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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.

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