Monthly Archives: December 2008

Taking the Victimary Measure

My first impulse upon reading Eric Gans’ latest Chronicle, “The End of Ideology,” was to take issue with its central claim:  “that Obama’s election weakens the power of victimary thinking, both in the US and abroad,” simply on the grounds of why quit when you’re ahead?  But then it struck me:  how in the world do I know whether or not this true?  How, exactly, do we register the power of victimary thinking?  And what would be the meaning of such a measurement, if we could take it?  For example, if the the victimary party in power could implement everything it wanted to, would it still be victimary?  Would it still have to think in victimary terms, or could it simply shift its attention to the administration of a (post-victimary?  Surely it would have its own name) new order?  To what extent are victimary resentments grounded in real events and conditions (and could therefore respond intelligently to changes in those conditions); to what extent does it produce its own events and conditions (in which case it is in principle insatiable)?

It does seem to me that implict in the Chronicle, and certainly in my own thinking, has been the assumption of the permanence of the tension between the victimary and the (what?  the normal?  the originary?  freedom?  the convenantal?).  Maybe not permanence, but the assumption seems to be that there is at present no thinking outside of this tension, which would mean that the victimary measures the normal and the normal measures the victimary, within the context of a broader reality which neither can or perhaps wants to modify significantly.  It seems to me that the assumption–maybe true, but certainly plausible–that the normal doesn’t really want to eliminate the victimary would itself represent the triumph of the victimary; but what does the victimary want?  Is it content to live parastically off of the normal?  In that case, we don’t have to worry, because it would know better than to devour its host.  Does it want to utterly destroy the normal and replace it with something else?  Or, is it driven inexorably in that direction by some “inner logic,” regardless of what the cooler and more opportunistic victimary heads might like?  For that matter, is some kind of long term, stable, equilibrium viable–if not, then all attempts to arrive at some settlement between the two tendencies or parties will be futile, regardless of our intentions.  (What roles do we, as generative anthropologists or originary thinkers, give to “forces” or “laws” that operate regardless of our intentions?)

These questions lead to other ones.  The failure of some of my own prognostications has led me (out of a leveling resentment?) to conclude that our capacities, as humans, in this regard, are minimal.  Some individuals get touted as genuises their whole life because they got one call right (probably out of luck).  And even with those predictions that seem right after the fact it often turns out that if you go back and look at the original, they were really predicting something quite different, or got 20 things wrong along with the one they got right, or that their correct prediction was actually nestled in a set of conditions and assumptions that in fact invalidate the prediction itself, or that a correct prediction leads to some result that makes its correctness meaningless, etc.  All that we can really “predict” (model for ourselves) is some cessation of the rivalries and crisis that most bear down upon us at present–this is true both on an individual level and on the level, for those who like to play futurist (which is really everyone at least some of the time–we probably can’t live without preparing, mentally, the groundwork for our own future plans), on the social level as well.  And, then, we are strongly predisposed to see our prediction as correct, because we can only act upon faith in the way in which we have contrived to imagine that cessation.  But this doesn’t lead to some satire on the “follies of human desire” because human knowledge may be nothing more than the continual shaping and retrospective editing of our predictions (hypotheses we have invested heavily in) by contrary, intractable facts.

And is not the economic crisis we find ourselves in a perfect representation of this condition.  Who among us is brave enough to predict where we will be 20 years from now, 10 years, 5 years, 1 year?  The answer is, probably too many–but we would all be humbled if some omniscient observer were to, in a detached manner, compare our current predictions with the future reality.  And yet, we all must find jobs, decide whether to stay in those jobs, buy, sell or retain our homes, invest our pension money, etc., and all these decisions presuppose some faith or lack of faith in a possible future; and, regardless of our futural incapacities, some of our decisions will work out quite well, better than we could have predicted. 

It would be better for everyone if everyone acted with maximal faith in the future, but it would be better for some if they acted with moderate faith in some others’ maximal faith.  But there is one thing that we can all have faith in:  whatever any individual or collective has done in the past does not exhaust their future possibilities.  And this is the case not only because of the native freedom bequeathed us by the originary scene, but simply because new situations themselves can never be completely “covered” by the habits and knowledge acquired through past experience.  Even attempts to duplicate past solutions are never exact duplicates.  And this is an argument for equipping ourselves with new capacities and a capacity for novelty even as we grant others the ability to be transformed by new responsibilities and by the paradoxically disappointing satisfaction of their desires.

