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.

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