Monthly Archives: June 2018

On the Use of the Center-Margin Model to Displace the Left-Right Model

If power is subordinated to a higher principle or purpose, like freedom, or peace, or the greatest good of the greatest number, or equality, or the protection of rights, then it will eventually turn out that power is a site of struggle between opposing conceptions of freedom, peace, equality, right, etc. and therefore of opposing powers. If, on the other hand, power asserts the prerogative to determine what counts as freedom, right, etc., etc., then all these words are really just synonyms for “what power wants,” and therefore not “principles” at all. The absolutist project is to find a way out of this antinomy. We might consider an essential, even founding gesture of this disciplinary space the treatment of human history as a series of experiments regarding what kind of figure is to be placed at the center. We can attribute such an intent even to those figures we would consider our worst enemies and the most destructive actors—even the worst of intentions must have involved an intention to put a particular type of figure at the center. Complementary to this axiom would be the assumption that each such experiment is an attempt to retrieve the configuration of the originary scene, under conditions created by previous attempts to retrieve the scenic configuration. Such attempts are necessary because each, like the originary scene itself, opens new historical possibilities. The most obvious “experiments” are the exercises in rule by those in power, the attempts to solve specific problems any occupant of the center must confront, and the a priori and a posteriori accounts given of such attempts. But we can treat any social praxis as such an experiment, at least potentially, as any praxis involves a sovereign imaginary positing some relation between center and margin. The point is to be able to talk about everything, to move from the most macro to the most micro level, from the analysis of ongoing events to longer term projects.

The originary sign, the aborted gesture of appropriation, points to a center that is simultaneously a sheer “this” (one of Wierzbicka’s primes, incidentally), that is, the very thing that we are looking at right now, and a named object and agent, from which all other names, acts and intentions derive. Everything specific to this object goes into making up its name, and insofar as that name compels attention to and hence sustains the center the anthropomorphization of that Object will be the source of all commands, practices and even the language of the community. The retrieval of the originary configuration involves the extraction of more “thisness” at the expense of the name, which further means that other means of sustaining attention other than those maintained by ritualized repetition of the name in its increasingly varied iterations. The question is, what is to replace something like “Zeus commands that we perform the sacrifice here, now and in this manner” in answering the question, what should we do? Richard Seaford shows how universal monetization in Ancient Greece served to mediate sacrifice once distribution in accord with competition among elites replaced centralized, egalitarian distribution. Money creates a new and more indirect centered configuration under conditions where the ritual center has been usurped by the Big Man, who distributes in accord with merit and loyalty. Once money is widely available, what to do can be determined in accord with distributive principles based on equality, which comes to challenge aristocratic criteria. And these principles imply new, more democratic means of determining distribution. Laying the groundwork for a new usurper of the center to promise even more “equality,” which has more “thisness” relative to centrally organized ritual.

We have come up against the HL v M problem. One thing we can note is that the political “content” advanced by actual or prospective occupants of the center is “always already” part of the relation to the center itself—for example, some form of “equality” is essential to political strategies simply because that is the way you construct a more direct, less mediated relation to the center, as per the originary configuration. It’s much easier to call for more money for everyone than for more honors for everyone. In any good faith attempt to make occupancy of the center and operations directed from there more secure, promoting equality in some form, cutting out some “middleman,” seems to be the path of least resistance. So, more exclusive criteria are replaced with more inclusive ones (according, of course, to some understanding of what counts as “exclusion” and “inclusion”). The mimicry of standard right wing politics in the US, for example, which is set upon showing that the left is comprised of the “real” racists, misogynists, fascists, etc., is a replication of the same assumption. The difficulty of thinking our way through this difficulty, without calling for the restoration of a historically concrete, replete name (like medieval Christian kingship) and thereby relieving ourselves of the intervening historical materials, is a sign of the hobbling power of what we could probably just call political thinking itself.  The experiment seems to have gotten into a rut early, and stayed there.

