If we can’t distinguish between defending, or at least accepting, someone’s right to say something, on the one hand, and agreeing with them, on the other, then liberalism, in the classic Enlightenment sense, no longer exists. This seems to be, increasingly, the case—marxists and other antiliberals have long argued that the “bourgeois” freedoms are disguises for the bourgeois privileges (the poor and the rich equally forbidden to sleep under the bridge, etc.), but it seems to me that something a little different is happening now. It’s not so much that people argue against the distinction (while implicitly acknowledging that under new, more just conditions, it would be legitimate), but that it is simply unintelligible to more and more people. If you say that those opposed to same sex marriage should have the right to voice their opinion, or that people who have expressed views that many or a majority would deem racist do not thereby surrender their property and other rights, the increasingly likely response is: why do you hate gays? Why do you support racism? There are many reasons for this development, which, not surprisingly, seems especially common among the young, and is complemented by the libertarian inability to distinguish between what is permitted and what is good (if, for example, you wonder about the effects of excessive consumption of pornography, the most likely response will be an indignant insistence on one’s right to do what one wants with one’s computer screen and body, along with aspersions about one’s own presumed puritanism, etc.). In short, more and more people want to do what they want to do, and to (not) have done to them what they (don’t) want done to them, and the whole question of grounds for doing one or another thing and of legitimate grounds for doing or not doing, is something we no longer seem to have the language for. The problem, as always, is that what some want to do is what others don’t want done to them, and the always largely fictional discourse of “rights” was there to adjudicate the competing claims—or, at least, establish an equilibrium as both sides use right-talk to entrench their interests within the state apparatus. If the means of adjudication collapse, and it’s too tedious to try and retrieve them from the 19th century, what happens? We have a standoff between the victimary and the libertine (I know that not all libertarians, maybe not most, are libertine—but the libertines have the most powerful cultural and political presence, since arguments in favor of drug legalization and against the regulation of various pleasures draw far more supporters than arguments about the evils of central banking), both equally plausible and legitimate children of modernity.
Let’s further factor into this Eric Gans’s most recent Chronicle (#463: More on the Victimary), which advances the discussion into what Gans seems ready to concede is likely the predictable result of the market system: a polarization in wealth that doesn’t produce immiseration at the bottom, but rather eviscerates the “middle” where normal forms of recognition (“respectability) can reasonably be expected. With the respectable middle cut out, what are left are pathological forms of “theater”—mass killings and other forms of cheaply and/or viciously acquired celebrity. The victimary, in this context, seems less a driving force in history than a rather feeble “sacrificial substitute” for this more devastating form of inequality that is beyond repair. To continue my own discussion, one might say that the victimary symbolically rebels against this polarization while the libertines vicariously identify with it. Both sides live in fantasy worlds.
But even if Picketty’s analysis, referenced by Gans, to the effect that today’s polarization is more representative of the trajectory of the market economy than the rough equality of the post-War years, is accurate, the two questions, distribution of wealth and distribution of recognition, can be delinked. It is not the emergence of billionaires that has destroyed “Fishtown,” or the “middle.” Even the much bemoaned decline in manual labor has been exaggerated—plumbers, roofers, contractors, carpenters and others employed in improving and fixing up can still make a very good living. In fact, there seem to be too few of them. Government enforced unionization destroyed Detroit, not the greed of the Big Three automakers. The welfare state’s assault on the family and victimary eruptions in the inner cities that crippled law enforcement and education destroyed wide swathes of black America (and ever larger pockets of white America), not the desire of corporations for cheaper labor overseas.
But there’s a limit to such socio-economic and cultural explanations, a limit evident in the problem of explaining the explanations. Things were gradually improving on all fronts during the 1950s and into the 1960s, and yet the 1960s proved the most disruptive period in American history since the Civil War. Nor is this anomalous—the same was true of the years leading up to the French Revolution. Why were the massive social experiments of the 1960s deemed necessary? The steady, if uneven and unbalanced, improvement of living conditions wrought by the expanded market has been unsatisfactory for many people—and, in particular, for those people who make things happen, the politically astute, the “cool,” the ambitious, the well-connected. Why? What is missing? The editor of the conservative journal The American Spectator, Emmett Tyrell, often says, perhaps tongue in cheek, that we tremendously underestimate the effect of boredom on world affairs. Serious or not, he has a point—boredom, what as sociologists we might call “anomie,” or as theologians “despair,” must be given its due. Boredom is part of the structure of addiction that is so prevalent in (not only) contemporary life—the addict wants to recover a novel and exhilarating experience, and rather than realizing that such experiences must be granted by immersion in reality, seeks it out, and seeks to secure it, in the identical form in which it was first experienced. As we all know, larger and larger doses are needed to attain a less and less satisfying approximation of that original experience. And in the ever more vast in-between, there is nothing but boredom, an itching for the next, inevitably disappointing, fix.
