May 21, 2019

Beyond “Post-Sacrificial”

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:00 am

I’ve been using the phrase “post-sacrificial culture,” generally in conjunction with the “Axial Age acquisitions,” to refer to the breakdown of the “imperative exchange” constitutive of sacrifice. Sacrifice involves an imperative exchange because the human member of the community offering the sacrifice (bringing his goat, or whatever, to the altar) is following an order issued by the deity to offer up some of the fruits provided, ultimately, by that deity; while, in exchange, the sacrifice represents a request, on the part of the one offering the sacrifice, that the deity continue providing these benefits (more goats). In a sense, our culture is not post-sacrificial, and it may be that no culture can ever be so, definitively—we engage the institutional orders around us in terms of imperative exchanges all the time, simply by assuming if we “play by the rules” we will be commensurately rewarded, and in resenting the failure of the institutional center to hold up its end of the bargain. But it’s still correct to call our culture post-sacrificial, because our “sacrifices” are figurative and not directly measurable—we speak in terms of trust, consent, contract, and so on, and keep extending those terms into areas where the ”superstitious” nature of our “faith” on institutional structures would be embarrassing. But the fact that it would be embarrassing, for most, in most situations, to say we offer up a “piece” of ourselves not so much to our boss (which would feel especially ridiculous) or even the institution, but to some “idea” of the institution, even one we don’t really “believe” in, is what makes us post-sacrificial.

But any concept with a “post” (or, for that matter, a “neo”) in it is still a placeholder, and therefore unsatisfactory. Now, we can say much more about how we have arrived, through those “Axial Age acquisitions,” at a “post-sacrificial” culture. Sacrifice is “embarrassing” because it has been discredited, and it has been discredited because the violent centralizing involved in sacrifice—we commit violence against this being that we all focus on in exchange for peace and prosperity—has been revealed as fraudulent. It’s our own mimetic desires that confer centrality on the “sacred” being, not any attribute of the being itself. And we see this because all sacrifice tends towards human sacrifice and, paradoxically, as Eric Gans shows in The End of Culture, does so the more God Himself is understood in “human” terms—that is, more as a mediator between humans than a central focus precluding the emergence of humans as centers in their own right. If the gods give us food, then we owe them food in return; if God has created us out of nothing, we owe him everything, even our firstborn. But how could even that be enough?

Human sacrifice emerges along with human hierarchy, as the first figures to make a claim to permanent centrality were sacral kings, who were no doubt often killed in manners that, with immense variation across cultures, became increasingly ritualized. The sacral king mediated between the community and the cosmos, and if that mediation went wrong sacrificing the king would restore it; at a certain point it would make sense to regularize the oscillation between effective and ineffective mediation. Divine kings introduced layers of bureaucratic mediation between themselves and those they ruled, so they themselves could no longer be sacrificed. But divine kings eventually established justice systems to deal with disputes between the new centers inevitably created within those new “layers” between themselves and the people. Regularized forms of compensation are established. Large scale imperative exchanges are established between the divine king and those situated in the various layers, all of whom bring tributes to the divine king who has, of course, provided his people with everything. With a justice system, injustice becomes a possibility; if injustice becomes a possibility, it is also possible for the system as a whole, in failing to remedy that injustice, to itself be unjust. And its unjust nature could be concentrated in a singular figure, a victim who has become meaningful in a new way, by being victimized precisely as a result of revealing systemic injustice. The sacrifice of such a victim in order to resolve some crisis would take on the ritual sacrificial forms but would be impossible to “contain” within those forms. This process would set in motion the erosion of sacrificial forms, and of the imperative exchange they institute.

So, the divine king inches ever closer to demanding a “total” gift or sacrifice, but can only do so in terms that are so monstrous that the more civilized regions of the system make it possible to see those terms as an indictment of divine kinship itself. From here, those in a position to negotiate in some way with the divine center can go in one of two directions: toward cynicism and nihilism, on the one hand; or, towards another form of “total donation” on the other. Cynicism and nihilism can only be a local phenomenon indulged in by the privileged. The new kind of total donation is to a new kind of center, which cannot be embodied in a central figure, and certainly not a central ruler—this is a center that commands a refusal to engage in the discredited forms of violent centralizing. A genuinely and completely post-sacrificial center would be devoted to propagating and embodying, or signifying, this command. Very few do so wholly, but it is only a certain number, which we couldn’t determine in advance, which would necessary to exemplify the limits of sacrifice and preventing the social order from being engulfed in it.

So, if we don’t want to call this order “post-sacrificial,” what should we call it? Part of the difficulty is that liberalism “launders” sacrificial imperative exchanges through a post-sacrificial order. Needless to say, scapegoating goes on constantly within a liberal order—much of it remains symbolic, which raises a question: are we irredeemable scapegoaters, so the best we can do is make scapegoating more symbolic, and less violent?; or does a liberal democratic system predicated upon symbolic scapegoating prevent us from more decisively marginalizing scapegoating? If the latter is the case, the only way of creating an order that would be more than merely “post-sacrificial” would be the establishment of an order we might call “charismatic autocracy.” “Charismatic” in Philip Rieff’s “graceful” sense of charisma as deferral in obedience to an absolute imperative (in our terms, the imperative to defer violent centralizing). “Autocracy,” meanwhile, is essential, because as long as we have hierarchical societies, someone will be at the center, and the only way to avoid constant accusations of illegitimate usurpations of the center and hidden powers behind the temporary occupant of the center would be to place the occupant of the center beyond any external criteria of “legitimacy.” That would represent a radical curtailment of sacrificial logics, because the desire to replace the figure at the center is the most “bad faith” desire possible because it self-evidently represents an attempt to be closer to the center oneself. A general renunciation of that desire would represent a quantum leap in the deferral power of all members of the social order. The argument for such an order would be predicated upon the assumption, for which we could find a wealth of practical examples, that symbolic scapegoating is really just a “gateway drug” prepping us for the real thing. The “charismatic” component of the “autocracy,” then, is less a quality possessed by than conferred upon the autocrat, who is himself in fact desacralized and represents nothing more than the need that someone occupy the center. (This doesn’t mean a social order wouldn’t want, and couldn’t arrange for, the best possible person to occupy the position—it just means that such arrangements must themselves be bound up with the irreducibility of the central authority.)

