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The participants in the event are critically concerned with avoiding conflict. The equal production of the sign and the subsequent equal division of the central object are the necessary means to this end. The appropriative acts of the participants are deferred and, when actually performed, constrained by communal pressure. Hence, although they are the first acts of creatures freed from the dominance of instinct, they are constituted as free actions only on the participants’ internal scene of representation. In contrast, the ‘liberty’ that permits the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is not the moral freedom that binds individuals to the community of reciprocal exchange, but their potential to act outside the communal sphere. The pioneers on the prairie are free because they are individual laws, and economies, to themselves. (Eric Gans, Originary Thinking, 56)
My vocabulary is significantly different than Gans’s, but in this passage and the larger discussion it is part of he is addressing a question very similar to the one I most recently addressed in The Sample as Our Donation to the Center, which is, how to account for the human turning away from the ritual center to other centers—and, what is our relation to the originary or iterative center when we do so? Gans here frames this question in terms of the split between the moral (which, presumably due to his reading of Judaism and Christianity, he defines in terms of enforcing equal distribution) and the ethical (the origins of inequality, to allude to Rousseau) as well as the origins of the “economic” (external as opposed to merely internal freedom), which, among the earliest humans, must have involved the men going out on the hunt. I think, though, that we might cover that ground and more by thinking in terms of differing modes of signification. The approach I’ll suggest here might also contribute to our thinking about the crucial “lowering of the threshold of significance” that, in The Origin of Language, Gans sees as the process by which language spread beyond its initial, purely ritual use.
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I’ve mentioned a couple, maybe a few, times, initially in the context of a discussion of Stiegler’s work with Derrida’s Of Grammatology, that we might be able to tease out of those remarkable pages of Derrida an interesting hypothesis of the origin of the language. Derrida, in his deconstruction of logocentrism, aimed at widening our sense of what might count as “writing,” by extending it to “inscription” in general—any iterable “mark” that might direct one’s attention, we could say. This notion of “inscription” seems to be Stiegler’s starting point in theorizing technics, as inscription is tertiary memory, specific to humans: memory registered in some external object that can be preserved and shared among members of a group. Derrida, as I remember (I’m not going back to reread just yet), was especially interested in “trails” and “traces,” which are precisely the kind of “marks” a hunting or tracking party would be looking for (and leaving behind them). Predatory animals, of course, would also follow the tracks of their prey, but if we imagine a human party out on the “prairie,” or, better, in the woods or some other setting with forms of concealment, and then one member of that party leaving tracks for other members just like he has followed those of others, then we have a deliberate sign shared by two (now) “humans.” Rather than joint attention we have delayed attention, rather than mimetic desire and crisis we have a kind of mimetic projection of a possible shared risk (if the members of the party lose contact with each other, or a new opportunity arises).
As I point out every time I mention this potential Derridean hypothesis, it doesn’t quite work because there’s no reason the one finding the “trace” of the other would see it as intentional so as to think to repeat it himself—in other words, joint attention must precede delayed attention. But sometimes there is a reason one holds on to these kinds of musings—they might find a place in some other part of the system. The delayed sign, the track or trace, might be precisely the mode of signifying that characterizes the turn away from the center and the creation and discovery of new centers. We can preserve Gans’s sense that the turn away from the ritual center must have opened up a new array of configurations and modes of coordination much more variable than the highly constrained ritual. The originary hypothesis suggests that signification would have at first been confined to the ritual scene, as the recreation of the scene where it had been discovered, with no other obvious use for it. So, what would have enabled the lowering of the threshold of significance that allowed for all human activities to be saturated with language? I’d like to do better than “well, they would have figured it out eventually.” Even if that’s true, they had to figure it out in a particular way, one that would have left “traces.” We can trace a path from the originary event to delayed attention that might follow along lines consistent with my “Derridean hypothesis.”
