GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

January 1, 2015

Barbarian Within

Filed under: GA — adam @ 10:15 pm

The law of mimesis dictates that what another does you do, and what another does to you you do to them. For originary thinkers, the iconic form of this law is manifested on the originary scene—one reaches, then another reaches, and another, until one confronts another, then another… The initial interruption of this process, the originary sign, represents a deferral of the kind of violence that participants imagine would culminate in the unimaginable. We can assume that lesser, manageable forms of violence were immediately distinguished from more engulfing, cataclysmic kinds, similar to what is likely to take place in a bar fight: the two combatants will often be surrounded by the rest of the patrons, converted into audience and potential referee. If this doesn’t happen, if other patrons start taking sides, a uncontrollable melee might take place, with no outside intervention possible.

The process of civilization involves generalizing this distinction: containing local forms of violence in the interest of preventing a larger outbreak. Rules must come to govern those local forms of violence. We have become civilized when those rules become extensive and internalized enough so that we can all assume that our free actions (speaking our mind, having fun at some else’s expense, criticizing another, etc.) are buffered from any violent consequence. This also means that those free actions themselves follow the rules—there is a line between criticism and insult, between toleration of an offense and disgraceful acquiescence in one. Still, the basic mimetic law remains intact: if someone shows you a kindness, you respond in kind, you answer insult with insult. What changes is that we accept that those responses that “slide” toward certain dangerous forms of violence are to be mediated: we can answer insults with insults but we “answer” a mugging with a call to the police. We can assume that the most dangerous forms of violence will be those that threaten to activate the forms of violence characteristic of the honor society directly supplanted by civilized order: violence upon a member of one group answered by violence against members of the other group.

Needless to say, elements of this barbarism continue under civilized order, most obviously in organized crime and gang violence. But it continues in more fundamental ways. The legal system is so important to a civilized order because if it turns out that there’s no point to calling the police in response to a mugging, eventually recourse to other sources of satisfaction will be sought. In other words, we still, barbarically, demand our pound of flesh from the offender: we suspend our barbarian inclinations in deference to the controlled, more reliable barbarism of the state. To be thoroughly civilized would be to forego satisfaction for the offense committed against us individually in favor of the invention and dissemination of practices that would reduce the level of offense more generally. This, of course, is the classical mid-20th century liberal position: the liberal as he who is too broad-minded to take his own side in a fight. The problem with that form of liberalism is that it encourages its own subversion by implicitly licensing offenders who now know there will be no answer to their transgressions. Which really means we can never be thoroughly civilized: we can only suspend our barbarism, which also means we must preserve it.

Nor is there any need to stop at barbarism—prior to barbarism there is what used to be called “savagery.” These terms were used consistently in the 19th century (I have some familiarity with them through my reading of Marx and Engels, who had no problem distinguishing between the stages of “lower” and “higher” barbarism). I think we can fit them rather easily into originary thinking: barbarism is an order organized around competing “Big Men,” while “savagery” refers to the more egalitarian, collective society prior to the emergence of Big Men, where we must assume violence was much less mediated (even by fear of an assault on one’s tribe) and therefore more common, more random and less consequential. As a barbarian, you would brutally assault your boss for not giving you the promotion you deserve; as a savage, you slap a clerk in the store for telling you that an item was more expensive than you assumed. For the barbarian, violence is preserved and concentrated; for the savage, freely dispensed, easily forgotten. We are all, I think, familiar with these kinds of resentment: a desire to lash out at petty irritations, on the one hand, and slow, burning anger at more sustained refusals to recognize what we take to be our value. All this is rooted in mimetic law. Indeed, civilization multiplies the possibilities of these resentments.

Civilization also makes these resentments, our inner barbarian and savage, very unpleasant to behold. If a savage wants his fellow tribesman’s wife, he is deterred by the resistance he imagines she might put up and the revenge her husband might exact (along with whatever divine punishment he might imagine follows); but he has no reason to deny that that is what he wants, or to stop looking out for an opportunity. I imagine most of us would find such overt recognition of desires, even to ourselves, a hindrance to everyday intercourse. Hence “repression” and “sublimation.” Hence the periodic revolts against, in particular, civilized sexual norms (including prohibitions on profanity and obscenity), that we have witnessed since the early 19th century, revolts that with each iteration modify those civilized norms, ratcheting them further towards violation, until we get to the point where there’s not much left to violate. The only remaining norm is “consent,” but we now get to see how problematic that norm is, as new rules regarding sexual relations on college campuses turn “consent” into something very complicated indeed: if power differentials make consent impossible, then consent might very well be impossible.

