GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

December 12, 2007

The Global Civil War of Position

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:09 pm

Assume, as per the Girardian account of human origin, that there can be no originary scene without a scapegoat; further assume, contra Girard, that the crucifixion of Jesus was just one more in a long series of scapegoatings, resolving nothing but rather making the process even more insidious because the victim in this case openly asks for it; and, finally, assume that all of the modern social forms that claim to transcend scapegoating, like the nation state, individual rights and liberties, the modern market, etc., are themselves simply extensions and concealments of the now global, unified process of scapegoating (the nation produces the despised minority, the market the exploited poor, individual rights the culturally othered, etc.).  Add to this the immeasurable means of destruction available within this system, and the recent demise of the only possible (because sceneless) alternative to scenic liberty, and you have the ideology of the contemporary Left.  If you believe all these things, where do you look for political salvation, or at least relief–how, if nothing else, do you throw up some roadblocks to the stampede?  Your mission must be to prevent any scene from arriving at closure.  Scapegoating requires some “mark” be attributed to the scapegoat–the more that mark singles out the scapegoat as an object of attention, and as dangerous or subversive in some way to the community, the more it would set in motion the stampede.  What you must do is prevent any mark from taking shape.  You can recognize, in theory, that individuals and even members of groups (at the very least, voluntarily formed groups) might accumulate and call for marks for perfectly legitimate reasons; but overshadowing that abstract recognition is the deeper knowledge that the distinction between legitimate markings and scapegoating will ultimately be made by the same communal mechanism as would orchestrate any scapegoating, so, for all practical purposes, the distinction is irrelevant; even worse, it must be attacked as a distraction, one that the leaders of mobs (the ones with the torches) will predictably deploy.  You must simply reject any marking–wherever some marking is starting to take shape, you must foreground whatever in the potentially marked group resists such marking.  At the same time, there is one exception to your absolute opposition to marking: it is essential that you mark the unmarked markers. Marking the “white” markers, as you have learned from bitter experience, is a question of both sheer survival and justice (they will destroy you if given half a chance; and they deserve it–now all will be marked and a version of original sin put in place); even more, you must do so pre-emptively, because they are experts and it comes naturally to them, while you have to keep reminding yourself to be tough enough. Doing whatever is required to prevent the consolidation of any “mark,” along with the seemingly contradictory task of marking up the putative markers; inventing entire disciplines and political movements dedicated to nothing more than the invention of ways to disrupt “marking” and bring those responsible into ill repute–this is all of the activity of the contemporary Left–they do nothing else.

That is certainly enough to keep them very busy, though–it may be necessary to represent the “marked-up” as “resistant” to being marked, as challenging the stereotpye through the formation of their own “agency”; but, then, that “resistant” agency can itself become part of the “mark-up” (the group in question is violent, unruly, or untrustworthy), in which case it becomes necessary to deny that the “group” in question exists in any determinate form (it is just a product of the “marking” itself); it may be necessary to discover all kinds of facts that have been ignored in the process of marking that group and simply repeating them whenever you get the chance–but it might also be necessary to produce wholly fictional versions of the group, which can always be justifable on anti-marking grounds. And there can be all kinds of interesting debates about whether marking proceeds along lines of some kind of material interest or is “constitutive”; over which groups are genuinely in danger of being marked (how about veterans?), the various gradations and combinations of markings, and so on.

It is important to analyze the Left on two levels.  First, as a mode of sacrality, a religion:  in this case, the Left could be seen to be worshipping the actual or prospective victim of the normal and we could trace a line from the original victims of the Left (free thinking intellectuals and democrats persecuted by the Church and Absolutist regimes) through the emergence of the “masses” in the Western countries, victims of the gigantic “sparagmos” of the Industrial Revolution, through to women and, especially, the Third World, in the wake of the post-Leninist turn in revolutionary socialism toward oppressed nations as stand-ins for the disappointing Western proletariat.  At an earlier, more “heroic” stage, the Left claimed a project of social transformation in socialisms which, in originary terms, we could simply define as the fantasy of abolishing scenes altogether in our collective subsumption under natural-technological processes; with the collapse of this project, though, the Left is really a death-cult:  the victims of the normal must continually be slaughtered, actually and symbolically, in order for the normal order to be forever marred, forever guilty, incomplete, in need of absolution.

This does not mean that the Left has no political form, of course:  politically, the various currents of the Left have merged into a “transnational progressivism,” in which a post-national international law, with its legitimating roots in the post-War Nuremberg Trials and associated legal innovations, buttressed by the equally transnational, adversarial media and academic establishments, progessively neturalizes all the elements of national and cultural life that might conceivably restart the clash of private and public interests which (on this account) led to the catastrophe of the two world wars (the founding, traumatic scene of modern scapegoating).  But such a world would be intrinsically static, which is to say the telos of transnational progressivism is as much a fantasy as socialism; insofar as the Left is a movement, which is to say, moves–responds to and generates events–it is currently the Global Intifada, an unsteady but sufficiently coherent conjoining of violence and threats of violence which for the most part stays just below the threshold needed to trigger massive retaliation (mostly Muslim, but drawing in the remnants of the socialist Left, e.g., Venezuala); and the ongoing, mobile international war crimes tribunal/class action lawsuit conducted by the elite media human rights groups, NGOs and educational institutions throughout the West.

