Linguistically Constructed Empires within Empires

It’s not long in any dispute before one side or another enlists the rules on his side: logical rules, rules of evidence, a theoretical method, rules of fair play, rules of the particular discursive space or discipline, precedent, etc. The disagreement gets to the point, that is, where you realize that there must be something you agree on in order for the disagreement to make any sense; but the hope is that you can invoke the rules in order to have yourself declared, by some putatively impartial and sovereign agency, the winner. You implicitly concede power to decide the issue to an imagined logician, or arbiter, or judge, on the model of the civilized man ceasing to pursue his vendetta and allow a court of law to determine the issue. This is the right thing to do in a civilized order, but is highly destructive when applied to thinking and speaking. Even if your debating opponent can marshal superior facts and logic and refutes your claims in a way you cannot respond to, you’d really be a fool to concede and change your mind. After all, all the other person is proving is that they are better at logic, have gathered more information (or deploy it more skillfully), and have perhaps honed their arguments over the course of more such contests than you have. What it doesn’t prove is that they are right and you are wrong. It’s a good idea to be highly suspicious of anyone who thinks you should accept that it does prove this. Maybe someone who agrees with you but with greater logical and argumentative skill will make your opponent look the fool. Why not assume he’s out there?

A discussion, a conversation, a space of inquiry, has its own center and therefore its own order. Part of that order is a particular logic, a particular way of identifying, vetting and organizing “facts,” testing “truth-claims” and so on. What people within that order should want is to make the disciplinary space better, which means making everyone within the space better. Of course, it might also mean excluding people from the space and welcoming newcomers in. It may also involve, and must, if one wants a first class disciplinary space, testing the “method” against that of overlapping spaces, perhaps through staged encounters, various forms of “devil’s advocacy,” or infiltration of other spaces. But the originary structure of the space must trump any externally imposed methodological standard. (That standard ultimately derives from some other space, that constructed it for its own purposes.) The originary structure of the space is the question or problem it is concerned with that no one else is (if some other space is concerned with exactly the same question or problem, you should join forces and amalgamate—if that proves impossible, then, setting aside purely personal motivations that vitiate the space, what has been proven is that it’s not exactly the same question or problem). Abandoning a disciplinary space before all its possibilities have been exhausted, merely because its hypotheses have more apparent weight against them than for them, is the intellectual equivalent of selling your soul to the devil.

This intellectual equivalent of the imperium in imperiois the law of the declarative sentence. The law of the declarative sentence is that any declarative sentence, in order to be considered “acceptable,” must be capable of being disassembled and reassembled by other declarative sentences in a reciprocally inclusive way. So, take, for example, a sentence like “All men must obey the law.” There is an entity, “man.” This entity includes all the single entities we call “men.” There is a difference between a single being and the category to which it belongs. The single beings belong to a category because they are the same in some way. Men are the same in that they are able to obey the law. To obey means to perform an act dictated by another. The law dictates obedience to general forms of actions. Men are therefore the same in being capable of conforming to general forms of actions. This is why all men should obey the law. Etc. This could be done better, and certainly far more comprehensively—but never comprehensively enough. One would still have to establish, in declarative form, the meaning of words like “entity,” “being,” “single,” “category,” “same,” etc. No matter how far you go, it would all be perfectly circular, with everything being defined in terms of everything else. And the introduction of “facts” doesn’t change things, because the existence and significance of facts can only be established in the same way, by “grounding” general categories in other general categories and specific “observations” in general categories. “I saw a tall man yesterday” means I frame an event in terms of the categories of “I” “see,” “tall,” etc.

When someone tells you that your argument is illogical or insufficiently “supported” by “evidence,” they are telling you that something is missing in these tacitly assumed self-referential declarative chains. And no doubt there is! That doesn’t change the fact that there’s something you’re trying to figure out. Proceduralism is a fraud in the disciplinary space no less than in the sovereign order. What you’re trying to figure out may be determined externally, say by the state gathering together a group of social theorists to generate proposals for a body of law, but it still will not be the case that you have competed your inquiry once you have finished following a set of methodological rules for conducting such an inquiry. As a disciplinary space, your inquiry has either split off from another entity that has become (in the opinion of the splitters) exhausted or sidetracked, having lost sight of its originary structure; or, it has emerged to pursue a new line of inquiry opened by what might still be a quite fertile field. What sustains the space is being faithful to its origin, and if disassembling and reassembling the declarative sentences out of which the discipline is composed is going to be helpful, it will be subordinate to that imperative.

