Monthly Archives: March 2014


A simple way of distinguishing Left from Right: the Right believes in property and the Left doesn’t. What does it mean to believe in property? That there are things that can only be used and enjoyed by one individual, insofar as they are not used and enjoyed by another—and that social order is only possible if that reality is recognized. Let’s say we were to establish the principle of communal property—nothing is owned by anyone individual, but, rather, food, clothing, housing, entertainment is provided in a regulated manner according to shared rules. Food is distributed at regular intervals and consumed in a common area, implements are made available accordingly, even if you sleep in the same bed more than one night in a row a change in collective priorities (leaving aside for now how they are established) can have you rousted from it at any time, and so on. It may be that some Israeli kibbutzim actually came closest to realizing that principle. Even under such conditions, though, private property will reassert itself: I might want to try your dinner, and you mine, and so we trade—each of us would have to recognize a certain informal title of ownership in the other to make that possible. One could imagine the kind of totalitarianism needed to make that impossible: mealtimes (and every other time, because food could be saved and shared elsewhere) would have to be supervised with panoptic comprehensiveness and punishments severe enough to deter such “traders” (or you could make sure everyone has the same meal—which wouldn’t so much abolish property as make differences in property irrelevant, which means one would be working backwards, frantically negating the reality of property while recognizing that reality—could all the meals really be identical, even if that were the intention?). The same for, say, books or magazines—they could only be read in libraries (and there would have to be enough copies for all, otherwise one could have at least momentary possession of a text desired by another—which I suppose leads one to consider universally required and scheduled reading). Perhaps you could imagine stamping out or rendering impossible all exchanges (“exchange” and “property” being reciprocally constitutive concepts), but such an incorruptible system would be impossible and unlivable, if for no other reason than they depend upon a cadre of established or informal enforcers who themselves have a kind of property in the means of enforcement at their disposal—someone, somewhere, will take a cigarette or piece of chocolate so as to allow another to share another with a friend. James Madison summarized it very succinctly in Federalist # 10: different capabilities and interests distributed across humankind lead to different results and products and, hence, property, and diverse forms of property. As Eric Gans has noted (in The End of Culture?), war is the first market, where one differentiates oneself from others through performance and receives corresponding rewards—but if war, why not hunting and gathering, or rearing children, or any activity in which one could distinguish oneself? Imagining what it would take to stamp all that out would be an interesting exercise in imagining the most minimal forms of human being and becoming.

The Right, understanding the resentments that have on occasion actually led to attempts to construct such leveling systems, focuses on making the right to private property “sacred,” that is, beyond political caprice. This has had some unfortunate effects—for example, the blurring of lines that enabled many conservatives to accept slavery as a form of property, fearing that allowing the state to expropriate the slaveowners would legitimate further expropriations. However unjustified slavery is, that worry was not without foundation. But the Right has a language within which slavery can be delegitimated, insofar as the slaves’ right to property can also be asserted (and in fact would be evident in their interrelations with each other), and seen to be incompatible with their being slaves. Only theories of racial superiority, which go from questions of property to questions of biology (and race theories might care about “territory,” but not property), could definitively override that argument.

The Left, meanwhile, sees all property as being held by the grace of the community—reasoning backwards from the communal recognition and regulation of property, the Left figures that the community creates property, and can therefore recreate or abolish it according to whatever means of communal decision making are in play. Very few leftists today argue for expropriating all private property, but that doesn’t mean they believe in it—it just means that they assess that, under current conditions, given the available options, a certain (never to be precisely defined) amount of private property provides for the best way of producing and distributing wealth. If they determine that there are better means within their grasp, they will take them. The Left’s starting point, though, is always with illegitimate uses and users of private property—with who uses their wealth improperly, or who doesn’t really deserve it. They want the presumption of guilt to color our view of private property owners, even if they allow for some to be exonerated, for now. Indeed, for the Left property is never free of the taint of theft (rewards from the community for services rendered is another matter, of course.)—even if they were to accept the argument for the inevitability or “naturalness” of property I gave above, and acknowledged that the desire for property and some mutual recognition of it will always emerge, they could never endorse the fact that it has emerged in the particular way that it was—there is always a perspective from which it can appear that someone elbowed someone else aside to get a larger share, and then conspired with other elbowers to protect it. (Ultimately, we’re dealing with calibrations of resentments here, not arguments.) Which is really a way of saying that the Left could only accept an originary scene as a kind of conspiracy, whereas the Right could accept such a scene, even with all the rough edges we might imagine it to have (maybe there would be a bit of elbowing). Our ability to refrain from theft even when it is physically possible and risk-free on the assumption that the other will do the same (and without calculating the ultimate utilitarian value of such restraint) is distinctly human, and makes sense in terms of the originary scene—for the Left, that scenario only makes sense insofar as those involved have their eye on someone else’s property. This is why the Right is an inherently limited, and the Left an inherently unlimited, mode of politics: for the Right, a state of things in which theft and violence are relegated to the margins is at least possible in principle; for the Left, whatever looks like enterprise, ingenuity and informed cooperation is really a more sophisticated design on someone less able to defend their own property—and there will always be enterprise, ingenuity and informed cooperation.

