Imperativity

The JCRT Live Blog no longer seems interested in my posts, so I figured I’d post here the last one I wrote for them:

Imperativity

“He that goeth about to persuade a multitude that they are not so well governed as they ought to be shall never want attentive and favorable hearers; because they know the manifold defects whereunto every kind of regime is subject, but the secret lets and difficulties, which in public proceedings are innumerable and inevitable, they have not ordinarily the judgment to consider. And because such as openly reprove supposed disorders of state are taken for principal friends to the common benefit of all, and for men that carry singular freedom of mind; under this fair and plausible color whatsoever they utter passeth for good and currant. That which wanteth in the weight of their speech is supplied by the aptness of men’s minds to accept and believe it. Whereas on the other side, if we maintain things that are established, we have not only to strive with a number of heavy prejudices deeply rooted in the hearts of men, who think that herein we serve the time, and speak in favor of the present state because thereby we either hold or seek preferment; but also to bear such exceptions as minds so averted beforehand usually take against that which they are loth should be poured into them. ”

That this opening paragraph of Richard Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594) could almost be describing the canonical stance of the radical student, staging ritualized confrontations with his/her elders, whether professors or administrators. Hooker’s is a remarkable diagnosis of the double bind into which the victimary stance places its targets: if you oppose, or pose as an opponent of, the existing order, all of the “innumerable and inevitable” “defects” of that order are accredited to your honesty, bravery and concern for the common good while, naturally, taking and seeking no responsibility for the sustenance of that order itself, along with its perhaps no less numerable if less inevitable benefits, you need give no credit to those who take upon themselves such responsibility because, after all, they wouldn’t do so if their own interests weren’t bound up in the “establishment.” Indeed, anyone who speaks in defense of “things that are established” can easily be presumed guilty of doing so only as a result of their own “complicity” in its manifold defects and unavoidably unevenly distributed benefits. Even if what such defenders say is true, it is an irremediably tainted truth, one which needs to be rigorously inspected for the exclusions and marginalizations by which it constitutes itself.

Engaging Hooker’s seminal analysis of an emergent modern political sensibility would mean we would have to extend our analysis of the victimary stance well beyond the self-conscious and strategic organization of grievances and identities along the familiar lines of “race, class, gender, sexual orientation” in the post-Auschwitz world, and even beyond the conceptual model for such organizations in the representation of the “proletariat” by Marxism. We would have to look at the victimary stance constitutive of the modernity upon which Hooker’s defense of established things stands on the threshold. In fact, I know of Hooker because he is a primary source upon which Eric Voegelin, in his The New Science of Politics, relied in his analysis of modernity as a continuation of the Gnosticism that sustained itself in opposition on the margins of Christiandom since antiquity. Voegelin sees Hooker as analyzing, in the Puritan radicals, an early instance of what was to become the prevailing form of modern, revolutionary resentment: for Voegelin, the figures of this resentment are driven by the desire to replace the “uncertainty,” which “is the very essence of Christianity,” with “a certainty about the meaning of history, and about their own place in it” (122) They achieve this certainty by treating apocalypse and redemption as immanent to human knowledge and practice. This resentment is directed at the very ambiguities and necessary limitations of public power as much as towards those who wield it, because those ambiguities and limitations must interfere with the universalization of the self-transparency of the “saved” (or vanguard) to the yet benighted.

I take Voegelin’s account to suggest that assertions of liberty in modernity are always assertions against someone who has always already usurped one’s liberty, and such usurpations always shadow even the most expansively enjoyed modes of freedom. We are by now very familiar with the consequent antinomies, which it has been the virtue of postmodern, victimary thought, to pursue ruthlessly to the end: freedom bounds us ever more tightly to those others within and without, above and below, against whom we define ourselves, whose counter-strategies we unknowingly incorporate in our quest for originality, the patterns of repetition of which parody our most “authentic” gesture, etc. It’s reasonable to assume that a lot of people are tired of all this already, but it seems to me that strictly political discourse is still completely locked into this discourse, on both Left and Right, and pretty much everywhere in the world. In my view, the belief or even willingness to entertain the possibility that 9/11 was an “inside job” is far more vicious and pathological than the current obsession among some American conservatives with Obama’s birth certificate, but both resentments are equivalent in the following sense: they represent a desperate desire to identify a “real” source of malevolent power “behind” the apparent, necessarily complex, multiple and ambiguous sources—a source of power that has, or constantly threatens to, take up residence in the place where we constitute ourselves as free individuals.

