24 September 2006

Syntax, Semantics, and the Production of Information

I'm not the biggest fan of Bill Clinton, but this interview on FOX News was absolutely amazing. Anglo-American philosophers draw a distinction between syntax and sematics, which, I think, sheds light on a number of contemporary discussions in systems, structuralist, and post-structuralist thought. On the one hand, semantics refers to what language is about. That is, semantics is the study of language in its referential dimension. If I wonder how the proposition "the cat is on the mat" links up to the world, then I'm focused on semantics. Syntax, by contrast, is the study of the rules governing how words and phrases are put together, without any reference to the world independent of language. Language not only says something of something else, but language also is something, and has its own organization. For instance, the entire formalist program in mathematics under Hilbert was aimed at reducing mathematics purely to mathematical syntax, so as to dispense with any need to refer to mathematical entities (such as Platonic forms) to account for the nature of mathematics.

One of the great innovations in 20th century thought was the hypothesis that syntax governs semantics. Thus, for instance, if we crack open Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things, we find that Foucault approaches the history of knowledge not from the standpoint of semantics and questions of whether propositions advanced by scientists at such and such a time map on to the world as it actually is, but rather he studies the syntax governing inquiry and investigation at particular points in time (what he refers to as the analysis of "statements"). What Foucault seeks to show is the manner in which this syntax or these "epistemes" produce their objects, rather than simply being simple referential or semantical statements about their objects. We encounter something similar in Kuhn's account of "paradigms", or in Wittgenstein's conception of "language games". In a Lacanian analysis a good deal of the work consists in examining the manner in which the analysand is "cuckhold" by language (Seminar 5), or how the analysand's symptoms are organized by the play of the phoneme (which belongs to syntax). The systems theorist shows how information isn't simply a product of things "out there", but rather how the organization of a system itself produces information (rather than the world producing information), which again calls for analogies to syntax.

This dimension of organization presiding over how propositions are put together often becomes invisible or falls into the background, as propositions direct us to attend to the object they point to. For instance, we might get into a sterile debate as to whether a particular proposition accurately represents the world, without bracketing the world altogether, and instead looking at the horizon within which the proposition is produced, purely at the level of its rhetoric. Nonetheless, if there's something like genuine change, this change occurs at the level of syntax or organization, not at the level of semantics.

For me the most interesting moment in Clinton's interview comes when he draws attention to the context in which these questions are being posed to him. Although his hypothesis seems to be that there's a conspiracy against him, the more interesting thesis is the idea that media reporting is governed by a "syntax" of how narratives or stories are put together, which filters stories in advance. To have attention drawn to this dimension of reporting on the news itself at all is a remarkable thing.

17 Comments:

Anonymous Yusef said...

I admit to being one who thought Clinton's anti-terrorist activities were "wagging the dog"(THEN) and I am one who will admit to thinking I see a lot of "wagging the dog" in what's happening with anti-terrorism (NOW).

I am not in the slightest bit convinced that Clinton is absolved of "wagging the dog" because his "wagging the dog" is small potato compared to the wagging which has happened ever since he left office.

I don't think any of this "wagging of the dog" should ever be equated with the production of information. I think things need to add up in some way in any true production - none of what's happened vis a vis anti-terrorism in the years 1992-2006 quite adds up.

No one else commented... I took liberties.

September 27, 2006 10:05 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Thanks Yusef... Can you say a bit more as to what you mean by "adding up"?

When I talk about information, all I have in mind is the production of an event that is able to have effects on a system state or organization. I've been thinking a good deal about Foucault's work during his middle period lately, as I have difficult clearly expressing some of these issues or what I'm trying to get at. Foucault, in texts such as _The Order of Things_ and _Discipline and Punish_ claims that epistemes are such that it is only possible to during any given historical period, it is only possible to say certain things. As Deleuze so nicely puts it, "To our amazement, this 'incomplete, fragmented form' shows, when it comes to statements, how not only few things are said, but 'few things can be said'. What consequences from this transportation of logic will find their way into that element of rarity or dispersion which has nothing to do with negativity, but which on the contrary forms that 'positivity' which is unique to statements? Foucault also tries to reassure us, though: if it is true that statements are essentially rare, no originality is needed in order to produce them. A statement always represents a transmission of particular elements distributed in a corresponding space" (Foucault, 3).

