GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

October 31, 2017

The Single Source of Moral and Intellectual Innovation

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:38 am

The graded, or staggered, model of action I presented in my next to latest post, and which I have elsewhere called “centered ordinality,” can provide us with a model of thinking along with one of morality. If the first sign appeared as a deferral of violence, then every sign appears likewise: not, needless to say, imminent collectively destructive violence as on the originary scene, but whatever would count as self-threatening violence for the thinker. (By “sign,” I mean anything that is taken to produce meaning). Even the most commonplace thoughts and ideas would fit this model—you produce a sign, i.e., you think of something, something occurs to you, as part of a feeling that something would be lost or destroyed otherwise. This is the firstness of thinking, and it doesn’t matter if the sign is original to you in some way or the most tired cliché—it’s doing what it’s doing for you right at that moment. And it’s doing it for you in the plural, even if you’re not directly interacting with others—at the very least it’s the two or several in one each of us is. We’re not the exact same person we were a second ago, if only because the thought we just had mediated the transition from one to another, and we’re always mingled in various ways with everyone else. The kind of panic, or oblivion, or complacency that shuts down thinking is a kind of violence conducted from the outside (the semiotic ecology) and imposed on oneself—if I think beyond this setting something will be unsettled that I’d like to consider settled. It is feeling the imminence of this shutdown as violence that keeps thinking going.

So, you start off thinking against this imminent violence, and it crystallizes in some encounter with another line of thinking (perhaps the line of thinking that led to the panic, oblivion or complacency) from which it must distinguish itself. This is the secondness of thought—its channeling through inherited formations. But, of course, the thinking itself could never have been outside of inherited formations—after all, the thinking must have been done in language, the most inherited of all formations. But thinking in its firstness takes its departure by rerouting what has been inherited back through its originary structure—an expression that has obviously been said by millions of people but was said by this person at this time and place in this way; a prayer you’ve repeated a thousand times but for the first time seemed to be really heard; a phrase in a book that takes on new meaning because it’s referenced by another book, etc. A sign can only be meaningful insofar as it has previously generated meaning, but it can also only be meaningful if it represents a new beginning. The secondness of thought wrenches the sign out of that originary context by imposing on it the weight of all the other, and especially the historically most weighted, contexts. The secondness of thinking makes the sign retroactively predictable.

Predictability is the both the issue and bane of thinking. We are seeing, on the alt-right in particular, a very vigorous defense of stereotypes, and it forces one to realize how stereotyped and complacent anti-stereotyping thinking has become. Of course there are differences between groups, however we might argue over explaining them, and these differences are registered in both commonsensical and more rigorous modes of thought. It has been courageous and liberating for the alt-right to affirm these suppressed truths. The acronym NAXALT (Not All Xs Are Like That) has emerged as a standing mockery of the feebleness of most attempts to “counter” stereotypes. Stereotyping is the highest form of sacrificial thinking: if someone needs to be blamed for some social calamity and excluded or made an example of, the stereotype tells you where to look and allows for no appeal—that is, it will not allow the pursuit to be hindered. We can never be completely outside sacrificial thinking (just saying that stereotyping is sacrificial is itself a kind of stereotyping and therefore sacrificial claim). And we certainly can’t refute it. But it is in the nature of sacrificial thinking and action to initiate chains of events that are unintended by and consume the initiator, because, following the laws of mimesis, invidious distinctions operate virally. You start with a clear distinction between same and other and eventually find yourself possessed by an other within. All we can do to interrupt such chains is lower the threshold of significance: if a particular group has a disproportionate proclivity to commit certain harmful acts, then you can formalize those acts and target the doers rather than the social reserve from which they sally forth. There will then remain the less violent residue of social stigma and marginalization but, first, it’s less violent and, second, from there another lowering of the threshold might be attempted, if the still remaining level of potential violence continues to provoke thought. (But let’s say the group in question is so powerful, self-interested and relentless that it blocks any attempt to formalize and institutionalize—well, then, either that group rules through the hierarchy it has established and will find itself with the same need to contain virality; or, it exploits some weakness in the ruling order and does you the favor of pointing out that weakness so it can be repaired—if you restore the capacity to destroy that group, it will no longer be a dire threat, or even the “same” group.)

Of course, if the lowering is not formalized and institutionalized, the lowering process can destroy itself by putting in place another even more viral distinction (between those who continue to stereotype and those who reject all stereotyping and therefore end up stereotyping their “other” especially virulently). To set yourself against stereotyping as such is to place yourself in opposition to social order and thinking itself. If society is oppressive because of stereotyping, then the deepest, most taken for granted stereotypes must be the most pernicious. You then have to destroy the most obvious things, and get outraged by boys preferring trucks and girls preferring dolls. The attempt to completely abolish sacrifice issues in the gnostic mania of monotheism; a more enduring monotheism keeps noting that whatever order you are trying to protect by conducting sacrifices really derives from another, prior and more permanent order that your sacrifice will violate, even while your sacrifice might defer, make more indirect and mitigating, another more terrible one. The creation of the sign precedes the division of the object and all the sacrifice can do is restore a practice of division that will reset the terms of mimetic rivalry. Sacrifice relieves us of the rigors of deferral by providing everyone with a fair share of the victim. Maybe sometimes we need to relax the rigors of deferral—this is what Philip Rieff called “remissions.”

The lowering of the threshold of significance constitutes a kind of renewal of firstness within secondness, and is accomplished by incorporating thirdness into the thinking process. Thirdness is the recipient and normalization of the interplay of firstness and secondness, founding and institutionalization, but it is also the position of the witness or spectator. The ability to detach yourself sufficiently from ongoing events so as to observe them as an unfolding drama is an originary source of thinking, morality and esthetics. Of course, this means being able to observe yourself, as both actor and observer, and therefore to see yourself falling into predictable roles and patterns. This self-reflexivity represents the extension of firstness into thirdness. The most moral and the most thoughtful position is one wherein you turn yourself into a sign that reveals the panic, oblivion and complacency that suppresses thought and provides a new means of deferring the violence those dispositions evade. This means inventing practices that lower the threshold of significance. The means of such invention are to be found in repetition, which has the effect of taking a sign from firstness through thirdness, as well as continually retrieving its firstness. Nothing has really happened until it has repeated, because the meaning of any sign is predicated upon its iterability. The more you deliberately repeat a sign, the more it is both stripped of meaning and becomes sheer sign, nothing but a way of centering attention. Maybe the most accessible form of repetition is satire, which pretty much anyone can do—repeat a familiar sign in a way that’s believable, recognizably not what it is repeating, distinguished by a stripping away of attributes that protect it from certain kinds of scrutiny. The moral and the intellectual come together in satire: the thing represented is “unconcealed,” and implicitly measured according to some standard of the good. To become a sign is paradoxical, both preempting and accepting vulnerability to satire, oscillating between firstness and thirdness.

