GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

July 31, 2018

Way, Way, After Sacral Kingship

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:56 am

I am trying to develop a mode of political thinking that is not a political philosophy. A political philosophy, like any philosophy, has “first principles,” and then starts “deducing” secondary principles from the first one (freedom, consent, the will of the people, etc.) including justifications of monarchy in terms of such principles, like the monarch as serving the people, or God, or constrained by “natural law.” All these “principles,” and the institutions with which they become co-dependent, are endless sources of imperio in imperium, installing the assumption that the ruler must be justified, opening up the constant struggle over who controls the means of justification. Instead, I begin anthropologically, or anthropomorphically, with the assumption of a relation to the center, a sacred center, and, with regard to politics proper, a sacred center that has been occupied by a human. In that case, we can remain focused on actual and possible relations between margins or peripheries and the center.

A sacred center is an object of devotion and love, a source of life and everything life provides, and therefore also a source of fear and obedience and recipient of supplications. Our only question is what the center wants from and for us. We turn to the center in times of despair, doubt, hope and triumph: all mimetic emotions. The center rewards, punishes, guides. We must interpret the center as doing all this, of course, and we can do so because the center is comprised of our “donation” of all these mimetic desires and resentments. If I am outraged by my fellow, if I refrain from committing violence against him it is because once, on the originary scene, the central object told the participants there to refrain from engaging in such violence at a similar moment of high tension, and we, the community, or, rather, our language and the stories we tell in it, “remember” that scene—it is that recollection that stays my hand, and informs any subsequent punishment I might receive for failing this test of deferral. But novel situations are always occurring, and we need to continue donating more of the language we arrive at in addressing these novelties to the center. Otherwise, the advice and commands it delivers will fail.

Sacral kingship was once such a novelty, as was the Big Man that preceded it. The Big Man is the first to usurp the center and take upon himself the responsibility for distribution: within the gift economy he was eventually able to so smother his rivals with gifts as to bankrupt them, so to speak, thereby turning his entire relation to the community as a whole into a gift economy. The Big Man attains and maintain his position based on “merit”—he really has to provide for the community. He becomes a king in being sacralized, which really means in being killed in a (before or after the fact) ritual manner. It this then that the king takes on all the attributes of the sacred center, which is to say becomes the source of benefits and disasters, the link between the community and the cosmos. Such kings are often sacrificed, and the sacrifice is often built into the “office” itself. No doubt the terms, forms and timing of such sacrifices were dependent upon emergent power relations within the community, which is to say sacral kingship was itself highly defective in centralizing and clarifying power relations: rather than smart-ass lawyers bringing his right to rule into question, it would be some medicine man or witch. But it would still be unimaginable that there might be no one at the center.

We can assume that there were kings who preferred to delay their sacrifice, indefinitely, if possible, and found the means to do so, perhaps deferring the sacrificial ritual to their natural death and burial. Such kingship is still sacred, the king is still the father of his people, the source of all boon, etc., and elaborate ceremonies and exalted offices are created and given the sanction of tradition and divine origin so as to sanctify his rule. Creating such buffers between the ruler and ruled requires wealth, which requires conquest and slavery, which requires wealth. The effectiveness of rule becomes more measurable: we can see the difference between a king who conquers and one who is defeated, between one who enriches at least significant portions of the people and one who impoverishes them. At the very least, tacit “justifications” for at least a particular ruler take shape, and can be explicitly formulated by those closest to the king. A kind of dialectic is formed between rulers and those to whom the most important tasks of advice and organization are delegated: they are most dependent upon this particular ruler, but are also best positioned to see his weaknesses, while needing to find ways to communicate awareness of those weaknesses to the ruler himself. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the population couldn’t care less whether this or that king rules over them: it is the king and those who are masters of the traditions ensuring his rule. The difference between the occupant of the center and what we could call the meaning of the center, is already opened, at least a crack: kingship is not wholly embodied in the existing king, whose centrality is somewhat indirect.

