GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

December 26, 2015

Some Hidden Infrastructures of Civilization

Filed under: GA — adam @ 1:25 pm

Almost all political discussion today focuses on the official categories of liberal democracy—freedom, equality, consent— and, in particular, violations of these principles, which makes all such discussion all but worthless. We have completely forgotten that such political categories never have been and never could be anything more than surface modifications of more fundamental, ultimately more primitive and barbaric relations. Civilization is never anything more than veneer. This assertion doesn’t downplay the importance of civilization; quite to the contrary: the veneer keeps all kinds of human potentialities at bay. But it also allows us to turn away from what lies beneath.

For example, from a recent blog post from John Derbyshire (dumped by Conservative Inc.’s flagship journal National Review for the crime of peppering his articles [in other journals] with all manner of “hatefacts”):

A lot of people still think of “Left” and “Right” as some kind of difference over economics. There are still some traces of that, but when we talk about “Left” and “Right” nowadays, the real divide is between nationalism and demographic stability on one side, globalism and multiculturalism on the other.
In all Western countries, well-nigh everyone wants a welfare state, and well-nigh everyone wants a thriving capitalist economy. Those things aren’t controversial. What’s controversial is the idea of a nation as being the home of some one particular people of mostly common ancestry and common culture. The great divide today is between nationalism and demographic stability on the one hand, globalism and mass immigration on the other.
It used to be, a hundred years ago, even fifty years ago, you could get a quick rough gauge of how much you were likely to agree or disagree with someone by finding out how much he hated rich people. Note that the person whose temperature you were taking might himself be rich; the expression “limousine liberal” has been around for a while.
But nowadays, if you want to take someone’s political temperature, you get a much more accurate reading by figuring out how much he hates white people. Again, there is no bar to he himself being white: the word “ethnomasochist” hasn’t been around as long as “limousine liberal,” but I did once trace it as far back as 1981.

Derbyshire is speaking of victimary thinking and politics, something he understands very well (having realized, for example, that for white Americans, or at least what he calls the “goodwhites,” Blacks are sacred objects), while framing it somewhat more starkly than we are used to. Or, perhaps, he just frames it in reverse, by adopting the standpoint of the targeted victim of the victimary: the main political issue, for Derbyshire, is whether white countries can remain white. Donald Trump’s success proves that Derbyshire, and his colleagues (comrades?) on the “alternative” or “dissident” right are far from alone. The question is not being posed so bluntly by Trump himself, who gives no evidence of thinking in such terms at all—but those in hysterics over Trump’s candidacy certainly have started posing the question this bluntly, even if as an accusation that they assume will never answered with a righteous affirmation rather than admission of guilt—how far are we from supporters of Trump, or whoever comes after Trump, saying something like “yes, we want a predominantly white, Christian country—so what?” This emergence of tribal barbarism results from civilization being turned against what it previously covered, softened and intermixed with the specifically modern disciplines. Once the government decides its job is to fight discrimination, it goes to war against part of the population it supposedly represents, and with ever more precision and comprehensiveness. You cannot help but induce that part of the population to find itself at war with the government, and also against the beneficiaries of government patronage. Whether whites are really, in some ethnic or racial sense, an “identity” or “collectivity,” is irrelevant—it is much more important that they are a target of a bio-political war of subjugation, which could easily at some point, given present demographic tendencies, become one of extermination.

Here’s something far more amusing, but maybe just as interesting in its own way—a clip of Trump having read to him, by talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, a children’s book in the Dr. Seuss style, composed by Kimmel’s writers in Trump’s name:

The “book” is extremely well done, capturing Trump’s idioms and patterns of speech (along with some deft allusions to events in Trump’s campaign), while finding a point where public caricatures of Trump and Trump’s own self-image seem to converge (if Trump felt he was being satirized rather than celebrated—or that there was any meaningful distinction between the two—he certainly didn’t show it). More interesting, for my purposes here, is how unthinkable the tautology of the title is—yes, by definition, winners aren’t losers, but how many today could allow themselves to use a terms like “winners” and “losers” without finding some way to assert that the “winners” are really oppressors (and therefore, at least in the long term historical and moral sense, ultimately losers themselves) and the losers really victims? This is certainly part of Trump’s appeal, that he uses terms like “achievement,” “accomplishment,” “success,” “victory,” etc. unapologetically and without irony. Some people are superior, others (axiomatically) inferior, some are stupid, make “bad deals,” are to be “pitied,” etc. Like white Christians liking their country being white and Christian, this idiom of self-assertion, competition, and ranking is something that the founders of civilization (and the founders of liberal democracy more specifically) simply took for granted (while many of them, no doubt, were disgusted by the barbarism, the disguised warfare and systematic humiliation implicit in what we might call “top-doggism”) while hoping to at least prevent it from being institutionalized—and that the contemporary usurpers of civilized institution have declared outright war against.

A final, and related, example. There are now quite a few websites devoted to what Alpha Game, a blog run by Vox Day, calls the “socio-sexual hierarchy”:

Here, we have a blatant re-assertion of “Big Man” type hierarchies, explored in great detail and familiar, perhaps painfully so, to anyone with vivid memories of their days on the playground, or high school. As you can see, such analyses can become fairly detailed and sophisticated—and why not, given that these kinds of rivalries have been around for a very long time, are very evident in all kinds of everyday relationships, and, indeed, can only go unseen with the investment of considerable energy into avoidance. Thanks once again to Trump, whom bloggers such as Vox Day have marked as a kind of “super-Alpha,” such discourse is also only just below the surface of contemporary politics (note, too, the recurring meme of contrasting Vladimir Putin’s manliness to Barack Obama’s more “Gamma” persona). (I am not familiar with any similar analyses of female hierarchies, other than the fairly widespread recognition of female hypergamy, but I assume they exist—at any rate, part of the enduring appeal of the 2004 film “Mean Girls” is that it at least gave us a glimpse of such hierarchies.) These kinds of hierarchies were a given in earlier versions of civilized life, which tried to incorporate them into a more benign domestic monogamous patriarchal order, governed by notions of chastity, chivalry and fidelity. But, of course all this is unspeakable as well—one of the fascinating things about contemporary democracy is all of the things so many people are terrified of saying, even, at this point, in the privacy of their own homes. So, at a certain point, democracy becomes contingent on people not even thinking such things, not even when they are right in front of their faces—which also means that democracy becomes dependent on persistent vituperation against those who do notice them. But what if people keep noticing them nevertheless? (We are also, I’ll briefly add, on the verge [the gift of Trump keeps giving] of discussing openly the possible incompatibility of Islam with the rule of law—which is to say, of undermining the assumption of the equivalence of all religions, which is the only thing keeping the 1st amendment workable in its modern interpretations.)