A model of thinking is always a model of a disciplinary space. A disciplinary space is organized around a sign oscillating between predictability and novelty—a discipline like sociology comes into being because something unrecognizable had emerged in human groups, something that didn’t fit terms like “community,” “nation,” “polis,” “republic,” “people,” “kingdom,” etc. Genuine disciplinary spaces tend to take shape in the corners of the established, institutionalized ones, through “satirical” repetitions of their founding gestures and concepts. Disciplines are determined to make a few terms, bringing to attention a specific cluster of phenomena, work—they start with the assumption that they will work, and don’t abandon that assumption until something else comes along that might include what has been organized through a broader concept. But it should always be possible to come back to the founding paradox of a discipline—the decision to see everything one way even though everything appears utterly different than that way (if a discipline just reproduced what we already saw and knew, it would be unnecessary). Let’s say we wanted to view the same social situation as one of complete order and as one of complete disorder. We could easily do it, by adding predicates to either order or disorder—what appears to be disorder is really an invisible order, what appears to be order is really moral disorder, etc. If you keep accumulating predicates on both sides, you would get to the point where you could say, looking at this phenomenon, if we’re willing to see this set of predicates as operating hierarchically in this way so as to articulate the substantive, we’re going to see this kind of order; if we’re willing to see this other set of predicates, etc., we’re going to see this kind of disorder. As thinkers in firstness, we should always be on that boundary; as actors and artists in secondness and thirdness we will inevitably be struck by the order or disorder (or uneven combination of both) that actually appears and narrows the world of possibilities. What thinking does is make being struck in this way a starting point for thinking.


(Those familiar with the thinking of Charles Sanders Peirce will notice my indebtedness—somewhat distant by now—to his philosophy and semiotics, in particular his categories of firstness, secondness and thirdness. I would note in particular his essay, “On a Neglected Argument for the Reality of God.)

October 26, 2017

Autocracy Stalks the End of History

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:23 am

Eric Gans’s readiness to put “liberal democracy in question” would have already made his most recent Chronicle of great interest, but his subsequent “supplement” made it absolutely essential to address this discussion. Gans’s recent discussions, even explicit affirmations, of liberal democracy have had the effect of making this mode of government seem far more hideous and grotesque than I would be able to manage myself, until he got to the point of finding no real argument in favor of liberal democracy other than superior economic growth. So, obviously some questioning has been going on, and the ongoing cannibalization of liberal and democratic institutions and norms alike by the left has reached a certain threshold of unacceptability. What is particularly interesting is that Gans is now willing to consider China a genuine, if still to his mind, undesirable, alternative to the liberal West, and this would put originary thinking on new and untried terrain—GA has focused almost exclusively on Western developments, but it seems we may have to start studying Confucianism; it may also be that China represents a vast, untapped market for GA itself. Here’s a good place to get started:

In the absence of political parties and free elections, political debate in authoritarian societies takes place among factions whose pluralism varies inversely in proportion to the strength of the central power. If previous Chinese leaders, wary of repeating the disastrous results of Mao’s later years, have preferred to share power among several factions, Xi’s economic successes appear to have provided him a sufficient basis for a new hegemony, allowing him to acquire near-absolute power, so far at least without the irrationality that characterized the reigns of Mao or Stalin.

Let’s note here the acknowledgement that an “authoritarian system” reliant on playing one faction against another (essentially a more controlled form of divided or insecure power) can transition to a more “autocratic” one, with power centralized in the hands of a single individuals. And that such a transition need not be irrational (i.e., it can be rational). One of the interesting things about discussing autocratic rule is that it’s hard to deny that it is better at some things than liberal and democratic forms of rule; and, once you acknowledge that, it’s hard to deny that it can get better at what it is already competent in, and better at things that have been assumed to be antithetical to that form of rule.

Among the more striking facts of recent history is the ease with which central authorities perpetuate themselves unless toppled from without. Aristotle and Montesquieu described the perilous nature of the tyrant’s role, as illustrated by the oft-assassinated Roman emperors and various examples of “Oriental despotism,” but today’s despots, including Putin and Erdogan, let alone the Kims and the Castros, or for that matter, Saddam and Khadafy before their countries were attacked by Western powers, seem invulnerable to internal overthrow. The crucial difference between them and “strong men” like the Shah or Hosni Mubarak would seem to be greater ruthlessness. But in none of these cases has autocracy provided, as Xi promises to do, superior economic performance in exchange for the loss of political freedom. (Singapore under the late Lee Kuan Yew might be considered an exception, but this city-state can hardly serve as a model for a full-sized country.)

Another relevant difference is that both the Shah and Mubarak were betrayed by their patron and thrown to the wolves. But this certainly is an interesting observation. Attributing survival to ruthlessness seems a bit circular without some independent measure of ruthlessness—otherwise, their survival itself becomes proof of greater ruthlessness. Maybe it’s just that single man rule is just as coherent and “natural” as liberal democracy. Maybe more—it’s been around a lot longer.

The fundamental question is whether such a system can ultimately become more prosperous than our messy old market system. In schematic terms: one market or two? Economic markets in both cases, but in one, the higher-level regulation of the market is imposed by a self-perpetuating central authority rather than in the hands of changing representatives of the electorate.

The one market or two question refers back to Gans’s analysis (recapitulated briefly earlier in this Chronicle) of liberal democracy as comprised of two markets: the economic market, and a political market that allows for a form of collective decision making that elicits, contains and at least in part addresses the resentments generated by the inequalities caused by the economic market.

The crux is whether an authoritarian system can generate greater political efficiency to make up for its diminished economic efficiency, which will presumably be affected by the damage to morale inflicted by thought control. Which obliges us to turn once more to the rise of the victimary in the West and the not-so-soft institutional thought control that it produces, increasingly indoctrinating the young with victimary clichés and taboos and obliging its citizens to salute, in place of the national flag, the idol of “diversity.”

Whether an authoritarian system (but why not “autocratic,” or “absolutist,” since China seems to be closing in on that, and that was the very point of Gans’s discussion leading up to this question?) can generate greater political efficiency is an excellent way to formulate the question, but why presuppose the diminishment of economic efficiency? The reason Gans gives here seems especially weak—it would be very interesting to find a way to compare the collective “morale” of China with Western Europe or the US, and I don’t think anyone would be all that surprised to see the former outperforming the latter in this field. It would seem odd to assume that political efficiency must somehow be at odds with economic efficiency—don’t businesses, scientists and engineers prefer a stable social environment?