That distance is the problem we have to solve. Having the king ordained by God obviously doesn’t solve it—it simply highlights the fact that what God has ordained He can unordain, and who is privy to God’s will on this question? We have to accept the break with sacral kingship once and for all. This is no simple manner, and anyone who thinks we have accomplished it by establishing secular rule doesn’t pay much attention to what people, even in the most “advanced” societies, expect of their rulers. It is repeatedly pointed out that economic growth, unemployment, technological development, and so on, are only tangentially and in highly complicated ways related to policies enacted by the President, but all of that is irrelevant: everyone speaks with complete certainty of the “Obama economy” or the “Trump economy,” as if, just as with the sacral kings of old, all benefits and calamities follow directly from the hand of the ruler. He is still the link, if not quite between the community and the cosmos (although the global warming scare brings us fairly close to this as well), then between the community and all the resources available to, and goods produced by, the community. The president is still there to slay our enemies, domestic and foreign, to stand in for the community as a whole, is still surrounded by quasi-sacrificial rituals of initiation, testing, ascent into the pavilion of honored (or descent into the Hades of dishonored) predecessors. Nor does progressive iconoclasm do the trick: it is very easy to see that it is progressives more than anyone else who repeatedly put all their eggs into the basket of a single sacred figure, whether it be Fidel, Hugo, or Bernie. Legends of the sacrifices undergone by such figures are told for decades afterwards.

The point is not to reduce the ruler to a “manager” of costs and benefits measured in a utilitarian manner. The occupant of the center cannot be divested of the meaning of the center—the question is how to invest him with it. I would like to keep things simple, non-metaphysical, non-philosophical, non-theological, and yet not “secular” either. Someone has to occupy the center: the most liberal and democratic societies have acknowledged this while trying evade doing so explicitly by devising methods for placing someone at the center as convoluted and bizarre as those of the most primitive sacral kingship. So, that’s a “premise.” Another premise is that whoever is at the center issues commands. Again, all the checks and balances in the world, all the rights and courts and human rights groups in all the world cannot deny this. Indeed, all the obstruction and protest and shrieking is to get the ruler to issue their commands. A third premise: commands are not implemented automatically. Someone must obey them, and there is always, even if ever so slightly, some difference between the command issued and the command obeyed. No command can be framed in such as way are to make it unequivocally applicable to all possible instances of its implementation. So, one final premise: the difference between the occupant of the center and the meaning of the center is replicated or iterated in the difference between the command issued and the command obeyed.

The occupant of the center is still, in fact, the source of all bounty for the community, just as was the case for the sacral king; the difference, now is that this bounty is now manifested in our obedience to the imperatives issued by the center. The sacral king was responsible for a crop or a hunt sufficient to see the people through the season; we know that our plenty today depends upon agricultural machinery, scientifically developed pesticides and genetic modifications and skilled labor within and well beyond agriculture itself—but all of that depends upon an orderly relation to the ruler. That orderly relation lies in the obedience to increasingly abstract and specialized commands, some of which are commands to scientists, managers and executives to provide the ruler with the commands he needs to issue. The meaning of the center is in the subjects’ form of obedience to imperatives to the center—this form is determined by every subject attempting to determine how the ruler, mediated, of course, by the various layers of authority through which the commands comes, would have this imperative obeyed here and now. This, of course, can be done resentfully, for example, in the form of “malicious compliance.” But that doesn’t really matter. We are not interested in peering into the mind, heart or soul of each and every subject but of developing the discourses, the language, in which one must learn to speak of “what one is doing.” If the only legitimate explanation for why you do one thing or another is some version of “because the command I received left open this margin of decision and, based on the pattern of commands I am accustomed to and my own disciplinary experience and expertise, the decision I made seemed best to complete the imperative originating from the center,” the occupant of the center is invested with its meaning. That meaning lies in the definition and articulation of the margins through their orientation toward the center.

We can see the cultural implications of the closing of the gap between the occupant and meaning of the center. The arts, education, morality, ethics, leisure, and so on would all be shaped by the imperative to close this gap. Similar gaps or distances exist in all our relations with each other, and are a constant source of misunderstandings, pleasures, tragedies, comedies and learning everywhere. Drawing attention to this fundamental paradox—the more I follow the imperative the more it follows me—is a basic prerequisite for any cultural proficiency, for any form of maturity. It’s impossible to say which genres, which methods, which faiths, which entertainments will be best equipped to be reconstituted along these lines, but at least most of them, we can imagine, will be welcome to try. We can even get started on this now, by forming the master discipline: the study of the imperative order.

