Absolutism, the Axial Age and the Laboratory

The moral and intellectual innovations of the Axial Age—from Confucianism and Buddhism in the East to philosophy and monotheism in the West—create an interesting dilemma in thinking through the implications of the abolition of imperium in imperio, or divided sovereignty. Under sacral kingship, the centrality of the king involves not just rule but ritual duties and ensuring the connection between the community and the cosmos. It may be that the occupant of the position wasn’t very secure (there would be many ways one could be found to have failed) but the position itself was. Under god-imperial rule, the occupant of the position becomes far more secure, while the sacral efficacy of the position becomes thinner and molded more precisely to the functions of rule itself—in other words, rationalized. Local and ancestral forms of worship continued to operate more directly on communities. On both levels, though, the sacred is essentially sacrificial: the origin of all benefits is identified, and a commensurate return of some part of those benefits must be made to that origin or its representative. The greater the benefit, the greater the obligation, which means that the sacrificial is always tending towards human sacrifice as its telos. This means slavery, mass armies and the conscription of large populations for imperial labor projects. As David Graeber has pointed out, these developments coincided with the introduction of coinage and debt that involved the “abstraction” of individuals from the communal and ritual forms in which they were embedded—“abstraction” through enslavement and dispossession.

At the same time, this abstraction and the development of markets on which abstracted individuals can engage in exchange leads to systems of justice: the measurement of acts against promises and obligations. So, we have two interrelated processes: one, the disappearance of situated individuals into anonymous masses; two, the singling out of individual rights and wrongs against a background of precedents and oaths, with judgment carried out by a specialized class of professionals. When “injustice” was done, it would likely appear as if the former process was impinging upon the latter: as if the individual treated unjustly were being sacrificed for some mass, impersonal, mindless purpose. The emergence of exemplary victims of sacrificial injustice would lead to the clarification of this appearance, and its articulation in legal, political and sacral discourses. It would be possible to look for such victims, and see them as implicit indictments turned back against the supposed justice system itself; more articulate victims would come to frame their plight in these terms. Critics of the justice system would come to see themselves as potential victims, and develop moral discourses of anticipatory victimage; they would gather around themselves a following, including many from among disaffected elites; and their victimization (which they would more or less deliberately be courting) would be revelatory. We would have cases in which the exemplary sacrifice would, in fact, be guilty according to the prevailing and perhaps rather sophisticated and indulgent political and legal norms; and, nevertheless, legible in their execution would be the implication of even a healthy justice system in sacrificial practices—remember, the mass sacrifice and the concept of justice have a common origin. The subsequent intellectual and moral revolution would play out differently under different conditions, but in all cases a new problem has been created: it is now possible to imagine a law that is “higher” than the law presided over by the monarch, and therefore a sacrality that supersedes that of the God-Emperor.

So, this is the problem that has gone unsolved until this day. Some Christian kingdoms of medieval Europe seemed to be close for a while, but those efforts didn’t last. We can blame competing elites for exploiting the opportunities afforded by the very concept of a “higher law” to introduce a wedge between that higher law and the “earthly” one, but the problem nevertheless remains, unless one believes it possible to dispossess ourselves of the acquisitions of the Axial Age—and no conceivable power center could do that because so dispossessing itself would not only make it too evil but too stupid to rule. In moral terms, the “axial” involves a prohibition on scapegoating: on reviving and reversing the logic of sacral kingship by imposing responsibility for the evils and ills of the community on some marginal individual or group. The way realize that prohibition is by building and fortifying institutions that ensure punishment is monopolized by accountable institutions and for offenses that have been named for the harm they do the community and the higher law. The implication is to confer a kind of sacrality on the individual: to collectively lay hands on an individual is to threaten to introduce uncontrolled violence into the community. This horror is the ancestor of today’s victimary discourses, but even before that of liberalism and democracy, with their elevation of the individual and the common man, regardless of the intellectually confused ways in which this elevation has been asserted. Now, while the implication of axial morality has been to confer a kind of sacrality on the individual (at least in the West—but could that be because it is in the West that axial logics have been vigorously pursued beyond elite circles?), that does not mean it is the only, or only possible implication.

