Sunday, March 4, 2018

Totality and Utopia


In this article, certain semiotic resources, based on the idea that the syntagmatic axis tends to draw more attention than the paradigmatic axis, are developed in order to characterize a ‘total sky’ utopia as wedded to the acquisitive, in contrast to an ‘infinite sky’ utopia associated with the renunciatory. One of the important tasks of the intellectual in our times, it is argued here, is to strengthen the resources available for peace and renunciation, rather than for war-mongering and acquisitivism.

In his 1972 book Le communisme utopique, Alain Touraine argues that movements for serious change need to turn the tables on the mainstream opinion-makers who have successfully labelled them as ‘utopian’. The countermove to make, Touraine suggests, is to place under public scrutiny the horrifying utopias projected by this ‘realism’ masquerading as common sense.
Making that countermove has become easier than it was when Touraine first formulated the idea. Managerial commentators who root for the mainstream’s ‘realism’ helpfully churn out statistical and qualitative projections for the futures they envisage. Those of us who want the public to resist that ‘realism’ merely need to concretely expand the official projections, after correcting a falsehood or two. Our expansion will show what the models mean for the majority of the mainstream’s victims. So expanded, the official figures themselves tell the public that the great enterprise, having ruined the ecosystem, will take very little time to destroy even the enclaves of the privileged.
Touraine proposes that we make it explicit in our exercise that all aspirations, including those fact-and-figure projections, amount to utopias. That the widespread custom of treating ‘utopia’ as a dirty word is a fatal error. That any debate at the level of visions will indeed involve pitting ‘our’ utopias against ‘their’ utopias.
Using anodyne terms like ‘model’ instead of ‘utopia’ is a pointless evasion. An intellectual must call a spade a spade, and a dream a dream. There is such a thing as getting your dreams right, focusing them on peace, not war; on friendliness, not aggression. With such general ideas in mind, this article looks at one specific toolkit for working on utopias, dreams, ideals, and brings its semiotic tools to bear on some unresolved problems that we have all been wrestling with.

1. The dominant syntagmatic imagination

            Minimally, we need a toolkit that enables us to target violence and its roots in chauvinistic expansionism of all types. Expansionist wars of aggression reflect a mind-set that we may usefully describe as syntagmatic, contrasting it with the paradigmatic axis.
Readers keyed into semiotics and its structuralist antecedents will recall these basic terms. A word like kin consists of three sounds syntagmatically related to each other – k, i, n. Every whole W consists of certain parts P1, P2, P3 etc.; those P’s are each other’s partners, and W’s constituent; ‘partner’ and ‘constituent’ are syntagmatic relations. Now, if you can replace one of the P’s with a Q and get a different W, we call the P-Q relationship paradigmatic. For instance, if you replace k with s you get sin instead of kin. Here k is paradigmatically related to s.
            That statement comes from the context of looking at that s-sound from a distance and considering its mutual replaceability with k. But we sometimes ask a different question. Suppose the word kin decides to perform an annexation, to grab the s and attach it to its left, yielding the word skin. What is the result of such expansion? The result is that s becomes a syntagmatic partner of k within the expanded word skin.
Linguists can tell you a great deal about the partnership between the two insiders s and k within skin; they ‘understand’ relations on the syntagmatic axis. But they have little to say about the way the outsider s is related to the k that it can replace in the word kin; the paradigmatic axis is ‘poorly understood’. Linguists build ‘understanding’ around structures, and therefore around syntagmatic relations of partnership and belonging; these are the ones that drive structures. Now, structures grow by annexing outsiders and turning them into insiders – for instance, kin adds the external element s to expand into skin, where the s counts as internal. Linguists think they understand such growth (they just plug in their pep talk about structures), but they don’t really understand what is involved in annexing and digesting an outsider; recall that relations with outsiders – relations constituting the paradigmatic axis – are poorly understood.
Why does linguistics pay overwhelmingly more attention to syntagmatic than to paradigmatic phenomena? These priorities are elicited by ‘public demand’. Ordinary citizens instinctively stick to their various partners in the context of families, sports teams, circles of friends, political parties, and other structures. We know how to manage relationships inside a structure on the basis of either unilateral control or bilateral partnership understood as mutual monitoring and control. Outside these structures, we accept the existence of others; we even acknowledge some of them as neighbours. But we don’t hope to understand them more than everyday coexistence requires us to. We shift gears only when we expect to control them or be controlled by them. Then we upgrade our understanding and prepare to move from the paradigmatic to the syntagmatic axis.
In short, the ‘normal’ mode of thinking focuses on the syntagmatic axis, and tolerates the paradigmatic axis. We are expected to like ‘our’ people, syntagmatically related to us, to understand them, to empathize with them. But, on the paradigmatic axis, vis-à-vis people outside our own structure, the default approach is, that stuff doesn’t make any sense to us, we’re not supposed to get mixed up with their sort, it’s up to them to keep track of who they are and what they’re up to, we merely have to survive the fact that they share space with us. To oversimplify, we consistently maximize understanding and concomitant attention (and affection) on the syntagmatic axis and minimize it on the paradigmatic axis.
This, under the semiotic assumptions articulated here, is the syntagmatic imagination that passes for common sense, and that movements for serious change are up against. However, is this adversarial approach justified? Is it reasonable to portray the syntagmatic imagination as fundamentally violence-laden? Let us get our semiotic act together in order to be able to bring our articulations to bear on such questions.

