Adam Katz on Attentionality, a Necessary Precursor to Ethics.

The purpose of Language was (and is) moral; to defer (and continue to defer) an extinction event of mimetic crisis: 

One of the points I have insisted on is that human language is qualitatively different from animal “languages”; the researches and insights of such as Terrence Deacon have essentially ended the debate on this point.

But, it follows from my very “definition” of the human as the species that poses a greater problem to its own survival than the totality of forces outside the human community that the primary transformation of the proto-human into the human was ethical.  Language and more broadly, representation emerged, per the originary hypothesis, to defer conflict, not to provide a cognitive or ratiocinative tool.

The attentional loop, where unique signs and events are continuously occurring: 

If we consider that anyone enters a scene by following a line of attention—by looking at what someone else is looking at and deferring appropriation as the other does in order to continue looking—one has not fully joined the scene until that line of attention has passed through oneself, and has been seen to do so.  In other words, attention is not joint until all the participants show, through signs, that they are letting the object be so as to see what it has to show, to hear what it has to say—in which case, each participant must be inspected, so to speak, or credentialized, by having the sign they put forth validated.

For one’s joining of the line of attention to become evident and thereby accepted as legitimate, that attention must first land on oneself as its object—in other words, each new participant on the scene represents a potential interruption of shared attention.  At this crucial point upon which one’s entry into the scene depends, one can only avoid becoming a distraction and potential source of fixation in others by doubling that attention back on oneself by joining it, becoming a sign and hence invisible, insofar as others are redirected back to the object through you.

In that case, you will have shown others that the line of attention passes through your own eyes; unless, of course, your self-referentiality simply intensifies your distractiveness.  Whether a distraction has taken place will depend upon whether those attended to or, in Louis Althusser’s term, “interpellated,” as potential objects of resentment or desire will have restored the line of attention by incorporating the interruption into the scene’s founding sign.

A definition of ethics: 

Ethics involves both ostentation and conferring a completed ostentation upon others, or the conversion of attentionality into intentionality.

The incorporation of signs into scenes causes language to evolve: 

We keep the line of attention going by language learning—every loop in the line of attention involves an encounter of idioms.  While it would be absurd to say that each of us speaks our own language, I think it makes perfect sense to say that at the margins we all differ in the emergent idioms we speak and that it is at such margins that real ethical questions emerge.

Michael Tomasello, along with many others has made the argument that we learn language not as collections of single words with discrete meanings that then get combined in sentences, or as a series of grammatical rules applied to single instances of language use, but as pre-packaged chunks of discourse—phrases, formulas, commonplaces—that we can repeat appropriately insofar as we occupy scenes of joint attention with our elders.

Over time, our language base extends through discovering iterable patterns in and analogies with those chunks, noticing similar contexts, mixing chunks, exchanging elements of the chunks we are familiar with, and so on.  This process never ends, continuing, say, for academics, when we read the sentences of one thinker through the sentences we have assimilated from another.

We can identify patterns because we can re-arrange center-margin relations on scenes and still recognize a scene as the “same” scene (when I am done speaking and someone else takes “center stage,” it will still be the “same” scene); and we can identify analogies because the materials of one scene can be referred back to other scenes.

Iterating (repeating differently) chunks, patterns and analogies, that is, is the way we follow by repairing the line of attention.  The novel sentences linguists note that we are able to compose are, really, then, variant constructions, and “thinking” a process of transforming chunks and commonplaces into such variant constructions.

Epistemological Firstness: 

If new language is always emerging on the margins of any semiotic encounter then two things follow: first, that this emergent language upsets the rough symmetry of the originary scene and, as on that scene itself, the new language can only be engaged through the kind of asymmetry aimed at symmetry I have elsewhere called “firstness”; and, second, the hierarchical articulation of language, from phonemes meaningless in themselves but capable of meaningful combinations, to morphemes that are meaningful within larger words, to words which have meaning but minimally so until they are placed in sentences, which take on their full meaning in discourses, and so on—this entire hierarchical organization which makes the lower levels invisible (we don’t notice phonemes, and barely individual words, when we are discussing serious issues) undergoes dislocation and the elements at different levels become visible and “out of joint.”

