GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

August 21, 2016


Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:49 am

Nick Land, at his Outside/Inside blog, strikes back against Reactionary Futures:

To ignore the historical association of power disintegration with the emergence of self-propelling techonomic competences also looks like a serious blindness. Capitalism hatched in Europe because Europe was broken. Keeping the world broken seems similarly indissociable from the survival of capitalistic historical momentum, and breaking it more profoundly is the route to capital intensification. Perhaps that’s the argument we’re having (not that such arguments matter much).

The issue here is whether sovereignty precedes and determines economic and technological power or vice versa: for Reactionary Futures, sovereignty is always conserved (someone, ultimately owns society), while for Land (along with most of his commenters), more materialistically, and seemingly more commonsensically, technological innovations from the printing press to “blockchain” (the subject of his next post) have driven upheavals in power. Land, as the the penultimate sentence suggests, looks forward to the complete technologization of power, as each man can become an island fortress. His final comment is meant, I think, as a death blow:

The Idea that unified power is the reliable principle of social competence is ethno-historically French. That is where it has worked its magic since the epoch of the Sun King. Under sufficiently dismal circumstances, the RF analysis might catch on there.

Touchè! (Keep in mind RF has been criticizing Land and others pretty vigorously lately.)

Land sets up the question properly, I think. There are three possibilities: first, and perhaps most likely, at least for a while, the continual out of control spiraling of technological and political disruptions of existing forms of techno-power; second the establishment of technologically impregnable forms of private property that will allow that least some to escape the first possibility (why should those driving and controlling automation even bother with victimary claims—why not just build businesses, residences and modes of exchange invulnerable to them?); third, the recovery of sovereignty, i.e., power that says what it does, does what it says, and does and says no more and no less than is necessary to ensure that saying and doing remain thus commensurable.

The materialist argument is that option three is simply impossible, because of the logic of the market, or of complex systems, of evolution, or of technological innovation, all of which cannot be controlled by any central government and, furthermore, will be destroyed by any real effort at exerting control. But the need to caricature reactionary future’s position here is telling. Reactionary future’s most effective argument regarding sovereignty and technological and economic complexity, is to point to the fact that some of the major success stories, according to free market criteria, such as Hong Kong, Dubai, and Thailand, have taken place under autocratic governments. The argument for the strongest form of sovereignty, which is to reduce all of a territorial society to the property of the sovereign, does not imply micromanagement of everything within that social order. It implies management of everything that needs to be managed, which the capable sovereign will seek to make as little as possible. Meanwhile, while Land can look forward to technological powers beyond the reach of any sovereign, the truth is we have never seen anything like that, and today’s new technological powers, despite some instances of resistance (like Microsoft’s original determination not to engage in lobbying, for which it paid dearly) are all too eager to converge with existing forms of (self-subverting) sovereignty. Forming their own armies and carving out territories of their own seems to be the furthest thing from the minds of Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, etc. More likely than Land’s utopia, I think, is that even a half-way competent sovereign will be able to bring into its service enough technological capability to counter the new techno-powers—new forms of encryption will always generate new forms of decryption and the state will always have an intense interest in preventing the un-decryptable.

But there’s something more important than these empirical analyses, which, of course, can always be wrong. Whenever we speak of political entities (nations, classes, interests, etc.) or extra-political entities (technologies, wealth, markets, knowledge, etc.) we, in fact, presuppose sovereignty. We presuppose sovereignty because we presuppose property and some originary distribution thereof (the nomos), and in presupposing property we presuppose property differentials and relations, and in presupposing property differentials and relations, we presuppose differentials in discipline. To be disciplined is to be sovereign—that is the origin of the concept, which implies ruling “over” something, first of all one’s own impulses, i.e., desires and resentments. If a budding literary scholar (to take a simple example) trains himself not to respond sympathetically and hostilely to characters in novels, for the sake of examining the means by which a novelist can induce sympathies and antipathies in readers, he becomes sovereign over that set of responses, which is embedded in the acquisition of literacy. If you ask such a budding scholar how Flaubert examines mimetic desire through the character of Madame Bovary, and he tells you how sorry he feels for her, you can know for sure (unless he is joking) that he has not gained sovereignty over his “natural” readerly responses.