What I am here calling the “law of the declarative sentence” is what I have also been calling “metalanguage” and “metaphysics.” It is a necessary function of language, to develop ways of assessing other uses of language, but the metalanguage of literacy, which also in a way creates the declarative sentence (insofar as it identifies it as such), is what has created a maximal metalanguage arrogating to itself the right to call up for inspection any and all uses of language. It is significant that the emergence of literacy coincides with the emergence of a literate class, in service to the state, which can only come into existence with a bureaucracy, which itself requires writing (there may be marginal exceptions). The metalanguage of literacy is an intellectual or ideological bulwark to the state, while also providing the material for decentering power by appealing to transcendent models to which the sovereign must adhere. The alternative, which is possible today, is a minimal metalanguage which serves uses of language within disciplinary spaces by distinguishing between those uses that are within and those without the disciplinary space. A minimal metalanguage would be used for saying things like “that’s not what we’re talking about” because “you’re assuming an answer to a question we are still asking,” or “you’re raising a question the answer to which our current inquiry is predicated upon (if that inquiry breaks down, that might be a time to raise that question again).” The minimal metalanguage, or the declarative consultant, helps out by identifying questions which have been “begged,” and formulating those questions.

A metalanguage can be minimal because it has one absolute presupposition: that there is an origin, an origin to the disciplinary space and to the field of inquiry it opens, and therefore also an origin to everything else, and that knowledge of anything is knowledge of its origin or, to minimize disputes at this point, its originary structure. The metalanguage prods us to stay within the originary structure, and to keep marginalizing and eliminating conceptual structures that don’t derive from that structure. To say there is an origin is tantamount to saying there is a center, because the center is what constitutes the origin. Declarative social theory, which includes most if not all modern, and probably quite a bit of ancient, theory, is committed to structures without origins and centers. Such theories constitute the “ideological superstructure” of the metalanguage of literacy. But “saying” there is an origin and center is beside the point—we couldn’t say anything in the first place if there weren’t. To assume an interlocutor can understand anything I say, to assume he even knows that I’m talking to him, is to assume a shared center. And to focus on winning debates before an imagined tribunal is to eschew inquiry into that shared center while taking it for granted and identifying it with its most readily available historical instantiation. Once you have won, then what? Try and use Power for mopping up?

The equality and brotherhood of all humanity is a destructive Enlightenment myth because it serves as an indiscriminate battering ram against any form of “discrimination”; but an understanding of humanity as a potential, and yet never to be realized, disciplinary space can have only productive effects. Whatever I am paying attention to I can point out to another—not everyone all at once, certainly not everyone with equal ease, maybe not some until other things have been pointed out, but there is no need to exclude any pedagogical possibility in advance. Think about when a scientist invites a layman to look into a microscope—the first question, from the layman will be “what am I looking at?” Knowing what you are looking at without being told is being inside the discipline, but everyone at some point had to have it pointed out. This disciplinary and pedagogical process is not necessarily a peaceful one: armies at war with each other establish a kind of disciplinary space, in the explicit and tacit rules of engagement they establish and the reciprocal process of imitation and learning they engage in—the mimetic rivalry this process might evoke could easily lead to escalation. But it’s also the only way the conflict can be brought to a decisive end, one in which both sides understand that it has to end and why. The disciplinary space in which the warriors, or their most disciplined representative, participate, will ultimately reveal potential consequences that will be unacceptable to all sides, relative to any possible aim sought; and it will reveal means of de-escalation and precise trade-offs that might satisfy, to some extent, the needs and honor of both sides. By comparison, a pacifist can only utter platitudes.

