GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

September 24, 2017


Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:42 pm

What, exactly, is power? Who obtains it, who holds it, how is it manifested and used, how is it transmitted, and why? Power, as de Jouvenel says, is credit, which suggests that the origin of power is in the ceding of the decision to one person, or at least a single will, when all have to adhere to the same decision. We can think of obvious examples where this would be the case—during a hunt, or when the community is under attack. Someone who has led successful hunts, or defenses against attacks, in the past, is obeyed in a similar situation now. This assumes, though, that there was a first hunt, or self-defense, in which the need for leadership was experienced in the very act of someone taking it. Instead of a disorganized chase after the prey, or a rout by some enemy, the group was given form by the credit granted to whomever was presumed or was proving to be most capable. But this can only describe the human group—a group of advanced apes wouldn’t have a “moment of decision.” But the first decision, we originary thinkers assume, was made on the originary scene, and that decision was to not succumb to uncontrolled violence against the others. All subsequent decisions are to be modeled on that one. Power, then, first of all means structuring attention so as to quell or preferably pre-empt the panic that results from a collapse of shared attention into upwardly spiraling rivalries. It is that structuring of attention that makes the hunt or self-defense successful.

What is the best way of accounting for the growth of power, its institutionalization, and perpetuation even long after those wielding power have ceased to earn any “credit”? This is a set of issues requiring clarity within absolutism. The uncertainty begins with de Jouvenel and readings of de Jouvenel, starting with Moldbug’s—de Jouvenel’s analyses certainly lend support to the “High-Low v. Middle” structure that has been constitutive and canonical in absolutism and neo-reaction. He consistently shows “Power” undermining the middle layers (the aristocracy in particular) so as to flatten out the social structure and rule directly over an equalized mass. But is this because Power was “insecure” or because Power insatiably seeks to grow and extend itself? If Power is insatiable, that implies that there is always something outside of Power, something evading its grasp: presumably some irreducible human freedom or spontaneity. But that itself would indicate something less than secure in Power, something registered as “anomalous” somewhere within the power system. But this also implies that the more secure Power becomes in fact, the more intolerable it will find even minimal gaps in the extent of its reach. “Secure” and “Unsecure” are relative terms. An early medieval king ruling over a territory the size of a small town may consider his power quite secure if he can on occasion rouse his lords to mobilize their soldiers to defend against the predations of a gang of nomadic looters; the modern state apparently feels its power is insecure if there is a single “white supremacist” who can hold down a job. Why, though, describe the purge of “white supremacists” in terms of “unsecure” power rather than simply power hunger? What is it the state wants to do that it perceives the “white supremacists” to interfere with? The reasoning can quite easily get circular here: the state wants everyone to feel “safe,” which the existence of white supremacists prevents. It seems that just about any case where power is extended could be described one way or the other. So, which way is better, and why? The determination can’t be made on empirical grounds, because the conceptual order will lead to the empirical observation.

Let’s continue with our originary power analysis. The leader of the hunt or self-defense team acquires his credit by securing rewards for those who obey him. In fact, at more primitive levels of social development, the followers may get a larger share than the leader—the prestige of leadership is more important than the material reward, and that prestige depends upon others being rewarded. But the structuring of attention precedes the reward. It’s not enough that the activity was successful—any member of the group can claim credit for the success—the leader didn’t necessarily throw the spear that killed the buffalo, or kill the most enemy combatants. If leadership depended on such crude quantitative measures, it would be impossible to sustain. The source of power is representational. The first attempt to take down a buffalo fails. One member of the group shouts at another, let’s say for throwing and missing with his spear. The member who has been shouted at shoves his accuser. Other members of the group move in, ready to join one side or the other. Whoever can step in the middle of this simmering brew of resentments, stand between the sides without taking sides, making sure that if he has to block a blow from one side he shows himself ready to block a blow from the other, and then points to where the buffalo were last seen headed—that’s the leader, that’s who has power. And only one person can have it, because once one person has resolved things, the situation doesn’t allow for anyone else to step in. Of course, the first person to try this might get his skull bashed in, which would just mean that he doesn’t have the power. Exercising power means being able to “dwell” within the situation itself (you have to be ready to parry and if necessary return blows, you need to know who is most likely to strike, whose potential dominance might need to be countered) while simultaneously standing outside of it and reframing it (this is a distraction, our dinner is still out there).