Who implements the new mode of equality? Such a question reminds us that a new dispensation simply replaces the old officer’s class with a new one. The middlemen as such are never eliminated. Even in the most totalitarian states, which supposedly pulverized all institutions, communities and even individuals into atoms related directly to the gravity of the state or dictator at the center, are thoroughly infested with the middle: party members, the various secret and political police forces, hierarchies in the schools and factories and even the pervasive difference between those better and those worse positioned to inform on others. So, it’s helpful to keep in mind that what we are always really talking about is the way the occupant of the center rules through the middle, and how the middle is selected, controlled, maintained, replaced and so on. This serves to weaken the focus on equality, which focus is always really a way of levying and mobilizing a new middle out of the lows, a process that also involves an internal competition among those seeking to ascend to the new officer class. The high and the low talk about equality; the middle talks about status, qualifications, gradations, commands, factions and so on—at least when they are talking amongst themselves, but we can see these obsessions in the bromides they produce on command for the low (which generally involve providing markers whereby they can be clearly distinguished from the low). Equality-talk can be nothing but blather; attempts to work out the terms of existing hierarchies and chains of command allows us to distinguish between obscured and dispersed, on the one hand, and easily identifiable, on the other, hierarchies and chains of command. We can see the difference between a corporal told to make his troops less “masculinist,” on the one hand, and being told to ready them for maneuvers, on the other. Informed observers know what the latter looks like. The command to make soldiers more diversity friendly, meanwhile, is a transparent attempt to install a new officer class.

Even more, saturating our talk with the middle is a better supplier of thisness than equality or rights talk. The originary scene can only consistently be represented as uneven and staggered, both in the instigating rush to the center and the “rippling” stand down. The archaic ritual scene forgets the originary event as it commemorates it ritually, and the Big Man must eventually usurp the center as a more complete remembrance of the event as uneven—even if we must later work on correcting any representation of this usurpation as being carried out in the name of equality. The center effects not equality, but order: the antipolitics of absolutism works on stretching out the middle towards the high and low, rather than crushing it between them. Equality confuses the thisness of the center by giving it one ephemeral name after another; ordering refines thisness by seeking to continually clarify the commands, tacit and explicit, issuing from the center. There is always a circularity in the relation between center and margin—in a sense, the center is the center because it is distinguished from the margin and vice versa. We’re dealing with a structural property of all social activity. But while we can refer to any old thing as “this,” in articulating our actions by reference to thisthis, more and more of its thisness comes out as the model or pattern of activity we follow as choreographed with other ever more present forms of activity by seeking out that model or pattern thisly. What would the center have me do so that I can continue to ask what the center would have me do—the more the occupant of the center represents centrality the more consistently this circular question becomes a sequence of questioning. The occupant of the center is the summation and synthesis of the gradations introduced everywhere in the social order, even temporarily and infinitesimally, which tend towards making everyone part of the middle.

So, the Left is the major key of the HL v M accelerated turnover of the officer class; the Right is the minor key, trying to decelerate or, in extremely rare cases (I can’t think of one off-hand), reverse the turnover. This is the explanatory value of the model, which we will always have to revise so as to account for exceptions and complications, but this modification of the terms we use to employ includes within our descriptions and analyses the antidote. A sovereign imaginary implies a staffing of the officer class. Brush aside talk of principles with the question, how will its implementation be staffed? What model of activity would you be looking for in this new officer class, and how do you imagine other (let’s say “pedagogical”) sections of the officer class producing the numbers of individuals practiced in that model? What kind of know-how would be required, or would have to emerge? We would now be arguing about models of activity, and about inculcating institutions, and about setting the tone for one or another mode of activity, and whom we might look towards to do that. The whole left-right framing dissipates. The closer we approximate discussing nothing but bringing power into further accord with responsibility the more thisness, unencumbered by historical accretions, but informed by the wealth of historical experiments, comes into view.



