Centerism

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.

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