Monthly Archives: October 2007

Witness Protection, or the Post Romantic Individual

To be a modern individual is to court, if only in the most distant, mild, or simulated way, the risk of being scapegoated.  This is the legacy of the Romantic stance invented by Rousseau, where, in a revision of the event of the crucifixion, the individual creates himself as a center of attention by claiming to be the victim of universal persecution; and successfully exploits both “defensive” and “offensive” responses to that claim as its confirmation.  However necessary and productive this stance may have been in the emergence of the individual on the modern market, it has clearly long since become pathological, starting with its appropriation by collective movements predicated upon their exclusion from the marketplace. 

If modernity is the expansion beyond the strictly liturgical realm of the Christian practice of imitating and witnessing for Jesus, the problem posed by the practice of drawing upon oneself that persecution lies in the formalization of that stance–the abstraction of the scapegoater/scapegoated relationship from any objective markers that the the scapegoat genuinely disseminates differences throughout society beyond the present capacity of the system of deferral to bear.  After all, once Jesus has exposed the arbitrariness of the scapegoat function, that function can no longer be arbitrary:  it is now he or she who confronts whosoever claims to be today’s “big man” with a broader mode of reciprocity and demands that society, and each individual, choose sides one way or the other.  The Rousseauian stance, then, would be less authentic–indeed, it would be a throwback to pre-Christian forms of scapegoating, with “markers” of the scapegoat disconnected from moral problematics–than that of he or she who risks scapegoating by speaking and acting openly in defense of others in danger of being scapegoated.

Since acting pre-emptively in defense of possible scapegoats leads to the construction of norms and institutions which would detect and defer such possibilities, the modern individual’s willingness to risk scapegoating would become increasingly mediated and the risk more widely distributed.  This might serve fairly well as a definition of “modern civilization.”  At the same time, this widened distribution increases the probability that the risks will never be serious; which is to say, it becomes increasingly difficult to describe them as “risks” at all:  the decent employee, law abiding citizen, good parent, etc., is, indeed, a product of a series of decisions, however buffered or unconsciously taken, to risk being the scapegoat, but the distance between our analytical appreciation of this fact and the actual experience of it is vast.  Hence not only the ever fresh temptation to take the Rousseauian shortcut to genuine individuality, but the ease with which that normal citizen can be scapegoated by the victimary claim that the normal is no more than a conspiracy to exclude. 

In that case, though, might not the victimary scapegoating return the normal citizen to his or her originary (modern) vocation as witness to the modern as the “secularization” of the Christian event?  The only problem with this formulation is that the victimary protest is a shell game insofar as those it scapegoats end up testifying, in their victimization, to the truth of the victimary.  The reason for this is Auschwitz theology, which has powerfully imprinted upon all contemporary events the inability of all the normal institutions to register the event of Auschwitz–not only did doctors, lawyers, bureaucrats, bourgeois citizens, etc., not resist, but they actively lent their skills, unthinkingly and in a sense, then, even more complicitly, to the industrialized slaughter.  There is enough truth to this intepretation of Auschwitz that the ranks of the bourgeoisie will produce no new universally accepted (or, we might say, non-ironic) martyrs until another event comes to supplant the Holocaust as the horizon of a new era.

There is nevertheless a central role for those of us who are more or less comfortably middle class and “protected” in the rejuvenation of modern individuality, and that role lies in the embrace, protection, and “privileging” of the genuinely new form of individuality emerging in our time:  that form represented by witnesses to non-modern cultures–whether those cultures be pre-modern, as much of the Islamic world, or (to awkwardly coin a phrase), “de-modernized,” as many impoverished, crime-ridden institution-poor communities, mostly populated by racial and ethnic minorities, in our inner cities.  Such witnesses, often scapegoated within their own communities as traitors and “Uncle Toms,” testify, as victims or at least targets of “our” victims, to the truth of modernity and, more specifically, to the devastation wrought by the White Guilt that encourages the substitution of limitless resentment for dialgoue and introspection.  Defending such “informants,” whether they be “dissident” African Americans like Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly or ex-Muslim “infidels” like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, demands about as much courage as one is likely to be expected to demonstrate in the elite institutions of the academy and media.  And it also requires the challenging work of repairing the damage done by resentment to the always fragile institutions and norms of modernity–looking at the “Global Intifada” that wages war on the intersection of the free market and the nation-state that sustains modernity from the Islamic world (increasingly in alliance with the resentment of the Left) on one side and the transnational progressives (who hope to subordinate nations to an international law circularly defined as whatever the international lawyers and bureaucrats say it is) we can see how fragile and even improbable modernity remains.