One important part of the civilizing process over the past 50 years has concerned the treatment of children. Here, I consistently encounter testimony that matches my own experience: middle class children are far less free now than they were in the 60s and 70s (the 80s is when the change started to set in). Moral panics regarding sexual predators have often been the pretext for the tightening of restrictions on children, but I think what lies behind it is a squeamishness regarding the patent barbarism of children left to their own devices. This is what lies behind the campaigns against bullying: bullying is the “Big Man” form of rule among children. Children inflict suffering on each other fairly casually; they incite one another to risky behavior. This used to be tacitly accepted, on the grounds that children needed to learn to take care of themselves under free conditions—to learn how to defend yourself, to deal with hurt feelings, to resist the pull of the crowd, to learn from the occasional broken leg or nose. Serious injury, much less death, was obviously very rare—a risk that could be accepted. At a certain point, I think, adults just couldn’t look at this any more, a moral turning point analogous to the disgust that must have ultimately obsolesced gladiatorial contests and will perhaps do the same for football before too long.

Maybe today’s culture wars are between opposing views of the civilized/barbarian/savage spectrum. On one side are those consumed with uprooting and extirpating all that reeks of barbarism and savagery within the already civilized and therefore safe institutions (and to a sensitized nose, a great deal reeks); on the other side are those content to try and sustain a workable balance of our barbarian and savage inclinations with our civilized order. Those determined to civilize all they see are trapped in the paradox I identified before: to thoroughly civilize oneself is to encourage outright barbarism and savagery in others. Even more, and even more paradoxically, it licenses a kind of barbarism in oneself, the barbarism of hatred towards those who interfere with your slightest inclination. But those who see that we can only balance out all the consequences of mimetic law are unable to defend themselves effectively against charges of archaic barbarisms and savagery (they don’t get offended at ethnic jokes so readily, they will remark un-self-consciously on manifestations of gender difference, they will jokingly advocate harsh, even gruesome punishments of criminals, and retaliation against foreign enemies, etc.)—they are treasure troves of gaffes just ready to go viral.

It seems to me that there is a fairly interesting anti-civilizational revolt that has almost disappeared in the process. I recently saw a pretty good movie called The Chatterly Affair, a movie centered on the obscenity case in 1960 against the publication of Lady Chatterly’s Lover. It seemed pretty true to the trial, from other accounts I had heard, and one thing that was interesting about it was that all the arguments were on the side of allowing publication (and, by implication, overturning laws that would forbid it)—aesthetic arguments, cultural arguments, moral arguments, sociological arguments. On the other side there was really nothing but, as a famous Supreme Court decision had it, “I know it when I see it.” Once that layer of tacit agreement was broached, it proved impossible to reconstruct it verbally and intellectually, and we all know what rushed through. But even more interesting is that that whole cultural vein, from Lawrence and Henry Miller, through comedians of the 60s like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, and even including important tendencies in feminism, seems to have completely dried up. The only contemporary example I can think of is Trey Parker and Mark Stone, the makers of South Park. (There are some very interesting–to me, at least–literary developments along these lines though, even if they are still  marginal.) But that massive cultural revolt has been replaced, precisely among those demographically identical to its original constituency, by “trigger warnings.”

It would be good to see a revival, beyond left and right (as it would have to be), of this cultural tendency, because, beyond the anti-civilizational resentment lay something more valuable: a sacrificial willingness on the part of the artist or thinker to bear and make visible the forbidden and the abject, to enact a kind of discovery procedure of our inner savagery and barbarism. Even more, it has represented a play element in culture, beyond the rather narrow games that we usually play—maybe there is a connection between the marginalization of this kind of cultural practice and the clamping down on childhood. Interestingly, it would take cultural practitioners willing to be demonized, censored and punished by the left, and being willing to take that on would require a drastic remaking of the inherited cultural identity such practitioners would start off with. It would be lonely, because they couldn’t really be conservatives, either (even if some conservatives might cheer them on), and the kind of fearlessness needed to liberate oneself from established cultural roles is very rare. But they would be performing a great service—and might even become marketable before too long.

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