GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

October 30, 2006

On Deferral

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:48 am

For a while, when I was first familiarizing myself with GA, terms other than “deferral,” especially “resolution,” would creep into my thinking about the originary sign and scene, and noticing this has come to remind me of how much more minimal “deferral” is, how central it therefore is the specificity of the hypothesis, and to GA’s decisive break with metaphysical forms of thinking.  To speak of the originary gesture as “resolving” the situation of mimetic rivalry, or “preventing” violence, would be to view the effects of the sign from the outside, as if the line separating the convergence on the central object and the renunciation of that object could be visible to anyone not participating in trying to detect and draw the line themselves; and if this were possible, then it would also be possible to reduce the renunciation to a  formal, generalizable rule in advance of any particular act of renunciation.  In other words, it would be possible to find a “cause” leading to the act of renunciation, and this cause would then be found in our biological or some other pre-existing “equipment,” in which case the sign would itself simply be a “superstructural” reflection of some more foundational “infrastructural” reality.  “Deferral,” meanwhile, perfectly captures the position within the act itself, along with its fundamental contingency, between the convergence heading toward destruction and what will perhaps be no more than the mere delay of that tendency.  One can’t know–one can’t know any more than that whatever gesture one puts forth is minimally more likely to subtract from rather than accelerate the momentum dragging us along toward the catastrophe. Instead of imminent destruction, we have really done no more than make it “imminently imminent,” and that imminence of imminence gives us a little space within which to work.  We can’t even think in terms of whether the “problem” has been “genuinely solved,” or “kicked down the road,” trivialized or covered up, or, for that matter, irresponsibly avoided and thereby intensified, to reappear even more menacingly tomorrow–the categories which enable us to make even these distinctions are after the fact, metaphysical accretions, even if we couldn’t really avoid using them to describe what seem to be more or less effective gestures of deferral (and isn’t even this “seeming” taking place on some mimetic scene, upon which the projected “seeming” itself defers some crisis?).  The most fundamental question for an originary social thought as well as epistemology might be, what is the horizon of any act of deferral?  What is its “reach”? It seems plausible to suggest that it impossible to “invest” in any act of deferral while dwelling, or perhaps even entertaining the possibility of, its fallibility–in other words, I have to completely believe my act of deferral will succeed, at least for that period in which I am enacting it; which would further imply that I must exclude from consideration all the indications which suggest that it might not, in fact succeed.  I can and must recognize and assimilate those indications, but only in the form of those unavoidable immediate modifications in my act of deferral as I articulate it, not as fully imagined forces which might render it useless.  The fact that I can look back afterward and note how risky the whole business in fact was can’t, then, provide any knowledge that would be useful in the midst of the next act of deferral except insofar as the very act of looking back, itself, guided by an interest in preserving the sign, sharpens my sensitivity to the immediate appearance of counter-indications.  (But it might just as easily dull my sensitivities to unprecedented indications.)  Our horizons, though, can be progressively extended insofar as any act of deferral leaves behind it a sign, which can be repeated by someone other than me, and provides a starting point for the next act of deferral:  defend that sign.  Defending the sign against attempts to undermine and circumvent it provides for the capacity for ever increasing foresight, especially insofar as cultural signs become increasingly complex, deferring (through a kind of ethical and esthetic economy) a range of rivalries and crises simultaneously.  In that case, though, the real threat to the sign is not so much direct attacks on it or attempts to evade its strictures, but the rivalries the sign itself instigates over who represents or embodies it.  Monotheism defers a far greater range of rivalries than tribal or “big man” social and cultural forms; but who represents the genuine monotheistic stance?  So, another act of deferral regarding this overreaching produces the self-governing nation, intellectual freedom, and finally the modern market, which opens up the possibility of positive sum rivalries–competition for Nobel Prizes among scientists leads to cures and inventions for the rest of us, competition for higher profits and entrepenuerial pre-eminence leads to ever more diverse consumer goods, competition for artistic fame (Oscars and Pulitzers) leads to cultural wealth, and so on.  Here, though, I would suggest (or hypothesize) that the narrowing of horizons implicit in any act of deferral reaches a point where dangers to the signs generated can no longer be discerned.  I am not disputing the Hayekian point that in a market system knowledge is distributed throughout the system as a whole, in the hundreds of millions of daily exchanges carried out globally, and that such knowledge could never be effectively gathered in a single point.  My claim is different–there is nothing in the Hayekian model that says we can’t maintain some knowledge of the value of the market system itself, and the basic intellectual means for defending it against rivals; but nothing in the Hayekian model implies that such knowledge will be widely distributed either.  The market system relies upon, and would collapse without, such knowledge as that regarding the sacrality of the individual soul, of the disinterested mind, of the desire to be well thought of beyond one’s immediate circle (to think well of oneself when alone, for example), of the generative power of giving without any hope of receiving in turn, of devotion to some community larger than oneself and capable of preserving a history of exemplary actions (in turn necessary for all the other virtues I just listed), and so on.  The totalitarian eruptions of the 20th century, which have left as their residue (more deferral) White Guilt, perhaps the closest thing to an overarching theology in today’s world, suggest as much:  by itself, the market cannot defend itself against the resentment it inevitably generates, which accumulates and takes shape as social and political movements before the means of deferring it through the market have developed.  It might be, furthermore, that the kind of long term, supposedly permanent modes of deferral to which the liberal welfare state aspires (Social Security must never be questioned, because 19th century Dickensian workshops are ready to return at any moment, as soon as we let down our guard–this is itself part of the anti-totalitarian deferral, marked, as any deferral must be, by what it defers), now interferes with the kind of medium term forms of deferral we need to erect articulating the myriad short term forms on the marketplace; modes of deferral we might model on insurance, for example, where each one together with everyone else continually hedges, always improvising while gathering the best information available (and generating that very information in our gathering), against the catastrophes we know must be on the way, and will ultimately, in the really long run, overwhelm our best efforts (while–who knows–perhaps calling forth even better efforts of which we won’t be capable until we are capable); or on “intelligence,” listening to as much as we can, piecing together what we hear into plausible patterns (while remaining aware that we are probably blind to other, equally plausible patterns), finding ways of getting “inside” as many different institutions and communities as possible and finding ways to see beyond the way they self-consciously represent themselves to others and themselves.  Both “insurance” and “intelligence” are predicated upon the “imminence of imminence,” capable of memory and tradition while resistant to sclerosis and reactiveness, at least when submitted to the forms of transparency and accountability which correspond to the the structure of these modes of deferral (which is to say, when they aren’t mortgaged to “long term” projections which really aim at institutional self-protection).  And these are also modes of deferral which rely upon firstness–anyone can set a mode of intelligence in motion (by simply asking the questions no one else is), anyone, along with a few others, can cobble together a way of pooling resources against some of the most obvious and inescapable dangers of life–as opposed to the “all together now” model of modern liberalism which believes it can marginalize risk so thoroughly that it simply ends up demonizing whoever appears as its bearer.