In grammatical terms, “charismatic autocracy” involves a movement past “imperative exchange” to “interrogative imperativity.” Under the regime of imperative exchange, declarative culture is ultimately a kind of scorekeeping, trying to figure out the respective “values” that are being exchanged. To this day, most discussions of morality take this form. But once the imperative is to resist or defer imperative exchanges, an interrogative, a question, is introduced explicitly into the proceedings. Not the question, “how much is this worth,” which is never a real question because it’s just a way of accommodating oneself to the powers framing the existing order; rather, the question is, what violent centralizing lies at the end of this imperative exchange? All the linguistic means by which you construct yourself as a center then become open to “interrogation,” as either demands for a better “deal” or “intimations” of the creation of new centers that would render any deal irrelevant. Only the demand for this state of questioning can satisfy the command for a total donation.

Within the imperative exchange, declaratives essentially involve haggling over prices—what one owes the gods/institutions, what they owe us, and, further down, what we owe to each other, whether in market terms or in terms of honor and kinship. Within interrogative imperativity, declaratives take on a far wider scope, that of converting possible (and impossible) imperative exchanges into a rule or constraint for deferring “analogous” imperative exchanges. The first question, rather than, “how do we get what we’re owed,” becomes more like, “what makes you think obligations can be calculated?” And then an inquiry is opened up into all the different ways people can imagined they’re owed this or that—and once the strict terms of obligation have been displaced many more such possibilities become imaginable. All the mythical and ritual imperatives you are obeying to imagine each and every one of them become evident. Narratives accordingly shift from telling of the spiraling out of control of one imperative economy until it leads to a reset, to putting all imperative economies in question, exposing the imbalance in all presumed balances.

The most powerful way of doing this is originary satire, which involves turning every threshold and boundary into a narrative wherein figures on both sides of the boundary or threshold turn into each other, so that the terms of some expected imperative exchange are reversed. That is, the “vocation” or telos of the sentence is represent other scenes within the scene of composing and hearing/reading the sentence itself. Everything grammar does—tense, mood, aspect, etc.—it does in order to articulate relationships between the scene of utterance and the other scene(s) it refers/defers to. In that case, all these boundaries and thresholds are themselves materials for originary satire: the relation between present and past, between a continual and a completed action, between possible and actual are all abstracted and re-embedded in narratives. It’s just as easy to say we spoke with each other a thousand years ago as it is to say we spoke with each other yesterday; that we are in the middle of doing something that’s been going on for decades and is further metastasizing even as we speak as it is to mention where we are right now; something that is unbelievably unlikely can be set alongside something that seems obvious; linguistically, you could be saying what I think as easily as I can. Originary satire targets chunks of language, stereotypical sentence types, which tend to harden into the marshalling of evidence for imperative exchanges, for their beneficial or inevitable nature—i.e., sentences that supplement imperative exchanges, rather than extracting samples of language from them so as to remind us that language is always received on a scene. In simpler terms, our expectations of one another rest on the bedrock of imperative exchanges, and the purpose of disciplinary spaces aimed at satirizing those expectations is so that we can see them, ultimately in order to construct charismatic and autocratic modes of interaction requiring more “input” into the construction of expectations. In truth, this is the most realistic use of language, because we are always, still, on the originary scene, which can never “close.”

The concept of “interrogative imperativity” makes it possible to pose more explicitly a question that has been implicit in my earlier discussions of literacy as a kind of supplementary originary scene: why is the scene of classical prose objectionable, or worth exposing? Because it fulfills one imperative of the declarative (to defer imperatives by “absenting” the demanded object) by renouncing the other imperative of the declarative—to articulate other scenes with the scene of language itself. This means that the literate declarative scene can only keep reiterating and justifying its own supplementations (again, all the “beliefs,” “assumptions,” “claims,” “suggestions,” “implications,” etc.) so as to sustain the unitary prose scene—it must systematically obfuscate the declarative’s grounding in the ostensive-imperative world. Classical prose and the “classic” disciplines are interested in making beliefs, assumptions, etc., unequivocal, that is, used the same way by everyone—for this reason, they cannot construct, or even imagine, the possible ostensives and imperatives that would come before any “belief” or “assumption.” Originary writing, in that case, restores this grounding, but not, of course, by pretending the literacy revolution never happened. Rather it takes the nominalizations constructed by classic prose as names which we can apply beyond their restriction, imposed by classic prose, to the unitary scene—most directly, by applying them to the disciplinary iterations of classic prose itself. So, originary writing obeys an imperative from the center discovered/invented by the nominalizations of classic prose and the disciplines. That imperative is to generate more potential ostensives and what these ostensives do is name sites of emergent dangerous violent centralization, as early on in their onset as possible. Some nominalizations will end up being genuine names for practices of advanced deferral; some will turn out to have been incitements toward violent centralization—the work of the disciplinary space is to iterate these nominalizations/names so as to discover/expose which is which (or to detour them to new uses).

When we study “reality,” that is, what we are doing is inventing and deploying concepts enabling us to detect potential sites of mimetic contagious outbreak. We can do this because of the cognitive consequences of literacy, which parallel and contribute to the discrediting of sacrifice. But classical prose and its metaphysical superstructure just contain and normalize sacrifice by classifying and ordering the markings of the potential victim rather than relying on the spontaneous crisis. Still, it is only through that prose and those superstructures that we can generate the terms of a charismatic autocracy. The supplementary concepts used to simulate a shared scene for writer and reader can be turned into means for generating new scenes of origin of deferred scapegoating. If you take a concept out of its context so as to conceptualize the context itself you create a disciplinary space within that context—that disciplinary space will either reveal that the discipline (the “context”) is too bound to its unitary scene to generate further potential ostensives, or recover and prolong the origin of the discipline/context in a recontextualized ostensive.

May 14, 2019

The Paradoxical Telos of the Aesthetic

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:11 am

The origin of the aesthetic lies in the oscillation of the participant on the originary scene’s attention between the sign (the aborted gesture of appropriation) put forth by the other, on the one hand, and the central object, on the other. The sign barring access to the object enhances the desirability of that object, while the object, lacking meaning without the sign, directs the attention back to the “well formed” sign. So, wherein lies the aesthetic, then? In the object, which is turned into something like an image of itself; or, in the sign, which presents deferral as an attractive model, and constitutes the first body image? It must be in the oscillation itself—in some object of desire as seen through the gesture, which is to say the constitution of the scene, which makes it an “formal” rather than “material” object. So, historically, works of art have mostly been of potentially desirable, or even potentially repellent, things in the world, rather than (directly) of the others who mediate our relation to it—but the work of art presents this object as so mediated—i.e., as socially protected and inaccessible in some way, as opposed to the object it might be representing.