An important element of illiberal critiques of liberalism has been the observation that liberal rights—to speech, religion, association, etc.—really imply reciprocal indifference more than reciprocal recognition. The peace of the late medieval religious wars turned into the grave of meaning—without the (exhilarating) possibility of martyrdom, without the urgency of universal salvation, “belief” doesn’t amount to much. In that case, maybe the battle between the victimocracy and the libertine will have salutary effects. There might be a real stake in the libertine’s insistence, against feminist objections, on his right to play a sociopathic pimp in Grand Theft Auto. The libertines can try to secede from the victimocracy, and they may succeed, certainly to some extent (e.g., the “man-cave”). But insofar as they must operate on victimocratic terrain, they will have to subvert it from within, thereby revealing victimocracy’s many antinomies and anomalies. Perhaps the question of recognition can be addressed in new, fresh ways. (The victimocracy is of course inherently paradoxical—what they do with more power can’t possibly be what they want to do.) One thing we can thank the victimocrats for is intensifying the question of the relations between representation and reality. The victimocrats have not answered it and, indeed, it is one of those great questions that can never be answered definitively. Kevin Williamson, the National Review columnist that Gans has been referring repeatedly to recently, had an article lately on transgenderism, in which he insisted “Laverne Cox [a well-known “transgender” actor] is not a Woman.” On latest count, the number of comments is 8,195. The most interesting passage, for we Generative Anthropologists is, I think, the following:
The phenomenon of the transgendered person is a thoroughly modern one, not in the sense that such conditions did not exist in the past — Cassius Dio relates a horrifying tale of an attempted sex-change operation — but because we in the 21st century have regressed to a very primitive understanding of reality, namely the sympathetic magic described by James George Frazer in The Golden Bough. The obsession with policing language on the theory that language mystically shapes reality is itself ancient — see the Old Testament — and sympathetic magic proceeds along similar lines, using imitation and related techniques as a means of controlling reality. The most famous example of this is the voodoo doll. If an effigy can be made sufficiently like the reality it is intended to represent, then it becomes, for the mystical purposes at hand, a reality in its own right. The infinite malleability of the postmodern idea of “gender,” as opposed to the stubborn concreteness of sex, is precisely the reason the concept was invented. For all of the high-academic theory attached to the question, it is simply a mystical exercise in rearranging words to rearrange reality. Facebook now has a few score options for describing one’s gender or sex, and no doubt they will soon match the number of names for the Almighty in one of the old mystery cults.
Williamson’s position is the classically modern, Enlightenment one: the point of language is to represent reality accurately. We can see here the privileging of the declarative sentence over the ostensive and imperative that Gans has associated with Western metaphysics. (Williamson even alludes to the displacement of pagan polytheism by the one “Almighty” discovered/invented by the ancient Hebrews.) One’s genitals, and, perhaps, one’s hormonal and chromosomal structure, which can be observed by everyone according to shared clinical and experimental criteria, determine one’s gender—not more amorphous and “unfalsifiable” criteria like what one feels fated to be. Of course there are anomalies—the rare individual with an extra-chromosome, extremely unusual hormones, or un or over-developed genitals. But these don’t upset the basic classification, which can be justified by reference to broader biological assumptions: the anomalies can be safely sequestered because they don’t contribute to the reproduction of the species, the meta-criterion for biology. (But, of course, the discipline of biology evolves—some of the commenters on Williamson’s article make biological claims, with what plausibility I can’t say, for the “reality” of transgenderism. Even if they’re right, though, the cultural and political consequences are not obvious, or unambiguous.)
