GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

August 15, 2017

Formalism all the way down

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:41 am

Sacral kingship is weakened, ultimately fatally, by the elevation of the king beyond the reach of the community—that is, once the king is no longer available as a scapegoat. If the king is no longer available as a scapegoat, he can no longer be held directly responsible for mediating the community’s relation to the divine and the divinely controlled universe (he may still be held indirectly responsible in a general sense, for ensuring the prosperity of the country, ensuring the gods don’t turn against it, and so on—but not for this plague, this earthquake, etc.). The king has introduced layers of mediation between himself and his subjects, with these layers of mediation being the “elites” to whom the king has delegated powers. If the king is now to be overthrown, that as well must be mediated through the elites. The structure is still the same, insofar as the king at the center is scapegoated so as to avert intra-elite rivalries, but the players are now a more restricted group, who furthermore must prosecute their resentments indirectly, in the name of some obligation the king has left unpaid. The king may have in fact governed poorly, indeed must have, if intra-elite rivalries have gotten to the point where they must be deferred, but very rarely poorly enough that the elites could not have deferred their rivalry by bolstering rather than subverting his rule. When the elites levy the subjects they control to remove the king because he has not respected their rights, or has the left the country undefended against an invader, or has favored one section of elites over another, or has wasted the resources of the kingdom on debauchery, they may have a point but are simultaneously producing the very violations they complain of: they are making it impossible for him to respect their rights, to defend the country, to refrain from choosing sides among the elites, or from wasting resources on his own insular projects or desperate attempts at saving himself. But we can see that the more layers that have been interposed between the king and his subjects, more the reasons for challenging the king must fall within the scope of things the king can actually do. There is a kind of rationalization process at work, but it is telling that the rationalization process rarely, if ever, extends to the act of removing the king—that still relies upon gesturing towards the sacrality of kingship, as the king must be charged with something like usurpation or treason (or inheriting the fruits of them). It would be impossible to make a case for removing the king on purely rational grounds (assuming such a thing exists): you could never show that the superior management skills of prospective king B outweighs in importance the disruptive effects of removing actual king A on grounds of inferior management. It would always be more rational for the prospective king to help the actual, to contribute his superior management skills (especially if that was his real reason for seeking the throne in the first place). The final residue of sacral kingship, which still invests our elected heads of government, is simply that someone must be at the center, and actually being at the center is a kind of a priori proof that it is you that should be there. The resentment toward the figure at the center merely confirms his sovereignty.

This means that genuinely overthrowing the figure at the center would require an equal and opposite sacrality. This is so difficult to imagine that you could make a very good case that it has never actually happened. Kings and governments have been overthrown many, many times, of course, but always in one of two ways: either the new figure at the center is presented as “always already” having been there (in which case the overthrow was merely correcting a previous one) or, in the modern revolutions, the central figure is overthrown, not in favor of a new figure, but in favor of a procedure for selecting rulers. Obviously neither Hitler nor Stalin ever contemplated surrendering the power they had seized, but neither declared himself the start of a new dynasty either—they were just holding power, for the Aryan people and proletariat respectively, in trust, until some form of rule (or transcendence of rule, in the case of communism) could settle the question definitively. Conservatives and reactionaries tend to dismiss and even despise “postmodern” thought and culture, but it might simply be that postmodernism recognizes, more explicitly than liberalism was previously willing or able to do, the absent center that nevertheless structures our frenzied political existence. The obsession in postmodernism with ghosts, traces, absence, silence and doubling might be read as an oblique commentary on the failure of the slaughter of the king. Democracy is an increasingly broken method of restoring the central figure—investing it once again with the signs of legitimacy, i.e., sacrality—only to smash and remove it once again. It’s not a surprise that this process has become more like an uncontrollable nervous tic than a genuine investiture. It’s as if the present day celebration of men who mutilate themselves and put on wigs is a parody of the once tragic process of bringing down the king—now, “cisgender normativism” is the best we can come up with for a figure to place at the center and undergo ritual vandalization.

