Language as Model for Technics: Literature Between Translation and Transposition

A while back I suggested replacing the word “sign” with the word “sample.” I take the critique of metaphysics seriously, since I consider it a starting and differentiating point of the originary hypothesis, and “sign,” with its philosophical and linguistic roots in the signifier/signified distinction, carries a lot of metaphysical residue. If a sign is constitutive of a system in its reciprocal references to all other signs in a way that is constantly changing and non-totalizable, then signs can only be lined up with signifieds and referents on scenic terms, within events. “Samples” are, intrinsically, only identifiable upon a scene of inquiry—what they are samples of always issues in some ostensive sign. There are lots of things in the world that can be treated as samples that we wouldn’t ordinarily refer to as “signs,” but the very fact that we are treating them as samples means they could be called signs; indeed, that we can call them samples is testimony to the human creation of a world of what we are accustomed to calling “signs.” A sample is both systemic, gathered up as “data,” or, if one likes, following Johanna Drucker, “capta,” and irreducibly singular, marked by history and its specific uses. We all use signs and are signs, which means we put ourselves forward as samples, which is only slightly different than saying we always act as exemplifications of one or another possibility. Another reason for insisting on the use of “sample” in place of “sign” (or “utterance”) is the dramatic transformation charted by Mario Carpo in The Second Digital Turn from data scarcity to data abundance. Everything is now instantly transformed into data, i.e., into the store of samples to be drawn upon by the ever increasing number of disciplinary spaces and inquiries. We are always already on the data exchange, and making this explicit moves us beyond the Big Scenic imaginary. There is an interesting test here: which, if any, uses of the word “sign” (or near synonyms like “utterances”—i.e., “units” of linguistic analysis) would resist replacement by “sample”? (“That’s a good sample”? A “sample of things to come”?)

Carpo goes so far as to argue that the abundance of data might render the sacrosanct scientific method obsolete: instead of constructing a “scene,” within a closed setting, in which isolated variables can be seen to interact free of interference, it will be possible to retrieve enough instances of all the materials and substances in question interacting with other materials and substances in various situations as to know exactly what they will do in a given case. We could, then, imagine an ongoing process of exchange between various users and interfaces and the central intelligence as follows: each of us constantly supply all kinds of data to the Cloud through every thing we do (all recorded by the devices we carry and those installed everywhere), while we have access to that data for purposes of seeking employment, companionship, health care, research, and so on. Those who point out that if a service is free, the user is the product, already recognize that this is the reality; and so do those arguing that the giant tech companies should pay us for our data. But let’s imagine how all this might work if we were to eliminate the main economic engine of data collection: advertising. From an economic standpoint, the entire system would collapse without advertising; from a technological standpoint, nothing would change, so we would all have to be “plugged in” in a different way—political thinking could do worse than on spending its time studying ways to abolish advertising and imagining the structure of “Big Tech” that might result.

I also think that using “sample” in this way can help inculcate ways of resisting propaganda and ideology. You put forth your sample as a donation to the cloud, where it can be treated as a sample in innumerable disciplinary spaces, and this gives the impression that any care given to the act of preparing the sample is sure to be swamped and dissolved by those multifarious possible treatments. But a sample is released within a specific space, it overlaps with and touches at various points with other samples and will be more resistant to some forms of treatment than others. You can’t control the travels of your sample, but others will have to contribute their samples in treating it, and you can design your sample so that certain treatments stain or mark both your sample and the one treating it in more or less indelible ways, so that the markings become part of the sample, eliciting some treatments while repelling others. It’s extremely difficult to think of one’s thinking, writing and work in this way, as (hopefully) “replicating” itself across scenes, but it’s worth making the effort, because it’s an exercise in deferral that might help you turn attempts to recruit or impress you into vanishing friend/enemy switches into means of disseminating your own samples. If there’s something perpetually anomalous in your samples you generate anomalies across the field of samples and to the extent that there’s nothing but anomalies only disciplinary spaces dedicated to sustaining linguistic presence through the creation of singularized successions in perpetuity can be productive of meaning. And then the originary scene, now entered upon as we have never been anywhere else, would model the perfection of human practices into gestures anticipating and preparing for the same and utterly other gesture on scenes barely adumbrated in the practice itself. To return to Carpo’s book, it seems to me that the implication of the abundance of data is that the most important intellectual activity is likely to become the composing of search terms, in particular an ongoing sequence of search terms in response to the data retrieved with each entry. Along with increasing sophistication in composing search terms must come the realization that one is, oneself, a result of particular sequences of search terms. The more your appearance as a result of searches is marked by the results of your own searches the less effectively pigeon-holed and targeted you will be, and taking this essentially “literary” (because “fictional”) artifact (the coincidence of searcher with searched) as “food for thought” will make you more resistant to PR, advertising and propaganda mobilizing efforts.

