GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

October 30, 2015

Laws of Probability

Filed under: GA — adam @ 10:18 am

There are statistical disparities between groups in all areas of life: educational accomplishment, mental aptitudes, physical ability, and so on. We are now capable of measuring these disparities in ever more nuanced ways, holding constant whatever variables we wish to isolate particular causal relationships. We couldn’t stop getting better at this if we wanted to, and we can’t stop talking about if for no other reason than that such disparities are proof, for the victimocracy, of the oppressions whose exposure and remediation justify its own existence. Such talk makes normal people very nervous, because we all thought we were done with it, and had all agreed to pretend to believe in a kind of blank slate equality, under the assumption that such a belief was a precondition of the legal and political equality upon which our civilization is predicated. But victimary thinking has shattered that pretension and, now, if you don’t want to accept that the disproportionate number of black men in prison can only be a sign of white supremacy, that the lower number of women in the sciences can only be a sign of patriarchy, and so on, you will have to treat statistical disparities as providing us with information about the capabilities and propensities of the groups involved rather than about the oppression or exclusion they suffer. There is no third way (even to say “it’s a little of both” breaks up the victimocracy’s ethico-epistemological cartel, because the precise proportions are then, unbearably, open for discussion). This is a very difficult way. Perhaps too difficult. In theory, exploding assumptions about natural equality (whether we see inequalities as natural, or cultural or historical, makes some difference, but not much in the short or, probably, medium, run—even if we could, say, trace some “disabling” features of femininity back to “patriarchy,” it is now free women who enact those features) need not undermine presumptions of legal and political equality, or meritocratic principles more generally. In practice, it is likely to do so, as just about everyone likes to have proxies for the traits they desire in an employee, student, friend, partner, etc. (That’s why we’re interested in probability in the first place.) But how theory and practice are mediated will depend solely on how we learn to speak about such things in the only way that we now can, if we are to resist (and put, to quote Lincoln, on the path of eventual abolition) the victimocracy.

Of course, to conform to statistical reality is to entrench and intensify it. More men will see women as alien to science, more whites will see blacks as criminals, and then fewer women may attempt scientific careers and more blacks alienated from society drawn to crime. The only effective counter-statistical measure, though, is discipline—the interest in an enterprise that depends open being open to improbabilities, to the idea or individual no one else expects much from. Such a discipline involves training oneself, while acknowledging broad statistical trends, to see minor counter-trends—perhaps some stereotypically “feminine” characteristic that provides a unique way into the sciences. There will always be sufficient limits to our understanding of human capabilities and their distribution to justify the energy expended in the detection of such counter-trends, which can perhaps serve as a proxy for a kind of hope.

October 27, 2015

Addendum to “Groups”

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:28 am

I suppose I assumed that it goes without saying, but in discussing groups it should be remembered that every group has a more or less mythicized founding event, involving a “nomos,” in Carl Schmitt’s terms: an originary division of a property cleared away for the “settlement” of the group. This “property” can be, and has been for most of history, land, but can take on other organizational and institutional forms (activist groups “own” a particular constituency and will battle other groups for it). There will always be land, though, so such groups must be considered the most fundamental—other groups exist at the sufferance of the group that “owns” (through some mutual defense covenant) the land. Attempts to reaffirm the group’s identity are always restorations of the imagined nomos, including a defense of territorial boundaries and form of internal allotment—and such attempts presuppose some disorder in the nomos, which will most likely be attributed to some betrayal on the part of some portion of the community (which presumably has misused its allotment, or manipulated the rules of allotment). Members of groups must imagine themselves in their groups in these terms, whatever violence to reality must be done—but we need not assume that the imagined allotment always does violence to reality, anymore than we assume that such violence is done by the originary hypothesis itself.

October 26, 2015


Filed under: GA — adam @ 3:08 pm

An exchange I have been having with someone very familiar with GA regarding issues of antisemitism, victimary thinking, etc., raised the question of how we account for group belonging in terms of the originary hypothesis. Are Jews a group, or just a phantasm in the anti-Semites imagination? If they are a group, how so—do they act together in some meaningful way, participate in shared institutions or practices, have common characteristics or interests? The same, of course, applies to any group—what makes a nation a nation, an ethnicity and ethnicity—religions at least have shared belief systems and rituals (not that there aren’t plenty of difficulties here as well)?

