Daily Archives: August 6, 2011

A Little Social Theory

There are a few categories central to originary thinking: center-margin, vertical-horizontal, sign-object. We can multiply such categories, adding rather obvious ones which are probably already there, like inside/outside, and others, as necessary, perhaps less obvious: concealed/open, before/behind, amongst/amidst, visible/invisible, whole/rent, and so on. These are all very basic experiential categories, deeply embedded in language, often rooted in metaphorical extensions of human body parts and basic physical orientations to the world, and therefore rooted in the world of gesture. They are all extraordinarily rich in their conceptual possibilities—we can only face one way at a time, and as I face “forward” someone could be “backing me up” or “sneaking up from behind me.” In their metaphorical extensions, these categories can all be made to cover different ground, and will overlap each other in various ways: we can draw a line between those inside and those outside, but we will do so while we, on the margin, are facing the center. It might be that language is little more than such combinations and extensions. My first suggestion is that social thinking have recourse to these basic experiential terms, since these are the terms in which we necessarily think already.

The basic experiential terms are our only source for describing the sacred and transcendental realm, and consequently the terms in which we sacralize and describe reality. If it makes sense to speak about God as “high” (on the vertical/horizontal axis), then it makes sense that metaphors or height, elevation, and so on will be used to talk about value hierarchies (“hierarchy” itself, of course, a metaphor of “height”) and social ones—and spiritual, value and social hierarchies will all overlap, refer to, and reinforce each other. These terms also become the coin of public dialogue and discussion: you can point out, for example, that those who are “highest” socially are not the highest ethically, and this will inevitably appear scandalous. It is also the case that the creation of new social hierarchies will generate new ethical and spiritual vocabularies—the creation of vast empires, with extensive gradations, was likely necessary for it to become possible to think of God as the “most high,” the “King of Kings,” etc. And if the king is the highest, then whatever qualities can be attributed to the king can be applied to others who are thereby king-like, and elevated above their apparent status. If external or visible elevation can conceal internal or invisible degradation, then external or visible degradation can conceal internal or invisible elevation. So, the highest of the high can be within the lowliest. And we can seek out, look for visible signs of, that highest, as a way of ordering our souls (our invisible portion) and as a means of palliating, external, visible disorder (the distinction between order and disorder itself derivative of the distinction between “whole” and “rent” or “broken”). All these discussions are carried out by moving these different experiential categories around in relation to each other, and I don’t think that anything has or can change in this regard. What Eric Voegelin called “differentiation” as opposed to “compactness” is, I think, nothing more than this continual involution and articulation of these categories, creating new levels of reality.

We would then speak about any social or intellectual change in terms of some transformation in one of these categories, and in their relative prominence in discourse. To stick with the example I have just given, the various terms involved in verticality would become more important in an imperial order, and new possibilities of “heights” would become imaginable. And post-imperial societies would be especially sensitive to the abuse of “heights,” as are the “anti-haughty” religions of Judaism and Christianity, both of which took shape under imperial orders and the crisis of such orders (the same is true of Greek philosophy, an indispensable component of Christianity). Contemporary victimary discourse follows in this tradition, “heightening” our sensitivity to any “elevated” figures. Such sensitivities probably account for why those who occupy the “heights” economically (the rich, corporate executives) are almost always assumed to be “lower” ethically—as if we cannot accept that too many heights should be so close, reinforcing and “legitimating” each other.

This hypothesis, that our social relations are bound up with the various metaphorical extensions and articulations of the basic experiential categories, can be tested by anyone, in daily discussions about anything. Are we actually so concerned with “heights”—do notions of elevation work their way regularly into our hopes and complaints, do we argue about what should be seen as high or low, do we follow these terms across various levels of metaphoricity, do they impinge upon other terms, like boundaries between inside and outside, and so on? You can easily check for yourself, by paying a bit more attention to the way you and others speak and write. (Are “softness” and “flexibility,” as opposed to “hardness,” derivative of the inside/outside distinction, with a bit of whole/broken mixed in?) And I think it is an advantage for social thinking if we can trace our more theoretical discussions back to, and present them as modifications of, the ways society already “thinks itself.”