The Ends of Man

The ends of humans lie in their origins: representation as the deferral of violence. Teleology and morality are fully implicit in the originary structure. The deferral of violence through representation is what we are “meant” to do. The implications require some unfolding, though. First of all, we are not talking about just any violence—rather, we have in mind the specifically mimetic violence that intensifies desire to the point where each mimics the other’s destructiveness to the point of annihilation. This is the specifically human violence that infests all institutions, which are the very institutions created so as to defer it. Second, violence can only ever be deferred; there is no fantasy here of discovering a formula to eliminate the possibility of violence once and for all. We are always and forever mimetic beings, and deferring violence is what we will always be doing. Third, violence is deferred through representation: a representation of, simultaneously, the symmetrical positioning tending toward violence, the reciprocal awareness of that tendency (I see what you’re doing and can thereby realize I’m doing the same), and a kind of cessation before taking the next step toward the collapse of the differentiation entailed by the mimetic crisis. The aborted gesture of appropriation is the model for all representation: the indication that one progressed toward appropriation; the indication that one sees everyone else has as well; and the indication that one has ceased to progress, one has stepped down, and one is showing others this and modeling for others the way to show it to other others. All of this comes well before there can be anything like rules, agreements, promises, moral codes, laws and so on—all of which are, in fact, constructed on this foundation of deferral. Finally, there is the central object, which has precipitated the rush toward the center, and is now “credited” with effecting the “stand down.” The center is the model for all that we will henceforth do: it has made peace and created community (such words are anachronistic but unavoidable) and is therefore the fount of wisdom, knowledge and power. Our telos is to desist from mimetically and rivalrously imitating our fellows by imitating the center.

This does not mean that we live constantly in fear that the least unwonted or potentially aggressive movement will be taken as hostile, or in constant suspicion that such movements by others will restart the contagion—although it is possible that much of the social life of very early humanity was consumed in such fears and suspicions. Once the initial catastrophe has been averted a sign, which is to say a kind of “method” is in place for preventing subsequent conflicts from getting to that point. The sign/gesture can be issued before anyone moves towards the object; it can be issued in the process of dismembering and consuming the meal; it can be issued once again afterward, to ensure and “certify” that all has gone as it should, that the benefits of the central being have been conferred once again. A kind of mastery is acquired over the situation, and once this happens, that same practice can be introduced into other situations, other, less dire conflicts. Eventually, if the possibility of conflict is pushed sufficiently far, signs and gestures can be used to explore new modes of cooperation—once the ability to direct and follow another’s attention has been formed, all kinds of new uses can be found for it. Such uses are never simply “useful”—the new modes of cooperation and the ends to which they are directed themselves become signs of deferral, activities that can be referred to and remembered as gifts of the central being and models of action to preserve and aspire to. Finally, we can take ourselves as sites of potential violence (including self-violence) by identifying inclinations towards envy and resentment and work on attaining self-mastery, quelling rebellions of our desiring selves, never quite satisfied by whatever recognition of our own centrality we receive.

The more you look at something, the more you notice things and the more interesting it becomes. This is especially the case if you are looking at something that and because others are looking at it (but this is the case for everything we look at) and this act of observation and engagement is formative. The thing you are looking at is shaping you in some way—how? What does it want? This is an endlessly interesting question, and it gets more interesting the more prolonged the attention you are capable of, and the more you are able to “factor” others’ actual or potential, past, present or future attention into your own (but that is really what makes prolonged attention possible). It is also the work of deferral, as what the center has to say always has to do with the detecting and diverting the various forms of mimetic violence. And the forms of mimetic violence themselves multiply and in some ways are strengthened as signs and institutions are fortified and attention is prolonged: each new social structure relies upon a new increment of shared deferral and is therefore vulnerable to refusals of deferral; and the more we can think (i.e., prolong attention toward the center, oscillate between different centers) the subtler and more tenacious forms of refusal we become capable of. Our inquiries (organizations of attention) are attempts to distinguish, even in our own thinking, between refusals of deferral and the introduction of new grades of deferral. All of this is devotion to the center.

The forms of symmetrical desire likewise become more complex and mediated, and so must our gestural and postural positioning. We give signs, but more and more become signs, all of us, in all of our appearances. We look to the center to guide us in becoming centers ourselves. People are looking at us all the time, in casual and highly personalized ways, in formal and informal settings, in mass and individualized forms, from positions of inferiority and superiority. We elicit envy and generate resentment, or we calm and de-escalate; we make ourselves contemptible or model modes of being for others; we fill up a space or make room for others. In so doing, we either refuse or enact models of deferral derived from the center—we demonstrate that the central being is just there for the plucking, first come, first served, or we show how resentful convergence can be converted into a new way of sharing space and being. This doesn’t mean always being nice, considerate, much less pacifist—sometimes evil needs to be driven out, sometimes that’s what modeling the center entails. Those who refuse deferral, even if through their own failure rather than ill will, model their own behavior on normative and admirable forms of action, using it for camouflage, probing for weaknesses—the logic of mimesis is such that sometimes these behaviors must be modeled in turn, and people must be given what they are “asking for.”

