Declarative Culture and Imperium in Imperio

Marx and Engels have been heavily criticized for not providing a detailed model of the communist society they hoped would succeed capitalism, but on this point, at least, they were right. Leaving the details out allows for steady focus on the contradictions you want to exploit; providing a detailed model provides you with something new to argue about, even if there’s absolutely no way of settling all the questions without having power in the first place. So, it provides you with a distraction. I think that we can push this point even further: once a political project has a canonical model, filled with procedures, organization structures, required policies, and so on, it also has a permanent basis for political conflict based on the claim that the actual leadership is not in conformity with the “real” project. This argument is really a corollary of the argument for personal, non-procedural rule central to absolutism.

There are good reasons why this kind of conflict is endemic with political movements in general, and particularly those aiming at substantive change. The creation of a “doctrine” and a “program” is itself a response to conflict—movements usually start by being for and against something very specific but the specific things they are for and against become vaguer and more complex the closer you get to achieving them; what was originally thought to be “the problem” turns out to be just a subset of a larger problem, and maybe the first “solution” just brings that larger problem into view, and even creates new problems itself. So, the only way to quell all the arguments about “what are we trying to accomplish here” is to get something down on paper that can garner enough agreement among the leadership so that the rest can be bullied into line. Still, everyone knows that if this or that detail of the doctrine or program has to be modified or jettisoned in the interest of gaining greater proximity to power, it will be—thereby confirming that managing internal power dynamics is the real purpose of the doctrine and program. That’s why the insider who knows where all the pieces are will generally win out over the one who has best mastered the doctrine and program.

We can formulate the problem, and thereby a way of avoiding it, in a more fundamental way. A doctrine aims at logical clarity: it proposes certain premises, and then claims that, if those premises are accepted, certain other claims must be accepted as true; and, if those claims are accepted as true, given certain values, certain conclusions must “therefore” be reached and subsequent actions taken. “Programs” are structured the same way, usually in long lists of declaratives and the imperatives that logically follow from them. We are completely within ‘declarative culture” here, and declarative culture is predicated on the banishment of imperatives and ostensives that don’t “follow” from declaratives. Once you have banished imperatives (in particular, because if the imperatives go, the ostensives go with them), you are wiping the slate clean and setting all prior obligations, commitments and loyalties aside. You take as your starting point the attempt to construct a discourse which everyone will be “compelled” to agree with, at least if they accept the basic premises of declarative culture. And the basic premises of declarative culture are that, first, in using words, you rely upon established (i.e., through the dictionary, or through some accepted theory) uses of words; and, second, that in constructing relations between words and sentences, you base such relations solely on grammatical relations, which is to say, the substantive-predicate relation (substance-quality, for logicians) and hierarchy, and words (also to be used in formally established, with increasing rigor as declarative culture deepens) like “because,” “therefore,” “if,” and so on.

To return to David Olson, the scholar of the history and consequences of literacy I have been referring to in recent posts, writing is itself a metalanguage identifying elements of and relations within (but invisible to) previously existing oral language. The development of logic is the further development of the metalanguage already implicit in literacy: it uses the relations between words abstracted in in the creation of written language as a way of assessing and regulating the use of language. In other words, once a discourse has been produced, we can use a model of logic to determine whether it is “logical,” “rational,” “true,” and so on. But, Olson emphasizes, these metalanguages tell us nothing about how the discourse is actually produced in the first place, which is to say they tell us nothing about how we actually think. This should be obvious if we consider an even more basic metalanguage than logic: grammar. We can easily see when a sentence has a grammatical error, and we can, if we are informed regarding grammatical terminology, identify the error very precisely, but no one composes a sentence in their mind according to grammatical rules (no one thinks, “now I have to connect a predicate to this subject, now I need an adverb to modify the predicate,” etc.). Interestingly, Olson himself has virtually nothing to say about what we are actually doing when we think and compose sentences in our mind—he seems to hope the metalanguage will seep in sufficiently to make us somewhat better at it.

But we can develop a pretty good idea of what we are doing when we compose sentences in our mind, and Michael Tomasello’s Constructing a Language is very helpful here. The answer, according to Tomasello, is simple, and fairly obvious in retrospect: in constructing our own utterances, we work with the utterances we have heard and used many times already; what he calls “chunks” of discourses, or what rhetoricians call “commonplaces,” and grammarians call “constructions.” Better and more experienced writers and thinkers have a wider range of “chunks” available to them and, just as important, acquire the skill of varying, and “riffing on” the chunks they are familiar with in accord with the present “rhetorical situation.” Even more, we can learn to identify the chunks others are using, and put them to new uses by situating them in relation to some of our “our” chunks. Along the way, you probably will get more grammatically proficient and “logical,” but, even more important, you will get more discerning, more comical, more satirical, more alert to the manipulation of clichés, more capable of subverting others’ clichés without falling into your own, more patient when it comes to looking over sentences so non-obvious absurdities can strike you, more detached from the metalanguages so as to be able to mix them up with the “primary” languages they want to expel from their own precincts, better at staying within a particular “topic” past the point where all the conventional things have been said about it so it becomes necessary to find something new to say, etc. These are the kinds of things we are doing when we are “thinking.”

