Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Terror of the Given

At least one form of modernity, and arguably the dominant form, the one in which the winners in the marketplace become indistinguishable from the state players who determine winners in the marketplace, is driven by a hatred of the given. The given, first of all, in the sense of what is, what is simply there, what remains after all theory, analysis, experimentation, transformation, construction and production. You can listen to progressives rage against any suggestion that some differences, including those that generate inequalities, might simply be there, and, for that matter, be no big deal; and that all the attempts to eradicate said differences might just shift the pieces around on the board a bit, with some resentment added to the mix. The progressives and leftists will rage against such suggestions, but I’m not sure that much of the right, or most conservatives are any different—at the very least, they are extremely anxious to inoculate themselves against any suggestion that all differences can be rendered irrelevant and all inequalities removed. We see such a rage against the given both in the desire to make every single aspect of life a partisan political question and every topic a subject of some polemic, and in the tendency to try and eliminate risk and mistake, or at the very least to inflate the consequences of risk and mistakes to the benefit of those whose job it is to detect and uncover them. The old communist (I think) slogan, “Nothing is accidental,” covers all this. (In other words, I am endorsing, without saying how much, Heidegger’s complaint that the tendency of modernity is to turn everything and everyone into “standing reserve.”)

But given just as much in the sense of what has been given, that is, reality and everything in it as a gift. The two senses are really one—data is an array of gifts. A gift economy in the strict sense might spiral out of the egalitarian distribution on the originary scene, but it’s on the scene already in the form of the gift of life and peace given by the God object to the newly human community. When we divide amongst ourselves, we are merely dividing the gifts of God. When we give gifts, we are imitating God, when we accept gifts we are honoring God and freedom is really nothing more than the capacity to reject or accept any particular gift—just as language is, ultimately listening, sifting through a lot of noise and ordering the given, and then passing along, as faithfully as we can, what we have heard. Even the market economy can be conceptualized as a mere adjunct to the gift economy, as the entrepreneur first of all packages up his gifts for strangers, each of whom asymmetrically returns a bit of the gift of continued existence as a producer.

For the leftist intellectual, the fact that something is “taken for granted” by “everyone” is about as certain proof as you can have that the idea or claim in question is both wrong and pernicious. Even while we need not go that far, where else would thinking depart from if the not sense that what is “merely” given is unsatisfactory? But if you set yourself in opposition to the “granted” or “given,” the alternative is to trust only what you have “taken,” or, in more theoretical terms, “appropriated.” Even for Locke, only what one has appropriated through labor is genuinely one’s own “property.” But the powers with which you are able to “appropriate” must have been “given,” your proximity to the land and materials must have been given (even if you had to move quite a ways it was still in reach, as proven by the fact that you got there), the land’s own productive powers and the “laws of nature” enabling you to transform nature were all given, and so on. Even more, the work done by previous generations, and the unintended consequences of your own work and your collaboration with others is constantly adding new givens as quickly as you can make the givens takings. And in the end, your property is only yours because others grant it, as long as you take theirs for granted as well.

What, then, is so terrifying about all this? Whence the desire for a completely “constructed” reality, in which we can determine who put every piece in place, when and where? The gift economy, in the narrow sense studied by Marcel Mauss, and the honor society (with its vendettas and sacrifice) needed to be transcended, and the elaboration of the market economy which first took shape on it margins, was clearly the path of least resistance to doing so. But the market order didn’t, as it could have, present itself as a supplement to, and “appropriate” the language of, the gift economy—for example, by describing itself as a way of extending the gift relationship to strangers and by giving its increasingly asymmetrical forms more institutionalized recognition. At a certain point the advocates of the market order, if not its actual participants, set themselves against the gift economy, seeing it as an enemy to be uprooted. It seems to me that the best explanation is the alliance of the new, vulnerable, but potentially revolutionary market order with the absolutist state—the imperial state, in other words, which is really nothing more than a permanently asymmetrical gift relationship (is there anything more “given” for us today than the state?). Gift economies proliferate centers of power and diverse local relationships, formal and informal, which interfere with the state’s need to give each individual a single, unobstructed relationship with the state, the giver of all things necessary and the recipient of the obedience of the subject. The participants on the market could provide the formal arguments for the equality of the citizen and the rights to be protected by the state through the force of law; and the state could provide the market participant with unfettered and protected access to the domain it controlled. Once each imperial order finds itself in competition with all the others, an irreversible dynamic is set in place.