Xi’s ambition for “modern socialism” challenges my response to Ryszard Legutko’s ominously ironic assimilation of Western PC to the dogmas of Eastern Euro-Communism (The Demon in Democracy, Encounter, 2016 [2012]; see Chronicle 532): that, à tyrannie égale, at least the West has relatively healthy economies. But leaving the economy aside for the moment, if there is indeed to be tyrannie égale, then the very foundation of liberal democracy on the continued implicit consent of the governed is placed in jeopardy. Grosso modo we may say that the rise of the “alt” versions of right and left reflects this tendency, neither one accepting the traditional gentlemen’s agreement that its opposition will remain “loyal.” Significantly, in contrast to the Old Left, with its high hopes for the Soviet Union, the new alt-left is not at all dependent, nor even terribly interested in the fate of socialism outside its home borders. Its conviction of the inherent evil of “capitalism” is not based on a contrast with an exemplary model, utopian or otherwise, but is fundamentally moralistic. Victimary critique takes the place of every form of structural criticism. Since every practice can be shown to “victimize” in some way or other, we must engage in a constant battle against all of them, with “the end of discrimination” the only ultimate goal.


American society’s ability to deal effectively with victimary extremism has yet to be demonstrated…

This is really the crux—it seems to me that Gans is inching closer to the conclusion that victimary extremism cannot be controlled in America (or the West more generally), in which case exploring the possibilities of other forms of government is essential, even urgent. Gans still sees liberal democracy as the more “ideal” form of government, even if he has been brought to the point of accepting the possibility of settling for second best. But such judgments are inherently unstable—if the second best government can thrive while the best crashes, doesn’t that mean we must reverse our assessment? Gans’s continued hope for a recovery of liberal democracy (and even an ultimate turn in that direction by China itself) must also assume (although he doesn’t take up the point here—but Chronicle #532, referenced above, is a good place to take a look) that the victimary is some parasitic growth upon liberal democracy, perhaps caused by an over-reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust, rather than a (not necessarily the) logical conclusion of liberal democracy itself. As Gans himself acknowledges, liberal democracy has always been to some extent victimary—why should it be surprising that, as the still extant layers of tradition are peeled off one by one, liberal democracy would be revealed to be victimocratic to the core?

Gans persists in seeing “autocracy” (which should mean “self-rule,” shouldn’t it?) as “bad,” even if potentially better in one (albeit crucial) respect than the “good” liberal democracy. But his supplement gives us an opening to examine the question in a rather rich way:

Supplement (October 24, 2017)

Having read this Chronicle, a friend pointed out to me an October 21 piece by Rachel Botsman in Wired magazine entitled “Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens” (, which describes an elaborate rating system that gives everyone a “national trust score,” and that will become the official Chinese basis for all kinds of judgments well beyond financial credit by 2020.

This gave me the idea of a clearer way of comparing Chinese with Western authoritarianism. These scores will definitely put a premium on loyalty to the regime, and, to the extent they are detectable, keep expressions of dissent to a minimum, as well as stigmatizing easily detectable vices such as video games. Certainly a step toward neo-1984. But there is an upside to this reliance on “objective” measures.

China (and Japan, and I imagine, South Korea) admit students to universities based on examination scores. American universities, even where racial criteria are supposedly illegal, as in California (hard to believe that prop.­ 209 would get the vote of today’s woke electorate) increasingly give out admissions based on “diversity.” There is also increasing pressure to do the same in industrial hiring, and we are constantly asked to lament the “white privilege” of the whites (and Asians) who get most of the good jobs in high-tech industries. So if we can say on the one hand that the West’s freer economy is a plus over the managed economy of socialism even at its most enlightened, and that it’s arguably preferable to be able to express one’s resentments freely rather than whisper them with the shower turned on, the advantage of these freedoms is certainly offset by the dilution of objective criteria in personnel selection. As opposed to the old Soviet dogmas, today’s Chinese dogmas are more methodological than doctrinary, and in contrast to such things as Lysenkoism, they take their science straight (even when taking ours). What this suggests is that the autocratic nature of the society and its repression of dissent bear increasingly on the mechanisms of social control rather than on the specifics of decisions to be made in the economic and technical spheres.

Of course this discussion brackets such things as the Chinese takeover of “territories” in the South China Sea, and its under-the-table encouragement of North Korea, as well as China’s push for economic hegemony in Asia (New Silk Road) and throughout the Southern Hemisphere. But it does allow for an element of objective comparison. As our society becomes more digital-technological, hence farther from the old norm of “labor power” as the rough equivalent of moral equality that inspired Marx’s Labor Theory of Value, meritocratic selection becomes increasingly important—not just to get the “best” people, but to get everyone to strive to be the best. (Which is the major reason why—but don’t let the UC Diversity folks hear you say this—Chinese kids are good at math.)

Conversely, it is precisely the evil of meritocracy (“disparate impact”) that is the focus of the ascriptive victimary thinking that has virtually eliminated all other thought on the Left today.

The Botsman article is a pretty interesting read. Pretty much any autocratic (which is pretty much a synonym for “absolutist”) system with access to advanced electronic technology would ultimately end up employing some version of China’s social credit system—Gans’s emphasis, in comparing China’s autocracy with America’s victimocracy is on the centrality of some notion of objective merit to any social order depending upon advanced technology (you simply need competent engineers, scientists, doctors, teachers, etc., and therefore “competence” must be valued in itself). In fact, insofar as the victimocracy is intrinsically hostile to all objective, non-political measures of merit, Gans seems to be settling the issue right here. But, of course, if autocracy is capable of privileging merit so singlemindedly, it can’t simply be “bad.” In fact, if it can be brought to focus increasingly insistently upon merit, it would get better and perhaps find ways of reducing corruption and grounding its autocracy in something other than Communist Party rule (the continued repetition of inane “socialist” slogans and verbal formulas isn’t very meritorious, is it?).

But what about that social credit system itself? As Botsman points out, it’s really just an extension and centralization of what we already see developing in the West, in which records of all activity are preserved online and in one way or another made available to those institutions that have to “credit” each of us in some way; the most obvious example is our credit score. China wants to add indicators of virtue to the social credit score, by, for example, crediting someone who puts their salary toward a mortgage rather than toward gambling, and to directly reward and punish individuals based on this score. The possibilities here are endless, and would depend upon a discussion of what counts as “virtue,” for which contemporary societies would therefore have to equip themselves: should the citizen who goes to the museum housing acknowledged national art treasures get more points than the one who goes to the latest postmodernist exhibit? Should baseball be ranked above football, or MMA? Staid but informative documentaries over horror movies? Etc. Botsman also raises the question of gaming the system, which the Chinese have apparently gotten quite good at when it comes to standardized testing.