This alliance, or covenant, between the middle and the informant, would allow us to propose the “marginal individual” as the unit of measurement for social and political thought.  I don’t mean “marginalized,” but, in a loose borrowing from marginal utility economic theory, that hypothetical individual whose consent will make or break any regime or policy.  The strength of Leftist social and political arguments lie solely in their ability to present typical victims of their opponents’ policies and preferred institutional forms as comprising the majority and hence above the necessary threshold; even an injured child whose parents own several cars and a 300,000$ home can be presented as a victim of the “failure” to adequately insure all citizens.  The marginal individual would be one who is representable simultaneously as a victim of and as newly liberated and responsible under a given policy–conservatives at their best have sought to define such a marginal individual in their arguments for, e.g., welfare reform and school vouchers–the victim cut off from government largess is empowered to join genuine associational forms which enable her to determine her own fate.  This marginal individual will always be the one who must break from the victimary cocoon/prison in which she is enclosed; and those of us defending her must be prepared to face opprobrium and ridicule with equanimity, knowing that the individuals we “promote” might always fall back into “non-modern” conditions or the victimary bubble.  Moral, political and civilizational progress could then be measured in terms of the lowering of the threshold at which the new mode of individuality can be “detected”; that is, the extent to which each successful substitution of “guarantor” for “victim” further increases the difficulty of victimary representations.

Adam Katz

Victimary Statements; Statements of the Center

Victimary discourse has its own critique of metaphysics, which I would translate into originary thinking as follows.  Victimary discourse is fundamentally anti-mimetic:  mimesis leads inexorably to violence, and victimary discourse has faith neither in Girard’s Christian transcendence of the scapegoat nor a transcendent sign such as that posited in Eric Gans’ originary scene–the latter, in particular, could be no more than a “cover-up” of the originary violence enacted behind and constitutive of the scene.  The primacy of the declarative sentence would, for such a stance, be abhored for its internalization of mimesis:  the possibility, constitutive of the declarative, that a “fictional” world could “imitate” the “real” one.  Such representation as imitation occludes the originary violence and even if the more sophisticated victimary thinker recognizes that the occlusion of violence is simultaneously an at least minimal mitigation of that violence, we can no longer accept that trade-off in good faith:  even at the possible price of our own destruction, the forgetting that we have forgotten the originary violence must be resisted. 

It also follows, then, that victimary discourse is just as terrified of the originary ostensive as metaphysics.  Indeed, victimary discourse is a kind of heretical, parasitical, sectarian breakaway formation, ever engaged in its shadow boxing with metaphysics.  It wouldn’t be quite right to characterize the victimary as “anti-declarative” (they are not about to boycott the sentence), but it does insist on “staining” the “mirror” of the ideal or fictional world of the declarative, which claims to represent “nature.”  A sentence can be stained in many ways.  Perhaps most obvious is Derrida’s Heideggerean (but quickly abandoned) placing of especially complicit words (above all, the copula) “under erasure.”  And there are the compulsory, ubiquitous scare quotes (I just found it impossible to summarize victimary discourse without a whole series of them.).  Almost as common, and for my purposes here more interesting, is what we might call the obligatory negation familiar to any reader of either “high” academic theory or cultural and postcolonial studies:  locutions like “of course, I don’t mean to suggest…”; “this shouldn’t be taken to support…”; “for readers who wish to implicate my discourse in the common sense, this would be misread as…”, etc.  These obligatory negations go well beyond the normal anticipation of misunderstandings and questions and exhibit markedly pathological features:  if the declarative makes an absent object present as a sign, the obligatory negation, itself, of course, a declarative of an especially strident type, makes absent an object which one fears is present–the sign itself, which would absorb one, overwhelming all resistance, into the dreaded center.

In that case, it is worth considering whether we can distinguish between more or less healthy declarative forms, between victimary ones and those of the center.  Would more directly political and substantive declaratives like, say, “Capitalism is exploitation” and “America is racist” share an identifiable structure with the obligatory negation, that of a kind of self-cancelling declarative?  Could we, in contrast, identify a structure common to “conservative” (or, really, classically liberal or conventionally patriotic) declaratives, like “the free market is the best means for producing wealth” and “America is a good society”? A declarative of the center would include in its formulation a common and ever receding horizon, while the victimary declarative would fix our attention on a rapidly approaching, even if never quite arriving, catastrophic object.