2. Building semiotic resources

            The syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes are formal concepts. Semiotics addresses questions that have to do with functioning in the context of a formal architecture. While semiotic reasoning does employ geometrical concepts like ‘syntagmatic’ and ‘paradigmatic’ in order to characterize the architecture, the basic questions of semiotics are not formal questions. Readers new to semiotics sometimes tend to assume that it is really a social science. We begin, therefore, with an example due to Collett & Marsh (1974) that brings out with some clarity the contrast between semiotic and social-scientific modes of reasoning.
There are two ways of avoiding collision between pedestrians who are about to walk into each other. Collett & Marsh describe one option as ‘closed pass behaviour’, where the pedestrian making the effort to avoid collision turns away from the other person. In the other option, ‘open pass behaviour’, the body is turned towards the second pedestrian. Collett & Marsh have found that women tend to choose the closed pass strategy, while men tend to prefer the open pass strategy.
It is possible of course to read their paper in terms of anthropology. By publishing it in Semiotica, however, Collett & Marsh invite a semiotic reading. To focus on the numbers and on worries about variably strong instantiations of the tendency in this or that society is to look at the data from a social-scientific perspective. That is legitimate; but even that viewpoint will need to take a semiotic element on board. To see this more clearly, imagine, counterfactually, that all women and men choose the closed pass and open pass strategy respectively. Now, what significance do these gender-associated choices carry?
If we consider the women’s choice first, we see only the anthropology, quite naturally. But then we look at the men’s preference for the open pass strategy, which lends itself to no obvious anthropological interpretation. Semiotically, the men’s actions make sense if their behaviour tacitly signals their gender identity. It is as if they are putting their chest forward in order to say, look, we have no breasts to protect from contact with non-intimate adults. This behaviour is not specifically taught in any social pedagogy. Semiotics interprets such unconscious actions by investing them with meanings associated with the architecture within which people function.
Once we accept this semiotic construal of the choice made by men, consistency forces us to revisit our initial, purely anthropological reading of the women’s choice. We recast that choice also in terms of a semiotic overlay on the nonetheless valid anthropological content.
This reasoning works with stereotypes; certainly; my point is to introduce the reader to what semiotic reasoning looks like; an elementary example is bound to feature stereotypes. The resources for resisting stereotypes can only be built by first facing them as they are.
            I have chosen an example of semiotic reasoning that does not invoke the syntagmatic or the paradigmatic axis. Let me now bring the axes into the picture by shifting to another example. Consider the way Sircar (1983) frames the story of the impact of photography on the art of portrait painting. Oil painters found that the best work they could do was being hailed as ‘nearly as good as a photograph’. This challenge, Sircar argues, led to the rise of impressionism. If you look at the reasoning with care, you find Sircar saying that there was a syntagmatic question to address for which no viable answer was forthcoming. As systematic methods of producing portraits, the two arts – photography and portrait painting – could not coexist as partners. For them to set up a syntagmatic relationship would involve one of them dominating the space of portrait production, leaving the other as a sort of ‘province’ within that space. It was obvious which of the two was going to win a syntagmatic game. So the painters moved out and formed a paradigmatic equation with photography.
            In this reasoning, what becomes obvious is the militaristic streak in the syntagmatic imagination. Sircar draws attention to the fact that, in order to establish peaceful, neighbourly relations of the paradigmatic kind, good intentions are not enough. You need ingenuity as well.[1] Creativity becomes an ally in the struggle against war-mongering, against pointless conflict. One’s main adversary is not aggression from others, but one’s own triumphalism. Strength comes from triumphing over this internal adversary – controlling the desire to control others, developing one’s inner resources.
            This sounds a lot more like self-help talk than like semiotics. When did we slide into this? What will it take to bend the sword of the syntagmatic imagination into a ploughshare – call it a biaxial imagination, one that gives the two axes equal attention? Can we answer this question in terms that go beyond moralism and address semiotic issues? More generally, surely we need to be careful about this mode of discourse, neither freewheeling essay nor rigorously framed deployment of semiotic machinery?
            It turns out to be tricky to stop semiotics from stumbling into any of the pitfalls of unframed discourse, which is its never quite excludable next-door neighbour; the self-help talk mode is such a pitfall. Other than insisting on rigid frames – a useful exercise in certain types of semiotic writing – we don’t really have resources that enable us to avoid all contamination from open discourse. And we all know that insisting on such frames leads to bureaucratization of inquiry and undermines the entire basis of semiotics itself. Much of the reasoning here appeals to the reader’s willingness to take certain analogies seriously, and turns on whether this appeal leads to the reader’s intuitions converging with the author’s. In this article, we are considering issues that have to do with construing, interpreting, reading. Readers position their selves in particular stances in order to handle the effects of the text fragments they are dealing with. Choosing stances for one’s self raises questions of the kind that self-help talk also addresses, in its own way. As we explore questions arising from reading, we obviously need to touch base with Roland Barthes, whose work on the semiotics of reading goes far beyond anyone else’s contributions. On our way there, we need to stop, however, at Levinas and Weil.