Open and sustained conflict between these hidden infrastructures and the victimocracy is, I think, almost upon us. Of course, the complete victory of either side, along with various possible compromises, is not incompatible with our continuing to staff our governmental institutions through elections, so that’s not really the issue. (Not necessarily, at least—either side might find a suspension, elimination or severe dilution of democratic or liberal institutions essential to waging war.) But the liberal democratic consensus of the post-War West (economic and intellectual freedom, some loose cultural constraints, some redistribution, and an ethos of non-discrimination) is in tatters, and not available as a resolution. The victimocracy has repudiated intellectual freedom and cultural constraints while chafing at economic freedom; the new right, meanwhile, repudiates non-discrimination, seeing it as a battering ram aimed at demolishing the rest of the civilized order. (Both sides seem to accept the idea of redistribution, i.e., soaking the rich—which means they share one particularly destructive position, hardly a firm basis for reconciliation.)

Any reader of my posts knows that I don’t consider anything more destructive than the victimocracy—perhaps, under duress, I could consider the possibility that other political movements could be as destructive. And all the alternative right wants to do is return us to some longstanding historical norms, deeply rooted in civilized human nature—even if, inevitably, there will be some “extremists,” in response to whom, following the precedent set by Obama and Clinton, we should say: 1) they have nothing to do with the millions of peace loving civilization restorationists and, 2) we should be very careful of offending those guardians of civilization, so as not to unwittingly recruit more “extremists.” The hardest thing, even for those who are firmly on the right (or at least the anti-left), will be the willingness to sacrifice one’s anti-discrimination bone fides. Here is where no moderation is possible—however you want to run your own business or household, you must renounce any social or state project of enforcing non-discrimination norms, because that is the Trojan Horse containing the SJWs who will destroy the city. It is this question that will really decide which side each and every one of us is on.

December 18, 2015

Event-al Morality

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:17 am

There is an issue I have been thinking about, on and off, for about the past 15 years, but that has rarely found its way directly into my writing. My interest in this issue dates to some work I did on the American novelist Ronald Sukenick in the early to mid 00s, and I sometimes wonder whether my interest is real or more of a sense of debt to Sukenick, whose writings I encountered almost at the same time as I discovered, and inflected my understanding of, the originary hypothesis, which in turn helped me to shape some essays I wrote on Sukenick. This issue did find its way into some my writing more indirectly, especially, I think, in an essay for Anthropoetics a couple of years ago on language learning as originary ethics and thinking, as well, perhaps, as my essay on “mistakenness,” but neither essay addressed the dispute Sukenick had set up.

Sukenick set up a distinction, which he sometimes framed in terms of “games” vs. “play,” elsewhere as “French” vs. “American,” and yet other times as a “theory” vs. “experience” hierarchy. Most minimally (as a question of modes of praxis), he presented it as a distinction between “virtuosity” and “improvisation.” On one level it is an esthetic question regarding the implications of modernism, but for Sukenick, and here I agree with him, it was ultimately a moral question concerning modern civilization. In the first instance, Sukenick was pushing back against some of the esthetic tendencies that he himself was closest to (and most likely to be conflated with) and which he identified most precisely, I think, with the Oulipo group of (mostly, at first) French writers, while surely having a dominant strain of modernism in general in mind. For the virtuoso, the point of the performance is to use all of the materials, and only the materials, specific to that kind of performance in a completely integrated way—to maximize the possibilities of the form. The virtuoso is what Peter Sloterdijk studies (and energetically promotes) in his book on discipline and disciplines, You Must Change Your Life, in which he constantly speaks of “acrobats” and “tightrope walkers,” of climbing “Mount Impossible,” in a life—or, at least, civilized life—defining attempt to sustain the “vertical tension” constitutive of a being capable of distinguishing between “lower” and “higher” selves. Sloterdijk at times passes near the moral questions raised by a privileging of virtuosity, or at least briefly acknowledges that there might be such questions, but at most seems to suggest that more refined and expert performances will displace cruder, more violent ones. So, for example, as part of his disagreement with Nietzsche’s denunciation of the modern “victims’ revolution” initiated by Christianity, Sloterdijk claims that the acrobatics of the Christian performance of martyrdom, a total performance that integrated all the elements (in originary terms, the entire field of resentments) into a meaningful representation of death, was simply superior as a performance to the gladiatorial contests it rendered obsolete.

I certainly wouldn’t dismiss Sloterdjik’s account, given how unhelpful most discussions of morality are, and given what seems to me the oscillation between the esthetic and the moral in Eric Gans’s thinking. It may very well be possible to frame everything we might recognize as “morality” as the inventions of more demanding exercises. Even the reciprocity the originary hypothesis posits on the originary scene is a form of relatively rigorous self-restraint in obedience to a sign rather than reflective of anything like concern or compassion for one’s fellows (empathy, sympathy, etc.), or a sense of justice or equality—the latter is more of a deduction from the former. Indeed, I think any horizontal understanding of morality predicated upon some presumed symmetry will be fatally flawed and ultimately useless: if I behave morally to others, or treat them “as I would like to be treated” (but what if others prefer a different treatment?), it can’t really be because I see myself in them, or “feel” something towards them, and even if it was, it is the asymmetries, the other’s differences from me, that really require moral reflection (rather than just a projection of my own desires and resentments onto the other)—it must be because my relation to them is bound up with our common (“equal”) relation to some center. I train myself to raise the threshold at which I take offense to some mistreatment or misrecognition, or to lower the threshold at which I can detect another’s unease, and I do so because such exercises make possible other exercises that allow for the display of yet more practiced capabilities, like those involved in following the twists and turns of an argument, or participation in complex forms of cooperation. And it may very well be that as a result of such sustained training, more simple acts of kindness and courtesy become second nature, even incidental.