I do think it is possible, and would propose as a kind of proof text a famous declarative of Churchill’s (the brilliance of which I have heard Eric Gans remark upon):  “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.”  This statement might serve us as a kind of template:  any statement that can be translated into this form passes muster as a declarative of the center, and those which can’t are deemed victimary.  Churchill’s declarative is genuinely originary because it stands in the midst of while simultaneously transcending competing and potentially deadly terms.  You can only attack it by proposing another, better, form of government, which the statement implicitly invites you to attempt, but in so doing have you not demanded a place to speak within the existing democratic order?  So:  “the free market is the worst way of producing wealth except for all the others that have been tried.”  That works perfectly well:  one need not idealize the market, and this formulation openly invites us to focus on its flaws, inequities, occasional destructiveness and corrosive effects on benign traditions.  In the end, none of these claims detracts from the market’s superiority; in fact, any other form of wealth production or distribution you can try will be drawn back into the market, and we can wait patiently for that confirmation.  And:  “America is an awful society, except when compared to most of the others, real or possible, one could imagine.”  That seems to me to hold up pretty well, and Chruchill himself even had a version:  “Americans will always do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.”

I don’t think it works at all, though, for our prototypical victimary statements.  The singling out of a uniquely virulent perpetrator doesn’t allow for it:  “capitalism is an excellent mode of distribution, until you have seen all the others”: “America is a land of racial equality, until you have seen the others”–the statements lose all of their sense in the translation.  (A more decent, big government liberalism fares better, I think:  “a vigorous public sphere and expansive government intervention in the economy is the worst way of remedying the excesses of the market, except for all the others that have been tried.”  This lacks the near-axiomatic status of our pro-market statement, but it at least invites a civil and reasonable attempt at falsification, an attempt which is by no means assured of success.) 

This pathological form, then, could be further defined by the lack of almost any boundary between declarative, imperative and ostensive in victimary discourse:  to say, “America is racist,” is to command speaker and listener alike to demolish American racism by “any means necessary” and, further, to find and point out ostentatiously all instances (especially the most hidden and therefore insidious instances) of racism wherever one turns.  “Capitalism is exploitation” likewise compels one to devote oneself to denouncing all apparently non-exploitative aspects of capitalism as “ideological” mechanisms, concealing the true nature of the mode of production.  If metaphysics hopes, by asserting the primacy of the declarative, to maintain some semblance of stability in the wild worlds of ostensives and imperatives by situating them within legitimately procedural and deliberative forms, victimary discourse is a veritable control freak–the declarative must include all possible imperatives and ostensives that might flow from it.  The declarative of the center, meanwhile, is content to let us view and consider all other alternatives, secure in the knowledge that the inexhaustibility of the sign in its latest incarnation, and the irreducible event-fulness and freedom constitutive of human existence, will ultimately provide us with the slack and guidance we need to find our way back to the “least worst.”  The only imperative inherently attached to declaratives of the center is the one commanding us to be ready to see and hear, in the middle of our most tempting resentments, signs that what seems to us the worst might really be least worse, which would simultanously be signs pointing us toward the way in which we might make it lesser still.

Adam Katz

Ostensive Freedom All the Way Down (More Commentary on Chronicle #348)

Metaphysics is the assumption of the primacy of declarative sentence.  What is the source of this assumption; and what is our concern with it?  Is it simply that metaphysics is wrong in its occlusion of the primacy of the ostensive, or are there ethical stakes involved?  Gans has observed that the denial of the ostensive in metaphysics (the mode of thought of post-ritual order) may have been necessary to distance that order from the charged nature of the ostensive; perhaps the ostensive becomes “charged” once the recognition emerges that there is no way of satasifactorily arbitrating between mutually exclusive ones.  In that case, is it equally, or even more, necessary now not to place too much pressure on the declarative “order”?  Do we enter dangerous territory when we engage in the deconstruction or dismantling of Western metaphysics–a pedestrian academic exercise these days, I know, but does that mean we have accounted for the broader social consequences?  Or, on the contrary, are such exercises doomed to remain esoteric and ineffectual:  if declarative freedom, our freedom to determine together the nature of the imperatives by which we will be bound, is constitutive of liberal democracy, then isn’t liberal democracy the apotheosis of metaphysics, insofar as it attributes ruling force to the declarative?  And what, exactly, leaving aside the claims of philosophical purity, would be one’s objection to that?

(What follows will be in large part a reading of Eric Gans’ account of the emergence of the declarative sentence through transformations in the ostensive and imperative forms in his The Origin of Language.  It would, it seems to me, be tedious in this forum to “account” for my reading.  I will leave it to my readers to note which parts of Gans’ analysis I am addressing, which neglecting, what I am adding or revising, and what, perhaps, I am simply misreading.)

