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Speech and Sovereignty

Speech is effective, which is to say revelatory and transformative, when it points to some reparable failure of reciprocity—reciprocity that is acknowledged by he who is charged with the failure, pointed out by or on behalf of he to whom the reciprocity is owed. (When reciprocity is wholly realized, received verbal formulas are sufficient for the purposes of acknowledgement.) Such speech is marked by the asymmetry of the relation—the asymmetry in fulfillment of obligations as well as the respective roles or positions of the interlocutors. This is especially the case when an inferior speaks to a superior, but speech between peers carries its own burdens. There is an especial gravity, for example, in a private raising a grievance with a general—such an act would be disruptive of norms and forms, and dangerous for the private, which both gives greater weight to the grievance and requires that the grievance be of such weight as to merit the disruption, and be presented accordingly. Let’s take a less consequential situation—a writer who addresses a letter of complaint to an editor who has rejected his work. The complaint is not over the rejection as such, but over the editor’s failure to provide a plausible reason for it. Here, the assumption is of a reciprocity of obligations which is uncodified but embedded in the relation between two individuals presumably invested in the preservation of “letters.” The dismissiveness of the editor is a dereliction of duty, because he should be able to explain why the submission is of insufficient interest to be put before the readership served by the journal. (What is of interest to them, within the range of problems encompassed by your journal, and why? Why, for that matter, should not the submission suggest a new possible approach to the readership, and a revision of the scope of the journal? What are you doing with the attention to control?) To provide such reasons would be to render one’s responsibility to one’s interdependencies, to bring one’s power into accord with one’s accountability. There are obviously good reasons for rejecting manuscripts, just as the general might have good reasons for not satisfying the soldier’s grievance, but in both cases the question is whether the responsible individual recognizes that some kind of breach needs to be repaired and nominal and actual power brought into accord. Even a trivial complaint may expose such a breach, even if it only calls for an equally trivial, but perhaps meaningful gesture. Knowing that you will be expected to account for your decisions, and that you are not simply exercising power at your own discretion in your own private fiefdom, may lead you to make better decisions—and demand better decisions, in turn, from others.

We are always addressing our possible audiences, and through them a broader arena of our contemporaries, and, we imagine, posterity, in this way as well: we name them, assign them titles, and corresponding duties, however minimally or implicitly conceived. We insist that they accept their names and titles and act in accord with the corresponding duties; and in doing so we adopt names and titles and duties ourselves. In the process we imagine a mode of sovereignty: a mode of sovereignty wherein the sovereign’s only interest is in a saturated realm of reciprocal obligations, and who intervenes proportionally to the inability of the institution itself to restore rights and duties, and the threat posed by the breach. According to the originary hypothesis of Eric Gans, the first human word was “God”—the name given to the central object of desire the deferred appropriation of which founds the human community. Gans has further suggested that all words are names of God—as speaking beings, that’s all we do: name God. Naming God involves building institutions that commemorate the originary event by increasing the community’s distance from the violence entailed by mimetic desire (which itself intensifies with the increase in desirable objects and social roles). These institutions and their representatives are, we might say, “angelic,” in accord with the original meaning of the word, “messenger [from God]”—they continue to bring information from the originary scene regarding the relation between signs and the deferral of violence. Those institutions are staffed by those best able and most committed to preserving their function, to further guarantee the deferral of violence in whatever way that institution accomplishes it (worshipping a shared deity, laboring on shared projects of benefit to the community, engaging in some inquiry, raising children to be full members of the community, and so on), and in the order that best matches institutional traditions to individual ability. The more such institutions proliferate, and the more complex their duties, the more we need to talk about where institutional breaches occur, how we can recognize them quickly and remedy them decisively, and, then, more philosophically and theologically, about the entire order of social being, involving inquiries into what kind of world has produced such hierarchies of obligation and coordination of institutions. At this level of generality we generate models, around which disciplines and intellectual traditions are organized, and those participating in those disciplines become accountable to each other as teachers, students, colleagues and what we can call “reality checks.”

All this is to approach the question of how much “free speech” we should expect under an absolutist regime. The stock (liberal) position is that the sovereign, with absolute power, would simply forbid all expressions critical of him or even all those that bother him or that he considers unworthy or irresponsible for any reason whatsoever. In other words, our speech would hang on the whims of a man made drunk with power. In response, I would say that we can assume that a sovereign who wants a flourishing realm will welcome the kinds of speech outlined above. That would be a lot of speech, enough for very substantive discussions on all matters public and scientific. If we set aside the kind of 1st amendment jurisprudence that shapes the thinking of (at least) Americans on these matters (a way of thinking about freedom of speech that goes back to J.S. Mill) we can easily imagine all kinds of speech that wouldn’t be welcome; indeed, that might be suppressed. Much of this speech would be suppressed in ways similar to the suppression of all kinds of discourse today, albeit now mostly by nominally private rather than state institutions—the major media outlets are quite capable, and indeed, if we go back a couple of decades, were almost omnipotent in this regard, of shaping public discourse in such a way as marginalize, drown out and discredit unwanted streams of information and opinion. This will be the case in any civilized society, because any civilized society will have elites who govern social institutions. Under absolutism, institutions and communities can be left, for the most part to set limits to public opinion (as, they once did here, prior to intrusive ACLU-inspired Supreme Court decisions and the omnipresence of mass media)—this will be done differently in a small town than in the chemistry department of a major university. Those who think such control is impossible in our connected age should consider technology like V-chips and the fact that both Google and Facebook are now working on revising their algorithms so as to keep some news further away from potential audiences. There is no reason why authorities at all levels couldn’t have access to such controls. Someone, at any rate, will be sorting through and finding ways to direct attention to one sphere of discussion, one opinion, over others, and such shaping of the infospace would be more efficient than straightforward censorship at this point anyway.

