Since it seems obvious to speak about liberalism as a derogation from a period of more secure and legitimate authority, it follows that we have had secure, absolutist rule, have somehow lost it, and must now try to get it back. But, of course, the further back you go in seeking the causes or crucial events in this derogation, the more it becomes clear that power has never been completely secure, there has never been an unqualified shared relation to the center and that even moments of good rule within teleologically articulated social orders contained the “seeds” of degeneration. One of the fascinating and instructive things about Graeber and Sahlins’s On Kings is just how varied the forms of kingship have been, and how obviously flawed each and every one of them. But what is equally evident in any historical survey is that there is always a center, and the fact that people accepted even such bizarre arrangements as some of the “divine” kingships Graeber discusses, where, for example, it may be necessary for the king to periodically carry out random massacres so that his people will know that he is alive, is if anything a demonstration of the unintelligibility of any social order without a center. Even a horrible center is better than trying to imagine its absence. In that case, we can reverse our perspective and replace any lingering nostalgia for ideal kingdoms of the past and see ourselves as participating in the single project that encompasses all of humanity, the revelation of the commands of the center. All previous relations to the center can be studied for their accomplishments and failures, and, more importantly than either, the possible terms and forms of a community’s relation to its center that each reveals.
The originary relation to the center is, of course, that of the hypothesized originary scene, in which mimetic desire generates the mimetic fear that issues in the issuing of the sign modeled on the central object’s vulnerability and power to impose restraint. We resent the center for imposing restraint, while that resentment itself enhances the center’s constraining power, as it locks our attention on it, making it the source of meaning, of augurs of life, prosperity and death. In the most radical act in human history, the Big Man acts on this resentment of the center, appropriates the center, and becomes himself the object of resentment and source of life and meaning. There are no rules regarding how this relationship is to be played out, and the resentments and counter-resentments between center and periphery, and along the periphery itself, could not be mapped out in advance. All of the rich panoply of forms of rule explored by Graeber and Sahlins can easily be analyzed in terms of a particular trajectory taken by some field of resentments around the center—they realize something like this on one level, as Graeber periodically points out how relevant Girard’s theory of scapegoating is to so many of the arrangements he studies, while, of course, keeping his anarchist hopes alive by asserting that Girard’s theory is ultimately all wrong.
Those on the periphery model themselves on the center—so, in primitive communities with a sacred, ritual center the members of the community will participate in and inhabit (or be inhabited by) the mythological figures generated out of their ritual relation to the center. When a human comes to occupy the center, the members of the community model themselves on that, and come to see themselves as potential occupants of the, or, and this is crucial, somecenter. This is what the “individual” is: a center, and a possible center. To be an individual is to imagine vectors of attention directed toward oneself, and to imagine oneself arranging those vectors, drawing in some, deflecting others. The Axial Age acquisitions, which exposed the incompatibility of mass sacrifice with civilized order, aim at spreading centrality throughout the social order. Everyone must see him or herself as a center, and so everyone must be enabled to do so in a way that preserves a social and moral center. We can say that liberal and romantic forms of individuality were attempts to do this; we can also say they were disastrous attempts, because they set the individual against the social center, as if the individual could only stand out against the norm, thereby creating a social order predicated upon reciprocally hostile and centripetal centers. But the romantic individual, as Gans shows through his studies of romanticism, especially through the figure of Rousseau, is also trying to imitate Jesus, by displaying in his own person the universal hostility a universal benevolence toward all humankind inevitably brings upon one. The problem with the romantic individual is really that he wants to monopolize this attention, to exploit it politically and on the market. The moral use of attention centered upon the self is to display the possibilities for converting resentment into love, in which case one may accept, deflect, or reverse the slings and arrows, but in any case will do so in such a way that the one slinging and shooting sees and displays, if not the arbitrariness, at least the over-determination of his show of resentment. In this way, one converts one’s centrality into a moral and esthetic sign precisely by making space for other centers.
The more individuals turn themselves into such moral and esthetic signs, the more aligned they will be with the social center, and the entire system of “works” that ultimately signify that center. One thing that really enrages the liberal and especially romantic individual is the fact that an entire world consisting of institutions and technological imperatives pre-exist the individual and are essentially indifferent to his existence. This massive reality diminishes even the fantasy of killing and replacing the king, because it would all still be in place; and, if one intensifies one’s fantasy so as to demolish it all, what would be the point of being king? Part of the purpose of building up that imperative order is to ensure, in a world of spreading centrality, that the social center is clearly distinct from any individual one. The resentment toward the humanized center is thereby transformed into resentment toward the dehumanized or reified apparatuses supporting that center. This resentment is more easily converted into love, because it provides for a wealth of positions of responsibility tending to the apparatus. You can resent the one who got promoted over you, you can resent the boss who keeps screwing everything up, you can resent the fact that your sector of the economy is neglected despite the evident importance of the work done there, but all these resentments are made intelligible and acceptable insofar as they are framed as attempts to improve the system. Your resentment may be overwhelming your concern for clarifying the center, which is to say you might be wrong in your criticism, but you must, to maintain the level of centrality to which you have become accustomed, stand ready to be corrected in those criticisms (which means being willing to accept the centrality of others). A well ordered system would encourage these developments, while cutting off recourse to more desperate attempts to assert centrality, through attention grabbing acts of violence, for example.