So, that leader becomes “chief,” a quasi-permanent position, with ritual honors and responsibility. But it’s not so easy to intervene in every dispute, to calm every panic, in just the right way, by recognizing and deflecting the precise structure of resentments. You’ll need a repertoire of “moves” that are effective in deferring resentments become stereotyped rather than crafted so as to be appropriate to the situation; new acts, moves and postures are created so as to ensure that potential combatants never get to the point where the leader has to directly step in. Credit is extended, which makes it more deeply rooted but also more tenuous. There’s always an element of bluff in the exercise of power. This means that the mettle of the leader is tested less often, at least publicly and unequivocally—he has to rely on tales of former heroic acts a general “sense” that things are going as they should, and the proper exercise of ritual responsibilities. So far we’re talking about securing power, and we’re talking about it as very serious problem—only one person can be chief, so absolutist premises hold, but there might be several individuals who would be just as good at it, and it wouldn’t be so hard for one of them to mobilize enough supporters for a real contest. The chief will need to create or “certify” new positions: “head warrior,” “storyteller,” “hunt planner,” “seer,” etc. This in turn produces new tests of his leadership capacity—can he manage his subordinates? For a very long time, even into the early modern period, it was expected that kings lead their subjects in war—at a certain point this became unthinkable, which means that something crucial had changed in the meaning of Power. Even modern rulers run risks that give them a quasi-military status—JFK is buried at Arlington National Cemetery because he was killed in the service of his country. But there’s no reason for these risks other than the inevitable imperfections of secret service protection.

At a certain point the position of power to be filled becomes more important than the person filling it. This has to happen as sacrality drains from the central figure himself; or, conversely, the regularized delegation of “offices” is what drains that sacrality. This would seem to be the perfect security of power—if anyone can be president, then the office of the presidency can’t be damaged beyond repair by any single occupant. This is also what give Power its remorseless, inexorable tendency towards growth: if the person inhabiting the office doesn’t personify or exemplify the office by retrieving the sources of power (by leading an army against Power), then the accrual of power to the office as such will be an end in itself, certainly for those filling permanent positions auxiliary to the elective one. But the fact that the office is always “empty” insofar as its occupant is as an exchangeable cog like anyone else really means that it’s a site of endless power struggles. Everyone can imagine they can define the office with their own set of imperatives. These power struggles contribute to the growth of “Power,” because if everyone thinks they can use Power everyone wants it larger. So, are the contestants trying to secure power? Or is Power just following its own growth imperative? At this point the best qualifications for filling the highest offices no longer include the charisma of leadership, or earned credit—rather, those functionaries are recruited from the broader cultural training grounds established so as to continually replenish the elites with facsimiles of the existing ones. And what the future elites are trained in is how to play the idealized “principles” of Power against Power, the equality reflected in the abstraction of all individuals before Power against the insufficient degree of equality presently presided over by that Power.

In the midst of this, someone must be trying to secure power. Everyone can’t be engaged in a perpetual and increasingly reckless power grab all the time. There must actually be some way of securing power, otherwise what would we be talking about? Maybe not all the time, but we must always assume the possibility. Even those engaged in subverting power, except under the most desperate conditions, must want the technological capacities that will help them rule if they get the chance, and must therefore limit political encroachments upon the space granted to scientific inquiry and production processes. But the failure to actually secure power might very well accelerate power struggles and hence the growth of Power—so the dialectic of attempts to secure power leading to the destruction of middle layers of authority and hence more insecure power holds true under these conditions. Those trying to secure power will often be the beneficiaries of a previous power grab, so it’s not surprising that they won’t have the institutional, intellectual or moral resources to stop subsequent ones. In order to secure power, there is no alternative to returning to the originary form of power, in which an individual occupies the center, defers some imminent crisis, and redirects attention to the permanent center. The permanent center is nothing more than the possibility that there will always be someone who can occupy the center when needed upon any scene, large or small, central or peripheral, and that each of us be ready to do so or defer to whoever does. Deferring to the permanent center entails proper naming and seeing to the order of names. By “naming” here, I mean a designation of your place in relation to the center. Your name is your discipline and the articulation of your origin and telos—it is given to you by others and others ascertain your embodiment of it, but only you can fill it. And the better you fill it the better equipped you will be to recognize whoever can best establish and perpetuate the proper order of names.