(Here is a footnote from Carpo’s books, suggesting the emergence of a new “style of digital aggregation”:

For what an anecdote may be worth, I can refer to the case of the assistant to a very important person who has been curating said person’s biographical entry in Wikipedia for the last ten years, and has developed over time a very special literary skill: when editing or updating the entry, she redacts all the new text in a deliberately fragmentary way, sometimes even introducing partially inconsistent or redundant information; the purpose being that her own authorial text should read just like a real Wikipedia entry should—that is, as if it had been written by many people of variable literary talent editing one another. over time. Digital aggregation has already begot a recognizable literary style—the Wikipedic style of many hands.)

But this is not the subject of this sample, except insofar as the insistence on language, and not “ideas,” “concepts” and “cognition” implies that we and all we do are samples of a “population” that will never be summed up once and for all. I want to further pursue the literary transformation of language into a model of technics. Language is not technics, but that’s because there is no language as such—language is not available as an object. There are just uses of language, each of which continues and translates an earlier use. It’s the construction of a scene around a linguistic event that is technics and a model of technics. Think about saying something (complete with gesture, posture, setting) that’s just right, exactly what needed to be said there and then; and then imagine tracing that saying back to all the previous uses of the “same” words, syntax, bodily holding, and so on, that made it possible, and projecting it forward to all the sayings that might now happen but wouldn’t have otherwise; and imagine revising that original saying so as to mark it with those histories and possibilities, while keeping it just as perfect, because the others on the scene would join in the expanded space: that’s language, languaged as literature, as technics.

From one thing one person says, you can deduce everything else that person ever has said and ever will say, given enough data and computing power; of course, this means the same would be true for everything everyone has ever said or will say. While Marvell’s speaker had neither world enough nor time, we are rapidly approaching having enough data and computing power. But, of course, there’s not enough time to take in, in your own practices, all of that; much less all of that once everyone has access to all that and can revise their inputs accordingly. But there’s an alternative that provides us with what we really need. We can easily posit a single parameter shift which, in another time line, would have led to a different sample being presented—if someone had gotten a bit more sleep last night, he wouldn’t have had that nasty tone, etc. If we can posit one we can posit many, and we can then treat the sample as a translation of all of them into the existing parameters, as they are constructed by the translation itself. The first sign was a translation of all the gestures of appropriation on the scene into a gesture of deferral—this is essentially a transfer translation, to bring in Marcel Jousse’s concept, in which all the meaning of all the gestures of appropriation is shown to be self-cancelling, a meaning that can now be transferred back to each gesture insofar as they all translate the gesture of deferral. Narratives and hypotheses are generated out of the work of the transfer translation, which needs to reconcile the various samples and can only do so by organizing them so that they are reciprocally commenting upon each other.