Eric Gans speaks of the history of aesthetics as the history of the incorporation of the scene of representation within the work of art itself. This history commences once aesthetics is distinguished from ritual. So, the earliest secular artworks, like Greek tragedy, do not represent the scene of representation at all—in a manner minimally (but very importantly) distinguished from ritual, the audience participates in the resentment toward the central figure, a resentment that is “purged” by identification with that figure’s suffering. What interests me here is that art, as an immersive experience is, like ritual, institutionally separated from the rest of life. This is because the social hierarchy that makes one, but not others, of intrinsic interest, is taken for granted. Once other centers emerge in a post-sacrificial order, the work of art must include peripheral figures within the work, even if the focus remains, as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, on the “Big Men.” This involves obvious forms of self-references like the play-within-the-play, but also figures and scenes within the play (like plebeians expressing resentment towards their superiors) that comment on the events involving the Big Men.


I think we can see this as a broader process of undoing the ontological separation between the work of art and the social world of the audience experiencing it. Once the voices of those similar to the audience are represented within the play, why not the audience itself? Why shouldn’t the participation of the audience be the play? It may be considered an astonishing testament to the institutional power of artistic representation that not only did it take so long for the idea to emerge that the creative primacy of the artist is ultimately a mere adjunct to the experience of the “recipient,” but that this idea has still not moved much beyond the artistic “avant-garde” margins to more mainstream or officially sanctioned works. The pleasure of transcending resentment by subordinating ourselves to the “domination” of the artist is certainly part of the resistance to an aesthetics that would be nothing more than minimal shifts in attention producing maximum oscillation between the created scene and other scenes.


The broader problem, though, is that trying to undo the life/art boundary requires that the practices of “life” that resist participation in “art” must be represented; and those artistic conventions that “segregate” the audience from the work must also be represented. Otherwise, how would we know we were transgressing a boundary? But these must be critical representations, of conventional “complacency” that wishes to be “spoon-fed” artistic pleasure, on the one hand, and traditions of representation that “condescend” to and “manipulate” a “passive” audience. Taking on the art/life boundary is asymmetrical warfare, i.e., terrorism, which is always snuffed out in the end. This has always been the dilemma of the avant-garde which always, amusingly enough, saw itself as bringing art to the “people.” Even with much more pacific and patient approaches, moves towards abolishing the art/life boundary will always involve moves that reconstitute it.


That just means, though, that this paradoxical relation between the institutionalized scene of art and the other scenes that art scene must itself stage would be transferred to the domain of everyday practices. The paradoxical telos of the aesthetic is to make all of life aesthetic. Or, rather, since all of our practices already have an aesthetic dimension, this telos is to open up “everyday life” to artistic creativity. The romantic and modernist utopian vision was that everyone would become an artist, once freed of inhibiting conventions; an absolutist approach, more modest, is that everyone would take an interest in noticing and enhancing the aesthetic dimension of those conventions. It follows from the formalist maxim that all relations of power and authority be made explicit and named that the norms and conventions governing all areas of life would likewise be made explicit and named, and naming is best embedded in a memorable act—and, making acts memorable is part of what art is for.


Such daily aesthetic activity would be intensely interactive: just like on the originary scene itself, we would all be imitating and “inflecting” one another’s signs. Now, if the aesthetic includes the oscillation between sign and object, the recognition of the formality of the sign (which is to say, its iterability and therefore imitability) must take place on the periphery itself, horizontally between the participants on the scene. If we ask, how would the sign “coalesce” into a final shape in the reciprocal gazes cast around on the scene, I think the answer is that it would emerge out of another oscillation which each participant would see in the others: an oscillation between vulnerability and threat. The tension between these opposing attitudes on the scene is what would paralyze everyone sufficiently to arrest the progress towards the central object. This pre-aesthetic oscillation is what would break down the pecking order and require some new means of preventing conflict.


This pre-representation of the other as equally and alternately vulnerable and threatening is what I have called “originary satire,” and posited as the initial moment of the aesthetic. Think of what would be involved in representing everyone this way—in drawing out everything monstrous, dangerous, vicious and menacing about them, while simultaneously finding everything pathetic, impotent, desperate and cowardly. Some rather remarkable, if ultimately static, characterizations would be possible, especially since presenting oneself as a threat can be seen as a way of concealing or compensating for vulnerability, while at times there can be nothing more threatening than a vulnerable, “cornered” animal. If we all saw each other exclusively like this, human life together would be impossible, and an art work that stopped at this pre-moral satire would be incapable of any real closure—I wonder if that is why Wyndham Lewis’s satires often seem awkward, somewhat arbitrary and unfinished, as he claimed to be aiming at such a non-moral satire. So, aesthetic practice must proceed from what is really the most egalitarian practice of representation imaginable back to the center, and the “asymmetry” of placing someone or something at the center and projecting the oscillation of threat and vulnerability onto that individual. Eventually, the figure’s vulnerability is concentrated in high culture, and its threatening character in popular, and then mass, culture where we identify, as Gans says somewhere, with one or a few good guys killing lots of bad guys.


But originary satire would need to become part of the telos of the aesthetic in the kind of formalist integration of art into life I proposed above. It takes very little to frame another as vulnerable or threatening—in fact, we do it all the time, when we calculate advantages and try to neutralize the aggression of others. Representations in daily life that construct the oscillation between the two would institute a genuine model of deferral, though. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” and “what is hateful to you do not unto another” were revolutionary moral advances at the time of their invention, but if you look at them took carefully they are thin, inconsistent, and capable of all kinds of cynical applications. What if others like what is hateful to me? I suppose we could move to the meta level and say, well, in that case, treat the maxim in a more complex manner and figure out is analogous, for the other, to what is hateful to you. At that point, though, we need another maxim. “When you see the other as threatening, imagine how he might be vulnerable; when he seems vulnerable, look for what might make him a threat” would be a much better source of moral reflection, as it would enable us to identify the role we play in constituting the other as victim or victimizer.