Although Madison doesn’t say so explicitly, the “factions” he unsuccessfully attempted to preclude from the new constitutional order are always organized against someone else’s property—it is always possible to contend that while property in general and of course one’s own is perfectly fine, that other’s property has been stolen from its rightful owners. And, of course, there is theft, on petty and grand scales. It makes a big difference whether the theft was carried out through fraud or force, though—if by force, or if one insists that it was by force (pure force without at least a bit of fraud is very rare), then violence (civil war) becomes the only remedy; if by fraud, then a revision of the rules governing exchange and the enforcement of those rules (or, perhaps, simply heightened vigilance) can be the remedies. Here is another dividing line between Left and Right: when the Right cries “force,” it is referring to the state and when the Left cries “force” it is referring to property owners; when the Right cries “fraud” it has a model of just exchange to aid in proposing remedies; when the Left cries “fraud,” it really means “force,” once again. The Right can therefore imagine civil war of property owners against overweening state; the Left imagines perpetual civil war, of the (relatively) propertyless against the (relatively) propertied.

The Right can agree to limitations on property—limits on how one’s property can be used and disposed of—but only in the interest of enhancing the sacrality of property as a whole. The Right is always vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy—while the Left never has to restrain its own desire to punish and harass private property owners, even (or especially) when such efforts are impotent, the Right often finds itself in situations where, for example, the community might be so invested in the traditional uses of a particular property as to violate the general principle that the property owner can use it as he or she likes. For example, the community might band together to prevent a developer from buying a revered Church and turning it into a McDonalds, or a strip club. Hence, zoning codes, and various environmental and esthetic restrictions on uses of property. The Right can never adequately square such exceptions with the sacrality of property, and the Left can point out that the ubiquity of such restrictions until very recently demonstrates the artificiality of the sacrality of property as such—property, on this argument, has always been restricted in accord with contingent ethical, esthetic, religious and other concerns. The argument, then, seems to be reduced to semantic chicken-and-the-egg style quibbling best settled pragmatically, on an ad hoc basis. The Right will always lose those arguments, though, because abuses, real and putative, by those who have a lot of property can therefore leave a big footprint, are visible and palpable; while the long-term benefits of the unfettered use of property, much less the principles underlying its sacrality, are invisible and abstract—you have to “believe” in property.

However effective, the only real argument for the Right is that the preservation of private property requires a community of people who respect each other as people deserving of a presumption of innocence in their uses of property, and it is this necessity that leads to the aforementioned exceptions: for private property to be sacred, other things must also be held sacred in common, and what those must be will indeed be historically contingent: houses of worship, traditional or revered buildings, works of art, portions of nature, and so on. The Left is correct to say that restrictions on private property were loosened drastically through the 19th and into the 20th century—but that simply might mean that the threshold of reciprocal trust needed to have everyone invested in the mutual defense of property lowered as well. Still, since that threshold has been rising steadily from the mid-20th century on, it might be better to start using the principles of private property to defend those commonly held tokens of reciprocity, rather than relying upon the state, which provides an opening to the Left—so, if a community would like to preserve a park, rather than having it sold to developers who want to set up a shopping mall, let them put in a bid and purchase the land corporately. Some bids will be lost, of course, and the wealth of the community perhaps diminished when they are won. There will be free rider problems, but these can be solved by having voting rights in the newly corporate property be based on stock ownership. Arguments about future uses of the property will surely follow—perhaps that is where political energies will come to reside. If so, those energies will be far more productively engaged than they are at present.

