Monthly Archives: September 2011

Save the Pretzels for the Gas Jets

I think this item is worth a little blog post. Indeed, that people spend their time doing things like this is what sustains my faith in humanity:

Oulipo for the masses! This video of Rick Perry, made by a website called Bad Lip Reading, was a big hit on the conservative website HotAir, where I found it, and understandably so. The “rule” apparently being followed here is, as far as I know, original, and inspired: turn off the sound and read the lips of the speaker as best you, as an amateur, can. Seeing people’s lips move must have something to do with the way we understand them when we are speaking face to face, but I have no idea what, and it’s hard to imagine how you would factor that into a theory of language or speech. In this case, the first sound you “see” must tilt the rest of your “reading” as you simultaneously watch the lips and try to articulate the “sounds” that keep coming into intelligible semantic and syntactic packages. Little islands of sense emerge (I’m bored by famine”; “I cannot wait for a medieval cookie”) that, like the sentences in a Gertrude Stein poem, sound like they might refer to some internal language, unknown idiom or private joke, and that we can get maybe half-way towards understanding. If you scrupulously balance actually looking at the lips with your attempt to compose, though, the sense will never coalesce beyond a certain point. Meanwhile, the same thing happens on the side of the listener: your own tacit insistence that lip movements match sounds (we all get distracted, at least a bit, I assume, by dubbing in foreign language movies) leads you to “see” Perry saying what the translation has him say (even though, obviously many other “readings” were possible) and to line up what he does say with his “character” with all kinds of ironic results (as when he asks the construction workers, in a moment aimed at highlighting his masculinity, to build him a doghouse). And it also seems to me that it gives you a fresh look at Perry’s gestural idiom, as his gestures, postures and movements are detached from the specific words that always subsume one’s gestural idiom.

I mentioned the video’s popularity at a conservative website where Perry is as popular as any of the other candidates or prospective candidates (excepting Palin, probably) for the Republican nomination to make the point that this is not just a way of making fun of Perry. How could it be—it’s not the kind of pointed, tendentious and (to me at least) tedious satire directed that way by Jon Stewart and others. We all know full well that any of us would come out this way if the same operation were carried out on a video in which we were figured. It might highlight vulnerabilities and incongruities in Perry’s character or campaign that one might not have noticed otherwise—it is a mode of inquiry, or a discovery procedure in that sense. But it might also show up potential strengths, and even moments of beauty that one would thereafter associate with Perry, as with the title of this post, a line which for me endearingly combines the down home informal, macho and fighter pilot elements of Perry’s persona.

I feel, then, a bit vindicated in my arguments for the anthropological and political importance of “originary mistakenness.” Maybe we will get to the point where no candidate for public office would even consider not having one of these made and where privately made versions will be obligatory on our facebook pages—where, that is, they become a kind of post-millennial signature, marking our shared dependence on linguistic indeterminacy.

