GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

July 2, 2010

The Right of the Idiom, 2

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:40 am

The elemental form of freedom is that of the discipline: a shared, inviolate and inexhaustible locus of attention. Sciences are disciplines, developing vocabularies and histories, and framing their objects so that another “layer” of understanding can always be sought. But so are congregations around some object of faith or communities of criticism around some esthetic object or domain. All that matters is the collaborative act of sustaining the centered attention, and the capacity of each in the discipline to contribute to new modes of attention on the part of the others. Even when we think to ourselves, we are participating in a discipline, whether it be the discipline of the varied voices in our mind, or the possible discipline of thinkers past and future with whom we engage. The discipline has its original on the originary scene, when we all stand in equipoise before the central object, and attend to the object along with one another’s attention to it.

The most basic political rights, then, are those associated with participation in the disciplines: speech, association, religion, press, etc. It becomes possible to assert such rights once the originary scene has divided into several scenes, each with its own disciplinary logic. The power of the several scenes will depend upon the power exercised by the ritual center, and the defense of the rights of the disciplines will depend upon the conversion of the imperative space tied to the ritual center into a declarative space, or a public discipline, concerned with identifying the nature of rights and the means of securing them. The emergence of talk of rights, then, will be connected to the right of each discipline to establish and sustain itself, and to publicize itself before others—and the insistence upon such rights will be modeled on the rights which emerge within any discipline, the rights involved in getting a communicable view of the central object.

The sacred is what holds our joint attention and enables us to attend to each other’s attending to. The profane, then, is whatever can be used, consumed or destroyed in service to the sacred, on terms allowed by the sacred, or in violation of the sacred. All unfolding from the originary scene, then, results from mistakings of the boundary between sacred and profane and takings that inscribe the mistake within a new idiom or exclude it in accord with the existing norm. Politics emerges when the community has to do more inscribing than excluding. That’s when we would start speaking in terms of rights, sacralizing first of all groups and institutions (disciplines as a whole) but ultimately individuals, in their right to join and leave disciplines.

Property emerges out of the profane—it is the acquisition on the part of the discipline of the means to preserve the discipline, to serve the sacred at its center. I would suggest that the sign continues to be issued in the course of the sparagmos, as each participant presents it to the other whenever the other tries to grab more than his share: property is modeled on this relatively orderly but also competitive division of the object. With the emergence of property comes the asymmetry of the disciplines, an asymmetry which struggles over access to the public disciplinary space will seek to remedy or support. Hence the emergence of parties, which aim at guaranteed access to the state, and turn the spread of disciplinary discourse into the crowding of party discourse. In other words, disciplines disperse and distribute the individuals involved by placing them equidistant from the center; parties draw upon the interest of diverse property holders in access to the state and, on the model of the sparagmos, are concerned with drawing lines, taking parts and dividing to one’s advantage.

If one is political, there is no avoiding parties and partisanship, but one can establish disciplinary spaces at the margins of parties so as to place limits on crowding and make the public disciplinary space (parliament, congress) genuinely disciplinary itself. What these disciplinary spaces concern themselves with is the political consequence of whatever the disciplines from which they derive concern themselves with. Whatever can be presented as an object within a discipline can be a subject of rights: “nature” (or some portion thereof), things and technologies, the dead and the yet to be born, and more. I am proposing this kind of “rights talk” as a counter to the signal strategy of the Left, which is to supplant individual rights (the rights, as I am presenting them here, to participate in disciplines) with collective rights requiring expanded state activity and, ultimately, severe restrictions on individual rights. I am suggesting, in other words, a metaphorical rights talk, which calls upon citizens, not the state, to expand the range of sacred objects they wish to protect.

Trade itself develops modes of sacrality, and enterprise can be a mode of disciplinarity. At one extreme, economic innovation, as in the high tech firms in Silicon Valley, can be a thoroughly engaged intellectual and ethical enterprise; and economic exchange, especially when conducted at the margins of a given social order, can be so risky as to require explicit signs of trustworthiness on the part of the participants. Most often, though, economic activity conducted through private property is a kind of warfare on the existing social division of labor, and trade seeks and finds the protection of states and laws. I persist in calling the kinds of technological and organizational strategies and transformations we associate with firms like Microsoft and Wal-Mart “warfare” because their focus is not merely on providing a better and/or cheaper product, but upon undermining the competitor’s market position, for which purpose they will make use of any means available. I’m not making a moral point, in other words, just trying to develop the best description—and the tactics of the enemies and competitors of these firms, such as union organizing drives, “living wage” policies and anti-trust lawsuits are no less modes of warfare than any used by these firms themselves. Those who cannot develop their property within the existing division of labor will directly target weak links in that division of labor; those whose profits are tied to that division of labor will try to reinforce it and treat innovations as usurpation. The free market libertarian theorists are right to point to the monopolistic and rent seeking character of those who profit from the existing division of labor, and breaking up monopolies so that new connections can be places new practices beyond existing state control. The victors themselves, though, immediately seek out protection from and alliances with the state. Not only that, but transformations in the social division of labor imply shifts in desires and resentments as well, creating new modes of politics aimed at staging, framing and channeling those desires and resentments. This doesn’t imply any one to one relation between economic and cultural changes: for example, enhancements in medical technologies that enable intra-uterine treatment can make abortion more routine or more horrible. Here is where idioms of rights come into it: how will the rights of the unborn child be articulated with rights of inquiry of the scientist and right to confidentiality of the mother/patient?

The family is also best seen as an imperatival, normalizing space, protecting society from the consequences of sexual desires and appetites. But the pleasures of family life seem to me to coincide with its political significance: what the family, or familial love, teaches above all else, is resentment on behalf of the other. The child concerned with his or her parents’ dignity; the parent taking up the defense of his or her child against the school or some other establishment; the sibling waging mini-wars on behalf of, or providing tutorials on “life” to, sibling; or, for that matter, the parent or child siding with society, opportunistically or pedagogically, against the more narrow desire of the family member—all this offers a wide field for the nuanced and self-distancing exercise of broadly shared resentments that get played out in less complex forms in the workplace, in friendships and love affairs and in various institutions. A “pro-family” politics, one speaking on behalf of the “rights” of the family, should find ways to speak in these terms of what it is we wish to protect about families.

At any rate, the most fundamental right, the right to have rights, can be grounded in our capacity for language use and, more specifically, our ability to participate in disciplinary spaces, which are characterized by their distinctive idiom: a vocabulary, a set of commonplaces, a shared set of imperatives and so on. Those who can’t speak, who can’t participate in disciplines—those in “vegetative” states, the unborn, very small children, people with Alzheimer’s, etc.—can be represented within disciplines. Asserting the abstract human rights of people who can’t assert their own has not worked very well: it’s easy enough to claim that the person in a coma would have wanted to die (maybe it’s sometimes true), the rights of the unborn have seemed very faint compared to the demands of the fully fledged human mother, and attempts to humanize stem cells have had, at best, temporary successes. But perhaps when the speechless enter a discourse, generated by a discipline demonstrably interested in exploring their possible wants and imposing upon the rest of us a real presence, the contrast between such a discourse and others predicated upon the irrelevance of these figures (all sacrificial discourses which accept the disappearance of one for the benefit of others, or “society” as a whole) will succeed where arguments based on an abstract humanity, life or right has not.

In its own way, the rights of the idiom takes up sides with those transforming the existing division of labor. If we follow the imperative to minimize, the disciplinary events which shape us increasingly overlap while simultaneously differentiating. I would like to present this as a problem in originary grammar, but I will save that for the next post.

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