How do we, how can we, know that these are the ends of man? Why isn’t this some arbitrary construct, a form of “belief” that is more or less well supported by “reasons,” “proofs,” “logic,” etc.? In this case, we know it from our language. The languages of despair, of rage, of hope and love all have mimetic desire and the desire to control it inscribed within them. “I can’t go on any more”—this confession of a lack of inner strength is made for others even (or especially) if it is a suicide note, and the person making it asserts himself as a center that has gone unrecognized, unjustly unrecognized; or, perhaps, it is the discourse of someone who has been made too central, burdened with expectations of being able to sustain others that can no longer be met—one’s centrality to oneself is misaligned with one’s centrality to others. “How could you do this to me!”—here, another’s centrality is asserted as both false and all too real: the speaker has relied on the other, which is to say has organized the elements of a life around her, and that other has now rent that fabric, leaving desires, resentments, memories, signs, uncentered—and nothing is more terrifying than being bereft of a center. All utterances, actions, all signs, can ultimately be made sense of in this way, as creating, uncreating, asserting, denying some form of centrality, and can ultimately really only be made sense of in this way. Everything we engage in our lives defers violence in some way, however distantly, and when something we engage no longer offers itself up for engagement, some new form of deferral must be created. This is a highly tentative and dangerous condition, for individuals as well as groups. One of the biggest mistakes any one in a position of responsibility can make is to remove, weaken or destroy one center without having at least the beginnings of a new center ready to replace it.

All of the moral vocabulary and grammar we need is contained within the deferral of violence through representation. What, exactly, is the center in a particular case—what is the issue, the thing we are talking about, the model of action we draw from the space on which we appear? What is involved in giving ourselves over to it, shaping ourselves as centers in order to model it? What are our desires for it and resentments towards it? What derogates and distracts us from the center? The answers will often not be obvious, although it’s certainly immoral to deny anyone the means of constructing their forms of deferral. All of our ends are bound up in discerning the imperatives of the center, knowing it, shaping ourselves in accord with it. You could deny this, but in what language would you do so? Language that asserts a general centerlessness?—but if you say there are nothing but “processes” without purpose, why do you have to say this? (How can you say it to another, and assume the possibility of him understanding?) Why do you have to deny what you deny? Because others are stupider and less “scientific” than you—but an interest in things precedes a specifically scientific interest and where does that come from? Do you put forth yourself as the only real center? But all of the language in which you do so, your very assumption that others can make the slightest sense of your assertion, precede your assertion—and subvert it. If you already have some name for the center, like, most obviously, “God,” then wherein does the language you use discussing and addressing the center diverge, in essentials, from the grammar of the center presented here? If you proclaim the meaningless of existence, you proclaim in language which presupposes and even intensifies the very meaning you find lacking. We are always pursuing and enacting the meanings of the words we use (and we must use words), even in expressions of resentment: what is the meaning of “home,” of “love,” of “work,” and so on—or of “God.” We are to inhabit these meanings more fully by finding in them an incline toward the center.

Morality and Reference

An always accessible starting place for disclosing imperatives from the center is whatever you happen to be looking at, talking about, or thinking about at the moment. If you are looking at something, your attention is bringing some feature of the foreground into focus against some background; if you’re speaking, your sentences have referents, however abstract they might be. The remotest ancestor of either is the object on the originary scene, which came into view as an object because it was desired, because the group refrained from appropriating it, and because they all indicated to each other that they were doing so. Even a casual glance at something or a trivial reference is marked by the history of deferral and discipline initiated on the originary scene. Let’s stay focused on the intrinsically public use of language: any time you say something about something, you bring to attention some feature, element, use or context of that thing that had not been noticed previously. Even if all you do is completely agree with what someone else just said you are adding to the “interestingness” of the object in question, which means you are consolidating its centrality.

I want originary thinking to be a form of moral reasoning, one presupposing nothing but center, origin and deferral, without reliance on any particular creed of tradition of thought—or, more precisely, beyond such reliance, at the point where you can no longer rely on the “belief system” because it doesn’t apply in an unequivocal way in the case before you. One still solicits the intellectual resources of the traditions enabling one to think, but in a way none of those traditions would completely authorize. It is in such margins that moral reflection takes place. To practice such reflection means being able to start anywhere, including, as I just suggested, whatever you happen to be talking or thinking about right now, or whatever you find yourself gazing at. Referring to something implicates one in an attentional space: you’re adding to the attentional “load” of something other have been, are, or might be talking about. This means you’ve set up something that elicits desire and restraint—there’s something someone might want to do with or to whatever you’re referring to but there’s also something holding us back from doing so, at least enough for us to talk about it.

