The Ministry of True Naming

Formalist reactionary theory addresses the problem of divided, insecure and therefore incalculable power by proposing that all players in the social field be given, explicitly, “title” to the power they in fact exercise. So, the New York Times would be granted, say, the portfolio for communications, in which position they would oversee the Washington Post and the major networks, each of whom would in turn have lesser portfolios (perhaps they wouldn’t even need Senate approval); Harvard would be granted the education ministry, Chase Manhattan would run the treasury, and so on. This would eliminate in a stroke the fraudulent public/private distinction by acknowledging that power exercised is, simply, power. The very impracticality of this proposal makes it very useful as a thought experiment. The media and bankers “possess” the power they do in part because they are not officially sanctioned—being labeled the official state media would be the kiss of death for any media institution, even if we all know that that is pretty much what the major media institutions have been, almost explicitly so for the past 8 years. The same would be true for banks, universities, corporations, and so on. The power exercised by these institutions is, in fact, in flux, and therefore difficult to “entitle,”because they in turn delegate power to those they depend on (in the end, we can choose whether to read the Times or the Post, we can bank at a small credit union or buy gold, we can go to the state university rather than Harvard, etc.), which also means that in the end power does reside on some kind of genuine authority and excellence and Harvard can degrade its brand for only so long before its graduates no longer get the highest paying jobs in the most prestigious institutions and therefore people stop applying to go there. And officially designating these institutions as “official” would, under present conditions, accelerate the process of decline by encouraging complacency and arrogance.

It is the very paradox of effective power relying upon not being recognized as such that is made evident by “formalism” as a thought experiment. All forms of power under liberalism depend upon the musical chairs game of power—no one ever really does anything on their own authority. Even elected officials claim to act only in the name of the people, or defense of the constitution, or the rule of law. If any of these institutions were compelled to act in the name of the power they actually command they could no longer do much of what they do. This is because they all act in the name of undermining the power putatively unjustly exercised by others—each one purports to defend the people, the constitution, the law, the truth, etc., against some presumably illegitimate power. The media keeps an eye on the politicians and corporations, the government keeps an eye on the corporations and “usurpers” within other institutions, the schools teach you to be suspicious of everyone except for those telling you to be suspicious, the corporations liberate you from your confinements. None of them can be held accountable, except in the most indirect ways, with the seeming exception of the politicians—but even they have figured out a way of evading accountability by rotating out of official power into unofficial power as lobbyists and corporate executives. There are a lot of checks, but the only balance could come from a commitment to reciprocal relations within constrained institutions, and such commitment is discouraged by the ongoing subversion that meets the short-term interests of liberal institutions.

Uncertain power equals uncertain accountability. The NY Times, Chase Manhattan, Harvard, etc., strictly speaking don’t owe anybody anything—they can pick and choose the imperative they wish to obey at any moment, whether that imperative is some demand from a constituency, or stakeholders, or some principle of civic virtue, or emergency. (They have to be concerned with the law, of course, but as liberalism progresses, there is less and less reason to assume that the oversight and interventions of law enforcement concern actions that violate the core functions and responsibilities of the institutions themselves.) They will obey the imperative that increases their power relative to other institutions, which is accomplished by off-loading inconvenient consequences onto other institutions. A relative monopoly on power is acquired by instituting rules that you can impose on others but don’t need to play by yourself. Whenever anyone “critiques” these institutions, they are first of all demanding that the rules according to which they operate be made explicit and consistent; and, second, that those institutions play according to those rules. (The more radical critiques find even transparent and consistent adherence to the rules to be in violation of some meta-rule treasured by the critic, but even they have to convey such critiques through what the Frankfurt School called the “immanent critique” of existing institutions.) Such critiques, though, invariably end up seeking recourse by demanding some other, equally unaccountable institution, enforce the rules—why, after all, should any institution answer to critiques on its own terms? So, such critiques just accelerate the recirculation and unmooring of power.

Still, it is always very instructive to see these largely tacit rules get exposed, either by their open transgression or some other kind of breakdown. News organizations take it as a firmly established rule, for example, that they are immune from all the things they can do to you. They can investigate you, ask your college roommate or childhood best friend about your various proclivities; if you get on their radar screen, they can stalk you and stake out your house—but if someone publicizes the address of a reporter who does all these things they treat that as a virtual act of terrorism. The measure of their power is their ability to enforce the rule—they, in fact, cannot stop an online mob from showering a reporter with hostile emails and tweets, or even from organizing protests in front of their house, or following them around taking pictures all day long, etc.— but the media organization will probably be able to sustain this “exchange” far longer, and turn up the heat more intensely, then any of their targets. And if they can’t, that is just a sign that they have lost their power, and another institution will surely fill the vacuum. We already have long and more or less coherent set of rules for banks, universities, corporations, government, and so on, for their interactions with its clients or customers and between the institution and others. Consider various ways of breaking those rules to the advantage of those subject to the institution, along with the likely consequences of doing so, and you will have a measure of the power of the institution.

All relations are unequal—even in a simple, everyday conversation, one party sets the tone or influences the choice of topic more than the other; even if this changes in the course of the conversation, all that means is that the inequalities of the relationship are changing. What makes even the most unequal relationship reciprocal and therefore symmetrical is the sharing of rules. Now, to imagine a set of rules is to imagine a mode of sovereignty—someone who would, even if in the last instance, adjudicate in the case of disputes. Liberal politics likes to imagine that the last instance never comes, which entails leveraging the undecidability of any determination regarding the rules—from the liberal perspective, the more those who must decide upon the rules can be made subject to the rules, thereby establishing another adjudicator who can in turn be subject to dispute, ad infinitum, the better. This endless process enables to power to operate unnamed and unaccountably. Reactionary politics wants the levels of adjudication all named up. The more we know who adjudicates where, the better.

We might call the reactionary approach an attempt to make the map approximate the territory. Gregory Bateson’s admonition, issued in 1972, that “the map is not the territory,” rightly reminds us that we should not forget the constructed, historical and constitutive dimension of our conceptual orderings of reality. The Wikipedia page on “Map-Territory relation” helpfully connects Bateson’s maxim with Borges’s reductio ad absurdam of the attempt to match map to territory in his story “On Exactitude in Science”: “In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guild drew a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, coinciding point for point with it.” The attempt to codify every single power relation would look something like that—not just king-lord-serf, with perhaps a couple of other gradations in between but, if we were genuinely to start from scratch, an infinitely detailed and minute set of titles and prescriptions.

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