Monthly Archives: March 2017

Sovereignty and Standardization

On the Slate Star Codex blog, Scott Alexander recently posted an interesting review of James Scott’s Seeing Like a State. Scott is interested in the way in which states, especially modern states, and especially “modernist” or “enlightened” modern states, erase the tacit knowledge of individuals and communities in the name of large-scale projects conceived by experts who consider theoretically or “scientifically” generated blueprints to be superior to the judgments of people immersed in social and economic life and dependent upon the stability of the structures and activities comprising that life. While highly sympathetic, Alexander goes on to point out the limitations of Scott’s polemic by, for example, referring to the obvious advantages of large scale agriculture and infrastructural and technological and scientific activity sponsored by the state and that would probably never have come into existence otherwise. This is all of great interest to absolutist theory, which, in my understanding, articulates an insistence on the centralization of all power in a sovereign who stands beyond the law with a critique of the monstrous modern state, which leaves nothing alone, because insecure power compels it to demolish all intermediary structures in the name of a high-low alliance that relates each individual directly to central power. In other words, to put it in properly paradoxical form, genuinely absolute power would be barely noticeable, while the more pervasive, invasive and unavoidable the power, the more divided and unsecured.

“scientism,” a fellow participant in an online forum and (I think) the owner of an (eponymous) excellent twitter account, sees in the modern state a dialectic of centralization and fragmentation. While the state centralizes (beneficial) technological and scientific activity, it fragments institutions, communities and individuals. This duality is a result of the duality of the modern Enlightenment which, on the one hand, valorized and directed prodigious intellectual energy towards science and technological development and, on the other hand, invented liberal political and ethical theory, which valorizes cynical, resentful and anti-social behavior—defection and goldbricking, in short. This is a very important and insightful analysis, to which I haven’t done justice, and which I hope will be made publicly sometime soon, but the problem Scott poses for it is to account for how the scientific and technological developments interact with communities and institutions. It’s clear enough that technological capacity can be a very powerful way for the state to align with the “high” (corporate leadership, heads of universities, powerful lobbyists, etc.) in mobilizing the “low” against the middle. To reference an obvious and very well-known example, and one mentioned by Alexander, the city planner Robert Moses wanted to build an expressway that would have gone through Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan—modern highways are certainly an innovative and highly valuable technology that increases productivity and democratizes public space but can only do so at the expense of irreplaceable neighborhoods and the communities inhering in them. Moses may have, on balance, done more good than evil and, who knows, Jane Jacobs’s crusade against him to save the Village may have been over-hyped or even counter-productive—I have not studied the issue—but it’s easy to see how difficult it would be to separate the centralization of knowledge from the fragmentation of people. But social order doesn’t depend upon every last neighborhood, down to every corner store and playground, being sanctified either—that easily becomes the site of another high-low alliance against the middle, as the wealthy and connected use zoning and environmental law to keep the middle class out of their neighborhoods while supporting immigration policies that supply the rich with low wage labor while devastating middle class neighborhood.

There are standards because there is imitation, but, if there is imitation, why do we need standards? Why isn’t a process of learning, through master-apprentice relationships, and the centralization of knowledge in guilds and professional organizations, enough to maintain continuity in production and the transmission of knowledge? Such relationships certainly create a great deal of conformity, and hence something resembling standardization, but the elements of “rule of thumb,” improvisation, and responsibility are never eliminated. When a contractor comes to work on your house, he obviously comes with a range of possible solutions to possible problems in mind, and with an established network of suppliers, housing codes to be adhered to, etc.—but, still, he has to look over your house, see what will “fit,” which kinds of solutions might spill over into potential future problems, and which will match the owner’s sense of convenience and aesthetics. If a development company comes to bulldoze the block and put up a series of high rises, it doesn’t need any of that—it can all be designed in an office half-way across the country, or world. There’s some difference here, and it has something to do with power. Here’s a radical (radically reactionary) claim: all mass production is part of a high-low alliance against the middle, and works toward the subversion of secure central power. In that case, either reaction and absolutism are hopeless, utopian projects; or, all the more necessary, if far more difficult than imagined. I’m not making that claim, but I’m not dismissing it, either—at the very least, I would want an account of mass production that can reconcile it with an absolutist hierarchy of power. The nationalist argument made by Trump and his supporters is that the return of industry, i.e., mass production, to the US will create well-paying jobs that allow for the maintenance of a middle class lifestyle, and consequently the dignity, self-respect and stability that makes people resistant to utopian and egalitarian hysteria. All that seems to be true, compared to the alternative of devastated communities and opioid epidemics, but we shouldn’t forget all the mid-century critiques (by no means all coming from the left) of that very way of life as a result of the alienation of individuals from more primary communities and complex, “organic” networks of skill and ethics reproducing institutions. Is 35 years on the assembly-line really conducive to a cultured, enriching way of life focused on the eternal?