So, whatever it is you’d like to talk about, you can begin thinking by asking why you want to talk about it. The first response likely to come to mind, for most of us most of the time, will be something like: it’s important! People need to see the truth! These responses might be accurate, but less accurate than “other people are looking at something else,” or “other people are looking at this thing in a different way” and “I want to provide a new look.” You may be right, they may be wrong, you may be substantive and they may be trivial, but you are both facing the same center, insofar as you are in some way referring to the same thing. The most fundamentally moral act, I am assuming, is to sustain linguistic presence by keeping that shared center in view. That doesn’t mean you are obliged to keep a useless and banal conversation going—it might mean startling the other participants in the conversation with something provocative or vulgar; it might mean walking demonstratively away from that conversation. That would just mean you determined that it was the conversation itself that was destroying linguistic presence, by taking for granted an increasingly diffuse center, one that couldn’t be sustained under scrutiny (if other people, or other kind of people, entered the conversation). A new center would then be created, one way or the other, but you wouldn’t be the one helping sustain it, so you would be failing, morally. So, you create a new center: you shocking everyone, you walking away, etc. Such an act falls outside of the boundaries of determination of truth/falsity, but it is undeniably meaningful. And meaningfulness precedes truth claims—you could say lots of true things that are meaningless.

So, in everything you do or say you are making assessments of the status of the most proximal center: here’s what it needs to keep it strong, it can’t be strengthened or protected and so a radical shift in attention is necessary, etc. If you then represent to yourself what you have said or done (no one can be completely present to himself in any speech or action, so explicit self-questioning—why did I do that? is necessary here), you will reveal another, more distal center. That center was always there—you were attending fromit tothe more proximal center (I am using Michael Polanyi’s terms here) and you cannot notice the ground on which you stand when noticing something else. So, now this new center comes into view. The introduction of metalanguage, incidentally, serves the purpose of shutting down the inquiry at the emergence of a particular center—that center then provides the terms on which you assess your actions on the more proximal scenes. So, if you regret walking away from the conversation because that was “rude,” you have installed a metalanguage of etiquette, derived from a more distal center (the norms of a particular community, to be applied in certain social settings) that sets the limits for your actions in relation to the more proximal center. (Of course, “rudeness” always needs to be interpreted, and, exceptions being the plague of any metalanguage, you can always save the metalanguage by invoking a “decision” here as well. If this anomaly troubles you, you either shut it down and carry out what you judge to be the most widely accepted course of action, or you open it up, which returns us to the continuing inquiry.)

If your attentions on the more proximal scene reveal a crisis at the center of the more distal one, the process of inquiry continues. You realize that not only was this specific conversation essentially dead, but so are lots of others that, until recently, you were taking pretty seriously. I think that my efforts to shed light on neutralizing metalanguages and the “patron theory of politics” converge here, because the crisis of the center will always, I think, prove to be a crisis of the metalanguage imposed by defenders of that center, and the crisis is caused by the exploitation of the legitimacy of that metalanguage by specific interests. These may very well be interests sincerely devoted to the metalanguage: no doubt those who use the concepts of a putatively neutral social science to advance the cause of “social justice” consider themselves the truest sociologists, anthropologists, economists, and so on. You can try to make the center hold by defending the metalanguage but, like insufficient doses of antibiotics, that just makes the “infection” (its partisan “misuse”) subtler and more tenacious. The metalanguage is the anomaly, and therefore the crisis, not its distortions.