Tomasello’s “user-based” model of language points to the ways in which we can avoid being mesmerized by metalanguage, or declarative culture. Privileging metalanguage, or declarative culture, and therefore the “doctrine” and “program,” is like setting up a permanent imperium in imperio in your own mind, or in the collective discursive space you inhabit. It will always be possible to show how some discourse violates the rules of logic or reference and is therefore “invalid.” If it’s not possible, those rules can always be refined further so that it becomes possible. Whoever is most proficient in mastering the metalanguage has a permanent power base, while being unable to actually rule, because that would leave him vulnerable to the very same criticisms, thereby undermining his power base. (Every organization has those who are always referring to “rules” and “procedures” in frustrating any attempt to arrive at a decision, doesn’t it?) But the installation of the imperium in imperio in the shared thinking of even the more decisive or “alpha” members of the group is the more devastating effect, because it blocks real thinking and inhibits initiative and a willingness to experiment. It may take a dozen violations of logic and regulations in order to arrive at a direction that will in fact be far less vulnerable to charges of “fallacies” than one arrived at under the strict supervision of logical regulators. This, I suppose, is what is meant by “anti-fragile.”

Hopefully, it’s needless to say that I’m not arguing for “spontaneity.” The first point to be made is that hierarchy and a clear chain of command is prior to the specifications of doctrine and program. But the hierarchy itself must of course presuppose whatever it is the hierarchy is for. We do need to start with a clear intellectual, conceptual distinction, and a minimal model. Social relations precede individuals; relations are always articulated, and therefore hierarchical; the center is ontologically prior to the margins; any relationship (institution, society, etc.) has an origin; origin is essence; and so on. In working with the “chunks” of language presented to us by an overwhelmingly liberal social order, we keep bringing these distinctions and the models they presuppose to bear in reworking those chunks, turning them against their origins. Inflexibility regarding the basic distinction and model allows for maximum flexibility in “de-chunking” the constraining metalanguages and generating new chunks to send out into the world (what we might call “memes”).

Instead of thinking in terms of striving to conform and force others to conform to logical models, we can learn to think, more productively, in terms of thought experiments. This is already closer to the way most of us think, which is by using examples to probe a particular situation or bring a problem into focus. A thought experiment is essentially an example transformed and given greater reach by being “processed” through our a priori distinctions. How would a particular discourse look if we hypothesized the origin of its governing concepts? How would one of the “we should…” quasi-imperatives compulsively issued by pundits and would-be power brokers look different if we imagined the concrete hierarchy and series of practices that would be required to implement it? How can we place an “individual choice” in a new frame by embedding it in the extensive network of relations that make it seem more like automatized mimicry than a “choice”? In a sense, “all” this really involves is repeating the chunk in sentences and discourses where it doesn’t really “belong,” which dissolves its naturalness in an acid bath of highly constructed and power-mediated discourses and chains of command.

A useful criterion (a kind of minimal metalanguage) for the creation of thought experiments would draw on the old appearance/essence distinction: imagine an entity or situation whose appearance is both almost indistinguishable from, while also diametrically opposed to, its essence; for example, a very close friend who simulates trustworthiness almost perfectly while systematically betraying you at every moment. What would be the single, barely discernable “tell” that would enable us to identify the essence behind the appearance? We could answer this question in various ways, for various kinds of friendships (or relationships relying upon trust in general), various forms of betrayal, and so on. That’s why it’s an experiment, to be talked about as long as it’s useful to do so, and not a logical conclusion to be deduced. This is similar to the proposal I’ve made in previous posts for treating declaratives as imperatives: in order for me to really “believe” (belief, for Olson, is a metalinguistic term affirming the “sincerity conditions” of an utterance—it doesn’t refer to some “inner state”) a purely abstract, logical argument, purporting to depend upon nothing more than the established meanings of its words, firmly established referents, and non-fallacious connections, what commands would I in effect have to follow, and would in fact already be following? Part of the purpose here is to bring out of the shadows the vast array of authorities that must be acknowledged and obeyed without question in order to “believe” anything whatsoever; the other part of the purpose is to be able to obey them in a way that winnows out all those within the chains of command who don’t, in fact, command anything, leaving it to those who do command to actually do so. With the declarative imperium in imperio, thinking is engineered so as to undermine hierarchies; with imperative de-chunking, thinking is designed so as to bring hierarchies into sharper focus.


The danger of titling one’s political position “centerism” is that it is bound to be confused with “centrist,” which will undoubtedly one day become a synonym for “stupid.” (Even spellcheck wants it to be “centrist.”) But centerism ties together ontology and practice in a way that is not necessarily explicitly absolutist, but certainly undergirds absolutism. Centerism entails always supporting the center or, more precisely, donating your resentment to the center. How do you know where the center is? It doesn’t necessarily always announce itself unambiguously, after all. But it’s always there, whenever you talk or think, on both the most micro and the most macro level.

