Power and Paradox

In his Chronicle of Love & Resentment No. 531 (January 14, 2017), “Paradox and the Sacred,” Eric Gans reminded us of the centrality of paradox to all things human. Mimetic structures are themselves paradoxical: the model becomes the rival. All representational systems, all representations, are paradoxical—we construct the reality we refer to by conferring a significance it wouldn’t have in itself and yet which must precede us. For Gans, the paradoxicality of representation is tied up with representation’s constitutively ethical character—we represent in order to defer violence, which means we must at least allude to, as a possibility, that violence. In speaking about things in the world, we refer, directly or indirectly, to the shared attention that makes it possible for us to think about things in the first place. Even more, Gans takes the further step of identifying culture with the reconciliation of communities to the “paradoxical nature of the human.” In that case, we can proceed, in the interests of conceptual economy, to view all cultural forms as means of embedding the paradox of the human in the materials of specific human traditions, for the purpose of sustaining those traditions as modes of deferral.

Paradox is constitutive of power and sovereignty as well, a point of supreme importance for absolutism. Power is located at the center—whoever occupies the center is powerful. If we attend to some object that is both attractive and repellent (a source of desire and therefore danger), that object exercises power over us (it holds us in place, first of all). The power of the object is exercised by proxy by whoever has brought it to the attention of others in its specifically powerful form; whoever does this has disciplined himself sufficiently to see the object in a way others haven’t—as a novel source of power, rather than an appetitive object. This is what, in my previous post, I called “centered ordinality”—someone “re-presents” the object in a new way and that new way of addressing it is transmitted, shaped and “standardized” as it is appropriated by the group. In a primitive community (this is a way of defining “primitive community”) this power cannot be monopolized or formalized—it is seized and exercised opportunistically and provisionally, e.g., by shamans, or whoever is best or bravest at something in a given situation. Eventually though (and this is a way of defining “civilization,” or at least its precondition), the center is occupied by an individual who has been first enough times or enough ways to embody a more generalized pre-eminence: priest, warrior, elder all in one. Paradox, meanwhile, not only presupposes a center but generates centrality: insofar as, to follow Gans, the founding paradox is the self-inclusion of the representation itself in what it represents, the elaboration of a paradox is something like the continual generation of eccentric circles.

The paradox of power is that it is possessed insofar as others acknowledge that possession as preceding their acknowledgement. Power is both a priori and provisional, a location and its occupant. To imagine overthrowing the occupant is to magnify the location; attacking the location involves criminalizing the occupant and mythologizing the champion who would do the deed. We could all imagine the acts that would cause the possessor of central power to lose that power: he leaves undefended what he has pledged to defend, has transgressed the rituals he is anointed to preside over, he fails the community over and over in times of crisis, etc. We could imagine that none of this would make any difference in a community that maintains faith in the leader: his leaving the community undefended is a long term strategy for routing the enemy, or a way of saving the souls of the community members by sacrificing their bodies; his violation of ritual is a higher form of obedience to divine instructions; his failures are really those of the community, who must “redouble” their faith in their master, and so on. In this case, the community may cease to exist, as they would likely be conquered and enslaved, dispersed or massacred—and yet, they would leave deposits of new forms of paradoxical thinking that might yield fruit in a more complex order: sometimes bodily suffering must be undergone for the sake of the “spirit,” sometimes rituals do need to be renewed, sometimes short term failures need to be seen as necessary for long term success, and sometimes the members must confer the very strength they attribute to the leader. These fairly commonsensical maxims are embodiments of paradox—it’s not too hard to imagine communities for whom “no pain, no gain,” for us a tired cliché, would be astonishing and nonsensical.

We could also imagine that these failures and transgressions of the leader would be viewed more “realistically,” and the leader viewed in comparative terms alongside others who might do the job better—an “assistant,” or rival, or leader of some neighboring tribe or nearby empire. In this case, the group’s “faith” in their leader would be less “perfect” than in our previous example: they would be seeing the leader as occupying a position that transcends him, rather than identifying him with the position. On one level, this seems like the more mature and enlightened approach, and it would certainly prevent the suicidal behavior of the “naïve” community—at the same time, though, this approach implies a kind of ethics of suspicion of any leader, and could easily lead to the attribution of faults where none are to be found, leaving the community vulnerable to unscrupulous rivals of the leader, demagoguery, etc. This more “skeptical” approach to power would leave its residue in now familiar maxims as well, in this case regarding the abuses of power, the perils of ambition, and so on—but also to analyses and fantasies of a deeper form of power that can create a form of surface power radically different than the one we so resent. The more power we see flowing to and from the center, the more we see ourselves as constituents of power, essential and marginal, entitled and unworthy.

A “high” culture is one with a high tolerance for sustained paradoxicality, from which tolerance flows all of the intellectual insights that make moral, esthetic and historical knowledge possible: we are all sinners and yet/therefore we might all be saved; we are nothing and we are the jewel of creation; in terrible, soul-crushing defeats we find the seeds of future victories; in present victories lie the seeds of future defeats; the seemingly insignificant can be of great moment and what consumes us now might be forgotten tomorrow; and so on. Only central power makes this tolerance possible: we might hate, fear and even despise the sovereign, but we will only attain self-mastery by interposing between ourselves and any action predicated upon those feelings an awareness of everything the sovereign must know that we don’t and can’t, of the consequences of others, ultimately everyone, acting upon similar feelings, of the fact that all of us who hate, fear and despise the king do so for what will ultimately be incommensurable reasons, and so on. The more we imagine lapses and defects in sovereign power the more anticipated consequences of seeking to exploit those lapses and defects lead us to self-cancelling efforts aimed at supplementing them by contextualizing and recuperating their consequences within our own spheres of activity. If we do so effectively and properly, they will have turned out not to be lapses and defects after all. We donate our resentment to the center, so to speak. Only such an attitude toward central power allows for the social scene as a whole to be made present before one. As soon as you throw in your lot with those dividing power, who must present sovereign power as limited and parochial, and must therefore project some imaginary mode of sovereignty to be realized in a more perfect future, in which all the partial and scattered views somehow totalize themselves, you initiate a catastrophic lowering of tolerance for paradoxicality and hence of high culture. Insisting that the integrity of your particular position is an essential element of some body of knowledge to be collected impersonally and revealed in the indeterminate future leads you self-sanctify that activity and therefore to cultivate intolerance toward paradox.

To maintain high culture in the midst of a lowering culture, then, is to increase tolerance for paradox. Gentle, absolutist persuasion can consist of injecting little and yet lethal doses of paradox into paradox-intolerant strains of thinking. The liberals, leftists and progressivists, i.e., the anarchists, believe firmly in their own implicit version of an absolutist sovereignty, one that would smite with a flourish of righteousness the representatives, even dimly aware, of right order. That they are so certain about who is inside and who is outside, who is “decent” and who is a “Nazi,” without ever being able to identify the source of this certainty, is the great paradox of totalitarian anarchism. But how do you imagine the tiny particle of your own activity adds up to a future with fewer Nazis and more decent, tolerant people like you? If you can imagine it there must be an order that allows you to predict the outcomes of your activities—what is that order, then, and how is it sustained—how does your activity sustain, rather than erode it? If you can’t imagine it, why do what you do? Is there anything more than the tautology that lots of people doing what I do will lead to a lot more people doing what we do? There’s nothing more here than a virality necessarily oblivious to the paradoxes it produces in abundance—and full of hatred towards those who expose them.

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a Reply