Monthly Archives: June 2006


John O. McGinnis’ “Age of the Empirical” in the new (June/July 06 issue of Policy Review raises some important questions for Generative Anthropology.  McGinnis argues that the increase in information available to social science researchers along with the greater efficacy of computing technology are getting us to the point where consensus on good policy will no longer be impeded by partisan interests:

our future politics is more likely to forge consensus than that of the past, because we are on the cusp of a golden age of social science empiricism that will help bring a greater measure of agreement on the consequences of public policy. The richer stream of information generated by empirical discoveries will provide an anchor for good public policy against partisan storms and special-interest disturbances, making it harder for the political process to be manipulated by narrow interests.

Arguments over, say, crime prevention policy, poverty reduction, and education will no longer be “philosophical” disputes:  we will actually be able to measure the effects of specific policies in ways that will ultimately be impossible to dispute on merely “principled” grounds.  McGinnis recognizes that there must be limits to this new empiricism–for example, there is no quantitative measure that can enable us to adjudicate between those who think a fetus is a human baby and those who think it is a clump of tissue.  (Although one could imagine empirical studies determining the best way to reduce the number of abortions having significant effects on pro-life advocates.)  McGinnis doesn’t expand the list of conflicts resistant to such an approach–he leaves foreign policy and war making, for example, completely out of the discussion.  It’s not to hard to see how such approaches could be useful in these areas as well, once we find the best way of quantifying the effects we aim at:  for example, changes in the rate of attacks in a particular area in Baghdad.  Still, it seems clear that in some areas the new empricism will be of more local use, testing out different ways of implementing a particular policy rather than deciding upon the policy itself.  And the very attempt to quantify the presumably unquantifiable, even as a thought-experiment, will often yield provocative, counter-intuitive results.

What is even more interesting about the essay is that McGinnis explicitly sees this new method as a model for conflict reduction–in terms of GA, it would be a new mode of deferral, in which we would withhold appropriation of the policy mechanism while we allow a methodological approach beyond reproach and manipulation to work itself out.  One could, for example, support the experimental implementation of a policy one finds abhorent on the ground that we can be confident that its destructiveness will be proven once and for all.  As McGinnis explicitly affirms, the new empiricism would not, then, banish values from the public sphere:  we would simply be obliged to put our values to the test, accepting a common measure between opposing values.

It would be easy to devise caricatures of this process:  should, for example, we be ready to “try out” the extermination of a particular group of people since we will now be able to verify whether they were really a “virus” after all?  But such irony would miss the point because, perhaps most interesting of all, McGinnis’ call for a new empiricism is ultimately a policy proposal in its own right, or at least a criterion for acceptable policy proposals:  since the new empiricism requires lots of information to be effective, those modes of organizing society that generate the most information are to be privileged:  hence, the new empiricism favors transparency, the replacement of “committed” academic research with distinterested inquiry in the academy, decentralization and a high degree of liberty, leaving people to work things out on the ground and thereby generate lots of data.  The new empiricism, in other words, is most compatible with a Hayekian “spontaneous order,” in which everybody knows a lot more but also a lot less:  we have increasing access to all kinds of information but we are all even less equipped to claim to know anywhere near enough to usurp the freedom of others. 

The new empiricism, then, is highly congenial to GA; but we are still in a position to raise some important questions that probably won’t come from elsewhere.  For originary thinking, form comes before “matter,” i.e., before the divisible and quantifiable. The world must be constituted before the diverse things in it can be sorted out.  We might, indeed, locate the origins of social science in the sparagmos, the destruction and devouring of the central object once the originary sign has been emitted and acknowledged by the group.  The object must be divided equally, and some intuition of what “my share” entails, along with the orientation toward any form of power or custom capable of enforcing the symmetry of shares, must be intrinsic to any community.  

