GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

July 27, 2017

Orders, Names, Sovereignty

Filed under: GA — adam @ 5:40 am

I am currently working with the hypothesis that since the fall of sacral kingship human beings have had no idea what we are doing, politically, and that post-sacral kingship history has been a sustained attempt to, first, reproduce the radiating centrality of the ruler constitutive of sacral kingship while, second, eliminating the violent convergence towards the occupant of the center that permeates all social centers until repudiated in theory and practice. We want a king that is a permanent reference point for all social activity without feeling compelled to lynch him, or anyone else taking on a vaguely king-like role, as a way of resolving every social crisis. Democracy, for example, can be seen as an attempt to allow us to lynch the king at regularly scheduled times, and to spend every waking hour agitating for his dismemberment and consumption, with less convulsive consequences. Anarchistic ontologies in general for that matter, result from throwing one’s hands up and declaring the problem unsolvable—you can then blame the attempt to solve the problem as the cause of the problem, so fighting those trying to solve the problem and betting on there being some secret source of sovereignty deep in the recesses of each individual seems like the only thing left to try. Until this problem is genuinely solved, the problem of unsecure power cannot be solved. After all, are we certain that we can point to any time in history when power was secure? (Of course, we can distinguish between more and less secure sovereignties.) In this case, the problem of unsecure power is a genuine one, not one arbitrarily caused either by kings who wanted to seize more power and needed excuses, nor by potential alternative rulers who unreasonably mistrust the present ruler. Nor is it just mismanagement. This hypothesis seems to me generous to all participants, which is important not because generosity is a particularly important virtue, in life or hermeneutics, but because it helps us to keep in mind a wide range of possible intentions and motivations on the part of our political opponents, past and present. It allows us to derive sustenance from a range of political traditions, not only the few bright lights like Robert Filmer, but far more unlikely ones as well. Along with being open-ended the hypothesis I posit here is very narrowly focused on identifying a specific form of centrality: in other words, it should enable us to pose questions that we can actually answer in a way that advances the discipline.

Coupled with this hypothesis is a hypothesis regarding the originary scene upon which humanity emerged. The anthropomorphic hypothesis (which I don’t tire of referring the reader to Eric Gans for): due to the advanced mimetic capacity of that higher primate that became our predecessor, the desire for a central object led to a violent convergence toward the center that overrode the pecking order of the horde, creating the need for a new means of keeping order. The new means was the sign, a gesture of aborted appropriation by which all members of what is now a “community” showed each other that they would cease their movement toward the central object (now God, repelling their advance). Now, a further consideration of this hypothesis makes it clear that the extending of this gesture could not have been unanimous and spontaneous: one member would have had to have gone first without, we must assume, completely realizing what he has done until the others, successively, followed his example in a kind of arrest and reversal of mimetic rivalry and crisis. So, everyone participates in the scene equally (with “equally” simply meaning participation) while at the same time a minimal hierarchy exists, as it must exist for every single human action and institution.

The two hypotheses converge insofar as this minimal hierarchy is repeated, discovered, and resisted until one individual is capable of taking over the center, in place of (almost invariably) the animal “ancestor” and divinity that had occupied it. This, then, is the model for all human action and institution building: there is a founder, a priest-king, and there are “seconds” who order the founding so as to incorporate those to be initiated into and organized within it: managers, bureaucrats and ideologues, to put it cynically. And there are the rest, who operate within frames constructed for them, and from among whom a few are recruited for staffing the seconds. It seems reasonable to assume an originary institutional order of priests, warriors and craftsmen, with the king at the top of both priestly and warrior hierarchies. These functions are split off of the power of the sacral king, while remaining subordinate to the occupant of that office. It’s easy to see how the needs of the king, representing the community, would lead to delegations of power eventually threatening the unity of sovereignty: most obviously, war, whether defensive or offensive (a fairly tenuous boundary to say the least), would give power to the warriors, and then to the craftsman who must be enlarged and empowered to supply the warriors, in which case the priests can think of exploiting their legitimating function to support the warrior elite against the king, one warrior faction against another, etc. And war leads to conquest, requiring the incorporation of new populations, the designation of new institutions, the delegation of new powers. In each case, the problem of representing all the new agencies as “always already” incorporated into the sovereign structure presents itself.

War, conquest and empire building lead to the abstraction of individuals and their reduction to objects of exchange I have spoken about in the last couple of posts in my discussions of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years. This regularizes practices of hostage taking and (human sacrifice). Again, the point is not to take the opportunity of displaying our modern abhorrence of these practices—that abhorrence itself had to be produced, and perhaps has had some unintended side-effects that should cramp our self-congratulation. The point is to explore the problem, as yet unsolved, of creating forms of centrality that preclude violent convergence. Here, I’ll suggest that the process of abstraction, under conditions (I’m speculating here) of loosened sovereignty, inter-sovereign rivalry, and relative advantages in transportation technology (like sea-faring) created a new figure, also placed by Graeber at the origin of the modern (European) world: the “adventurer,” a kind of synthesis of warrior and merchant (itself a further evolution of the craftsman).  The adventurer is delegated his power by the sovereign—this, in fact, is the origin of the corporation as a politico-economic form. (Not a little of the adventurer remains in our modern CEOs.) But the adventurer, in lands far away, under unprecedented conditions, needing to make decisions on the spot, is in a position to force decisions upon the sovereign. He creates a trading center far away; he makes deals with the local sovereign to protect that center; he kills and replaces a local sovereign unable to provide the requisite protection; in doing so he makes alliances with other surrounding sovereigns, etc. He creates conditions the sovereign cannot easily walk away from.

