Monthly Archives: March 2018


The danger of titling one’s political position “centerism” is that it is bound to be confused with “centrist,” which will undoubtedly one day become a synonym for “stupid.” (Even spellcheck wants it to be “centrist.”) But centerism ties together ontology and practice in a way that is not necessarily explicitly absolutist, but certainly undergirds absolutism. Centerism entails always supporting the center or, more precisely, donating your resentment to the center. How do you know where the center is? It doesn’t necessarily always announce itself unambiguously, after all. But it’s always there, whenever you talk or think, on both the most micro and the most macro level.

If you utter a sentence, you direct someone’s attention to something different, maybe even only slightly different, than what they have been attending to. What you direct their attention to may be something they simply didn’t know about, but in some way they must have not been completely prepared to see it as significant. “Significant” is identical to “central.” You are redirecting, with your utterance, their attention from one center to another. We are never centerless, but one center is marginal relative to another. So the problem is distinguishing the central (or perhaps it’s best to say “centeral”) from the marginal. It is when what you have been taking to be a center enters into crisis that its subsistence upon another center becomes evident.

Let’s take the example of two criminals, with a prisoner-type dilemma. They are about to be captured, and each could find a way to abandon the other and cop a plea; or, they can take their chances sticking together in trying to escape or refusing to cooperate. In talking or thinking about it, they put their “partnership” at the center; we can identify in what this partnership consists more precisely: specific events, which included or implied certain commitments (certain imperatives) which, retroactively, is constructed as a “bond” they share. What has sustained that center up until this point is mutually profitable enterprises, but maybe other things as well—shared threats, close calls which enhanced trust between them, maybe they like each other, etc. Now that this center is coming under pressure, it must either transcend the form it has taken so far (as the likelihood of future profitable enterprises becomes vanishingly tiny) or collapse—in the latter case, in will be replaced by some more sustainable center (like repentance for criminal activity) or reduce each man to an even smaller center, his own selfishness.

To be a centerist is to seek out the more sustainable center, and do your part to make it even more sustainable. For the criminal, that might mean abandoning the co-conspirator/friend and finding in the legal process that now frames him examples and signs of significance to which he can convert; or, it might mean sticking with his friend and sacrificing himself in the name of a friendship that now means something more than it did previously. Even in the latter case, assuming the two survive, the fact that a new center has been found might open both of them to yet other centers, centers that it’s no longer so easy to dismiss as relevant only to the less lucky, brave, or skilled. Maybe the two friends can now encourage each other in self-reformation projects. Their resentment toward law, or order, or civilization, or respectability, or whatever it was, must now be donated toward that center in order to make it more capable of ordering such self-reformation projects.

Liberal GA focuses on one element of the originary scene while absolutist GA focuses on another. The question is which can frame the other. Remember the originary scenario: a group of hominids, more advanced than other species in the sense of being more mimetic, surrounding some object which they all hunger for, with the hunger of each mimetically inflaming the hunger of the others. The pecking order, which would have the alpha eat first, then the beta, etc., cannot contain this mimetic contagion, and some new form of order is necessary. One member of the group, perhaps the alpha under the sudden, unprecedented pressure of mass resistance, but at any rate probably someone close to the ‘top” and therefore likely to be noticed, converts his gesture toward an appropriation of the object into a gesture of deferral—pointing to the object in such a way as to demonstrate that he will not fight others for the object. By some process, which we can imagine unfolding in any number of ways, the newly invented sign is used by others, as the mimetic contagion is reversed, and all stand pointing to, designating, the object.

Now, when we talk about a center, we’re thinking about a circle, and a circle is defined by each of its points being equidistant from the center with all the others. It is very likely that the originary event would be remembered and commemorated in this way in subsequent rituals, and then myths, because it is the way of remembering and commemorating most likely to retain the full power of the event itself: it directs attention to its completion while disregarding the inevitably messy process. But, in fact, it is very unlikely that all members of the group would be equidistant from the center at the moment of cessation. Some would be very close, as the sign would probably have first been issued by a few co-contenders, who may have then actually have had to cooperate so as to restrain others, but would at any rate have been the model for them. We should think in terms of points distributed unevenly around a center, perhaps more of an oval or obloid, with a more complex array of symmetries. Liberal GA works with the circle model, and can therefore emphasize the equidistance from the center over the center itself—implicitly, at least the equidistance, which is to say the “equality” of all the members is what produces the center, and it is that equality that is therefore to be preserved above all. Absolutist GA, or centerism, sees the defense of the center by those who best see the threats to it as primary, since that defense is what holds together the positions arrayed around the center.

