Monthly Archives: July 2011

Post-millennialism and Originary Grammar

Eric Gans noted a while back that the first “market” was war, insofar as value is established through competition in a public space. According to that criterion the market can be traced further, to the most primitive hunting and gathering societies: one hunter would prove himself more proficient than others and the subsequent recognition, emulation, envy and resentment can be easily imagined. The seeds of the market are therefore planted in the earliest human societies, as Gans elsewhere suggests that private property can be sited on the originary scene itself, as in any scene of shared consumption—at the very least, that bit of food I am about to put into my mouth must be mine. Even more, the rough egalitarianism of the originary scene and early human societies would always have been countered by the marginal inequality that would result from some kind of proficiency, even if just speed and ruthlessness in the process of division.
In that case, the progression from egalitarian hunter/gatherer societies to the gift economy, via the prolonged and enormously important Big Man stage of social development and ultimately to the modern market economy can be described in terms of a dynamic between domination by the object (with guaranteed access to the object for all members of the community and absolute fealty on the part of all members of the community to the God immanent in it) and differentiation through competition on some public scene—by “public,” I mean no more than some spectator and a judgment. Resentment towards whoever so differentiates himself “too much” would be conveyed in the name of the center, and resentment towards the homogenizing effect of the centripetal pull of the object would be advanced in the name of some site of differentiation.
For most of human history the market, or public competition, is on the margins of the social order and strictly regulated—even more, such competition is channeled into the devotion to the center constitutive of the order. The gift economy would always be threatening to spiral out of control because competition between rival families and patriarchs would always be on the verge of violent eruptions—the honor/shame moral economy must be maintained so fanatically for precisely this reason. The single attempt to combine in a balance, an open marketplace of goods and ideas, with a slaveholding patriarchal, sacrificial order, the ancient Greek city-state, failed miserably, if spectacularly. The solution to the problem of transcending the tribal social order was the Big Man, and its further extension into imperial order. There is still a gifting economy here, but a permanently asymmetrical one—the people pay tribute to the king who, in turn, as god or representative of god, gives life to the people. Society is still sustained by a single, central scene, and the most pertinent competition, actual or potential, would be over occupancy of the center. The splendor of the center overawes any potential rival to the throne—the center is now embedded in a cosmological order: the hierarchal structure of reality guarantees the social hierarchy.
Both metaphysics and monotheism sustain that central scene by revising it fundamentally: the inquiry into the higher order, for Plato, enables us to so hierarchically order our own souls so as to submit and participate in a social order ideally governed by the best; God as king supplants Pharaoh, and the promised apocalypse involves the establishment of theocracy on earth. Of course, earthly kings are abolished or substantially downgraded, but the entire world remains a single scene—the only possible resistance to what Heidegger called the onto-theo-logical order is existential rebellion along with the forces of evil. The “aristocratic” and tribal values—striving for glory, for greatness, but also revenge and recognition by inferiors—are sharply restricted and, by now, close to extinct. (Part of the historical task of feminism was to chase these values out of the few communal and private spaces where they still flourished.) Keeping these values down has required the assertion of the single central scene—first of all, in each nation-state, but more generally in the scene of “history,” in which “great deeds” had their meaning extracted from them, becoming part of a process that would make further such acts unnecessary. The project of transnational progressivism, to subject all of humanity to a single (anonymous, as the in the EU) global authority under international and human rights law, should be seen, at least in part, as an attempt to make the recrudescence of the martial values unthinkable. We would have, at that point, less a single scene than a single scenelessness. Fortunately, that’s not possible.
