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.

1 Comment »

  1. […] One of the best ways to read Reactionary Future is through (an apparent) dialog with his interlocutors who have the patience for it. In this regard, Adam at GA Blog provides an invaluable service. That’s GA for Generative Anthropology. What that has to do with has political theory geekery, heaven only knows. How long the patience will hold out is a matter of conjecture. This week’s well-constructed, but still rather long, dialog concerns The Three Resentments. And makes for some interesting reading. Also there, a thought experiment: The Two Charismas. […]

    Pingback by This Week in Reaction (2016/10/02) - Social Matter — October 5, 2016 @ 2:06 am

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