The Attentional Structure of Sovereignty

Considered at its most minimal, language is grounded, as Michael Tomasello along with Eric Gans has shown, in joint attention—the capacity to pay attention to the same thing at the same time, to know that we are doing it, and to know that we know (to let each other know). It should be possible, then, to analyze all human, which is to say social, phenomena, in terms of forms of attention, articulated in ever more complex ways. I think we can reduce the basic attentional dispositions to three. First, one directs others’ attention toward oneself as the center, and joins in that attention directed towards oneself. Second, one directs others attention to something one has produced, and joins in that attention. Third, one directs the attention of others to something one is attending to and neither controls—which is both the originary disposition and, as I will suggest, a “late” one. Naturally, in each of these cases one could rewrite “one directs others’ attention” as “one’s attention is directed by another,” as both must be happening simultaneously and are really almost indistinguishable in their elemental forms. The first two dispositions can readily transition into the third, and beauty and human accomplishments are still among the most compelling objects of attention.

It seems to me that making oneself the center of attention is the basic feminine disposition and making one’s products the center the basic masculine one. These attentional dispositions can take many different forms and articulate and include each other in innumerable ways. The self-centering of the first mode can take forms ranging from frivolous, borderline hysterical narcissism to self-sacrificing martyrdom. The product centering of the second mode can range from idle boasting and bullying to striving for excellence and even immortality as a creator. If we think in terms of sexual relations, the self-centering woman desires the product centering man because attaching herself to him guarantees a perpetual source of potential attention to her; for the product centering man, the woman best able to capture attention best reflects the value of his own products. (And, no doubt, this adds to their reciprocal desire for each other in intimate relations.) We could analyze all manner of group dynamics (all female, all male, mixed—mixed singles and couples, etc.) in these terms. What women want in spending time with each other and appearing together is a broadened center of attention which each of them could hope to occupy at any point; what men want from association is a competitive space in which their productive capacities can be tested and displayed, etc.

If we were to imagine a social order organized solely in terms of these dispositions, it would probably be a highly hierarchical, tribal, patriarchal order that adheres closely to the “social-sexual” hierarchy represented on Vox Day’s Alpha Game blog. The “products” most valued would be weapons, fighting skills, along with organizational effectiveness and the domination and territory they would bring. No doubt many, maybe most, early societies did look something like this, which raises the question of how humans ever found a way to organize themselves differently. Here is where we must consider the third and also originary disposition, that of having attention directed towards something (here, the more passive formulation is more appropriate) that is attached to neither of the “attenders” in particular. There must have often been times when physical confrontations led to mutual destruction, or at least the loss of some of those goods (markers of status) that the confrontation was meant to preserve or add to. It may be obvious to us that such a result indicates that a different approach (retreat, surrender, negotiation) might sometimes be preferable, but it would certainly not be obvious to the fighting man himself, nor to his competitors within the order he dominates, whose response to a defeat would surely be to seize the opportunity to contest the alpha. The alpha, in turn, would have to turn his attention directly to defending his predominance. Remaining locked in a hierarchical combative stance has cognitive consequences.

Someone else in the social order would have to notice that automatic response to physical confrontation leads to unwanted results. That someone would be significantly less alpha than the ruler or his main challengers, who would all be too focused on the struggle for power to think past it. That observer would combine the first two dispositions in order to direct the attention of others, and most especially one of the primary contenders, to consequences of their actions they would not notice on their own. This figure would draw attention to himself in various ways—by having flamboyant “visions,” or fits, or seizures, or ascetic rituals that would mark him as being possessed by some being not subject to the control of those locked into the first two dispositions. He would also produce a kind of “work” worthy of attention—spells, stories, prophecies, etc. (There could be no other way of redirecting the attention of those locked into the first two dispositions—you couldn’t just say, “hey, you know what’s interesting about what you’re doing…”) This articulation of all three dispositions is the line leading from shamans, to holy men and saints, to philosophers and “intellectuals.” (It’s worth noting not only that such figures are often sexually ambiguous but that women, and especially women off the “market,” such as old women, often play an important role in such proceedings.) The Big Man believes in the magic of words, because when he commands others, things happen; the shaman confirms, supplements and exploits this faith by divining new commands when those issued by the ruler fail to transform reality in the desired manner.