The same is true of any field of human endeavor, and any social or economic category. To the extent that we could speak of a “nation,” we imagine a group of people that does or could establish laws and institutions over a territory it controls, thereby distinguishing its members from those of other nations. (At the same time we speak more of nations when sovereignty is weakened and we have to inquire into the “substance” of sovereignty—if the sovereign seems less capable of controlling the territory, we start to ask whether all of the people within that territory are really “under” the sovereign, which implies that some might be more so than others.) If we speak of the “interests” of a particular group, we imagine some political center that could address those interests, and favor or disfavor them in relation to other interests. New inventions only take place, are exploited, made profitable, and disseminated under conditions where factories and laboratories are not constantly attacked and raided, where there are schools producing literate and numerate individuals, where there is money that is not completely worthless, and much more. The inventor presupposes that he (whether it be the scientist himself or the company he works for) will be recognized as sovereign over his invention—even if we set aside copyrights and patents, even other inventors or manufacturers who take and benefit from his invention know what the source of that particular addition to the sum of human capacity is, or at the very least know that there had to be a source. They know that someone had to be sovereign over certain materials in a particular time and place, and other conditions, themselves guarded by some form of sovereignty, was necessary for that sovereignty to be exercised.

All these “local” forms of sovereignty (which multiply with the advance of civilization) either account for the totality of their sovereignty by themselves (the inventor is also guardian of his laboratory and factory, protector of supply chains and distribution networks, etc.) or defer the maintenance of such external conditions of sovereignty to someone who must, therefore, be sovereign over those conditions. The less we speak directly of this sovereignty over the condition of my own sovereignty, the more unquestioningly we presuppose it. (Microsoft’s refusal to lobby indicated, really, a highly admirable if incredibly naïve belief that if the US didn’t yet have undivided, certain sovereignty, interested in nothing more than sustaining civilizational advances that would redound to the reputation of the sovereign, the example of new companies like Microsoft that showed without question the benefits of providing a space for innovators to be sovereign in their one thing would move us closer to such a mode of sovereignty.) The question for companies like Google, in a time when rulers rule by undermining sovereignty, is whether it is best for them to support a mode of sovereignty that will let the company do what it does best (gather all of human knowledge, organize it and make it available according to increasingly powerful algorithms) while insisting upon (always yet to be determined) ultimate deference to the imperatives of a sovereignty that as much as possible wants to let Google be Google; or, to directly interfere with, participate in and further confuse sovereign powers by surrendering their own sovereignty as they curry favor with various interest groups, bribable politicians, demographic forecasts, and so on. I suspect that, if faced with the question in this form, Google would choose the former, and the fact that they are nevertheless well along the path to the latter (aligning itself with the victimary, with open immigration, with the political fashion statements of its Silicon Valley workforce, etc.) shows just how difficult the self-extrication of technological capacities from politics must be. In the end, the flourishing of technological capacities and healthy national and international marketplaces depend upon their seeming opposite: a state that makes marginal and decisive interventions in economic operations in order to preserve its own sovereignty. Can any state make merely marginal interventions, while at the same time making those interventions decisive? The materialist position, whether it be the libertarianism of Hayek or the communism of Marx, is “no”: the state can never be anything more than meaningless aggrandizement of power, in the interest of a ruling class or the state apparatus and its remora themselves. The reactionary position is “yes,” given sufficient discipline at least among those power centers most capable or interfering and confusing sovereignty and, therefore, most capable of contributing to the restoration of sovereignty by refraining from such interference and deferring to a competent sovereign (perhaps from among their own ranks).

Europe’s emergence from the “Dark Ages” involved a general enhancement of discipline across the board: political, moral, economic-technological, and intellectual. This is why all of Europe gravitated toward absolute monarchy during this period. So, what happened beginning 1300, or 1400, or 1500, to set off the spiral of reciprocally subversive powers we call “modernity”? Reactionary futures has a narrative similar to Eric Voegelin’s, beginning with medieval nominalism, through the various schisms of Christianity along individualist, anti-social lines, through Protestantism, of which liberalism is just a secularized version—Voegelin’s claim that modernity is Gnosticism would fit RF’s analysis very well. What RF adds is the primacy of power, that is, competing powers supporting these new ideas so as to render power more uncertain and hence aid their own bids for power. But how do competing power centers become powerful enough to advance their subversive ideas, and why these ideas in particular?