Thinking outside of the terror of the given means thinking in terms of plurality and incommensurability—or, in more grammatical terms, idioms. But it also means dropping the resentment towards totalizing discourses central to deconstruction and postmodernism—in the end, the totalizing discourses are also idioms, from which anyone might learn something (just like the state is ultimately just an increasingly inept giver and claimant of donations). If I kick a ball straight ahead past the other players, and I happen to be on a soccer field, I’m advancing the ball downfield; if I’m on a basketball court, it’s a violation and my team gives up the ball. Likewise in reverse: bouncing the ball down court is fine in basketball and a violation in soccer. The exact same physical movement has radically opposed meanings in the two settings. That’s all that “incommensurability” means. It doesn’t mean that if I play either soccer or basketball I can never play the other; it doesn’t mean that there aren’t skills that transfer from one sport to the other, or that observations you might make regarding, say, team play, in one or the other won’t provide insights into the other sport; it doesn’t even mean that one sport can’t be better than the other according to a particular scale of values: if you want a sport that maximizes jumping ability, then basketball is better. All “incommensurability” means is that you can’t play basketball and soccer at the same time; and that if you are going to play “sports,” it is going to be one of those sports or another—there is no sport in itself, or idea of sport, even though we might very well be able to construct a definition of “sport” that would distinguish it from, say, “crafts,” “musical performance” and other activities.(Indeed, I will do something like that in a moment, as a move in the theory game.) It’s just that one couldn’t play the definition.

Human life is like that, which means that the originary hypothesis demonstrates both the singular origin and the irreducible plurality of human being. As Hannah Arendt once said, in summarizing a key idea of Augustine’s, there was a beginning so that man would be a beginner. One can only identify beginnings after the fact—what makes you most likely to be first is not remaining tense on the starting line waiting for the gun to go off—that will only lead to more false starts; what makes one more likely to be first is a devotion to other beginnings, which come to one as a gift and which you would like to pass down, undefiled, to others, ultimately strangers. Revering beginnings rather than pre-empting or forcing ends is post-millennial thinking. According to Bernard Suits, “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles,” which would mean that playing a game is simulating the originary event, wherein the sign was created as an “unnecessary obstacle” (to simply taking the object) that everyone voluntarily accepts as a necessary mediation. The game, of course, must also involve a forgetting of the origin, since the obstacle is at the same time very necessary. We necessarily create unnecessary obstacles in order to make the necessity as minimal as possible—which is to say, to move things along from prisoners’ dilemmas to elaborately rule governed interactions to freely entered and exited conversations and improvisations which reveal something new in the participants.

An entry point into what I have taken to calling “marginalist,” “exodian” and, now, “secessionist” thinking is integrating “rights” into specific centerless games (with, if necessary, referees) which define those moves which place you inside or outside of the game—rather than locating rights in the human being as such. This reduction is only possible if every game takes place on a particular piece of property with a generally recognized owner, and if the players are allowed to use their own currency. In relation to the state, then, politics today should work towards more precise definitions and protections of property and freedom from imposed state issued currency (there would be no need to try and overthrow the state—free currency would take care of its withering away, and if I’m wrong about that it must be because the state that would remain would be perfectly benign). Beyond this, though, this thinking beyond metaphysics also takes us beyond monotheism, which is itself bound up with resentment towards empire, essentially the defining the individual’s relationship to the salvational God as that which transcends the relationship between the individual and the imperial center; and history as the gradual, universal revelation of that God through the successive pride and fall of the empires. (I don’t mind making myself ridiculous by declaring the obsolescence of monotheism—my only concern is that the declaration could be taken to involve or encourage the slightest resentment towards believers.) This certainly doesn’t imply atheism, polytheism or paganism. It implies, rather, a God of the gifts—whatever, after all of our makings and takings, turns out to simply be there and something we could share with others, is a divine gift. Whether it’s always the same God, whether we could imagine His characteristics, whether he has plans for us (other than living up to and sharing His gifts)—those seem to me questions that might be taken up by those who wish to play the theology game, and who might gift the rest of us with helpful insights.

