November 5, 2019

Some Paradoxes

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:25 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 29, 2019


Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:17 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 20, 2019

Mimeticism and Morality

Filed under: GA — adam @ 12:02 pm

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


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


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


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


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

July 17, 2019

Media as Scene

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:00 am

It seems to me we have a very simple way of speaking about “media” in a way consistent with GA: the “media” is whatever enables the constitution of a scene. A sign directs participants on a scene’s attention in a particular way and thereby constitutes the scene; but, reciprocally, relying on the elements of the scene makes the sign possible. I think of the originary scene as having a circular structure, because that would maximize the power of the sign: everyone on the scene would see both the object and the others, so they could see each other seeing the object. In that case, the circular configuration would be the medium, or the condition under which the sign could be effectively issued. At the same time, the bodies of all the participants are media—or are the bodies part of the sign? After, what functions as a sign here is not obvious: if we assume a pointing gesture, the sign, most minimally, is the extended fingertip—but, of course, the fingertip functioning as a sign might depend upon how the hand is held, and the gesture as a whole would depend upon posture. So, where does sign end and media begin? Sign shades off into its medium, and the medium is concentrated in a particular sign. What is important is not to draw a line separating the two, but to bring into focus whatever is necessary for a particular inquiry.

Writing is a medium—it generates scenes around a text; film is a medium—it generates scenes around a screen; radio is a medium—it generates scenes around broadcast sound; and so on. Are pen, typewriter, microphone, projector, DVD, large darkened room, also part of these media? Yes, but the various elements, settings or implements of the media are more or less contingently associated with or necessary for that medium. When is it the “same,” and when is it no longer the “same,” medium? Again, it’s best to avoid the trap of using concepts to establish classifications, but we could say the following: the originary media, upon which the subsequent ones are modeled, is the singular irreplaceable scene upon which participants shape the scene reciprocally. So, let’s say, a speech scene. This can be contested—is, for example, sending signals into space meant to be picked up and understood by some alien form of intelligence out there a medium modeled on a speech scene (which, for GA, is ultimately modeled on another scene, but on most occasions there’s no need to insist on this)? I think so—when speaking about other media, no matter how technologically advanced and no matter how much temporal and spatial distance they put between the users, we always, I think, use terms from a speech scene (“conversation,” “dialogue,” “discuss,” etc.—even “transmit” presupposes the same kind of reciprocity and replicability).

Seeming exceptions, but I think really complements, are terms used to refer to media that generate a series of scenes: terms such as “broadcast” or Derrida’s favorite, “disseminate.” Writing, to take the most obvious example (but why do we still say that the “author says…”?) generates innumerable scenes. The scenes of reading, commentary, and discussion generated by a text all, at least, share that text as a center—so, if I read a poem by Juvenal, do I have a scenic relation to an ancient Roman who read it? We’re not looking for yes/no answers here: if we take that as a genuine question, we would try an answer it by expanding our conception of “media” to include the process of preservation, canonization, translation and publication (all media, or part of the medium of “writing”) that made it possible for me to read a text that is at least in some sense the “same” as that read by an ancient Roman. The discipline of hermeneutics understood the transmission of texts to be an ongoing dialogue between readers and the text, and readers amongst themselves—hermeneuticists wouldn’t have a problem saying that “my” Juvenal and some 1stcentury Roman’s Juvenal were the “same.” Post-structuralists would dispute this by drawing attention to all the historical differences, registered in all the cultural, philological and critical discourses that “produce” the text for me. But, if the name “Juvenal” is not just a complete mystification, there must be some continuity, some “sameness.” Knowing all the cultural forms that mediate the text for me in ways unimaginable for that 1stcentury Roman might itself be a kind of “dialogue” with him.

