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.

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