Monthly Archives: April 2017

Sovereign Commands, Anarchistic Demands

Universalisms and egalitarianisms are poisons injected into the social bloodstream. They are declarations of war upon anything “particular” and any form of (real or perceived) inequality. But all communities and institutions have something particular about them, as well as some form of hierarchy, so universalisms and egalitarianisms are declarations of war on whatever is at home in what is. This is already very well known on the post-Dark Enlightenment right—it’s the de Jouvenelian/Moldbuggian high-low alliance against the middle. Still, it’s hard to get used to seeing what have become omnipresent universalistic and egalitarian claims as, in fact, thuggish threats. Nor have we finished explaining how the poison gets injected in the first place—what immune deficiency does it exploit? It’s clear enough that the only resentments against existing institutions that can be addressed in such a way as to preserve and improve rather than destroy those institutions are those interested in clarifying the structure of command and adequacy of the rules to the institution’s function. If your complaint is that someone else has been treated better than you or you have been overlooked because of qualities irrelevant to the institution, you may be right but you’re still a saboteur who should be expelled; if, on the other hand, you identify some way in which the current network of rules and authority structure leaves the institution vulnerable to sabotage, or just inefficiencies, you are actually contributing something (if “discrimination” is actually a problem, that’s kind of problem it is, anyway). Those in charge of institutions should and ultimately do know this—it is the sovereign himself who generally overrides this knowledge precisely because well run institutions and orderly communities present, on occasion, obstacles to some project the sovereign has in mind. The sovereign, who should have no other concern than to protect and mediate between institutions and communities, would at times rather take a short-cut rather than engage in respectful consultation with representatives of the realm. And, of course, it will sometimes be the case that those representatives will sometimes place local and short-term concerns over the good of the whole, making that short-cut extremely tempting.

Still, none of this rather predictable and routine dysfunction would be revolutionary without the ideas that frame these conflicts as zero-sum struggles. The viral nature of universalist and egalitarian ideologies needs to be taken almost literally and very seriously—these are self-replicating memes that recode existing intellectual frameworks from within. Any member of modern society will find they provide the default form for any discontent or misfortune, which means that one must be (regularly) inoculated against them. I will begin the work of vaccine production by following up on my previous post, which addressed the viral nature of metaphysical discourse. I worked with Eric Gans’s argument that metaphysics is a belief that the declarative sentence is the primary linguistic form—as I suggested, this leads to the assumption that language is essentially a mode of information transmission, rather than a means of conflict reduction, which further means that language is a means of control through asymmetrical information flows. I would now strengthen that claim as follows: metaphysics is the attempt to subordinate other elementary linguistic forms to the declarative, which means to eliminate them as independent forms. Here, I want to focus on the imperative form in particular—metaphysics, and all its permutations, is imperative-phobic.

The metaphysical ideal is that all decisions be made through disinterested exchange of concepts aimed at discovering the truth—the “truth” being what all would believe if provided the proper view of things (all the “relevant” facts, seen in their relations and “correct” proportions). This is the model of the declarative sentence. If A is B (in some respect) and B is lC (in that respect) then A is C (in that respect). There’s no reason we can’t follow that approach and organize the world into a totality of objects with various shared properties on as many different axes as we need. This is a model of ethics as well as cognition—ethical decisions are those based on uncoerced agreement, on a free flow of information, minimizing power asymmetries and manipulation. The best-known exponent of this version of metaphysics is the German social democratic philosopher Jurgen Habermas. It’s easy to see why imperatives must be taken out of the equation: if it is ethical to command, and to obey commands, the system collapses, and people who know how to use power can do without those who know how use information—or, at least, can keep the latter in their place. An apparent, and potentially major, exception to this rule actually confirms it: Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative,” which seems to place the imperative at the center of moral thought actually treats the imperative (which, unlike any real imperative, doesn’t come from anyone) as one commanding that action be modeled on logical consistency—act as though your action will be a universal law. All of modern thought has busied itself on extracting imperatives from social life by ensuring that every decision be labeled as a mere implementation of, first, abstract, objective laws representing universal rights and, then, social scientific knowledge informing the formulation and application of those laws. The idea is that no one should ever actually make a decision—rather, what still appear to be decisions are really nothing more than the effluvia of increasingly free and rational beings with ever greater knowledge of physical, social, psychological and biological nature discoursing with each other over—well, over what, exactly? The best way to remove yet more of the irrational, i.e., more of the imperative, from human interactions.

