GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

May 30, 2014


Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:55 am

The line of inquiry, which I suppose could be called “psychological,” but perhaps would better be called, using a term I have come across in some radical writers, “psychogeographical,” I have undertaken in the past few posts seems increasingly important to me. I find myself in a position analogous to those Western Marxists following the failure of proletarian revolution in Western Europe during the 1920s—in response to the failed historical logic, according to which the proletarian would inevitably be propelled into revolutionary confrontations with the ruling class, theorists like Lukacs, Gramsci, Horkheimer and Adorno directed their attention to culture, aesthetics, and the unconscious. My own analyses of victimary discourse post-9/11 led me, not to a revolutionary, but a restorative hypothesis: now that we were at war with a privileged victim class, victimary assumptions could be made self-cancelling by conducting that war in the name of the victims of the putative victims—oppressed women and religious minorities in the Muslim world, peaceful Muslims, and freedom seeking democrats in majority Muslim countries, for starters. This is an idea continually pursued by the right in various arenas—anti-abortion as defending the victim of the victimized woman; school choice and enterprise zones in the inner cities to defend the black poor against the immiseration caused by their own leftist leadership; anti-union policies defending the individual worker against the authoritarian union bosses, etc. The idea is very good, but it almost never works—one could take the classical revolutionary position and insist that it just hasn’t been done the right way yet, but I prefer to cut my losses and proceed under the assumption that it can’t be done. (Of course, all the policies I just mentioned could be pursued on their own merits—my only point is that it’s an illusion to expect them to break the stranglehold of victimary thinking on our politics.) The reason for the impotence of such an approach is clear—only the victims of the center register for victimary discourse, while, first, victimizations carried out by the victims of the center only further indict the center (now for so brutalizing its victims as to turn them into oppressors), and, second, any victims who support the center (breaking solidarity, in Uncle Tomish manner, with their fellow victims) only prove the corrupting effects of the center—thereby more decisively disqualifying representatives of the center for any liberationist credentials.

This further means (as perhaps should have been obvious all along) that the victimary goes well beyond politics, striking deep roots in the culture and the psyche. Ultimately, it raises questions of fundamental “scenicity,” which is to say of the sacred. I have often thought about and discussed the victimary in terms of the sacred, but always in terms of a public, political sacred, or in terms derivative of Voegelin’s analysis of modernity as “Gnostic.” I don’t repudiate any of those arguments, but they simply raise the question, why are so many in the modern world vulnerable to gnostic faiths? Voegelin’s answer is, essentially, that the differentiations introduced by Christianity into the West are simply too demanding for too many—which is not a bad analytical starting point, but simply raises another question, i.e., how to make the needed upward moral innovations possible?

I have worked, recently, on two concepts that, in conjunction, seem useful here. Most recently, in my “Selfy” post, I introduced the notion of a “constitutive fantasy,” a concept which has a history in psychoanalytic and postmodern discourse that I wouldn’t be interested in tracing (it has been important to Slavoj Zizek, for one), but that I think can be given an originary meaning in a fairly precise way. I used the term in the process of working through Andrew Bartlett’s exploration of the erotic dimension of “personhood”—Bartlett starts by imagining someone imagining their own erotic centrality, as the sole and unwavering object of desire of every other individual on the scene. Bartlett goes on to say that this situation in reality would not be desirable (and to analyze the more realizable retreat of the couple who accord each other reciprocally exclusive erotic attention), but that would of course be the case for many fantasies, and this does not derogate from its power as fantasy; indeed, what makes a fantasy constitutive is that it is its unrealizability that provides the measure for every actual experience. Let’s think about this in scenic terms—desire does not aim just at possession of the object, but at the occupation of a position on the scene. If I’m just hungry and go into my kitchen, open a can of beans, scoop the beans out with my hand, and eat them right out of the can, there is no desire involved worth speaking of, just the brute satisfaction of appetite; if I go out to a restaurant, I want to see and be seen, and not just satisfy my appetite (even if only in the negative sense of not drawing unwanted attention to oneself). In the latter case, joint attention is involved, and one wants to shape and direct that attention in specific ways. It follows that the convergence of attention I am aiming at has a “vanishing point” at which desire would be satisfied because all attention would be distributed in the optimal way. In the case of the restaurant, that might mean all eyes on my companion and myself, with my companion noticing that attention, joining and basking in it, while further noticing my own Olympian indifference to (and which intensifies) it, etc. That would be my constitutive fantasy of the scene, and its relation to the actual scene may take many different forms—a source of frustration, of ironic amusement, of pleased surprise at how many elements of the scene seem to be in place, of self-skepticism as to whether my fantasy is in fact projecting those elements into the scene, and so on. This is the “reality testing” Freud saw as the source of the “Ego,” and which I would now speak of in terms of “ostentation,” another concept I have been using to denote binding up the various vectors of attention into self-presentation on a scene. The constitutive fantasy must have had its place on the originary scene, as desire multiplied by the desires of others, and is in implicated in any scene, and is both individual (no one else can have quite my place on the scene, or my history of participating in relevant scenes) and shared (the “vectors” of attention one’s desire retrojects back to the origin are necessarily drawn from the scene, and the previous scenes mapped onto this one, itself).