Imitation involves sameness, but what makes an imitation a “good” one? In a pedagogical relationship, the teacher judges. This implies we can separate a particular practice being imitated and assessed from the entire constellation of activity and the “life-world” against which we view that practice. Is it necessary to be good man in order to be a good blacksmith, or can we “compartmentalize” the specific set of skills required for producing excellent metal work from the carousing and whoring the blacksmith engages in during his free time? At an earlier time, the assumption that you had to be a good man or woman to be good at performing a particular function must have been very strong—I assume this because we still have the remnants of such an assumption today, for example in the notion of “moral turpitude” which can still be a justification for firing someone from some professional occupations. Would anyone claim that a high school teacher can spend his evenings seducing girls just slightly over the age of consent (so it’s all legal) and still be an appropriate mentor for the girls in his class, even if he maintains all the proprieties with them? Maybe some would want to claim it in a debating club, or in acting as a union representative, but very few, I think, in talking about their own daughter’s teacher.

The assessment of imitation can, then, be very thick or very thin. The process of liberalization has been a process of thinning it out, which is enough to make us suspicious. But thinning it out has obvious advantages—aside from the difficulty of setting and enforcing moral norms for all members of a particular profession in any real detail, singling out and analyzing, on the micro level, specific practices, is crucial in making those practices accord more with their ends. This dismantling and reassembly of practices with a precision that could not be limited in advance, is the secret of all advancement in knowledge and technology—and even yields results in the field of moral self-improvement. The most originary forms of imitation bound practices up in ritual along with moral and ethical commands: one imitates the figure at the center, ultimately an ancestor, in some divine/human/animal articulation, however mediated by models within the community. The thinning of imitation is its de-ritualization, which also means its defiguration: practice is no longer a re-enactment of the community’s representation of the originary scene. This is possible because the originary scene can be remembered outside of its ritualized re-enactments, and in distinction from it. This more abstract memory of the scene is generated by the emergence of a new object, produced by some new rivalry, that the ritualized re-enactment did not prepare the participant to notice. Accounting for a new object on the scene requires a re-creation of the scene; any re-creation of the scene requires a re-discovery of the reciprocal deferral constitutive of any scene but forgotten (off-loaded) in its ritualized incarnation.

The remembering of the originary scene establishes a disciplinary space—a gathering of attendants predicated on sustained and inexhaustible focus. The tension between the disciplinary space and ritual, a tension that is incorporated into the disciplinary space as a tension between tradition and innovation, is the tension between value and ethics, which I discussed in an earlier post in connection with Eric Gans’s analysis of Achilles’s resentment in The Illiad in his The End of Culture. Any disciplinary space, whether it be a medieval guild or a modern laboratory or field of inquiry, must have ways of determining the boundaries of the discipline. Even the most traditional and rule bound disciplines have to have ways for something new to be discovered, even if only over centuries; even the most forward looking and dynamic disciplines must be working with problems and methods rooted in the past. It must be possible to say “this doesn’t count as doing ‘physics’,” even if the line separating physics from not-physics could never be drawn once and for all. Only people steeped in the practice of physics, engaged in its latest and most involved problems and working with its most advanced methods, can draw this always moving line—and they draw it non-coercively, simply by being interested in some things but not in other things. At its limits, this model of the disciplinary space approximates a kind of anarchy characterized by the spontaneous interaction of the participants who are always creating the space anew, are always revising the boundaries of their practices, always seeking to recognize as possible science what was unrecognizable up until now (and which in turn opens up all kinds of forgotten traditions)—a model defended with great force by Paul Feyerband.

Actual disciplines are limited by the resources allocated to them, which in turn depends upon assessments of their social usefulness. Disciplines always become political, then, constituting themselves as “special interests,” striking deals with the managers of other institutions, and policing their own boundaries so as to make themselves presentable (no quacks here!). Disciplines stay alive to the extent that the tension between value and ethics is re-established, through the creation of various forms of “skunkworks” within disciplines. The perpetual resentment of bearers of value (including self-proclaimed bearers of value) is the source of the separation between being a good man and being a good blacksmith. The ritualized norms of the discipline purport to represent a center, a model—the founder, to some extent mythical (even to this day—think of the tales circulated of Darwin, Einstein, Edison, Tesla and all the other scientific founders), of the discipline. The originator of value resents not just the failure on the part of his fellows to recognize value through the veil of tradition, but the center itself for falsifying value, reducing it to conformity to precedents. It is this resentment, pervasive through the social order wherever we have disciplines, which means wherever the possibility of a retrieval of the originary scene is a culturally inscribed possibility, which is to say under any civilized order, that above all requires mediation.