So, virtuosity can, I think, actually take us a long way. And Sukenick never really made a sustained argument against virtuosity and for improvisation—theoretical argumentation was not really his “style.” But I think his preference for improvisation was based, first of all, on a powerful intuition regarding the superiority of open over closed systems. Becoming a virtuoso requires that the performer exclude all kinds of materials as unsuitable because they would distract from the systematic inter-referentiality of all the elements of the performance. A virtuoso performance cannot handle interruption. The virtuoso is infuriated by interruption. Improvisation welcomes interruptions, readily integrating them into an evolving system. In this way Sukenick shares an esthetic understanding not only with the jazz musicians he frequently referenced but with Allan Kaprow, the inventor of “Happenings,” who conceived of an art that would itself ultimately be nothing more than a subtle interruption of the flow of everyday life, for the sake of introducing a new degree of complexity (a lowered threshold of significance) into that flow. Sukenick was also invested in a reading of the prohibition on “graven images” so central to Hebrew monotheism as sanctioning an artistic practice that refused any complete, coherent representation—anything that sought to represent the human, who, after all, was created in the image of the unrepresentable God. Improvisation, then, takes on a moral dimension insofar as we realize that at any moment we might encounter an experience, situation, or other, that would render our finest wrought exercises utterly inadequate—improvisation obeys the imperative to be respons-able or “answerable” (to be a bit Levinasian, and Bahktinian) to that possibility.

But how does one prepare to be unprepared? This is the kind of question my essays on “attentionality” and “mistakenness” were trying to answer. One must, in a somewhat Beckettian manner, keep trying. It certainly involves, for one thing, a more abstract kind of exercise, aimed at practicing the lowering and raising of various attentional thresholds. But it also requires a desire and perpetual search for interruptions (which I, at least, enjoy) as well as (far more unnatural and unpleasant for me) a willingness to interrupt, to break the flow. Here, improvisation converges with the “speaking your mind” I explored in my previous post. There is no more powerful interruption than someone speaking their mind, which no one ever really, completely, expects (or could predict). Speaking your mind is necessarily improvisational because it takes place on that boundary or at that moment when the demand to mind your speech threatens to obscure an intuition you live by. You can’t know when that is going to happen, you don’t even know that it is happening until you find yourself speaking your mind, saying things you are hearing yourself say as much as you are saying them. Moreover, speaking your mind prompts others to improvise, to speak their own minds, whether it be because they feel through your speech the exposure of a nearly buried intuition of their own, or they detect in your speech an implicit demand that they mind their own, setting their own internal scenery in motion.

To the extent that we mind our speech, our fear that the return of our shared attention to the object of our unsettled disputes will inflame and embitter those disputes is greater than our faith that such renewed attention will convert those disputes into a new mode of exchange, or a newly improvised and synchronized social performance. Sometimes that fear is justified, and insisting that everyone speak their mind all the time would have self-cancelling effects. But if the fear is persistently, and to the point of paralysis, stronger than the faith, the community, or mode of shared attention, is essentially defunct. The Object to which all members of a civilized community attend is the imperative to become a virtuoso (a specialist, a professional, an expert) while simultaneously becoming improvisational (a generalist, an amateur, a de-differentiator, but, most of all, a broken, always incomplete human being in training). We were virtuosos on the originary scene insofar as putting forth the sign implied a kind of conformity and standardization; we were improvisers insofar as behind that sign was exposure and vulnerability, which must be displayed but never can be displayed “perfectly” because perfection or completeness would refute exposure and vulnerability (and thereby paradoxically enhance them). Civilization restores this duality, which ritualized and politically sanctioned forms of virtuosity obscure. Now, we expect a return on our disciplined performances, without necessarily being disciplined in our expectations. Virtuosity can easily become a pretext for non-recognition, on the side of the virtuoso, and an arbitrary means of exclusion from the standpoint of the less disciplined (there is always something idiosyncratic, something of the acrobat or tightrope walker, even in the most staid, established professions—the medical profession, for example, could easily be very different than it is without impairing its primary function). Only the spreading courage of mind-speaking improvisation (which can itself, no doubt, become an excuse for shoddiness) can re-reveal the center (the unrepresentable model of our shared performances) as, at a minimum, something we could all talk about. The risk is that we discover that we are no longer sure about who that “all” is. The more common and perceptive our performances of each others’ performances become, the more we might find that the other’s exercise, the thing he or she is best at and most applied to, narrows the scope of our own improvisation intolerably (I suppose the virtuoso finds intolerable what he perceives as a lowering of standards). The moral response to that is to keep pressing against the limits of improvisation by interrupting, respectfully, virtuosic closure, but at a certain point a threshold is reached where it becomes more moral to preserve the tension between virtuosity and improvisation itself (at such times a certain clownishness might be necessary). What I see as the higher morality of improvisation is that the virtuoso cannot recognize the boundary and dispute as one worth preserving: what falls outside of the accomplished performance is simply failure and incompetence.

