GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

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.

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