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.


  1. Dear Adam,
    You wrote: “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.”

    It is unclear to me what the “source of the crisis” was according to you.



    Comment by Rampantly Homosexual — December 5, 2008 @ 5:35 pm

  2. I appreciate your analysis of the intellectual corrosiveness caused by heaping cynicism atop increasingly sophisticated levels of scapegoating (to the point where we know longer know what we are pointing at, or to!).

    A profound and pertinent issue then is certainly the one you raise: whether or not completely disabling societal scapegoating mechanisms is any sort of achievable political goal.

    If it isn’t though, and a minimal ostensive scapegoat requires our tacit scapegoating approval, then didn’t the Bush administration bank on the tacit ostensive power of WMDs?

    And since none were ever found, doesn’t that shift, legitimately, the object of our collective scapegoating wrath squarely onto that administration’s shoulders?

    I am speaking as someone who initially supported the Iraqi invasion, not for the reasons you mention, as reasonable as they are, but mostly because I felt Hussein was looking to circumvent weapons inspectors at all costs, playing up the victimary ante he felt he could illicit in some swath of American/global opinion (he was, after all, quite aware of the disastrous domestic response William Cohen received after the town hall meeting he scheduled to discuss the Clinton bombing of Iraq in 1998).

    Perhaps this is far less a legitimate reason for regime change than the ones you mention. But how can one hope to negotiate with a man who is secretly and at every turn undermining negotiations, hoping to use American victimary sympathy to begin to rebuild and reassert his dominance in the region?

    I realize now that such views were myopic. I think Saddam’s motives were tied to his own domestic survival, for without the threat of having such weapons (which were hidden away, of course), legitimate factions within his own party threatened to topple him.

    The response of invasion, in my view, was certainly unmeasured in this regard. Saddam was certainly a threat to his own people, if less a global threat.

    But the preamble for invasion was based on a global rather than regional threat posed by the dictator. Perhaps one could make the case that the region itself was of such vital strategic interest that any regional threat could only be a global one.

    Had such a case been made, I would still be a supporter of the invasion, though only because this would so obviously have necessitated the discovery of WMDs.

    As no WMDs have been found, the original preamble to deal with a global crisis quickly loses its gravitas. Hence, lacking definitive ostensive currency, I, like John Edwards and my fellow Canadian Michael Ignatieff, humbly retract my original endorsement.

    Comment by amir — December 7, 2008 @ 12:50 pm

  3. I apologize for not attending to these comments earlier–they didn’t show up in my email, as was ordinarily the case. It’s a bit lat now, perhaps, and I don’t have much time, but:

    1) The “crisis” I refer to is simply the impossibility of staying or going in our posture in Saudi Arabia

    2) Regarding amir’s comments, I suppose I would say that it seems to me that they reasons you give for initially supporting the invasion still hold, and that the reasons you now have for retracting them could only have emerged as a result of the invasion itself. I see this as supporting my initial analysis regarding the increasingly tenuous status of “reality” in contemporary politics and culture: you wish to retract your support for something on the basis of what has been accomplished as a result of the action you originally supported. this seems to me a kind of “airbrushing” of one’s commitments and decisions.

    Comment by adam — January 5, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

  4. hi adam,

    if the rationale going in is disproved by the actions which follow, i don’t see how it is irresponsible to concede that those actions were uncalled for.

    i guess this is the case if you believe the rationale still holds. i don’t think it does (i.e., saddam wasn’t a global threat after all).

    and yes, perhaps i could only know for certain that this was true based on the invasion. but a lot of others knew otherwise without the invasion; i just thought they were wrong.

    Comment by amiracle — January 20, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

  5. So, “amiracle” is “amir”? OK. I suppose I would now have to examine the terms you use more carefully: “global threat” could easily be defined to make any actual threat seem small. (Was Hitler a “global threat”? Couldn’t those of us in the Americas have just waited him out?) Also, threats always seem smaller after they have been neutralized. But my broader point in the original post is that we don’t and never will have a thermometer measuring the precise degree of “threat”: we will only have situations where can do one thing or another. In this case, the other thing would have meant leaving Saddam Hussein in power and then…what? Staying in Saudi Arabia? (Why? To police a non-threat? Provide grist for al-Qaeda’s propaganda mill? And kill millions of Iraqi children, as the international Left was then claiming?) Leave Saudi Arabia (what would your answer be to the millions of Muslims thrilled by Bin Laden’s claim to have chased us out? That would have produced far more terrorists than invading Iraq ever could.) If we leave, and there are reports , several years down the road, that Hussein’s nuclear program is whirring away, do we intervene? On what basis, and with what authority? We would have already conceded that our willingness to enforce the provisions of the 1991 armistice had been exhausted, and hence Iraq’s obligations under them as good as expired? Iraq would be a free agent–who are we to deny them the right to a nuclear weapon? After all, Israel has hundreds. Etc…