In West, the only available answer is to say, “who’s to say?,” and blather on about privacy, individualism and freedom, while railing against the “surveillance state” and “creeping totalitarianism”—you can write up the debates before they even occur (1984!). It is clear that the autocracy would be capable of hosting a much more robust and mature discussion of questions of value and virtue, however it chooses to organize that discussion. Social credit scores would be determined by algorithms, of course, but this wouldn’t be rule by algorithm—the state, the autocrat, would have to determine what criteria should guide the creation of the algorithms. This would certainly be a learning process for all involved—if the state discovers that its point system with its rewards and punishments makes a large portion of the population economically unviable (by, say, determining that they can’t use banks or public transportation, or would find it impossible to rent a home or find a mate), clearly the algorithms would have to be recalculated. In general, people would orient themselves toward the social credit ranking system, implicitly participating in dialogues over its determinations. (How many social credit points do you get for blogging on ways of improving the social credit algorithms?) Insofar as something like a social credit system creeps into the West (in the usual confused, indecisive, partly apologetic, partly arrogant way), reactionaries could use that creep to point out that if individualism is being replaced by something like an electronic village, it is preferable for that village to be centrally run and governed by a shared conception of virtue. The Chinese should really find a way to transition from Communism to Confucianism, and maybe we should as well.

October 24, 2017

Mimetic Theory and High-Low v the Middle

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:42 am

Let’s imagine a scene, let’s say an accident on the side of the road: a few people rush to the scene and start helping the victims; if a few more come and there is nothing more for them to do for the victims, they call for help and help keep others from entering the primary scene; then, others come, with nothing much to do, but they serve as witnesses and in case some instrument or specialty must be fetched (a mechanic or doctor; a first aid kit). I think this is the best way to think about social organization, as always centered on specific needs and dangers, and as set up to differentiate people in accord with the role they can best play in meeting those needs and facing those dangers. In the scene presented above, there is a bit of chance and bit of natural difference: it may be that those first on the scene just happened to be closest, while some of those standing around later might have been just as qualified to help. Still these things tend to sort themselves out—someone who happened to be first but is afraid to take responsibility (or is unqualified, which means that he has avoided such situations, and neglected preparing for them, in the past) is likely to slip back into the crowd, while someone among the later arrivals who is willing and qualified to help is likely to present and announce himself.

According to Eric Gans, the first human scene, upon which we can model later ones like that sketched above, is more precisely specified. Here we have a desirable object, presumably some food item, at the center of the not yet human group: these advanced, highly imitative apes, have their appetite for that central object inflamed, made into desire, by the awareness of the desire of all the other members of the group. This intensifying desire overrides the animal pecking order that normally maintains peace within the group—the alpha animal eats first, the beta animal eats when the alpha is finished, and so on. The alpha could never withstand the force of the group as a whole, but animals never “organize” themselves as cooperative, coordinating groups. Now, as all start to rush to the center, the animal hierarchy is abolished. What takes its place, according to the originary hypothesis, is the sign—what Gans calls the “aborted gesture of appropriation.” Think about traditional gestures of greeting, like hand shaking—it’s a way for each side to show it is not holding any weapons. Stretching out your hand with a weapon in it would signal violence; here, the same physical gesture is converted into a renunciation of violence. Think, for that matter, of a threatening gesture (which I doubt anyone does any more), like shaking your fist at someone—by demonstratively withholding the act of violence, you actually provide a space of peace, even if coupled with a warning. The initial sign was the invention and discovery of this “method” of converting violent actions into gestures of deferral. The gesture is likely to be more effective and enduring the more it actually mimics and therefore evokes the violence deferred—when we shake hands now, we don’t do so (in civilized zones, at least) with a sense of the relief that the hand coming towards us isn’t holding a knife—which is what makes the handshake an essentially empty gesture (it’s not good enough to seal a deal any more, that’s for sure).

The car accident seems like a very different scene—there’s no object of desire, and therefore no cause for conflict. Everyone can just focus on helping the victims. But that’s not the case—every human scene has an object of desire and hence contains within it potential conflict. Something goes wrong in the attempt to extricate the victim—wait a minute, whose idea was that!? The rescue effort can turn very quickly into an exercise in blame shifting and power struggles. There must be someone first on the scene in a more primary sense—someone who can command the gestures of deferral needed to prevent those resentments lying right beneath the surface from becoming manifest and distracting from the effort. Maybe everyone involved is good at that—like trained medics would probably be. But that’s the result of the institutionalization and trans-generational transmission of the necessary gestures. Someone, then, had to build and maintain those institutions, and doing so involved an analogous process of deferring the resentments inherent in any collaboration and creating the norms and models of leadership others can inherit.

I’ve explored in a couple of recent posts the problems involved in the process of institutionalization. There’s nothing new here—in one of the commemorations I’ve read recently for the just deceased science fiction and military writer Jerry Pournelle, I’ve heard attributed to Pournelle the observation that in every institution there are those who are concerned with the primary function of the institution, and those concerned with the maintenance of the institution itself. Anyone who has ever worked in any institution knows how true this is, with the exception that plenty of institutions don’t even have anyone concerned with (or cognizant of) its primary function any more. Those concerned with the primary function should be making the most important decisions, but it will be those interested in institutional maintenance who will be most focused on and skilled at getting into the decision making positions. But someone has to be concerned with the maintenance of the institution—those absorbed in its primary function consider much of the work necessary for that maintenance tedious and compromising. (The man of action vs. the bureaucrat is one of popular culture’s favorite tropes—in more fair representations, we are shown that sometimes the bureaucrat is needed to get the man of action out of holes of his own digging.)

If we go back to the simple scene outlined in the beginning, we can see this is a difference between those who are first on the scene, and those who are second—for simplicity’s sake, we can just call them “firsts” and “seconds.” The seconds establish the guardrails around the firsts as the latter do their work, and they make for the “interface” between the firsts and those who gather around the scene (the “thirds”). They will also decide which resources get called for and which get through to the firsts, who are too busy to see to such details. There is no inherent conflict between the firsts, seconds and thirds, but there is the potential for all kinds of conflict. The firsts (and the first among the firsts) should rule, and should be interested in nothing more than enacting all the signs of deferral that have been collected through successive acts of rule. Even defense against external enemies is really a function of enhancing the readiness of the defenders of the community, and the community as a whole, and doing that is a function of eliminating all the distractions caused by desires and resentments, with the most attention dedicated to where it matters most. The seconds should be filtering information coming from below, marshalling resources, and transmitting commands and exhortations from the ruler. And the thirds, the vast majority of the community, should be modeling themselves on and ordering their lives in accord with the hierarchy constitutive of the community. The problem of institutionalization is the problem of the relation between firsts and seconds, or firstness and secondness (since all of us occupy different “ordinal” positions in different settings).

