GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

November 21, 2017

Originary Grammar and Political Grammar

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:34 am

The highest purpose of political discourse is to expose the political imaginaries of everyone participating on the scene. How do you solicit someone’s political imaginary? Very simple—ask them what they want, perhaps in commonsensical political terms (“I want universal healthcare”), but not necessarily. If you can determine what kind of sovereign would have to be in place for them to get what they want, you have constructed their political imaginary. The process is much like that new makeapp that subtracts the effect of makeup on a photographed face: everything existing that interferes with the political desire gets subtracted. “I want a world without racism.” OK, how would our raceapp approach this? We would have to identify all the “markers” of racism, about which we now have an enormous wealth of information thanks to the it’s not ok to be white movement: we can, in great detail, itemize the differences in wealth and power, the choices in mates, friends and even children, the intellectual proclivities (do you like math?), the gestures, the neighborhood you live in, and so on. So, we must imagine all that eliminated (which means we must imagine those who will perform, and those who will suffer, the elimination)—which further means we have to inquire into what other social relations support all of that, determine the various causal linkages tying the supports to the markers to be expunged, and then imagine a process by which those supports are re-engineered into supports for a world in which all of our abilities, our sexual desires, our sense of humor, our sense of beauty, our bank accounts, living arrangements, posture and much else are radically transformed—and all this as required in vastly differing ways for each individual, as we are all unique carriers of racism. What kind of sovereign are you then imagining? One who commands a vast guerilla army of mindless, heartless human resources drones following a rigid playbook that gets rewritten constantly leaving their present efforts obsolete as they are expended so that the next wave of race drones come after them, until the prototypical racist/target is distilled from the continuous investigation. But we’re not done, not by a long shot—how does the never again racism sovereign incorporate the never again sexism, never again homophobia, etc., modes of sovereignty?

“I want a world without racism” is just a subroutine of the apparently more moderate “I want everyone to be treated equally.” Here, as well, one imagines a sovereign with knowledge of the infinite number of markers of “unequal” treatment, or, more precisely, a sovereign constantly engaged in collecting and punishing examples of “unequal” treatment, identified by a previous, so far rough, estimate of those markers of unequal treatment that most need to be addressed, leading to the constant accumulation of knowledge of more and more kinds and indicators of unequal treatment, many of them products of previous attempts to remedy some form of unequal treatment. A sovereign, in other words, which is the enemy of all the people it governs (in differing degrees, at different times). You would have to be constantly enraged, inhabiting such a vicious imaginary. This imaginary could be considered liberal, it could be considered statist or totalitarian, but, despite the seeming paradox (or because of it), it is best seen as anarchist: it presupposes a circulation of equal units prior to any authority, and the job it assigns to the state, to restore that original anarchy by slicing through layers of inegalitarian accretion, is enough to drive anyone mad. By contrast with the anarchist imaginary, the absolutist imaginary is a thing of simple, almost tautological beauty: all of our wants translate into a desire for a sovereign that is sovereign. We imagine a sovereign commanding subordinates to command their subordinates to fulfill the purpose of their institutions as he does with his own. Institutions have purposes we can discern because all human interactions serve some purpose, which is to say they serve the center that has constituted them. Our absolutistapp erases everything intervening between sovereign decision, its implementation, and the feedback required to ensure the next decision is similarly unobstructed. I think these are really the only two political imaginaries worth considering today—all others would resolve themselves back into one of these two.

The anarchist imaginary only makes sense as a form of resentment towards the absolutist imaginary. Historically, of course, this is the case: liberalism is a process of defectors from monarchy trying to find space within monarchy, to influence monarchy, to transform monarchy, and ultimately to destroy monarchy. The point of attack is always the command structure: no one in a position of command can ever give a completely satisfactory account of why it should be him giving the command, and why he gave this command. On the question, why him?, the only real answer is that I inherited, seized or was delegated this power, which really just sends the question back into an infinite regress. Regarding the this, an imperative is always irreducible to declarative explanation (even though, of course, such explanations can be given) since it depends upon circumstances and exigencies that could always be reconstructed after the fact in a way they couldn’t have been in making the decision itself. And even such after the fact reconstructions will send us back to inheritances and traditions that can never be fully excavated. The absolutist imaginary attributes a good faith faithfulness to the best of those traditions to the decision maker; the anarchist imaginary replaces this with a bad faith faithlessness.

The anarchist imaginary introduces declarative criteria into the selection of responsible agents and into the process of decision. It does this not to provide feedback to those making such decisions, but to establish a perpetual show trial of the imperative as such by demonstrating that it must always fall short of declarative criteria. Whatever names and attributes are given to the leader are translated into a series of predicates that can be subjected to inquiry one by one, according to criteria that could never be stated in advance because the declarative is itself first of all the interdiction on issuing some imperative, in this case the one issued by the sovereign. Is the king the “protector of his people”? But what counts as “protection,” and are his people really more protected under his rule than they might be under some other possible one? (A series of questions is always the wedge displacing the imperative and introducing declarative rule.) In what sense are they “his” people—how do they come into his possession? For that matter, are they even “a” people—what constitutes a people? Etc. The same goes for decisions actually made, which can always be compared with plausible alternatives with better outcomes which could never be conclusively dismissed. Such criticism after the fact can be very useful if undertaken from the standpoint of the actor, but that is not the purpose of the declarative coup, which seeks to discredit the structure of command and temporal chain of imperatives altogether. Any “given” can be further dissolved into presumably free agents that have somehow been welded together in a hierarchy. The free individual, conceptually, is the precipitate of the erosion of sovereign command—the most free individual is whoever can be posited as most resistant to the current sovereign command.