Sovereigns need both continuity and talent in and from their institutions. As soon as the law of vendetta is suppressed, value can show itself in fields other than military, and the expression of non-militaristic forms of value are therefore direct reflections of the sovereignty that made them possible. Such values operate on a market with the sovereign as ultimate consumer, but more consumption, a wider circulation of value, redounds to the sovereign. So, you no longer need to be a good man to be a good blacksmith, because you need to be a good subject. The circulation of values will not be restricted to a single realm, and all disciplines will take on a transnational character—as much because of the interactions amongst sovereigns as the nature of disciplines. (The suppression of the vendetta on one territory will lead surrounding Big Men to emulate the practice, and they will eventually succeed—or be incorporated into an empire, in which disciplines are trans-communal and trans-ethnic, if not exactly transnational.) At the higher ends of the disciplines there will always be complex loyalties, with loyalty to the discipline ultimately transcending loyalty to the sovereign in some cases. The sovereign can permit such cases, because even that is a sign of sovereign supremacy. In fact, it is precisely the most devoted, value obsessed, “skunky,” wild of the scientists who have the most interest in secure central power, because such an individual has abjured all interest in self-defense (he won’t sacrifice his intellectual conscience for friendships, money or power) and is therefore completely at the mercy of a sovereign who can tip the scales in favor of value rather than ethics when called for. The originary inquirer, meanwhile, the “skunkworker,” is always at odds with or at least a bit askew of, standardization, or what we can call the “grid,” because the grid imposes constraints external to the discipline—but originary inquiry always issues in a range of possible “griddings.”

Standardization, in that case, is the sovereign leveraging value for the consolidation of institutions and promoting the consolidation of institutions for the glory of the sovereign. The Manhattan Project, NASA, gathering medical researchers to find a cure or vaccine—all this involves the leveraging of value. It’s not something the individual inquirer (which takes an existing field and its materials for granted, in part as a foil to deconstruct) would do on his own, and most will resist the regimentation required to harness many intellects to the solution of a single problem. Skunkworks will always be established within such regimes. The results of such leveraging become the legally enforced standards, including of course, feats in administration and engineering (post offices, currency, highways, education systems, etc.) as well as the more directly scientific fields, like medicine, electronics, genetics, etc. A secure sovereign will be known by his maintenance of a balance between ethics and value, continuity and talent, throughout the social order. That means local forms of conformation comprising communal knowledge collected in more informal and embedded disciplinary spaces will be a constraint on more formalized and centralized disciplinary forms. Unsecured power, meanwhile, will be known by disequilibria between the two—putting real or purported geniuses directly in charge of large scale projects, or persecuting and isolating the heterodox thinkers in the name of some orthodoxy—because keeping the relationship unsettled is the best way of benefiting from high-low alliances against the middle. The middle is the disciplinary space resting upon the oscillation between value and ethics, which means the reciprocal respect of the man of talent and the organization man. Achieving such reciprocity means imagining the mode of sovereignty capable of adjudicating and enforcing it, and imagining such a mode of sovereignty translates into figuring out ways of connecting the nation through a highway system without demolishing large chunks of perfectly good neighborhoods, filled with irreplaceable traditions, a wealth of tacit knowledge, and untapped sources of value. The more secure the sovereign, the more secure the little sovereigns and disciplines at each point in the hierarchy.