Issues regarding sexuality (marriage, homosexuality, birth control, abortion) and personal morals more generally (intoxicants of various kinds) raise the same problems—on the one hand, many libertarians, who also defend private property as a first principle, have good reasons to be perplexed at the “social conservative” insistence that the community, “society” or the state can regulate what people do with their bodies (presumably the most basic form of property) and how they manage their intimate relations. And this is especially case given the implication of these norms in the infamous patriarchal “property in women.” But it’s not that hard to see the effects of promiscuity and a relaxed regime of marriage on the maintenance of a culture in which property can be preserved: divided loyalties, unclaimed and uncared for children (heirs), a lowering of inhibitions in one crucial area of life that can readily lead to their lowering elsewhere all interfere with the clarity and predictability property requires. (As an aside, “women’s studies” could, if it were so inclined, explore the extremely varied relations women have had historically to property, their own, their husband’s, their father’s, their children’s, so as to see how women’s full participation in a restored private property regime could be ensured. [I do assume a certain bias toward men in strict private property arrangements.]) Similarly with intoxication, which even more obviously renders people unreliable and unfit to tend to their property or respect that of others.

Like hierarchies in rank (aristocracy), which also follow logically from a commitment to property (more property translates directly into more social and political power—which may be more orderly than the currently indirect ways in which such translations occur), however, it seems these fences built around the regime of property can no longer be manned. The forces of anti-property (which, ultimately, whatever we choose to call them or they choose to call themselves, means communism) are already inside the fences. A further retreat on the part of “propertarians,” which might turn into a new offensive at some time, would involve converting these once socially established and inherited distinctions and prohibitions into privately and contractually established and negotiated ones. If social norms of marriage cannot be maintained, then, insofar as the moral state of those with whom one interacts matters, and insofar as marriage (and family ties) serves as a marker of that moral state, private individuals and enterprises can demand the absolute right to interact with whom they will and therefore to recognize which marriages (and divorces) they will. Winning such a right may be difficult, but it will certainly be easier than trying to turn back the tide of same-sex marriage (much less no-fault divorce) nation-wide. Similarly, if, as seems to be the case, laws against drug use are not long for this world (how the FDA will survive this dismantling of the legal regime governing “controlled substances” is a question I have not seen anyone raise), then property owners would have to demand the right to drug test those whom they hire, or educate, or allow onto their premises (say, a shopping mall).

In these ways, perhaps the most fundamental lesson of property will be relearned: the premises undergirding property ownership can only be preserved and protected by property owners themselves, acting in concert through contracts and covenants; the attempt to slough off such responsibilities—for keeping order and policing its moral preconditions—onto the state was an experiment destined to fail, and in the end nothing more than a Trojan Horse for communism.

Back to Nature

Proponents of the originary hypothesis find themselves arguing for the discontinuity of humans with non-human animals far more often than we find ourselves arguing for the continuity between the two realms or levels of reality. The reason for this is a good one, but also purely contingent: the most powerful obstacle to a careful consideration of the originary hypothesis by humanists and scientists (social and natural alike) is the “materialist” or “atheist” dogma that the quintessentially human capacities, such as consciousness, or ethics, are either illusions or versions of capacities shared with other animals. This dogma, in turn draws its strength from the anti-religious origins of modern thought, as well as more recent victimary elements, meaning that originary hypothesists (to coin a phrase in order to avoid tiresome repetition) are in turn are compelled to defend religion as “good anthropology,” at least, if “bad ontology.”

I have no quarrel with this argument, but the terms of this polemic have obscured from view, I think, the fact that coinciding with the originary leap out of “nature” must have been a very determined, even compulsive, effort at re-fitting ourselves back into nature. The sounds and rhythms of spoken language, the structures of dwellings, the forms of tools and weapons, the enactment of rituals and, finally, the original forms of the written word, would all be motivated by attempts to either imitate or blend into the surrounding environment.

All of these efforts would, of course, involves specific abstractions from (the singling out of and articulation of relevant features) and therefore interpretations of those surroundings—such interpretations would depend upon the surroundings themselves as well as what the sign system and way of life of the community as a whole would lead them to notice. This is why a “cratyllian” theory of language, which would argue that the sounds of words derive from the object of representation (that is, contain a significant and irreducible “non-arbitrary,” iconic, dimension), need not be surprised at the vast diversity of languages. The re, or retro, fitting back into nature would always be done in specific events, and would always coincide with the development of the sign system (that is, would simultaneously involve a further differentiation from nature), but it would always be done.

There is no reason to assume that anything has changed for humans in this regard—even the most advanced technologies, enabling us to fly, light our homes, analyze our DNA, devise complex algorithms are all (re)trofittings into nature, mediated through previous (re)trofittings, as we use the air and wind to elevate and transport ourselves, “download” our minds and brains into machines, find our language inside of the mechanisms of transmission of heritable material from generation to generation. All these devisings are, as Marshall McLuhan asserted, extensions of our senses and more, broadly, our semiosis. And, needless to say, language always situates us firmly in space, behind, above, underneath, in front of, moving or standing still, feeling, and so on. This is why I think the “naturalistic fallacy,” that is, appeals to nature as arguments for what is good, is hardly a fallacy at all—unless “nature” is reduced to a strictly physicalist account.

