GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

December 26, 2017

The Counter-Inquisition

Filed under: GA — adam @ 12:28 pm

Power operates top-down, but down below we can give power centers ready to be activated. Liberalism has infiltrated all institutions, but it can never completely conquer them because liberalism is intrinsically parasitic: it needs a center to be de-centered. Counter-infiltration therefore involves holding the center, even if the center is just basic competence, which we now know is equivalent to whiteness. I call victimary moral panics the “Inquisition,” with apologies to the real thing, because they function essentially as human rights show trials. The discourse is prosecutorial, with the charges constructed out of what would be the “pre-crime” of earlier, successfully prosecuted offenses (what is now “racist” is whatever perception or assumption might have led you to say or do whatever was “racist” last week). So, accusations with follow-up questions presupposing the legitimacy of the accusation. “When did you stop beating your wife” become “when did you stop the silent, implicit abuse of not believing all women everywhere”? The crimes are all necessarily made up, as terms like “racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” etc., function in exactly the same way, and have exactly as much conceptual content, as “counter-revolutionary” did in the USSR. They are simply ways of identifying enemies of the people.

It is very tempting to try and turn the inquisition around, to start asking “leading” questions and make the same accusations that can be so damaging when directed toward you. This works as well as calling your KGB interrogator the “real counter-revolutionary.” If our starting point is liberal discourse, then the goal is to surface the political imaginary and boundless resentments, and the way to do that is to keep restating what that discourse wants everyone to do. In this way you infiltrate their discourse, and occupy the center under attack. What the liberal discourse always wants you to do is engage in symbolic (so far, mostly) lynching and real and symbolic vandalism. Against whom? Against whomever power is gathering against: where is there a vulnerable enemy, where is there some sinecure that could be turned to use, some institution where control could be more firmly secured, some new rabble that can be recruited? So, first of all you read off all these elements of the attack from the discourse itself. It’s a work of constant, patient translation. I think just about anyone who might be reading this knows all this.

The liberal method is to impose an egalitarian grid on all differences and present this as a self-evident indictment. It then becomes in their interest to inflate those differences. This means that if the grid is removed, they are providing evidence for a case very different than the one they thought they were making. The counter-inquisition helps them to make that case. If racism drives its victims to extremes of crime and violence, doesn’t that tell us something about the limited self-control those victims are capable of and make some form of separation seem requisite? If women can’t co-exist with men in public spaces without constantly falling victim to all manner of sexual assault, shouldn’t rigorous regulation of sexual relations, to the point of not allowing unmarried individuals of different sexes to be alone, be put in place? No, the answer will be, we just need to stop white privilege and toxic masculinity. But where is the boundary between white privilege and plain old whiteness, between toxic masculinity and the new and improved non-toxic alternative? Not only is drawing a line here impossible because of the basic incoherence of the categories, but it’s undesirable because it would inhibit further movement, which is to say, it would block the flow of power, undermining the very purpose of these categories in the first place. If the inquisitor stays with you up until this point, there is nothing left to do other than lay out the fundamental imperatives of power. A rough description of the good white and the good male might be offered up, and that will be their way of telling you exactly what they mean to do to you. But things can be kept interesting here—if the white is good in this way, can we imagine some other ways this goodness might lead him to end up less good? Is this way of being good applicable in all situations? We can game out a few possibilities. Will the detoxified male ever end up making any babies? Running any businesses? Building anything? Protecting anyone? The end game here is to elicit a description of the mode of rule that will keep all this in place—when and where could we expect to see deviations, and what kind of interventions will be carried out? How would signs of white privilege or toxic masculinity in the 3 year-old be identified, and how would they be extirpated?