Now, I would like to use this more expanded analysis of centrality, or centered ordinality, than I have yet given, to solve another problem I have been working on in these posts. That is the problem of the (meta)linguistic boundary, the boundary between using language and directing attention to the use of language. I am hypothesizing that the specific kind of metalanguage that emerged through writing, as a part of the emergence of “classic prose” as the ideal form of discourse, is the source of the “metaphysics” that pretty much all post-medieval thinkers have been trying to dismantle, and for good reason—regardless of how aware any of these thinkers may have been to this dimension of the problem, “metaphysics,” or the assumption of the primacy of the declarative sentence, represents a permanent imperium in imperiothat irremediably hinders attempts to construct centered orders. The power of metaphysics lies in the assumption that certain truths stand outside of the centered order, and can therefore be used as a standard to judge any such order. This shifts sovereignty from the occupant of the social center to whoever makes the most compelling claim to represent the superior metaphysical order, whether that order is called “God’s will,” “human nature,” the “laws of nature,” the “laws of the market,” or anything else. So, the problem, in equal parts moral, political and spiritual, is to have a way of commenting on uses of language that feeds back into the centered order, that clarifies the center itself, and draws out its commands, rather than setting up an external standard.
The way I have framed the question is in terms of the metalinguistic dimension of natural semantic primes like “think,” “want,” “know,” “say,” “good” and so on. These words seem exclusively words used to refer directly to things in the world, in particular, human activity. “Consider,” for example, is metalinguistic because it tells us about how someone is “thinking,” and is therefore an implicit commentary on the use of “think.” The metaphysical reading of such words is to posit an essential reality in which they represent an internal or transcendent quality or activity of which the word is a secondary reflection—but this is just a case of commentary or “mention” overriding use, which in the case of all these words is far more variegated than any essence posited could suggest. But the simplest way of eliciting the metalinguistic dimension of any word or, more precisely, any utterance, is by deploying it as a comment on a previous use of language. When one person responds to something said by another, the metalinguistic element of the reply lies in the way that response singles out, accentuates, draws attention to, some elements of the previous utterance rather than others.
Left at that, we could see this as an endless sequence of responses which, for no discernable reason, highlight some feature or another of the previous utterance. But it’s not left at this, because any response is seeking to maintain linguistic presence, and that will determine the nature of the response and the commentary on the previous utterance. And the way to maintain linguistic presence is by showing the previous utterance in its relation to the center, or some center, a center to which the new utterance also claims some relation. On the originary scene, whoever first emitted the sign couldn’t have quite known what he was doing until others iterated (responded to and commented on) his sign; even more, his own sign could not have been anything more than a more formalized version of another’s more instinctive hesitation—the non-instinctive hesitation is a “reading” of the instinctive variety in relation to a shared center. So, when I respond to another’s utterance, I see them in a relation to the center, which I can share, while in seeing them (while they don’t see themselves), I attend to something new in that relation to center, making that my relation to it. We develop abstract concepts around which disciplinary spaces can be constructed in this way by putting some words to a specialized use, for the purposes of that disciplinary space, in drawing attention to uses of language in relation to a particular center.
So, the primarily “useful” primes become metalinguistic, or their metalinguistic dimension is elicited, when we think about thinking, or want to want, or know about knowing, or say things about the things we say. We can, in each utterance we hear, imagine or hypothesize what that utterance is responding to, how the words it is using, the way it is piecing together chunks of language, are themselves implicitly commenting on another utterance. Here we can conduct all kinds of thought experiments, in which we imagine two or more utterances identical in every way but one (perhaps some subtle difference in tone or context), and that difference would comprise the point of creation of the shared center in which the utterances participate. All of our disciplines, even those in the physical sciences, operate this way, because they are all predicated upon revising existing hypotheses and the paradigms enabling them. We can be aware that this is all we are doing, and that this is quite enough. The center wants us to enter some proximate field of utterances and generate a new shared center, one that reveals something not yet visible in the center enabling the utterance. The shared project of ordering our centers therefore has its linguistic grounding, which means its grounding in meaning, and in thinking and knowing—a grounding with no ground other than the inquiry into the center itself.