So we have a topological space defining a field of communication, and within this topological space, only certain communication events are possible. That is, there's a frame that governs the production of statements; or, in systems theoretical terms, that distinguishes between information and noise for that system's organization. Only certain statements can have effects on that system, whereas others cannot. Anything not conforming to the model is coded as noise and produces no results.

This places us in an awkward position. On the one hand, if we produce statements according to that organization or topology, we're playing a suckers game as we're only reinforcing the organization of that system. On the other hand, if we try to escape the game, we our statements become mere noise as the system is not organized to register them (just as I am not organized to receive infrared light as information, and thus infrared light produces no state changes in my being).

So I guess my question is, "what is the winning move?" What is that statement that simultaneously undermines the organization of a particular system itself, and can be registered by that system? I was tremendously demoralized by the protests prior to the Iraq war. Here we had protests larger than those of any other period in history, but they were coded as mere noise by the social system, producing no results. Could anything have been done differently?

Regardless of whether Clinton was wagging the dog at the time, this particular interview was interesting as he seems to have produced a statement that has generated significant state-change in the organization of public debate *at the level of organization itself* (this could be wishful thinking on my part). If you've followed the news for the last few days, suddenly newscasters are fact checking statements by the administration, and they're no longer simply accepting slogans or allowing the administration to define the terms of discussion with pithy statements such as "we're fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here" and "we can't cut and run", etc. It's been remarkable to watch.

Now, what's interesting is that Clinton didn't say anything new or that hadn't been said before. Many of us were aware that things went down exactly as Clinton said they went down as far back as 2001-- that the administration had cut back funding for fighting terrorism, that he dissolved positions, etc., etc. This stuff has been out there since the beginning, but has never produced an effect. So what was unique about Clinton's articulation? How did where this was spoken and how did who spoke it, change the coordinates of the current communicative organization? Further, what was it about Clinton's statements that brought the frame of how things are reported into visibility, thus allowing for the possibility of the emergence of new frames of reporting?

I take it that how things are reported does have an effect on production. Given that our world is mediated through media technologies and that people act on the basis of how they conceive the world, a shift in organization always entails the emergence of new possibilities of collective action (that wouldn't otherwise be possible as they're coded as noise).

September 27, 2006 10:36 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Ack, I meant _The Archaeology of Knowledge_ not _Discipline and Punish_.

September 27, 2006 11:11 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

I very much appreciate the questions you are asking here, the issues you are bringing to the fore.

I think the remarkable thing about Clinton's anti-terrorism was that it was both incredibly vicious and incredibly ineffective. ( What kind of people use cruise missiles to try to assassinate a man living in a tent?)

Then we have Bush, who is even more vicious and even more ineffective...

( Please don't misunderstand the use of the word 'ineffective' - if the 'war on terror' is misguided, and I think it is, then it is dangerous to speak of it being effective or ineffective,)

There has to be something else, what's really happening, going on behind this stuff...

I don't think we'll ever get an idea of what this is by watching TV interviews of politicians, or the movies.

( Perhaps this is a banal observation, but it is no less a true one.)

The revolution will also not be televised.

September 28, 2006 10:03 AM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

"On the other hand, if we try to escape the game, we our statements become mere noise as the system is not organized to register them "

The revolution will not be televised.

It is almost as if you are offering some sort of proof for this assertion.

September 28, 2006 10:09 AM  
Anonymous Sinthome said...

Yusef, I wonder if you aren't misunderstanding me or if I'm not misunderstanding you. First, let me be clear, the issue here for me is not about Clinton or what's televised. I quite agree with what you're claiming about television and revolution. As you've noted, I advocate the thesis that "the world does not exist". So how do we get the sense that there is *a* world? There have been a variety of ways in which this transcendental has been produced throughout history. Following Luhmann, I hold that today the way a common world is produced today is through media systems. These media systems function to produce affects, forms of action, and forms of bodily interaction. Consequently, one of the key ingredients in transforming contemporary organization consists in how this system is subverted. Hence the question of noise or how noise can be transformed to target organization itself. Your remarks seem to suggest that you think I'm giving some apologia for Clinton and the war on terror, where I instead see these things as smokescreens that have capture the public's imagination and are the frame through which everything is seen. Riffing on your questions over at Enlightenment Underground, this is one way in which people come to will their own oppression and repression. Without targeting those systems that produce these distracting affects, it's impossible to marshal energies in other directions. Clinton's speech is not of interest for what it has to say about terrorism or how to fight terrorism or whether we can fight terrorism more effectively. All of these questions are uninteresting for me, at least. It's only of interest in terms of how it tends to subvert the primary frame of terrorism as the key issue or "quilting point" altogether.

