Centering

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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