The demystifying dimension of even the most conservative social science should not surprise us, then–what could be more demystifying than the sparagmos itself, in which God turns out to be food?  Think of the kind of mischievous questions which keep atheism in business:  if God created the world, what, exactly, are the cockroaches for?  If everything that happened is God’s will, why did he have such a profound desire for cripples?  Etc.  In other words, once we start to “detail” (quantify, categorize) God’s “characteristics,” we very quickly move toward farce (what material are angels’ wings made of?).  These questions are not serious for GA in their literal form, but are of great interest as an originary account of a certain kind of crucial, if cynical and limited freedom of thought.

Following the sparagmos on the originary scene is the iteration of the scene in the ritual.  Social science is necessarily suspicious of ritual, or, in our de-ritualized age, habit and normalization.  Social science wants to stay within the sparagmos, where we can argue about equal shares and how to determine them:  the social sciences are at their best and their worst in proposing paths toward modernization precisely because modernization leads to societies which produce the kind of rationalized distribution and hence measurable quantities social scientists are comfortable with.  Habits and normalization always have at least a tinge of the irrational–people adhere to customs even when they “obviously” lead to unjust distributions (and even while the same people tenaciously, and often equally irrationally from the point of their own share, insist that the existing mode of distribution be enforced to the letter), and it is extremely difficult to to do more than ridicule people in this regard.  “Development” is always from customs and rituals to rationalized distribution; habits are always favored to the extent that they are signs of such a mode of distribution.  (Nor do I simply oppose these assessments)

But social science is most of all suspicious of the transcendent sign itself, which is inexplicable in terms of any social scientific model of the social, a model that will inevitably be drawn from the sparagmos, where the participants on the scene are themselves “modeling” their relation to each other primarily in relation to the divisible object, ignoring while presupposing the formal sign which makes division possible in the first place.  What is the centripetal force that holds society together? Faith can explain the emergence and maintenance of the more desirable habits, which in turn lead to more rational distribution, but once faith has thus served as a Ruse of Reason it might as well step off the stage.  Once we know what faith is good for, why should (indeed how could) we continue to believe?  That the renewal of the transcendent sign will always be incommensurable with the existent and, in the short run, counter to all the “material interests” it must defer, remains beyond the ken of the social sciences.

It would follow, then, that McGinnis’ argument would hold true for those areas of social life where we find the greatest consensus regarding desirable social ends:  higher standards of living, less poverty, students with higher reading and math scores, safer streets, etc.  And this certainly covers a lot.  His argument is most dubious when applied to those areas where our transcendent guarantees and the constitution of the community itself are at stake–most obviously, perhaps, in matters of war and peace and life and death, but also in areas of national symbolism and individual freedom. 

We could take a step toward McGinnis’ position and simultaneously try to render his position more minimal by searching for ways in which the “new empricism” might extend its sway over new areas of life, which is to say bring new areas of life under the emergent acceptance of spontaneous order.  Can we ever really be sure in advance that any particular question is inherently resistant to quantification and measurement in some way that would be truthful and elicit general consent?  Why not work under the assumption that it’s always worth trying?  At the very least we will understand the dimensions of the conflict in question better by identifying precisely where and why it is thus resistant.  And this in turn will serve to indicate where habits are entrenched because the prevailing form of the transcendent has not yet finished its work, and where such entrenchment vaguely points to emergent forms.  In this way, the “new empiricism” will be not only an increasingly comprehensive and helpful method but a new sign of our desire for an enhanced consensus–enhanced both in its breadth and its depth, as we provide the social sciences with the elements of a new vocabulary. 


Scenic Politics


I assume none of us Generative Anthropologists would assert that the “Jersey Girls” are enjoying to an unprecedented degree their husbands’ deaths; or, to take an earlier example, that Timothy McVeigh should have targeted the New York Times building.  However, a rather prominent Generative Anthropologist did characterize the 2004 Presidential election as a contest between two religions:  on the one hand, Evangelical Christianity; on the other hand, the religion of White Guilt.  In that case, shouldn’t Ann Coulter’s insight that modern liberalism is in fact a religion, with its dogmas, its rites, its saints, its doctrine of infallibility, etc., not to mention her fearless broaching of decadent liberalism’s reliance upon generating new forms of victimary status (even the poor John Kerry, “swiftboated” mercilessly, is a kind of victim, whose testimony attains a kind of infallibility as the Republicans continue to “swiftboat” others), make her, at least, an honorary Generative Anthropologist?  In fact, isn’t she doing fieldwork?