Smaller centers shared by smaller groups within the community would have first allowed for the lowering of the threshold of significance. The sign would be issued in conflictual but less dire situations—from the immediate deferral of violence to the deferral of an intensification of the conflict that might eventually lead to a genuine crisis. This already involves a turning away from the center, because the ritual scene would maintain high tension, whereas now the sign is becoming more instrumental. The threat of violence becomes more distant (but never completely recedes) as language expands, first into names and then imperatives up through the declarative—something we’re very familiar with. But all along the way there’s an inaimate object either directly present or directly absent (in the case of the declarative). With the delayed attention of the trace the object is highly animated. The hunt is not a kind of mini-ritual scene, as two individuals quarreling over a piece of food might be. The hunt may have first of all, as I suggested above, simply remained “pre-human,” conducted along animal lines. Animals already have ways of drawing the hunting group’s attention to the prey, so language would introduce nothing new here. To move beyond that there would have to be a kind of “non-instinctual” attention paid to the movements of other members of the group. Animals can aid a wounded “comrade” so that wouldn’t be it. Rather than monitoring the other’s approach toward the object, as on the originary scene, members would have to be monitoring the others’ retreat from the object. The oscillation on the originary scene is between approaching the center and gesturing a cessation of that movement; the oscillation here is between a coordinated approach towards and retreat from a central being that is, of course, not dead. If there’s a different, more “externalized” kind of freedom here, it is the freedom from mimetic rivalry and the expanded power of the group in action. Gans would be right to say that “equality” is not an issue here—one member would always be leading the charge or the retreat, creating at least the minimal hierarchy of leadership.
A couple of observations. First, these experiences of the living “version” of the being that would later become the center of the ritual scene would be returned to and enrich that scene. Second, the hunting group would never forget that they are chasing prey to bring back to the rest of the group, meaning that they are never really “pioneers” and “laws” or “economies” “to themselves” and remain tied to the ritual scene through the narrative trajectories produced mythically. At some point in the scene of delayed attention, attention has to shift from the object, even if absent, to the movement of other members of the group, and then to traces of that movement. One could then think in terms of leaving traces oneself. Perhaps it’s akin to a shift from nouns to verbs as the center of the sentence. If we keep lowering the threshold of significance we get to the point where we can modulate the threshold, and then reasons for modulating the threshold will present themselves—above all, for the purposes of concealment; that is, so that those who you want to see the sign will and those who you don’t want to see it, won’t. This then is a matter of concealing traces from your prey or, in cases of war, your enemy. As with Gans’s “ethics,” this enhances selectivity and boundaries, and therefore a kind of inequality, even within the group. Hunting and war will become ritualized activities themselves, because mimetic rivalry will enter those spheres as well, but with centrifugal signifying we still start with an “object-centered ontology” insofar as the mimetic relation to the object determines the mimetic relations within the group—a transfer but also reversal of the terms of the originary and then ritual scene.
Once you are following the movements of another, not in order to make counter, interfering movements yourself, but to make complementary and reinforcing movements, you have entered a scene organized around traces. Where someone is now provides information regarding where they will be in a few moments; and, where they were a few moments ago. Now we do have a kind of writing, insofar as non-face-to-face communication is possible. Now you can break a twig in the woods, expecting that another member of the party coming after you will see the intent with which you did so. All kinds of potential conflicts would still emerge within the hunting party, meaning that signs more directly deferring violence are still on the scene, and perhaps now tend to mediate a new kind of rivalry—that for primacy among “primes.” Marking one’s territory participates in both kinds of signs—it leaves marks of your primacy within that space while implicitly opening space for others to mark their own territory. Maybe here we see the emergence of the cadre that will support the Big Man and become the beneficiaries of the new mode of distribution he institutes when he seizes the center.
Writing, including in this more expanded sense, is concerned with ensuring something lasts, and therefore with property and power. But writing also, as Derrida made a name and career by insisting, “disseminates” beyond the control of its “author.” The sample, that piece of the center that we turn into our donation to the center by “treating” it as the same sample, descends from writing as tracking and trace. There is always a reciprocal dependency and antagonism between emperor and scribe on the field of writing—Shelley’s famous poem “Ozymandias” is less a “wise” observation of the transience of supposed great men and great deeds than an articulation of this struggle between poet and emperor—Shelley’s poem remains, unlike Ozymandias’s monument to himself; even more humiliating, we only know of the “remains” of that monument through the poet’s use of them to demonstrate his own superiority (then again, without the ruins, what would Shelley’s poet have to speak about?). This antagonism can be resolved into a common alignment around a central object that attracts and repels but not because its draw is in the imagined but impossible exclusivity of possession; rather, the central object elicits new abilities from the complementarily arrayed group while commanding recurrent “regroupings.” This kind of central object is the sample treated in innumerable ways within the disciplinary space. In the end it is to replace any and all sacrificial centers, but the fitting of the entire stack of scenes and their saturation with pedagogical hypotheses qua practices is needed to complete this work, which would finally take us beyond the Axial Age into an age I don’t have a name for but that will have us stacking scenes so as to leave traces that will decisively modify some critical learning practice at an ever receding distance into the future. The whole world, ourselves of course included, as samples, bearing the marks of the model and the singled out, leaving idioms as traces in the pedagogical practices we inscribe everywhere in the techno-scene. It’s the inverse and fulfillment of a completely sanctified world, where every act and thought has its redemption in the furtherest future option. Maybe it’s the Age of the Idiom, which the Online Etymological Dictionary traces back to the Proto-Indo-European suffixed form of the third person pronoun and reflexive, which is to say a kind of marking and self-creation of “we ourselves.” Or the Age of the Mark-Up, where humans come into their own as thoroughly self and other inscribed, and “inflated” through the hype of expected future returns.