The question then, is, why is it that people can feel—as they undoubtedly often feel—as if they have lost touch with nature, been alienated from it, been denatured themselves? This seems to be a perpetual complaint of civilized societies in particular, as the continuing power of the pastoral demonstrates. Part of it is certainly that whatever has become habitual, and therefore unconscious and “given” is easily conflated with the natural, and so any disruption of habits is experienced as a denaturing. But, beyond that, a sense of being denatured is really a sense of being decultured—of having lost a shared naturalization or “fit” between a people and their surroundings. In other words, since the (re)trofitting back into nature takes place on a scene, being alienated from nature is really being de-scened.

In that case, appeals to nature can be persuasive to the extent that they direct attention to the fraying of shared attentional scenes; and they can be effective and salutary to the extent that they restore shared attention in new and sustainable scenes. But such appeals must genuinely find a “fit”—they cannot just be “rhetorical.” How is it possible to know what “fits,” and for whom the fit fits? No one really can, and extreme suspicion should alight on anyone claiming to know how “we” can restore some lost value, virtue, perception, or mode of expression that was more in accord with nature. But what can be done is singling out elements, and relations between elements, in any surrounding, and transforming those relations into constraints that allow for indefinite iteration. No new technology can denature us or take away our humanity—not genetics, not information technology, not virtual reality, or robotics, not nuclear weapons. The capacity to, and fantasy of, manipulating our basic components, of being a conductor rather than intentional users of signs, of utterly destroying ourselves, has always been with us. Those capacities and fantasies are what take shape within and tear apart shared intentional scenes and therefore eliciting them in relatively protected spaces and making them visible is the way to restore those scenes.

Those who devote themselves to displaying whatever is anomalous in any utterance or scene therefore perform the greatest service to humanity. One of the funnier and more memorable episodes of “Seinfeld,” I think, was the one where George finds (after realizing that “every” decision he has made in his life so far has been wrong) great success in “doing the opposite” of his immediate impulses and habitual responses. Whether or not the writers of that episode were familiar with the esthetic practices of pataphysics, performance art, happenings, conceptual art, and Oulipo, the idea was in their spirit. The first “opposite” thing George does in that episode is, instead of “being intimidated by women,” he goes boldly up to an attractive woman and, in another instance of “doing the opposite,” instead of giving her his usual line of BS, announces that he is unemployed and lives at home with his parents. The woman responds warmly (and they commence a relationship), perhaps suggesting that she herself is “doing the opposite”—the anomalous generates the anomalous. The lesson is that even the most uncreative among us can generate a constraint to live by, since anyone can find something in their daily practices to negate—anyone knows what they feel like doing, or feel like they should do, what is expected of them, in a given instance, and can therefore “do the opposite” (not that it is always obvious what the “opposite” of something is). Negation is deferral and the start of discipline, and even the most arbitrary negation can get the ball rolling.

Generating an anomaly opens a space of uncertainty, awkwardness and anxiety, and a space that will undoubtedly be quickly closed, since humankind cannot bear not to feel part of a scene. But the closure will also be a disclosure, as the boundary between fit and misfit becomes momentarily visible. Technology is imperative—what we become capable of doing becomes what we have no choice but to do. But imperatives can be disobeyed, or obeyed too well. There should be rules for the esthetico-ethical practice I am proposing—all violence and compulsion should be avoided, and even discomfort should not be pushed beyond a certain threshold (which is obviously difficult to measure). The point is to produce examples or, better, yet, “samples,” which are drawn from and can be examined for their conformity with, a larger “population”; and, “sampled” in turn as one pleases. This is a practice of “cynicism,” in the Diogenean sense that Peter Sloterdijk explored in his popular, yet anomalous (not really left or right, kind of, but not quite “theory”) when it appeared in the 1980s, Critique of Cynical Reason. Perhaps the fool of Lear is another “sample.” The ancient cynics were the original critics of civilization, calling for a return to nature, which is to say what is needful and no more, and leading to Stoicism. Pataphysics (really the origin of those esthetic movements I just mentioned along with it) might lead in any number of directions but always, I think, back to nature.