September 17, 2017


Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:26 am

The notion of viewing the government as a corporation is foundational for NeoReaction and Absolutism, having first been proposed by Mencius Moldbug and presently being revisited by Imperial Energy. The government is in the security business: its customers (formerly known as “citizens”) pay a fee (formerly known as “taxes”) and the government provides internal security for property and person, and external security from, presumably, the other security corporations in the world—or, perhaps, from more primitive and therefore maybe more dangerous state organizations. The idea has its roots in libertarian thought. It might gain more support from the recent work of political scientist David Ciepley, who in one essay argues that the framers of the US Constitution very deliberately constructed the constitution as a “charter” and the government as a corporation. According to Ciepley, mainstream political thinkers through the 19th century were perfectly aware of all this, and used the words “charter” and “constitution” interchangeably. This argument regarding the USG is part of a larger argument Ciepley has been making, perhaps most prominently in an American Affairs essay, about the fundamentally anti-liberal character of the corporation. Contrary to liberal and libertarian accounts going back to Adam Smith, which see the economy in terms of contracts entered into by individuals and more recently updated by Milton Friedman, who misrepresented the corporation as owned by its shareholders (causing all kinds of mischief), corporations are fundamentally public-private mixtures, established by the state and rooted in medieval social forms—and these institutions, not contractually based partnerships, dominate the modern economy.

Ciepley’s argument regarding the US founding is a complex one. He rejects the notion that founders like Madison and Hamilton had “social contract” theories, whether those positing a covenant among a people or those positing one between the people and a ruler, in mind in theorizing the new order they were establishing. They knew how preposterous such theories were. They were trying to establish a charter for a government, a corporate “person,” that, like a corporation, would have powers limited to those enumerated in the charter. They modeled this new government on the state governments, all of which had, in fact, been corporations chartered by the British government. Like the shareholders of a corporation, the people could vote for officials filling the positions established by the charter, but would have no role in governing—and, if they were to make demands that violated the terms of the charter, those demands should be ignored. He even shows how the practice of judicial review evolved not out of some pure constitutional logic but the role of the sovereign in rejecting policies of the corporation that violate its charter. But this is where the problem for the founders lay—if the government was a chartered corporation, who chartered it? Corporations are chartered by the sovereign—but the sovereign, the British Parliament, had just been overthrown. The “people” had to be sovereign, but what did that mean? A kind of social contract theory gets snuck in through the back door here, as some constitution of the people as a people must be retrojected back into the distant past. Developments within ancient and medieval theory helped here, as the Roman emperors legitimated themselves by claiming a one time (and of course irrevocable) donation of power to them by the “people”; this theory, mostly dormant in Roman history itself, was picked up and activated by those critical of the medieval European kings.

This opens all kinds of very interesting problems, because in this conception popular sovereignty is essentially a cipher—the sovereign is the original source of legitimacy, and the basis upon which the acts of the government can be criticized, but can’t actually do anything. It’s pure negation, which is the way imperium in imperio works. In a sense, all modern political theory is an attempt to give some content to what is almost a mathematical term introduced to make an equation work—it’s an ideal site for power conflicts because anyone can introduce anything into it they want. The American founders were acutely aware of these dangers (I don’t share Ciepley’s awe at their solution, but his argument is so powerful that his admiration for them rubs off), and tried to present the American people as a kind of instantaneously dissolving sovereign: they assembled in a formal, recognized manner, on the model of, say, town hall meeting called by the local authorities (of course all this must be recognized after the fact), in order to establish the constitution, and then recede into quiescence and let the government do its work. Americans still participate in government, but as individuals voting, promoting candidates, arguing about ideas and policies, etc.—not as the sovereign. They can resume their sovereignty in a way accounted for by the Constitution itself—the amendment process—but is that really sovereignty? If the charter of a corporation contains a provision allowing the shareholders to modify some element of the charter, do the shareholders thereby become sovereign? Well, maybe, because if they can modify one element, they can modify two, and if two, three, and ultimately the entire charter. Eventually they would have to finish the “amending” process and become passive sovereigns once more. This is quite different, though, from a sovereign who has chartered the corporation from the outside, and who has chartered many other corporations besides this one. The shareholders or citizens all benefit, or perceive themselves as benefiting, in different ways and degrees from the operation of the corporation. To get to the point of a constitutional convention or some other mechanism by which the charter is to be overhauled the divisions must be running very deep among the community—indeed, since everyone knows it can get to this point, the very possibility would be a source of division that many within the corporation would have an interest in inflaming. And this is for the reason I gave above: we are dealing with what is really phantom sovereign, an empty center which those occupying different positions within the actual sovereign can struggle to fill. So, the process of everyone claiming diverse and incompatible forms of sovereignty while being unaccountable to the consequences of such claims in the actual operations of sovereignty never ends.