This metaphysical ideal is actually an anarchistic ontology, because it presupposes that, as language users (involved in the exchange of declarative sentences), we are all ultimately plugged into the emergent rationality that results from the discovery that we can refine and standardize our declarative sentences so as to orient them toward the truth (i.e., logic and the dismemberment of reality into discrete parts). Anything that interferes with ascension into the rational sphere can be treated as a dysfunction or malfunction to be eliminated by the very rational means being developed, but, otherwise, all human beings are prepared, as human beings, to enter the free discursive marketplace. But this requires continuing to roll back the threshold of imperative cultural sites (that’s how you treat dys- and malfunction, which can be explained in terms of “compulsions” to be discursively exposed as counter-productive). You can think of it as a program: find all imperatives and convert them into declaratives. Of course, programming is itself imperative—a series of instructions compressed in an algorithm. The programming comes from the declarative sentence, or, more precisely, its most effective and dedicated users, who naturally want other linguistic forms to be converted to their favored one. And, as imperative sites of culture are extirpated, declarative discourse itself becomes increasingly imperious, a system of disguised commands. Think of how pervasive terms like “inevitable,” “irreversible,” “inexorable,” “historically necessary,” etc., have become. These are all essentially commands to comply with this or that logic of history, and they always come with an implicit “or else.” That’s the thuggish steamrollery of universalism. Meanwhile, the imperative to be declarative veers off in another direction, since untethered reason is indistinguishable from insanity, as its most devoted adherents must insist that all merely normative structures be tested, and there is no way of doing that without violating them—thereby creating whole new classes of dysfunction.

Imperatives can be standardized as well, of course, but only to a certain extent, because imperatives are obeyed because they come from a center which cannot itself be reduced to an extrinsic logic. There are all kinds of imperatives and not all of them involve obedience to a superior (pleading, for example, is done in imperative form, as is prayer), and the declarative is interested in processing them all, because they all involve some at least momentary asymmetry which they thereby confirm—even the one who pleads for mercy invokes the power of some divine or moral model that the addressee considers greater than himself. Whether you obey the king or some take-charge guy who arrived first on the scene and seems to know what he is doing, command and obedience is always situational and irreducible. All this is intolerable to a declarative, informational culture because centers can’t be reduced to logic, which doesn’t make them illogical—it means they come before any logic, because we all have to be looking at the same thing, attending from some things to other things, in order to have shared objects to reason about. Imperatives are deeply entrenched in any human culture, and even eliminating one set (say, by killing off all the people authorized to issue commands in the social structure you want to dominate) just generates a new one. Our most fundamental orientation to the world is one of what we could call an “imperative exchange,” best represented by prayer: I will do what you (or, really “Thou”) instruct me, and Thou will in turn… well, the instructions we give in trying to strike a deal with God vary quite a bit, but even the atheists among us think in terms of following rule (imperative) X so that others will follow rule (imperative) Y. Hence the difficulty of completely rooting out from even the most “rational” mind the sense of some moral order in the world.

Declaratives essentially demystify these little imperative exchanges we live by, and it’s good that they do because often the imperative exchanges break down or are fantasized in the first place. But even that involves following an imperative: keep testing those imperative exchanges. I’m certainly not making an argument against the fullest, freest, and richest development of declarative possibilities. Trying to target and eliminate all the imperatives that seed our speaking and thinking (think of all those “musts” and “have to’s”—disguised imperatives all) can be an extremely liberating experiment. But one is not thereby eliminating imperatives—one is listening for other imperatives, both newer and older. The origin of declaratives (I’ll mention again my debt to Eric Gans) is in the revelation to an interlocutor that the object demanded is not available—“reality” (the declarative “constructs” an independent reality) cancels the imperative. But the reference to reality implies an imperative to cease prosecuting the demand—in fact, if the object is unavailable, that must be because it is subject to an even higher command, which we ourselves must heed. We recover that originary imperative when we discipline ourselves to obey less automatically to a particular imperative. The testing of imperatives is responsible in this way, which is why the only critique that can be trusted is from someone engaged in the enterprise. Of course, the saboteurs of the institution know that so it is precisely such critics that they seek to compromise, so as to convert them into conduits of an external, universalistic critique. There is no formula or procedure than can protect against this—indeed, formulas and procedures weaken the institution by undermining the chain of command. They are declarative solutions to imperative problems. The only solution is the one I propose below but, in the end, people have to do their duty and that can never be guaranteed in advance.