Buckminister Fuller saw the world as being divided among and ruled by what he called the “great pirates” until very recently (the 19th century). He would have included the sovereigns among the pirates. The novel development he was interested in (and saw himself as an exemplar of) was the scientist/engineer, whom we might see as a synthesis of all the previous castes: the scientist/engineer, who takes all of reality as a field of open inquiry and possible transformation to increase the power of humanity, has a bit of the priest, warrior, craftsman and adventurer in him—while being something qualitatively different at the same time. The scientist/engineer also represents a new form of sovereignty, over reality itself. For Fuller, the scientist/engineer has taken power away from the great pirates, first of all by making the pirates dependent upon him. He sees the decisive transformation taking place during World War I. Fuller was ecstatic about this transformation, making all kinds of utopian and sometimes bizarre predictions regarding imminent transformations in the human condition that would make all of previous history and thinking irrelevant. But we can be more modest and say that the “scientist” is a problematic figure whose precise role has yet to be worked out. Just as some persistent and distorting elements of the sovereign, like his priestliness, need to be burned off to solve the problem of centrality, the scientist needs to be shorn of some of his priestly aura, warrior combativeness and even pretensions to sovereignty. Maybe he’s just a craftsman, but, given the enormously expanded field of materials he has to work with, an extraordinary and unprecedented one.

One fairly inescapable refutation of free market ideology is the way each new technological development leads almost immediately to gigantic monopolies. No one even bothers to go through the motions of saying we should find competitors for Facebook or Google. But there are probably new innovations, creating new megaliths, yet to come, which might yet marginalize them—less by creating a better Facebook, though, than something rendering Facebook obsolete. There are certain predetermined trajectories to the seizure of centrality, and rule through adventurers and scientists encourages such seizures. The government could cut any of these new centers down to size, like it did to Microsoft in the 90s, but secure sovereignty would rule through these companies. How? Let’s return to our originary configuration: the central object “stops” all the members of the group from struggling against the interference of the others to appropriate it. It “tells” them to cease and desist, and they “listen.” In a sense, you could say they are talking to themselves, since the big dead bison doesn’t really talk; but something more complex is going on: they are communicating their intentions to each other through their common relation to that central object. It is the mediation of the object that “speaks.” The object is one step behind them and one step ahead. Behind, because it becomes meaningful by making itself vulnerable, by becoming the focus of their aggressive attentions; ahead, because it anticipates and thereby redirects their intentions.

When the Big Man and then the sacral king occupies he center, he deliberately uses this configuration—or, more precisely, the more effectively he uses it, the better he will rule. Everybody seeks out and demands the attention of the center, but not directly: in interactions and conflicts with other members, the form of conciliation or remediation promoted by the center is invoked; the center is there without being there. This allows for maximum influence with minimal risk, as convergence toward the center would have a series of hurdles to leap. The center evokes complaints and pleas, because it has established the forms in which complaints and pleas can be formulated and advanced. The center constantly takes in new information this way—all interactions between members of the group, and between different groups, cannot be planned by the central power, but they don’t have to be because the center becomes more and more like the network of relations formed by rules put forward by the center itself; rules that are formed out of the information attracted by the orientation of all toward the center. If I can tell everyone they have to act and speak as if I have the solution to all their problems, and I can get word of what they say and do, I will actually end up having the solutions to at least a lot of their problems, and they will be able to solve some of the rest.

So an absolutist state today would have to become a lot like the major power centers it rules through: information gathering and collating like Google, staging social interactions and networks like Facebook, efficient and productive like the best manufacturing firms. It’s kind of like those aliens in science fiction movies that mimic human beings. In order to do that, though, the activity of these corporations (and other institutions) has to be channeled to the center—everything each center does strengthens the sovereign, nothing they do must weaken or dilute it. The more this is the case, the more the institutions can be sovereign in their own sphere, and subordinates within those institutions sovereign in theirs. This is something the aliens never manage, unable as they are to refrain from proceeding to consume their model at the first opportunity. Sovereigns will grow wealthy and powerful this way, wealthy and powerful enough to keep looking past the current reach of explicit sovereign power to make the concept of sovereignty one put up for general inquiry and discourse. What does it mean for humans to exercise sovereignty? Over themselves, over their natural environment, over their traditions? Secure sovereignty would mean distributing the concern over secure sovereignty more widely, allowing for power to take on more and nuanced forms, secure in the knowledge that ultimately, even if extremely indirectly, all sovereignty exercised anywhere redounds to sovereignty exercised everywhere. It’s as if, spending years being obsessed with getting into the best physical shape possible, I can finally look around and start helping other people get into shape, because I’ve come to desire a more “shapely” world; and finally, I realize that the notion of “getting into shape” can take on all kinds of metaphorical meanings, that the world can be shapelier intellectually, spiritually, socially, aesthetically, etc., as well. Maybe these are the kinds of questions that would interest art and philosophy in a well order system.