Coulter’s contribution to GA might be to remind us of the continued presence (indeed, the ineradicability) of the sacred–if we don’t explicitly acknowledge it, it will simply continue to morph into heretical and self-denying forms.  Even more, though, she reminds us modern rationalists that the real way to fight a religion is not to “argue” with it or provide a more plausible view of the world; far more effective is acts of sustained and egregious desecration.  Once you break the most solemn taboo, and nothing happens, what’s left?  If you call the victim’s bluff (ultimately, the victim of normative American Christian, national culture), and hordes of suburban McCarthyite lynch mobs don’t descend on the homes of gay couples and “peace activists” with “Protect the Bill of Rights:  Impeach Bush” signs on their lawn, the weakening of the taboo accelerates with each subsequent violation.  Unless the sacrality at stake has significant reserves in the reliance upon it of crucial social institutions.  All liberalism has is the resource of those who can plausibly present themselves as victims in a sustained way, and that resource is running out quickly.  A few days ago, on the Today Show, a relative of one of those American soldiers brutally tortured, murdered and desecrated by terrorists in Iraq blamed the U.S. for not paying a ransom for them out of some “ransom fund” we should presumably have been accumulating out of Saddam Hussein’s former assets to distribute to terrorists world wide.  I can’t imagine where he got the idea, but it certainly fit the pattern of family members of people killed in the war (Cindy Sheehan, Michael Berg, etc.) becoming walking talking points of the far left.  And this was too much even for Matt Lauer.  The victimary game, in other words, has become grotesque–Coulter’s timing couldn’t be better.

The only remaining question for us is whether Coulter’s practice of desecration spreads beyond her initial targets into the egalitarian precepts of the sacred center we ourselves revere.  I haven’t read the book, just Chapter 1 on and several reviews, so I can’t really say, even though nothing I have seen or heard concerns me in that regard.  It seems to me that part of her purpose is to test conservatives as well–let’s see, in other words, who seeks to dissociate themselves, who says “she makes some good points, but this is just too much!,” etc.?  If you read the article by Steyn in the link in  the preceding post, you can see that even he is a bit uncomfortable. 

It seems to me that this provides us with a good opportunity to carry out a more minimal mode of desecration.  Part of the functioning of victimary discourse is to discredit individuals by parading “outrageous” statements or “lies” that place them beyond some ill-defined “pale.”  There’s nothing wrong with such pales, as long as we can explain where we put them and why, but the purpose of the victimary is to stigmatize lines of argument that would otherwise sound quite reasonable.  It’s true that we shouldn’t listen to Nazis even when they make reasonable proposals about health care; the victimary exploits this by constantly testing who you can get away with calling a Nazi; and, then, once you’ve applied the label, fighting like hell to make sure it sticks and, further, is applied to anyone seeking to remove it.  Part of the reason for the focus on Bush’s “lies,” for example, is to place a sticker on everything he and anyone supporting him says marked “probable lie”–if other criteria were introduced, it would complicate things.  After all, invading Iraq might have been a good idea even if Bush had lied about some things.  Discrediting someone from the standpoint of the self-policing norms of the media and the academy cuts off such a line of thought and kills it–the liar is simply altogether unworthy, and allowing yourself to take seriously anything they say is to become a “stooge” or “dupe.”  There would be something rather “radical’ as well as “centrist” in calmly sorting out what one agrees with in Coulter’s book, what one rejects, what needs a bit more support, etc. and equally calmly rejecting all demands that one “denounce” her or place her at some “distance” from all good, civil people.  For now, at least, let’s raise the standards for ritual expulsion from the public sphere and let future events guide us in adjusting those standards.