Now, as we all know, the left issues imperatives constantly, but they do so primarily when addressing what they see or present as established power, i.e., the issuer of commands. When the left exercises power, it does so primarily by setting various processes in motion—even the concentration camps and Gulags of the communists are essentially hygienic. But when dealing with those who command, the left demands. Linguistically speaking, this is a very good way to draw political lines: the right looks for chains of command, and the individual finds his place within than chain; the left identifies a chain of command, and makes demands so as to compromise it. Absolutism is just the insistence on clarifying to the degree possible the chain of command: a good order is one which everyone knows who commands and who obeys. A good order for leftists is when a barrage of demands confuses the chains of command, because then more demands can be made more effective. But all of this is possible—the constant demands are rendered legitimate—because the imperative is considered by the left a fundamentally illegitimate linguistic-political form, even if it must be answered in kind (with another imperative). However much leftists seem driven by emotion, they always operate in accord with propositions grounded in a universalistic, i.e., anarchistic anthropology: all human beings are equal therefor this form of command and this form of command and this form of command… must be destroyed.

The “middle” against which the high-low alliance is mobilized is wherever there remains a clear chain of command. Self-immunization against the left means protecting chains of command against demands derived from unconstrained declarative orders. Institutions and communities ultimately have an ostensive basis—some shared object of worship, love or interest—but the chain of command follows directly from the desire to preserve and strengthen that shared attention. The purpose of education is not to have teachers command students, but the purpose of education will suggest some such hierarchy, and attacking the teachers’ authority regarding the students will always be a good way at subverting the purposes of education. Declarative discourse—logic, reason, expert opinions, empirical studies, etc.—are welcome if they aim at reducing uncertainty in the institutional order and hierarchy and destructive if they treat that order and hierarchy as just another variable. In responding to demands for racial equality the middle refers to the command structures of community and nation, and insists that any reforms strengthen those command structures; in response to demands for sexual equality, the middle refers to the command structures of the monogamous marriage and the family and insists these not be impaired. Resistance to the barrage of demands is only possible if you can be loyal to the command structure, even a fraying or compromised one—in that case, one’s loyalty includes repairing and restoring the structure, by issuing, asking for, and even inferring more consistent commands. Without insisting that only within an existing command structure can new discourses be entertained, there will be no defense to the charge that the institution fails to meet the standard set by some discourse that can treat the imperative order as merely hypothetical. There will be no way of weathering viral storms.

Still, simply insisting is not enough, since the declarative culture of a command structure, as a declarative culture, is vulnerable to hacking by informational processes. It must be met on declarative ground, and that ground is the disguised imperative culture of informational society. In whose name are all these demands being made? The people, the government, the constitution, the arc of history, equality, rights, freedom—there’s no command structure corresponding to any of these concepts. There are plenty of command structures on the left, but they don’t look anything like one imagines an army fighting for those concepts would look like. What, exactly, does George Soros want? I think “he wants to keep dismantling command structures” is the best available answer. Why? Because that corresponds to the needs of his command structure. Iterating and performing this intrinsic circularity and virality of anarchist discourse is the only productive mode of engagement with it—their own command structure exists only to dismantle other command structures and must therefore in the end be self-dismantling. Simply asking the anarchist to clarify her chain of command sets this process in motion, perhaps especially if she denies she has one. But it’s not even necessary to ask—the self-dismantling is inscribed in anarchist ontology, as all their foundational propositional claims about equality, freedom, individuality and hence of oppression, domination, and hypocrisy can only refer back to themselves and each other. Therefore, they can only reproduce if they infect the command structure and the way to prevent that is to infect them with their own self-dismantling properties by referring to them always and only by their position in their own command structure. The proper response, for example, to any media inquiry aimed at chipping away at one’s command structure is simply to ask who told them to ask that question—who would fire them if they didn’t ask it, or asked another? And, of course, to be ready to tell them.

Virality and Sovereignty

Eric Gans has defined metaphysics, historically the dominant mode of Western thought, as the belief that the declarative sentence is the primary form of language. In other words, metaphysics sees propositions, which can be true or false, as the basic form of language. This must be wrong, because whenever human beings began using language (and therefore became human beings), they could not have started with subject-predicate relationships (how would anyone have known what that was?). Rather, as Gans has shown, the first sign must have been an ostensive sign, designating a desired object and signifying the community’s deferral of appropriation of that object. From the ostensive sign we can trace the emergence of the imperative, the interrogative, and finally the declarative, as Gans demonstrates in his The Origin of Language.

