GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

December 4, 2008

Reality and Its Constructions

Filed under: GA — adam @ 3:28 pm

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.

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