Monthly Archives: June 2012

Why not

say a few words about the Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding “Obamacare”? I’m somewhat detached from it, more so than I would have expected, since I though the Court would overturn the law—I’m as surprised as anyone that it was Chief Justice Roberts who not only cast the deciding vote but did so in a decision that is convoluted enough to be a Borges story, a work of conceptual art or, more simply, a joke (and not a bad one, at that). He actually gave me a new way to think about the word “tax,” which one doesn’t expect from a Supreme Court ruling. So, the government can’t impose a mandate requiring you to buy a product, but they can fine you for not buying that product, as long as that fine is considered a “tax”; nor does the fine or penalty actually have to be called a tax in order to be a tax—indeed, those who passed the law can have, and can continue to, vociferously insist that it is not a tax. I would not be at all surprised if a new lawsuit charging that the “tax” is invalid because it didn’t originate in the House of Representatives were to be rejected, again in a decision authored by Justice Roberts, on the grounds that, for the purpose of this new lawsuit, it was not, in a fact a tax. In other words, what we might actually have here is a “nonce” tax.

And there’s even more! There is a trap for Democrats and, more broadly, the Left built into the decision: Roberts agreed with the dissenters that the Commerce Clause would not have permitted the mandate, hence, presumably, embedding some limits upon federal over-reach. But, one might say (and I would agree with one on this), that over-reach can continue, as long as Congress just says it is introducing new taxes. But there’s the brilliantly laid trap!—the whole point is to tax without admitting you are doing so.

There’s also a trap for Republicans, who have gotten themselves a bit entangled in their eagerness to rid us of this monstrosity—they began by insisting that the mandate was, in fact a new tax (this insistence lay behind the famous interview wherein George Stephanopolous pressed the President on precisely this question) but, then, for the sake of the lawsuit, were quite happy to deny its “taxness” in finding the quickest route to its overturn; and, now, seem thrilled to take the Supreme Court (which did decide wrongly, didn’t it?) at its word and run against this enormous new tax of Obama’s. This game might not end well either.

I am grateful to the Chief Justice, though, and not only due to my love of word play, self-reflexivity and arbitrary constraints in writing—in trying to decide for myself whether it is, indeed, “fairly possible” to see the mandate as a tax I had to construct the following, intriguing, analogy (which I assume Roberts himself relied upon). The government provides all kinds of tax breaks for activities it would prefer us to engage in more of: having children, winter-proofing our homes, sending our kids to college, and, really, God knows what else. So, in that case, why can’t we say that the government is taxing those who don’t have children, don’t winter-proof, don’t send kids to college, etc.; or, if we want to follow the Mobius Strip around the other side, that the government is “mandating” having children and all the rest? Sure, we can define “tax” and “mandate” in such a way as to answer these questions, but does anyone really believe in such fixed definitions anymore?

In other words, Roberts’ final trap is for us—all of us who have accepted the continual growth of government and its extension into every area of life, every choice we make, bribing, blackmailing and manipulating us at every turn, with our approval. And I think he knows it. Roberts has written a little postmodern play, in which the audience has to perform the denouement. That’s not such a bad legacy.

After All

My reading of the event of 9/11 was that it would either lead to the abolition of victimary discourse or accelerate the unraveling of American and Western society. My reasoning was that the only viable response to the unlimited victimary claims inherent in the attack was to defend the victims of the victims, which could in turn only be done in the name of liberal principles. In this way, victimary discourse would be exposed and discredited as the greatest producer of victims of them all, while the credibility of a more classical version of liberal principles would be restored.

This possibility ended with the election of a Democratic congress in 2006 and this was further confirmed by the election of Barack Obama in 2008. So, I had the second possibility to consider: unraveling. The election of Obama, our first hologram-American president, was a bizarre event, one that will intrigue historians: a majority of Americans opted for a kind of vague racial absolution and the fantasy that our international and domestic furies could be appeased through a symbolic repudiation of President Bush, and this at a time when there were actually somewhat serious issues on the table. I think there is quite a bit of regret about this now, but, as Marx said, “Nations and women are not forgiven the unguarded hour in which the first adventurer who came along could violate them.” If we could forgive Marx’s sexism, I think the point holds: America has repudiated its responsibilities as a guarantor of a liberal world order, which has led, on the one hand, to a metastization of victimary thinking and, on the other hand, to the Tea Party movement, which I see as wholly salutary but also completely uninterested in American leadership.