So, when I try to take our collective temperature to see whether we are still running a victimary fever or not, the discursive thermometer I use is itself adding or substracting a couple of degrees.  The best way to cool things down, I think, and yet without missing any relevant indicators, is with the indicative mood.  The victimary seems to me largely interrogative (“who do you think you are?”) and infinitive (insisting upon a gnostic apprehension of what is “to be”).  A particularly obnoxious slogan I have encountered was one on a t-shirt worn by some students at the university I teach at–a very pleasant institution, with a serious and respectful group of students, but with some desire to move up in ranks which for many means winning your victimary stripes–as follows:  “You don’t know me.”  Technically, a declarative statement in the indicative mood, I know, but in terms of the resentments it seeks to simulate, it should be translated more as “who do you think you are to pretend to know me?”  Combining interrogative, imperative and infinitive all in one:  the listener is “fixed” in the position of the one who wants to “fix” the Other.

The indicative mood makes reality a bit more spacious:  Obama’s roots are thoroughly victimary as is his manner of thinking and approaching problems; and yet, if our critique of the victimary is right, he will be confronting problems for which his standard issue leftist cliches offer no answer; we have reason to hope that we will want to solve those problems more than he will want to hold onto his cliches; he is larger than his Congressional counterparts and might very well resent their attempts to shrink him to their size; such resentments might lead him to appreciate former opponents and this in turn might further open him up to unaccustomed ways of thinking; he has already shown himself quite cavalier in his attitude toward his campaign promises but that might only mean that he recognizes the contradictions between some of those promises and the distinctive transcendence he bears and which accounts for his authority; the fact that he has recognized this so quickly might suggest that he has a firm grasp of the sources of the transcendence conferred upon him and will work to preserve it; and, in preserving it, he might find that transcendence to be rooted in deeper wellsprings of trnascendence of which up until now he has only had an inkling.  I’m not quite making predictions here, although there is a kind of expression of futurity in what I am saying.  I’m trying to carve out space in the present for as expansive a set of future possibilities as I can imagine, while remaining completely tethered to realities I could, if pressed, actually “point” to.  And if someone were to challenge any or all of the claims I have made in this paragraph, on victimary or other grounds, I could make them even more minimal and draw the futurity they express even closer to the indicative realities articulated in these sentences.

And there would be a measuring of the victimary in such an indicative mode of cultural commentary–if I am right, the victimary has little patience with the indicative mood.  It can’t go very long without either expressing a demand, asking a question that is really a disguised demand (for recognition, at the very least), or fixing its own present resentments firmly in the future (Bush will be–is to be–considered the worst president ever, etc.).  And this hypothesis regarding the grammar of politics should even give me a way of measuring my own resentments, as we must all slip out of the indicative mood from time to time.

 Regardless of whether the victimary is intrinsically parasitical upon the normal, it certainly has its own originary fantasy:  fundamentally resentful toward the distinction any sign must make between “order” and “chaos,” which distinction, as a post-Christian phenomenon, the victimary associates with scapegoating and considers all the more insidious insofar as it pretends to transcend scapegoating, the attention of the victimary is directed toward those preliminary moves toward the emission of any sign–it wishes above all to arrest those preliminary moves that would ultimately coalesce in a shared sign.  But arresting one such preliminary move simply leads one’s attention to the preceding one, as anything other than the sheer chaos of violence must represent an array of such moves, at least in potentia.   And so the utopia of the victimary is a complete a priori choreography of approved moves on the social scene.  But explicitly installing such a choreography would itself be a “move,” and could never be mapped out in advance; it must be inscribed, but never articulated, in the ethical non-subject who has internalized a logic of appropriation in accord with the highest projected form of mediation.  You must intuit what is to have been protected:  such is the grammar of the victimary, oscillating permanently between sign and non-sign.

In that case, we might, with the rise to power of the victimary in the context of a global economic crisis which (let’s be honest) no one really knows how to handle, be seeing not only the end of ideology but the end of politics.  The only political stance one could take regarding ongoing economic resuce operations is for or against–but that choice will disappear very soon, if it hasn’t already, once the commitments made by the federal government lock us in for the long term.  The idea right now seems to be to enter and then shape the political-economic chaos–throw trillions of dollars all over the place and see into whose hands it falls.  There can’t possibly be any economic or political logic to this–if the government were, for example, to deal with the credit freeze by simply opening a line of credit then we could have arguments over the criteria for extending such credit, and eventually the government could sell its loans off to whatever financial institutions survive the meltdown.  The idea would be to de-politicize the process, but there would be a politics to that–a politics of restoring austerity and sobriety while protecting the market system.  As it is, the criteria will probably unfold as follows:  those institutions will get the most money and the firmest guarantees who are most willing to surrender their freedom of action to the government.  And the government will be interested in such surrenders as enable it to satisfy the interests it depends upon.  So, the auto companies will get money if they go Green and protect the unions, the financial institutions will be expected to lend and redistribute money in approved ways, and who knows what will be asked of the states now lining up at the trough.  Chaos can be turned not so much into order as into a kind of hovering, with possible actions not so much determined as circumscribed in advance by the all the officially recognized injuries they could inflict.