July 24, 2018

Towards Permanence

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:17 am

President Trump’s (central, animating) concern for sovereignty, while certainly not aiming at the abolition of democracy, allows us to see the way there through the extinction of the Left that concern presupposes. Trump’s idea seems to be the simple one that governments should govern, i.e., oversee the interactions of a particular people located on a particular territory, which means those with responsibility should issue commands that should in turn be fulfilled; that is, there should be a commensurability between power and responsibility.  Accordingly, Trump targets three obstacles to such commensurability, which is to say three forms of interfering power that aim at introducing incommensurability between power and responsibility. The first is transnational corporate interests, which use economic power to blackmail and bribe politicians and impose policies on individual states and aim at breaking up coherent nations: i.e., globalism (supported by conservatives). The second is forms of political power that leverage the instruments of destabilization built into liberalism, such as equal rights, human rights, and judicial delay, the media, the academy (“civil society”) to short-circuit commands on their way to implementation: i.e., the political left. The third is insubordination within the state itself, within the vast extent of its permanent institutions, whose members outlast any particular government and therefore (quite reasonably) feel their expertise and long-term responsibility should override any “irresponsible” short-term, politically motivated, incompetent decisions made by mere elected officials: i.e., the “deep state,” or the “swamp.” This third element is, furthermore, the conduit through which the other two exercise their power, through regulatory capture, the circulation of information, the promise of lucrative jobs in the private sector, intimate connections between government, media and academy, and so on: Moldbug’s “Cathedral,” with its permanent Inquisition, in short. (Immigration, especially illegal immigration, is such a central concern because it brings together all three of these obstacles to sovereignty.)

I am one of those who credits Trump with being quite aware of this configuration and as having a plan and method for attacking it; at the very least, it’s worth working under the assumption that he does if for no other reason than that imagining the success of his plan and method provides us with a way of plotting out a particular path, within the liberal democratic order, towards the end of that order—towards, well, order. The way of controlling transnational economic interests is, in the first instance, simple: assuming state control over cross border economic activity through tariffs and trade agreements with individual countries (who are thereby encouraged to exercise similar power themselves), on the one hand, and closely regulating or even eliminating immigration, on the other. The problem with implementing and sustaining such policies, though, lies in the other two obstacles to sovereignty. The vast majority of Republicans still oppose Trump on “free trade” grounds, and those Republicans are amply rewarded by corporate interests within the revolving door system of moving from elected official to lobbyist—the implication of which is that the more established political figures, at least, need not fear losing elections, since plush jobs await them in the “private” sector. So, somehow, this system needs to be broken. It does not seem to me that Trump has a plan to do so directly, which would indeed be difficult: even campaign finance reform, which couldn’t get past these very Republicans couldn’t do anything about the revolving door, and past a certain point would be invalidated by the supreme Court, wouldn’t really work anyway (instead of giving money to politicians or political parties you give money to lobbying groups who groom and completely control candidates); while term limits might give lobbyists and their clients even more power over inexperienced and easily intimidated and bribed legislators. But the President doesn’t need much Congressional support to withdraw from existing trade agreements and make new ones—Trump’s relation to the GOP congress so far seems to be to just get as much as he can out of them.

It is also, needless to say, difficult to get at the “civil society” institutions directly. The decline and crisis of the media and academy should be accelerated and exacerbated, and Trump’s method of treating much of the media as, essentially, a combatant, which forces the media to respond in kind with increasing explicitness and shamelessness, is effective. Perhaps creative ways of using RICO statues could be employed at some point. The universities could be buried in lawsuits on various civil rights grounds (affirmative actions, restriction of free speech, etc.), harassed with DOE “instructions” that force administrators to confront faculty, students and donors in various ways. Grounds can be created for defunding particularly egregious examples, and then the threshold of “egregiousness” can be continually lowered. It’s risky, but the tech giants (for starters) can be pressured to offer their own training programs in math and the sciences for high school students in exchange, say, for a certain period of “apprenticeship,” thereby bypassing one of the university’s primary functions and putting them on the road to obsolescence. I don’t see any reason to assume that Trump or anyone in his circle has any of this in mind, but these kinds of measures follow from the mindset that seems natural to Trump and his team, which is to treat these institutions as “enemies of the American people”—moreover, Trump, if he gave it much thought, would probably be appalled at how ineffectively the schools and universities do much of what they are supposed to do. (And at how the universities have become an increasingly effective mechanism of wealth and technology transfer to China, and undoubtedly a conduit of much espionage as well.)

