R.C. Collingwood exposed a basic principle of Western metaphysics when he noted that “[t]he logician’s proposition seemed to me a kind of ghostly double of the grammarian’s sentence… Grammar recognizes a form of discourse called the sentence, and among sentences…one kind which express[es] statements In grammatical phraseology, these are indicative sentences; and logicians have almost always tried to conceive the ‘unit of thought’, or that which is either true or false, as a kind of logical ‘soul’ whose linguistic ‘body’ is the indicative sentence.” Eric Gans’ originary hypothesis enables us to pursue further the implications of this observation regarding the reduction of claims about reality to true or false propositions modeled upon the indicative sentence. Gans defines metaphysics as that form of thought that presupposes the primacy of the declarative sentence. Metaphysics thereby obscures the primacy of the ostensive sign, and the secondariness of the imperative.
The purpose of this obfuscation in ancient and modern Enlightenments is to neutralize the power of the ostensive: as the originary sign, the ostensive defers violence and constitutes the community around a central, sacred object; however, once contending sacralities struggle to occupy the same space the power of the ostensive becomes a source of violence. Metaphysics attempts to do the work done by ritual in the more compact community—it defers violence in a world where market interaction breaks the bonds of ritual by placing the representation of a reality that transcends all specific desires and demands at the ethical center of society.
It is in his first book on the originary hypothesis The Origin of Language (1980) that Gans traces the emergence of the declarative sentence from the originary scene. As I pointed out in my previous post, the originary sign “saturates” the scene which it constitutes—it would best be “translated” as the Name-of-God but a more “literal” translation would be something more along the lines of God-whom-you-must-not-encroach-upon-on-pain-of-immediate-cataclysm-stop-right-there-don’t-dare-take-that-next-step-you-are-considering-right-now… As long as the ostensive sign is the only sign, it would generate such scenes, resolving imminent conflicts, enhancing the cohesion and “inter-operability” of the nascent community. Its iterability and usefulness, though, would keep lowering the threshold of mimetic rivalry at which it could be introduced—more simply, it would become increasingly mundane as the singularity of its designation of the center is modified by its more variegated deployments.
I am, then, suggesting the emergence of something like a “vocabulary,” of a system of signs alongside the transcendence of the originary sign. Somewhere along the way a human being issues what Gans calls the “inappropriate ostensive,” designating an object that isn’t there. When the inappropriate ostensive is met by a retrieval of the named object, it becomes the imperative sign. Since the threshold for putting forth a sign has been lowered, so that signs become meaningful in non-critical situations, imperatives can alternate with ostensives in minimally conflictual ways—indeed, imperatives can only be meaningful with an ostensive at the “end” of it. If I demand something of you, not only is my demand not fulfilled, but I have no evidence that you have understood my demand, or even that I have made it correctly, until you produce whatever it is I am demanding.
In this world of ostensives and what we can call ostensive-imperative articulations the uses of signs are still limited by the proximity of some object. Objects demanded, acts commanded, must be produced and carried out within some very determinate temporal frame—otherwise, the linguistic acts will “expire.” The creation of a “reality” that transcends the immediate proximity of some object that might be shared, contended over, requested, requires a different linguistic form. For Gans (still in The Origin of Language) the origin of that new linguistic form, the declarative sentence, is to be found in what he calls the “negative ostensive”: an imperative goes unfulfilled (it can’t be fulfilled; it is refused—could there be any means of making this distinction at this point?), but remains unappeased. Conflict arises, and at least a mini-crisis looms. Neither “interlocutor” wishes to push further, but neither can simply retreat. The imperative is “softened” into an interrogative (the imperative repeated in a less peremptory way); a question creates space for “dialogue” that a command or demand excludes. The word remains the same, only the “tone” and “posture” of the “interrogator” changes; and the word remains the same when the “answer” is put forth: the same word, “inflected” differently, instead of the object. Once this linguistic exchange is completed successfully, we have the first sentence: topic+comment, (the object) (not here).
A space for the declarative sentence has now been opened up—if the “claim” that the object is not here “makes sense” (appeases whoever makes the demand) then it would make sense that it could be elsewhere, anywhere else, and other “predications” become possible. At some point (and here my own hypothesizing takes over from what I hope has been an accurate account of Gans’ argument in The Origin of Language) the ostensive is conjoined with a fresh imperative, issued by the recipient of the original one, as there will be questions that require a path, however mediated, back to the object if they are to be “answered” (and not revert back into more menacing or importunate imperatives). Here we would have a clear separation and articulation of parts of speech (Name-of-Object—Place-Name/Direction), and once imperatives can be placed alongside ostensive naming the name is subjected to imperatives in general and thereby embedded in a sustainable reality, beyond anyone’s grasp
Here, we would have a noun and a verb. It helps, I believe, if we view this ostensive-imperative linguistic articulation as a sequence of “inappropriate” usages on a succession of scenes. Since our very distinction between different speech-act forms is artificial at this point, the first imperative could easily have been put forth (“intended”) more as a kind of “adjective”—it would become a verb, and become “transitive,” once acted upon and hence extended beyond its site of articulation. In turn, such an imperative issued by the recipient of a demand back to his interlocutor (following an insufficient negative ostensive) gets transferred to the object; once transferred to the object, the imperative could be coming from anywhere (imperatives have already been exchanged with God in the ritual scene). The sentence is itself, in a sense, an imperative directed toward the object—all these vectors of command enmesh the name-of-the-object in reality, out of anyone’s reach, turning it into a source of imperatives itself. Now we would have genuinely autonomous objects moving through what I would propose calling a “field of semblances”. If a “semblance” is something that is simultaneously sign and object (object when we—to use Michael Polanyi’s terms—attend to it, possessively; sign when we attend from it to something else), reality itself is a field of semblances created by us through the use of sentences which give objects their own life and thereby require that we devise formal mediations (compromises and covenants with objects that add new layers of complexity to our reciprocal compromises and covenants with each other) in order to arrange for their reliable availability, as signs and objects.