Sovereignty Heisenbergian and Godelian

The pride of the liberal social order is the “rule of law,” or rule by “laws, not men.” How laws can rule without men would be hard to explain. Needless to say, every law is enforced (or left unenforced) by someone. What the “rule of law” really means is that power has no final destination. For every person who can enforce the laws with regards to others, there’s someone who can enforce the law upon him. So, insofar as you need to be “above the law,” a man not a law, in order to enforce it, there is always the possibility that someone will come along and be above you. And you do need to be above the law in order to enforce it, because it can never be wholly inscribed in the law that it needs to applied this way, here and now, to his person—that decision is always someone’s prerogative. Carl Schmitt defined the sovereign as he who decides on the exception, but that may be more of a definition of how sovereignty is surfaced in a liberal order. Under absolutism, with all power concentrated in a single ruler, and all law a manifestation of the ruler’s will, there can’t really be any exceptions. An exception is when a general rule has to be suspended in a particular instance in order to preserve the rule itself. The ruler’s will can’t be suspended in order to preserve the ruler’s will. But there are exceptions all the time in even the most liberal order, as Colm Gillis shows rather systematically in his The Terrible Beauty of Dictatorship. The liberal ideal is to arrange things so that we always know which enforcer of the law in one instance will be subject to another enforcer of the law in another instance. Even more, the ideal is to make this knowledge so thoroughly inscribed in the social order that every decision is made in such a way that the transition from decision to review of the decision is so seamless that the review is already built into the decision, which means that there is really no decision. But precisely for this reason the liberal order is a haphazard array of unaccountable decisions, of little dictatorships and exceptions—each site of possible review of decisions is a target of the various interests likely to be affected by those decisions, which means that the more liberalism tries to make the review process airtight the more embroiled in struggle the recesses wherein the review procedures are worked out become.

The law is a means of settling disputes. The purpose of developing a body of law, rather than just assigning judges to preside over every conflict according to their own personal judgment, is to make the resolution of disputes an orderly, reliable, rational, predictable process. Only in this way can it supplant the vendetta as the primary way of settling disputes—and this transcendence of the vendetta is what marks the distinction between the tribal Big Man and sovereignty proper. The very thing for which the head of one family would have had to have ordered a member of his clan to wreak vengeance upon the member of another clan must now be something recognized by the law and liable to receive punishment sufficiently “equivalent” to the vengeance that would have otherwise have been exacted. Even more, the law should not intervene beyond the level of dispute that threatens social peace (the revival of the vendetta system)—all other conflicts should be left to lower level mediation, for which a well-functioning legal system, kept within its bounds, can serve as an intellectual and ethical model. Within such a system, there must be a highest judge, a court of final appeal, and that highest judge is the sovereign, who is both the origin and destination of the law. But that means the sovereign cannot be himself subject to the law—otherwise, there would be an even higher appeal. Liberalism is utopian because it wants to transform the law from a means of settling disputes to a means of abolishing them. Law has gradually become a means of pre-empting possible disputes, and ordering institutions so that disputes are impossible, even unthinkable, which also means a way of identifying a priori the potential sources of disputes and neutralizing them by rendering them non-persons. This is really the telos of victimary thinking, political correctness, international human rights law, and transnationalism: to identify in advance the very dispositions that undermine equal treatment under the law so those dispositions can be contained (in this way, as I argued in a previous post, all these forms of liberalism converge with the therapeutic).

The starting point in this entire process is the struggle to subject the king to the law. Once one asserts a court of appeal that can adjudicate between the king and his subjects, one is off on an endless quest to find, define, justify and operationalize that adjudicator. For a long time it was such phantasms as the “will of the people,” “consent,” and “natural law”; the “rule of law” is a weaker and more bizarre version of the same idea, insofar as the law can be imagined to be the opposite of arbitrary force. Now, the arbiter is something like John Rawls’s “least well off,” which unsurprisingly leads to a scramble amongst prospective victims to be acknowledged the “least.” But it must be said, in accord with Bertrand de Jouvenel’s study of political history in On Power, that it was the European monarchs themselves who started this process by using the law to make all their subjects equal in relation to the sovereign in order to undermine and assimilate the diverse layers and sites of social power. We can’t say now whether there might have been another solution to the power imbalances and struggles between king, nobility and Church. Once the memory of the suppression of the vendetta (the foundational moment of sovereignty) fades, the law starts to evolve into an internally consistent, self-referential system managed administratively rather than as participation in a hierarchal system of reciprocities. The simplest way to do that is to reduce all individuals to equal units, which can be treated in an impersonal manner consistent with the scientific method. Once you have a system that purports to run itself, it’s only a matter of time before enough people realize the king is just one more, not particularly indispensable, unit within the system.