July 13, 2017

Sovereign as Onomastician-in-Chief

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:25 pm

To see yourself as an “individual” is to see yourself as a center of attention, with as many qualifications (titles, formal associations, histories) as possible obscured—the more stripped of qualifications, the more individualized. Liberalism projects the denuded individual back to the founding of society, but that individual is obviously a result of liberalism. In other words, liberalism’s self-legitimating misconception doesn’t detract from the reality of such an individual—but it has to change our assessment of its meaning. Individuals can be removed from their supporting and defining institutional dependencies, which means that the individual is defined against those institutions and dependencies. (Eric Gans sees this self-definition as the project of romanticism.) To be an individual is to be in a perpetual state of mutiny against whatever form of order most directly threatens to define one. Don’t look at me as a “_____,” the individual demands, look at me as… the other of “_____.” Individualism is a kind of negative gnostic theology.

David Graeber’s discussion in Debt: the First 5,000 Years emphasizes the violence intrinsic to this abstraction of individuals from their dependencies. Humanism posits the “human” as the highest value, and what makes anything a “value” is its commensurability and exchangeability with other values—and against what can human value be defined other than against other humans? Gans sees the romantic production of the individual as a means of enabling humans to participate in the market—the creation of an “anti-social” self-representation is a way of achieving value within society (Gans calls this the “constitutive hypocrisy of romanticism”). But in that case it is humans, rather than things, that are circulating on the market. We may not readily see or feel the violence of this competitive self-valuing, habituated as we are to it, but it becomes easier if we imagine removing the (also unnoticed) limits upon individualization that must still exist. What if we were actually to define ourselves constantly, indiscriminately, against every social dependency—friends, families, colleagues, acquaintances, etc.? Such behavior would be psychopathic. Moreover, defining yourself against dependencies don’t leave those dependencies unaffected—rather, it has a deeply corrosive effect. Our mutinies always target specific dependencies, and are aimed at extracting specific concessions—hence, they are best described as hostage taking. Not the market itself, but the “market economy,” is a system of hostage exchange, of more and less direct kinds. It is promoted by those with the most to gain by sowing discord and disorder.

Now, the expanded economy of hostage taking follows the discrediting of the restricted economy of human sacrifice constitutive of sacral kingship and ancient imperial orders. Since there is no way back to sacrificial order, even if we wanted it (which we can’t, really), the central problem for absolutism is a non-sacrificial recentering. Absolutism extends the basic principles of absolutism—a rejection of divided power, or imperium in imperio; and the assumption that all that is said and done within a sovereign territory is commanded or permitted by the sovereign—to the entire social order. To give someone responsibility for a specific institution or task is to provide them with all the means for fulfilling that responsibility along with freedom from interference, as long as the responsibility is indeed fulfilled. As opposed to the abstractive process of liberalism, absolutism would involve a concentrative process—placing everyone within orders in which their responsibilities are made clear. All contemporary issues, such as technological development, “bioethics,” social media, etc., would be assessed in these terms: how does a particular possibility make it possible to concentrate rather than abstract. The elimination of the abstraction of “the human” removes all potential sacrificial targets. Imagine that instead of singling out individuals as celebrities or villains, or getting suckered by the mysticisms of “human rights,” we were to assign responsibility for the actions of individuals (whether praiseworthy or blameworthy) to the executive within the supervising institution. But it’s wrong to say “we” would do the assigning; rather, it would be the sovereign that treats any act that might turn an individual into a cynosure as a problem for the reform of some institution.

That, in fact, is the defining purpose of the sovereign: to maximize individual responsibility for the institutions that maximize the embeddedness of the individual in the institution. This process of individualization through embeddedness ramifies throughout each institution, and is the object of the discourses and dialogues comprising the life of the institution. What we would always be talking about is how to enhance each individual’s responsibility within an order that thereby comes to be defined by increasing degrees of responsibility, and in that sense complexity. Linguistically, this process takes the form of naming—baptizing, so to speak, new roles to be filled by individuals. To name is both to reify, to create a role independent of whoever fills it, and to singularize, insofar as we can always distinguish between those who more or less adequately or authoritatively “inhabit” that name. the reification is then less an alienation or objectification than the creation of a new set of capacities. Names are the most basic link between individuals and the social order—that’s why everyone must have one. (Try to imagine a social order in which most people have names, but there are quite a few without.) Intellectually, naming is aligned to conceptualization: concepts are names for previously unseen objects, actions and processes. Once such things are named we can predicate them in various ways; just as important is that we can receive commands from the name. The first command is to refer to the named object within the sovereign order of names.

A (there are quite a few) good way to think about names is as follows. A is the daughter of B and C; the sister of D and E; the grandchild of F, G, H and J; the cousin of K, L, M, N and O; the niece of… the great-granddaughter of…., and so on. The perfect name would reference all of these relations, in the relative importance they have in that social order (how distant from siblings are cousins considered to be, in marriage and inheritance law or custom, etc.); it would also reference revered ancestors, both familial and those of the community; it would affirm more recent heroes, like the general who won the last war (in both cases, really just more distant relatives, founders of lines, we might say). In giving actual names to children, parents select from among all these relations and references, and thereby position the child within the field of the system of names. To name the child after a pop star is to announce the priority of celebrity over reverence of ancestors—naming after an ancestor is a possibility that has been rejected. But the child will also be given a middle name, and might be called by a nickname, and might be drawn elsewhere into the naming field. Again, concepts operate the same way, reorganizing and centering a conceptual field which gives even an apparently familiar concept a new force.