If you utter a sentence, you direct someone’s attention to something different, maybe even only slightly different, than what they have been attending to. What you direct their attention to may be something they simply didn’t know about, but in some way they must have not been completely prepared to see it as significant. “Significant” is identical to “central.” You are redirecting, with your utterance, their attention from one center to another. We are never centerless, but one center is marginal relative to another. So the problem is distinguishing the central (or perhaps it’s best to say “centeral”) from the marginal. It is when what you have been taking to be a center enters into crisis that its subsistence upon another center becomes evident.

Let’s take the example of two criminals, with a prisoner-type dilemma. They are about to be captured, and each could find a way to abandon the other and cop a plea; or, they can take their chances sticking together in trying to escape or refusing to cooperate. In talking or thinking about it, they put their “partnership” at the center; we can identify in what this partnership consists more precisely: specific events, which included or implied certain commitments (certain imperatives) which, retroactively, is constructed as a “bond” they share. What has sustained that center up until this point is mutually profitable enterprises, but maybe other things as well—shared threats, close calls which enhanced trust between them, maybe they like each other, etc. Now that this center is coming under pressure, it must either transcend the form it has taken so far (as the likelihood of future profitable enterprises becomes vanishingly tiny) or collapse—in the latter case, in will be replaced by some more sustainable center (like repentance for criminal activity) or reduce each man to an even smaller center, his own selfishness.

To be a centerist is to seek out the more sustainable center, and do your part to make it even more sustainable. For the criminal, that might mean abandoning the co-conspirator/friend and finding in the legal process that now frames him examples and signs of significance to which he can convert; or, it might mean sticking with his friend and sacrificing himself in the name of a friendship that now means something more than it did previously. Even in the latter case, assuming the two survive, the fact that a new center has been found might open both of them to yet other centers, centers that it’s no longer so easy to dismiss as relevant only to the less lucky, brave, or skilled. Maybe the two friends can now encourage each other in self-reformation projects. Their resentment toward law, or order, or civilization, or respectability, or whatever it was, must now be donated toward that center in order to make it more capable of ordering such self-reformation projects.

Liberal GA focuses on one element of the originary scene while absolutist GA focuses on another. The question is which can frame the other. Remember the originary scenario: a group of hominids, more advanced than other species in the sense of being more mimetic, surrounding some object which they all hunger for, with the hunger of each mimetically inflaming the hunger of the others. The pecking order, which would have the alpha eat first, then the beta, etc., cannot contain this mimetic contagion, and some new form of order is necessary. One member of the group, perhaps the alpha under the sudden, unprecedented pressure of mass resistance, but at any rate probably someone close to the ‘top” and therefore likely to be noticed, converts his gesture toward an appropriation of the object into a gesture of deferral—pointing to the object in such a way as to demonstrate that he will not fight others for the object. By some process, which we can imagine unfolding in any number of ways, the newly invented sign is used by others, as the mimetic contagion is reversed, and all stand pointing to, designating, the object.

Now, when we talk about a center, we’re thinking about a circle, and a circle is defined by each of its points being equidistant from the center with all the others. It is very likely that the originary event would be remembered and commemorated in this way in subsequent rituals, and then myths, because it is the way of remembering and commemorating most likely to retain the full power of the event itself: it directs attention to its completion while disregarding the inevitably messy process. But, in fact, it is very unlikely that all members of the group would be equidistant from the center at the moment of cessation. Some would be very close, as the sign would probably have first been issued by a few co-contenders, who may have then actually have had to cooperate so as to restrain others, but would at any rate have been the model for them. We should think in terms of points distributed unevenly around a center, perhaps more of an oval or obloid, with a more complex array of symmetries. Liberal GA works with the circle model, and can therefore emphasize the equidistance from the center over the center itself—implicitly, at least the equidistance, which is to say the “equality” of all the members is what produces the center, and it is that equality that is therefore to be preserved above all. Absolutist GA, or centerism, sees the defense of the center by those who best see the threats to it as primary, since that defense is what holds together the positions arrayed around the center.

“Act so that there is no use in a centre,” declared Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons. For a centerist, there might be nothing more perverse than this imperative, but what better way to find where the center is than to act as if there is no use in it. Such “acting” might be carried out for real, in which case its destructive consequences can be studied after the fact, or it can be carried out in a controlled way, in which case it’s a discovery process. If there really is a center, we should have faith that all attempts to subvert, evade, deny ignore, etc., that center will simply reveal it more clearly. Acting so that there is no use in a center would mean multiplying imaginable actions and treating them all as equally possible, setting aside all the frames that have always already ordered possible actions in terms of moral preferences and probability. This is not for everybody, only for those conducting inquiries into the center, which is to say only those who want to follow the source of the crisis to its lair. It is the practice of a discipline, a way of training attention. The even more radical direction Stein took this in was to apply it to the sentence, treating each word in the sentence as equally important—the sentence might just as well be “about” the conjunction “and” as about the noun.

