GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

June 18, 2006

GA as the Thinking of the Center

Filed under: GA — adam @ 1:59 pm

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.

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