In its fully developed form, liberalism posits the agreement of solitary, ahistorical, self-interested individuals as the original basis or cause of social order; somehow, this original agreement was usurped, and then history can be read as a continual process of its recovery. This means reading history as a sequence of events in which explicit agreements between individuals subject to no command serve (or fail) to overthrow orders predicated on an inherited structure of command, i.e., imperatives derived from accepted names. Explicit agreements that don’t depend upon the individuals entering into them because conformity with the agreement will be judged by those legitimated by that very agreement to judge them according to protocols that can be read out of or into the agreement is the declarative condition. Why did you do______? Because I was authorized by an agreement arrived at through free deliberation by all concerned parties and publicly recorded. This declarative politics swallows its own tail because its inheritors can always come along and play the same game and its initiators: what made the deliberations “free”? Who was counted as a “concerned party”? Some already existing authority must have made such determinations. And such agreements in practice must present themselves as pledges and promises, i.e., ostensives: you have to swear loyalty, you can’t just claim that your objective analysis of conditions accounts for the extreme likelihood that you will be loyal—because everyone knows that analysis will be conducted in order to justify your continued loyalty or defection. But that just means that what makes declarativity a powerful weapon against the imperative order keeps it a powerful weapon against the inevitable recrudescence of imperativity within the declarative order.

Absolutism defends the imperative order within the present declarative one, operating under the assumption that the imperative order, and the ostensive order (the network of names upon which it rests) can never be utterly eradicated. Everyone giving orders and everyone taking orders wants orders to be clear; everyone who begs, solicits, summons, requests, forbids, suggests, demands, prays wants, not necessarily every one of these imperatives to be obeyed, but for us to know whether they are or not, and to be certain we could tell. Everyone has an interest in clarifying their felicity conditions. (Such declarative defenses of the imperative order should be kept to a minimum.) We have seen the advantages declarativity has long exploited in subverting the imperative order, but the imperative order has its advantages as well. Not only can the declarative order never separate itself from its imperative substratum, but that imperative order is inscribed within the declarative itself. If we conclude a meeting and someone says, “good, then we’re all agreed,” it does not need to be stated explicitly that this agreement commands each participant to act their respective part in seeing it fulfilled. Separating imperative from declarative is as impossible as separating fact from value, and for the same reason: every declarative, even the most neutral sounding description or explanation commands some response. “It’s going to rain tomorrow”=”bring your umbrella.” “City x is located at __ degrees longitude and ___degrees latitude”=”set your navigating instruments accordingly”; “remember to write that for your exam tomorrow.” So, in listening to any sentence, your question should always be, what is this sentence demanding of me?

In the first instance, it’s demanding that you reassess something it presumes you want. It’s interrupting some demand it takes you to be making upon reality. Which means it’s also disrupting the fabric of your imaginary, either to destroy it or enable you to immunize it against some threat. (You can, of course, turn attempts at the former into instances of the latter.) It’s throwing a shadow of doubt on the conditions of some imperative exchange you are in the middle of—it’s encouraging you not to hold up your side of the exchange, not to obey the command directed your way, because the other side will break faith. It’s demanding that you look at, and look to, something you have neglected, or have been unaware of.  As my examples above indicate, we can often restate in declarative terms the tacit, constitutive imperative of some declarative. That ultimately entraps you within the declarative order. So, for example, arguing over who is the “real racist,” or “what racism really is,” is simply a way of surrendering in the war on imperativity. Even making a clear argument about how evil and ridiculous it is to desire a “world without racism” is feeble—the conditions of declarative felicity will always leave open the possibility of retrieving “hope” of such a world. The more all-encompassing approach is to strive to obey the imperatives, to perform the deferral the sentence implicitly demands of you. Acting as someone set out on the hunt by the declaration of the need to abolish racism short-circuits the declarative-imperative wiring far more effectively. Even the most hardened (or softened) SJW hasn’t really taken in what it would mean to take their tacit imperatives literally.

Situating yourself thusly on the border between imperative and declarative is not just a way of counter-culturally subverting the Cathedral (although it is that, and I do think it provides excellent formulas for memeing). The practice I’m proposing serves a winnowing purpose. Seeking to obey all the imperatives coming our way is the only way of finding out which can really be obeyed, and obeyed without contradicting other imperatives that, taken alone, could also be obeyed. In other words, these are the means by which the imperative order can be recovered and restored. And while we extract imperatives to obey from the sentences/discourses surrounding us, we comment on them declaratively—the most powerful political discourse today would probably be a kind of traveler’s account of one’s attempts to obey the imperative lodged in the most widely circulated declaratives. In that way, the desires instigated by those declaratives can be put on display and thereby deferred, the liberal political imaginary exposed and the absolutist imaginary summoned from its cracks and crevices.

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