Originary thinking, or anthropomorphics, helps us out here because it provides us with the hypothesis that the axial is in fact a recovery of the originary scene, in which the newly human community all participated in “addressing” a shared center. Such a recovery was needed in the massive dislocations, brought about at a high level of civilization, leading to the axial age. One way of superimposing the model of the originary scene on imperial civilization is to imagine a single human center: Truth, or God, toward which all can orient themselves and partake of this new center. These are the interrelated paths the West, in pushing axial logics as far as possible, have taken. But within the assumption of the global or universal center there is also the realization that the center can only be discerned within what we could call a “congregation of inquiry.” Christianity started out with small groups testifying to Christ revealing himself to them; philosophy and the ancient sciences likewise started out with small groups of adepts or inquirers who separated themselves from the confining ritual practices of the community. The “universal” radiates outward from such congregations, and can only be preserved by recreating them over and over again.

At some point power at higher levels must support and incorporate these congregations—that is ultimately the only way they could actually be “universalized.” But this also seems to be the starting point of all those conflicts between higher and secular law. The solution must lie in the incorporation of the congregation of inquiry into the very form of sovereignty. In universalism, the individual is imagined as potential victim of overweening power, and the solution is for that individual to be ever further abstracted so as to be acted upon by an even overweenier power. By contrast, the individual within the corporate congregation is imagined in his service to the sovereign, in exemplifying and further perfecting the sovereign’s identification with the higher law. The corporate congregants permeate the social order, bringing their more specialized inquiry into the originary-within-the-sovereign to bear on other areas of life. The missionary or evangelical goes out among men, preaching the word, living the word, and doing so, as much as possible, within the lives and languages of those amongst whom he moves. The undercover police agent represents the law within the lawless, and must pass as the lawless, while never forgetting their loyalty to the law, lower and higher, and their other law-preserving brethren. In both cases we have the enactment of the tension between the lower and higher, but the undercover agent is the better example for us now because it is impossible for that police officer, as long as he remains honest, to do anything other than serve the sovereign. He cannot rebel, or resist the sovereign, other than by becoming a criminal himself, which is not really rebellion or resistance; moreover, he serves as a harmless but potentially powerful corrective to misuses of power within the sovereign order itself, misuses that the sovereign would want to know about. This is especially the case because we can have undercover agents not only in lawless groupings but in organizations where the lawlessness would be a deviation, but with potentially devastating consequences. The undercover agent within the normal institution, or, each of us acting as if there are undercover agents within the institutions where we congregate, or, even more, as if we might have to take on, maybe even unsolicited, that role, represents the complete assimilation of the axial acquisition to the sovereign order. Disciplinary groupings or social “skunkworkers” permeating and infiltrating all institutions by naming their relation to the sovereign center is the form taken by the retrieval of the originary scene within advanced, civilized social orders.

We can think about this in terms of the apparently very different institution of the laboratory—perhaps the highest and most consequential result of “axialism.” The laboratory constructs a space in which all possible physical interactions are excluded except for the one we want to study. Often this is done hypothetically, by randomizing the selection of subjects for the study, or introducing probability calculations to eliminate the effects of processes that can’t be physically excluded. In fact, this is the kind of thing you do anytime you are seriously thinking about what the best thing to do is, in other words moral inquiry involves setting aside one’s own resentments and desires, “controlling” for them. The mode of thought is equally applicable to religious and secular, social and physical sciences—part of the laboratory model is to think “experimentally” about these very differences. If you are thinking experimentally you are retrieving the originary scene and representing it within the actual scene, because you are thinking, what act would introduce another degree of deferral into this congregation, and make us more focused on whatever our object is? As long as you are thinking of a bounded scene, freed as much as possible from obscuring interferences, you cannot possibly think of mobilizing a mob or identifying a possible sacrifice. If such practices are being endorsed, wittingly or not, by the sovereign, you can only stand as an example against it—not as a counter-power, because your very centrality in this case depends upon you eschewing any higher order centrality, which could only introduce interference into your scene. Once the higher law is made immanent to, constitutive of, constrained by, sovereign law, all the imperium in imperio problems invented by liberalism disappear. In assessing institutions and judging actors, we always look to the corporate congregants in those institutions—if we watch and listen to them, we will learn what is going on and what needs to be done.

Leave a Reply