In an earlier post, I developed the concept of a “violent imaginary,” to account, first, for the fact that the collective self-immolation the originary hypothesis assumes is averted by the sign could only be imagined by the participants on the scene, being in fact very unlikely (the melee following the rush to the center would be disorganized, flailing and aimless, and would probably break up quickly with little permanent harm done anyone); and, second, to suggest that any subsequent scene is similarly informed by a more or less dimly apprehended “worst possible scenario” that grips what Coleridge called the “primary” imagination and thereby shapes the meaning that will be conferred on the scene. The worst case scenario can take various forms, as many as all the possible configurations of the scene and its breakdown—into a many on one assault, into group clashes, into one on one stand-offs, etc. As new configurations of the scene are evoked with historical developments violent imaginaries are varied and enriched in new ways—antisemitism would involve a particular violent imaginary (clever operators behind the scene, etc.), and anti-communism another (and I use these examples to make the point that justified as well as unjustified fears all have their violent imaginaries woven into them). Modern violent imaginaries seem to oscillate back and forth between fear of a monstrous Big Man and fear of a monstrous anonymous mob.

It follows that the constitutive fantasy would itself evoke a particular violent imaginary, as the idealized alignment of vectors of attention also produces the target around which the violent imaginary is articulated, with the subsequent sign or ostentation including the deferral of the specific mode of violence imagined. This would in turn involve the abandonment, but not forgetting, of the constitutive fantasy. One could only access the constitutive fantasy/violent imaginary through the signs put forth, through the ostentation—you have to learn the language by which the fantasy/imaginary is conveyed. I think this analysis can generally take the form of a kind of reverse engineering through negation—for example, if one argues for “discipline,” we can assume that “indiscipline” is central to one’s violent imaginary, and an orderly allocation of the object to one’s constitutive fantasy. Constellations of fantasy/the imaginary are extremely difficult to recognize (especially one’s own) and even more difficult to dislodge or modify. One could only do so by locating oneself within the narratives through which the fantasy/imaginary is played out. The constitutive fantasy and violent imaginary can be synthesized into what I called in my latest essay in Anthropoetics (“Attentionality and Originary Ethics: Upclining”) the “attentional loop,” or that moment in any scene in which the participant draws the attention of the others and must put forth his/her version of the sign that will redirect attention back to the center. The attentional loop is resolved into ostentation, which results from the submission of the originary fantasy and violent imaginary to constraints, or deferral—when these constraint break down phenomena like paranoia and sociopathy, or the reduction of all scenes to one’s own, result. If we are to speak of an internal scene of representation, it must be composed as any scene—by means of a sign of deferral of some appropriation that would, if attempted, destroy the scene. That appropriation would be the attempt to realize the closed circle of one’s constitutive fantasy/violent imaginary.