3. Which sky one is reaching for

If one is going to deal with questions like how one goes about choosing to position one’s self as one reads, it pays to consider the way the dynamics of self and other is visualized, and in this context to invoke the terms 'totality' and 'infinity'. The take offered here is my own, but draws – in ways that will be obvious to readers familiar with these authors – on the resonances of these words in Levinas (1969) and on the differently configured 'gravity'/ 'grace' binary in Weil (1952/2002). I must stress at the very outset that both Levinas and Weil have architectures of their own, and that this article does not directly use any components of those architectures; hence my decision not to engage with their texts here, beyond noting that I am appealing to some resonances in their work.
             One sees oneself as a person of limited powers, able to actualize only a few of one’s goals. But one nurtures aspirations that go far beyond what one expects to be able to actualize. To aspire is always to reach for the sky. If one does not ask which sky one is reaching for, however, one is likely to fall into the traps that don’t look like traps, for they are ideology-laden and disguise themselves as 'common sense'.
As one articulates the ‘which sky’ question, one observes that what passes for a sense of infinity tends to involve fanning out skywards, horizonwards, imagining a huge crowd of people, an immense multitude of objects. The plenitude populating such a panoramic sky-screen constitutes what we shall here call a totality; it is important to resist the pressure to mischaracterize it as infinity. For the way to actually experience infinity is to gaze unguardedly at a single person, at any arbitrary person, face to face, with vulnerable openness, with zero aggressive intent, zero threat perception.
When we ordinarily think of the sky, we tend to go along with the hugeness visualization that the expression ‘the sky is the limit’ invokes, that the word ‘sky-scraper’ refers to. But that is hardly a vision of infinity; it is a vision of the totality; it distracts us from the realization that “we are so small between the stars, so large against the sky”. When we look at even a single person, when we remember what it is to look at a fellow human being, that person removes all questions of dimension and number and power, she becomes the sky for us. She becomes the infinite sky. When instead we choose to populate our sky with that everybody and everything, we find ourselves under the total sky.
I would like to suggest that the total sky is shaped by the hegemonic voice of the acquisitive, while the infinite sky, in contrast, is shaped by the counter-voice of the renunciatory – which must present itself in the ‘counter-voice’ mode because the acquisitive voice, left unchallenged, always comes out hegemonic.
Given our earlier characterization of the syntagmatic axis as aggression-laden, this reading of some themes from Levinas and Weil helps underwrite an approach to the pursuit of peace that is ‘biaxial’; such an approach pays scrupulously equal attention to the easier syntagmatic axis and the more elusive paradigmatic axis. Connecting our invocation of semiotics with our resort to Weil and Levinas involves associating the war/ peace binary with the acquisitive/ renunciatory binary. That particular move is unlikely to prove controversial. However, many readers will ask why this renunciation talk is less perilous than the slide into the self-help mode that we had to be cautious about a little earlier. What, they will wonder, is the problem with regarding the acquisitive desire as one of the cardinal and entirely wonderful traits of the human species?
            That is precisely the point of the ‘which sky’ question. To cut to the chase, my stand is that the infinite sky gives you access to yourself by enabling you to perceive your neighbour's desires as akin to your own, while the total sky fails to give you this access, or to provide any intelligible account at all of self-knowledge. To the extent that conceptualizing the infinite sky requires the renunciatory as the foundation for adult self-control on the conceptualizer’s part, it follows that the conceptual foundation for democracy – understood as a comprehensive partnership connecting all informed adult citizens willing to take full responsibility for nurturing (or otherwise dealing with) those less informed or less adult – can only be formulated from a renunciation-laden standpoint.
            To put it in bread and butter terms, physically-adult members of a corporate board or parliamentary committee who base their understanding and decisions on budgets, graphs, projections and other objects of numerical wonder are – in terms of their capacity to perceive what ‘self’ and ‘other’ are all about – teenagers at best (an emotional age of nine may turn out to be a reasonable average). Their antics are dangerous, and need to be laughed out of court by the truly responsible adults, who are not particularly numerous or well-equipped. Truly responsible adults, when they first realize their predicament, find themselves in a hopelessly beleaguered minority on this huge island of children, as in one of Milan Kundera’s dystopias (1981). They have to struggle to retain their own adulthood first. Only after gaining some confidence can they address their recalcitrant audience in an unpromising environment.
            Is it during that initial period of speaking to each other that such adults may find it appropriate to call themselves public intellectuals, addressing each other in a precarious, beleaguered space that is bound to look private to any hostile observer? Or is it when they take on their physically adult-looking neighbours (who have yet to come to their senses) that truly responsible adults may find the epithet public intellectuals useful, in the context of bringing a real public space into being, perhaps by writing fiction rather than discursive rants?