If originary satire is to provide our preliminary aesthetic framing of the other, we would then construct ourselves and others as centers so as to elicit signs of threat and vulnerability in the other, and continue our construction of these modes of centeredness so as to have what is threatening and vulnerable in us “match” that which we find in others. The other might be threatening physically, emotionally, or intellectually, which means that I present a vulnerability to that particular threat along with a threat of my targeting what I perceive as the other’s vulnerability, should he or she in fact prove a threat. It’s in both sides mutual interest to proceed in this way, which preserves the symmetry needed for interaction along with the difference needed for the generation of new signs. It would be a learning process, involving trial and error and constant revision. As we proceed in our interaction, we build trust by coming to constitute one another’s centrality primarily in terms of the other’s vulnerability, and to satirize one another less. Relapses are always possible, of course. (By the way, I don’t see this reciprocity exclusively in terms of modern social orders—I think that egalitarian hunting and gathering communities are probably extremely satirical in their dealings with each other.)


The aesthetic practice of everyday life involves, to use that phrase from Gans’s The Origin of Language, “lowering the threshold of significance.” We can always uncover new layers of threateningness and vulnerability, and potential layers, hypothetical layers, and so on. The aesthetic practices of everyday life would provide representations with at least a trace of this pre-aesthetic representation, resolving the oscillation into a center based on one pole or the other—resolving the oscillation this way more or less, depending upon how much originary satire can be borne in a given setting. The practice of non-moral satire, which aims at an elemental humanness, not simply to hurt and ridicule the other (because, if done right, the practitioner doesn’t escape either), but to represent the most basic materials of any moral order, would be an extremely important thing to teach children at an early age. It would discipline some of the cruelty and terrors to which children are liable and vulnerable; even more important, it would inoculate them strongly against taking their resentments in a socially transformative direction, since bred into them would be the knowledge that these human fundaments can’t be transformed.


The relation between “art” and “life,” then, would be bridged by the reciprocal satire of artist and audience. Any scene becomes an artistic scene insofar as it includes another scene as audience and co-creator, and which turns the artist into a sometime spectator as well—in the end, maybe we can’t tell the difference between one and the other, leaving us with pure oscillation. Social media and “meme-ing” already enact this kind of satirical oscillation, as bits and pieces of language are constantly taken out of their context and used to create other contexts in which anyone might have uttered those words. Imagine B, C, D, E and so on saying this X which A just said—this is an infinitely replicable form, which reveals something threatening/vulnerable about those we can’t imagine saying just as much as it does about those we can. Of course, the lack of any need for start-up funding is crucial here; and, of course, this also makes the “memers” highly vulnerable to the vagaries of leftist political ratcheting within the various platforms. But the “dial” on boundary abolishing originary satire can be turned up or down. If we think about artistic practices as shaping cultural participants, providing them with language and making them better language learners within the disciplines, originary satire should provide us with ways of thinking about dissemination and infiltration, which requires working just below the threshold at which the cultural censors are programmed to detect transgression.

May 7, 2019

The Event of Technology

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:34 am

Insofar as power is desacralized, there is nothing but mutually hostile “interests” engaged in struggle over the decaying corpse of the social body; at the same time, power is never genuinely desacralized, because as soon as the sacred center is punctured, mythicized centers like “the common good,” “the voice of the people,” “Constitution,” “rule of law,” and, eventually, “GDP” are set up as masks of what everyone must assume is there—an unquestioned authority rooted in a singular origin. These mythicized centers are intrinsically arbitrary and divisive, though, which means they must eventually escalate hostilities into some “total” form.

Desacralization of power, though, is possible because there is a difference between the ritual center and activities engaged in outside the center. In the earliest human communities, we can assume that in activities apart from the ritual center nothing at all changed, and the ritual center reproduced as precisely as possible the originary event. But the sign deployed on the originary scene, along with the constraining structure of ritual, would be extended to other activities; at the same time, linguistic development towards the declarative would involve the attribution of actions to (“mythical”) occupants of the center. The mythical interpretations of ritual would be drawn from the far less interesting but nevertheless determinative actions outside the central aura and be converted into actions modeling behaviors for the community. Out in the field, hunters battle their prey; on the narrativized ritual scene, the sacred beast gives life to the group.

As social cooperation increases, stories of the origin of each new mode of cooperation would be “heard” or derived from the center—it would probably be the case that you couldn’t do or create something new without attributing the discovery to a mythical agent. You would in turn be obliged to that mythical agent, and would give to it some part of the fruits of your labor, which in turn would be part of the individual’s contribution to the center for the entire community. The gift the god has given you comes with an imperative: in one form or another, that imperative would be to use it in such a way as to honor the donor. In return, the individual issues an imperative to the mythical being: a prayer, requesting aid in successfully using the skill or implement. All the implements of work and war would be created within this frame, of what I have been calling an “imperative exchange.”

The implements themselves, their parts, and the implements used to produce the implements, are themselves all part of this imperative exchange. This is to say there is a “magical” component to the process: ritual words and gestures must be applied to all acts involving production and use, and instances of successful or failed use would implicate the implements themselves, which don’t simply break, and aren’t simply poorly used, but refuse, for reasons that may be more or less formulated, to follow the commands given them. In a certain sense we could say that, of course, an early human smoothing out his spear knows that this has to be done so that it can fly straight and fast when thrown, but his way of thinking about it will be framed completely in terms of being in harmony with all the agencies of the surrounding world. Such processes become institutionalized, and to craft some item in a way that is not traditionally prescribed and monitored by the upholders of that tradition would also be unthinkable.

So, the question is, how did it become possible for “technology” to emerge—that is, production conducted outside of these forms, in accord with the logic of continually reducing the elements of one process to another set of elements produced by another process? I think that the answer must be: when it becomes possible to see other human being as implements. The divine kings, commanding hundreds of thousands, even millions, in their slave war and labor armies, would first get a view of all these individuals as “parts” of a whole that might be more than the sum of its parts. Some could be added; some subtracted; some moved over here; some over there. If some worked harder, the possibility of combining all the better workers would come to mind; if workers or soldiers improvised and found some new way of cooperating with each other, that could be remembered and reproduced. This is already a kind of technology.