Any conceptualization of the government as a corporation, then, has to deal with the question of who has chartered the corporation—it’s enough for a business partnership to have customers, but a corporation, an institution that transcends the lives of those who run it and resists any effort by participants to fold it up by “exiting,” must have a charter, from a real, not notional, sovereign. This is why I think both that the corporate form is the ideal form for the absolutist state and that the state itself cannot be a corporation. (Ciepley points out that most of the European states were in fact corporations, but since that is what allowed the phantom sovereignty to be slipped in, they are not to be emulated in that regard.) Chartering corporations of all kinds—and here the medieval and even ancient roots of the corporation are important—religious, educational, scientific, exploratory and, of course, profit-making businesses is the best way for the sovereign to recognize socially relevant and beneficial activities and scrutinize them in the most economical and non-intrusive way. And, as Ciepley points out, the corporation form itself is consistent with all kinds of internal governance—to his credit, it’s very hard to get a sense of Ciepley’s own politics, and I sense they wouldn’t fall very clearly in one place along the left-right axis, but he does acknowledge the viability of worker participation in some forms of corporate governance—as a way of helping keep the corporation focused on its long-term prosperity, rather than turning a quick profit for shareholders.

The corporate form has obviously lasted so long, through so many social transformations, because it is an extremely reasonable mode of organization. It is especially remarkable that the corporation has persisted in spite of its being in absolute contradiction to liberal principles—the Enlightenment liberals, and liberals since then, have wanted to get rid of or at least reduce to liberal imperatives the corporation, that remnant of feudal governance, with its fixed hierarchies, it being a quasi-law unto itself, its governance through “status” rather than “contract.” The Left has always been well aware of and suitably outraged by these features of the corporation—they’ve never quite been able to give the abolition of the atrocity of limited liability the high profile they had hoped to, but it’s still there, lurking in the shadows, although perhaps now more for purposes of blackmail than any real transformation, as the Left has learned to work its will very well through corporations. Ciepley in fact agrees with the left (and, in fact, some—especially pro-Trump, interestingly—sections of the right as well) in condemning the Citizens United decision. He thinks that, as entities chartered by the states, corporations should not have the rights given to natural persons. But perhaps the problem is that we still think in terms of “natural persons”—Ciepley doesn’t see any problem with the public-private distinction as such, he just thinks that corporations straddle the divide. He also thinks that corporations can be liberalized and democratized—for example, the free speech rights granted to citizens could be extended to employees of corporations. But this suggests some uneasiness on Ciepley’s part with the undemocratic character of corporations. We could more easily argue for pushing the needle in the other direction, toward the corporatization of the rest of social life. While the whole notion of free speech, free assembly, religion, and so on, is becoming increasingly inapplicable in public life, it seems to particularly ridiculous to try and impose it on corporations. You want your employees to speak freely about problems they notice in the engineering design of the latest product; and you want them to shut the hell up about gendered bathrooms. What do we need “people” in general to speak freely about? As chartered corporations, shouldn’t towns be allowed to prevent their public spaces from being taken over and defaced by “protesters”? If these public corporations need public input into their decision making, they can solicit it in their own way. Now, the interesting thing about Citizens United was that it wasn’t a business, but, rather, a corporation formed for the purpose of making a movie criticizing Hillary Clinton. Ciepley answers the question of why corporations like the New York Times should have free speech by noting that the Constitution explicitly establishes freedom of the press, but what is the press? Whatever the sovereign says it is, it seems to me—if I get together with a couple of friends and form a corporation to make gifs ridiculing prominent public figures, we’re the “media” just as much as the Times, NBC, CNN, and the rest—and our charter will reflect that our purpose is to enrich public life through satire. So, rather than saying that corporations should not participate in public life, because they are not “natural persons” with rights, we should say to “natural” persons to de-nature themselves, incorporate, get a charter, and enter public life on terms agreeable to and with rights granted by the sovereign.