It may sound bizarre, but it’s really just a more consistent way of holding variables constant, or acting in accord with the commonplace phrase, “all things being equal.” The result (maybe not for Stein—although no one is completely sure about her, given her right-wing, philo-fascist politics—but for the centerist) is a reassembly of the elements of any event or utterance or discourse into a hierarchy of centers, much like the arrangement of scattered metal bits around a magnet. We’re talking about something now—well, first of all, what, exactly, is that “something”—let’s make sure we’re talking about the same thing, more or less. It’s good to be able to get at that thing from various angles, to zoom in or out, to track the progress of our shared focus. Whatever it is that we’re talking about, it’s something that gave us pause—we have not fully appropriated it; it resists our attempt to possess or dismiss it. It is to that extent a center. As a center it is also an example of centrality as such, and we embed it in a new center by directing our attention to that. Even if we’re just gossiping about our friend’s marriage, something about marriage, or male-female relations, or our friend, or ways of talking about any or all of these things, must be holding our attention to this. Our discussion will either find its way toward that other center, or it will degenerate into “trashing” our friend (“consuming” him, so to speak), or we will simply lose interest.

So, in every case, you either turn your attention to the center around which the center you now address is orbiting, or you “trash” or discard that center. Trashing and discarding can be of world historical importance, as liberalism has demonstrated. Now, of course, we lay the ground for a whole new set of annoying, fruitless arguments: how can we tell what is preserving and what is trashing, etc.; and, it’s true, such things are not self-evident. But a good sign that one is preserving rather than trashing is that you can (or at least are willing to) show that those you say are trashing are in fact engaged with a center that, for whatever reason (the more you can clarify possible reasons, the better), they have failed to embed in another center. There are intimations of centering in even the most violent trashing. Even liberals and leftists have their origin stories—a schoolyard bully, an obnoxious, unjust boss, stories of injustice in the old country told by your grandmother, a visceral sense of compassion for a homeless man, or even frustration at some relative’s obtuseness, etc. There will be a perfectly adequate centerist or absolutist response to all such tales of origin, while the liberal or leftist, the distracter and trasher par excellence, can never stay focused on the need to preserve the center.

This distinction, in fact, provides us with a way of engaging the liberal as needed, while strengthening our own centerist disciplinary spaces: what center are you defending, and what is the center of that center? They will be with you in the opening—I’m defending basic human dignity! Human rights! Or, even, the Constitution! But what then? If we argue about what constitutes human dignity or human rights, what guides our arguments—what makes one way of understanding “human dignity” or “human rights” more plausible, sustainable, or legitimate than any other? They will drop out quickly, and implicitly concede they are just trashers (I’m defending human dignity against…!), but any terms regarding human goods of any kind whatsoever assume reference to a disciplinary center and a sovereign center: this is the kind of thinking that has converged on this question or category, and here is where I am within that kind of thinking; here is the kind of sovereign I imagine enforcing or protecting “rights” or “dignity” and here is the kind of order that makes such a sovereign imaginable. The liberal will have dropped out by now, because it is these very questions that he is determined to trash. He’ll just point to a complaint that won’t be heard if this line of questioning continued. And why should that complaint be heard, by whom, and within what terms of reference? Well, those are precisely the kinds of questions that silence the complaint.

The ultimate center is the originary event. This is an obviously outrageously ambitious claim, but the only center all centerists, which is to say all absolutists, all reactionaries, all who want to overturn completely the liberal (dis)order, could acknowledge is the sacred center generated on the originary scene hypothesized by Eric Gans. There is nothing there to offend Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Confucian, or any adherent to any other form of high culture or transcendent faith. Even more, each of these faiths of intellectual commitments would be strengthened by thinking of them as a particular form in which the originary event has been revealed and retrieved. Accepting this common origin would not eliminate disagreements, but would ensure that all disagreements remain centered, as a shared effort to discover more of the center’s imperatives and to embed them in our lives. The very fact of language proves Gans’s hypothesis, unless someone can come up with a better one (and good luck with that!). We can speak with each other because we share a center. Our speech, therefore, is always concerned with seeing the center, hearing it, protecting it, learning from it. Let all your talk be of center and origin, and you will dispel all distractions and outlast all enemies, whose curses will become blessings.

Within Language

A very common comic device is to place a character who is locked into another, usually archaic or ridiculed, set of manners, habits and assumptions, in a group of normal people. (Don Quixote is an excellent example.) The source of the humor is then the constant misunderstandings, large and small, that result—if it’s done well, the audience can see how the same incident or words can make sense in completely different, but in each case perfectly reasonable ways, by the odd and the normal characters, respectively. The device is effective for two, seemingly contradictory, reasons: first, it reassures us in our normality, telling us that we are not locked into some bizarre set of rituals, routines, and denials; and, second, it disturbs our complacency by letting us see that we are, in fact, so locked in, that under certain circumstance our tacit assumptions would make us look as foolish as the character we laugh at.