“Act so that there is no use in a centre,” declared Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons. For a centerist, there might be nothing more perverse than this imperative, but what better way to find where the center is than to act as if there is no use in it. Such “acting” might be carried out for real, in which case its destructive consequences can be studied after the fact, or it can be carried out in a controlled way, in which case it’s a discovery process. If there really is a center, we should have faith that all attempts to subvert, evade, deny ignore, etc., that center will simply reveal it more clearly. Acting so that there is no use in a center would mean multiplying imaginable actions and treating them all as equally possible, setting aside all the frames that have always already ordered possible actions in terms of moral preferences and probability. This is not for everybody, only for those conducting inquiries into the center, which is to say only those who want to follow the source of the crisis to its lair. It is the practice of a discipline, a way of training attention. The even more radical direction Stein took this in was to apply it to the sentence, treating each word in the sentence as equally important—the sentence might just as well be “about” the conjunction “and” as about the noun.

It may sound bizarre, but it’s really just a more consistent way of holding variables constant, or acting in accord with the commonplace phrase, “all things being equal.” The result (maybe not for Stein—although no one is completely sure about her, given her right-wing, philo-fascist politics—but for the centerist) is a reassembly of the elements of any event or utterance or discourse into a hierarchy of centers, much like the arrangement of scattered metal bits around a magnet. We’re talking about something now—well, first of all, what, exactly, is that “something”—let’s make sure we’re talking about the same thing, more or less. It’s good to be able to get at that thing from various angles, to zoom in or out, to track the progress of our shared focus. Whatever it is that we’re talking about, it’s something that gave us pause—we have not fully appropriated it; it resists our attempt to possess or dismiss it. It is to that extent a center. As a center it is also an example of centrality as such, and we embed it in a new center by directing our attention to that. Even if we’re just gossiping about our friend’s marriage, something about marriage, or male-female relations, or our friend, or ways of talking about any or all of these things, must be holding our attention to this. Our discussion will either find its way toward that other center, or it will degenerate into “trashing” our friend (“consuming” him, so to speak), or we will simply lose interest.

So, in every case, you either turn your attention to the center around which the center you now address is orbiting, or you “trash” or discard that center. Trashing and discarding can be of world historical importance, as liberalism has demonstrated. Now, of course, we lay the ground for a whole new set of annoying, fruitless arguments: how can we tell what is preserving and what is trashing, etc.; and, it’s true, such things are not self-evident. But a good sign that one is preserving rather than trashing is that you can (or at least are willing to) show that those you say are trashing are in fact engaged with a center that, for whatever reason (the more you can clarify possible reasons, the better), they have failed to embed in another center. There are intimations of centering in even the most violent trashing. Even liberals and leftists have their origin stories—a schoolyard bully, an obnoxious, unjust boss, stories of injustice in the old country told by your grandmother, a visceral sense of compassion for a homeless man, or even frustration at some relative’s obtuseness, etc. There will be a perfectly adequate centerist or absolutist response to all such tales of origin, while the liberal or leftist, the distracter and trasher par excellence, can never stay focused on the need to preserve the center.

This distinction, in fact, provides us with a way of engaging the liberal as needed, while strengthening our own centerist disciplinary spaces: what center are you defending, and what is the center of that center? They will be with you in the opening—I’m defending basic human dignity! Human rights! Or, even, the Constitution! But what then? If we argue about what constitutes human dignity or human rights, what guides our arguments—what makes one way of understanding “human dignity” or “human rights” more plausible, sustainable, or legitimate than any other? They will drop out quickly, and implicitly concede they are just trashers (I’m defending human dignity against…!), but any terms regarding human goods of any kind whatsoever assume reference to a disciplinary center and a sovereign center: this is the kind of thinking that has converged on this question or category, and here is where I am within that kind of thinking; here is the kind of sovereign I imagine enforcing or protecting “rights” or “dignity” and here is the kind of order that makes such a sovereign imaginable. The liberal will have dropped out by now, because it is these very questions that he is determined to trash. He’ll just point to a complaint that won’t be heard if this line of questioning continued. And why should that complaint be heard, by whom, and within what terms of reference? Well, those are precisely the kinds of questions that silence the complaint.

The ultimate center is the originary event. This is an obviously outrageously ambitious claim, but the only center all centerists, which is to say all absolutists, all reactionaries, all who want to overturn completely the liberal (dis)order, could acknowledge is the sacred center generated on the originary scene hypothesized by Eric Gans. There is nothing there to offend Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Confucian, or any adherent to any other form of high culture or transcendent faith. Even more, each of these faiths of intellectual commitments would be strengthened by thinking of them as a particular form in which the originary event has been revealed and retrieved. Accepting this common origin would not eliminate disagreements, but would ensure that all disagreements remain centered, as a shared effort to discover more of the center’s imperatives and to embed them in our lives. The very fact of language proves Gans’s hypothesis, unless someone can come up with a better one (and good luck with that!). We can speak with each other because we share a center. Our speech, therefore, is always concerned with seeing the center, hearing it, protecting it, learning from it. Let all your talk be of center and origin, and you will dispel all distractions and outlast all enemies, whose curses will become blessings.

