Adam Katz on Acceptance of Originary Mistakenness as Idiom Generation and Cure for Metaphysical Liberalism.

Objectified imitation becomes a threat to a group (either as parody, negligence, or infiltration), imperiling shared attention, and therefore stimulates incorporated moral history to recuperate it: 

Making a mistake exposes one as imitating what one doesn’t know how to imitate, and therefore what one doesn’t understand, and the only reason for doing so is an “empty” and insatiable desire to be included in the very community one has just demonstrated oneself unsuitable to join.  Naturally, all mistakes don’t have the same high stakes, but the possibility of granting entrance to one capable of merely adopting the required forms as means of advancement turns the norms of the community themselves into an object of desire, and possible possession, and they can therefore no longer serve as reliable means of mediation.

The speech modes (and later declarative idioms) were themselves a result of incorporation of this ‘originary mistakenness’: 

It is worth noting that Gans, in his account of the evolution of the primary linguistic forms in “The Origin of Language,” proposes that the imperative, at least, began as a mistake: the first imperative was an “inappropriate ostensive.”  But, we need not stop there: the first interrogative was a prolonged, which is to say, botched imperative, diverted part way through by the uncertainty of its fulfillment.  The first declarative, the negative ostensive [elaboration of absence], is an on the face of it ludicrous attempt to offer a word in place of a thing.

In each case, the mistake is not corrected but “completed” and thereby changed into a new kind of sign: the interlocutor brings the object in response to the inappropriate ostensive, and ceases his command or demand in response to the negative ostensive, thereby complementing the other in creating the new speech form.

Gans: “To take too much time in communicating a piece of information is to commit an error not linguistic but practical, the hearer’s potential for anger tending to increase with the duration of his subjection to the speaker’s linguistic model.  Thus, this time will tend to approximate the minimum required for the hearer to absorb the information conveyed.”

So, taking too much time would be an error because, far from deferring violence, it would intensify it.  I think we can assume, then, a complementary tendency to err on the side of brevity, which is to say the abbreviation of the sign.  This error might often be simply that, a gesture which doesn’t fulfill its aim, but it would become a new sign or “idiomatic” revision of the sign as soon as it “took.”  The new sign might replace the old one for use in the most intense situations (brevity would then “mean” urgent”), or it might take effect at a lower threshold of danger (brevity would then mean “trivial”).

Interestingly, Gans then goes on to say, regarding this dynamic of unequally significant signs, that “if we assume that the ‘profane’ sign attracts from its addressee an interest of a certain intensity, then this interest too can be deceived by a relatively insignificant referent, which will therefore tend to acquire for its designation a newly differentiated sign.”  Again, it seems to me that error is driving the process here: in this case, the intrinsic interest in the other’s sign leads the addressee’s attention to an otherwise uninteresting object and hence a new word.

The “gradual lowering” of the threshold of danger, and hence of significance, leads to diversity because of “the suspicious nature of linguistic communication”: the linguistic community’s “requirement of guarantees” “provides the impulse for a vocabulary richer in information” because, I would suggest, that “suspicion” (the normativity of language) produces both error (abbreviations as well as prolongations) and the determination to locate the objects that would correspond to such errors.


The eventual arbitrariness of language reflects the ethics of maintained attention: 

Tomasello attributes the drift to the arbitrary to the entrance of learners and outsiders, who must imitate the sign before having acquired the shared intentionality of its original users, into the group: “outsiders, who are missing some common ground as a basis for ‘naturalness,” may have a difficult time comprehending and parsing the communicative signs of others.” In that case, such a drift from the iconic to the arbitrary would result from a series of failed attempts either to make an iconic gesture understood to someone from another community (or to understand, i.e., respond to, the gesture—if we can separate those two phenomena), followed by a re-norming along more purely conventional lines.

In this case, all language change must be driven by much mistakenness and re-norming as each sign user sees the consequences of the other’s borrowing of his sign; and language is a process of change from the very beginning.

All idioms are built upon the cornerstone of mistakenness.  I should note that I am using mistakenness conceptually and heuristically here—one could note, of course, that creative writers generate idioms all the time and know exactly what they are doing.  But, there is much that they don’t know about what they are doing, and their highly conscious activity implies more, not less, tacit knowledge and unconscious mental activity.