The fish and water analogy can work here: we are so much within language, moving in it, “breathing” it, certainly thinking in it, that we don’t even notice it. Language is transparent to us insofar as we only see through it to the things which direct each other’s attention to; it only becomes opaque once language itself can become the thing we attend to. The shift can be effected by something as simple as someone asking what you “meant” by using a particular word (what you meant, not what the word means)—now, you’re paying attention to words rather than things, or, to use Frege’s terms, “sense” rather than “reference.” When language is transparent we refer to things and engage each other fairly unproblematically, not necessarily without conflicts but without constant misunderstandings; by the same token, everyone not inside our language is a barbarian. When we become aware of language, formalistic and seemingly niggling disputes ensue, but we are also capable of processing a far wider variety of “language games” or discourses. David Olson locates this difference in the emergence of literacy, which makes all language users linguists, to some extent—when children learn to sound out a word according to its letters, or when anyone uses the dictionary to settle a dispute over the meaning or use of a word, they are attending to the properties of language, rather than just using it.

This ability to attend to and study the properties of language makes us vulnerable to the illusion that we are outside of language, and can examine any use of language in accord with some extra-linguistic notion of truth or good; the contrast with pre-literate peoples, whose customs and beliefs are likely to seem arbitrary, bizarre, and therefore extremely localized, encourages the literate in this vanity. In fact, it is literacy itself than generates a concern with “logic,” and turns logic into a means for assessing the acceptability of a particular utterance: “logic” is really the abstraction of the grammatical properties that become visible in a written language, and the projection of these properties onto some disembodied mind. The linguistic turn in Western thought in the 20th century derives from this recognition, which was certainly aided by both the emergence of mass literacy and mass education, and by the emergence of new media that made it possible to place writing in a broader historical context. There are metalanguages—writing itself, as I just pointed out, generates metalanguages—but there is no all-inclusive metalanguage, and each metalanguage can be treated as a language by some new metalanguage in turn. The fact that one can easily imagine a comic routine (surely some along these lines have already been created) in which a linguist shows himself incapable of using language in some situation precisely because of his hyperawareness of language demonstrates that any metalanguage is just waiting to be swallowed up by some meta-metalanguage or dissolved back into language itself.

Now, let’s talk about power. Access to a metalanguage gives one power over those without one: the history of civilization can be, to a great extent, be summed up in this observation. But having one’s power rely on possession of a metalanguage leaves one vulnerable in important ways. It becomes important to maintain a monopoly on the metalanguage, and therefore to restrict access to it and, more importantly, to make the metalanguage immune to appropriation by those it is meant to exclude—this involves distancing the metalanguage from reality in the interest of maintaining its own coherence. As power is divided, conflict is introduced into the metalanguages: if the teaching of literature becomes central to educating the next generation of elites and essentials, then everyone will want a piece of it. In a more literate society, the distinction between metalanguage and language is constantly shifting, so the institutions housing the accredited metalanguages have to keep finding new ways of fortifying the distinction, often leading to various demonizations and anathematizations that would be completely unintelligible to those not within that particular metalanguage. Those within the fortified metalanguages find their language to be both more transparent and more opaque than those who are, relatively speaking, within language: more transparent, because the metalanguage itself is predicated upon vigorously enforced exclusions, so every use of the metalanguage massively reinforced in-group solidarity against obviously deficient outsiders; more opaque, because the more institutionalized and abstracted metalanguages spawn conflicts over the terms of the metalanguage with increasingly rapidity, so that no one really quite knows what anything means.

This situation provides an opening for those who access the metalanguages, obey the primary imperative of metalanguage to inquire into language, and through language into the center, who accept their being within language, which is to say accept that their own metalanguage is as bounded and centered as any language, who discern the power relations measured and enabled by the metalanguage and, perhaps most of all, understand that their metalanguage “wants” to keep crossing over into language and other metalanguages just as much as it wants to explore the world of signs it has itself generated. So, what does this entail? Think about one of the most basic ways in which we maintain linguistic presence with others: by using the same words as they have used, but to do so in such a way as to show, first, that we noticed that they used the word in a particular way, for purposes of their own; second, to show that we too can use that word in a way somewhat distant from its more normal uses, and to do so in such a way as demonstrate implicitly that we understand what they were doing with it. This way of using language can be used to undermine an enemy, to enhance intimacy with a lover, to clarify a concept or to sustain a basis for negotiation. It involves playing both ends of the use/mention continuum, both using the word literally, referentially and meaningfully and referring to the word as a word with multiple uses.