The Axial Age acquisitions made it increasingly difficult to levy these vast, sacrificial, masses. So, in the European middle ages, while there was steady technical development, and some remarkable feats of engineering and architecture, such development never exceeded the limits set by existing corporate and authority relations. The masses confronted in the New World and, especially, those flowing into the cities from the farmers enclosed out of their land must have ignited a new technological imagination. For quite a while, the development of machinery seemed to track pretty closely intensifications in the division of labor, with each laborer being given increasingly simpler tasks within an increasingly complex process. If automation has now itself become an autonomous process, it is because men were first automated. Eventually, of course, technology came to alleviate and eliminate human labor, but in the process the disciplines, focused on both technological and human resources, became the main drivers of social development. The human sciences, which took over from theology and philosophy, treat humans in technological terms, as composed of parts that work together in ways that can be studied and modified. Even attempts to “humanize” disciplines like psychology reduce people to set of interchangeable and predictable clichés.

The disciplines naturally think they should run the government which, after all, is just another technology. And whatever claims the government might make on its own behalf, like fulfilling the “popular will,” are best left to the disciplines, upon whom the government would anyway be dependent in measuring such things. The emergence of data and algorithm driven, all-intrusive social media which more and more people simply can’t live without is a logical extension of this process, as is the elimination of millions of jobs through new modes of automation. But desacralized technology, like desacralized power, provides a frame within which ultimately unlimited struggles ensue. Indeed, technology is the dominant form of power. If technology presents itself to us as an enormous system of interlocking imperatives which provides a very precise slot for us to insert our own imperatives, who or what is that the center? What ostensive sign generates the system of imperatives?

Technology is completely bound up with the specific forms the centralization of power takes in the wake of the desacralization of power. It is part of the same furious whirlpool of decentralization, as old forms of power, predicated upon earlier forms of technology, are broken up, and then recentralization, as new forms of power exploit the new technologies to remove mediating power centers in zeroing in on each individual. In that case, the commands of the center are mediated technologically, which is to say through our self-centerings as both objects of technological manipulations and imaginings and subjects becoming signs of the algorithmic paradoxes: our choice here is to become either predictable and unreliable, or unpredictable and reliable. In this way, we situate ourselves at the origin of the technological event, and model forms of power that will advance participation in the reinscription of technological markings upon us.

The telos of technology, then, is to make technologically produced human interactions into models for further analysis of practices into networks of sub-practices, out of which new practices are synthesized. In the process, the cultural work of deferral becomes increasingly technological—this means that we will think more in terms of deferring possible conflicts in advance, in making them unthinkable and impossible, rather than intervening crudely after the fact. We would work on turning binaries into aggregated probabilities, and making those aggregated probabilities capable of expression in language—this would be a source of important artistic and pedagogical projects. It would be as if we were producing futurity by continuing to work on the originary scene itself—in, say, settling “in advance” some dispute between friends, a particular wrinkle in the fluctuations of aborted gestures on the scene is revealed—the scene, one can now see, would only have cohered if one member had shaped his sign of deferral while positioning himself just so in relation to his neighbor and the center.

What about all the moral and ethical questions bound up with technology—gene manipulation, increasingly destructive weapons, pharmaceutical interventions into behaviors, deficiencies and capabilities that were once within the normal range but now, at a higher resolution, seem to call for remediation, etc.? Behind all these anxieties is the fading away of a sense of the human that was formed logocentrically, which is to say through the assimilation of the literate subject to the scene of speech, in which all are present to each other, and intentions are inseparable from signs. Humanism is a degenerate form of the Axial Age acquisitions. But this is not to say that our telos as technological beings is simply to go full speed ahead on all counts. We need a new way to think about these things, one that doesn’t rely on what are ultimately historically bound feelings of defilement. There is a human origin, and origins that iterate that origin, but no human nature. The event of technology, in which we become, collectively, models of further interventions that will in-form us, is itself originary.

Some of those moral and ethical questions are not real questions, relying on dumbed down or falsified versions of actual or possible scientific developments. The answers to those of them that are real questions will depend upon the state of the disciplines. Only within disciplinary spaces will it be possible to ask whether a proposed innovation or line of inquiry, i.e., some proposed new power, will have commensurate responsibilities assigned to it. Only in properly composed disciplines can these questions be raised free of scapegoating pressures demanding remediation to enjoy new “freedoms” or to avoid some form of ostracism. Anthropologically grounded disciplines would have to work to make new innovations and inquiries consistent with the basic terms of social coherence, while using new possibilities to continue studying those terms; and then we would have to assume open channels between the disciplines and central authority. There is even a place for “letting the market decide,” as long as we keep in mind what the “market” is: what people without direct authority for maintaining the social center do with knowledge, information and skills when they are being protected and bounded but not directly supervised by such authorities. Supervision can be relaxed and tightened for various purposes, and one of the purposes for relaxation is certainly to see what intelligent and talented people can do when encouraged to engage in skunkworks. In this case, as in all cases, the ultimate test for the reception of any novelty would be whether it helps sustain the pyramid of command starting from the central authority, and even contributes to ensuring the continuity of that authority from ruler to ruler. And the disciplines will accordingly, make themselves over into articulations of practices refined by the latest divisions in labor that study the diverse forms of human interaction for models of technological transformation—in the process establishing meta-practices for representing this dialectic in a way intelligible to central authority.

April 30, 2019

Moebius Strip

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:05 am

At one time I set myself the task of generating a discourse on social reality completely in terms of the originary hypothesis—that is, without any supplementations or borrowings from other social theories, disciplines or everyday discourse; or, at any rate, if such borrowings were to be made, the borrowed or supplementing terms must be shown to be fully convertible into GA, with the use of external terms to be a mere matter of convenience. This line of thinking led me away from the more spatial and “geometrical” vocabulary of GA—center/margin, vertical/horizontal, etc.—as well the more anthropological vocabulary—desire, resentment, transcendence—and towards grammar: ostensive, imperative, interrogative, declarative. This seems to me the most rigorous approach: from within the other vocabularies, there is no way of speaking of grammatical relations, so that the relations between, say, the imperative and declarative (as modes of culture), go unexplored and these seminal concepts remain stunted. Meanwhile, within the grammatical vocabulary, all the other terms can be assimilated: we can speak, and more precisely, albeit in more roundabout ways, about the relation between center and margin in terms, for example, of imperatives derived from ostensives; and about desire and resentment in terms of the “same” ostensive on different scenes and imperatives that cannot be obeyed.