To put it another way, I am making an argument about what is entailed in “creativity”: applying some sign to some new domain (a helpful definition of intellectual creation) involves responding to the sign from the position of an unintended addressee.  The process, I am proposing, is no different from that which, in Gans’s hypothesis, led to the co-invention of the imperative: in working with a sign that finds nothing in the real or imaginary scene to complete, some kind of external supplementation is provided—the creator, then, may not be making a mistake, but he or she certainly allows him or herself to draw upon reserves of mistakenness.

The ethical consequences, it seems to me, are as follows. If the mistaken is marked, then, and we unmark ourselves by enforcing the norm against the polluting mistake, then rather than intensify the marking of the error of which we are rid, we can allow ourselves to be marked by deliberate innovations that risk being mistaken and unmark others by constructing idioms around their mistakes.  Such an ethics of language would break with metaphysical normativity, grounded in well formed propositions and the presumed model of a well ordered reality.  We can never be certain of understanding each other but we can be certain of misunderstanding each other—there will be mistakes in every exchange of signs.


The insight that we are fundamentally mimetic beings should put the question of error or mistakenness at the top of our concerns.  When, after all, is imitation error-free?  When does one ever get the model “right”?  On the other hand, who determines whether I have done so or not?  If you are too close to the model, you risk unwitting parody, or a shameful failure to grasp the setting within which the model has acted, a setting different from the one in which you are to act.

If you are too far, then the model won’t be recognizable in your actions at all, and if your desire is set by the model, you will fail to gratify it.  But, determining what is just right must be left to the averaging out of subsequent imitations and representations of imitations until a norm emerges which enables us to share in the resentment towards mistakenness [the ability to have a shared model, i.e. identity, at all, though it will be ever-changing and mistakenly iterated].  Needless to say, mistakenness will corrode that normativity from the very beginning.

Originary Defilement is the Sparagmos, also brought on by Originary Mistakenness: 

Mistaking the model as origin can take two forms: one, assuming the model is blithely unaware of you; two, assuming the model is dead set against you.  In the first case, blithe unawareness, the self-contained model seems not to attend to the arrangement of attention amongst the others—their attention simply automatically follows his own, including everyone but yourself.

In the second case, that of being dead set against you, everyone’s, following the model’s, attention is directed towards the means of your exclusion.  The two possibilities represent the extremes of an absence of attention and a dangerous intensity of attention.

The imitator oscillates between these two attitudes toward the model, but they crystallize into the aim of interposing oneself between model and object—that would both force the model’s attention, and turn his antagonism toward you back towards him, in such a way that you get the drop on him.  The form of the imminent confrontation on the originary scene in this construal, then, entails each figure getting a little in between the other and the object and that is what would bring things to a standstill: there’s no way you can get in between the other and the object if he is positioning himself in between you and the object.

But, this standstill would involve ongoing adjustment, as each makes the mistake of seeing the other move toward the object and of appearing to move toward the object while really trying to block the other.  And the only way of ending the stand-off is for someone to mistake the gesture as a invitation to partake of the object, and initiate the sparagmos.  This is originary mistakenness and our originary defilement: to be irremediably in between, tainting the origin that being in between places us at.

Norm and error emerge simultaneously.  The mistake is the sign of infinite desire and therefore also of incalculable danger—the norm is the resentment of the center that contains this danger by marking the error as such and refining the sign so that it fixes the mistake: just as someone might exaggerate the correct pronunciation of a word in response to someone’s mistake.  All idioms, however informal or idiosyncratic, distinguish between norm and error.

A disciplinary space of accepting Originary Mistakenness: 

Originary mistakenness provides an alternative heuristic to what I have been calling the “grammarian” one, which presupposes a shared model and measures and punishes deviations from it: something will be mistaken in any utterance or gesture (some context overlooked, some shifting of emphasis askew, some possible response unanticipated), and if we train ourselves to attend to that mistakenness then much that is invisible in the utterance or gesture becomes visible.  What has become visible is the idiomatic character of all semiosis: we can identify what is formulaic in a free expression, and free in a formulaic one: mistakes break up the cliché and the commonplace.