But, of course, sometimes the first is not up to the task—maybe he once was, but no longer is, while being unwilling to cede power, without their being any definitive proof of his unfitness. And once there is a formalized form of firstness, the tradition or mechanism by which someone is placed in that role will sometimes elevate someone unworthy. In such cases, the seconds, who will be the first to notice, start to worry—they may start to think one of them should be in charge (but which one…?); or that they have to exercise power behind the scenes, reducing the person presently in charge, but very likely his successors as well, to a position of dependence. Under such conditions, the right thing to do is to above all preserve the ontology implicit in the originary scene, what some of us call an “absolutist ontology,” which should therefore be inculcated as part of the accumulated signs of deferral bred into the community. We all know that in an emergency, or in any really important situation, no one thinks in terms of democracy—everybody, except for saboteurs, thinks in terms of manning the stations each is best suited to man. But that also means taking the stations each is presently manning, or is accustomed to man, as the default. A reliable indicator of firstness is the ability to revise previous assessments and assignments and to formalize present fitness. If the first is not up to the task, the radical solution of removal must come very far down on the list of remedies—we must first of all carry on as if he is capable, and if the seconds have to lend some support that will go unnoticed and unacknowledged, so be it. (This is itself a form of firstness on their part.) It may even be necessary, after the fact, to narrate events in such a way as to attribute centrality to the designated first. Of course, if removal becomes absolutely necessary for the survival of the community, such practices will make it all the more difficult; this is a good thing, though, and these practices also ensure that any remove and replace actions will be carefully crafted so as to preserve absolutist ontology.

Absolutist ontology is rejected when these practices, these attempts to bring formalized roles and assessed capabilities into closer correspondence, are abandoned and some among the seconds start to exploit the gap between attributed power and actual power of the ruler. If the second’s efforts must sometimes go unacknowledged, the same goes for the first’s dependence on the second, and this can be a lever for increasing that dependence. Then a struggle, partly overt, partly covert, commences, and it is at this point that both parties (or all parties, because the seconds are likely to fall out amongst themselves under these conditions, while the king thereby surrenders his firstness) seek allies, or proxies, among the thirds. The king has been granted power, but he doesn’t really deserve or properly use that power; perhaps he doesn’t really exercise that power, which is in fact wielded by secret, insidious forces. The hierarchy inherent in absolutist ontology can in this case no longer serve as a model for the thirds to use in composing their lives—rather, it is a mere appearance, hiding a reality that the action proposed by one or another of the seconds (or the first himself, turning against what Imperial Energy calls his “essentials”) will unveil. Skepticism, pluralism, and all the rest follow, and here is where HLvM has full sway. What has happened is that mimetic desire, that is, envy of the putative being possessed by the other, which the centuries or even millennia of accumulated deferral has converted into a complex array of signs assigning roles and duties, has now been introduced as a legitimate principle within the community (the king/your lord is keeping something from you, so, therefore, are his supporters, and maybe your neighbor as well)—and once this happens, mimetic desire, corrosive as it is, must become the dominating principle of the community. Then you have institutionalized civil war, and democracy is nothing other than this institutionalization, with voting blocs at most several steps away from dissolving into armed camps. The problem is how to avoid taking sides in this civil war, or at least not just taking sides; the only solution is to find ways of realigning ourselves as firsts, seconds and thirds in as many (and sufficiently visible) ways as possible, and thereby recovering and creating as many gestures of deferral (while marking them as such) as we can.

October 17, 2017

Power and Digital Order

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:26 am

Eric Gans has a compelling hypothesis regarding the form of our present disorder that I’d like to give more consideration than I have done thus far. Gans has been emphasizing the enormous economic gulf created by the digital economy run by those capable of sophisticated forms of symbolic manipulations, since the reduction of production processes to symbolic manipulation makes all those incapable of such intellectual work essentially economically obsolete. Gans has been connecting this development to the intensification of victimary cultural politics (wherein every “inequality” is reduced to the form of the Nazi-Jew binary), because such victimary politics becomes the only way of compelling some kind of moral reciprocity on the part of the elites. In his most recent Chronicle of Love & Resentment, “Common Sense,” he makes this connection even more forcefully:

To put the binary cultural hypothesis very simply, the more bytes required to organize the material economy, including the entertainment (thank you, Frankfurt School) that painlessly discharges our resentments and satisfies our appetites with fast food and eventually with self-driving cars and AI-enhanced sex robots (in the business section of the September 27 Los Angeles Times: “Silicone sex dolls get an AI makeover. These ‘girls’ will ‘have sensual conversations and tell naughty jokes’”), the fewer bytes needed to maintain cultural solidarity. The Internet is maintained with terabytes of know-how in order to allow people to Tweet the crudest obscenities.

Local versions of this dichotomy are everywhere. At the university, in the embarrassing contrast between highly sophisticated and theory-driven scientific research and near-universal ideological idiocy. Not to speak of GA’s difficulty in obtaining a hearing. For its complexity is based in ideas rather than algorithms, and it thereby falls between the cultural and technical stools. In a world run on big-data-based algorithms, when it comes to exercising the imagination enough to conceive an “originary hypothesis,” the response is one of intellectual panic: how can you speculate without data, on the basis of what you fancy to be our shared intuition? No one really “understands” particle physics or string theory, but these are not things to understand, merely equations to work out. “Cognitive theory” has equations; GA has only imagination, and there is no longer enough of a common symbolic world to allow sharing imaginary constructs as a mode of truth-seeking.

Once we have all become positivist creators and “trainers” of algorithms, we can no longer allow the kind of “gentlemen’s” criteria for success that still existed in my youth, which permitted the less favored both to resent the “caste system” yet be reassured by its authority. Today, all that counts is either knowing the right people, which is not the same as being part of a loosely aristocratic old-boy system, or getting a high score on an exam. For those who don’t know the right people, getting the score is all, whence the reign of disparate impact.

Economic productivity used to require a certain degree of cultural solidarity: bosses, managers and workers needed forms of extended cooperation; the educational and entertainment system had to enforce standardized cultural norms, so as to sustain cross generationally the models of behavior required for an advanced workforce and citizenry. Meanwhile, I just googled to discover the number of Google employees: 72, 053. (A much diminished Ford Motor Company still has 201,000.) The only cultural solidarity needed there is that of the graduates of the top dozen or so universities in the US, perhaps the world. As Gans notes, these elite workers will be able to produce substitutes for the satisfactions previously offered as inducements to participate in cultural reproduction: instead of a wife, increasingly realistic sex bots (will women want these as well?). Soon enough, people will forget what “wives” were. The often cited Morlock vs. Eloi dichotomy is being realized. What to do with all that surplus population?