Infiltration and deconstruction is just preliminary work. The result is shattered relations, but relations, or at least possible relations, nevertheless. The next step is to turn the curses of the center into blessings. The egalitarian grid produces a caricature of real differences, but those differences can then be shrunk down to proper size and put back into normal shape. Let’s take the current panacea of “consent” as the just response to sexual harassment and assault. “Consent” can only emerge as a concept once relations between the sexes are abstracted from their embedment within familial, community and state structures. Once sex is no longer restricted to marriage, and marriage is no longer a means to consolidate the community through the formation of alliances and the meeting of obligations, the individual, now on a “marriage market” (however tightly regulated), has a choice of partners. That’s the first “consent.” Every expansion of “consent” is therefore an expansion of the marriage market and its gradual deregulation. At a certain point the marriage market just becomes a sex market—marriage is just another relation one is free to choose or reject. The liberal story is that all this happens because people want freedom; the real story is central power using sexual choice to demolish one intermediary institution after another. It’s allies in this have been feminists, of course, but even more, “rogue males,” who, no longer fearing retribution from the families of wronged women or any communal strictures at all, embody in their persons contempt for moral restraint, stopping short only (unless they are powerful enough to feel immune) of the kind of violence that would count as assault or battery (or worse) under other conditions. Celebrity culture has been based on the freedom of rogue males, who are provided access to women who are ready to sacrifice anything to be the center of attention. As the feminist-socialist Barbara Ehrenreich noted many years ago, the real beneficiaries of the sexual revolution were the playboys.  But once the damage is done, and the tilt of the playing field revealed, it is impossible to imagine redressing any acts of violence other than through continual modifications of the terms of “consent,” new means of enforcement, i.e., new power structures, that will inevitably be more arbitrary and incoherent than the ones we started with. Consent itself, we must recognize, is nothing but an artifact of power relations; if there’s a sexual market, those with more to give in terms of money and celebrity, or even proximity to some marginal form of power, will inevitably demand more in terms of “favors.” Does this represent “consent”? We won’t know until after the fact—the case can never be closed, because the reciprocal power relations will always be shifting.

Now, it’s very helpful to have such an analysis of “consent,” but as I’ve been suggesting arguing the point this directly is a waste of time. Rather than saying that “consent” is wrong, an illusion, absurd, a mask for power, etc.–or, as a better way of not so much saying as indicating all that—“consent” should be constructed as a palimpsest underneath which we can read the forms of the structured reciprocities and hierarchies that would order sexuality in a well governed community. Every way in which women are made vulnerable under contemporary conditions (and today’s feminists are very good at laying all this out) indicates forms of institutional protection that women, on the admission of their most fervent defenders, need. All of the forms of abuse men are capable of, likewise, indicate guardrails and restraints that even anti-feminist, traditionalist men will acknowledge men need. But if women need those protections, they must also follow the rules entailed by those protections; and if men need those restraints, they must also be given the freedom of action that would give meaning to those restraints. Accountability must be made to fit power at each point along the line. We can then extrapolate the mode of sovereignty proper to the entire set-up. In the end, we can even redeem the concept of “consent,” as the transparency of the nature of the sexual bond revealed in the requisite arrangements. How could one want it otherwise?

We could conduct very similar analyses with regard to relations between national and ethnic groups. Simply listening very carefully to what the most committed black activists say about white racism will reveal to us, once we learn how to surface the written over text, the healthiest relations we can imagine between the two groups today. Simply listening to Jews pointing out instances of antisemitism will work in the same way—it is never obvious what is going to count as “mistreatment” or “prejudice,” and certainly not what the hierarchy of complaints about mistreatment or prejudice is to be, and the fact that virtually every organized Jewish group sees the safety of Jews as implicated in the continuance of open door immigration and refugee policies (and sees antisemitism as at the very least lurking behind opposition to such policies) is enormously informative. The situation is different in inter-group than sexual relations because in the former cataclysmic “solutions” are possible that are unimaginable in the latter, but the whole point is to create inevitably unequally distributed constraints that ensure things don’t get to that point. Minority complaints are to be read and reiterated as desperate pleas that the majority, normal culture be placed more securely at the center. The real resentment is against a weakened center which can no longer assure the centrality of the normative, and that’s a resentment we’re glad to redress. Perhaps we all do agree, after all.