Naming is the way the sovereign and his delegates (those who have been named by him) incorporate and authenticate institutions, authorities and practices. This is also why names are so important politically—it has often been noted how many political movements and even individuals have been named by their enemies, converting names intended as insults into badges of honor. Contemporary meming is essentially naming—each side trying to make names stick on the other (think about the origin of the word “branding,” and how it has come to be used). Whether or not a name sticks, and whether or not you can appropriate it provides a good metric for how likely your position is to endure. If your political enemies can shower you with insults that define you and you’re not able to transform them into badges of honor that’s a good sign either that you’re on the wrong side or your side is lacking in conceptual force.

The more “anti-fragile” your own position, the more you will be able to inhabit the various ways you have named yourself and been named. This is all part of the process of “auditioning,” that is, performing in such a way as to attract power centers interested in restoring order. What could be more desired by those recruiting an onomastician-in-chief than those proven in the study and deployment of names? This is not a superficial discipline, even if it works on surfaces—naming goes all the way down. The center is always named, and there is always a center. As soon as you take on or are given a name you have a persona, even if that persona is defined by the repudiation of the name. The name plugs you into the command order. Thinking politically is to a great extent the ability to think within the names imposed upon one or adopted. Any designation (e.g., “racist”) mobilizes a whole regime of commands that includes the named and others (what they must do to the one so designated). Thinking politically involves figuring out which commands to obey and when—some immediately, some in modified form, some at a yet to be determined future time (commands themselves are time sensitive, but not always equally so). Obey the ones that enhance embeddedness and extend the constitutive traditions of the institution (e.g., “which understanding of ‘racism’ are we working with here…?”) and defer to the extent possible those subversive of articulated obligations (“apologize!”).

Saturating the world with names saturates the world with sovereignty. Whenever one inhabits a name that can spread its shoots through the field of names and anchor it one imagines a sovereignty that would formalize that designation. Absolutism is interested in making dependencies and embedments explicit; liberalism wants to deploy designations as sites of conflict, which is to say inscribe them with loopholes providing for shirking and defection. The most formidable liberal names (like “racist”) are justifications for shirking, defection, and the parasitic blackmail one must live on as a result. Reactionary Future’s proxy theory, which designates political actors as proxies (“rebellious tools”) of some powerful actor suggests the need to distinguish between titles that are, we might say, “pre-proxified,” and those that are proxy-resistant because they are located within the pyramid of commands. The pre-proxified have the loopholes; the proxy resistant designations come with embedments built in and the means to create further embedments. It’s a difference between namings that demand further abstraction (disembed from your traditions, from the chain of command you find yourself in) and namings that command further concentration (clarify the chain of command, embed more explicitly in your traditions). Once we are saturated in names, there are no more abstract humans; there is the sovereign presiding over the field of names.

July 3, 2017

The Roots of Political Correctness

Filed under: GA — Q @ 8:57 am

In Terry Teachout’s recent article, he shows that past members of two great orchestras, in Vienna and Berlin, acquiesced and in some cases participated in anti-Semitism during the Nazi reign in Germany and Europe.

We know that most Germans of the time were at least acquiescent in the attempted genocide of the Jews, but we may not have known that also were the accomplished musicians of these orchestras. Hitler is famous as a failed painter, and this article is a valuable reminder that success as an artist does not preclude racism. We can assume that these musicians were cultured and intelligent people, well-respected, who presumably had what they thought were good reasons for acting, or failing to act, as they did. And this should serve as a warning to all of us, that we remain susceptible to the rhetoric of prejudice and scapegoating.

The message here is important but capable of distortion. It has degenerated into the assumption that anytime we find one group that is less powerful or successful than another group in any given society, the less powerful group must be persecuted victims. Eric Gans views our current victimary culture or Political Correctness as a reaction to the Holocaust. And the message of the persecuted minority is not unique to the Holocaust. We find it in the Bible, with the persecution of the Israelites by the Egyptians, and the persecution of Jesus and his followers. In American history prominent examples include Jim Crow laws and the McCarthy Congress investigations of suspected communists.

Narratives of persecution today are ubiquitous. Ethnic and racial minorities, females, LGBT, the 99% and so on are supposedly persecuted mercilessly today, even when they are prosperous and middle class. These groups are assumed to be the modern equivalent of the European Jews during the Holocaust. As a result, anyone who opposes illegal immigration is by definition a racist, and anyone who opposes gay marriage is a Nazi. Since protesting the Nazis during their reign by any means including violence was justified, today’s SJWs (Social Justice Warriors) feel justified in using any means for protesting today’s supposed Nazis. Ironically, Jews do not enjoy any protection by SJWs, simply because they are more powerful than the Palestinians, despite the fact that they have helped the Palestinians more than any Arab country (not to mention the PLO and Hamas), and despite the fact that they are a tiny country surrounded by larger and more numerous hostile neighbors.