Eventually, I found that I had to make one exception to the exclusivity of the grammatical vocabulary, and that was the concept of the “center.” The concept of “attention” has already to be entered into grammatical discourse, because some minimal mention of the mode of being capable of using these signs is necessary even to speak of the signs, and there’s no way of speaking about “attention” other than through some center thereof. From ostensives through imperatives and declaratives we have an increasingly complex reciprocal relation with the center. And, of course, once we admit the center, we also bring in “scene” and with it the entirety of the spatial and anthropological categories. Of course, my purpose was to enrich, not impoverish GA, so I have no objection to the re-emergence of these categories in a new frame. If the spatial and categorical terms are now in a dialectical relation with the grammatical terms, they undergo a kind of “askesis” themselves, relying less of inherited and intuitive uses and more on their commensurability with a grammatical analysis.

The work of internalizing all discourse within the grammatical categories is paralleled by the work of internalizing all discourse within scenic categories. If, for example, the meaning of a sentence or discourse is the deferral, conversion and re-institution of a particular ostensive-imperative field, then the constitution of a scene involves making simultaneous the signs of the previous and surrounding scenes within that scene itself. A scene is itself comprised of wholly scenic materials. The center and periphery of one scene have been transported or transposed and, of course, transformed in the process, from other scenes; desire and resentment involve a misalignment of scenes, or the differing locations of the same center on different scenes—coming from being the center of one scene to the margin of another means that the “same” ostensives won’t work on the new scene, leading one to “desire” their previous or remembered transparency; while the imperatives fulfilled seamlessly on the previous scene are overridden by other imperatives, or simply bereft of “objects,” on this new scene.

It then becomes possible to speak of the source of the “imaginary,” in its constitutive as well as its illusory forms, as the “supplementing” of a newly constituted scene with the simultaneity of all the other scenes it is comprised of. On the originary scene itself, what was no doubt a fluctuation of a series of awkward and uneven gestures around a center becomes representable or iterable in the ritual form in which it is repeated afterward, in which everyone issues the gesture simultaneously and identically. This is then the way the scene is remembered. (Notice how we can now bring in new terms from “surrounding” vocabularies, like “memory,” “imagination,” “error” and so on as specifically scenic concepts—this is how we “interface” with more traditional discourses). In the same way, when we act as if everyone on the scene were fully present on that scene, we give the scene a memorable form while effacing the constitution of the scene, which necessarily took place through the articulation of elements extended and differentiated from other scenes. We could put this in simple terms: consider all the projecting you have to do in order to make sense of what anyone else is doing, even on the most familiar scenes—you must assume motives of others’ behaviors and in doing so take as given various psychological or phenomenological concepts that enable you to identify and “verify” those motivations. You assume, that is, that the person is behaving “like” that person has behaved before in “similar” situations, and “like” other people, “comparable” to this individual in “relevant” ways, have themselves behaved in other “similar” situations. Anything that can’t be familiarized is either “interpreted” in such a way as to render it compatible (“he didn’t quite understand what I was asking him…”) or pathologized (“he’s weird,” or “he’s not himself today”).

The other way of engaging a scene is to make more explicit your own and everyone else’s constitution of the scene and attending to the way in which each presents himself as a center is a selection and articulation of modes of centering from other scenes. And what is selected is selected so as to maximize whatever center holds this scene together. If we assume the presence of the scene, we maximize the centeredness of the participants at the expense of the scenic center. If we constitute the simultaneity of the scene, we minimize the participants in the name of maximizing the scenic center. Each of us is nothing but the semiotic capacities we are able to marshal so as to contribute to bringing the center bringing us here into view. The problem here is that the semiotic capacities most demanded by the scene might wreak havoc, for the participants, with the modes of centrality that sustain them elsewhere. In other words, it can strip them down—nothing they’ve done anywhere else really counts, except insofar as it provided the attentionalities demanded here. You have to love the center of the scene to want to make this “exchange.” There is usually something more comforting in seeing the scene you are on, not as an opportunity to shed yourself of the “badges” of former scenes, but as a compulsion to engage in the familiar contest of competing centralities.

We can get at this from a different angle. It is only a residue of the belief that words have magical powers that leads us to assume that the same word used on different occasions means the same thing; or is, in fact the “same” word. As I suggested in a previous post, all we can ultimately care about is whether the sign (and by extension, the entire semiotic system) remains the same sign across different uses. One way of reassuring oneself of this is to rely on an official meaning and attack all deviant uses; the way to ensure oneself of the sameness of the sign, though, is to distinguish its use on one scene from its use on all other scenes in such a way as to direct everyone’s attention in a way that situates the sign onthisscene. For those assuming presence, the sign is the sign is the sign—any divergences are due to inattention or mal-intention. For those constituting simultaneity, the sign is different from these other previous uses of the sign in all of these different ways, because those of us on this scene are distinguished from those constituting all those other scenes in all those different ways. The point here is not to criticize others for not sufficiently differentiating the scene on which they “sign” from other scenes but to go ahead and introduce a differentiation.

If we go ahead and differentiate amongst the constitutive elements of the present scene, we will do so grammatically: ostensives put forward on one scene have been transmitted to another scene; imperatives issued on one scene are outstanding and yet to be fulfilled on another; the ostensives and imperatives that had been effaced or disavowed by the declaratives on some previous scene emerge on a later one when their declarative force weakens. Now, once we start articulating these speech forms on a given scene, and ask ourselves what imperative we are following, and how might follow it further up to its source, or extending it further to the point where it could be formed as a question to generate new sample declaratives, the differentiation between scenes disappears from our scene of inquiry. We are simply on and in our present scene. But if we have to ask why someone continues to try and obey an imperative with no “correlate” on the scene we are thrown back into the problem of introducing scenic differentiations. The differing vocabularies are both incommensurable and transition into each other. Hence the “moebius strip” of the title of this post—if you follow one vocabulary to the end it “obverts” into the other, complementary but “indigestible” one.