            Such tactical questions need not detain us as we go about clarifying our bearings. My ‘cutting to the chase’ was intended only to give readers a sense of where this reasoning is going, in order to help them to keep formulating their counter-thoughts as they read along. Experience shows that the acquisitive language tends to come naturally to critics of such writing; in order to meet them half-way, I shall continue to direct my remarks to readers who view the acquisitive as the indispensable basis for our understanding of human rights.
            Indeed, many commentators hold that the acquisitive instinct is a basic instinct. People have a right to be greedy. Objecting to it is as absurd as objecting to eyes or ears. Renunciation is never natural. People renounce one particular acquisitive intention only for the sake of some other acquisitive intention. Any renouncing that does not fall under this description is either a naive mistake or a cloak for some ulterior design.
            I am italicizing their syntagmatically pitched formulation, which I wish to question from a biaxial viewpoint, but I have to wait; the advocates of acquisitivism haven’t finished. They go on to say, we are not at all preaching an ‘every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost’ variant of unbridled possessive individualism. The welfare state lets me pursue my self-interest as vigorously as I wish and yet provides a perfect social safety net for my indolent or unlucky neighbours. Thus, however I may spend my day, I sleep soundly at night, for there is no call for me to worry about the needs of others. The welfare state looks after us all. The model fails only when a state goes dysfunctional; modern democracy, assisted by economists, swiftly irons out such temporary aberrations.
            For argument’s sake, I shall allow that the economists in question have proved all their theorems and can demonstrate the perfection of models of the welfare state that envisage acquisitivism alone. Even under that counterfactual, what this syntagmatic sales pitch lacks is an account of my growing into full awareness of who I am, what my responsibilities are, and what life is like for my neighbours out there on the paradigmatic axis. Feel free to imagine the vulgar economism of first approximation models giving way to corporate social responsibility of a credible kind, respectful of human rights, leveraging donor preferences to promote the growth of the key capabilities. Even in that best of all possible syntagmatic models, the road to hell is still paved by good intentions – the road to a vacuous inner life that undermines the ‘flourishing’ visualized by welfare economists and their philosophical friends.
            I take it as established, then, that attaining self-awareness is a vital human need, and that the infinite sky, under which I can truly see you, enables this need to be satisfied. In contrast, the total sky, which presides over the philosophy of the acquisitive, fatally ignores this need. Is the image of renunciation, however, too much of a fringe image to bear the weight of the binary I am pursuing? Does it evoke thoughts of extravagant personal austerity that would lead the argument astray?
            I am counting on the reader’s willingness to see that I have in mind, not a monastically attired clergyman of any denomination, but a person who cares for others. The criterion is not whether you meditate, whether you conduct your life in accord with specific doctrines, whether you eschew material pleasures. What matters is: when someone in difficulty approaches you for aid or counsel, do you lend them your ear? Do you do this willingly, on your own, without publicity? Even this characterization of the criterion misses part of the point. Imagine an extreme renunciant who lends her ear willingly, etc., but ploughs a lonely furrow and denies herself the (direct or communicative) company of other renunciants. Such behaviour not only compromises the renunciatory enterprise by injecting an element of inappropriate pride. It undermines it also by turning its back on the solidarity with others that gives the enterprise a specific kind of meaning – associated with organizational forms that characterize civil society rather than the state. It is in the context of such associations that you learn the art of being friends with fellow renunciants without seeking to control one another, an indispensable strand of the art of seriously helping those who need big time help.
            Notice the interpenetration of syntagmatic and paradigmatic considerations in this portrayal. Renunciation involves patience, a paradigmatic virtue as it emphasizes observation rather than control. You have to wait for normal processes to do what they can; you have to see if they enable everybody’s needs to be met without special effort. If you find that these processes are leaving even vital meets unsatisfied, only then must you intervene. But as a renunciant you will remember that the point of all such interventions is to satisfy needs, not to secure extras for your clients at the expense of others. We root for Oliver Twist when he asks for more because, first of all, he has been given pathologically less than he needs; secondly, Oliver doesn’t grab, he asks; thirdly, he wouldn’t dream of depriving neighbours. Grabbing more than you need, or helping others to do so, puts you back under the total sky.
            There is no time when it does not matter which sky you are reaching for.
            In order to improve our understanding of the difference between the acquisitive and the renunciatory, it pays – guess why I am choosing pay, of all verbs – to deploy our semiotic tools in order to come up with a reading of the acquisitive imagination where it can be observed in its full glory, in the United States.