I blogged about this ideological function of "the global war on terror" here previously:

http://larval-subjects.blogspot.com/2006/09/global-war-on-terror_12.html

In order to mobilize collective bodies and affects, this frame itself needs to be destroyed. To put it in very vulgar terms, it's a bit like a despotic aristocracy who gets its subjects all worked up about the threat of witches in their midsts, diverting energy that might otherwise be directed at overturning that order to chasing snipes. Until that frame is overturned, it's nearly impossible to cultivate affects of any other kind. The threat of terrorism, I think, is a lot like those witches. It's convenient fodder for collective manipulation and redirection of frustrated passions.

September 28, 2006 10:29 AM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

I think I am understanding what you are saying, and yet it may be that I strongly disagree with you in thinking that this Chris Wallace interview with Clinton, and the effect it has had immediately following, is an example of something shaking up the collective organization of perception and affect. ( You are claiming that, aren't you?)

The "game" is one of antagonisms between differences understood as opposites, and the coordination of these; shifting of blame and guilt, and sham testing of various claims of goodness and righteousness.

Clinton is just playing this "game", not calling it into question. As you say, he's not saying anything which hasn't been known all along. He's just facilitating "movement" ( sham movement) back in the direction of "the opposite" ( of the Republicans) which we haven't seen for a few years, and we might be fooled into thinking we're seeing something new.

I'm 100% behind you when you say

"Clinton's speech is not of interest for what it has to say about terrorism or how to fight terrorism or whether we can fight terrorism more effectively. All of these questions are uninteresting for me, at least. It's only of interest in terms of how it tends to subvert the primary frame of terrorism as the key issue or "quilting point" altogether."

I know you that this is your concern, that this is your interest.

I'm learning important lessons from you about this.

I simply disagree with you that in this instance you have picked up on an example of a subversion of the primary frame.

September 28, 2006 10:57 AM  
Anonymous Sinthome said...

"I think I am understanding what you are saying, and yet it may be that I strongly disagree with you in thinking that this Chris Wallace interview with Clinton, and the effect it has had immediately following, is an example of something shaking up the collective organization of perception and affect. ( You are claiming that, aren't you?)"

Certainly I'm not claiming that some sort of revolution has taken place. First, if you go back to the original diary, you'll note that I focus on that moment where Clinton draws attention to *context*. The value of this move is to draw attention to the frames through which things have been reported and to perhaps undermine those frames. Second, in debunking the myth that nothing was done to fight terrorism during the Clinton administraton and pointing out that the current administration did nothing prior to 9-11, Clintn effectively drew attention to the ideological administration of this administration's self-presentation. What's important here, as I see it, isn't a question of who did more or who is superior, but rather engendering skepticism towards how the administration presents itself in general. At the level of reporting, this has had the effect of producing something we haven't seen up to this point: Suddenly talking points are being questioned and cross-examined, allowing for the broader questioning of conventional wisdom among viewers. This is something that is almost entirely new in the last six years. Up to this point, the only sort of cross-examination we've seen has been by comedians (some of whom even lost their jobs like Bill Maher) who can be easily dismissed, blogs, and out of the way leftist newspapers that don't have a wide reach. The very emergence of this sort of critical discourse opens all sorts of further possibilities, not the least of which is potentially overturning the quilting point of terrorism.

As I said, what's important here isn't Bush, Clinton, or which administration is better. What's important is transformations taking place in how things are being reported and how discourse is being approached. You're focusing too much on the messanger and the message, which is not what I'm talking about at all. I'm talking about the broader organization of these systems of communication.