If we place these two characteristics of emergent language together, it follows that firstness, or what we can consider the irreducibly pedagogical dimension of language, involves attending to the normally subsumed “joints” of language.  Language is irreducibly pedagogical because in any joint attention, someone must have pointed first in a more or less articulate anticipation of the interest of the other(s)—this indicative initiative is the interpellative act that introduces one into the attentional loop.

At the same time, this pedagogical dimension is, we could say, “flickering,” insofar as once attention has been joined that initial asymmetry is integrated into the newly formed joint attention—and joint attention is self-authenticating, recognizing only such precursors and origins as it needs to sustain itself in the face of distractions and fixations.

Gestures are holistic, because they are the most fundamental mode of language: 

Gesture and posture do not seem to work the same way as the levels of spoken language—they are not composed of a system of intrinsically meaningless elements, nor are they components of larger systems of meaning.  But, they are composed into larger wholes we call “situations,” “character,” “personality,” and “culture”; and, as I suggested earlier, it may very well be that phonemes and, more generally, the sounds of language are not as meaningless as post-Saussurian linguistics assumes.

Furthermore, we can integrate gesture and posture into the semiotic systems of speech, writing and beyond by considering, first, that gestures and postures are ultimately ostensive gestures of deferral, and that any meaning conveyed through the higher speech forms also involves an act of deferral.

Eric Gans’s analysis of the primary linguistic forms in The Origin of Language makes it possible to see the imperative as a deferral of the ostensive, under conditions where an ostensive would likely fail and exacerbate the violence it is meant to stay (interestingly first turned into an imperative by the one obeying the command); the declarative, meanwhile, is a deferral of the imperative, when that speech act is unlikely to be fulfilled (and hence risk a violent situation without resolution).

The overcoming of linguistic relativism, through grammatical mediation of objects and actions: 

The insistence upon the entanglement of mind and body in language events evokes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that there are no universally shared cognitive concepts outside of language: that time and space, as well as cultural and moral concepts, are all encoded in the grammar and semantics of specific languages.

It seems to me that this claim, if taken to its logical conclusion, would lead us to assert the singularity not just of every language but of every speech act: why should we, that is, assume that shared cognitive concepts undergird different uses of the same words any more than uses of “similar” words across languages?  And yet it is very difficult to simply reject the question, since in our post-metaphysical world thought seems bound up with language in ways that continue to surprise.  I therefore consider it fortunate that the hypothesis is alive and fairly well, drawing the interest not only of literary theorists and poets, but cognitive linguists.


I will suggest in a little while that the best use of the hypothesis is to identify the “emergent language” I am arguing is central to ethics, but a good way to get there is through a discussion of one way in which the hypothesis has proven generative for some cognitive linguists.

Dan Slobin sums up a problem, derived from linguistic theories of grammaticalization, and that has been engaging cognitive linguists, when he points out that “[t]here is a cline of linguistic elements from fully lexical content words to fully specialized grammatical morphemes.”  The cognitive linguists Dedre Gentner and Lera Boroditsky use this distinction to modify the Whorfian problem by proposing what they call a “division of dominance”:

At one extreme, concrete nouns—terms for objects and animate beings—follow cognitive-perceptual dominance.  They denote entities that can be individuated on the basis of perceptual experience.  At the other extreme, closed-class terms—such as conjunctions and determiners—follow linguistic dominance. These meanings do not exist independent of language.  Verbs and prepositions—even “concrete” motion verbs and spatial prepositions—lie between.  Unlike closed-class terms, they have denotational functions, but the composition of the events and relations they denote is negotiated via language.

So, at the first extreme, thought is independent of language, which in practice we can take to mean first, easily and uncontroversially translatable; and, second, readily reducible to ostensive, referential gestures.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis wouldn’t hold within this domain of dominance: we could assume a word in any language that would be roughly equivalent to, say, “tree.”  At the other extreme though, where possible relations are constructed intra-linguistically, the dependence of thought on language would be the greatest.  We have no reason to assume, for example, that in other languages things are figured “out.”

As Slobin goes on to point out, though, the process of grammaticalization relativizes the distinction between the domains of dominance, since content items make their way down the “cline” to grammatical ones.


Slobin goes on to give the example of verbs designating “taking”—if I use a more specialized verb like “grasp” or “seize,” I wish to draw attention to the manner of taking possession; if I use a more general verb like “take” I thereby draw attention to a more general domain of activity (watching over, accepting responsibility for, and so on).  “Take” is now primed to enter the process of grammaticalization, which might involve becoming an “auxiliary” verb or, in the case of “take” entering into a range of idioms (take over, take on, take it to, take down, etc.).