4. Reading the American text

            Under explicit colonial rule by Britain and other imperial powers, the average southerner from Annam or Borneo or Bengal had to deal with the herrenvölker in a Paris, a Hague or a London as part of the overt cultural landscape of a world that accepted enslavement and colonization as legitimate practices. Thoughtful Indians therefore came up with explicit readings of Britain as a matter of course. The covert nature of the American empire and India’s unfinished business with its British ex have combined to limit the extent and intensity of Indian commentary on today’s metropolitan herrenvolk. That intensified communication and exchange between India and the United States should not have led Indians to articulate several competing views of American society is a pity. The absence of any default perspective in this domain means, however, that one is relatively free to hazard even non-standard conjectures and expect a hearing.
            Are there any immediately obvious characteristics of American society that distinguish it from other industrialized societies? Well, one can start by looking at the kind of sky Americans tend to reach for. They pay a great deal of attention to the tallest, the widest, the longest, the heaviest, or the lightest. The notion of the skyscraper and its early implementations – later disseminated by emulators – are of American origin. Their obsession with breaking records is well known, as is the centrality of the expression ‘the sky is the limit’ in their discourse. An apocryphal English father in the fifties is said to have advised his son, about to cross the Atlantic, ‘In America, when you want to buy a small toothpaste, ask for a large.’ The U.S. counterparts to a British ‘small’, ‘medium’ or ‘large’ toothpaste, of course, would be labelled as ‘economy’, ‘giant’, ‘super’.
            How does a society focused on breaking records detect when a record has been created or broken? Through mechanisms that were put in place to celebrate advances in the social technology of capitalism. Tweaking the Roman adage that justice must also be seen to be done, competitors must be seen to be competing. The Olympics and other arenas systematize the recording of achievements as a measure of maximal capabilities. Interim peace only gives you opportunities to prepare for war. Even little competitions are rehearsals for more serious drama. Competition never pauses. The city never sleeps. The symbolism of racing past others in the tabulation of recorded achievement falls within the constitutive settings of industrial capitalism and is continuous with the war machine.
            When semiotics is central to such an apparatus for warfare and for its continuation by other means, semiotic methods are needed to take one’s reading beyond this society’s self-characterization, to the point of a rooting for peace that on the face of it is not available to the American imagination. In the present intervention we are contrasting the ‘infinite sky’, associated with a biaxial semiotics, with what we see as the American ‘total sky’ wedded to an overwhelmingly syntagmatic semiotics.[2]
            One element of the reading proposed here goes back to the early decades of postcolonial American society, when its rooting for monumental achievement was less salient that it later became. I am referring to the period when Tocqueville wrote his classic account of democracy in the United States. In this account he wrote: “In the United States politics are the end and aim of education; in Europe its principal object is to fit men for private life. The interference of the citizens in public affairs is too rare an occurrence to be provided for beforehand. Upon casting a glance over society in the two hemispheres, these differences are indicated even by their external aspect. / In Europe we frequently introduce the ideas and habits of private life into public affairs; and as we pass at once from the domestic circle to the government of the state, we may frequently be heard to discuss the great interests of society in the same manner in which we converse with our friends. The Americans, on the other hand, transport the habits of public life into their manners in private; in their country, the jury is introduced into the games of schoolboys, and the parliamentary forms are observed in the order of a feast” (Tocqueville 1963: I.318).
            It is important to see that the citizen’s altruistic desire to do good to her neighbours is inflected in a distinctive way under the total sky associated with an imagination putting the state first and visualizing civil society in terms that invoke the state. To bring out just how this distinctive inflection works would require far more detail than I have space for. Perhaps a cartoonish, stylized account will do. It is as if a typical citizen in a syntagmatic society, faced with a neighbour personally requesting her help, were to feel obliged to run through a (largely unconscious) computation to determine what a flawless welfare state would have adjudicated as allowable by way of justified aid to this recipient. By this I mean not just quantitative dues, but everything that the best of all possible human welfare indices would specify by way of tangible empowerment and capacity-building. The point of my cartoon is that the person who is in a position to help feels compelled to say to someone seeking her aid, ‘We will make sure you get all the help you deserve, and I too will do my best.’
            If the discourse prevalent in your society validates your helpfulness in terms of what the institutions are supposed to provide on macroeconomic welfarist grounds, then your personal contribution stands undermined. The American imagination takes philanthropy out of your personal hands to the extent that it is able to convince you that, if you are a philanthropically minded individual, then it becomes your responsibility to take your inclination ‘seriously’, to translate it into ‘appropriate’ and ‘systematic’ action. This confines you to the total sky – and deprives you of access to the infinite sky – if this ‘seriousness’ compels you to place empathy, kindness, all ‘sentiments’, on macro-economic weighing machines that compute all outcomes with equanimity, from the noblest to the most sordid. The state, and its extensions in society, must use weighing machines because the currency of their dealings is heavy. The fascination with records and breaking them has to do with the calculations of such weight.
            The infinite sky puts you in touch with a different dimension, that of lightness, which is not an antonym of weight; it asks different questions that are unintelligible to the state. The gaze that seeks the infinite sky and therefore harbours lightness sees your interlocutor in the light of mutual acknowledgement of dignity across radical otherness. The Other whom you face is not reduced to any collection of parameter values by a validated macro-analysis. You cannot take one look at her predicament and immediately launch a struggle to secure her rights on the basis of some category labels. For you are not sure that you have, or will ever have, a full picture of her personal identity, her wants, her needs; there is always a residue of not knowing.
