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


  1. SP, that was not an easy paragraph to get through. It might help GAers in general if they realized that not everyone can read and reflect with any grace or facility at this level of abstraction. I intuit a lot of substance in there, but it’s very hard for me to glean it. I really don’t know what this post is about, and I really tried . . Most readers might give up about 1/5 of the way into it.

    I’m not a brilliant person, but I suppose I’m reasonably well educated (by late 20th century US standards), and I really do try to understand GA. I find it tough. I feel that the communicability of GA is a genuine problem.

    I understand that this is a blog post and not a formal publication, but nevertheless, I really think your post should really be 4 or 5 separate paragraphs at least and should be written more plainly. Would it be possible to restate that in simpler language, with suitable pauses (paragraphs) that allow one to parse the stages of argument?

    From my poor reading of the post, I can only offer this, at this point. There might be a kind of (possibly quite ordinary, everyday) “idealism” that makes life and effort humanly worthwhile, and then there’s the market, which (however “imperfectly”) really does benefit humanity tremendously. Yet it’s very hard to be “idealistic” about the market, as the market. To “save the soul” of civilization, I’m beginning to wonder (this is probably derivative) if there should not be some core of monasticism, a retreat, a withdrawal, an ascetisicm–not for everybody, but for a sizeable number and probably a bigger number than now. Might this not anchor civilization, to some extent, and keep everyone from going nuts?

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — November 2, 2006 @ 7:41 am

  2. I appreciate the effort you made, and apologize for the obscurity. I was trying (for one thing) to incorporate into the writing or “style” the obscurity that I am suggesting is a crucial part of deferral itself. In the midst of a crisis, from which one can only think of extricating oneself and others, you can see only a few things, very intensely but in a very narrow focus; when the crisis subsides (because one has indeed succeeded) things to which you necessarily blinded yourself can come into view, but only insofar as one is no longer intervening in the situation: it’s the difference between discovering and/or inventing an adequate sign and seeing the object in the full light of that sign once it has “worked” (and in this moment, it’s the sign that seems “transparent” or a direct reflection of reality and goes unnoticed qua sign). My point is that one cannot occupy both perspectives simultaneously, and that this is a key distinguishing character of GA as a mode of thought–more “metaphysical” ways of thinking about addressing crises, like “resolution,” claim to be able transcend this “doubleness.” This claim then, as you see, does lead to some questions regarding the relation between everyday, normal existence on the market and other “spaces” where saintliness, heroism, intellectual and artistic excellence for their own sakes can be protected and promoted. But the more immediate purpose of my post was to point to some middle ground in between the “normal” and what I like to call the “disciplinary”–in this middle ground, the “doubleness” itself is put to work, as when you give each member of a group one very specific thing to do while also, from that very partial standpoint, finding a way to incorporate what everyone else in the group is doing. The idea is to use or organize, consciously, the way in which knowledge aggregrates in the market place through spontaneous interaction, as it seems to me insurance companies must do.

    Comment by adam — November 2, 2006 @ 8:44 am

  3. This paragraph grows on me each time I read it. It distills ideas SP has been working with for some time; so it’s dense, surely not so easy for those who missed earlier essays, but a potent brew.

    It has me thinking of the “Car-b-ques” in France. Someone told me today there have been 51 000 cars torched this year alone – not counting the many that were burned last fall. I wonder how the French insurance industry has responded. I could look into this – I don’t even know if they have state or private car insurance corporations in France. Anyway, I wonder at what point it will be a pressing necessity for those involved in short and medium term deferrals (and in re-insurance businesses internationally?) to push the French state to rework the terms of the national or republican covenant – the longer term forms of deferral – in ways that can permit the continued viability of basic forms of insurance, and not only those within what we consider the purview of the welfare state that receive more public attention. Or is the hypothesis here that the more extendable signs of nationhood simply need to be stabilized, not reworked in response to apocalyptic frenzies, and attention refocussed so as to allow for a revitalization and re-articulation of the many secondary signs?

    Comment by John — November 3, 2006 @ 2:03 am

  4. Thanks, Adam, for tuning it down for me. I promise, I’m working on understanding this. The analogy with something like a reversible figure paradox (can see one or not the other but not both) is useful. When you and John speak of “signs” in this specific context, what do you mean, exactly? What kind of “sign” is generated/invented in the context of an ongoing, present day crisis or resolution? Do you mean like the way Eric Gans proposes that the Holocaust or Hiroshima create signs that define and situate everything (for a while)?

    To my somewhat limited understanding, this seems rather the reverse of what you are describing–in the sense that the confusion and disorientation is before and during the crisis, and only afterward does it resolve to clarity, with the (seeming) transparency you describe well. Or in other words, the sign CAN BE (though does not necessarily have to be) more like the defining aftermath, after the crisis, rather than something generated in the process of it. But this is probably getting off track (albeit not as totally off track as my tangential monastic reverie).

    To take the French example, though, it seems to be a case of mass confusion and very, very conflicting signals (multiculturalism, denial, National pride, seething resentment, violence, intolerance, and a kind of thuggish “protection racket” operating at a mass scale–where the mob actually is “the mob”). It seems less like a sign in the process of being generated/created than a situation in which nothing is going to resolve this but events themselves–after which there will be a defining “sign” of some sort that sorts out the complexity. In fact, the engine of sign making seems almost to be this huge pressure itself, the pressure of all these conflicting and overwhelming signals being unable to sort themselves out.