I’m currently reading From Gods to God: How the Bible Debunked, Suppressed or Changed Ancient Myths and Legends, by Avigdor Shinan, Yair Zakovitch, and Valerie Zakovitch—I keep getting more interested in the composition, preservation and transmission of scripture. The book goes into greater detail regarding what I already kind of knew—that the Bible is engaged in a titanic polemical struggle against the myths of the pagan world, and beyond that with various alternative traditions preserved in scripture itself, well beyond what is already evident. So, at the margins of the story of creation and Adam and Eve we see the largely implicit “refutation” of tales of creation involving the struggles of gods against one another and monstrous dragons and serpents. Of course, to refute is to retain memory of. If literature is the continuation of scripture, then it continues this practice as well, with each disclosure coupled with the marginalization of some “myth” organized through the Big Scenic imaginary. And I’m calling all language literary that refuses any transcendence of language itself. (Maybe what we see here in Scripture samples the relation between the written and the oral as such: writing is always polemicizing against whatever in the oral that would initiate a confrontation that couldn’t be “redeemed” in the traditions formed around the sacred text.)

The more traces of the transfer translation, the more literary the language, as the transfer translation sifts through all the simultaneous samplings to marginalize without destroying whatever would collapse the dissemination of the disciplinary spaces organized around the text itself. What’s on the margins can be brought back into relation to the center: the snake can no longer be a source of immortality independent of God, but it can remain as an inimical reminder of that desire, which was part of the God-human relation all along. You could say that any literate person takes on the priestly burden, which now entails distilling each sample into evidence of the originary miracle of shared attention. Of course, what if you want to do battle with the great serpent, and to do so as a god, reiterating the founding gesture of what would have to be a single community? Such desires seem to be circulating, if one can judge from internet memes. I would say that these are fantasies of auto-generation that deny mimesis and launder sacrifice as heroism, but who am I to say? Let the question be turned into an issue of technics: my bet is that the literary can reveal the props holding up and effaced by sacrificial narratives and program the design of scenes that recode the mythic as the replenishment of the center through singular succession in perpetuity. Whatever narrative you’re working with is going to change in its next iteration and no narrative contains a logic determining which change to activate or even what makes the characters the same—only designating occupied posts responsible for ensuring succession, while occupying one yourself, can determine the sample. The transfer translation aims for the greatest reciprocity between posts.

Here's an example: Johanna Drucker’s Diagrammatic Writing, which is a book that is as much about itself as it’s possible for a book to be. The book enacts and describes its own constitution as a physical and historical product, what we have come to call the “book.” Everything that goes into making the book a book, words, letters, sentences, print, spacing, margins, pages, etc., are referenced and utilized. The first page states the circularity of the constitution of the book:

The semantic system of graphical relations

The graphical expression of semantic relations.

Meaning and spacing are reciprocally constitutive and irreducible to each other. She then skips a page and devotes a page to:

The first words placed define the space.

She then repeats that statement after skipping another page and begins to expound:

This is both too obvious to state and so complex that the full exegesis of the act and its implications could take volumes. Artists will always tell you the first stroke defines everything that follows on a canvas, and formal analyses will detail the relations and effects of each mark and subsequent addition. Thus the very writing of this paragraph, under the initial statement, supporting the line with a whole plinth of prose, distorts the single statement above, which asks, actually, to stand alone, showing, demonstrating dramatically, how the area below differs from that above.

So, you can see that a book being as much about itself as a book can be might be quite interesting, while creating a book that is just as much an object as “container.” There are also an unlimited number of ways in which this can be done (Drucker doesn’t claim this book is more about itself than any other book could be) and doing so produces a model for producing scenes that are as much about their own perpetuation as scenes can be. (Drucker’s book actually has a few typos, and I have no idea whether they might be deliberate or not.) We could see Drucker’s effort as a transfer translation of every book ever written, but once we posit it as a model the practice of translation reaches its limits. A scene (a city, a country, a school, a family, a world…) that is as much “about” its own perpetuation and, even more, creating its own ”thisness,” as any scene can be, could take a book as much about itself as a book can be as its instigation, but more through transposition than translation: you could exhaust the book as model by taking any self-reference in the book as an imperative to identify an “analogous” self-reference in the scene, but what will count as “analogous” here cannot be derived or translated from the book—or, no derivation or translation would have any greater claim to fidelity than any other. Such a correspondence between fic-tech-tion and archae-tecture will guide the creation of articulated scenes-of-scenes (grids and infrastructures) that issue in imperatives to perfect practices in their succession at designated posts.