Orders, Names, Sovereignty

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.

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