I think that if we stay focused on the question of discipline we can approach the problem in a more productive and comprehensive way. Differentials in discipline in a steadily disciplining social order creates power imbalances: between the more and less disciplined, of course, but also between elites that succeed in exemplifying and conveying their own discipline to their dependents and charges, and those that don’t. The latter are likely to try to leverage the indiscipline for which they have become responsible so as to counter-balance the lagging of their own institutions behind the more thoroughly disciplined sectors. The way to leverage indiscipline is to replace the charisma of self-discipline with the (anti) charisma of transgression. The (anti) charisma of transgression describes well the post-nominalist schisms in Western Christendom: arbitrary will replaces virtue, which is to say the discipline of resisting dominant (center-acknowledging) habits of thought replaces the discipline of acquiring fluency in and contributing to those habits of thought. The former discipline may very well require courage and ingenuity unneeded by, even inimical to, the latter. As long as transgressive charisma works from the margins of a social order still set into a long term disciplining process, it subverts that order, but not fatally, and may even be harnessed for innovative purposes—I would disagree with RF’s insistence that liberalism had no significance, and certainly no positive significance, for scientific and technological culture in the West. Anti-social defiance of norms can inspire generative modes of inquiry that yield fruit before the social effects of that defiance become evident. Transgressive charisma did not decisively break the virtuous circle whereby the discipline of the elites depended upon and saw to the discipline of the emergent middle and lower classes until recently, when the convergence of mass production, mass media, information technologies and socialist welfare state expectations (all, no doubt, representing new and interlocking power centers) converted increases in elite discipline into degeneration of popular discipline. Industrialization required disciplined masses, and so, despite centuries of inroads made by transgressive ideas of individualism, democracy, and liberalism, diluted notions of virtue like “respectability,” “morality,” “decency” and “normalcy” still prevailed. Up until the 1960s, no one would have wondered whether the triumph of democracy now meant that individuals no longer needed to be responsible for their behavior, even though no one had ever voted on those norms of behavior to which they were held responsible. We have reached a breaking point because automation and algorithmic economics and culture require a specific kind of very enhanced discipline by a small minority, but openly encourages and, at least in the short run benefits from, the relaxed discipline of the majority. If not a majority, a very impactful minority can now participate with little consequence in the culture of transgression, which in turn need no longer present itself as a reform of normative culture—it can openly declare war on normative culture. It may very well be that, along with self-disciplining movements within communities by those terrified by social collapse, a reactionary restoration of sovereignty will require that the major technopowers first actually assume and formalize their actual power, and then deliver that power to sovereigns who will integrate the disciplinary structure and vocation of those corporate giants back into a renewed social disciplinary project. Google and the others may have to realize that they don’t really want to rule, but are the only ones capable of seeing to it that someone does. That the giants and the new sovereigns will accept the need (and find a way) to replace the high-low war against the middle with an ordered hierarchy of powers that confers formal recognition upon differentials in discipline may not be overwhelmingly likely, but it is possible and, probably the only way of preserving civilization—that is, the only alternative to the more extreme exigency of more desperate and marginalized civilizational reboots.

August 18, 2016

Ancestor Worship

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:32 pm

Killing time on Yahoo a few days ago, I came across an article about the latest development in the (thankfully, seemingly settled) feud between Seth Rogan and Katherine Heigl regarding the 2007 film, “Knocked Up,” in which they co-starred. What seemed to me worth mentioning (hopefully it will be clear why) in the context of this discussion is the following:

We love you Seth, and we even admittedly love Knocked Up as a whole, but maybe it’s time to re-watch the film with a pair of fresh, 2016 eyes and consider the fact that your movie might (gasp) actually be a little sexist and that Heigl was just voicing what so many women are rightfully feeling. Because this issue is bigger than just one movie!