We might not be duped by these discourses and organizations of communication, but that doesn't do us a hell of a lot of good when our neighbors, family, students, friends, etc., see these things as the only reality and don't even raise critical questions conventional wisdom due to the invisibility of the frames governing it.

September 28, 2006 11:34 AM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

"You're focusing too much on the messanger and the message, which is not what I'm talking about at all. I'm talking about the broader organization of these systems of communication."

I'm talking about the broader organization of these systems of communication in that I'm saying that such an instance isn't something intending to, or capable of, changing or challenging the broader organization of these systems.

Clinton didn't call into question the war against terrorism, or terrorism as a "frame," he only objected to being portrayed as having been weak on terror - or as not having done enough during his Administration to fight terrorism... and it was completely understandable that he do so, as it is utterly unfair - despicably unfair - that his failures be singled out by journalists.

Clinton has supported the war in Iraq all along until now, perhaps. This is very much part of the context.

If he's changing now ( and I think he probably is, because I see Hilary finally appears to be changing,as she recently challenged D.Rumsfeld before Congress,) this is in response to an overwhelming shift in the democratic electorate...

The Clintons aren't leaders, they aren't change-makers. They are very smart, clever politicians, who ride and exploit popularity waves as best they are able.

September 28, 2006 2:17 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

I'm seeing better where you're coming from.

"I'm talking about the broader organization of these systems of communication in that I'm saying that such an instance isn't something intending to, or capable of, changing or challenging the broader organization of these systems."

For me questions of intention don't enter into the picture as intentions don't belong to systems of communication. Rather, there are only events of communication. I have no idea what anyone intends, I only know what events have taken place. I take it that there are certain communicative events that have a significant impact on how communications systems are organized and generate new organizations.

"Clinton didn't call into question the war against terrorism, or terrorism as a "frame," he only objected to being portrayed as having been weak on terror - or as not having done enough during his Administration to fight terrorism... and it was completely understandable that he do so, as it is utterly unfair - despicably unfair - that his failures be singled out by journalists."

No disagreement here; nor, I think, did I suggest that he did. I think this frame is the most significant frame that needs to be dislodged and it will be very difficult for anything else to be accomplished until it is dislodged. My point was more in the direction that this is a step in the right direction.

"Clinton has supported the war in Iraq all along until now, perhaps. This is very much part of the context."

No disagreement again.

"If he's changing now ( and I think he probably is, because I see Hilary finally appears to be changing,as she recently challenged D.Rumsfeld before Congress,) this is in response to an overwhelming shift in the democratic electorate..."

The question of whether *Clinton* is changing is entirely irrelevant to me. I've made that point a few times. At the level of communications alone, your remark about the democratic electorate is interesting because there *hasn't* been a shift in the democratic electorate-- you mean those who identify as democrats, right? Rather, the democratic electorate has been pretty consistent in their positions for the last few years. By systems of communication, then, why is this suddenly being noticed? What *has* changed? Here I think we have feedback mechanisms, where both systems are responsive to one another and causation can't be assigned in one unilateral direction.

"The Clintons aren't leaders, they aren't change-makers. They are very smart, clever politicians, who ride and exploit popularity waves as best they are able."

Again, this issue is unimportant to me. Recall D&G's comparason of Go and Chess in ATP. The "identity" of a Go piece is purely relational, not intrinsic. This issue of being leaders or change-makers is closer to conceptualizing issues in terms of Chess where the pieces have intrinsic identities. The Go piece, by contrast, takes on its identity by virtue of the ever changing relations it entertains to other pieces. It can go from being the least powerful piece to the most powerful and back again. Moreover, we need not refer to any intentional or strategic intention on the part of the piece to discuss how this happens. Take the example of Gavrilo Princip who sparked WWI by assassinating Archduke Ferdinand. In and of himself he was largely no one and it's unlike that it was his intention to spark a WWI. Yet this act, had tremendous consequences that far exceeded his intentions due to how it resonated with its context. An identical act, the assassintation of Lincoln, for instance, did not produce a WWI, which is a nice example of just why we need to adopt the Go model in thinking about these sorts of things.