Scenic Politics

October 19, 2006

The Coming Sparagmos?

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:36 am

These are not normal times.  It would be a mistake, I think, to see the Democrats gaining a majority in the House or Senate as the standard, people-punishing-the-President’s-party-in-the-sixth-year-of-his Presidency.  The Democrats offer nothing–indeed, claim to offer nothing–other than a ritualistic tearing apart and devouring of the Bush Administration and all of its works.  This will not merely be a question of more aggressive oversight, or a rolling back of some more “extreme” initiatives, or “teaching Republicans a lesson”–it will be non-stop subpoenas, impeachment, dismantling key elements of the War on Terror, an abandonment of Iraq, and a signal sent throughout the world to allies and enemies alike that the US cannot be relied upon, everyone should make their own accommodations in this “Final Conflict.”  The Democrats are a deeply pathological party, representing broader global forces absolutely inimical to constitutional government, free market economics, Christianity, Jews and Israel and any assertion of cultural boundaries set by a presumed common human origin.  Any idea that power will make them more responsible is as reasonable here as it has turned out to be with the Palestinians–there is no way Democrats in power would be able to resist the forces that have placed them there–the anti-war “netroots,” funded by George Soros and crazed by years of flailing against what they see as dark, conspiratorial forces. 

I am certainly not predicting such a Democratic victory–in fact, we will learn a lot about how completely the “mainstream media” has “jumped the shark” if, as I suspect, the poll results showing decisive, even overwhelming, Democratic gains are heavily and deliberately skewed for the purpose of demoralizing Republicans and depressing turnout.  But we will know about that soon enough–for now, it might be useful to reflect upon what such an upheaval would mean. 

First of all, it is a very strange time for such ominous clouds to be gathering over the Republican majority.  After all, what’s wrong, exactly?  The economy seems to be in excellent shape–here in Connecticut, one of the Democratic congressional candidates is running against “Bush’s disastrous economic policies” but has yet to specify wherein the disaster lies.  There was the Abramoff scandal, which tainted the Republicans, but, really, how much can that explain?  Mark Foley?–you must be kidding.  There have been no terrorist attacks on American soil which, for the nutroots, might suggest that the Bush Administration has frabricated the entire terrorist issue to implement its plans to install a fascist theocracy, but one would assume that for most Americans that would be an indication to leave well enough alone.  And issues like immigration and out of control spending generates significant resentment among conservatives, but how many people well enough informed to be focused on such issues would take their grievances to the point of wanting to see Speaker Pelosi wielding the gavel in January?