That the model for any medium is the speech scene, with bodies and voices all put to work in the signifying act, is an insight David Olson makes regarding writing, and which I have extended to all media. Olson, as I have discussed many times, sees writing as supplementing everything in the speech scene that can’t be directly represented in writing. “Good” writing induces in us forgetfulness that we are not sharing a scene with the writer, and whomever or whatever he is writing about. A “good” movie or TV show, by the same logic, “draws us in” and makes us feel like we are observers present on a scene. I think reading most movie and TV criticism would bear this observation out—“bad” movies are those in which we can’t believe the events are actually happening, in which a sequence of events doesn’t play out the way we would expect it to in the real world, in which characters aren’t “relatable” or sympathetic, i.e., we wouldn’t want to imagine ourselves on a scene with them. The same with radio—we have to feel we are, and are happy to be, in the same room with the host. The other possibility always exists, and is sometimes exploited—that of foregrounding precisely what is unique in the medium you are using, that which makes it different from the speech scene and all other media. This involves abstraction and the generation of thought experiments, like, what, exactly, makes film, film? What’s interesting in this case is not, say, using the scenic medium to supplement what would be expressed differently in a novel (preserving the “same” content), but to show precisely what couldn’t be expressed in or mediated by a novel. This has been the position of the avant-garde which has never, needless to say, occupied the center of culture, but is always retrieved by those with a low threshold of tolerance for clichés, and this is fortunate because some kind of direct attention to the mediumistic conditions of any sign is necessary for their intelligent “consumption.” The implication of my argument here is that even experiencing the most avant-garde works is modeled on the speech scene, but with the possibility of recognizing all the ways we contribute to constituting that scene.

These concepts—sign/scene, speech scene/other media, unique scenes/iterable scenes—provide us with a powerful way of examining all media phenomena, and one that allows us to never lose sight of the central question: how does this sign, on this scene, defer more or less imminent mimetic violence? The complementary concept pairs allow us to oscillate between them, using what we identify in some case to be the “sign” to direct our attention to media conditions of that sign, or encompassing more and more of what we see as surrounding that sign (e.g., ownership of a particular station as part of the “medium,” or the scenic condition of those words coming out of that actor’s mouth), which in turn helps us refine our analysis of that sign. Academics like to use such concepts to systematize, but their real purpose is to open up discussions and move them in new directions, often in directions those “behind the scene” would prefer it didn’t. This is the kind of knowledge that goes, at least tacitly, into “meme-ing,” for example.

We could think of the media as the fractal conditions of whatever signs and discourses we produce. Any action you propose, or any imperative you obey, presents itself as a whole: so, for example, maybe you are determined to “challenge the liberal assumptions” of a prominent blogger who nominally rejects liberalism. Now, “challenge the liberal assumptions of” is one of those phrases that comes very easily and dissipates just as easily. What counts as a “challenge”? What counts as an unavowed “liberal assumption”? How could we tell that the assumptions have really been challenged—what are the “metrics” here? As soon as you start to break down “challenge the liberal assumptions of” into a set of practices, you start constructing scenes and models of the way others will respond to your “challenge” by stripping away some of the credibility of the putative anti-liberal—or, maybe, you envisage them questioning him in a new, friendly but forceful way. You would want the liberal assumptions, once they are exposed, to be replaced by genuinely non-liberal ones—not slightly less obviously liberal ones. You’d want to provide certain “scaffolds” that would enable your target to know where the line between liberal and post-liberal is to be drawn here. In other words, your discourse aims at peopling a landscape, as if you were modeling lots of little “challenges to liberal assumptions” to be extracted from your discourse. This is what I mean by “fractal”: explicating a practice asserted in strictly declarative terms that represent a reality without any firm referents by including the components of that practice as, simultaneously, its model.

When you think this way you’re thinking in terms of the media conditions of your utterances. “Challenging the liberal assumptions of” gets converted into a scene, or a series of possible scenes: someone saying this, someone writing that, someone broadcasting something else, a flurry of tweets following up in some way, etc. The purpose is to transform the “target” into a different kind of sign across various media. “Thinking” about media is equivalent to producing discourse that travels through various media. There’s something in your writing that will sound just right read aloud; a few things that are tweet-worthy; something that’s an implicit response in an ongoing dialogue with some other position; something that satirizes a TV personality in a way that can only be done in writing, and so on. The reason why phrases like “challenge the assumptions of” need to be fractalized is that they are completely logocentric: they “work,” i.e., go unnoticed, insofar as they generate the illusion of us all being on the same scene where we consent to “see” that “challenge” in front of us as vividly as we could see one boxer knocking out another (and, of course, people refer all the time—mostly somewhat ironically, though, I think—about people being “destroyed” by this or that tweet or meme). That logocentrism, that we see in concepts that construct phony simulations of battles between familiar opponents, is what is to be targeted most persistently. It’s not so much that specific “beliefs,” “principles” and “convictions” need to be dissolved as that the very concepts of “belief,” “principles” and “convictions,” among many others need to be dissolved into scenes that make them meaningful. What are you doing when you “believe”? If you “have” principles, where are they? These are just ways of saying, “you know that thing I just said—I’m not just BSing it”—which is the surest proof that that is exactly what they are doing. Better than believing and having principles is surrounding a discourse by leveraging media so as to interfere with its “wave structure.” The imperative is to embed the declarative in a scene, which in turn elicits its originary structure.