Within Language

A very common comic device is to place a character who is locked into another, usually archaic or ridiculed, set of manners, habits and assumptions, in a group of normal people. (Don Quixote is an excellent example.) The source of the humor is then the constant misunderstandings, large and small, that result—if it’s done well, the audience can see how the same incident or words can make sense in completely different, but in each case perfectly reasonable ways, by the odd and the normal characters, respectively. The device is effective for two, seemingly contradictory, reasons: first, it reassures us in our normality, telling us that we are not locked into some bizarre set of rituals, routines, and denials; and, second, it disturbs our complacency by letting us see that we are, in fact, so locked in, that under certain circumstance our tacit assumptions would make us look as foolish as the character we laugh at.

The fish and water analogy can work here: we are so much within language, moving in it, “breathing” it, certainly thinking in it, that we don’t even notice it. Language is transparent to us insofar as we only see through it to the things which direct each other’s attention to; it only becomes opaque once language itself can become the thing we attend to. The shift can be effected by something as simple as someone asking what you “meant” by using a particular word (what you meant, not what the word means)—now, you’re paying attention to words rather than things, or, to use Frege’s terms, “sense” rather than “reference.” When language is transparent we refer to things and engage each other fairly unproblematically, not necessarily without conflicts but without constant misunderstandings; by the same token, everyone not inside our language is a barbarian. When we become aware of language, formalistic and seemingly niggling disputes ensue, but we are also capable of processing a far wider variety of “language games” or discourses. David Olson locates this difference in the emergence of literacy, which makes all language users linguists, to some extent—when children learn to sound out a word according to its letters, or when anyone uses the dictionary to settle a dispute over the meaning or use of a word, they are attending to the properties of language, rather than just using it.

This ability to attend to and study the properties of language makes us vulnerable to the illusion that we are outside of language, and can examine any use of language in accord with some extra-linguistic notion of truth or good; the contrast with pre-literate peoples, whose customs and beliefs are likely to seem arbitrary, bizarre, and therefore extremely localized, encourages the literate in this vanity. In fact, it is literacy itself than generates a concern with “logic,” and turns logic into a means for assessing the acceptability of a particular utterance: “logic” is really the abstraction of the grammatical properties that become visible in a written language, and the projection of these properties onto some disembodied mind. The linguistic turn in Western thought in the 20th century derives from this recognition, which was certainly aided by both the emergence of mass literacy and mass education, and by the emergence of new media that made it possible to place writing in a broader historical context. There are metalanguages—writing itself, as I just pointed out, generates metalanguages—but there is no all-inclusive metalanguage, and each metalanguage can be treated as a language by some new metalanguage in turn. The fact that one can easily imagine a comic routine (surely some along these lines have already been created) in which a linguist shows himself incapable of using language in some situation precisely because of his hyperawareness of language demonstrates that any metalanguage is just waiting to be swallowed up by some meta-metalanguage or dissolved back into language itself.

Now, let’s talk about power. Access to a metalanguage gives one power over those without one: the history of civilization can be, to a great extent, be summed up in this observation. But having one’s power rely on possession of a metalanguage leaves one vulnerable in important ways. It becomes important to maintain a monopoly on the metalanguage, and therefore to restrict access to it and, more importantly, to make the metalanguage immune to appropriation by those it is meant to exclude—this involves distancing the metalanguage from reality in the interest of maintaining its own coherence. As power is divided, conflict is introduced into the metalanguages: if the teaching of literature becomes central to educating the next generation of elites and essentials, then everyone will want a piece of it. In a more literate society, the distinction between metalanguage and language is constantly shifting, so the institutions housing the accredited metalanguages have to keep finding new ways of fortifying the distinction, often leading to various demonizations and anathematizations that would be completely unintelligible to those not within that particular metalanguage. Those within the fortified metalanguages find their language to be both more transparent and more opaque than those who are, relatively speaking, within language: more transparent, because the metalanguage itself is predicated upon vigorously enforced exclusions, so every use of the metalanguage massively reinforced in-group solidarity against obviously deficient outsiders; more opaque, because the more institutionalized and abstracted metalanguages spawn conflicts over the terms of the metalanguage with increasingly rapidity, so that no one really quite knows what anything means.