By making the relation to the law central to sovereignty, we can return to the question of “who rules”? The problem posed by formalist neo-reactionary theory is the discrepancy between actual power and formal power: the power exercised by, say, the media, goes unrecognized in a political theory that refuses to look past the obfuscations of the public/private, state/civil society distinction. For the formalist (who might also be called the realist), all major institutions are sites of social power, regardless of how they exercise it. Once we say this, though, how do we recognize these ordinarily unrecognized or under-recognized sites of power? Absolutist theory adds a new dimension to the problem: we assume that sovereignty is always preserved, which is to say always in some one’s hands. Moldbug at various points located sovereignty in such entities as “Harvard” and even “the narrative.” Identifying Harvard as a crucial and usually neglected source of power is obviously critical and revelatory, and, if not the “narrative” itself, whoever drives it at a particular moment, must also be brought into focus as a political agent. Still, we want to speak less loosely about sovereignty. The sovereign must be an agency that acts through the law, that enforces or suspends judgments. All non-sovereign agencies act under the aegis of, with the permission or remission of, the sovereign. This includes all sites of social power, whether we are speaking of the CIA, the Ford Foundation, or Stanford, however influential they may be—that is, however many institutional transformations we can trace back to their doings. The sovereign is capable of allowing such institutions to act without his knowledge and contrary to his expressed intentions, in which case the preservation of sovereignty compels us to assume an awareness that such activities will serve the sovereign will, perhaps all the more for not being explicitly willed.

Let’s test this assumption. Let’s say an American president embarks upon an unanticipated project (a war, or some large-scale domestic transformation) that leads to a rapid and coordinated evaporation of support: his party, his donors and fundraisers, the Congress, the media, all turn against him, and carry out a campaign of vilification and de-legitimation. Several possibilities follow. The president is removed from power, either via resignation or impeachment. The president stays in power, but is paralyzed, and is incapable of carrying out his project, but may have some room to maneuver within the confines of the counter-power exercised by the sites of power he has aroused. The president discovers or creates new sources of power that enable him to disable his opposition and carry on as intended—in which case the project might turn out to be even more consequential than was originally planned. If we focus on the first two possibilities, it is very hard to say that the president is genuinely sovereign—or, in fact, that he, or any president, ever genuinely was. After all, if the constraints of presidential activity are external, then is it not those setting the constraints who are sovereign? But this leads us on an endless pin the tail on the sovereign quest, and we’ll be proceeding, as in the children’s game, blindfolded. So, if we are to identify the sovereign within the system of law and judgment, we must assume the possibility of the third alternative. Those other sources of power, or their “elements,” must always already be there, distributed in the social order. This particular president might not succeed in harvesting and concentrating them, and be replaced by a different sovereign. In that case, he lost, surrendered or transferred his sovereignty. But he was still sovereign until he was replaced, and the new sovereign meets the same conditions of sovereignty. This analysis is complicated by the fact that, in the American system I am using for an example, the president is not, in fact, sovereign, as sovereignty is distributed among the branches of government and even, at least formally, between the federal and state governments (not to mention the limitations on sovereignty imposed by the periodical replacement of the sovereign via elections). But as the Commander-in-Chief and chief law enforcement officer, the president is really the only official in the government whose sovereignty we could seriously analyze—the fact that defending his sovereignty in the situation we are imagining might require the president to act outside of the terms of the constitutional system tells us much about the system but nothing about sovereignty itself.

Now, to get to the somewhat tongue-in-cheek title of this post. Godel’s famous incompleteness theorem shows that any internally consistent formal system depends upon the truth of statements that cannot be proven within the system. That is precisely what we have here in our absolutist ontology: sovereignty is “in” the system, in those reserves of social power that are both there and the only thing that really makes the system a system but only there insofar as the principal not included in or defined by the system—the sovereign—“redeems” them. Meanwhile, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle entails that the position and velocity of a particle cannot be known simultaneously: you can know how quickly it is accelerating or where it is but not both. What we do have is knowledge of a probabilistic distribution of particles, rather than of the location and movement of any single one of them. In our case, you can see who has sovereignty or you can see all the vectors of influence that detract from the appearance of sovereign power, but you can’t observe both simultaneously. The more you look at the media, foundations, universities, and so on, the more shriveled and fraudulent the sovereign power looks; the more you look at the inherited, formally recognized and tacitly obeyed elements of sovereign power, the easier it seems to scatter all those external powers to the winds. This oscillation between the two observations leads us to a probabilistic distribution of sovereignty: liberal sovereignty, the array of dictatorships from top to bottom that restrains the centrifugal motion of liberalism, always comes with an expiration date. From moment to moment our assessment of the temporality of liberal power must be revised. “Unsecure” power is power with a short time horizon. We can work to lengthen the time horizon of liberal sovereignty, to articulate accountability with power and institute reciprocal hierarchal relations, and we can be aware that the more successful we are the more we are removing the modifier “liberal” from “sovereignty.” Our observations of sovereignty thereby transform it—what is paradoxical, though, is that the way to participate in the securing of sovereignty is to oscillate, intellectually, more fluidly and rapidly between moored sovereign and remissively unmoored social powers. To identify the disruptive, counter-sovereign dynamic of the unmoored powers is to construct, piece by piece, the project of restoring sovereignty.