But there is a very clear and direct way to deal with the activist elements of “civil society” such as Antifa, BLM and the others—enforce the law. If the government enforces the law and insists (again, through the use of ruinous lawsuits, among other methods) that other institutions (like universities) follow their own rules, much of the sting of the left can be removed. This is very important to keep in mind: without constant, in-your-face lawbreaking and rule-breaking, the left is utterly ineffective. But this further means that neutralizing the third obstacle, insubordination within the state apparatus itself, is a very good way of netting the perpetrators of the other obstacles. Without powerful allies within the state apparatus, corporate and civil society defectors would be powerless. So, the entire problem, hypothetically at least, can be reduced to establishing a clear chain of command within those apparatuses, which also means expelling the traitorous elements. Easier said than done, but saying it is the first step towards doing it, and this is where I do think Trump is focusing his efforts. One way, for example, both corporate and leftist interests are “laundered” through the state is via the “leak” system uniting insubordinate state agents and media operatives (and through them the Democrat party and left more generally). Leaks are, of course, illegal, but also very difficult to stop, and are a very powerful weapon. The President institutes a new policy—strategically placed leaks gradually discredit it, suggesting it is based on lies, or corruption or incompetence, while the very fact of the leaks themselves seems to prove all this. At this point, I’m not sure it’s an exaggeration to say that the media is really nothing more than a leak delivery system, that is, does nothing more than convey the perspectives of dissident and power seeking elements of the state apparatus, especially the “intelligence community.”

To a certain extent, then, the entire problem of sovereignty can be concentrated in the power of the leak—at least in the US, right now. You can fire leakers, you can jail them, you can find out who they are and keep them out of the loop or use them for your own purposes, which is to confuse and humiliate your enemies in the media and elsewhere. It’s too soon to say for sure, but I think that Trump is doing all of the above—there hasn’t been much jailing yet, but that might be coming up pretty soon. On the really important issues, like Trump’s negotiations with North Korea, and whatever support he’s given to the Saudi-Israeli alliance to shut down Iranian influence in the region, there seem to have been no leaks. His Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh, was not, of course, a big surprise but everyone seemed nevertheless to be left guessing, including some claiming to have “sources close to the President.” If Trump succeeds in shutting down this means of controlling the administration in power (the ongoing blackmail represented by the possibility of dropping devastating leaks at any time), the forms taken by anti-sovereignist efforts must become more explicit and hysterical, reverting to more overt forms of rule-breaking and self-discrediting accusations. And not only can those be suppressed, but in the process local jurisdictions supporting disorder can in turn be countered and disempowered. There really is nothing stopping Trump’s DOJ from arresting the mayors of “sanctuary cities” and governors of sanctuary states: this is what insurrection looks like. Always target law breaking and rule breaking, which means targeting the transgressions of the enforcers themselves: all sovereignist politics can be compassed by the imperative to guard the guardians. Targeting the swamp, then, gets you the most bang for your buck.

But it’s easy to see the problem here: this kind of systematic extirpation of anti-sovereign activities must be a long-term project. Even if Trump can keep this up and clean up much of the swamp in two terms, if he’s succeeded by a Democrat or even a normal Republican there’s no reason to think it all won’t be overturned, and a kinder, gentler policy towards the permanent state restored. And, furthermore, if he uses legal methods to harass and punish his enemies in the opposing party and opposing media, the succeeding government will do the same and put Trump’s people and the media that supported him in jail. And this very possibility will lead current supporters of Trump to hesitate in treating political criminality criminally, and it will lessen the constraints on the opposition, as they can just wait for their side to come back in—even if some unavoidable sacrifices must be accepted in the meantime. In other words, the transformation needs to be made as permanent as institutional transformations can be, which means that Trump would have to aim at making them permanent. But the only way Trump can do that is by producing a new breed of (mostly) men to run the state apparatus and transforming his voter base into something like a soldiery, with its own media and ultimately educational apparatus (either new ones or, for economy’s sake, a takeover of the old ones) making it capable of sticking a single unanimous middle finger to the blackmail and vendettas of the left. This is something that I see no indication Trump has given any thought to, but he has given some thought to an essential precondition of addressing it, which is downsizing considerably the American empire—with that empire being one important conduit of globalizing power sources. Once downsized (e.g., by removing American protection from Europe and East Asia and delegating to Middle East powers responsibility for policing the region), it will be almost impossible, short of a new war, to “upsize” again.