Corporations have been so successful (“adaptable”) because they presuppose an absolutist ontology. They presuppose a structured hierarchy prior to the individuals that will enter that hierarchy. We can ordinarily assume that those who originate the corporation and first acquire the charter will themselves fill those roles—perhaps that would often be stipulated in the “application” (much like the US Presidency was designed with its first occupant in mind)—the corporation will be designed to perpetuate that originary relationship and purpose. That’s absolutist ontology: any enterprise has a founding and a founder; the founder has “seconds” of various kinds (a “board”); and the enterprise is then ready to mobilize people and resources. But in an incorporated world, what kind of organization will the sovereign preside over? What kind of non-corporate organization will even be conceivable? The corporation institutionalizes, rationalizes and “routinizes” the founding; the sovereign retains the “charisma” of the founding, and is staffed by those who prefer the “team” to the “roles,” the anomalous to the rule-governed. The sovereign would mostly be chartering and inspecting the conformity of corporations with the terms of the charter—he would need a team of “generalists.” How to select the sovereign himself is a problem, because there’s no reason to assume a hereditary monarch will be up to the task. Maybe some kind of rotation of the leading CEOs themselves, with each choosing his own team. Every corporation has those with abilities, ambitions and visions stifled by the institution—sometimes, of course, they should be stifled, but the sovereign would want to staff his own team with such “rogues,” who are more interested in innovation and excellence than “playing ball.” They must also be the people most interested in secure sovereignty.

September 12, 2017

Power, Media, and Counter-Algorithmic Praxis

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:43 am

Eric Gans published an essay titled “On the One Medium” in a book on Girard’s mimetic theory and media (Mimesis, Movies and Media, 2015) that I just had a chance to read and is worth discussing here. Gans argues here that the internet is becoming the one medium that will subsume all others: text, video, cinema, music, etc. Other media may continue to exist for reasons of convenience, but everything will be convertible into the one medium, and will therefore be thought of and composed as convertible. This implies the erosion of the integrity of the other media, and their current modes of presentation: Gans gives the example of downloading and binge-watching a TV series, which makes it indistinguishable, other than in terms of time, from watching a movie. This erosion is furthered by the capacity, within the one medium, to modify and mix different products of different media—Gans alludes to the implications of this capacity indirectly by discussing an effort at UCLA to impose a licensing agreement on university journals allowing “users of those materials, once the original source is referenced, to ‘tweak, remix, and build upon’ the materials they contain.” It’s easy enough to imagine what might be done by integrating text or “performances” of scholarly articles into music videos—just remember that Hayek vs. Keynes rap contest that was current a couple of years ago. Gans also points out the fragility of the medium, based as it is upon advertising revenue and, even more importantly, like all markets, “on political systems, with peace enforced by arms.”


There remain two sets of phenomena that cannot be reduced to the One Medium because they depend upon an immediate relationship to their public: performances on the one hand, and art-objects on the other. Students of GA will recognize the two essential components of the human (cultural-representational) scene: the sacred central object and its sacrificial/alimentary substitutes, and the peripheral human group that surrounds the center, celebrates and consecrates it, and eventually, in a typical rite, takes nourishment from it.

Performances can be recorded, of course, and events can be hosted on the internet, but the point is that they can be recorded and are therefore “always already” recorded and therefore no longer dependent for their reality upon an original set of witnesses. But all of these recorded performances are still dependent upon an original live performance, or at least the existence of individuals capable of giving live performances—and if there are people capable of giving live performances, there will be a demand for such performances. So, there is something irreducible about performance, as we can see even more forcefully in the sphere of ritual. Could a baptism be performed online, with the priest in one place and the infant in another? Some actions, to become real, require something like the laying on of hands. Since we are mimetic beings, human interaction grounds our world in a way simulation can’t—Gans uses the example of chess, pointing out that we now have computers that can defeat any human in the game, and yet we still hold human tournaments while no one would have the slightest interest in a chess match between computer programs.

