GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

September 6, 2016

Anthropomorphics and Reaction

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:09 am

“Anthropology” suggests a fixed human nature but, for that very reason, an endless oscillation between that human nature and the myriad varieties of human order, belief and practice (which is exactly what the discipline of that name actually focuses on). Once you say human nature is “x” you must, in observing the varieties of human communities, identify x1, x2, x3, etc., until someone asks whether the “x” isn’t just an essence posited a posteriori to justify the field of inquiry itself—an essence, furthermore, that contrasts in its banality with the rich variety of observed human forms. The originary hypothesis proposes a single human origin, which we can sketch out as universally shared human characteristics: there is always mimesis and therefore rivalry, and therefore the possibility or reality of mimetic crisis, and, finally, therefore, signification as the deferral of the violence consequent upon that crisis. You could call this a “nature,” if you like, but since these elements of the human are only manifested in events, and therefore in differing proportions and forms, no human nature can be abstracted from the historical emergence of social forms. We are always trying to retrieve and restore some form of the originary sign, but since such attempts cannot be anticipated, any delineation of an abstract “Anthropos,” or logic of the human, will be obsolete in its utterance.

“Anthropomorphics,” then, suggests an ongoing transformation of the human, a dialectical movement of distancing from and retrieval of the origin. Even more, though, it suggests a reciprocal endowment of “humanity” by humans in their interrelations, rather than interaction between already fixed and defined beings. In an analysis I have had much recourse to lately, Eric Gans, in The End of Culture, shows that while the ritual form in which the originary event is commemorated is pre-verbal and exceeds in its “meaning” (its capacity to stabilize the community) any possibility of articulating that meaning by the community, the development of language, and myth in particular, confers upon those ritual acts and actors ever richer intentions. Those intentions derive from the accumulated interactions among members of the community and in turn become attributable to those members. If one member of the group asks another for “help” in some task, then one agent “helping” another can be retrojected to the ritual acts performed by the community (the god-ancestor “helps” the founder of the community, etc.), and then new modes of “helping” (and, perhaps, “hurting”) become imaginable in the relations between members of the community. In the process, they make each other human, or anthropomorphize each other.

The most crucial transformation in human order is that effected by the “Big Man” who, acting on his “producer’s desire,” or imagination (prevailing over the anticipated reception of a portion of what exists) disciplines himself and accumulates sufficient goods, power and the indebtedness of any other member of the community to place himself beyond any possible reciprocal gift relation. The emergence of the Big Man destroys, once and for all, the egalitarianism of the primitive community. The Big Man generates resentment, rather than just envy on the part of peers, because he doesn’t just have things that others want but sets the terms of communal interactions. The Big Man occupies the center that was originally occupied by the shared object of desire, consumption, ritual and ancestry. There will always be those who want to displace the Big Man, those who attribute to the Big Man the capacity and therefore the refusal to settle all their conflicts with others (justly, of course) in their own favor, and, at the extreme, those who want to eliminate “Big Manness” itself (and restore the egalitarian community). The successful Big Man will have to impress upon would-be rivals the foolishness of attempting any coup, without suppressing their ambitions (since they will be useful men); he will have decide when to decide upon conflicts between his subjects; when he does decide, he has to decide well and be seen to be doing so; and he must subject those who dream of a return to egalitarian relations to a judicious combination of terror, contempt and ridicule.

