GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

January 4, 2016

A Kind of Apocalyptic Politics

Filed under: GA — adam @ 11:40 am

To replace victimary politics, without attempting to resuscitate liberal politics, I would propose a kind of apocalyptic politics. “Apocalypse,” after all, just means “revelation,” which would mean that an apocalyptic politics aims at revealing everything. This is a continual process, since every revelation conceals something else, so there is no “once and for all” revelation, just an ethics of revelation. Reveal what? The only thing worth revealing: the center. Not some object, but whatever some act of naming conceals while disclosing and drawing power from. This mode of engagement holds for allies as well as enemies: it is not intrinsically a hostile gesture.

Sometimes people lie for narrow, self-interested reasons; but the more interesting, more “noble” lies are attempts to defer some conflict that the speaker intuits will be accelerated or aggravated by the truth. When such lies work, they become established and sacred—they may even, in a way, become true. The claim that we defeated our enemies through self-sacrifice and the setting aside of petty resentments might be a lie, but might also inspire later generations to just such acts of heroism. But for the lie to become the truth in that way, it must eventually be over-written by some truthful embodiment of the narrative providing a template for the lie—otherwise, the lie becomes a short term solution that generates more long term problems. This is the case because the lie points to an absent center (some other time when people were brave and selfless), a center embedded in other practices and embodied in other events, all iterable; which is to say, a center sustained by some genuine deferral and discipline, which the lie was disseminated precisely in order to avoid attempting.

But disclosure and concealment are not just about truth and falsehood. A series of truthful statements can be just as obfuscatory as a series of lies. Language is performative, not propositional. On the originary scene, every participant “truthfully” converts his grasping movement into a gesture that “refers” to an actual object; but this “truth” is “communicated” only because each participant exposes himself to the possible violence of others—the gesture “stretches” and “spreads” the one giving the sign; a defensive crouch would not be “meaningful.” One might “translate” the gesture as follows: “I am desisting from what I might have done, and leave myself open to what you might do because what I might have done would have been done to prevent precisely that: what will you now do?” Perhaps nine out of ten times the other will now do what he can do; it is that one out of ten, or out of a hundred or thousand, that has given us language. The odds are not so different for each new act of disclosure, and correct and accurate uses of the sign after the danger has passed will always be suspect. This is the point of Philip Rieff’s notion of “charisma”: the magnetic effect of a display of deferral and discipline beyond the capacity of the onlooker, in which one oscillates between exploiting the “leader”’s vulnerability and taking him as a model for engaging one’s own inner scene (an inner scene revealed for the first time through the example of the charismatic).

As soon as I experience an ascension to a level of self-discipline that enables me to see that the other is taking a short-cut (perhaps perceiving the short-cut, and feeling the shame of wanting to follow, induces the ascension), inviting us to use the sign in a way requiring only a minimal show of faith, I want to propose the mode of self-discipline as a model by pointing out that the short-cut is really, from an angle of vision I can now access, a dead end. I want to suggest that the dominant strain of the Jewish and Christian civilizational spiritual machinery took such a short-cut, while recognizing the prodigious civilizational work accomplished as a result of the Jewish and Christian revelations. Of course, modern liberal democratic civilization has taken a much shorter cut: the gamble on institutionalizing and simplifying those revelations by encouraging the masses of liberated people to accept material abundance, safety, peace and a freer expression of resentments in lieu of deepening the civilizing process that made all this possible in the first place was the shortest of all short cuts. Compared to that, the centuries long work of converting barbarians to Christianity, the long moral plowing and sowing from, say 800 to 1500 CE, was a very patient and meticulous process.

But the roots of the victimary lie in the centrality of the victim to both prophetic Judaism and Christianity. Certainly, the sacrifice of Israel, victim of imperial conquest and exile; and the sacrifice of Jesus, contain a critical ingredient modern victimary thinking has dispensed with. In both cases, the victimization is subordinated to the disclosure: in the case of the Jews, what Eric Gans has called “narrative monotheism” disclosed history as what today we might call a “learning process,” in which redemption follows from one’s articulation of one’s failure to live one’s own disclosure; in the case of Jesus, what is disclosed is the consequence of disclosing, without compromise, the truth of universal moral reciprocity. A complementary disclosure accompanies the sacrifice of Socrates.

In both cases, the discrediting of the scapegoat mechanism implies the need to defend the victim of mimetic crisis. But how does one defend the victim of mimetic crisis? There are some material ways of doing so, such as physically confronting the attacker, or hiding the likely victim. But these direct defenses can only delay the unfolding of the crisis. The only real defense is to expose the lie that is the source of the crisis—that the Jews poisoned the wells, or whatever. If there is no lie, then we don’t really have a mimetic crisis, or a “victim” in the proper sense—we have an injustice to which a just response is necessary, even if that just response introduces new injustices. In that case, the point is not really the victim. And all the injunctions to care for the poor, the widow, the alien, etc., who are also not necessarily victims of scapegoating, will not address the crisis either. Let’s not forget, as well, that the powerful, in particular, the king, is most likely to be the target of scapegoating (even if he is better equipped to defend himself)—if our real concern is with controlling violence by arresting mimetic rivalry before it enters crisis state, the wealth and power of the victim shouldn’t matter; only the dispositions leading to the assault.