A test of this theoretical approach would be seeing how it helps us to describe the transitions from the egalitarian primitive community to the gift economy and, finally, the market economy. I have already pointed to a way of doing so in my previous post, where I suggested that we can see the emergence of the market economy in the not quite basic experiential category of actor/spectator—not quite basic, since even if the participants on the originary scene are watching each other (and therefore performing for each other), the categories certainly don’t differentiate themselves there. But the actor/spectator differentiation does build upon the center/margin distinction, perhaps using that experiential category to further differentiate the reciprocal observing on the originary scene—maybe the emergence of the actor/spectator distinction further differentiates the inside/outside boundary which is the concern of those looking at each other on the originary scene. This differentiation out of the actor/spectator distinction would first of all happen on the margins of the single “compact” scene; it would then get bounded (those permitted in, those kept out) or institutionalized; then there might be lesser scenes and “higher” ones; all the while new and unauthorized (eccentric, invisible to the center) scenes emerge which prove to be more inclusive. Essential to the actor/spectator set up is the affirmation on the part of the spectator of a winner and a loser, a better and a worse, a more or less preferable. (One is left standing, hand held up, the other falls, is in the dust, dejected, etc.—could we talk about winning and losing, success and failure, with metaphors of standing erect, kneeling, and lying?) On the compact scene, meanwhile, no such distinctions are allowed—the object attracts and commands all equally.

In that case, we have a tension between two scenes: the originary scene, upon which the entire community acts in relation to a single object, both whole and transcendent, on the one hand, and divisible among the members, on the other hand; and the platformed scene, where some act in competition with each other, and others observe and judge. These two types of scene persist until now: when we speak of the “public interest” or the “common good,” we are referring social wealth and the sources of social decision making as a single thing, which constitutes us as a “public,” and which is divisible in some “fair” way. It might be that society is impossible, that we can’t think or speak intelligibly, without being able to make such a reference or gesture—this tacit mapping of “it” and “us” upon one another might be the unmarked condition enabling language. Those located upon the “it/us” scene would resent those on the platformed scene for introducing division or, more precisely, interfering with the symmetry of “us” and “it.” And those on the platformed scene would resent those on the it/us scene taking away from individuals the opportunity to represent unique values. But those on the it/us scene would also desire the liberation of the platform, and those on the platform the security of it/us. Finally, of course, it should hardly be necessary to mention that we are all always on both scenes, at certain moments committing ourselves a bit more one way or the other.
There is an ambiguity in the platformed scene itself, where, from the very beginning, there is both a performance and a product. This would also go back to the very beginning: the better hunter brings back more prey, more food for the community, but he also probably puts on a better show, is a better source of stories, a more sought after pedagogue and mate, etc. We can see this split in the development of the market, showing the common root of warriors and entrepreneurs, and also the common origin of celebrity and consumer culture. We could hypothesize that in the gift economy and the honor/shame moral economy that goes along with it, it is competition among the performers, whose reliability is at stake at every instant, that is the issue; in a fully fledged market economy, it is competition among objects, and we don’t even have to see the performers. These are tendencies: what we now we refer to as “branding” directs our attention to reliable actors in the marketplace, and even the most honor-besotted warlord had to make sure the goods got home; still, there is a fairly radical break between the predominance of one or the other tendency. We also see a split in politics, between the tendency to emphasize and publicize performers, and even to produce, within a free society, simulacra of the monarchs and aristocracy of the previous political economy, on the one hand, and the tendency towards sortition, or the rotation in roles among essentially anonymous individuals, which gets resolved in the rights to speech and assembly and the selection of ruling elites.

The relation between these two types of scenes would generate the transformations in the basic experiential categories—the two scenes would have to be adjusted to each other regularly, and those categories would provide the resources for doing so. Performances get integrated on the primary ritual scene concerned with reinforcing the it/us. The goods procured by the “champion” are, of course, brought back to the central scene. It is much easier to accept the extravagances of the super-rich and their implication of all of us in their risk-taking if we believe that they thereby add to the total social wealth, and are following their “human nature” (the “us” in perfect conformity to the “it”). But the platformed scene will be perpetually available for localizing conflicts within a rule governed arena and thus used to frame the it/us scene, and differentiated itself—elevated in a hierarchy of scenes, with rules for ingress and egress at each level, with further differentiations between and amongst actors and spectators, respectively: the knowledge of the spectator might by the “highest,” accessible to only a few; or action might be the highest, especially when associated with insights (unconcealments) possible only on the spot, or when being first on the scene constitutes the scene. Social inquiry treats all of society as a set of reciprocally embedded and referring scenes, ultimately bounded by the imperative to maintain the it/us scene in some form. And, when we think, we might be said to be internal spectators of our own external and internal actions.

