GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

October 5, 2016

Ideology, Revisited

Filed under: GA — adam @ 5:13 pm

The absolutist theory of sovereignty makes it possible to solve a problem that not only has never been solved but has never even been adequately formulated, even though it was first posed during the Enlightenment. The concept of “ideology” began, of course, as a proposed discipline focused on the study of ideas, but the problem of how to liberate people’s natural reason from faith, superstition and tradition was already a pressing problem for Enlightenment thinkers—and it is this problem that ultimately became the problem of “alienation” and finally ideology in Marxist thought. Why do the mystifications of bourgeois society mystify? The activist thinker can see through them—why can’t others be made to? Noam Chomsky has taken the concept of “manufacturing consent” from Walter Lippman’s study of public opinion, and used it to the same end—why do people accept the alien perspective of their rulers? Of course, much of this can be attributed to the imbalances of power—the Marxists and Chomskyans are all well aware of who owns the media, who runs the schools, who produces mass entertainment, etc. But it is essential to any politics aiming at radical transformation to locate in the “people” some innate resistance to such machinations, whether that be natural reason (which Chomsky seems to believe in as much as any Enlightenment liberal) or some kind of class or other “consciousness.” But if that resistance was there to be activated, why does it never seem to take shape? Somehow, ideology must be penetrating the workings of that resistant consciousness and de-activating it. But by now every group and almost every individual has its own theory of ideology—something prevents the masses from seeing corporate domination, or the war on whites, or the insidious racism oozing out of all our practices, or just from seeing how astonishingly evil Hillary or Trump is. We are way past arguments over reasonable differences regarding the fitness of candidates and the justice or effectiveness of public policies—there is no one to persuade, only enemies to destroy and potential allies to be liberated from their false consciousness. The red pill/blue pill distinction so central to alt-right and neo-reactionary thinking is the latest, and far from the most easily dismissed, of these “ideology critiques.”

We can bemoan the loss of public discourse aimed at persuading fellow citizens, but, in truth, that conception was conjoined at its birth with the theory of ideology, which is meant to diagnose those not amenable to persuasion. The confusions theories of ideology denounce are real, but they are confusions over who rules; moreover, these confusions do not bespeak confused minds but, rather, divided and unsecure power. If it is in reality unclear who rules, who occupies the center, all members of society have no choice but to do their best to identify the real ruler. Naturally they will do this differently, depending upon how they map the moral model of the originary scene onto whichever configuration of the center is most apparent to them, and which potential occupants of the center appear most threatening. A worker who fears losing his job will believe it is unjust that he lose his job because he has played by the rules and paid his dues to the center—a just central power would not allow this and since it appears likely to happen some unjust power has usurped the once just sovereign (or kept out of power the potentially just sovereign). That worker will want to know who that usurper is. Thus far, the worker is not at all mystified—he is right. The problem is that with multiplying power divisions, identifying the responsible party is a hit or miss game, and the answer that seems most plausible to that worker will depend upon who that worker, in a newly fragile world of shaken authorities, still attributes a knowing trustworthiness to. Perhaps his fellow union members; perhaps his friends at the bar, perhaps his neighbors, or his boss—or a radio talk show host.

Meanwhile, all those powers playing musical chairs are attributing responsibility to each other—the media blame the corporations, the corporations fund think tanks and media outlets that blame other corporate sectors, or the government bureaucracy, the political parties blame each other and each other’s constituencies; foreign powers, and of course, the Jews, get thrown into the mix. There may be more or less truth in any of these assessments, but no one is in any position to determine how much with any real certainty, in part because the precise power balances shift constantly. Ideology, then, is really the miasma of distributed powers all trying to ally themselves with some powers and oppose others, which means all share an interest in never allowing power to become settled, never allowing the center to be occupied. But the only substitute for secure occupation of the center is to mobilize as much unanimity as you can against some false pretender to that occupancy. This is how ideological narratives take shape, very much on the model of myth (the Enlighteners had a point there): the pretender (corporations, rogue spy agencies, foreign powers, rogue spy agencies of foreign powers, the ideologically suspect—once Communists, now neo-Nazis) threatens to possess the center, taking advantage of division, complacency and misguided generosity of those who have internalized the true center; finally, a heroic representative of the true center will awaken, enlighten and unify enough of the “centrists” (two or three, including a bratty child, may do) to restore an implicit center occupied by no one but internalized in the hearts of all. Such narratives can frame a news story or a history textbook as easily as a Hollywood blockbuster. In the end, the faith in centerlessness, with a true center in each and every one of us, is restored.