Those dispositions are revealed in the balance between disclosure and concealment in the “indictment.” If the accusations made against the king of betrayal or dispossession are carefully itemized and documented, made by those who renounce any benefit from the prosecution of those crimes, within the framework of a proposed process allowing for either reparation or orderly transition of power—well, then, disclosure likely outweighs concealment. The opposite is the case if the crimes adduced are implausible or unobserved, if the indictment is filled with projected fears of the accuser. Anyone can tell the difference if they really want to, even if specific cases can be tough to judge. The same is true of accusations made against the poor or marginalized. The rich will never be prosecuted for sleeping under the bridge and will never need to pick a pocket, but there are plenty of crimes that only the rich or powerful can commit—a mark of self-discipline is that you are willing to point out the crimes committed by either. The charismatic seeks out, or is drawn to those events where concealment crowds out disclosure, regardless of who is victimized, or how historically “important” the event, because it is the act of disclosure in such events that provides the most opportunity for increments of self-discipline as a public actor.

A politics or pedagogy of disclosure will attend to depredations and perversions of the rich and famous as much as to the pandering to the mob’s indiscipline. Even in the latter case, though, there are usually some rich and famous who are pandering to the mob. Victimary politics can very easily, and very truthfully, be seen as a kind of cold intra-white civil war, in which (to use john Derbyshire’s terms) the “goodwhites” struggle to distinguish themselves from the “badwhites” using POC as props—with both groups filled with fairly “privileged” individuals, while far from being wholly comprised of them. It is the goodwhites who are desperate to lie about, for example, Islam and black crime—Muslim spokesmen themselves hardly bother, and I suspect that a brief conversation with some inner-city blacks, whether criminals or those trying to survive them, would yield far more truth and display far more honesty than a host of sociological analyses of race, provided it be conducted far away from the cameras.

The goodwhites tend to be very disciplined themselves, while encouraging and excusing indiscipline in others—in particular, those worse off. It is right to insist that self-discipline start from the top, but easy to forget that those born into conditions created by generations of self-disciplining find self-discipline far easier, more natural and therefore easier to contemn than those who have never had self-discipline modeled for them, or understood its productivity. In this way, the private self-discipline of the goodwhites issues in a public indiscipline—a refusal to be charismatic, to present that self-discipline as a model, and embed it institutionally. This public indiscipline leads them into a pit of lies, as they must continually blame the conditions of the less successful on something other than insufficient discipline. The reason for this, though, is less softness regarding the underprivileged than fear of the cycles of competition set in motion by a culture of self-discipline. Interestingly, the main charge brought by the goodwhites against the badwhites concern the latter’s lack of discipline—their racism, sexism, warmongering, indifference to the environment, etc., are all results of insufficient inhibitions regarding appetites, pride and vainglory. Indeed, the badwhites tend to be those who want to see the immediate effects of discipline, being capable of further increments only once they have reaped some of those benefits. But they are capable of waiting, often quite patiently, to see—while being insufficiently confident in themselves as models, or having insufficient leisure, or feeling to resentful towards the less disciplined, to overtly “charismize.” Here, then, is where the contemporary conversions of politics into pedagogy must be undertaken—on the ways anyone with even a tiny increment of self-discipline more than another might model and frame that self-discipline as a self-evident good and as possible but difficult to attain. And this requires the self-discipline to exemplify humbly and implicitly—mostly by pointing out all the ways that, whatever injustices you may have suffered, more self-discipline must always be better (even in resisting injustice) than less.

Steadfast, unwavering charismatic disclosure is the hardest thing today. (Maybe always.) Without it, humans would never have made an inch of moral progress. Charismatic disclosure is therefore “apocalyptic” in the more common sense, insofar as it is always combustible, always raises hackles and induces shrieks. The angry response to disclosure must be used for further disclosure, to further undo the diffusion of concealment. That is extremely difficult. You need to be able to say something like: “I can see that you are very angry. Let me begin by saying I don’t care.” And then continue on, simply reading that anger back for your interlocutor, proposing the discussion that the anger seeks to preempt. Of course, there is also a righteous anger that pursues disclosure; of course, you have to be ready to have your own concealments exposed. That may be the most difficult part. The test, in the end, is grammatical: can you keep incorporating the other’s sentences into your own sentences in such a way as to account for the proportion between disclosure and concealment in every word? The words that go unaddressed in this manner represent fertile sites for further disclosure.

The center is what makes any mutual understanding (any joint attention) possible, so disclosure is aimed at interrupting concealment of the conditions of such understanding. The intuitive starting point must be what the other (or oneself) doesn’t want to say or hear, but that must be said or heard in order to sustain a center that is more than collaboration in concealment. In choosing to sustain the center, you make yourself vulnerable to the process of unconcealment as well. This really just involves following the presuppositions—one thing that you say is true, therefore something you have left unsaid must be true as well, and if that’s true… Ultimately, you all get to the center, and the conditions of sustaining attention to (“faith” in) it. The center, and those conditions are not a “final” presupposition but, rather, speech acts that frame possible speech acts in response—if the center is not disclosed in this way, then what gets disclosed is the absence of any center among the interlocutors, which is very useful information, while often being the most frightening discovery.

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