The ostensive names the central object and thereby constitutes it as sacred Being.  Once one object has been thus designated and thereby preserved as the ritual center of the emergent community, the same mode of signification can be applied to the naming of other objects–we should imagine that instances of imminent mimetic crisis will still provide the motive for such gestures, but the instances would become less urgent, more “routine,” as the gestures involved come to mediate more and more practices.   Once the sacred “buffalo” has been named in an event that saves/creates the community, the more “profane” “rabbit” can be pursued by two or more hunters in a more coordinated manner than would otherwise be possible.  As a stock of names thus accumulates, the appearance of what Gans calls the “inappropriate” ostensive, emitted in the absence of the object, being accepted as an imperative to produce the object (again, accepted as a way of deferring conflict), becomes increasingly probable.  It would seem that the “successful” imperative is less likely to take place with regard to the object of some pursuit, which could not be readily produced upon demand, than with some implement of the hunt (or equivalent activity) which could have already been named in one of the less high stakes events I just referred to–like, say, a spear.

Finally, we would have, as a reply to an “inappropriate” imperative (in some situation in which the object cannot be produced), the “negative ostesnive,” in which the name of the object is simply repeated, deferring the anticipated response to the unfulfilled imperative.  If this response is accepted (if the demand is not pursued to the point of crisis), the negative ostensive becomes the germ of the declarative, since it “refers” to the absence of the object.  For the negative ostensive to become a genuine declarative (with what Gans calls here a relation between “topic” and “comment”), something must be said “about” the topic, or object in question.  This something must come from the stock of names or nominals already generated by the community of sign users.  What is the nature of the comment upon the topic in such a situation?  The negative ostensive, which sometimes works, hasn’t worked in this instance:  the absence of the object must be presented in some more “persuasive” way.  I would suggest that the comment must involve more than representing the absence of the object as a proximal presence–that is, it must be more than “spear over there” or “spear home”, because such a response would likely exacerbate rather than quell the crisis by intensifying the demand that the object be retrieved and produced. 

The more likely name to be introduced in lieu of the failure of the negative ostensive, I propose, is the Name-of-God, of the originary, sacred object.  The Name-of-God does more than designate a particular object; it communicates the repulsive force of the center and, I would hypothesize, this repulsive force would be needed to enable the leap into a new linguistic form predicated upon the object’s absence and its replacement by the presence of the linguistic form itself.  The object’s absence is substituted for by God’s presence.  So, the first declarative would be something like “God (here)/(not) spear.”  “God/spear” would call for the same response on the part of the “imperator” as the Name-of-God effected for all the participants on the originary scene.  The iteration of this linguistic form for other objects would then be generalizable along the lines of “God presences otherwise than as_______” The verb form would first of all name God’s presencing here, and could then be applied to all other forms of “presencing.”  Other objects could be inserted into this formal structure, as originally took place with ostensive.

If God presences otherwise than as ______, then He presences as the sentence itself, insofar as it “makes sense” or is “understood.”  If the listener thus accepts the sentence (he doesn’t pursue his demand), then he has accepted the speaker’s “invitation” to see the presencing of God in other declaratives which will be as fleeting as the one just heard, which vanished in the instant in which it was “understood.”  This “invitation,” moreover, must be accepted by the listener as an internalized imperative now directed toward himself, a directive to be prepared to treat the next declarative ostensively, as pointing to a new form of sacred Being (an “otherwise” form of God’s presencing).  Insofar as it defers the impossible imperative, or perhaps colliding imperatives, by thus internalizing and redirecting the imperative form toward a new kind of ostensive gesture, the declarative transcends but also includes these lower linguistic forms.  So, for the listener (which includes the speaker as well as listener to his own sentence), each declarative (in its internal iteration, its “making sense”) would have the general form (which could be “diagrammed”) of:  “Present yourself before the space where God’s otherwise presencing will be revealed.”  In turn, the increasing range of application of the declarative would increase the range of possible imperatives and the compelxity of various interactions between imperatives and their “softened” form,  interrogatives; which would, then, push the declarative form to unfold more of its potential.