The more generalized semantic domain recuperates some interruption in the attentional loop—I would assume it is noticed when further descent down the cline would exacerbate the distraction caused by the interruption and that it wards off the danger of imminent fixation.  What happens here is that a possibility within language opens a possibility within thought—the distinction between “take” and “seize” makes it possible to imagine “taking responsibility,” or “taking one’s time.”

At this point, originary thinking moves beyond cognitive linguistics, because we must assume that there were a few words and then many, and those few words must have covered more semantic space than the later, specialized split-offs; even more, the earliest words must have been more thoroughly embedded in the imperative and gestural-postural worlds than we can easily reconstruct now.

The original “take,” then, must have included much of what was to be distributed to more specialized semantic domains.  To “take,” must have meant to acquire and possess in accord with sacred purposes and ritualized practices.  The initial move towards grammaticalization, then—that transformation of a word, whose meanings have been evacuated and given over to specialized terms, into a word covering newly imagined cognitive, social and moral domains—is a retrieval of the originary content of the word.

This is a retrieval forward, not a recovery of the identical meaning: “taking responsibility,” “taking time,” “taking over,” and so on don’t return us to that earlier ostensive world but, rather, create new ostensive possibilities of deferral, where promises can be made (in a promise, one allows oneself to be “taken”), initiatives “taken,” obligations incurred.  In other words, a backward ascent is a precondition of further descent down the cline, as the new mode of thinking in language takes over or becomes common possession.

And this also means that the development of chunks and commonplaces, on the one hand, and the “de-chunking” that we can call “thinking,” on the other, are complementary modes of language development and language learning: “thinking” is initiated when a piece of a chunk “sticks out” (because the chunk is used mistakenly, because it is learned so well as to become material rather than transparent, because it collides with other chunks…), is withheld from its normal circulation, and opens up a new grammatical and semantic domain.

Grammaticalization is itself this process of fixation, sign, and integration: 

This withholding from normal circulation, in fact, conforms to the structure of deferral, whereby an act is converted into a gesture—gestures must be composed so as to indicate that a particular movement could be completed in many other ways, but is instead being (in)completed in this way.  And the (in)completion in the case of the aborted act/gesture can also be generalized to a range of as yet unanticipated situations, whereas acts are bound to a restricted context.

Upclining is the recuperation of attention: 

Recuperation is a step up the “cline,” or what I will now call an “upcline,” in which a word is deliberately removed from a circulation that splinters its uses, and placed within a new circulation, or idiom, that treats the word as a prompt for a new hierarchy of declaratives, imperatives and ostensives.  (Perhaps, the prototypical example of the foundational disciplinary move is Plato’s withdrawal of “good” from its circulation as an adjective indifferently applied to “meal,” “athlete,” “house,” etc., to a much more restricted use as the Good.)


Perhaps, the earliest such procedure is the ubiquitous ban on pronouncing the name of God—the first word. If the name of God is interdicted, then a system of circumlocutions and euphemisms, drawing on putative “attributes” and “effects” of God, must be elaborated.  Interdicting the name of God is one step beyond (a deepening of) the interdiction on appropriating God.  The rules of politeness and civility work in a similar way, expressing through procedures applied to tone, gesture, and so on, one’s commitment to not do certain things.

Moral-political subversion: 

As Philip Rieff has argued, though, any system of interdictions includes a system of remissions: profane and forbidden practices that are allowed within a circumscribed space, like Bakhtin’s “carnivalesque.”  The internal disintegration of a system of sacrality comes when the remitted practices are used to point out the “hypocrisy” of the defenders of the sacred and to reverse the causality between deferral and authority—that is, instead of authority being conferred upon those who submit themselves to greater ordeals of deferral, the system of deferral and discipline becomes seen as a mere justification of the privileges enjoyed by those with authority.

A priori hostility towards the sacred and sacred authority, the central fixation of the modern world, and unremitting mockery of such authority, the source of its distractions, always serve the purpose of releasing inhibitions in the name of nature.  Those who have been liberated from inhibitions while still in possession of the entire vocabulary of discipline towards the destruction of which they have dedicated themselves have considerable advantages over the defenders of deferral and discipline.

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