I want to address Gans’s reference to the reception (not) granted to GA more specifically, but first of all to note (as Gans himself indicates) that this observation holds for social and cultural theory as a whole. Here’s an interesting way to think about this. The linguist Anna Wierzbicka has developed what she calls a “Natural Semantic Metalanguage” comprised of all the words that are common to all the languages in the world. Along with this metalanguage, she has developed a method of translation, using the metalanguage to translate the various otherwise untranslatable concepts constitutive of each language. So, for example, the word “emotion,” which does not translate out of English, can be translated by reducing it to the words “feel” and “think,” which are part of the NSM. Wierzbicka’s method involves composing a series of sentences that are aimed very precisely at bringing out the specific meaning of any word. Now, in describing her method, Wierzbicka says there are essentially two ways of talking about any event: first, one could speak of the outcome or intention as “good” or “bad” (both words in the NSM); second, one could speak of the event as similar to another event. The latter approach opens the way to identifying prototypical events that would distinguish one culture from another and enable us to account for its language as allowing for ever more complex events modeled on while being differentiated from those prototypical ones. So, it is as if what has happened now is the complete collapse of all events into certain prototypical ones, with all of them summarily labeled “bad.” It is really a kind of cultural lobotomy. It may be that for the socially autistic digital elites and their political proxies and protectors, social spaces (the Humanities, entertainment, more and more often sports…) are set aside for the sub-elites drawn from the under-classes to, in lieu of forming “cultural solidarity,” lead their charges in LARPing iconic events (the March on Selma, the liberation of Europe, the Algerian War, etc.) in real time.

GA, of course, has never had a particularly warm reception in the academy, and its emergence almost simultaneously with victimary thinking offers as good an explanation as any. GA is interested not primarily in labeling a particular social or cultural form good or bad, but in understanding it as modeled, however distantly, on an originary scene (the prototype of prototypes) defined by the deferral of collective violence. The implications of such an approach for making sense of inter-group and inter-sex relationships are simply too triggering—GA suppresses altogether the incredibly pleasurable retroactive accusation and self-congratulation that has driven most thinking in the Humanities and Social Sciences for quite a while.  But it also, as Gans points out in the excerpt above, resists the supposedly more sophisticated and objective data-driven approaches to social order, because they can never ask the question, why is there social order (and therefore “data”) in the first place? The practitioners of such approaches cannot understand the paradoxical question, what must language be in order to be what it is?, because they have no way or initiating a data search or devising an algorithm to address it. But there was language before there was “data,” and language couldn’t have emerged out of some primordial “data-generating” process on the part of exceptionally intelligent organisms that somehow became a collective process—accounting for that “somehow” implicates the sober scientist in silly “just-so stories” and B-movie quality creationist accounts of human origin.

Now, let’s take a look at Gans’s “final reflection”:

No one can dispute that making women wear veils or worse in public, let alone “honor-killing” them for speaking to strange men, does not rank very high on the scale of moral equality. But the White Guilt that tolerates it is not solely motivated by fear of “Islamophobia.” It reflects a guilty distortion of the healthy idea that women’s destiny, whatever else they elect to do, is to bear children; that, in other words, female biology, at least at the present stage of human technology, is still “in service” to the society as a whole. Women are not solely to blame for the West’s low birth rate, but in a world where women are not subordinate to men, ways must be found to encourage couples to reach a replacement level of population as we live ever longer as individuals, unless of course we would prefer to disappear.

However crude and barbaric these archaic customs may be, they are not simply “irrational.” Not everything that one dislikes can be understood as a variant of Nazism. The idea that the subordination of women, or slavery, or even human sacrifice, is simply “evil” does nothing to explain why it has existed, let alone why it has been abolished in societies that can afford to do so. And calling it “scapegoating” is just one more one-bit explanation.

Once you start along this line of thinking, there is no way of telling where it will end. If female biology is still “in service” to the society as a whole, we might discover that a lot of other things are as well. The reason for the virulence of victimary leftism is that they know if the male-female distinction can be institutionalized so as to maximize some social purpose, every other distinction can be as well. Some institutionalizations of these distinctions are abolished by “societies that can afford to do so.” But what is affordable at one point might turn out to be unaffordable after all at some later point; the judgment may even be made that it was never really affordable in the first place, but that reckless, wasteful people had gotten in charge of the social reserves. The “one-bit” thinking might go farther back than anyone thinks—was not liberalism, in fact, the first one-bit political theory (down with kings! Up with the people!)? In that case, maybe it’s not a question of more or less rapidly tearing down social distinctions but of calibrating the ones that exist along with the emergence of new ones. Here, in fact, we have the difference between conservative and reactionary social thought: the conservative wants to make equality safe for the world, whereas the reactionary wants all inequalities recognized and formalized through reciprocal obligations. All that matters is holding the center.

Gans never does propose a way of genuinely countering the victimary, other than a (maybe not so) ambivalent endorsement of Trump’s “common sense,” i.e., open, confrontational, undeterred approach. But more important is the other problem he, along with everyone else so far, leaves unsolved—what to about those who cannot be integrated into the digital order which, through automation, AI and algorithmic programming, is in the process of rendering virtually all means of acquiring virtue not merely degraded or abused but obsolete. At least Gans lays the problem down on the table, with all its moral and ethical perplexities. But maybe the two problems, as Gans seems to intuit, are one. In an overtly hierarchical order, the victimary, which depends upon the liberal’s sense that there’s always some unnoticed inequality he’s about to be called out for, would be impossible. In such an order, it would also be possible to ask, explicitly, what is the best way for humans to live, and how can we provide such a way? For example, what form of property ownership would promote self-sufficiency and authority in men, and devotion to family in women? Perhaps a return to homesteading would be best for some, and a case could be made for this on aesthetic as well as health grounds—a revival of craftsmanship and homegrown and hunted food. Maybe it’s hard for some to resist a smirk here, because homesteading as a “lifestyle choice” seems affected and “postmodern”—real homesteaders did it to survive, whereas this would have something of the Disney park to it. But if enough people turn to it, that would mean it is a question of survival, cultural and maybe physical, if the cities and suburbs become unlivable, or unaffordable for many. Maybe it will become the best way for those who are not rich to prevent obesity. Immigration can be essentially eliminated, and technological developments can be slowed down or even stopped or reversed for some purposes, in some areas—once we habituate ourselves to the sense that technology is a series of decisions, rather than an inexorable force, many things might be possible. There’s no reason to stand in a stupor and stare vacantly as millions of people are displaced by technology. Some as yet unanticipated technological and economic developments may take up some of the slack, but there’s no law saying how much.

But let’s return to Gans’s essay “On the One Medium,” which I discussed a couple of posts back, and which concludes as follows:

We may tentatively conclude that so far, at least, under the reign of the One Medium, if the periphery appears to be doing fine, the center seems to be increasingly less figurable, either as a god or as an artwork. This might be thought to signal the decline of the sacred, with as a result perhaps the impending end of humanity itself. But let us avoid apocalypse. A world where rocks and old furniture have taken the place of the works of the masters as the cultural “replacement” for traditional religion may just find that traditional religion does a better job. Certainly, as David P. Goldman (aka “Spengler”) likes to point out, religious people are greatly overrepresented among those who produce children beyond the replacement level, and who therefore guarantee their participation in future generations.