“Norms” are really imperatives, and that is what the center issues. “Don’t be rude” conflicts with “dump these BSers.” There’s no universally applicable imperative telling you how to choose which one to obey, but if you refrain from rudeness does the imperative to dump the BSers fade away or become more insistent? If you dump the BSers, are you haunted by echoes of the imperative to be polite? The answer to these questions won’t prove anything yet, but we can pursue the matter further. If the obeyed imperative squashes its competitor, there’s nothing more to think about. Maybe there’s nothing more to think about, and the decision was the right one; maybe you’ve decided to stop thinking, in which case the subdued imperative will act up again eventually. (Perhaps a psychopath is someone who never hears competing imperatives.) If the two continue to co-exist post-decision, then can one imperative, or its successor in a new situation, be incorporated within the other? Maybe you can obey the imperative to be polite while finding subtle ways to interfere with the BS; maybe you can obey the imperative to dump the BSers while obeying the imperative that precedes that to be polite: the imperative to establish and follow rules of sociability. You provoke, or you walk away, and you take advantage of the paralysis or outrage thereby induced to clear the air and reset the norms.

So, the way to reconcile competing imperatives issued by differing centers is to listen for an imperative from a center preceding and founding both. How do we do that if we’re not anthropologists and historians rolled into one, with a history of morality readily available for direct application? You disclose the more absolute imperative by trying to find a way to obey both the imperative to be polite and the imperative to expose BS, i.e., be candid. This requires some abstraction from both: being candid and being polite both take on various forms, even within the same normative system, and some of those forms must overlap. Imitation and practice are both important here: reflection can’t answer this question by itself. When you’ve successfully mastered politeness after fulfilling its imperatives a few thousand times, and have mastered (for most, perhaps, less completely) candor, after fulfilling its imperatives perhaps a few hundred (dozen, for the timid) times, you have some scripts to work with. What modification of the gesture or commonplace you’ve executed countless times would allow some candor in? And then some more? What modification of the careless, free speaking, outrageous lout you’ve successfully performed could be modified to allow for a compelling gesture of politeness? It is by carrying out such experiments that you will find the more absolute imperative, and that imperative will come to compete with other more absolute ones in the course of your moral education.

Seeking out the more absolute, which is a conversion of the more originary, imperative is equally a forward looking act. The problem is not just to synthesize politeness and candor; it is to do so within the existing imperative architecture. Scientific inquiry and technological advances are fields in which moral problems are tested out and moral education conducted. How can that politeness/candor articulation be achieved in the process of civilizing some of that architecture? Of course I have in mind the internet and social media, as means of and metaphors useful for redescribing human interactions. But even far more familiar inventions, like cars and air travel, have possible moral dimensions that have been unexplored. All of these features of the modern landscape will be liberal by default if they’re not seen as screens upon which moral questions are projected. What counts as politeness on the roads—where is the place for candor in traffic? Maybe the possibilities for both are drastically reduced—but rather than fantasizing their disappearance, the imperatives we would advance for acting in and thinking about these fields would be aimed at creating new possibilities, new spaces where the problem of articulating candor and politeness (just one example, of course) could be enacted. Because we want new opportunities to enact them, because acting as moral being represents the most ancient of imperatives. Looking for such chances is what we do when we point to or refer to any thing in particular. Here, working our way back to the originary imperative coincides with hearing the imperatives of the sovereign center. All of the technological apparatus, the imperative architecture, is in the service of the sovereign center, creating networks connecting the center to the various peripheries. The mode of inquiry here is homologous to the one I have been describing, as one navigates the competing imperatives of the traffic system, the google system, the financial system, and so on, articulating, for example, the tremendous pressures to conform to norms, manners, clichés, down to the slightest gesture, with the equally imperious compulsion to differentiate and market oneself. So, one tries out various ways of marketing oneself as a version of conformity that turns conforming into a sign of hierarchically ordered centers.

Disciplining Disciplines

A recent essay in The New Atlantis, “Saving Science,” by Daniel Sarewitz, makes the important argument that the goals of scientific disciplines cannot be set by the disciplines themselves, which therefore inevitably meet some externally determined need. The most obvious examples are state sponsored weapons, infrastructural and space-oriented projects, but campaigns for developing vaccines and cures also apply. The free play of inquiry itself, scientists just following the most intriguing and challenging questions raised in the course of inquiry itself would lead, Sarewtiz notes… nowhere. This is obviously true for softer disciplines, like the human sciences as well, which generally meet some less precisely defined imperative to improve modes of civilizational maintenance, social control and surveillance.