So, only some kind of increasingly unopposed government can produce the extinction event of the left, which is to say, dissolve the interlocking subversions of global, civil society and intra-state powers and identify and extirpate the shoots of any resurgence. We can see this from other states that are much further along the path than the US, who have the simultaneously more difficult and easier problem of combating US-originated sources of subversion. The best example today is Viktor Orban’s Hungary, which has simply refused to accept the EU-imposed refugee regime, and is capable of doing so in large part by keeping George Soros-affiliated organizations out of the country. Orban has been in power since 2010, and just won an election by a larger margin than the previous one (his margin is even larger if one includes the parties to his right). Why shouldn’t he be in power another 10 years or more? And if he is, shouldn’t he bequeath to his successors the absolute ban on both immigration and externally funded “civil society” organizations? In Israel, the left has been out of power for almost 20 years, and the Israelis have also realized that a key to making this permanent is sharply limiting externally funded “human rights” and other groups. Poland is perhaps on a similar route, and maybe even Erdogan in Turkey, in his own clumsy, lurching way. A virtuous circle might be at work here, as the elimination of outside, globalizing influences reduces the internal opposition to negligible status, leading to minimal conflict and increasingly trivial elections—perhaps the elections will ultimately become vestigial, or really just a way of keeping political leaders already working within a fairly narrow consensus honest. And then, who knows?

To return, then, to the American context, let’s say that the Republican majority gets a bit bigger in 2018 and then 2020. Starved of the oxygen generated by the stoppage of “leakage” (and other measures like breaking the backs of public employee unions) the Democrats further marginalize and destroy themselves. The media becomes increasingly irrelevant. With the immediate threat of Democratic takeover diminished, Trump can work harder on disciplining the GOP, replacing globalists with Trump-loyal nationalists. A 6-3 or 7-2 majority on the Supreme Court cuts that off as a vehicle of subversion. Elite money starts to flow toward the forces of order (why give money to ineffectual hysterics, especially ones who had the world at their feet and blew it?); right wingers or just normal people in the media and educational institutions start to feel safer as the left is deprived of its ability to carry out reprisals on dissidents and the insufficiently enthusiastic. A few election cycles down the road, what would there be to argue about, or vote about? Whether tariffs on China should be 20% or 25%? I think most people would be content to leave such decisions to the government—what energy there presently is in the electoral system is that generated by the desire to screw your enemies, stamp their faces in the dust, and perform a victory dance over their corpses. If the enemy-generating machine is shut down, that energy will be sucked out of the system. (Even more serious issues, like social security reform, could be dealt with reasonably and calmly under these conditions.) A big test of the success of this model is whether Trump is able to, more or less explicitly, choose his successor: that itself would create an important precedent.

There’s an important consideration here regarding “public discourse.” If stopping the leak system is the lynchpin, we have to accept that much of what we see reported in the media, or even announced by Trump or others in his administration, will be falsehoods, deceptions and misdirections. We can’t expect to be told that a particular leaking official, whose “information” turns up on the front page of the New York Times, was given a “barium meal.” We must trust where we can’t verify. If Trump sees most of the media as the enemy of the American people, he obviously feels no obligation to be truthful with it or provide it with any information unhelpful to his own agenda; we therefore have no reason to believe, without substantial supplemental confirmation, anything coming from it. We have to set aside our own tendencies to hysteria: Sessions is really deep state! Trump has staffed his administration with enemies! Why doesn’t he fire Mueller/Rosenstein/Wray/whomever! Not only is there no point to worrying about things we have no power over, but we must eliminate our own bad democratic habits, one of which is to imagine that our elected officials are at our beck and call and must take all of our anger and resentment and fantasizing seriously. If we prefer the sovereignist agenda to anything else imaginable now, then we should inhabit and enact it ourselves by being good soldiers and assuming that Trump has things in hand—how can we become worthy of the most expansive understanding of his purposes? In large part by acting illiberally and undemocratically, i.e., like adults.

I would like to give credit where credit is due and also direct any readers to a unique and always interesting source of information and analysis by acknowledging the indebtedness of some of my speculations here to Thomas Wictor’s twitter feed.

July 22, 2018

Girard on the Passion

Filed under: GA — Q @ 7:11 am

Rene Girard’s take on the Passion is, on one level, desacralizing. The Gospel narrative of Christ’s persecution, torture, and execution reveals the perspective of the victim—the victim of sinful men acting as representatives of corrupt religious and political institutions. He didn’t deserve his crucifixion. We can see the “scapegoat mechanism” in action.