The dispute between virtuosity and improvisation is internal to civilization. Civilization is under assault today, from both Islamic barbarism and savagery and the internal neo-barbarism and decadence of the victimocracy. But the self-defense of civilization cannot entail a mindless unity and conformity; rather, it requires that we sustain and even open further our foundational disputes. This is not a luxury—we need both those committed to aristocratic and acrobatic excellence, the “engineers” of Derrida’s deconstruction of Levi-Strauss in “Sign, Structure and Play,” who both exclude the majority and set an example for them; and we need improvisatory bricoleurs, who study the on the spot conversion of resentments into deferrals and disciplines and thereby more fully embody the originary structure. The virtuosos speak their mind from the standpoint of technical rigor; the improvisers speak their mind when expertise is fetishized. It’s only the improvisers, though, who really discover and invent, whether it be vaccines, software, neutrinos or anti-terror strategies. And barbarians and savages virulently oppose both, because virtuosity and improvisation demand a discipline that precludes the perpetual score-settling and hostage-taking they crave. But, one might say, cannot a terrorist be a virtuoso? Does not jihad require a good deal of improvisation, taking one’s chances as they come, getting inside the enemy’s “decision loop”? I would concede the point, because in these cases they are focused very closely on us, and so this one interface of theirs with civilized order exposes their lack of civilization everywhere else (a similar analysis would apply to the victimocracy, whose concentrated talent pertains to detecting the weak point in civilized institutions)—and makes them extremely vulnerable to the far more comprehensive virtuosity and improvisation of which the civilized are capable. Therein lies a civilized morality—not primarily in denouncing the Muslim terrorists as evil, but in finding ways to expose and exploit their more general indiscipline. At any rate, both the jihad and the victimocracy are major interruptions in civilized life, and as such call more for the present-mindedness of improvisation than the pinpoint precision of virtuosity.

December 14, 2015

Speaking Your Mind, Minding Your Speech

Filed under: GA — adam @ 10:20 am

I’m about a third of the way through Michel Foucault’s The Courage of Truth. It makes me sorry Foucault didn’t live a few more decades—he was getting interested in some quite interesting things. This book is about the Greek concept of “parrhesia,” roughly translated as “complete,” which is to say, bold, open, uncompromising speech. Parrhesia seemed to have its origins in the rough and tumble of democratic Greek politics, where any citizen could speak freely in the assembly, criticizing the rich, the generals, and the rulers, without restraint. Foucault examines the various forms parrhesia takes—“wisdom,” teaching, prophecy—while ultimately being most interested in the philosophical version exemplified by Socrates. Foucault associates philosophical parrhesia with the “care of the self,” Foucault’s own abiding concern in the last decade of his life, with “care of the self” involving esthetic self-creation out of moral and social, if not chaos, then decadence and disorder. Philosophical parrhesia involves critically examining and distancing yourself from the passions, interests and prejudices that make care for our “self,” or, for Socrates, our “soul,” or immortal part, impossible.

A revival of political parrhesia would not only be very welcome today, it is starting to emerge. Parrhesia is not just a question of speaking the truth as you see it—it is a matter of speaking the truth that needs to be spoken to those whom and in the way that it needs to be spoken. One could say that that is really what we mean by “truth”: truth must resist some pressing falsehood, which means, paradoxically, it must be widely accused of falsehood itself. There is what I consider a still chastening description of parrhesia by Jonathan Swift in the “Preface” to his Tale of a Tub:

But though the matter for panegyric were as fruitful as the topics of satire, yet would it not be hard to find out a sufficient reason why the latter will be always better received than the first; for this being bestowed only upon one or a few persons at a time, is sure to raise envy, and consequently ill words, from the rest who have no share in the blessing. But satire, being levelled at all, is never resented for an offence by any, since every individual person makes bold to understand it of others, and very wisely removes his particular part of the burden upon the shoulders of the World, which are broad enough and able to bear it. To this purpose I have sometimes reflected upon the difference between Athens and England with respect to the point before us. In the Attic commonwealth it was the privilege and birthright of every citizen and poet to rail aloud and in public, or to expose upon the stage by name any person they pleased, though of the greatest figure, whether a Creon, an Hyperbolus, an Alcibiades, or a Demosthenes. But, on the other side, the least reflecting word let fall against the people in general was immediately caught up and revenged upon the authors, however considerable for their quality or their merits; whereas in England it is just the reverse of all this. Here you may securely display your utmost rhetoric against mankind in the face of the world; tell them that all are gone astray; that there is none that doeth good, no, not one; that we live in the very dregs of time; that knavery and atheism are epidemic as the pox; that honesty is fled with Astræa; with any other common-places equally new and eloquent, which are furnished by the splendida bilis; and when you have done, the whole audience, far from being offended, shall return you thanks as a deliverer of precious and useful truths. Nay, further, it is but to venture your lungs, and you may preach in Covent Garden against foppery and fornication, and something else; against pride, and dissimulation, and bribery at Whitehall. You may expose rapine and injustice in the Inns-of-Court chapel, and in a City pulpit be as fierce as you please against avarice, hypocrisy, and extortion. It is but a ball bandied to and fro, and every man carries a racket about him to strike it from himself among the rest of the company. But, on the other side, whoever should mistake the nature of things so far as to drop but a single hint in public how such a one starved half the fleet, and half poisoned the rest; how such a one, from a true principle of love and honour, pays no debts but for wenches and play; how such a one runs out of his estate; how Paris, bribed by Juno and Venus, loath to offend either party, slept out the whole cause on the bench; or how such an orator makes long speeches in the Senate, with much thought, little sense, and to no purpose;—whoever, I say, should venture to be thus particular, must expect to be imprisoned for scandalum magnatum, to have challenges sent him, to be sued for defamation, and to be brought before the bar of the House.