In his discussion of the art-object, Gans notes that the existence of the One Medium places a premium on work that takes up physical space—in economic terms, “real things,” made simply to be displayed in front of a live audience, become “scarce.” It seems to me a similar argument would hold for performance, although Gans doesn’t pursue this—that is, those performances that are likely to become the most privileged, the most esthetically pleasing, are those which are most resistant to reproduction. Going to a live concert and watching it later on the internet are not the same thing, but the performer may not do anything different in the live performance than he does in a performance directly recorded to be shown on the internet—and if the performers know that the concert is destined to end up online, they are likely to minimize the “liveness” of the performance. Unless they don’t, and decide to maximize the difference of each performance, and make the performance as dependent as possible on the live audience. Of course, the best way to do that is to erase the boundary between performer and audience, as in some forms of experimental theater. But in that case, why have a bounded, formal event in the first place—the logical conclusion of this line of reasoning is for performers to create scenes and events out of the material of everyday life, in the midst of everyday life, the purest example of which is the “happening,” a form of art developed by Allan Kaprow. These would be events that no one would know to record in the first place.

Now, to push things a little further, if “happenings” become the most valued performative esthetic, physical interactions between people, unrepeatable and unreproduceable events, are going to more and more approximate happenings. In other words, we will more and more strive to give them a ritual character, by introducing constraints that operate as notes of deferral that are explicitly marked as such. The individual who disrupts a scene, however gently, implicitly makes himself a potential sacrifice or scapegoat—anything that goes wrong from here on in can easily be blamed on the disruptor. Your reason for wanting to attempt this, nevertheless, is that you detect some “imbalance” or latent and dangerous set of resentments in the scene; making yourself a potential target of those resentments is a way of defusing them. The risk may be worth it, because if you become a skilled “happener,” you can become a very valued person. You might be able to parlay such a skill and such a(n initially minor) celebrity into YouTube fame, thereby creating a dialectic between the simulacral internet and the irreducibly performative. The former tries to capture the latter, which develops new strategies of evasion and in turn informs new meming strategies.

We have a good reason to theorize such a dialectic. No one can be unaware now of the irrelevance of the supposed liberal freedoms such as speech, religion and assembly. Power is becoming more naked, and seemingly more desperate. It has always been the case that you’re not really allowed to be illiberal in a liberal order—a more secure liberalism could choose not to press the point, though. But the simulacral nature of liberalism itself has caught up with it—liberalism makes no sense outside of the liberal/illiberal binary. What is illiberal is centrality; what is liberal is resistance to centrality. There must be some law of acceleration determining the speed with which new modes of centrality and resistance to them are discovered. There must also be some way of predicting what will come next. “Lookism” as Nazism, with a ban on any reference to a person’s physical attractiveness that could even implicitly suggest the lesser attractiveness of others? Borders as apartheid? Both ideas have been floating around—maybe it’s time for one or both to catch fire. Does anyone dare laugh, or claim to foresee the limits of new victimary offensives? Liberalism has become compulsive: it must generate new offenses.

The internet and social media have accelerated the process by creating, as Gans pointed out not too long ago, a new and devastatingly effective mode of scapegoating; at the same time, the absolute binaries generated by victimary politics are fodder for the creation of new algorithms, which is the manifestation of power by the internet monopolies. Developing an algorithm for identifying “white supremacist” websites, blogs, videos, etc., is precisely the kind of task Silicon Valley is prepared for. You need input from organizations like the SPLC and ADL—they will help you develop keywords, phrases, verbal patterns and other markers to look for. But the smarter the computers get the dumber the people get. There have already been leftist websites complaining that they have gotten caught up in the censorious sweeps for heretical material by the Inquisition. The computers can’t distinguish between articles written by “white supremacists” and those written about “white supremacists” by their enemies. And, increasingly, neither can people. It is becoming less and less possible to depend upon people distinguishing between you saying something, and you saying that someone else says that. If it’s coming out of your mouth it’s all the same. I’ve noticed the same kind of intellectual collapse in related areas: if you ask people about the legality or constitutionality of things like giving legal status to illegal aliens or legalizing gay marriage or transgender rights, they increasingly talk about how they care about illegal alien children, have gay friends, and think the transgender don’t bother anyone. In other words, admittedly counter-intuitive distinctions between what you are formally allowed to do and what you should do are becoming unintelligible. Just like if the words come from you, they are your words, you can only mention an individual, practice or situation in order to approve or disapprove.