It must really be all about Iraq, it seems to me, and even here the source and logic of the complaint is not very clear.  Can one really doubt that it’s better for Saddam Hussein to be out and us to be in in Iraq?  That some 3,000 deaths is a remarkably low number of casualties?  That counter-insurgency wars are inherently unpredictable and require patience and an ability to improvise, and hence can’t be referred back to some “plan”?  That this is a long struggle and even the worst case scenarios in Iraq might contain a range of silver linings which, if we keep our heads, we should be able to exploit?

Obviously these are far from rhetorical questions–many, if not most people are doubting these things.  And if we look at the form the doubts take, I think we find something rather interesting.  Those who complain about the number of dead in Iraq will not consider themselves obliged to tell you how many dead they think would be “worth” obtaining our goal there–to some extent this is because those generating such resentments think that America asserting its power inevitably makes things worse so that it wouldn’t be worth a single death and they are simply manipulating the fears and compassion of others; but that wouldn’t explain why the argument seems effective beyond a small circle of the ideologically committed anti-Americans.  Nor does anyone feel obliged to tell you how long it should take to win (much less how they have “done the math” on these questions); or, to get into some of the more specific complaints, if we had tried to keep the Iraqi army in place after the invasion, what negative consequences might have flowed from our apparent identification with that oppressive force; or if we had not invaded Iraq, how would the sanctions regime we were previously enforcing be doing by this point; or… or…. in fact, hardly anyone seems obliged to construct an alternative scene predicated upon their complaint.  Almost everyone, as Victor Davis Hanson has repeatedly pointed out, seems immediately attuned to the “pulse of the battlefield,” reacting to the last crisis, the newly revealed vulnerable point in those actually responsible for making and implementing decisions. 

In other words, the threat to the Republican majority is more of a generalized resentment towards reality–the Republicans represent everything messy, sordid and compromised in our preliminary attempts to create a new world while (inevitably) steeped in the old one.  The Bush Doctrine has initiated a process which genuinely threatens established understandings of world order and the U.S. role in that order; for those transnational progressivists who saw history going their way during the 90s, this is all profoundly upsetting, almost a violation of natural law:  hence the bizarre alliance between those would would like to reconstruct the whole world order in accord with their own idealized, post-soveriegn, version of international law and the kind of old style “realist” who practically prides himself on his amorality. 

None of these alternatives has any answers to totalitarian Islam, which we would lose little understanding of (and gain much) were we to operate under the assumption that it is tailored from top to bottom to exploit each and every weakness, fantasy and vanity of the transnational progressives and realists alike.  And yet the Bush Doctrine has not imposed itself–far from it.  Bush’s own hesitations (which, for reasons I hope this post has made clear, I do not remark on with any sense of self-righteousness), especially in the area of personnel, and especially in uprooting the liberal and “realist” cultures in what should be two of our most engaged institutions (the CIA and State Department), are partly responsible; but so is the enormous resistance his initiatives has produced (the insurgency Bush really failed to anticipate is that of the transnational progressive elite) and the paradoxes and unintended consequences intrinsic to those intiatives.  What happens when a democratic election brings a totalitarian Islamic party, a devoted practioner of the worst kind of terror, to power?  I find it hard to even understand the moral emptiness it takes to pose such questions with a sneer, to discredit democratic transformation–in the name of what, exactly?  But it’s a real question, and a practical answer to it requires a more coherent response than the current divisions in our society and throughout the world seem to allow for. 

Perhaps the best way to put it is to note that, as yet, we simply have no measure for the effectivity, even meaning, of what we are doing.  We don’t have the necessary yardsticks for measuring success, because those yardsticks must be generated by events themselves in any new situation.  We are still applying yardsticks from the past:  WWII for supporters of the war, Vietnam for opponents (and these yardsticks, and many others, can be applied in various ways, producing varying degrees of real insight).  But the further along we go, the less these yardsticks will measure.  Whoever wins a couple of weeks from now, we will need to devise such measures, which is to say, we will need to participate in emitting a new sign, a new mode of deferral that can actually be tried out on the ground.  It may be that we will have to wait until the passion of the sparagmos–which, once it starts, will not remain limited to partisan Democrats–runs its course.  We’ll see what’s left.