There is always a sense in which sovereignty ultimately resides in whoever commands the massive bodies of armed men, but it is in the nature of liberal democratic government to pass power out of its own hands like a game we used to play as kids that I perhaps misremember being called “salugee,” where the object was to keep passing a ball or some object from teammate to teammate to prevent the opposing team from wresting physical possession of the object from the carrier (whichever team had the ball or object when lunch period was over won). So, the government attributes its actions to the will of the people, or to some overriding political or legal principle, or to the need to appease the “base” of the party in power—which really means the social groupings the government attributes “peoplehood” to in order to under-legitimize some other group, or some legal authority it wants to empower to undermine some other legal authority, or the agenda of fundraisers who want cheap labor or weapons orders or agricultural patents. The tendency is always toward power that is both more centralized and more divided—more aspects of life, more norms, more social arrangements, become the object of interference in decreasingly accountable ways. To whom do you address your grievance if some district court judge appointed by a president (elevated by a particular power configuration displacing another) enamored of some legal theorist at Harvard (himself inspired by some 60s activist and recipient of grants from various foundations) decides low income housing needs to be built down the street from you? The desire to find out who is behind all this is nearly irresistible, but also futile.

It makes a lot more sense to say that we are alienated from our proper relation to the center than from our real (or genuinely human) self or class consciousness. Our resentments speak of a center—you can’t see something as wrong, unjust, unfair or even just mistaken without imagining the possibility of remedying it (without that possibility, it’s all just things that happen). It’s a sign of maturity to realize that all things (probably most things) cannot be remedied to one’s own satisfaction, but it is, then, a sign of emergent mastery to consider which wrongs most need to be remedied, what kind of authority would have to do the remedying, what interference it would encounter, which wrongs would get neglected in the process, or might even turn out not to be wrongs at all; and, moreover, what kind of person would be able to deploy that authority, what sort of social relations and individual character would be needed to comply with and aid that authority—what you are doing, at that point, is theorizing sovereignty. In the process you will necessarily cut through the lies, the self-serving self-deceptions, the panicky confusions, because you will always want to bring the fundamental question up point blank: what hierarchy of authorities would right the most wrongs, do the most justice, lead to the greatest fairness, or, even better, prevent the most wrongs, injustice and unfairness from being committed in the first place? And not just any wrongs, injustices and unfairnesses, but the ones we see right in front of us, the ones that spark the inquiry into sovereignty in the first place. Here, there is a place for dialogue with our fellow citizens in the true spirit of openness and inquiry—indeed, we can focus the dialogue on what mode of government, what kind of occupation of the center, can best guarantee that such dialogues can be sustained? I think it must be an occupation of the center ready to be accountable for all that happens on the margins, but we can continue to discuss it.

Another dimension of absolutist theory, one that I have mostly neglected so far, can be brought into play here as well. Ultimately, for absolutism, powers that intervene in and influence events simply want their power to be more secure—they want a “decidable” sovereignty as much as anyone. Because of divided power, though, they must make an end run around other powers in order to achieve—never with complete success—such security. (It should be noted that this implies a severely divided consciousness on the part of such powers.) I will refer you to Reactionary Future’s post on the Charlotte riots, which I referenced a couple of posts back. The government, or some part of government, wants a national police force; because of divided power (federalism) that can’t be done directly; so you instigate racial and cop hatred that causes riots so that you have the “proof” of the racism and incompetence of local police forces that you need to propose nationalizing the whole shebang—in stages, of course, first by instituting “standards” whose implementation is to be overseen by the Justice Department, but which can’t really be met by the local forces without resources from the feds, etc. Of course, different powers will be doing this in different ways, often undermining each other. Still, if, as RF says in his latest post,

