GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

January 13, 2010

Oupopo: A Preliminary Political Combinatorial

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:54 am

The Oulipo group has already spawned a variety of spin-offs: oubapo (comics); oupeinpo (painting); oucuipo (cooking); oumupo (music); outrapo (drama), and at least several more. All one needs to found a new ou-x-po is the realization that the activity in question (the “x”) is governed by rules, some explicit, more tacit, and that the explicit rules can be formed more deliberately and the tacit ones made explicit. A infinitely wide field of activity then opens up, as the self-reflexive gaze we turn upon our own activity is made productive—the first rule would be that any rule that comes into sight—either becomes visible, or takes on a noticeably new character or produces discernably new effects—is deliberately reinforced or countered (with another rule, a sub-rule, or a meta-rule). Even looking back over this paragraph, for example, I could note that the rule I am following is to point to small changes that lead to large changes—that could, then, become a rule for writing the rest of this post: each sentence, or each paragraph, needs to name a small change along with the larger changes it might lead to. One could make the rule more precise—each paragraph needs to increase the disproportion between the “small” change and the “large” change, etc.

In order to transform any activity into a procedural, rule governed one, it must be broken down into discrete and, ultimately, irreducible “moves.” In order to begin testing out the uses of “potentialism” for political thinking, I will here try to indicate certain basic political “elements,” certain rules of “combination” and “conversion,” and thereby institute an ou-po(litics)-po. The founding or meta rules must be the following: the rules must be universalizable enough to hold for any social setting: from totalitarian to free order, from normal political situations to emergencies, from international politics to the local school board; second, any rules must, to follow the imperative Eric Gans, in my view rightly, asserted in his most recent Chronicle (385) regarding the “globalization of the human conversation”: “For the first time in history, every non-intimate assemblage must consider itself as virtually including every human being.” And this latter would be an imperative, naturally, that I must follow in writing this post.

Hannah Arendt, in fact, gave us a minimal definition of the public sphere which can allow us to compress the two meta rules into one: the public sphere is where what is done and said is seen and heard by everyone. Of course, this can also sound a lot like the sphere of celebrity, and it’s no coincidence that those respective spheres have come to approximate each other, so let’s mark the difference by completing Arendt’s definition: the public sphere is generative and infinite, while celebrity is monopolistic: public displays of defiance on the part of Iranians to their regime doesn’t detract from our ability to engage publically here—quite to the contrary, in fact; while there is only so much attention to be paid to celebrities and some must get more of it than others. So, politics is maximum visibility that solicits further exposure—the need politics meets is to have resentment displayed openly and in such a way that various ways of ensuring the reconciliation of one resentment with others can be tried out and, when deemed successful, instituted. The resentments themselves are changed in the process of giving them form—in particular, the claim of each resentment to speak from the center must accentuated, and in this way the actual terms of the center are brought into view. Politics, then, becomes a discovery procedure, aimed at making present the resentment of the center.

Since politics is inevitably a partisan activity (always an “us vs. them” configuration), an honest politics that avows its partisanship (its resentments) while at the same time proposing rules that would not a priori privilege any resentment over those of others who are willing to play by the rules, would aim at, not so much reconciling as “customizing” or “commensurating” resentments within its own camp while surfacing and rendering incongruous resentments among its opponents, with the ultimate goal of bringing members of the other camp into your own. If you are pro-abortion rights, you try to drive a wedge between different factions among the pro-life camp, if you oppose the health care bill you seek to drive a wedge (and, clearly, the most disabling wedge) between the various factions supporting it. And one similarly fends off the reciprocal attempts on the part of one’s opponents, not by suppressing factionalism but by establishing protocols that allow factionalism to be played out openly and with finality.

If each camp, then, is both unity and a set of factions, both to the other camp, and to itself, we can deduce the following political “syntax”: If we leave aside the content of the particular camps, i.e., remain within the grammar of politics and put aside its semantics, we could say that any move you make as a political agent either offers or refuses some terms of agreement put forth by another faction within your camp or a targeted faction in the other camp. So, you can represent yourself as a faction within your camp offering/refusing terms of agreement to the other faction(s), with those terms of agreement in turn involving the establishment of a unified camp offering/refusing of terms of agreement with (targeted faction[s] within) the other camp(s). Then we would simply have a series of combinatorial possibilities: for example, your faction refuses terms of agreement put forward by another faction which would offer terms of agreement to the other camp taken as a unified whole, etc.

Let’s further say that every group (faction or camp) is constituted by a set of rules, partially tacit and partially explicit. Offering new terms of agreement would change, however slightly, the explicit rules, add a new, shared layer of explicit rules, and set in place a mode of interaction that will change the tacit rules in ways that can’t be controlled or predicted. Oupopo procedures, as a kind of political pataphysics, would start with the most unlikely combinations: say, offer a shared rule with a faction in the other camp that has refused an agreement with a faction in its camp proposing an agreement with your camp that would include your faction—in other words, propose an agreement with the very faction that stakes its factionalism on excluding you. So, the task before, say, the most extreme pro-life faction (say, one that rules out abortion even in cases of rape and incest) would be to propose some shared rule to, say, the most extreme pro-abortion rights faction (one that insists upon federal funding, opposes parental notification, etc.). It might simply be a shared rule for placing their respective propaganda side by side in a particular manner—perhaps both could agree to do so in a way that heightens the differences, each gambling that being placed next to the extremism of the other will strengthen their own position.

Starting with the most unlikely agreements not only intensifies one’s sense of the full range of possible interactions and communications, but also provides a more independent sense of the terms which one would agree to with those much closer. Of more interest to me, though, is the effectivity of these combinatorial possibilities as a formal device that leads to the articulation of a whole range of concrete possibilities—if the extreme pro-life and pro-abortion rights factions were to arrive at such an agreement, what would be the ramifications regarding agreements that would then become impossible or possible, more or less likely, with all the other factions and camps? What terms would the more moderate pro-abortion rights faction offer or refuse once the more extreme camp has become entangled in this way? We could, at the very least, say that possibilities that wouldn’t have existed otherwise would now become visible.

The formulation of such rules would, further, take on a “what if…” quality, because in order to offer terms to another faction or camp you would already have to be acting in such a way as to display possible accord with those terms—so, the extreme pro-lifers, preparatory to offering the aforementioned terms to the extreme pro-abortion righters, would already begin to instantiate those terms. And this is where the formulation of oupopo procedures comes into it: in your literature and propaganda, in your demonstrations, in your negotiations, act as though the offered terms were already in place, so that offering the terms would merely be asking the other to join in and try to reshape what you are already doing. And the further refinement of the rules would involve bringing into play various permutations—offer terms for an agreement with the extreme faction in the other camp that would at the same time be a refusal of terms with the more moderate faction in your camp and at the same time an attempt to factionalize that moderate camp by offering terms to a previously neglected possible faction within it, etc. And, of course, there are always factions within factions and, in the end, each of us is faction of one (in many different camps).

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