The Generativity of Deferral

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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