    I appreciate the questions, but as I’m writing I grow tired of these discussions. Maybe there are answers to my questions; maybe there was a viable alternative–my point is that no one ever asked those questions, no one seemed to have adopted the frame of mind in which they could have even occurred, and I don’t believe that the anti-war movement (more precisely: those desperate to see the US routed) was interested in any other alternatives. They follow the maxim I am proposing: work within your situations, in this case just seize upon whatever opportunity presents itself to humiliate the US. Or, at the very least, to scramble as soon as possible back to the side of those who so wish to humiliate us, and control the “means of information.” Asking whether Saddam was a “global threat,” that is, is a question that contains the answer the questioner wants. What action best protected our security, our honor and our initiative following 9/11–that was my question.

    Comment by adam — January 20, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

  6. yep, amiracle is my web handle. clever eh?

    i don’t mean to tire you out. i am just fascinated by those who claim the iraq invasion was necessary, without any sort of nod to the very real ostensive disasters that have occured because of it.

    what more could go wrong? no wmds. soaring costs. a looming civil war. i think i’d prefer the “competence” dodge (that the war was necessary, just poorly executed).

    furthermore, it could not have come at a more disastrous time, economically.

    all immediate ostensives point to no. i just find it astounding that anyone would use an “ostensive” argument to say the US should have invaded, is all.

    the case that the invasion was necessary could still be made (convincingly, i think), but very much in the manner you are making it i.e., by appealing to scenarios that might have been.

    i don’t know that the only other option would have been to leave iraq. this assumption negates the very debate you say the left would snuff out at every turn.

    perhaps there are answers to these questions (as you suggest). and certainly a good portion of the left wasn’t at all interested in talking about them. but neither was bush. he just went to war. it was a gamble on his part and it blew up, didn’t it? as i see it, his lack of vigilance has had enormous “ostensive” consequences.

    Comment by amiracle — January 24, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

  7. No WMDs is not a disaster. (In what sense could it be a disaster? What harm has come from there not being WMDs in Iraq?) We now know that Saddam Hussein will never be a threat to anyone again. A net gain.

    The costs are not a disaster–they are…costs. How much should it have cost? At what dollar amount did the costs tip over from “costs” to “disaster”?

    Is the civil war still “looming”? Or was its previous “looming,” or endless predictions of its “looming,” the disaster? Something doesn’t become a disaster because 10,000 people say it is going to happen (how can “no WMDs” be a disaster and “no civil war” also be a disaster?)

    The incompetence dodge–there were never any mistakes made in any other war until George W. Bush got his hands on one, and then made more mistakes than were made in all other wars combined. In fact, he made nothing but mistakes despite the clear-sightedness of his critics who saw things perfectly from beginning to end.

    Yes, Bush should have arranged everything–9/11, the breakdown of the sanctions regime, the Iranian drive to get the bomb–on a more convenient timetable.

    And after all this you concede my argument–which negates no debate but invites one: other than leaving Iraq, what was one to do? Bush’s job was to make his case for doing what he thought was necessary, and then do it. The people who oppose the policy taken by a nation have the burden of suggesting alternatives–if they are in good faith.

    What, exactly, has blown up? If you step outside of the leftist media/protest world, Iraq seems on the way to emerging as a fairly stable democracy and ally of the U.S. Would you like to see such ostensive consequences? Your entire discourse seems stuck back in 2006, which is always the problem with the Left–they seek to freeze history at exactly the point where they think their “point” has been made.