Those Big Men who best solve these problems will render themselves so elevated as to become unchallengeable, reputed sources of unimpeachable wisdom, and origins (founders, fathers) of the community and an inexhaustible source of gifting. The gift economy becomes radically asymmetrical: the emperor-god gives his people their sources of life, while the people in return give their obedience and sacrifices that are inevitably inadequate. The relation to the sacred is still what we could call an exchange of imperatives—tell me what to do for you—while that exchange has been thoroughly formalized and ritualized. Resentments are always already recycled through the system of sacrifice. The emperor-kings’ decisions by definition confer life upon the people, and the people’s obligations to him are prescribed in inclusive and monotonous detail. The discovery/invention by the ancient Israelites of the God whose name is the declarative sentence (I Will Be That I Will Be) must have been possible because the emperor-king ceased, shockingly, to give life, at least to some, thereby releasing resentment on an unprecedented scale. Even god-emperors come and go, their dominion has limits, so something must endure that prescribes the order of their coming and going. This God, who cannot be called upon by name to give favors commensurate with the completeness of one’s compliance with ritual prescriptions, issues what Philip Rieff saw as a sacred order founded on absolute interdictions, what we could call an “absolute imperative”: an imperative not to do this or that but to give all of oneself in the presence of the ever present God. The God who can issue such an imperative, which transcends dependence upon the worldly provisions of the emperor-god, must have given far more than those emperor-gods, which is to say everything. The imperative exchange is replaced by a declarative culture in which the voice issuing the absolute imperative is always in dialogue with you to the extent that you defer the immediate imperatives to sacrifice either the target of your resentment or some proxy.

This revelation remakes the figure of the Big Man, but not in any obvious way, as the biblical history of the ancient Israelites makes clear. The constitution of a new kind of egalitarian community beholden only to God’s law (presumably as interpreted by judges and prophets) is certainly logically consistent with the monotheistic revelation, as is the Bible’s initial hostility to the institution of monarchy. But the Bible does eventually accept the notion of a king chosen by, and ultimately obliged to and judged by, God. Part of the reason is certainly that a king who can organize the entire nation will make the people less vulnerable to surrounding monarchies. But more important is the structural relation between the absolute imperative and the sovereign who is absolute in being answerable only to God. The God who has given all, including human life itself, and to whom all—all thoughts, all fears, all hopes, all deeds—must in turn be given is intelligible as the Sovereign of the world. He has made the world and distributed it among his subjects. Insofar as God’s relation to his creations is a model for relations between those creations, an analogous sovereign-subject relation is suggested as the perfect social model. Furthermore, if we are all equal in being given all by God and being obliged to give all in return, we can only know what it means to give all by observing and emulating those we see have given more of themselves than we have. We defer to those who have given more—who have exercised higher increments of discipline—and expect them to defer in turn to those who have given more (and therefore received more) than they have. There is always someone who has given and received more than anyone, and while we can’t be sure that that is actually the person who exercises sovereignty, neither is it our place to try and prove otherwise, so the best course is to hope that everyone acting as though he who rules is that person will help him become as close as possible to being so.

The problem is that this exemplary attitude requires a high level of discipline on behalf of sovereign and subject alike, and the word of God and guardians of tradition can always be drawn upon by those who would claim that we can, in fact, know that the current ruler has no basis to be considered the chosen of God. In other words, the hermeneutic generosity upon which absolute sovereignty depends can always be rescinded. Even more: that high level of discipline must continually be raised because greater and more widely dispersed modes of discipline generate new centers of power which both derive from the sovereign and represent its limits. Those new centers of power must be incorporated, and this process of incorporation is problematic because the sovereign is dependent upon loyal participants in these new centers of power to advise regarding their incorporation. All the problems faced by the Big Man—capable rivals, disputatious subjects unsatisfied by the ruler’s judgments, and those proposing ways of “restoring” the center supposedly usurped by the Big Man/King to some prior and innate consensus that can be shared without mediation—emerge and re-emerge, precisely in proportion to the success of the sovereign in enabling the creation of civilization.

