Monthly Archives: April 2010

The Right of the Idiom, continued

We could say that De Soto’s argument for formalizing the informal economy (see my discussion in the first installment of “The Right of the Idiom”) is an argument for integrating the gift economy into the money economy. It’s a bit more complex, though: the informal economy is not a pre-capitalist economic order “transcended” by capitalism; rather, it emerges on the margins of capitalism, in particular in the urban areas ruled by what De Soto calls the “bell jar,” or the legal order that applies to and protects only the property of the elites—the masses, in De Soto’s account, abandon the countryside and crowd into the cities as the market economy offers promise of a better life, a promise which is frustrated by the inadequate legal order. But, it might be better to say, as Gans did in his talk at the Ottawa conference last June (see Chronicle #376), that the gift economy is itself rather complex, and continues to exist within a capitalist economy. In that case, not everything need be monetized: even more, while just about anything can be, new gift economies will emerge in the way of each new conquest of capitalist legality.
It seems to me that there are some pretty important political consequences that follow. One devastating vulnerability of classical liberal political theory (that of Locke and his successors) is that it identifies the rights-bearing, property owning individual with the state of nature. We know, of course, that property ownership and the attendant rights are not pre-existing in nature, only to be “baptized” by the social contract. This fiction made what Hannah Arendt called the “right to have rights” excessively abstract and filled with contradictions. Political theory got caught up in endless debates over what, exactly, made human beings worthy of rights: was it reason? Was it productive labor? In that case, what about the rights of children, the disabled, the mentally ill? What about the rights of those whose labor does fit the model of productivity in Western society, as that of the Native Americans or Africans, who could therefore be dispossessed on the grounds that they don’t really “labor”? Moreover, the notion that property exists in a full blown form prior to the existence of government and law creates the sense that the government and the law are ultimately necessary evils, leading to the perpetual libertarian-anarchist fantasy of making them unnecessary—and the complementary fear and hatred of government, no matter how limited.
We could say, instead, that rights are rooted in one’s participation in a gift economy. One’s participation in a gift economy makes one, by definition, capable of entering the money, market economy, because the possibility of converting gifts into commodities is inherent in the juxtaposition of the two economies. In that case, the right to own property is a basic right, but one is not caught in the double bind of withholding such rights from anyone who doesn’t already own property in such a way as would be recognized by the capitalist legal system. Furthermore, everyone is involved in gift economies in some way, even the most disabled individual or a fetus, because any form of human life can be symbolized or represented, and the exchange of representations is the most basic form of the gift economy. Here I would propose a “right of the idiom”: anyone’s way into language and self-representation is distinctive, and in that case presentable in some way as a gift in some formal exchange with others. To put it another way, anyone who speaks can tell a joke, or laugh at one, in a way no one else can; or can be spoken about, and be a source of others’ desires and love—occupy a place in the world of signs, in short. I am not saying that idioms are intrinsically gifts—rather, in a modern society, in which the gift economy and the money economy exist side by side, any idiom could conceivably cross over the boundary and become property, and in that case it must have been (to use a Derridean idiom, it will have been) a gift in the first place. And, of course, if we root rights in the gift economy, on the margins and in the interstices of the market economy, we can also grant the right to remain within the gift economy and refuse entrance into the world of the market.
Rooting rights in the idioms circulating within the gift economy also allows us to address another blind spot of political economy: those pre-marketized relationships (education, family, neighborhood, etc.) and dispositions (loyalty, love, courage…) which must be pre-conditions of the market economy but have no place within economic thought itself. First of all, though, it raises some interesting questions regarding actors or beings also included within discursive or idiomatic circuits: what about animals? The planet? The dead? Future generations? They can all be imagined, and more vividly within a gift than a money economy, and hence can all become bearers of rights. But rights would be more or less metaphorical, more or less enforceable, to the extent that the representation of those rights could conceivably give way to self-representation at some point. So, it is possible imagine calling upon the law to defend the rights of a fetus, or someone in a coma; the rights of future generations can be defended politically, insofar as they will, we hope, come along, but no individual has been delegated responsibility for them; the rights of the dead might, perhaps, be defended culturally, in arguments against abandoning what they tested out and sacrificed for; animals, in a familiar argument, have the right not to suffer more than necessary, because we certainly know they can suffer, and so on. All of this would be endlessly discussed and debated, of course. I believe we could get much more specific in tying idioms to rights: who, for example, can issue binding imperatives upon us? The dead, I think, but not the planet. From whom can we imagine receiving an exclamation or ostensive (say, an exhortation): from future generations, I think, but not the planet, or animals. Who could be included in our prayers, on whose life could we swear an oath? Rights, in originary terms, are a modern mode of sacrality: some possible encroachment upon the existence, movement, well-being or freedom of others from which we forbear. There are many degrees and modes of such forbearance, and the way to understand our obligations to things and to people past and present is to look carefully at how we talk about them.
To return, then, to the economics of the non-marketized elements of life: what an originary political economy would study are the ways in which one or another mode of education or family or communal life, provide avenues back and forth between gift and money economies. A mode of life which provides the necessities of life outside of the market beyond some threshold to be identified would be inimical to a larger society based on rights. The group might have means of representing itself and thereby accessing rights, and individuals representing the group might have means of doing so as well, but their relations to each other would be largely outside of the economy of rights. That might be the way they prefer it, and that is their right. At the same time, though, we would be obliged to defend the rights of any individual within that group who stepped outside of the gift economy into the market, even if it’s a very small step. Gift economies might be very egalitarian but they also might be sites where strict hierarchies (“big men”) flourish; in a certain sense the big man and woman are constitutive of the family. We can defend a wide range of organization within the various gift economies, as long as we develop an agreement as to what would count as that “step” outside of it.
What I hope to contribute next (the blog, and intellectual exchange more generally, is ultimately most at home within the gift economy) is an way of talking about idioms in the way I have suggested above—how can we talk of the commands, the revelations, the prayers and oaths, the promises, and so on, that are formed within the gift economy but prepare us to enter the money economy and bear and respect rights? What kind of politics can help preserve these idiomatic preconditions on rights? And no consistent reader of this blog will be surprised when I suggest that the devastation wrought by victimary discourse lies largely in its assault upon these idioms, and upon gift economies (which interfere with bureaucracy) more generally.