I’ll leave aside the opening counter-intuitive but very illuminating assertion that “panegyrics” might be more “marginal” and “critical” than satire, other than to note that it might help explain why supporters of “charismatic” politicians may refuse to brook even the most seemingly harmless criticisms of their candidate, allowing for nothing other than panegyrics that implicitly insult all the other contenders. More important for my purposes is the contrast between Athens and England, between parrhesia directed at the people as a whole and parrhesia as directed at individuals. Or, rather, the question here is what counts as parrhesia. Swift explains very well the paradox whereby the furthest reaching and most inclusive criticisms of a country, a civilization, an “age,” a “generation,” etc., can be applauded by all of its putative targets. Insofar as you applaud the criticism you have “plausible deniability” regarding the accusations. Apparent self-hatred is really self-love, even while it takes its toll. It is inspiring to imagine what public discourse might look like if anyone who dared venture such unaccountable criticism of some “”us” were to be “immediately caught up and revenged upon.” No doubt the author of this blog post, like so many of us (did I just do it?), would have been far more than a few times the victim of such “revenge.” Swift provides us social and political critics, as well as generative anthropologists and mimetic theorists, a useful constraint.

While virulent criticism of particular individuals that everyone else also criticizes requires no great courage, that is obviously not what Swift has in mind in his “Athenian” example. He is defining true parrhesia, pointing to malefactors whose misdeeds spread their effects across the commonwealth, and supplying a complete itemization of those verifiable misdeeds. We might identify this with the kind of work associated with investigative reporters, but I think the point here is less discovering what is hidden than speaking of what everyone already knows, or at least senses, but is afraid to say. It has a lot in common with the “emperor has no clothes” phenomenon, but in that tale the emperor is himself hoodwinked. What defines true parrhesia, then, is the thin line between itself and scapegoating: the ostensive gesture present in both cases, meaning that scapegoating can easily, and no doubt often does, mask itself as parrhesia. Even more, the practitioner of parrhesia risks the fingers being turned back on himself and becoming the victim of scapegoating. The line between the two is maintained only by the truth of the putative exposure.

Still this is somewhat unsatisfactory. Think of the fierce debates over some of Donald Trump’s recent statements, which, while no exactly truthful, were not exactly lies either. The Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto has been developing an interesting analysis of these statements, most famously Trump’s claim that he saw “many thousands” of Muslims celebrating 9/11 in New Jersey. Taranto has pointed out that, strictly speaking, there are no reports, much less video evidence, of the “many thousands,” so taken literally Trump’s account must be deemed false—a mistaken memory, if not a lie. Yet, in their haste to tag Trump as a liar, many media outlets covered up, or were revealed to have earlier concealed, evidence of some celebrating of 9/11 by Muslims in NJ and elsewhere in the US. Indeed, the more trouble one went through to determine the falsity of Trump’s statement, the more likely you were to stumble on a much more disturbing picture of Muslim responses to 9/11 than we had been provided previously. If you see the media outlets as the more persistent, systematic and dangerous liars, then Trump’s sin is venial, or even no sin at all, because there would have been no other way to expose the dishonesty of those media outlets other than by baiting them as Trump did. In that case, Trump’s false statements are true parrhesia, making it possible for him, his supporters, and others in their wake to (as the current phrase goes) “call out” those media outlets for what really would be virtually treasonous acts on behalf of America’s enemies.

Even more, if we give Trump the benefit of the doubt, and assume a faulty memory rather than deliberate deceit, we can make yet a stronger case for his speech as true parrhesia. His memory would be a kind of “screen memory”: a re-composition of an actual memory out of material provided by an ex posteriori revelation of that memory’s meaning. It has been pointed out that there were some contemporary reports of police in NJ looking into some Muslim celebrations of 9/11; and there were videos from the Middle East, most infamously, I believe, from the Palestinian territories, showing mass celebrations. We can imagine Trump conflated the two in his mind, prompted by the widespread denial in the post-9/11 West that there is any connection between Islam or the vast majority of Muslim people, and the atrocities so regularly carried out in the name of Islam. Trump responded in the unstudied way of someone whose first response to fabricated claims that violate one’s own experience is to say “no way! I remember it!” What is true in Trump’s statement (is this sounding like a panegyric? If so, should I be concerned, or take comfort in Swift’s implicit defense?), then, is his spontaneous defense of an intuition that is true and under assault and could not, in that moment, be defended any other way. The proof of this mode of truthfulness would be that cutting down Trump’s statement to the size and shape of the actual event would yield up that intuition and restore it to our public memories.

This unapologetic and artless defense of an embattled and genuine intuition is what, I think, we mean by “speaking your mind.” In opposition I would place the minding of our speech that is so central to victimary thinking. Nothing terrifies the speech minders more than the possibility of people speaking their minds, a fear which, in the US, goes back to Nixon’s “silent majority” and which took caricatural form in the malapropisms of Archie Bunker (to whom Trump has, inevitably, been compared). Of course, what made “All in the Family” entertainment and not (just) propaganda was that Mike Stivic, Archie’s son-in-law and liberal nemesis, also spoke his mind and, to the credit of the show’s creator and writers, was regularly shown to be wrong, stubborn, egotistical and self-defeating. Indeed, there was a brief moment, in the late sixties and early seventies, when there was public space for both left and right to speak their mind without fear of consequences, and the search for specifically American modes of parrhesia would do well to start there. We might find that much of what was said on both sides looks to us like BS now, but, like Trump’s BS, allowed for the surfacing of fundamental intuitions in conflict.

