Leading By Example, or, the power of a good example

Brian Massumi suggests in the introduction to his 2002 book “Parables For The Virtual” that the most Bergsonian form of argumentation follows from an “exemplary method,” by which he means supporting an argument through an example. There are three major arguments, which, while not stated explicitly, forms the subterranean structure by which Massumi makes his case for the example: singularity, detail, and connectability.

The second two arguments follow from the first, in which Massumi proposes that examples activate a level of detail not available to other methods, more specifically, because examples are not required to fit the generalizing repeatability of usual model-building. Examples, for Massumi, are not used to abstract out principles, as in positivities that fit all cases of a particular type, but instead, contain details that would otherwise be limited out. Those details serve as the basis of the method, which Massumi suggests should be explored in order to unlock further detail. According to Massumi, the details found by the exemplary method would be singular, interactive, and divergent. The precision of those claims is illusive, however, because Massumi’s elliptical writing works to undermine syllogistic reason, often challenging the reader to understand a complex argument without either example or propositional content. Fortunately, the first author that he cites, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, provides a coherent case for the example. Massumi quotes from Agamben’s most famous book, “The Coming Community,” which he also helped translate. CC is written in Agamben’s poetic post-deconstructive style, and is split up into mini-chapters often no longer than a few paragraphs. The chapter Massumi quotes from is entitled “Example.” Example begins with the classical philosophical problem of the one and the many, as rewritten through the general and the particular. Agamben’s precise but sometimes-tedious prose outlines how language forges an antimony between a particular and a general class. Specifically, one curious effect of language is that it transforms singularities (this tree, that tree) into members of a class. The basics of this formulation follows from a rather orthodox observation made popular by structural linguistics, often described in terms of the Saussurian bar that separates the sign from the signifier, but for Agamben’s post-Kantian transcendentalism, the being of language is still different from thing in itself, which still grants singularities a separate linguistic status that he calls not “being-” (being-human, being-Communist) but “being-called-” (being-called-Communist). The example holds a unique status for Agamben, however, because it is able to span the otherwise unbridgeable chasm between general and particular. Agamben outlines how the example holds true for all cases without losing its singularity. Even though the example is treated as a real particular case, it is understood to stand for nothing in particular. The challenge for explaining the importance and character of singularities is that the argument is disseminated throughout “The Coming Community,” without being located in a single identifiable spot. Agamben outlines the argument for the example in a later text, “Homo Sacer,” which follows a more familiar path. In “Homo Sacer,” Agamben provides a careful exposition of the example in contrast to the exception. Each of the two is described according to a pair of terms, the example being an inclusive exclusion, and the exception being an exclusive inclusion. To explain the example, Agamben looks to the linguistic example, as in doing example problems in a foreign language class. Specifically, Agamben cites a linguistic performative, like a Priest’s declaration like “I now pronounce you…,” which  is a speech act that could not act without speech (necessary), and in speech alone, commits an act (sufficient). But, if the Priest were to demonstrate the speech act, like during a wedding rehearsal, what is the status of the speech? According to Agamben, it ‘stands aside’ the normal case, but is also a part of the normal case. The example is therefore excluded from the normal case, but not because it does not belong, but “because it exhibits its own belonging” (HS 20). The example is therefore what Agamben calls a paradigm, that which is “shown beside” a class to establish its own being, or: “neither universal nor particular, neither general nor individual,[but] a singularity which, showing itself as such, produces a new ontological context” (WIAP np). Agamben then goes on to contrast the example with the exception. The exception is that which functions inside a normal case while simultaneously not belonging to it. Therefore, the example and the exception demonstrate the zone of indistinguishability of each set: the example is belongs but is outside the class, and the exception is inside the class but does not belong.

Massumi is able to wrest the example from Agamben’s post-deconstructive transcendental linguistics by twisting it ever so slightly into a case for Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism. Rather than placing language at the heart of the model, as Agamben does in the linguistic Common of the coming community, Massumi uses the example as a way to explore the real. Like Agamben, Massumi argues that the power of the example does not come from its generalizability. But, rather than deriving power from being a paradigm, which Agamben argues for as a linguistic supplement in the post-Derridean sense, Massumi shows that the power of the example comes from its reference to the real. The first move Massumi makes toward this explanation, is when he transforms Agamben’s definition of the example as “inclusive exclusion” into Deleuze and Guattari’s reworking of a Kantian synthesis: “disjunctive inclusion”, which he defines as “a belonging to itself that is simultaneously an extendibility to everything else with which it might be connected (one for all, and all in itself)”, or in shorthand, “exemplification is the logical category corresponding to self-relation” (PV 18). Rather than establishing language as the basis for epistemology, as Agamben does, which would imply that the logical operation of inclusive exclusion to establish the formal conditions for thinking all possible existence, Massumi looks empirically to the chaos of the real for the real conditions of existence for things, not just for-us, as an our apprehension through reason, but the real for conditions for things for-themselves. [i’m not a philosopher, so i’m really bad at stating this clearly] Establishing formal conditions serves a limited type of change, change that is predictable and hold true for all cases within a given type. This change is not bad; in fact, it is crucial for many engineering problems like insuring the safety of a product or vehicle. But real conditions for change address potentials that are unique to each given thing, its singularity, many of them too complex to ever be shoehorned into formal logic.

The empirical method of the example functions through disjunctive inclusion because it explores the real details of things, whether virtual ideas or the actualization of one of its differentials, to test the transformations potential in a system. Most potentials of a system are unactualizable in an immediately available context, but provide the best fodder for sci-fi thought experiments or other ‘fiction,’ until the ground is ripened, sometimes to our detriment. Given the plethora of dystopias created under the guise of late capitalism, there is a certain reassurance that comes with an unactualizable example, for actualization never happens the exact same way twice. But the function of power is to extend repeatability by limiting, restricting, or simulating difference, and insures that life as we know it may progress in the image of the present for a while longer; human exploitation, brutal violence, global climate change, and all.

Agamben, The Coming Community

–. Homo Sacer

–. “What Is a Paradigm?” @ EGS, online

Massumi, Parables for the Virtual

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