting that others are always already in theirs, by endowing each other. And all disciplinary spaces are taken up with one and the same task of inquiry: ensuring that everyone is the same as their name.

October 20, 2019

Mimeticism and Morality

Filed under: GA — adam @ 12:02 pm

To act morally is to sustain the center, which means sustaining, repairing and extending the shared attention or linguistic presence that relies on the center. It’s possible to get more granular here, and speak about moral practices, and to do so in a way that will be inter-intelligible with Alasdair MacIntyre’s (in particular) moral thought. We can start with mimesis, or imitation, which is not only the starting point of originary thinking but, it seems, a sticking point with some of its critics among those whom Imperius calls “desacralized power analysts.” Originary thinking is more in agreement with classical thought, whether that of the ancient Greeks, the Hebrew Bible, or Christianity, all of which recognize the centrality of mimesis to sin and virtue. The sticking point for the desacralized power theorists is the very hard acknowledgement that imitation makes up all of who we are. It is very hard to deny this—what have you ever done or said that can’t be traced back to your imitation of some model? Even if someone says something undeniably new, which, of course, happens (in a sense everything everyone says is new), it is because you have successfully imitated someone else’s (or some composite model’s) way of inventing new statements. It’s hard to accept this, though. It violates our sense of individual and intellectual independence, to the point where, it one takes imitation seriously, can lead to panic—if everything is imitation, who am I? What do I ever say or do that I can actually claim is mine, and therefore control and take responsibility for? If I’m angry at someone, is this “real” anger or some mimetically produced anxiety (he represents something I’d like be)? If I love someone, is it out of mimetically generated emotions, like envy and jealousy, or something more “real”? There is a positive side of mimesis: instruction, emulation, the sharing of goods. The negative side is much easier to note, though, especially if we’re interested in moral and political theory: rivalry over scarce goods, especially moral goods like admiration, honor appreciation, and so on. And from a merely individual perspective, it’s very hard to distinguish the positive from the negative.


With imitation in mind, a moral practice would be one that transforms negative mimesis into positive mimesis. Since we’re always modeling each other and others (think of how quickly just about any conversation or relation takes on mimetic features, as the partners “mirror” each other’s attitudes, words and gestures), once we’re aware of this we can make it explicit. “You’re just saying Y because I just said X” is the passive aggressive way of doing this. The more graceful way of doing so is to extract a question from a possible misunderstanding of the other’s gesture or utterance and answer it in a way that makes visible the other’s miming without binding him to it. This is a pedagogical move, and in this sense I would say that all moral practices are pedagogical. This way of thinking about morality can scale up while also being extendible horizontally. If moral practices are pedagogical, then we can speak of every activity as a possible sphere of moral practice. Apprenticeships are pedagogical, parenting is pedagogical, friendships are pedagogical, organizations are pedagogical, governance is pedagogical. In doing things, we show each other how to do them. Status hierarchies are best understood as pedagogical—a good leader leads by modeling the practices pertinent to the shared tasks, but also the possible mimetic pitfalls to its accomplishment, along with their remedies. Pedagogy is reciprocal: the teacher must learn from the learner how to teach, and so the learner has to teach the teacher. Modern understandings of individuality and autonomy will lead to resistance to seeing all relationships as pedagogical, but this is modernity’s way of destroying all intermediate relationships and institutions—by severing the cords of pedagogy linking one level with the next.


Our analysis here can be extremely simple or enormously complex, as needed. We can’t really be in any kind of relation or interaction without some mutual modeling going on—we have to be providing each with some cues of attention and understanding, and we do this by appropriating the other’s words and gestures and returning them in some at least somewhat affirmative form. A moral practice sustains this by eliciting more of the same and making the reciprocal modeling as explicit as it need be to encourage cooperation and better performances. At the same time, the entire complex of what Marcel Jousse calls “gestes” that make up an “individual” would direct our attention across the entire social order and back into history, to the point where we must rely on anthropological hypotheses. Here is where moral practices become the kind of narration of the self in terms of life-long project of pursuing the good within a social order and tradition that has revealed a particular array of goods that MacIntyre speaks of. Someone inherits a particular way of squinting when faced with a difficult question from his father; think of all we inherit from all those our fathers imitated, those whom our fathers imitated imitated in turn, the cultural models synthesized and preserved in history and literature, which become models, and so on. Moral practices come to allude to and advance these models, to find new ways of imitating the in new contexts, and to examine them ever more closely to make them more imitable. If all Americans strove to be like George Washington, our rivalries would be much more edifying.


Thinking in terms of imitation is also very helpful in discussing the critical examination of models and traditions. However much we try, an imitation is never perfect; even if it were perfect, the very fact that it is an imitation, situated in a different time and place, would make it different—maybe even more different than a looser interpretation. There’s always an implicit criticism even in our most faithful imitations, which always have a touch of satire or parody. The moral practices of those who identify these differences and mistakes is to bring them into conformity with the original. Maybe this is an exaggeration, maybe not, but I’m going to say that all of culture, all of our thinking and talking, is concerned with this question of the conformity of imitations to their models. If we ask whether someone is a “good” teacher, athlete, president, soldier, etc., we’re asking whether his actions conform to the model we share with others of that kind of activity. The question and subsequent discussion is necessary because there will always be some deviation, and we have to decide whether the deviation represents an improvement, an unavoidable improvisation, a betrayal, a corruption, and so on. And when we do this we are working with models, which we inspect and deconstruct in order to refine the practices that are component parts of other practices, and which those who follow us will judge in turn. And if the deviations increase, we may have to decide whether the model itself has been invalidated and replaced. Our judgments are never outside of the act being judged, and even if we see a betrayal of the model, even one that needs to be punished severely, we would still try to isolate the specific elements of the practice that constituted betrayal and preserve the rest—this prevents our justified abhorrence of betrayal from becoming an attractor of mimetic feelings that would tempt us into betrayals of our own.


The model for this moral practice is the originary scene itself, which “works” and “takes” because everyone on the scene can confirm before the others that all have put forward the same sign. The originary scene would itself be the first human learning experience, as a gesture only minimally different from one aimed at appropriation comes to mean exactly the opposite. Bertolt Brecht used the concept of an “alienation effect” to describe his pedagogical goals as a dramatist: the alienation effect involved breaking the illusion of reality the mimetic representation encourages and pointing explicitly at a gesture on the scene. The originary scene must have had a moment like that where putting forth a hand could be pointed to in the sense of “this doesn’t mean what you think it does.” And then it didn’t—but it did, because everyone now thought it meant something else. Any moral practice has this dimension of showing what you are doing because what you are doing could lead to deviations to be avoided or recuperated. And wouldn’t arguments with even bitter opponents be better if we first of all clarified the models we were bringing to bear?

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