GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

June 2, 2009

Futurity and Presence

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:36 am

For years I have been convinced, and I remain convinced, that there is a simple and infallible way of breaking the victimary spell:  for the “dominant” to use their power to defend those who are the victims of those who claim to be our victims.  This should involve not merely charity or altruism, but a genuine alliance, however asymmetrical the contributions of each party, against a common enemy, leading to lasting covenants and institutions.  This principle can be applied in infinitely varied ways–conservatives who have tried to liberate students from the public school monopoly, or poor inner city blacks from their “civil rights” leadership through enterprise zones and other initiatives have intuited that this is the way forward.  It demystifies victimary claims as another mode of resentment without the potential for generating much intellectual content besides a few, rapidly aging maxims (regarding the virtues, of which there are certainly some, of seeing things from “below”).  It acknowledges the inevitability of asymmetry in human affairs, and that the establishment of symmetrical relationships is not meant to eliminate such asymmetries but to establish arenas with a shared sacrality and prescribed objects of desire that are open to all regardless of those asymmetries or, to put it differently, where resentments are directed towards attempts to introduce the asymmetries into that bounded space.  And so that the assymetries that will then arise within that space (we are all free to own property, but we won’t all get equally rich; we are all free to speak but don’t all become equally influential, etc.) reveal new possibilities within that field of human activity, that is, new objects of desire and means of appropriating them (inequalities in propery increases productivity and wealth; differentials in influence lead to models for refining our persuasive capacities). 

So, for me the obvious question is, why hasn’t this happened?  To be more precise, why has the one attempt (the “Bush Doctrine”), despite having been launched in response to the most propitious of events (the reductio ad absurdum of the victimary that was 9/11), turned out to be so feeble?  What desires and resentments have been more compelling, and why?  It’s very hard to get a sense of this from Leftists themselves, who answer questions about what they believe or how they conceive of the results of their actions (still!) primarily with diatribes about Bush–even Obama seems incapable of presenting any policy without framing it as a “new beginning” leaving behind a period of medieval darkness.  Everything then, can be described as “cleaning up the mess,” “turning a corner,” “restoring our image in the world,” etc.–i.e., phrases devoid of information, even the involuntary kind one provides when stating a any view, or communicating any sense of where one really sees things going. 

Here’s another, more conventionally political, way of thinking about where we are.  From 1932-1968, “Progressives” ruled America almost unchallenged, and seemed unlikely to be challenged.  They had seen us through–if not actually extricated us from–a depression, and had won the largest and most important war in history.  They had managed, in the post-War world, to meld a relatively mild welfare state to a revised version of traditional American, middle class values, and to produce leaders like Truman and Kennedy who could plausibly articulate those values. They ushered in, under quite a bit of pressure, it’s true, a new era of racial equality.  They even, after some problematic entanglements, managed to get the question of Communism mostly right. 

The progressive alliance, including the media, universities and most of the political class, then stumbled quite a bit over the next 40 years.  The first blow to liberal hegemony came from the Left,  in the form of resistance to the Vietnam War and cultural assaults on bourgeois morality.  In getting the question of Communism right, the liberal elites ultimately alienated a large chunk of the next generation, which tapped into the tradition of anti-imperialism that had been exorcised during the McCarthy period.  And the cultural split alienated an important chunk of the middle class.  The first political result of this was the election and re-election of Richard Nixon, who completely accepted the welfare state, but represented the resistance of the “silent majority” to attacks on middle class values and patriotism. 

A series of blows followed:   the election of Reagan, on similar grounds as Nixon, but with the important addition of a rejection of Carterite weakness in foreign policy and with a much more coherent, counter-Keynsian economic agenda.  And then, in the 90s, figures like Newt Gingrich, on the one hand, whose Republican majority actually promised to roll back important elements of the welfare state, and Rudy Guiliani, who restored the hope of decent urban governance which had almost been lost.  And, finally, Bush’s cooptation of liberal themes of human rights and democratization (following up on Reagan here) and tying it to an assertive foreign policy that involved the first serious use (and ultimately successful) of American military force since Vietnam. 