December 19, 2017

Sovereign Resentments

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:09 am

All talk of centrality must come around to being talk of resentment as well. In Gans’s account of the originary scene, resentment kicks in immediately after the center is secured through the issuance of the originary sign. Mimetic desire leads to the crisis; resentment comes in its wake, as the center now forbids us from satisfying our desire for the object located there. Resentment becomes a moral and political factor with the ascension of the Big Man, who occupies the center and thereby becomes a resentment attractor. All modes of centrality from here on in are modeled on the Big Man, that is, human centrality. All resentment is directed at someone who has usurped, or prevented us from occupying, “our” center. Others don’t recognize your accomplishments, your potential, the real significance of your actions, your true character, etc.—all resentment towards someone (some other center) interfering with your centrality. But not all resentments are created equal: surely some deserve recognition and others don’t. Who decides, though? Power—the mode of centrality that confers recognition. But that, in turn, means that all resentment is really of power—it is power that allows one to go unrecognized, power who recognizes the one who is less worthy than you. Resentment constitutes a “power imaginary”: a representation of the “good center” that would provide me with the recognition due me. If what you really want is that mode of power, though, you should adopt its resentments towards those who have or would usurp it. That’s a very good way of transcending your own resentments, because you would then have to realize that the mode of power you desire doesn’t, in fact, have to recognize your centrality, at least not as you imagine it—if you continue to desire it anyway, you may be wrong politically but you at least have a chance of discovering what is right, because you have become interested in power securing itself.

Addressing resentments is the responsibility of the power center within whose orbit that resentment has been shaped. The first obligation of the center is to contain the resentments within its sphere. This is done by creating vehicles for shaping and directing that resentment: the justice system is such a vehicle. It would be wrong to think about resentment as spontaneous—there will always be resentment, but there is no pre-social, natural form of resentment. Resentment is always shaped by power. If we think we have been treated “unequally,” it is because our legal and political system forces us to think in terms of “equality”; if we think someone has failed to do their duty toward us, it is because “duty” is the coin of the moral and political realm. In other words, power judges us in terms of “equality” or “duty.” The best framing is the one that unites power and accountability, that gives everyone the power to do what they are obliged to do—in other words, absolutist framing. That makes it possible for resentment to be directed towards some power/accountability misfit, the repair of which is always possible for the occupant of the power center (or, perhaps, the illusory appearance of a misfit can be corrected for). New ways of framing resentments generate new resentments, because the center now offers a new target, so this work of suturing power and accountability can never come to an end.

These reflections were inspired, in part, by Andrew Willard Jones’s Before Church and State: A Study in the Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX. Jones seeks (successfully, as far as I can see) to show that the French kingdom under St. Louis recognized neither a “separation of Church and State,” and therefore no conflict between them, nor “sovereignty,” in the sense of a single source of power and a legitimate monopoly on violence. What the sacramental kingdom did recognize is the “business of the peace and the faith,” a business carried on collaboratively by all the power centers of society. Categories like “heresy” and “rebellion” pointed to a single nexus of social unrest that needed to be bound up with the peace and faith of the realm. According to Jones, while the category of “sovereignty” presupposes the primacy of division, conflict and violence, and hence the need to concentrate power in a single source, the sacramental order presupposes the primacy of peace, with conflict and violence seen as aberrations—in which case, power is essentially reactive to breaches of the peace and faith, and can be carried out by any responsible agent—even a tavern owner. There are conflicts over jurisdiction, but the king does decide on these conflicts, even sometimes deciding against himself and ceding the right to punish to a lower power center. (Not to quibble at this point, but whoever has the responsibility to punish, settle a quarrel, or forgive is given the power and fully authorized to do so, which seems to me the essence of sovereignty. But I’ll set the terminological question aside for now, while conceding that Jones is right in terms of historical usage, so the usefulness of “sovereignty” and  “absolutism” will have to be shown to override precedent.)

