By Adam Katz
The indicative sentence could be said by anyone; imperative and interrogative sentences are defined by the speaker and listener. To use Peircean terms, imperatives and interrogatives have a first and a second, while the indicative is uttered by a third. The speaker of the indicative sentence is therefore outside of the direct interaction involved in the interrogative, imperative and, most fundamentally, the ostensive.
If you say “he needs help,” you are clearly outside of the help-seeking; for that matter, if you say “I need help”—as opposed to “help me”—you setting yourself, as speaker, at least somewhat apart from yourself as needing help. The response called for by your indicative sentence is something along the lines of “what’s wrong?” or “what can I do?” that is, an interrogative, rather than a direct proffer of aid. You are engaged in a discussion over your situation. Your indicative statement calls for a response—that is, it commands a response, or embeds an imperative: inquire into my condition. How meaningful the sentence is depends upon how meaningful that inquiry would be—that is, what new ostensive signs it would yield. The same is true if we increase the distance between the need for help and the sentence—say, “K needs help.”
Here, a different chain of interrogatives and imperatives constitutes the space of inquiry opened by the sentence, including questions like “how do you know” or “who says” that K needs help? (Questions that would hardly arise with a sentence like “I need help”). The inquiry here might take new paths—perhaps the credibility of whoever claims K needs help becomes the central question, leading one of another speaker to put forward a sentence embedding the demand for some ostensive sign that would credit whoever claims to speak for K.
The inquiry, or the space of questioning and answering articulated in the indicative sentence, is itself a deferral of some demand, an impossible demand, or a convergence of conflicting demands, at some distance from the speakers: the question is the softened edge of the demand. Some potential dispute regarding the subject or name organizing the sentence must lie at the origin of its utterance: perhaps K is right in front of us needing help, in which case “K needs help” is only slightly removed from urgent questions like “what do you want from me?” and “why are you just standing there?” and these questions are themselves separated by the thinnest of boundaries from imperatives like “do something!” and “help him!” and these latter, in turn, from interjections or exclamations (look at that!; Oh my God!)—in this case, the indicative sentence could represent either a momentary lull in the mounting emergency or a panicky non-response (the subsequent sentences should weigh down on one or the other possibility).
Or, K is far away, beyond our capacity to aid him, and any dispute about K and his condition may be equally distant, in which case the mention of that condition stands in for some other set of disputes regarding competing demands and our conversation only makes sense, is not monotonous droning, if (this is my hypothesis) the conversation could be put at stake in one of those proximate disputes and if its continuance is therefore framing and deferring them. A good sentence, then—esthetically and ethically good—is one that holds the imperatives at bay but keeps them within sight, and, even more, keeps the space of questioning sufficiently expansive to shape the sentences along a range of actual and potential questions from requests for simple information to inquiries regarding the shape of the sentence itself.
With an originary understanding of language, we need not venture beyond the grammar of signification itself for an esthetics, an ethics and a politics. Signs make sense along two axes: first, their iterability; second, as norm. To the extent that a sign is composed in accord with rules that a competent sign-user could discern and iterate, it has reached the threshold of signification. To the extent that a sign is convertible with other signs, can measure and be measured by them, so as to open up a field of semblances, it has likewise met that threshold.
For sentences, as I suggested in my previous post, that threshold has been reached when a name becomes a source of imperatives (K’s needing help has transformed K into a source of imperatives—respond to K, inquire into K’s condition, spread the word about K, etc.); this happens when an impossible imperative finds a name to order. We erect the name in between us to defer our dispute by ordering the name to remain in that place: this is iteration. In thus “situating” the name, we attribute, as I also suggested last time, the imperatives the name is obeying, to the following: a particular agent; “reality” (the very reality created by the sentence, which generates a range of potential imperative-ostensive articulations, and which orders us around so often); and the name itself (as conferring a name confers at least a minimal freedom and capacity for self-constitution). This is norming.
A verb is some articulation of compliance with commands coming from these three sources—our obligations to others, our sense of a limiting reality, and the space of freedom we constitute by issuing commands to ourselves before knowing what obeying them would look like. How one articulates those commands in an incoming sentence dictates what one takes to be an appropriate response to the sentence, one that will sustain the continuous present the sentence supports.
A good sentence is both iterable and norming. We can fold ethical, epistemological, esthetic and political claims into accounts of how iterable and norming sentences are, which is another way of inquiring into how sentence-y they are. Goodness, knowledge, beauty, and freedom are all products of disciplinary spaces—that is, they result from commanding these names to show through semblances and to provide us with commands, in turn, that will enable us to confer these names and their descendants upon objects, events and actions yet to come. It is sentences, enacting the disciplinary space constituting these arenas, which would be the mode of measuring and registering these event/signs.
Imperatives issuing from another, from reality, and from the name itself, respectively, would be incommensurable, but out of what other material than incommensurables can commensurabilities be constituted? When we make sense of a sentence, including the one we are speaking, we affirm some such commensurability ostensively, the way we recognize an imperative has been fulfilled, by integrating the sentence into the course of living, treating it as a model for appropriating reality, as a fount of new imperatives.
