The Sovereign and the Infinite

We can assume that in any advanced society all members are involved in asymmetrical gift exchanges with the central power, and what we can call an “incommensurable” gift exchange with the infinite: whether we call that “God,” or “Being,” or “Presence,” or, along more Nietzschean lines, “language” or even “grammar” (Nietzsche once said, disparagingly, that we still believe in God because we still believe in grammar—but aren’t there good reasons to believe in grammar?). The reality of a central power is predicated upon differences in discipline—whoever is more disciplined will, at a minimum, attract more attention because he will become a model for doing things others can’t. Once someone stands out in that way, everyone else finds an interest in preserving that individual as a model, because doing so restrains and reframes rivalries amongst others within the community. Once we all decide on a model, rivalries are limited to fitting into places within a system framed by the model, and are therefore intrinsically limited. The argument for a social sovereign is partly the argument for having a centralized executive power for any shared task—the efficiency that comes from clear lines of responsibility—but also partly this more comprehensive need to contain rivalries. Sovereignty is where resentments go to die, as we discover that targeting the presumed source of our resentment does not assuage that resentment and, moreover, creates new resentments in turn. It is also where resentments are reborn as deferences to those we recognize as necessary arbiters of our resentments.

My asymmetrical gift relation to the sovereign, then, enables me to subtract from my rivalries with others the unlimited character of “unbound” rivalries—he gets the job or I get the job, and however hard fought the competition up until that point, it’s over, because a duly deputized representative of social order has so decided (the means of deciding are of course also streamlined—I will presumably get the job because I am better in some important sense, not because I killed my rival or hacked into his transcript and letter of recommendation). The same goes for the justice system—if someone rapes and kills and member of my family I don’t have to see that a member of the family of the perpetrator is raped and killed (leading him to then retaliate, etc.), the justice system can put an end to it by imposing a properly determined punishment. This is extraordinarily liberating, ethically and intellectually—instead of thinking of the best ways to protect my own and harm my rivals, I can think about forms of exchange whereby we try and “bound” more potentially disruptive rivalries. The more operative sovereignty is throughout society, the more progress along these lines (i.e., civilization) is possible.

Our incommensurable relation to the infinite is produced by our awareness that, after all, rivalries can only be bound imperfectly—the very rivalries sovereignty is meant to contain can infect the sovereign power, either internally or in the external relation between sovereigns, and thereby reproduce those rivalries on an even more catastrophic scale. Kings and empires come and go, so what remains? The vendetta is simply the other side of the far more benign sounding gift relation. Within the gifting economy, the quality of one’s gift represents prestige, with each side matching and seeking to outdo the other. The possibility for insult and humiliation is built into the process. The vendetta works within the same mode of exchange as the gift, insofar as both are always seeking to restore an injured honor. In the gift relation with the sovereign, I renounce my own independent vendettas while binding myself to loyalty to the sovereign in pursuing his. The hope is that the central organization of rivalry will lead to its more intelligent and therefore limited pursuit, and this is always a wager that is won until it is lost. Our relation to the infinite is in anticipation of the losing of the wager: what I give to God, or grammar, is all of myself, complete dedication to His/Its ends, and I do this by cleaving from the gift relation its flip side, the vendetta, which I completely renounce. The gift relation without the vendetta is all giving in response to having received all. Giving all is doing God’s work, which is the work of disinvesting in unbound rivalries—of forgiving, and showing others how to forgive. (It is also, in fact, the work of grammar.) There is much talk of Western Civilization lately, and it seems to me that a good way to think of it is as the ongoing tension, unique, I think, to the West, between the infinite and the sovereign.

How can we tell that everyone in contemporary social orders is asymmetrically bonded to a gifting relationship to the central power? We all speak. Insofar as we use language, we participate in the deferral of violence; even more, though, we presuppose the subsistence of the entire history of such deferrals. To use Jacques Derrida’s term, violence has always already been deferred. That gives us the space wherein we can either contribute to sustaining that process of deferral, or exploit the trust the history of deferral accumulates to enhance whatever power center we belong to. Let’s look at some of things we do with language, in no particular order. We refer—we indirectly point to something in the world that we imagine someone else will recognize as that very thing, so that others can confirm or revise our reference. This requires that the world be held steady—that many objects remain more or less the same, while other objects change in ways we can track, new objects are introduced under some recognizable aegis and other objects disappear in ways we can also account for. Even more important, the names of things are not constantly changing, a process that, with our experience of totalitarianism in the 20th century, we know to be an effect of extremely unsecure power. It follows, then, that a stable relation between words and our shared reality is indicative of relatively more secure power—more precisely, that we could examine changes in the language mediating our relation to reality as indexes to the relative security of power. Any time we refer successfully, we rely upon power that is secure at least to that extent, and, therefore, insofar as we intend to refer successfully, we implicitly hope for secure power.