What I am trying to do here, then, is resituate the sacramental order on anthropological grounds. The sign and the center, the form of peace, precede resentment, the source of violence, so there is a helpful symmetry between the two approaches. The crucial distinction here is between resentments framed in terms of the system of justice and those which refuse that system; or, more broadly, between those willing to have their resentments framed and those who insist upon unbounded resentments. The latter must be attacked as heresy and rebellion. But if not in the name of the true faith, then in what name? (I don’t mean to object to a sovereignty based on faith, just to develop an anthropological model that would transcend any specific sacramental order.) I make a demand of the center—that my own centrality, such as it is, be recognized. In making this demand, I imagine a power center that would recognize at its true worth my centrality, the absoluteness and power of my request in the terms of that power center itself; in the process, I concede that the power center might estimate my worth differently than I do. Hence, I end up decentering myself, and reformulating my demand to the center to one that justice be done, regardless of its consequences for myself. In making this demand I restructure my own centrality so that I might be recognized as one willing to do the bidding of the power center. I take on the resentments of that power center. This reciprocal relation continues, and is continually restructured as new imperatives from the center realign its centrality and my own. New obligations emerge, to my fellow “centers,” who mediate my relationship to the power center. Insofar as the power center keeps remediating these relationships, I imagine the power center itself recognizing a higher mode of centrality, one that I can pray it consults. It is in the name of that higher mode of centrality that we can identify heresy and rebellion. For now, we can consider that higher mode of centrality the imperative to continue to aim our frames for resentment lower, that is, detect resentments and turn them into tributes to and tributaries of the center at ever more preliminary stages.

Resentment runs as deep as desire, which is to say it constitutes humanness. We must always have faith in and resent challenges to the center that grants us our centrality. Resentment is a discovery procedure—what we call disinterestedness or objectivity is resentment on behalf of, or donated to, some center with which we engage in imperative exchange. The social order, then, is built out of donated resentments—which also means that all subversion directs the flow of resentments out of their established channels, into anarchist fantasies generating demands that resist integration into a sovereign structure. Structured resentment becomes love: that on whose behalf I resent I also want to protect from my own resentment, which is to say the conversion of my own desire into demands for centrality. Love is ceding centrality to the other. And anything named by sovereign resentment can be treated as a center, and loved accordingly. The beloved is an endless source of names. This means that the source of rights, as granted by a particular power center within a specific history of settling resentments, is what one has loved well. Jones talks about “use” over time as a source of rights—the noble might drive some peasants who have been using wood from his forests off his land, but if those peasants complain and claim that they have been using that wood for generations the magistrate might agree with them and see the lord’s eviction of them as “violent,” regardless of his own claims to have had the property in his family’s possession since before recorded time. Proper use, i.e., love, overrides title deeds, which represent just one piece of evidence in any dispute, not the deciding one.

Love and resentment articulate the relations between centrality, power and sovereignty. The test of true love and resentment on behalf of is found in language. We can always start with the “I want…” implicit or explicit in every utterance, and trace it back to the absolute imperative it obeys—who told you to want that, and how were you told? What have you done with that imperative along the way (what questions have you converted it into, and what would acceptable answers be)? Everything we say leaves tracks of this process of assimilating imperatives into desires. And if we follow those tracks we can bring our desires into closer alignment with higher imperatives. A good way of putting liberalism through the wood-chipper is to displace resentful questions regarding rights and their violations, inequalities and their masks, and to simply ask, what would be the best thing for everyone here? It’s interesting that liberalism tends to make such a question seem like a joke—imagine, in the middle of a court case, the lawyers, judge, plaintiff and defendant just gathering together and trying to figure out what’s really the right thing to do. Even if they could all agree separately, the situation compels them to disagree as forcefully as possible. Asking why we want what we want and how wanting that embeds us in a containable structure of resentment is a way to start normalizing such questions. And normalizing such questions is the path toward securing sovereignty.

