GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

March 7, 2016


Filed under: GA — adam @ 4:20 pm

Rituals are reproductions of the originary scene, at first aimed at reinhabiting the remembered scene to defer new instances of violence, and then to make the deity appear and bless and strengthen the community. Myth emerges to explain the ritual, and in doing so constructs accounts of the originary scene that devolve more and more responsibility onto the participants on that scene. The more individuals can be responsible, the more likely that differences between individuals will widen, creating the asymmetrical relation of the Big Man, in sole possession of “producer’s desire” (conferring meaning upon the scene) at the antipodes of the rest of the community and its aggregation of “consumer desires” (benefiting from the distribution controlled by the “producer”). This asymmetry expands to grotesque lengths, investing new but sharply restricted ethical possibilities in astonishingly brutal social orders (mass slavery and extermination, human sacrifice). The invention of the God whose name is the declarative sentence begins the long reversal of this process, by directing resentment towards the Big Man and Big Man tendencies in everyone. Responsibility again devolves upon everyone, but it is a responsibility both enhanced and truncated: enhanced, because a far wider range of human intentions can now be comprehended and therefore demand recognition (while inspiring caution); truncated, because the resentment toward the Big Man (in all of us) locates morality in the consumer’s desire of the vast majority, leading to the stigmatization of the producer’s desire that is more necessary than ever for the consumer’s desire to be satisfied. As far as I know, American society is the only one that has been able to fully value the “producer,” or entrepreneur (where else can billionaires become folk heroes?), and even that idealization is always tenuous, in competition with perhaps more powerful resentments than are found elsewhere as well. This dynamic, perhaps at one time a source of creative tension, has become sterile.

That was an extremely compact, one-sided, somewhat modified and no doubt inadequate summary of Eric Gan’s history of cultural forms, especially as articulated in his The End of Culture (which I happen to be rereading now). It has always seemed to me that we had never really left the reign of the Big Man behind us, regardless of democratic and liberal pretensions; it has also seemed to me for a long time that the democratic and egalitarian principles that emerged from the monotheistic revelation has never been able to resist dwelling obsessively on every manifestation of the Big Man, or alphadom, with acceleratingly destructive consequences. That focus has remained because it is the original one—although one finds in Jewish, and I would imagine Christian, theology, the notion that the tremendous creativity of God flows through those created in His image, I think that the far more consequential reading of the Moasic revelation has been to set God’s creativity in opposition to the creativity of the Alpha, to whittle the alpha down to size. Modern consumer society is the reign of Big Corporations that stay big by inciting our consumer resentment against all forms of bigness. Gans locates the separation of the esthetic from ritual in the emergence of the Big Man, upon which the artist to whom we willingly subordinate our attention is modeled: hence the masterpiece as the highest form of art, dependent upon a passive and awestruck audience. All forms of bigness today—corporations, the political parties, the state, the media, the educational system and academy—all function according to the same logic of the disavowal and denunciation of the producer’s desire that nevertheless is increasingly monopolized and calcified within those very institutions.

A counter-tendency has been emergent for a few decades now, and has been accelerated by the internet and social media. Paradoxically, the antidote to the decaying and self-disavowing culture of anonymous bigness has been the emergence of new, smaller, more mobile, unstable, and readily replaced alphas, epitomized by the self-publishing blogger. The Republican party “elders” are concerned about the future of their party—but maybe we should be looking forward to the obsolescence of all “major” parties. Political parties in the liberal democracies have been means of packaging money, platforms for governing, and voters, but why do we need such gigantic, clumsy and unresponsive institutions to do that anymore? Today’s “insurgency” campaigns already circumvent and take over (“hostilely”) the parties, but maybe soon they will dispense with the parties altogether. The participatory tendency in the arts goes back to the 60s, at least, with forms of theater, music and literature that could only be completed through audience participation, in stark contrast with the masterpiece that presumably remains identical through the ages. The most advanced form of participatory art, which I have mentioned quite a few times, and the one most capable of spilling over into everyday life, was Allan Kaprow’s “happenings,” which involved creating an actual scene in the midst of everyday life. Everyone caught up in the scene becomes actor and audience simultaneously. The happening is a ritual insofar as the ritual is a reproduction of the originary scene: by introducing unpredictability into the routines of everyday life the happening makes it incumbent upon the participants to discover the semiotic means of defusing the violent potential in that scene. The esthetic is thereby reabsorbed back into ritual and elicits the millennia long suppressed producer’s desire of all the people. Responsibility can be further expanded, insofar as everyone comes to recognize their unique responsibility, as a sign, to sustain the scene at hand, while the truncation has been abolished.