I highlight the word ‘immediately’, because it is important not to go overboard with this idea to the point of losing sight of the fact that forging bonds of solidarity with the Other is of course valuable. It may well be appropriate to launch a campaign on behalf of some individual that you are dealing with. In that case you must indeed do what you evidently should do – with or without fortification from macro-economic analysis and a welfare state doctrine. The point I am making is that merely focusing on what you have learnt about the Other (plus actions you undertake in order to help her) is not enough. You must also keep in view the absolute interminability of the labour of such learning (and of consequent actions) if your dealings with the Other are to continue to nourish the growth of your self-awareness. For a vivid example involving not a personal Other but a social-reality-level Other, consider Lahiri’s (2016) tryst with Italian: the book celebrates her immersion in the fact that she will never be a native speaker of this language that she loves and continues to learn.
The point is not just about humility, about knowing your limitations. It is also a matter of limits, of not rushing into a space you have not been invited into. To reiterate the main theme of this article – the total sky encourages you to put syntagmatic considerations first and to offer help in a control mode (which you may have prettified into ‘mutual control’ to announce that you are not a control freak). But the infinite sky asks you to step back and make room for paradigmatic questions, asks you to find a way of addressing the Other with full knowledge that she is not going to become your partner or team-mate at any level. In that spirit, you may learn that even half-acquaintance may suffice as a basis for certain dealings, and that this may become a matter of principle, not just of convenience.
Under the infinite sky you learn the art of directly acknowledging the Other as a fully present person. In contrast, the total sky encourages you to believe that the best way to respond to a personal request for help is to adopt the indirect, abstract approach. If you give in to that approach, you stifle the spontaneous voice of your generosity and mumble: ‘Wait, I don’t have the expertise to evaluate this request for assistance; let me get properly equipped experts to screen it for me and advise me whether and how to help this person’.
There are people who have convinced themselves that macro-economic analysis wedded to the welfare state is in principle the only valid filter through which all proposals for aid should be evaluated, and that in practice one has to make do with approximations to the assessment that an ideal version of such a state would have come up with. In their view, spontaneous generosity is merely an intuitive version of such an approximation and has no special claim on attention; it is just one more piece of input, which a rational person will not privilege over evaluations based on explicit criteria. Such persons have become unable to see a person vividly as a concrete presence: they see only a random potential client, to be screened the way an employer screens applicants for a job. By diminishing the presence of the Other, they diminish their own personal presence.
It is this choice – whether an unknown person facing you is seen as a concrete presence or as a random dot on an evaluative screen – that distinguishes life under the infinite sky from life under the total sky.
The total sky casts you as a random donor facing a random recipient and encourages you to route all transactions through the system, be it the state or the market. It is certainly okay on that logic to sometimes make a personal decision on the spur of the moment; but you must later look back at what you have done and determine whether you have truly acted in accord with the principles of the ideal state or the ideal market; you are not yourself simpliciter, and the person facing you is not that person tout court; you and your actions make sense only to the extent that you remember at all times that you are acting on the system’s behalf; and the proper way to look at your interlocutor is to imagine how the system would look at her.[3]
In contrast, the infinite sky enjoins you to respect yourself in your integrity, to acknowledge the dignity of the Other as a presence, and to place all relations of representation – such as the idea that you are acting on behalf of some system or collectivity – under your permanent scrutiny. These relations are up to you; if you find it imperative to withdraw from them at any moment, you can validly choose to walk out, and this validity does not come from imagining that you are acting on behalf of some counter-system or counter-collective.
The way these comments, purportedly about the American imagination, visualize the Self facing the Other is both too specific (tied as it is to a donor-recipient context) and too generic (implying that it does that, for all we know, the Self is an adult upper echelon WASP male). I do hope this characterization manages to give a reasonable initial idea of what I have in mind. However, by way of flagging the gap between this portrayal and the reality it points to, let me add some brief remarks about heterogeneity.
In the days of the melting pot, portrayals of the typical American assumed an adult upper echelon WASP male default. However, successive challenges from African-Americans, women, Hispanics, indigenous peoples, non-white immigrants, queer people have hardly left this stereotype intact. My take is that, after facing these challenges and tweaking some parameters, the American imagination now works with a differentiated default set of prototypical Americans. This differentiation per se, although an improvement on the oppressive recent past, nonetheless leaves the American imagination as committed as ever to the total sky, as chained as ever to the syntagmatic axis.
In this Barthes-inspired reading of the American realities, in order to avoid getting hopelessly bogged down in exegetic issues, I am invoking the work of Roland Barthes as a whole and deliberately eschewing reference to specific texts and passages. For instance, if pressed to specify what it is I am offering a reading of – the American imagination, or discourse, or social text – I will maintain that the object of inquiry here is the American doxa in the sense that Barthes attaches to this Greek word that used to mean ‘opinion’. But narrow exegetic issues of this kind need not hold up the enterprise, whose relevance will be obvious to many readers.

