The Architecture of the Center

When we speak about the absolutism of central power, the point is less that whatever the occupant of the center says goes (so that if something he says doesn’t go he must have said the wrong thing, but in that case was he really occupying the center?) than that no one can imagine anything happening without reference to the center. If I want to do something, I imagine the conditions under which the central power will allow or support it—if I think in terms of how I can do it by evading central power, I am still thinking of the center as a general constraint that must structure my thinking. If I want to bring about some social change, whatever form of cooperation with others I hope to organize, I ultimately assume the change must be channeled through the center, even if that means changing its occupant or even trying to occupy it myself. The center as referent and constraint on meaning is implicit in all of our uses of language—if the role of the center in a particular instance is not obvious, it is necessary to invent it. The centered nature of reality is what provides us with the general imperative to support a centered ordinality, which is to say an order in which the articulation of power from the center through the ranks it establishes is rendered transparent and consistent.

There has to be a center because humanity is constituted through joint attention, and attention must be attention toward something, and if attention is joint that something must be at the convergence of the respective lines of vision of the attenders. The only way this object of attention can be held in place is if it is desired by all of those attending upon it, and the only way it can be desired rather than appropriated is if its appropriation is proscribed; and the only way its appropriation can be proscribed is if the participants on the scene constitute this proscription by offering signs to each other that they will suspend any attempt to appropriate the object. The source of the sign(s) offered must be a reversal of the movement towards the object, and this reversal must result from the fear of violence produced by this novel, collective, unconstrained rush toward the object. Now, up until this point in our reconstruction of the originary event, there is in principle nothing that the participants on the scene couldn’t talk about and arrange deliberately among ourselves. That is, so far, there would be some justification in seeing the originary scene as a kind of social contract, if we were to set aside the problem of there not being any language in which the terms of the contract could be set. But we have left out one thing: precisely because there is no language within which a “negotiation” could take place, the injunction against appropriating the object can only come from the central object itself.

Now, one could take the atheist position and say that imagining the central object ordering everyone to stand down is a mere “illusion,” generated by the unspoken balancing of the “odds” and projection of motivations onto each other by the participants on the scene. Maybe one could map it out and mathematize it. But it’s an illusion that returns each time we use language and “understand” each other—the atheist can rationalize the scene in retrospect in terms of a parallelogram of forces, but he couldn’t show us how its participants could have done it then; he can also imagine that he’s rationalizing the world scene on which he acts today, but unless we make the completely  irrational assumption that everyone is rationalizing equally and simultaneously such rationalization is really just an attempt to marshal, or imagine marshaling, all of the scientific and technological capacities bound up with the very possibility of rationalizing in the attempt to destroy by force the “problem” of human meaning.

An illusion which cannot be filtered out of “reality” is not really an illusion—it is what Hannah Arendt called a “necessary appearance,” or what we could call an “imaginary.” In this case, a central imaginary—that is what we can’t think or speak without. All of culture is human beings placing things at the center, which is indistinguishable from being told what to place at the center by the center, and charting and narrating the movements of whatever is at the center. As I suggested in the previous post, we are always trying to get word from the center, no less when we generate complex genetic and psychological typologies than when we consult with demons and spirits. There is a continuity between magic and science and technology, as evidenced by the fact that the vanguard of each new scientific revolution accuses its predecessors of some variant or residue of “magical” or “mythological” thinking. This progressive relation to the center is what I have been calling “imperative culture,” or the “imperative order,” or “imperativity.” The center issues commands, commands with their origins in the injunction to suspend appropriation of the object on the originary scene; the participants on any cultural scene make requests of the center. These requests are often refused, and when that happens new cultural forms must be created: the request may have been refused because it was made improperly, which means that the center orders more formalized and supervised forms of petition; it may have been refused because the one making it was not worthy of having it granted, meaning that the center orders new modes of self-examination and purification—these are the ways in which resentment at the center’s refusals are made productive. The relation to the center is in this way refined, and the means of yet further refinement created.

It is not surprising that once human beings, that is, kings, start occupying the center, a similar process of trial and error would be required—in fact, not only have we, or, more precisely, no political leadership, yet completely solved this problem, we could see the centuries of liberal usurpations of the center as both another attempted solution and a hysterical avoidance of the problem itself. The more we see the incoherence of liberalism, the more problematic and interesting the modern order becomes, because the modern order has obviously seen scientific, intellectual and technological accomplishments that any post-liberal order would preserve, albeit in some revised manner. So, has the industrialization and post-industrialization, the massive wealth creation, of the West, and much of the rest of the world in its wake, been accomplished because of liberalism—in which case do we have to accept liberalism along with the technology and wealth, or reject both (and in that latter case, how, exactly)?; are the material developments in spite of liberalism, in which case we can just junk the liberalism and move on to a rational and beneficial harvesting of our growing powers (this seems a little too convenient); are these developments side effects of liberalism, partly rooted in, partly separate from, that political order (in which case a perhaps more complex surgical operation, which might transform the “patient” in unpredictable ways, might be needed)? All of these ways of framing the question, in the very positing of a “we,” are implicated in magical and mythological thinking, direct translations of our hopes and fears into requests of the center.