    Comment by adam — January 24, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

  8. i don’t see how forcing me to choose between an either/or scenario invites debate, when such a debate could only be fruitful if we are willing to explore “other” options..

    if the police break into my house believing that i have wmds in my basement, they had better find them. if they do not, the neighbourhood has a right to be upset.

    if the police still defend their actions, they have to convince the neighbourhood why that action was indeed necessary in the first place (which they could still do).

    its not really the neigbour’s perogative to come up with a post facto plan ‘b’ especially when the police were willing to fabricate evidence to carry out their initial raid.

    as far as the neighbourhood is concerned, the police hardly have the “ostensive” on their side, which is why i think the “ostensive” argument doesn’t hold. the neighbours can point to nothing (which here is quite something). the police can point to the possibility of something (which is nothing), whihc the right always accuses the left of doing anyhow.

    but perhaps i’ll “freeze” it there…

    Comment by amiracle — January 25, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

  9. I’m only interested in the position of the police, who are charged with protecting lives and civilization–the left likes to take the irresponsible position of the “neighbor.” If you want to explain what you would do if you were the police, and the house in question was systematically violating community norms and threatening the neighbors, then we’ll have something to talk about.

    Comment by adam — January 25, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

  10. In your example, the question is rather simple: was there probable cause. Your argument is even sillier than I first thought–the “neighborhood” (everyone in the neighborhood? Nobody’s glad to see the police on the case?) can complain about whatever they want–it’s easy to be a heckler after the fact. But the police only have to prove they had reasonable suspicions (that’s enough if there are “exigent circumstances”) of they have to have a warrant. If you really think a search warrant becomes invalid because the police didn’t find what they were looking for…well, I just don’t know what to say–you are proving my point, that the Left constructs and inhabits a fantasy land wherein you expect to be kept absolutely safe by the same people whom you hold to a level of accountability you can’t even explain yourself.

    Comment by adam — January 25, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

  11. Oh, and the relevant ostensive here is the array of indications that get you the search warrant in the first place–indications that are “indications” in the first place because they have been deemed thus by those duly authorized, with the relevant experience, in accord with the accepted procedures. That’s what matters–maintaining a common world, in which I can point to things that make my decisions reasonable and worthy of support, or at least the benefit of the doubt–not getting it right each and every time, which only lunatics and leftists could imagine was a reasonable standard. The possibility of something specific, and reasonable, limited, audited action directed at that something, is, indeed, the point. That’s a bit different from organizing institutions around the possibility that someone, somewhere, might make a racist comment.

    Comment by adam — January 25, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

  12. im not arguing that alternatives shouldn’t be provided. only that the right hardly has a monopoloy on ostensives.

    but i can see you’re rattled. i’ll stop now.

    Comment by amiracle — January 25, 2009 @ 9:04 pm

  13. Nice speaking with you, then. No one can live without ostensives, which to some extent must be shared to “work”–with whom does one wish to share them, then? The divergence between us can be presented as follows: I propose as the most reponsible position that which tries to think itself inside the situation of the decision maker; you propose what I see as the most irresponsible position, that of hindsight, as if the best decisions are made in reverse. (We might call this the position of the “heckler”–hence your amusement at having “rattled” me.) So, we have great difficulty pointing to anything (“ostensively”) that we both might recognize. Even in power, the Left is still trying to make decisions in reverse–first declare the closing of Guantanmo (cleanse us of the evil deeds of the Bush Regime), then set up a “process” to figure out what that means. I.e., replace the decision with a non-decision–maybe, in that case, nothing will have happened, especially if we convene enough comissions and panels. It will be interesting to see how that works out.

    All the best!

    Comment by adam — January 25, 2009 @ 9:37 pm

  14. less amused than disappointed in your belligerence… it is hardly constructive to assume that those who disagree with you are “lunatics” and then, “hecklers”.

    as silly as my parable may be, the kicker in the iraq case is that bush didn’t have a warrant. of course, you will argue that he did (ie ‘probably cause’), but its equally silly to suppose your ostensive is more “real” than mine.

    but truly, i wish you the best as well!

    Comment by amiracle — January 26, 2009 @ 7:12 am

  15. The cease-fire signed at the end of the Gulf War was sufficient warrant, leaving out all the UN Resolutions. More to the point, though, what IS your ostensive? ostensives can’t be negative–“I don’t see any spaceships” is not a meaningful ostensive, even if it’s undeniably true (safely, uncontestably true–and therefore meaningless). What would or could a reasonable person have seen, looking at Iraq in 2002-3. Not just WMDs or no, but Iraq as an indication of the post-9/11 world. If that kind of question isn’t your starting point, what is?

    Comment by adam — January 26, 2009 @ 8:12 am

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