The problem with the primacy of the declarative in metaphysics is that it reduces all meaning to the distinction between true and false, or (a softer version) substantial/acccidental.  The verification conditions can never be made commensurate with the statement to be judged, though:  in the end, one has to “see” the object whose reality is to be ascertained, and no rule can account for what would count as doing so.  In the political context, this leads us to endless arguments over incommensurable models of the social.  The problem here is not that the arguments are endless; rather, it is that the models of the social in question are not only incommensurable with each other but with the forms of power articulated so as to “realize” one or the other.  On this point, Richard Rorty is right when he points out that, say, John Rawls’ model of originary equality, while apparently meant to authorize a version of the modern Western welfare state could just as easily be used to justify an extreme libertarian argument–one simply needs to contend that it is the unlimited workings of the free market and expanding individual freedom vis a vis that state that will improve the conditions of the least well off.

Even better! one might respond:  that’s precisely what makes it a viable model–it allows for a range of legitimate arguments while excluding the extremes destructive of the liberal order (although, whether one could find a way to use Rawls to justify fascism, apartheid, or communism perhaps remains to be seen; or, rather, depends upon forms of interpretive ingenuity we haven’t yet seen). But leave aside the creeping cynicism of such an approach (once one knows that it is only “my” Rawls that enables me to argue for my pet project, can I continue to make the argument in good faith? [what role does “good faith” argumentation play in liberal democracy?]).  Even more problematic is its mind numbing monotony–how long does it take before one has figured out every possible move in public, gladitorial-style contests over the re-application of the favored models?    

The possibility of treating the declarative sentence ostensively, as a calling into being of a world centered upon ourselves as sign-producers and renewers of sacrality is what makes Gans’ fourth, “discursive,” freedom, possible.  The most powerful declarative would be the one capable of the most varied searches for ways of placing oneself before the space in which God’s otherwise presencing will be revealed.  Such a declarative will enact or embody such a search, which is perhaps simply a way of reminding ourselves that when and where one makes a declarative statement matters.  “All men are created equal” is not always equally charged–it matters whether the one saying it is placing his freedom and life on the line in doing so. (How else could we ever know what such a phrase really meant?)

The freest declarative, then, will be the one that places itself at the intersection of “unreasonable” (impossible) imperatives, demanding that those issuing the imperative either enforce that demand in the face of the speaker’s refusal (a refusal on the grounds that its implementation would close the space of God’s otherwise presencing or, more simply, the space in which successive declaratives could be issued) or echo the “universal” principle (universal because allowing for unlimited iterations) which has, in that case, demonstrably inhibited one’s will to enforce. 

For the metaphysical supporter of liberal democracy, our arguments over the election of representatives and the laws they then make and enforce is all there is.  Those who violate or fail to enforce laws, those who take responsibility for deploying the power they have been delegated in unauthorized ways to meet unprecedented circumstances, those who fail to adhere to the rules of public discourse (argumentation following an accepted or “certified” model of the social) are simply unintelligible or worse.  A metaphysical liberal can easily accept the results of the civil rights movement after the fact (the results conform to a very recognizable model); would his liberalism have given him the moral grounding for supporting it when doing so would earn him the opprobrium of neighbors, co-workers and family?  Setting aside my own thinking on the matter, while those conservatives who take an “enforcement first” stance on illegal immigration have an impeccable theoretical stance (who could be against enforcing the law–if you want more immigrants, change the law accordingly) they miss, it seems to me, this “ostensive” dimension to freedom:  how will people respond when they are asked to turn in their neighbors and co-workers, or when they are asked to enforce laws requiring them to round up and deport entire families?  Neither the conservative imperative nor the liberal declarative is enough to account for our politics, on the boundary between the victimary on one side deliberately determined forms of reciprocity on the other.  Metaphysical liberalism doesn’t want to change the nature of imperatives; it wants to ensure their legitimacy and hence certainty.  A post-metaphysical, generative liberalism would embed imperatives in structures of transparency and accountability that produce new imperatives by checking others, placing each of us on both sides of the imperative in as “equally” distributed manner as possible; modelling the social in novel forms of solidarity, responsibility and reciprocity, rather than applying a model of the social.

All freedom is ostensive in the simple sense that freedom has to mean that no one knows what I am going to say or do next–if I am either predictable or controlled I am not free.  But “no one” has to include myself–I also must not know what I am going to say or do until I hear or see it (if I could know, others could too).  So, such freedom involves a perpetual readiness to hear and see something one has never seen and heard before; something astonishing and unprecedented, new forms of God’s otherwise presencing.  Such freedom can by no means be reduced to the political, but politically its consequence is that those who embrace such a freedom are our greatest and maybe only surety against all totalitarianisms–and the terror of such freedom on the part of any one who would like to see our imperatives obeyed unconditionally means that we will never have seen the last of the totalitarian imperative.

Adam Katz