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.

Posted by Scenic Politics


  1. Isn’t the center better understood as the locus of the sacred, i.e., in our system, executive power?

    In other words, GA as “thinking the center” is best done by the statesman (and not in the State Department)…

    Comment by C. S. Morrissey — June 18, 2006 @ 9:28 pm

  2. I would think that the Constitution, the text emerging from/sealing the sacred, founding event, is the center. But you are certainly right that the statesman is far better suited to speak for it than the diplomat or bureaucrat, even if all of us are obliged to try to think it.

    Comment by adam — June 19, 2006 @ 5:57 am

  3. Has it ever been done better than these gentlemen?

    Comment by C. S. Morrissey — June 19, 2006 @ 6:41 am

  4. Well, I’m not sure what you mean by “creating islands of symmetry within a broader sea of assymetries.” If you mean sealing off the center from resentment, I disagree. We need to open up the center to all voices; that’s the only way to defuse the resentments created in the attempt to establish a “equal and free” society. The center is not “sacred,” as such, anymore; that’s the ritual system we’ve left behind. The center now is a marketplace, to which everyone should be able to contribute. We can’t eliminate conflict and resentment, we can only rationalize it. The center now is a locus of *rationalized conflict*, public debate, what Habermas calls the public sphere. The purpose of debate, however depressing this might seem, is to have debate, to let everyone have a voice.

    Comment by Q — June 19, 2006 @ 11:46 am

  5. There are two issues here. The first, what I mean by the creation of “islands of symmetry,” is a simple question of clarification. Any relationship contains elements of symmetry and asymmetry: for example, we may be equally successful in our careers and our lives more generally, but we are both aware that you are a bit smarter than me. To the extent that we focus on the asymmetry, that it comes to define our relationship, no reciprocity is possible between us: I will see your greater intelligence as a source of manipulation and oppression; I will never be able to trust you, I will find sarcasm and cruelty where none is intended, etc. Similarly, to the extent that we focus on asymmetry between agents in the world, the U.S. can never make a claim on the reciprocity of less powerful peoples. Any claim to reciprocity–if we do x, we can expect you to do y–is automatically seen as just another way of imposing and disguising the asymmetries, which go untouched. The way to break out of this vicious circle, I am suggesting, is simply to focus on areas where we can treat others symmetrically, even if it means leaving the asymmetries untouched (we can’t wait to ameliorate much less eliminate them, in other words, even if we hope to do so in the long run). This might very well mean treating the other as an enemy and imposing rules of battle on them. I see the Israeli policy of assassinating Palestinian terror leaders in these terms: in other words, if you want to break the rules of war by systematically attacking civilians, we will impose new rules that will, at any rate, make your behavior more predictable. And predictability is a form of symmetry, albeit at a rather low level–at the very least you must model you behavior on mine, which implies a recognition of certain restraints–the very restraints from which asymmetries “free” us, because to the powerless all is allowed. Out of such patiently plotted moves, reciprocity might ultimately grow–or, at least, the chances are better than if we proceed under the illusion that reciprocity already exists, or that it is the stubborn center that prevents us from recognizing it, and simply proceeding to “negotiate.” So, you might say this is a stage before we can open the center to all voices, which already presupposes a certain level of reciprocity.

    The second issue is a far knottier theoretical one. I would disagree that there is no sacrality in the marketplace. That is only the case if we define sacrality as that which is represented and reinforced ritually–but why define sacrality in that way? Rather than as that which is universally desired and the universal renunciation of which therefore founds the community? In that case, the marketplace requires the sacrality of the individual who enters the market, and chooses–both to consume and to represent him/herself in a certain way. It seems to me to make perfect sense to see that “center” as every bit as sacred as any alter or temple, especially given that we have arrived at it as a result of the traumatic totalitarianisms of the 20th century which, we might say, represented the contagious abandon to possess, control and destroy that “illusory” individuality, which, to the resentful, is really the source of oppression and alienation. And it would be a real center insofar as the establishment of multiple centers must incessantly refer back to it, and the protection of the individual depends upon (ultimately “blind”) allegiance to and cooperation within a wide range of institutions. We all know, I would suggest, what happens if this new, postmodern, or perhaps “postmillenial” mode of sacrality is violated, and this knowledge lies behind much that is ridiculous, much that is beautiful, and virtually all that is necessary in sustaining contemporary society. And we all participate in protecting this mode of sacrality in myriad ways. I understand this view will not be readily shared by all (or any?) in GA–I therefore put it forward as something worthy of being debated. What seems to me to be at stake in calling the marketplace a sacred as opposed to a rationalized center is that how could we make sense of why someone would step forward and defend the center, as opposed to simply demanding their equal right to access it? In other words, the Habermas model you invoke seems to me to assume we can move right to reciprocity–that there is no real outside to the system. But some people seem to be disagreeing with that of late.

    Comment by adam — June 19, 2006 @ 6:59 pm

  6. Thanks for clarifying the first point. As to the second, I think we agree on this too. In ancient times, the center was sacred and the periphery was profane. but in the modern world, the periphery is sacred too. Each individual is sacred, and, ideally, recognizes the sacrality of others. Perhaps we accord some sacrality to the public sphere also, as, for example, it’s protected in the constitution. I also agree that this is an ideal that we haven’t reached yet, especially in places like the Middle East. Is this what you mean but the “outside of the system”?