This process is the source of the unsecure sovereignty that Reactionary Future considers the prime political and moral evil. Those capable rivals draw upon phantom modes of centrality (some relation between each individual separately and some unoccupied legal, moral, administrative, or spiritual center to which some rival center of power just happens to offer access) to radicalize subjects’ complaints about the king’s judgments—they are no longer mistakes that must be tolerated and that we are anyway unequipped to judge and therefore may not be mistakes after all but our own contumacy, but inherent in a system that has usurped the subject’s real relation to God, or Nature, or his own Human Nature. This process of unsecuring sovereignty is a process of anthropomorphosis, as we are all compelled to attribute intentions of usurpation, subversion and domination to everyone else (except, perhaps, for that one who pulled aside the “veil” for us, to whom we owe unconditional devotion). Now, the continuance of absolute sovereignty also requires anthropomorphosis, as new modes of discipline require new attributions of intention, to both sovereign and subject alike. The sovereign must be imagined as someone capable of deferring and deterring conflicts through means unimaginable to the rest of us, including his ongoing dialogue with God; while subjects must be imagined of being capable of acknowledging the sovereign’s contributions to their ever richer and more complex lives, along with a system of deferences to variously defined superiors in various fields and situations. Our deferences require that we continually supply intentions to those whose discipline we acknowledge as models—they have our and others welfare in mind in ways that we strive to understand. A corollary to the maxim that sovereignty is conserved is the maxim that the space of sovereignty must be saturated: if we cannot attribute the consequences of the acts that undergird our lives to those duly appointed to carry them out we will attribute them to more or less hidden rulers; the more unsecure the power, the more devious, menacing, cruel and omnipresent those powers must be. While certain patterns emerge—the Jews seem to be a particularly popular candidate for the hidden rulers—and certain attributions may be more or less accurate than others, no consensus can possibly be formed regarding the “real” rulers, as different factions attribute more and more inventive and implausible modes of domination to each other.

Reactionary politics, then, is a kind of anthropomorphics: it reads all forms of discontent, all forms of “mythmaking,” all narratives of resentment towards some overbearing usurper of our power, as manifestations of resentment towards unsecure power. Ultimately, our real resentment towards the Big Man regards his failure or refusal to align our realities with our own understanding of our just place within them. He is weak, manipulated, or simply not the “real” ruler. Complaints of the sovereign’s cruelty are complaints that his cruelty is not deployed in our favor, which diminishes his sovereignty. All kinds of quasi-mythical political figures are created to account for this. If these resentments are not met with demonstrations of secure power, they create the unsecure power they complain of. Along with exposing these resentments of unsecured power, reactionary politics articulates the kind of secure power those complaints are really demanding. What kind of power would the state have to have to do what you want done? For it to have that kind of power, what hierarchy of effective command would have to be in place—and how would the sovereign have to act upon and frame all other power centers so as to put and keep it in place? Finally, if the state had those power centers so aligned, what would it actually do? Probably not exactly what you wanted, after all—which means that you are not sovereign over your own desires and resentments. Promoting such an anthropomorphics, a study of the conversions needed to promote sovereignty over desires and resentments by desiring secure sovereignty and resenting the actors who further unsecure it, is the work of reactionary political theory.

Sovereignty is always conserved, but that does not mean sovereignty remains in the same hands from moment to moment. Unsecure sovereignty means divided powers, who will ultimately be pitted against each other, but it also means that one of those powers rules here and now, another then and there. Sometimes the Supreme Court is sovereign, sometimes the President. Sometimes, perhaps, Harvard. This is the source of resentment. But the conservation of sovereignty also implies that each and every one of us, in his daily tasks, is somewhere in the chain of command issuing from one site of sovereignty or another. We are sovereign over some small portion of those daily tasks, which is why we can resent failures of sovereignty on larger scales. The teacher who exercises sovereignty in the classroom knows whether the students have learned something as a result of his efforts, so he can know what it means for there to be no discernable connections between efforts and results. Complaints regarding the insecurity of sovereignty derive from the model of those areas where the complainant exercises some sovereignty of his own. The problem of political thinking is to scale up the self-discipline we practice so as to exercise sovereignty where we can. Or, rather, the problem of political education is showing others how to do so. If reactionary absolutism is right, such efforts at scaling up will make absolute sovereignty, sovereignty derived from the absolute imperative (a function of one’s efforts to see beyond the constraints imposed by one’s desires and resentments), ever more persuasive. We will find that those who unsecure power at the highest levels do so at intermediate and lower levels as well, so that anyone interested in sovereignty of any kind, anywhere (in the family, at the workplace, on the street, in the marketplace, etc.) must feel it and resent it.

1 Comment »

  1. […] I don’t know this guy “Adam” or how I discovered his (old-skool) blog: Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere, but this was pretty good: Anthropomorphics and Reaction: […]

    Pingback by This Week in Reaction (2016/09/11) - Social Matter — September 14, 2016 @ 1:28 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Powered by WordPress