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — November 3, 2006 @ 6:25 am

  5. You are both pinpointing very well the kind of thing I’m getting at–starting with Matt’s latest, I can see why you would say that what I am describing seems to be the reverse of the kind of sign Gans describes as coming in the wake of the Holocaust or Hiroshima, but we really are on the same page here: I am trying to find a way to talk about what comes in between the “confusion and disorientation” and the “clarity”–some “preliminary” intimation of a possible clarity that one then follows by placing some minimal, provisional order in the “conflicting and overwhelming signals.” My claim is that the original “signifier” (whoever put forth the first sign) must have done something like that, so that we are capable of it too, and that while this capability can’t be reduced to a clear method or system, it can become what Charles Sanders Peirce called a “deliberately formed, self-analyzing habit.”

    With regard to the alternatives John puts forward (to rework or stabilize the more long term national signs) all I can say, is yes, that’s the question: these more medium term institutions should provide “intelligence” or “data” that get processed by the “higher order” communal signs–those higher order signs (like our Constitution or even more “civilizational” signs) must remain at a level of sufficient abstraction (providing the bare minimum terms of living together in ordered liberty) so that we can use it to process this data. When issues like health care, social security, environmental regulation, etc., get raised to the level of “rights,” i.e., are incorporated into the higher order signs, then practices at that level, where social relations and technological developments create constant change, no longer provide the needed intelligence, and we are stuck waiting for the entire system to break down.

    Comment by adam — November 3, 2006 @ 7:48 am

  6. John and Adam, judge for yourselves whether this has any relevance, because I can’t judge myself!

    Some of this puts me in mind of my forrays (seems so long ago) into chaos theory.

    When I think of the the one kind of case (fuzz/noise resolving into signal) against the opposite case (signal breaking up into fuzz/noise), I think of the well-known bifurcation diagram:

    It can go either way, in other words. Magnification of scale at the crucial transition points will be fractal (I think). But I don’t know the math, and I may be getting into a “map is not the territory” problem, where I get hung up on the graphics without really understanding the dynamics.

    But anyway, an opposite case, where beat/signal resolves into fuzz/noise might be the collapse of the Soviet Union. Here too, we have a defining sign (Berlin Wall, 1989) post-facto.

    This might be a useful case, because we did in fact have “undercurrents” big and small determining outcome (Lech Walesa, Solidarity, JP II, Reagan, Thatcher, Gorby) in the way you describe.

    In Christian terms, the effect is called “leaven,” I think. In crude topological terms, it might be (again from chaos theory) the little spot in the toffee, whilst the toffee making machine stretches and folds, stretches and folds, until that dot is distributed throughout the whole toffee.

    I am in broad agreement about the unsustainability of micro-management, but I probably cannot state it in rigorous theoretical terms.

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — November 3, 2006 @ 8:54 pm

  7. I certainly think in terms of chaos theory, which seems to me a very event based mode of analysis (although I also can’t do the math–nor do I care, because anything that can’t be put in human, i.e., scenic, terms, is ultimately of limited relevance to humans)), and I think the currently popular notion of a “tipping point” is very helpful and so is “sensitivity to initial conditions.” There are some versions of postmodern thought (Deleuze, for one) which seem to me to be drawing on such theories, but the crucial difference with GA is that we know what provides the “leaven”: a new, unique act of deferral that follows from everything that has come before (it is a product of the crisis) while simultaneously being irreducible to it. I think that analyzing the kinds of events you refer to in these terms would revolutionize the social sciences.

    Comment by adam — November 4, 2006 @ 2:20 pm

  8. Adam, am I correct in assuming that what you’re positing (in the opening post) is a kind of “sub-atomic particle” of the originary sign? Or is that the wrong way to put it?

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — November 6, 2006 @ 3:25 am

  9. I do see an event/sign duality and complementarity modeled on the wave/particle duality of quantum physics. I am also extremely reticent about such things, as a barely literate lay interpreter of science must be. I can’t help but be interested in relativity and quantum physics, and so it necessarily enters my thinking; at the same time, I am aware that I am simply using them as metaphors which must work as concepts on the terms of GA itself–that is, I am very careful not to “cheat” and let these revolutionary scientific ideas make the case that the after all no less revolutionary conception of the originary scene must be able to generate on its own.

    Comment by adam — November 6, 2006 @ 7:34 am

  10. Yes, I did not mean this (or the chaos theory reference) as anything other than an analogy to help me grasp your elaboration of GA. I agree about the math/science limitations re: humans, and that’s one thing I took away from _Science and Faith_ as well.

    Another one to throw in for good measure (again, only as an analogy) is cosmology and the big bang. In your opening post, you may be doing something like getting into the first nanoseconds of the originary event, and looking for some crucial sub-signal or value that determined the outcome. Just a thought.

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — November 7, 2006 @ 5:26 am

  11. Yes–Gans speaks of a “little bang” at the origin of humanity, but for the sake of getting “inside” the event, that’s not a crucial difference–in my understanding, what Newtonian physics assumed were universal, eternal laws of motion can in fact to traced back to the configuration of the original event, which is really still with us, still unfolding–again, of course, as a productive analogy.

    Comment by adam — November 7, 2006 @ 8:31 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Powered by WordPress