This what everyone is doing all the time—everyone is within language, always. There’s nowhere else to be. If it seems to you that you’re just talking directly about reality, that just means your language is transparent and you’re unaware of how it’s informed by various metalanguages. It seems first of all imperative, then, in the spirit of formalism, to know where you stand and speak linguistically and metalinguistically; and, you can only know that by enacting it, by referring to things only made visible by the metalanguage you inhabit and referring to the words that makes those things visible in that way. This leads you into paradoxical territory. Let’s take, for example, Moldbug’s claim that any territory is ruled by an absolute sovereign, and that therefore anything that happens in that territory is permitted by the sovereign. We can see right away this is not really an empirical claim—it can’t be proved or disproved. Point to some junkie shooting himself up in an alley, or a couple of thugs pummeling an old woman in the slums. Does the sovereign really permit these things? Well, in the sense that the sovereign issued a writ of mainlining to the junkie, and one of assault to the thugs, or that he gave orders from the top that went down through the ranks until some local precinct officer whispered to the junkie and thug to do their thing, no, of course not. But in the sense that the sovereign has set priorities, delegated powers, distributed resources and signaled intentions, and has done so in such a way as leave the junkie and thugs on the fringes of his calculations, or on the calculations he has his subordinates do, yes, he has permitted it.

So, Moldbug’s claim is about framing, rather than empirical observation. Frames contend with, and supersede other frames—Moldbug here is contesting, and trying to supersede, a liberal frame which would see in the junkie and the thug effects of the spontaneous order of liberalism, or perhaps of stupid government interference in that spontaneous order. Which frame is better? We’d like to say the one that eliminates the anomalies generated within the previous one, and that accounts for facts made observable but left unexplained by an existing frame. And to some extent that’s true, but much more so the more the knowledge in question is sequestered from power. We can try to make it as true as possible in the realm of social and political theory, but in order to do that we must fully inhabit the frame. You can’t say, well, in general I think everything that happens in this society is permitted by the sovereign, but this one thing that happened yesterday seems to me to require another explanation. It may very well be that a particular event seems better explained by liberalism, especially if it was generated within a liberal frame. But you can only inhabit one frame, which is why you must fully inhabit it, and insist, even against the evidence, that that event is explained by it, fully and only by it. If your frame is wrong, that’s the only way you’ll ever find out anyway. The frame implicit in Moldbug’s claim enables us to see the sovereign as setting priorities, delegating powers, distributing resources, signaling intentions, overseeing operations, and so on, in a way we couldn’t have seen otherwise—it also allows us to see how divided power subverts all these prerogatives of sovereignty. We can now see responsibility where before we saw only remission. You can simply reject the frame (but only from within another frame), but once you enter it, you’re in it until you’ve seen everything you can see through it.

So, your metalanguage locks you in every bit as much as language, and leaves you in the paradox, not so much of self-reference as of reference—any time you refer to something you are noticing something already there and creating that thing as a thing to be noticed: it’s not representable until it’s represented. If we can talk about an outside to language, this is it—an outside that is inside. In fact, this is the most rigorous way of approaching our traditions, as a specific set of paradoxes, the implications of which we continue to work through. “Faith” is an acceptance that certain paradoxes can never be resolved, but only lived. Moreover, you can bring others into your frame, willingly or unwillingly—their words can be resituated within your system, and provide you with both testimony regarding the paradoxes they must live and spies within their system. Of course, they might also be converted. This is the true test of the “best” frame—which can most effectively reframe the others. In the end, there will always be ostensive signs that need to be accounted for. And what about originary thinking itself, which seems to present itself as a metalanguage to end all metalanguages? Ultimately, originary thinking is a way of tracing all the frames it comes across back to their origins, and through those origins, the origin of language and humanity. If originary thinking fulfilled its wildest ambition, which is, it must be said, to reframe all frames, it wouldn’t be a monolithic discourse describing everything in an abstracted meta-metalanguage; rather, it would be a world of originary inquiries, undertaken wherever people are, within their languages, discourses and traditions and through the new idioms the inquiries themselves would generate.

First Words

Anna Wierzbicka sees her discovery of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage containing all the words found in all languages to be a continuation of Gottfried Leibnez’s project to develop an alphabet of human thought, a universal system of symbols. I’d like to suggest a way of approaching this project, processing it, of course, through Eric Gans’s originary hypothesis and the originary grammar I have derived from it. I’m going to begin by reviewing and following up on some work I’ve done in recent posts on the verbs in the NSM. What originary grammar does to help us articulate rather than simply list the verbs in the metalanguage is ground verbs in the imperative world. Verbs have their origin in what we could call the “evasive object,” the object (or act) the demand or command for which is rejected in the proto-declarative sentence combining the “operator of negation” and the “negative ostensive,” with the demand rejected (and we could even say proscribed) on grounds of the object’s unavailability. Indicating that unavailability is the first, or proto-predicate. Now, an object can be unavailable because of some quality or condition of the object (e.g., the person whose presence is demanded can’t come because he is dead, the tool is broken, the stone is heavy), or because the object is engaged in some other activity. To be engaged in another activity is to be doing something which might be done pursuant to an imperative (ultimately, even conditions and qualities can be viewed as determined by imperatives). I should mention the pertinent philosophical point here: all the questions of “will” and “free will” generated by the alignment of a verb with a subject (he ran, she threw the ball, they danced, we refused to participate, etc.) can be approached in a completely different way by simply positing an imperative initiating these actions. Instead of struggling to figure out what comes between the “he” and the “running” (his will to run!) we can just say he was ordered to run. By whom? Well, that depends—maybe by his coach, but maybe by the institutional order (it was a competitive race), maybe by an oath he took months ago to run every day, maybe by his deceased father who wanted him to fulfill his own ambition of becoming a champion, maybe by his own observation that someone is chasing him. This provides us with an avenue of inquiry far preferable to trying to discover and define the attribute that enabled the choice to run, to throw, to dance, etc. Taking that latter route, one day we’ll end up back with Descartes’s pineal gland.