I will now try to move these abstract concepts closer to contemporary cultural experience by pointing to what seems to me an interesting and increasingly important problem in contemporary narratives: how do you construct a compelling narrative when the decisions and actions of the characters involved are determined by officially (i.e., expertly) labeled pathologies, rather than desires and resentments one could imagine to be universally shared, even if accentuated and articulated uniquely in the narrative agent? The movie critic James Bowman points to an interesting example of this phenomenon in his review of “Silver Linings Playbook”:

In order to like David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook as it ought to be liked, it helps to see it as a movie about jealousy, even though that’s not quite the obvious way to see it. We learn in flashback that, when Patrick Solatano (Bradley Cooper) came home unexpectedly one day and found his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), in the shower with another man, he beat the guy so severely that he had to be sent away to a mental hospital for eight months, as he was deemed to be suffering from “undiagnosed bipolar disorder.” The movie doesn’t make a big deal out of it, but it tells you something significant both about Pat’s subsequent history and about the state of our culture that the obvious cause of his behavior was seen as something to be ignored or rejected in order that it might be dignified, or made more socially and legally more acceptable, as a clinical condition — and that Pat himself accepts this medicalization of a moral matter as the only feasible way for him to make sense of his life.

We can readily understand a narrative logic by which a man who commits a violent act while overcome with jealousy might, say, refuse to recognize his own moral flaw and continue on a downwardly spiral path towards greater violence, the repetition of the same pattern with other women, etc.; or, on the contrary, learns to distinguish between genuine love and possessiveness. Either way, we remain within a scene that anyone can imagine sharing. But if the character is “suffering” from a diagnosed “disorder,” he is by that fact segregated from scenes upon which anyone might participate, and narrative alternatives seem to be limited to him either following the approved therapeutic instructions towards greater health (as has been the potted plot of many edifying films on alcohol and drug abuse), or ignoring them—only in the latter case do we have the chance for an interesting narrative, because the protagonist might be rebelling, noir-style (or Cuckoo’s Nest style), against some repressive authority. But the interest of such a narrative depends upon the audience’s suspicion (at least) of the therapeutic order that is being challenged, which would in turn require some residual “humanism”; what, though, if the therapeutic order is completely accepted (which would really just signify the complete victory of the victimary order—racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., are already understood to be pathologies, and as more and more attitudes and actions—as is the case now for more and more male-female attraction—are grouped under these categories, there will be nothing but pathology, trauma and healing)? As Bowman says, this particular film doesn’t make a big deal out of it, but no doubt more and more films, novels, TV shows and so on will. And the difficulty is further complicated once we take into account all the mood transforming (legal) drugs now available—in what sense do their alterations of one’s character affect our understanding of and identification with another’s weaknesses and strengths, faults and merits, responsibility for actions, and so on? Is one deemed “flawed” for becoming dependent upon a substance that, according to “objective” measures, “improves” one’s “performance” in important areas?

It may be that the universalization of the therapeutic provides a kind of solution: the division of the world into therapists and patients and, indeed, each individual into therapist and patient, might create a new kind of scenicity. This would be Freud’s revenge upon us for having reduced him to the status of a crank or fraud in recent years, because this is pretty much how he envisioned the long term impact of psychoanalysis. But the process of coming to realize that what one took to be a normal desire is in fact a virulent pathogen infecting the social body might be of considerable interest (“shame” would clearly not be the appropriate response to such a discovery—rather, we would expect the protagonist to gradually come to replace his native vocabulary with one or another normalizing procedure through various social mismatches); as might the process of resisting the “mimetic” impulse to respond in kind to another’s actions and coming to adopt the proper therapeutic response. These would be the kinds of disciplinary shifts we would all be undergoing all the time; more complex narratives would have characters taking on the “patient” role in one disciplinary setting and the “therapist” role in another, the diagnostician (ironically?) becoming the one most in need of diagnosis, etc.

This transformation would redeem the post-humanist argument against any human essence residing “in” each individual, in favor of the claim that we are all constituted by historically specific discourses, power relations and so on. Post-victimary thinkers can contemplate such a change without the fantasy of “resistance” that still clings to what remains of “cultural studies” style analyses—Foucault did eventually come to realize that to point to “uneven power relations” is not the same as identifying self-evident injustice, and we can certainly further that recognition by distinguishing, in any normalizing order, between those drawn into the normalizing whirlpool and those on the margins who, whether they call it “resistance” or not, define themselves not as outside of those normalizing systems but as the other of those systems. The best example I can think of is one I have seen on social media and public discourse: the young woman who is exquisitely aware of all the “strategies” used by the media to normalize women’s bodily appearance (thin models, photoshopping, ads for dieting, “fat-shaming,” etc.) and not only nevertheless “inhabits” those implicit models (judges herself as inadequate at every point in relation to them) but acquires and maintains her critique of them by doing so. The next step is to forge a new style that rewards those sophisticated enough to dis-identify with the model one cannot help but inhabit—a style that then enters and is (to use a perennial term of radical frustration) “domesticated” by those normalizing systems. (A mediating step here is probably to inhabit some therapeutic discourse encouraging positive body image, and then to dis-identify with that discourse through a recognition of its own normalizing paradoxes.)