Ancestries and Meta-Sovereignty

The political theory being worked out in my posts for this blog derives from a hypothesis regarding the origin of language. I refer to Eric Gans’s originary hypothesis all the time, of course, along with various consequences that he, or I, believe to follow from it. We can speak of the originary hypothesis as articulating an anthropology, but I have come to prefer the term “anthropomorphics.” “Anthropology” implies stasis—the logic of man, or human nature. But if the human emerges in an event, it is emphatically not static—everything that is human is an emergence of events. This doesn’t mean that human events are random or “subjective.” The regularity we find in human action derives from our mimetic being. We desire what others desire. This sometimes makes us quite predictable indeed. But mimetic desire leads to convergence on a single object, and therefore incommensurable desires—we both can’t have the object not merely because there isn’t enough but because each one’s desire is mediated through the other. Humanity continues to exist insofar as we find ways of deferring the violence intrinsic to incommensurable desires—that is what language is. The particular ways we find to defer violence are not at all predictable, because they are discovered and invented in the course of the event they manage to resolve peacefully, or at least non-cataclysmically. They are discovered and invented for that particular group in that particular situation. That’s why there are traditions, and why we are always inside of traditions, even traditions of mocking and flouting traditions.

It seems to me obvious that if one part of a community were to split from another, and contact between the two parts were to be completely eliminated, within a few generations at most they would be speaking different languages, practicing different religions, and living according to different social and ethical codes. They would encounter each other as strangers. Hence “morphics”: we can say there is a common human nature uniting the two tribes, and from within various theological and philosophical traditions we could describe it, and doing so might help us familiarize ourselves with their practices (it wouldn’t necessarily be false), but that would mean we’d just have to ignore everything about the tribes that doesn’t fit the template of human nature we have constructed. One obvious reason for doing so would be to make it easier to rule over them. To actually enter the practices and rituals of the other, though, would require undergoing whatever initiation process they impose upon new “congregants,” assuming they have any. Otherwise, we engage with others within traditions of engaging with others, which might indeed by shared across communities. What Noam Chomsky called “the poverty of the stimulus” in his critique of behaviorism holds for any understanding of the other: the models we have to construct in order to address and acknowledge the other can never derive “sufficient” evidence from the actions and words of the other. Hence, the use of the literary term “anthropomorphism,” the attributing of human intentions to non-human beings—the human itself has to be constructed thusly, out of our projections upon a common center.

Mimesis is an excellent foundation for talking about the human because it provides a minimal version of human sameness that immediately opens onto a vista of human difference. In principle, anyone might take anyone else as a model and hence object of imitation and potential rival. In practice, communities sort themselves out into those more and less worthy of imitation, and the more complex the society the more activities such hierarchies of value will be manifest in. On the one hand, it would be incredibly difficult to attribute genuine originality to anyone, to say that anyone did something first. Debunking such claims has become a cottage cultural industry. The scientist who got credit for the invention really exploited and expropriated the work of less powerful, connected and unscrupulous toilers in the field. Still, wouldn’t that just mean those toilers deserved the credit—and probably one of them more than the others? Someone draws our attention to a particular possibility, and the ease with which we debunk claims of originality may just mean that originality is more complex than we think—it’s not just coming up with an “idea” but understanding the time and place for it. There’s an economy of attention, and some get better at drawing people into their attentional economy than others. We could break down, as in libertarian accounts of the making of pencils, any activity into innumerable miniscule acts carried out in oblivion to each other; but we can just as easily find, in every activity, someone who took a risk others avoided, or found a new way out of failure—and we can imagine that human resentment wants to incorporate such instances into a broader mythology of inevitability, or historical laws—to reduce what is different to a fraud practiced upon our sameness.

