GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

August 7, 2016

Frame, Symmetry, Equality

Filed under: GA — adam @ 4:44 pm

Equality as a goal of human relations is chimerical and delusional. It’s just a way of organizing war parties. But inequality presupposes a kind of relationship that we could call “equality,” but need not, and better not, so as to avoid conclusion. If some humans are better fighters, workers, thinkers, etc., than other humans, that is only because all humans (and only humans, in the sense we mean) are to some extent capable of fighting, working and thinking. They are all in the same frame, in that case, meaning that we can see them all in relation to each other. Even more, insofar as we are interested in who is better at these activities, we accept that it is not immediately obvious—that is, we must have standards of measurement, such as contests and after the fact assessments of results in order to determine who is better. In order for the measurements to work, we have to suspend our assumptions about who is better, which is to say we “bracket” everything we know going into the relatively controlled situation, so that we can judge the participants solely on what happens there. Even, more, we want to leave open the possibility that people can improve, or worsen, and that, therefore, someone who is better now might be worse later. In this case, what we might call “equality” is an achieved, disciplined perspective, not a presumed attribute of human beings. The more we refine this controlled perspective, which is to say the less we assume about relative abilities based on the qualities (heritage, race, gender, wealth and connections, etc.) we come to deem irrelevant, the more we can imagine ourselves in pursuit of some degree zero of equality, where we will have identified and controlled for all of those distorting accretions on the ability we are trying to assess. But what we are really after in such cases is not equality, but symmetry, which is to say, the “aspect” under which we can look at everyone as identical except for this one ability or quality we want to bring into focus.

The more humans become disciplined and civilized, then, the more we need to find ways to place them in frames that enable us to create the symmetry the disciplines need to recruit their new members and assess their current ones. As science, medicine, law, pedagogy, management and all the rest of our specialized activities become autonomous and systematized, extra-disciplinary criteria for belonging become intolerable. It wouldn’t take a skilled doctor, interested in reducing the practice of medicine to some kind of method, long to realize that the son of a peasant might be as good a candidate for medical training as the son of an aristocrat. Insofar as the disciplines want a wide recruiting field, and insofar as the sovereign relies upon the disciplines, there will be a democratic component to the social order insofar as the sovereign will have an interest in making social mobility for the talented possible. Without all of the poor receiving at least some education, there will be no way of judging any of them for possible promotion (it would be almost impossible to identify geniuses out of a crowd of illiterates). Rags to riches stories generate more illusions about equality while hardening the lines of inequality by making the distribution of ability even less random.

There are broader, more informal modes of symmetry that pass for a kind of equality, such as the symmetry of conversation partners, conviviality, community and comradeship. In a well governed order, occasions will be created for sharing these kinds of symmetry across class lines; otherwise, they will serve as (sometimes richly satisfying) compensations for the less disciplined. For those who resist discipline, whether explicitly, tacitly or unknowingly (say, by developing ADD), the fear of losing out on such modes of symmetry is very likely a large part of the reason why—there’s no reason to despise someone who’d rather put in enough hours at a mindless job to make living and then hang out with his friends in the bar, rather than work 70 hour weeks to climb the corporate ladder. An advanced civilization allows for and even subtly encourages the creation of such spaces, and finds ways of recouping the “deviations” they represent—everyone knows the limitations of even the highly intelligent “straight arrow,” and the potentialities of the talented drop out who will find his way back into the system as an idiosyncratic irritant. Many won’t find their way back in, and will contribute little or nothing to an increasingly digital civilization. If they are left alone, though, they may find all kinds of ways of contributing to each other and enjoying a kind of equality (if we wish to call it that) that way.

There will always be a kind of feeling for equality, desires to enlarge those feelings, and resentment at the disciplinary forms, which will always have a degree of arbitrariness to them, that thwart such desires. Understanding these feelings and desires as the necessary illusions generated by disciplinary frames and and various local symmetries created in response to (or pre-dating) civilized order is essential to containing them. This is an argument for a kind of political formalism—having the most disciplined be the most attentive to their responsibility to rule, and making that rule as disciplined as possible—that continually works on framing the less formal elements of society. The more differences that can be framed, the more civilized the order, and the less necessary repression, and the less likely rebellion, becomes. To frame is to rule, and to target ways to enhance discipline is to frame. Redirect all blame of the other to the redressing of your vulnerability to that other—there’s no point to blaming the Left for anything, since we can learn to control the feelings of guilt and fear that the Left exploits and thereby disable it.

The most productive form the feeling for equality takes is that of play, which is a completely framed event: everyone in the act of playing knows that who they are in the act is completely defined by the act and everyone’s participation in it. There is symmetry, interdependence and togetherness, but to try and figure out whether everyone is equal would ruin everyone’s fun. So, framing is ruling and framing is playing. It’s ruling for the one who is both inside and outside the game, and being both inside and outside of the game is itself a form of discipline—being outside of the game you participate in is possible insofar as you know that the positions and moves in the game are ways of framing and channeling resentments that have their origins elsewhere and must be staged and unfolded in an orderly manner in order to be reconciled to reality. The sovereign, then, like Shakespeare’s Prospero, must operate on two levels: framing so as to contain and transmute into sovereign power resentments while entering the space of those resentments and allowing them to target, albeit merely symbolically, the center one occupies. If we are ever to have real sovereigns again, it will be a far more complex and difficult business than it ever was before.

In an article he wrote around the time his book Coming Apart was published, Charles Murray argued that the problem with the new “cognitive” or “symbol using” elite was that they didn’t preach what they practiced. In other words, these elites became (or in some cases remained—which is not a given) elites by following a clear life path, including abstention from addictive habits, hard work, career orientation, monogamy and intensive investment in children, while simultaneously denouncing “bourgeois culture” and privileging the cultural experimentation that perhaps some of them could afford in their youth but which is devastating for the less disciplined. My argument is in that spirit—if you have ever been successful at anything, if you have ever overcome setbacks and obstacles, think about how you did so: what kind of preparation (your own and others) was necessary, what kind of resources had to be summoned, how many new beginnings were required, what kinds of temptations (giving into to despair or all of the excuses for giving up or failing that are so easy to generate) had to be resisted, and what kinds of intellectual and emotional habits had to be formed (and what kind of work was involved in forming them). Insisting that such demands be imposed on anyone else who talks of wanting to succeed or complains of failure will do those people far more good than indulging their resentments against those who prevented them from being who they really should have been. The only people who are fit to rule are those who can sustain and convincingly exemplify such insistence in the face of the constant wailing of the less disciplined who, if their wailing goes for naught might find happiness in the more informal pleasures of equality.

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