Scenic Politics

GA as the Thinking of the Center

Within the originary configuration, we are all located on the margin, sharing our love and resentment toward the center.  The effect of the history of de-ritualization, grounded in the Judaic and then Christian revelations, with its unremitting resentment toward the “Big Man” who seizes the ritual center has, in modern democracy, accentuated the resentment at the expense of the love.  There is a kind of “center” in contemporary politics, regulated (or perhaps fantasized) by insipid, inoffensive figures like David Gergen and David Broder, or, really, anyone in possession of the latest polling results.  And doesn’t every political figure want to be there?  The problem, of course, is that such a center is a mirage:  sitting down with two dozen polls, and choosing all of those positions claiming majority support will yield nothing but incoherence; and any attempt to put such a “center” into practice will see it instantly evaporate.  As with the second term Bill Clinton’s focus on “initiatives” like school uniforms, you hedge more and more, do less and less, and hope nothing real ever happens.  But some real things have happened since then.

The prevalence of white guilt as our de facto governing philosophy aggravates this situation.  For white guilt, the center is the source of pollution, not sacrality; sacrality is to be found in defending the victims of the center; and the most exemplary victims of the center are precisely those driven to extremes by the extreme violence of the center.  It is in confronting white guilt that we will discover what we really need:  a genuine resentment on behalf of the center.  For white guilt, the center is guilty until proven innocent; and, moreover, the standard of proof is so high that it can never be met:  ultimately the center’s very centrality is what is most incriminating.  The fact that we can’t prove all we “know” about the center is itself the most irrefutable proof of the center’s insidious and pervasive power. 

Just as the center is rightfully obliged to bear the burden of proof in charging individuals, so those of us on the margin should bear the burden of proof in bringing charges against the center.  The most profound revolution in political affairs today, in the relation between public, media, political parties and public officials today would be the application of the simple principle that the center must also be innocent until proven guilty.  We should have no other choice before we accuse an adminsitration of lying or incompetence; we should be obliged to show that we have mastered the other scenarios which might lend a different interpretation to the evidence we bring forth.

Generative Anthropology can offer the above as a piece of advice, a bit of lost wisdom which should really be second nature to citizens of a republic.  Powerlessness is just as corrupting as power; bringing charges against the center is a bid for power, it should be recognized and welcomed as such, and should be encumbered with some form of accountability, just like we insist upon for elected officials.  Such a principle implies a broader approach for addressing victimary discourses and white guilt.  White guilt is parasitic upon assymetries in power and resources:  it thrives on the assumption, manipulating our originary egalitarian intuitions, that any such assymetry can be traced back to some violence on the part of the stronger or advantaged.  And if we search for such violence we will find it, the less visible and more subtle, the more “problematic.”  Any attempt to impose reciprocity in terms of obligations and responsibility is then answered with the impossiblity of doing so as long as the extant assymetries go “unaddressed” (with what it means to “address” them defined, of course, by those at the short end of them).  And the effects are devastating because the most effective way to address the asymmetries is to establish such obligations and responsibilities, no matter what our starting point is.

The way out of this logjam is simply to insist on establishing “islands” of symmetry within a broader “sea” of assymetries.  Symmetries have much lower “barriers to entry” than reciprocity:  even treating someone as an opponent or enemy might be a step in the right direction.  The first move is attaching consequences to words and actions as closely as possible:  taking people literally and calling bluffs.  Since as soon as we do this, we are forced to recognize that we haven’t been doing so up until now, our second move is for us to similarly recognize ouselves in the situation we’ve created and must change.  This implies finding new ways of allowing ourselves to be held responsible.  We must all pay our debt to the center.