Exodus from the Dead End of History, 2

In the interests of minimalism and dropping extra weight as we try to stay above water I would suggest that all the morality that we need can be summed up in the injunction not to feed your fantasies and addictions. Everything else, all the Judeo-Christian stuff, everything essential in modern ethics, would follow from that. Fantasies are the intellectual, addictions the physical, sides of losing oneself in a single feeling, which one is determined to repeat over and over again, with ever greater intensity and ultimately ever more desperate attempts to stave off vitiation and impotence. Fantasy is the deformation of the imagination: as the novelist Ronald Sukenick said, if you don’t use your imagination someone will use it for you—fantasy is someone using it for you, even if that someone is yourself. The imagination constitutes reality by providing the unseen background to some visible foreground while fantasy imposes the unseen on the seen, forcing the latter to conform. Addiction is the deformation of habit, which provides the continuity, fabric and rhythm of reality while addiction swallows reality up in the habit. Both fantasy and addiction are founded upon the conviction that one can be alone on the originary scene and have the object, unsullied, all to oneself.
Feelings can’t be maintained because they are here and gone—the same feeling never returns. You can attend to some feeling from some desire that the feeling intensifies, confirms, modifies and/or satisfies but then attend from the fading feeling back to the world from whence the desire emerged, at which point the feeling becomes a sign, part of what I call the “field of semblances.” The feelings we want to preserve intact are those which we can’t bear to allow contact with that world, and ultimately with ourselves as representatives of that world. Immersion in what is actually a pseudo-feeling wards off the terror of examining that feeling. Everyone has feelings like this and everyone feels the tug of fantasy and addiction; theories that are not so much evil but intent on ridiculing our belief in evil, like certain variants of post-structuralism, see fantasy and addiction as liberating subversions of metaphysical totalitarianism—there are probably always theories like this. Losing oneself in singular feelings complements the fear that one will be lost in the world, and the way to resist submersion in fantasy and addiction is to keep bringing one’s feelings out in the world where they can enter the field of semblances, which no one sign can dominate. I don’t mean confessing those feelings regularly—confession outside of carefully constructed sacramental constraints will usually be a kind of fantasy and will easily become addictive, because feelings can’t simply be transported in speech—if they are gone when they are gone, the feeling one confesses to having had is not the feeling one actually had. Rather, the point is to attend from the feeling to the world, to inflect the world with that feeling—whatever the feeling, because even frightening feelings can be balanced against a world modified to contain them. This implies a kind of transparency, through which whatever you do you show that it is yourself doing it. This is what keeps you in the world.
Aside from providing for a firm and easily explained basis for personal morality, the injunction not to feed your fantasies and addictions seems to me a way of getting at cultural and what the left used to call ideology critique. It’s silly to say that we are addicted to oil, since filling our cars only in very rare cases provides a “rush”; but it certainly makes sense to say that some people, or many people, or a representative sample of an entire society, are addicted to certain amusements or, more broadly, certain formulas, narrative, imagistic, ritualistic and verbal. I would hypothesize that fantasies and addictions fill the space left by the decline of what R.G. Collingwood (a reading of whose Principles of Art has helped inspire these reflections) calls “magic,” or the use of representations to produce certain feelings. Magic, as an organized, public practice, can be used to produce feelings that can be judged as harmful or helpful, but the God whose name is the declarative sentence, in his unfolding in Christianity and modernity, has ensured that magic is no longer an option for us, except in some very marginal and disreputable settings (the disenchantment of the world and all that). Magic corresponds to a gift economy and moral economy of honor, where individuals and groups structure their feelings and subsequent actions in direct response to those of other individuals and groups rather than in accord with abstract rules. Fantasy and addiction are readily fed by the market, and if the space they take up is not filled by some other way of organizing feelings, some other forms of experience, the market will not be sustainable. Those forms of experience must be disciplinary ones, sites of joint attention, where that joint attention can be further shared, restructured to welcome others, and for its most devoted practitioners at least, a site of the sacred, more valuable than life itself.
Such disciplinary spaces I would imagine as the first detachments of the exodus from the dead end of history I outlined in my previous post. They can take very simple forms. Imagine a town which has gone bankrupt and can no longer borrow money, and further assume that state and federal governments are similarly unwilling or unable to intervene. Let’s say some of the town’s citizens look into buying out their local government, and create a legal argument to the effect that the town as a whole is really the property of all its citizens, held in trust by the elected officials. They will organize a corporation that will take over and renegotiate the debt with the town’s creditors; as part of the package, the group of citizens arranges for various exemptions from state and federal mandates (environmental, labor, regulatory, etc.), on the model of those “free enterprise zones” we no longer hear about. All the citizens may not want to buy in, but now the town is private property (literally—the sidewalks and streets, the lakes and woods)—those others will be brought out, or will have no choice but to live in accord with the new rules. What would those new rules look like? There are more possibilities here than we can imagine, but we can assume they will emerge out of love for their town, and will elicit the cooperation of lawyers, architects, city planners and others driven by love for their professions and a desire for experimentation and exploration. The town will be studied by others, an object of new disciplinary sites, and a pole of attraction for others, who will begin questioning their arrangements. History, which perhaps would not have come to end after all, would be of interest as a set of alternatives to anyone’s conditions.
The chase after the singular feeling might also provide us with a new way to speak about that other old topic, nihilism. Nihilism sets in once public battles seem to be about nothing—a combat with no real victor, because victories that are muddied, or dissipate, or are endlessly re-litigated , can no longer be appreciated as a contest. Everything that goes into making up a contest—the carefully honed skills, the ups and downs, the strategies—is similarly deprived of any significance. The First World War is the model here, but that just revealed an existing condition. The Second World War was certainly “about” something, which is why every conflict since then has been framed as a replay. The Cold War wasn’t about anything for enough people. Victimary discourse is the clutching to that feeling of absolute identification with people absolutely victimized by unquestioned evil. There’s no rush like it. The exodus from the dead end of history will first of all have to restore a human scale to genuine combat—intellectual, political and moral combat. It will have to bring back a balance, a complementarity, between effort, risk and outcomes, along with commensurate canons of judgment.