What caught my eye was the assertion that “it’s time to re-watch the film with a pair of fresh, 2016 eyes.” What moral revelation and revolution, one wonders, does this (obviously very young) writer imagine to have taken place between 2007 and 2016? The film was already seen as a bit “sexist” then, and so Heigl may have thought she was simply apologizing to progressives for appearing in a successful “sexist” film, but the implication of this remark is that we were so steeped in sexism back in 2007 that all kinds of sexist implications we were all blind to then would be so apparent now as to make the film unwatchable, except as a historical document to be dissected in a Women’s Studies classroom. “Moderns” always speak this way, and no doubt any of us could imagine ourselves looking back at a 1950 movie or 1850 novel with “2016 eyes” and seeing all kinds of uncomfortably taken for granted attitudes. So much the worse for us moderns, but my point here is that the rate of acceleration of this process has increased, is increasing, exponentially. (Another, fairly trivial experience confirms this–after watching the Eddie Murphy film, “Beverly Hills Cop,” with my daughter, she asked me whether it was “controversial” to have a black male lead playing a defiant police detective back in the 80s–as if we had barely and tentatively emerged from segregation at the time or, perhaps, up until just right now,) Completely new forms of racism, sexism, and other isms and phobias are discovered daily—no claim to not be “bigoted” or “prejudiced” (it’s amazing that we still use such words) made prior to the latest shift in the Overton Window can expect to be greeted with anything other than mocking contempt (denying you are racist, rather than finding someone else to accuse of racism, is proof that you are racist). All of previous history, and that includes yesterday, is beyond the pale, under the ban—one can only appeal to it insofar as it offers up the occasional example of someone whose thinking was ahead of its time, i.e., anticipated ours (and, preferably, suffered for it).

What used to be a fairly leisurely, consensus-oriented process of relegating pieces of the past to the irrelevant or embarrassing has now become a remarkably ruthless attack on anything in the past that would stain the eternal presence of the SJW mind. The Stalinists at least respected, even revered, the basic narrative structure of the past, even as they erased individuals and switched around heroes and villains, but why and how people thought as they thought and did as they did now seems to be of no interest at all—one must put it even more strongly: articulating “discredited” perspectives has become indistinguishable from defending them, as if to understand were to be contaminated. As a result, it can be quite shocking to discover how little today’s college students actually know. I was a very uninterested and lazy student through high school, and to this day have absolutely no memories of doing any homework or studying through those years, and yet somehow I absorbed a basic sense of the main events of the past two hundred years (the American Revolution and Civil War, Russian Revolution, two World Wars, Civil rights Movement, etc.), including the general “plot,” main “characters,” consensus regarding who was good and bad, etc. This doesn’t seem to me to be the case anymore.

Now, I’m not interested in another jeremiad on the decline of Western culture and Western learning (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but it does seem to me that there is a kind of “war” here—but on what, exactly? People often speak about the “wisdom” of the past in arguing for the importance of studying history and artifacts of the past, but we find that “wisdom” today, and we rarely see an argument for articulating what is genuinely different and alien to us in the thinking of some former era. (It seems so scandalous that women were regarded as “property,” for example, that there is almost no attempt to understand why male-female relations have taken all the different the forms they have.) So, what is the past really for? If we actually worship figures from the past, that would explain the “war” I have been describing—it is a war on ancestors, or, more precisely, on ancestor worship. Having said that, why not think big, and hypothesize that all “religion” (in Girard’s sense, which would exclude the anti-scapegoating monotheisms) is ancestor worship. If we could make this case, it would be enormously economical and clarifying regarding the vast diversity of religions; it would also make it possible to study the persistence of neutered forms of ancestor worship in the post-sacrificial world. In that case, the mania to wipe out the past would derive from an intuition that ancestor worship, even in its contained form, must be destroyed to complete the social justice transformation.

Primitive peoples generally believe they share descent with the animals they hunt and worship—this would make the ritual scene of egalitarian hunter-gatherer communities a form of ancestor worship. On the originary scene, the sacred object at the center gives life to the community, so it wouldn’t take much to narrativize that relation in the course of the mythopoeticizing of the community, and represent the animal at the sacred center as the literal ancestor of the community. The more elaborate mythologies of more complex communities simply elongate and complicate the lines of descent, but cities are always founded by the gods and populated by their descendants. Fustel de Coulanges, in his The Ancient City, shows the earliest and most enduring form of worship to be ancestor worship—indeed, every house is simultaneously burial ground and shrine to the ancestors. The act of creating larger social and political units, then, would involve identifying or inventing a shared divine ancestry between the amalgamating peoples. The creation of larger imperial units concentrates the divine ancestry within the royal family while, presumably, local cults would continue, in a reciprocally limiting relation to the emperor cult.

The logic of ancestor worship is very compelling. The dead are beyond resentment, and their achievements, by definition, precede and enable one’s own, thereby making them, in an important sense, unsurpassable. All rivalries within an extended family, or a tribe, can then be deferred through references to the figure of the ancestor and the practices he passed down to the community. The value and power of the ancestor can be “modulated” in accord with the strength of contemporary resentments—extremely dangerous rivalries would require the creation of especially wise and powerful ancestors. Moreover, the future is also beyond the scope of our resentments (we can’t really envy our potential great-great-grandchildren), and so we can, realizing that they will worship us in turn, strive to be models worthy of such devotion, for their sake. In this way, we will be imitating our own ancestors, and doing for our progeny what they have done for us.