On the it/us scene, language is the attempt to map us onto it—there is a premium on transparency, that is. We want to be able to follow each other’s gesture to the object and back from the object to the gesture, and to ensure that the other can do the same with our own gesture. The sign, ideally, is the effluvium of the object, and the notion that the object is in some sense the product of the sign would be extremely dangerous. The shift from an object centered to a sign centered reality would follow the emergence of the various market scenes: if, as spectators, we can judge performances, as sign users we can perform as well, first of all in imitating and reporting the performance we judge. Rhetoric in the sense of persuading is present on the originary scene, but not the possibility of rhetoric as deception, distraction, or invention. The centralizing of individuals on the successive and ramified market scenes would set eloquence in tension with transparency. Signs and language themselves become part of the economy, i.e., a site of competition and exchange: as soon as we are doing more than affirming some shared attention, what each of us says provides some value added to the audience—that is, it is an object on the market, and storytellers will of course be in competition. When what I have to say provides you with access to a unique scene, it is a gift; when it provides you with a means for circulating among other scenes, it is more of a commodity; when it repeats a commonplace, it refers us back to common belonging on the ongoing originary scene. As language enters and permeates the market, the object, the it, itself becomes language, our shared linguistic being: an explicitly shared linguistic being, the acknowledgement that we are mutually creating reality by breaking up language and restoring it through linguistic exchanges would be the epitome of a marketized existence. Transparency in language would never go away, but it would now take the form of our playing on the same field, however contingently any particular ludic interval might last.

What “History” does is map the emergent political economic scenes onto the originary scene: that is, the actor/spectator platforms are modeled on the it-us scene. Every new scene can be placed in a sequence of scenes or within a hierarchy of scenes that “manifests” or “embodies” the originary condition in which mankind stands collectively before a single object—they are all just examples of the originary it-us scene. That the object is both material and transcendent, that mankind is both desiring and deferring allows for change, but it’s always change that further realizes or falls away from the initial conditions. Once you have packed all the diverse scenes recorded and imagined onto a single model scene you have your theory of history. This is the residue of imperial history, and the longstanding, dialectically entwined, resistance to it. (Imperial history is motivated by the desire to have the contest over and the winner declared; anti-imperial history by the desire to have that decision overruled, equally decisively.)

For a different way of looking at history, we can begin by examining the final sentence in the previous paragraph: “This is the residue of imperial history, and the longstanding, dialectically entwined, resistance to it.” That right there is the basis of a theory of history, and maybe the resentment towards theories of history is the source of theories of history, as the resentment towards imperial orders seems to generate new, more encompassing and monstrous ones. But there is plenty that escapes these centralizing scenes, and a way of attending to those other scenes might be to adhere to the simple rule that all historical innovation results from being situated on more than one scene simultaneously. I may have no choice, I may be obeying the imperative, to resist imperial scenes, especially in the deceptive forms in which they have come down to us today, but perhaps a still small voice, or a little social theory, also tells me that on other scenes life goes on without reference to the succession of imperial orders (or, for that matter, that on occasion the imperial position will remain the default one and can be sufficiently and even benevolently blended with other orders). So, the scene I am now impelled to construct is one which I offer as a gift to all those wishing to enter the space I am trying to open up, and anyone else entering pays me back in kind by “fleshing out” the scene or adding to the maxims governing it.

These scenes get constructed as pragmatic paradoxes, which is the way that mistakes (breaks in the originary body of language) get re-set and incommensurables commensurated. “The meek will inherit the earth” just replaces the extremely counter-intuitive “meek” for its opposite; “the last will be first and the first will be last” just reverses the two terms by implicitly positing two scenes: the visible one, on which the first will be first and the last last; and an invisible one, where the seemingly impossible, indeed, definitionally impossible, will take place. We can generate such paradoxes all day long: not until you reach the depths will you find yourself in the heavens; only among enemies will you discover your real friends, etc.

I don’t believe that the philosophical paradoxes are made up of anything more than such transitional scenes or events. A pragmatic resolution of, for example, the Cretan liar’s paradox would be to say that the Cretan has renounced his Cretanness, has converted to some more truthful identity, by exploiting his identity as a Cretan to confirm the difference of Cretans from the group to which his interlocutors belong (we can assume that he isn’t saying this to an audience of Cretans). We might see this resolution as self-deluded or opportunist—it would have a lot in common with, say, medieval Jewish converts to Christianity who then acted as experts on the Talmud for their new Christian colleagues—but it’s a good example for that very reason. The paradox lies in the terms of inside/outside relations: you can’t be an insider if every attempt to acquire the signs of belonging mark you as a mere imitator, i.e., even more starkly as an outsider; the resolution of the paradox lies in converting the markers of outsiderness to markers of an even deeper insiderness than those possessed by the insiders: as markers, for example, of one’s closeness to a newly discovered center or newly reached height, of obedience to the unity of symbolic and social verticality, of one’s skill in policing the border between inside and outside. Whether you happen to like a particular resolution or not, the fact remains that it is through such means that vagueness in the relation between symbolic and social verticality, the implementation of the imperatives of symbolic verticality, the precise border between inside and outside, and so on, gets clarified or exploited. The resolution of pragmatic paradoxes, which is all we ever do as thinkers, are the products of inquiry, of disciplinary spaces, which emerge any time we find that what some of us are attending from can in fact be attended to (we are on different scenes, even if we are in the same location) and that we therefore can and must create a new medium for joint attention.