“Every man should defy the law.” This counter-intuitive, paradoxical, impossible claim might be far better to think with than the more easily supported “every man should obey the law.” Maybe “the” in “the law” should be taken literally, and we’re just referring to a single law here (and, yet, what holds for one could hold for all, couldn’t it?). Maybe there are ways of defying the law without the authorities even noticing (what could “defiance” mean, in that case)—maybe the injunction is to seek out such means of defiance, and maybe doing so would reveal various gray areas between law, obedience and enforcement. Maybe once enough men have defied some law, or all law, other men will have to intervene and defy other laws in order to counter that defiance and restore balance, and the law, once again—without the possibility of making sense of “every man should defy the law,” maybe obedience to the law would be merely mechanical and mindless and, therefore, a kind of defiance itself. Opening up such disciplinary spaces within disciplinary spaces is the antidote to the compulsion to construct disciplinary empires within empires.

Center Alignment

Since it seems obvious to speak about liberalism as a derogation from a period of more secure and legitimate authority, it follows that we have had secure, absolutist rule, have somehow lost it, and must now try to get it back. But, of course, the further back you go in seeking the causes or crucial events in this derogation, the more it becomes clear that power has never been completely secure, there has never been an unqualified shared relation to the center and that even moments of good rule within teleologically articulated social orders contained the “seeds” of degeneration. One of the fascinating and instructive things about Graeber and Sahlins’s On Kings is just how varied the forms of kingship have been, and how obviously flawed each and every one of them. But what is equally evident in any historical survey is that there is always a center, and the fact that people accepted even such bizarre arrangements as some of the “divine” kingships Graeber discusses, where, for example, it may be necessary for the king to periodically carry out random massacres so that his people will know that he is alive, is if anything a demonstration of the unintelligibility of any social order without a center. Even a horrible center is better than trying to imagine its absence. In that case, we can reverse our perspective and replace any lingering nostalgia for ideal kingdoms of the past and see ourselves as participating in the single project that encompasses all of humanity, the revelation of the commands of the center. All previous relations to the center can be studied for their accomplishments and failures, and, more importantly than either, the possible terms and forms of a community’s relation to its center that each reveals.

The originary relation to the center is, of course, that of the hypothesized originary scene, in which mimetic desire generates the mimetic fear that issues in the issuing of the sign modeled on the central object’s vulnerability and power to impose restraint. We resent the center for imposing restraint, while that resentment itself enhances the center’s constraining power, as it locks our attention on it, making it the source of meaning, of augurs of life, prosperity and death. In the most radical act in human history, the Big Man acts on this resentment of the center, appropriates the center, and becomes himself the object of resentment and source of life and meaning. There are no rules regarding how this relationship is to be played out, and the resentments and counter-resentments between center and periphery, and along the periphery itself, could not be mapped out in advance. All of the rich panoply of forms of rule explored by Graeber and Sahlins can easily be analyzed in terms of a particular trajectory taken by some field of resentments around the center—they realize something like this on one level, as Graeber periodically points out how relevant Girard’s theory of scapegoating is to so many of the arrangements he studies, while, of course, keeping his anarchist hopes alive by asserting that Girard’s theory is ultimately all wrong.

Those on the periphery model themselves on the center—so, in primitive communities with a sacred, ritual center the members of the community will participate in and inhabit (or be inhabited by) the mythological figures generated out of their ritual relation to the center. When a human comes to occupy the center, the members of the community model themselves on that, and come to see themselves as potential occupants of the, or, and this is crucial, somecenter. This is what the “individual” is: a center, and a possible center. To be an individual is to imagine vectors of attention directed toward oneself, and to imagine oneself arranging those vectors, drawing in some, deflecting others. The Axial Age acquisitions, which exposed the incompatibility of mass sacrifice with civilized order, aim at spreading centrality throughout the social order. Everyone must see him or herself as a center, and so everyone must be enabled to do so in a way that preserves a social and moral center. We can say that liberal and romantic forms of individuality were attempts to do this; we can also say they were disastrous attempts, because they set the individual against the social center, as if the individual could only stand out against the norm, thereby creating a social order predicated upon reciprocally hostile and centripetal centers. But the romantic individual, as Gans shows through his studies of romanticism, especially through the figure of Rousseau, is also trying to imitate Jesus, by displaying in his own person the universal hostility a universal benevolence toward all humankind inevitably brings upon one. The problem with the romantic individual is really that he wants to monopolize this attention, to exploit it politically and on the market. The moral use of attention centered upon the self is to display the possibilities for converting resentment into love, in which case one may accept, deflect, or reverse the slings and arrows, but in any case will do so in such a way that the one slinging and shooting sees and displays, if not the arbitrariness, at least the over-determination of his show of resentment. In this way, one converts one’s centrality into a moral and esthetic sign precisely by making space for other centers.