These giveaways will shape the economic and political landscape for decades–it will be impossible to make any policy proposal, certainly domestic but eventually international as well, that can’t be located on that landscape.  Right now it is an ever shifting, chaotic landscape, but this chaos is a kind of simulation insofar as it enables the government to put in place all those regulatory principles that have internalized the most advanced projected modes of mediation.  It will become a matter of course that no one can make a move if all of the right boxes in an ever increasing row are not checked (because we now know what heppens if…).  If you don’t know whether they have been properly checked, there will always be people around you can ask, and people they can ask.  You are to do what is already to be done.  It’s not hard to see how any pointed or irreverent criticism of the ongoing and all encompassing process of standard creation and enforcement will be greeted.  We can imagine that it will leave safe spaces to think, though, and the new order might be socially workable for a few decades if enough potentially bad actors can be drawn into the net.    It is certainly the end of something, though.  But I fear I have fallen out of the indicative mood somewhere along the way here; if so, only in order to create a space for its continuance, I hope.

Reality and Its Constructions

While commenting on a political blog recently (a habit I contracted during the election campaign and now find it hard to break) I was led to repeat an argument for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 that I don’t remember making for a long time:  setting aside all the legalistic reasons or the imminence of the imminence of Saddam getting nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, the invasion was a strategic necessity.  It’s very simple:  we were in Saudi Arabia, bogged down with a large force, policing the sanction regime that had been arranged in concluding the Gulf War in 1991; the removal of our troops from the “Holy Land” of Saudi Arabia was one of the prime demands of a-Qaeda, and the sanctions on Iraq was a demand uniting the Islamists and the international Left; we couldn’t just stay in Saudi Arabia, as we were presiding over a deteriorating situation–leaking sanctions and world-wide condemnation for a purely passive stance that wasn’t accomplishing anything, a stance even more egregious now that we clearly needed a new “posture”; nor could we leave, as that would have looked like a disastrous retreat following the attacks of 9/11.  We couldn’t stay and we couldn’t go:  invading Iraq and removing the source of the crisis cut the Gordian knot and enabled the history of our involvement in the Middle East to start up again, this time with us setting the pace.

I suppose there are arguments against this strategic analysis, but I have never heard them and for a good reason:  I have never seen anyone, other than myself, make quite this argument (maybe I have missed it).  I have never even received a response the times I have presented it publicly.  The analysis, even though it seems quite elementary and obvious to me (when I want to make claims for originality, this argument is not something I rush to present), is somehow “unthinkable” today, and I have started, once again, to think about why that is.  Virtually none of the arguments made for the invasion of Iraq, even those made by the Bush Administration, were grounded in an account of the situation we were actually in when the decision was made, or weighed that decision against other possible courses of actions, courses of action that might have maintained or modifed that starting situation.  In other words, the most “realist” argument possible (which is not to say it was incontestable) simply didn’t “register” across the entire culture, which was completely caught up in what were essentially contrived debates centered on points of international law whose centrality and even legitimacy was never argued for:  why does an invasion of this particular country require authorization from UN Resolutions?  And this, in turn, has reminded me that my own refusal to “let go” of Operation Iraqi Freedom results from my conviction that the responses to it signify something fundamental about what we might call the constructions of reality of a “late victimary order.”

Our access to reality is always through signs:  the originary hypothesis discredits empiricist claims about the unmediated access to reality through the senses more thoroughly than all the idealisms.  The first human reality is granted through the ostensive sign on the originary scene, and all human reality has an ultimately ostensive quality.  Nothing can be real to us that we couldn’t in some sense point to along with others, alongside those others.  Reality takes on a greater complexity and density with the higher speech forms:  there is always an imperative/interrogative level of reality, where reality “answers” the “questions” we put to it or “fobids” us from “violating” its “laws.”  And the declarative sentence generates an independent reality that we can represent to ourselves as continuing to exist even when we aren’t pointing to, questioning, or obeying it:  this is the “reality” that we are able to “imitate” in our discourse. 

Human reality is also intrinsically scenic and mimetic.  “Imitating” reality in discourse and other esthetic forms takes place through the mimicking of possible actions and interactions, and the very forms of our semiotic endeavours mimic that of the originary sign itself, which simultaneously creates, sustains and renders problematical the very “texture” of reality.  We can only recognize objects that we are able to mediate:  objects for which we haven’t commensurate signs are simply invisible, obscene or abominable.  Representation itself requires a scene:  what counts as “pointing,” what counts as a viable “question” for reality, what it means to “obey” reality; all this is subjected to some pragmatic “community of inquirers,” however informal, with its own history, norms, and configuration of desires and resentments.