The answer is, I think, simple, while requiring subtle gradations in actual analyses. Groups are bound together by honor systems, more or less tightly. If you are Irish, and you take pride in the accomplishments of your “fellow” Irish, are ashamed by their misdeeds, feel compelled to defend them against accusations, are concerned with how their actions reflect on you, then you are a member of the genus “Irish.” Of course, these compulsions can be felt more or less strongly, depending on how dependent you are on the group for protection (or how much you fear its reprisal for perceived betrayal). To put it in more fundamental terms, you are a member of a group to the extent that you participate in the redemption of its hostages—both literal hostages, in the sense of coming to the aid of threatened members, and figuratively, in the sense of trying to lower the threshold of what will count as an “attack” in the first place—and are a potential hostage yourself.

What this means is that “groupness” is intrinsically barbaric—there is nothing “modern” or “enlightened” in the defining element of group belonging. Which is why the most modern and enlightened among us tend to despise or deny the reality of groups. The whole point of a “culture of dignity” (to refer to the analysis by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning I have been using in recent posts) is to make it possible to treat individuals outside of groups, i.e., as other than hostages. A culture of dignity creates the optical illusion that individuals can exist outside of groups because it develops (political and economic) mechanisms for isolating individual actions against a background from which group entanglements have been erased, but this is only possible because we are all now part of a new type of group in which we find honor in protecting all individuals from being taken hostage, and by a wider (if vaguer) range of dangers. Modern nations are cultures of dignity overlaid on honor cultures, in some mixture—if a space for dignity is not carved out, we have a tribe, not a nation, and a tribe certain to degenerate in its encounters with nations due to its addiction to violence; if dignity is interpreted and practiced in such a way as to treat honor as inimical to the dignity of the individual (if it, for example, takes seriously claims that displaying the national flag at public events “offends” some marginalized group), then it won’t be long before that culture fails to protect anyone’s dignity either. (And it also follows that anyone who tries to be a member of the national group without displaying loyalty to more local groups—the South, Italian-Americans, Midwesterners, Bostonians, etc.—is likely to be considered less completely a member of the national group as well. National loyalties are tested less often, so without the proving grounds of more local loyalties, one’s trustworthiness will always be in question.)

Political parties and activist groups, which is to say groups founded within modern nations, fit this model perfectly—they preserve the dignity of the individual at the very least in allowing any individual to leave the group (which is a reflection of the national dignity culture), but, otherwise, insofar as one acts or allows oneself to be identified as a member of that group, one is a potential hostage and committed to the redemption of hostages. We could obviously analyze all the other groups in which people participate—they would all exhibit the same unsavory defensiveness on the part of group members, whose first response to any accusation against the group will be denial and counter-accusation, to be succeeded either by a more or less traumatic break with group, continued denial, or a reconciliation with these newly discovered vulnerabilities with the protection one finds the group still offers—whether that protection be from physical attacks or, as is much more common in modern groups, from some form of moral contagion caused by the compromises of civilization. (The point of being in one group, then, is largely to assert you are not like that other group.)

So, what of individuals? Are they, rather than groups, the real illusion? Has anyone ever seen one of these individuals of whose existence we have heard rumors? What we recognize as individuals are initiates in some discipline—to commit yourself to some moral or intellectual discipline is to have in reserve the capacity to resist the importunities of groups for reasons other than shame or fear. Even so, the individual exists on the margins of groups, not outside of them: an American who can examine, and criticize, as if he weren’t an American but a “historian” or “cultural theorist,” the various events, doctrines and figures making up American history and culture, is still a potential hostage and recipient of protection from fellow Americans, even if he eschews participation in the common American culture. Unless his disciplinary vocation involves a resentment towards that culture that not only makes the critical distancing easier but exceeds the boundaries of the discipline—in that case, the critic has simply joined, more or less explicitly, some other, perhaps internationalist, group. Disciplines can become groups—one can feel compelled to defend the honor of the profession after a well known historian has been caught plagiarizing—but only to the extent that it becomes less of a discipline (rather than the defending the profession, the true historian should root out all forms of “groupiness” that might lead members of the profession to place loyalty over the rigors of inquiry). Naturally, I don’t mean to imply that disciplines must be institutionalized—there are all kinds of disciplines, which is to say ways of establishing one’s dignity. Indeed, almost everyone has at least some discipline in this sense. Another source of individuality might be those liminal conditions so common in modernity—being a foreigner, being associated with foreigners, being a minority whose membership in the larger group is not certain (perhaps you wouldn’t be redeemed from captivity), associating with such minorities, etc. To the extent that such conditions constitute more than confusion and uncertainty, though, it is because those thereby situated make a discipline out of their anomaly, perhaps a discipline in the study of the group in relation to which one stands somewhat askew. Seeking to integrate that discipline as a kind of gift into the knowledge of that larger community ultimately confirms one as a member; using that discipline to discredit (bring shame upon) that group indicates an attempt to find some other, most likely political, group to join.