Exodus from the Dead End of History

Liberal democracy is predicated upon the severing of liberty and equality. For liberty and equality to be sustainable, they must be reciprocally defining and supporting: I can only be free together with my equals; I can only be equal with others within a reciprocal respect for each other’s freedom. The supposed tension between liberty and equality is a fabrication of liberal democracy, which has the state protect individual pursuits and equal outcomes, thereby limiting one in the name of the other. The outcomes must become ever more equal and the pursuits protected ever more marginal and inconsequential—economic freedom long ago dropped out of sight as a fundamental freedom, leaving sexuality as the main arena of protected freedoms (there will never be a law against “hate sex”).
The unsustainability of liberal democracy is becoming more evident, almost daily. It seems to me a good idea, then, to begin explore what might come after liberal democracy and, more broadly, the single-scenism of modernity—and to do so with as few prejudices (and, hopefully, resentments) inherited from that historical project as possible. I would begin by conjoining, once again, liberty and equality, under the following principles: the basic individual right is to leave a community, and the basic communal right is to determine whom to allow in. The terms of entrance into a community in turn define the specific rights that will be protected within that space.
All cultivated or occupied land, any established institution, actual or virtual, is owned by someone—even if ownership is shared and informal, in the end some will be let in and others kept out. Within any such space, there’s no point to speaking about free speech: I can throw someone out of my house or fire from or refuse entrance to my business because I don’t like what they say. They are free to speak on the street, but that’s because the street is owned by the government, which has committed itself to the defense of certain rights within spaces it owns. The same goes for, say, voting rights, which are granted on the agreed upon terms of the establishment of the community and its political institutions: a corporation can establish voting rights based on the number of shares you own. But the principle that I can’t force any person to stay in my house or business or country can be universally defended.
Defended by whom? If egress from any space is a fundamental right, it is because anyone hopes that leaving one space will enable entrance into or creation of another space, in agreement with others. Postmodern communities, then, will ultimately trace themselves back (in the best Western tradition of the Exodus and the Aeneid) to exiles and refugees who have left one place to establish a new order, and which will be competing for the best immigrants; and communities will also be distinguished between the more dynamic and static—that is, those that want more and those that want fewer, immigrants—with perhaps, some communities wanting none. The communities that want fewer immigrants are more likely to be those that imprison their own population or some portion of it. Precisely because freedom of movement is essential to the more dynamic communities, communities that so imprison those unfortunate enough to find themselves there will be treated with hostility: run your internal affairs however you like, but we consider your refusal to let individuals leave a threat, or at least an inimical act, to us. And making things very uncomfortable for the imprisoning communities will probably be enough to lead them to repudiate their emigration practices which, in turn, is likely to open up those communities. A relatively closed community might still be very attractive for some, and emigration can be strongly discouraged by, say, education practices that make the citizens of that community unsuited for life elsewhere, but such barriers will always be relative and, of course, any adult individual from even the most closed community can, with sufficient talent and effort, assimilate into more open ones.
We can use the word “community” very loosely here, to include neighborhoods and federations of neighborhood (and federations of federations, etc.), schools and school systems, businesses and networks of businesses, on-line and intellectual communities, military alliances, and so forth: any grouping with terms of membership. The terms of association would constantly be subject to negotiation, and each community might allow for various levels of citizenship and rights, as individuals decide where they would like to commit the most resources. A neighborhood might permit families to buy homes and offer them basic property rights (otherwise who would buy homes there?) but only allow voting rights to those who join some association that helps keep the neighborhood running (neighborhood watch, PTA, volunteer fire department, etc.) (Free speech rights may have to defer to the increasingly difficult to control communicative capacities of individuals—but the right to speak in specific, consequential, ways could certainly be calibrated.) A federation of neighborhoods and the businesses operating in them might establish various categories of aliens, for those whose work is valued but have families and friends in other communities established upon different value and whom those individuals don’t wish to disown, and who therefore can’t be completely trusted. Federations can be as large as they need to be, as large as today’s nation-states or larger, and the issues of self-defense, military establishments and war might not be all that different from now, except that the demands and conditions different political entities seek to place upon each other are likely to be much more minimal and transparent. Boundary disputes will involve conflict between competing plausible claims, or between those with claims to a particular property and those who, for whatever reason, have come to occupy it—as always, there will be those interested in aggravating those conflicts just as there will be those interested in resolving them—but as long as it is possible to impose upon aggressors the principle of non-imprisonment (if that’s where we’re all ready to make a stand, even if against the odds), then aggression will be ineffective or irrelevant, because the more peaceful and productive communities will always exercise a gravitational pull upon communities that wish to live parasitically off of others. The rules regarding federations and rights would constantly be subject to negotiation, including the rules regarding who can participate in such negotiations, how often they are to take place, where, etc.