Here is a defense of violence and the violation of basic human rights from a liberal journalist:

While we may want to rely on a rights defense in court, where First Amendment activity is threatened, our defense of dissent outside the courts should not be limited by what the state deems defensible by metrics of human or civil rights. A rights discourse, for example, would not defend the deliverer of that glorious punch to neo-Nazi Richard Spencer—it would, in fact, defend Spencer.

Spencer is literally a Nazi, so he is, rhetorically, a safe target, but SJWs also target innocuous figures like Charles Murray with violence, or anyone who doesn’t fit the SJW’s political agenda. Note the euphemism for violence as a “defense of dissent.”

The message taken from the Holocaust is “don’t be on the wrong side of history.” The orchestra members who submitted to the Nazis, and the American politicians who resisted Civil Rights legislation; today they look like idiots or worse. But how to know which group will turn out to be the Nazis and which group will turn out to have been unfairly persecuted? Rather than use any moral or rational criteria, the assumption today is that the weaker group is always morally justified, and the stronger group must be attacked and brought down. But is the less-powerful group always oppressed? In America, ethnic and racial minorities, females, LGBT, are all accorded extraordinary advantages in many respects. In academia, the courts, the job market, and the media they are the privileged class; any public expression of skepticism about their supposed victimization is punished mercilessly. If SJWs were truly concerned about empowering minorities, I would not have any problem with their words and actions. But there is a steadfast refusal to look at the real causes why some groups of people are less successful than others. Instead, there is a blanket assumption that the less-powerful must have been unfairly discriminated against. Any discussion of personal responsibility is dismissed as racist, sexist, classist, etc. This willed blindness makes the problem worse.

At the bottom of liberals’ political correctness is a vanity for their supposedly iconoclastic moral virtue, a selfish desire to be perceived as bravely defying “the man,” and a cowardly fear of being accused of racism or whatever. Questioning what actually constitutes racism in any particular case is taken as evidence of racism. The PC crowd enjoys a rhetorical advantage because we must admit that no instance of actual discrimination should be tolerated, but they refuse to admit any discussion of what constitutes actual discrimination in any given case. The SJWs have claimed the moral high ground, so that opponents of PC appear to be on the “wrong side of history,” but which is really just the accepted media-narrative of the moment.

July 2, 2017

Debts and Deferences

Filed under: GA — adam @ 10:33 am

(For those who would like to comment on the GABlog specifically, I have set up reddit page:

David Graeber’s Debt: the First 5,000 Years adds a few decisive nails to the coffin of liberal economics and politics. Liberal economists imagine money and markets emerging out of barter; typically, they cannot show that anything like this ever happened, any more than social contract theorists can find an instance where that fictional event ever happened. Villager A doesn’t have too many chickens, while villager B has too many potatoes, and so A and B exchange chickens for potatoes; villagers C, D, E… n do not get in on the game, so that a certain point all the bartering gets too confusing so all must agree on a currency into which all values can be converted. All of this is ahistorical nonsense. Markets have historically been created and managed by states, for the purpose of maintaining ritual and military institutions. A fully marketized order, meanwhile, involves the violent disruption of personal and moral economies of credit (largely conducted without currency or calculation) and their replacement by debt regimes in which all of an individual’s possessions and the individual him/herself are alienable.  Traditional debt regimes, in which economies are always moral economies, presuppose the inclusion of everyone within the system—debts never completely expropriate the debtors. The market economy has everyone treating everyone else as outside of the system of obligations, as a potential adversary.

Graeber distinguishes between three forms of social organization. First, what he calls “communist,” using the definition from the Communist Manifesto, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Graeber sees this as a kind of originary form of social relations, which we all live according to for much of our everyday lives—such a relation treats the world as a single, eternal, object/environment to which everyone contributes and from which everyone receives indiscriminately (if you’ve ever held open a door for elderly woman, you acted like a communist). The second form of social organization is “exchange,” in which things are seen as commensurable. The third form is “hierarchy,” in which there is no commensurability between objects and individuals, and obligations are set by precedent. The exchange relation is really the focus of Graeber’s book. He traces the disembedding of exchange relations from “communist” ones and this seems to take place through the intervention of hierarchy. Kings need armies, and so they need to pay their soldiers, so they produce coins in order to do so; those soldiers need to spend the money somewhere so tradesmen surround the military. Kings need to tax their subjects, so some way of measuring wealth becomes necessary; taxes can be set high enough so that subjects have to go into debt, which in turn makes it easier to appropriate their property. We need currency in order to pay such “antagonistic” debts. Now, part of what makes Graeber’s discussion especially interesting (in a way, it’s the starting point of his discussion) is the perplexing fact that not only is debt generally and unthinkably taken to be a moral question (“we must repay our debts,” everyone must get what is due him”) but that moral thinking more generally seems to operate primarily with a vocabulary drawn from that of debt (God has given us all kinds of things and we in turn are deeply obliged to Him; we seek redemption from the slavery of sin, etc.).