So first there's a question as to whether any significant change has taken place in reporting over the last few days. Second, there's a question as to whether Clinton's speech act haphazardly or contingently played a significant role in these changes-- if changes they are --as the proverbial straw that broke the camels back. Again, I take it that Clinton's human qualities, his intentions, whether he is a good leader or not, are irrelevant to these questions. I think a strong case can be made to the contrary of my thesis that these changes have already been building quite a bit in recent months... The winds, as they say, have been changing. For instance, if you've been following Keith Oberlin's show "Countdown" recently, he's been vigorously contesting the administration in ways no other mainstream news show has, prior to the Clinton interview. The third thesis would be that this change was a combination of both.

For me, the interesting question is a theoretical question. What are the conditions under which it's possible to target the frames governing a situation or the syntax of a situation? How does this happen. If you concede for a moment for the sake of argument, that Clinton's speech-act targeted some portion of contemporary frames, what would have been successful about it? Why did it lodge where other *identical* speech-acts didn't lodge in the past? And why did journalists suddenly start fact checking statements by the administration and democrats suddenly start contesting the claims of pundits on television and so on? Was it the context in which it was enunciated (Fox news)? Was it who was speaking (a former president, rather than a pundit or someone currently in office)? Was it these things in conjunction with a series of recent events such as hurricane Katrina, the failure of social security reform, the Terry Shaivo fiasco, etc? Was it something else?

It's not the leadership qualities of the Clinton's that interest me with regard to these questions of change. It just a number of these changes seem to be related to that particular interview. I'm not making some apologia for the Clintons or party politics, which seems to be the claim you're attributing to me.

September 28, 2006 3:00 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

"I'm not making some apologia for the Clintons or party politics, which seems to be the claim you're attributing to me."

I understand that you are not making excuses for Clinton - you started out your blog post with an indication that you didn't think all that highly of him.

You are making an extravagant claim about his efficacy in a single interview with Chris Wallace on Fox news, however.

I understand that your extravagant claim does not go so far ( is not so extravagant) as to suggest that his comments in the interview were revolutionary.

You have reasons for thinking that this particular speech-act is significant compared to all other speech-acts and events of the last five years...

...I don't think you can make that case. I don't think you have made that case.

September 28, 2006 5:30 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Yusef, I'm more than happy to remain agnostic on the issue with regard to the significance of the Clinton speech. I was using it as an opportunity to make the points I made about syntax, semantics, and questions of how change in organization are possible (considered against the background of a critique of representation).

Would you concede my point about something like "syntax" governing reference or semantics? My questions about change hinge on that. By syntax I'm just thinking in terms of an autopoietic system or a system that produces all its own parts and operates under conditions of operational closure.

It seems to me that a lot of what we're discussing mirrors the debate between punctuated equilibrium and gradualism in evolutionary biology. I am arguing the case that change occurs sporadically and suddenly at certain points in time. I'm not deeply commited to this thesis, though I do think something like breaks can be seen throughout history. I take this to be Badiou's position with regard to his account of events.

When you remark that "I understand that your extravagant claim does not go so far ( is not so extravagant) as to suggest that his comments in the interview were revolutionary. You have reasons for thinking that this particular speech-act is significant compared to all other speech-acts and events of the last five years......I don't think you can make that case. I don't think you have made that case.
", it sounds as if you're asserting the position of gradualism that sees evolution as ongoing and constant, occuring gradually over time. Is this an accurate representation of your position?

I agree, I never made the case. I was using the example as an opportunity for theorization or thinking through something, not making a bald assertion. Demonstrating that the example doesn't hold up is valuable part of that thinking through. The example of Gavrilo Princip and the beginning of WWI makes the point far better, but still doesn't decide between punctuated equilibrium and gradualism, as it may indeed be a combination of both.

September 28, 2006 6:07 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Interesting discussion, though I agree with most of what Yusef says. I also think Chris Wallace was set up by Rupert Murdoch, who is funding Hillary. He really is the perfect foil.

So yeah, I found it refreshing (Clinton's grasp of syntax being more sophisticated than some (not saying much)-though it remains thoroughly that of a politician, i.e., all-purpose, multifunctional, upper-handing and power-grubbing)...but not remarkable. Sort of dismaying, in fact, to come home and see it unreflectively plastered all over the blogs, unlike here.

