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Central Power and the Originary Configuration

Reactionary Future has been addressing the liberal prioritization of culture and religion over politics, as pursuant to the absolutist rejection of “bottom-up” in favor of “top-down” understandings of order. It is not that new ideas lead to a new consciousness which spreads (because they are good ideas? Because they “reflect” some new social developments that just “happened”?) throughout society, finally leading to adaptations in political institutions. The more economic understanding is that the new ideas are promoted by secessionist powers in their exploitation of unsecure power and as part of their own struggle to resecure power on their own terms. It follows that the very idea of separate spheres of life, like “culture,” “religion,” “art,” “philosophy,” is itself a product of these power struggles—more precisely, the ascendancy of liberalizing power centers that want to eliminate all mediation between the state and the individual. The very ideas of freedom of religion and free speech, while apparently protecting individuals from the state, in fact ensure the domestication of what gets marked as “religion” and “speech”—ultimately, as we can see more clearly now, making it possible for the state to define such terms according to convenience and “weigh” them against other rights and “state interests.” This reification of separate spheres advances the centralizing dynamic of state power that keeps breaking up “middleistic” formation and leaves individuals bare in their confrontation with the state. The replacement of the “thick” articulation of ritual, place of worship, ecclesiastical authority and doctrine by the “thin” gruel of “personal belief” is not just the alienation of homogenized individuals—it is a power play aimed at breaking up solidarities and power centers that interfere with the direct application of state power on each and every individual.

Among these separate spheres, though, would have to be counted “politics” and “the state” themselves. These concepts would themselves be abstractions advancing divided power by treating the institutions concerned with ruling as slots to be filled by whoever can seize power by whatever mechanisms are available. This would further mean that the sacred, the invisible, the ethical, the moral, and the political are all bound up together in more primordial categories. For the originary hypothesis, this more primordial category is the sacred center. Humanity is founded around a sacred center, an object that has inflamed such desire as to require a sign of deferral to prevent the self-immolation of the group. Everything is there: “politics” (the nascent form of authority); “art” (the oscillation between the sign pointing to the object and the desirable object itself); “philosophy,” or at least thought (following the relation between center and margins in one’s fellows); and, of course, “religion” (supplication to the “command” of the central object that prohibits appropriation). The approved myth of modernity is that all of these forms of human life, bundled together in an enslaving mass of irrational rules and authorities, all get separated out and “cleansed” of their irrational and oppressive dross. So, reactionary absolutism must rearticulate them in terms of the sacred center.

One way or another, sooner or later, one member of the community accumulates enough wealth, which also means enough trust and reciprocal obligation, so as to place him beyond the egalitarian customs of the community and (which is to say the same thing) beyond a symmetrical gift exchange with any single member of the community. His relations are now with the community as a whole, as he comes to control distribution. This Big Man now occupies the sacred center, which for the primitive community was occupied (generally) by the animal the community relied upon for food and defied and assumed a relation of mutual obligation with. Now, the sacred center is a central power, and there is not anything, to this day, which can replace or transcend central power, which is therefore a presupposition of civilized life. Everything in the community circulates through this central power which, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that the occupant of the central position takes it upon himself to manage the daily activities of community members. It just means that everything takes place through more or less direct reference to the central power—everything is allowed or required by that power. So, far, we don’t have the separation of spheres—art, religion, thinking, politics are all bundled up in the community’s relation to the central power, an arrangement that continues even as the Big Man becomes the emperor ruling over vast territories and very different communities.

The ancient empires obviously lasted a long time—several thousand years in some cases. Whether they ever had to fall and be replaced by new civilizational forms is a moot question (we could ask the same question about the primitive communities, which lasted far longer). The very thing that sustained them for so longer is probably what made them so vulnerable to new conditions—the absolute asymmetry between the God Emperor and any other human being. Anything the emperor does that departs from the traditionally derived prescriptions governing relations between center and margin would have to be obeyed unquestioningly; but it would also have to be virtually unintelligible, immediately generating other power centers, the guardians of tradition. No initiative is possible, and no real thinking, other than studying the stars in order to predict and control future events. The two best known breaks with the imperial tradition are the monotheistic revelation in ancient Israel and the discovery of metaphysics in ancient Greece—which are, of course, eventually synthesized in Christianity. (I don’t know enough to say if perhaps a more gradual version of this break occurred with Confucianism in ancient China.)