Of course, ancestor worship is very limiting as well. Ancestors, as communities come, collectively, to imagine them, are meticulous, voracious and arbitrary in their demands; mystifying in their rewards and punishments. Trying to figure out what they want—which vendetta they want continued, which good they want sacrificed—is maddening. The first displacements of ancestor worship, through the installation of Big Men who create new rituals with themselves at the center, must have been liberating: the Big Man tells us what he wants. This displacement would also begin the “search for identify,” which is really the search for ancestors, as more distant progenitors of the community become objects of worship. But the Big Man must try and make his lineage that of the community, bifurcating ancestor worship in local and imperial forms. Jewish monotheism articulates the need, if not to worship, then commemorate and worship, in a simulated manner, alongside of, ancestors with the need to make group belonging a matter of law and choice, produced by a revelation which all nations, in principle, could acknowledge—the Jewish messiah is to be a descendant of a convert. But the universal monotheisms and metaphysics seem to assert the possibility of a community without ancestors. That may be impossible, which would help account for the resistance of the ancestor worship of nationalisms to universalist appeals, but before drawing that conclusion, we can imagine how the monotheisms might emerge from and displace ancestor worship.

Without ancestor worship, how would anyone know what to do? The right thing to do is to pay your debt to your ancestors: to appease them with sacrifice, to sustain their rituals, continue their projects, fight their enemies. But the fact that you will be an ancestor one day, and will obligate your descendants in turn, complicates matters—focusing on those descendants makes you aware of possible inconsistencies in the obligations transmitted by your ancestors. To the extent that differing imperatives cancel each other out, the decision regarding which to obey can be made in terms of which imperative will more effectively obligate your descendants in turn. Certainly a choice that weakens or destroys your descendants will undermine their obligations to you, and may ultimately obliterate you, since your immortal existence depends upon them tending to you. The more the contradictory imperatives from the ancestors prove paralyzing (presumably because some new conditions make it impossible to satisfactorily fulfill them all), the larger your descendants loom, and the more a new space is created, a space that Hannah Arendt called “between past and future”: the dispute between your ancestors and your descendants creates a kind of “timelessness in time,” in which one can imagine one’s decisions creating a new line from the distant past to the infinite future. This is the space in which the imperative not to carry out some violence at the behest of the ancestors that would initiate a chain of events the effect of which would be to purge the world of your descendants can be heard.

Hearing this absolute imperative, then, does not extricate you from the obligations of ancestor worship—indeed, it makes no sense without it. What it does is enable you to retroject that absolute imperative to the origins of your ancestors: that timelessness in time, that presenting, must have been experienced by them if it is possible for you, who are nothing without them, to experience it yourself. There is now a frame in which you can honor, rather than worship, your ancestors, because you both worship the same thing: the voice issuing the absolute imperative. Now, you heed that imperative because they did, and transmitted it to you. This opens the possibility, on the Jewish model, of choosing your own ancestors, and it also allows us to examine the limitations of such choices. Anyone familiar with the Left knows how deeply steeped in ancestor worship it is—Leftist historiography is hagiography, populated thickly by martyrs. The Left is many ways like the inhabitants of the ancient city analyzed by de Coulanges—irritable, nervous, petty, always worried that some imperative has been insufficiently fulfilled, the bloodthirsty demand of some ancestor unsatisfactorily complied with. As soon as you cut yourself off from one past you graft yourself immediately onto another—the intellectual world is full of complex filiations which are ultimately subtler forms of ancestor worship, as is obvious if you look at the way the participants of any discipline discuss the discipline’s founders. The limitation of nationalist ancestor worship is that it can be deaf to the absolute imperative—especially today, when nationalists are reasonably convinced that they have a pile of neglected debts to their ancestors the repayment of which outweighs all other urgencies, and that the resources available for paying these debts are being stolen. The only way to moderate while honoring (as a form of life) nationalist ancestor worship is with the artificial ancestor worship of the disciplines, and ultimately of the sovereign, since the artificiality of these disciplines means that the absolute imperative is part of their founding—all these disciplines can be traced back to, find their ancestry in, the studying of the divine will in the struggle for faith and law. On these grounds we can fight the war to defend ancestor worship.