Religion too may be found on the Internet, and not only serving its more pernicious functions, such as the recruitment of jihadists. Do there exist the equivalent of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in religious services? Or should we rather learn to look at the Internet itself at a given moment as a MOO religious service, where virtual human togetherness replaces the central godhead with the figure of global humanity itself, nameless and figureless, existing by right of its ubiquity alone?


No, I rather think not. But our massive dissolution in the crowd may have for effect our enhanced attraction to the Subject, real or constructed, that we experience in its center: the One God, I AM WHO I AM.


Why would our massive dissolution in the crowd enhance our attraction to the Subject at its center? Because this dissolution presupposes the emergence of a new center. Similarly, the invention and dissemination of alphabetic writing can be causally linked to the emergence of ancient Hebrew monotheism and Greek metaphysics: in abstracting the word from any voice, the word is “anonymized,” seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere. This process is itself bound up with both imperial power and the resistance to it, with both the Greek city-states and the Jewish Commonwealth situated on the margins of, and threatened with assimilation to, the great empires of antiquity. Perhaps this too is a high-low vs the middle strategy, with God about as high as one can go, and the realization of justice on earth an open-ended project that can never be considered defeated once and for all. The development of writing from its origins as a bookkeeping device to the broader purposes of cultural transmission also follows the trajectory of the establishment of those empires, with alphabetic writing in particular—writing based on the analysis of speech down to the most elementary individual sounds—making available to the “low” (the general population, or much of it) a technology previously controlled exclusively by the specialized scribes of the empire, who monopolized the very intricate technique of hieroglyphic or syllabic writing.

The internet is not God, and we have become far more aware in recent months of the very direct control the quite visible and well-known masters of the supposedly ultra-liberal technologies exercise over their platforms. But if the invention of monotheism was an imagined high-low alliance, it certainly exceeded whatever political function it never actually performed anyway, at least not for the Jews. The revelation of the one God, I AM WHO (or THAT) I AM, is, we could say, an iteration of the originary scene: God gathers all his people together and speaks to them directly, providing moral dictates that render human sacrifices and God-Emperors irrelevant. Now, this has often been parlayed into various kinds of high-low alliances, rallying one “people” or another against those pretending to mediate between the people and the divine. That won’t stop, but no one can simply invent a new God either. We can counter the more earthly high-low alliance with the permanent one, though, insofar as the monotheistic iteration of the originary scene need mean nothing more than the general possibility of forming congregations around central objects, i.e., disciplines—even organized around rocks and old furniture, which have displaced the works of the masters precisely because the forms and terms of the congregation are more important than the pretext for it. The monotheistic God issued what Philip Rieff called the “absolute imperative,” and we can hear this imperative (to not usurp the center) renewed in the “one medium”: sacral kingship is replaced once and for all by the sovereign restoring the “middle” as the guarantor of the differentiated disciplinary social order for which the one medium is perfectly suited. One doesn’t need to be a believer in anything other than a center that will outlast any other center and will do so because we keep creating and obeying centers in the world that help pare down the sovereign center to its bare minimum while removing all obstructions to its operation.

October 10, 2017


Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:42 am

Power entails, first, occupying the center and, second, using that occupation to direct attention to another center. It’s like a conversation where you first need to get someone to pay attention to you, and then you can get them to pay attention to what you really want them to. In the kind of power we are most used to talking about, political power, you can make people pay attention to you and then attend to what you wish by making them pay a very heavy price if they don’t. But in order to make them pay a heavy price, there must be lots of other people who pay attention to you and will attend to making sure that actual or potential dissident gets his mind right. For a while up the ladder you can make them (e.g., a conscript) pay a heavy price for disobedience as well, and even very powerful people can be brought to heel if isolated, but at a certain point those obeying you (attending to you and to whatever you want them to attend) must have reasons other than fear for doing so. Potential conflicts, perceived to be more destructive than the consequences of obedience itself, are felt to be deferred through respect to the person and/or office. At the very least, then, whoever occupies the place of power must not be generating resentments more uncontrollable than those his presence in power contains. He must, in centering himself, be deferring conflicts by directing attention to a more permanent center, a model of order.

We can say, then, that centering is power. I have pointed out in previous posts (perhaps not for a while, though) that Eric Gans, in what we could call his originary history of humanity, locates the crucial turning point in the emergence of the “Big Man” who seizes the sacred center and becomes in charge of distribution. Up until this point, in small scale, egalitarian, primitive communities, while of course some individuals are more central than others on all occasions, no one has permanent occupancy of the center, access to which is therefore controlled by a vast, sprawling and intricate array of (no doubt erratically enforced) tacit and explicit rules and prohibitions. Once the Big Man emerges, the general possibility of a single individual occupying THE CENTER becomes imaginable; once imaginable, such a possibility can be desired. The ramifications of this social transformation are tremendous—Gans himself traces a line from this transformation to the monotheistic revelations, which essentially forbid the individual from trying, or even desiring, to occupy the center. This doesn’t just mean that no individual should start a rebellion aiming at making himself king—such a prohibition would obviously be trivial, and already covered by the existence and power of the actual king. It means that every individual, king included, should remember that his occupancy implies an ongoing reference to the permanent center.

There are innumerable ways of placing oneself at the center, which is to say substitutions for and imitations of the centrality of sacral kingship. Power is centrality, and power is absolute. Any occupation of the center, then, means absolute power within the space of attention producing that center. Let’s take the apparently most powerless individual—the torture victim. Insofar as a specific response is desired by the torturer, i.e., as long as the torture is not akin to kicking a sack of potatoes, the tortured has the absolute power to satisfy or not the torturer’s desire and to that extent “over” the torturer. Obviously the scope of this power is extremely limited, in space and time, but within those limitations, it is absolute. And, of course, the largest scale power is also limited while being absolute within its sphere—governing is really a matter of retaining absolute power within that sphere while not (or by not) reaching for power outside of it: the sovereign will rule as long as he directs the attention he draws away from the signs that he causes the resentments he contains and towards the permanent center. More important for my purposes here is that we have a means of analyzing any social relationship in these terms, as an interplay of power (the torturer’s power sets the terms of the power of the tortured). We are always taking turns at the center, and we can therefore always desire to prolong our stay there, with there being no a priori limit on how long that stay might be.