5. The question of friendship
            Even after the minor tweaking just carried out in connection with heterogeneity, the characterization provided here may still strike certain readers as insensitive to the facts on the ground. If average Americans are as incapable of registering a random person’s concrete presence as this portrayal makes them out to be, how can they possibly make friends with the ease that all observers acknowledge? How does one make sense of the openness and transparency of many American friendships and yet hold on to the claims made in this article?
            My first response is to say, such readers are missing the point about the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes: one’s friends are in one’s corner, which puts them on the syntagmatic axis and confirms my main point instead of weakening it. But this response is unlikely to allay the misgivings, which rest on the widespread perception that it is risky to base an analysis of America on Weil, Touraine, Levinas, Barthes – risky to pay no attention to domestic commentary. In deference to this perception, I now proceed to take on board a crucial articulation of the social phenomena of the United States: Keyes (1976), who on the basis of innumerable personal interviews concludes that the defining phase of an American biography is high school. The average citizen of this unique society, Keyes shows, never quite recovers from this experience.
A Broadway musical based on Keyes was released in 1982, speeding up the dissemination of his main point throughout the national public space. The point is simple enough. You may be an American of Russian or German or Japanese or Hungarian descent. That you count as an American is due to an authorization given to you not from the family but at school, given by fellow teenagers over your four years of high school. This holds not just for recent immigrants, but for all Americans: the assimilated immigrant is, culturally speaking, the prototypical American. Your high school peer group is your one and only culturally authorized collective high priest. American teenagers at high school learn that they are each other’s only owners, philosophers, guides. The fun part of this is making friends and influencing people. The indigestible bit is the bonding disasters. There is no exit from that fun or those disasters. The experience of high school is the American citizen’s lifelong obsession. These are the chemicals that made her who she is.
Even Europeans – who are sometimes alleged to be deaf to the distinctive melodies of America – agree that this chemistry is indeed unique. Rather than cite personal conversations with assorted Europeans, I prefer to mention Baudrillard’s (1989) characterization of American society as the last surviving tribal society. This is of course a flamboyant French reference to the primacy of puberty rituals. If sober American self-portrayal and extravagant French exclamation coincide, it should be possible to accept this account as robust and build on it.
The first thing to do as we refine the account, surely, is to reiterate the tweaking that I closed section 4 with. The salad bowl period marks an advance over the melting pot model of the high school that Keyes describes. Going beyond salad bowl issues, Muslim children have hardly had quite the same experience at high school before and after 9/11. However, the differentiated default holds here, as it did in section 4. There is a tendency in the United States to elide history and to put a certain geography first when constructing stereotypes in the name of simplicity, common sense, inclusiveness and even-handedness towards all the constituent cultures in the American mélange. Prevalent characterizations of the high school experience conform to this tendency, which Keyes plays into and reinforces.
I would argue that it is precisely this elision of history that underwrites the ease with which the average American extends commitment-free friendliness even to individuals outside the ‘team’. What high school enables the typical citizen of that society to do is to start an agreeable conversation with any random person she finds herself spending time with, and to cobble together an instant temporary friendship that leaves open all questions about the past or commitments for the future.
Now, let us contrast the total sky with the infinite sky in the context sketched so far. For this purpose we shall imagine an adult foreign graduate student FGS steeped in the culture of the infinite sky, pursuing a PhD in the United States, and hoping to achieve full mutuality of communication with her associates there. She makes friends. She watches closely how the relationships evolve, discovers the total sky/ infinite sky binary, and suffers. She keeps trying to convey to her new friends the idea that, instead of worshipping monuments wholeheartedly, one can read one’s daily life on earth as a marvellous document the way she does. But all her efforts fail.
And yet FGS finds that she cannot give up on her new friends. She admires the way American adults initiate and sustain these bonds of friendship. It is impossible for her to dismiss the value of what she sees. She concludes that the total sky does not vitiate all human projects in that culture, and that specifically their ubiquitous friendliness is a value worth cherishing that may yet counteract the weaknesses of their culture.
FGS cannot guess along what lines the dynamics might play out – in what way their capacity to sustain trust and friendship might save them from the lethal consequences of living under the total sky. However, she feels sure that what she perceives has some validity that goes beyond her particular context as a foreigner. After all, their society has been created from the perspective of immigrants. Surely the endemic indirectness of the total sky and the vividness of their personal friendships confront each other at some mysterious level? How can this confrontation not turn the tide? That the 99% are mobilizing against the 1% – surely this process is deriving some of its energies from the atmosphere of diffuse spontaneous friendliness in the public space? How else can we make sense of the positive reception of Mills (1959) in that society?
There is little doubt that American friendliness has a paradigmatic potential that may yet enable a turnaround of an unforeseen kind, which our FGS pins her hopes on. In this context one must, however, recall the unbridled syntagmatic features of the American system. These make it difficult to be optimistic in the short run. To take only one example, means of violence are disseminated freely, thanks to the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which states that “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed”. The lethal consequences of the free availability of guns are well known. Space prevents detailed commentary here, but obviously a country with such a constitutional provision legitimizes aggression in the name of the right to defence. In such a society, the syntagmatic imagination is bound to be dominant. Having said that, one must nonetheless acknowledge that paradigmatic elements in American society require more attention than they have received, and make it possible to hope, despite the Second Amendment and other forms of the prevalence of syntagmatic reason in that culture.
Specifically, where friendly relations between humans intersect with the love of animals – not just at the ubiquitous level of keeping pets and bonding with farm animals or horses, but also in the context of veganism and other expressions of solidarity with animals on a conceptual plane – the American imagination clearly reaches for the infinite sky. People are often willing to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of animals who cannot defend themselves. These affirmations of renunciation provide an important counterpoint to the overwhelming acquisitive ethos of the culture.
If it turns out to be possible to fashion semiotic resources that enable an alignment of this capacity for renunciation with the theory and practice of sustainability, then a full-blown alternative utopia associated with the infinite sky can be visualized by large numbers of people even at the exoteric level. It is at that point that those of us who root for this utopia can begin to use a widely understood political language for the task of unmasking and resisting the prevalent consumeristic utopia wedded to the syntagmatic imagination. At that juncture, public intellectuals can come into their own.
In order to get there, obviously many workers, not only in semiotics proper, will have to contribute resources. Manashi Dasgupta’s (2015) characterization of friendships as metaprojects (crucibles capable of incubating projects and defined by this capability)[4] is one example of the type of work that is called for. Another is Ganguly’s (1975) methodological highlighting of reasonableness over against excessively formalized modes of rationality. The crucial struggle that is being waged today is a struggle against semiotic militarism. The forces of peace can triumph only by meeting this adversary on its home ground of semiotics – and this means quietly demilitarizing that arena by bringing the superior strength of peace and quiet into play. The challenge can of course be met; we had better know how to meet it; the point is to understand it first.