Indicative culture would be a culture interested in citing and creating such planes of commensurability: attracting, ordering and transcending the strongest imperatives flowing from our diverse resentments. To match an indicative culture I would propose a marginalist politics, which seeks out that composition apart from which everything stays the same. We homogenize and commensurate the world through our habits, and through our habits we render ourselves idiosyncratic before the world.
Let’s say I go out and get the newspaper every morning and then I come back for my morning coffee. What would define this as “habit” will naturally vary: in some cases, “morning” is good enough, in some cases only “at 6:45” will cover it; is it always exactly the same amount of coffee, or is the habit defined in terms of “however much coffee I feel like” that morning? However the habit is composed, the world is commanded to come together in a particular way through it, and signs cross the threshold over into meaning in terms of what sustains, what can be gathered into, and what interrupts the habit.
This mode of analysis can suit any level of individual and social complexity: I read, teach and compose sentences in habitual ways, I respond to praise and criticism and confront compelling claims that disrupt my thinking likewise; habits are contagious and, like all contagious vehicles, mutate constantly, from neighbor to neighbor, teacher to student, across a place of work, among viewers of a popular TV show, etc. What interrupts my habit is what constitutes that habit before another and before myself as other, and raises the question of how each habit will read the other in terms of itself, itself in terms of the other, and with what remainder.
When something interrupts my habit, I must re-compose it: in one sense, this is an adjustment at the margins; in another sense it is a creation ex nihilo. The store at the corner from which I buy my paper goes out of business, and so I have to walk another block; the paper itself goes out of business and I need to get my news from a favored internet site—maybe I need to buy a computer. Either way, the rupture in my habits can be healed, and the apparent “size” of the rupture won’t tell us much about what it will take to restore the habit: maybe the store that went out of business was owned by my best friend who just died and speaking with him for a couple of minutes every morning was an integral part of my habit, and maybe I take swimmingly to the Internet.
Either way, these are marginal adjustments: new signs must fill the rupture and I can assign values to each of the candidates, based upon the system of value already in place. But this revaluing also seeps through the entire system, and I am ultimately doing everything differently. And we have lots of habits and habits for articulating the various habits that normalize the world for us and make us idiosyncratic to ourselves.
Politics is where we get into the habit of having our habits interrupt each others in a regular manner: “regular,” in the sense of common and sustained, but also in the sense of rule based. When acting politically, we put forth our habits at their most interruptable at that point where the other’s also seems so. Where we both seem to be following the rule and yet applying it in incommensurable ways, there is where either of us might try to have our rule encircle the other. I find some way of following my application that disenables yours; and, in turn, I re-regulate your habit in terms of my application. This, of course, involves a way of talking about what we are doing: naming our practices so as to command us to follow my application; disobeying, in my discourse, the command your naming of your own and my practices would put forth.
What we are looking for is where marginal shifts involve new compositions of the system—not necessarily revolutionary change, although sometimes that, but just as likely systemic relabelings of the “same” practices and institutions. Not necessarily all at once, but implicitly, perhaps putting in place a new command that will take years, even generations, to fulfill. The best spaces for such moves tend to be on the boundaries between imperative and indicative, executive and judicial, where a new set of imperatives and the habits supporting them are incommensurable with the existing indicative regime, or those who habitually work with indicatives in detachment from imperatives seek to influence the imperative regime.
For example: a politician who represented me would demand that President Obama and any other publicly responsible figure who believes that the interrogation techniques used upon captured combatants between 2002-2006 constituted “torture” and were therefore illegal do the following: not only must you seek to prosecute everyone whom you believe broke the law, but you must apologize to and pay reparations to all victims of that “torture,” including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed himself. Are we not a nation of laws? Mr. Mohammed has not been tried, much less convicted—in the eyes of the law he is as innocent as anyone else.
Apologizing and paying reparations to Mohammed seems to me only a mere and completely logical step forward from prosecuting the practitioners and lawyerly “enablers” of “torture”—and yet in crossing this boundary the habits of adherents to what I call the “human rights world picture” converge, suddenly, with the habits of those promoting massacres without limits. “International human rights law” is, one might say, a set of imperatives seeking out the name who will ensure compliance with them—but they will never find it because the habits of international lawyers and human rights activists find no points of contact with the habits of those who enforce the law and might effectively oppose the will of tyrants.
I would like to make it a political habit to expose this misfit, because believing in the efficacy of “international human rights” leads to the habit of composing sentences with lots of quasi-imperatives scattered aimlessly around (everyone should do, think and say all kinds of things which they would never actually think do or say, and even if they did, it wouldn’t have the consequences it “should” have anyway). And exposing this misfit would, in turn, re-name the Nuremberg precedent as a “victor’s justice” nevertheless applied with enough impartiality to attain universality, so as to generate imperatives whose bearers might forge needed points of contact—the Nuremberg precedent might sufficiently justify and usefully circumscribe at least some wars, such that warriors might be happy to share the results with the lawyers and activists.
To the extent that asymmetrical war waged by the stronger aims at protecting the victims of those who claim to be our victims, the ruthlessness of the warrior culture can be preserved and modified by innovative legal forms. The law can cover the spaces opened and exploited by those who fight outside of the inherited norms of warmaking only by norming, at the margins, the diverse and improvisational methods of counter-insurgency.
The lawyers and activists have to study the habits of the soldier, rather than the reverse. This is not the direction in which we are currently headed.
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.