Monthly Archives: April 2009

Syntactic entanglements

My reading of contemporary history places the events of 9/11 as the pivotal event in the postmodern world governed by Auschwitz theology.  9/11 had, broadly speaking, two possible outcomes:  an overturning of Auschwitz theology,  White guilt, and the capitulation to victimary blackmail it compels; or a resurgence and intensification of that theology and guilt, as its adherents fight, as we all do, to preserve what is sacred to them.  I will maintain this reading of history until I see overwhelming evidency of some fallacy disabling it–from that standpoint, it is impossible to deny that the second outcome has, in fact, attained decisive ascendancy over the first one.  Ultimately, the overturning of Auschwitz theology required the dismantling of too much that is sacred, everything tied to the general reading of social reality in victimary terms.  The radical restructuring of our modes of pooling risk required for civilizational survival are simply unthinkable–no political figure would now suggest even something as moderate as Bush’s proposal for partial privatization of Social Security.  And yet the cultic Presidency of Barack Obama can’t solve any problems–if there is a meaningful politics now, it is in holding on to forms of understanding, to narratives, to habits and maxims, that can survive the coming wreck.  My own attempts to think of such a politics, in my essay on “Marginalist Politics,” in some recent posts, and in my posts on the JCRT Live blog, in terms of originary grammar, of the originary entwinement of norm and error and that I find to be embodied in habits, comprises the focus of my own work now.  How could I recommend it to others, though?    I have been recommending the courage of our habits, which is to say idiosyncrasy and eccentricity–where error, innovation and freedom overlap. 


Perhaps a trivial example:  Miss California, Carrie Prejean’s answer to a question about gay marriage at the Miss USA contest:

Well, I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anyone out there, but that’s how I was raised, and that’s how I think it should be between a man and a woman.

For someone who teaches writing, this kind of thing is of the greatest interest (there was a bit of talk about some of Sarah Palin’s syntactical anomalies in impromptu speech during the campaign–I may go back and look through some of that, but I suspect I would find some similar phenomena as I will point out here).  “Well, I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other.  We live in a land where you can choose same sex marriage or opposite marriage.”  Perhaps Americans as a people, governed democratically, can choose one or the other–this would be an axiomatic reference to the terms of self-government.  Maybe it is a reference to state’s rights–the people of each state can choose one or the other.  This would be more accurate in terms of the progress of gay marriage through the political system; but it would also have a different resonance, more sinister for the cultural elite by which Prejean is being questioned and monitored here, but therefore also a more overtly political claim.  Or maybe it is a reference to the choice of each individual American–this would be an inaccurate claim, but, perhaps drawing upon the hopeful naivete granted to the beauty pageant contestant, it would position her more sympathetically.  And the very odd reference to heterosexual marriage as “opposite” marriage would then be either a very canny or completely serendipitous gesture towards the deconstruction of cultural norms she is presumably resisting.  The very grammar here resists being nailed down, keeps tailing off into near incoherence–and yet we kind of know what she is saying.  “And you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman.” If you are going to ask, and we’re just expressing our own personal, non-binding opinions–“And you know what”–in my country (an assertion about American “values”?  the imagining of her own, private, America?), in my family (defending the family as the ultimate source of values, a family values supporter; but, at the same time, an implicit recognition that there are many families, many different kinds of families, from each and every one of which would issue a different set of beliefs, perhaps even a different “country”) “I think that I believe” (this is probably just “stuttering,” a nervousness about finally getting to the point here, making sure that a couple of layers of subjectivity buffer her from her interrogators) “that a marriage should be between a man and a woman” (At this point, is her support for heterosexual marriage as the norm anything more than her assertion of her own intention to marry a man?–and yet it still manages to be “controversial”!).  No offense to anyone out here (precisely her attempts to buffer and defer her expression of her very personal and almost inescapable belief–it’s her family and country, after all–might generate resentment, so the more explicit neutralizing of resentment is perhaps even more necessary) but that’s how I was raised (there are root causes),  and then the positively poetic “but that’s the way I feel it should be between a man and a woman.”  Probably, “that’s how I feel it [i.e., marriage] should be:  between a man and a woman,” but why not take her to be evoking some way of being, some transcendence of these degrading arguments, “between” a man and a woman (what is “between” them, connecting them, separating them?). 