The more individuals turn themselves into such moral and esthetic signs, the more aligned they will be with the social center, and the entire system of “works” that ultimately signify that center. One thing that really enrages the liberal and especially romantic individual is the fact that an entire world consisting of institutions and technological imperatives pre-exist the individual and are essentially indifferent to his existence. This massive reality diminishes even the fantasy of killing and replacing the king, because it would all still be in place; and, if one intensifies one’s fantasy so as to demolish it all, what would be the point of being king? Part of the purpose of building up that imperative order is to ensure, in a world of spreading centrality, that the social center is clearly distinct from any individual one. The resentment toward the humanized center is thereby transformed into resentment toward the dehumanized or reified apparatuses supporting that center. This resentment is more easily converted into love, because it provides for a wealth of positions of responsibility tending to the apparatus. You can resent the one who got promoted over you, you can resent the boss who keeps screwing everything up, you can resent the fact that your sector of the economy is neglected despite the evident importance of the work done there, but all these resentments are made intelligible and acceptable insofar as they are framed as attempts to improve the system. Your resentment may be overwhelming your concern for clarifying the center, which is to say you might be wrong in your criticism, but you must, to maintain the level of centrality to which you have become accustomed, stand ready to be corrected in those criticisms (which means being willing to accept the centrality of others). A well ordered system would encourage these developments, while cutting off recourse to more desperate attempts to assert centrality, through attention grabbing acts of violence, for example.

Now, I would like to use this more expanded analysis of centrality, or centered ordinality, than I have yet given, to solve another problem I have been working on in these posts. That is the problem of the (meta)linguistic boundary, the boundary between using language and directing attention to the use of language. I am hypothesizing that the specific kind of metalanguage that emerged through writing, as a part of the emergence of “classic prose” as the ideal form of discourse, is the source of the “metaphysics” that pretty much all post-medieval thinkers have been trying to dismantle, and for good reason—regardless of how aware any of these thinkers may have been to this dimension of the problem, “metaphysics,” or the assumption of the primacy of the declarative sentence, represents a permanent imperium in imperiothat irremediably hinders attempts to construct centered orders. The power of metaphysics lies in the assumption that certain truths stand outside of the centered order, and can therefore be used as a standard to judge any such order. This shifts sovereignty from the occupant of the social center to whoever makes the most compelling claim to represent the superior metaphysical order, whether that order is called “God’s will,” “human nature,” the “laws of nature,” the “laws of the market,” or anything else. So, the problem, in equal parts moral, political and spiritual, is to have a way of commenting on uses of language that feeds back into the centered order, that clarifies the center itself, and draws out its commands, rather than setting up an external standard.

The way I have framed the question is in terms of the metalinguistic dimension of natural semantic primes like “think,” “want,” “know,” “say,” “good” and so on. These words seem exclusively words used to refer directly to things in the world, in particular, human activity. “Consider,” for example, is metalinguistic because it tells us about how someone is “thinking,” and is therefore an implicit commentary on the use of “think.” The metaphysical reading of such words is to posit an essential reality in which they represent an internal or transcendent quality or activity of which the word is a secondary reflection—but this is just a case of commentary or “mention” overriding use, which in the case of all these words is far more variegated than any essence posited could suggest. But the simplest way of eliciting the metalinguistic dimension of any word or, more precisely, any utterance, is by deploying it as a comment on a previous use of language. When one person responds to something said by another, the metalinguistic element of the reply lies in the way that response singles out, accentuates, draws attention to, some elements of the previous utterance rather than others.