Centrifugal signifying includes two signifying tendencies that were uneasily articulated in postmodern thought, as exemplified by its reading of Nietzsche, which wanted to appropriate his “anti-bourgeois” transgressiveness without the explicitly “reactionary” arguments by emphasizing his teaching on interpretation as a product of power relations. On the one hand, centrifugal signifying involves elite battle corps and therefore a proposal regarding governance; on the other hand it involves the tradition of the scribe, preserving and disseminating texts without any control over their future appropriations and interpretations—and in this way scribalism points to the limits of governance in its dependence upon markings, the remarks upon which cannot be controlled. Sovereignty and its limits are engaged here, in an embattled entanglement represented by Shelley’s poem. The way of sustaining this tension is by acknowledging the dependence of centrifugal on centripetal representations and the ascendance of scribal activity to the primary means of exercising sovereignty: it’s no longer the case that the sovereign keeps knowledge-makers on retainer, so to speak; now, the originary acts of sovereignty is some enhancement of data security, some idiom that works to attract, arrange and protect samples. Treating samples pays our debt to the iterative center in the form of data security as we study with increasing resolution the conditions under which we will have been doing what we’re doing. The center is now the entire data infrastructure and its algorithmic treatments that one must donate to and extract from: the central intelligence. The stacking of scenes creates vast new platforms of learning that centrifugally create new modes, agents and objects of action and hence more uncertainties or “happenings” beyond the reach of any doings, but information from the happenings is returned to the center in the form of succession rituals as futurist “flingings.” We cannot know what the world will look like in 100, much less 1,000 years; but we can indicate positions located on both sides of the boundary between doing and happening. Dissemination is intelligence for succession.
This entanglement of sovereignty and scribalism is represented in the performative, where Derrida focused in his attack on Searle in Limited Inc., and which then spun off, via Judith Butler, into Queer Theory and elsewhere. The seemingly radical implication of performativity is that social roles rely upon ongoing participation and therefore revision and adaptation and can therefore always be taken up differently. Strictly speaking, there’s no necessarily leftist politics here insofar as there is no intrinsic reason to perform differently one way (say, towards greater equality) than any other way; but there’s a cultural radicalism insofar as the uncertainty of identity and representations is prioritized (the paradoxical culmination of this tendency in transgenderism, which highlights the arbitrariness of gender identity while insisting on the absolute veracity of whichever identity a particular individual chooses, can simply be noted for now). But Derrida, in his argument with Searle, catches Searle on his attempt to restrain the consequences of performativity by relying on the “sincerity” of the performative that has been issued—if we have to sneak in a declaration of sincerity to make a promise a promise then we really don’t have promises. But performativity can also be seen to implicate the entire social order in every assertion of linguistic presence: of course, any promise is an iteration of previous promises (which does mean it is always already automated), which in turn means that you can assess this promise of mine in terms of previous promises made by me and others “like me,” which then involves a determination of who is “like me” and therefore a study of institutions and their history. It’s less important to know how a particular promise will play itself out into the future than to ensure that those who keep promises can be seen to be like others who do. We have questions of operationalization here, of how people are positioned in the practice of training data sets (is X like Y, as the program determines?), not placeholders in the metalanguage of literacy like “sincerity.” We pay our debts to the center so as to open up new lines of credit, not to abolish indebtedness.
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