Eric Gans likes to speak of his “originary hypothesis” regarding the origin of language as a “new way of thinking.” In my view, a new way of thinking means thinking in a new idiom, with a new vocabulary and grammar—an idiom of inquiry.
Gans’ originary hypothesis completes the “linguistic turn” of 20th century thought—the intuition guiding the dismantling of metaphysics by 20th century thinkers was that language doesn’t represent some external and independent reality; on the contrary, language, or more generally, signs, is constitutive of anything we can call a human reality. What Gans’ hypothesis does is explain why language is constitutive: because it was through the sign that our immediate ancestors transcended the mimetic rivalry that perpetually threatened their existence by discovering/inventing a way of deferring violence. Without Gans’ hypothesis, the linguistic turn remains hostage to victimary thought, which, following and slightly inflecting Gans’ talk at the annual Generative Anthropology conference on June 20, I would define as the insistence that claims to metaphysical hierarchies are really disguises legitimating social and political hierarchies.
If logocentrism is really phallocentrism, Eurocentrism, etc., then the critique of metaphysics is essentially volley in a partisan political battle, rather than an attempt to disclose a more originary presentation of human being than metaphysics allows.
My own entrance into the new scene of thinking opened up by Gans’ hypothesis, as outlined in my previous posts, is through the belief that once we have clarified the constitutive power of the sign, we should be thinking in and not merely of the originary sign. More simply, our idiom should a thoroughly semiotic one: originary grammar. Gans speaks of his hypothesis as a “minimal” one, to which Occam’s Razor has been applied (the reader can see any of the introductions to Gans’ books, or my own work The Originary Hypothesis: A Minimal Proposal for Humanistic Inquiry, or, indeed, my first post on this blog, for an argument for the minimality of the hypothesis).
A minimal mode of thinking, then, would be one which uses only vocabulary derived from and applied to originary accounts of language in order to speak about a reality we now know to be thoroughly mediated by semiosis. A new way of thinking generates idioms of inquiry and the originary hypothesis makes it possible to generate such idioms out the exploration of linguistic relationships. To take just one simple example, all the discussions in postmodern thought regarding “power relations” can be reduced to the simple question of when, where and how imperatives “work,” and when, where, and in what ways they don’t.
Thinking in language does require the assumption of a minimally conceived extra-semiotic element, however: otherwise, all we can do is string out a series of vaguely connected descriptions of language. Only an account of language as emergent and constitutive, as an event, which tells us why there is language rather than none and what language is for can enable an ordered inquiry in language.
The originary hypothesis provides us with such an account, by positing an originary event which defines language as the deferral of violence through representation. Every word, every sentence, every sign, then, defers, or contributes to the deferral of some mode of potentially catastrophic violence, as that possible violence appears to some sign user within some configuration of relations which in turn overlaps with other configurations.
Through our intuition of the sign aimed at deferring violence we apprehend the scene upon which the threat of violence is gathering, and we can work our way through the itinerary of the signs constitutive of that scene. And, of course, signs don’t always work, and even when they do only partially so—we can defer the most imminent and seemingly devastating eruptions of violence, but not necessarily always them and certainly never abolish violence as such.
The constitutive difference of language is that between imitation and iteration. Imitation is following the rules guiding someone else’s action—you don’t need to “understand” the rules, i.e., be capable of formulating them explicitly, in order to do so. Indeed, as we all know, you can’t really be able to formulate the rules, because there would then be another set of rules for formulating rules that would need to be formulated and that couldn’t be present in your formulation, and so on. Some understanding always remains tacit.
But understanding this paradox intrinsic to rule following and sign using aids us in defining imitation: imitation is the attempt to abolish that gap between tacit and explicit, invisible and visible. Imitation is the attempt to map the model in one’s own activity. Iteration, then, is what happens when the gap becomes visible in one’s mimetic efforts. Such visibility is more commonly known as error; but error presupposes a norm that is produced simultaneously with that error. The rule one follows reaches its limits in the emergence of norm/error and the rule of the model must be revised if it is to be followed.
Iteration applies the rules put forth by the model to the model itself. On the scene posited by the originary hypothesis, the first sign is the aborted gesture of appropriation: the hand reaching hesitates in seeing all the other hands reaching—imitation has failed through its success, since the simultaneous effort to procure the object ensures that not only will no one do so but that the world of objects will disappear altogether. It is some “sense” of all this that is involved in the aborted gesture.
That gesture, then, applies, and is subsequently seen to apply by those who imitate it in turn, the rules of the grasping activity to that activity itself—and in doing so discloses its limits and converts that act into another. We are always imitating and iterating, the two modes of activity are separated by an infinitesimal boundary, and significance lies on that boundary.
What guides us in semiosis is some intuition regarding the sustenance of the scene we are on; that is, the desire, compulsion really, for presence. We are always complementing, completing, resisting, instituting some sign another has put forth, always in accord with something that seems to be missing, some piece of the scene without which the scene will not coalesce or some perceived deformation of or excess to the scene that must be remedied or curtailed.
To put it in very simple terms, we want to keep things going before they close in, collapsing the scene. Each new kind of speech act emerges in this way: the imperative out of the “inappropriate” ostensive; the interrogative out of a imperative weakened by possible failure, in a scene where compliance is uncertain; the declarative out of a negative ostensive repeating and negating the interrogative; the verb out of an imperative attached to the negative ostensive redirecting attention to another location when the negative ostensive fails.