It’s possible to think about the relation between the spatial and anthropological, on the one hand, and grammatical, on the other hand, concepts, analogously to distinctions between esoteric and exoteric and emic and etic. The “method” of scenic differentiation is more suited to a traditional social scientific analysis than the grammatical one, while the grammatical approach “implicates” one—what imperative are you following now, as you do what you are doing? On the other hand, the grammatical “method” could in principle enable the construction of a far more intricate and penetrating analysis of events than the scenic differentiation approach—it would be the only way of approaching the immense complexity of Peirce’s projected (but rarely, if ever, conducted) semiotic analyses, meant to include all forms of knowledge and all practices of inquiry. And it is just as easy to imagine asking someone, how did you come to be on this scene, given the way you are signifying on it? Where the moebius strip obverts itself is the center, both the center of whatever scene we construct as our site of inquiry and the center of the scene upon which we conduct the inquiry. The most objective analysis reaches its end when we can say, on the scene we construct analytically, what the center wanted of those gathered there and how those on that scene heard, heeded, or evaded the commands of the center. But that scene is only “closed” when it turns into an ostensive sign eliciting imperatives from the center of our scene of inquiry. And inquiry into another scene becomes an inquiry into the scenic conditions of our own inquiry, which in turn leads into other inquiries. It is this paradoxical self-referentiality of sign use that our moebius strip models and enacts.

So, the broader implication of this mutual implication and reciprocal distancing of grammatical and spatial/anthropological originary thinking is that it suggests the need for a moebius strip style of thought. Think in terms of starting a sentence on one side of the strip and continuing it on the obverse, in such a way as to come back to the first side, but with some reversal of the elements. This is the logic, for example, of my notion of “donating your resentment to the center.” Within the earliest human communities, in which hierarchies between humans are not established, a sacrificial logic emerges in which commands from the center are obeyed in exchange for favors from the center: an imperative exchange. As the center becomes a site of intra-communal hierarchy, the exchange becomes increasingly unbalanced and untenable: nothing one could give to the divine king, including all of one’s possessions, one’s first born, etc., could ever match the boon of life provided by the king. We have imperatives that can no longer be fulfilled, which means the sacred center is no longer a reliable “target” of ostensives. Rather than abandon the imperative exchange with the center, which is unimaginable, one makes the exchange incommensurable on both sides: to the center we give everything, all the time, but not to the center as occupied by the God-Emperor. Rather, we give everything to the center that commands us to present ourselves and address others as centers. And everything includes, more than anything, that which we hold most dear: our grudges, our pride, our righteousness. Once, that is, the grammatical form is pushed to its limits, it becomes necessary and possible to imagine corresponding changes to the spatial/anthropological form. Now, this, of course, is not the kind of empirical claim that could be “proven” or “tested,” even if it provides (for example) a new way of thinking through the historical material associated with the emergence of the Axial Age. (For example, it has enabled me to hypothesize that the emergence of a justice system once honor culture has been, if not eliminated, “trimmed back” considerably, necessarily leads to the emergence of exemplary victims that could become cultural icons.) Rather, it’s a way of converting, conceptually and “praxically,” one mode of centrality into another: from a mode of centrally in a constant struggle for space with other self-denominating centers to a mode of centrality that confers names within a new space within which that struggle is converted into a joint operation.

April 23, 2019

Some further inquiry into HLvM

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:46 am

In formalist terms, the left is the cadres of militants levied by those elites interested in furthering the power directly exercised by the state over the individual, by undermining intermediate power centers. Power over individuals can always be further centralized: the state can arrest you for all manner of crimes, including crimes generated by your interactions with the state, and can surveil you for a wide range of purposes—but it can’t yet tell you what to eat for breakfast. It would be very easy to show how each leftist advance enables the state to single out something new for attention in each individual.

It still needs to be explained, though, how those agents interested in more direct state power over the individual go about mobilizing the masses they need, or, for that matter, why they want this centralization. Regarding the latter, there might be all kinds of reasons: corporations want to open up markets, which might require breaking up local monopolies and regulatory and tax regimes; for those within the state apparatus itself, it might be felt necessary for making uniform rules of operation across the country, and eliminating various logjams created by the diverse and often confused local prerogatives. In each case, some kind of resentment towards central authority is involved, ultimately for not being central and authoritative enough, as proven by the fact that one can challenge, revise and circumvent it in these very ways.

But the “low” is not simply bribed, even if there is also some of that going on—leftism is always a racket, among other things. But extortion rackets must also depend upon resentment: information can be used against someone because the dissemination of that information would change the way others interact with that person, and that depends upon the social norms dictating the grounds on which we resent. The left establishes rackets at vulnerable “choke points” in the social field of resentments—sites where attempts have been made to minimize resentments, and where the levers for exacerbating them also therefore exist. To say that those resentments subjected to minimization efforts were themselves ginned up by previous centripetal movements would be true, but ultimately leads us to an infinite regress if we can’t assume an originary form of resentment that sets the whole machinery in motion.

There are two ways of thinking about the “elemental” form of resentment animating the left. First, it’s a product of social and economic inequality: serfs resent lords because the lords have land, wealth and power and the serfs don’t; a wage laborer resents a corporate executive because the executive has far more money and perks, etc. I don’t think this provides a powerful mode of analysis, for the simple reason that these inequalities are constant, while shows of resentment are intermittent; furthermore, there is no clear correlation between “amount” of resentment (assuming there was some way of measuring that) and the degree of inequality—Bill Gates only recently ceded his position of the world’s richest man, but has never been a particularly intense target of either the right or the left. It may be that we will one day find a perfect correspondence between elite funding of specific resistance foundations and the manifestation of political activity along those specific lines, in which case the elites would be impeccable puppet-masters and there wouldn’t even be any way of distinguishing between more and less active modes of resentment. I’m going to assume that elite funding is more like seeding than recruiting—it is widespread and long-term, and no foundation thinks in terms of generating a protest of this size with this specific legislative impact on a regular basis, even if opportunities like that arise. So, the question of what form the basic mode of resentment of the lows takes is a real one.

The other way of conceptualizing the resentment of the lows is as a response to perceived violations of the trust dependents and subordinates must have for those with authority over them. This would mean that, even with the original victim group of the Western left, the working class, whose grievances seemed mostly focused on wealth inequality (not according to Marx, though), class resentment was more focused on the tyranny of employers and managers, and the broader encroachments upon traditional ways of life (and authority) on which the state and capitalists jointly engaged. While, even on strictly logical terms, there’s no reason to see some equation between degree of inequality and degree of resentment (does my resentment of my richer neighbor automatically go up another 10% when he gets a raise that extends the gap between our respective salaries another 10%?), when it comes to misuse of authority we can assume a direct “production” of resentment. Here, the relation is virtually axiomatic: however my level of moral maturity might enable me to process it, I can’t help but notice and therefore resent the injury done when agreed upon (tacitly or explicitly) rules are violated to another’s advantage and my disadvantage. The very form of interaction and cooperation is harmed in this way, and I have to respond by either exhibiting or disavowing resentment, and doesn’t require that I look into something far outside of my everyday sphere of activity (like average executive salaries).