July 9, 2019

Language Paradoxed

Filed under: GA — adam @ 3:43 pm

The discourse of the center bypasses concepts such as “desire,” “resentment” and “mimesis.” Using these concepts, as I mentioned last post, exempt you from the very things you are describing: insofar as your own desires, resentments and modeling are infecting those you are examining, the real topic of your discussion is your own practices; in which case, why not make it directly so? But, then, you couldn’t present your own self-centering without presenting others, so the problem becomes how to do it all at once. The solution lies in beginning with an account of what you’re hearing from the center. The center doesn’t call to say everything’s OK: intuitions of the center indicate something out of order, and at least a preliminary re-ordering (a mark of a better society would be that its members spend ever more time anticipating potential disorders than addressing immediate ones). But “something out of order” means someone positioned where they “shouldn’t” be; to be even more direct, someone positioned where you should be. That’s the elemental core of resentment: the other is in your place, and the center allows him to be there. You can detect the “texture” of resentment in any “sample” of language, including, of course, this one—in this case, perhaps, toward all those maintaining centeredness through distancing declarative language, and toward the center for not sufficiently amply revealing itself.

You can pursue this resentment head on, and there’s no doubt a cognitive yield in doing so: how did he get into that place, how has he secured it, with the help of which henchmen dispatched by the center, with what other displacing effects, how to extract him from there and replace him with the spot’s true inhabitant, etc. This is pretty much the structure of all analysis—this is what it looks and feels like to examine something “critically.” We get to a kind of basic “humanness” here, because everyone can be taught to notice such logics in others but very few wish to examine the circumference one has constructed around oneself as center in similarly meticulous ways (of course I’m resentful, don’t you see what they’re doing…!); even more importantly, it’s not like we can invent another way of thinking. In figures like Jesus or Dostoevsky’s Alyosha we can see what another way of thinking would be, in which every thought of the other would be infused from the start by infinite love, mercy, and compassion. But that could only be the result of a long process of ascesis, itself involving some tremendous wrestling with outsized resentments—plus, one could only attain such a condition at the cost of not really being able to do anything, and how merciful and loving (I ask resentfully) is that?

Maturity means being able to notice more and more distinctions—and all distinctions are on some level invidious—while attending more and more to the formalizing of those distinctions, rather than to seeking out their justifications. The most egalitarian world possible would instantly turn into the most inegalitarian one: imagine we could all be placed in a state of nature, with equal physical and intellectual capabilities. As soon as we got started doing something, status distinctions would emerge—someone notices something first, someone gets a little more of something, someone, maybe for random reasons, is a bit more attractive than others, etc. Even if the differences were minute and rapidly changing they would loom large. So, everyone would be immediately, and constantly, faced with the choice: you can think, how do I get as much as that person (or reduce him to as little as me); how do I make myself as attractive as that person (or reduce his attractiveness), and so on; or, how can these status distinctions be formalized, so that what it means to have access to things, to identify new centers, to be the center of others’ attention can be made explicit and therefore a source of order. You might still want more things, to have more power, to be more attractive, and you might use others as models to acquire these things, but you would do so in such a way as to strengthen the meaning the center has conferred upon such practices.

Every utterance points a way to resentment and a way to transcendence, or what I would prefer to call “presencing” and “centering.” If there is one point of unanimity in the modern world, it is that there is no center. All secular people will insist on this once the question is raised, while the religious will insist all the more forcefully on their center to the extent that they must also insist others can only acknowledge it on their terms. In a way, this is also a concession of the general centerlessness. But our language always tells us otherwise—at the very least, when you say something, you are presenting yourself, or what you say, as a center. And not only as a center in itself, but as a center pointing to another center, as will become clear if you ask someone, why did you say that? You were assuming that those who might be listening to you were paying attention to something else (what, exactly, did you imagine they might be paying attention to?), and you want their attention wrenched away from that to this other thing. What did it say about them that they were focused on something else, and what would it say about them to redirect their attention as you propose? The resentment is in the demand for the attention shift (and that demand’s implication that others were lesser for “refusing” to look at your thing); the centering will be in the new nomos, or division of participatory roles, implicit in getting engrossed in this new thing.