It’s ironic that Girard posits the scapegoat mechanism as the origin of our idea of god, and yet that the true God, when he came to earth, would be scapegoated and then deified. I don’t think Girard ever fully came to grips with this irony and its implications. He just regarded it as a profound mystery. But maybe there is a poetic meaning (I don’t say “justice”) in this irony.

For Girard, the Passion is the world historical event of events: revealing “things hidden since the foundation of the world.” Girard argues that our political structure and social order is based on sacrifice and/or scapegoating, in one form or another. The revelation of the truth of scapegoating upsets that structure and inaugurates a new age. The mimetic power of scapegoating and sacrifice is so powerful and mesmerizing that only God, in the person of the Son, could reveal its truth. So Girard reasserts true divinity, even as he demystifies the false sacred and false gods.

Girard’s interpretation contradicts traditional (substitutionary) theories of the Atonement, that “Christ died for our sins,” a theology that seems to assume a “vengeful” God who demands retribution, without any consideration of the guilt or innocence of the victim. In practice, Christians have evaded responsibility by blaming the Jews and Romans for Christ’s death.

For Girard, the Passion is a heuristic, in a radical sense: a revelation that makes continued scapegoating unconscionable. Of divine origin, but ultimately its meaning is rational and cognitive. So radical is the hidden truth of sacrificial religion (and related institutions) that it required the spectacular paradox of the God on the Cross to communicate its meaning. I understand that a theologian was able to convince Girard (after the publication of Things Hidden) that the substitutionary theory of the Atonement has some validity, but I’m not familiar with the argument, so I refrain from comment.

In any case, by demystifying “sacred” violence as human in origin, the Crucifixion confronts humans with their own violence, allowing them to recognize the true God, and seek salvation through faith. In this sense, Girard reaffirms the basic Christian message of repentance and faith.

July 17, 2018

The Disciplines, the Imperative of the Center, the Generative Thought Experiment

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:57 am

The disciplines claim knowledge of the mind, the social, religion, customs, the state, beauty and so on, as things in themselves, while for the disciplinary space of originary thinking the practices given these names are all representations by those on the margins of the center. The study of this practice of representation is what I have been calling, on occasion, “anthropomorphics.” The originary sign inaugurates the human, but the most “human” figure there is the central object, the prey/God of the group. The central being is most fully intentional participant on the scene: he “understands” the desires animating the members of the group, along with the ruin to which they lead, while, finally, repelling the violent approach to itself. To the extent that the human participants grasp any of this, it is through the center as a kind of mirror of each other’s intentions. This relation to the center continues as the ritual repetition of the originary scene is explained mythologically, as stories in which the central object is, first, the only, and, then, the main, “character.” Only gradually are the participants on the margin attributed a kind of centrality and therefore agency of their own—still, though, only borrowed from the center. This remains the case today, and will remain the case for as long as there are humans, because this is what or who humans are: the modes of central being we now borrow from are now figures called “society,” “ideology,” “the unconscious,” “the media,” and so on. The disciplines study these figures, anthropomorphizes them (we rebel against, resist, try to channel, these entities), and derives imperatives from them. And the disciplines’ relation to these entities is approximately the same as the relation between myths and ritual: they can be a source of knowledge, but ultimately accept as givens those relations regarding which the most basic questions need to be asked. Let’s recall why.

Writing, as recorded speech, supplements the speech scene. Writing is practiced as a repetition of reported speech, aimed at closing any difference between the media. The initial focus is on the attitude of the speaker: how did the speaker say whatever he said about whoever he said it? Here we get the variations on “say,” “think,” “want,” “see,” and “do.” This is meant, as per classical prose, to simulate a scene which writer and reader view. Writing aims at putting you “right there.” There is no scene upon which writer and reader stand, participate or act. They, then, are kept rigorously sceneless. The way to guarantee their scenelessness is to saturate the scene, which then becomes the imperative governing prose. Every possible difference between writer and imagined reader leads to a “bulking up” of the represented scene, so as remove all possibility of such a difference. This defers attention paid to the scene of reading and writing, the disseminated disciplinary scene. Everything added to the represented scene serves to defer another scene which might attend to the disciplinary scene of representation. For this purpose the metalanguage of literacy is deployed: relations between nominalizations deposit in the scene what might otherwise be looked for in the disciplinary scene of representation. Here is where we have the origin of the disciplines: in relations between nominalizations that are recognizable as scenes by the sceneless. (“Social structures” lead to predictable “change,” “cognitive structures” lead to typical “behavior,” etc.) Enhancing the density of the presumed causality is the way we avoid paying attention to our modes of attention.