So, this means that when the highs target the lows for mobilization, they will, insofar as they are effective, focus on breaches in trust and derelictions of duty indicating a failure of authority. This is important to keep in mind, because it means that insofar the resentments motivating the lows can be taken as legitimate—as is no doubt often the case—what the assuagement of those genuine resentments really requires is the restoration of stable and well-founded authority, rather than pay-offs (which mostly go to the leaders). Re-establishing authority detaches leftist foot soldiers from the left’s officer class, as the latter live off of perpetual resentment and therefore develop Big Scene theories guaranteeing its perpetuity—it is here that we see the “struggle” framed in terms of equality vs. inequality, because that opposition can never be resolved. But it also gives us a way of studying leftist propaganda, by sorting out the appeal to perceived failures of authority (including of course, attempts to raise the bar for the due performance of authority in such a way that failure is included in the very definition) along with the way such appeals are plugged into perpetual struggle models. So, if the Black Lives Matter protestor is genuinely interested in the institutions of policing and incarceration, there is a basis for discussion; once this gets framed in terms of “systemic racism,” there no longer is.

Meanwhile, insofar as the right is the “middle,” we can define that more precisely as well. The middle is those with an interest in preserving workable modes of authority within intelligible chains of command. Of course, what counts as a “workable” or “legitimate” mode or exercise of authority is not self-evident, but if you’re on the left the burden of proof is on those defending authority and if you’re on the right the burden is on those challenging it. But this focus on one’s relation to authority helps us to see all kinds of overlapping and possible shifts in position—so, for example, a black man, insofar as he is interested in patriarchal and parental authority in the home, is part of the middle; insofar as he focuses on himself as a potential victim of police violence, he is “low.” In these grey areas, then, is where we can expect to see all the ideological warfare and pedagogical activity taking place. This field is not infinitely elastic, of course—one reason why it has become open season on white men is that is very difficult to figure them as “low,” in part because most white men will themselves resist such an identification. Some alt-right activity is in fact a series of acrobatic efforts to slide white men into the low position, but since alt-right politics largely involves signaling against other low-designees, and you become low by joining more than by elbowing out others, this will probably prove impossible. White men are forced to take up the mantle of the middle, which in turn becomes part of the bill of indictment against them.

The Middle, then, is a kind of anomalous position. It doesn’t fit into the structure of incentives liberals have built, which is why leftists are always frustrated by the fact that the middle seems more concerned about things like abortion and gay rights than acquiring free medical care from the government. The constant bombardment of the middle (which can almost be a definition of liberal modernity) is multi-layered: the New Deal was really an attempt to erode the middle by bringing them into the welfare state, and European countries have proceeded much further along this path, making their middles correspondingly more flaccid. Sexual and cultural revolution, the cult of the criminal, and other measures, are far more obvious assaults. The middle persists, in part because it’s still not quite possible to abolish the material difference between lives of the middle and lives of the low—but this is itself because once you let yourself go low, you’re very unlikely to sustain the basic discipline needed to organize your life, even with government support. So, the horror of becoming low keeps people on the middle path—but this still wouldn’t maintain the middle, because the real incentive here is to give some “high” enough of what he needs to extend you support (i.e., keep you employed) while signaling along with the highs for the low. So, within the frame of liberal incentives, the prototypical middle would be a minimally competent, lazy worker within the safest regions of the corporate or public world, while presenting as hating this fellow middles not only in explicit statements but in manners, tastes, personal associations, and so on. So, why isn’t there nothing but the wealthy and powerful on one side, those who live off of grievances on the other side, and the guy I just described in the middle? (Of course, this would map out quite a bit of the contemporary world—but far from all of it.)

The Middle is the anomaly liberalism can’t account for. It persists because almost everyone has had delegated to himself some form of authority (the middle actually extends very low—and very high) and it is very difficult to treat such delegations complete cynically. We could explain this in terms of such features of social life (in which liberalism is completely uninterested) like tradition and order, but that would just beg the question of what prevents those structures from completely collapsing. Someone has to run things, but why should anyone in particular see himself as the one who should do so? I think we have to see this as a question of language and meaning. When someone asks you, “what do you do?,” what do you sound like when you answer? You have to be able to say something that you don’t mind others repeating; that you don’t mind repeating to yourself. Insofar as the highs and lows must also do this, they must find ways of making themselves sound like the middle: they are fulfilling obligations and meeting responsibilities, they are transparent, and so on. The anomalous Middle is really the pipeline to the Center.  You can demonstrate this socially by extracting and representing the “middleism” that must structure the high and the low insofar that they institutionalize themselves. But you can’t justify this on liberal terms, so any demonstrations place you outside of liberalism. It is impossible to exaggerate how terrifying liberalism must find it that in its very heart there is an ineradicable alterity (to speak in the postmodern argot of a onetime high-low articulation). Further middlizing your demonstrations, which is to say making them more law and authority abiding, will be more, not less terrifying to liberalism. But this may be an ineffable terror, difficult to articulate and act on, and so maybe easier to alleviate, assuming one is ready to accept some slings and arrows—even more, assuming one can read those slings and arrows back to those firing them as desperate cries for a sustainable authoritative structure.

The maxim of the middle is, power should be made commensurate with responsibility. If someone has a job to do, he should be given every bit of power he needs to do it; if someone has power, the responsibility that power can sustain should be attributed to him. An entire way of reading the world and therefore engaging culture is implicit in this maxim. In every problem we look for a mismatch of power and responsibility—we rush to help someone with “too much” responsibility by supplying the needed power, and someone with “too much power” by laying the groundwork for appropriate exercises of responsibility. In every utterance we listen for the evasion or adoption of the responsibility implicit in the power of the utterance itself—if one fairly ordinary person depends a bit on what you have to say, then let your discourse be turned to the needs of that individual; if thousands hang on your every word, then choose your words so as to contribute to their education, to make them communicants, and pedagogues in their turn. Seek to make those with power more responsible, not less powerful, by sharing their presumed responsibilities; in trying to fulfill the responsibilities delegated to you, try to tap into unused and misdirected forms of power. Ultimately, everyone is of the middle, except for one man, whose own power and responsibility is indistinguishable from its middling distribution.

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