One very good explanation for the Trump phenomenon is that in speaking his mind he reminds us of how much we are all minding our speech. The contrast between his way of speaking and normal, “mainstream” political BS is striking. It has become a cliché to say that no politician lets loose a single word that hasn’t been focus group tested and lawyer vetted a dozen different ways, and yet it still seems to be taken for granted that any other mode of politics is simply unimaginable. The reason no other candidate, even the more right wing ones who are “tough on terrorism” and conscious of salient distinctions between Christianity and Islam (like, say, Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee), would have ever proposed a suspension of Muslim travel to the US as Trump has is simply that the received political discourse has no grammar or vocabulary for it. There is no way of putting “Muslim” and “come to this country” in the same sentence (much less with a negation in there): the very thought would have to be processed through references to State Department procedures, Supreme Court precedents, gestures to the glory of previous generations of immigrants, etc. The idea would be chopped up into timid proposals for modifications in this or that vetting process. Speech minding goes way beyond the victimary; or, perhaps, the victimary reaches far deeper into our culture than we realize—either way, to return to that passage from Swift, it seems as if everyone (there I go again!) is constrained by a mode of discourse modeled on the universal denunciation with private exemptions for everyone who signs on built in. We are destroying the planet, we are insufficiently welcoming of others, we are materialist and consumerist, we have become weak, we are belligerent, we are not democratic enough etc., and by “we” I mean everyone but me and couple of my friends who have this great idea to turn things around as soon as we can get everyone on board. The fright Republicans and conservatives have taken at Trump’s proposal demonstrates their own enslavement to this model: only proposals that single out no one in particular, but point to a general deficiency in our collective institutional consciousness, are intelligible.

New forms of speaking one’s mind are proliferating, in particular (here and abroad) on the nationalist right, in ways that I have pointed out in many recent posts and so won’t return to here (except to mention that Vox Day, the author of SJWs Always Lie, has now come out the equally “mind speaking” Cuckservative). Instead, I’ll take up a theoretical point, one I have made previously but not applied to my recent discussions of nationalism and the war with SJWs. The reason we fear speaking your mind is, as I suggested before, its indeterminate proximity to scapegoating. Scapegoating is particularly alarming today, with the weapons of mass destruction at our disposal and the ways instantaneous media facilitate mob-like reactions to events. The assumption seems to be that, unlike Archie and Meathead, we will not scream our guts out at each other and then sit down to dinner; rather, the Archies will overwhelm the Meatheads or vice versa, and simply wipe them out, that we will “battle to the end.” Such fears are deeply rooted in our political unconscious, and reflect the kind of anthropological intuition that inhibits speaking your mind. The frankness of the alternative right (and the ever evolving Breitbart website deserves special mention here for very deliberately pushing the boundaries of what kinds of confrontation can be openly engaged) is currently testing this assumption, and I’d like to provide a theoretical endorsement.

I would like to return, in this context, to the notion of the “violent imaginary” I advanced some time ago, and have used intermittently since. The basic claim here is that originary scene, and the sign in which it issues, results from an imaginary extrapolation to an “apocalyptic” denouement to the emergence of rivalries on the scene which is, in fact, extremely unlikely. If we devote to Girard’s or Gans’s analysis of the structure of the originary scene the same scrutiny many have given to Trump’s memory of celebrating New Jerseyean Muslims, we would have to say that while it would appear completely reasonable from the standpoint of each participant in the mounting mimetic crisis that “this is the end,” almost certainly the melee would break up on its own accord with many if not most of the group’s members still standing (even if just barely, due to exhaustion). At the very least, one person would have to be left, in which case “total destruction” is unimaginable. The fortunate mistake of the originary scene is that such total destruction seemed imminent, as each sees his fear and aggression mirrored in all the others, making the sign the only apparent salvation.

Speaking your mind becomes possible insofar as you realize that after the apocalypse will come—tomorrow. There will always be some form of social association impermeable to the latest mimetic break out. Such an insight is itself a mode of resistance to mimetic contagion. The sign is both the invention and the memory of that insight, an insight which must have been available on the scene to someone positioned so as to witness a simultaneous escalation and de-escalation in different “sectors” of the scene. At a certain point, those de-escalating would be able to direct their shared attention to those still escalating, making that escalation a more mundane, treatable, matter. All this would be forgotten with the closure of the scene and the initiation of the sparagmos, in which process the unity of the sign and unanimity of the group would be paramount and hence the most extreme form of motivation (the violent imaginary) necessary, but any event takes on the same structure, and we could always find those who “keep their heads” in even the most frantic situations.

Keeping your head is part of speaking your mind. You do not obey the imperative to mind what you say because anything could happen. Rather, you let yourself be guided by resentment towards everyone’s refusal to say whatever it is they are refusing to say because anything can happen. We can criticize and even insult without lynching; we can argue fiercely without going to war. Or, if it turns out that we can’t, then we were really already at war, so let’s get on with it and find out where we stand. Yes, anything can happen, but in the end it will be something. There can always be a “worse,” but you make it more likely by making preventing it your highest priority. There are margins of better and less bad right now and that is all we ever have access to and, paradoxically, it is the more open, insistent, unvarnished and exact naming of the violent imaginary making things worse, and its bearers, that make attention to those margins or increments more likely. Someone had to say we have no need for more Muslims in the United States. And someone else has to call that someone a fascist. And that first someone need not back down, meaning that someone else needs to come up with a somewhat different approach. And he will, and will be rebuffed again, and we will all see the world not end. In the end, perhaps our intuitions will be more sharply formulated, and brought more precisely to bear on the more pressing threats of violent contagion. Let those who would nominate Islam, and those who would nominate Islamophobia, make their respective cases. Speak your mind so as to provoke others to do the same.

We do need to think about what is entailed in speaking your mind, in more careful, Foucauldian ways. It’s not just a question of saying whatever pops into your head. Trump, as Eric Gans pointed out in a recent Chronicle, can say what he is saying because he doesn’t need anyone else (unlike every other candidate he need not worry about the donor spigot being turned off once he becomes “unviable”)—that’s one formula for liberating yourself to conduct war against the SJWs, but a limited one. If you spew forth what will be perceived as an outburst at a faculty gathering, or in a letter to the student newspaper, and get fired so that everyone will forget it ever happened, then the restoration of a repressed intuition to public memory will not take place. Well, maybe the possibilities of such outbursts shouldn’t be dismissed altogether, but it is better to be cognizant of the space one occupies, because you speak your mind in defense of some space. It is faith in the durability of that space that makes speaking your mind possible. In Trump’s case, it’s the national space; in communications with one’s fellow faculty members, it’s a space of free inquiry into the truth that needs to be defended, and such inquiry cannot be defended with Trumpian insults. A subtle, suggestive neutralization of some politically correct commonplace that interferes with reasonable lines of inquiry might be more to the point, and far more unwelcome—but also harder to do anything about. You speak your mind in order, to refer to the Eastern European dissidents like Vaclev Havel, to “live in truth,” and, as I said before, the truth is on the borderline where scapegoating is as difficult to resist as it is to carry out, with the emphasis on “live” suggesting that it’s better to make the scapegoating ever so slightly the more difficult . And that borderline is always shifting. A good place to identify it in any particular circumstance, though, is to notice when you start to feel like you should be minding your speech—there is little doubt that therein lies some matter on which you should speak your mind.