We can see Moldbug’s formalism as a kind of “reduction” of sacrality to the simple occupancy of the center I referred to above—we can no longer believe in kings being placed on the throne by God, or in the integrity of imperial lineages, but we can see that we can’t get past, or transcend, or deconstruct, the simple fact that someone has to be at the center, and that actually being there is irrefutable proof that you should be there. If that’s the only criterion we can have for political centrality, or sovereignty, that criterion must be extended throughout the entire social order. If there’s a center, there are margins; every move made from the center reconstitutes the margins. If we assume the formalist principle that powers that liberalism has made implicit, all the better to carry on political struggles behind and under the scene, should be made explicit, the implication here is that absolutist rule involves an ongoing commentary on the relation between center and margin. If the center declares war, social institutions are recruited for this purpose and are therefore re-“baptized” as war or war-related ministries and industries. When peace comes they are renamed again. Here, again, there is a very illuminating parallel with modern and postmodern art. Traditional art, and this is the case through the realism of the 19th century, is predicated upon the spectator or reader ignoring the means by which the artistic effects are produced. We all have a sense of how, for example, a narrative is structured—there is a hero, a goal, there are obstacles to achieving the goal, the hero overcomes them, and so on. It’s all fairly formulaic, and even great and original works of art stick to the formulas. But enjoying the artwork requires one to forget the formulas—to accept that the villain is “evil,” and to ignore the means used to produce the “evil effect” in the reader. The explanation of evil offered by the word might be very powerful and truthful, but assimilating the explanation is incompatible with directing attention to the “devices” the artist has used to produce an appearance you go on to interpret as an “explanation.” Modern and especially postmodern art just goes ahead and says this is the hero, this is what makes him look heroic—look, if I have him do this, he won’t be heroic anymore, but this also means that heroism is not exactly what it appears—and the effect of this direction of your attention toward the devices is that the “exchange” or conversation between artist and viewer/reader concerns your expectations of an art work, and the habits and traditions through which you engage them.

This transparency and self-reflexivity is central to absolutism. In constructing for myself some possible objections to absolutism I considered that someone might be horrified at all the people who would be disempowered by transference of power to an absolute ruler. The answer, of course, is that this is not the case: for the vast majority of people, nothing would change regarding their share in power within the social order. They have no power now, and they would have no power under absolutism. The difference is that now they are told that they have all kinds of power that they should understand, exercise, and seek to increase (because there are evil forces, whose evilness is constructed through such transparent narrative devices that only addiction to power seeking can blind one to them, that are always trying to rob you of them), whereas under absolutism they would be provided with a range of ways in which they can participate productively in their community. Under absolutism, we could freely admit that we’re working with formulas, which is to say traditions, all the way down, even in the very language that we use. Again, there are just centers and margins, subordinate to the constitutive center/margin relation, your role on the margin is (to invoke Derrida) to “supplement” the center and you do this by clarifying the basic command script articulating center and margin. As a thought experiment, we can examine the assumption that there just is a center, even if posited arbitrarily; but if there has to be a center it can’t simply be arbitrarily posited because organizing all social practices accordingly would surface the hierarchies constitutive of those practices and hence of centrality as such.

That residue of sacrality, which inheres in even the most everyday relationships and professions, is never eliminated by considerations of professionalism, managerialism, efficiency and so on. Calling it a “residue of sacrality,” though, suggests an unhelpful nostalgia—as if we’re trying to hold onto a few crumbs from a table that has long been overturned. It’s better to think, instead, in terms of constraints: foundational names and rules for articulating them that we can’t get “behind,” or place on a “rational basis,” because that process of “enlightenment” would just entail having to get behind and rationalize the tacit assumptions that enabled us to reform or replace the previous set of tacit assumptions. You can’t but preserve something of the center-margin relation that now allows you to reform that relation. It’s neither rational nor irrational: it’s like accepting that in one community men greet each other with a handshake, in another with a head nod, and in another with a high five. We can imagine a Swiftian comedy in which the social scientists in the handshaking community arrive at a proof for the rational superiority of the head nod, and seek to have this preferable mode of greeting enforced through society. It would be funny (if handled right, of course) because in order to institute the new practice, you’d have to draw upon the resources of solidarity contained in the old practice—you’d have to shake hands with the men you now hope will trust you enough so that you can instruct them that they are no longer to shake hands.