Here are the verbs among the semantic primes, according to the categories Wierzbicka has grouped them in:

Mental/Experiential Predicates: think, know, want, feel, see, hear

Speech: say

Actions and Events: do, move, happen

Existence and Possession: exist, have

Life and Death: live, die

The best way to organize what is so far just a list is to note the obvious relations between them (of course, there are lots of non-obvious ones as well that will be the subject of further inquiries): we think and know things in order to say them, we say things in order to do them, we think about what we have said and done, etc. My approach is to analyze these words in terms of their possible uses as imperatives, and in that way develop a vocabulary for discussing the relation between imperative and declarative orders. So, “think” works perfectly well as an imperative—you can tell someone to think in perfectly natural speech situations (think about something, think something through, think before you act…). “Know” is a bit trickier: it’s hard to imagine natural situations in which you would order someone to “know” something. We have the idiom, in contemporary English, “know this,” but what usually follows is some kind of oath or promise. “Knowing” doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing, unlike, say, “learning,” that can be commanded. Knowing exists only in the declarative order, then, and it is assumed that one has thought, heard or seen in order to know—so, knowing is the result of faithfully obeying those other imperatives. It also follows that a challenge to someone’s claim to know would take the form of a demand that he think, hear, feel or see. “Know” belongs more in questions and answers: questions, in our grammatical schema, are modified imperatives, imperatives of the form “tell me…,” requests for information rather than commands to act. Asking whether the other knows, then, is a prelude to demanding that one do or move. Knowing is declarative, and takes us from mental imperatives to practical ones.

“Want” is also very difficult to think of in terms of imperatives: how could you order someone to want something? Wanting seems even asocial, prehuman—after all, animals want things too. But we can situate wanting in a couple of ways here: first, as marking resistance to some imperative (I don’t want to; instead, I want…), as a declaration that one is following another imperative; second, and closely related, in an interrogative negotiation over fulfilling the imperative (well, then, what do you want?). This latter use would include situations where items are being distributed (which do you want? How many do you want? I want that one). The implication here is that the “will” is less a “faculty” than a kind of friction point between imperatives. Meanwhile, one can certainly be ordered to “feel,” either something in particular or a particular way—bad or good, for starters (be happy! The Bible has no problem commanding us to love God and our neighbor). “See” and “hear,” meanwhile, go perfectly well with imperatives. As for “say,” one can readily be commanded to say something that has already been said (e.g., a messenger or orator), but more primarily what one thinks, what one has seen or heard, what one feels, but most of all, or as the purpose of all that, what one knows.

So, in an interesting confirmation of Aristotle, “know” seems to be the apex mental verb: seeing, hearing and feeling are transformed by thinking into knowing, while saying serves the purpose of turning what one knows into grounds for doing. We can now move on to action. Here, we have previously noted a continuum from “do” to “move” to “happen”: “do” is as imperative friendly as possible, as being told to “do it” assumes one is in a highly imperative situation in which you already know what needs to be done; meanwhile, it’s almost impossible to imagine commanding someone or something to “happen.” “Happen” seems to refer to the outermost edges of the imperative world—it refers to the results of imperatives so distant or obscured that we can’t perceive them. “Move” is an act that can easily be commanded, and is therefore close to “do”; but “moving” is in the middle of some process, and is therefore encompassed by doing (you move something to get something done)—while also sliding toward the “happen” side of the scale, the more the moving gets detached from the doing (if you push a rock down a hill, by the time it reaches the bottom, it is something that happens). I have suggested that knowing could be said to involve seeing the doing behind the happening, and the happening behind the doing: someone or some power or force is ultimately doing the things that merely appear to happen, while even the closest adherence to the imperative we have been given sets us adrift amongst counter and intersecting imperatives that may deflect us—to that extent, what we do also happens. That continuum do-move-happen, then, is what we do most of our thinking about, and therefore what we discipline ourselves to feel, see and hear signs of.