In sacred kingship, the king is the mediator between the community and the supernatural world, or the world created at the origin. He has to resolve the paradox of the center, that it both precedes “us” and is the depository of our desires and resentments. The sacred king is responsible for all aspects of the well-being of the community—he brings rain, he ensures adequate food supplies, protects against natural disasters, and so on. This means that these are all things we expect from the center. (The fact that we can still look out the window and say “oh, no, not rain again!” means that we still expect these things.) It makes sense to assume that sacred kings would have done what they could to supply what they could, and to turn their failures back onto the community. Furthermore, they would elevate their role from mediator to arbiter, if possible, creating the distinction (made by David Graeber) between “sacred” and “divine” kings: the divine kings “make themselves the equivalents of gods—arbitrary, all-powerful beings beyond human morality—through the use of arbitrary violence.” Graeber sees sacred kingship as a way of controlling for the effects of divine kingship, but there is no contradiction in noting that divine kingship would offer a way of transcending the limitations and dangers of sacred kingship.

Violence against humans and violence against the natural world and everything in it are of a piece—it is only fairly recently that the distinction between the two could even be made. The readiest solution to sacred kingship is, then, divine violence. The imperatives issued by those on the human side of the imperative order start to become more imperious: people can start to say to “gods” and “natural” beings, “do this!” And watching very closely to see whether they obey. And, further, watching very closely for what the audience seems to accept as “obedience”—or, more precisely, what the audience can be induced or made to accept. Andrew Bartlett, an orginary thinker of the GA school (see also his Mad Scientist, Impossible Human) locates the origins of science on the originary scene in the possibility of handling one part of the originary object as a part separate from the whole, and that is what happens in the growing autonomy of the imperative order:  imperatives need no longer be issued to the center itself, but to its “messengers” and “agents.” The specialization of a few members of the community in the acquisition of such knowledge is the beginning of the disciplines, and the delegation of such powers by the king is the beginning of imperial kingship. This is the road towards the struggle for sovereignty.

So, there is a dialect between the center through which violence must ultimately circulate and the disciplines, which give, revise, and suggest compound “meanings” granted to anything and everything in the world (everything that has been loosened from sacred kingship). Technology itself, as I think Heidegger was suggesting, is itself a way of conferring upon or summoning forth meaning from nature and human capacities. For those of us in the disciplines, who if anything want even less than the pittance of power allotted us in liberal democracies that means engaging in the kinds of disputes that can only be settled by resetting attention to a lower threshold. When we think or speak we are always on a scene, or a possible scene—but all scenes are really only possible ones. None of us has created the language we use, and even if we speak to ourselves, the self we speak to is not identical to the one who listens—but it’s also very easy to forget this, since the most readily available means of assertion (I think, I believe, I am sure, etc.) give credit to the assumption that we are each of the original source of what we say.

There is no “world scene,” which is an Enlightenment fantasy, but it is possible to see all of us—“we” language users—as embarked, in all our overlapping and spread out disciplinary spaces, on a collaborative project to refine further our instructions from the center. The architecture of each discipline is a construction of a meaningful “piece” or “dimension” of reality—we undertake the construction by seeking out the failed imperatives we have issued to the center of our space, and replacing them with ones whose meaning we can now test. Imagining goals, causes and regularities, and then finding ways to test their viability is the process of participating in the disciplines. One thing that centralizing power does is widen the scope of possible disciplinary inquiries—centralizing power mobilizes collective forms of action, and demands and receives new forms of material force, and therefore provides new areas of inquiry for students of those activities and of power itself. It may very well be, then, that a form of power like liberalism, which is simultaneously centralizing and centripetal, would give a huge impetus to various disciplinary inquiries; and it is also not surprising that those inquiries vary widely in quality and sustainability. Liberalism is a kind of weird, swirling sprawl that sucks everything towards an abyss at the center. But anywhere within that sprawl one can try and slow things, redirect attention, and look at some failed pleas to the center that haven’t even been noticed as such.

All discourse is the representation of imperative exchanges in declarative, ultimately narrative and paradoxical, form. Myths explain rituals, but they’re not the cause of the ritual—the cause of the ritual is the recreation of the scene to make the central being present, and revisions of ritual are responses to some failure of the central being to appear. The new ritual changes the request, the question and the conditions of the answer: if we do this the being will appear, and the appearance of the being will take this form. Ultimately, if the appearance of the being is evidenced in the petitioner’s ability to find that presence in his own ability to defer some desire, we have reached the point of minimal ritual—ritual as continuous inspections of increasingly refined habits. This can then take the form of a narrative of some kind of intellectual and psychological self-transformation. Disciplinary spaces can arrive at the point where they essentially report on the efficacy and results of practices that maintain this minimal and continuous presence. This minimal and continuous presence is to be maintained within spaces where presence is less minimal and continuous—it is to keep working on these spaces, producing practices that with minimal input maximally increase the presence of central being. This kind of practice is what I have been examining in the last couple of posts in my proposals for the deconstruction of metalanguage, which is really a kind of mythological or magical discourse. All metalinguistic terms can be reduced to some scenic version of think, say, feel, or know, and these words can in turn be reduced to imperatives to draw new instructions from the center.

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