Only a bureaucratized disciplinary space of writing is capable of keeping homonyms alive (note the elitist disdain some have for improper use of your/you’re and their/there/they’re, rather than ‘maintaining attention’): 

Perhaps a pedagogy that doesn’t know where the student is going, that simply places before the students the basic questions, practices and materials constitutive of a disciplinary space, and takes mistakes, the ever-generative mismatch between model and pupil, as its point of departure, will be able to accept more arbitrariness and create more minimal forms of iconicity.  Such a pedagogy would be interested in the most minimal conditions under which the mistaken and the normative could share the same object and co-regulate their practices so as to keep it in view; and such a pedagogy might be able to move through less institutionalized cultural spaces and conjoin attentions in new ways.

More specifically, it might be noted that all the mistakes I pointed to a paragraph back involved the “infection” of writing by speech: as linguists like Roman Jakobson and Dwight Bolinger have argued, this is a very common feature of language, as words that sound alike tend to converge on similar meanings and words with similar meanings tend to become closer in sound [without the institution of writing, words like bow (weapon) and bow (ribbon) will lead to mistakes and idioms that would gradually separate the two meanings into two different sounds]: mistakenness, then, is both the drift toward arbitrariness and the restoration of the iconic dimension of language in the face of that drift.  The question of error pervades language from the very beginning, I have suggested, but becomes much more explicit once languages become written and standardized.

A disciplinary space of accepting Originary Mistakenness would lead to increased idioms: 

If we were to treat mistakes as anomalies around which disciplinary spaces, idioms and maxims were to be created, it follows that we would notice a lot more mistakes (rather than politely overlooking them most of the time, as we do now in social settings; or ridiculing or punishing them in more competitive environments)

Bureaucracies seek to banish ‘dangling imperatives’ (and thereby banish creativity and the political enfranchisement of new scenes), while acceptance of Originary Mistakenness (but its analogization, rather than imitation) is creativity itself and the political enfranchisement of new scenes: 

Rules are notoriously hard to define and describe—for one thing, they always presuppose certain conditions and involve exceptions, so you need meta-rules for determining when the rules apply; for another, much of our knowledge of rules is how-to, tacit knowledge that can’t be made explicit.  But, this just means that rules, at least the rules of language and everyday interaction (as opposed, say, to the artificial rules of games) operate, to a great extent, below the level of declarative statements, in the area of ostensives and imperatives.  The beginnings of rule would be in the extension of an ostensive into an imperative: something one points to along with actual or possible others “orders” one to carry out some act.

The most economical way of thinking about what such an imperative would be is that it is a command to preserve the possibility of issuing that ostensive another time.  When we say “that ostensive,” though, we don’t just mean the same object, but the same aspect of the object in the same kind of critical situation—but all of that can’t be reproduced, so “that ostensive” will be progressively refined with each instance of obedience to the imperative (and the same qualifications apply to “the imperative” as to “that ostensive”).  This “refinement,” in turn, must mean that we assume a confirmatory ostensive following the obeyed imperative, confirming, that is, that the imperative has in fact been obeyed.

A rule, then, is the iterable articulation of an ostensive, a derived imperative, and a confirmatory ostensive.  If we don’t share the same ostensives, we wouldn’t recognize each other’s signs anyway, so our focus should be on the imperative and concluding ostensive: mistaking the ostensive-imperative link would be making an obscene joke at a family gathering, in front of the kids; mistaking the imperative-ostensive link would be laughing at the joke.  In both cases, we have what we might call a “dangling” imperative—an acted upon imperative without ostensive grounding or confirmation (one person laughing at the obscene joke doesn’t confirm the imperative to make such a joke—the general silence confirms the lack of confirmation).

The originary grammarian expels such an imperative from the scene by issuing an unquestionably grounded and confirmable replacement.  Those who acknowledge our originary mistakenness, though, seek to supply the ostensives which might ground and confirm the imperative—for example, by integrating the obscene joke into family lore, while perhaps categorizing it with analogous, anomalous instances so its mistakenness would not simply be erased.

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