Anthropoetics’ Spring issue 15:2 now available! http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap1502/index.htm

The latest issue of Anthropoetics, Spring 15:2, is now available at http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap1502/index.htm .The table of contents is listed below.

Table of Contents
Anthropoetics XV:II

Jean-Loup AmselleTo Count or Not to Count: The Debate on Ethnic and Diversity Statistics in France Today

Peter GoldmanThe Meaning of Meaning in Kafka’s The Castle

Kyle KarthauserPopular Culture after Postmodernism: Family Guy, Borat, The Office, and the Awkwardness of Being Earnest

Adam Katz From Habit to Maxim: Eccentric Models of Reality and Presence in the Writing of Gertrude Stein

Marina LudwigsThree Gaps of Representation / Three Meanings of Transcendence

Andrew McKennaArt and Incarnation: Oscillating Views

Emma Peacocke“A novel word in my vocabulary”: Laughter and the Evolution of the Byronic Model into Don Juan

Simon WatsonReview Essay: Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Atheist Fundamentalism

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The Right of the Idiom: Part 1

I have been reading Hernando de Soto’s The Mystery of Capital, and a striking convergence with Eric Gans’ Chronicle #388 on writing suggests itself; and this articulation further intersects with a little discussion a while back on the GAList on GA as a theory of self-ownership.  And, finally, of interest perhaps to no one but myself, this little package helps me advance my originary grammar.

De Soto’s argument is by now fairly well known:  the seemingly intractable poverty outside of the Western world results from the lack of a stable system of property.  According to de Soto, the poor throughout the world actually possess trillions of dollars worth of assets, but since these assets are only possessed physically, without any legal title, they can only be exchanged locally and, more important, cannot serve as capital.   Capital is property that can be borrowed against and therefore generate more wealth than it contains itself—but that’s impossible if legal titles are not available, especially if much of this “property” is held not only extra-legally but illegally.  So, it is writing, which turns what is possessed into “property,” by documenting all the features of those possessions deemed relevant by potential buyers, lenders, and the existing legal authorities.

De Soto’s book was published in 2000, and it was the culmination of a years’ long research project in which de Soto and his collaborators studied the various forms of undocumented property held by the poor in various countries along with the legal systems in those countries, with an eye on what would be involved in obtaining the proper documentation.  Even more, de Soto presents this as a political project aimed at transforming legal and property systems in these countries so as to bring them in line with the capital systems that have worked in the West.  I don’t know where this project stands right now, but I think I’m safe in saying it hasn’t been marked by astonishing progress.

De Soto addresses the puzzling fact that this very basic reason for the success of Western capitalism has never been a part of the foreign aid processes through which many billions of dollars have been flushed down the global toilet (that’s my expression, not de Soto’s).  He concludes that this is because the West itself has never penetrated to the secret of its own success, since the defense of individual property rights and not the creation of capital per se was the goal pursued in the development of Western legal systems through the 19th century.  We can read de Soto in terms of the originary hypothesis here very effectively, and perhaps add to our understanding of the transition from Maussian exchange to the market system:  written legal documentation confers a new mode of generativity upon things by deferring violence in the short run and thereby creating a “medium run”—that is, making it possible to rely upon the expanding division of labor stored in property.