In the terms I set up earlier, this would mean that meaningful cultural and political communication requires that we inhabit one another’s originary fantasies and violent imaginaries, and work with our interlocutors towards reciprocal dis-identifications. To return to my “Selfy” post, it seems to me that in this context the “self” is more important than the “person,” or the “soul” (the immortal part of one’s being)—“personhood,” in Bartlett’s account, involves the withdrawal of the lovers from the social into a private scene; the self, which I suggested is best understood as the reflexive assertion of sameness in the semio-social flux can more easily be seen as something one shapes and deploys in various ways. We find it very easy to speak of having various “selves”—a work self, a family self, a being with friends self, etc. It is a short step from there to think of the self as a kind of “probe” that one uses to elicit and frame the violent imaginaries and originary fantasies of others by positioning it at the convergent lines of the fantasy and imaginary. At the same time, the materials of one’s own fantasies and imaginaries would necessarily be put to use—the problem is one of finding a line of symmetry between the emergent scenes the interlocutors, respectively, bear. Sometimes it will be my unconscious scene that fails the reality test and needs your intervention to find another avenue towards the construction of a mode of ostentation; sometimes yours will rely on mine. At the same time, we can operate on varying scales, from the intimate to the global, from the highly idiosyncratic scene to those seized upon, exaggerated and intensified through refined and cynical propaganda techniques. Freedom would result from the study of the means of normalization/subjectification, a study that frees one, provisionally, from submitting to the violent imaginary of being normalized out of existence, and from indulging the originary fantasy of possessing a self outside of those processes.

The therapeutic order supersedes the victimocracy, but what supersedes the therapeutic order is the disciplinary-bureaucratic order. One thing that has been noted, but not often enough, is that the modern administrative state represents a gradual abolition of the liberal democratic order. Equality under the law is meaningless when there really is no law, but only grants of bureaucratic power to intervene without limits in the most private domains of everyday life; nor do elections mean anything if the permanent bureaucracy rules anyway; nor can basic freedoms of speech, worship and assembly be guaranteed (or even taken seriously) when any action carried out individually or collectively can be deemed a threat to some bureaucratic agenda (maybe those who now treat Presidential elections as a festival for celebrating our victimary bona fides have a prescient understanding of the increasingly symbolic meaning of such rituals). The boundary between speech and action has been abolished—there is no way to distinguish a protest against some EPA agent commandeering your backyard from a threat to him.

Even more, the post-humanist understanding of the self as constituted by a constitutive fantasy and violent imaginary demolishes the philosophical foundations of the liberal democratic order, which presupposes a kind of blank slate equality in all individuals. Liberalism and modern democracy wish to represent the individual as he or she enters the market, or the ballot box, with no relevant pre-existing characteristics that might qualify one’s status or right to enter either. But if we come to read any individual as marked by some distinct form of normalization and counter-normalization, as having a constitutive fantasy and violent imaginary that the therapeutic/corporate/consumerist order always already has designs on and, in fact, has to a great extent designed, we cannot help but assign and constantly revise probabilities of dangerous or costly action to each individual as they enter any institutions (nor will there be any way of reversing the obsolescence of any institution that doesn’t allow for a sufficiently thorough and expeditious risk-benefit analysis of any individual).

In other words, we could play pretend at a kind of originary equality as long as shared norms regarding morality, law and political legitimacy were intact (at least among social elites, and those who aspired to be such), but no longer. The victmocrats are so afraid of profiling because they know what an obviously effective practice it is, how closely it parallels their own violent imaginary, and how their own attacks on a justice system aimed, above all, at deterring victims from enacting their own private revenge makes it the only remaining plausible means of self-protection. At any rate, if everyone is to be profiled constantly, each must carefully self-profile, and since strict adherence to normalizing discourses is by definition more available to those in the fat part of the curve, many will need to compose self-profiles, or, simply, selves, that promise to maximize benefits over risks in new ways—and hence to refer more explicitly to the constitutive fantasies and violent imaginaries, to figure them so as to figure out new ways of deferring them.