Any sign, then, is some articulation of these speech acts in some supplementary and constitutive relation to a scene. In proceeding to construct a semiotic and linguistically specific idiom of inquiry, I would propose that we think about our activities as so many modes of obedience to imperatives. Only imperatives can set action in motion: ostensives are self-enclosed acts, creating a center of attention, while we can only act on declaratives insofar as we read them as imperatives—if someone says “the door is open” I can leave or close it, depending upon what I take that sentence to be telling me to do; a sentence like “the time has come” is activating some imperative, however indeterminate.
So, to get started, we can speak of thinking as obeying the imperative to suspend imperatives; in this way a presence is sustained in which the stream of imperatives reality generates continually become signs pointing to their possible origins and outcomes, leading us ultimately to the most elementary commands, the most originary of which turns out to be the imperative to suspend imperatives in the face of the ostensive sign.
The creation of moral maxims entails obedience to the command to map imperatives onto indicatives; the shaping of ethical habits is obedience to the command to suit imperatives to ostensives. When we moralize, we want the imperatives we follow or issue to be backed by the currency of indicatives—as the imperatives in the Decalogue need the backing of “I am the Lord thy God…” This is because morality is a system of imperatives, and a system of imperatives requires something other than an imperative to provide articulation—indicatives embed the imperatives in a shared reality, perhaps, especially, a commanded reality.
Insofar as we distinguish ethics from morality, meanwhile, it is in shaping morality to fit concrete situations—we speak of professional ethics, not professional morality. Ethics must have a moral backing, such as “treat all individuals fairly and equally,” but the ethics itself involves determining what counts as “unfair” or “unequal” in a given situation—what do we recognize—point to—as a violation of the injunction against unfairness?
Let’s proceed further. Desiring is obedience to the command from the object to model yourself on its possession; resenting obeys the command from the object to keep watch over it (which also means watch over everyone else’s watch) once one’s access has been barred. We can see how desire and resentment become generative by considering all the ways imperatives can be mistaken. I can’t know how the object would have me possess it (even the object doesn’t know) and so my relation to the object is generated by my applying the rules of the object’s command to the object as I construct it.
Regarding resentment, I have no idea what kind of access and distribution the object considers appropriate so my resentment must also be donated to the Object-as-center as it repels all of our contentions regarding the right way to slice it. And here, indeed, we can work our way towards an originary morality along with our originary description of morality. Gans proposes an originary resentment directed towards the center, the Other which bars me from possession of the object—I am reading this resentment as obedience to the object’s command to superintend it, and this imitation of the newly repellent object must first secure the protection of the center from others and my insistence collides with the similar insistence of all my fellows, threatening the repetition of the originary crisis; at this point the only way of sustaining the scene is to donate my resentment to the center along with others, thereby (re)installing the bar.
This new convergence could only be arrested by obtaining a new command to give the center the power to prevent us from annihilating us in its name. The consequent moral imperative, then, is as follows: when your resentment, if imitated by others, would cause imperatives issued by the center to cancel each other out, you must donate your resentment to the center (which resentment involves all of us watching each other through the eyes of the center, which is to say through the eyes of the others watching me, so that we all become signs for each other). Invent and embody a rule that can account for your resentment along with everyone else’s—or to get started, at least a few other people’s.
And, finally, let’s return to the dyad I proposed as constitutive, as simultaneously inside and outside the linguistic space: imitation and iteration. We can now bring even these terms, and the constitutive paradox their relation represents, within that linguistic space as well: imitation obeys the imperative to seek imperatives in the presence of the other, to treat the other as an inexhaustible fount of imperatives. Rules, indeed, are nothing more than the articulation of imperatives drawn from the presence of the other.
Iterating, then, is issuing a command in turn to the other made present, a command to issue a new command that would help sustain the space opened by my obedience to the previous one; such a command must authorize me to issue my own commands to those (including myself) who have drawn imperatives from my act and disrupted the space it established. To the sign others take as a command to appropriate, to rush to the center my presence as source of commands seems to indicate, I must now add a new command, making a series, and therefore a rule, a relation between two sources of commands, such that any new command must take the norm of the series.
Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a precursor in what I am calling originary grammar, already contended back in the 1930s that the crisis of our time is a vacuum of imperatives, and I believe it is still true. It may be a constitutive crisis of modernity, that space of misreading, deliberate and unknowing, generous and malicious, and universal application of the Christian revelation. The Christian revelation forbids scapegoating and commands us to stand with the victim, and all public and private life in societies which have left transcendent freedom behind for freedom in the world can be seen as the search for victims to rush to in solidarity and victimizers to charge.
The scope for legitimate commands must shrink as the search becomes ever more successful. Those who hope utterly to free modernity from its reliance upon transcendence have so far tried to embed operative imperatives in indicatives—how else could one explain such idealized representations of modernity as those of, say, Juergen Habermas, who hopes that the “better argument” can command; or those human rights activists who believe imperatives might flow from a more extensive body of international law and more detailed and widely disseminated descriptions of its violations?
Supplementing the absence of operative imperatives on today’s global scene would require events sacralizing the inexhaustibility of the sign, deliberate iterations. I hope to elaborate in a future post.
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.