As long as we are preoccupied with the object we desire any attempt to possess or control that object will be sharply, and effectively resisted by the group. This was the case for all of human pre-history. Certainly, there were eminences and circumscribed hierarchies, but not unquestioned supreme power. As soon as someone does get control of the object, though, the entire attentional economy is transformed: everyone now attends to the person at the center, because the central issue now becomes, how will he distribute the object? Now, we can’t know exactly how he got control of the object, but he must have been quite a bit better than anyone else at something—perhaps skill and endurance, perhaps a charisma that comes from greater discipline and courage, perhaps the development of a system of self-protection that prevented others from retaking what he had taken or accumulated, perhaps a cynical or even “atheist” disregard for the norms that operated to restrain potential rivals. Once he has control of the object, though, we might as well attribute all that to him, and more, because the very fact that he can maintain his position proves that he has reserves that no one else will quite be able to assess. The community will now be reorganized in accord with the needs of the central figure, which will add new layers of differentiation and complexity to the community. The Big Man will need his loyalists, to whom he will distribute land and assign responsibility; rivalry amongst the new “aristocracy” will lead to emulation and the incentive to develop new capacities; the community as a whole will compare itself to other communities; the problem of maintaining the social hierarchy and the loyalty of all, even the lowest, to the community as a whole and the emergent monarch in particular will lead to developments in ritual organization, mythical discourse, military organization and forms of public participation. In some way of another, the ruler will become the father of his people: all events in the community will be attributed to his will, and all previous distinctions re-titled under his authority. A new hierarchy of values is created, and there can be no going back from it—everything from before would look shabby in comparison, however it might be remembered nostalgically.

The simplest way of understanding the maxim that “sovereignty is conserved” is to consider that once the primitive community has been thus transformed, and a center of control and distribution established, all cultural activity only makes sense in relation to some personal center. Anything we can imagine happening, any improvement or reform we could promote, presupposes someone at the center who would do it, or allow it, or get out of its way, or remove some obstacle to its accomplishment. In other words, an absolutist ontology is less to be argued than to be continuously excavated from our discourses and practices. To express an opinion is to fantasize oneself the ventriloquist of central power. If you’re “against abortion,” then you either think the people would spontaneously abolish abortion if we could somehow replace or convert the central power that gets in their way, or you think that the people who spontaneously rush to legalize and celebrate abortion need a stern, unyielding central power to prevent them. So, there is always central power and we could say there is always a kind of gravitational pull towards a single, undisputed occupant of central power. If there are multiple competitors for the spot, each must try to marginalize and if possible oust the other—each must make contend that his own undivided and unquestioned possession of central power would be best. Most important, though, is that central power must have originally emerged in the hands of a single individual who had risen “qualitatively” above any possible peers. Future developments, then, would either consolidate and spread that power or erode it by introducing competition.

Central power rises through the appropriation of traditions preceding it. What we might ordinarily think of as the most traditionalist societies, the primitive hunter-gather communities bound to ritual and taboo, are in a sense the least traditional. They have no way of recording their traditions, and no anthropologists have been around long enough to see what kinds of transformations their presumably immutable rituals and myths go through over decades and centuries. The Big Man is the ritual center as well as the center of distribution, and he will want everyone to know and remember it—and will develop the means whereby to ensure that. Writing began in the monarchal bureaucracies, recoding genealogies, myths and decisions of the sovereign. Central social power will be a model for central power elsewhere: patriarchy in the family, generalship in the military, and craftsmanship in the practical arts. In each case a kind of sovereignty is involved insofar as the practitioner or leader wants to maintain the threads of control from the beginning to the end of a particular sequence. Such sovereignty promotes monopoly, both formal and informal: once a measurable and replicable “skill” involving sustained attention emerges, some will simply be so much better at it than others so as to make competition futile; in turn, such informal monopolies will seek public recognition, which the central power will grant because little models of sovereignty throughout the social order embody the absolutist ontology.

It is these little models of sovereignty where the real traditions are embodied. The monopolies will also monopolize knowledge and lore transmitted from the past. What makes a tradition a tradition is that the final reason for doing something is that this is the way it is done. But whatever we do, we get to that point. The adherent to “pure reason” ultimately ends up defending a particular version of reason because, well, that’s what reason is, and you’re unreasonable if you doubt it. In the end, you can only define so many words in terms of other words before you get to a point where you just have to say, “well, that’s what the word means.” Laboratory science is steeped in traditions. Of course, traditions can be challenged, reviewed and revised, but only on terms granted by the tradition itself which, however glacial in its movements, always generates new problems, if only through the solution of old ones. Or, of course, you can challenge one tradition in terms of another. The fundamental dishonesty of liberalism is to imagine itself traditionless, to have spontaneously generated itself from human nature. Traditions are embedded in the world of their possessors: it will always be necessary to posit an origin to the traditions because we do want to know why we do things this way, and the best answer will always be because the first person to do it did it this way. Such “myths of origin” will always be projections of the present state of the practice back to an imagined precursor, but that’s how some precursor developed the practice in the first place—by seizing upon another’s practice as an origin. So, the sovereign has a natural interest in “baptizing” and claiming a kind of ownership of all the traditions. And sovereignty over all the traditions is also necessary because conflicts within traditions need an arbiter—the sovereign is, by tradition, that arbiter. Traditions have the resources to resolve their problems and conflicts internally, by the awareness of a delimiting sovereign power is a reminder that they must be solved internally and must not be allowed to spill over into other traditions.