    Comment by Q — June 20, 2006 @ 4:18 pm

  7. I have in mind less other, illiberal, places, than overt, determined opposition to the system. It would be one thing if there were simply temporary obstacles to those not yet sufficiently included in the market system. Then our energies could be devoted solely to devising means of inclusion–this, it seems to me, was the dominant idea during the Clinton years: overcoming trade barriers, gradual democratization, support for multilateral institutions and treaties, etc. To some extent, it’s still what we need to do. But post-9/11, we must recognize that there are not only people “not yet” in, but people who want to take down the system–and, not only as the Communists wanted to, in the long run, but in their very practices they deliberately subvert the most basic international and human norms. And they are becoming increasingly insightful regarding the weak links of the system, using our norms of reciprocity (our openness, our preference for dialogue over force, etc.) against us. So, opening the system is not enough–we must be ready to defend it, even if that appears, in the short run, to “close” it in certain ways. That’s the concern that led to my original post, and my reason for insisting on a sacred center–there seems to me no other way of understanding why someone would volunteer to go fight in the hills of Afghanistan or cities of Iraq (and God knows what’s next); or of promoting that kind of devotion. There must be something irreducible to the market that makes the market possible. Even an ultra-free marketeer like George Gilder argues that the market relies, above all, on faith and altruism–contra Adam Smith, the entrepenuer creates possibilites for others with no guarantee of benefitting himself. Of course I consider GA uniquely qualified to explore these questions, and make some much needed contributions to public discourse.

    Comment by adam — June 20, 2006 @ 6:52 pm

  8. If both the center and the periphery are sacred, then GA is simply poetry without any logical consistency.

    If you wish to say “each individual is sacred” perhaps what you mean is that in postmodernity he is making himself his own center.

    Comment by C. S. Morrissey — June 22, 2006 @ 6:46 am

  9. I think GA is logically consistent poetry. Not to mention a prayer. But why open that set of questions now?

    I assume you find the inconisistency in my affirmation of the sacrality of the individual, which you see as an attribution of sacrality to the margin–certainly, the very notion of a sacred periphery is incoherent, leave aside any inconsistency between that claim and that of a sacred center. In that case, “each individual makes himself his own center” is by far the more rigorous formulation. But I am insisting that the sacrality of the individual is an effect of a sacred center, no less so than the Jewish and Christian claim that each individual is made in the image of God–the individual is sacred here, without any violation of the sacred center.

    Why should my construction of my own sacrality require that I recognize the sacrality of others? Well, because I must meet those others on the marketplace where we exchange the products of our individuality. But what holds the marketplace together? Either it’s an autonomous, objective system with no center, held together by something like “laws of motion”; or it is each and every one of us acknowledging, with at least minimal consciousness, a sacrality which includes and grounds our own–ultimately, by our acceptance of “spontaneous evolution,” or our willingness to accept results that no one determines and will dissatisfy everyone to some extent. Just because such a center is invisible doesn’t make it any less central or sacred–it does what any sacred center does, repulse any attempt to possess it. And I would support the idea by suggesting that if we all did nothing more than obey all the rules of the marketplace in the most literal, grudging way, adhering only to our own self-interest, and cutting corners whenever possible, the market would collapse. So there is something “more” in our participation in the marketplace, and I am calling that “more” our “orientation” toward the sacred center.

    I am also suggesting that we need to be able to speak about several, articulated, sacred centers within a complex social order. For most Americans, the Constitution is sacred, i.e., as David Gerlernter has recently argued, “Americanism” is a kind of religion; while many of these same Americans will see the Christian God as the location of the sacred center; and, simultaneously, their own individuality. If these centers enter into rivalry, obviously we have a problem–but, otherwise, they reinforce and deepen each other, with each providing a kind of vocabulary for deferring rivalries within the other and new hypothetical, provisional syntheses that include them all without suppressing any of them continually emerging. Since I have mentioned Gerlernter, I will take a further step and note that implicit in what I am saying is an argument he made recently in the Weekly Standard to the effect that obligations must come before rights–however we might see that priority as enforceable under the conditions of advanced market society.

    Comment by adam — June 22, 2006 @ 8:25 am

  10. So before we can speak of universal equality, we must speak of our obligation to the center. Is that what you mean by a “genuine resentment on behalf of the center”? In this sense, the liberal Habermasian model is a forgetting of the originary asymmetry between center and periphery. For the liberal, it is the originary symmetry of the sign that defines the human. But what this abstract moral vision of the human as “equal” sign user forgets is that linguistic exchange is fundamentally *scenic*. The equality among sign-users on the periphery is guaranteed by the asymmetry or transcendence of the scenic center. In ritual, the participant (and even the secular ethnographer) has no problem identifying the scenic center, distinguishing what is sacred from what is profane. In the market, however, sacrality is more widely dispersed, and we have the illusion that it doesn’t exist. If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying, on the contrary, sacrality has never been more powerful. The trick is to grasp its greater dynamism in these (modern) market conditions. The issue is made all the more pressing today because of the prevalence of white guilt, which understands the individual’s obligation to the center as a form of pollution. But if obligation to the center is a form of pollution, then there is no basis for dialogue. We return to the bleak world of Hegel’s struggle between master and slave, or Hobbes’s war of all against all.

    Comment by Richard — June 22, 2006 @ 11:09 am

  11. Thank you, Richard, that formulates my claim very clearly. I would only add that the dominance of white guilt, in some kind of “arrangement” with victimary violence, might have something even worse in store for us than the alternatives you lay out.

    Comment by adam — June 22, 2006 @ 12:46 pm

  12. Worse than Hobbes’s war of all against all? Isn’t that a metaphor for the annihilation of the human?

    Comment by Richard — June 23, 2006 @ 12:33 pm

  13. I suppose you’re right–I was simply thinking, though, that in an actual (if not, strictly speaking, Hobbesian) war of all against all (say, Lebanon of the 1970s) there is at least the possibility of climbing out of it again. Our basic human capacity for deferral need not be impaired, as the white guilt/victimary nexus seeks to do. But it’s certainly not a point worth fighting over!

    Comment by adam — June 23, 2006 @ 12:51 pm

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