Two questions: first, why should anomalies be preferred to the normal?; second, are all anomalies created equal—can’t one be anomalous, “do the opposite,” for evil as well as good? Number 1: it is not so much that the anomalous is to be preferred to the normal as that the anomalous is what we notice, while the normal is invisible. In other words, we attend from the normal to the anomalous. Furthermore, the anomalous precedes, logically and temporally, the normal: the first sign was an anomaly, and one can only determine normalcy by averaging out anomalous instances. Even more: there is no normal, just various efforts at and processes of normalizing the anomalous. None of which, of course, means that the normal isn’t real or desirable—it just means that we generate the normal by modeling ourselves on one or another anomaly. And that brings us to the second question, which concerns which anomalies we model ourselves on. And here, indeed, there can be no a priori principle that sorts out the good anomalies to be imitated and the bad ones to be shunned. Any attempt to propose such a principle simply and arbitrarily declares a particular version of the normal anomaly free. Furthermore, if my immediate move is to negate what is immediately expected, then doesn’t that mean I slip from one negation to another, doing the opposite of the opposite thereby spinning in circles or ending up where I started?

Let’s start with the second part of the second question—doing the opposite of the opposite and so on does not lead one in a circle or back to the starting point because there is more of a rough diagonal than a circle and there is no starting point to return to because that has already dissolved in the initial negation. The expectations generated by the first negation or deferral will be different from the expectations deferred, and so their opposite will not be the original position. The only question left, then, is that distinguishing between good and bad anomalies. Let’s try out an example: let’s say the normal position in a particular cultural setting is to favor the death penalty. One “opposite” of this would be “eliminate the death penalty”; another opposite might be to replace today’s efficient, antiseptic death penalty (the constant search for more distanced, neat and technologically refined means) with the old-fashioned hanging, drawing and quartering. Is arguing for one position better, ethically, than arguing for the other? If you’re an Enlightenment rationalist like Steven Pinker, I suppose so—the less violent the better, so if we could move “forward” towards the elimination of the death penalty than would be an ethical advance like the move from cruder to more refined forms of punishment. My own answer is that I don’t know. Or care. Who can know all the consequences of distancing ourselves from our ever more lethal forms of homicide? Or of brutal, terrifying, spectacle style punishments? Or of striving to punish less and less? But, some originary demon might ask, surely we can say that random punishment, of whatever kind, is worse, more evil, than attempts to make punishment correspond to some act that has been determined, by some more or less freely created consensus, to be wrong? “Random punishment” would be another “opposite,” in this case to the juridical norms we take for granted. The idea of random punishment is not evil, because ideas can’t be evil; quite to the contrary, this like any idea is productive because we are then able to imagine what it would mean to attempt it. I suppose Shirley Jackson’s famous story, “The Lottery,” is one attempt to do so, but even there the punishment is very confined and localized—we’d have to imagine some much more elaborate mode of generating random outcomes—if it were genuinely random, punishment could come to anyone, anytime. But would it still be “punishment”? Is “random punishment,” perhaps, simply a contradiction in terms? Maybe, but maybe not if we were to imagine some originary and unlocalizable criminality that constitutes the human and that transcends the rather petty and irrelevant acts we carry out every day. From that standpoint, what we do now is “random punishment.” If we imagine some random punishment generator, and work through the implications, would the outcomes actually turn out to be random when they came out? (What, continues the originary demon, about someone who decides to enact random punishment, in a kind of perfectly senseless terrorism—he would be doing the opposite of something, wouldn’t he? I know you laid down a rule prohibiting violence, but the senseless terrorist is just doing the opposite of that rule, isn’t he? Well, I might answer, if he wants to be a character in a hack pseudo-Dostoevskian novel, who could stop him—but there are a lot of opposites between the concept of “senseless terrorism” and its enactment, and those digressions would be more revealing than the playing out of the terrorist act, which would actually have fairly predictable consequences.)

Enough of that. In the end, one would simply have to trust the scenicity of human being to average out the anomalies—to arrive at modes of punishment that could be recognized as legitimate, i.e., as generating the most diffused, distributed and composed forms of resentment possible under the circumstances. What else could we trust to? At this point in history, does anyone really think that they can devise a universal rule for determining what counts as a just system of punishment? (Or at least a universal rule shared by anyone else, starting with one’s book reviewer.) In other words, back to nature! But I would like to make a more important argument here. We are, each one of us, composed of such negations, constraints and anomalies, doing the opposite in all kinds of major and minor, planned and spontaneous ways. We average ourselves out in order to “fit,” but in doing so we can try to fit into “culture” or “nature”—by “culture,” in this case, I mean approved and standardized models (which, by definition, have banished anomalies); by “nature,” I mean the reduction to the lowest possible threshold of meaning: what do any or all of us turn out to mean by “punishment” (or anything else) when the question is imposed upon us in the way that it comes to be imposed once it has crossed the threshold of questionability? If “culture” works, it’s probably the safer alternative; I don’t think it works anymore—so, once again, back to nature!