If Americans are to be more interested in saving themselves from unceasing governmental encroachments upon their lives and predations upon their livings than in protecting Europe from Russia, Taiwan and Japan from China, Israel from the Muslim world, etc., then we will see devolutions across the board—those countries, communities and individuals best able to free themselves from victimary thnking will have a chance of flourishing, but in forms and articulations we can’t anticipate now. Since there will be unchecked tyrannies and terrorist producing failed societies the world will continue to be interested in us, so our present desire to unshackle ourselves from responsibility for it will likely be revealed as a fantasy, but this will lead us to one of two possibilities: either surrender to victimary thinking on a global scale (we will take orders from the UN or some other representation of the “international community”); or we will simply target our enemies, large and small, and adopt the principle: we will feel free to hold anyone who expresses a desire to harm us responsible for all actual attempts to harm us (which would represent a repudiation of victimary thinking, if without much enlargement of ethical capabilities).

How will it all turn out? Who knows? I prefer to take the theoretical perspective, which sees all this as interesting, with the most interesting question always “What is really happening?” How do we get a view of things that isn’t just a litany of the various ways people are out there conforming to and—much more often—violating our expectations and desires? How do we wrench ourselves outside of the limitations imposed by our resentments? Maybe by sharpening those resentments and shaking off the habits of thought which normalize them—that way, at least, a possibility worth exploring or using as a measure might crystallize. I think a good place to begin is with a radical simplification—the complexities can always be let back in as we go. Here’s the simplification: victimary thinking is a heretical form of liberal democratic ideology; liberal democratic ideology is just a heretical form of Christianity; while Christianity is itself a Jewish heresy. What is Judaism, in that case? The displacement of universal empire by the Big Man with the universal empire of God, another, and the true, single center from which we are all equidistant. The impotent prophetic discourse of Jeremiah, Isaiah, et al is still the way we think today, whether we are denouncing the 1% or Big Government for interfering with our right to stand in direct relation to God and/or the egalitarian community. Modern society provides no way out of the perpetual resentment toward some illegitimate higher authority which has always already usurped the rights which supposedly ground it.

The concluding simplification: victimary discourse marks the exhaustion of what we can call the “anti-haughty” revelations. The last time as farce, after all. I will, then, simply disregard victimary discourse, no matter how powerful it is or is yet to become: it is not interesting, because either it will emerge triumphant, in which case all our thinking and social practice will end up on new, presently unthinkable terrain; or, it is, however ferocious, in its final thrashings about, in which case why not re-orient ourselves to whatever remains outside of it. This helps me to take a step toward resolving my ambivalence toward the anti-semitism project I had embarked upon, as he has mentioned a few times, with Eric Gans. It has recently struck me, and I had this intuition confirmed by Philip Reiff’s Fellow Teachers, that, if the basic archetypes of anti-semitism were created by the early Christians, then they were in fact created by Jews—non-Jewish Jews, to use Isaac Deustcher’s term. But weren’t those early Christians simply continuing an internal Jewish accusation advanced by the Hebrew prophets, targeting the vast majority of their fellow Jews for insufficient fidelity to their vocation to testify to the one God—for giving in to the imperial temptations (such as, for example, preferring to fight for corrupt kingdoms over exemplary exile).

I can’t see it as a coincidence that the 19th and 20th century world struggles similarly had a substantial intra-Jewish component. I wonder whether it could be shown that those intense and intimate battles between Stalinists and Trotskyists in Jewish neighborhoods in 1930s Brooklyn looked something like those battles, 2,000 years earlier, between the Jewish “Christists” and those who would create Talmudic Judaism. One victimary reviewer on the page for Reiff’s Life Among the Deathworks refers to Reiff’s “heady admixture mixture of preening Jewish narcissism” and it seems to me that he/she both has a point and is the point: anti-semitism involves the assumption that Jews believe they have a monopoly on exemption from capitulation to the imperial, civilized, order, we must all submit to. But I don’t think that anti-semitism is the belief that Jews believe this, especially since the dialectic of arguments over anti-semitism of necessity point out the uniqueness of the Jews as a target and this uniqueness can easily be taken to imply some kind of monopoly of the aforementioned kind. It only becomes anti-semitism when this presumed monopoly is taken to signify a Jewish plot to establish a more inclusive and horrific empire than any that has yet existed.