Modern freedom cannot have other than an extremely ambivalent relation to what I will call the “imperative order”: all those situations where we give and obey imperatives, overwhelmingly “automatically” and “unthinkingly”—most obviously, in institutions like the family, the military and law enforcement, but also in our places of employment, in the classroom, in our relations with bureaucracies, in emergency situations, and in our self-disciplining, i.e., the commands we issue to ourselves, taking shape ultimately in habits, which we might see as self-imitations of which we have forgotten the model. The modern tendency has been to mediate, even saturate, these sites of imperativity, with indicatives—just consider the elevation of “consent,” especially of the “informed” kind, to the highest of values: to consent is to present the imperatives one follows and issues as deriving from shared indicative sentences. But this can never solve the problem of “legitimating” imperatives—after all, the more specific and urgent the imperative (that is, the more imperative it is), the less they can be referred to the justifying indicative. The dominance, in a liberal order, of indicatives, what we call the “rule of law,” can only guide us in assigning spheres and limits of imperatival responsibility; the more indicatives interfere in the substance of the imperatives themselves, the more the rule of law is replaced by bureaucracy.

Indicatives do, of course, issue imperatives, but not single and univocal ones—rather, indicatives create for us a reality that embeds a set of possible commands. “All men are created equal” commands us to combat inequality, but not everywhere, all at once, with unremitting urgency, to the exclusion of all other considerations and until the extirpation of every last residue of it. It would be better to read the imperative it issues as one, when we are forced to choose between competing posts of imperative issuance, to choose the one whose occupancy relies upon markers produced internally to the space and not transmitted to it from some external point.

I left off my list of sites of imperative order what is probably the most significant and originary of such sites: prayer. The supplicant in prayer acknowledges God’s commands and that those commands come prior to, and bound, any indicative (“God created the heavens and the earth” sums up a series of imperatives; the “I am that I am/will be” with which God addresses Moses out of the burning bush—for Gans, the locus of the Judaic revelation of the name of God as the declarative sentence—is bounded by a pair of imperatives: God tells Moses what to say to the Hebrews when they demand of him that he tell them God’s name; in the most central of Jewish prayers, the “Shema,” “the Lord our God the Lord is One” is preceded by “Hear O’Israel”); and the supplicant issues commands to God in return (give me strength, sustain me, make my choices wise, etc.). Here I will appeal, as usual, to the extraordinary power of the originary hypothesis, which asserts the impossibility of signification without a sacred center, or the Name-of-God—we can speak, we can understand each other, because we inhabit the world of representations that has “always already” deferred violence. To speak is to already have obeyed the imperative not to appropriate some object, or to eliminate some obstacle to its appropriation, without passing through the appropriate representational mediations.

I will, then, reframe the modern crisis of the imperative as follows—as the centrality of prayer to social order recedes, imperatives become increasingly untenable. Prayer is the anchor of the imperative order—if we are not obeying God, and commanding God to keep making his commands more audible and legible, then all other commands are correspondingly vitiated. This is a rather unsettling suggestion, and not just because of all the uncertainties surrounding any prospect of a revival of traditional religiosity (uncertainties regarding both its possibility and the shapes it might take). More important is that the tension between the imperative and indicative orders is endemic—those committed to the triumph of indicativity have good reasons for wishing that imperativity would go away quietly—the ideal would be that every imperative be directly read off of some indicative. (I am leaving out of account the kind of imperative most characteristic of the victimary, or the Left, which is the demand that some imperative not be enforced: that someone be released from jail, not be fired, not be searched, etc. Such demands, obviously, can be more or less justified, more or less concerned to improve rather than weaken the imperative order. For my purposes here what is important is that demands are far less essential to the imperative order than commands—they presuppose the subordinate or outsider position and never receive tacit or spontaneous obedience.) Indeed, we are in the situation I have described because there is no obvious way of resolving this tension.