So, expanding the fully marketized political economic order entails restoring the originary it-us scene in terms of language and originary mistakenness; and restoring originary mistakenness implies the creation of pragmatic paradoxes that issue in maxims offered as gifts upon new, hybrid scenes. Now, not all paradoxes and maxims have the same relation to reality: the Keynesian “spend in order to save” has the same look as the maxims I just tried out, and has probably been attractive for that reason and we might simply say it is false nevertheless. Still, Keynesianism was an attempt at a leap in being, perhaps following the failure of certain forms of the gift economy to back up the market economy. And maybe it had to be tried out in order to discover its limits, within the battle of maxims within history; while, perhaps, it still has some local, limited validity. All such leaps of being, formulated through paradoxes, concern boundaries and thresholds between the different interdependent political economic forms. If the market economy fails it is indeed because the market, the gift and primitive egalitarian elements of the political economy are at odds with each other in some way. To frame the problem in linguistic terms, each level of the political and moral economy must be robust enough to provide a vocabulary and grammar for the other levels: family life needs to be unproblematic enough to provide ways of speaking about the budget, habits of self-reliance (people “standing up” for themselves) within neighborhoods sufficiently shared so as to leaven our discussions of challenge and response in foreign policy, and so on. On the more pragmatic level, if people are not willing to take complete responsibility for a particular parcel of earth, for a specific organization of people, that is, to stake their honor and be willing to suffer shame on behalf of, that parcel and that group (what we often call “families”), the market economy won’t work either; if people are not willing to volunteer, to offer gifts that might not be reciprocated, things would collapse pretty quickly.

And the same is true if people are not willing to use each others’ words. The surest sign today that we all participate in shared being, upon some it-us scene, is the use and misuse of language in common use—linguistic cannibalism, to put it simply. The more rapidly and energetically we gobble up, spit out, digest, expel, chop up, vomit, etc., each other’s words, the more we have such a scene. I don’t know how one would prove or dispute this, but it seems to me that phrases and statements circulate through all the media—from politicians to pop stars to reality stars to newscasters, to facebook pages to everyday discourse and back again—far more rapidly and with much greater shifts in meaning, perspective, including irony, parody, from literal to metaphor, from metaphor to literal, than ever before. Effective discourse finds a way inside this circulation and takes a phrase hostage so as to reveal some boundary or threshold by manipulating the basic experiential concepts in a new way. (The notion of hostage taking, which rightly evokes so much horror today—except when leftists accuse Republicans of doing it to the economy—is actually a central part of the gift economy and, more broadly, the gift/honor/shame moral and political economy. The reason is the same as the centrality of other horrors, like honor killings of girls who have been raped. In the gift/honor/shame economy everyone is responsible for everything, regardless of the intentions behind any act, while unlike the primitive egalitarian community, individualization (big manness) has proceeded far enough so that the contagion can be localized and a single individual or part made to bear it. This is part of the gift economy that we can’t do without, even if we can eliminate every part of it at odds with justice under the law—we are beyond ambivalent by now about phrases such as a “credit to his race,” which of course implies he could have been a discredit, and Jews in particular I think still worry about whether the actions of Jews like, say, Bernie Madoff, will “rub off” on them. The unease is easy to understand, since any such hostage taking—for that’s what it is, when I reserve judgment on an entire group pending my assessment of one person’s character—violates the sanctity of the individual; but if we can’t find ways to preserve this form of hostage taking, which is still intact in some clannish immigrant groups, we will lose a necessary support of the market economy.) Of course, this process is also a highly competitive one, but without final winners and losers—the best re-engineering of a phrase for a very specific situation might exclude all other possible inventions for that situation, but it will inspire others for other, even very similar, ones.
In this way, we keep moving at diagonals from each other, moving forward, but in such a way that any future scene is unthinkable within any present one, in a negative theology of history which simply negates any populated future scene by acting in such a way as to not fit on it. I might mistake Freud’s terms and call this dispersal of the dots “parapraxis.”My resistance to a uni-scenic humanity might seem to counter the fundamental insight into our shared origin offered by GA, but any scene could only branch off of another, which in turn branches off of another, and no scene could be outside of this vast ramification of overlappings. Anyone else out there could attend to something I am attending from, and vice versa—what is transparent to one is opaque to the other, what is means for one is an end for the other, what is explicit for one is tacit for the other, and we could reverse these relations for each other. And that’s all the common humanity we need.