At any rate, the point is that we might simply be feeding anti-semitism by directing attention to it so insistently—what might happen if we leave the after-effects of all those internecine Jewish wars behind and let the unproductive spin their wheels? Israel can be a testing ground for this possibility, because in Israel Jews can focus on recreating Judaism, by picking and choosing and reconstructing from among its enormous riches, treating the global opprobrium towards and ostracism of Israel as a mere nuisance, while going about covenanting with all those who prefer relations with a thriving, advanced society over the pleasures of joining in the sacrifices of the victimary Palestinians.

So, what, then, outside of all prophet and metaphysical frames, is happening now? Reiff’s own prophetic discourse identifies the “therapeutic” as the replacement of the faith in founding interdicts which has taken us this far. He thereby identifies something central to all the historical and cultural “posts,” but I don’t see the therapeutic in as threatening terms as does Reiff. He claims that the therapeutic does away with all interdicts by not only giving us permission to transgress them but by setting us against them as an illegitimate authority, inimical to our spontaneous freedom. In this case, I’m not sure if the victimary is mode of the therapeutic or vice versa; or, on the contrary, the victimary has taken its force from the vacuum left open by the rise of the therapeutic, insofar as the victimary is nothing if not interdicts, albeit unevenly applied.

But there are always interdicts, insofar as we continue to speak—after all, we don’t engage in continuous orgies and lynchings. So where, and what, are they? How enforced, and revised in practice? To what extent are we living on borrowed capital, drawing upon the habits of renunciation and deferral created by faiths in which we no longer believe, as opposed to new, as yet unnamed signs, creating new, perhaps more idiosyncratic sacralities? Much of what is valuable in contemporary thinking—Gregory Bateson and his followers come to mind—is indebted to a kind of therapeutism: the notion of a double bind, which is certainly consistent with the originary hypothesis and a source of Gans’s thinking about the paradoxes intrinsic to the originary scene, derives from interpretations of therapeutic situations. And there are powerful interdictions built into the “interactionist” standpoint deriving from Bateson: to see our speech as saturated with paradox is to identify and seek to minimize the basic sources of violence and not just out of fear but so as to free ourselves to think and create.

Even the insistence that one not confuse the “map” with the “territory” reflects perhaps the most ancient interdictions, against idolatry, and taking the name of the Lord in vain. We can now know that any map is in the territory, and not just an imperfect, tentative representation of it; even more, the map is nothing more than our analysis and composition of the territory from within. We model the territory as we take a step in one direction rather than another; we receive feedback; and we revise the map in taking another step. Google now does this at the speed of light, more or less. At any time on the Yahoo homepage there is a list of the top ten searches at that moment; sometimes, the top entry drops off the list in a couple of minutes. In this economics of attention, anomalies and mistakes stand out—those things that are so bad that they’re good, for example. Standing out is one thing—being incorporated into a new, more or less evanescent, idiom, is another. It’s easy to see the ways in which this happens—a particular image is repeated over and over, in subtly and drastically different ways; a particular phrase or sentence is repeated over and over, with a single word replaced each time, or a different referent, or the context rendering it slightly more or less ironic. Anyone can do it—anyone can be taught to (or maybe just learn) to do it.

As far as I can tell, that’s what is happening outside of the metaphysical, prophetic and imperial frames: the analysis and composition of mistakes and anomalies into new idioms and grammars. New rules, without any meta-rules, are difficult to follow and violations are hard to assess but precisely the lack of meta-rules makes it urgent to try and follow them to the letter, so people make lots of mistakes but just keep going, tacitly revising the rules, with the boundary between insistence upon compliance and authentification of compliance difficult to discern. In that case, there is no more room for metaphysical mapping or prophetic hysteria. I naturally think this development supports my own hopes for a far more minimal social order, with all institutions ultimately reducible to explicit agreements with equally explicit modes of accountability. Everything get ironized, post-ironized and de-ironized fairly quickly through this process of analysis and composition, leading to the kind of skepticism, transparency and pluralism that keeps any authority within very strict limits. But I could be wrong—maybe such play depends upon a complacent belief in the stability of what exists (politicians come and go, recessions, come and go, etc., but nothing can ever really change, can it?). My guess is that such play is inevitable once we realize we don’t share the same map and accept that we never will—that all we can do is follow one another’s lead and make up the details and patch together the shared terms as we go. Some, perhaps a remnant, could then rebuild around the prohibition on presuming a shared model without the creation of some joint attention. Such a prohibition can be enforced with minimal resentment because you can always simply treat any such presumption as erroneous, so as to open up a new play-space. At any rate, this new period of transparencies and overlappings is what I would like to be interested in right now, however marginal it might be.