Way, Way, After Sacral Kingship

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.

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