This situation provides an opening for those who access the metalanguages, obey the primary imperative of metalanguage to inquire into language, and through language into the center, who accept their being within language, which is to say accept that their own metalanguage is as bounded and centered as any language, who discern the power relations measured and enabled by the metalanguage and, perhaps most of all, understand that their metalanguage “wants” to keep crossing over into language and other metalanguages just as much as it wants to explore the world of signs it has itself generated. So, what does this entail? Think about one of the most basic ways in which we maintain linguistic presence with others: by using the same words as they have used, but to do so in such a way as to show, first, that we noticed that they used the word in a particular way, for purposes of their own; second, to show that we too can use that word in a way somewhat distant from its more normal uses, and to do so in such a way as demonstrate implicitly that we understand what they were doing with it. This way of using language can be used to undermine an enemy, to enhance intimacy with a lover, to clarify a concept or to sustain a basis for negotiation. It involves playing both ends of the use/mention continuum, both using the word literally, referentially and meaningfully and referring to the word as a word with multiple uses.

This what everyone is doing all the time—everyone is within language, always. There’s nowhere else to be. If it seems to you that you’re just talking directly about reality, that just means your language is transparent and you’re unaware of how it’s informed by various metalanguages. It seems first of all imperative, then, in the spirit of formalism, to know where you stand and speak linguistically and metalinguistically; and, you can only know that by enacting it, by referring to things only made visible by the metalanguage you inhabit and referring to the words that makes those things visible in that way. This leads you into paradoxical territory. Let’s take, for example, Moldbug’s claim that any territory is ruled by an absolute sovereign, and that therefore anything that happens in that territory is permitted by the sovereign. We can see right away this is not really an empirical claim—it can’t be proved or disproved. Point to some junkie shooting himself up in an alley, or a couple of thugs pummeling an old woman in the slums. Does the sovereign really permit these things? Well, in the sense that the sovereign issued a writ of mainlining to the junkie, and one of assault to the thugs, or that he gave orders from the top that went down through the ranks until some local precinct officer whispered to the junkie and thug to do their thing, no, of course not. But in the sense that the sovereign has set priorities, delegated powers, distributed resources and signaled intentions, and has done so in such a way as leave the junkie and thugs on the fringes of his calculations, or on the calculations he has his subordinates do, yes, he has permitted it.

So, Moldbug’s claim is about framing, rather than empirical observation. Frames contend with, and supersede other frames—Moldbug here is contesting, and trying to supersede, a liberal frame which would see in the junkie and the thug effects of the spontaneous order of liberalism, or perhaps of stupid government interference in that spontaneous order. Which frame is better? We’d like to say the one that eliminates the anomalies generated within the previous one, and that accounts for facts made observable but left unexplained by an existing frame. And to some extent that’s true, but much more so the more the knowledge in question is sequestered from power. We can try to make it as true as possible in the realm of social and political theory, but in order to do that we must fully inhabit the frame. You can’t say, well, in general I think everything that happens in this society is permitted by the sovereign, but this one thing that happened yesterday seems to me to require another explanation. It may very well be that a particular event seems better explained by liberalism, especially if it was generated within a liberal frame. But you can only inhabit one frame, which is why you must fully inhabit it, and insist, even against the evidence, that that event is explained by it, fully and only by it. If your frame is wrong, that’s the only way you’ll ever find out anyway. The frame implicit in Moldbug’s claim enables us to see the sovereign as setting priorities, delegating powers, distributing resources, signaling intentions, overseeing operations, and so on, in a way we couldn’t have seen otherwise—it also allows us to see how divided power subverts all these prerogatives of sovereignty. We can now see responsibility where before we saw only remission. You can simply reject the frame (but only from within another frame), but once you enter it, you’re in it until you’ve seen everything you can see through it.

So, your metalanguage locks you in every bit as much as language, and leaves you in the paradox, not so much of self-reference as of reference—any time you refer to something you are noticing something already there and creating that thing as a thing to be noticed: it’s not representable until it’s represented. If we can talk about an outside to language, this is it—an outside that is inside. In fact, this is the most rigorous way of approaching our traditions, as a specific set of paradoxes, the implications of which we continue to work through. “Faith” is an acceptance that certain paradoxes can never be resolved, but only lived. Moreover, you can bring others into your frame, willingly or unwillingly—their words can be resituated within your system, and provide you with both testimony regarding the paradoxes they must live and spies within their system. Of course, they might also be converted. This is the true test of the “best” frame—which can most effectively reframe the others. In the end, there will always be ostensive signs that need to be accounted for. And what about originary thinking itself, which seems to present itself as a metalanguage to end all metalanguages? Ultimately, originary thinking is a way of tracing all the frames it comes across back to their origins, and through those origins, the origin of language and humanity. If originary thinking fulfilled its wildest ambition, which is, it must be said, to reframe all frames, it wouldn’t be a monolithic discourse describing everything in an abstracted meta-metalanguage; rather, it would be a world of originary inquiries, undertaken wherever people are, within their languages, discourses and traditions and through the new idioms the inquiries themselves would generate.