The disciplines have their deepest origins in ritual, myth, priestcraft, magic, and the traditional arts, crafts and labor techniques. We could distinguish between these practices within a still largely undifferentiated society in terms of their respective distance from the sacred center. Indeed, different distances from the center, which involve the creation of new, mediating centers, seems a likely origin for social differentiation itself. In Originary Thinking, Eric Gans, in distinguishing between morality (grounded in the equality of those spread around the center) and ethics (norms specific to some practice), hypothesizes that the origin of freedom is away from the center, for example in those hunting or gathering for food. For now, I’m more interested in the differing distances from the center than the specific question Gans deals with here. It’s a very interesting question, after all: if language was originally a strictly ritual affair, serving to mediate the relations between the group on what is ultimately a scene of distribution and consumption, what would be going on elsewhere, in particular in the more “productive” activities? We could easily imagine that for a while, at least, such activities would proceed as before, without the intervention of language.

At a certain point, sign use would enter the productive sphere, for the same reason it entered the human group in the first place: to defer violence. In this case, though, we can assume the forms of potential violence deferred would be lower stakes than those commemorated on the originary scene: say, a challenge not so much to the leader of the expedition himself but to a particular decision—he is leading the group in one way, an underling sees more potential in a different direction. This might ultimately come to blows, or worse, but in a fairly coherent group with shared goals, that’s unlikely—still, the availability of language would be a useful way to settle the dispute. Gans also suggests in The Origin of Language, in examining the succession of speech forms, that innovation is more likely at the margins than at the center, and this would be a confirmation of that intuition. For hunters out for days, chasing dangerous and elusive prey, a high degree of improvisation must be allowed for, far more than would ever be permissible on the ritual scene, and so communicative capacities would improve correspondingly. Still, once these hunters brought their kill back to the community and placed it at the center, they would bow down, intone the requisite chant and follow the established process of distribution and consumption like anyone else.

All disciplinary activity, then, no matter how seemingly impractical, unsupervised and free, is at bottom aware that something needs to be brought back to the center. We should see this constraint as a condition of disciplinary activity, not a restriction imposed on what would otherwise be a “purer” form of activity. Let’s say the hunters forget that they need to bring back food for the rest, or decide not to care—their “study” of their prey leads them to get interested in other, non-prey animals, then in the prey of those animals, whose migratory habits then become interesting, and so the band decides to follow them for a while, and so on. They would really be following one distraction after another, rather than being engaged in any sort of inquiry. In fact, the surrounding environmental penumbra of the prey animal does become “interesting” in all kinds of ways, but always in ways related to the primary task of understanding that animal’s habits and its relation to the community. The more curious hunters might in fact be the ones contributing most to the mythical center emanating from the sacrificial center, supplying reports of the animal in its natural habitat that in turn become stories of the animal as progenitor and creator of the human group itself, which stories in turn might be made more practical use of in subsequent hunts.

The very fact that an inquiry is an inquiry into something, that is to say, it has a center, is a mark of its reliance upon an external center. The inquiry then does, indeed, take on its own dynamics: Sarewitz, hoping that the dependence of science on externally produced needs and institutions will make science more “democratically” accountable describes at great length the pressure brought to bear on cancer researchers by cancer survival activist groups; it doesn’t seem to me, though, that these specific vectors of pressure contributed much to actually finding a cure (which, needless to say, we still don’t have, regardless of the constant setting of “deadlines” for one). How, exactly, external agencies are to assess the progress of the disciplines is itself a disciplinary question, one that the most powerful and aggressive interest group is no more likely to have an answer to than anyone else. Of course, JFK’s imperative to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade turned out to be remarkably precise—but how many other examples of this kind are there? Maybe JFK’s was just a lucky guess. Under the pressures of wartime, when those setting the goals have powerful incentives to set realistic ones, such mandates and initiatives (like the  Manhattan Project) can succeed, while once the setting of mandates gets opened up to the democratic process it becomes a way of grabbing for resources and elbowing out competitors. And strictly technical projects are more likely to succeed than more vaguely defined social engineering ones, etc. It may be that most, it may be that all, of the art or science of governing is learning how to set, assess and enforce constraints on the disciplines. This provides yet another reason for the placement of skunkworkers within the disciplines.