Eventually, the Big Man will take to himself the shaman figure for his counsel. In fact, despite the temporal order I’ve laid out for the purpose of exploring the relations between these dispositions, this “alliance” or synthesis would have been there from the beginning. There could never have been any “pure,” Conan-style fighting men who knew nothing but slaughter. War and internal ranking would have had their rites from the beginning. The first kings were priests themselves, guarding the shrines to the ancestors, and kings eventually became gods. But the early king-priests were vulnerable, as they were responsible for everything that happened in the community, and this vulnerability would have required the support of shaman figures who could “read” the signs indicating whether the king’s time had come. The far less vulnerable imperial god-kings would construct more elaborate systems of myth and ritual displaying and embedding their rule. Even more fundamentally, only as a result of the emergence of the human and language could the differentiation into these primitive attentional dispositions take shape and thereby recuperate natural hierarchies and complementarities in specifically human forms. The basic configuration, then—the alignment of the exemplary figure of the second (attention to products) disposition and the exemplary figure of the third (shared attention) disposition (which articulates the first two in a more marginal way) is the “attentional” basis of sovereignty. If the sovereign, most fundamentally, commands and delegates, then his first command and delegation is to the counsel he trusts to draw his attention to consequences of his own actions and even character that his immersion in those actions might blind him to. The ruler commands the shaman/priest/prophet/philosopher/sage/scientist/intellectual to, first of all, help me to clarify my commands.

The Big Man/Imperial order remains based on a “command economy” (I’m punning a bit here)—an exchange between the commands of the sovereign and the pleas of the subjects. This order is transcended once the representative of the third disposition is set against the sovereign and community as a sacrificial figure. The obvious examples here are Socrates and Jesus, and what they have in common is that the community as a whole sees that the centering of attention upon this figure reveals a violent resentment toward the center. Such figures reveal the foundations of social order, they remember the originary scene, when the community is ready to iterate it, but the community can only iterate it by murdering the figure who reveals those foundations. (Think about what Jesus’s impact would have been had he maintained the same teachings but died peacefully in old age as an honored member of the community.) Only in that way—through a community shattering paroxysm—could this revelation of something or someone that cannot be commanded, and therefore our reliance, for anything to be attended to at all, upon a shared renunciation, be made memorable. We see a similar configuration in Moses’s relation to the Hebrews he led out of Egypt, even if it never led to actual violence against Moses (Freud of course, would disagree, and one could see why). And, of course, the relation between the Hebrew prophets and the community and kings had a very similar structure. (As I’ve done before, I must confess my Western-centric bias here, and would be very interested in knowing how such relations have been historically articulated in China and India in particular. I hypothesize that every civilization has revered figures that spoke and acted so as to make themselves the center of attention in order to implicate the community in their desire to ignore the violent possibilities implicit in their participation in shared attention. But perhaps masculine figures who create enduring works synthesizing and de-ritualizing canonical modes of renunciation and deliberately eschew or minimize public reward or honor can play an equivalent iconic, civilizing role.)

The sovereign, then, cultivates and institutionalizes this form of attention to that which transcends sovereignty. He does this in the interest of preserving his own rule, because otherwise the oscillation between reverence and hatred toward the figure at the center will always threaten to engulf him. The sovereign distinguishes himself, as the figure at the center, from the locus of the center (a distinction for which I am indebted to Eric Gans, if it’s worth singling out one debt among all the others), that will outlast and that backgrounds him. And the sovereign himself takes counsel from those “third persons” who have committed themselves to exploring that disposition. To a great extent the pre-modern history of the West is a series of attempts to make sense of the sovereign’s accountability to God. It’s “logical” to say that the king cannot be his own judge in assessing this accountability, but it’s equally logical to say that no one else can without being sovereign himself, which would lead us to an infinite regress. The way of squaring the circle is to direct attention to the ongoing elevation of subjects to third persons who present themselves as offering a kind of tacit counsel to the sovereign by being the kinds of subjects receptive to sovereign will. Not exactly the “nation of priests” of Scripture, or the “nation of philosophers” of some modern utopians, but a nation of seekers after God’s will as mediated by the sovereign’s consular relation to God. Each fulfills, to the best of his or her knowledge, the will of the sovereign as embedded in the entire chain of command directed towards oneself; and each prepares oneself and one’s works as possible centers of attention that will mitigate damaging and amplify promising consequences of those commands in their margins for choice, which commands always leave. And one stands ready to be corrected in this regard. You could say that an absolutist ethics entails “indwelling,” to use Michael Polanyi’s term for the participatory attention of the inquirer, within the consular relation between sovereign and center.

The relationship between the sovereign and the representative of third personhood is the most important and requires the most attention—we could say that all the devastating diremptions of modernity result from misbegotten forms of this relationship, one in which the sovereign is irremediably dependent. How can you know whether your advisor is giving you bad advice? Especially since his advice might almost always be good, but a little bad advice here and there might be enough to make things go off the rails. And if he is giving you bad advice, how can you know why? May be he’s just wrong about something, but maybe he’s conducting the ambitions of another power center. There certainly can’t be any formula here, and the sovereign is sovereign in his choice of advisors as in all things. The only way of mitigating dangers here is to turn attention to the process of production of advisors, which is to say a system of education, i.e., of the labeling of powers that increases the likelihood that advisors who gain access to the sovereign will dwell within the consular relation between the sovereign and God.

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