To see the declarative sentence as the principal linguistic form means, first, that the concepts represented by the words one uses exist in a higher reality, a realm of ideas—so, I can call someone a “good man” because the ideas “good” and “man” already pre-exist their expression in language. Somehow we just discover or have revealed to us their meaning. If you start with the declarative sentence, there’s no other way to explain why words mean anything at all, unless you want to say that we all agreed upon a meaning for “good,” but in that case, in what language did we arrive at that agreement? Second, it means all uses of language can be (as any proposition can be) determined to be either true or false even though, clearly, all kinds of very fundamental uses of language (greetings, promises, commands and demands, exclamations of joy or sorrow) are off the true-false axis (even if they can be wrenched back onto it, at great cost to linguistic and cultural understanding). Third, this means the world is most fundamentally a source of information, or series of “bits,” to be processed through the binary of truth/falsehood—even if this last consequence of metaphysics does not fully unfold until modern positivism.

In sum, the effect of metaphysics is to efface language by, paradoxically, dividing the world into everything that is language from everything that is not language. If all language does is accurately reflect the (non-linguistic) reality outside of it, then, like a good window or mirror (whichever metaphorical path we wish to take), you don’t notice it when it is working. The origin and purpose of metaphysics are thoroughly political—metaphysics emerged in Ancient Greece, with the emergence of the creation of relations between rulers and ruled and the suppression of the sacrificial rites of more primitive communities. The replacement of the ostensive gesture with the declarative sentence as the primary linguistic form is the original “Enlightenment”—rather than the identification of a victim (human or animal) to sacrifice, metaphysics proposes the arrival at the true meaning of words as a basis for community. At the same time, metaphysics is the first (admittedly abortive) political proceduralism, trying to regulate the unstable regimes of the ancient city-states (especially the democracy-oligarchy cycles of states like Athens) by making adherence to truth and reason a basis for legitimacy.

Socrates and Plato did what they thought they had to in order to maintain some possibility of a just order in decadent times; our purpose today can only be to understand the power, limits and consequences of the intellectual devices they invented. Modern philosophy has essentially been one attempt after another to “dismantle” metaphysics, with Jacques Derrida finally deciding that metaphysics can only be “deconstructed,” which means we can never be free of it once and for all, so deeply is it embedded in our language, but we can at least know that. Originary thinking accomplishes the task, though, and without all the histrionics of thinkers like Heidegger and Derrida, by simply recognizing that the true meaning of declarative sentences lies in their derivation from imperatives and, ultimately ostensives, the purpose of which is to defer community-threatening violence. We use declarative sentences and the discourses built out of them to direct attention to a new domain, which is to say, to form disciplinary spaces in which we can reciprocally assure each other we are seeing more or less the same thing in more or less the same way. Then we can talk about things rather than fight over them.

The critique of metaphysics carried out by Derrida and other post-metaphysical thinkers (including writers—for example, the notion that language is a virus has been most forcefully stated and enacted by William S. Burroughs) is valuable, though, because it showed that metaphysics generated the very contagion it sought to contain. The whole purpose of drawing a clear line between language and non-language is to prevent the ostensive and imperative signs, which make human language more of an extension of the objects it engages with, from governing human communities and keeping us addicted to the violence of sacrifice. But as soon as we use this clearing out of “reality” from the supernatural and magical to cast our rational gaze over it we start “reading” reality as a language, or a proliferation of languages. Already in the ancient world Lucretius advanced the analogy between the division of language into meaningful sounds by the letters of the alphabet and the division of the material world into infinitesimal atoms. As modernity has progressed, the reading of the material world in terms of language, stated bluntly already by Galileo, referring to the language of mathematics, has become pervasive—everything, from genes to neurons to human decision making to the ever receding physical structure of the universe, is “coded” as “information.”

What has been coded must have a coder, which means the belief in an informational universe is essentially theological; and whatever has been coded can be recoded and, moreover, can never be ascertained not to have been recoded, introducing the possibility of proliferating powers which remain hidden by the very vehicle through which they exercise power (if you can recode some part of reality, you can write any awareness of yourself out of the code). This intellectual frame is the form of modern forms of political paranoia, of which very few are free, since modern political paranoia is virtually co-extensive with modern political thought, and which has its “objective correlative” in the severely unstable, divided power of the liberal order. The paranoia, then, is not exactly out of place, because the possibility of recoding (the genes, the psyche, the brain, gender identify, the social order, etc.) encourages new trials of power, but it is just about always misplaced, because the nature of divided power is to have no clear location.