The modern market emerged under the protection of the modified, singular, central scene, and it needed it, resented it, and revised it. The great sweep of the unfettered market in the Anglo-Saxon world proceeded under extremely minimal central governments, but also in close association with equally grand imperial projects—the subjugation of a large part of the world in one case, and the conquest of a continent in the other (or “others,” including Canada, Australia and South Africa). The creation of great fortunes looked very much like new monarchies, and the political economy justifying the great economic expansion spoke, up until the end of the 19th century at least (when the marginalist school of dissenters emerged), of “society” as comprised of a massive accumulation of “wealth” created by the totality of social “labor”—I think that Hannah Arendt was essentially right when she claimed that Adam Smith’s political economy was already implicitly communist, assuming as it did that the total social product could be calculated in terms of the total social labor—and Marx thought so too, turning Smith, Ricardo and the others back “on their feet” like he did with Hegel’s dialectic of “history” (wherein the Communist revolution would be the final singular scene). In that case, when the totalitarian upheavals of the 20th century licensed themselves with scientific and technological tales of an inevitable historical process, they were not essentially at odds with the theoretical cover under which the free market became dominant in its 19th century heyday. The often vibrant competition in the political realm has long been firmly subordinated to debates over how to grow the total social product or distribute it more equally—no politician, in an actual election campaign, would let the electorate know that a particular proposal might lower our standard of living a bit for a while, but it’s the right thing to do. Even more, I think it is a universally shared tacit assumption that, however honest, open, non-intrusive our governments might be, the consequence of even the tiniest decline in living standards would be a complete delegitimation of the political system, unless all involved declared the unequivocal moral equivalent of war against said decline. In other words, the Western ruling class has long shared with Marxists the assumption that politics is just a reflex of economics, and with vulgar Marxists that economics is a question of who get how much.
The post-millennial would mean that we don’t any more believe in an event to end all events. That would also have to mean no more singular central scene, no more “history,” and no more total social product. Instead, society would be comprised of a vast array of overlapping scenes, some of them provisionally elevated above others—those that, for the moment, are getting more “hits.” We already have the makings of such an order, but the obstacles to its free development are formidable: if there is no more total social wealth, then we can’t demand that someone give us more of it, or guarantee that there be more of it; if there is no central government, we would have to rely upon each other in our daily transactions; who would make sure that new dictatorships won’t emerge, new enemies of market society empowered, and new tribal wars break out; and, moreover, we would all have to live peacefully with very different people, free to express abhorrence of your own way of life—all these possibilities are simmering right underneath the placid surface of liberal democracy, and releasing our grip on the central scene and the object at its center might be just as likely to set them loose as to render them obsolete once and for all. At any rate, how could we know one way or another, and the stakes are as high as they get.
It would be counter to the entire idea of the post-millennial, though, to have a grand strategy for accomplishing it. Rather, helping to usher in the post-millennial would have to mean learning to attend to the kinds of practices, attitudes and relationships that would render the total social product and history unreal. These practices, attitudes and relationships would involve the firm, even absolute, assertion of binary oppositions (true/false, good/evil, friend/enemy, etc.) while simultaneously highlighting the paradoxical character of all such distinctions and the extreme contingency of any consequences we can imagine descending from any particular choice at a particular fork in the road. For example: I am pretty certain that we in the US will not resolve our current debt crisis, that our system of entitlements will become unsustainable, that neither our political class nor our citizenry is anywhere near capable of addressing these issues and therefore preventing a social collapse within a couple of decades, and that long term demographic trends will overwhelm us regardless. My thinking on all this is, in other words, apocalyptic—to quote John Derbyshire, we are all doomed. And I am willing to take the extreme political stance commensurate with the assumption that only the slightest sliver of possibility can prevent such doom: no increase in the debt limit, no way. Let’s decide right here and now what we really want to spend the money we actually have on.
Of course, having said this, there’s not much more to say. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein’s thoughts on the atomic bomb, either this social collapse will just be a somewhat worse version of the economic recessions and depressions, and the social crises (e.g., increases in lawlessness, etc.) that we are already familiar with; or it will be something totally different. If it will be the same, only worse, well, then, we will manage to muddle through it (well, maybe not all of us), in ways that we couldn’t predict or prepare for right now anyway; if it’s totally different, then we can’t have anything to say about it. Either way, it’s not “interesting.” What’s interesting is what we can only prepare for by ceding imaginary control over any central scene: how goodness will emerge out of evil, how the truth will assert itself amidst falsehood, how enemies will become friends, how small, marginal, neglected possibilities will create new centers, and so on. So, the assertion of good against evil slips into solicitation of good out of evil, which also means exploring the ways good turns into evil and evil into good—but this is essentially a grammatical problem, or at least can be treated as such. Pursue good and flee evil>Evil pursues and good flees you>Flight is good, pursuit evil>Good is the flight from your pursuits. That’s one line of grammatical inquiry, anyway, leading to potentially interesting questions. Flight from your pursuits to what? Do your pursuits in turn pursue you? What is involved in the literalization of these metaphors? What would be yielded by reversing the terms, designating flight as evil, pursuit good? These questions could only be answered in specific situations—originary grammar can only give us the form.