In a certain sense, the most “realistic” community would be one firmly grounded in scapegoating.  In such a community everyone “knows” to whom to point, what reality forbids, and what questions to ask:  the “marks” of the scapegoat are well known, and there will always be “specialists” in pointing them out.  In more sophisticated scapegoating communities, scapegoating would serve two purposes:  first, individuals who are genuinely more likely to be “disruptive” or dangerous to the cohesion of the community can be “addressed” in plenty of time, and even “irrational” forms of testing guilt are probably most often applied to various marginal figures who are most likely to be the “weak links” in the community; and, second, scapegoating would establish clear boundaries those in power could not overstep.  At the same time, of course, we can point to the limits of such a community, especially when confronted with unknown dangers and unanticipated threats, when inventiveness and improvisation becomes necessary–at those points, the scapegoating community will lose its contact with reality altogether.

The forms of high culture inherited from the Western synthesis of metaphysics and the Christian revelation are essentially means of deferring scapegoating.  Such deferral is necessary if humanity is to move beyond the compact community to one in which relations between “strangers” becomes central to social interaction.  High culture, by admonishing us to suspend our suspicions of the Other, at the same time demands that we abstract from the reality that dangers are more like to come from Others than from those in our own group.  At the same time, we add another layer to reality, in the form of legal and political institutions and procedures that do the work scapegoating previously did in a much rougher, but perhaps overall (from the standpoint of the community) more efficient way.  This new layer allows for new precision, and revelations of innocence falsely accused continually refresh the prohibition on scapegoating; but it also allows for more obfuscation and the frustration of basic desires for revenge, justice, and the certainty with which either can be delivered and confirmed.  And, so far, no one has created a human community in which the mechanisms of scapagoating have been completely disabled–whether that should be a goal at all would be, in my view, the central question for an originary social theory.

The reality cultivated by high culture is always a hothouse, fragile reality–whether in the courtroom, the literary seminar, or the Church:  the point of law, the implications of a metaphor, the sense of salvation are as real as anything else, however common and mundane, but they are real in their own tightly circumscribed, self-referential space.  The role of high culture in moderating social activity is in inspiring individuals to defend the society and culture capable of creating such treasures, which everyone is capable of experiencing, at least in part–and in this way high culture confers upon the rest of society a part of its reality, leading to greater reflexivity regarding scapegoating practices.  Victimary modernity has destroyed this fertile interrelation by both insisting that the norms of high culture–juridical categories and standards of proof, critical methods of inquiry, the search for transcendence and salvation–be made available at all cultural sites; and that “high culture” was itself nothing more than a more sophisticated form of scapegoating.  So, corrosive intellectual strategies have been brought to bear upon areas of life where much knowledge must remain tacit, while the authority of high cultural icons to defer violence has been dismantled.

This process has been devastating to our sense of reality.  Suspicion is thrown on everything that must remain habitual, commonsensical and “natural,” while this suspicion has no natural limits, except for its culmination in the dead end of all cynicisms:  unquestioning authority is ultimately placed in whoever is most consistently, loudly and brazenly suspicious of what everyone else says and does.  In other words, the one who most cynically wages war on cynicism.  The old articulation of high and popular culture, though, is gone forever–there is no reconstructing it, since it relied not just upon the beauty of art, the power of faith and the glory of rational thought, but upon specific institutions now infested by the avatars of victimary modernity.

In that case, a cultural politics today is as much about restoring reality as anything else.  The cultural icons we should look for will be those who stand in-between the mob and their victim, but without in turn scapegoating the mob; instead, the iconic figure will establish modes of impartiality in the midst of scapegoating activities while defending the rough forms of justice produced by the scapegoating we seek to “smooth out” against the blanket introduction of the cultic forms of victimary modernity.  My insistent defense of Operation Iraqi Freedom, then, and my explanation of the global hysteria it has induced, lies in the way in which geo-political strategic necessities and a post-Holocaust conscience combined to place the harnessed ferocity of Western warmaking in-between the bullies of a quintessential “Big Man,” scapegoating, culture and their victims.  Such an articulation produces realities victimary modernity is simply incapable of registering, and so it must negate them.  A politics of reality these days, then, might be centered on preserving the honor, telling the stories of, promoting to positions of authority, learning the lessons from, those fighting men and women who have been, are and will be at the “Ground Zero” of a global movement of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.