December 12, 2017

Moral Thresholds

Filed under: GA — adam @ 5:40 am

If morality entails maintaining linguistic presence, then a further exploration of morality in these terms would look into the strengthening and extension of linguistic presence. We’re rarely in danger of the complete collapse of linguistic presence, and if we were it would probably be too late to do anything about it—the goal would be to defer ever further even the merest indications of such an eventuality. And, if we can sustain linguistic presence in, say, a two-person conversation, we can go on to sustain it in a three-way conversation, and then a larger group, across different media, at different levels of centrality (power, sovereignty), and so on. So, a theory of morality can set aside all the liberal obsessions with dialogue, respect, equality, dignity, and so on, and develop ways of thinking through the terms of enhancing linguistic presence wherever one happens to be.

The emergence of the successive linguistic forms (ostensive, imperative, interrogative, declarative) provide us with our model for studying linguistic presence: I continue to assume that “originary” refers not to something that happened once and for all, but to a founding event and structure that is iterated in innumerable ways and increasing degrees of complexity throughout the existence of the thing in question; indeed, that the thing in question is nothing but this continual, recursive, iteration. I also propose dissolving the distinction between speaking and acting into the succession of linguistic acts by simply saying that any act can be understood as an ostensive sign, emitted in response to some perceived or intimated crisis or potential crisis. Shaking someone’s hand, slapping someone’s face, ordering a hundred people to line up, those people lining up, walking down the street, preparing to go to sleep, etc.—all ostensive signs, maintaining some linguistic presence. So, questions about why someone does what they do, or what someone should do, can all be answered in terms of what kind of signifying succession, structure and presence your action would enter into, maintain, and initiate. Likewise, all desires (I want this, I want that) can be constructed as imperatives directed to some center, a center from which the desirer has or will receive corresponding imperatives upon obedience to which compliance with the petitioner’s request will be contingent (the imperative exchange).

So, actions (ostensive, in Peirce’s terms, iconic, signs) “throw off” imperatives: someone doing something demands that another respond in some way. If necessary, explicit imperatives are issued when the example itself is insufficient. As long as the other obeys these imperatives, he “confirms” or “authenticates” the action/sign, supplying the attention it needs to sustain the center it “orbits.” Depending upon how one obeys, the center can be more or less compelling. If the other disobeys, linguistic presence is put in danger, and the moral thing to do is find some other way of maintaining it. One can carry out another act, creating a new center that might attract those drawn to the previous one. One can draw out the imperative into a question, a request for information regarding the chain of actions and its “initial conditions.” In the meantime, the further consequences of the initiating action are not pursued. The question raised is whether the center that has been posited is really there, or still there, or what it was assumed to be. The answer will be in the form of a declarative sentence, and the declarative settles the case (if it “works”) by conveying the imperative the originating act was performed in obedience to (the “reason” for the act). Or, conveying the imperative that invalidates that act and transferred (has “always already” transferred) centrality to another act, conferring presence on a more originary center.

So, knowing or figuring out the right thing to do involves hearing the command whatever action you are currently in the midst of undertaking is performed in obedience to. If you hear and follow that command clearly and unequivocally, your act will generate the right imperatives, which will in turn create new conditions leading to questions regarding the further extension of those imperatives, and to framing sentences making the command you are following more explicit to others, in turn leading to new actions. This assumes that the higher command is always right, and that doing wrong involves suppressing or mishearing that command. But people hear “voices” (more or less literally) telling them to do all kinds of things. We can probably all think of times when we followed some intuition and were absolutely certain we were right, and turned out to be completely wrong. So, why should the higher command be right, and how can we be sure that we are capable of hearing it clearly and completely? What function does reasoning about moral decisions and character have in this process?

We need to have faith in language. There are a lot of ways of discussing faith in language, probably as many ways as there of discussing faith in God. I’m going to suggest one approach here. Anna Wierzbicka, whose work I have mentioned several times, has, along with her collaborators, identified a small group of words she claims exist in every language and have the same meaning in every language. She calls them “semantic primes.” The only value terms among the semantic primes are “good” and “bad.” So, we know that every human group distinguishes between good and bad. We also know that all other evaluations can ultimately be “translated” into some distinction between good and bad. By definition, we want good things, not bad ones, we want to act well, not badly, to be good, not bad, people. The “speech words” among the semantic primes are “say,” “words,” “true” (not even “false”). Saying the truth comes before lying: all humans agree on this, simply by virtue of speaking some language. The “mental predicates” among the primes are “think,” “know,” “want,” “feel,” “see,” “hear.” We can see what is good and distinguish it from what is bad, we can think and say what is true, we can know what is true and good—if we use language, we “believe” all this, even when we use language to deny it.