This massive devastation, a kind of wiping out of volumes of mental “programs” which must end up leaving much of our cultural inheritance unintelligible, actually provides an opening for realist/formalist politics. We have no problem with simplicities: the media talks about Russia because they want to destroy Trump; the Democrats promote immigration because they hate white people; feminists talk about “rape culture” because they want revenge against men; blacks commit more crimes because there are more criminals among them, etc. If the media gets their way, it’s because they are more powerful than those who didn’t get their way; if some part of the US government subverts some institution or country it’s because they are screwing some other part of the government, or some other agency. We can hack away at all the vaporous talk of equality, democracy, freedom, etc., identify the workings of power, and presuppose the real binary of order vs. disorder. But it would be a very good idea to learn how to do all this under the radar of the algorithms of the Inquisition. We make texts and events say what needs to be said by introducing disruptions and interruptions into them. Some familiarity with Twitter makes it clear that lots of people are already getting very good at this kind of thing. It would be very hard to police all the variations of the “guy checking out girl”/”distracted boyfriend” meme. Steve Sailer is a masterful, subtle reader of mainstream texts, even if he himself is already too well known to fly under the radar.

The simplest way to develop such an algorithm-resistant praxis is to speak and write as if you are doing nothing more than taking orders from those in power, and explicitly pointing out that you are doing so. “In such a case, as we have been repeatedly warned, we should look out for someone who might notice…” A lot will depend on how you have described the “case.”  Of course, we want to theorize openly and have more straightforward discussions, and we’re probably not all going to rounded up right away, once and for all. But we can have these back-up, “happening” discourses, predicated on an analysis of what would subtly disrupt or interrupt a power approved event, on or off line. Simply indicating, regularly and casually, that the instructions, while universally felt, are not all that clear, will have a powerful and cumulative effect. In this way we prepare the transition from mock (but actual) obedience to chaos generating sovereigns to real obedience to a patron capable of assessing value, and, finally, to a genuine sovereign. And in the process we will do our part to reintroduce humor, irony, complexity, self-reflexivity and distance back into the culture.

September 7, 2017

The Generativity of Deferral

Filed under: GA — adam @ 11:50 am

The question it occurred to me someone might ask after reading my last post was, “can’t there be too much deferral”? After all, you eventually have to eat, or respond to a threat (or blow), right? You can’t commit to infinite deferral—the Hunger Artist of Kafka’s story dies at the end. Such questions emerge from an understandable misunderstanding of deferral, the more advanced forms of which allow for plenty of eating, drinking, lovemaking, fighting (where necessary) and anything else needed for a full human life. As I’ve mentioned, the immediate effect of deferral is not an intolerable feeling of privation, since deferral emerges in response to accumulating desire more than to need (it is not an increasingly imminent threat that makes you angrier as the argument with your spouse intensifies)—rather, the effect is of a new world opening up. Threats and rivals become collaborators and potential friends; the source of desire is transfigured. On the originary scene itself, according to Gans’s hypothesis, the object at the center is divinized: it has saved the community by “commanding” them to let it(self) be. A range of other possibilities emerge: the point of contention between friends, spouses or co-workers can become comical—how could we have gotten so angry over that! Humor, or anything else that enables us to convert a source of contention into a new way of looking at something, derives from that divinization on the originary scene. But if the telos of humanity, and therefore our highest priority, is to bring about such conversions, aren’t those who adopt that telos as their own at the mercy of those who defer only so much as is necessary to turn themselves into a cohesive production and fighting unit? Isn’t being willing to hit first an insuperable advantage?