Now, since we have to worship something, there are worse things to worship than language, but not in its declarative form, which is, paradoxically, the most viral form language takes: in the end you see nothing but algorithms, all the time, which encourages the most extravagant fantasies of transhuman transformation mega-state manipulation. It’s a good way to end up thinking that God must be an evil genius. But, consider (another insight of Derrida’s) that what trips up assertions of the clear truth (the “metaphysics of presence”) is the reliance of language upon iteration. To see the truth as a singular correspondence between sign and reality is to suppress the fact of iteration—that signs only have meaning because they can be repeated, which means any use is first of all a repetition and not a direct relation to reality. By projecting codes onto reality, metaphysics ends up generating viral, which is to say uncontrolled and metastasizing, models of reality, rampant iteration mocking unequivocal assertions of a readily packaged reality.

But the necessary iteration of the sign can be seen not as a parasitic intrusion, but a welcoming of the return of the sign, and its peace giving powers. There is no higher reality that we grasp by freeing our minds of emotions and imagination; there are disciplinary spaces, in which we all attend to the same articulations of signs with forms of reality made intelligible through signification. Philosophy itself is one such disciplinary space, and when someone engages in philosophy today, he participates in the very space founded by Plato in his Academy around 2500 years ago. Disciplinary spaces do “elevate” us above our desires and resentments—in order to participate, you need to be willing and able to see things the way others do, which means suspending the way you would prefer things be seen. But there are lots of disciplinary spaces, and there is no a priori reason for seeing any one of them as the “realest.” The transcendence of the sacrificial egalitarian primitive community implicit in the spread of disciplinary spaces indicates the emergence of an additional layer of protection against violence, which is to say sovereignty; and the sovereignty modeled on the disciplines would be one as absolute as the disciplines themselves, which concern themselves solely with devotion to their respective centers of attention (try to imagine a democratic or liberal scientific discipline, or even common workplace).If any conscientious worker in any field were to think honestly about the best way to govern a community, and to use what he knows best as a model, he would not advocate for a democratic or liberal order.

So, the sovereign disciplines and the discipline of sovereignty counter viral iteration with a restorative iteration. Think about how difficult it is to convince someone with diametrically opposing views of the reasonableness, let alone truth, of your position. It’s impossible because political antagonists occupy different regimes of truth, different realities—their “facts” are not your “facts,” their “causality” and “reasoning” is not yours. You inhabit different disciplinary spaces, and can only talk past, and ultimately insult, one another. We can see this mini-tragi-comedy playing itself in the comment section of any political blog. People are not ‘convinced,’ unless they already really agree with you; people are converted, though, which is an entirely different matter. The most effective way of converting people is by repeating their own discourse, often, and in varied contexts—through exaggeration, through parody, by taking it to its logical conclusion, by acting out the roles it ascribes to various “characters” in its narratives, by treating its metaphors literally, by separating it from its tacit social conditions, by spinning off unanticipated examples. In a sense, one participates in and precipitates its virality. A funny thing happens when you deliberately repeat something over and over—it starts to become meaningless, and the fact that it is only held together by the common desire for a victim becomes evident (genuine disciplinary spaces, held together by rapt attention rather than violation, are only fortified by iteration—that’s how we can tell the difference between the two). But the fact of iteration itself—that we can follow the discourse through all these variations—creates a new disciplinary space, one organized around a shared devotion to the signifying order. This new disciplinary space entails a new relation to reality, in which reality is filled with meaning—the meaning of the disciplinary spaces themselves articulated through the discourses they iterate, generate and make peace amongst. And this disciplinary space imagines a sovereign order in which conversions can take place all the time, in which viral iteration can become restorative—and that sovereign order is one that unifies the power whose division instigates viral metaphysics in the first place. The iterative inquiry into all those viral possibilities is the way of imagining the sovereignty that would eliminate them. Absolutist ontology, that is, inhabits the imaginary fueling the desperate viral discourses of liberal ontology. While Sylvia Plath may not have been right that “every woman loves a fascist,” the anarchist thinker or artist most certainly does want a world ordered so that she can appear as sheer sign, a gesture we can all be transformed through the recognition of, without violent consequence. The nihilism of much modern art and modern thought is best understood as a protest bemoaning the absence of such a world. Only an absolutist order can provide it. (Herein lies the basis of an absolutist “cultural studies.”)