Sentences, moreover, exist, sustain themselves, in a swirling pool of imperatives and interrogatives and are best made sense of as deferring and incorporating imperatives (through the mediation of questions). Even more, they themselves generate imperatives, upon whose acknowledgement their intelligibility is contingent, directed toward the field of semblances: “understanding” a sentence would involve obeying or resisting, iterating and complementing in words and deeds the ways it orders (strongly suggests/politely requests—anyway, one’s understanding is mediated by the softening of the imperative into a question) you to disperse the field of semblances around the name. So, to put it a little idiosyncratically, a sentence is a name turned by order from marker of dangerous convergence to event. A noun and a verb. Imperatives come from all over, but let’s reduce it to three possibilities: from another name; from reality; from the name itself.
I’ll put forward the following hypothesis: in any sentence (the exceptions will almost always be verbs that are tied to questioning), we can translate the verb into an imperative coming from one of those three origins. Or, more precisely, some range of probability for imputing it to some distribution of those origins. The composer of the sentence thereby preserves the name and insists you compose another sentence anticipating and forefending some possible convergence upon it. It is then in the subsequent sentence that the distribution of possibilities in the previous one is established, as that subsequent sentence begins with the embedded request to authenticate ostensively the imperative embedded in the verb of the previous one.
Originary grammar is the mode of thinking within sentences, tracing the paths from ostensives (what was settled being put out of order) through imperatives (put it back in order!), the stalling of imperatives and their softening into interrogatives (what’s the best way of ordering?), and into the declarative sentence (here’s a range of possible orderings) and back into imperatives (tradition/reality/conscience dictates that…) that, fulfilled and ostensively “authenticated,” settle things just enough to maintain a tolerable threshold for the emergence of new ostensives.
Thinking is itself obedience to the imperative (self-issued? on compulsion from reality, rightly perceived? divinely imposed? Perhaps the quality of thought is at stake) to suspend obedience to all imperatives as the various possible circulations of those imperatives can be iterated in sentences, sentences that keep deferring the imperatives embedded in previous sentences. The most perfect issue of thinking is the maxim, simultaneously general in its implications, pragmatic in its applications, and paradoxical in its operations: the maxim is an imperative issued by the name to itself to single out an imperative from reality to obey.. For example: thinking is obedience to the imperative to suspend all imperatives.
Metaphysics—like Hebraic and then Christian monotheism—emerges as an attempt to transcend scapegoating. The Hebrew community, Socrates and Jesus all deliberately attract the desires and resentments of all—the revelation all these intellectual/spiritual movements share is that scapegoating, rather than saving the community, destroys it—from a more historical perspective we could say that this is the case past a certain level of social development, when the imperatives of scapegoating conflict with the necessary openness between communities connected through markets or empires. But metaphysics never effectively extracts itself from the procedures of scapegoating, and while the revelations of the monotheistic faiths are inexhaustible, that of metaphysics has been drying up for centuries.
If metaphysics is the mode of thought based upon the primacy of the declarative sentence, I would further refine that definition to say that metaphysics is the mode of thought that sees the declarative sentence solely as a conduit for the imperatives issued by reality. Metaphysics confirms human nature from the standpoint of human mind; it replaces scapegoating with realism, which lets reality select the victim and establishes intermediary institutions to ensure for natural selection. This was once progress—it delayed and somewhat neutralized socially legitimated violence, and helped prevent the further degeneration of that violence into out-and-out human sacrifice.
Even now, with human sacrifice on the rise in, in particular, the practice of suicide bombing, we should be cautious in assaulting metaphysical modes of thought everywhere we find them. But we cannot obey the realist imperative to set aside all concern with other ways of writing sentences, with the generation of idiosyncratic idioms through which self-issued imperatives of names and things make audible orders and orderings operating below standard thresholds, in the meantime.
Next time, I will examine the syntax of contemporary victimary metaphysics and propose an originary thinking of error as a way of working the margins of the current tsunami of the Global Intifada and the global financial crisis.
Adam Katz teaches writing at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. He is the editor of The Originary Hypothesis: A Minimal Proposal for Humanistic Inquiry and an editor of Anthropoetics, the on-line journal of Generative Anthropology.