We argue, more or less rationally and logically. In doing so, we assume that disagreements will be settled through conversation rather than force—and what enables us to do so, if not the central power holding force at bay? The more we appeal to each other reasonably and civilly, the more secure we assume power to be; the more we address each other through the quasi-violence of manipulative propaganda techniques, the more insecure we assume power to be, because the more we assume power is ripe for the taking by the swift and unscrupulous. Even more so if we communicate more often through implicit or explicit threats and intimidation. Reasonable appeals, moreover, already assume a massive iceberg of tacit agreement, of which the actual reasoning is the mere tip—we can’t really argue over whether we should argue rather than try to kill each other, we can’t really argue if our first principles are so disparate as to preclude any shared ground, we can’t really argue if we have differing assumptions regarding, say, the role authority, social prohibitions and established hierarchies should have in the process of civil discourse. Such differences really indicate that we live under different power centers, or in a radically divided one, rendering reason irrelevant. So, the more we insist on settling our disputes through reason, and upon raising the standards of rational discourse, the more we both presuppose and promote (even if we are anarchists in our explicit views) central power, which necessarily prefers to preserve that iceberg of tacit agreement.

We promise and undertake obligations. Here, the assumption of central power is especially evident. The more seriously we take our promises the more we assume broken promises will be registered as scandals and as requiring a great deal of work in restoring one’s trustworthiness, but also, then, some objective, third party measure of what counts as a broken promise. I don’t necessarily mean an actual arbiter, although there will be plenty of those as well, but that in promising we mostly agree on how such an arbiter would judge breaches—after all, why would anyone promise anything otherwise? To assume the existence of impartial arbiters, even hypothetical ones, is to assume consistent standards regarding justice, even if the application of those standards may differ from community to community. To assume such consistency is to assume a central power capable of stepping in to enforce such standards when infringements occur, and the charisma of a central power that means it is unlikely to have to do so often. We could attribute a successful culture of promising, like a culture of reason, to the “mores” of the people, but mores are enforced constantly (they don’t enforce themselves), which brings us back to the question of power. Even more obviously, our complaints when obligations have (in our view) been unmet makes unmistakably evident our “belief” in a central power—what would be the point of complaining that laws are unjust, that just laws go enforced, that officials are overbearing and oppressive, that young people have no respect for their elders (who have given them life and order), etc., if built into our very language was not the assumption that laws can be made just, can be enforced, and that respect can be inculcated across the generations? In any particular case, such expectations may be unrealistic, and some expectations may contradict others—that just means that further clarifications regarding perfecting the sovereign order are necessary: reason needs to conquer more ground covered by manipulation, promises need to be elevated over threats, and so on.

We do much more with language than even what I have outlined here, but in each case I think we will discover the same thing—that nothing that we say or think makes sense without the assumption that all of our desires and resentments target a central power that limits and defines them. Even the most fanatical anarchistic atheist assumes that reason and/or altruistic instincts (as he conceives them) can triumph over all conflicts and self-delusions, which just assumes an absolute sovereignty of the people at their best—that is, the fanatic agrees that everyone must agree on those things fundamental to social peace and civilization, he just fantasizes that happening without any one power to impose it. We could say that this fanatic imagines the infinite installing itself directly into our “hard drives,” so that no one needs to impose the peace that makes it possible for us to give ourselves to the infinite in the first place. But anyone who experiences the infinite wants it for everyone, and knows that whatever space of peace and order made the discipline that enabled one to hear the infinite possible for oneself, more such spaces, and more “spacious” ones must be created for increasing numbers of people to hear from the infinite. He will want a central power that provides for such spaces, that rules in such a way as to model such spaces, and that insists upon a tenor of social discourse that honors them. Meanwhile, competing power centers will find a quick and effective means of subversion by simply “debunking” the connections between discipline, civil order, and success within that civil order. The belief that we are all born with what it takes to rule ourselves will be the simplest way of enacting the needed debunking—discipline, in that case, is really just the expropriation of our natural and naturally egalitarian capacities.

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