The game analogy is limited because games are closed off from reality in a way that reality never can be. We’re never playing quite the same game in reality, almost as if my basketball interferes with your soccer. But in any scene we can converge, or can imagine ourselves converging, upon clear sentences. At any moment, I can and implicitly do hypothesize an utterance-gesture-posture complex that will obtain a desired, if only dimly imagined, response—I will piece together the complex that is most likely to elicit that response. When it doesn’t, I adjust my desire and recalibrate my signifying, while everyone else does the same. The process can only continue given the assumption that sign and interpretation could coincide—even though, even if I imagine such a coincidence in advance, it would never be identical to what I would recognize after the fact as one. The movie cliché of two people looking into each others’ eyes and realizing simultaneously that they are in love is a model of this experience, which never really happens but is the presupposition of all that does.

The version of this experience at the level of the declarative is the clear sentence. The clear sentence (I am claiming that this is what we really mean by “clarity”) is one that is exhausted by its truth function. That is, once you have decided, to the satisfaction of all concerned, that a sentence is true or false, the sentence can be discarded—to the extent that it’s clear. The way we make a sentence more clear is by situating each of its elements securely within the truth function: “that dog is mine” is clear insofar as we have a consensus on what a dog is, on the concept of ownership and what would validate it in our cultural context, and on whether we referring to the same dog. But, of course, there is, in principle, no end to the layers of implicit claims and assumptions that might require the ostensive verification that must be obtained or stipulated to for the sentence to be made clear: an agreement on what a dog is on one level might turn into a disagreement on another level, and that other level might become relevant for the context in which the truth function of the sentence needs to be determined; we might have different conventions for pointing at something; our concepts of ownership might turn out to have significant incompatibilities, and so on—moreover, clarifying one term in the sentence might obscure another.

So, to return to the game analogy, we would have to imagine that I could be playing basketball and you soccer, with enough common elements in the two games so that with sufficient good will and willingness to overlook anomalies it would only be in event of an egregious discrepancy that we would ever notice it—and such events would be rapidly transformed into an mere accident, one that we now know how to avoid in the future. But what if we don’t want to—what if we actually come to like this basketball-soccer hybrid we have discovered ourselves to be playing? If we prefer to circle around and keep revising a provisional set of rules and have the discipline and mutual regard to overlook the momentary unfair advantages such an activity will always be giving one side or the other?
To return to language, this would mean that our desire for clarity need not be abandoned, but that it could be accented or punctuated by the networks of diverging idioms revealed precisely by that insistence on clarity (it is only the insistence on clarity that would lead us to explore the different possible understandings of “dog” and “mine”). With Godelian undecidability, there is a statement that is true but cannot be proven within the system, and the system depends upon such a truth. With the undecidability or incommensurability I am proposing, whichever truth we set ourselves to secure within the system of the sentence pries open different systems pivoted upon that truth. The act of taking—taking something to be the case, taking each other to be symmetrical to one’s self—unveils a world of givens: different definitions of dog, of property, of proper pointing out. And, these givens need not have been “in” any of us, or “suppressed” in the name of communication—they may not have existed outside our convergence on the clear sentence, but there they are now. We can work our way analytically to such presents lying and waiting in our presuppositions; or, we can take to producing them directly by, instead of repelling grammatically incorrect sentences, taking those parts of the sentence that have no grammatical place idiomatically so as to fill the needed grammatical slot, thereby opening up a whole new “grammar” for the word(s) in question.

The deliberate production of givens out of our takings—that is what the civilizational openness we need to survive now depends upon.