What this means is that we in the West are in a state of civil war:  that is, a struggle between opposing forces or factions within the same society who recognize incommensurable sovereigns.  There are those of us who recognize the sovereignty of the U.S. Constitution, and those of us who recognize the sovereignty of international post-Nuremberg law. (I apologize for the American-centric character of my argument; am I so wrong in my assumption, though, that if the United States doesn’t remain on the constitutional side in this civil war, it won’t matter very much what anyone else does?) This condition is disguised by the exaggerated, even cult-like, obeisances the Left pays to the Constitution; but the Consitution they adore is not one that would be recognizable to anyone reading the actual text, along with the debates over its ratification, and with the post-Civil War amendments particularly in mind–rather, it is a Constitution which, over the past half century or so has been reshaped along transnational progressive lines, aimed at liquidating intermediate levels of authority between the sovereign state and the sovereign individual (who is therefore defined more and more against local communities, traditional norms and public opinion) and (more recently) subordinating American policy to international actors and agendas. 

One naturally hestitates to use the term “civil war” not merely because it implies a degree of hostility and division few would wish to concede, but for the more empriical reason that it doesn’t look like a civil war:  no one can really picture “reds” and “blues” facing off in military or physical confrontation.  But, here, the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci (an important forerunner of the contemporary Left)’s distinction between a “War of Maneuver” and a “War of Position” is helpful:  a war of maneuver is when one actually destroys or dislodges the enemy from some position they hold; the war of position is the struggle to occupy those positions which would give one an insuperable advantage once we get to the war of maneuver.  And, of course, if one gains such an advantage, there will be no “actual” war.  In that case, winning the war of position is enough, especially if it is won (as wars of position tend to be) gradually, even imperceptibly, and by subtly “re-inscribing” the positions everyone already occupies so that the war appears to be (even to some of those waging it) merely needed reform of an antiquated set of relationships–in that case, only when one looks back after it is over, or finds out that some customary act is suddenly forbidden, some commonsensical sentiment suddenly unintelligible, does one see the real relation between victor, victim, and spoils.  It is impossible to go for too long without realizing one is in a war of maneuver; but in an intelligently executed war of position, one can indeed be unaware, giving an enormous advantage to those waging it coherently and determinedly.

Just as it is fairly easy to identify the enemy in this global civil war of position, it is easy to identify the means and goal of struggle:  the latter, the restoration where necessary and protection where still possible of commensurability between acts and consequences; which commensurability is the sole guarantee of freedom; the former, the defeat of our “victims” through the defense of their victims, a strategy that works equally well against our jihadist enemies as against our Leftist ones (really, anyone can play:  for example, in harping on the racial disparity in those imprisoned for violent crimes, isn’t one obscuring the racial–and gender!–disparity in the victims of those crimes?).  “All” that needs to be worked out is the proper mode of doing so in each case, on the battlefield, in knowledge, in the media, the law, diplomacy, and so on. 

One thing we are certainly learning these days is how high are the demands of a free order, and how powerful the desire to submit, already, if we can just have stability, if we can just be allowed to ignore prattle about health care proposals rather than having to hear about threats and destruction.  (I, at least, start to look back and wonder:  would we have won World War II if the USSR had not been attacked by Nazi Germany, bringing both Stalin and our own domestic Left onto our side?; would our steadfastness in the Cold War have survived one more “hot” episode on the order of Korea or Vietnam?)

Where are we now?  The one bright spot is Iraq, which contains all the pertinent components of the war, in both its “civil” and “foreign” dimensions:  we are defeating a powerful form of Islam (after having defeated one of the leading practitoners of a newly resurgent–as in Russia–form of “big man” tyrannical rule) by turning its victims against it and are in the process of creating a new, hopefully responsible member of the community of nation states; a member which we have good grounds to think will be jealoius of its sovereignty, suspicious of the intentions of their “Arab brothers” and international caretaker institutions like the UN, and positively hostile to the calls to join the jihad.  Everywhere else there is backtracking and an abandonment of positions, sometimes hard won ones, as in Bush’s complete reversal on the Israeli-Palestinian front.  The general dysfunctionality of our governing institutions, brought to the surface in the demands placed upon them by this new war, have not been addressed at all–the CIA and State Department continue to set their own foreign policy untrammelled, even unmolested; and in 2009, the Democrats, a diminishingly respectable front for the global death cult, might very well control Congress and the Presidency.  And, understandably, no one wants to think too closely about what all this means.  Even Republicans, even the Bush Administration, are staying miles away from compelling new evidence that there were, in fact, chemical and biological weapon stockpiles in Iraq in 2003, which were transported over to Syria and buried (and later, in the chaos of the invasion, removed) in Iraq–just challenging the prevailing narrative (“there were no WMDS!”) seems to require too much energy, to involve too much risk.  In my view the already small number of people who could take the slightest interest in what I am saying here is certainly shrinking daily.