Once we realize that all our practices are constrained, though, we can make these constraints explicit, that is, formalize them. I think this may even provide a way for developing absolutist economics. In Jerusalem, for example, all buildings must have a specific kind of stone on the exterior. Of course, this takes away a lot of economic freedom—you can’t build a red brick building, even if that’s what you prefer. But any city would develop some generally shared sense of aesthetics, some sense of what kind of buildings belong and which don’t—the constraint simply establishes a general rule within which that “sense” can develop more coherently. Presumably, the constraint would be drawn from existing evidence of what the city is already comprised of. At any rate, once you have this constraint, you know that you will have a permanent market for a particular kind of stone. The market will expand and contract, because the city will not always grow at the same rate, but you know that you always want access to this kind of stone—and you need architects who are good at building with it, and perhaps other goods and skills as well(who knows what the implications of a specific kind of stone might have for the market for doors, windows, draperies, yards, etc.). A convenient and economical way to rule a city or any order is through constraints, with the trick being to make them distinctive, assessable and flexible: here, minimally, is what a “block” must be, what a “neighborhood” must be, what an “employer-employee relation” must be. This would encourage those on the block, in the neighborhood, and in economic institutions to develop complementary and corresponding constraints—the neighborhood is to have these subdivisions, modeled on the constraint defining the neighborhood—and so on, all the way down. The entire social order becomes an exploration in the ramifications of the center-margin relation constituting it. Economically speaking, this would introduce an irreducible ingredient of stability—much of what is needed, and therefore what is needed to supply what needed, and what is needed to…—can be known with a far greater degree of certainty than in the free market under divided power.

This means the social order is conceived as a disciplinary space comprised of disciplinary spaces. In the Kuhnian sense, a disciplinary space is held together by shared concepts and tacit practices that enable us to attend to the “same” thing. Think about the experience of being in a lab and having a scientist tell you to look through the microscope—whatever you’re supposed to see is there, but you won’t see it unless you’re primed to see it. You need to separate foreground from background. Again, this is the most common, everyday, human experience. You see a crowd looking at something. You go over—what are they looking at? Well, it might be obvious—a dead body, a wrecked car—but it may be that someone will have to single out something for you. Even in the obvious cases, everyone already there is looking in a way you don’t yet know how: some significant feature of the dead body, some sign on the car of how the crash happened, has already become an object of shared attention. You need to be shown how to “see” that dent. Again, this is neither rational nor irrational—it is a result of all attention being shared attention. You can only see what others teach you/learn from you how to see. Again, formalism just makes it explicit that this is what we are always doing. This doesn’t prevent change—it just means that change will emerge on the terms of the discipline, which undergoes a crisis once an accumulation of observations under the existing hypothesis generates a set of new hypotheses to try out. The dent then becomes one element of more systemic but more subtle damage we are now able to notice.

We can redefine “universalism” in these terms. Universalism is the fantasy that all humans are occupying the same disciplinary space. You’re a rational being so you already know how to see the dent. You just need to set aside all the other disciplinary spaces that have warped your view and made it invisible—that is, you must simply set aside everything you are. But this just means a particular disciplinary space has usurped all the rest. Which one? The disciplinary space focused on exposing the unjustified assumptions of all the other disciplinary spaces. But the assumption that all assumptions need to be “justified” cannot itself be justified. That’s why universalism is fraudulent—just like atheism can dismantle all the arguments for believing in God (what, exactly, is God made of, etc.)  but can’t explain why people believe other than their stupidity (they should have, from the beginning, “spontaneously,” seen the “dent” in religion that we now see), universalism can expose the constitutive constraint of all “particularisms” but can’t examine its own. All universalism is good for, paradoxically, is division—for power struggles against constrained order, i.e., all order. Liberalism is nothing but an endless war against all forms of humanity in the name of a humanity that not only doesn’t exist, but can only be imagined as the negation of all actual forms of humanity. This is not a new point—the stripped down human being liberal universalism defends turns into the literal stripping down of millions of human beings who must be saved from their particularities—from what we know as the “middle” which the elites target from all sides in their proxy wars.

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