Graeber’s intention is primarily to debunk this language of debt, which he examines in a sustained way in his chapter on “Primordial Debt.” He discusses sacrifice, and makes the very interesting observation that in some conditions the main form of currency (the representation of value into which exchangeable objects can be converted) is some object or objects (like cattle) that are most commonly used for sacrifice. For Graeber, the moral discourse of debt is irrational, and the standard of rationality seems to come from “communist” morality. For Graeber, the communists he discusses are much more rational than those of us besotted by debt-talk, who imagine all kinds of unpayable and even unimaginable debts (with God, for example, who couldn’t possibly need anything from us) rather than simply recognizing the basic fact of our interdependence. It would complicate Graeber’s argument to acknowledge that some form of exchange, or debt, not to mention hierarchy, is constitutive of the communist community as well. (Graeber doesn’t see “communism,” “exchange” and “hierarchy” as different kinds of social orders, but as moral economies that co-exist within a single order—still, it’s clear that social orders are distinguished by the predominance of one over the others, and that the egalitarian communities from which Graeber draws his critiques of pathological exchange orders are the more reliable repositories of communist morality.) He focuses on intra-communal relations, not their relation to the sacred center (their ritual order), so the possibility that the notion of debt is indeed primordial, preceding the origin of human inequality, doesn’t arise. This makes it easy for him to ridicule the notion, that some researchers purport to see as fundamental in the ancient Middle East and India, that existence itself is a form of indebtedness, as a kind of state ideology, contending that rather than seeing these theological claims as supposing a (ridiculous!) “infinite” debt, we should rather interpret


this list [of escalating debts] as a subtle way of saying that the only way of “freeing oneself” from the debt was not literally repaying debts, but rather showing that these debts do not exist because one is not in fact separate to begin with, and hence that the very notion of canceling the debt, and achieving a separate, autonomous existence, was ridiculous from the start. Or even that the very presumption of positing oneself as separate from humanity or the cosmos, so much so that one can enter into one-to-one dealings with it, is itself the crime that can be answered only by death. Our guilt is not due to the fact that we cannot repay our debt to the universe. Our guilt is our presumption in thinking of ourselves as being in any sense an equivalent to Everything Else that Exists or Has Ever Existed, so as to be able to conceive of such a debt in the first place. (68)


Contrary to his normal procedure, though, Graeber doesn’t show that anyone, other than a present-day anarchist or communist, actually has interpreted these notions in this way. It’s understandable that Graber would want to insist upon an originary debt-free condition, since the only other way out of the violence endemic to impersonalized debt relations would be through hierarchy. Interestingly, Graeber points out that ancient and more recent pre-modern history is replete with revolts against the expropriating consequences of debt, where there is an implicit equality between debtor and creditor (insofar as they engage in exchange), but almost none against caste systems and slavery, and I would add far fewer against monarchy, or military hierarchies, where social distinctions are non-negotiable and beyond appeal—but doesn’t pursue the implications of this observation.

Graeber makes an argument intimately related to one of Marx’s central ones, and it is an argument that must be conceded. What, exactly, makes it possible to exchange one object with any other; what makes the objects commensurable? The objects must be abstracted from the network of relations in which they are embedded, and by “abstracted” Graeber means “violently ripped out.” This analysis, like Marx’s of “abstract labor,” implicates exchange and debt in sacrifice by focusing on the most exchangeable of all objects: human beings. Early forms of exchange between communities and families involved replacing people, and therefore establishing their value (as represented by other objects): brides, slaves, murder victims, and so on. Although Graeber doesn’t speak in these terms, the implication is that hostage taking is central to the earliest forms of exchange. (It is not clear to me whether, for Graeber, or in reality for that matter, the more localized and personalized forms of “credit” Graeber valorizes precede and are distorted by the pathological, hostage taking forms or, on the contrary, the personalized forms are reforms and curtailments of hostage taking, under a new mode of the sacred and new mode of sovereignty. I find myself assuming the latter is the case, since the establishment by sovereigns of markets must have always involved some violent abstraction, and early forms of exchange between tribes, families and communities must have always presupposed the possibility of violent escalation.) Now, as I argued in my post on sacral kingship, for human beings to have this extremely high “value,” it must be possible to place them at the center—which means that the center must have already been expropriated by the “Big Man” and eventually permanently occupied by the sacral king. Again, we see the inseparability of “humanization” and human sacrifice. Humanity cannot be the highest value without humans being the most valuable exchangeable and sacrificable object. Graeber is right to associate this economy of hostages with the honor culture, which he especially dislikes, seeing one’s honor as being defined by the stripping of another’s. Flinching at the brutality of such systems, especially when one would be unable to imagine a credible alternative under those conditions, is a serious analytical failure—honor culture must not only have suppressed forms of violence endemic to relations within and between more communist orders, but any replacement of honor culture must defer some critical mode of violence that can be recognized as communally destructive within such societies. And this kind of recognition comes, to quote Marx, under conditions not of one’s choosing.