Even more important is what kind of speech would be effective and what kind of speech would simply be irrelevant in an absolutist order. Even today, if the power to decide on issues like same-sex marriage were taken away from the Supreme Court, talk about the issue would be reduced dramatically, as advocates would focus just on those locations with a potentially sympathetic electorate or set of elites. The fewer of those to be found, the less talk. The same is true of all of our discussions of race and sex—if there was no national center ready to take up issues of civil rights there would be nothing to talk about. This is even more the case if we presuppose the elimination of divided and rotating power at the center—if we didn’t have all those elections, think of all the talk, filled with lies, false promises and character assassination, and, most importantly, blather about policies that bears no relation to the power afforded politicians to actually make decisions for which they can be held accountable, that would simply evaporate. “All” we would have to talk about are the things we owe to each other in our direct and indirect relations, which is to say the things we speak least about today because we simply have no vocabulary for them—the discourse of “rights” has completely crowded out any means of thinking together about reciprocities and responsibilities. Nor does this mean that discussions will become more provincial—things will happen in Montana or Bombay that are of great interest to someone living in Queens. The security of power and the unity of sovereignty in each country would be a concern of all, since destabilization is contagious.

This way of theorizing speech and sovereignty can guide our speech under current conditions of divided power. We can project onto actual and potential interlocutors the duties and obligations that would be taken for granted in a secured regime, and we can adopt those duties and obligations ourselves. To begin with, we can speak in terms of duties and obligations, rather than rights, demands, freedoms, oppression, conflict, etc. We can do so without stinting in our condemnations of the current order, and the various forms of opinion circulating within it—the new, proleptic, norms of speech provide the basis for the condemnation, and we can insist on our duty to speak truths without just finding ways to flip the other’s accusation back at them (“you’re the real racists,” “you’re the real fascists,” etc.). Most of all, we will point out ad nauseam that the power exercised by institutions does not correspond to the power claimed by them. (Sometimes they claim too much, sometimes too little—and sometimes just something different.) Will it be effective speech? That depends upon how good we get at articulating the obligations others acknowledge, maybe without realizing it—there are obligations that are built into our language, into our being as language users, and we can learn how to reveal them. There are some, maybe plenty, who will recognize no obligations, only grievances—but, of course, that need not be where we focus our energies.

But people will want to speak about the sovereign, won’t they? The sovereign will want people to speak about the sovereign. Will everyone live in constant fear, knowing they must have some opinion of the sovereign but never knowing whether it’s the correct one, or the consequences of it not being the correct one? Well, people live in fear now of being fired, ostracized, losing popularity, etc. Less so if you have some institutional backing—a well known and respected reporter, a tenured professor, a former statesman—or a network of readers and fellow writers. (Even less so, of course, if you mind your own business—but that may not always be as easy as it seems.) The same would be true under absolutism—the sovereign would serve as patron of the truth, of outspokenness, even parrhesia, as well as patron of many other things. Those media sources known to be close to and approved of by the sovereign would have a degree of freedom that allows them to set the tone for public discussion, to open up areas for further inquiry. For the liberal, this proposal prompts instant mockery—you expect truth from the king’s pets! Flattery and fluff is more like it! It is inconceivable for the liberal that those favorably disposed towards another might be the most likely to be frank with that other, that closeness might be a source of honesty and reciprocal revelation. That’s because the liberal freethinking journalist or intellectual knows that any organization to which he does not belong is inherently suspect, and guilty until proven innocent. Indeed, he’s just waiting for the smoking gun to show up. The discrediting of other institutions is social capital for him. A good ruler would want the truth told about him, though, and a presumption of the rightfulness of the ruler and mode of rule would encourage a less prosecutorial and more thorough, patient, and fair mode of inquiry into public events. Would there be those who insist on finding scandalous secrets behind the apparent motives of the sovereign and shouting those disclosures from the highest rooftops? Maybe—although it’s unlikely they’d be any more effective than such people are now, or at any time. The more cogent they are, the more of a risk they are taking (in any order), and the more likely it will be that they have a point, will be pointing to some breach, that the sovereign will want to look into, some slippage in sovereignty to be repaired—surely some system of soliciting and reviewing even wild charges can be incorporated into the information system of the sovereign (it may make the issuance of wild charges less appealing). He who centralizes feedback flows is sovereign.

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