August 16, 2016

Liberal GA, Reactionary GA

Filed under: GA — adam @ 5:31 am

I think that the central theoretical difference between GA as a liberal political theory and GA as a reactionary theory is that the former sees the marketplace as decentered and the latter contends that there are always centers, to which any marketplace (or portion of a larger marketplace) is subordinate. If we start with the market as an entity or process in itself, which is to see it in terms of its difference from “command” economy and gift economy alike, governed by its own “laws,” the liberal argument is persuasive. But it seems to me that a decisive argument in favor of the reactionary view is that, if the marketplace were genuinely decentered, we would have expected to see a gradual “withering away” of the state since the modern market emerged in the 19th century while exactly the opposite has occurred: from the historically unprecedentedly minimal state (at least in the Anglo countries) of the 19th century we have devolved to an enormous, cumbersome, bizarre, state which wages war on behalf of a high-low alliance against the middle. Furthermore, if the liberal democrat state (do we still have that?) were itself a kind of marketplace, registering resentments so that they can be represented and resolved, wouldn’t it actually be registering the full range of resentments rather than promoting some and criminalizing others?

Moreover, has there ever been, could there ever be, a sustained market unprotected by force of arms that makes a particular territory safe for the transport and buying and selling of products? On the margins of gift economies, sure, but as a social order in its own right? Anarchist libertarians provide us with a detailed hypothetical account of what a completely “marketized” order would entail, and often point to this or that local historical model (usually to point out, no doubt often truthfully, how that privately managed function was usurped by the state). Hans Hermann-Hoppe offers the most compelling arguments for such an order, and if it turns out to be possible my own arguments for absolute sovereignty will turn out to be wrong—or, just as likely, the actual realization of a libertarian realism. Hoppe makes it clear that the largest property owners in a given territory will be, effectively, sovereigns in that territory, and they will govern in a manner far closer to medieval monarchs than liberal democrats: you will certainly need his permission to enter, much less do business within, his territory. The same will be true if all the inhabitants of that territory own that territory as a kind of joint stock company (which would also involve highly undemocratic differential voting power), although in that case governance might be more “racist” (strict rules regarding what type of people can enter and reside) rather than “fascist.” Absolute sovereignty can be seen as the logical conclusion of anarchist libertarianism, its perfect inversion: just assume all property owner by a single property owner, whoever is actually capable of controlling and defending it, and there you are.

This difference—the centered or decentered character of the modern social order—is connected to another one I have discussed several times: the relation between “producer’s desire” and “consumer’s satisfaction.” A liberal GA sees a linear progression from the Judaic monotheistic revelation, on the one hand, and the invention of Greek metaphysics, on the other hand, and the development of the modern liberal democratic market order. What is at stake here is also the existence of a center. For a liberal GA, the deferral of an imperative order (an order, let’s say predicated upon the exchange of imperatives between gods and humans: tell me what to do, we “command” the god) creates what we can call a “declarative” order increasingly free of imperatives (I will always be with you, says God, and provides laws to be adjudicated by judicial bodies, deferring imperatives so that they emerge more “processually”). The “Age of Discussion,” as Walter Bagehot put it, commences: imperatives must be “consecrated” declaratively before they are obeyed. A declarative order is, like a conversation or discussion, inherently open-ended, desultory, and inconclusive. Whatever can be deferred (“kicked down the road,” as political slang has it) is deferred.

I think this description is accurate and the social transformation in itself beneficial, but, as it stands, massively forgetful. What keeps everyone talking? Person A insults person B—person B responds not, as in an earlier, more imperative age, with a challenge to duel, but with a snarky comment. Surely some Bs out there would like to take a swing at the occasional A (it still does happen once in a while); surely some As would like to provoke the occasional B to do so. So, that impulse to gratify oneself with direct, oh so satisfying retaliation, is restrained—why? We all know that there is very little tolerance for violent behavior, but if it’s just fear of being arrested, getting a criminal record, being sued, etc., there has been no ethical advance—that would just prove we are all scared to death of the state. But no state, or social order, could sustain itself in this way—such a violent, terrifying state would also be arbitrary and demoralizing, and would lead to more use of violence to settle scores. It’s also interesting that the “Age of Discussion” lowers the threshold of “insult,” which means that more potential violence is getting deferred—this indicates a genuine ethical transformation, insofar as we presuppose in each other deeper reserves of self-generated restraint. All those who converse rather than strike back are receiving, or hearing, an imperative (don’t respond to that micro-insult in the way you feel, ever so momentarily, inclined to) on a level, or at a frequency, that only someone inculcated in declarative culture can access. Being able to access such an imperative is what it means to be inculcated in a declarative order.