All this is prefatory to initiating a dialogue between originary thinking (and absolutism) and Alasdair MacIntyre, maybe the most important moral philosopher of our time, and certainly the most important anti-modern moral philosopher. In his After Virtue, in developing a concept of virtue to counter the incoherence of liberal morality, MacIntyre begins with the concept of “practice”:


Any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realised in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions to the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended


I consider this notion of a practice very similar to what I have been calling a “discipline.” The practice must be social and cooperative, which is to say it involves shared attention; it is complex, which means it involves a hierarchical articulation of modes of attention, so that one pays attention to one element of the practice in order to direct attention to another, with the result of that act of attention determining the range of possibilities for the next one, and so on. There are standards of excellence, which is to say one could master certain elements of the practice and still be a novice or incompetent in other, higher elements of it: there is a pedagogical, initiatory component. All participants in the practice learn how to judge the practice along with participating in it, creating a shared space which one must enter in order to contribute –there couldn’t be any competent judgment from the outside. If “human powers” and “human conceptions” are “systematically extended,” this seems to me to suggest that a practice has a history to it, with models of excellence that can be studied, imitated and improved upon. It is really a question of increments of deferral, whereby letting some object be and transforming it into an object of contemplation and anthropomorphized presence generates new objects “framed” by that one, ultimately producing a “world” of cooperative relations between activities and objects. For MacIntyre, the practice generates constitutive virtues like integrity, honesty, and fairness—if you want to be the best chess player, you not only wouldn’t want to cheat in chess, but you would want a clean space in which chess competitions can take place without suspicion; also, if you are really motivated by love of the game, you will support institutions that nurture young chess players, you will mentor them, and so on.

MacIntyre goes on to point out that all of virtue can’t be contained in the practice because, for one thing, one might be committed to competing practices, and the basis for choosing between them (say, between excellence in chess and excellence as a father raising a family) can’t be contained within any of the practices themselves. It is here that MacIntyre (drawing heavily upon his recuperation of an Aristotlean ethics) introduces the notion of a telos of the individual life, grounded in the possibility, even necessity, of understanding ourselves in narrative terms. (Here, an understanding of the origin of language and the emergence of discourse, the subject of Eric Gans’s The Origin of Language, would enrich MacIntyre’s account considerably.) The narrative of one’s life as a telos doesn’t so much answer the moral question (practice chess for another hour or come home and tuck in your child…) as it articulates the conflicts between competing goods that are constitutive of a serious life. (Here, MacIntyre relies heavily upon the tragic view of life, as opposed to more philosophical views that believe one can discover the Good and subordinate all other goods to it.) In engaging the practices and searching for the telos of your life (living a life aimed at discovering what is the good life) you become the kind of person who will make mature, moral decisions. Finally, MacIntyre concludes that the narrative of one’s individual telos is always embedded in some tradition, and that part of one’s telos is participating in that tradition and contributing to the work of distinguishing what deserves to survive and be enhanced in it from what should be marginalized or discarded—all in terms of criteria generated within the tradition itself, of course.

I would say that the creation of a narrative form for the individual life is itself a discipline, or practice—so MacIntyre’s lower level concept can be employed at the higher level. The arts and storytelling traditions are all disciplines/practices aimed at providing narrative forms that individuals will then adopt and revise for the dilemmas and conflicts their own trajectory generates. Similarly, the maintenance of tradition is a discipline/practice, with any complex community having its specialists in tradition maintenance but with any healthy community having all of its members become at least competent “amateurs.” We can talk about all this in terms of centering: at each level, from the practice to the telos to the tradition, attention is directed towards something irreducible to the individual: let’s say some model of action (or virtue) distilled through the tradition. Now, what originary thinking can add, and what only a properly anthropological inquiry can add, is an understanding of how all of this is grounded in the fundamental form of sociability, the deferral of violence through representation. A community aiming at the production of excellence (and, therefore, standards and judges of excellence) constructs a system whereby honors are conferred upon someone who occupies the center according to specific rules. The desire for centrality is thereby rerouted through a system that makes it serve the elevation of the community. A Freudian would call this “sublimation,” but originary thinking doesn’t approach practices in that way: more complex, learned forms of attention management avoid the bad, it is true, but while also being a positive good and, more importantly, irreducible to the “evil” deferred.

How you narrate your life, or how you live your life in such a way as to be narrated, therefore involves a practice or discipline of self-centering. You understand that people are looking at you—people are looking at everyone, we are all looking at each other. You act, then, so as to attract attention, but specific kinds of attention. The problem of human centrality is the problem of resentment: the other has taken my place, and the big Other (the sacral king, before being divvied up into God, on the one hand, and the civil authorities, on the other) has allowed this to happen, at the very least by not recognizing and remedying the injury done me. MacIntyre doesn’t have a way of addressing the crisis inherent in this condition. The Western solution to this problem has been through the sacrifice of an exemplary individual who has attracted murderous attention by revealing, let’s say the log in the eye of all those who see a mote in his. But the attention need not be murderous, and better not be if we want sustainable moral practices rather than emergency coups of a center in crisis. A moral life is one lived so as to attract and deflect resentment, ultimately to the benefit even of those possessed of that resentment. Look at how much of social media is consumed with taking down some Big Man (or Woman) or other, someone who has “illegitimately” claimed centrality. You can’t tell people not to do this, because if they weren’t drawn to such encircling, they wouldn’t be people; but you can respond to this resentment in a defusive rather than escalating way.

The most basic way of doing so is to occupy the center the resentment places you in, but in such a way as to show that it is the resentful attention itself that has placed you there. In a sense, you would be counter-mimicking or iterating the resentment directed toward you. Once we have moved past the “pure” scapegoating of the Girardian scene of mimetic crisis, there is always some institutional structure, some practice, that justifies resentment in the form of exclusion, punishment, marginalization or demotion—for example, tweeting that a journalist has “lost his credibility” with his latest story. The bar for what counts as “enough” credibility can always be raised or lowered as convenience dictates. The way to respond to such a charge is to raise the bar for everyone, including oneself along with the hostile tweeter. Of course, how well that will work will depend upon what kind of journalist one has been, what kinds of narratives one has lived one’s life so as to “fit.” So, how credible are you, anonymous tweeter, in determining the credibility of journalists, how credible can any of us be in this medium or elsewhere, where is the final court of appeals for establishing credibility, anyway? In making the accusation, is the tweeter not trying to establish his own credentials for joining the club the target of his accusation should presumably be ousted from? In other words, run “credibility” through the ringer, repeat it over and over again so as to drain it of all use as a portable cliché. Of course, you can do this so as to “discredit” all notions of truth and good faith inquiry and investigation, but it can also be a way of cleansing the words we use to talk about those things—what is it that we are actually talking about when we talk about “credibility”? If you’re a real journalist, participating in a genuine tradition of exploration and exposure for the sake of public knowledge, you welcome the interruption; if not, you will mount a counter-attack to drive the accuser out of the public sphere. And then that will become part of your narratable life, leaving you in the hands or at the mercy of participants in the practice of studying the practice of “journalism.” The result will be what Gans has called “lowering the threshold of significance,” i.e., making things open to notice and meaning-making that previously weren’t, including regarding yourself as the one enabling the lowering. And that’s the most moral practice because it opens new modes of deferral. (What is implies for the practice of governing I will leave to another post.)

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