But the originary hypothesis allows us to at least entertain the possibility that these modernist assumptions are the anomaly, and perhaps not relevant beyond the specific disciplines whose ongoing inquiries they support, since we know that language has, in fact, created the most astounding reality of all—the human reality. We can, in fact, argue about how many genders there are, what they should be called, how they should be represented, what the possible relations between them are, and such arguments will change the way we live, love and reproduce. At the very least, such discussions focus our attention unwaveringly on signs, not on some utopia beyond representation—even if utopian fantasies got the discussions started in the first place. There is no ultimate transcending of biology, or other “material” realities, but all this means is that biology will always resist and deflect our attempts to represent it. In the end, maybe we will find ourselves with a comfortable middle or norm of the familiar two genders, with a bunch of unmolested, more or less interesting or annoying outliers; maybe not. Once tacit assumptions get excavated, they cannot be made tacit again—the historical function of the libertines may be to exaggerate and caricature and in this way, paradoxically, re-normalize the traditionally normal, this time as play and games (It’s worth keeping in mind that feminism, and certainly gay liberation, have had their libertine factions, now largely kept under wraps in the interest of political unanimity and momentum). And in the reciprocally aggravating chafing at constraints into which the victimocrats and libertines will hurl each other (the libertines wanting to express all the possibilities of a polymorphously perverse nature, the victimocrats demanding the uprooting and revision of all spontaneous desires) there may be space for the originary thinker to reflect upon a reality replete with examples of why we need constraints in the first place.
Instead of adjudication, and the increasingly encumbered and arbitrary discourses of “rights,” maybe there will be a space to treat culture as play and games. Back in the 80s, Jean-Francois Lyotard extended Wittgenstein’s notion of “language games” to propose an ethics of political culture, guided by the principle that one doesn’t try to eliminate a fellow player from the game. We certainly can’t count on such comity now, and, to be honest, I would not agree to play by such rules myself—nor do I think they can be made coherent, as cultural “pieces” are not as stable as those in chess. But we can certainly think in terms of “moves” rather than positivist, metaphysical or historicist truths, and of provisional, emergent rules that don’t presuppose some kind of transhistorical Truth Commission that in the end is sure to ratify one’s own truth claims. Play presupposes a field, a constitution of a portion of reality, or reality itself, that is to be governed by the rules of the game. A good player doesn’t want to “win” (any victory being very temporary anyway) so much as to keep remaking the field so as to multiply the number and variety of moves that might be made (first of all by the player himself, but how could opening avenues for oneself not do the same for others as well?). The minimal ethics governing the field is that we all take turns going first, as going first almost inevitably confers an advantage in any game—sometimes you speak in my terms, sometimes I speak in yours. Unless we’re really bent on mutual extermination, we should be able to manage that. We’ll see what the libertines and victimocrats make of each other’s playbook and field position.
In the end, I think both sides will undergo significant shock and stress, because, in the end, I think that the Jewish revelation is right in one crucial respect. The Jewish name of God, revealed to Moses at the burning bush, “I am/shall be that I am/shall be,” cannot be said by the believing Jew because you can’t say it without claiming to be God. This is my one, marginal, addition to Eric Gans’s extensive analyses of this revelatory event—if the name of God explicitly defers the desire to proclaim oneself God, I take this to be because that desire must have emerged in a powerful way in the ancient world of God-emperors. It is an enduring desire, manifested in the belief that following nature or reason will provide moral truths no less than in totalitarian attempts to remake the entire fabric of human relations. Indeed, the ideology of modernity is that we are all gods to ourselves. Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am” is another manifestation, and so I am much less ready, I think, than Gans, or than I once was, to celebrate the centering of each individual in his own desires. Only shared revelations, on particular scenes, of our reciprocal being-hostages-for-one-another (to borrow a term important to Emmanuel Levinas, and then Derrida), or what I have been calling “disciplines,” can create legitimate centers. No one can know how many such centers, or of what duration or quality, are necessary, but once there are enough of them, “inequality” won’t matter. And if there aren’t enough—well, the catastrophes that will result will make the symbolic holocausts of the victimocracy seem so much windmill tilting. But getting enough of them can only be a learning process and, as the pedagogical cliché has it, you have to start with where the learner is.