The Marginal Anthropomorph

The consequences, for political thinking, of my centralization of deferral, discipline and civilization in originary thinking, are clear, at least in outline: what is politically legitimate and necessary is the leadership, through charisma, of the most disciplined individuals (in economic terms: those with the longest time preference), who will therefore seek each other out, recognize one another, and model modes of deferral for the less disciplined. The most basic forms of “rule” bear out these assumptions: when a group is confronted with some threat or emergency requiring expeditious and unified action, any chance of success depends upon the most capable (those who resist panic and the tendency to find some scapegoat within the group) taking charge, setting an example, and being deferred to in all critical decisions. The earliest forms of “government” must surely have taken this form, of those who were coolest under pressure and able to see past the apparently dire immediate circumstance being deferred to. Otherwise, why would such forms have come into existence in the first place? All governments are set up so as to maximize the possibility of iterating this originary form of leadership, and to the extent that governments fail to elevate such figures, it is because of some design flaw and/or decadence. To this day, there is a tacit agreement that genuine legitimacy resides in the leader’s ability to handle the “3AM phone call,” to recall a Hillary Clinton ad from 2008—someone can wield power without such legitimacy, but such power will always be obeyed grudgingly, more out of fear or resignation than devotion—and even in such cases, there must enough people who see that power as legitimate, because, after all, there would have to be some loyalists ready to instill fear in the others. Ultimately, we could imagine ways of quantifying, provisionally, such relations—John Adams once posited as the relevant political question, how many votes does a particular man’s vote carry with it?

Using this conception as a guide to political thinking in the present (where all political thinking has to take place) is not that simple. Without perpetual, self-evidently and unanimously recognized threats and emergencies occurring on a daily basis in such a way as to provide regular tests, how can we recognize the more disciplined? As we all know, the guy who seems to have to all together might collapse under pressure, while some loser might rise to the occasion. It also strikes me as a potential contradiction that I agree with those who find Donald Trump, a seemingly supremely undisciplined man (at least in some arenas), as the most likely champion of American and Western civilization today. At the very least, the indispensability of Trump’s tit-for-tat semi-barbarism needs to be accounted for; or what seems indiscipline must be shown to be something else. Otherwise, the argument for legitimacy through disciplinary charisma risks becoming a more theoretical sounding label slapped on one’s political preferences of the moment.

To develop this mode of political thinking, I will return to my discussions of Eric Gans’s analysis, in The End of Culture, of the second most important originary event in human history: the emergence of the Big Man. Gans counters Girard’s theory of myth: rather than a distorted recollection of the originary lynching, myth, for Gans, is an “explanation” of ritual; ritual, meanwhile, is a re-enactment of the originary event, a re-enactment continually modified with the sedimentation of subsequent crises requiring the iteration of ritual on new terms. Myth creates motivations or intentions for the figures on the ritual scene (“backstories,” in Hollywoodese); it is a declarative overlaying of the imperative-ostensive form of ritual. Myths are, therefore, attempts at originary thinking that are simultaneously (as all originary thinking must be) projections forward, as intentions dimly glanced at in one’s surroundings provide the materials for de-sedimenting the unrecoverable scenes and ritual re-enactments constitutive of the inevitable idiosyncrasy of ritual.

This understanding of myth is not obviously related to the emergence of the Big Man, but the increasingly complexity of intentions attributed to figures on the ritual scene (which, of course, can include animals and the elements) lays the groundwork for making sense of the Big Man’s “usurpation” of the center. Mythical versions of the Big Man will attribute ever more powerful intentions to that central figure, for a while, at least, at the expense of everyone else, who are relegated to some form of servitude. First of all, he gives all; but in that case he must have a right to all. He is the center of gift circulation, so he must be omniscient as well: he must know what everyone needs and deserves, and how to produce and provide it. He must, therefore, also be aware of resentments directed his away, and of attempts to bring those resentments to fruition in various plots. He has eyes and ears everywhere, and so on. What this amounts to, in effect, is a continual process of humanization (which, clearly, was not accomplished at one blow on the originary scene—hominization, just like biological evolution, continues), or, more precisely, anthropomorphization: just as in that despised literary trope, the Big Man doesn’t really have those intentions until they are attributed to him—he must grow into them, and in turn project corresponding intentions onto his subjects. The intellectual and moral overturning of tributary tyranny (by both metaphysics and monotheism) derives from this anthropomorphized world, ever richer in intentions, actual and possible. The more fully “intentionalized” our world, the more human we are—but there are always tacit practices and habits yet to be “intentionalized” or anthropomorphized. (For that matter, there is certainly backsliding as well—intentions that had been fleshed out explicitly are “de-activated” and return to their tacit state.)