Work within the disciplines, then, must oscillate between distancing from and approaching the constraint set by the center. A new discovery regarding DNA transmission in cell reproduction might be pursued, not knowing where it will lead, and you might put together a new team of people fascinated by the problem of DNA transmission, even if they’re utterly uninterested in curing cancer, on the job; in the end, though, a decision must be made regarding whether this particular path is leading anywhere, “anywhere” as defined by the originating mission of that disciplinary space. Of course, promising, but aborted work done in this discipline might turn out to be highly useful for some other discipline, addressing some other problem. At each point along the way decisions have to made, decisions often productive of much resentment, as those utterly fascinated by that form of DNA transmission and furious at the philistine SOB who squashed the project, or those in the general public imagining that this was the way to a miracle cure can attest. (A healthy society would be one that generated primarily these kinds of resentment.) Within each disciplinary space there is a primus, and the sovereign center must generate within itself disciplinary spaces for assessing the decisions made within the disciplines.

There is only one political principle or axiom worth anything, and that’s because it is converted into an anti-political axiom when adhered to: if you give someone the responsibility to carry out some task or function, you must give them the power they need to do it. It’s difficult, but possible to imagine forms of democracy that accord with this insistence, at least for a while; it’s impossible to imagine any form of liberalism that does. Liberalism compulsively undercuts any form of delegated responsibility—even one as simple as “maintain public order” must be subject to “checks and balances,” “oversight,” “review,” etc., at every level and at every moment. That liberal societies function at all is due to the fact that most of any social order is run non-liberally, liberalism being wholly parasitic on established civilizational forms. (The question of the survivability of liberal societies therefore comes down to the question of whether the parasitosis can be kept at merely chronic levels)

The converse of the axiom, that someone with power must be loaded up with corresponding responsibilities, while true, is not as primary a principle. Power may have to accede to its responsibilities, it may precede and discover them, power precedes any delegation, and is always at least somewhat in excess of any responsibilities. Fixing power with its responsibilities is a result of the apotropaic tendency of subjects at least as much as the acceptance of responsibility by power. But whether it’s a superior delegating power or an inferior requesting uses of that power, built into the delegation or request is a responsibility to supply the power needed to see it through. The establishment of the commensurability of responsibility and power is the constraint establishing the disciplines of the human sciences. That’s what those of us doing sociology, theology, anthropology, psychology, literary studies, etc., are all engaged in: finding ways to “read,” in practical terms, the gap between the social center and that center’s embedment in in attentional centers throughout the social order. And to read it in such a way as to close it. This means reading the center in terms of centrality; and the relation between center and centrality is in the ways of thinking, speaking and acting amongst the subjects needed to establish commensurability. Inquiring into the practices that would streamline the imperative exchange (orders and requests) between ruler and subjects is transcendental inquiry. Even in the physical sciences, some project set by the center, whether it be creating a new weapons system or curing a disease, is the enabling background of disciplinary work.

When you study something human, the purpose is to see something in what people are doing that they themselves don’t see. They are actors, you are a spectator; they embarked on a trajectory in their action that can retrospectively be constructed narratively—the spectator can see the beginning in terms of the end, which the actor couldn’t have known, the spectator can try out different beginnings and ends so as to see different events and actors in a different light, the spectator can move back and forth between macro and micro levels in a way the actor couldn’t, and so on. You can construct a narrative that would be recognizable to the actor as a richer account of what he took himself to be doing; or, you can construct a narrative that would represent the actor to himself in alienating terms. How you approach the task will depend upon how the actors and events you are studying serves as a center from which you hope to extract imperatives. The disciplinary space is where we argue over these questions and construct such a center, and you have a disciplinary space when enough of these decisions have been made so that those within the discipline can readily generate new questions while those outside of the discipline would essentially be guessing if they tried.

What the disciplinary space brings into view is the relation between margin and center—a strong theory enables us to oscillate between the actions taking place on the margin (actors engaging one another) and the center that is apparent only through the interactions of those seeking to protect or usurp it. Ultimately, even the most self-aware and intelligent actor—even the analyst himself if he were the actor—must allow his mimetic engagements with other actors to obscure the relation to the center revealed in their interaction. Here, disciplinary inquiry must be ruthless: all words and gestures and other signs that direct the actors’ attention toward one another must be replaced with a discourse that systematically reads the interactions as signs of the center, as an iteration of the originary scene that simultaneously iterates previous iterations after which there was no turning back. After your inquiry there should also be no turning back, because the center will have revealed a new imperative to introduce a new gradient of deferral, replacing some potential future resentment with a sign pointing out something new in the world.