It is probably uncomfortable for most to speak of a “global civil war,” even one of “position”–everyone becomes a combatant, and such a characterization introduces the frightening possibility of the politicization of all areas of life.  It is precisely the “positional” dimension that makes this war different, though, since victory would involve a complex array of “re” and “de” politicizations–in certain areas, a properly political site would have to be liberated from law and morality; in others, perhaps exchange relations and “culture” (in the broadest sense of the proliferation and dissemination of models for living), what is called for is a liberation from politics; meanwhile, what is often at stake is the relation between political actors and spectators, or between politics in the sense of coercive state action and citizen activity.  The position I seem to have been coming to occupy is that of the analyst of discourse, in its most essential form, that of the sentence, both literally and as focusing our attention on the “syntax” of all practices–a position that, it seems to me, would at times be overtly and even hyperbolically political and at other times detached and ivory towerish; engaging the daily elements of cultural dialogue, but also high culture, “extreme” esthetic experiments and the realm of sheer possibility.  My hope, I suppose, is that simply going about our business as originary thinkers inquiring into the semiotics of reality will be the only global positioning system we require.

Of course, a war of position is simultaneously a deferral of war, but a deferral that creates an interim during which preparations proceed; and, from another angle, war is almost completely preparation–as the saying goes, amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.  And amateurs talk “ideas” and “images,” while professional talk “models” and “narratives.”  The most suitable models and narratives in the middle of our preparatory period will be somewhat counter-intuitive and yet familiar enough; indeed, they will make us wonder what makes them, at least ever so slightly, counter-intuitive.  They will be retrieved and modified models:  the black conservative scapegotated by the “leaders” of his or her community while, in fact, recovering traditions of self-reliance developed under Jim Crow; the “infidel” who embodies a recognizable pattern of feminist awakening, who nevertheless makes “establishment” feminists extremely uneasy; the Muslim stepping forward in defense of a Christian neighbor in a nascent Arab democracy; veterans of the Afghan and Iraq wars stepping forward as a new generation of leaders, remaking both political parties and the media; etc.  All these narratives, to some extent, resist the force of accumulated demands made by partisans on all sides, at the very least the “demand” that one’s own narrative, especially the doomsday ones, prove true.  Such models and narratives are already circulating to some extent; the question for a “cultural politics” as well as a “cultural studies,” then, is what would need to change for any one of these narratives to undergo a quantum leap beyond the circle of those who presently cultivate it, to increase in circulation by an order of magnitude (from 1,000 to 10,000, 100,000 to 1,000,000, etc.)?  A precondition, at any rate, is a certain faith in “reality”:  when thinking about who is on the “side” in our “civil war” I am calling “constitutionalist,” aside from small cadres of intellectuals, pundits and activists, the answer is all of us, insofar as we buy and sell on the market, sustain basic norms of civility, insist on keeping violence and obscenity out of spaces whose sanctity we are charged to protect, try and get a little bit closer to the truth when it seems important to do so, measure ourselves against others and others against ourselves, seek out options short of scapegoating in dealing with those we oppose or hate, and so on.  And when we notice and begin to resent, in the name of those for whom we bear responsibiity, those who undermine these props of reality.  When we share such resentments with others, the defense of small things (minor commensurabilities, reciprocities and accountabilities) can snowball, just as the existence of a “democratic enough” Iraq will stick in the sides of the region’s tyrants and terrorists, and become, more and more, an inevitable point of reference and inspiration for its liberators.

In other words, both sides can play the game of a fully deliberate global war which, paradoxically, we will win by reducing its strictly military component:  victory for us would tend towards the narrowing of the confrontation to one between our armed people and theirs, with civilians refusing to act (and effectively assisted in this refusal) as shields; in this case, the war would be over very rapidly.  Getting to that point depends upon whether those intermediate figures who, while unarmed, call for our murder and destruction, will be deemed martyrs or criminals against humanity; and determining that denomination will be whoever gains the “high ground” in the post-Auschwitz political, legal and moral order indelibly stamped by the awareness that our fundamental categories of social life could readily render us complicit in the unthinkable, whether through commission or omission.  That high ground is the unconditional defense of individual freedom as irreducible point of origin and the insistence upon individual accountability as established through freely entered into covenants (the only thing that can genuinely bind up and conclude what a free individual sets in motion):  each point of that structure (freedom, accountability, covenant) is a fulcrum enabling us to overturn victimary revaluations as we hold each other accountable for holding our putative victims accountable for the freedom they deny others (through omission and comission) and the covenanting they consider impossible even as they remain parasitical upon every jot and tittle of the terms devised and agreed upon by those more courageous and generous than themselves.

Adam Katz

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