the best we can do is to try to deduce what actors will do in the specific position they occupy within a governmental system. We cannot dictate what they must do with a law, constitution or other such ring of Fnargl gimmicks, but must provide them with the requisite circumstances and organisation to allow them to act in accordance with their role without having to resort to such bizarre recourse as funding black rioters, anti-corn law movements or other forms of self-protesting to circumvent the republican blocks in place that stop them from acting correctly,

then we can conduct our ideology critique in a way that more directly addresses political and policy decisions. Once we have deduced what would “be in accordance with their role” without “resort to such bizarre recourse,” we can use the impossibility of fulfilling their role under current circumstances to expose the whole tangled web of “bizarre recourses” that comprise our present governmental and social order. Indeed, much of our everyday lives must be made up of such bizarre recourses, even though we often do, as must the government, get things done somehow (fulfill the roles the center as allotted us), nevertheless. (This is possible because all of us recognize at least some of the time that there is a center, and can reconstruct a version of its “instructions.”) When the center is occupied intermittently and unaccountably, everyone will busy themselves in trying to saturate the center space, and this generates the thickets of bizarre recourses (and equally bizarre explanations justifying those recourses) that we must continually cut through to bring the center—a center, I continue to insist, that we all know is there (otherwise, no rational decisions would ever make it through those bizarre recourses at all)—into view. So, the starting point of our counter-ideological dialogues can be asking what you (or anyone else) would be doing right now if a clear and secure hierarchy of authority rendered all bizarre recourse unnecessary; the question of what one should be doing will, furthermore, be of use in constructing a model of that hierarchy.

October 1, 2016

The Two Charismas

Filed under: GA — adam @ 1:37 pm

Imagine a group of ten people. Nine of them, when food is presented, rush straight towards it and grab it greedily, shoving big chunks into their mouth as fast as they can. The tenth waits a minute or so, until the furor and squabbling dies down, and calmly goes to the food that has not yet been touched and eats it at a normal pace. How impressed the nine would be with the tenth! He would be a veritable god to them—his self-control would seem magical or divinely inspired. This is charisma, in its original sense, according t Philip Rieff: divine grace perceived in a person who has transcended desires that are compulsive to others. Such an individual, through force of example, would be able to lay down the law to the nine, restructuring their eating habits so that at least a modicum of his discipline is reflected in them. Or, of course, the nine might kill him, especially if instigated by one of their number who was to point out, for example, the possibility that the new eating arrangements might not benefit all equally, might, in fact, redound in particular to the benefit of the tenth and, anyway, how was he able to restrain himself—does he possess some power he might now use on the rest of us? This instigator would recommend transgressing the better order proposed or even just implicitly embodied by the tenth, and in doing so would end up transgressing even the old order, where at least, however squalid the proceedings, everyone knew they’d get their piece. He must end up transgressing this established order because in it lie the seeds of the new, more disciplined one, and he will do so by reversing the scale of values and empowering the most piggish of the bunch. This is the modern, post-Weberian meaning of charisma: the transgression of the established, the secure, and the accepted.

The two modes of charisma are not, though, as easy to distinguish in real life as they are in this simple example. Those who transgress and flout traditional sexual norms do so in the name of restraining our desire to lash out at those who are “different”; while many of those who defend tradition against the corrosive dictates of political correctness can no doubt feel a transgressive thrill in breaking the rules of current discourse on race, sex and other topics. This complexity is multiplied by the diversity of virtues, each requiring its own form of discipline and capable of being manifested with either form of charisma. To be courageous is to discipline oneself to restrain feelings of fear, the most natural and powerful of all feelings, but it is also fear that keeps us in line and in accord with established values, and it might be courageous to break completely reasonable norms. To think carefully and systematically requires years of training, involving the suppression of the natural desire to make every new idea fit the ideas you already have mastered, but careful and systematic thinking can devise monstrous theories, monstrous theories that might put the author’s brilliance more on display than the intellectual output of a more traditionally minded and therefore seeming conventional but no less powerful thinker.