December 7, 2015

With whom are we at War? (Shortest Blog post ever)

Filed under: GA — adam @ 3:36 pm

It’s the question of the day, and I think I have an answer that is equally descriptive and prescriptive, and will not become less true until we have won the war:

We are at war with all those Muslims who are not also at war with the Muslims at war with us.

December 1, 2015

Making a Difference: Meta-politics, Anti-politics and Political Ontology

Filed under: GA — adam @ 3:38 pm

The centrality, to our political discourse, of Muslim terrorism based, not just on claims of retaliation for past or present transgressions, but on assertions of the universal jurisdiction of the Caliphate, is the latest of a long history of signs indicating that war is no longer a matter of relations between states. WWII already signaled the beginning of the end of the modern European nomos of the earth (to use Schmitt’s term) and the international norms that accompanied it: trying the leading Nazis for actions committed as members of the German government, on the one hand, and the incorporation of guerilla warfare into the laws of war, on the other, were deviations from the traditional political order that were meant to preserve, but merely accelerated the degeneration of, that order. If war is no longer restricted to relations between states, then politics is no longer only, or, eventually, even primarily, a relation between citizens focused on the same state, as the proliferation of NGOs and elite powwows like Davos and other globalist fora makes obvious. Indeed, unless states suddenly get very good at fighting Islamic terror—something the pathological determination most Western leaders to import far more of it makes very unlikely—individual citizens, alone and in self-created associations and alliances, will increasingly take on the task of not only defending themselves against the jihad but at carrying out the reprisals and pre-emptive actions they consider appropriate. This won’t be a war of all against all (as if there ever could be such a thing), but a war, however dirty, of civilization against barbarism and savagery.

One effect of reducing the world to the war of civilization against barbarism would be to continue the dispersal of politics beyond its modern forms of containment, which ultimately means the utter elimination of politics. I don’t mean that people will no longer assemble, cooperate, confer with each other, argue about the best course to take, and so on, or that they will cease do these things within ever changing constraints—of course, we will continue to do these things, perhaps with a far greater seriousness and effectiveness than we do now. I don’t even mean that there will no longer be elections for various offices. What I do mean is that, assuming the war of civilization is being conducted with any chance of success, all deliberations will be directed to and decisions ultimately made by responsible agents delegated to perform specific civilization supporting and enhancing functions—not to representatives of society as a whole. (Such representatives may continue to exist—they will just become increasingly irrelevant—again, assuming the defense of civilization is taken on seriously.) This is because the ongoing frozen in amber civil war in liberal democracies that we call “politics” is only possible as a leisure activity once the gains of civilization have been secured and appear beyond threat. The truth is, the competing political parties in the democratic world have never really accepted each other’s legitimacy, other than perhaps during the brief periods when the parties have represented social classes that are clearly interdependent, but even then only to a limited extent; or, to the extent that the two parties cooperate so well as to become in effect a single, governing, party. The parties were formed in the civil wars that set in once the civilizing process had been sufficiently forgotten, and can always be resolved back into the presumably more elemental social identities (worker vs. merchant, free men granted rights by nature vs. churched beings, etc.) that have resulted from and mask the civilizing process. But these civil wars were only possible once external threats to civilization have been eliminated for the foreseeable future—the English and French civil wars (and then the Napoleonic wars, and so on) could not have taken place while the Ottoman Empire remained perched on the doorstep of Europe; by the same token, the ongoing simulations of those civil wars can only continue as long as no new external threat emerges. The party system of the Western liberal democracies barely survived the first half of the 20th century, and it may have only been the extraordinary American pre-eminence following WWII that held things together up until now. Not only has that pre-eminence come to end, but the American system is also no less in crisis than the Europeans’.

The models of Nature that were taken to precede and predetermine the emergence of society and the state in liberal political theories are derived from abstractions from civilized social relations—perhaps Marx was the first to make this fairly obvious observation. The same is no less true of Marx’s model of homo laborans, abstracted from the factory system emergent in 19th century England. The abstract individual property owner, acting according to reasoned self-interested; the abstract worker acting according to collective interest and self-conscious solidarity; the individual consumer on the marketplace driven by desire—the political theories embedded in our political institutions come down to little more than various combinations of these models. The only way to simulate debates is by playing one model off against another, since none of them models a form of legitimate disagreement. (There is no way of differentiating the map extracted from human nature from the territory of social action.) The models, meanwhile, can only function as models if we have forgotten the self-and other-directed disciplining violence that made them possible. Traditionalist theories (like MacIntyre, Oakeshott, Voegelin, Strauss, etc.) and postmodern theories (Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida, etc.) have done a good job of dismantling the liberal ones, but have nothing to replace them with—indeed, they are at their best when they resist the demand for alternatives. Libertarian theories can serve as a powerful “regulating ideal” on any new social order (it will always be helpful to ask “how would this be done if there were no government…”), but not only have 19th century Britain and America been the only societies even vaguely approximating a libertarian order, not only there is virtually no public support in any contemporary society for anything more than bits and pieces of one, but libertarians have the same problem of accounting for the boundary between civilization and its others, based as it is on the same liberal abstractions.