Wierzbicka categorizes these words as “primitives” because they cannot be defined in terms of other words that wouldn’t in turn depend upon these words for their definition. In other words, we just know what these words mean by being able to use them. This is surely true—I’m definitely not arrogant enough to challenge Wierzbicka’s scholarship or reasoning here. But since I have an originary theory of language, I can ground these words in ostensives and imperatives. For example, all of her time and space terms would at some point need to be accompanied by pointing. Now, if we treat the verbs Wierzbicka counts among the semantic primes as imperatives, something interesting happens. We may not be able to define “think” in terms of simpler words, but we know when we tell someone to think: mainly, when we don’t want them to act just yet (when we think they might “do” or “move” in a way that will be “bad”). When do we tell them to “say” something?—well, when we think they “know” something that we also want to know—when we think that “good” things will come from saying what they know. When do we tell them to “know” something?—when we think or know that now they only “think” it. So, we start to see how all these words are related in a kind of borderline imperative-declarative language, one in which moral clarity is virtually certain. All moral questions come down to when we should tell someone to think, to say, to know, to want, to do, to feel, to see, to hear. And in deciding when to tell someone to do or not do any of these things, we are thinking, knowing, saying, etc., and someone has told us to do so, even if not immediately or directly, someone has told us that it is “good” or “bad” to think, know, say, do… this “kind” of thing when something “happens” “like” “this.” So, the imperatives that have told us to do things that turn out to be good, that now, therefore, also tell us to see one “now” or “moment” as like another, will get amplified—assuming we want to keep doing the things that not only everyone would see as “good” now, but that people will continue to see as good once other things, lots of other things, will have happened.

So, as language users we want to be people who “do good,” who are the kind of people who do good. The more we want to be that kind of person, the more we want to insist that we can see, hear and feel the relations between seeing, hearing, thinking, saying knowing and doing. If we want to do good, we want to know when we think something and when we know it; we want to know when we should say what we think or know, when we should do what someone says, and when we do something “because” someone else has said to. Being good, or, leaving NSM behind for a moment and moving into a more complex vocabulary, being virtuous, courageous, truthful, trustworthy, faithful, and so on, simply involves “factoring” the NSM into those “composite” terms. What does it mean to be “courageous,” for example? Wierzbicka’s method of translation is very interesting and challenging, but I’ll give just a very partial taste here. I would say that “courage” means to do what is “good” even though one “knows” that something “bad” can “happen” to you if you do. So, to be courageous means that you want to do good, and that you want to know if something bad can happen (if you don’t want to know that you’re just reckless), but you don’t let this knowledge drown out what you now know, simply by persisting, to be a command to do good; others may say to you that this bad thing and that bad thing can happen, but you hear whoever has said to you to do good more than you hear those who say that. Now, can you be courageous and still do the wrong thing? Of course! But that means that courage also means wanting to know after you have tried to do good whether you in fact did do good, even though bad things can happen if it has turned out to be bad, and others will say that to you. And this courage will then help you to know that what you thought was good because it was like something else that you knew was good was not, in fact, like that other thing. So you are better prepared to identify such likenesses in the future. You may even find that the original good thing that has serve as the measure for goodness was something you only thought was good—but that can only happen because something else has better stood the test of goodness and can now serve as the measure.

In each social order the vocabulary made up of primes and a great number of composites all provide, in a way specific to that order and language, the means for searching out, thinking about saying to others, hearing from others, knowing, what the highest or most originary command is turning out to be. Deciding what you should do becomes a process of studying what you are doing, what others tell you to do, what others do as a result of what you do, how one situation can be likened to and differentiated from others, and which actions most tenaciously attract particular attributes. And the way to get it right, and serve as an example that will help others get it right, is to have faith in language; a faith that can now be far more informed than ever before.

