GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

August 15, 2013

Violent Imaginaries

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:10 am

Violent Imaginaries

Perhaps it has occurred to other members of the GA discipline that the negative pole of the event issuing in the originary sign, that is, the collapse of the proto-human community into universal, chaotic violence, is extremely implausible. In other words, even if we assume the most heightened mimetic fervor, it’s hard to see how the violence consequent upon the breakdown of the animal pecking order could actually lead anywhere near the violent death of all members of the community. How could they all tear each other apart limb from limb? They would exhaust themselves well before such a result. At most, such a breakdown in the hierarchical order would lead to some serious injuries, maybe a death or two, followed by a perhaps more fragile restoration of the pecking order.

What is extremely plausible, though, is that such an all-consuming storm of violence is what that breakdown would look like to the members of the proto-human group—and that it would need to look that way in order prompt the invention of the sign. In other words, the intuition or, perhaps, unconscious, constituting the sign is not a reasonable expectation of devastating violence but a violent imaginary. An imaginary gives rise to fantasies, but it is not the same thing. A helpful way to think of the concept “imaginary” is through R.G. Collingwood’s definition of “imagination.” Collingwood gives the following example: suppose you are looking from a window out on a lawn with a wall that one cannot see beyond. You will have no difficulty “imagining” the continuation of that lawn beyond the wall—in that case, “imagination” is the continuation or completion of what one perceives. In that case, though, imagination must make perception possible in the first place: I can only see the field of grass as a “lawn” insofar as I can see it as bounded, as a whole in itself and a part of larger wholes. This constitutive capacity of the imagination is an “imaginary,” a supplement to perception that makes meaningful perception possible. Needless to say, the imaginary need not be true—in the case of Collingwood’s example, the lawn may not, in fact, extend beyond the wall.

The violent imaginary on the originary works in the same way—as soon as the beginnings of this new form of confrontation becomes visible to the participants on the scene, those participants must continue and complete it—“must” in the sense that that is what an advanced, highly mimetic animal would do. And this continuation and completion would be, not an attempt at an accurate portrayal, but a sharpening of what is new in this configuration. What is new is the absence of discernable limits on the confrontation, readily imaginable as an uncontrolled, accelerating melee, with no exterior. It is, then, this violent imaginary that is both revealed and concealed in the sign—the symmetry of the shared sign on the scene must match the negative symmetry of the unbounded imagined violence. We can even assume that the form of the sign is shaped by its complementary violent imaginary—the sign would be effective to the extent that it conveys everyone’s awareness of the extreme “thought experiment” implicit in the violent imaginary.

All signs, and all of culture, then, would have to be constituted by some violent imaginary, one we could read negatively off of the signs of culture themselves. No human society, even in the midst of the most brutal war or total social breakdown, ever approaches “chaos”—society can be dissolved into clans, gangs, militias, tribes, but never into a “war of all against all.” Again, though, this doesn’t make the imaginary false—even in those gangs and clans, conflicts raise the specter of a breakdown of that order, and that breakdown, even for the most realistic, can only be viewed as a “breakdown” against the imagined background of “chaos.” And it is from such an imaginary that we derive our intuitions regarding the best way to ward off all consuming violence.

Perhaps such an originary theory of the unconscious can make psychoanalysis interesting for GA. Psychoanalysis has been swept, often derisively, from the stage of history, replaced by neurobiology, the cognitive sciences and more practical, localized forms of psychotherapy. Freud’s claims regarding the Oedipal Complex, castration fear, penis envy, etc., have been widely ridiculed as arbitrary and (Victorian) culture bound. Maybe. But at least Freud put desire, violence and deferral at the center of his psychology, and saw the central problem of humanity as relations between humans, rather than greater proficiency in the relations between humans and nature, or assuming the problem of reciprocity to already be solved. And Freud was also aware that the way we represent our experienced traumas to ourselves and others are related to those actual traumas only in very mediated ways—which is to say, he understood that reality is scenic, and the psychoanalytic session was one more scene or event in a long series of them leading us back to the original scene. If I am right to posit a violent imaginary as constitutive of any sign, than GA shares all this with psychoanalysis (including important post-Freudian figures like Lacan, Winnicott and Kristeva)—and not with what might be much more scientific, useful and, in their own domains, accurate representations of the human mind.

Reconstructing the constitutive violent imaginary through the continuing and completing of the scene by a sign would in turn enable the reconstruction of that sign so as to take more account of that violent imaginary. Bringing more of the violent imaginary into representation would not necessary quell the terror lurking within it, because such further elaboration of the representation would simply shift the terms of the violent imaginary. In other words, the violent imaginary can never be made fully conscious—as Freud realized, the patient who came in familiar with his works and proceeded to spill his guts about his passion for his mother and desire to kill his father had simply rearranged the unconscious material under a new repression. What can, perhaps, be done, though, is to invest the violent imaginary more fully in dialogue or disciplinary space established so as to examine it—in other words, the violent imaginary cannot be represented as such (we can’t paint a picture of it and look at it together) but it can be made the imaginary of the scene of representation itself, rather than of some represented scene. The value of this is to make our responses to each other direct, ostensive, framings of the violent imaginary that can provide suitable, matching signs, rather than explanations and diagnoses that subserve the power of the violent imaginary by keeping it out of our hands, so to speak, and rendering it, paradoxically, “fictional,” insofar as it has been made over some conventional narrative form.

Cultural analysis, in this case, would involve mapping the features of a representation onto some violent imaginary which is, to borrow Saussure’s image of the signifier/signified distinction, are like two sides of the same sheet of paper. One violent imaginary would be all in the group converging on the strongest member, and then the second strongest, and then the third, and so on. Another violent imaginary would involve all converging on the weakest, and then the second weakest, and so on. Another would have equally powerful subgroups facing off in an endless and increasingly bitter stalemate. And each of these imaginaries could be further modified by the positions one can occupy within them—seeing oneself as the third weakest in an imaginary in which the weakest is the target would be different than imagining oneself among the strongest in that scenario—one’s fear would be calibrated differently and ones responsibility and capacity to affect the scene assessed differently. And, then, the sign one puts forth would be correspondingly different, and we could read levels of confidence vs. diffidence, caution vs. recklessness, patience vs. panic, appeals to the entire group vs. appeals to more specialized constituencies, among other features of one’s sign, in these terms, reading them back to a hypothesized violent imaginary. Different violent imaginaries might map better onto particular historical events, and may thus provide us with a way of accounting from changes in historical interpretation. And cultural remediation would involve fleshing out and making more present those violent imaginaries, creating new positions within them and creating tactics and strategies for those positions available within and so as to further defer that violent imaginary.

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