October 1, 2015

Rivalrous Order

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:56 am

Nationalism is where rivalries internal to a social order meet rivalries between social orders—where the internal rivalries are converted to and transcended by (originally through some more or less explicit, more or less imposed, pact between tribes or smaller kingdoms) the external rivalries, and the external rivalries shape and limit the internal ones. All opposition to nationalism tries to prevent the crystallization of that meeting point: to squelch internal rivalries so that some elite in control of the state can manage external rivalries on its own terms; or, to make external rivalries impossible or invisible so internal rivalries can be squashed in the name of keeping the peace.

This understanding of nationalism would, I think, explain a lot. First of all, I think it would account for the rivalries between the ancient Greek city-states which, on these terms, could be called “nationalistic”—the Greek city-states promoted internal rivalries to an extent that many of us today would find insane, which might account for the constant wars between them, and it may very well be that a workable balance between internal and external rivalries was never attained—leaving the nationalist communities easy prey for empires. It also explains why the emergently nationalist early modern Europe found it so difficult to remain united in response to the perpetual threat of the Ottoman Empire—the conversion of internal to external rivalries can’t scale up to the size of a civilization or an empire, even if provisional alliances are always possible. Third, it would explain the hostility of virtually all forms of political theory and philosophy to nationalism—Marxism, liberalism, communitarianism, even fascism all find nationalism to be a troublesome perplexity, because the maintenance and free play of internal rivalries is alien to all attempts to eliminate mediations between individual and state or individual and society (or, in the case of communitarianism, a rather minor affair at any rate, to evade the competitions at the individual and international levels by defining communities in fundamentally cooperative terms); while the acceptance of international rivalries as both “natural” and a beneficial spur to internal strivings explodes all modern utopias. Does nationalism have its political theorist? Or has it always been a kind of blot on all political theories? The obstacle to theorizing nationalism past a certain point is that the meeting point where internal rivalries meet external is always shifting and itself a site of rivalry—unlike liberalism’s right of the individual, for example, or socialism’s transformation of the relations of production, we could never imagine subjecting that process to a “law,” or axiomatic definition.

The need for robust internal rivalries allows for an understanding of “rights” in nationalistic terms. Rivalries must be engaging and exciting; they must be “real” and consequential, both at play and at work—but they must not be allowed to spill into civil war or sheer exclusion of one part of the national community. That means strict rules, tacit and explicit, are required to limit the scope of competition to circumscribed fields—these rules translate into “rights” for individuals. We’re not talking about “natural” rights here, but simply rules protecting the autonomy of fields of play, and the freedom of movement from one field to another. (So, for example, “free speech” would not be so much about individual rights as about the need to have competition in the fields of journalism, science, etc.) External rivalries generate internal differentiations as fields that help one nation compete with others are promoted—science, economics and technology most obviously, but there is competition between nations in the literary, diplomatic, athletic and many other fields. In this way, transnational communities of scientists, athletes, merchants, writers and artists, etc., are generated, in (usually) harmless, productive tension with national loyalties. Nations engaged in such rivalries become more like each other, which, as we know from the laws of mimesis, can make their rivalries more deadly, but also makes possible the creation of a body of law and custom regulating interaction. None of this is possible with transnational institutions like the EU or UN, or transnational progressive organizations committed to chimeras like “international human rights”—or, needless to say, with empires, whether established on ecumenical or religious terms. Even the liberal, rights-based, state ultimately finds nationalism to be an irritant, or worse, and such states, insofar as they flourish, must set out to break up nationalist inclining institutions and weaken the majoritarian tendencies needed to convert internal rivalries into external ones. A certain kind of radical libertarianism, though, which seeks to abolish the state while accepting the stratifications of a free society and the autonomy of all institutions from any center, can easily be compatible with a kind of ragged, perhaps intermittent, nationalism.

A healthy nationalism has no tolerance for outright treason, of course, but it has plenty of room for idiosyncrasies, abstentions, dissidence and even plural loyalties, at the margins—after all, there’s no way of knowing for sure what cultural innovations will become a genuine possession of the nation and source of national honor, while having some citizens with relatives, friends and commitments in other countries can be converted into access to and intelligence regarding those countries (like American German and Japanese speakers during WWII). More embattled nationalisms, though, may need to withdraw some liberties, and keep citizens in the established channels of competition; without taking advantage of opportunities to open up a bit, however, it is unlikely that second and third tier nations will be able to elevate their standing. And this is why, as I have emphasized in my previous nationalistic posts, nationalism is ultimately more of a civilizing than a barbarizing force—and, when it comes to civilizing, two steps forward and one step backward is probably the best we can do.

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