So, gradations, or centered ordinality, are implicit in every utterance, at least insofar as you were less for paying attention to that and will be more for paying attention to this. And whoever follows up on one utterance will construct another order. Listening to the center entails generating finer distinctions along with a center ordering them. In a sense this would be the most originary, and therefore egalitarian way of inhabiting language—far more so than using language to point out that others have something you don’t and demanding some remedy for it. Here, we are all perfectly equal, which is to say the same, for the center, which is more important than where any of us “should” be. It’s very important to keep in mind how impossible this all sounds within a liberal order. I think I’m referring to an extremely mature social order and populace—but not at all utopian—in which people get better and better at doing the things they are asked to do, by whoever is asking them to do it, into ways of sharpening a distinctive practice that will serve as a model for others. But to someone bred and indoctrinated within liberalism it will sound like you’re condemning them to a robotic and/or militarized existence (your language will be full of impossible imperatives for them)—simply because you’re not reserving for them (or promising them) some space outside of sociality where they can imagine themselves as self-starters, or an originating center.

Enacting and speaking in centered ordinality is the only way back to the center. This involves both openness of speech, parrhesia, the explicit articulation of the distinctions evident, first of all, in the other’s discourse; and centering, making explicit the new nomos also implicit in the other’s discourse. The point is not to say, “here’s what everything will look like when we’re done.” The point is to elicit from others the kind of center that might make their demands meaningful. In a way it’s good that argumentation has become completely useless, now that the different camps occupy incompatible worlds of “facts.” Argumentation was always pointless anyway—nobody changes their mind because they’re provided with a better set of pros and cons than they were working with previously—and if they do, they’ll change it right back as soon as they come across another set of pros and cons. This has to be the least effective means of political engagement. To do it right, you would first of all have to determine which subsets of the population, which 5% or so, is worth engaging with; and you would then have to assume, insofar as they are really worth engaging with, they’re not looking for a list of facts but a “scene” within some paradigm they are working with that can be tested for anomalies. If you help some audience exhaust one paradigm by exposing its anomalies, and lend them a hand in transitioning to a new one, you might have actually done something.

But social and political paradigms are not equivalent to scientific ones. There’s no closed experimental space. There’s only language. We just keep going from the resentful demands implicit in the other’s discourse to the centered commands that would render them meaningful—or not. You could say there’s a resentful demand implicit in this blog post: think and speak completely differently about politics, damn it! What makes that any different than “I wish the left would stop being so hypocritical about the border crisis!”? The only thing that would make it different is if it creates, intensifies, or helps to resolve some paradigm crisis. The presence of anomalies indicates obedience to some super-sovereign; the super-sovereign supplements some resentment, positing an imaginary agency and a space within which that agency will satisfy your resentment. A really democratic culture, equal rights, a government that listens to the people, a citizenry that holds its leaders accountable, a return to republican virtue, rising above special interests to embrace the common good, restoring the Constitution—you can make your own list of clichés. These are all super-sovereign supplementations, and we could trace their long history through the disciplines, going back to ancient philosophy.

If we learn to listen very carefully to these super-sovereign supplementations, we can generate anomalies by subtracting them from the discourse. What would people say if they didn’t have recourse to them? That’s at least an invitation to a thought experiment; if the invitation proves less than enticing, it’s easy enough to render all of these concepts incoherent. The paradoxes that inhere in all of them are descendants of the first philosophical paradox that we meet right at the beginning in the Platonic dialogues: is what the gods command good because the gods command it, or do the gods command it because it is good? The disciplines of Western culture have never gotten past this (this was one of the most valuable insights of Derridean deconstruction). In self-government, what’s the relation between the self doing the governing and the self being governed? Similarly intractable questions can be asked about all of them. You’ll know you’re getting somewhere when the other sputters (I say somewhat resentfully) “alright, so what’s your solution?” What’s your rush? Isn’t it helpful to keep working through the supplementations? Ultimately, we’d work our way towards sheer power analysis, which is extremely disconcerting for a liberal, but, then, what is power? Once we start to see it everywhere, we can start stripping it of all those same supplementations meant to make power “accountable” to some imaginary super-sovereign. So, you really mean brute force, don’t you?! The more we find power everywhere, the more it must be just about the exact opposite of that. Why do you listen to, or follow someone, as you surely do sometimes—we can see in your own language the kind of reliance you have on others, the trust and faith you have in them—after all, every single word you say can be sourced to some claim circulating about, or to some tradition. You confer power on them, and assume power yourself within the same space. And you do it without demanding elections or suing to have your rights recognized. What’s going on, then? The answer will lie in the distinctions, the gradations, their suggested operationalization—the centered ordinality we can locate in every utterance

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