From where or whom is this constantly renewed, internally directed imperative issued? It’s an imperative that makes it possible to hear the voice of God or think metaphysically in the first place. I think we should adopt an assumption of the conservation of functions in examining social phenomena—new things happen, human being undergoes transformation, but nothing is lost: every human capacity is saved and either incorporated within or left on the margins of the new phenomena, waiting to be reactivated. If the link between the imperative we issue to the god and the one the god issues in return is severed (we no longer sacrifice—release our hostage to the god—in turn for victory or prosperity) then the imperative exchange must be reconstructed on new terms. That link is severed because the Big Man who becomes emperor is too distant to engage in an exchange of imperative with individuals who, for that matter, are still embedded in more local communities and gods (which, in turn, cannot provide an imperative exchange that is effective within the imperial or ecumenical space). But no one can act outside of imperatives—even if we convince ourselves that we act declaratively, by reasoning things through, weighing options, etc., how did we decide to reason about those things in particular; more precisely, what enabled us to discipline ourselves so that we could examine things in narrative or propositional terms without simply acting out? In the space between the receding local gods and the unresponsive God emperor, humans learn to hear a new imperative which is also a renewed older one: an abstraction of the first imperative not to retrieve an object but simply (and complicatedly) to “wait.” In the space between insufficiently extensive imperatives (commands that don’t tell us how to finish the task) the imperatives we hear filling that space must come either from ourselves or from some place inaccessible; if they come from us, no order can be made of the imperatives we hear and chaos must result. So, the new imperative, what we could call an “absolute imperative,” is that thou shall not be the source of imperatives. That one is commanded to wait and seek an outside source of the imperatives to obey is what makes one open to metaphysics and monotheism. Declaratives, which previously gave narrative form and sanction to imperative exchanges now advance and conceal a longer-standing imperative to be discerned. But this absolute imperative dissolves one type of hierarchy (determined ritually) and creates another (determined by our relative capacity to refrain from, essentially, pretending to divinity). But those most capable of refraining from divine pretensions are also those most given to such pretensions: the humblest are those who have restrained the most prideful impulses. Those who most feel their commands should contravene all others must listen the hardest for the absolute—and a few of them, if knocked around in the right way, will do so. In that case, the absolute imperative is best conveyed to human society through a hierarchy topped by a sovereign who is both “great” and humble before God or, more broadly, most submissive to the absolute imperative.

“Consumerism,” or the increasingly prevalence of consumer satisfaction in the ethical and political fields, is the regime of those who have so thoroughly internalized the absolute imperative as to have absolutely forgotten it. And there are good reasons for letting it be forgotten, for letting the public sphere be governed by ethical and moral commonplaces that have erased all signs of the struggle and discipline required to create and install those commonplaces. But in the end, this approach breeds contempt for those commonplaces and the history that produced them. Only producer’s desire, the existence of men (and it will be, with very few exceptions, men) who would be great, who seek to make the world over in the form of their imagination (their BS, if you like), makes it possible to remember the absolute imperative—because such men rise and fall, transgress, regroup, convert their humiliations into models for social order, and it from such men that sovereigns can emerge and find support in the various tiers of charisma. This is where centrality resides, in this communication of the absolute imperative through sovereignty, in any territorially or even culturally bound social order. For both metaphysics and monotheism, the target of the absolute imperative is the individual mind or soul—both would very much like to sideline or instrumentalize the question of sovereignty. (Arendt said that listening to philosophers theorize politics is like listening to someone laying down the rules for a madhouse.) A sovereign center would be a puzzling stumbling block for the putatively universal disciplinary spaces of metaphysics and monotheism. But both metaphysics and monotheism have imploded into the insanity of subjectivism for that very reason. Minds and souls only operate through the engagement with models—others more disciplined than oneself. The consumers need to follow the producers—consumers are completely empty without the producer—and the ultimate goal of consumption is to become a producer oneself, which requires the ability to defer consumption. And sovereignty is production of the community in obedience to the absolute imperative.