Scenic Politics

October 15, 2006

On Conversion

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:01 am

Islam has been making steady headway in increasing its numbers in the West not only through a higher birthrate but through conversion, which has apparently accelerated since 9/11.  I would present, as a useful hypothesis, the likelihood that the emergent alliance between the Left and totalitarian Jihad will be “consecrated” at some point by substantial conversions among Leftists to Islam.  Why not?  Islam is undoubted the stronger, ascendent party and whatever secularist, Enlightenment scruples the Left once had are incompatible with postmodern White Guilt; anyway, the radical left in particular has always been confronted with the dilemma of how to communicate with its “natural” constituency (the “masses”) who, according to leftist (especially Marxist) theory itself are inevitably in thrall to all kinds of “reactionary” (nationalist, sexist, etc.) ideologies–one solution to this dilemma has always been to “speak in the language of the people” and conversion to Islam would simply be a somewhat more consistent version of this strategy. Not to mention that Islam is in many ways the religion most compatible with various positions of resentment within the West:  some sectors of the poor, racial minorities, prisoners, etc., who desire a religion that demands of them commitment, conformity and sacrifice while preserving and refining the intensity of their resentment for the normal bourgeois world. 

What, then, is the answer on the part of us members of the anti-White Guilt coalition, those who want to make the world safe for firstness?  I will suggest here that we should ourselves adopt “conversion” as a model of political and moral communication, one which is far more effective than models of “persuasion” which, to paraphrase Eric Gans on metaphysics, assume that the answer to one declarative statement is another declarative statement which in turn (here is the part generally left unexplained) somehow produces a third, significantly different declarative.  If such change takes place, though, it is because the ostensive has entered somewhere, and if the ostensive has entered it means a new sacred object has been indicated, leaving us with the question, how does one represent such an object to someone who embraces another mode of sacrality?  This seems to me to be a better, and more originary question, than those regarding which reasons people might find more convincing (which already presupposes a shared sacrality).

The answer to Islamic conversion, then, is a missionary spirit of our own.  I do mean this in the most literal sense: first of all, a primary pivot of our foreign policy should be insisting upon (first of all) the rights of Christians to proselytize and the rights of Muslims to convert.  Second, though, we should hope that Christians and even Jews take up (or where appropriate, intensify) the project of converting others–we should all be trying to convert each other, in other words.  At the same time, I present this proposal as a thought experiment, to indicate the kind of cultural transformations that would be necessary for us to possess and project a genuine civilizational self-confidence.  To the rather too obvious (and, of course, true) objection that people trying to convert you are inevitably obnoxious and the urgency invested in missionary activity necessarily subverts personal interaction–if you believe that Jesus and only Jesus saves (or–fill in the blanks), and all boundaries relegating this belief to certain areas of life are removed, what prevents you from becoming terminally intolerable and relations between co-workers, colleagues and even family members from becoming impossible?  Well, the answer is new conventions and norms of politeness–what interests me is the general possibility that conversations could at any point turn toward conversion if they attain the right level of seriousness and trust, not that it actually happens according to any preferred schedule or degree of regularity.  The removal of this taboo, at any rate, need not lead to an orgy of the kind of behavior we fear will raise the level of resentment on both local and global levels.  Our ability to sustain relationships which need not take such possibilities off the table will be an index of our freedom and culteral maturity (and a useful reminder that any religion supportive of habits required for modernity will have to be self-consciously chosen–which further helps us to counter the tendency to absorb religion into the “ascriptive” categories like race, gender and ethnicity, a mere source of victimization rather than an argument about the sacred).

Even more, I am contending that the notion of conversion needs to encroach upon secular territory, where it is already far more relevant than we might imagine:  think, for example, of how you came by your own political commitments and opinions–if they weren’t inherited from your family, then I would argue that you probably had, at some point, what was in effect a conversion experience:  such as being affected by the radiant example of some icon of resistance to injustice, or some violation of sacred principles by members of your own grouping so unforgivable that the principles are themselves irremediably tainted.

So, I will conclude with three points for further discussion:

First, a pillar of our foreign policy must be an open market in faith everywhere, but especially in the Muslim world.

Second, that conversion be seen as a broader, even privileged way of understanding subjective transformation in GA:  we move from one scene to another, drawn by the greater sacrality at its center (which leaves open for inquiry, of course, what makes one sacrality greater than another at a given point in space-time).  Not the only way of understanding subjective transformation, of course:  in fact, moving toward something like an originary psychology, we should want a catalogue of possibilities (another one, I would suggest, being “seduction”).

Third, we should see our own commitments to market society and constitutional order as something to which one converts, in the wake of being granted a revelation regarding the inadequate deferral capacities (the fragility of the scene) constituted by various “Big Man” models of order, attempts to return to a primitive egalitarianism, and so on:  our efforts at persuasion, then, can become the establishment of scenes rendering such revelations more accessible.  And this doesn’t mean PR efforts aimed at showing Western society in an unrealistically positive light:  rather, its a question of arranging in a spectacle all aspects of our society.  And, by the same token, we would thereby be devising tests to determine whether nominal commitments to freedom and democracy are merely that.


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