Left at that, we could see this as an endless sequence of responses which, for no discernable reason, highlight some feature or another of the previous utterance. But it’s not left at this, because any response is seeking to maintain linguistic presence, and that will determine the nature of the response and the commentary on the previous utterance. And the way to maintain linguistic presence is by showing the previous utterance in its relation to the center, or some center, a center to which the new utterance also claims some relation. On the originary scene, whoever first emitted the sign couldn’t have quite known what he was doing until others iterated (responded to and commented on) his sign; even more, his own sign could not have been anything more than a more formalized version of another’s more instinctive hesitation—the non-instinctive hesitation is a “reading” of the instinctive variety in relation to a shared center. So, when I respond to another’s utterance, I see them in a relation to the center, which I can share, while in seeing them (while they don’t see themselves), I attend to something new in that relation to center, making that my relation to it. We develop abstract concepts around which disciplinary spaces can be constructed in this way by putting some words to a specialized use, for the purposes of that disciplinary space, in drawing attention to uses of language in relation to a particular center.

So, the primarily “useful” primes become metalinguistic, or their metalinguistic dimension is elicited, when we think about thinking, or want to want, or know about knowing, or say things about the things we say. We can, in each utterance we hear, imagine or hypothesize what that utterance is responding to, how the words it is using, the way it is piecing together chunks of language, are themselves implicitly commenting on another utterance. Here we can conduct all kinds of thought experiments, in which we imagine two or more utterances identical in every way but one (perhaps some subtle difference in tone or context), and that difference would comprise the point of creation of the shared center in which the utterances participate. All of our disciplines, even those in the physical sciences, operate this way, because they are all predicated upon revising existing hypotheses and the paradigms enabling them. We can be aware that this is all we are doing, and that this is quite enough. The center wants us to enter some proximate field of utterances and generate a new shared center, one that reveals something not yet visible in the center enabling the utterance. The shared project of ordering our centers therefore has its linguistic grounding, which means its grounding in meaning, and in thinking and knowing—a grounding with no ground other than the inquiry into the center itself.

The Architecture of the Center

When we speak about the absolutism of central power, the point is less that whatever the occupant of the center says goes (so that if something he says doesn’t go he must have said the wrong thing, but in that case was he really occupying the center?) than that no one can imagine anything happening without reference to the center. If I want to do something, I imagine the conditions under which the central power will allow or support it—if I think in terms of how I can do it by evading central power, I am still thinking of the center as a general constraint that must structure my thinking. If I want to bring about some social change, whatever form of cooperation with others I hope to organize, I ultimately assume the change must be channeled through the center, even if that means changing its occupant or even trying to occupy it myself. The center as referent and constraint on meaning is implicit in all of our uses of language—if the role of the center in a particular instance is not obvious, it is necessary to invent it. The centered nature of reality is what provides us with the general imperative to support a centered ordinality, which is to say an order in which the articulation of power from the center through the ranks it establishes is rendered transparent and consistent.

There has to be a center because humanity is constituted through joint attention, and attention must be attention toward something, and if attention is joint that something must be at the convergence of the respective lines of vision of the attenders. The only way this object of attention can be held in place is if it is desired by all of those attending upon it, and the only way it can be desired rather than appropriated is if its appropriation is proscribed; and the only way its appropriation can be proscribed is if the participants on the scene constitute this proscription by offering signs to each other that they will suspend any attempt to appropriate the object. The source of the sign(s) offered must be a reversal of the movement towards the object, and this reversal must result from the fear of violence produced by this novel, collective, unconstrained rush toward the object. Now, up until this point in our reconstruction of the originary event, there is in principle nothing that the participants on the scene couldn’t talk about and arrange deliberately among ourselves. That is, so far, there would be some justification in seeing the originary scene as a kind of social contract, if we were to set aside the problem of there not being any language in which the terms of the contract could be set. But we have left out one thing: precisely because there is no language within which a “negotiation” could take place, the injunction against appropriating the object can only come from the central object itself.