December 5, 2017

Centrality, Power, Sovereignty

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:25 am

We can model all centrality on the originary scene, where all participants constitute themselves as members by representing and imitating the desired and (therefore) forbidden central object. On this scene there is what I have been calling “centered ordinality,” which means that one member hesitates and successfully communicates that hesitation first, followed by another and eventually the entire group (with the last few perhaps compelled more by the force of numbers than of deferral). Nevertheless, while there is differential proximity to the center, nobody occupies the center.

But such differential proximity means that someone, eventually, will come to occupy the center. All it would take is some renewal of the mimetic crisis endemic to humanity which cannot be quashed by the normal signs and rituals, and requires mediation by an individual whose mediation is trusted because it has been applied in less critical situations. This occupation will, eventually, become permanent, and when that happens, all forms of centrality are re-ordered: mimetic rivalry takes on the added dimension of a testing of the occupant of the center, and the invocation of his authority in deferring conflicts constitutes what are now lower levels of social life. We can call this kind of occupying centrality “power.”

Centrality can now be modeled on power, and new power centers can emerge. New power centers will first of all seek to accommodate themselves to central power, while central power must now find ways to differentiate itself from these orbiting centers. By enhancing its own sacrality, which is to say multi-layered centrality (mediating not just between members of the community by between the community and other communities, the community and the gods, the community and the universe), the central power gives the “orbitals” a choice: contribute to this centralization by conferring more loyalty, creating more layers between the central power and potential rivals, and refining the “mission” of the central power along with their own; or, defend their own centers while waiting for opportunities to supplant the ruler.

As long as the first option is selected, there will not be much need to formalize the supremacy of the central power—it will be beneficial for all involved to emphasize the cooperation between the ruler, the priests, the soldiers, the merchants, etc. It is under such conditions that the work of elaborating a moral culture can be best undertaken: all the different kinds of goods and virtues, in their orders and institutional forms, can be knit tightly together. But it seems that a time will come when the second option is chosen, and the ruler, whether the traditionally anointed one or his usurper, will have to assert sovereignty, a new mode of centrality that claims and enforces the right to be the judge of last resort in all disputes involving lower centers of power.

Sovereignty can be de-moralizing, as all other institutions are now directly subordinated to the needs of sovereign power. The sovereign must judge disputes between different power centers, or disputes within power centers that those centers have been unable to resolve themselves, but the sovereign will also be sorely tempted to use this role to play different power centers off against each other to preserve his own supremacy. In so doing, the sovereign will give credibility to de-centering discourses that will eventually endanger his own rule. Moreover, the sovereign judges, but how? According to what standard of right or equity? It’s hard to see how the sovereign could generate, simply out of an insistence on his own sovereignty, any standards appropriate to the new conditions: rather, he will apply standards immanent in the power centers themselves, with an eye towards preserving those power centers in their properly subordinate form and calibrating the relations between power centers. But this just keeps the resentments simmering, leaving all holders of power to prepare for the nearest chance to force a recalibration. The failures of this form of rule will give further credibility to decentering discourses and power centers.

The only way to provide sovereignty with an appropriate form of justice is to give discursive articulation to the difference between power applied so as to preserve the social order and power applied in obedience to a power greater than the sovereign. There are dangers here. The identification of some power greater than the sovereign will be made possible by some synthesis of the de-centering discourses that will have been circulating. Some judgments made by the sovereign have been “better” than others, and those better judgments can be used to judge the worse ones. Only a de-centering discourse will be able to insist on this distinction, which can be formulated in terms of judgments which have led to a more “perfect” peace as opposed to those which failed, or in terms of judgments that reference a more ancient and revered law as opposed to those perceived to have departed from it. One event (an event that is then, via myths and legends, further “purified” and “elevated”) is transformed into a model for other events. It then becomes possible to say that a particular judgment may have worked perfectly well on its own terms—it kept the peace and left all sides satisfied—but nevertheless compromised the real norms of judgment. This kind of questioning will lead to the identification of victims of and sacrifices to these compromises: in general, the judgment worked, but in the specifics we can identify those who didn’t receive a true judgment. This involves a lowering of the threshold of significance. The danger is that this process lays the groundwork for judging the sovereign in terms of a higher power. But the opportunity is for sovereignty to clarify its own centrality by instituting justice in accord with this “higher power” and “true law,” and by tracing his own lineage to the founding event.