If the West has not deciphered the reasons for its success, it makes sense to ask whether it might squander that success.  Property rights are still understood, both by its proponents and critics, in terms of their connection to individuals as their source, rather than as the foundation of a system of economic generativity articulated through signs.  Through a kind of cunning of history, the insistence on property as, in Lockean terms, an extension of the body and labor of the individual, sufficed to build an economic system unanticipated by those who first formulated and defended those rights.  But property rights defended on those traditional terms have proven vulnerable, because in the theory of the state predicated upon that theory of right, the state is obliged to defend individual property rights while at the same time being viewed as the major threat to those rights.  There is an extreme and unresolvable ambivalence implicit in this stance—you must want the state to be big enough to defend your property while renouncing any designs on that property, you must want the state to be imbued with the assumptions of universal rights and individual responsibility while at the same time being completely instrumental.  The bigger and more complex the threats to individual property become and the more special interests inevitably seize upon the instrumentality of the state, the more untenable this position becomes.  Consider the kind of ideal “public servant” who must administer such a state:  he must be impartial and decisive, have no ambition to expand his power while using that power assertively and confidently, and be content to suffer the suspicions and accusations of those who start from the assumption that only near-paranoid levels of scrutiny can hope to control him. 

The American constitutional system brilliantly takes into account the essential anthropological dimensions the more austere libertarian doctrine ignores—the American founders, sharing that same Lockean understanding of property, understood that diversity in abilities and starting points would lead to diversity in property and therefore diversity in interest; they also understood that people seek power because they like power (and that there is nothing wrong with liking power, which can be used for good or evil), and they will therefore act to preserve, expand, and find new avenues to manifest that power.  So, the various checks and balances are put in place in order to prevent any single interest, including the majority interest, from trampling the others, or any site of power from suppressing the others.  But the basic relation between property right and government remains the same:  there is no reliable way of distinguishing between government actions that protect property rights from those that encroach upon them especially since those actions might have one effect on one set of property owners and the opposite effect on another set.  The reciprocal negation of the property right of the slaveowner, and the property right the slave presumably has in his own body and labor, is an extreme example of this tension, and one that found no resolution within the Constitutional order.

If the role of the government in a free, constitutional order is understood to be that of documenting and preserving the records of private property owners, protecting property as thus recorded, adjudicating claims made by property owners against each other, and, most fundamentally, framing conflicts as anomalies in the existing property arrangements to be normalized, we could perhaps resolve or at least minimize these tensions. The method of framing conflicts is what is new here:  libertarian economists have suggested that issues such as pollution could be framed as property right violations, but in order to do so consistently more things would need to be owned privately.  Every contract produces a property right.  One has private property in a promise made by an insurance company to provide coverage under certain conditions—that is, the insurance company, in contracting with me, would be granting me that property right as one that could be adjudicated if the insurance company comes to disagree with me about the boundaries of my “property.”  If the streets of a neighborhood were owned corporately by those who own the houses, crime could be addressed by voting, as shareholders, to expel law-breaking neighbors, or forbidding entrance to specific individuals; of course, such property rights could be used to exclude members of particular racial or religious groups—but couldn’t that be dealt with by boycotts exercised by other neighbors and neighborhoods and other means of marginalizing the explicitly bigoted community?  Or, we would learn to live with pockets of bigotry as the price of freedom.  Could we reduce all disputes to ones akin to one I might have with my neighbor who, for example, has erected an antenna that reaches over my roof, so that first the court, but ultimately the legislature, would have to decide how high up my property goes?  Political arguments would then come down to questions of partitioning aspects of our existence into forms of property that could be recorded and fixed into law.  It would be a nightmare of alienation for certain kinds of humanists, left and right, but such networks of property would ultimately get woven into our identities, personalities and interactions in complex and unpredictable ways, and new forms of wealth might get created as well. 

Meanwhile, along with this work of creating new configurations of property would continue the work of suppressing the crimes of those whose short term interest in parasitism or resentment towards civil society outweigh their interest in participation.  Explicit agreements with the police, granting them special kinds of access to private spaces—giving the police, in effect, a property right in their ability to protect themselves so as to protect others—might eliminate the pathological relations between high crime and minority communities in particular and the police, wherein the former demand (and, indeed, need) higher levels of service while simultaneously insisting (often, admittedly, with good reason) upon higher degrees of scrutiny of police behavior.  Why not lay out an agreement in advance:  this is what we want you to do, and this is what we will let you do in order to accomplish it?  So, there would be property rights in the ability and responsibility to protect property rights and in the expectation of receiving such protection, and such property and the predictability it results in could serve as a kind of capital drawing people and businesses into a community.