Baudrillard, Jean. 1989. America. Tr. Chris Turner. New York: Verso.

Collett, Peter; Marsh, Peter. 1974. Patterns of public behavior: collision avoidance on a pedestrian passing. Semiotica 12:4.281-299. Repr. in T.A. Sebeok & J. Umiker-Sebeok (eds.) Nonverbal Communication, Interaction and Gestures. The Hague: Mouton, 1981. 199-217.

Dasgupta, Manashi. 2015. On Love and Friendship in the Indian Context and Sigmund Freud. Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research/ DK Printworld.

Dasgupta, Probal. 2011. Inhabiting Human Languages: The Substantivist Visualization. Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research/ Samskriti.

Dasgupta, Probal. 2016. The theater and classical India: some availability issues. Philosophy East and West 66:1.60-72.

Ganguly, Sachindra Nath. 1975. Tradition, Modernity and Development. Delhi: Macmillan.

Keyes, Ralph. 1976. Is there Life after High School? New York: Warner.

Kundera, Milan. 1981. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Tr. Aaron Asher. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. 2016. In Other Words. Tr. Ann Goldstein. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1969. Totality and Infinity. Tr. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sircar, Badal. 1983. Thiyetarer bhasha. Kolkata: Opera.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. 1963. Democracy in America. 2 vols. The Henry Reeve text, ed. by P. Bradley. New York: Knopf.

Touraine, Alain. 1972. Le communisme utopique: le mouvement de mai 1968. Paris: Seuil.

Weil, Simone. 1952/2002. Gravity and Grace. Tr. Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr. London/ New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

[1] For a fuller take in English on Sircar’s overall enterprise, cf. Dasgupta (2016).
[2] For an earlier view, more explicitly elaborated, see Dasgupta (2011).
[3] This is not an overstatement based on mediocre exponents of the American imagination. Consider the stellar J.D. Salinger, who writes, with a straight face, that to be sentimental is to love someone more than God loves them. Readers who want the exact reference will kindly reread Franny and Zooey and find the passage for themselves; forgive me for not tracking the reference down. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
[4] An anonymous reviewer has requested me to unpack the notion ‘metaproject’. Manashi Dasgupta in her book proposes that the (existential) project of living as a fully sentient being is able to flourish only in such alignment with fellow sentient beings as to make the joint incubation of projects natural. She characterizes friendships as such alignments; she suggests that it is this property of friendships that makes it difficult for infants and for very old people to make friends, even though eros per se is active at these ages as well. I am using the term ‘metaproject’ as a capsule summary of her account.