The sequence and structure—event/ritual/myth—doesn’t change, even under post-ritual, post-mythical conditions. We still all the time, every day, on many levels, instigate crises due to mimetic rivalry; we create practices and habits that defer the worst possible outcome of those rivalries; and we come up with stories, rationalizations if you like, for how we arrived at those habits and practices. In fact, what we call “rationalizations” are just attempts to (as Girard does, in Gans’s account) conflate event and practice/habit, to insist that the way we do things is just, circularly, the way things are done—to conflate our resentments with self-evident justice. But in order to rationalize, you need to draw upon “canonical” intentions—in other words, your rationalization will be effective to the extent that you can purport to demonstrate that you (or one on whose behalf you rationalize) only did what anyone would have done. Rationalization is the mode of thought of consumer satisfaction: I deserve what everyone else deserves because no one in my situation could have done any better than I did. So, here we can mark the difference between consumer satisfaction and the proto-Big Man’s producer’s desire: the latter invents/discovers a non-canonical intention, or anthropomorphizes in a new way. What the producer defers is the desire, compulsion even, to reinforce and seek shelter in the most “authorized” intentions—once you defer the incredibly powerful desire to disperse responsibility for your acts you need to find a way to enhance your responsibility for your acts and the only way to do that is by broadcasting your actions as exemplary, thereby in fact creating new forms of intentionality.

So, the marginal anthropomorph is, first of all, the “producer” who self-exemplifies and allows to be attributed to himself a “human” quality that didn’t exist before, much less reside “in” that producer. But he is not the only emergent anthropomorph. Let’s return to the notion of a “universal conversation” put forth in Gans’s recent Chronicle, and my own discussion of it a couple of posts back. Now, we can’t take this notion of a universal conversation (in a post-colonial, wired, world) literally, if it’s supposed to mean that we are all actually talking to each other simultaneously. Conversations are, as they always have been, limited in scope: anyone who’s spent a bit of time on blog comment sections will attest that there is always a threshold past which additional voices can no longer be included within the conversation (one person can’t really respond to more than 5 or 6 genuinely diverse interlocutors), which, if it continues, splits into several separate conversations. However, we can take this notion absolutely literally if we take it to mean that anyone could eavesdrop on, and interrupt, any other conversation. Indeed, that vague, menacing, sense of always being overheard (which gets projected, somewhat mythically, onto super-competent and malevolent state security agencies) by those who could at any moment enter the conversation and reset the norms so as to discredit and, in effect, eliminate oneself is the quintessential “PC” experience.

Now, in order to engage with each other on the marketplace, we have to anthropomorphize each other, that is, attribute to one another the intentions constitutive of a successful exchange. Much of modern economics is a quasi-mythical explanation of the practices and habits of life in the marketplace, supplementing the intentions that would make sense of it all. For that matter, liberal politics is itself little more than a similar, and far more desperate attempt to anthropomorphize, as if the intentions “evident” in market exchange (respecting the autonomy of the other, weighing options, assessing actual and possible resources, etc.) could be projected onto the process of selecting individuals to staff the government and of engaging in discourse over laws and their enforcement. But not all exchanges are successful—indeed, some are bitterly regretted in retrospect—and more or less mythical intentions and narratives are constructed to account for those as well. The more humanity we are capable of attributing to others, the more inhumanity we are capable of attributing. The end of history is a chimera because these two capacities must always progress alongside each other. Without engaging in moral equivalence, or concealing my own interest in the matter (as if I could), it is easy to see the escalating SJW-alt-right battleground as taking shape along these lines, with each side constructing mythical social orders defined precisely by their categorical exclusion of the inhuman other.

Aside from the self-exemplifying desiring producer himself, then, the marginal anthropomorph is the figure whom you interrupt and address (or to whose interruption and address you respond) within the universal conversation and to whom you attribute a possible intention that would defer the escalation within the battlespace. This doesn’t involve signaling your virtue to the other side by taking on your own “extremists.” It doesn’t involve purges, or searches for “common ground.” It merely involves opening some reality closed off by the escalation, and asking someone else, even a hypothetical interlocutor, what they would do with it. Even something like “OK, after you’ve killed them all, then what?” Any course of action which we can attribute (always somewhat mythically) to a “we” breaks down into a (charismatic) relation between the more and less disciplined among “us”: asking what these different parts or levels of the “we” are doing when the “we” acts implicitly invites the interlocutor to adopt the imaginary standpoint of the more disciplined, and that at least makes conversation possible, even if it’s the conversation of opposing generals laying the ground rules for a battle the following day that will leave only one army in existence. It would be a conversation between those have invented and crossed a threshold in the ongoing hominization process; between marginal anthropomorphs.

And what about Trump? Suffice it to say that his tit-for-tat approach is exposing tacit practices and habits that will need to be “intentionalized,” and thereby creating the conditions for extensive anthropomorphization.

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