For a while the Democrats incorporated these themes, moderated their views on things like welfare, the market and regulation, kept their pacifism and tendency to blame America for its enemies in check–while still demonizing their opponents, usually in more coded terms like “competence.”  Perhaps most important, cultural transformations in the areas of sexuality, family life and popular culture continued unimpeded–enough common ground here with libertarians and the general desire of most people to stay out of others’ business made any counter-revolution other than verbal unlikely here.  But now, perhaps in part because of some of the successes resulted from these counter-revolutions against progressivism–the reduction in crime, the enormous generation of wealth over the past 30 years, the fall of Communism, the prevention of further attacks after 9/11–it seems, like a rubber band that has been stretched to its limits and then released, we have snapped back pretty much to where liberalism was in the 1960s–if you think about what they had in mind, had not the New Left and the debacle in Vietnam not derailed them, even taking into account our specific historical moment and our economic crisis in particular–wouldn’t any good liberal circa 1965 or so see, at least a first glance, today’s government as essentially picking up where they left off?  Indeed, all the complaints that have accumulated about the “Right” over the past 30 years, all the griping in publications like The Nation and Mother Jones, among aging graduate students and community activists–none of it seems to have been wasted.  The Obama Adminstration’s rhetoric and plans are all formulated in an idiom intimately familiar to anyone hanging around the (mostly hopeless) Left between 1980 and 2008.  In other words, however catastrophic (in my view, of course) the path Obama and the democratic congress have put us on, in some sense it looks like the “natural” condition of post-traditional (post-WWI, really) America.  In the end, the Left conceded nothing, and the link between Bill Ayers and President Obama represents the return of the New Left cultural and anti-American radicals back into the fold.  This is where we have been heading–the Republican revolts were simply detours.  

Auschwitz theology has proven so powerful because its roots lie deep in victimary modernity–in the compulsive self-liberation from obscurantist tyranny.  If you can’t imagine freedom in any other terms, you will keep imagining yourself enslaved in new ways with each new liberation from previous enslavement and you will keep seeking out previously invisible modes of victimization to abhor.  There is a covenantal modernity which displaces the victimary brand, but the US was really the only strong representative of covenantal modernity and, ultimately, the lasting influence of slavery gave victimary modernity a foothold here which it has prodigiously expanded.

But victimary modernity is impossible as a way of life–its triumph must lead to catastrophe.  The best thing to do, as far as I can see, is to stay out of the way as the catastrophe unfolds–predict nothing, don’t gloat, quietly offer alternatives which will be contemptuously rejected.  Unobtrusively abstain from the narrative of victimary modern liberation–that would include “tea parties,” references to Jefferson and Paine, etc. (although, of course, we need not criticize any of that, either, nor exclude the possibilities that some movement will emerge from it).  The new narratives will have to emerge out of disciplinary spaces, and they will coelesce around the discovery and invention of modes of symmetry which leave pre-existing asymmetries alone.  And symmetry seen not as equalizing liberty but as esthetic freedom–see all the beautiful ways in which we can exist on the same plane with each other!  Create spaces that people will want to join once the victimary state starts to go bankrupt, and that will ultimately be able to find public representation by applying its idioms and habits to devising novel compromises.  I would think of this as a continuous presence, as opposed to transcendence–transcendence sees some idea embodied in reality, while presence is awareness that only one’s activity sustains reality, with ever-renewed signs rather than ideas.  Presence will involve a recovery of imperatives and ostensives for public use–of course, they could never fall out of disuse in private life–and a proliferation of models which are adhered to tenaciously but in very restricted circumstances.  I feel like going on to talk about auxiliary verbs as a model for this kind of activity, but that seems to be a discussion for a discipline that doesn’t quite exist yet.  To get it started, though, why shouldn’t language serve us as a source of models for reality–now that we have finally dispensed with the notion that reality must be the model for language?

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