Such a question easily emerges if we neglect, as I have in fact been doing, the function of the sign and of language more generally in “distributing” the world. How, indeed, does the new community on the originary scene get from the moment of deferral in which they stand in front of a divine benefactor, in a circle no one can break except at pain of restarting the violent convergence, to actually approaching and consuming the object? Here, I may see things somewhat differently than Gans. Gans hypothesizes a “sparagmos,” a violent tearing apart of the central object driven by resentment at the object for “refusing” itself, however momentarily, to the group’s appetite. In this, Gans stays very close to both Girard and traditional accounts of sacrificial rituals (the best known example of which is probably the Dionysian frenzy central to Euripides’s The Bacchae). Subsequent to the sparagmos is a repetition or replay of the originary scene making use of the remains of the devoured object—this is the origin of ritual. I see no basis or need for questioning any of this. I do wonder, though, what, in the course of dropping the restraint acquired in the moment of deferral in favor of a savagery that (because resentful) is more than animalistic, prevents the members of the group from turning on each other once again as they scramble for their respective pieces of the meal. It seems to me that the sign formed on the scene of deferral must play this role. Whenever the aggression toward the central object threatens to spill over into renewed intra-group aggression the members of the group would “flash” the sign, or in some manner signify a reversion to the restrained and pacific posture modeled on the originary scene. This directs attention back to shared destruction and consumption of the object, and maintains some manner of “acceptable” distribution of the “proceeds” of the scene—not an equal share, surely (the larger and faster members would no doubt exploit their advantages), but close enough to prevent a breakdown of the accord accomplished. And this use of the sign then continues in the ritualistic phase of the entire event, making the re-enactment (which can subsequently become part of the sign preceding the sharing of the object) possible.

What this means is that extending the scene of deferral is not primarily a question of waiting longer to eat, or strike back, or enjoy anything. To some extent that’s necessary—you can’t have a family dinner if the kids are standing around in the kitchen grabbing food as soon as mother takes it out of the oven. They have to sit and wait at the table. But sitting and waiting until 7 doesn’t make them more civilized or moral than if they get served at 6. What is important is that the meal is properly “framed”: everyone is at the table, distractions are eliminated, some kind of sign (like saying grace) that it is time to begin is given, everyone uses their utensils, people don’t reach across the table to grab food off others’ plates, etc. The same holds for self-defense. The one who lets himself get hit ten times is not thereby more civilized or moral than the one who strikes back after the first blow, or even pre-empts that blow. The question is whether you act in accord with the social means, resources and rules for defending yourself. Your confrontation is framed through a narrative that will be reconstructed later, even if only by the participants in recounting their actions to themselves. Terms like “necessary,” “legitimate,” “excessive” among others then come into play, along with “fictional” narratives playing out alternative outcomes (could I have avoided the entire situation in the first place?). All these terms and mental acts are products of century and millennia of deferrals, and your ability to use these terms in a way that would meet with the approval of those in command of the social resources for managing these kinds of instances is evidence of your having “extended” the scene of deferral. Insofar as more restraint than you showed was, in fact, called for, that will be made evident by these narrative reconstructions, and then an extension of the scene of deferral is displayed others’ and your own capacity for learning.

So, there can’t be too much deferral because there can’t be too much differentiation and attention control. Every time you don’t do something, especially the obvious and easy thing, you multiply the possibilities for doing other things, and imagining the consequences of doing them. I mentioned in my previous post “infinite” deferral, which is important, because that is implicitly distinguished from the extremely patient predator who nevertheless cannot be infinitely patient. There is an important moral distinction here. What can be infinitely deferred is the degradation of the center. This is in fact the foundational or constitutive deferral, and one that needs to be renewed with each institutional and civilizational transformation. There is the figure at the center and there is the center. The king is not God, but the king or sovereign is the earthly means by which deferral is maintained. To obey the king is to recall or to retrieve the founding of the kingdom, while the founding of the kingdom is retrieved in its differentiation from the founding of humanity. We defer our resentments towards the king and those who rule over us as we obey the king to defer our resentments towards those whom we might accuse of occupying our place. These deferrals are never accomplished once and for all, and are continually institutionalized as deferences we owe each other. Our relation to the figure at the center is our attempt to have that figure convey information from the center: to instruct us by example in the arts of deferral. The abstraction of the sovereign from rivalry provides a model of action free from resentment: regardless of the actual motives of actual sovereigns, to the extent that they are sovereign the absence of resentment can be imputed to them. In fact, obeying them as if they are free of resentment is the best means of encouraging them to become more sovereign.

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