The  idiom of “owning” or having “property” in some institution, practice, or relationship is already a very common:  teachers speak about students having “ownership” in their work, we speak about have “stakes” in relationships, about someone “owning” an issue, and so on.  I think such idioms should be expanded and deepened, and made more formal when possible—in an example that is familiar to me, universities are already very comfortable treating course syllabi as “contracts” between teacher and students, and it is a very effective way of allocating and enforcing rights and responsibilities on both sides.  Another interesting connection is how popular the notion of “appropriation” has always been in critical theory—that is, in the most victimary and leftist regions of contemporary thought and culture, “resistance” is thought of as making a claim to ownership.

Let’s now turn to Eric Gans’s discussion of writing, in which he notes the following:

Neither Derrida nor Lévi-Strauss appear to be aware that the primary social function of writing is the production of documents. When Lévi-Strauss describes the Nambikwara chief after the leçon d’écriture as producing and “reading” a scrawled piece of paper to his people as a guarantee that the white explorer would provide them with certain requested items, he speaks of the paper as containing a “list,” but its primary function is as a contract. That Lévi-Strauss’ promises are supposed to be written on it makes it documentary proof that he made these promises and can be held to them.

The practice of writing is normally thought to originate with marks or icons included as a manifest listing the contents of a shipment so that the recipient can verify these contents on receipt. The “supplement” added by the document to the speaker’s absence objectifies his “speech” so that it can be maintained through time and verified not merely by his interlocutor but by any third party. This makes it possible for the transaction, which in contrast to Maussian gift exchange is essentially punctual, to be prolonged like the latter over time. This is a prerequisite for any kind of complex economic relationship, and it is easy to conceive that the expansion of such relationships would lead to the extension of writing to the recording of such things as laws and regulations. No doubt the societies in which writing emerged were hierarchical, but this does not imply that writing any more than speech is hierarchical in essence.

It’s not just that writing creates the contract, and hence a public form for ratifying possession (i.e., property); the need for such a public form, one that could be examined in the absence of either participant in the exchange, created writing.  The implications of this are, of course, enormous.  On the economic level, exchange can be extended over time and distance, and third parties can be employed to adjudicate between the parties to the exchange, leading, as Gans notes, to “such things as laws and regulations” along with the authority to enforce them, authority which itself comes more and more to take on written forms (as in our own constitution, every word of which scholars pour over for its original meaning and possible interpretations). 

But writing also changes language as well—if, in de Soto’s terms, written property deeds direct our attention to the economically relevant features of some physical property, writing more generally directs our attention to those elements of language most relevant to communication in the absence of the speaker.  According to David Olson, it is writing that presents language to us as an object in the first place—the division of language into sounds, words, and sentences, with the rules of grammar regulating the relations between those different levels, is all made available through writing.  I don’t think it would be quite right to say that writing creates those features of language.  According to Olson, once writing, as a means of itemizing the elements of a manifest, is provided a syntax—for example, the icon for “sheep” is put next to an icon for “3”—it is fit to represent speech.  In that case, speech must have had those features previously, but without objective representations of speech they could never have been noted, much less analyzed and exploited.  Language can now be normalized, and it must be, to enhance its usefulness for contractual purposes, for the creation or rules, regulations, laws, treaties, constitutions, and so on, to produce religious and literary texts that can be preserved and enjoyed over extended periods of time, and to serve as an ingredient of education.

But the normalization of language also provides a means for presenting and intensifying the singularity of the language user.  Again, the analogy with property holds, and ultimately it is more than an analogy—once we have standardized forms for determining relevant differences between properties, those forms equally serve to distinguish one property from another.  Features that would not be noticed, would not be so sharply defined, would not be recognized as especially relevant, would not, therefore, have been attended to more carefully, now can be.  Speech is similarly changed by writing—Olson identifies a series of words that come into existence following the development of writing which serve the purpose of identifying the attitude of a speaker in the absence of that speaker and the “comprehensiveness”  of the speech situation.  For example, he identifies “insist” as such a word—in referring to someone else’s speech in speech, I could repeat what they say in an insistent tone of voice, but in writing I need to be able to say “he insisted.”  Once we have the word, though, it becomes part of speech, and I can now say “I insist,” and, even more, I can say I insist in a non-insistent tone of voice, which means I have new means for introducing various layers of possible sense into my discourse, oral and written.  New means for creating singular styles, in other words.

What I am getting at here is the suggestion that rather than positing a right in one’s body and its extensions as the basis of individual rights, we posit a right to one’s idiom as that basis.  First, though, a little detour back through grammar. 

Next will come the detour through grammar.