Tradition Conserved is Sovereignty Conserved

Reactionary Future regularly targets, more or less directly, the conservative aphorism that “politics is downstream of culture,” along with the alt-right version, “identity>culture>politics.” In both cases, the problem is the assumption of a sphere of spontaneity and individual activity that precedes and ultimately exists outside of central authority and power—and, therefore, ultimately determines that authority and power, both causally and as the repository of rights that legitimates the sovereign. All of this is diametrically opposed to absolutism, which places politics, the center, first, with all activity on the margin “always already” accounted for by the center.

At the same time, a little while back, in a couple of posts on “tradition,” RF introduced the maxim, parallel to the maxim “sovereignty is conserved,” “tradition is conserved.” Just as someone always occupies the center, however ephemerally or unstably, all human activity is wholly indebted to some tradition or traditions enabling that activity. The most fundamental of traditions is, of course, language, which no individual could have invented alone, without which no one of us could perform a single human act, and of which we, to cite Michael Polanyi, know more (far more) than we can say. All tradition is like that.

But a lot of people would use tradition fairly synonymously with either or both “culture” and “identity,” which returns us to the question of the relation between these differing levels of human existence. Also, the “law of rebellious tools,” i.e., that all supposedly “bottom-up” political activity is really a product of insecure power, whereby one section of the elite instrumentalizes some “lumpen” element so as to undermine another section and enhance its own proximity to the center, would seem to render tradition completely malleable by outside forces—and, hence, not really “tradition” in any meaningful sense at all. There is certainly a lot of truth to this argument, as we find out regularly that supposedly deeply rooted and revered cultural traditions (like Christmas celebrations) are really very recent inventions, often attributable to advertising and publicity campaigns. But in that case, what would it mean to say that tradition is conserved, and why would we care?

For originary thinking, tradition can only be the memory and commemoration of the originary scene. As Eric Gans has shown, first of all in The Origin of Language, there is a tension between the ritual and signifying dimensions, respectively, on the originary scene and onward. Ritual involves performance, symbolic action, and the ostensive gesture. It also requires strict adherence to a rigorous “script.” Each tradition, in its own idiosyncratic way, re-enacts the originary event, where violence was deferred through the issuance of the aborted gesture of appropriation. The sign, discourse, interprets or, as I have put it previously, “anthropomorphizes” the figures on the ritual scene. The commemoration of the scene, then, accretes its own layers of reflection and modification to allow the practice to better embody the scene imagined in such reflections. It would follow that what enables the continuity of tradition is an ongoing dialectic of ritual and discourse, such that the discourse of the community is sufficiently rich in referents to the rituals, and the rituals sufficiently open to discursive accretions.

It’s not really possible to imagine performative and symbolic actions, organized around an ostensive gesture, without a sacred center. What would the ostensive gesture be gesturing toward? The irruption of the Big Man and its further enlargements into history disrupted the local, relatively egalitarian communities organized around a sacred center I think we can imagine on the model of ancestor worship. The organization of central power destroyed tradition and recuperated it through the divinity of the emperor. It may be that there is a “wound” here that has never healed and can never heal, and that there is something in tradition inimical to central power—the loss, or at least vitiation, of the bond to the venerated ancestor must be something like having one’s child torn away for service in some imperial institution. The ancient empires established traditions of their own, in which the origin story of the empire replaced ancestral human/animal/divine origin stories, but such traditions probably never struck roots in the millions of slaves and laborers subject to imperial domination, who likely always maintained more ancient rituals.

A new form of commemoration of the originary event emerged in response to the limitations of imperial traditions—as I have discussed previously, this form of commemoration establishes a scene analogous to the originary scene, but with an abstracted origin that, reduced to its essentials, does nothing more than serve as a locus guaranteeing the possibility of a scene of equal participants. Whether it is all-creating God who lovingly created human beings or a metaphysical “idea,” (or whatever the East Asian, Indian, etc., equivalents, of which I am unqualified to speak, might be), anyone willing to step outside of the ritual hierarchies of daily life can hear “news” of the originary event on such scenes. What one “hears,” in one idiom or another, is that reciprocity and central power are and must be made for each other. This message is audible because reciprocity and central power are so often at odds, so post-imperial tradition anthropomorphizes the dialectic of sovereign and subject as a search for appropriate reciprocity. Christianity is still the most fully realized embodiment of this revelation and tradition, and therefore still the most essential tradition of the West, but inherent in the possibility of a renewed revelation of the originary event is that it can take on new forms. The most abstract and in that sense the most perfect form of all would be a kind of “lingualotry,” or a worship of our miraculous capacity for language, which far transcends any one of us. That would itself be a conservation of tradition, with its own performative and symbolic dimension, directing attention to that in language whereby we say more than we can know. Gans refers to the “I Am” that speaks to Moses out of the burning bush as the God whose name is the declarative sentence—an assertion that commemorates the invisible center constitutive of every declarative sentence. If whatever we are talking about were fully present, we wouldn’t need to predicate it—and that’s true even if we are talking about something right in front of us. In speaking, hearing, writing, reading the declarative sentence, we express a shared faith in the center that doesn’t present itself, other than in our inability to ever quite talk about it. Whether a restoration of Christian order is to be achieved, or some equivalent found, establishing the proper relation between sovereign and subject will be constitutive of the project of re-centering. That makes it a good place to start.

Now, the sovereign center certainly does present itself. The sovereign restores or preserves order by exercising the power tacitly demanded by all those cognizant of their embeddedness in the hierarchy of social reciprocities. The sovereign is a constituent of post-imperial tradition. The sovereign is not like God, but post-imperial commemorations of the originary scene presuppose an emissary to align central power (which is taken as given) and the continual enhancement of reciprocities required for a civilized order. Post-imperial tradition is, then, always already informed by sovereign power, actual and imagined, and sovereign power is always already invested in tradition. How a particular sovereign will engage the ritual or, more broadly, performative, symbolic and ostensive, orders in a particular society cannot, of course, be known or determined in advance, but we can know that he will have an interest in “clothing” his power in those performative, symbolic and ostensive elements of social interaction—and, therefore, he must be interested in ensuring that those elements will “fit” the power he must wield.

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