This is an idiosyncratic, even idiomatic “grammar,” produced by the intersecting pressures of the traditional woman in the modernized version of the traditional worship of femininity, beauty and fertility, the hyped, sensationalized, and yet by now strangely antiquated “beauty pageant,” and the virulent, punk, self-ironizing but no less Puritan political correctness by the “celebrity blogger” whose position as a judge is meant as a kind of revenge upon the beauty pageant from within; and/or, perhaps, and attempt to maintain its legitimacy by bringing into accord with the very norms that make the pageant a kind of mini-scandal. 

Perhaps it is in such cultural/syntactical anomalies that the possibilities of resistance and change will emerge–perhap Ms. (Miss?) Prejean here is giving us an exemplary model of deferral by defending the traditional through the singular and ambiguous to the point of resisting hostile analysis, and therefore welcoming a sympathetic one.


The proper response to any claim we wish to take seriously is to inquire into its possible operationalizations.  If you mean wht you say, in other words, what would it mean–construct for me an event, hypothetical or actual, in which the meaning of what you say can be (ostensively) verified, affirmed, or authenticated.  Culture is a series of models of operationalization:  the way we operationalize claims regarding the value of an object, is to place it on the market; if we want to operationalize a claim about nature we set up an experimental scene in which we can reduce the causal uncertainties to those we wish to study; if we want to operationalize claims about beauty we must draw the attention of others, or ourselves, in a sustained manner to the thing we find beautiful–in the inexhaustibility with which it attracts and enriches attention will lie its beauty; if we wish to operationalize claims about morality, we need to see place moral claims, or see them placed, within individual events, in some proximity to other kinds of claims and see under which conditions individuals will consider something “good’ enough to commit their honor to it; and, perhaps most difficult of all, in the sphere of law and politics, if we wish to operationalize claims about justice, right, and freedom, we must create and incessantly tend to institutions that concentrate, aggregate, display and limit power, and that can generate enclosed scenes in which abstract rules can construct the form under which we assess responsibility for events.

Operationalization is representation, and just as representation is the deferral of violence through the articulation of an event around a sign, when we operationalize some claim we likewise seek to bring sign (law, norm) into accord with an event, and in this way disperse the centrifugal claims that threaten to turn claims into bids for a piece of the sparagmatic pie.  In this case, a large part, maybe the major part, of politics and law, and, for that matter, morality and thinking, is bringing claims into the light of day where the can be gathered under signs into events.  In this way, one can pursue partisan ends in such a way as to renew the institutions that must transcend partisanship.  The naked egotism of “show me the money!” (to quote a popular film from some years back) is simultaneously a way putting the monetary system for determining value to work.

This all occurs to me in connection with the Obama Adminstration’s release of redacted portions of the memos regarding interrogation practices generated within the Bush Adminstration.  Rather than railing against the utter nihilism and destructiveness of this act (alright, I just did that), why not respond with “show me the money!”  That is, go ahead, as the Obama Administration has hinted it will consider, and prosecute those you believe not only broke the law but ruined Ameirca’s reputation.  Let’s publish all the memos, as Dick Cheney has urged, let’s force the full panoply of responses to the Islamic terror threat during the years 2001-2005 upon the public attention, making it a matter of deliberation and conscience.  Let’s set up commisions before which everyone testifies, including the Democratic members of Congress who knew of and approved, implicitly, explicitly and enthusiastically, of the very methods now denounced as shameful.  Even more, if Obama genuinely believes that these interrogation methods were wrong, and constituted an injustice against the people upon whom they were practiced, then we should insist that he apologize–not one of these anemic apologies to the “world” or some part thereof, but to the individuals themselves–to those individuals to whom, in fact, restitution can and should be made.  In other words, the operationalization or representation of the attitude Obama has been striking would be a public apology, complete with full health care, pension and damages, to Khalid Sheik Muhammed.

Is the United States the same country it was prior to the election of Barack Obama (I believe that Obama would prefer to think not); or, for that matter, prior to September 11, 2001?  I would like to see public pressure upon Obama to operationalize the claims implicit in his release of the memos because the subsequent response will operationalize these more substantional questions.