All the arguments within a discipline, then, concern the proper degree of saturation. This spreads the metaphysical distinctions that took shape in Plato: essence/appearance, unchanging/contingent, cause/effect, etc. An effect for every cause, a cause for every effect; to get at the unchanging essence is to avoid over or under saturation. But how can the right degree of saturation be determined in other than circular terms that reiterate the metalanguage itself? Writing must sustain linguistic presence, which means it must imagine linguistic presence around a center. For classical prose, the center is the model of sufficient saturation; for anthropomorphics, the center is a model of possible gestures of deferral; the more distant the center, the more stripped of specific attributes the gesture—the more replete with possibilities. A simple example: a sociologist determines that institutions functionto reproducecertain norms. We could construct paths to nominalization producing these concepts, which are metaphors drawn from machinery and statistics. A model gesture, meanwhile, is a marginal increment in deferral, itself a heeding of an imperative from the center to do precisely that; an imperative which the analyst shares. The language for the model of activity comes from the activity itself (it is infralinguistic)—the model is a probe we place on the scene as a representative of our own disciplinary activity, aimed at making our disciplinary activity a scene. The aim of attending and thinking together is to makes the elements of the originary scene present, that is, originary memory. To do so, we must abstract those elements from all the intervening and intermediary scenes—but it precisely in some of those scenes where the disciplines stake their claims. Such claims are claims to occupy the center, and to issue tacit imperatives from there.

What does the concept, “imperatives from the center,” do that can’t be done otherwise? However much we might believe in “free will,” we would all acknowledge that there are dimensions of our thinking and doing that lie beyond conscious decision. The fact that we happen to be faced with this choice, here and now, is beyond our conscious decision. The language and traditions we have to confront the situation or choice lie beyond our conscious decision. So, how do we talk about this, at the very least, “residue” of the unchosen? This, to a great extent, is what the disciplines are for, including sacramental disciplines: saying that the trauma caused by my parents, or unjust social structures, or unconscious desires, etc., are not all that different from saying I was tempted by the devil. And there may be some truth in any of these “explanations”—at any rate, any of them is better than nothing. But they’re all really black boxes, sites of proxy wars for power—a particular psychology or sociology empowers a particular set of interests, within the disciplinary institutions and beyond. To be master of the “unconscious” is to be master of much more.

Here is where originary thinking cuts through the disciplines. We can certainly attribute to mimetic desire the “cause” for a particular act, but mimetic desire is always mediated through language. If another boy is more popular with the girls I can: a) smash him over the head with a rock; b) try to figure out what makes him attractive and imitate it; c) simmer in resentment and console myself with having a “deeper” intellect or personality; d) despise the girls who fall for someone so “superficial”; e) recognize my envy and try to acquire the self-control and higher ends that would prevent me from being dominated by it; and, no doubt, there’s an f, g, h, and so one along with all the possible variations on a-e. So, what does our young man do; or, rather, how do we best account for the meaning of what he does? (He is himself accounting for the meaning of what he does before doing it.) I think the simplest and most realistic answer is to say he is listening to differing commands: hurt that kid! Wait for your time to be popular! Get stoned! Don’t do anything stupid! Just focus on your homework! These are all versions of commands he’s heard in various contexts, many times. Imperatives often come with no expiration date. In this particular case the imperatives are coming first of all from the other boy himself, as an object of resentful attention (he really is “making you do” whatever you do)—but any imperative coming from one center can be traced back to other, more inclusive centers.