Now, one could take the atheist position and say that imagining the central object ordering everyone to stand down is a mere “illusion,” generated by the unspoken balancing of the “odds” and projection of motivations onto each other by the participants on the scene. Maybe one could map it out and mathematize it. But it’s an illusion that returns each time we use language and “understand” each other—the atheist can rationalize the scene in retrospect in terms of a parallelogram of forces, but he couldn’t show us how its participants could have done it then; he can also imagine that he’s rationalizing the world scene on which he acts today, but unless we make the completely  irrational assumption that everyone is rationalizing equally and simultaneously such rationalization is really just an attempt to marshal, or imagine marshaling, all of the scientific and technological capacities bound up with the very possibility of rationalizing in the attempt to destroy by force the “problem” of human meaning.

An illusion which cannot be filtered out of “reality” is not really an illusion—it is what Hannah Arendt called a “necessary appearance,” or what we could call an “imaginary.” In this case, a central imaginary—that is what we can’t think or speak without. All of culture is human beings placing things at the center, which is indistinguishable from being told what to place at the center by the center, and charting and narrating the movements of whatever is at the center. As I suggested in the previous post, we are always trying to get word from the center, no less when we generate complex genetic and psychological typologies than when we consult with demons and spirits. There is a continuity between magic and science and technology, as evidenced by the fact that the vanguard of each new scientific revolution accuses its predecessors of some variant or residue of “magical” or “mythological” thinking. This progressive relation to the center is what I have been calling “imperative culture,” or the “imperative order,” or “imperativity.” The center issues commands, commands with their origins in the injunction to suspend appropriation of the object on the originary scene; the participants on any cultural scene make requests of the center. These requests are often refused, and when that happens new cultural forms must be created: the request may have been refused because it was made improperly, which means that the center orders more formalized and supervised forms of petition; it may have been refused because the one making it was not worthy of having it granted, meaning that the center orders new modes of self-examination and purification—these are the ways in which resentment at the center’s refusals are made productive. The relation to the center is in this way refined, and the means of yet further refinement created.

It is not surprising that once human beings, that is, kings, start occupying the center, a similar process of trial and error would be required—in fact, not only have we, or, more precisely, no political leadership, yet completely solved this problem, we could see the centuries of liberal usurpations of the center as both another attempted solution and a hysterical avoidance of the problem itself. The more we see the incoherence of liberalism, the more problematic and interesting the modern order becomes, because the modern order has obviously seen scientific, intellectual and technological accomplishments that any post-liberal order would preserve, albeit in some revised manner. So, has the industrialization and post-industrialization, the massive wealth creation, of the West, and much of the rest of the world in its wake, been accomplished because of liberalism—in which case do we have to accept liberalism along with the technology and wealth, or reject both (and in that latter case, how, exactly)?; are the material developments in spite of liberalism, in which case we can just junk the liberalism and move on to a rational and beneficial harvesting of our growing powers (this seems a little too convenient); are these developments side effects of liberalism, partly rooted in, partly separate from, that political order (in which case a perhaps more complex surgical operation, which might transform the “patient” in unpredictable ways, might be needed)? All of these ways of framing the question, in the very positing of a “we,” are implicated in magical and mythological thinking, direct translations of our hopes and fears into requests of the center.

In sacred kingship, the king is the mediator between the community and the supernatural world, or the world created at the origin. He has to resolve the paradox of the center, that it both precedes “us” and is the depository of our desires and resentments. The sacred king is responsible for all aspects of the well-being of the community—he brings rain, he ensures adequate food supplies, protects against natural disasters, and so on. This means that these are all things we expect from the center. (The fact that we can still look out the window and say “oh, no, not rain again!” means that we still expect these things.) It makes sense to assume that sacred kings would have done what they could to supply what they could, and to turn their failures back onto the community. Furthermore, they would elevate their role from mediator to arbiter, if possible, creating the distinction (made by David Graeber) between “sacred” and “divine” kings: the divine kings “make themselves the equivalents of gods—arbitrary, all-powerful beings beyond human morality—through the use of arbitrary violence.” Graeber sees sacred kingship as a way of controlling for the effects of divine kingship, but there is no contradiction in noting that divine kingship would offer a way of transcending the limitations and dangers of sacred kingship.