We are in the steepest economic downturn since the 1930s, in or verging on another Great Depression; and, yet, there are signs daily that we might be starting to emerge from the recession by Spring 2010.  I wonder if the Left, now that they are in power, want to play the same kind of game they accused Bush of playing with the War on Terror:  it’s a emergency, requiring vast expansions of government power, and yet daily life goes on as normal, aside from the occasional color coded alerts, which I am certain not a single person paid the slightest attention to.   And, to tell the truth, they had a point:  if the War on Terror, or against Islamic supremacism or radicalism, was indeed the highest calling of our generation, why are the Iranian mullahs not only still in power but about to obtain a nuclear weapon?  Why is Pakistan likely to become the first nuclear armed jihadist state–or, at least, no less likely now than before  9/11?  Why are the Saudis still riding high, receiving obsequious bows from our new President?  In the end, did Bush take all this any more seriously than the Democrats take the financial crisis, which is clearly nothing more than an opportunity for them to pass a wish list of Great Society programs along with a lot of good old-fashioned graft which they had kept on hand for the moment when they would finally be free of the dead end of Republican rule.  “Subjectively” maybe he did, but wouldn’t that simply mean with all the good will in the world an assertive strategy of expanding freedom throughout the world is simply impossible, for reasons I am not able completely to explain?  Even more, one would have to say that things like policies and strategies are really impossible–what is impossible, that is, is anything that would subordinate procedures and the news cycle to some externally determined purpose.

I wonder if I am the only one dissatisfied with the thinness of accounts of the economic “crisis”–it is almost as if no one considers themselves obliged to explain exactly what the “freezing of credit” or whatever is anticipated would mean to billions of people.  My own credit is perfect–so, will no one issue me a credit card, or give me a mortgage or car loan?  Nobody?  Are they sure?  How can they be?  Will no one loan to any one else?  No one?  To anyone?  I think we really need to ask the questions in this way if we are ever to get straight answers; or, failing the straight answers, awkward, obfuscatory answers that are relatively easy to decode.  Because I suspect what they really mean is that only people with genuine reserves will be able to lend, and only to people with proven track records of making money and paying back loans; and, who knows, maybe only to those people with a reasonable business plan or documentable source of income.  No one, it seems, to me, can prove that such activity won’t continue, and in that case the real “crisis” is that things can’t go on the way they have.  To put it bluntly, people will no longer be able to lend money they don’t have to people who won’t be abel to pay it back and people won’t be able to buy, again with money they don’t have, “assets” that represent only possibilities based on speculative accounts of future economic developments.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s a blessing, not a crisis.

GA supports, as we all know, the free market as the most effective mechanism for deferring and recirculating resentments yet invented by human beings–indeed, we can’t really see anything beyond the free market, which I imagine is why Eric Gans finds Fukuyama’s End of History Thesis so compelling.  But the market GA supports is one in which everyone takes on their share of deferral, participating in the Weberian “Protestant ethic”–only with such ethical support will the market economy not end up generating more resentments than it can bear, in turn calling into being monstrous leftist agglomorations of resentment that will take down the system.  But the cultural contradictions of capitalism leave their marks on any originary analysis as well:  what if the intensification of social antagonisms require that we abandon the Gold Standard, institute the welfare state, lower interest rates so as to artificially sustain growth, etc.–on what grounds can GA argue against any one of those resentment lowering innovations, and in favor of a “pure” market system?  People have to defer the rivalries gathering force around them, and they can’t leave those immediate conflicts untended to in the name of the abstract system which we are one day sure to find is best for deferring conflicts.

But perhaps we can make an argument within GA for a return to beginnings, for periodic refoundings, re-constitutions of our own singular versions of the originary scene.  The century of Progressive depradations upon our constitutional order (which have been legitimated through association with the one genuine improvement to that order, the inclusion of black citizens) has given a great deal of credit to the notion put forth most forcefully by Marxism–that capitalism produces social conflicts beyond the capacity of the minimal state and individualist culture to handle–the assumption, that is, that the lower orders will have to be bought off perpetually in the name of social peace.  Even now, one can sense the terror in our rulers lest a real recession ruffle the surface of our social life for a couple of years–something, anything must be done prevent that, or at least make its effects tolerable through redistribution or the flat creation of money out of nothing. 

