GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

June 23, 2006


Filed under: GA — adam @ 12:30 pm

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


  1. I certainly agree with you about the pervasiveness and importance of sacrality in our modern world, and I share your pleasure in showing how liberals who resent the religious nonetheless depend much on the sacred. But isn’t calling liberalism or white guilt a religion itself a form of liberalism – as in, to each his own – and perhaps even suggestive of a little guilt about the inescapable cultural primacy of Judeo-Christianity? Why make gestures – though perhaps it is partly in jest? – that there is some kind of equivalence by according everyone their religion, when some have faith and some do not, when some (religiously or anthropologically) are in dialogue with the foundational revelations of western culture and some are not?

    Our politics can flow from an embrace or a rejection of our culture’s founding revelations; but if the latter, we can’t just substitute a new religious foundation to play an equal role in the western political culture (a non-western immigrant must choose, to some extent, between being an immigrant or a colonist). White guilt, as with much else, entails the secularization and prioritization of some aspects of Judeo-Christianity, but it has no faith in the transcendent good of the center or respect for its irreducible mystery, and so it is, at least by its own intent, really more a materialistic, redistributive, politics than a religion. A “white” society could never have first come into being around a revelation of its own particularly white guilt.

    Comment by John — June 23, 2006 @ 5:23 pm

  2. This really becomes a question of how literally we can take the claim that White Guilt is a religion (how literally does Coulter take it?). Very literally, for my part. Coulter apparently calls liberals “Druids,” and I believe that’s mostly in jest. But if we take seriously, to just cite one example, Eric Voegelin’s argument that modernity is a new form of an old gnostic heresy, I think we are on pretty firm ground in attributing a genuine, if perverse and predominantly resentful, form of sacrality to the objects of White Guilt. If we say it’s really just a materialistic, redestributive politics, we have some uncomfortable questions. Among them, one Coulter raises: why the centrality of abortion? Or one I would raise: why the sacrality of the Palestinians? There’s something “more” here than materialism or destribution–these priorities can’t be accounted for in accord with rational calculation. I also think inquring into affinities with other forms of religion, and idolatry, perhaps suppressed within the Western Christian tradition (now taking revenge? maybe she’s not kidding about the Druids) might also yield interesting results. Other sacralities certainly can be substituted–the point is that they won’t be productive, they will exist in sheer reaction to the genuine cultural center.

    Comment by adam — June 23, 2006 @ 5:54 pm

  3. Yes, I am certainly inclined to see white guilt as a kind of Gnostic heresy.

    I have usually thought that our judgments on what is religion or religious have an arbitrary quality and thus call for a balancing of emic and etic perspectives. We tend to make assumptions about what is a matter of religion for others based on how our own favored tradition distinguishes religious and secular life, or we look to apparently objective facts like belief in the supernatural. I take it you are looking for a more rigorous way of discussing the articulation between the two, but without hard and fast distinctions?

    The advice you give here about desecration and calling bluffs seems good after having had the chance today to test it. I went with blogging colleagues to demonstrate against the World “Peace” Forum. “World Peace” is a rather religious idea and we naturally judged it to be of the utopian variety, the articulation of which is presently dependent on many victims of the Americans and Israelis. We were there with some signs, and raised some peculiar concepts like “victimary religion” and “accountability for anti-America/Israel resentment” and “utopian lie”, which drew a number of delegates to curiosity and talk. Not only was the presence of protesters at a “Peace!” conference befuddling, our opposition to a program of victims was also apparently more confusing than offensive (thankfully there was a language barrier between us and the large delegation from Nagasaki). The appearance of people thinking and reacting in a different paradigm – talking about deferring conflict as preferablel to thinking about simply ending it – had, i believe, an unsettling effect. It was perhaps a desacralizing moment, not something I care to encourage unless I feel the sacrality in question poses a threat.

    So I made a point all day of talking about the victimary religion of the peace movement and my colleagues’ frequent impressions that we were talking with people from another planet certainly supported the sense that we were not arguing within a shared paradigm. Strategically and emotionally it made sense today to consider white guilt a religion. However, our approach also had the effect of encouraging a couple of people to push us to join with them in an ecumenical spirit. We might have been for deferring violence, and not “peace”, for some kind of rational accountability, and not victimary displays, but it seemed to them acceptable if at the end of the day we admitted that human violence was the central problem. And so to people used to “inclusive” dialogues on the problem of violence – whatever their reliance on displays of victimhood and finger pointing, the mysterious nature of violence remains an open and essential question, a mystery i expect is never well explained – it seemed we might be assimilated to the broad church, contributing yet another apotropaic gesture by politely joining in line to offer our account of the violent forces attending the sacred.

    Comment by John — June 25, 2006 @ 12:30 am

  4. I do think we can determine pretty rigorously where the sacred lies in any particular discourse or community, but at a certain point we need “on-site” observation–you have to see what never gets questioned, what issue never gets raised, what words never get used, what suggestion or gesture leads to an increase in “tension,” etc., and then work your way inductively from there–our own intuitions about the center will help us find the center even in unfamiliar formations.

    Your “experiment” is interesting to me on two levels. First, the desacralization you carried out seems to me to be aimed the protesters’ sense of their own centrality: they are the source of accountability and judgment, they are the ones talking “truth” to “power,” they have their own ritualistic modes of asceticism and purification. What you did is place them back in the circuit of signs, back on the margin with everyone else–they ask questions and can also be questioned; they are also exercising a kind of power, and they can be held accountable; they want to end violence, perhaps they can also be seen as part of the cause of certain kinds of violence, etc. This is a powerful move, and I think the blogosphere is pioneering it–it’s remarkable what happens once the major media outlets realize that they can be the target of an “expose”–when will some enteprising blogger try to subpoena the notes from a meeting of the NY Times Editorial Board (and then, perhaps, find a “leaker” in the newsroom)? When will someone try out the idea of suing lawyers who advance bogus class action law suits? Or the NY Times, for that matter, for increasing our risk for death by terrorist attack by publishing classified information? The possibilities are endless.

    The second point, that the joke, in a sense, turns out to be on you as well, is also encouraging. Certainly the point of undermining the sacred objects and rituals of White Guilt is not to exclude the congregation, but to devise more inclusive objects and rituals. Yes, we are primarily concerend about violence and that does provide hitherto unexplored means of enhancing solidarity.

    Comment by adam — June 25, 2006 @ 10:35 am

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