To create a “myth of origin,” though, one must have a memory of the originary scene. The primitive communities are fairly casual about their myths of origin—they have various, flexible, mutually incompatible origin stories. The hierarchal society takes origin deadly seriously—its members are distanced enough from it to want to get it right. The originary scene might not be egalitarian in any simple sense (some members might get a lot more to eat than others) but it is reciprocal, which is to say inclusive in its mutual recognitions. The origin of language, for the originary hypothesis, includes a moral component enjoining acknowledgment of all others as members of the group. This moral component must be embedded in the hierarchal society and we can hypothesize that the most successful hierarchal orders in the competition between such orders will be those with systems of reciprocity between levels in the hierarchy that make maximum participation possible. So, we find intellectual and moral traditions emerging, and given the same care by their guilds and the same attention by the sovereign as any other discipline. So, if absolutist ontology has us always seeking to discern the intentions of the central power, it also has us attributing to each other the intention to give ourselves, through our assigned or adopted discipline and the reciprocal recognition of all disciplines, to the central power. Claims of mistreatment and unfairness within a particular institution can be converted into arguments over the worthiness of the institution’s fruits to be presented to the sovereign. Fealty to the sovereign is remembering the originary center in the wake of a history of displacements

We will recognize divided power, then, in its ramifications across all the traditions and all the disciplines. We can assert as part of absolutist ontology that everyone wants central power to be secure and singular. So, we have a kind of “theodicy” problem—why would anyone ever introduce division? It must be because they, rightly or wrongly, see some division already in central power and wish to heal it. We can be more precise: there is, or appears to be, some discrepancy between the formal and the informal recognition of some tradition by the central power. The sovereign either favors the representatives of that tradition more than is warranted by the formal recognition he has extended it, or has not sufficiently “stuffed” the formal recognition with the expected accoutrements. The first division, then, is an attempt to unify by rectifying this discrepancy. But any attempt to rectify from the margin just adds new imbalances: a discrepancy opens up between the formal and informal powers of the rectifier. More rectification seems necessary, and what was in fact in order (or at least more in order than the self-appointed rectifier could make it) seems disordered.

The problem is in the original move of purporting to identify a gap in the attentional economy of the sovereign and substituting one’s own attention for the sovereign—rather than further anthropomorphizing the sovereign and attributing to him an intention drawn from reserves inaccessible to us. In the latter case we would think better, less clouded by resentment, and draw upon the reserves of our tradition to better correspond to the apparent distribution of sovereign attention. We can recognize the avatars of divided power in their attacks on disciplines and their monopolies, on traditions, in the claim to possess some power “beyond” or “underneath” disciplines, and to be independent of tradition. Trying to think in place of the sovereign leads one to find some ground outside of, prior to and constitutive of the social order—the result is the impoverishment of our anthropomorphic initiatives, as we have to reduce this externality to a projection and simplification of our own desired exemption. “Human nature” somehow looks just like the mentality of a merchant looking for leverage in some deal. The pluralist ontologists think the king ought to reach beyond the established order and engage in a broader rectification (the king may, of course, agree); eventually the realization will come that removing the king and basing society explicitly on the extra-sovereign is the most economic approach to rectification. We can grant that all this is also an attempt to unify—removing the artificial mode of sovereignty will allow the true sovereignty of human nature to assert itself. But while one can point to centers, large and small—one person’s decision and reputation really is respected where another’s isn’t—every attempt to point to human nature in what humans actually do dissolves into acrimony and the incommensurable claims of competing and unacknowledged traditions. The defenders of central power will be those working to preserve, restore and recover the disciplines and traditions, including the reciprocities within and between them. Sovereignty is central power embedded in the traditions, acknowledging and finding itself modeled in their sovereignties. We could say that absolutist ontology is performative and enactive, a mode of participation, rather than fixed and “ontic.” What is fixed and static is the denial of centrality, because that locks you into an obsession with debunking all evidence of it and destroying the conspirators who, paradoxically, somehow falsely centralize themselves