So, who is willing to bet that if unemployment goes up to 10, to 15% or higher, if most of us have to give back our second cars and not buy that third TV set or PC, if many families will have to live on one income for a while, etc., we will, nevertheless, not start slitting each others’ throats or forming militias and laying siege to the capital or the home office of Citibank?  Who is willing to bet, indeed, that local lending institutions, mutual assistance organizations, patronage of local businesses, charities, and other spontaneous forms of self and other help, will fill in the gap?  This would be a version of the market as well, if a more embedded one.  Indeed, could it be that that possibility is just as frightening to our rulers as the nightmarish visions of social collapse?

In the interest of bi-partisanship, I will apply the same logic to the threat of Islamic terror–why not, as I am forced to conclude that we (the collective “we” of our state institutions) are incapable of addressing victimary blackmail outside of such obeisence to the collective international norms which have been corrupted beyond repair by such blackmail.  I must painfully acknowledge that the approach I will recommend won’t work for the Israelis–we may be close to the point where the attitude towards Israel of its friends will take on the character of rescue rather than support.  Unfortunately, the Israelis themselves, albeit under enormously difficult situations, have not shown much capacity of late for avoiding the suicidal paralysis we have succumbed to–they can much less afford it, though.  

So, let’s accept Obama’s understanding of the US as one nation among many, with nothing exceptional about it at all.  The protection and freedom of others is their problem, not ours.  Indeed, perhaps we are returning to the natural state of the American republic, a state interrupted by the exceptional threat posed by world communism.  In that case, our political energies should be directed towards a withdrawal of American troops from the rest of the world–let’s begin with the places where they obviously don’t serve any purpose anyway, and where it is not at all clear they are wanted:  Europe, Japan and S. Korea, for starters.  We should work on withdrawing from the UN as well, on having that wretched institution removed from American soil, and on repudiating all international agreements that might infringe on our sovereignty.  The world market will no longer have its policeman, and will no doubt fall prey to all kinds of pirates; we, though, can build carefully constructed bi-lateral relations with specific nations–relations outlining very clear reciprocal duties and benefits, both economic and security.  Let anyone who does want our protection request it and offer something tangible (not “stability”) in exchange.  Similarly, we should outline very clear forms of deterrence, also on a nation-to-nation basis.  Perhaps such nation-to-nation alliances will lead to networks of alliances, new collaborative institutions, with the obligations of all involved to be carefully clarified at each stage.  (At the same time, private associations of individuals might form their own alliances with citizens of other lands, friendly or hostile, willingly taking the risk that the US government will not be able to back them if they get into trouble; hoping to convince their fellow citizens to take that risk.)  And, since the world will clearly become a much more dangerous place, border security must become an absolute priority, one which we will now have the military resources to attend to.  Such a political program would intersect with a movement to restore our constitution, and would cut against the grain of the ruling Left’s transnationalism in some very effective ways.  We would consistently be on the side of austere, focused, fair and accountable policies against flabby, diffuse, easily corruptible ones.  We could constantly be exposing and explaining, very clearly tagging particular policies as in or opposed to some definable American interest–most obviously wealth generating activities that also increase our energy security, like drilling for oil and building nuclear power plants.  And we could keep things very simple–for this, against that; for the local, the national, the productive, the friend; against the transnational, the parasitical, anything that fetters free activity, the duplicitous pseudo-ally.

The market is always tainted by thousands of political decisions, attending to this or that resentment that has emerged through the markeplace or the latest adjustment made in response to a previously expressed resentment.  It gets to the point where the sign is obscured beyond recognition–what does it mean to be a participant in the marketplace, once any economic decision is bounded on all sides by government moralizing, hectoring, bullying, helping?  At that point politics has to be about clarifying what we are all loyal to:  what are our basic signs and events?  Certainly individual citizens should avoid at all costs confrontations with Leviathan–but I don’t think that bureaucracies are going to get any smarter, and there must be all kinds of ways of outwitting and neutralizing them, of privatizing what the state would like to control, even in foreign policy.  The politics I am arguing here is one of going first–asserting the reality of some sign by acting on it and inviting others to gather around it, working on several levels–local self-help, movement for constitutional amendment, lobbies for attacking the most unpopular and vulnerable entangling alliances with transnational bureaucracies and regulations, actual friendships with lovers of freedom abroad, radical and yet reasonable claims for abolishing dysfunction institutions like the CIA and State Department–while being prepared to work small, under the radar, or go mainstream in the midst of the chain of crises that are surely coming, that has perhaps already begun.