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.



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