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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

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