Voegelin speaks of two different kinds of “representation” in politics. One is “elemental”: the articulation of institutions so as to produce representatives who can speak for the society; or, in the terms I am working with here, issue the imperatives that are regularly obeyed. The other is “existential”: the “principle” (in the sense of both origin and idea) by which society constitutes or re-constitutes itself in a crisis and through which it effects the articulation of its institutions. The existential representation is a model of reality that is (or will be seen to have been) articulated in the founding of society. As I suggested in my previous post, the victimary (in the expanded sense I am giving it here) demolishes any transcendental existential representation, while remaining parasitical upon the representations it has canceled.

But there is one resource for existential representation that can’t be done away with, or even impaired in irreparable ways, and that is language itself. We have created and incessantly recreate language, but it does the same to us and always remains outside of our reach while being internal to all and each and every one of us. The boundary between error and innovation, for example, might be seen to bear a minimal holiness, insofar as such determinations are undecidable because dependent upon the contingencies of subsequent usage; and, as undecidable, they are sites of deferral, where our claims to command the “existential” forms of representation must be suspended.

Now, this boundary might be essentially undecidable, but its appearance sets in motion chains of imperatives when someone decides—not so much on what something “really means” but on the crystallization of a model of reality out of that manifestation of the boundary. Raoul Eshelman, in a series of essays in Anthropoetics (start here: http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap0602/perform.htm) and now a book (http://www.amazon.com/Performatism-End-Postmodernism-Raoul-Eshelman/dp/1888570415/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1249694352&sr=1-1) has argued for a “post-postmodernism” he calls “performatism”: “subjects present themselves (or are presented) as self-sufficient wholes impervious to the demands or responsibilities emanating from the social context around them.” They constitute themselves unconditionally as models, and “[o]ut of these self-presentations arise new freedoms which… serve to renew human relationships through love.” Eshelman focuses primarily on idiosyncratic and “defective” characters in narrative art forms in particular (he has addressed architecture and other arts), but has not yet explored the political implications of this “retrogade self-fashioning of the subject” that “has something profoundly sacral about it, for every successful act of establishing selfhood implies a transcending, context-disrupting act of sacrifice which can exhaust or destroy the subject.”

While Eshelman doesn’t put it in these terms, it seems to me that what characterizes the performatist agent is their willingness to occupy the center and thereby risk scapegoating while at the same time displaying no sense of their proximity to a social center or real interest in or desire to be scapegoated—indeed, ignoring their centrality and prolonging the recourse to scapegoating as much as possible, and minimizing it if it occurs. “Defects,” such as mild autism, help to construct characters in fictional works who can straddle this boundary because they cannot be fully aware of the implications of the risk they willingly take—they simply follow an idiosyncratically constructed set of rules. In social and political terms, though, the “context-disrupting” acts covered by Eshelman’s concept might best be thought of as the assertion (based upon a naïve belief) that what appears to be an “error” is in fact an emergent idiom, with this claim dependent upon others accepting your act unconditionally as a model for their own. The error that disrupts the context makes one a target, and one’s insistence on advancing the idiom affirms that intensified attention; still, the new idiom is other than the idiom of sacrifice, and its inventor must find the language of sacrifice (which always calls for “correctness”) dissonant—and this might intensify the scapegoating mechanism or interfere with it, but would at any rate disallow its having the last word. Such idiom bearers can be sources of imperatives—we can reject their idiom, but if we accept, or iterate, it, we must accept being enclosed within in it, taking it as the origin of a new configuration of habits.

Our relationship to these idiomatic models wouldn’t be prayerful, exactly, but we would have to command them to continue issuing and clarifying the commands they propose as a model. And our worship would be directed less at the figure him/herself then at the miraculous generativity of language, which gives us to create novelties out of our endless erring. So, we have a kind of originary relation to holy models, in which an asymmetrical relation of reciprocally commanding agents constitutes the imperative order—much more tentatively, of course, but what could one expect? Rather than a post-postmodernism, though, I think the proliferation of idiomatic models would be a new bend in modernity, one that embraces and extends the Christian recognition of both the pervasiveness and bankruptcy of scapegoating, but rejects definition through victimhood. I can’t say I see many such models in the political world at present—the media and contemporary canons of celebrity are still far too heavily invested in strip-mining the narrative of victimary modernity. But we can certain await their coming.

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