September 29, 2006 1:59 PM  
Blogger wjfljql said...

syntax governing semantics, this follows from Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (which I think has been mercilessly ignored by continental philosophy).

semantic governing syntax: this follows from all events of poetry. heidegger said this in some post-Being and Time essay

September 30, 2006 12:24 AM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

This has continued to bother me.. I've continued to think about it.

What I'm going to say is in no way meant to slight or ignore the theoretical in your post.

I think that the attitude of many ( or most ? I don't know the actual per centages ) Americans to Clinton's anti-terrorism activities as "wagging the dog" was a basically sound and intelligent attitude - was the right one.

It was the proper "frame" for viewing the US government's SPECTACULAR anti-terrorist actions. ( Not the day-to-day ones conducted at that time by the FBI and CIA.)

It was 9/11 which was a "frame-shifting" EVENT in the sense which you are using these terms, if I correctly understand your use of these terms...

The frame of seeing SPECTACULAR anti-terrorism as "wagging the dog" was instantaneously shifted so that SPECTACULAR anti-terrorism activities became literally unquestionable, became taken with utter seriousness, and couldn't be criticized, let alone ridiculed.

To understand the nature of a frame-shifting event, I think we need to look at the event of 9/11.

It is almost as if there was an upping of the ante at 9/11... If one had any inclination to speak of "wagging the dog" on actions of response to attacks on embassies,etc. where the terrorism was distant and relatively small, one had to think twice ( but to think was twice was literally impossible after 9/11 - the shock of the event was too great,) whether one could believe that such a thing was contrived or set up in any way - it was too horrible to consider... and still is...

What would be the necessary conditions for shifting the frame back to one where people would more readily demand accountability for anti-terrorist actions, rather than continuing to write blank checks for all anti-terorist actions? ( Which now are so extensive as to be re-shaping the very forms of US government...)

Is "shock and fear" a necessary condition for the frame-shifting event? I don't think so.

October 03, 2006 10:07 AM  
Anonymous Sinthome said...

There's NOTHING I disagree with in your post, although I do think something has begun to significantly change in the last month... What hasn't changed is the overall frame of terrorism as the organizing matrix or window for the discussion as a whole. What, then, would it take for this frame to be dislodged in its entirety. We can think of possible worlds where there are other frames. For instance, we can imagine a possible world where all governmental policies are organized around the frame of cancer or poverty or labor and where all issues are quilted to this frame. In such frames, terrorism would be a minor issue, if it was an issue at all. In the grand scheme of things in American life, terrorism is a rather minor threat compared to other dangers and issues, so how does it come to take on such a disproportionate function in discourse? What function does this frame serve, not just for those who would manipulate it for their own ends, but for the American people? And how is it possible to dislodge such a frame? From a psychoanalytic perspective, any of these frames is a structure of fantasy. This isn't to say that fantasies are falsehoods covering over true reality. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't. Rather, the question is how does one particular fantasy come to be selected for?

October 03, 2006 10:25 AM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

"And how is it possible to dislodge such a frame? From a psychoanalytic perspective, any of these frames is a structure of fantasy."

We can dislodge such a frame by laughing at it.. by laughing at it until the tears run down our cheeks.

If the whole thing is as exaggerated as we are willing to say it is, soberly, with lips taught, then this speaking should be followed by merriment at the ridiculousness of it all.

We would be laughing.

This sort of fantasy, as you call it, is hilarious.

To see "macho" men climbing chairs and screaming in horror because there is a mouse in the room is really,really funny... it is a standard gag.

The question then becomes - why are we not laughing? Why can't we laugh at it?

Because it is too serious to laugh at?

That answer doesn't wash.

I can imagine laughing at anti-terrorism, and then having another nasty attack, and having it look as if I was making light of a "real threat." That would be, I think, unbearable.

And yet, I think I need to be prepared for that unbearability, to accept it, and to have the fortitude to accept that such a consequence would be likely.

I have to - or else accept that reshifting and reshaping our entire way of life and of governing ourselves as a response to the threat of 'terrorism' is a rational response - and I refuse this latter... I accept the "unbearable" consequence as the lesser of evils, pure and simple.

October 03, 2006 5:29 PM  

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