The existence/possession and life/death verbs, meanwhile, are subject to higher imperatives: only a god can order someone to exist, to live or to die (your enemy can order you to die, at least in a James Bond or superhero movie, but that’s just a hammy way of telling you he’s going to kill you). Ordering someone to “have” something, meanwhile, can be an ordinary part of a gift exchange, but “have” is also central to all kinds of cooperative activities in which one would ask another whether he “has” something needed. These verbs, these higher imperatives (to order someone to accept a gift is in a sense “higher,” insofar as you refrain from supervising their use) might very well provide the frame within which all the doing and knowing are set. Are we fulfilling the other imperatives in such a way as to fulfill the imperatives to live, to exist, to have (accept, possess) and, perhaps, to die well?

Once we have this model of the relations between the “primal” verbs, we can use it to analyze all the other, more complex verbs: where are “play” and “work,” for example, on the do-move-happen continuum; how do they channel the processing of seeing, hearing and feeling through thinking to knowing; how is wanting provoked and integrated, and what do these activities have us say? What about “remember”? I would say that this kind of thinking, knowing and saying would transcend traditional philosophy and replace it with an originary thinking interested in revealing the center. Wierzbicka’s books are filled with analyses that provide us with a great deal of material. Such an inquiry would simultaneously be a historical and political one. David Olson, in his study of the effects of literacy on cognition, The Mind on Paper, provides a list of Old English mental and speech act verbs (which is to say, for the most part prior to the introduction of literacy) and Latinate words (following that introduction). The pre-literate verbs line up fairly well with Wierzbicka’s primes:  believe, know, mean, say, tell, think (“understand” comes in with Middle English)—Wierzbicka doesn’t tell us which are to be found in, say, 95% of languages, but I would think that “believe,” “mean” and “tell” come pretty close. Meanwhile, what characterizes the post-literate verbs (assert, assume, claim, concede, contradict, declare, doubt, explain, infer, predict, suggest, etc.) involve telling us something about the situation, goals, credibility, perspective, and so on of the thinker or speaker—that is, they are inquiries into the speech situation because writing has to find ways to supplement everything that is lost in the speech situation when discourse is transferred to paper (tone of voice, posture, the relation between interlocutors, a particular setting and context, the social relation between interlocutors, etc.). So, saying “he contended” rather than “he said” tells us that the saying was part of an argument, and other did or might contend otherwise—all things you would know if you were witness to an actual discussion or if the person orally reporting the discussion acted out the dialogue he reported (repeated in an angry voice something originally said in an angry voice, etc.). With verbs representing a speaker within a situation, the imperatives derive from a space of writing, which is also to say a disciplinary space, one in which not only what is said, thought or known is at issue but the status, within that space, of what has been said, thought or known. It’s a difference between ensuring (demanding) that everyone is paying attention to the same thing, on the one hand, and enabling (demanding) everyone to have their attention oscillate back and forth between what we are paying attention to and the means by which we direct that attention.

Olson broadens the inquiry (especially in his recent The Mind on Paper) by defining writing itself as an inquiry into language: all the features of language we are aware of, and that become the topics of linguistics, are results of the need to figure out how to use marks on paper to represent speech. In the process such phenomena as “syllables,” “phonemes,” “sentences” (along with all the attendant grammatical categories) and even “words” were discovered. (Here, I’ll note a disagreement between the two formidable scholars I am working with here: Wierzbicka claims “word” among the primes, while Olson contends it is a post-literate word/concept.) Having what neither Olson nor Wierzbicka does, an originary hypothesis regarding the origin (and subsequent evolution) of language, I can take Olson’s insight further: the declarative sentence is an inquiry into imperative and the ostensive, the imperative is an inquiry into the ostensive, and the ostensive is an inquiry into the center. An inquiry into the center, moreover, is also an inquiry into the relations between all who are constituted by that center and the center itself. Language is inquiry all the way down, and, as I have argued previously, verbs chart the movements, real and metaphorical, of human (and other) “satellites” around the sacred and various attentional centers. And we conduct such inquiries in the presence of such a center, a linguistic presence that represents a real present (that may, of course, have been present 100,000 years ago while being made present to those of us on the scene of inquiry now): a real present stripped and framed according to the question posed on the scene of inquiry.

There is, then a telos to human activity and human life: inquiry into the center. This inquiry into the center situates us within some tradition, that ultimately continues from the origin and preserves and extends the means and modes of inquiry created until now. There is a dialectic to human history: we repeat existing forms, sometimes mistakenly or inappropriately, and those anomalous uses are themselves repeated and become new forms when they provide a way of deferring some novel threat of violence. The new forms prompt further inquiries into the center, and the social order comes to be split between those extracting fresh forms of ancient imperatives and those distracting from such inquiries (“sinners,” who want to weaken some command coming from the center so that more peripheral commands can be obyed). The outcome is unknown, but it will always be possible to retrieve the memory of the originary center and create centers devoted to renewing the inquiry initiated there. And all this can now be done by inquiry through language and inquiry into language. You could always start with the latest thing you heard someone say.

The Grammar of Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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