The way to do this is to command the construction of all sites of power in accord with that same “elevated” event. But the answerability of all these institutions to the sovereign leaves the question of the sovereign’s own accountability to the elevated event and higher law it embodies unanswered. What makes an event subject to “elevation” is that it iterates, repeats under new conditions, the originary scene, which is to say a mode of centrality prior to power. Successful sovereignty and all the institutions of power can “activate” this mode of centrality. The most basic form taken by pre-power centrality is that of the “team.” If we analyze the “team” in terms of an absolutist ontology, we can identify a mode of leadership that does not rise to the threshold of “power” because the norms and project of the team are so embedded in its practices that whoever leads is only marginally less exchangeable than the others, and can lead with little more than gestures. The team requires the support of the institution and ultimately the sovereign, which set its broader goals and can dismantle it at will, but is set free by the institution in order to embark on some inquiry and/or practice the results of which can’t be determined in advance.

The more secure the sovereign, the more comfortable he will be relying on teams. A surprising example comes from the Twitter feed of Thomas Wictor, a military historian (among other things), who claims that the Saudi government, on the model of the WWI German military, has transformed its entire armed forces in special forces, i.e., teams made up of highly motivated and multi-competent individuals set forth to solve some problem or advance some objective. Another example I just came across is from Jack Cashill’s column on the American Thinker website November 30, 2017, where he discusses Charles Campisi’s book, Blue on Blue, on the systematic use of sting operations to reform the corrupt NYPD. Stings, like undercover operations more generally, involve extensive reliance on teams and individuals closely tied to and trained within team settings. So, let’s say that any contemporary recovery of sovereignty will tend more and more towards teamwork; perhaps, even, we should imagine an asymptotic movement towards everyone being “teamed up.” Think about the kinds of individuals required for sting, undercover and special forces activities—they must be able to remember exactly what they are doing and why in the middle of pretending to be someone completely opposite, the type of person they are trying to stop. They must maintain several lines of communication simultaneously—one, to those amongst whom they must blend, and one to other members of the team and another back to the institutional home. If investing in the institutional forms needed to create more people like this is what we mean by “individualism,” then as an absolutist I’m in favor of it. (And this is not even to address the necessity of small, independent teams in scientific and technological innovation.)

As the clarification of sovereignty and the teaming up of society proceed hand in hand, the accountability of the sovereign to the higher law or elevated event becomes less and less of problem because the regime itself is breeding people both loyal and incorruptible. At a certain point we would all be “stinging” each other, in the sense that each and every member of an institution would be ready to identify and curtail abuses of the institution’s mandate. Yes, for some this will evoke the informant of the totalitarian state, but why not refer, more prosaically, to the kind of “whistleblower” we are all expected to be if the institution we are in is engaged in illegal practices? Or, for the matter, the routine and often ludicrous performance reviews employees undergo at pretty much any institution? The stingers could represent the institution and sovereign in such a way as to render the entire legal and penal system virtually obsolete. If you’re incapable of joining a team engaged in some kind of assessment, i.e., if you can’t demonstrate a basic understanding of the norms and their enforcement, you don’t have a place in the institution. Perhaps you can join a laxer institution—certainly, they won’t all operate with the same rigor. Teams will be assigned to monitor institutions less able to effectively monitor themselves, while those less effective institutions will still be expected to act on the information and recommendations provided by the external monitors. Bad behavior will be stemmed at its roots. And if one team fails there will always be another ready to self-form and seek appointment by the relevant institution. A kind of iteration of the originary scene thereby becomes part of the sovereign order, which can now test itself uncompromisingly against the “higher” without being threatened.

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