Hannah Arendt made the interesting observation that most political theories are really attempts to eliminate politics. The Western tradition has never really broken with Plato in that respect. Where, indeed, is the space for campaigning, fund-raising, sloganeering, smearing, organizing, and so on, in a society ruled by Hobbes’s Leviathan? All basic problems have been solved. The same is true of Locke’s more liberal version of the same order, which seems to require nothing more than a policing agency that one imagines private citizens could arrange for themselves. Rawls’s veil of ignorance could ultimately be reduced to an algorithm determining which social order (or which tweaks of the existing order) would be most beneficial to the least advantaged within it—that is, his theory also represents a desperate attempt to get rid of the real stuff of politics, that is, irreducible disagreements. At the most, historical developments throw up new problems that must be discussed, but even in those cases there must be a right answer (even if technocratic expertise always masks cynical improvisation). The American founders’ desire to avert the formation of political parties (while grudgingly accepting and seeking to neutralize “factions”) represents a somewhat more moderate version of the same desire to eliminate politics: ideally, a virtuous public would elect honorable men to perform clearly circumscribed duties. Post-War pluralist theories are just balancing acts, taking for granted all the parties to be balanced. It has become fashionable (first of all, largely due to Arendt herself) to celebrate the give and take, unpredictability, open-endedness and so on of politics against the philosophers, but maybe the anti-political stance can be defended on the terms I am proposing here without sacrificing the human freedom and initiative Arendt wanted to preserve. The cold civil war of politics (leaving aside government as a massive patronage system, in which it resembles feudalism) only pertains to competing models of social order that have in common the assumption that the process of civilization has been completed once and for all. Once the boundary between civilization and its others becomes visible, politics is beside the point.

(As an aside, I’ll mention that the spread and maintenance of free markets is itself only possible on terrain cleared by civilization—the assumption that we can all be free, disembedded actors on the marketplace is a very clear sign of an unchallenged civilizational space and on the utter forgetting of that space. Interestingly, only the openly totalitarian object to the market as such—mostly, it is “distortions” of the market that are resented. Such resentments, then, either fit into the simulacral competition between social models I just discussed, or, in some, probably few, cases, represent resentments on behalf of civilization against barbaric encroachments. )

It would also make sense to claim that totalitarian anti-politics is actually the origin of modern Western politics, which is to say that the modern left, or “social justice,” is that origin (the French Revolution, amplifying the English one), with totalitarian right-wing politics (Nazism in particular) being mimetically parasitic on left-wing revolutionary politics (Bolshevism). Liberal democratic politics has never been more than an attempt to neuter and contain these tendencies. Politics, in that case, has been invented only so as ultimately to dissolve back up into the economy or race—which is to say, in a new form of bureaucratic savagery; or to successfully neutralize all active social forces and thereby itself as well in an equally bureaucratic and therapeutic hyper/post-civilization. All politics are attempts to reduce and exploit the differences that flourish under civilization by insisting that those differences are deviations from a model of justice derived from an anthropological simplification. Resentments are converted into demands for taxes on civilization to pay for deprivations of full anthropological presence, rather than expanded participation in civilization. A civilizing practice of anti-politics would resist all this simply by insisting on the truth that deferral and discipline sustain an upward virtuous spiral.

Still, in a sense a civilizational anti-politics would have to operate or appear as a kind of politics, at least until the totalitarian temptation at the origin of modern politics is extinguished. Civilization is the self-perpetuation and self-enhancement of deferral as discipline—in a civilized order, existing forms of discipline prompt others to invent new kinds. The left, meanwhile, is obedience to the imperative to expose the products of discipline as stolen centrality. All differences for the left, therefore, are instances of stolen centrality (gradations of marginality), while all differences for the civilizational intelligence are markers of disciplinary increments. This conflict brings us to the most fundamental or ontological level of politics, where politics is distinguished from non-politics: the distinction between differences as a series of zero-sum games (which ultimately means they are not real, just arenas where death matches are staged) and differences as originary and generative. The struggle between defenders of civilizational intelligence and the stokers of political flames is the struggle to convert politics to pedagogy.

Why pedagogy? The difference between the more and the less disciplined is manifested as exemplarity: the more disciplined show the less the way. This may be done didactically, in closed spaces set aside for the purpose; or in indirect, suggestive, subtle ways. It includes apprenticeship, parenting, role modeling, forms of leadership and accomplishment. Pedagogy involves the intensified awareness and diversion of mimesis, and therefore makes explicit our dependence on future generations. The maintenance of civilization is therefore completely bound up with pedagogy, on the willingness both to exert it and to submit to it. And we are equal insofar as we are always doing both, because to teach is to learn how to teach, to learn from the student, which we can always get better at. In this way, we can see the hysterics of today’s victimary youth as a demand for more exemplarity—which might explain quite a bit (who wouldn’t want to rebel against such pathetic leaders?). Each difference they decry is for us a sample of the salutary effects of deferral and discipline.

Pedagogy directed towards entrance into and contributions to disciplinary spaces would provide us with all the differences we could ever imagine or desire, and space for all the deliberation, hypothesizing and argumentation needed to exercise and engage our intellects. It will always be possible to disagree in productive ways regarding the process of teaching and learning. And pedagogy is nothing more than the directing of attention from the objects we desire to the habits of deferral that make those objects possible, in the course of which new increments of deferral and new objects of desire, tied to what the Austrian economists call lesser “time preference,” are generated. The marginalization of the state and national and international law place each individual (in all of our associations) on the boundary line between civilization and barbarism, where politics is converted to pedagogy, at least on the civilized side of the line. It is clear what must be defended on that boundary: difference, as produced by discipline, and the inquiry (intellectual and esthetic) into the boundary itself. And what must be opposed: difference as evidence of victimization and therefore a fraudulent center. But “opposed” less in the sense forcibly removed then converted into hypotheses to which we submit the counter. (Force, of course, may be necessary to protect the spaces in which this procedure is made possible.)

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