The only viable political response to these developments that I can imagine is to form disciplines (for our purposes, let’s take this to mean any kind of association that people form in order to explore something, get good at something, or identify themselves in a particular way) and use the antinomies of the bureaucratic state to defend those disciplines and render the repressive vehicles of central power more incoherent. The victimocracy, by definition, chafes at constraints—it is driven by increasingly urgent resentments. The impatience of those who must have same-sex marriage, or have the Washington Redskins change their name, right now, resembles nothing so much as the temper tantrum of a 3 year old. Discipline means constraints—it means we don’t seek to realize our constitutive fantasies, or treat our violent imaginaries as realities. Discipline is a commitment to reality testing. The therapeutic is part of the emergence of the disciplinary order, but its outsized prominence up until now can be attributed to its ability to usurp the disciplines concerned with countering social pathologies, making its usefulness undeniable. There are disciplines other than the therapeutic, though—the therapeutic itself can be annexed to a wider disciplinary order concerned with our scenic nature, and therefore with pedagogy and the perpetual orientation of human interaction around some center, which is to say some kind of property.

And disciplines give way to bureaucracy—a bureaucracy is nothing more than a discipline that must account for itself in relation to some public, or other disciplines—those of us in the academy might like to do nothing but inquire and teach, but we have to concern ourselves (our we have to siphon off resources to those who so concern themselves) with accreditation, student admission, maintenance of the grounds, federal anti-discrimination laws, etc.; the entrepreneur might just want to invent, innovate, and spread the results of his inventions and innovations, but he must deal with tax codes, employment law, all manner of federal regulation, etc.—in both cases a substantial bureaucratic exoskeleton is secreted. At a certain point the exoskeleton becomes too heavy and crushes the body; meanwhile, less encumbered disciplinary forms emerge to recover the original impulse to create and build. But the bureaucratized institutions have all the political advantages, as they can pressure the government to make demands that favor their own strengths, and they can make gifts to a wide array of constituents (unions, suppliers and distributors, local governments, etc.).

Perhaps the above account exposes something of my own constitutive fantasy and violent imaginary. Even so, it seems to me that the relation between highly formalized, politicized and risk-averse bureaucracies on the one hand, and various “nomadic” figures (lone entrepreneurs, but also various “rogue” disciplines, artistic and political, that mock and subvert the bureaucracies from within) on the other, provides a more accurate accounting the contemporary socio-political field than the categories of liberal democracy (equality, voting, rights, freedom, etc.). To allude too briefly to Eric Gans’s latest Chronicle on the Cartesian iteration of the Hebraic Declarative Sentence-as-the-Name-of-God in the foundation of the modern internal scene of representation, the “self” seems to me to be this nomadic figure: if the “I” is because it thinks, the self is because it was, with each self-reference iterating and distancing the self from prior iterations. The self can inhabit the marvels and pathologies of the surrounding world without claiming to have any substance outside of those marvels and pathologies; the self can process the normalizing discourses and institutions that average out while reproducing those marvels and pathologies; and the self can replicate or clone itself in novel forms that elicit and display the fantasies and imaginaries those discourses and institutions and the selves inhabiting them seek to manage. At any rate the hierarchies are not going anywhere for the forseeable future, even though both left and right have their respective fantasies regarding how they might be mitigated or even abolished; the best we can do, and perhaps the basis of a kind of left-right alliance broached by both Glen Beck and Rand Paul, is to force the corporate order off its dependence on state largesse and for the absorption of its socialized costs, so it has to stand on its own, without exceptional legal protections or economic subsidies (what the state should be doing, once its umbilical cord to the corporate order is cut, reopens the right-left abyss). The self as brand/anti-brand/re-brand is probably the most productive assumption for now.

It is best to remember, though, that the self is a scavenger, gathering nourishment for the person and the soul, and whether nomadic self I am describing here can find such nourishment is an open question.

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