Violence against humans and violence against the natural world and everything in it are of a piece—it is only fairly recently that the distinction between the two could even be made. The readiest solution to sacred kingship is, then, divine violence. The imperatives issued by those on the human side of the imperative order start to become more imperious: people can start to say to “gods” and “natural” beings, “do this!” And watching very closely to see whether they obey. And, further, watching very closely for what the audience seems to accept as “obedience”—or, more precisely, what the audience can be induced or made to accept. Andrew Bartlett, an orginary thinker of the GA school (see also his Mad Scientist, Impossible Human) locates the origins of science on the originary scene in the possibility of handling one part of the originary object as a part separate from the whole, and that is what happens in the growing autonomy of the imperative order:  imperatives need no longer be issued to the center itself, but to its “messengers” and “agents.” The specialization of a few members of the community in the acquisition of such knowledge is the beginning of the disciplines, and the delegation of such powers by the king is the beginning of imperial kingship. This is the road towards the struggle for sovereignty.

So, there is a dialect between the center through which violence must ultimately circulate and the disciplines, which give, revise, and suggest compound “meanings” granted to anything and everything in the world (everything that has been loosened from sacred kingship). Technology itself, as I think Heidegger was suggesting, is itself a way of conferring upon or summoning forth meaning from nature and human capacities. For those of us in the disciplines, who if anything want even less than the pittance of power allotted us in liberal democracies that means engaging in the kinds of disputes that can only be settled by resetting attention to a lower threshold. When we think or speak we are always on a scene, or a possible scene—but all scenes are really only possible ones. None of us has created the language we use, and even if we speak to ourselves, the self we speak to is not identical to the one who listens—but it’s also very easy to forget this, since the most readily available means of assertion (I think, I believe, I am sure, etc.) give credit to the assumption that we are each of the original source of what we say.

There is no “world scene,” which is an Enlightenment fantasy, but it is possible to see all of us—“we” language users—as embarked, in all our overlapping and spread out disciplinary spaces, on a collaborative project to refine further our instructions from the center. The architecture of each discipline is a construction of a meaningful “piece” or “dimension” of reality—we undertake the construction by seeking out the failed imperatives we have issued to the center of our space, and replacing them with ones whose meaning we can now test. Imagining goals, causes and regularities, and then finding ways to test their viability is the process of participating in the disciplines. One thing that centralizing power does is widen the scope of possible disciplinary inquiries—centralizing power mobilizes collective forms of action, and demands and receives new forms of material force, and therefore provides new areas of inquiry for students of those activities and of power itself. It may very well be, then, that a form of power like liberalism, which is simultaneously centralizing and centripetal, would give a huge impetus to various disciplinary inquiries; and it is also not surprising that those inquiries vary widely in quality and sustainability. Liberalism is a kind of weird, swirling sprawl that sucks everything towards an abyss at the center. But anywhere within that sprawl one can try and slow things, redirect attention, and look at some failed pleas to the center that haven’t even been noticed as such.

All discourse is the representation of imperative exchanges in declarative, ultimately narrative and paradoxical, form. Myths explain rituals, but they’re not the cause of the ritual—the cause of the ritual is the recreation of the scene to make the central being present, and revisions of ritual are responses to some failure of the central being to appear. The new ritual changes the request, the question and the conditions of the answer: if we do this the being will appear, and the appearance of the being will take this form. Ultimately, if the appearance of the being is evidenced in the petitioner’s ability to find that presence in his own ability to defer some desire, we have reached the point of minimal ritual—ritual as continuous inspections of increasingly refined habits. This can then take the form of a narrative of some kind of intellectual and psychological self-transformation. Disciplinary spaces can arrive at the point where they essentially report on the efficacy and results of practices that maintain this minimal and continuous presence. This minimal and continuous presence is to be maintained within spaces where presence is less minimal and continuous—it is to keep working on these spaces, producing practices that with minimal input maximally increase the presence of central being. This kind of practice is what I have been examining in the last couple of posts in my proposals for the deconstruction of metalanguage, which is really a kind of mythological or magical discourse. All metalinguistic terms can be reduced to some scenic version of think, say, feel, or know, and these words can in turn be reduced to imperatives to draw new instructions from the center.

The Discourse of the Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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