If metaphysics is the belief in the primacy of the declarative sentence (over the more dangerous and sacrificial ostensives and imperatives); while the God of Judaism adopted by the Christian world is named by the declarative sentence (a generic template of such a sentence, as Gans has recently noted), then the culture of the West created by the convergence between Athens and Jerusalem could be seen as a sustained defense of the declarative: “dedicated to the proposition,” to truncate a sentence from one of the greatest products of this convergence. In Western culture, nothing is acceptable or legitimate that can’t be “deduced” from a shared proposition. But while the metaphysical culture that prevailed through the early to middle stages of market society wishes to deduce all imperatives and ostensives from declaratives, a more modest post-millennial “indicativity” is content to be able to translate all other speech acts into the indicative mood.
I’d like to push this a bit further. Why this intrinsic connection between the declarative sentence and the cultural preliminaries of market society: the God who cannot be summoned by name and the space of open discussion? The connection, I think, is between the declarative sentence, which creates a reality resistant to our respective imperatives, and the spectacle created by the public competition I earlier suggested can be traced all the way back to human origins and which is the basic cell of the marketplace. One wouldn’t have needed a declarative sentence to indicate, affirm and name the central object, but you would to point out who won a competitive event. Peacefully concluded contests between “champions” would be the first events to direct our attention away from the central object and set us on the road to secular narrative. The power of Western—onto-theo-logical—culture lies in its assertion of a central stage and event that transcends such contests while bestowing meaning upon them: the struggle for holiness, to spread the gospel, to accomplish freedom and equality, or whatever; but this is because it recognizes the destructive force of rivalries, between bearers of absolute truths and gods who are absolute rulers. If we just take one step further and directly sacralize the creation of unique sentences, rather than the God or Truth named by such sentences, we can simply accept that everyone is following ostensives and imperatives they could hardly identify, much less “justify,” making the work of cultural pedagogy not the extirpation of unacceptable ostensives and imperatives but their framing as indicatives we could work on.
If there is no singular central scene, no historical unfolding, but rather a lot of “diagonal” movement in different directions, then we can’t recognize any scene that we don’t enter and constitute with our own words and gestures. I enter a scene you have started by following some ostensive-imperative chain and rendering the ostensive-imperative I see you following in a declarative form that can include the one I am following. To put it simply, I put what is incommensurate in our respective volitions into a sentence including them both and invite you to add another incommensurable and include that. If there is no total social product, no measurable accumulation of material wealth, but rather an ever changing global division of labor to which we attune ourselves, then economic productivity will migrate increasingly to enhanced social interactions—to people getting better at distinguishing themselves from each other and reading each other.
Here I’ll conclude in an anecdotal manner by noting that young people today seem to me to be highly self-reflexive, in a way consistent with the constant self-reference imposed by the various social media. You can call this “narcissism,” but why? Or, rather, so what—or then what? You will hear college and high school students say things like “can we get to the point where we… already”? Or: “this is the part where you…” In other words, directly framing their actions in terms of formulaic narrative structures. They are constructing themselves as potentially shared centers. They are also, I think, compensating for the radical absence of legitimate social models—they are constructing models for themselves out of the material—the debris, if you like—of a now centrifugal Western culture. We could describe this absence of models in ways that could allow us to blame a lot of people if we like, all of us who should have been better models, I suppose (we mocked the establishment, undermined authority, broke up families, etc., etc.)—but, again, so what? Maybe the models we have inherited have just exhausted themselves; maybe the only models are the ones we now construct, partially retroactively. And through language, as we are certainly in the middle of a sea shift in the linguistic possibilities of English unlike any we have seen for centuries—you just need to look at text-messaging, or consider the globalization of English, to see that. All these new means for distinguishing themselves, for making themselves the center of narratives they live and recite and pass on to each other, remains a dedication to the proposition. The best thing to do, as far as I can see (which is not very far, I admit), is to keep generating new sentence templates, and templates for generating templates (which, I suppose, would then be algorithms). It might be the only road away from serfdom.