August 9, 2016

Sovereign Selection

Filed under: GA — adam @ 1:44 pm

The establishment of dynastic monarchies, while not to be completely ruled out, as it is the simplest way to guarantee the continuity of the sovereign power, cannot be relied upon as a means of selecting the person to exercise absolute sovereignty. Anyway, dynastic monarchies have always been problematic in this regard, as all it takes is one sterile couple to lay the groundwork for a civil war between those allied with the king’s nephew and those insistent that his mother-in-law’s son by her first husband is the true heir. There have been elective monarchies, but in what sense are they monarchies—sovereignty is certainly not absolute, and however carefully the electorate is chosen, it is sure to expand until we have a full-fledged democracy and therefore radically uncertain sovereignty. (We don’t hear much about elective monarchies, which suggests to me they have never been particularly successful, or established as a stable political form.) This seems to me the biggest logistical problem with absolute sovereignty, since if sovereignty must be completely in one set of hands, how does it peacefully get into another set of hands, as eventually it must? So, let’s try to solve it.

It is best to see sovereign power as either taken or given—and certainly never as simply extant in some body. Once taken, or received, it is held, until taken by or given to, another. (We can follow the chain of custody.) So, the theory of absolute sovereignty has to account for a repeatable means of giving power and for the least contentious way possible of taking it, when necessary. A ruler could give power to whomever he wants, but a responsible ruler would want to give power to someone who could hold it. We can, of course imagine that being his offspring, who has grown up as a prospective heir, has been trained and groomed for the job, imbued with the proper sense of responsibility, and so on. The purpose of primogeniture, of course, was to eliminate rivalries between the children of the monarch by creating criteria that placed the decision beyond their control (criteria that prevented there being a decision). As soon as we introduce the notion that the best must rule, and the foundation of kingly power no longer serves as a permanent legitimation of monarchical rule, we are confronted with the possibility of explosive rivalries, most obviously between the king’s children but then more broadly between his advisors, those discussed as suitable heirs or replacements, along with all the families and factions drawn into these rivalries.

The intractable nature of rivalries spread across the entire social order being the problem generated by the assertion of absolute sovereignty, it must therefore be made the solution. The more deserving the sovereign, that is, the more power is exercised by the most intellectually and emotionally disciplined individual, the more that sovereign will want the flourishing and interaction of similarly disciplined individuals just below the threshold at which a challenge to the sovereign seems like a good bet. The way to do this is always to be the arbiter in those rivalries—to set up, more or less explicitly, contests to see who is the best advisor, the best surrogate, the best administrator, the best theorist of political power, the best architect, artist, etc., and to be the final judge in these contexts. This is a very layered and indirect process—there would be contests over the best advisor for how to determine the best architect, etc.—but that is the art of sovereignty. Whoever is always the judge can never be judged himself, and if the ruler needs judgments regarding his exercise of power, he can set up a contest for that as well, one promoting both honesty and humility on the part of the contestants. These rivalries can reach deep into society, recruiting fresh talent to the regime, while encouraging a general sense of competitiveness, fair play and devotion to the regime among the people.

As part of his normal exercise of power, then, the sovereign creates and continually replenishes a pool of candidates for his replacement—there will be no outrage or even surprise if the man who has been credited with giving the king some of the best counsel over the past decades is appointed the ruler’s successor in his twilight years, or if the ruler feels his power failing. By the same token, there will be less shock if, supposing the ruler to become suddenly erratic and evidently a danger to the realm, such an advisor, with the support of others—the support of enough to make civil war impossible, or at least brief—were to take power and sideline the ruler. Such a seizure of power would be able to account for itself in terms of the recorded history of the regime, and reliable accounts of the ruler’s changed behavior. As always, these simple descriptions of what absolute sovereignty would entail make it obvious how different we would all have to be—rulers and ruled alike—for such a regime to work. I would assume that it sounds crazy to most readers. I accept that as a marker of the degree of transformation in consciousness and conscience that would be necessary to restore civilization at this late date. What we have utterly lost is the habit of deference, not as a means of squelching by precisely in pursuit of our highest aspirations—in other words we defer to others all the time, but always either grudgingly, or or in strict adherence to a set of rules formulated to make it look like one is acceding to reality rather than deferring to another, but almost never in free acknowledgement of another’s unquestioned eminence. Only the direst of circumstances will lead us to recover that.

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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