GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

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.


  1. “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.”

    My comment might be dismiss-able as a chicken-n-egg argument but I think it is important to get the order of things right. The individual is not produced by adherence to an abstract ideology (“the romantic production of the individual”). It is (the real) participation in the market which creates the individual. The moment a person enters into full-time employment he has individualized himself as one of the basic economic units “circulating on the market.”

    At the onset of the industrial revolution peasants did not adopt a liberal/humanist/romanticism ideology and then willingly enter factory work. They were forced to by the enclosure movement and loosing the economic competition between cottage industry vs factories.

    The completion of the transformation to individualism happened during WWII. You can see the physical evidence of it in Connecticut. Take some long walks in the woods looking for stone walls (which are the boundaries of old fields). Look at the size of the trees in the old fields. None will be older than 75 years. Most will be about 50 years old or less. The last vestiges of the family farm and cottage industries (when the family was the basic economic unit) disappeared just before we boomers were born into a thoroughly individualized world – the individualized world you rightly observe that we think of as the norm and project back into history.

    Comment by tommy704 — July 14, 2017 @ 9:35 am

  2. I agree with you–the violent abstraction comes before the theoretical abstraction, at least for those subjected to it. But those advancing the enclosures and equivalent and subsequent movements pushed ideas along with them–or, at least had intellectuals coming very quickly in their wake to do so (and those intellectuals could draw upon and “weaponize” already marketized minorities and dissident theologies). The romantics, at least in Gans’s understanding of the movement, did so in a particularly effective way–especially since most of them thought they were doing something different (protecting the human relation to nature and tradition). So, you get pushed ff your land and there’s an ideology all prepared for you; if you’re the child of someone pushed off the land, you’re born into it, and can rebel against your parents’ traditionalism along with the rest of society.

    I really should do some walking in the woods of Connecticut.

    Comment by adam — July 14, 2017 @ 10:19 am

  3. Given our agreement that the violent abstraction happens first then this following snippet has, for me, a very misleading emotive connotation which reads like one of our ubiquitous apologetic narratives for modernity:

    “Gans sees the romantic production of the individual as a means of enabling humans to participate in the market”

    A more precise wording would be: “Participation in the market is a means to the individuation and alienation of the individual (ultimately ending in Muen Shakai).”
    Please don’t go into the new growth woods of Connecticut in the summer time. They are choked with undergrowth, heat, humidity and bugs. Go in mid-October and the autumnal beauty might inspire you to see modernity differently – you might have a Thoreau-like epiphany instead of a reinforcement of the Hobbsian view that life in nature (i.e. life outside of modernity) is nasty.

    Comment by tommy704 — July 14, 2017 @ 5:05 pm

  4. But I’d be misrepresenting Gans’s view in that case.

    Thanks for the advice regarding the CT woods. I don’t know how to tell the difference between new growth woods and, I presume, the older growth ones, though. I suppose I could google it!

    Comment by adam — July 14, 2017 @ 5:13 pm

  5. Adam thanks for indulging my somewhat off topic point. Your main point, over several pieces, about sovereignty is interesting and convincing and I’m still cogitating on it.

    Old growth forests are dominated by huge 3-400 year old trees with huge dense canopies which shade the ground and limit undergrowth. The trees space themselves apart by their size so in an old growth forest the trees might be 50 – 100 feet apart with much open space at ground level.

    When the fields of New England were abandoned a dense covering of saplings self-propagated. The spacing could be only a couple feet apart. Then begins the centuries long competition for survival of the fittest. The faster growing trees shade and crowd out the lesser trees which die and contribute to the tangled ground story. The incomplete canopy allows dappled sun to hit the ground and ground cover plants like pricker bushes and weeds thrive. In late autumn and winter this ground cover dies back and allows access into the woods. When the swamps freeze and the snow covers and packs down the undergrowth then a snow-shoer has full access to everywhere.

    I spent most of my life in Massachusetts and spent a fair amount of time in the woods. There are very few spots of old growth forests remaining. The only one I’ve seen is on Mount Wachusett (I’m sure you’ve heard the commercials for the ski resort). It’s really like a fantasy world when you’re used to dense new-growth.

    I know the emotive connotation of the above paints me as a tree-hugging naturalist, but I’m not. Thoreau and the other romanticists thinking they were resisting the onset of industrialization by upholding nature for nature’s sake got it wrong (as Gans keenly observes). They created a two-state solution of a pure uncontaminated nature living side by side with the synthetic human artifice (Modern agriculture goes into this second category).

    I think a better solution is in the Biblical myth of the Garden of Eden where Adam was placed to TEND the garden. Man working with nature synergisticly creates a better world – a better place of habitation for man, or nature for man’s sake.

    I do like trees and am an avid pruner and enjoy creating Dr Seuss-like tree topiaries. Ironically if you want to see beautifull trees do not go into the woods. Go to the Boston Public Gardens. It has the Old-Growth aesthetic enhanced by Adamic tending.

    Comment by tommy704 — July 15, 2017 @ 9:23 am

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