The only dilemma I see confronting such an order is what to do with the misfits, those who are unable or unwilling to abide by the terms of membership in any community and will therefore be unwanted by all. We could say that if you don’t allow misfits from other communities into your own, you tacitly consent to their own treatment of them, in which case the problem must be solved in its own way by, presumably, living communities, where the misfits happen to be found, perhaps most often where they happen to have been born and raised. But those who are misfits in one place might flourish elsewhere, and one could imagine great cooperation among communities in trying to address this issue: perhaps communities would offer grants to other communities to take in misfits, maybe on a trial basis, maybe some communities would specialize in the treatment or accommodation of certain kinds of misfits, etc. We would have to imagine overlapping communities negotiating procedures for discovering the truth regarding alleged transgressions, means of enforcement and modes of punishment without any overarching structure of rights, nothing more than the pragmatic needs and conscience of the community, and the example of other communities, to guide them. That is, it’s easy enough to imagine someone who refuses to do the kind of work the community demands, to live in accord with the norms of any of the available neighborhoods, and yet hasn’t committed any crimes—on my account, the communal order would be free to expel him (or simply refuse him access to any necessary means of life), even if no other community wants him, and no one in the community would be obliged to take responsibility for him. Perhaps the leadership of the community will set aside some land, building, and minimal subsidies, for the hopefully very few who simply can’t or won’t fit in—sort of like ancient sanctuary cities.
In order to create what I would call practices of minimal civilization that might, as peacefully as possible, enable us to transition to such a new order, we will need innovative defenses of and uses for private property. A small example of what we will be up against was given during Rand Pauls’ Senate campaign in 2010, where his critique of the 1964 Civil Rights Act made him vulnerable to the charge of wanting to return to the segregated order of yesterday—the gravest political sin in the church of American politics. Indeed, if we argue for the right for any community to define terms of entrance and membership, we have to accept that some communities will determine what we consider to be unsavory terms. The main political task for advocates of a post-liberal democratic federated order would be the development of a political vernacular within which very unfamiliar ways of speaking about rights, responsibilities, obligations, and tolerance are created. More bluntly: we would need to remove the sting from victimary thinking, with its roots all the way down to the bottom of liberal democracy—less, I think, by arguing against it than by refusing to participate in it, by circumventing it through the means of taking up residence in all those literal and metaphorical locations where victimary rhetoric loses its hold on reality to such an extent that even its adherents must recognize it, in their deeds if not their words.
It might help to consider that any community must be modeled on disciplinarity, i.e., a scene of joint attention, itself ultimately modeled on the originary scene: to use Michael Polanyi’s terms, we attend from something to something else—we place something on the margin, unnoticed, and see the center which the margins are all pointing toward. But when the center fails to hold our attention, we notice those margins, which are us—that is, we now attend to what we were attending from. Whatever gesture from the margins redirects our attention in some shared way establishes a new center, and that’s the disciplinary space: the scene of worship, or of inquiry, or love—all different sides of the same thing. The margins will be where new actor/spectator scenes emerge as sites of contest and sources of value interpreted in terms of the founding center. The global market might be seen as such a founding center, emerging from the ruins of the epic battles of the 20th century, but values can only be created, tested and secured on marginal scenes which refer indirectly to that center. Community can only be sustained if people who participate in common practices daily also see most of the same contests and performances as being about the same thing, and often enough share the values disclosed by those performances and contests. So, for the mini-secessions I am proposing, what is necessary is that new performances and contests, as independent as possible from existing forms of authority, be created that refer in positive and illuminating ways to the global marketplace—bypassing as much as possible the noisy and acrimonious contests that obscure the global market, place it in doubt, and generate hostility towards it.