The reason this revolution has proceeded in fits and starts is that it is, frankly, terrifying, for virtually everyone. There is the existential fear of taking responsibility for one’s own successes and failures, with no more Big Man (the “system,” “elites,” “ruling class,” “establishment,” etc.) to blame for one’s own indiscipline. But there is also the fear of the conflicts that will be unleashed once the established channels for expressing resentment and desire are removed. There are plenty of people who think that the conflicts between right and left (Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street) are really artificial products of the “system,” which stays in power by turning us against one another. That seems to me a transparent anti-Big Man platitude. There will be no single unified “people” once the “corporate state” has been disabled or marginalized—there will be war, which we can aim at making more virtual than material, but which we will not be able to avoid. Everyone is now positioning themselves for that war, which might be a many-sided affair, Balkanizing us while polarizing us globally. The producer’s desire can be an implacable one, demanding and rigorous, not easily pacified and diverted like the consumer’s desire. But the Empty Big Men cannot be propped up anymore—even the most recently established giants, like Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter, seem to be approaching senility, as they invest in traditional ideologies and ally with existing forms of political power. The best side to take, at this point, is whatever side can bear and even embrace the proliferation of differences that the demise of anti-alpha anonymous alphadom will release. With no settled rights, and no shared inclination to submit to majority rule, what will matter is who can create performative, participatory disciplines and defend those disciplines against rearguard attacks of anti-discimination SJWs—but also, perhaps, of the race-obsessed who might arise in the vacuum left by the rout of the SJWs. I wouldn’t want to be the bookie taking bets on the results—I would have no idea how to set the odds.


  1. Fwiw, political parties first emerged not to control electoral politics but rather to discipline parliamentary politics. Local big men got elected on their merits among a district’s propertied electors, but when gathered together, e.g. at Westminster, the sundry local bigs moved over time to institutionalise parliamentary factions and loyalties to chiefs with disciplined parties (whose carrot was access to office holders and holding) that only gradually usurped local authority to choose and discipline electoral candidates, an usurpation that more or less followed the universalization of the franchise.

    I have wondered a little at your recent statements that all you would concede to anti-discrimination politics is the universal right to vote, given your blogging on the failure of democracy in the rise of victimary blackmail of the producer/state. You are again suggesting that, “after democracy”, it is participation in multiplying performative disciplines that will matter. But if so, we are returning to a world where rights are conferred on stakeholders, on those holding “property” in a discipline. So why talk of any universal rights? and might not competing performative disciplines channel their warfare by reinventing, somewhat along original lines, parliamentary parties?

    Comment by John — March 9, 2016 @ 12:35 am

  2. And no doubt if we rid ourselves of our current sclerotic parties (they may be more rigid and unresponsive in the US than elsewhere) new more or less enduring groupings will emerge, and perhaps they will be called “parties” as well.

    Yes, you’re right–if there is voting, than the whole victimary apparatus could be voted back in. But if there are representatives, they must be selected somehow–even indirect voting, e.g., channeled through the electoral college, or Senators being elected by state legislatures, goes back to individual voting. So, in distinguishing specifically political rights from social, economic and cultural ones, I was thinking in terms of “dialing back” representation within the current institutional structure. But ultimately those institutions would have to be marginalized, and hopefully eliminated.

    Comment by adam — March 9, 2016 @ 4:42 am

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