Despite his ridicule of theologies of “infinite” and “existential” debt Graeber implicitly concedes that that development of these (critical) modes of thought in the “Axial Age” (800 BC to 600AD) of the great ancient empires led to the diminishment and ultimately elimination of the most egregious practices of mass slavery and human sacrifice of those empires. Once debt is conceived in infinite, existential terms, defining one’s relation to the sacred, then it is the assumption that debts can be settled through the exchange of hostages that becomes vulnerable to irony, ridicule and denunciation. Whether it’s “rational” (according to what tradition of rationality? Developed how—by reference to what system of exchange?) is completely irrelevant to the ethical advance that Graeber sees from the Axial to the Middle Ages (600-1450 AD), an advance we must see as a result of the gradual assimilation of the transcendent forms of the sacred of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. The sacral king is the earliest form of absolutism: the sacral king is the cynosure of the order, the mediator between divine and human, and also for this reason a possible sacrifice—the first form of human sacrifice. The ancient emperors retain this sacrality in an extended form (they cannot be violated under any conditions), but since they remove themselves from the position of sacrificial victim, they are sacrificed to, not sacrificed. The ancient empires were regimes of expanded sacrifice, or hostage taking, in which the abstraction and redistribution of individuals was routinely used to settle accounts. This accounts for the moral state of the axial empires that Graeber deplores, and which led to the more metaphorical and spiritual forms of sacrifice that provided for the moral revolution which restored a more reciprocal economy, based upon embedded debt networks, personal credit rather than currency, in the Middle Ages.

We can now focus on the relation between hostage taking, or the violent extraction of humans from relations of “communism,” “exchange” and “hierarchy” that define them, and sovereignty. The forms of holiness inherited from the Axial Age dissenters invalidate hostage taking: each human being has a unique relation to the divine, so humans can no longer be treated as commensurable with one another. Rather than a possible sacrifice or receiver of sacrifice, the sovereign’s role is now to suppress sacrifice. To sacrifice a human requires that all the attention of the community converge on the sacrificial figure. He or she must be seen as the repository of all desires and resentments, the origin of some proliferating criminality or plague, the cause of dashed hopes. The post-axial sovereign ensures that such attention can only be organized on the terms of the sovereign. Hostage taking implies an honor system, and the suppression of sacrifice means the suppression of the honor system, which is to say the vendetta. The sovereign must settle accounts between groups and individuals in such a way that grievances are satisfied sufficiently so as to make recourse to the vendetta unthinkable. Sovereignty must reach into and shape the social order so as to block the emergence of power centers interested in restoring the honor system. This means a system of deferences that interpose between the convergent attention of the many and any individual the question, “what would the sovereign do (and have me do)”? Which further means that the sovereign construct a justice system that disseminates answers to those questions broadly and clearly, verbally and through institutionalized practices. When our attention converges on an individual—a celebrity, an infamous criminal or defendant, the victim of a Twitter mob—we may insult, ridicule, taunt, ostracize, but will stop short of appropriating the sovereign’s prerogative to imprison or kill. At a certain point, our attention converges on those who seem more likely than us to appropriate that prerogative (to organize a lynch mob, for example).

This gradual incorporation of the norms of axial age transcendence into Middle Ages governance accounts for the moral, political and even economic and technological advances steadily gained in medieval Europe (I’m not going to try and include parallel developments in the Islamic world, India and China). But insofar as these terms of transcendence inform the state, they can be invoked against the state, especially when they are embodied in a powerful institution with sacral imperial pretensions of its own. It is, after all, possible to concede that central power should be exercised absolutely while still insisting that the occupant of that central power be subject to replacement. Any specific argument along these lines will be marked by inconsistencies, but so will arguments for sovereign determined succession. And the criteria for replacement will most likely derive from the transcendent terms that are embedded in the sovereign itself. It’s then a few steps to modern democracy, which insists on institutionalizing a system of replacement so that his temporary hold on power will always be present in the mind of the sovereign. It’s then barely a step at all to propose that counters to sovereign action be built into sovereignty itself, in the form of “checks and balances.” But this makes the modern executive perilously close to becoming a sacrificial object again—not just in the once and for all manner in which the absolutist monarchs were sacrificed to inaugurate the modern age, but as a routine, almost ritualized matter. To refer again to my post on sacral kingship, I am arguing for an understanding of modern history as the ongoing attempt to create a satisfactory replacement for sacral kingship—sovereignty as a non-sacrificial center of attention that, even more, deflects towards itself all other potentially sacrificial centers of attention.

What makes the consequences of the “always already” divided sovereignty of medieval Christianity even more destructive is the possibility of re-“abstracting” individuals from their social networks of obligation and reciprocity. The breaking up of the honor system, which gives the individual a direct relation to the sovereign, makes this abstraction a site of power struggles—the source of the high-low vs. the middle power blocs. I’m not going to work through Graeber’s complex discussion of the rise of modernity, but he associates the rise of “capitalism” with a massive new abstraction of individuals—not so much as human hostages (although Graeber foregrounds the importance of world conquest and slavery by the West to this process) but as potential capitalists who see the world completely in terms of exchange. This self-capitalization respects the transcendent axial terms because in self-capitalizing, the subject is self-sacrificing through labor, discipline, and the exclusion or reduction of whole domains of what have always been considered essential human experiences. The asceticism of the capitalist subject is certainly in the Christian tradition. As long as this type of subject is privileged, the unification and securing of power is impossible—the self-sacrificing individuals will always be eager clients for sowers of dissension and division. The modern market is a product of power as much as markets ever were, with modern capitalists, as Graber argues, the descendants of the military adventurers of the early modern age—but, by setting markets against the state, liberalism makes the market a multiplier and intensifier of divided power. If liberalism does not directly restore, it always incites and ultimately relies on the return of the honor system—leftism is the institutionalization and infinitely varied refinment of the vendetta. So, absolutism demands the re-embedding of individuals into “communistic,” “exchange” and “hierarchical” orders, but on terms that preclude reversion to the honor system and preserve the mass literacy and numeracy presupposed, if not quite accomplished, by contemporary social orders.