So, for example, in the current debate on illegal immigration (I think it would be more accurate to say “migration”), those in favor of a continued non-enforcement of our laws are essentially arguing in favor of lawlessness and abolishing all boundaries (not only between countries, but between different legal statuses).  In that case, people who take seriously the “Reconquista” slogans brandished at some of the recent rallies opposed to the House’s proposed stringent new law are right to do so.  On the other side, those on the “enforcement only” side of the debate refuse to recognize our own complicity in the situation:  we could have prevented these millions of people from coming over illegally and staying if we had really wanted to.  From a legal standpoint, the position that everyone without legal status should be refused benefits and deported when caught is unassailable; from a moral perspective, much less so.  And this tension matches our (conflicting) intuitions, I believe:  the very person demanding the borders be shut down and the laws enforced immediately and unconditionally will feel very differently when he sees his grocer, the young man who fixes his car, her child’s teacher, etc., handcuffed, rounded up, placed in detention centers, and sent back to a home which doesn’t really exist for that person any more.  And the confusion shown by our much maligned elected officials probably reflects this conflict between (legitimate) legal/nationalistic and moral intuitions, especially since there is really no good way of articulating it right now.

Perhaps it is into such conflicts between legitimate intuitions that victimary discourse steps and offers illusory answers:  the center is always both too lax and too harsh.  What GA, as a public philosophy, offers here is a way of articulating such conflicting intuitions, which is really a conflict between modes of sacrality, different ways of articulating the center, which have entered into competition.  Let’s say that we answer the objections of the enforcement first lobby by, first, attacking the most evident brutalities produced by the current (non)system of migration:  perhaps the notorious “coyotes,” who for exorbitant fees bring people over the border under dangerous and often violent conditions.  Since we can only break what are in essence organized crime gangs by having their victims “flip” on these criminals and testify credibly against them, we might offer both protection and an accelerated path to legal status and citizenship for those who bravely assist us in this important task (which will simultaneously reduce the illegal migration).

On the other side, we might address the “illegals rights” lobby by providing for a “sponsorship” program whereby those employing and living alongside illegals agree to sponsor them, whether this involves testifying under oath, or before a notary public, that, to the best of one’s knowledge the said individual has been (otherwise) law abiding and a productive neighbor, student or employee; or, perhaps something more serious, such as agreeing to be “responsible” (whatever that will mean) or a “guarantee” for that person until they earn citizenship.  The paperwork might be formidable, but at least those people who insist that we can’t get along without the millions of illegal residents will have a chance to put their money where their mouth is; and in the process the real solidarities that have undoubtedly been forged between illegals and citizens in many communities will be able to take more concrete and enduring forms.  And we will all be able to recognize that economic processes and mundane desires (such as for lower prices) often override our sense of citizenship, and also that such transgressions can be repaired without simply accepting the diminishment of republican virtues in a market society–things do get out of control and yet we can successfully reassert control, without indulging in the fantasy of a return to the status quo ante, with an acknowledgement of both damage done and unexpected benefits among other consequences which couldn’t have been anticipated and don’t quite fit the shape of our current moral categories.

In both cases, symmetries can grow over into reciprocities:  we begin by treating criminals as criminals, or by insisting that people “own” what they are already complicit with; and then, by placing these more local systems within a broader one (the room to maneuver provided by the criminal justice system; the long history of American immigration, which has often required that some citizen or legal resident guarantee that the new immigrant be capable of supporting themself), the possiblity for more expansive reciprocities emerge.  And the center is in the process strengthened:  we have shown that it can bend without breaking, and perhaps a new system for bringing immigrants from everywhere will emerge from such experimentation, some way of lining up our “republican” and universalistic ‘moral’ intuitions more adequately.

Perhaps this is a mere thought-experiment at this point:  it would be very easy to list all the insuperable obstacles to such a proposal being heard, much less seriously considered, much less adopted.  But that’s the point of a thinking of the center:  we occupy the position where no one is right now (there is no constituency for the center), and which is not merely an averaging out of the various proposals.  Rather, we occupy a possible center–not a Kantian categorical imperative, but a kind of center of gravity where we could show, by engaging in public dialogue (and as a demonstration of the power of originary thinking), all serious thinking, all thinking that makes an effort to disengage from immediate interests, to imaginatively inhabit the actual and possible scenes of one’s own making, must tend.  We construct scenes, that is, that become “self-evident” by drawing people closer to the originary scene, which already, in a mediated sense, “touches” their own.

Posted by Scenic Politics