So, when assailed by competing imperatives, which one do you listen to? We can reinstate the free willing homunculus, or we can say: the one that comes from the highest authority. Which that will be for the boy in question will depend upon which authorities have demonstratively stood behind their own words in his experience: your parents nominally are the higher authority, but if they tell you to do your homework while not seeming to care what the homework is for, while your cool friend at school is at least consistently and courageously transgressive, he might be the higher authority in fact. But once we’re no longer children the imperatives competing for our attention and obedience are no longer personified in such local terms (or at least not only). The cool kid may have commanded you to respond to social rejection by becoming cool yourself, or an adjunct to his cool, but one learns that the command to “screw your parents and the popular kids by going goth (or whatever today’s equivalent is) or far left” hasn’t originated with that particular kid. In other words, we trace the imperatives back to the highest authority we can find. And in doing so, we are following a command to do so. And that command must have been “heard” at the intersection of incompatible, but equally compelling commands.

We all approach this with differing intellectual resources, but the command that will win out is the one that tells you what to do that that intersection, which will have to be at least somewhat different, somewhat more abstract, older, from either of the commands that got you stuck there in the first place. Now, the higher authority might be wrong, but that will lead you to another intersection, with that authority’s command itself being one of stalemated commands, and you get another chance to trace that command to yet another authority. The immoral person becomes such by refusing to recognize such intersections, which involves obeying the commands telling you to ignore them. The moral person keeps obeying the command to notice the intersections, and keep ascending to a higher authority. Now, of course we have been provided with such an authority from our childhood—you can always tell the child to heed God’s word, however that has been transmitted and institutionalized through some tradition. It would be too much to expect people to discover the path of ascent all by themselves. But even if the actual words remain the same, the word of God is not the same for someone who has been asked to repeat them ritualistically as they are for someone who as learned to look for possible intersections. For the latter, that word continually issues new commands, targeted with increasing precision, heard with increasing clarity. This is what I mean by the “imperative of the center.”

So, in seeking out the meaning of what people do, I propose hypothesizing the competing imperatives that person is hearing, and further hypothesizing the intersections at which the higher authority would be sought and hypothesized by the person himself. This is opposed to what I described above as “saturating the scene.” If anything, we want to subtract from the scene, and only add that which we can represent as a network of imperatives, traceable to the center. This is the meaning of the kind of “thought experiment” proposed in my previous post: represent the participant on the scene as obeying, on the one hand, an extremely overdetermined imperative and, on the other hand, an extremely undetermined, highly improbable, barely heard, one. Imagine, for example, someone who is by all appearances a saint following the command to indulge his own vanity and resentments in an extremely refined way (Nietzsche can help you with this), and interpret all his actions in this way (this heads towards a kind of “saturation”)—the “appearances” or signs you began with all get revised or suspended in this way. Then let’s say he’s following the command to serve God with all his being. Where, exactly, would the difference lie? How could we distinguish one from the other? Make the difference as minimal as possible—locate it in a hardly noticeable gesture, issued in obedience to the imperative to let those devoted to God learn something about what such service entails, while dispossessing of their cynicism those caught up in resentment. (What series of ascending imperatives would he have to have followed to craft precisely that gesture?) You will then be able to say what “serving God” means, even if it’s not clear how you get a doctoral dissertation out of this particular inquiry. We can say, then, that the utmost imperative of the center is precisely the one commanding you to articulate a practice demonstrating the difference between obedience to the center and obedience to imperatives that display all the signs of obedience to the center but the one through which, as you are showing now, that obedience is unmistakably evident.

July 15, 2018

Reflections on the Passion

Filed under: GA — Q @ 9:34 am

In one of Kurt Vonnegut’s science fiction novels, some aliens hear the story of Christ, and their take on his story is that the people who crucified Jesus picked the wrong person to crucify, since Jesus’s dad, unbeknownst to them, is the most powerful being in the universe, and so, his cruficiers were going to be in big trouble. The moral of the Passion story, for the aliens, was to be very careful about whom you crucify, because you don’t want to get into trouble with his or her relatives. Girard pointed out that the scapegoat victim is usually someone without any powerful connections, in order to avoid this kind of retaliation.

The aliens proposed a revision of the Passion story, in which Jesus was just an ordinary person who was elected, by divine fiat, to be God’s Son, either before or after the crucifixion. For the aliens, this would yield a more satisfactory moral: don’t crucify anyone, because anyone could be chosen as God’s Son. The aliens’ revision is to some extent a legitimate interpretation, since the Bible clearly suggests that we are all God’s children, even if we are not the “only begotten Son.” I believe Vonnegut’s ideas here play into scholarly reconstructions of the earliest (1st century) Christian theology, by which Jesus was elected or raised to Sonship by God, not descended from heaven via the Incarnation. More to follow.

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