To an extent, absolutists stand with some elements of the contemporary left, those that still have abolishing the capitalist world order on their agenda—at the very least, we can notice some of the same things deliberately ignored by liberals. There are actually a very few, and those very feeble (in power and intellectual acuity), among the left that have kept their eye on replacing the metastasized systems of exchange that have swallowed up all human relations and made us all hostage to globalizing economic, political and media regimes. Transnational human rights regimes and climate fanaticism, to take two examples (both providing legal and moral bases for “political correctness” and supply chains from transnational economic entities to your humble social justice warrior) tie the left irreversibly to capitalism. Blackmailing corporations and other large institutions, along with infiltrating the permanent state (which ensures the blackmailing will work), pretty much defines the left at this point.  No one is more calculating and exchange oriented than they are. And those on the left who wish to return to class, economic inequality and socialist transformation are completely unwilling to challenge the splintering of the leftist project along identity lines.

Graeber, to his credit, says little about the prospects of the left, refusing to feed his readership false optimism. To his discredit, while insisting on the permanence of the “communistic” dimension of human experience (we could hardly rid ourselves of it if we wished), and devoting the bulk of his attention to distinguishing productive from pathological modes of exchange, he says very little, especially by way of proposing new ways of thinking, about the “hierarchical” dimension. He concedes its necessity, but never offers even the most qualified praise for responsible uses of hierarchy, much less a rigorous distinction between positive and negative forms. I have to assume that, as a confirmed leftist speaking mostly to other leftists (Graeber has been an important figure in the “anti-globalization” movement [the ones who smashed up Seattle back in antiquity, i.e., 1999] which, insofar as it still exists, has become the alt-right movement). We, of course, have no such scruples—quite to the contrary! The articulation of “communism,” “exchange” and “hierarchy” can probably be incorporated very nicely into absolutism. The most originary manifestation of hierarchy is naming: to name another being is to establish an origin and destiny, and thereby constitute it, bring it into existence. Delegating is itself a form of naming. Naming is performative, like christening a ship or marrying a couple, activities that manifest the most basic social traditions. In a sense, that is what a tradition entails—a reciprocally constituting system of names.

The political formalism instituted by Moldbug is also a form of naming—anonymous, and therefore apparently spontaneous powers are incorporated and made subordinate to the sovereign through naming. The media are propaganda agencies of some power center or another—the blogger Sundance at the Conservative Treehouse asserts that the CIA leaks to the Washington Post and the FBI to the New York Times. No doubt we could create a more comprehensive map of affiliations. In the interests of transparency, we should not only have such a map but it should be used to centralize the information policy of the regime. Every piece of information comes from some specific place in the chain of command. That means all information purveyors are named by the sovereign. Moving beyond this specific example, we can see that sovereign naming prevents the abstraction of individuals in a way that conforms to a dynamic social order. Something new—a new enterprise, an invention—comes out of something existing, something with a name, and is itself named as soon as it comes to the attention of the sovereign (and the sovereign keeps getting better at noticing and assessing novel phenomena).

How do we devise and apply new names? Like Graeber’s “communism,” this practice is part of our most elementary relations to the world and each other. To point to something that hasn’t been noticed is to name it, even if only as “today’s hamburger,” as opposed to all the other hamburgers we’ve all eaten previously. Sovereign naming produces new centers of attention that direct our attention back to the sovereign’s naming capacity. Here’s a way to think about how “naming” as a form of thinking and speaking happens. Gertrude Stein had a habit of naming the chapters in her books. One reads through Chapters 1-6 and then the next chapter is “Chapter 3.” This arrests one attention and directs it toward the meta-critical dimension of books, to things we don’t ordinarily notice. After one has read a lot of books, one notices patterns—so, a “typical” novel might have, say 15 chapters, and the different chapters develop a certain character, or “feel,” because of the formulas of novel writing. So, in a 15 chapter book, chapter 7 has a “turning point” or “climax,” and when the reader gets to Chapter 7 such an expectation is implicit. One notices these patterns and forgets them, as we simply plug new books into the formula. But if there is a character or feel to “Chapter 7,” then other chapters can be Chapter 7-ish, say, in a book that reworks the formulae. You can let the reader notice the subversion of the formula, or you can explicitly identify the upcoming chapter as, “really,” Chapter 7, even if it comes after Chapter 2 and before Chapter 3. Whatever is better for writers, it is better for authority to explicitly name the “emergent property,” and to do so, also explicitly, in the only way one can—tropologically, that is, by violating some linguistic rule or expectation, using a word in a “wrong” way that is now made “right” by its authoritative application. Sovereign naming is thus the ostensive dimension of social order, which allows for a coherent array of imperatives and therefore a clarified chain of command. Of course, subjects will themselves get into the habit of naming, of making explicit their relations to each other, their obligations and expectations, and also their disappointments and amendments of those relations. We would have the means to resist our “abstraction” by deferring to one another’s names.

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