Indeed, if we return to our original example, the transgressive instigator of the other nine must have been at least slightly more disciplined than his brethren—otherwise, there is no way he could have extricated his mind from the sheer expanse separating the nine’s gluttony from the tenth’s restraint to resent the power the latter now deployed. Perhaps the tenth is “more” disciplined than (let’s call him) the “ninth,” but not only is “quantity” a very limited category to apply to the wide range of disciplines, but it may often turn out that the ninth is more disciplined than the tenth (which would be why they sometimes win). The difference we are looking for must be qualitative.

How do the nine of ten indulge their voraciousness while managing not to kill each other? We’re not dealing with animals, so there must be some minimal hesitation and mutual adjustment even in what would look to mannered onlookers as a disgusting food orgy. They remember enough of the originary scene to let each other know that they won’t interfere, at least not too much, with the others’ satisfaction. The tenth just has a memory of the originary scene that is both more abstract and more present. How is that possible? Compared to the tenth, the nine all seem out of control; compared to each other, though, there are definitely differences—some are, sometimes, more attuned to the danger posed to the group by the aggressiveness of others, and take measures to both limit that aggressiveness and model a more sustainable mode of sharing. It may be that these differences never settle upon specific members but, rather, emerge contingently, depending upon which of the ten (first of all) has the sharpest insight into the danger at the time. The tenth emerges when these differences settle upon an individual who is now capable of applying them a priori to any scene.

The ninth couldn’t emerge before the tenth because in that case he would just be a somewhat cleverer aggressor amongst the horde. So he comes after the tenth. The tenth separates himself from the rest by remembering the originary scene in its difference from the present scene. The memory of the originary scene induces an obligation to preserve the present scene, but to preserve it in distinction from some imminent danger, which also means to modify it—in as understated a way as possible. This involves both the addition of an increment of deferral and thwarting the most present danger. The stronger the memory of the originary scene, the more visible and imitable the deferral and the more accurately perceived the danger. The ninth exploits the hesitation induced by the tenth’s modeling of deferral, while seeking to destroy that model, which would eliminate his advantage as the only one who can choose to hesitate or not. The ninth denounces the commemoration of the originary scene as a delusion that benefits only the tenth.

So, can we apply this rather abstract model to contemporary politics, and distinguish in real time between the two charismas? The “graceful” charisma wants to bring power and accountability into ever closer identity. If someone is expected to do something, he must have the means to do it; if someone has the means to do something, he must be expected to deploy those means in a way that serves the end for which the means were provided. This extends all the way up to the sovereign, who is accountable to no one in particular but must use the means at his disposal to maintain sovereignty, because no one else will do it for him. Accountability involves retrieving the model of the originary scene: showing yourself refraining from the act most likely to break the existing truce and restart mimetic rivalry. Power means thwarting the ambitions of whoever would break ranks and rush to center. We can tell when someone wants to bring power and accountability closer together: they evince recognition, at least, of the fact that doing one thing means not doing something else. Transgressive charisma, meanwhile, wants to separate power and accountability—to have power is to be unaccountable, and to be accountable is to be accountable to power. Transgressive charisma promises power without accountability, exercises power without accountability, and seeks to strip the power of those it holds accountable. (It does take some discipline to maintain this focus and steady oneself to violate norms and normality.) I don’t think we’ll find any unmistakable examples of graceful charisma in today’s political world, but we can certainly distinguish between those at least aware of the possibility and those who want to extinguish it.

Remembering the originary scene is the ultimate tradition. It is manifested not in the construction of pacific utopian fantasies, but in a kind of attention management: noticing where some refrain from violating the perimeter surrounding the center, where some of those who refrain also stand prepared to restrain those (the other locus of attention) who exploit the hesitation of others. To be a traditionalist is to look for where discipline has been stored in existing institutions, and to add to the stock. You do this by preserving and restoring the sovereignty of the institutions by bringing power and accountability into alignment—by adhering to the original function of the institution. Well, what about bad institutions, whose original purpose was to do evil—let’s go straight to the reduction ad Hitlerum and Stalinum and say death camps and Gulags (are they not institutions?)—but it’s not clear what it would mean to add new increments of deferral to institutions explicitly and solely devoted to torment and extermination, is it? Such institutions are the end point of transgressive charisma, loading on more accountability in proportion to the stripping of all power.

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