The best way of understanding this break is as the recovery or remembering of the originary scene or, more precisely, what Eric Gans calls the “moral model” derived from the scene. The only way to renew social order once the limits of the imperial model are grasped is to imagine spaces enabling the possible co-presence of all human beings. Metaphysics imagines a space of inquiry into eternal truths in which any disinterested individual could participate; monotheism imagines the origin of all human beings from a single creator. The moral model, in my view, need mean nothing more than co-presence and reciprocal acknowledgement—we need not and, in my view, had better not, project back to the originary scene any of our own assumptions of “equality.” Once this recovery (which cannot be unrecovered) is made, the moral model is, we might say, mapped onto our model of any particular social order. The relation between the originary moral model and the existent social order poses the problems which later get taken up in terms of the relation between the “city of God” and the city of Man,” and finally, “state” and “religion.” The problem becomes more manageable if we think of it in originary terms.

I don’t know whether the emergence of monotheism and metaphysics involved the interventions of new power centers under conditions of unsecure power, as per the absolutist model. If so, they were the rare interventions that actually provided the means for securing power. Faith and philosophy have certainly caused problems for the state, because they make an a priori claim to loyalty to something higher than the state—the truth transcends the word of the ruler, and the commands of God those of the ruler. But first of all the absoluteness of the truth and the global sovereignty of God provide models for absolute sovereignty. At the same time these absolutes frame absolute sovereignty, and provide it with a mission to spread the truth and imitate God by preserving and elevating the ruled. No ruler could possibly rule in explicit defiance of the truth and God (or, more broadly, the moral model). So, the ruler obligates himself to the moral model and makes himself its guardian. This justifies absolute rule, or the occupancy of central power by the ruler, because only through the singleness of power can the singularity of the moral model become the fundamental social guide, embedded in all social practices. Any critic of the ruler would have to present himself as authorized by the ruler to help ensure the conformity of a given institution to the terms of the moral model constitutive of that institution.

So, all post-imperial institutions are predicated upon the assumption that all institutions provide for co-presence and reciprocal acknowledgement of all participants—and that sometimes this assumption does not coincide with reality, which therefore requires reform. Continual exploration of the forms of co-presence and mutual acknowledgement that transcend the particular social order is necessary if the institutions are to be examined in terms of their conformity to those forms. This exploration embraces all of culture, which thereby has its “function” in relation to the central power. All that matters to the sovereign is that this exploration, these inquiries, be conducted in such a way as to engage vigorously the traditional materials in which forms of the moral model have been inherited, to freely test the implications of those materials for existing institutions, and to suggest reforms (where necessary) of those institutions in a way that recognizes their founding in the moral model. The ultimate test of these inquiries is whether they help enhance the sovereign’s co-presence with and reciprocal acknowledgment of the people. The sovereign will be the ultimate judge of whether that’s the case, but we can assume that he will judge more favorably the more the inquiries have been transparently directed towards the edification of the realm. There may be many different faiths and rites, then, just like there may be many schools of art, types of entertainment, and modes of scientific and technological endeavor, but the tendency will be to bring them all into relation with each other as various explorations of the infinitively generative moral model—there may be an ongoing overlapping of undifferentiation, differentiation and dedifferentiation of “spheres.” And if you don’t like the phrase “moral model,” because “morality” has been one of those concepts carved out of prior unity and privatized, we can call it the “originary configuration.” We keep trying to further approximate the originary configuration, which is to say maximal co-presence and reciprocal acknowledgement, but the only way of doing so by continuing to center the center (derive information, instruction and intentions from the center) and thereby turning it into a source of information regarding how to further approximate.

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